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.

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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.