Odds and Dead Ends: The danger of the future in ‘A Warning to the Curious’ by M. R. James

“May I ask what you intend to do with it next?”

“I’m going to put it back.”

The 1972 Christmas adaptation of the classic M. R. James ghost story, A Warning to the Curious, perfectly captured the unique terror of the story, a terror that was at the heart of most of James’ classics. In the tale, an amateur archaeologist finds himself on the trail of an ancient Anglian crown said to protect the ancient kingdom from invasion, but is pursued by its ghostly protector intent on keeping it hidden. What drives the story is that the past should remain in the past, admired from a distance but never defiled for personal gain, lest destruction be wrought on more than just the individual.

For note, I’m going to discuss the story in detail, so, spoilers ahead. Just a little warning to the curious.

The idea of a ghostly companion isn’t something new; for one such example, Sheridan Le Fanu used a disturbing rendition of a demonic presence in Green Tea, about a man who had his third eye opened to a demon, which takes the shape of a monkey with glowing red eyes that haunts his every waking moment. As James was a great admirer of Le Fanu’s work, and helped compile several volumes of his stories, he would have obviously been aware of this story, and the ghostly companion idea.

For James, however, he uses this device for more than just scaring people. James in his personal life was most at home in the old libraries of Cambridge and Eton, as a medievalist and scholar. He was, for all intents and purposes, very much afraid of radical changes of life, especially through technology and social upheaval. The First World War is said to have affected him tremendously, to hear and know of his students, and friends, dying in the trenches abroad. All of this helps us understand where James comes from when his story puts so much emphasis on maintenance of a status quo, of letting the past lie.

It’s interesting to me that in both the original short story and the BBC adaptation, the main character, Paxton, is going through a period of personal lifestyle change. In the short story he is in the process of moving to Sweden, and spending a last few weeks in England before he follows his belongings abroad. In the BBC version, Paxton has been a clerk for twelve years before his company folded the week before, and he decided to follow up on the story of the Anglian crown as a result of nothing else to do, and nothing left to lose; a chance of making a name for himself. The curiosity in finding an ancient relic, and using it to begin a new life (economically and socially on the screen, as a metaphorical omen of good luck for a new beginning in the original), morphs into Paxton’s eventual undoing.

Even the title spells out the intended meaning of the text; don’t let your curiosity get the better of you. And that in both versions of the text, the re-burial of the crown doesn’t deter the spirit from pursuing Paxton, is further proof that the uncovering of the artifact is not simply a physical defiling of the past, but an endangerment on a larger scale. By removing the crown, there is danger of the shores being invaded, bringing about that social upheaval and radical change that James feared so much. To deter others from doing likewise, and having knock-on effects which negatively influences the wider world, the guardian of the crown must end Paxton’s life. This punishment for curiosity is famously central to H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraft would have had the protagonist end up insane, or gods breaking through into our dimension in some way. Lovecraft himself wrote of M R James in many letters and articles, praising him as a master of weird fiction, so the connection between the two writers is certainly there.

In our own days of great social change, with the world going through unprecedented times, the antiquated verse of James’ ghost stories might seem a little stilted. Yet he seemed to express that fear in all of us with the best, that the change overcoming the world might contain some ghosts to be feared. How we choose to take his warning for the world, is up to us, but it seems chilling nonetheless that James was putting into fiction exactly what many people fear will happen if one kicks the hornet’s nest of the past. For an old-fashioned Victorian like James, he wanted the comfort of his history. For any change to happen, we must be prepared to face whatever consequences we unleash.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-If you want more M. R. James, here’s a link to an article I did a few years ago, comparing the device of very literal ‘deadlines’ in James’ Casting The Runes and Koji Suzuki’s novel, Ring: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/odds-and-dead-ends-analysis-of-casting-the-runes-and-ring/

Odds and Dead Ends : Gothic influences in Wes Craven’s Shocker

When people think of Wes Craven and supernatural slasher films, they think of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Perfectly justified, of course, as Freddy is one of the biggest icons of horror cinema. However, often overlooked however is his 1989 film Shocker, for some justifiable reasons including awful 80s CGI and an incredibly messy second half with little regard for laws of its own unreality. But at its core, and especially for the first third of the film, the gothic elements of the story are undeniable, and it’s a genuinely interesting case of a modern ghost story in the urban gothic vein.

There are gothic influences all over the film, but what tipped me off was the police invasion of Pinker’s TV shop. We head past the initial lobby of televisions playing visions of war and death and enter a dimly lit series of dusty hallways, hardware packed into the shelves on either side. We’ve dispensed with the creaky castle library and entered a modern equivalent of television sets. Noises in the dark. Turn around. Nobody there. We feel a presence nearby but can’t see them. This is classic haunted house stuff going on here.

And then we get the big tip-off as to the influence. We get a POV shot, very Hitchcockian (thinking especially of Norman Bates peering through the peephole into Marion’s room in Psycho), of Pinker’s eye up to a gap in the shelf, peering into the shop. The monster’s hiding in the walls. A policeman stands guard nearby. Nothing. And then hands shoot through the shelves, catches him. He’s pulled back against the shelves, and the whole thing pivots in on a hinge. The cop is dragged inside and the shelf snaps back in line, never to be considered again.

A few minutes later Jonathan (the MC) and his father appear, none the wiser save for a smoking cigarette on the floor. And then they discover the horrible truth when they see blood pooling out from underneath the shelf, like those ghostly legends of old mansions where the walls drip red. Breaking their way in they find cats flayed and dead-on hooks, red lighting from the cinematography department reinforcing the demonic aspect. And then there’s the body in the middle of the room, throat cut, blood on the floor.

This is classic gothic stuff. The secret passageway in the walls is complete Scooby-Doo, Agatha Christie, even some Sherlock Holmes (I’m thinking here of The Musgrave Ritual in particular). The Cat and the Canary did it as well. We’re in the middle of a slasher movie, and we’ve got secret panels and hiding places? We might even claim that these secret passages go even further back, to the origins of the gothic, in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the story we take the term ‘gothic’ from in its now traditional literary application.

And yet somehow it doesn’t feel out of place, doesn’t feel corny, because we can understand that Craven is deliberately drawing upon these influences to create a gothic atmosphere. This is important, as it subtly clues us into the paranormal parts of the film that come into play when he is electrocuted in the chair, turned into a horror version of the Phantom Virus from Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (those movies were great, Cyber Chase an underappreciated meta gem of Scooby-Doo lore for the final third act).      If the ghost aspect had come out of nowhere, we might have complained that it was too much of a shift from straight serial killer to paranormal horror, but here these elements help to ease the transition over. Not much, because it’s still a jolt switching subgenres, but it helps nonetheless. I’m not sure how the blood pooled all the way from the chair to spread under the shelf because it’s a hell of a long way. Perhaps this is faintly paranormal in origin, the cop’s spirit doing what it needs to do to alert the living to its final resting place in a bid to stop his killer? Most likely it’s a goof and I’m reading way too much into it, but it’s certainly a possible reading if you wanted to go that far.

Let’s also remember that, even after the electrocution, the film is in essence a ghost story. Whereas in centuries before a spirit might have inhabited a suit of armor, or roamed the walls of the courtyard in which they were executed, here we have a modern updating, inhabiting the electricity that we have harnessed for our own ends. This criticism of our device-ridden society which wasn’t as prevalent when the film came out, but certainly on the rise, was inherent in genre storytelling of the time. Cyberpunk arose as a subgenre a few years before to question our reliance on technology.

And a few years after Shocker, we see the influx of films from Asia that combined a malevolent spirit and technology to demonstrate new fears of a society rapidly flying into the future. Films like Ringu, One Missed Call, Shutter, Noroi, even The Eye to a certain extent (the elevator scene is my example here, with the apparition not appearing on the security camera), would be films that take this concept and run with it, infusing into their tales a very gender-based morality tale of using a stereotypically male industry (technology) and using it as a vehicle for the classic avenging female spirit of folklore.

Could one orient Shocker as a modern gothic gateway to these tales? I suspect most would argue against it, but as has been critiqued in countless essays, articles, and books, there is not one film history, but multiple readings of film histories. As it stands, the genre itself is also fluid and a very pliable concept in itself. I’m not using any of these arguments to state that Shocker is a great film, because although fun, it’s most certainly hovering just in the ‘mediocre’ range of horror films. However, that these more traditional elements find their way into divisive and forgotten films might go some way to showing that it’s not just the revered masterpieces of regarded canon that have interesting literary facets to their makeup.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Odds and Dead Ends : White Zombie |The Grandfather of Zombies

Along with the pandemic film, which for obvious reasons seems to be especially prevalent in these trying times, its close cousin, the zombie movie, is also emerging from the graves. Several years ago, J Malcolm Stewart briefly discussed the zombie film in a guest article for HorrorAddicts.net (link below) and discussed White Zombie in passing. However, considering the fundamental importance of the film to horror history, a more in-depth look at the film seems to be needed.

Inspired by The Magic Island by William Seabrook, the film stars Bela Lugosi as the powerful Murder, practitioner of potions and religions. The film follows Madeleine and fiancé Neil, who upon meeting by chance in Haiti, are to be married at the plantation of their wealthy friend, Charles Beaumont. However, madly in love with the young lady, Charles, visits Lugosi’s mesmeric Murder, who convinces Charles to transform her into a zombie. Once returned to somnambulistic life, Charles can do away with her at his will. It’s a simple script, all in all, and very much a product of the time, where even supernatural films were often dominated by romantic love-stories.

Some context is definitely needed to explain quite a few decisions with the film. Especially prominent in the final twenty minutes or so, is the prevalent absence of dialogue, where much of it plays out in prolonged silent sequences. This is partially explained when we remember that the film was released in 1932, only five years after synchronised sound was first applied to a feature film with The Jazz Singer in 1927. Britain only got its first talkie with Hitchcock’s Blackmail in 1929, an intriguing film with both silent and talkie versions. Anyone in the mainstream film industry at this time, unless they’d just started working there, wouldn’t be too familiar with talkies, and the conventions that synchronised sound would bring. You can still see these longer, quieter sections of film even in Dracula the year before. The world is still partially in the silent mindset.

This may also explain some of the over-acting in the film. If you’re used to working in a medium where facial expression is the primary way of getting information about a character across, it lingers like an accent. You can also see this in early television when theatre actors made the crossover into television for small parts. Even the framing, without a fourth wall, would replicate the theatre. This isn’t an excuse for the overacting, but a reason nonetheless.

One of the main reasons for the film’s enduring grip on the public consciousness must undoubtedly be Bela Lugosi. An incredibly accomplished screen actor by this time, and with the name of Dracula forever attached to him even a year later, managing to grab Lugosi for a starring role would have been a big step for the film. It might possibly have secured them a great portion of the very small budget, if they attached him before going into full production (that part I don’t know, admittedly, and is pure speculation on my part). We should never forget that, as well as being a classic horror movie, this could easily be regarded as a ‘Bela Lugosi’ movie; the star power of the man helping to shape our understanding of this film for years to come, as it fits into more than just one categorisation of film history outside the standard, mainstream concept. Lugosi is the great redemption of the movie, in all its $50,000 budget, eleven-day shoot, all-shot-at-night production glory. Sets were used from other Universal productions, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc, because of the restricted budget as an independent film. Because of this, it’s very easy to see the film as a Lugosi film first and foremost in terms of academic interest, but don’t be fooled.

The world is at the beginnings of mass globalisation at this time, with technology rapidly advancing throughout the globe. Interest in other cultures comes in fits and starts, such as the Egyptology craze that Stoker tapped into in The Jewel of Seven Stars (a link for the interested to my article on Queen Tera from this novel is found at the end). This, combined with a need to tap into new and fresh fears from writers and creators, probably all helped to kick off a new interest in Voodoo. The topic had been all the rage the few years prior, with playwright Kenneth Webb attempted to sue for stealing the name from his play, Zombie, though nothing came of it. Thankfully for us, because otherwise, we might not have the word ‘zombie’ bandied about in titles so readily nowadays, if the same man could sue over and over again for use of the word and be fairly sure of cashing in.

Haitian Voodoo (which is the branch of Voodoo associated within the film, to my brief knowledge) is a real set of beliefs, though not as much in the realms of mesmerism and evil as Hollywood blockbusters (and, probably most notably, Wes Craven’s film The Serpent and The Rainbow) would have you believe. This has never stopped filmmakers taking something seemingly ‘other’ and turning into something horrific, however. This has, of course, been the trend in global storytelling since the beginning of time, that what we do not understand is inherently frightening. Here, multiple strands associated with various parts of the world compose factions of the same belief in an all-powerful being who communicates with the world through spirits, and that by communicating with these spirits (loa), one can communicate with the presence of the all-powerful Bondeye. To this end, only a very small fraction of the religion concerns itself with the creation of zombies, though this is in principle part of the belief system.

This zombie creation is used metaphorically to highlight the racial inequality present in society at the time (though perhaps it is still pertinent even today). Note that the film takes place largely around a plantation and that the shambling zombies of the locals are used by Murder to work the mills. In one scene that tracks through the men, used as little more than cattle to work for the light-skinned Lugosi, the grinding wheels and machinery could be almost taken to sound like the groans of the trapped souls. The very idea of a white man using practices brought about by a largely black community (even more apt as Voodoo has its early origins in Africa, especially the French colonies, hundreds of years ago), for his own gain at the cost of those of a different skin complexion, could be read to have serious racial undertones. Even the name of the film, White Zombie, brings these two worlds together in an explicit binary. You can enjoy the film perfectly without recognising all of this, but the fact that it is there should be borne in mind.

White Zombie, can be seen as the beginning point for two branches of horror tradition; that of zombies, and of Voodoo. Most zombies would continue to exist in this mesmeric guise until George A. Romero came along in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and re-crafted the concept into the shambling hoards of the undead after our flesh which we are familiar with. And it’s safe to say that the Voodoo strains in folk horror and beyond wouldn’t be nearly as strong without this film to prove that it can, just about, work. White Zombie is a fun, surreal 70 minutes that I’d encourage any fan of classic horror, or scholar of generic traditions in cinema, to seek out, if only to know what the hell Rob Zombie’s old band was named after.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

-Link to Stewart’s article on zombies and the 80’s Voodoo films: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/guest-blog-black-zombie-hollywood-and-the-80s-voodoo-revival-by-j-malcom-stewart/

-Link to my own article on Queen Tera in The Jewel of Seven Stars: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/odds-and-dead-ends-resurrecting-the-queen/

Bibliography

Blackmail. 1929. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. UK: British International Pictures.

Dracula. 1931. [Film] Directed by Tod Browning. USA: Universal Pictures.

Frankenstein. 1931. [Film] Directed by James Whale. United States of America: Universal.

Night of the Living Dead. 1968. [Film] Directed by George A. Romero. USA: Image Ten.

Rhodes, G. D., 2001. White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc.

Seabrook, W., 1929. The Magic Island. USA: s.n.

Stoker, B., 2009. The Jewel of Seven Stars. United States of America: Seven Treasures Publications.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 1923. [Film] Directed by Wallace Worsley. USA: Universal.

The Jazz Singer. 1927. [Film] Directed by Alan Crosland. USA: Warner Bros.

The Serpent and The Rainbow. 1988. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. USA/Dominican Republic/Haiti: Universal.

Webb, K., 1930. Zombie. USA: s.n.

Odds and Dead Ends: A maze inside the mind / Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining, is my favourite horror film of all time. For those that (somehow) aren’t familiar with the film, it is the story of the new caretaker (Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson) and his family at the remote Overlook Hotel over the winter, where ghostly apparitions send him spiraling into madness. Based on the novel by Stephen King, a major feature of the movie which wasn’t in the book is the hedge maze on the hotel grounds. In this article, I’m going to look at this maze, and how it acts as a kind of middle-ground representation of Jack’s ever-twisted mind, as it is changed by the hotel.

Please bear in mind that, as with everything I write for HorrorAddicts.net, in a short article such as this, there’s no way I’m able to cover the wealth of interpretations and analysis and ideas on this film. This is a starting point, where hopefully you can springboard yourself into your own thoughts.

It has been well documented that the layout of the Overlook Hotel is deliberately impossible. Doors lead to nowhere, rooms move, furniture shifts position; everything possible is done to very subtly disorient the viewer. For example, in the first scene of Danny on his tricycle, we pass an exit stairwell leading down, and doors that would appear to go through the thin wall and open up onto the stairwell itself. It is, in fact, a maze of dead ends and double-backs.

Even furniture subtly moves between shots. Rob Ager has documented all this extensively, and his articles and analysis on the subject can be found at his site, which I’ll put a link to at the end of this article. One example is the appearing and disappearing chair behind Jack when Wendy interrupts his writing. Needless to say, with someone like Kubrick, this kind of mismatching wasn’t just sloppy but done deliberately. It is a visual representation of the chaos and insanity that it will try to bring Jack into.

The hotel slowly ratchets up its presence and ghostly manifestations in order to slowly drive Jack mad. This is helped by subtly-suggested alcohol issues (a carry-over from the novel which isn’t nearly as prevalent but still present), and flares of temper. Aided by the claustrophobia of the hotel (‘“what the old-timers used to call ‘cabin fever’”’), and the irritations at being unable to write (‘“Lots of ideas, no good ones though,”’) it all provides the perfect platform for the Overlook Hotel to begin to exert its influence on Jack. The reasons for the Overlook’s attempt to drive Jack to madness are as heavily disputed and debated as almost anything else in the history of fan-theories, and they won’t be discussed here, purely for length reasons.

With the Overlook trying to get a hold on its caretaker, Kubrick wants to give us a middle-ground, to understand that the links between Jack and the hotel go beyond the surface level. Here he presents us with the iconic hedge maze. As I’ve already said, the hotel is a maze in itself, full of twists and turns, and what’s interesting is that almost no two shots of the maze are the same. The map outside the entrance doesn’t match the way Wendy and Danny walk, and the model Jack looks down on doesn’t correspond with either of these. Even the entrance Ullman takes them to in the film’s beginning is on a completely different side of the maze to when Danny runs into at the finale.

There seem to be strong indicators, then, that just like the hotel, the maze changes shape and form. Wendy even says in the kitchen with Halloran that ‘“This place is such an enormous maze I feel like I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in,”’ so if you’re wanting verbal confirmation of this connection, then there it is. But how do we link the maze to Jack?

Firstly, the exterior shots of the Overlook at the beginning of the film don’t show a maze at all. It isn’t present until the whole family are exploring the grounds; when Jack has arrived. Additionally, when Wendy and Danny are exploring it on their own, Jack walks over to the model version in the foyer. We then switch to a top-down view showing a miniature Danny and Wendy walking around the central section. Because, as discussed before, the model and the actual maze don’t add up, we have to assume that this isn’t actually a top-down view of the real maze, but a subjective view of Jack imagining his wife and son in the maze.

By switching to a subjective viewpoint, Kubrick suggests a linking between Jack’s mind (his imagination), and the hedge maze. This doesn’t mean very much throughout the film as, for a large portion of the film, the maze fades into the background. However, right at the very end, it makes a reappearance as Jack chases Danny inside. Surely, as the maze is intrinsically linked with Jack’s mind, this makes sense for the finale to play out there. This is the point where everything combines, hallucination and reality, the Overlook and Jack. In a way, this is almost a proving ground, an arena that the Overlook has provided for their caretaker to show that he can follow out their wishes; that he ‘has the belly for it.’

Ironically, Jack eventually ends up following Danny’s footsteps, just like the trail of breadcrumbs Wendy mentioned at the beginning of the film. He follows Danny in the same way as he followed them through the model before. He has descended into a manifestation of his chaotic mind, distressed by all the factors that enabled the Overlook to push him into pliable madness.

In the end, however, Jack is eventually outsmarted by Danny and stumbles around blindly inside. Whether you believe the ghosts are real or all just a hallucination is irrelevant, because everyone can see that Jack has slipped into madness at this point. Jack is unable to find his way out of the maze, out of his mind. He never recovers, even for a moment as King’s original character does in the novel, and so he freezes to death unredeemed and forever trapped inside the Overlook’s testing ground.

In the end, there really is a simple formula to understand this discussion: Jack Torrance + Overlook Hotel = Hedge Maze. It’s a simple concept, but one probably overlooked by many people watching for the first time, especially by those who aren’t accustomed to looking out for these kinds of interpretations in popular cinema. The Shining is a deeply layered text, and the idea presented is very much a theory, which probably disagrees with 50% of fan theories and analysis of the film, but that’s the way it works with The Shining; everyone has their own idea. In any case, I hope it piques your interest in re-examining the film, and re-watching it, of course. You could do worse things than re-watching one of the greatest films the genre has ever produced; just don’t let it get into your head too much.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

-A link to Rob Ager’s site, which I highly encourage anyone interested in film analysis to check out: http://www.collativelearning.com/

-check out my other articles at HorrorAddicts.net if you like this kind of analysis; I’m sure there’ll be something for you to enjoy: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/author/kjudgeimaginarium/

 

Odds and Dead Ends: Hyde and Seek

Why Stevenson’s classic still haunts us

It’s hard to think that Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, could be anything like a surprise today, with the story so deeply ingrained in the popular conscious, at least at a basic level. But when the story was unleashed in 1886, it changed the face not only of gothic fiction but everyday thought. It altered how we look at ourselves. Its names are used so frequently as short-hands that we don’t even realise we use them. Its story is so potent because, at some instinctual level, we’ve known it all along.

That both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are two halves of the same person is so obvious to us now, that it is hard to remember that this was the novella’s major twist. Although the concept of the doppelganger had been used before; never quite like this. In an age of scientists beginning to look at the mind, Stevenson kick-started the psychoanalytic influence of popular culture. That later Freudian theories of the ‘id’ and the ‘ego’ would so closely mirror Henry Jekyll splitting his consciousness into its good and evil sides, is only to be expected. Studies into schizophrenia, insanity, and other levels of mental illness,  still the property of the scientist in the asylum, just beginning. That this madness could spill into the streets of London was unthinkable.

What I think captivates us most is that the moral dilemma proposed in the story is so deeply personal and human. After a single transformation, Jekyll gets a taste of his new, unrefined freedom. The dark activities that Hyde participates in thrill him, excite him so much that he voluntarily changes over and over again. When he realises that it’s getting harder to remain as his good side, something seems to change in Jekyll’s narrative. This is something much older, instinctual, a kind of self-possession. And when he thinks he is rid of Hyde for good, temptation strikes again, leading to the downward spiral that spells out his doom.

Therefore, we ask ourselves questions. Is evil inherent in all of us, and is it only a matter of time until temptation unleashes it? Once a single crack appears, have we set up an inevitable chain of events that will lead to our final demise? Though Jekyll’s potion may have rattled the initial cages, eventually Hyde possesses the key to his own lock. What about those of us who are perhaps weaker than he? Will one day our darker sides discover that the cell door, if rattled hard enough, will break on its own?

By now, the doubling trope is so old and worn down that it is hard to see it as new and refreshing. And yet, just like most of our movie monsters, time and time again it crops up. The reveal in Fight Club is one of the most well known in cinematic history, and even The Usual Suspects has a trace of it. Primal Fear (another Ed Norton movie, and another movie from the 90’s; perhaps there’s a follow-up article on the prevalence of doppelgangers in that particular decade?) also follows through on this concept. Psycho is perhaps one of the most influential examples of this theme being carried across, and Stephen King has used it several times in his various writings. Any ‘evil inside’ story is dubbed ‘a modern-day Jekyll-and-Hyde’. How many stories can you think of that receive this kind of treatment?

One of the best doppelganger movies of recent times is Jordan Peele’s Us. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend you do so immediately. Peele takes the concept and fills it with additional meaning. It isn’t just evil inside, but all of our lost hopes and griefs, all of the unfilled desires. The Untethered are our lost childhoods let loose and raging at the world. Life has crushed its dreams into the cookie-cutter pattern of capitalist aspirations that never manage to satisfy.

Never before have we been so aware as a people that, sometimes, we’re just as bad as the monster’s we have dreamed up to take our place. When before we created entities to embody our fears, we now project them as altered versions of ourselves as an attempt to come to grips with the evil inside. We don’t create avatars and fill them with our darkness anymore, because the avatar staring back at us is every bit ourselves as we are right in the beginning.

Even in The Exorcist, Karras must eliminate all doubt that the disturbances in the McNeill household are not being caused by Regan herself, before he can convince the Church that an exorcism is needed. He must go into the investigation with the initial belief that Regan, as a result of the breakup of her parents, the overworking of her mother, and her journey through puberty into adulthood, has unleashed a subconscious identity with parapsychological powers. In this story, demons are less readily-believed by the Church than Regan unknowingly having a ghostly Mr Hyde.

And so the legacy of Stevenson’s story lives on. Through its dozens of adaptations, its thousands of reworkings, and the endless imaginations his characters have inspired, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has touched us all because, very simply, it gets us to ask ourselves a very potent, and disturbing, question. “Am I evil?” I don’t think there’s a person in the world that hasn’t at some point thought they had a bad side waiting to destroy the world, and perhaps this little novella is the reason we all started looking at others, and ourselves, with a little more trepidation than we did before.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Fight Club. 1999. [Film] Directed by David Fincher. USA: Fox 2000 Pictures.

Primal Fear. 1998. [Film] Directed by Gregory Hoblit. USA: Rysher Entertainment.

Psycho. 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. United States of America: Shamley Productions.

Stevenson, R. L., 2006. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In: R. Luckhurst, ed. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales. New York: Oxford, pp. 1 – 66.

The Exorcist. 1973. [Film] Directed by William Friedkin. USA: Hoya Productions.

The Usual Suspects. 1995. [Film] Directed by Bryan Singer. USA: Blue Parrot.

Us. 2019. [Film] Directed by Jordan Peele. USA: Monkeypaw Productions.

Odds and Dead Ends: Scary Shadows | Analysis of H G Wells’ ‘The Red Room’

 

H. G. Wells might be more known for his science-fiction novels, such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, but some of his short stories might as well have been written by H. P. Lovecraft. The Red Room is a straight up ghost story in the same vein as M. R. James. It’s a little gem of a story, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts as to what makes it such a delight.

The Red Room details the protagonist taking up a challenge of sorts to stay in a cursed castle bedroom overnight. The opening sets this up nicely in what might now seem a cliché. The opening line that ‘“I can assure you,” said I, “that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me,”’ is reminiscent of Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining saying ‘“That’s not going to happen to me”’ when Ullman speaks of the previous caretaker going insane.

This single line perfectly sets up the beginning of the character’s arc (from skeptic to believer), tells us the genre of story (supernatural), and the character of the protagonist. His skepticism is reinforced when he says that ‘I half suspected the old people were trying to enhance the spiritual terrors of their house’. He is ‘abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness in the queer old mirror at the end of the room.’ He sees himself as a rock, immovable against anything that passes his way. However, the mirror has changed his appearance, and just as he sees himself to be a rock in a storm, his faith is soon to be changed.

The protagonist’s disbelief in ghosts is due to a fear of age and dying. It is said that he is ‘“eight-and-twenty”’, which is twenty-eight for those who don’t speak century old English, making him a young man. This is in contrast to the three elderly people who apparently live in the castle. This fear of their age presents itself when the protagonist remarks that ‘There is, to my mind, something inhuman in senility.’ Age removes human qualities, and so something very old is to be seen as disgusting, or feared. Spirits, dead for many years, must be terrifying to him.

As the protagonist leaves the group for the room, they are described as ‘dark against the firelight’, which is one of the many allusions to shadows peppered throughout the opening. This further links them to the spirits that will eventually come to haunt our protagonist. Just a little later the protagonist himself expands on this idea, even remarking that ‘their very existence, thought I, is spectral.’

Along with this is the line ‘“It’s your own choosing.”’ This line is repeated like a mantra throughout the opening, and though it may be a bit overdone, the message is clear. By disobeying the warnings given, he brings the doom upon himself. This cliché also gets played up in The Cabin in the Woods, when the group ignore the warnings not to go up to the cabin. You get what’s coming to you.

Soon, even before we enter the room itself, Wells drops the recurrent image that will pervade the remainder of the piece, that of moving, sentient shadows fighting against the candlelight. There’s something very primal about this opposition, very simply a play of light against dark, of good against evil. ‘My candle flared and made the shadows cover and quiver.’ That the shadows are anthropomorphised, being said to have ‘came sweeping up behind me, and another fled before me into the darkness overhead’ is disturbing. Light has to be controlled by man, dependent on him, but the dark can move as it wishes.

The repetition and enhancing of this play of ghostly shadows is what drives the remainder of the piece. ‘The door of the Red Room and the steps up to it were in a shadowy corner.’ The protagonist must move into the realm of darkness if he is to attempt to hold out against it. The room itself is a ‘huge shadowy room with its black window bays,’ full of dust and ‘black corners, its germinating darkness.’ And against all this the candlelight has very little effect, ‘a little tongue of light in the vast chamber; its rays failed to pierce to the opposite end of the room.’

Despite being disturbed by ‘some impalpable quality of that ancient room,’ the protagonist tries to ‘preserve my scientific attitude of mind,’ and examines the room ‘systematically.’ He lights several candles throughout the room, illuminating all that he can, but despite this he still puts his revolver ‘ready to hand.’ Have all his efforts been in vain? He tries to maintain that he is in control of his emotions and that his ‘precise examination had done me a little good,’ and yet ‘I still found the remoter darkness of the place and its perfect stillness too stimulating for the imagination.’ All the build up at the beginning of the story begins to pay off, as our anticipation for ghosts and ghouls overrides the common sense saying that there is nothing there. Every mention of a black spot, a shadow in the rafters, is somewhere we search for ghosts in between the lines, looking for subtext. We are literally jumping at shadows.

A draught enters the room, and soon the candle in the alcove begins to flicker, which ‘kept the shadows and penumbra perpetually shifting and stirring in a noiseless flighty dance.’ An attempt to light more candles gives us his humorous remark that ‘when the ghost came I could warn him not to trip over them.’ Though this line is obviously a joke to himself, he’s brought ghosts into his everyday vocabulary, thinking of them as existing in his world. He’s begun a path away from disbelief into acknowledgement.

And then the candles start to go out.

Now that Wells has ratcheted up the tension by implication alone, he brings on the scares. The alcove, where the deepest shadow has been, is suddenly in darkness again. A candle has gone out. When trying to relight it, two more go out. The shadows do not give him time to bring back the light, and immediately move in for the kill. Again the comparison of the darkness to calculated activity is drawn, as ‘the flames vanished as if the wick had been suddenly nipped between a finger and thumb.’ The protagonist moves closer and closer to hysteria, and ‘a queer high note getting into my voice somehow.’

The protagonist, hysterical, again breaches into the realms of ghostly belief by exclaiming that ‘“those candles are wanted… for the mantel candlesticks.”’ He begins to fight against the shadows’ continuous extinguishing of the candles, ‘the shadows I feared and fought against returned, and crept in on me, first a step gained on this side of me, then on that.’ It is a fight that he can only lose because as was said many times at the beginning, it was a fate of his own choosing.

And yet the ambiguity is still maintained, because the draught was never initially shown to be ghostly in nature, and when he picks up another candle, ‘abruptly this was blown out as I swung it off the table by the wind of my sudden movement.’ Wells continually holds the reader in suspense of wanting to see something overtly supernatural, so that we voraciously follow the protagonist’s stumbling with our own clumsy speed, running headlong through the pages. It is Wells at his finest.

His escape from the room is even deliberately non-supernatural, battering himself up by his own stumbling in desperation and anxiety. And in the end, the final revelation of the nature of the malevolence in the room is a beautiful touch. ‘“Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms.”’ It is described as being a supernatural force, but it is entirely possible to view it as a kind of mass hysteria. Somewhere creepy that instills fear that causes people to essentially, accidentally kill themselves in terror. The disorientation of a sudden acceptance of the possibility of spirits, of the loss of a guiding light, combined with his fear of age and decay, all fuel a Todorovian fantastic story. It’s a wonderful touch to end the piece.

In conclusion, The Red Room is a masterfully crafted ghost story that should be remembered with the best. A great build up to a frantic fight of the rational vs. the irrational part of the brain, with memorable descriptions of the sentient shadows, in a spooky gothic castle. It’s inspired my own work[1], and I hope that you’ll find something delightfully spooky from it as well.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

King, S., 1977. The Shining. United States: Doubleday.

The Cabin in the Woods. 2012. [Film] Directed by Drew Goddard. USA: Mutant Enemy.

Todorov, T., 1975. The Fantastic. New York: Cornell University.

Wells, H. G., 1896. The Red Room. [Online]
Available at: https://repositorio.ufsc.br/bitstream/handle/123456789/157356/The%20Red%20Room%20-%20H.G.%20Wells.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[Accessed 23 06 2019].

Wells, H. G., 1897. The War Of The Worlds. United Kingdom: Pearson’s Magazine.

Wells, H. G., 1931. The Time Machine. New York: Random House.

[1] For those interested, the piece in question, The Voice-Snatcher, will be released in The Sirens Call #45 at the end of June/beginning of July.

Odds and Dead Ends: Rustic Terror

Why The Wicker Man Still Scares Us by Kieran Judge

Released in 1973, Robin Hardy’s British pagan horror movie takes a policeman (played by Edward Woodward) onto the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a girl’s disappearance. Despite a bad remake with Nicholas Cage, and a spiritual sequel that failed to impress, the original film still has the ability to deeply disturb on a strange, fundamental level. I’m going to outline why I think The Wicker Man, despite its age and lack of blood and monsters, still manages to thrill and scare today.

When Howie arrives on the island, you’re initially greeted by great aerial shots of the little plane flying past the rugged terrain of the island, merely a white speck against the blue ocean. For the rest of the film, Howie is completely removed from the traffic in the pre-credit scenes, away from the churches and the police stations (these scenes re-added in the director’s cut). As Martin-Jones writes of the film, ‘The wilds of Scotland are thus considered a potentially treacherous location where a more ‘primitive’ attitude to life and death persists and duplicity and double-cross are deadly commonplaces against which the unwitting outsider must guard.’ (Martin-Jones, 2009). We’re on our own now in a cut-throat world.

And you get this impression right from the start. Upon landing, Howie asks the townsfolk to send a dinghy out so that he might come ashore, and their reply is they can’t do so without permission. Even announcing himself as a policeman seems to have little to no effect. Not only is this an island from which one cannot easily escape except by plane, but it is an environment where the people are dismissive, if not yet overtly hostile. It’s going to be hard going at the very least to find our missing girl.

The more we explore the culture, trying to get to the very heart of the matter of the missing Rowan Morrison, the more we feel we are intruding too far into a completely different world. Their pagan rituals are everywhere, from the maypole dancing and education at the school, to the chocolates being sold in the local shops. The Christianity that Howie holds so dear to him, (the virtues that Edward Woodward says are the most important values to him of all, in the DVD’s video commentary (The Wicker Man, 1973)) are up against a brick wall that we slowly, horrifyingly, realise is actually a trap, ensnaring us. Kbatz has a great review of the film from a few years ago in which she discusses some of the conflicts between the different religions, and I highly recommend you go and read it if you haven’t already: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/kbatz-the-wicker-man/

Many people have commented on the music in the film, with the cast and crew on the DVD commentary saying that it fits the movie like a glove. I’ve known people to find the songs funny at times, which I think is telling in itself. It isn’t the usual score to a thriller film. Around 13 songs, based on traditional Scottish tunes and poems, form a surreal background to a completely alien world. It’s unnerving, and people trying to laugh it off may be a form of emotional relief

This also highlights that all of the people are genuinely enjoying the festivities. All of the townsfolk are smiling and treat Howie with the greatest of respect because, again referring to the audio commentary, they believe they are doing him the greatest service by plotting to make him a martyr. They believe they’re doing the right thing. And that’s one of the most terrifying things upon reflection, they believe in their hearts that they are rewarding him.

And then of course, for Howie, things go sour in the final act. Like the rotting apples and the crumbling churches, everything falls apart for the modern values of the western world embodied by our policeman. When he tries to leave he finds the plane broken and sabotaged, technology failing. Worshippers with animal masks watch on, and when Howie turns around they hide again. There’s a definite air of malice now, a concrete threat to Howie, and what was unease throughout the film suddenly becomes fear.

As we reach the climax of the film, we, like Howie, are clutching at straws. From feeling like the imposter in a strange land, Howie puts on the outfit of the fool and becomes the imposter. Now we’re in the very midst of the danger, aware that they intend a human sacrifice, and the very Christian policeman has to imitate the very thing that goes against his core values in order to carry out his job. The snapping hobby horse are the jaws of death. It’s a personal conflict of monumental importance, a moment where the personal micro tensions and the theological macro tensions come to fruition, and we have to hope that the man we follow will win out.

The entire parade is dragged out as long as possible for maximum tension. The scene with the sword dance in the stone circle is particularly tense, because for a moment we suddenly realise that there’s the possibility the worshippers know Howie is in the outfit. Thrust into the line, he has no but to go into the ring of swords and trust and hope his disguise holds out. With the chop! chop! chop! we have again a perverse soundtrack, substituting the war drums of conventional movie scores for a pagan call for death.

And then we arrive at the final scene. Howie is thrust into the Wicker Man, crying for his Lord, and we suddenly have to hope for the traditional horror movie to return. Horror films always save the protagonist, give us some kind of catharsis, but there’s nothing to be found here. The helicopter doesn’t arrive, rain doesn’t pour as an act of God and douse the flames licking at the wood, Howie doesn’t manage to escape and run to freedom. The cries for Jesus and the singing of traditional hymns are drowned out by the chanting ring of happy pagan faces as the head finally crumbles, burned to a crisp.

The Wicker Man takes our traditional western values and puts them into a world that has reverted to the past. The crusade Howie goes on fails to convert the islanders to the ‘modern’ ways of thinking. We leave the film having watched the protagonist having journeyed to a strange, unnervingly backward land and burned alive to appease ancient gods. We as an audience, his modern kin, have failed him. In a world of cut-and-paste zombie flicks, ghost girl movies, and lacklustre monster films, there’s just something about rustic terror of The Wicker Man that manages to unnerve. Everything comes together and culminates in a film that defies all the conventions, brings together the best cast and crew possible, and leaves the viewer having watched one of the most terrifying final scenes ever put to film.

 

Article by Kieran Judge

Follow Kieran on Twitter: KJudgeMental

 

Bibliography

Martin-Jones, D., 2009. Scotland global cinema: genres, modes and identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The Wicker Man. 1973. [Film] Directed by Robin Hardy. UK: British Lion.

Odds and Dead Ends: Doctor Who’s Sci-fi – Horror Masterclass

When Doctor Who revived on March 26th, 2005, I was seven years old, a few months away from my eighth birthday. I was the perfect age to have my mind utterly blown by the galactic voyages, the heritage, the sets, the monsters; everything about it was just cool. Russell T. Davis’ era of Who was one of the things that made me the genre fan I am today. Now that I’m older, I look back on it and wonder which episodes, stories, stand out most. One day I will certainly do an article analyzing speech and identity in the Series 4 episode Midnight, an underrated gem of an episode. Blink gave me a phobia of statues for months, and I remember coming home from school pretending to be a Cyberman (complete with stomping sound effects) once the new incarnations came through in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel.

Yet for me, the more I think on it, the more I affirm my beliefs that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, episodes 8 and 9 of Series 2 respectively, are the best episodes of the show’s now 13, nearly 14 year, revival. A blend of cosmic horror, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller, and possession horror movie, this storyline is an immaculate blend of multiple genres, pushing the boundaries of Saturday-night family TV, which retains the ability to chill even the hardiest of adults. The Halloween special Waters of Mars was a very successful episode along a similar vein, but despite the claustrophobia in that episode, it doesn’t have the imagery, the scale, and grandeur, that comes with being stranded on a planet orbiting a black hole. This article is my attempt to analyze, decode, and understand just why this storyline is sci-fi/horror perfection, through the physical and emotional squeezing of the episode, and the theological darkness of The Beast.

 

Isolation

Sometimes horror tries to overload your senses with something vast and grand, such as the infinite size of the cosmos and the beyond, stuffed with elder gods and creatures unfathomable. This is most definitely the Lovecraft tradition of horror. One of the other approaches is to make the whole thing feel claustrophobic, and to put the pressure on the audience, tighter and tighter and tighter. This, perhaps, could be considered a Hitchcock tradition. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (which I will abbreviate as TIP or TSP throughout the rest of this article), manages through its sheer concept alone, to accomplish both a physical claustrophobia and tension, and a grand intellectual, mythological scope.

In TSP, a sequence sees Rose, Danny, Toby, and Jefferson, trapped in the vents underneath Sanctuary Base 6 being pursued by the possessed, murderous Ood. As if this isn’t bad enough, Captain Zachary has to manually shift the oxygen to them from each section of the tunnel each time they move on to the next section.

For me, this is the ultimate moment of claustrophobia in the two episodes, and it’s a careful appreciation of each turn of the screw (pun intended) that makes us feel so tense. Here’s my quick run-down of the beats up to this point that apply the pressure.

  1. The Tardis, the time-and-space ship, lands on a base, not feeling well. As The Doctor says, it’s like “‘she’s worried.’”
  2. The Doctor announces that they’ve arrived on a sanctuary base. The word ‘sanctuary’ implies a safe haven, but from what?
  3. ‘Welcome to Hell’ is scribbled on a wall, along with an indecipherable ancient language.
  4. After an earthquake, the revelation of their situation is made. The base is on a planet orbiting a black hole, held by a strange, unknown energy source that could plunge them into it at any moment.
  5. An earthquake plunges the Tardis into the depths of Kroptor, the planet. Their usual escape route has been lost.
  6. The base’s electronics, and Toby, come under the influence of The Beast.
  7. A hull breach loses one of the crew members, and they watch her drift up into the black hole. A constant reminder of mortality perched on the edge of the abyss.
  8. The Doctor and Iva descend down into the bowels of the planet in a small cable lift. The Doctor, the main intelligence and rationale of the galaxy, is physically distant from those above.
  9. The Ood become possessed; their translators changed into devices capable of electrocution.
  10. The Satan Pit opens down into a further unknown dark.
  11. The lift cable snaps, trapping The Doctor and Iva down below.
  12. Their electronic communication is temporarily stopped.
  13. With Ood all around, the crew have to shuffle through the underfloor ventilation tunnels to reach Ood habitation, the den of the things trying to kill them, in order to cut the possession of The Beast.
  14. Zachary, holed up in a room with Ood cutting their way in, has to manually, time-consumingly, shift their oxygen after them.
  15. The Ood are after them in the tunnels.

There are several aspects I’ve excluded for my later discussion on the Satan aspects, but it is easy to see even from this simple breakdown, how the episodes add layer upon layer of threat and danger. This sequence in the tunnels is perhaps only 2/3 of the way through the episodes’ total runtime, and there are sequences with danger in the rocket at the finale, but I believe the ventilation chase to be the best example of pressure-cooker isolation I’ve seen in Who.

In Doctor Who Confidential S2 E8, the set designers acknowledge Alien (1979) for inspiration in the base’s design. Indeed, the walkways are hemmed in by pillars that crowd the crew as they duck and scamper down the corridors. Similarly, the Nostromo’s corridors in Alien were designed so the actors had to crouch through the ship, complete with constant vents of steam and smoke from the walls that are also constantly shown in Sanctuary Base 6 coming from the floor. Far more than just the base, however, the civilisation in the interior of the planet also seems to have a touch of the Alien franchise about it, with the large sculptures something you’d find on board the Space Jockey’s ship. The abseil of The Doctor into the pit isn’t too dissimilar to Kane’s descent into the egg room. And you can’t watch the ventilation chase sequence without thinking of Dallas’ search through the Nostromo’s vents after the Xenomorph. This time, they can’t even see the threat as the Ood don’t register as life forms, and the opening of the final door to reveal the Ood there ready and waiting for them is so reminiscent of Dallas’ demise in Alien that you have to accept the homage.

Part of this story’s mastery, then, is of the sense of claustrophobia, of danger pressing in on you. Taking inspiration from its predecessors and finding new ways to tighten the vice, the whole scenario feels like you’re being slowly crushed. If the lack of air doesn’t get you, the Ood will. If they don’t, The Beast will plunge you into space. If he doesn’t do that, he’ll ensure the base doesn’t let you out. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll plunge you into the black hole. The noose gets tighter and tighter with each passing moment.

Satan Unbound

When, in TIP, the Doctor calculates the amount of energy needed to hold the planet in orbit around the black hole, he reels off a load of numbers, to which Rose replies, “‘all the sixes.’” Specifically, there are three of them. 666. The story deals with the iconography of Satan and a fairly unique discussion of language and communication to discuss the mere concept, the idea, and the horror, of the devil.

Perhaps the most obvious point of contact with this is the ancient language. The connection between this writing and an ancient evil are immediately apparent, with the ‘Welcome to Hell’ sign being scrawled above a copied passage of writing. That the planet they have arrived on is equated with Hell is subtly reinforced with several shots through doors and over shoulders, one such example being when Rose gets food from the Ood, where the ‘Hell’ on the sign is clearly visible.

The ancient language is also our main visual clue that Toby is possessed/himself. The writing jumps from the pottery to his hands, and later vanishes into the Ood. That this language is that of The Beast and not of the ancient civilisation is apparent from the pictures depicting the capture of The Beast down in the pit itself. These people used images, whereas The Beast uses words. Images exist purely in a visual form, whereas language can exist in visual or audible forms, or even touch if you think of Braille. This makes The Beast’s method of communication much more effective and potent for expanding throughout the universe, perpetuating his image throughout the countless civilisations.

That language is the myth-maker of The Beast’s choosing is made apparent when Ida discusses the planet’s name, spoken of only in scripture, and labelled as a demon when the Black Hole spat it back out. Not only is it through text that the story of the planet’s evil, and by extension its resident, perpetuated, but ‘scripture’ implies a religious text.

Despite a brief flash of The Beast on the hologram in the main hub, it is through words and speech that The Beast’s rising is foreshadowed. The computers announce that ‘He is awake,’ and Rose’s phone is hijacked to deliver the same message on a phone that can’t get a signal. Also, The Beast’s targets for possession are those with the closest links to language and words. Toby is an obvious choice because he is closest to the language as the archaeologist. However, the Ood are important thematically because they require the translators to communicate with their human masters. Before we get the hijacked message, the ‘we must feed’ interference and joke following TIP’s title sequence puts language at the forefront of the terror.

These translators are important not only for The Beast to use as weapons (language being used to kill and carry ideas of death), but it is also through the Ood that we get our longest pre-possession hints, “‘The Beast and his armies shall rise from The Pit to make war against God’”, and the lengthy discussion with The Doctor. The concepts of The Beast and his mythic perpetuation through language and words are inescapable. Language is how we view, understand, and construct the world around us, and that The Beast would use this as a means to attack us is perhaps more terrifying than anything else.

The Doctor’s incredulity and vehement rejection of the idea that The Beast can have existed before the universe is little relief for the audience, for The Beast knows so much that he can’t know. He sees into the minds of all the crew, and even predicts Rose’s future several episodes later. This complete knowledge of all, traversing the realms of possibility, puts the possibility of The Doctor being wrong into question. Is he right that The Beast is lying? After all, one of the names for Satan is ‘The Father of Lies.’ On the other hand, everything The Beast has said occurs in actuality, so who is to say he is wrong? That something is impossible isn’t an issue for The Beast; The Doctor describes his language as being ‘impossibly old’ upon first seeing it.

And then, in the final scenes, we have possessed-Toby’s ravings that the idea of him (The Beast) will always live on, despite being launched into the black hole, lingers, ‘I shall never die. The thought of me is forever.’ The Doctor himself says that ‘an idea is hard to kill’. The Beast’s final words that ‘nothing shall ever destroy me. Nothing’, hang in the air long after the episode concludes. In addition to this damning statement, The Doctor comes away with no conclusions as to what he believes he found, ‘I don’t know, I never did find out.’ We are left none the wiser. After escaping possessed aliens sent by a Satanic beast, who claims to have been from beyond time and space, eternal and forever in the hearts of men, and managing to escape the snatching jaws of a black hole, a horror still resonates. The idea of evil will never be killed. They don’t defeat evil in the end, they just manage to escape its wrath a little longer.

 

Conclusion

Sometimes, when it gets it just right, Doctor Who manages to push all the right buttons. In an impossible situation, isolated and trapped, claustrophobic, yet opening up the theological, philosophical, and personal horrors of belief, thought and language, these two episodes deliver a truly captivating, yet terrifying 90 minutes of television. Ignore what anyone says; this episode arc is the most horrifying, devastating, and yet hauntingly beautiful storyline the show has had in its revival.

Article by Kieran Judge

You can now follow him on Twitter at @KJudgeMental

Odds and DEAD Ends: Shutter – A curse defined by it’s country

I think we often assume such concepts as ‘curses’ or ‘evil’, and their representations in media, to be generic and similar wherever we go. I’d like to challenge that notion here.

Just under two years ago I was completing a module for my course entitled ‘Film Genre’, the focus example being horror. Due to a mix-up in my head and getting the date wrong, I went to submit my second assignment two days late. I had to resit the assignment (an essay eventually completed about Takashi Miike’s film As The Gods Will), but I’ve always wondered what my work on the original assignment would have garnered.

And so, in time for the finale of HorrorAddicts.net’s examination of curses in all their various guises, I’ve decided to bring out that original essay, redraft it, give it a little touch up, and present it to you for your enjoyment and, hopefully, education. It’s about one of my favourite horror films of all time, Shutter, and the direct influence of Thailand on its presentation, creation, construction, and identity. If you take nothing away from this article than an increased awareness of how a country can create a unique, different experience, perhaps a differing viewpoint and perspective than a western film might show, then that’ll suit me fine.

Enjoy.

“National specificity is often what is being ‘sold’ as a distinguishing quality in any film being offered for export in a world market.” (Knee, 2008, p. 125).

Thailand may seem an unlikely place for a healthy horror tradition, given western audiences’ tendencies to associate the genre with the USA and UK, from the Technicolor castles of Hammer Horror to the 1980’s American slasher era, but it thrives nonetheless. As Adam Knee notes, “Over the course of several months from late 2001 into early 2002, no fewer than four Thai horror films were released in Thai cinemas – a substantial enough phenomenon (given the dozen or so Thai films being produced annually in recent years)” (Knee, 2005, p. 141). The rich past of Thailand, with its prevalence of Theravada Buddhism, history of trading and cultural exchanges with neighbouring nations, and relatively accelerated technological advances and recent urbanisation, make it a perfect setting for horror. I shall discuss the influences of many of these aspects of Thai life and history on its horror films, focusing on the film Shutter from 2004, and the many influences that Thailand has had on its themes and formal construction.

The premise of Shutter is a simple one. A photographer, Tun, and his girlfriend, Jane, hit a young girl whilst driving home one night after meeting with the photographer’s friends, and drive off without checking to see if she’s alive. The girl’s spirit, Natre, haunts the pair, mostly Tun and his photographs, unlocking the secrets of Tun’s past, and the dark connection between himself, the ghostly spirit and the cameras he loves so much. Whilst this premise could seemingly be picked up and placed in any country, Shutter is nevertheless distinctly Thai.

I’ll begin with the fear of technology in the film as a symbol for the evils of Thailand’s rapidly developing urban areas. Thailand, and more specifically Bangkok, is one of the most quickly developed areas in the world. As noted in A History of Thailand, “In 1998, the economy shrank 11 percent – a dramatic end to the 40 year ‘development’ era during which the Thai economy had averaged 7 percent growth and never fallen below 4 percent,” and when discussing a man who had visited rural Thailand in the latter half of the 20th century in one decade and returned the next, he said that “Villagers who had described the local rituals to him only a decade ago now exclaimed that ‘the rice spirit is no match for chemical fertiliser.’” (Baker & Phongpaichit, 2010, pp. 259, 160). As Knee notes, “Bangkok, a city that, in an architectural sense, is haunted indeed – with the old and the new, the disused and the thriving often crammed into the same spaces,” (Knee, 2005, p. 147). This all illustrates that Thailand has changed dramatically over the past few decades leading to Shutter’s production and release, becoming almost unrecognisable from what it once was, complete with the invasion of technology into the home, including television; “By the mid-1990s, over 90 percent of households had one,” (Baker & Phongpaichit, 2010, p. 223).

This chaotic eruption of advancement gives the film the perfect backdrop to use technology, a symbol of advancement and modernity, as a vehicle for Natre’s spirit to conduct herself. Although not confined to the camera, it is photography, and the technology associated with it, that is her main medium of choice for her haunting. Not only does she use the camera to present herself (such as Tun seeing her through the viewfinder), or uses the photographs (she turns her head in a developed photograph in another scene), but she actively uses this medium to manifest as a physical presence. In the scene with Jane in the development room, Natre’s spirit manifests itself inside a sink covered with photographs, rising slowly out of it, as if emerging from the photographs themselves. Natre’s use of the camera therefore may not only be seen as a narrative link between her and Tun, but also as a warning of the dislocation from reality that technology can provide in a new and thriving Bangkok. “Bangkok, as an emblem or instantiation of modernity, is a key reference point… and often appears to engender an anxiety over foreign influence and the loss of traditional mores,” (Knee, 2005, p. 157)

This unease around technology is expressed as unreality, which the film discusses in Jane’s University lecture, “photography does not produce reality.” Tun’s obsession with this ability to capture an unreality means he is more easily pressured into photographing Natre’s rape; he is able to detach himself from the scene because in his mind photography doesn’t replicate reality, only an unreality. He is able to forget these events after Natre’s departure from Bangkok, to the ‘real’ world, until Tonn mentions it again; the Bangkok he lives in has become to him, through the influence of his photography, an unreality, the world of his photographs even more so, easily dealt with because they are not the true reality.

It is perhaps impossible to lead on from the evils of Thailand than to go to its religious good, and its prevalent religious beliefs in Theravada Buddhism. One of the key ways in which Shutter creates its terror can be seen in both the grounding, and eventual perversion, of this particular strand of Buddhism’s treatment of malevolent spirits.

In Buddhism, “Villagers view abnormal death with great fear, because the winjan may become a malevolent phi called a phii tai hoeng”, (winjan being a form of consciousness, phii  a spirit, and phii tai hoeng a vengeful and restless spirit of one who has come to an abnormal death) (Tambiah, 1975, p. 189). Suicide falls into this category of abnormal death, and so it may be correct to classify Natre’s vengeful ghost as a phii tai hoeng, according to Buddhist tradition, perhaps not too dissimilar to Japanese Onryō. Natre isn’t disconnected from Buddhist teachings either, as is displayed by the Buddhist funeral held for her. A Buddhist view and understanding of her spirit is a decent idea therefore, with Buddhist rules to follow in our understanding of the film.

When her mother initially denies the village’s wish to bury her, the villagers treat her afterward like an outcast; “All the villagers were scared. No one wanted to socialise with her.” Natre’s spirit is unable to rest, as she hasn’t been given a proper burial, and will return as a phii tai hoeng in due course. Her mother, however, may hold a clue as to why she did not return immediately. A short booklet called Thailand Society & Culture Complete Report, when discussing the belief of evil spirits arising from suicide, remarks that “the music and presence of loved ones generally keep the spirits at bay,” (Press, World Trade, 2010, p. 12). By this logic, the presence of her mother, living in the same house as her corpse, should have kept Natre’s spirit at bay, despite the lack of a funeral. However, several events may have led to Natre’s sudden appearance again at the beginning of the film.

At the house, as Tun and Jane proceed to Natre’s room to discover her body, they pass hundreds of bottles of liquid. On the DVD commentary, Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, who plays Jane, says that “some people didn’t know what those bottles were,” to which director Parkpoom Wongpoom replies “the drunken mum.” (Shutter (DVD Commentary), 2004). This excessive drinking, an evil no doubt symbolically returning with Natre from Bangkok, would surely have an effect on the restraining of Natre’s spirit to her corpse, allowing her to escape at the right moment more easily.

Along with this, Tun, her former lover, is now with a new partner, and taking her on nights out with the group that raped her. It seems no coincidence then that she first materialises after Tun looks at Jane and remarks “beautiful you.” With no mother able to hold her back (she acts as if Natre is alive, and goes away when she says she will fetch Natre upstairs, proof she is in no fit mental state to able to contain Natre’s spirit), along with Tun’s display of affection for Jane, we see that the immoral, violent world of modern, Bangkok society overrides the Buddhist teachings and traditions that would hold Natre at bay. It is, of course, at a great hospital (probably in an urbanised area, maybe Bangkok), that Natre jumps from and commits suicide, and inside a Bangkok University where she is raped. Natre has become a product of the evils of the allure of the technological advancement of Bangkok, which might prevent the Buddhist teachings from keeping hold of her, and hold of morality as a whole.

In terms of the possible perversion of Buddhist traditions mentioned, it could be possible to understand Tun’s camera as a symbolic form of amulet. According to the World Trade Press, “The Thai people widely use amulets called khawng-khlong, which literally means ‘sacred potent objects’”, and “Amulet-wearers usually seek protection from diseases, witchcraft and accidents.” (Press, World Trade, 2010). The image of Tun using his camera as a means of profession, hanging by a strap around his neck, warding off the evils of poverty and illegal money-making, could be taken as symbolism for a Buddhist amulet. If we adopt this theory, we can see that Natre’s usage of this symbol of protection for her haunting is a direct attack on Buddhist traditions and beliefs. Even her eventual cremation and Buddhist funereal rites can’t stop her, with Natre manifesting at her own funeral by putting a hand on Tun’s shoulder, perhaps the biggest insult to Buddhism one could imagine.

As mentioned before, the Buddhist elements in the film are mainly associated with the rural areas outside Bangkok, which adds further reasoning to Bangkok being an immoral place removed from righteous, religious teachings. It is only in the rural areas that we see evidence of Buddhism, with the monks at the roadside as Tun and Jane are asking about Natre’s mother, and then again at the funeral and subsequent cremation. Whilst in Bangkok, nothing of these traditions are seen or mentioned. Instead we have the drunken ‘gang’ of Tonn’s raping a young woman in one of the city’s Universities, and the eventual madness and chaos brought about by her revenge. This can be no accident. Buddhism is firmly planted in the rural, whereas the urbanisation represents evil, both in life and after it.

Another key thing to note is the context of other Thai film in relation to Shutter, especially Nang Nak, released five years earlier in 1999. It tells a traditional Thai folk story of a woman who died during childbirth whilst her husband is away at war, whose spirit continues to dwell in their home and live with him after he returns, eventually being discovered by her husband, Mak, and exorcised and set to rest by the Buddhist monks. This film became a box office hit in Thailand, winning over a dozen awards. In considering Shutter, it is important to also consider the links to Nang Nak and the influence it had on the creation of the film.

Aside from the concept of a departed woman not being able to rest without her significant other, there are several places where the two films bear a striking resemblance to one another. The opening title sequence of Nang Nak has the titles appearing over paintings and murals depicting Thai history, as a way to enhance the film’s setting. This is not too dissimilar from Shutter’s opening sequence of what could almost be described as a photographic mural, a montage of images showing the main character’s past. Having the titles over images of the past, with the film so closely following Nang Nak, can’t be coincidence. Along with this, the sequence where Natre walks towards Tun outside his apartment along the ceiling is strikingly similar to a scene in Nang Nak where Nak stands on the roof of the Buddhist temple (this image being frightening and representative of an inversion and perversion of Buddhism, such as Natre’s spirit represents). Nak’s spirit is eventually contained inside a fragment of her skull made into a broach, just as Natre is contained initially inside the camera, and eventually in the hospital room with Tun at the very end. Added to all of these resemblances is the fact that Chatchai Pongrapaphan, who composed for Nang Nak, also composed the music for Shutter, providing yet another link between the two. Without a doubt, Shutter took inspiration from the 1999 film and, as the tale of Nak is a well-known legend in Thailand with dozens of adaptations, it is possible that Natre herself was even inspired by Nak.

The influences on Shutter however, are not merely restricted to Thailand. Many international considerations need to be made in order to understand it, perhaps the most important one being the emergence of the cycle of Japanese horror films kick-started by the release of Ringu, a 1998 adaptation of the 1991 novel of the same name. The film’s main antagonist, the vengeful spirit or onryō of Sadako Yamamura, became a cultural icon when the film hit theatres, becoming one of Japan’s top box-office hits of all time. The USA would commission a remake, The Ring, to be released four years later. In the wake of Ringu’s immense success, the image of a vengeful ghostly female character with long black hair became prevalent in films such as Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), One Missed Call (2003) and Dark Water (2002).

It wasn’t long before word got around that this was an almost sure-fire method to get people into cinemas, along with international interest. This is noted perhaps humorously in a blog post by Grady Hendrix on Kaiju Shakedown, “after The Ring, The Ring Two, The Ring Virus, Nightmare, Scissors, Ju-On 1 & 2, A Tale of Two Sisters, Dark Water, Kakashi, The Phone, Shutter, Unborn but forgotten, Into The Mirror, Wicked Ghost, Shikoku, One Missed Call, Horror Hotline… Big Head Monster, Pulse, R-Point, Three Extremes and on and on, this whole ‘long-haired-dead-wet-chick’ trope is dead.” (McRoy, 2008, p. 173) His association of numerous films on his list, including Shutter, with ‘J-Horror’, even when they aren’t from Japan, is perhaps telling of the cycle’s influence on Asian cinema. Everyone wanted to have their own ghost-girl film that was more terrifying than the others.

On a horror revival, with western eyes turning towards Asia for ghostly women to see on their screens, it’s not hard to see that Shutter took influences from Ringu and the like for its character of Natre, similarly a vengeful female ghost with long black hair. Thailand had been looking to Japan for influences for decades, especially when it comes to film; “the first permanent exhibition space for films in Thailand was built by a Japanese promoter in 1905,” (Ruh, 2008, p. 143). Added to this, Davis and Yeh state that “Japanese horror films have a long history, tapping ghost tales and Buddhist sermons in the Edo period,” similar to Shutter’s usage of Buddhist influences, as well as noting that, in their discussion of Ringu, “In this story, some of our most trusted devices inexplicably turn against us”, similar to Natre turning the camera on Tun (Davis & Yeh, 2008, p. 119). Also to note is in the DVD commentary, when Tun walks into the room before seeing Tonn jump to his death, remarking about the static on the television, Pisanthanakun remarks that “on the website they said we’d copied this scene from The Ring,” This remark clearly indicates that the filmmakers are aware of Ringu/The Ring and its influence on current Asian cinema, and whilst this is a denial that the scene is explicitly referencing the Japanese film, the general motifs and iconography of the film are so similar to the cycle that they cannot be ignored.

The cycle of horror at that time, especially the original J-horror as well, also loved to use technology as a means of manifesting the malevolent entity involved. In Ringu it is a videotape, Pulse (2001) uses computers, Suicide Club (2002) uses the radio and television broadcasting. Shutter, then, follows a long line of films in Japanese cinema by using technology as a focus point for its malevolence and evil, but added the influence of Bangkok for this technological evil.

A final point to note might be the inclusion of the number 4 in the staircase scene with Tun running away from Natre. On the DVD commentary, Wongpoom states that “Foreigners say that they know the number four means death for the Chinese… I was surprised they knew that,” and when asked if it was intentional, both he and Pisanthanakun replied “yes”. This use of numbers in Chinese culture and tradition specifically for foreshadowing events and themes of the action taking place shows a very nice cross-cultural connection between the Thai filmmakers and the neighbouring country that has had so much connection with Thailand in the past centuries through to the present day, with many millions of Chinese residents living in the country.

In conclusion, Thailand’s social and cultural history has led to its films becoming rich with remnants and depictions of its setting in both formal construction and through its themes and symbolism. In Shutter, Buddhism and its traditions are invoked and subverted in an attempt to portray the rural countryside as a place of tranquillity and peace, with the city of Bangkok a thriving haven of rape, alcohol abuse and evil. Bangkok’s malevolence includes its rapid industrialisation and technological advancement which can further enhance and continue to spread the evil, in a similar fashion (but different meaning) to Asia’s cycle of horror films inspired by the kaidan tales of Japan, with Thailand’s own film history in Nang Nak influencing its construction. China also shows its influence in its superstitions appearing in the film, knowledge of which is acquired via close national connections with the country. Shutter then, despite first appearing to be a standard ghostly horror movie, is in fact layered deeply with the social concerns and cultural influences of Thailand, with other Asian nations helping to create a rich, transnational horror film.

 

 

Bibliography

Baker, C. & Phongpaichit, P., 2010. A History of Thailand. Second Edition ed. China: Cambridge University Press.

Dark Water. 2002. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Oz.

Davis, D. W. & Yeh, E. Y.-Y., 2008. East Asian Screen Industries. London: British Film Institute.

Ju-On: The Grudge. 2002. [Film] Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Japan: Pioneer LDC.

Knee, A., 2005. Thailand Haunted: The Power of the Past in the Contemporary Thai Horror Film.. In: S. J. Schneider & T. Williams, eds. Horror International. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 141 – 159.

Knee, A., 2008. Suriyothai becomes Legend: National Identity and Global Currency. In: L. Hunt & W. Leung, eds. East Asian Cineams, Exploring Transnational Connections on Film. London: I.B Tauris, pp. 123 – 137.

Nang Nak. 1999. [Film] Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Thailand: Tai Entertainment.

One Missed Call. 2003. [Film] Directed by Takashi Miike. Japan: Kadokawa Pictures.

Press, World Trade, 2010. Thailand Society and Culture Complete Report: An All-Inclusive Profile Containing All Of Our Society & Culture Reports, s.l.: World Trade Press.

Pulse. 2001. [Film] Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Japan: Toho Company.

Ringu. 1998. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Ringu/Rasen Production Company.

Ruh, B., 2008. Last Life in the Universe: Nationality, Technologies and Authorship. In: L. Hunt & L. Wing-Fai, eds. East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film. New York: I.B Tauris + Co Ltd., pp. 138 – 152.

Shutter (DVD Commentary). 2004. [Film] Directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom, Banjong Pisanthanakun. Thailand: Contender Films.

Shutter. 2004. [Film] Directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom, Banjong Pisanthanakun. Thailand: GMM Pictures.

Suicide Club. 2002. [Film] Directed by Sion Sono. Japan: Earthrise.

Suzuki, K., 1991. Ringu. Tokyo: Kodakawa Shoten.

Tambiah, S., 1975. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand. Cabridge: Cabridge University Press.

The Ring. 2002. [Film] Directed by Gore Verbinski. USA: Dreamworks Pictures.

 

Odds and DEAD Ends: Watching from below: Voyeurism in ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Voyeurism in The Cabin in the Woods

Released in 2012, The Cabin in the Woods struck a chord in a genre dominated by ‘torture-porn’ and remakes of paranormal horror from Asia. By taking the formula of The Evil Dead film and using the codes and conventions as part of its narrative construction, it seemed to revitalise a genre that many felt had gone astray. I’m going to discuss the film’s use of cameras and the theme of voyeurism, to heighten the film’s tension by subtly shifting our allegiances and questioning our morality.

By default, massive spoilers if you haven’t seen the film.

The film is uniquely structured in that it follows two sets of characters. We have the teenagers on the ‘top floor’, unknown sacrifices to the gods below, and the crew on the ‘bottom floor’ to ensure their demise. Whedon and Goddard state on the DVD commentary that they were going to keep the second floor a secret until a way into the film, but eventually decided against it. This way, they set us up from the beginning with the fear of being watched.

By giving us this knowledge, we place ourselves in a position of power, having information that the main quintet of the piece doesn’t. This aligns us with Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense; that the audience must know something that the characters don’t, be this a wallet about to fall from someone’s jacket or a killer in the closet, to create tension. You can watch Sir Alfred himself explain it in the video below.

Being watched is always powerful in creating paranoia and fear because it is an invasion of our privacy, someone forcing their way into our innermost thoughts and deeds. When Marty says that the idea of the trip is to ‘get off the grid’, he highlights this need for privacy, which we know to be nothing but an illusion. If a metaphor is needed for this invasion of privacy, it is embodied by the two-way mirror in the cabin.

One of the ways this voyeurism is used is through its desensitisation those working below must undergo in order to protect the world. Consider the scene before Jules’ murder and the way in which she must be ‘the whore’ before she can be killed. Kirk says to her “‘we’re all alone’”, followed by a shot of everyone watching it happen. Though this is played for laughs, it’s a real fear that they will be discovered, something every teen couple fears. Later, when asked if Jules showing herself is necessary, we are told “‘we’re not the only ones watching’”, and that they “‘need to keep the customers satisfied’”. The teens are produce, goods to be shown, approved of, and then sold, and it requires such an extreme degree of desensitisation, of dehumanisation, that they must force themselves to do, that we begin to side with those below.

The teenagers are being spied upon from a functional point of view: people need to know what they’re doing in order to do their job right. The comedy Goddard extracts from the workforce means that we align our morals with them. This comes to a climax when the group is heading to the bridge and we get the call that it’s still intact. Who do we support here? Do we support the victims, trying to survive? Or do we support the men trying to kill them, trying to save the world? We are put in a moral quandary here which only adds to our tension.

As another note, not only is the floor below watching the top through their cameras and monitors, but they themselves are also being watched by their boss and the gods. Layers upon layers of voyeurism and the need to look over your shoulder are piled up here in a single film. We cannot get away from eyes everywhere, watching us, wanting us to kill or be killed.

Viewing them through the cameras perhaps helps those below deal with the situation. They don’t have to meet the victims; they can deal with the situation as if they were playing a video game. They are test subjects in a Saw-like game. And one shouldn’t think that this emphasis on viewing as a theme is coincidental. After all, co-writer and director, Drew Goddard, also wrote Cloverfield, one of the movies that re-vitalised the found footage genre along with REC and Paranormal Activity, a genre that emphasizes horror viewed from a first-person perspective.

The desensitisation that the workers go through in order to do their job is passed onto us. This presents us with questions of morality that arise with the film’s conclusion. We side with the heroes and yet also need them to fail. This places us in a tricky situation. Who do we support? The final act’s big dilemma would not resonate so much if we simply sided with the victims, and so we must watch them suffer, with as much black humour as we can get from it so that we also want those trying to keep the gods happy to succeed. It’s the only conclusion we can come to. But is this the right decision? What is the right decision?

In conclusion, the voyeurism displayed throughout the film aids the shift in our empathy just from the side of the victims into the centre of the two sides. We find ourselves in a world of moral greyness, where we aren’t sure who we should root for. We are between Scylla and Charybdis, with the pressure mounting, the clock ticking down, and no clue how to feel. Horror is comprised, at its core, of choices. Whether to run or fight, go up the stairs or out the front door, cut our leg off or not, we have to deal with choices. Goddard puts us in that point where we don’t want to have to choose, but we must. And that’s what makes The Cabin in the Woods, through its theme of voyeurism, just that little bit special.

Article by Kieran Judge (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

Bibliography

Cloverfield. 2007. [Film] Directed by Matt Reeves. USA: Bad Robot.

Institute, A. F., 2008. Alfred Hitchcock On Mastering Cinematic Tension. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E
[Accessed 20 09 2018].

Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA: Blumhouse Productions.

REC. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax International.

The Cabin in the Woods. 2012. [Film] Directed by Drew Goddard. USA: Mutant Enemy.

The Evil Dead. 1981. [Film] Directed by Sam Raimi. USA: Renaissance Pictures.

 

Odds and DEAD Ends: Fiction in John Carpenter’s ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’

John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness was released in 1994, and completes his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Drawing heavily on H. P. Lovecraft, Mouth of Madness is a unique, self-reflexive film in a similar vein to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (also 1994). The film follows insurance investigator John Trent, as he tracks down missing horror novelist, Sutter Cane. This article will focus on film’s use of fiction and stories to blur previously thought-of binary oppositions, such as fantasy/reality, human/inhuman, and even day/night, to try and disturb and unsettle the viewer.

The idea behind fiction in Mouth of Madness is, if enough people believe in stories, the stories gain power, and through that power the Old Ones can return. Cane explains this to Trent like this:

“It takes its power from new readers and new believers. That’s the point. Belief! When people begin to lose their ability to know the difference between fantasy and reality the old ones can begin their journey back. The more people who believe the faster the journey. And with the way the other books have sold, this one is bound to be very popular.”

In Paul Cobley’s book Narrative, he states that “The most familiar, most primitive, most ancient and seemingly straightforward of stories reveal depths that we might have hitherto failed to anticipate.” (Cobley, 2001, p. 2). Cane, controlled by the Old Ones, uses horror fiction as a universal storytelling medium to connect with readers on a primal level, using common tropes and ideas to make it easier for readers to believe. Cobley’s discussion of signs in literature, or “what humans interpret as signs, therefore stand in for something else in the real world” (p. 9), illuminates why a horror writer is the best medium for the Old Ones to use to prepare humanity for their arrival. Coding themselves with signs they people understand makes them more believable, understandable, acceptable, even.

Fiction, therefore, is an illumination of truth, a coded way to our understanding of knowledge. With this in mind, the filmmakers use the audience’s understanding of this concept (though perhaps the audience isn’t consciously aware of it) to turn truth on its head and destabilise them. Slowly, picking up pace at the finale, the boundary between fantasy and reality erodes away.

This happens in many ways, from Cane’s whispering “Did I ever tell you my favourite colour was blue?” followed by Trent waking up with the world blue, to the constant cyclist returning over and over again. There are also more subtle details which hint the fictional nature of Trent’s story. The room Trent stays in at Pickman’s Hotel is 9, the same cell number that Trent is in at the asylum. Similarly, the number of the motel room Trent stays in after his world has been turned ‘upside down’, is 6. 6 is also the number of novels that Sutter Cane has written before In The Mouth Of Madness.

Note that the world Cane inhabits is malleable, and reflects, is, his fiction. “You are what I write. Like this town. It wasn’t here before I wrote it. And neither were you.” He later writes Trent’s actions perfectly, the passage that Linda reads from the novel. Cane alters what is real and not real because he lives inside his own fiction, an avatar, for his real self. This is made evident when Trent explains to Harglow that the reason he doesn’t remember Linda is “Well, that’s easy, she was written out.” He is a proxy god for the Old Ones.

The breakdown of reality and fantasy is not the only division that collapses. French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss theorised that stories were, at their core, thematically comprised sets of binary oppositions, such as good and evil, rural and urban, men and women. Carpenter’s film systematically deconstructs this simple division and thereby prove the illusory nature of Trent’s reality and, to an extent, our own, assisting our discomfort.

Reality and fantasy is a clear example; the whole narrative is a deconstruction of its fictional self, but another is the opposition of human and inhuman. Several times we see characters (such as Mrs. Pickman) change to monsters throughout the film, and others such as Linda have the ability to move from human to inhuman. The anthropomorphic qualities attached to monstrous forms unsettles us, we should be allowed to remain clean and whole, but also the monstrous elements given to humans is just as disturbing. Even the painting at the hotel morphs throughout the film. Paintings themselves lie between truth and fiction, a definite image but a representation only, a topic Andre Bazin discusses in The Ontology of the Photographic Image (pdf link below). This distortion brings several oppositions into question in one broad stroke. Carpenter knew what he was doing.

Additionally, that even Cane has a monstrous form on the back of his head, is a startling revelation. When Cane was completely human (though one controlled by other beings), it was still essentially human, and so defeatable. If Carpenter were to show that Cane was an Old One, we would be more comfortable with even this; he would fall on one side of the human vs inhuman opposition. However it is in the middle, a blurred, distorted place we can’t understand, which is more frightening than his being either side.

A smaller example is day and night. Several times throughout the film, such as the arrival at Hobbs’ End, the film jumps straight from night to day. The editing that would usually show a passage of time is inverted, breaking even filmmaking conventions. Here, no time has passed at all. Time is breaking down, the regular cycle of solar bodies that extends beyond this world, is collapsing.

Literary theory states that our understanding of reality is dictated by language, that we experience the world through words and the connections between them. We know a door is a door, in any shape or size, because we associate it with the word ‘door’; the word is what tells us two doors are similar. As Bennett and Royle discuss, “We cannot in any meaningful way, escape the fact that we are subject to language.” (Bennett & Royle, 2009, p. 131). Carpenter’s film is a perfect exploration of the ways in which we are subject to words, to fiction and stories, and the confusion and discomfort if this were to be consciously manipulated by a malevolent force, dissolving oppositions and boundaries we expect and have built into our world, into language itself. The film is not about the destruction of the world, but a destruction of a human perception of the world.

Bibliography

Bazin, A., 2007. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. [Online]
Available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bazin-Ontology-Photographic-Image.pdf
[Accessed 08 08 2018].

Bennett, A. & Royle, N., 2009. An Introduction to Literature. Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson.

Cobley, P., 2001. Narrative. UK: Routledge.

In the Mouth of Madness. 1994. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: New Line Cinema.

John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Universal Studios.

Prince of Darkness. 1987. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: Alive Films.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. 1994. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. USA: New Line Cinema.

 

 

Article by Kieran Judge

Odds and DEAD Ends: Analysis of Casting the Runes and Ring.

M. R. James’ classic ghost story, Casting the Runes, is perhaps one of the most beloved of all time. It follows Mr. Dunning, uncovering a plot by Dr. Karswell to kill him via a series of ancient runic symbols. Similarly, for the modern age, Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, (thanks largely to Hideo Nakata’s film adaptation), changed the face of Japanese horror films, much in the way that Scream did for the slasher genre. Examined in this article is the concept of infecting a victim with a deadline, by which, if the deadline isn’t passed on, the victim will die. This concept is, in both texts, a product of history and the past, which can infiltrate the modern day to scare the reader.

CASTING THE RUNES

James’ story is rooted in folklore of witches and magic. James himself was a noted historian of folklore and mythology, writing many papers on medieval manuscripts and other texts. It’s not surprising, therefore, that this interest seeps through in Casting the Runes, his uncovering of ancient texts mirroring the discovery of the slip of paper with the runes.

The main conflict I perceive in the text is the tension between the modernity presented by Dunning and Harrington, and the history and past presented by Karswell, fighting for power. Karswell, a man who has “…invented a new religion for himself, and practiced no one could tell what appalling rites” (p.238), has cast a hex on Dunning for shunning his new book. The past, in its runes and legends, is here the antagonistic force presented through Karswell, his book described simply as ‘an evil book’ (p.242), the mythic past’s main point of origin. Karswell’s magic lantern show presents the darker side of children’s myths and fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, which bleed through into the modern world:

“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn into horrible pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.” (p.239)

Not only do we see the past colliding with the modern present through this passage, but after this, showing slimy creatures on the slides, “…somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience” (p.240). Dunning and Harrington, on the other hand, are modernity’s flag-bearers. Dunning investigates the noise in the night, “…for he knew he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk” (p.252), proving a logical, empirical mind, later reinforced here: “It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could eased by the phrase “hypnotic suggestion” (p.255). Dunning even suggests that Karswell was “…mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of to-day…” (p.258), showing a scholarly knowledge of the subject matter.

Therefore, the strange atmosphere about Dunning, the mysterious death of Harrington’s brother, the strange wind, “I supposed the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust – a warm gust it was – came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it into the fire” (p.258), only increases our fear and trepidation, especially with the three month deadline hanging over our heads before Dunning’s eventual demise, for they can only be supernatural, against Dunning’s core beliefs. We try to decipher it rationally, following our protagonist’s example, but are unable to. Modern science cannot fight back against the curse of the runes. When Dunning and Harrington resort to deception and return the slip to Karswell, we slip into the past, so to speak, presented with the evil past that the characters have tried to deny for so long. We want to see evil banished back to where it belongs, away from Dunning’s modern day, back into the history books.

This brings us to the final moral dilemma. We are asked at the tale’s conclusion, “Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least?” (p.266). They have become like Karswell, dispensing an ancient, malevolent death upon those they deem a threat. Though they justify this by claiming Karswell deserved it, and that Dunning would be dead otherwise, it is an unnerving note to end with, asking if they should have asked the darkness of history to prove itself, or descended to the old ways as they do, dispensing justice in, what is for them, a “new rite”, much like Karswell created for himself.

RING

Suzuki’s novel, Ring, adopts a similar structure in terms of its narrative. A malevolent force (the spirit of Sadako Yamamura) has given a victim (Asakawa) a time limit (seven days) to find what mysterious instructions he needs to follow in order to save his life (copying the cursed tape and passing it on). The runes have been replaced by the video tape, and it is here that we see one of the key, fundamental differences to James’ story. Sadako is built upon the myths and folklore of Japan, but her embodiment of ‘the past’ is intertwined with modern technology. The distinct opposition inherent in James’ tale is no longer as easy to see in Suzuki’s novel.

The female ghost with long hair avenging their death is a well-established trait in Japanese folklore. These stories are called kaidan; the vengeful ghost termed an onryō. Theatre Group Soaring, in the novel, would no doubt have practiced traditional Japanese kabuki theatre, itself one of the main vehicles through which kaidan tales were passed throughout the centuries. Even in the film adaptation, the strange, contorted movements of Sadako (as played by Rie Inō) is directly inspired by stereotypical movements of onryō from kabuki theatre, and Rie Inō herself was apparently trained in kabuki. The story of the spirit in the well has also been around for centuries, the story of Okiku and the plates, being a potent example.

Sadako is therefore very much rooted in Japan’s past, in more ways than just being dead. Asakawa, on the other hand, is very much the modern man, constantly carrying around a word processor, saving files to floppy disks, phoning Yoshino from the island to help his investigation. Ryuji is a professor of philosophy, a discipline which “…as a field of inquiry had drawn ever closer to science,” (p.88). These two men are built of the modern world. They even live in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. When arriving at Pacific Land, Asakawa notes that “Faced with this proof that the modern power of science functioned here, too, he felt somewhat reassured, strengthened.” (p.61).

Suzuki uses technology, the statement of the future and urbanity, to steer his antagonistic force, striking at civilisation’s heart. Sadako’s wrath and anger takes over the videotape, itself situated in a cabin complete with “A hundred-watt bulb lit a spacious living room. Papered walls, carpet, four-person sofa, television, dinette set: everything was new, everything was functionally arranged.” (p.63). Asakawa, despite his hesitations and fear of what the tape might show him, ‘No matter what sort of horrific images he might be shown, he felt confident he wouldn’t regret watching” (p.73). Why would his regret watching? It wouldn’t be as if anything could happen to him, constrained as it were by the (very much Western) technology before him.

Just like Karswell’s magic lantern show, however, the images on the tape have their own weight and reality, “Startled, he pulled back his hands. He had felt something. Something warm and wet – like amniotic fluid, or blood – and the weight of flesh.” (p.77). When Asakawa answers the phone, it is described that:

“There was no reply. Something was swirling around in a dark, cramped place. There was a deep rumble, as if the earth were resounding, and the damp smell of soil. There was a chill at his ear, and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood up. The pressure on his chest increased, and bugs from the bowls of the earth were crawling on his ankles and his spine, clinging to him. Unspeakable thoughts and long-ripened hatred almost reached to him through the receiver. Asakawa slammed down the receiver.” (p.81).

That silence from the other end of a telephone gives this impression, this startlingly sensory imagery, showcases Sadako’s reach and wrath, without her saying a word.

In the finale, Asakawa, realising why he survived and Ryuji did not, agrees to wager the entirety of humanity by spreading the virus to his parents-in-law. Whereas James simply had the characters return the curse to Karswell, he the price for Dunning’s survival, here, Suzuki has entire the world be the price for saving Asakawa’s family. Whereas Casting the Runes ends with a definite confirmation of Karswell’s demise, Ring ends with the ominous passage, “Black clouds moved eerily across the skies. They slithered like serpents, hinting at the unleashing of some apocalyptic evil.” (p.284). Asakawa has become accomplice to Sadako’s malice, the past in control of modern technology and, through that, the modern man. “In order to protect my family, I am about to let loose on the world a plague which could destroy all mankind.” (p.283).

CONCLUSION

Both James’ short story and Suzuki’s novel present characters eagerly, desperately trying to beat the deadlines they are faced with, wished upon them by people that want them dead. Through their representations of an evil, malevolent past, embodied by Karswell and Sadako, both authors present us with a moral choice of who we save, and who we kill in exchange. What is different about their endings is the level of intimacy and scope we are presented with. Casting the Runes is a story of personal vengeance, where the battle is between Karswell on one side and Dunning and Harrington on the other, with the evil-doer getting their just desserts, like a boxing match. Ring’s evil is much more impersonal, and the apocalyptic ending shows the sheer magnitude of what must happen for someone to live. You don’t end the curse; you just pass the buck and hope someone else will do it for you. The ending’s bleak tone implies that there is no hope, that nobody will sacrifice themselves to stop the bleeding, and that the virus will move from one soul to another, runes forever being cast.

Written by Kieran Judge

Bibliography

James, M. R., 1994. Casting the Runes. In: Collected Ghost Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, pp. 235 – 267.

Ringu. 1998. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Ringu/Rasen Production Company.

Scream. 1996. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States: Dimension Films.

Suzuki, K., 2004. Ring. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.