Odds and Dead Ends : The curse of Alton Towers’ Chained Oak

Anyone who lives in the UK will recognise the name Alton Towers almost purely on principal. The premiere theme park in the UK and located in Staffordshire, England, is built on the grounds of an actual 15th century castle near the village of Alton, the Alton Towers of name. Converting to a full amusement park in the late 1970’s, it acquired the Corkscrew rollercoaster in 1980, the first in Europe to have a double corkscrew inversion, making a statement as to its future ambitions. It’s gone on to become bigger and bolder over the years, bringing in many top class attractions and world’s firsts, including Oblivion (the first coaster to feature a vertical drop), and The Smiler (the first with fourteen inversions). For the horror fan, it’s strangely homely, as it features a splattering of rides with dark and sinister theming.

Along with the ghost train Duel (a ride combined with a blaster game, where you shoot targets on ghouls and zombies to score points against your friends), many of the coasters are also horrifically themed. Th13teen is the principal coaster of the Dark Forest section, an evil woodland come to life, Wicker Man is a wooden coaster built around a sacrificial effigy in a similar vein to the film of the same name, and Nemesis is themed to be a ride forged from chains made to hold down an unearthed alien entity.

One of these rides is Hex, a flat ride located inside the towers itself. Hex is part walkthrough, part ride, where riders eventually sit either side of a large platform which moves in conjunction with the room, to create a disorienting experience where one eventually finds it hard to distinguish if they are moving, or the room alone, or both, or neither, or in which direction. What many people may not actually know is that the tree in the story of the ride is a real tree, and the story based off actual legend.

Traveling back home to the towers in the 1840s (though some say in the 1820’s), the Earl of Shrewsbury finds an old woman at the side of the road. Stopping the carriage, she asks him for a spare coin, to which the Earl promptly huffs, dismisses her, and travels on. As the cart pulls away, the old woman turns, points a finger at him, and calls after him, that whenever a branch should fall from a nearby oak tree, a family member of the Earl should die.

Sometime later, when the curse is all but forgotten, a storm kicks up. The winds batter the walls and howl in thenight, and in the darkness, a branch is ripped free of the tree and crashes to the ground. The curse soon comes true as a family member (a son in some versions of the tale, a daughter in others), falls ill and passes on. In some versions, another branch falls and someone else dies later again, but in all accounts, the Earl soon orders great chains to be forged. The chains are wrapped around the tree, lashing the branches to the trunk, in an attempt to avoid any future tragedy.

Where reality falls and tales begin is hard to distinguish, because the chained oak is a real tree, and there was a carriageway that ran close to it. Hollyman and Kelsall’s article on the story also describes a similar tale involving a fortune teller appearing at a banquet in exchange for shelter, and casting a similar curse when he is dismissed. We don’t actually have any idea as to how old the chains are, or when they were wrapped around the tree. Added to this, the Towers’ version of the story is embellished for the ride, adding in the Earl of Shrewsbury performing experiments on one of the branches to find a way to lift the curse. When you combine this with a lack of historical documentation for the woman in the road, chains being made, etc, you have a story which is likely created over time through whisper and rumour. At the same time, there’s nothing saying that the story couldn’t indeed be true.

It’s certainly interesting to see local folklore like this being brought to a wider audience through a theme park ride, even more that parts of it are true, if not the actual curse bit. Stone steps lead up to the real oak, rotting and degrading, like an altar. Though nobody in the current Earl’s family passed away when sections of the tree fell away a few years ago, the spookiness of it remains. A visit to the area may be a nice pilgrimage for all you horror hunters if you ever visit the park, though of course, careful not to break any branches off it whilst you’re there.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Hollyman, S. & Kelsall, G., 2008. The Legend of the Chained Oak. [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130430220927/http://www.altontowersheritage.com/heritage/article.asp?articleid=99
[Accessed 02 05 2020].

From the Vault: Irish Ghost Stories by Patrick Byrne

In the mood for some fun ghost tales from the wilds of Ireland? Check out Irish Ghost Stories by Patrick Byrne.

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Irish Ghost Stories contains stories that tell of spooky goings-on in almost every part of the country. They include the tales of the Wizard Earl of Kildare, the Scanlan Lights of Limerick, Buttoncap of Antrim, Maynooth College’s haunted room, Loftus Hall in Wexford, and an account of how the poet Fancis Ledwidge appeared to an old friend in County Meath. The country of Ireland is full of old castles with secret rooms, and while some of the stories are obvious figments of lively imaginations, there are other tales that cannot be easily explained.

While many of these stories are quaint hearsay and exaggerated truths, they are fun to read. The location and historical details are interesting and probably mean more to those who live in the area. I especially like to read these aloud during a fireside gathering. They lend themselves to a storytelling sort of atmosphere and are fun to share.

My favorite tales are:

“Murder Hole”, which is a door on a high floor with no outlet but a 50 foot drop to your death.

“Devil’s Horse”, which tells of a late night customer at a blacksmith. When the blacksmith is done, he’s paid in gold and the customer’s cloven feet walk away. After the customer is gone, the blacksmith finds what he thought was gold, is glass.

This book also tells of ladies in white, banshees, and all the fun stuff ghost lovers have come to enjoy.

 

BHH: Outcasts by Valjeanne Jeffers 1 of 3

“Outcasts” by Valjeanne Jeffers 1 of 3

On the island of Saint-Domingue, in the dead of night, thousands of slaves crept silently along the path through the trees and wiry brush to Bois Caïman. In the clearing the Houngan Dutty Boukman, a huge, self-educated slave with a fierce countenance, and Mambo Cecile Fatiman, a mulatto slave woman, waited to led them in ceremony. They petitioned the Loa for protection, for deliverance from slavery’s lash—calling upon the darkest spirits of their Ancestors to help them in their battle.

They prayed for freedom.

“Bon Dje nou an ki si bon, ki si jis, li ordone vanjans!” Dutty shouted. “Se li kap kondui branou pou nou ranpote la viktwa! Se li kap ba nou asistans. . .! Koute vwa la libète kap chante lan kè nou!”

“Our God, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs! It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory! It’s He who will assist us. . .! Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts!”

There was a clap of thunder … lightning flashed in the dark sky. A swirling rush of wind stirred the trees.

Cecile’s green eyes rolled back in her head. Enraptured she began to dance wildly. She’d been possessed by the Erzulie Seven Kout Kouto—the most deadly embodiment of the Loa, Erzulie Dantor. She sang and the slaves—beating upon the drums in rage—sang with her:

 

“Seven kout kouto, seven kout ponya

Prete mwen ganmèl lan pou mwen al vomi san

Prete mwen ganmèl lan pou mwen al vomi san

San mwen ape koule!”

“Seven stabbings of knives, seven stabbings of daggers

Lend me the ganmèl, so I can vomit blood

Lend me the ganmèl, so I can vomit blood

My blood is running!”

 

Seven days later, Dutty led his people in revolt against their slave masters … burning plantations to the ground. For this rebellion, he was captured and beheaded by the French; his head was publicly displayed with a placard reading: “Boukman, Chef des Revolutions des Escalves,” Boukman, Chief of the Slaves Revolution. The French thought killing Dutty Boukman would frighten the Black slaves— thus halting the tide of revolution.

 

But the fires of liberation Dutty and Cecile ignited were not the first, nor would they be the last.

 

##

 

Monique, a tall, young woman with chocolate-colored skin, a long face, and slender build, made her way through the tall brass structures of Saint-Domingue, past red flowering Hibiscus blooms toward the fields. She was dressed in a wrapped skirt and bustier, her braided hair coiled in twisted beads atop her head. She wore a brass-handled musket on a holster about her waist. A grip of interwoven cloth and metal encased her fingers and entire arm up to her shoulder to minimize kickback from her pistol. She carried a water flask in one hand and her breakfast of a partially-eaten boiled plantain in the other.

 

She stopped at a well on the outskirts of her township. Monique finished the last of the plantain in one bite, and dropped the peel in the cloth trash-bag beside the well: a conveyor belt made of cloth and woven wire. Half the belt lay above the soil; the rest, on her left and right, was buried underground. Monique knelt before the clunky machinery attached to two metal legs above the conveyor belt. She turned the crank, the belt jerked and scuttled forward: carrying copper vases full of water, screwed to caps on its underside.

 

Monique twisted one of the vases off, filled her flask and turned it up her full lips: drinking deeply. She poured more water into the flask, and reattached the water vase back onto the belt. Refreshed and ready, the young woman made her way to the field on the edge of town. There she found thousands of men and women, aged sixteen to sixty, preparing for tomorrow.

 

When they would go to war with France.

 

After Dusty’s rebellion, General Mountainous L’Ouverture had led a revolution from the island of Saint-Domingue—allying himself with Napoleon to end bondage in his homeland. Now, ten years later, the mad French emperor had made a clandestine deal with plantation owners to enslave them once more.

 

Napoleon had promised Toussaint and the island of Saint-Domingue that bondage was forever ended on their island. But, he secretly supported the white planters’ greed—their greed for wealth earned on the backs and from the blood of slaves. He sympathized with their loss of financial gain from the cane, coffee and cocoa plantations.

 

So the Emperor betrayed his promise. He didn’t care that slaves were treated worse than dogs, that they were not paid for their back-breaking labor, that the lash and torture was used to keep them submissive.

 

Napoleon would attack at dawn. They would be waiting for him … beside their brass cabins, in the tall grass and in the fields.

 

Monique merged with the crowd of warriors on the field, wearing embroidered grips like hers on their shoulders. “Bonjour …” she greeted them and a volley of salutations greeted her in return. She saw women, who had fought under Toussaint, moving through their ranks, offering tutelage and support. These women were among his most trusted generals and would fight alongside him, helping him lead the Saint-Domingue warriors to victory.

 

She pulled her musket from its sheath and began practicing with them: aiming the revolving muskets with brass grips. She aimed and fired at a clay target blowing the figurine to bits. The muskets had three barrels that rotated and fired. Other warriors were practicing with copper-bayoneted rifles that  fired bullets and, if the solider run out of ammunition, the bayonet as well.

 

There were also those perfecting their use of the whirling-bird machetes: a brass and copper rendition of the Black-capped Petrel bird. These men and women wore gloves made of heavy cloth, interwoven with pounded-brass to protect their fingers, as well as top hats with scopes to enhance their sight and track their birds’ flight. Directions were dialed on the Petrel bird’s belly. Once aimed and fired the whirling-bird flew to the target, and transformed into a deadly machete.

 

During the first war, President Toussaint had contacted the Black American scientist Benjamin Banneker to help him in his fight against Napoleon. All of the weapons were Banneker’s ingenious inventions.

 

The airships too were of Banneker’s wondrous design— and powered by both science and sorcery. The ships were cylinder shaped and overlaid with a metal filigreed. A propeller at the stern had a crank that would be turned by human hands. Carved flaps on the port and starboard sides enhanced their buoyancy, as did the steam-filled cigar shaped balloon above it.

 

Monique paused in her drill for a moment, gazing at the ships. She’d always found an excuse to be near them. She would scrub the port and starboard or, if she was denied this pleasure, pick vegetables in their shadow. Once Monique had crept up a ladder onto the deck to peek through one of the round windows at the ships interior. She still remembered the gleaming buttons and stern.

 

This treat had earned her a switching from her mother, Isabelle. Women were strictly forbidden from operating ships or gazing at their interiors. The village elders had reasoned, and rightly so, that if women engaged in these activities it might led to dissatisfaction with their own lives.

 

Women were expected to work the fields with men, and to fight alongside them in the battlefield. This was as it should be.

 

But the bulk of the domestic responsibilities also fell on female shoulders, such as caring for children, cooking and housekeeping. Monique had no children of her own, although she was twenty and one years. Still, she was required to help other women care for their young, in provision for the coming day when she would become a mother herself.

 

The day she whipped Monique, Isabelle told her daughter she had plans for her which didn’t include piloting an airship. “We worked hard enough when we was slaves, n’est-ce pas? We, women had it the worst!” Isabelle spat. “The white slavers took our children— took us if they had a mind too. They’d rape us right in front of our men. Just for sport. My man, your father, he was killed by slavers.”

 

“Now, we free to be women. We free to care for our own children. Our own men.” She cupped Monique’s chin in her small hand. “That’s what I want for you, cherie mwen. A husband. Children.” Her eyes hardened suddenly. “And if I ever see you look a woman the wrong way— if I ever see that—I’ll cut your eyes out myself.”

 

Monique couldn’t say for sure what had prompted her mother’s threat. But she suspected it was because she’d never shown any interest in men. Isabelle was no fool.

 

She tore her eyes away from the airships and pulled her weapon from her holster. She took aim at her target, a clay figurine. All at once, elation and longing swirling about in her bosom. She looked forward to the dawn, looked forward to hiding in wait for the French—surprising them, when they thought the island would be sleeping.

 

And what comes, what must come, afterward. I must have her.

 

The young woman’s eyes found her lover, Simone, standing only a yard away—Simone with her dark skin, wide laughing mouth, large eyes, small breasts and rounded hips; Simone who could dance better and shoot better than anyone she knew: male or female.

 

Simone felt her lover’s gaze travel down her body and looked over her shoulder. Their eyes met and Monique found it suddenly hard to breathe. Desire like molten honey flowed from her breasts to her pelvis. She tore her brown eyes away, lest the love that burned within them be revealed to her fellow warriors.

 

##

The people made their way to the Hounfour. They had spent days in preparation for the ceremony, when they would petition the Lwa once more for victory over the slave masters.

 

Monique had scrubbed her body clean and wore a head wrap and skirt. The young woman thought of her offering: rose perfume bought with her last money and the sweet potato cakes she’d baked to petition Loa Erzulie Freda.

 

But will it be enough? Will she answer my prayers?

 

She watched the Houngan trace the crossroad in the air, the crossroad where all spiritual energy met. This, she knew was in preparation for the Loa, Papa Legba’s, entrance. Everyone had already laid their offerings on the altar. . . rum, tobacco, perfumes, machetes. . . Monique’s offering of among them.

 

Songs were sung first in French; then a litany was sung in African and Creole. Behind her, young women holding candles danced. Along the walls men beat the drums with brass sticks.

 

The dance began.

 

A young man twisted into their midst. . . his face and contortions enraptured, his eyes rolling back in his head. The drums accentuated his movements as he skillfully spun with leaps and pirouette. He shuddered and dropped to his knees. . . his torso shaking back and forth in rhythm to the drums.

 

He rose slowly and they offered him his cane, straw hat and pipe. For he was now being ridden by Papa Legba: the honored one who is called before all others and is always the last to leave.

 

Papa Legba, the one who stands at the crossroads of life and death.

 

Minutes later, another older man gyrated violently in their midst: his face both enraptured and angry. He snatched the machete from the altar and began thrusting it in the air in quick, short jabs. The acolytes stepped back to give him room, rejoicing in their hearts, for they knew that  Papa Ogun—a Loa of war— was now among them.

 

The French dogs will fail! We will not return to chains, non!

 

The Lwa spoke in a growling, rumbling voice: “Gren mwe fret!” My testicles are cold! The ancient demand for rum.

 

The Houngan snatched rum from the altar, poured it on to the ground and struck a match to it. . . they watched in awe as Ogun washed his hands in the fire without his flesh being burned. More Lwa flew among them possessing their favored. . . riding their human horses.

 

Moments later, Monique felt her coming. All her anxiety and worry vanished. A cool breeze pervaded her spirit. . . For Erzulie was not only a fierce and warlike Loa, but one of love.

 

All love—not just that of a man and woman, n’est-ce pas? Monique’s eyes rolled back in her head. As Erzulie Dantor possessed her, she wept and danced. . .

 

##

 

Monique fired: hitting a French soldier in the head. Next to her, a warrior dialed and aimed his whirling-bird. The mechanical bird flew straight at a Frenchman chopping and hacking at the doomed man’s arms. . . Every able-bodied man and woman on the island was here—fighting on the field. Those that couldn’t fight were behind the battlements pouring metal into bullet molds.

 

Napoleon’s forces outnumbered them and the emperor had brought his own airships: huge, cigar shaped vessels, with sails billowing on the port and starboard, and conical balloons above them.

 

Monique risked a glance at the Mambo, Cecile Fatiman, standing before Saint-Domingue airships, chanting. Bullets whistled past the Mambo’s head but she paid them no mind.

 

Thunder rumbled, the balloons filled with air and the ships rose, their curling flaps creating wind, the airships’ propellers twisting the red and yellow Hibiscus blossoms beside them. Sailors at the airships’ helm steered them to attack—firing upon the French with triple brass muskets. Other men, wearing goggles and vests, fired with rifles from the stern, their muscles glinting in the sun.

 

Cecile watched calmly as the larger French ships laid siege to the Saint-Domingue vessels with cannons. In the air, as on the ground, the black warriors were heavily outnumbered. Now the Voudon priestess spoke her final mantra. . . Amber shadows rose from inside the hull of ships twisted free—the vengeful ghosts of slaves, mutilated and tortured to death. The spirits flew toward the French transforming into four-armed bat-like creatures. They covered their enemies biting and clawing, attached themselves to the enemies’ hull pulling the crafts apart, as the men screamed. . .

 

On the ground, scores of French soldiers lay dead or dying. Napoleon’s forces fell back retreating before black warriors, bellowing, “The ancestors are with us!”

 

The celebration that night was unlike any before. General Toussaint L’Ouverture declared their country the free Republic of Haiti!

 

##

 

Amid the screaming and shouts of victory, Monique caught Simone’s eye in the crowd. A slow smile lit her face and Monique nodded. The two women slipped away to a waterfall beneath the rocks: the sanctuary where they had first declared their love.

 

“Ou fè m fou pou ou,” You make me crazy for you, Monique whispered.

 

“Ou se lanmou kè m,” You are the love of my heart, came Simone’s breathless reply.

 

They shared a kiss, coming together in tender, hot embrace. . . their touch like butterflies, as they undressed one another and sank to the wet rocks in a symmetry of desire and surrender. An hour later they curled up together and slept.

 

##

 

Simone was screaming. The sound thrust Monique into awareness. Someone was shouting: “Demeplè! Unnatural!”

 

The women were beaten and kicked. A blow to Monique’s head knocked her unconscious.

 

The next few weeks were a nightmare. Monique and Simone were beaten again and confined to separate cages at the edge of town beneath the rocks, while the town elders debated her fate. Many said they should be killed. But finally an agreement was reached.

 

The women would be imprisoned for six weeks. Simone was shipped away to relatives living on a remote part of the Island to serve out her sentence. They would never see other again.

 

##

To be continued… Feb 5th, 2019… stay tuned!


Valjeanne Jeffers is a graduate of Spelman College, a member of the Carolina African American Writer’s Collective, and the author of eight books.Valjeanne was featured in 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction. Her first novel, Immortal, is featured on the Invisible Universe Documentary time-line. Her stories have been published in Reflections Literary and Arts Magazine; Steamfunk!; Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology; Genesis Science Fiction Magazine; Griots II: Sisters of the Spear; Possibilities; and The City.Book I of The Switch II: Clockwork was nominated for the best ebook novella of 2013 (eFestival of Words); and her short story Awakening was published as a podcast by Far Fetched Fables. Preview or purchase Valjeanne’s novels at: Valjeanne Jeffers official site

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.

 

 

Review: Irish Ghost Stories by Patrick Byrne

In the mood for some fun ghost tales from the wilds of Ireland? Check out Irish Ghost Stories by Patrick Byrne.

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Irish Ghost Stories contains stories that tell of spooky goings-on in almost every part of the country. They include the tales of the Wizard Earl of Kildare, the Scanlan Lights of Limerick, Buttoncap of Antrim, Maynooth College’s haunted room, Loftus Hall in Wexford, and an account of how the poet Fancis Ledwidge appeared to an old friend in County Meath. The country of Ireland is full of old castles with secret rooms, and while some of the stories are obvious figments of lively imaginations, there are other tales that cannot be easily explained.

While many of these stories are quaint hearsay and exaggerated truths, they are fun to read. The location and historical details are interesting and probably mean more to those who live in the area. I especially like to read these aloud during a fireside gathering. They lend themselves to a storytelling sort of atmosphere and are fun to share.

My favorite tales are:

“Murder Hole”, which is a door on a high floor with no outlet but a 50 foot drop to your death.

“Devil’s Horse”, which tells of a late night customer at a blacksmith. When the blacksmith is done, he’s paid in gold and the customer’s cloven feet walk away. After the customer is gone, the blacksmith finds what he thought was gold, is glass.

This book also tells of ladies in white, banshees, and all the fun stuff ghost lovers have come to enjoy.