Confessions of a Fear Junkie – Silent Hill

At the risk of sounding a bit crude, allow me to propose that horror falls within (or roughly around) two general categories: “Oh Crap!” horror, and “What the hell?” horror. The former would be likened to more visceral or “primal” fears, the kind of horror that, when experienced in real life, makes you want to take off running immediately. The latter is more about uneasiness; the nagging sensation that something is wrong. It leaves you puzzled—at least initially—instead of triggering your “fight or flight” response.

Examples:

  • You’re home alone and you hear an angry voice coming from another room and you think, “Oh crap! Somebody broke in, I’ve got to get out of here!”
  • You’re home alone and you hear an odd but unidentifiable noise coming from another room, you wonder, “What the hell was that?” but probably don’t take off running just yet.

Now that I’ve gone through the brief trouble of setting up these two somewhat narrowly defined categories to encapsulate all horror, I’d like to immediately undermine my proposal by stating that the Silent Hill series falls into a third category: “Oh hell, what the crap!” horror.

  • You’re home alone and you hear the unmistakable  sound of your own voice coming from the other room. And you just distinctly heard yourself threatening to kill you. You’re too thoroughly discombobulated to even remember how to form a proper sentence, much less figure out what you should do.
I’d run away, but my mind is too busy eating itself to give my legs instructions…

This is the kind of horror the Silent Hill series has frequently succeeded in delivering since its first installment. People tend to say that Silent Hill is “psychological horror” but that doesn’t quite describe it. There are indeed elements that are designed to worm their way into your brain that would be fine on their own, but most of the psychological horror elements are coupled with brutally effective, tangible horror elements. The air raid siren could be unnerving by itself. That it portends the town’s transformation from the already creepy setting of “foggy, deserted and inescapable town” to “sunless, decaying, rust-infected industrial nightmare” makes it much scarier. If your character’s radio just randomly produced “white noise” it would be alarming. It is, instead, panic-inducing by being an inexact radar that announces the presence of unseen, violently aggressive monsters. How many monsters are waiting / coming for you? What the hell kind of monster is it this time? By the time you find out, you’re already under attack, and almost glad for it since it at least gives you some answers to your questions.

A giant blob of living cancer? *Whew* For a second I thought I’d never find out what wasGAAHHHH!

At the time of the first Silent Hill‘s release, the standard for “survival horror” video gaming had been set by two installments of Resident Evil. While Resident Evil had its share of puzzle-solving and moments where your best (or only) option often was to run, it also put you in control of an armed member of a special task force. Additionally, your primary enemies were zombies who adhered to key archetypical traits of their fictional species (slow-moving and especially susceptible to headshots).  The first enemies you encounter in Silent Hill are knife-wielding monster-children who ambush you after you happen upon an almost unidentifiable corpse crucified to a fence in the “dark world” you ventured into without warning. From there the situations and enemies just get stranger, and instead of an action cop you’re a helpless father whose primary weapons are a kitchen knife and a pipe, because ammo for your handgun is ridiculously scarce and you’re always saving your bullets in case you happen upon a new, even more horrifying creature just ahead.

Silent Hill wasn’t just trying to scare you, it was deliberately trying to screw with your head. As the series went on this trend continued. The game’s most feared and recognized villain, the unfortunately-yet-aptly named Pyramid Head, introduces himself in the second game by standing perfectly still on the other side of a barred wall. He doesn’t move to attack you, doesn’t make a noise, and since you can’t see his face you don’t really know if he’s even awake, much less looking at you. But he does make your aforementioned radio give off its standard “static alert,” lest you get to thinking “maybe he isn’t an evil monster to be terrified of after all.” It isn’t until later encounters that you discover him to be a nigh-invulnerable killing machine who sexually abuses other monsters.

Despite the character’s popularity he doesn’t show up again until the fifth game in the series, where he makes a suitably menacing first appearance.

Later games have suffered (many legitimate) criticisms over gameplay, and the franchise has had  some fan backlash for installments that have changed too much or weren’t innovative enough. The franchise also dumped a poorly plotted, poorly acted (save Sean Bean, God bless that dude) and poorly everything else’d film on the moviegoing populace back in 2006. Nonetheless, even the “misfires” feature some chilling moments. Hell, one of the most maligned titles in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room, features my favorite premise: A man wakes up one day to find his door inexplicably locked from the inside. And not just ordinarily locked. We’re talking enough chains to make Jacob Marley say it’s a bit excessive…

“Oh hell, what the crap? But I’m out of milk, and I’ve got a hot date tonight, and if I no-show at work one more time I’m fired, and other reasons to go outside.”

His neighbors can’t hear him screaming for help or beating on the door, even when they’re standing in the hallway right on the other side. He can’t open any windows or get anyone to notice him, even trying to use the phone to dial out is futile. It’s somewhat like the Stephen King story 1408 if the evil scary room came to your house. The only way out of his apartment is through a newly formed tunnel in the bathroom which deposits him in random, nightmarish parts of the town of Silent Hill and the surrounding area; full of ghosts and self-immolating cultists and serial killers and whatnot.

Other favorite moments include Silent Hill 3‘s freaky, screaming mannequin room, SH3‘s freaky, bleeding mirror room, SH3‘s freaky, disturbingly humorous haunted mansion and… yeah, pretty much the entirety of SH3. That game alone has earned the series a wealth of good faith that’s far from exhausted.

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The Worlds Between Words – Devil in a Blue Dress

I recently finished Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley’s excellent hard-boiled mystery novel. Within the first third of the book there was a line that struck me like a solid swing of baseball bat to the abdomen. Mosley’s lead, World War II veteran Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, describes the fear that seized him during his introduction to combat.

“The first time I fought a German hand-to-hand I screamed for help the whole time I was killing him.”

As I made it through the rest of the novel, that line would to flash across my mind from time to time. There’s nothing aesthetically remarkable about the above line. It’s not meant to be poetic. It has no intention of showing off any metaphors or similes. But that one sentence captures the character’s experience with violence and presents a scene worthy of its own short story. Even with the novel done, questions born from reading that sentence persisted.

How did Easy find himself in the situation where he was fighting an enemy hand-to-hand? Where were his allies? Was he alone, in a building perhaps (the scene of Adam Goldberg fighting for his life in Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), or out in an open space surrounded by fellow soldiers all to busy fighting their own individual battles to hear or heed his cries for help? What was going through the German soldier’s mind as this black American soldier cried out during the attack? Was he able to understand anything that Easy was saying? Could he understand the meaning of the words without knowing the language, just by reading the panic in Easy’s eyes and soaking in the terror in his voice? Was the German soldier crying out for help as well, suffering a crisis of faith in the Nazi Übermensch concept he may not have believed in in the first place?

The next line, “His dead eyes stared at me a full five minutes before I let go of his throat,” almost seems redundant to me, but I recognize that this may just be on account of what I extrapolated from the preceding sentence. Not everyone reading the novel likely pictured Easy continuing to scream for help well after he had already killed his enemy; stabbing, punching, kicking and strangling a corpse.

I haven’t yet read the rest of the novels featuring Easy Rawlins. I don’t know if the conflict with the German soldier is referenced again or expanded upon. I do know that the image conjured by that single line is powerful enough to make me want for further explanation, but effective enough on its own to make me hope that it isn’t explored any further. I like to wonder about that other story, more perhaps than I would enjoy having its details revealed to me.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Golden Arm

This is, to my recollection, my earliest encounter with a ghost story, antedating my ongoing, abusive, unhealthy love affair with horror.  It’s not the clearest memory, I was only five-years-old, but it’s less opaque than other memories from that age.

“Who’s got my Golden Arm?!”

My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Nina (I can’t believe I remember that) and one day she decided to introduce the class to a classic tale about a chimeric spirit. I’m unsure if this was just a weird southern or Mississippi thing or if other parts of the country also had kindergarten teachers relate tales of terror to their classes. Granted, she wasn’t reading us Lovecraft or anything quite so dire and potentially scarring, but some part of me still wonders about the objective of letting us hear this story. For that matter, though, the same could be asked about the purpose of telling ghost stories around a campfire, or even writing the stories I write now as an adult. Ultimately, it’s about the thrill of scaring the audience, no matter what age, with a well-crafted creepy yarn. Telling a scary story for its own sake is never as much fun as telling one that successfully terrifies your audience.

Twenty-plus years later, this story still floats around in the back of my mind, so to Mrs. Nina, wherever you may be good madame, mission accomplished. As for the story itself, here is the briefest of synopses:

A man has a friend who has a prosthetic arm made of solid gold.  Said friend dies and the man decides to disinter his buddy, remove the 24-karat limb from the corpse and sell it.  The dead friend takes offense, crawls out of his grave with his one remaining arm, hunts down his buddy and then…

…he murders Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife?

Well, you could Google “Golden Arm” and find a number of variations to the tale.  Some give you a formal rendition making abundant use of the word “thou”; others give you the chitlin’ circuit interpretation.  Its central characters are alternatively friends, brothers, or man and wife.

In most portrayals the returned friend/brother/wife stalks through the thief’s house, crying out repeatedly, “Who’s Got my Golden Arm?!” until finally they happen upon the terrified thief, cowering in his/her bedroom, and then the ghost screams “You’ve Got it!!!”  That’s where the story abruptly ends, but it’s intimated that some grievous demise awaits the one who stole the arm.   I’m sure that the ghost didn’t rise from the grave just to say “You’ve got it!  And I’m very disappointed.  I’m really reconsidering our relationship. I thought we were closer than this.”

Despite the story’s obvious intent, it wasn’t the vengeful spirit’s return from death that disturbed me most. It was more disturbing to me that someone had a golden arm in the first place.  The surrealistic, abominable image of this character still stands in my mind the same as when I first heard the story and imagined his appearance.  This is a greedy, selfish, maniacal, loathsome person.  One with jaundiced, spoiled eyes and skin the color of the ocean at night.

Today I can apply some semblance of logic to the conclusion I’d drawn as a kid. Even setting aside the callousness of getting buried with an appendage that could be donated to your friend, or wife, or charity or something, a golden arm would be terribly heavy and cumbersome. Only a severely troubled mind would dream of grafting such a gaudy, useless artificiality to their body.  In short, you’d have to be crazy to want a golden arm, and not the good, comedic kind of crazy, or the tolerable, fearless-when-it’s-not-necessary kind of crazy, but the seething, malignant kind. That special brand of crazy potent enough to wake the dead.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Blair Witch Project

I understand why a lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. When it was first released over a decade ago I didn’t understand the negativity, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. And no, I’m not blaming it on “Hype Backlash,” though that was probably a part of it. Truth is, it’s not a very good film. It was, upon initial viewing, a great experience for me, but when you break down actual movie components like plotting, pacing, and acting, it ranges from serviceable to questionable. I own the DVD and the movie itself has very little replay value. I’ve watched the faux-documentary several times but I’ve only watched the movie itself twice in its entirety.

At the time, my best friend and I were practically obsessed with horror movies. Now, we’re longstanding movie fanatics in general, but our horror geekdom in the late 90’s was rapidly approaching critical mass. Mind you, we were two tall, athletic black dudes who did okay with the ladies and didn’t shop at Hot Topic, so we didn’t fit the any visual stereotype for horror movie nerds.

Nonetheless, we were both enamored with horror movies, at a level that probably should have embarrassed us. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading up on and discussing horror flicks. This, of course, is how I (along with many others) came to know of The Blair Witch Project several months prior to its wide release. I can’t remember where I first heard mention of it, but more than likely it was through Dark Horizons. I do remember reading quotes from people who had attended advanced screenings. One quote in particular stood out to me: “I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.”

Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie that made you feel like this?

There wasn’t ever a time when I believed it was actually a “true story.” Even back when I was still frequently awed by the sheer world-wideness of the web, my search-fu was strong. Maybe not Bruce Lee strong, but at the very least Bruce Li strong. Some simple web navigation uncovered that the story was entirely fictional–no missing film students, no basis for the legend–and I think that might have actually heightened my appreciation for the well-crafted backstory.

The most enduring element of Blair Witch for me is the “fakelore” at its foundation. I find the idea of the supernatural entertaining and intriguing, and I’m a bit of a history fan, so I’m always drawn to ghostly legends. The story of Elly Kedward is quite convincing for what it is. Her exile from the town, the subsequent disappearances of children and other bizarre, unexplained events come off as a plausible embellishment. Obviously untrue, and yet possessing some small level of verisimilitude. Of course a pale hand didn’t actually reach from out from within Tappy East Creek to pull a little girl named Eileen Treacle underwater, but could there have been an actual drowning that inspired that tale?

… It was a lot scarier in my head…

Well… no… thankfully there wasn’t, but the fact that it’s all entirely made up just makes it all the more impressive to me. I still think that much of the best writing and storytelling done for The Blair Witch Project never actually made it to the big screen.

I had told my friend about this movie and linked him to its internet viral marketing and lo and behold, he caught the Blair Witch bug same as me. Nearly every review we read was not merely positive, but almost cautionary. I’ve always wanted to write a story that inspires a critic to say something along the lines of, “So scary I can’t even recommend it.” That was damn near how the Blair Witch reviews read, at least to me. This movie seemed to exhibit the motif of harmful sensation: it was so terrifying that it was actually causing viewers physical distress! That turned out to be mostly or entirely due to motion sickness brought about by the camera constantly moving around so much it has a U-HAUL rewards card. But at the time not many reviewers explicitly stated this, either because they did not realize the true source of their nausea, or because at the time copping to motion sickness from watching a movie was like admitting to a fear of clowns in the pre-Poltergeist or IT era: AKA “Before it Somehow Became ‘Cool’ to Have a Fear of Clowns.'”

Scary Clown Happy Clown
Scary. Jovial. These words are not synonyms. These pictures are not similar. Calm yourself…

Our anticipation for this film had reached a point where there was essentially no way it could have hoped to live up to expectations. Mind you, this was well before the mainstream movie-going public had heard of the film, and possibly before it had been picked up by Artisan for distribution. We had not been lured to see this thanks to a bombardment of television ads promising a rollicking, fearful theme park ride. We had created more than enough pre-release hype for ourselves. So when my boy scored tickets to an advance screening there was much rejoicing and high-fiving.

When we finally saw the movie, well, as I mentioned, it was a memorable experience despite the fact that at around the midpoint of the film I started to wonder, “So when is thing actually supposed to get scary?” The answer came in the last ten minutes or so of the film when the tortuously slow build up finally leads to something, and I will close this Confessions entry with a few things that remain with me from that first viewing, and from the film’s ending.

1. The woman next to me held my hand during the film’s final few minutes. She was blonde, and I remember thinking she was probably in her mid-30’s or so. Reasonably attractive, I think. And a total stranger. I had never seen her before and if I’ve seen her since I did not recognize her. But right around the time that Heather and Mike made it to the house in the woods, she gripped my hand like she’d fall into an abyss if she let go. For my part, I did not pull away. I also did not say anything about it to her because…

2. No one in my theater spoke after the movie was over. Or if anyone did, it was as “quiet as an ant not even thinking of pissing on cotton” as Gene Hackman said in Heist. It was unspeakably eerie, marching out of that theater surrounded by the ponderous silence. When we reached the theater lobby and there were people talking and enjoying themselves like normal human beings in a movie theater should, it was jarring. Almost offensive. For a moment there we were a procession of the walking dead exiting our own mass funeral. How dare anyone in our vicinity hold a conversation, much less laugh and jest with one another?

3. I was surprised to see it was daylight outside, but couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, the damn movie dragged so much in the first three-quarters or so that it feels like it’s taking you several hours to slog through it. But at the time… at the time, the daylight seemed out of place, and worse still illusory. Fragile.

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