Okay, okay, the “gymanstics versus raptors” scene from Jurassic Park 2 was pretty bad, but JP3 had a little kid who survived on dinosaur island by himself for several days. Not only did he survive, he managed to obtain T-rex piss and used it to fend off other dinosaurs.
Not just how does anyone possess the cajones to write that into a plot, but how does anyone tolerate that but find the impromptu parallel bars scene in The Lost World unforgivable. Yes, the latter was a contrived, ridiculously improbable moment, but it’s at least remotely plausible. (Also, it lasts for all of four seconds.) But a kid surviving alone on an island infested with prehistoric predators who make minced meat of armed mercenaries just because he read a few books about dinosaurs? Bull. Shit. I was reading tomes on dinosaurs when I was a kid too; none of that knowledge would have served me well had I found myself somehow stranded on Isla EverythingWantsToEatMe.
The Lost World had that crazy sequence with the trailers hanging over the cliff side that featured endless intensity. It had the raptors stalking prey through high grass in ever so menacing fashion. The mere idea of Pete Postlethwaite as a big game hunter coolly taking down one of the most legendary Apex predators in the history of existence just gets cooler with each passing year. TLW had a dinosaur rampaging through San Diego. Granted, I still don’t know how the T-rex managed to sneak its way onto the boat or eat everyone on board, even the people in what appeared to be extremely closed quarters, but still, let’s recap:
Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping through San Diego.
Fourteen-year-old miracle super survivalist living alone on dinosaur island by somehow stealthily filling a thermos with T-Rex urine.
Even when I was a kid and was eager to live vicariously through fictional characters I still would have found the latter absurd and the former pretty damn awesome. I know that some people also found The Lost World to be too dark compared to the original, and hated the forced semi-environmentalist message, and those are pretty valid criticisms, but JP3 was the gotdamn Batman Forever of the franchise. It was like everyone involved said “What if we take this cool, exciting story concept and make it as silly as possible. Like, borderline Adam Sandler comedy silly. Remember the scene where Laura Dern had to inspect a pile of dino-shit in the first flick? Let’s do that again, only with more dino-shit and played completely for laughs.” JP3 paved the way for a potentially franchise-crushing Jurassic Park IV that was going to feature dino-human hybrids before the collective disdain of nearly everyone who heard the concept made Universal rethink that approach. That’s an idea that reeks of, “Ah what the hell, this thing is already way off the rails. Let’s see how completely whacked out we can go from here.”
The Lost World is a flawed, flawed film, but JP3 is worthless.
Part of the appeal and beauty of supernatural horror stories is their ability to explore the unexplained and incomprehensible. Horror stories often afford storytellers a level of freedom they can’t find in other genres – not if they’re going for something “serious,” anyway. Even the most outlandish science-fiction stories require a certain adherence to established rules, but a story about ghosts or demons or spiritual possession is pretty free to make up its own rules, and isn’t required to offer a sensible explanation for what is taking place. Hell, some horror stories are weakened by too much explanation; when you start trying to explain the inexplicable, you run the risk of ruining the suspense and mystery, or of just cooking up a lame, half-baked explanation that renders the proceedings ridiculous.
Unfortunately, that leads directly to the one big issue inherent to supernatural horror: it doesn’t punish (and sometimes even seems to encourage or reward) undisciplined storytelling. Being free to explore general weirdness and eschew explanation sometimes results in stories that don’t make sense for the sake of not making sense. Sometimes making up your own rules and ignoring the details is just an easy way for a writer to get from point A to point Z, and the story clearly suffers for it.
I say all of this because the first season of American Horror Story was a primer on the benefits and drawbacks of storytelling freedom in the horror genre. Ultimately, the show was a bit of a mess, but it was an entertaining and frequently disquieting mess, when it wasn’t being a silly, self-parodying mess. Now we have the second season, American Horror Story: Asylum, which features a largely different cast, a new setting (the titular asylum) and a fresh storyline. It’s an interesting direction for a TV series to take, and it gives the showrunners freedom to either improve on the things that didn’t work in season one, or completely break all the things that worked well in season one.
The teasers look promising, as did the teasers for season one. Fans of the show are already speculating as to what kind of plot clues might be found in these teasers, since the teasers for season one hinted at some of the more crucial twists and plot developments (my favorite was the stomach cello solo which was both scary and sexy). American Horror Story was never at a loss for visual panache – many of these images are as artful as they are creepy – and that carries over here, with six increasingly weird and intense teasers.
The first – “Special Delivery” – sees a nun walking through a wooded area, carrying two buckets of what appear to be body parts…
“Blue Coat” is more subtle, with the nun’s momentary, fourth-wall-breaking glance proving surprisingly unsettling.
Probably the most surreal of the six is “Hydrobath,” where it looks like we might be looking in on a drowned body in a bath of… milk? And then the bathtub gets zipped shut? I’ve had prescription-drug-induced nightmares that weren’t as weirdly frightening as this. Okay, that’s an exaggeration… even my sober nightmares are legendarily bizarre, but this is still pretty damn impressive. Probably my favorite of the bunch, overall.
And then there’s “Rose,” my least favorite of the Asylum teasers. It’s not bad, just unremarkable. It looks like the winning idea from a “Submit Your Own AHS Teaser” contest. Even the hint attached to this teaser seems destined to be predictable. Someone’s going to be named Rose, or an actual rose will feature heavily either as symbolism or as an actual object and catalyst for hauntings, or Derrick Rose will be on somebody’s fantasy basketball team. Something. Here’s hoping I’m pleasantly surprised and proven dead wrong.
“Ascend” kind of has a German Expressionism vibe to it. Visually speaking, I’m kind of sort of in love with it. I can’t figure out which still image from this video I most want to turn into a poster. Remember when I mentioned “visual panache.” I wasn’t just saying that just to be saying it.
The last teaser, “Glass Prison,” probably hits me hardest on a visceral level, which is saying something considering the first one has a nun discarding a bucket of body parts s like she’s dumping chum overboard on a shark hunting expedition. It’s a pretty impressive five-second blitz of horror.
For all my misgivings, these teasers have me pretty well sold on the second season American Horror Story. I’m just hoping it can hit the ground running a little better than season one did, and hit a few more highs and one or two fewer lows than season one.
Stephen King’s first collection of short horror stories might still be his best. Then again, I might be a bit biased, since Night Shift is the first Stephen King book that I read. As a young horror fan I was, of course, already familiar with King’s work through film and television adaptations of his stories. I considered myself a fan of his, but at twelve-years-old I hadn’t actually read any of his books yet.
My folks had a copy of Night Shift sitting on the bookshelf . I had never looked twice at that book until the summer before I entered Junior High. I’m not sure why I had avoided it until then. Given that I was already exceptionally susceptible to nightmares, it’s likely that I feared that reading stories coming straight from King’s brain–as opposed to stories delivered from page to screen by some other party–would be more harrowing than I was ready to endure. That summer, I decided to take the dive.
Instead of starting at the beginning, I decided to read the story “The Boogeyman” first. [Insert joke about me thinking the story would be autobiographical here.] It’s a lean, vicious tale that flattened me like a stampede. At that point in my life, I had read my share of “adult” horror stories, but I wasn’t one of these guys who had read the complete works of Lovecraft and Matheson by the time he was ten. The only story I can recall having a bigger impact on me at a younger age was Robert Bloch’s excellent “Sweets to the Sweet,” but while Bloch’s story–with its lovely, gruesome ending–felt clever and sinister, “The Boogeyman” felt earnestly brutal. Almost malicious. It wasn’t the kind of story that wanted to frighten you because it could, or because it was showing off, or because it was trying to make some sort of commentary on society, or because it was reveling in its own shock value. It simply wanted to frighten you because “screw you, you picked up the book; yes you deserve to be afraid, and I hope you never sleep again.”
I’m a grown-ass-man, and I still have trouble sleeping if the closet door in my bedroom is even slightly open. Coincidence? Maybe not.
Reading “The Bogeyman” wasn’t like going from the kiddie-coaster to riding the latest, fastest steel roller coaster. This felt like leaving the state-of-the-art theme park that has thoroughly safety-tested thrill rides to go to a traveling carnival that’s only open at night and full of dilapidated deathtraps operated by part-time madmen.
I decided to press on, choosing “Children of the Corn” next. The logic being, “I’ve already seen the movie; how much scarier can the original story be?” I could have sworn that about midway into the story, I actually read the sentence “This much scarier,” but upon recently re-reading the story I can’t seem to find that sentence anywhere. Suffice to say that King’s original vision is much grimmer than the 1984 film version, which de-emphasizes the “evil inspired by a perverse incarnation of the Old Testament God” overtones and… well… let’s just say that some of the survivors in the film don’t have the same luck in the short story.
Then there are the quieter stories that all but eschew traditional horror commodities. There are no monsters, ancient demon-gods, knife-wielding serial killers or anything of that ilk in “Night Surf” or “The Woman in the Room.” Both stories helped to reinforce my appreciation for restrained, potentially cathartic horror. The word horror, after all, describes a feeling. A sensation. Horror, as a genre, can be just as effective when focusing on human emotion as when focusing on carnage and the supernatural.
As with just about any anthology–even the very best–there will be some stories that don’t work for some people. “The LawnmowerMan” is still too weird for my personal tastes, so you can imagine how the 12-year-old me was confounded by the utter (but impressively imaginative) aberrance of the storyline. “Strawberry Spring,” conversely, is defanged by its predictability. The premise to “Trucks” is an interesting experiment, but ultimately the idea of vehicles gaining sentience en masse and slaughtering / enslaving everyone in sight never scared or entertained me.
But the stories that do work for me more than make up for minor missteps. King brings a macabre touch to the pulp noir story “The Ledge.” “Quitters, Inc.” is an exemplary lesson in mining horror from the mundane. “Battleground” takes an ostensibly silly premise and injects it with the intensity and energy of a Bourne action scene. “The Mangler” makes better use of the “machinery come to life” idea than “Trucks” does, perhaps because it doesn’t overextend itself; instead of a full-fledged laundry press revolution, we just have one demonic mechanical monstrosity amok. How many more do you need? And “I Am the Doorway” is a gruesome invasion tale in which a man’s body is gradually transformed into something between a Stargate and a star-window. It’s exactly as grotesque and horrifying as it sounds.
I’m not not sure if early King was necessarily “better” than present day King, but I do think his work was scarier back then. But again, I might also be looking back on those stories through a nostalgia filter. All I know for sure is that the stories in Night Shift– just like those damn Greasers in “Sometimes They Come Back”– have found a way to defy time and continue haunting me long, long after they first terrorized me.
During the recent flap over Kelly Clarkson’s endorsement of Ron Paul (possibly a racist and homophobic conspiracy theorist; more likely just an unscrupulous opportunist like roughly 99% of politicians), Kelly responded to her detractors on Twitter by mentioning that she supports:
Dear Everybody in the World: Stop saying that shit.
When you throw out imaginary colors that human beings don’t naturally come in, it belies any notion that you’ve given serious thought to the subject of prejudice. I’m not concerned with the rights of purple people, primarily because I’m more concerned with giving them the Heimlich as they’re obviously choking to death. Likewise, an orange person’s rights to remain radioactive and / or continue using cheap ass spray-tans don’t really concern me.
I know the idea behind the statement is to come across as caring about all of God’s skittle-colored children equally, but it just makes you sound ridiculous. So stop saying that. Saying that you support “gay rights, straight rights, women’s rights, men’s rights, white/black/Asian/Latino/etc.” rights works much better and takes 0.5 seconds longer to type.
While we’re here…
Stop prefacing offensive phrases with “I don’t mean to sound racist / sexist / homophobic / xenophobic / but…”
Stop using the term “politcal correctness” in a derogatory fashion when what you’re really taking issue with is tact and civility, you asshole.
Stop referencing / bemoaning the degradation of the First Amendment in regard to things that actually have absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment.
Stop hating on Tim Tebow. Stop over-praising Tim Tebow. Stop calling “kneeling down in reverence to something” Tebowing. It’s kneeling, aka genuflection, aka something that’s been around for thousands of years already.
Stop believing it when movies say that they are “based on true events.” It’s a meaningless phrase used for marketing purposes. The Devil Inside is based on some dude’s idea for a profitable horror movie. That is all.
I’ll be back with more at a later date, I’m sure. In the meantime… you know… just stop, already.
It still sort of surprises me whenever I find out that any of my peers not only did not read the Scary Stories series in their youth, but had never even heard of it. What the hell were you doing with your childhood? Sleeping well without having to fend off ghastly black-and-white illustrations that waited within the darkness of your dreams? Bah! No fun to be had in that…
Among the many things that the Scary Stories series has offered me is a reminder that personal experience is indeed personal. Based on my relationship with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series I would have believed every American child reared in the 80’s would have at least been aware of these books. I can still remember the first time I saw the magnetically morbid original cover of the first volume, and can likewise remember every kid in my elementary school class being instantly fascinated and appalled all at once. Stephen Gammell’s infamously freaky illustrations made you feel anxious about flipping through the pages.
Only a relative handful of my classmates actually bought the books, and I wasn’t one of them. I hadn’t even bothered to ask my parents if I could buy it–I already knew how my folks would react to grim content. So instead I was one of the kids who borrowed the books to read during recess or whenever we had some free time towards the end of the school day. I remember the books staying in remarkable condition despite passing through many hands over the course of multiple school years. I would not say that we held the books with any particular reverence so much as we knew how precious they were to the owners. Accidentally rip part of the page to someone’s forgettable Spider-Man comic (“Aw man, this is the one where Spider-Man appears to have been killed by Magma–a villain and event that will surely remain relevant for years to come!”) and they might be mad at you for a day or two. Fold the corner of one of the appendix pages of someone’s Scary Stories book and they might not speak to you for a semester.
The books are remembered mostly for the remarkable, inexplicably nightmarish original illustrations, but I hold Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of classic and modern ghost-lore dear as well. These were the first books I had ever encountered that told the reader how to tell the story. Being written specifically for recounting around campfires and at sleepovers gives the tales a fairly unique leanness that adds an invisible layer of perturbation to the stories. In “The Big Toe” we are spared any explanation as to why the boy’s parents would nonchalantly decide to cook and eat the giant toe he violently yanked from some unseen creature in a garden. Is the family that poor and desperate for food? Do they regularly forage for monstrous digits?
We’re not given so much as a sentence addressing these questions. The father just cuts the toe into thirds, the family dines, and then they do the dishes and go to bed. It’s treated as a perfectly normal evening and the setup to impending horror when it could stand on its own as a disturbing story.
My favorite story in the series, “The Drum,” also makes great (and perhaps more deliberate) use of creepy ambiguity and quiet peculiarity. A condensed and very slightly modified version of the short story “The New Mother,” written by Lucy Clifford, it is a tale of two young sisters living in a small village who happen upon a toy drum owned by a nomad girl. It’s a hell of a drum with animatronic figurines that emerge from it, and the sisters ask the gypsy girl if they could have it. The gypsy girl promises to give it to them only if they misbehave their asses off, which they immediately agree to do, believing that temporarily transforming into a pair of mini-miscreants won’t lead to any dire consequences.
Instead of disciplining her children, the girls’ mother makes a sorrowful plea for the sisters to behave, while warning that if they continue to misbehave, mother and baby brother will have to leave, and the replacement “new mother” will be a thing with “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” Had my mom told me something like that when I was a kid I would have developed some sort of mannerly superpowers. I would have turned into Behavior Boy.
The drum and even the gypsy girl are essentially MacGuffins as the short story briskly progresses to its inevitable conclusion. And again there are multiple questions that get brushed aside. Why do the girls feel they have to actually misbehave instead of just lying to the gypsy girl about how bad they’ve been at home? Do they believe she can somehow see them when they get home? What is the gypsy girl’s motivation? Sport? Something more nefarious? Why does the mother say she does not want to leave but will have to if the girls continue raising hell? Is some outside force compelling her? And “glass eyes and a wooden tail”? What the hell?
I remember “The Drum” in particular as the story that most haunted me due to its unexplained elements. I’m pretty sure it’s the story that first made me conscious of the value of leaving some questions not only unanswered, but unasked. While most of the people I personally know never read these books–much less gleaned early storytelling lessons from them–the internet, as only it can, provides ample evidence that the books have a wealth of admirers. I’m tempted to make the bold, oddly specific declaration that this is the best and most beloved children’s horror anthology series ever. There really isn’t much more for me to say about it, at least for now, so in closing I’ll just leave you with this “scary-for-no-damn-reason” picture from the tale “Oh Susanna” that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.
Confessions of a Fear Junkie is a series of reflections on the books, stories, movies, images, and lore that shaped my fascination with the Horror genre.
When I was very young, my parents let me host a Halloween party, which, of course, meant that they had to put in a lot of the work by putting up decorations and buying atmosphere-establishing music, while I “helped” by mostly being in the way.
The record they bought featured some appropriately haunting music and sound effects. At one point, a man’s voice on the record cried out, “Don’t cross the bridge! Don’t cross the bridge!” Nothing before or after that point in the record made any mention of a bridge, or provided any context for his warning. It came out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, and that made it so much more frightening for me.
One of the earliest short stories I wrote as an adult was based on this single line that stuck in my memory. I remembered one long drive across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, when a heavy rain reduced visibility, that felt particularly tense, and tried to replicate that feeling in a story. Unfortunately, this was when I was just starting to take writing seriously, so the story wasn’t very good. Since then, I’ve improved and had the fortune of having some stories published, so I decided to try my hand at a haunting bridge-crossing again, this time switching the setting to the Atchafalya Basin Bridge, which my family crossed at least twice a year when I was a kid. I also updated the story to feature a handy, horrifying phone app.
Same old story: man meets genie; genie offers man three wishes; man presses genie for answers that cause the situation to turn quickly, and turn ugly. I’d been sitting on this story idea for a long time, even though it isn’t terribly complicated. Nonetheless, I didn’t sit down and actually write it until the summer of 2014 when I was out of state visiting relatives. After three or four rewrites and touch-ups, I sent it out into the world, where it found a home at Fantasy Scroll Mag.
“Giving Grounds” – Arkham Tales issue #8
I know some writers who hate the question of “where do you get your ideas?” I love it, even though sometimes the answer is relatively uninteresting or embarrassing. The idea for “Giving Grounds” sprouted (pun unintended, probably) from a throwaway joke from an episode of Family Guy of all things. I’m not a huge fan of the show, but there was an episode where the family was sent to live in the south in the Witness Protection program. Inside their new home, the son finds a hand inside a jar and says he’s going to plant it outside to see if a human grows. Because I’m a horror writer, my mind immediately latched onto the interesting, grotesque idea of growing a human being through traditional agriculture. And so from a lowbrow animated sitcom, a grim, serious short story was born.
This is the first story I ever sold that was based on a nightmare. I actually used to work with the lady Miss Branson was based on. An eccentric chain smoking, overall harmless elderly woman who coughed like she had a lagoon in her lungs and had skin that seemed like it might disintegrate at any second. Based on the comments, many of the Pseudopod fans didn’t care much for this one, but I think it’s a solid effort at trying to draw fear from something that’s more melancholy than aggressively terrifying.
“Thanks For Using Forced Honesty Assassinations” – From the Asylum
Damn shame that From the Asylum is closed, because they housed some excellent stories during the years that they were open. I had been trying to break into their ranks for a while before they finally accepted this flash fiction piece. I really like this story, short as it is. I can’t remember where the idea came from, but I love the ambiguity of the ending.
I received a lot of comments about how graphic this story was, which sort of surprised me. I actually tend to think myself a bit squeamish and don’t think I lingered on any exceedingly gruesome parts here. Could it be that I’m mistaken? Me? Perish the thought. Can’t remember where I got this idea from. If I could go back and touch up some parts here and there I would, but I still like this story, particularly the ending.
I was astonished… astonished I declare… to find out that some folks I know not only have no love for October, but actively dislike this splendid month. Granted, I live in Texas and have lived in south for virtually all of my life, so the coming of colder months has always been a bit of a welcome reprieve from the heat at best and a nice change up at worst. I imagine that if I lived further north the cooler weather would be an harbinger of months of gloom and snow-shoveling and ice-scraping to come. So to my brethren above the Mason Dixon I say… too bad! October is fantastic!
Kidding about the “too bad.” But really, here’s a quick list of reasons why I don’t just enjoy October, but feel invigorated by this time of year.
5. It is the Nexus of Major American Sports
The NFL is in full swing. Baseball enters the postseason (admittedly, the one time a year that I really pay attention to the sport), the NHL regular season starts (when there isn’t a fresh new labor dispute waiting to spoil the sport) and finally, just before October closes out, the NBA season begins. The entire month of October is a long Thanksgiving for sports fans. Feast and be merry, there is no other time like this all year.
4. Autumn is Awesome (From What I Hear)
Reiterating what I mentioned in the opening, I’ve lived in the south for almost my entire life. I’ve lived in Texas since 1994 and before that I spent most of my childhood in Mississippi, which is where I saw my last “real” Autumn. The leaves changed color and fell, the cool-but-not-cold days breezed through and – as a kid – the countdown to Christmas was pretty much on. After a month of being in school, autumn was a welcome sign that the seasons do indeed change, time does indeed progress, and the days of being stuck in the classroom would not in fact last forever.
In my part of Texas, autumn basically doesn’t exist. The weather gets slightly cooler, so highs drop from the upper 90’s to the upper 80’s and dip just below 60 overnight. It’s basically the second coming of spring which probably sounds lovely to a lot of people, but after the soul-sapping hell that is a South Texas summer you’re hoping for a bit more a drop in the temperature. Almost without fail, when the weather gets genuinely cool here it is accompanied by a storm, which dampens the mood. Pun unintended… (or was it?)
*Edit: The above was written before I’d had a chance to spend a few weeks of “mild,” snowy, 15-degree winter in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have since vowed to never ever ever, under any circumstances, complain about Texas heat again. I didn’t realize I had it so good down here. That is all.
So perhaps I am romanticizing the fall. I haven’t raked leaves since I was a kid, and while the Mississippi autumn at least exists, I’m sure it isn’t comparable to what people deal with up north. But until I actually experience a miserable autumn, I’m going to keep holding on to my nostalgia and presumptions that it is a magical time when nature gives itself a new paint job.
3. Cold Weather Fashion
I like clothes. You know what you don’t get to wear in the summer? Layers. Layers = more clothes. And, in case you missed that first sentence of this section, I like clothes. So you can see how it all relates.
While t-shirt weather is nice and enjoyable and has its perks, I’m a fan of layer season. Cardigans, pull-overs, button downs, zip-ups, light jackets, vests, scarves, gloves, beanies, etc.
This is the time of year I go out at night just so I can sport some new gear.
2. It’s Kind of Romantic, No?
I’ve long been a proponent of the the idea that the summer is the perfect time to meet someone, while the fall / winter is the perfect time to be with someone. Summer holidays are festive celebrations with fireworks and barbecue and beer. Fall and winter holidays are about togetherness, giving gifts and designating some alone time with someone close to you. I solemnly swear a woman’s perfume smells better in the cool weather. I do not know why. I do not suspect that there is a verifiable scientific explanation for this, but I swear it’s the truth.
So yeah, I look forward to this time of year as a reason to get close with a lady-friend. October is ideal for this because the Christmas fever has yet to strike. There’s no reason to rush anywhere or be concerned about things you haven’t done yet. Also, it’s cool enough to make you want to get close, but not so cold it makes you want to sprint inside the nearest heated building before you turn into a block of ice. It’s a perfect time to go downtown, take a walk, go to that restaurant you’ve been meaning to try, catch a play, try out that new cool bar – anything that’s a little different from what you’ve been doing, and do it with someone who you’ve been meaning to spend more time with.
1. Halloween, Of Course
It’s never as fun as it was when you were a kid, but really, whose fault is that? It seemed that joy randomly fell into your lap during Halloween when you were young. You got to wear a costume, consume all kinds of candy and talk to strangers. It was like you were being allowed to playfully misbehave. But it was all set up for you, right? So now you’re left to buy yourself the candy and the costume and you start taking it too seriously, or you forego the whole experience to spare yourself the hassle.
Halloween is what you make it, so why not make it fun? It’s an inherently enjoyable little holiday, and you sort of have to take the scenic route to not enjoy it. All the little “misbehavior” you got to do as a kid still applies as an adult, except now it’s even better because, you know, you’re an adult. I encourage anyone who likes Halloween but hasn’t really enjoyed it the past few years to go make the most of it. Visit a haunted house (a real one), take a ghost tour, invite friends over to tell ghost stories over dinner, watch some good scary movies, go to some costume parties / bars / clubs and “talk to strangers,” attend a festival, attend an event, watch a Halloween themed theatrical production, go someplace where people really cut loose for Halloween. Treat yourself.
In a blatant, shameless attempt to garner more hits, I’m making a topical post referencing the recently released film The Last Exorcism. And so I present to you an entirely subjective list of 4 good (and 4 terrible) movies featuring exorcisms.
Exorcisms would seem to be a pretty popular topic in the horror genre, and yet it’s not explored as frequently as other common horror tropes such as vampires, haunted houses or zombies. I think it’s a bit harder to make demonic possession fun or sexy–too many people take it quite seriously. I’ve never met anyone who believes in the walking dead, but I have met a couple of ardently religious folk who swear they know someone who was possessed and think any fictional “entertainment” employing the subject is appalling. The good news is that this means demons are still a long way off from becoming de-fanged and romanticized. You won’t be seeing “Team Pazuzu” t-shirts in Walmart anytime soon, I’d wager.
On to the lists…
I could easily overpopulate the entire “Terrible” list with Exorcist knock-offs from the 70’s and no-budget DTV flicks, but what’s the fun in that? At the same time, it would be remiss of me to completely ignore these movies, so we’ll kick off the list with…
4. Beyond the Door
A common complaint leveled at Hollywood in the 21st Century is that they’re constantly producing inferior remakes of great foreign flicks–often horror movies. But there was a time when foreign directors were the primary purveyors of hot, steamy cash-in remake action. And they often didn’t even bother with little details like “rights” and “permission” when making pseudo-sequels and Asylum studio style knock-offs. Beyond the Door was the movie that got sued by the creators of The Exorcist for jacking such signature signs of demonic possession as projectile vomiting and head-spinning. It’s about as bad as you’d expect it to be, but it’s also a 70’s Italian horror flick, so at least it has ridiculous audacity going for it.
3. Exorcist II
Warner Bros. did not decide to sue themselves for screwing up their own film property after releasing a sequel to The Exorcist in 1977. It would have been stupid, bizarre and self-defeating… kind of like the plot to Exorcist II: The Heretic. For this sequel the filmmakers decided that what a movie about demonic possession needs to spice it up are subplots about ESP, pseudo-science, collective consciousness and psychically telling swarms of locusts to stop devouring crops. The film’s aspirations are somewhere between laudable and laughable. It has some moments of visual flair but the story makes zero sense. Anti-sense, even. I’m tempted to go so far as to say the plot of this movie is a hate crime against sense itself.
Nobody likes a preachy ass movie, but a preachy movie preaching against someone else’s preachings disguised as a horror flick… that’s the kind of movie that especially deserved to be punched right in the credits. Stigmata, released in 1999, is ostensibly a religious thriller but reveals itself to be one of those movies with a “message.” A message borrowed from an apocryphal scripture, the Gospel of Thomas. The basic gist is that you don’t need to go to church to get closer to God. I’m not here to disparage any such argument or speak on defense of any churches, but I am going to say that if you’re going to make a “serious” movie about how the Catholic church might be a less-than-holy organization with a sordid past that is more than willing to allow innocent people to be harmed or even killed if it serves their own agenda… make and market that movie. Don’t give me a “horror” flick that is actually a plodding bit of unconvincing propaganda interspersed with moments of supernatural hi-jinks to keep audiences awake.
1. The Unborn
“Do you think it’s possible to be haunted by someone whose never even been born?” In the deceptively promising trailer for The Unborn, that one bit of quoted dialogue told me that despite a reasonably impressive supporting cast (Goldman, Idris Elba), an okay premise and an ostensibly good screenwriter in the director’s chair, this movie would ultimately drown in its own stupidity. Why would you offer a qualifying addendum to a situation most people would already believe is impossible? No, I don’t believe you can be haunted by someone. Whether or not they were born is pretty much irrelevant. You might as well ask if you think it’s possible to move objects with your mind even if you have a mild headache, or if it’s possible to run faster than the speed of sound even if your shoelaces are untied.
Sure enough the movie is up to its crown in stupidity, but at least the climax provides a decent set up for a joke: So a priest and a rabbi are trying to perform an exorcism…
Honorable Mention: Repossessed – the current crop of spoof movies are flat out horrible, but at least they’re not 17 years late in satirizing their primary target.
Ya know, it’s a bit difficult finding really good movies that prominently feature exorcisms. Beetlejuice on the surface is a bit of a stretch. So the titular ghost claims to be a “bio-exorcist” who gets rid of the living. Does that really qualify?
Yes. Yes it does. But even if it didn’t, there is also the film’s climax where the new homeowners are essentially exorcising the ghosts played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis not only out of the house, but clean out of existence. What’s interesting about this is that both forms of “exorcism” are played for screwball laughs but, if it had been given the “serious horror” treatment, they would be absolutely horrifying. A specter who makes it his business to remove living people from the premises by any means necessary (imagine if a flick like The Others had introduced that angle)? An exorcism that completely destroys the soul? Within the context of a grimmer film this could be a source of abject terror.
At the end of [REC] comes the revelation that the catalyst for all of the mayhem that has transpired is the apparently botched exorcism of a “possessed” little girl by a Vatican official . In a relatively clever twist on the subject matter, the “demonic possession” is actually the result of a virus which has spread to everyone else in the apartment building and turned them into ravenous “zombies.” The sequel (seriously people, there are spoilers about) shows that the “virus” is some sort of demonic, sentient organism and while the execution is a bit clumsy, the idea is intriguing. A second sequel and prequel promise to expand on the idea and more than likely ruin the hell out of it with some half-assed explanation of what’s going on shrouded by pseudo-scientific / pseudo-theological technobabble.
I’ll readily admit, I’m probably getting cute here by not putting this at number one. Then again, I’m not really assigning much value to these “rankings” anyway. Besides, if I made The Exorcist the number one flick featuring exorcisms what could I write about it that hasn’t already been covered more than The Beatles? The Exorcist is the grandaddy of ’em all, the Rose Bowl of supernatural horror flicks. So what other movie could I possibly have listed ahead of it?
“Oh for the love of… really Compton? Really? You’re putting some foreign mocku-drama 99% of the people reading this haven’t heard of at the top of your list? You are such a hipster, elitist d-bag.”
Woah, woah, hipster? I just made a college football reference and quoted Keith Jackson a couple of paragraphs ago. Pretty sure that absolves me of any hipster accusations at least through the rest of the year.
Requiem is based on the same true events that inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Whereas Emily Rose played up the supernatural bits to make it ambiguous as to whether or not the possession was real, Requiem emphasizes the mental illness that the actual victim was suffering from. As the most–nay, only–realistic film on this list it provides the most unique approach to the topic, and its exorcism scenes manage to be unsettling without special effects. The possibility of a foreign, nigh-invulnerable force of super-nature taking over your body and mind is indeed disturbing, but in my view, not quite as scary as the reality that your mind can up and betray you to obsession and insanity.
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.
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 yourown 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.