Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Candyman

Have you ever seen something that you believed only you could see? Something that should have been seen by others, but somehow was not?

In the fall of 1992 I was thirteen-years-old, feeling increasingly ostracized at school, and feeling homesick away from school. The cause of my homesickness helped keep my pain in perspective, though. Hurricane Andrew had slammed into the Florida coast in August. In September, my mother and one of my brothers, both in the Air Force at the time, had been called down to help with the relief and rebuilding of the demolished Homestead Air Force Base. Living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the specter of hurricane season hovering every August–a specter darkened and magnified by the local mythology of Hurricane Camille–my sympathies were with the people of Florida.

My father was already stationed overseas at the time so there weren’t many options for where I could stay. All of my other relatives lived in Texas and my mother was only supposed to be gone for a month or two. One of my mother’s friends–a married woman with three kids–volunteered to keep me for the time being.

The family I stayed with through September and October was pleasant. They took me to church with them, brought me along to a couple of family functions, and I somehow ended up joining them on an awkward hospital visit to see one of their elderly family members. They treated me well, but I was a slightly odd kid, often stuck in my own head, a bit sickly, shy–when I wasn’t feeling clumsily talkative–and prone to occasional, unconscious obnoxiousness. I shared a bedroom with the son, who was two or three years older than me and a player on football team of the small Catholic School we attended. I was on the JV team at the time, but to call me a “player” would be generous. We had little in common. I had even less in common with the two other kids, sisters, one about three-years-old, the other maybe twelve. I don’t think I could have been anything more than an intrusion to any of them, and I was aware of it, but didn’t know how to minimize it. Gradually, I started asking if I could just stay home instead of joining them when they went to the son’s games or went to dinner with relatives, and they would let me.

I had no friends at school at this time, just a circle of kids who kept me around for easy jokes at my expense, which I accepted. A year prior things had been different, and many of these same kids had seemed to regard me well, so a part of me figured I could flip back to being “cool” again if I just rode out this wave of unpopularity. My best friend went to a different school and lived down the street from my house in Ocean Springs, but my mother’s friend who’d taken me in lived too far away from me to visit my friend, being on the other side of the Biloxi Bay Bridge. I wouldn’t say that this was a difficult stage of my young life, just a very strange one.

All of this left me even more mentally vulnerable to bizarre, intense or terrifying sights and stories than I already was. So when the night came that I first saw an ad for an upcoming film about a hook-handed nightmare who haunts a housing tenement, my mind was all too eager to pass my imagination along like a relay baton and let Candyman sprint away with it.

I can’t remember the specifics, what night of the week it was, why I was alone that evening, or what show I was watching when I saw the ad. I know the weekend was looming, so it was either a Thursday or Friday, and I want to say I was watching Martin, which debuted that year and was the popular show among the group of kids I orbited. More than any of that, I vividly remember the queasy, visceral sense of being drawn toward and into the television as I watched the commercial, like I was part of some new rule of physics: an object that wishes to retreat must come forth. I remember being mesmerized and frightened by the dreamlike scene of Virginia Madsen crawling out of the open-mouthed mural. The quick glimpse of the hook hand. The suddenness of a man crashing backwards through a window. And, right from the jump, the damned mirror summoning.

I think I will always feel a unique, almost nostalgic dread at the thought the summoning a spirit by saying its name while staring into a mirror. When I was a first-grader, having been in Mississippi for barely a year, a classmate of mine told me that Bloody Mary lived in a dilapidated two-story house a few blocks from my own, right behind the neighborhood Hardee’s. Being a gullible six-year-old, I believed him. I’ll save the details of my obsession with Bloody Mary for a later Confessions entry, but she was the first bogeyman to plague me. Well before I turned thirteen I had outgrown that particular obsession, but the Candyman commercial resurrected that first critical fear.

I remember sleeping poorly that first night, seeing the painting of the Candyman’s face in a feverish, disjointed dream. But what happened the next day at school, simple as it was, made the fear more personal and affecting.

Again, the kids I hung out with at school weren’t my friends and weren’t above ridiculing me, and every so often shoving me around. But they weren’t cruel. In hindsight, it was a simple matter of convenience and lack of imagination. People in general, and adolescents in particular, love an easy target, and there I was, a tall, lanky, underachieving, socially inept, brainy black kid living in the Deep South who “talked white.” At the time, fitting in simply wasn’t an option for me. Still, I spoke with them as though we were friendly, even though  anything I said or did might open me up to a flood of jokes. So I asked the people I knew at school if any of them had seen the commercial for a cool, creepy-looking horror flick called Candyman last night. They all said they hadn’t seen it.

This was peculiar. Again, I can’t remember what I was watching when I was introduced to Candyman on the small screen, but I know it was something reasonably popular. Something that at least a few other people must have been watching as well. How had I been the only person to see it? Well, everyone else had just been doing something else during the commercial breaks, of course. Or hadn’t paid any attention to it. Or hadn’t been impacted by it the way I had, so they’d forgotten about it. But you couldn’t have convinced my thirteen-year-old self this. Nor could you have convinced me that it was some sort of small-scale prank. Their answers were too nonchalant, and such a ruse, though simple, would have required more spontaneous imagination than I thought any of these kids possessed. A lie is a story, after all.

I tried to shrug it off, and by the end of the day, the cloud of dread from the Candyman movie that only I could confirm existed had dissipated. But I found myself alone in my host’s house again that evening, in this place where I didn’t think I belonged, and again I saw it on the television.

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…

Candyman-poster

I called my best friend. The person I felt I could trust. I called under the pretense of just wanting to chat because we hadn’t spoken to each other in a while, hadn’t seen each other in a longer while. But really I wanted to know if he had seen it. I asked. He said it sounded cool, but no, he hadn’t seen it. I was unreasonably incredulous–“Really? It’s come on two nights in a row.”–but he couldn’t tell me anything other than the truth. He hadn’t seen it. Only I had.

Melodramatic, I know. Foolish, too. Of course other people had seen it, just not anyone that I knew or had spoken to. But by then the obvious answer rang false to me. This thing had found me on my island and latched onto me. It knew I couldn’t turn to anyone. It knew that it could silence me, because silence would be the only way I could obtain a semblance of refuge. If I stopped asking other people about it, then I wouldn’t have to hear again that I was the only one who had seen it. Who could see it.

For the next few days I avoided the television, afraid the commercial would come on while I was accompanied in the room, and the person with me wouldn’t acknowledge it, and then it would be undeniable. I tried not to look directly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the dark, in the space between waking and dreaming, I saw chaos, hooks, and a painted, hungry face with its mouth wide and eyes indifferent. Flat eyes that exemplified the attitude expressed in the film’s opening quote, which I thankfully hadn’t heard Tony Todd say yet, otherwise I might have melted down completely.

They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?

My mother’s friend, who’d volunteered to take care of me, worried about me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was quieter than usual. I was making myself sick as the weather chilled and asthma hugged my lungs. And I couldn’t tell her what troubled me. It would sound absurd to her and do me no good.

Were this a work of fiction, I suppose it wouldn’t end so anticlimactically, but well, it is what it is, so brace yourself. Days went by and I thankfully managed to avoid seeing another Candyman spot on television. Then one day at school, in the midst of the standard morning routine, someone mentioned to me that they finally saw the commercial for the horror flick I had asked about, and that I was right, it did look pretty cool. Soon enough, Candyman became one of the hot topics for October among my classmates. The more people spoke of him, the less terrifying he became. He wasn’t my own demon anymore. He belonged to everyone, and I couldn’t have been happier to share him.

A few years later, when I finally saw the movie and could admire it for the classic it is, I noted the irony that, in the film, Candyman draws his power from the collective belief and whispers of the community. He is brought to life because his name is on the lips and minds of so many.

In my experience with the character, he could never be more real than he was when I first encountered him and believed he was unknown to anyone else.

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Halloween Recommendation: “Kill, Baby, Kill”

Horror fiction comes in a lot of different flavors: ideal Halloween horror is, I think, suitably scary, but not oppressively dire. It’s a fairly festive time of year, after all. I want to watch or read something that makes my skin crawl, but not necessarily something that makes me want to weep for humanity. I have no problem with “heavier” horror stories, but there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m not sure Halloween is quite the time for Ligotti levels of  super-grim, gut-punching, mind-chewing horror. That said, everybody’s tolerance level for that sort of thing is different, so just bear all of that in mind as I pitch these books, movies and random other things to you for the rest of the month.

Enough preface and yammering: Today’s recommendation is Mario Bava’s film Kill, Baby, Kill. The title sounds worthy of a ridiculous exploitation flick, something involving bikers and revenge and scantily clad women. But it’s actual a period-piece horror flick set in a small European village where people are dying (or, more specifically, killing themselves) under mysterious circumstances. Well, not so mysterious to the locals. They have no illusions about what’s causing these deaths. But there are a couple of newcomers in town who will need some convincing that what’s taking place is supernatural.

Bava, for any who may not know, was basically the grandfather of the Italian horror boom of the 60’s and 70’s. His most famous horror film (and likely most famous in general) is the black and white gothic horror flick, Black Sunday. But Kill, Baby, Kill is, for whatever my opinion is worth, the better movie. Hell, Scorcese calls it Bava’s masterpiece, so it at least has that going for it.kill_baby_kill_1966_poster_01

The story of Kill, Baby, Kill is wonderfully simple: there’s a vengeful spirit in town that is liable to surface and kill anyone who goes into the wrong place, or who speaks of the ghost aloud. A doctor and a prodigal daughter come to the town at the same time as the latest kill and are immediately entwined in the mystery. Don’t expect any plot twists or developments you haven’t seen before, but that’s kind of beside the point. The fun here is in the execution and the visuals. Bava paints the picture with colors that are beautifully lurid, and luridly creepy. In some scenes it’s almost like a gothic, golden-age comic come to life. Bava has all sorts of eerie fun with shadows, contrast, giggling ghost girls, spiral staircases, creepy dolls, and a brief chase scene that pops up out of nowhere in the middle of an already surreal moment that finally drives our stoic lead over the edge. The special effects are patently practical, and all the more effective because of that.

For all the death and omnipresent dread saturating the atmosphere of the film, it’s not a dour picture. In fact, it has its moments that some might call campy. I simply think it has gusto. If you were waiting for the weekend to kick off your early October, Halloween horror binging, Kill, Baby, Kill isn’t a bad place to start. And at less than 90 minutes, it will fit nicely on either end of a double-feature night. For those of you with Netflix, it’s currently available to stream. So stop reading and go put it on your viewing list.

I’ll be back soon with a fresh recommendation.

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Quick Movie Recommendation: Pontypool

Pontypool is a horror movie (labeled a “psychological thriller” on Wikipedia… presumably because it has really good reviews, and is intelligently and patiently presented, so clearly it can’t be a horror story, even though it has all of the obvious qualities of a horror story. Okay, rant over), that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario in the midst of a mini-blizzard, it takes places almost entirely within a radio station where a “no punches pulled” talk radio host finds himself besieged with reports of strange and violent happenings taking place in the typically quiet little town. Much of the story’s initial dread is built up through second-hand accounts of what’s taking place outside the walls of the radio station (which is actually located in the basement of a church), which would seem to violate the “show don’t tell” rule that is particularly applicable to films, but it’s insanely effective nonetheless. In fact, hearing about what’s happening builds up the tension better than seeing might, given how often and unimaginatively such scenes of horror are often presented in movies. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but it’s well acted overall (the leads in particular are excellent), sells the hell out of the scares when they start coming. It’s witty, it’s creative, it’s stark, and it’s reasonably unpredictable. It has a moment or two of needless exposition (one that clumsily and abruptly spells out the whole mystery a little early in the film, when there was still a bit more suspense to be mined). But it also has some moments of sincere emotion, which is something too many horror movies don’t seem all that interested in at all (odd, given that horror is an emotion). Not much more you can ask for.

 

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Good and Terrible: 8 Movies Featuring Exorcisms

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.

2. Stigmata

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.

4. Beetlejuice

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.

But it’s Beetlejuice, so instead we got Michael Keaton dancing toward some sort of brothel full of female ghouls.

3. [REC]

Hmmm… ummm… spoiler alert?

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.

2. The Exorcist

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?

1. Requiem

“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.

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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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