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Healthy Fears Episode 16 – It’s a Mad, Maddening World

Placing someone in a world that doesn’t make sense to them–that operates on its own, unpredictable form of “logic”–creates ideal conditions for comedy (Looney Tunes), absurdist fantasy (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)… or horror. Which can range from tales as impossible as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, to stories that are more terrifyingly plausible than some may realize, such as Kafka’s absurd nightmare The Trial.

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Healthy Fears Season 2 is Live

Hello. If you came here from a Healthy Fears episode, welcome to the loop!

If you arrived at my website by some other means and happened upon this post while having a look-see, you might be wondering what Healthy Fears is. Here’s a description:

Healthy Fears is a horror podcast examining the many things we are afraid of, and how they’re featured in movies, television, literature, and more.

Here’s a trailer for it:

And here’s the newest episode. You can listen to more at HealthyFears.com or through your preferred podcasting platform.

My Interview with Sapphire Sandalo

More than enough time has passed for me to share this here–an interview I was very fortunate to have with Sapphire Sandalo, creator of the popular “Something Scary” YouTube series / podcast, who has since progressed to the podcast “Stories with Sapphire.” Her podcast is fantastic, her generosity and thoughtfulness are outstanding, and she’d have to kick my mom down the stairs for me to ever stop appreciating her for giving me an opportunity to share some thoughts I have on race and horror. Here’s a link to her site where you can listen to the interview.

I only delayed in putting it up here because I’m positive my site doesn’t get nearly the traffic that her podcast does, and thought it would be weird for anyone coming to my site by way of her podcast to then immediately see a post prompting them to turn back around and listen to the interview again. I probably overthought it. Anyway, thanks once again to Sapphire for the opportunity.

TERMINATOR is Faltering Without its Horror

Kyle Reese was a rightfully scared man. He had an intensity and urgency that a healthy fear can bring out of someone. A soldier of the post-apocalypse, he’s prone to nightmares of the cold, brutal future he’s been sent from.

He was battle-tested, brave, resourceful and resilient, but don’t confuse courage and cunning for an absence of fear. Kyle was nakedly afraid of what he had to face in order to save Sarah Connor.

Sarah, understandably, was even more terrified of the T-800 (and Kyle, initially), being a civilian stalked and hunted in the middle of the Los Angeles by something even a station full of policemen can’t protect her from. By the second movie, however, that which (barely) failed to kill her has made her stronger. She becomes a hardened survivalist, more fighter than runner, willing to break bones to secure her future, her son’s future, and by extension humankind’s. She is fearsome and fearless during her escape from the hospital… until she once again sets eyes on the thing that hunted her in the first film.

All of her bravery evaporates and she’s justifiably terrified again, just like any sensible person who sees a Terminator and knows what it is ought to be.

The Terminator franchise, lest we forget, is named after a slasher villain with a science-fiction upgrade. In the first film, the T-800 is essentially Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers with no aversion to using guns, a greater focus and a much higher intelligence. It is impervious to firearms, or having all of its flesh burnt clean from its metal skeleton, or being blown in two by a pipe bomb. Incredibly drastic measures are required to kill it. Considerable luck as well. Had happenstance not brought Sarah and Kyle to a factory with a hydraulic press–had they ended up in, say, an empty furniture store after-hours–then the T-800 likely succeeds in its mission.

Similar things could be said of the T-1000 from Terminator 2. While lacking the imposing size of its predecessor, it makes up for this with other frightful features. It is a shapeshifter and mimic, putting it in league with long-feared demons and deities of lore and mythology from around the world. It favors blades–a more traditional horror villain weapon–over guns. It even gives us a little Michael Myers-esque head tilt after stabbing a guy. While Terminator 2 is much more of an action extravaganza than the first film, it’s still flavored with some of the horror that the first film more fully embraced.

Unfortunately, by the (very unnecessary) third film, any hint of horror remaining in the franchise would be largely incidental. Rise of the Machines was the first movie in the series to attempt more jokes than scares, and the trend of diminishing the horror only became more pronounced from there. A franchise rooted in a relatively small but substantial wave of specific, influential sci-fi horror flicks simply titled after a uniquely terrifying villain (Alien, The Thing, The Fly, and if we’re feeling inclusive, Predator) became purely effects-driven spectacle–and not even particularly well-done spectacle–devolving eventually until the first trailer for Dark Fate introduces us to a Sarah Connor who doesn’t display a drop of the urgency or intensity born of the healthy fear that she and Kyle once displayed. Instead she guns down a new, advanced Terminator with the emotionless efficiency of the killing machines that once terrorized her, Kyle Reese, and any other human being in their path. And yes, there’s a reason for her lack of emotion and it’s a thematic choice that I’m sure others might appreciate more than I do, but I just find it less interesting. If the hero isn’t the least bit scared of, or at least wary of, the thing that ought to be scary or dangerous, you’re going to have a tougher time generating thrills.

With Dark Fate, James Cameron and Linda Hamilton returned to the franchise they together made indelible in the minds of moviegoers, but they didn’t bring back one of the key components that gave the first film its impact, and helped make the second film’s stakes feel sufficiently escalated.

The Terminator franchise probably ought to be left for dead, but if it must be resurrected again (and odds are it will be, despite the latest film’s current box office struggles), it might be best served by elevating the horror of its titular villain.

Confessions of a Fearphile: Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’

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.

boogyeman
Ah dammit… I shouldn’t have kept my gun in there.

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 Lawnmower Man” 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.

Stephen King Night Shift book cover
A visual aid. Shame they don’t make many paperback covers like this anymore.

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.

Confessions of a Fearphile: 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 Lu Long (R.I.P.) and one day she decided to introduce the class to a classic tale about a chimeric person’s spirit. I’m unsure if this was just a Mississippi thing, or if other parts of the country also had incredible kindergarten teachers who were willing to relate introductory tales of terror to their classes.

Years later, this story still floats around in the back of my mind, so to Mrs. Nina, thank you. 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 husband 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.