Let’s Get Insidious!
Insidious is a film that came out in 2010 that, I think, ended up sorely underrated by the horror community at large. Directed by James Wan, of Saw and Dead Silence fame, I’ve heard the movie alternately described as “fun,” and as “just another potboiler Poltergeist rip-off.” What I haven’t heard it described as, at least not by anybody but myself, is ‘a brilliant deconstruction of the horror genre at large.’ And, I’ll admit, it took me a while to come around to that point of view… but how did I get there?
I’m going to start a new, irregular feature for the Corpse Collective with this post, one that I call “Let’s Get.” It will eventually be a series of posts about genre films, music, and other media directed at ‘getting’ the underlying elements that often escape notice on first viewing. Sometimes these will be thematic elements, sometimes they’ll be bits of obscure references and info that explain the in-jokes. In all cases, they’ll be things that I noticed, and in no way reflect the opinions of anybody else at the Corpse Collective, the Corpse Cast, or even necessarily of people involved with the media being discussed!
And so, with that disclaimer… let’s get Insidious.
In the film Insidious, we have a happy family that runs afoul of some very unfortunate twists and turns in life. First, they move into a house that looks like it ought to be spook central, where their eldest son, Dalton, suffers a fall that puts him in a coma. No matter what the doctors do, they can’t figure out why he’s in a coma, but these sorts of things happen. So he’s moved into the house, where Very Strange Things start happening. Thinking that they actually did move into spook central, the family moves, taking their comatose kid with them. They settle in at the new place, but Very Strange Things keep happening, if not happen more often. At this point, perhaps realizing that moving from one house to another in the hopes that they’ll eventually find one that isn’t haunted will eventually get kind of pricy, the thoroughly skeptical husband caves to his wife’s requests that they bring in somebody to investigate the house and figure out what’s going on.
I’m not going to give the blow-by-blow, but suffice it to say that there are jump scares, demons from the outer reaches of the astral plane, risks of possession, and deep dark family secrets all at play here. Some rather odd séances and spirit-journeys later, we have a happy ending… but not really. Major spoilers will follow this, so don’t read on unless you don’t care. If anybody complains about spoilers following this, I will kindly invite you to eat used shoe leather.
Now, yes, some people complain about the jump scares. They complain about the odd visuals. They complain about the big villain being Darth Freddy (or Freddy Maul, take your pick). They really complain about the ending, which is a bit of a cheat. They complain about Insidious being a Poltergeist rip-off, apparently forgetting that Poltergeist could use a bit of an update in an era where the audience that will be most affected by does not know that televisions used to get static.
But many people just brush all of those things off, saying that it’s part and parcel of an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon with a horror movie, particularly one that you can watch with the kiddies. After all, Insidious is that rare example of a pretty decent PG-13 horror movie, so much like Poltergeist it’s a great gateway film into horror fandom!
All of those points of view are defensible, but they all ignore the biggest thing about Insidious that tells you how to watch the movie. And that’s the title.
Insidious, per www.dictionary.com, means
- Intended to entrap or beguile.
- Stealthily treacherous or deceitful.
- Operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect.
The title of a film is one of the most important things about it. A good title tells you how to “read” the film, the sort of thing you should be expecting. The Exorcist? We’d damn well better see an exorcism before it’s all done, and our attention on the film should be turned towards the exorcist, how he works, and what is involved in his career. By contrast, The Possession tells us that we’re going to be paying a lot more attention to the demon and its influence on the lives of those around it, while Abby tells us that our focus should be on the victim herself. Insidious tells us from the word go that we should be looking beneath the surface, looking for a deeper and more hidden intention.
From the film itself, the reason for the title becomes obvious towards the end. We even get the title drop when our psychic (Lin Shaye, proving that she actually can act) is discussing the different types of entities that lurk in the astral plane. She explains that there are spirits who are simply hangovers from lifehood trauma, the classic “repeating the past” ghost. She explains that there are spirits with progressively more intelligence, ones who retain a thirst for life and want to get into the bodies of the living so they can get out of the astral, your basic “active haunts.” She mentions creatures from “the Outside,” malevolent entities who want to destroy and hate the living, your basic demons. She also mentions that their methods can be “more insidious,” giving us the title drop, and requiring me to explain a little bit about astral projection and the spirit realm.
Astral projection is at the heart of this film. It’s the idea that you can move your spirit out of your body, into the spirit realm, and go exploring. It’s a practice that some people claim to spontaneously experience, while others strive for decades to master the art as a meditative practice. However, while wandering about outside your body might be fun, it’s also potentially dangerous. According to researchers and practitioners, astral projection basically leaves the body as a vacant shell. If the soul gets lost and can’t find its way back, the body can wither and die. Worse, if the connection between the soul and the body weakens sufficiently, another soul can slip in and take the body over.
Now, this may be astral projection and possession, it may just be a modern take on old-time interpretations of why people who suffered unexplained brain damage would go into comas and wake up with a drastically different personality. For the purposes of the film, we’re calling it astral projection and possession. The threat to the comatose boy is that he may become permanently lost, or some darker spirit might take control of his body. Throughout the film, we get glimpses of one such spirit, a black demon with a red-streaked face who has mockingly been referred to as “Darth Freddy” for his combination of Darth Maul’s looks and Freddy Krueger’s razor-sharp claws.
What a number of horror fans don’t realize, however, is that Darth Freddy actually does have a basis in modern paranormal thought. What he would seem to represent is one of those “demons” or “shadow men” that people will talk about seeing at night. A free-floating form of darkness, whose only features besides a black shape are glowing red eyes (or, in DF’s case, a Darth Maul mask.) His apparent fondness for the song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” ties a bit into other things that I’ll come back to later.
We also find out, from both the psychic and Dalton’s grandmother (played by the estimable Barbara Hershey) that his father (Josh, played by Pat Wilson) had the gift of projection, and went through a similar incident when he was young. Only instead of a scary black figure with a red face, his spirit was a cloaked hag in a fright wig who seemed to want to take over his body. The hag, while also having her mythological sources, actually seems to be the real villain of the piece, having arranged this whole charade as a cunning, insidious ploy to get Josh back into the astral realm, where she could proceed to take over his body as she’d intended to do decades before.
Now, all of this comes together to use the first two definitions of the word insidious, as explained above. Allow me a few moments before I go on to the third definition to lay out how I interpret this “potboiler horror film” and make it come out much better than it may seem at first.
The Lambert family moves into the old house… and it is spook central. Very Bad Things have happened here, including the shotgun murder of some of the previous homeowners. But ultimately, it wouldn’t have been so bad if the family didn’t have a young psychic in it. Dalton’s been astral projecting for a while, and he’s familiar with some of the threats out there, including Darth Freddy. While he recognizes that Freddy’s dangerous, and somebody to stay away from, he can handle that. But when he has that fall and hits his head, he projects unconsciously. This house, due to the Bad Things that happened, is closer to the Outside, and because Dalton wasn’t in control when he projected, he’s vulnerable. Freddy captures him, takes him off somewhere, and begins the laborious process of trying to work down Dalton’s will so that he can take the body over.
Well, this leads to a few things, including the family trying to keep Dalton alive (which prolongs the whole ‘weakening Dalton’ process), and Freddy getting the opportunity to play around in the real world a bit more, which he begins to do. Other ghosts also begin to flock to Dalton, hoping to beat Freddy to the punch and get another chance at life, and basically, the Lambert household goes from being “that spooky, but beautiful old Victorian where those murders happened that we don’t talk about” to being “the Amityville house sounds like a nice vacation spot, don’t you think so, honey?”
The Lamberts, not being complete idiots, move out. Not only does Freddy follow, but so do the other spirits, including those formerly bound to the first place.
This explains several of the issues with the haunting that we see. Where do all these ghosts come from? Most of them are attracted to Dalton’s body, where ever it is, like moths to a flame. How do these ghosts end up in places they couldn’t possibly be?
They’re ghosts. Duh.
Of course they can fit inside of a TV cabinet if they want to, why couldn’t they? No physical body!
Of course they can appear in places they weren’t a moment before, or disappear in a flash. They don’t actually exist in our realm, and you only glimpse them when they want you to, or when you go looking into theirs!
I really just don’t get why people keep complaining about supernatural beings doing supernatural things. It’s not a cheat. It’s because you’re dealing with the supernatural, which by its nature does not follow our laws of physics. So there.
Oh, and actually, they do explain the gas mask visual during the séance; since the sounds she’s receiving come through so quietly, they use the mask and tube to channel the noises through amplifiers to be recorded. For the record, that and the automatic writing are both authentic methods used by mediums in the past as well.
As for why the song comes up… I think that’s Darth Freddy in life, dancing to the music. Maybe it’s the part of me that remembers Manhunter, with Tom Noonan preparing to murder a woman to Inna Godda Davida, but I kind of think that was Darth Freddy during the ‘home invading serial killer’ years. Sort of a BTK figure, menacing the people in the house, which we see this same spirit doing later on. That’s why he becomes Darth Freddy after his death; he already was the sort of guy who wouldn’t necessarily mind tormenting a kid for months to get what he wants, so once the Outside got at him, what was left was utterly demonic. He still likes his Boy George though, so “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” remains his theme song.
Of course, I could be wrong. And I could be all wrong about what I’m going to go into below – where I explain that third definition’s application to the film. But I don’t think so.
For review, that third definition was “operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect.” And, at first glance, isn’t Insidious just about as harmless as you can get? A moderately inventive, reasonably well researched little creeper of a Poltergeist clone. The typical flash in the pan that might get under your skin, is good for introducing the kids to horror, and probably won’t end with you sleeping on the couch if you watch it with the wife.
But if you start to really look at the movie, it starts to take on a new set of dimensions. I maintain that Insidious works best as a commentary on the entire horror genre, a subversive take on the movies that made James Wan a known quantity in Hollywood.
The history of the horror genre, particularly of ghost films, can be briefly summed up in a handful of phases. You have your classic horror movies, like the Universal films where the fear was found mostly in atmosphere, but to a modern audience the scares aren’t really all that sophisticated. This was largely by design, in the interests of not falling foul of overzealous censorship or offending the sensibilities of what was supposedly a far less jaded audience. A lot of the scares that were used in these films were accomplished through cheap camera tricks and things that were creepy, but not really scream-inducing.
Similarly, that seems to be how Insidious starts out; creepy, but not horrifying unless you’re particularly affected by dead kids playing hide and seek in your home. From there, it moves on into more blatant hauntings; the open weirdness of the spirit dancing to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” that same spirit creeping around your bedroom and staring in at you through the window like a madman, raps and knockings and glimpses of dark, shadowy, menacing figures.
This is in line with the Haunting era of ghost film, when things like walls bleeding green goo or floating, red-eyed pigs named Jodie scared the schnitzel out of audiences that would laugh at the Universal horror films and the like. This new sort of strangeness, the addition of quiet menace to the horror film, would get under the skin much more than the threat of a ghost forcing its daughter to take a swan-dive off of a cliff. There was a sort of impersonality to that horror, especially in an era when renting a manor house by the sea seemed like something only the richest people could do. The Legend of Hell House was actually an entire film about how the world’s foremost experts in the paranormal are completely and utterly fucked by the house that they’re investigating.
Then our psychics come in, and we start going into full-on Poltergeist territory, and the third big stage of ghost movies. In this stage, we would often find out that it wasn’t the house that was haunted, but the people in it – meaning there was no getting away. The improvements in special effects meant that the supernatural manifestations were more blatant, and experts would still often come in… and often not actually be able to help. The Exorcist fits into this category too, along with the Amityville Horror itself. What’s more, the attacks in the past were always on people who were somehow connected to the spirit, or who intentionally went and poked at them, like peeling off the scab off an infected wound and letting the putrescence within out into the open. On the other hand, buying a house that seems like a steal is something we can all do. And finding out that it’s haunted by something that thinks the best way to scare you is by attacking you in your bedroom… well, that spirit’s on the right track, isn’t he?
And then Darth Freddy shows up… and, in my opinion, we get James Wan poking fun at himself as well as at the modern horror movement. You just can’t take this guy seriously. Sure, he’s freaky, but he’s such an obvious rip-off of things that are designed to be “scary for scary’s sake” that it’s silly. He’s big, he’s flashy, he’s obviously ridiculously dangerous… he’s Saw. He’s Hostel. He’s all of these modern films that substitute blood and gore and market-focus-group determined effects for proper atmosphere.
And this is where we get the moral of the story. Darth Freddy loses. He doesn’t get anywhere. But who does?
The old hag, who hangs in the background and blends in with the other creepy spirits that are lurking around the Lambert family. She gets what she wanted all along; Josh out of his body and herself into it.
Think of the whole movie as the horror movie “industry” writ large, and the scenes taking place in the Astral Plane as the theater. You’ve got the hype, you’ve got the build-up, you’ve got the trailers coming out more and more often as the release comes closer… and then you get into the theater and you’re watching the movie. You’re carried on a sort of roller-coaster ride through the thrills and scares that the director has laid out for you, but they’re largely the same thrills and scares no matter what type of movie it is; cheap CGI or camera effects, spooky images, creepy music. In the end, you’re face-to-face with the real, core scares of the movie – and we have two paths.
We have Darth Freddy, representing throwing splatters of blood and gore up against the screen, CGI demons crawling on the ceiling, old songs blaring on the radio to herald the appearance of the monster. He clashes with the atmosphere of what’s around him, in a way that makes him stand out and be an obvious threat… and what does he accomplish?
He scares a kid, but once everybody’s out of the Astral Plane (the theater), he’s done. It’s over, you breathe a sigh of relief, and you go home, safe and sound in the knowledge that Darth Freddy isn’t really waiting for you in your car, or at home. He’s stuck in the theater, waiting for you to buy another ticket and choose to go let him scare you, or to stick the DVD in at home and shriek In front of the big screen while you and your friends get progressively more inebriated because of some silly drinking game.
And then we have the Old Hag. She gets even less screen time than Darth Freddy, and seems to do less. Heck, she blends in with a lot of the freaky black-and-white spirits who’ve been scaring the audience. No claws here, no menacing leers, just moving around, pointing at people, looking creepy and blending in with the atmosphere of the rest of the film.
And yet, she’s what literally gets beneath Josh’s (the adult audience’s) skin. She lingers after the movie is over, coming out into the real world and affecting things there. She succeeds in her goal, something more lasting than just making a little kid fill his pants.
Similarly, a horror movie that puts all of its focus on the explosive moments of violence won’t really do much more than freak out the people in the seats. Once the credits roll and they stand up, they’re done. Movie’s over, time to go home, and a good time was had by all. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t create a lasting classic. The same can be said of a movie that builds up its atmosphere, but then pisses it all away with a climax that just doesn’t fit. Take, for example, any of a thousand slashers out there.
By contrast, a movie that puts its emphasis on the atmosphere, on the build-up and then a suitable, fitting release, will last. That’s the sort of movie that has you checking the back seat of your car for Michael Myers, or afraid to thread a Super 8 projector ever again. That’s the sort of movie that becomes a classic, the sort of thing that horror podcasters long to talk about 20 years later, but are afraid to because everybody’s already talked about them. Take, for example, Halloween, or Sinister (another possible feature for this series in the future!)
Of course, it’s obvious which film I – and I think James Wan – prefer. I think Hollywood took the lesson, too. Numerous films have come out since then that have tried to buck the trend of gore for gore’s sake, tried to focus on the atmosphere over the cheap thrills. I don’t think that Insidious really started this – I credit that to film makers trying to grasp the success of Paranormal Activity. But take a look at 2012 alone.
The Devil Inside. The Woman in Black. Chernobyl Diaries. The Raven. Sinister. Paranormal Activity 4. All of these are films that, while possibly not wholly successful, at least tried to make the atmosphere their real selling point. I hold that Sinister is, quite possibly, the best horror film of the whole damn year, if not quite a bit longer.
Ultimately, the old hag is making a resurgence, and she’s creeping out of the theaters wearing our skin as camouflage. She’s right there, along with Bha’guul and Toby, lurking in the back seat with Michael Myers and waiting for us to let our guard down.
How much more Insidious can you get?
The Gothics – and Bonus Material!
Well folks, as promised, here’s my post on gothic horror!
And, given Mike’s blessing, I will also be including my original Slasher Flicks post afterwards. Bear in mind that my fondness for slashers has increased as I’ve seen better ones.
Here we are – my favorite genre. The Gothics. Now, to my mind, the gothics aren’t just true gothic horror (i.e., based on the stylings of the gothic novels.) Instead, I count all the movies out there that take the subtle approach to stripping away the defenses of the characters and putting them in a horrific situation. So my definition of Gothic includes theThe Wolf Man (my personal favorite of the Universal flicks), Invisible Man, Frankenstein,The Spiral Staircase, House on Haunted Hill (watch the original *before* the remake – it’s infinitely better), and The Blair Witch Project.
And, for perhaps some of the best gothics to come out recently, the Paranormal Activity series, Sinister, and Insidious.
As you might have gathered from the above, pretty much all of the Universal Horror flicksqualify, either as Gothics, or Monster Movies.
The gothics originated in novel form, however, with The Castle of Otranto and other novels. They were named gothics for the medieval eras they were usually set in, and typically based off of the idea of a young person, isolated from the world around them, and in increasing danger from the forces around them, supernatural and otherwise. It was only later that Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll were added in, expanding the genre and creating the true classics. I highly recommend the annotated versions by Leonard Wolf, which include all manner of trivia – and information that explains some of the odd language of the time. And, for those of you who like a little genre bending, M.G. Lewis’ “The Monk” (available free for Kindle through that link!) may claim to be a romance, but it’s really the book that almost got novels banned in some places, featuring horrific elements that make it a sort of proto-torture-porn (and nunsploitation!) piece.
My personal favorite gothic novels are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula (in that order). Of short stories, I’ve always been fond of The Monkey’s Paw, and Poe’s body of work. While I mentioned Hell House under Torture Horror, I prefer to think of both – particularly the movie – as gothics of the 70′s. The tone is far closer to the work of Stoker and Jackson than it is to Saw. Other classics in the genre include Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” and King’s “The Shining” – though it should be noted that The Shining and Hell House are largely punched-up remakes of The Haunting of Hill House.
In films… the body of work is far, far too large to really work through. Most of the novels I mentioned above have been filmed at least once, so I have to give personal nods to actors more than to particular films. So here we have it – my personal favorite actors in the gothics. You will rarely, if ever, go wrong looking these guys up.
- Boris Karloff – Perhaps the king of horror actors, Karloff is most always excellent. You’ll rarely go wrong with his movies, but my personal preferences are Frankenstein, The Black Room, and The Terror (an underrated early start for Jack Nicholson, who later starred in The Shining.)
- Peter Lorre – God, I wish I could point you at more DVD gothics with his work. Sadly… I can’t. The one movie of his that I’ve seen that I’d call a true gothic – the Beast with Five Fingers – is delightfully wonderful. Unfortunately, it’s not on DVD, only VHS. This must be remedied… and the movie watched without paying over-much attention to the last 5 minutes, after the killer is caught. If you like his work, he has several radio plays online available for free, and if you like the psychological thrillers you can’t do that much better than “M,” one of his classics. And we have an update! Recently, somebody took me at my word, and made The Beast with Five Fingers available through Amazon Instant Video!
- Vincent Price – You’ve no idea how hard it is to rate him below Peter Lorre, but I don’t have any film of Price’s that I love *quite* as much as Lorre’s “The Beast with Five Fingers.” Yet. But damn do Madhouse and Theatre of Blood come close… they’re both more slashers than gothics though. However, Price’s body of work rivals Karloff’s for size and skill. House on Haunted Hill is just one of the most available pieces of his, and you may find “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” to be a fine example of the proto-slasher. He portrayed the Invisible Man a few times, though not the first, and he played a key role in the first “The Fly.”
- Bela Lugosi – You may know him best as “Count… Dracula,” largely because Lugosi played the count thousands of times on the stage, and two immortal times on screen (the first time, and when he encountered Abbot & Costello…). He had the wonderfully penetrating stare that made Dracula so powerful in the first film, and would have gone on to far better things… except for two little problems. First, he had an ego that largely killed his career. He turned down the role of Frankenstein’s Monster, which passed on to Karloff (perhaps creating Lugosi’s greatest professional rival outside of himself), and then he ended up in a number of poverty row productions that largely killed his career in larger studio films. And then… well, to be blunt, Lugosi’s biggest problem was a heroine addiction that forced him to star in all of those poverty row productions so that he could keep his fix. He died working for Ed Wood, a great fan who later would create the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space with the last of his Lugosi footage.
- Dario Argento – Not an actor, but an excellent Italian director with numerous credits to his name. I haven’t watched many of his works, but he manages a very… Italian… take on the gothic horror (which often means that he has more sex in his films than they’d have ever gotten away with in the older films.)
So, what’s your favorite gothic movie or novel? I’d love to get a few comments on this one – I’m always on the lookout for a good piece to fill my Netflix queue.
Live, Monster, Live!
Well, historically, my next post should be about slasher flicks, but I think I’d be lynched, for my views of Scream if nothing else (I still hate that movie!)
Now, I would like to go on record as saying that, like all these articles, it was written back in 2008, when I was first starting to really get into slasher flicks. But Scream remains high on my loathe list, even after that. Give me The Burning or even Friday the 13th Part 8 before that film.
But, rather than continuing on my tirades… let’s talk monster movies! Because I loves them.
Remember! He’s a friend to ALL children!
Now we’re back in comfortable territory!
While I hate torture horror, and tend not to be incredibly fond of slasher flicks (giallos aside)… who doesn’t love a good Monster Movie?
You, with your hand up there in the back, you can leave. Turn in your taste (such as it is) at the door. Thank you.
Now… monster movies. It covers quite a range, doesn’t it? Indeed, these days (and in the beginning) most monster movies are cross-pollinated with another genre; the earliest ones started out as part-gothics (Frankenstein, Dracula, and the other Universal Horror flicks are gothics more than monster movies, to a large extent), while modern monster flicks are often mixed with elements of slasher flicks. However, some pure monster movies still exist… at least if you count the fact that most ‘pure’ monster movies are as much sci-fi as horror.
Monster movies are, contradictorily, both some of the deepest horror flicks and the most shallow. After all – the fear of Godzilla, Kong, or the Cloverfield Monster is pretty obvious. Nobody wants to get stepped on. At the same time, the monsters are ultimately allegorical figures. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous ones
Godzilla – King of the Monsters! Godzilla’s got to be one of the best examples of Ye Olde Monstrous Analogy. While he softened up over time, Godzilla started out as an unapologetic stand-in for the atomic bomb and the havoc he wreaked on Tokyo. Released only nine years after the end of WWII, Japan’s movie industry still dealt with strong censorship regarding what they could say against the remaining American forces and the War in general. The original Gojira worked around that by presenting the destruction of atomic warfare through the ravages of a monster, but there’s little working around the powerful imagery of the aftermath of Tokyo’s destruction.
Sticking with the terror of atomic monstrosities, we come across the grand-daddy of monster bug movies… Them! (presented here with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Giant insects (and other creatures) have been a popular part of the genre for ages (especially with one Bert I. Gordon… initials which may have led to his preferred horrors), but they really got started with Them. I only wish that this movie hadn’t been ruined for generations to come with the fact that the posters typically show the ants. The idea to keep it secret up front was, in many ways, brilliant.
Moving along to other terrors, we find a rather smaller sort of monster… or, at least, usually smaller. The alien monster typically represents the primal fear of the unknown. All the way back to Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, aliens have represented our fear of The Other. In The Thing, it was more blatantly communists we were afraid of – cool, emotionless, and without a shred of mercy or charity in their soul (according to the propaganda of the time). It’s no surprise that the ‘mad’ doctor involved wears that distinctive hat….
The Alien Quadrilogy addresses similar fears of the time; the fear of a superior being from outside of our experience, beyond our ability to fight. It also spoke to our fears of unchecked capitalism, like a good many movies of its time – it wasn’t the military that wanted to save the monster. It wasn’t a mad scientist. No, it was somebody with an eye on the bottom line.
Moving even further into the realm of science fiction, I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t point each and every one of you towards the Forbidden Planet. This science-fiction retelling of Shakespeare’s Tempest reminds us that each and every one of us has a monster on the inside, no matter how high-minded we might normally be. It speaks, in a way few movies do, to the horror of being the absolute master of everything around you… except yourself.
The Monster still manages to be cool and terrifying all at once, even more than 50 years after it was unleashed on the unsuspecting colonists from the Bellerophon. Its hand-animated form is, if anything, even more convincing than the CGI it would inevitably be made with today – not because it looks more realistic, but because it looks more unnatural and alien. The Forbidden Planet sparked a revolution in science fiction movies that continues today – away from cheap little thrillers that had a rocket in them, and towards a more thoughtful future. You really owe it to yourself to get the Special Edition version, complete with its many extras, though you might not want to shell out for the tin-boxed Collector’s Edition – the extras included with it are nice, but the 2-Disc is sufficient.
Well, that’s enough about monster movies for now, I think. Next week, the Gothics… and maybe something special just in time for Halloween.
Torture Horror (written ca 2008)
Ah, torture horror. Some people think it has something to say. Other people… well, to quote Chris Magyar from Jabootu.net, “It’s only the bestest happiest trend to ever come along and swallow up every half-assed “scary” movie along the cheapest, most exploitative lines possible.”
To be honest, I lean rather towards the latter, when dealing with the examples of it I’ve seen. I’ve watched Hostel… or tried to. I’ve watched Saw films… or, again, tried to. The problem is that, of the movies I’ve seen, I’ve never been able to actually care about what’s going on. The greatest flaw I’ve seen with “torture porn,” as it’s often called, is that it isn’t scary. Either you have to develop enough empathy for the victims to care what happens to them, or you have to be able to get into the head of the bad guy enough to understand and sympathize with him. Either one creates a scare – either because you’re scared for the victim, or because you’re horrified at the fact that you can see where the killer’s coming from.
Looking at the two most easily recognized examples of torture horror – Hostel and Saw – they both fall short, at least for me. Neither one has victims who are particularly likeable – Hostel’s victims, if anything, you almost *want* to end up dead. And the killers are utterly nonsensical. In Hostel, the killer we get the most insight into wanted to be a surgeon. So, what does he do. Does he perform twisted, untrained surgeries on perfectly healthy people, trying to prove that he could have been a surgeon if they’d let him?
No, he takes bolt cutters to people. The closest he comes to trying to be a surgeon is that he wears a mask. There’s no rhyme or reason to why he’s killing people… he just is.
Saw creates an even more egregious breach. In Saw 2, we’re finally given a look at the Jigsaw Killer’s motivation – trying to make people work for the lives that they’ve (in his view) taken for granted and squandered. Now, many of his crimes do force people to do horrible things in order to survive. But in the very first movie, one of his victim’s best chance for survival would be to do nothing. Instead, his attempts to save his own life result in his painful death. In setting up such a killing, the Jigsaw Killer breaks his own motivation. Then we see more examples of this throughout the rest of the series – now, you could argue that one of his apprentices set up the traps that “just kill people,” but there’s still the fact that a number of his traps actually don’t require people to work harder to save their own lives – consider, in Saw 2, that the trap Jigsaw himself took part in involved a man sitting there and chewing on his fingernails while he thought he was watching his son die of slow poison in order to save the aforementioned son.
You might be frightened by the idea that random people might pay for the privilege of torturing you to death, and I’ll admit that this can be a scary idea. But how many times can you do it before it gets dull?
Obviously, I don’t like this particular type of ‘horror’ movie. However, I do give it more credit than most people do. Torture horror isn’t a new phenomonon. People far more interested in film than I have traced it back to the 70′s, and Wes Craven’s breakthrough hits, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Last House on the Left.” And, to be fair, these movies do fit into the mold of a torture porn much better than the mold of a slasher flick (where they have often been relegated prior to the new term being coined). But not even this is the birth of the genre.
No, I’d say that torture horror stretches back at least 200 years – to the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. This book, probably thick enough to kill somebody if you hit them with it right despite not being finished, is the earliest example I’ve ever seen. De Sade never really got to fully detailing the months that would have put the book beyond the pale, but he was well on his way. I have to say that I couldn’t possibly recommend the book; it’s grotesque in the extreme, and basically a 600 page ode to sin, degradation, and misanthrophy. But if you do enjoy movies like Saw and Hostel… well, I suppose you might find this one an interesting historical artifact. Other works of his are less focused on the torment and torture, and more on his libertine philosophies, and tend to prove more interesting for it, but for a window into the soul of a man who so loathed everything and everybody in the world that he might actually do the sort of things you see in this genre, 120 Days is the best you’re going to find… hopefully.
Recommendations for the Genre:
None, really. I haven’t seen one movie that I liked enough to suggest it, and the book includes enough perversion and obscenity that most people won’t be able to read it through.
However, if you’re interested in a hybrid of torture horror and the gothic horror genre (much, much more heavily gothic than torture), you could do worse than Richard Matheson’s Hell House. I intend to go into more detail on this book later, but suffice it to say that the book contains several very uncomfortable scenes where the spirits psychologically torment the house’s victims. But maybe some of our dear readers can make some suggestions?
As always, I’m open to debate. If you want to come to the defense of this genre, I’m game to debate it with you.
Octoberfest – Wolfemann style!
Hey there, boils and – oh, forget it, I’m no Cryptkeeper here.
With Mike’s kind permission, I’m reblogging some of my old horror-related posts from Dinner Table Taboos, my first foray into the blogosphere. I’ll put more effort into reposts later, updating them a bit and putting some new details in that I’ve either discovered or changed my opinion of. But for tonight… let’s get started, shall we?
Ah, October! My favorite time of the year. The leaves are changing color, the weather’s cooling off, the politicians are making bigger twits out of themselves than normal… and the media. What other time of year is friendlier to the lover of horror in any form, whether film, page, or audio?
Since I figure most everybody’s getting more than enough of politics these days, I’m going to back off of that and switch over to a topic near and dear to my heart – horror.
So unless I trip over nude pics of either major presidential candidate, don’t expect to hear much on the political end for a few weeks (I kid, I kid… even I have standards of horror that I won’t sink to.) I might pipe up here and there with tidbits that I find particularly striking, but for the most part it’s going to be particle physics this month.
Each week, I intend to highlight one of what I consider the four major categories of horror media these days, starting with arguably the most modern trends:
- Torture Horror – most popular… today, really.
- Kill Flicks (or Slasher Flicks) – most popular in the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s.
- The Monster Movie – most popular in the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s.
- The Gothic – Most popular prior to the 40′s, with a modern resurgence.
I know there are more sub-genres, but we’ve got four weeks, so I’m going to go for four really, really broad categories. But before I get into specific genres, films, and books, a brief discussion on horror.
What is horror? What scares us, and why do we flock to it?
Well, the easy answer is, it’s fun to be scared (yeah, bet you’ve never heard that one before.) That adrenaline rush, that little tingle up the spine, the way you feel when your fingers are clenched around the arms of your seat, either holding you in or getting ready to vault you out of it… it’s a reaction that I honestly think essential to being human. The ‘problem’ is that we rarely get a chance to really experience it – and I couldn’t be happier for that! It’s nice to live in a relatively safe time and place, where we actually have a chance to die of arterial plaque buildup rather than being bitten by a rabid moose.
So, since we don’t get all that many opportunities to be scared for real – and we certainly don’t enjoy the ones we get, most of the time – we find controlled environments to scare us. Haunted houses. Books. Movies.
On a deeper level, horror stories of any sort are an effective means of communication. We’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years (Intelligent Designers, substitute ‘God made us this way’) to carry the memory of things that are dangerous to us. That way, when you saw a sharp toothy thing, you remembered that you saw it eat Cousin Ugg ten years ago, and that unless you wanted to follow his example, you had to leave. By contrast, if you saw a small fluffy thing, it was more advantageous to still be cautious – sometimes the small fluffy thing had a sharp toothy thing guarding it, so learning the lesson that ‘small fluffy things are safe’ was counter-survival. Therefore, any message that was delivered along with a scare has a better chance to stick. We remember these stories, take them back to the cave (bar) and talk about them around the campfire (over a few brewskies after the movie… weeks later.)
Now, there’s more than just one type of scare that you can evoke. I split it down into three categories. Not coincidentally, the different type of movies focus on different levels of fear.
Fear is the easiest to evoke. It’s the reaction you have when a car backfires nearby. The feeling you get when the neighbor’s dog barks and snarls at the end of its chain. Fear is a response to a direct physical threat. A lot of media finds that fear’s effective, and stops there – who needs to take time setting up horror and terror when you can just go straight for the jugular and get the job done?
Terror, on the other hand, is fear taken to the extreme. It’s what you feel when somebody pulls a gun on you. When the neighbor’s dog barks and snarls at the end of its chain – and then you hear the chain break. Terror is when your body gets to the point of having to evoke the fight-or-flight response. It’s harder to evoke than fear, because you actually have to engage the audience enough that they actually feel threatened, even if it’s only for a few minutes. While fear can be evoked by grabbing somebody’s shoulder after you sneak up on them, actual terror takes more effort.
Horror, on the other hand, is a much more subtle response than either. Horror doesn’t come in response to a physical threat. Fear and terror are both instinct-responses, artifacts of the reptilian hind-brain – they happen whether we want them to or not. Horror, true horror, only comes in response to thought. Not that you have to choose to be horrified – rather, you have to consider the situation, and its implications, before true horror sets in. Horror happens when your guard dog barks and snarls… and then goes silent with a pained yelp. Horror is what happens when the pretty girl who went out swimming suddenly starts screaming and being dragged around in the water… and you see a single, distinctive fin that tells you this is no boat accident.
Put short, fear and its great-granddaddy, terror, happen in response to the facts you see. Horror happens in response to the ‘facts’ your mind creates.
Personally, I prefer horror to fear and terror. This isn’t because of any sort of value judgment – it’s simply because I don’t scare easily in movies. I know how it happens. I’ve seen the man behind the curtain. Sure, I might do a double-take when Regan spider-walks down the stairs, but I’m not all that creeped out when she spins her head around and speaks in the voice of a former victim. This has been the case since I was… oh… two, and my folks watched Clash of the Titans with me there. I’ve been informed (repeatedly) that I was horribly upset when the Kraken dies in the end of the movie, and that my folks had to explain the difference between a movie and reality, and they ran that segment back and forth time and time again in the process of getting it into my rather young and bewildered skull.
But it worked, largely ruining me for real fright films ever since. I just can’t be spooked by special effects – grossed out, certainly, but not scared by them. For this reason, I’ve got a much bigger soft spot for movies that focus on character, on psychology – on the parts that make me try to wrap my brain around it. Having to think about what something means lets my brain work around its gut rejection of the SFX, and instead distract itself with the “but… that means….” reaction that makes mystery movies so entertaining.
So! How about a highlight reel to get people started. Here’s the first installment of… the Wolfeman’s Picks!
The Wolfemann Picks… the movies!
- The Legend of Hell House
- Halloween (the John Carpenter original – you can give the sequels, and definitely the remake, a miss)
- The Beast with Five Fingers (FINALLY on Amazon Video!)
- Halloween is Grinch Night (A perennial favorite of mine!)
- Paranormal Activity franchise
The Wolfemann Picks… the books!
- Hell House, by Richard Matheson (not for the squeamish or easily offended)
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker
- Anything by H.P. Lovecraft, with special attention to At the Mountains of Madness and the Dunwich Horror.
- Anything by Edgar Allen Poe, with special attention to the Tell Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher.
- Anything by Guy de Maupassant, with special attention to Diary of a Madman and The Horla.
The Wolfemann Picks… the music and audio!
- Anything by Nox Arcana, with special attention to Darklore Manor and Blackthorn Asylum.
- Anything by Midnight Syndicate, with special attention to the Haverghast Saga (13th Hour and Gates of Delirium).
- Michelle Bellanger’s Blood of Angels.
- Old time radio – the Inner Sanctum. One of the better “ghoulish host” series, the Inner Sanctum tended to have some excellent stories and a host who was simply enjoyable to listen to, especially during the Lipton’s Tea era of the show, when he would regularly banter with the spokeswoman.
- Old time radio – Mystery in the Air and The Price of Fear. It’s hard to rate one above the other. Mystery in the Air featured Peter Lorre, and the Price of Fear featured Vincent Price. Having to choose between these two would make me cry. My favorites would probably be Lorre’s version of The Horla, and Price’s “Specialty of the House” – both available (along with a lot of the Inner Sanctum) from Relic Radio’s finest program “The Horror.”
So… there’s some reading, watching, and listening to whet your appetite. Until my special on Torture Horror, coming up some time later this week, pleasant screams!
It’s Nazploitation… so what is it?
Ah, the Nazis. Everybody’s favorite morally justifiable punching bags – they’re so handy for writers, whether you’re doing films, comics, or prose! Nobody’s really going to complain about it if you say the Nazis were bad. Well, except for other Nazis, but nobody really pays them any attention either.
But that’s not the only reason they’re handy to use, particularly in the horror genre. While it’s nice to have bad guys that you can kneecap with a crowbar without anybody protesting outside the theater, the fact is that there’s a reason the Nazis have this reputation.
They had their fingers in everything. Sure, we all know about the Holocaust. It was kind of a big deal, whatever certain folks in the Middle East like to say about it not happening. We all know about the mass enslavement and slaughter of the Jewish people, as well as homosexuals, gypsies, and anybody else Hitler thought was making fun of his moustache (70-ish years is long enough to be making Nazi jokes, right? Right.) But there were all sorts of other things going on, some scientific, some supernatural, and almost all of them useful for the creative sorts!
This is the stuff that I threatened to go into detail about on my last call to the Corpse Cast. Everything that I’m discussing has been at least rumored to be one of numerous Nazi plans to conquer the world – it may not have actually been historical fact, but there is generally some evidence to support it. I’ll be splitting this article out into multiple sections along general subject matter; don’t take any of this article as scholarly research, but instead, a piece that can be used for future creative endeavours.
From Science to MAD Science!
Nazi science was, without a doubt, some of the most advanced in the world. Simple statement of fact; it’s reasonably widely accepted that the Nazis were about a year ahead of the US when it came to developing the A-Bomb. Only a handful of crucial black ops kept Hitler from being the one to drop Fat Man and Little Boy instead of Truman. Further, it is now known that he’d been working on developing a long-range bomber that could have reached the US from Germany.
More interesting, however, are the things they were supposedly developing, including flying disks. Whether ground-effect vehicles (hovercrafts), or magnetically propelled ones, there are dozens of stories that they had created UFO’s, and hidden enclaves may still be using them. On the less mechanical end of things, the entire movement behind the Nazis was the idea of eugenics, or intentionally trying to breed a “better” race of humanity. What would have happened if some of those plans had gone through, and three generations later we have an army of “genetically superior” beings – or, alternately, thoroughly inbred and indoctrinated mutants – being unleashed on the world? Potentially ones armed with some of the Nazi “wonder weapons” that were on the drawing board.
And, of course, the similarities between Dr. Mengele and Dr. Satan are so obvious I hardly need to mention them. Ultimately though, most of the scientific stuff (short of Mengele) is better suited for sci-fi flavored films, or ones angled at genres other than horror. Except for those having to do with….
The Antarctic Question
In 1938, the Nazis were at the lead of the push into exploring Antarctica. They even claimed to have discovered subterranean caverns that led down into a tropical paradise they titled “Neuschwebenland,” whose spelling I probably butchered. They were preparing to establish a permanent settlement down there when WWII began in earnest in Poland, with Hitler pissing off Britain and then double-crossing the Soviets. Of course… Hitler already knew he was planning to do these things, and very few things that were done by Nazi Germany weren’t done with contingencies in place for what would happen during the war. So it seems odd that Germany’s interest in Antarctica would be the one thing that they dropped when Hitler and Stalin stopped being BFF’s.
This becomes even more unusual when you start reading reports that late in the war, Nazi aircraft and U-boats carried heavily classified cargoes down to a base… in Antarctica. Some of these stories link them to the Nazi UFO’s. Others link them to some of the supernatural stories coming later, such as claims that Hitler had the Spear of Destiny moved to Antarctica for safekeeping. Also of interest is that, right around where Neuschwebenland was supposed to be located, the various countries with Antarctic outposts have basically agreed nobody is allowed to explore. An issue that satellite imaging makes even more interesting by indicating that there may indeed be massive subterranean cavern systems there.
Of course, maybe there’s a reason that nobody goes there, and that the Nazis abandoned their plans for an outpost. In H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft posits that the heart of the frozen wastes of the south might be the location of the dread Plateau of Leng, Unknown Kadath, or other dreaded strongholds of the Elder Things and their rebellious, carnivorous creations, the Shoggoths. Had the Nazis discovered such ancient, powerful technology and lore, what would they have done with it? Attempted to reverse-engineer Elder Thing weapons, or captured Yithian lightning guns? Perhaps, having found these ancient and terrible beings, they would have attempted to forge an alliance? Or, just maybe, they abandoned their efforts, and left the forbidden, frozen wastes for the Allies to eventually destroy themselves in.
For me, personally, this is perhaps the most thought-provoking angle to take. Just what would there be at this abandoned lair, where even the Fuhrer feared to tread?
A Supernatural Thing
If there’s one thing that goes better with Nazis than mad science, it has to be the occult. Countless documentaries and books have been filmed and written about the role that occultism played in the rise and fall of the Reich. Himmler is known to have been searching for the Holy Grail, and attempting to forge his own order of Holy Knights, immortal SS Officers bound to the Grail and its power for the Aryan race. Rudolph Hess was obsessed with astrology, which cost him his freedom when the Allies planted false horoscopes that sent him on a doomed mission to negotiate a German surrender. The Thule Gesselschaft, Hitler’s early backers, traced Aryan history back through the Germanic knights and Nordic priests to the dawn of humanity to prove their innate superiority.
How much of this Hitler believed is up for debate, but what is known is that he was a devotee of the Thule Gesselschaft, and a protégée of its leading members. It is also known that one of the first things he did on conquering Austria was to demand that the royal regalia – rumored to include the Spear of Destiny – be moved to Berlin. That particular spear allegedly rests in the Smithsonian now, and has been proven a medieval replica, but who knows? Other stories say it was moved to the Antarctic, so maybe the Smithsonian has a fake.
Perhaps the best book on this particular subject to read is The Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft, which explores a great deal about Hitler’s supposed connection with the Occult, and ties him together with other historical figures who wielded the Spear throughout time. To read this book, we came very close to being ruled over by a sort of demon-despot with a personal elevator to Hell – and if that can’t inspire somebody to write something, I don’t know what can.
Well, okay, there is one possibility. You know that fake trailer for “Werewolf Women of the SS?” There’s a reason that werewolves are associated with the Nazis; following WWII, some of the die-hard Hitler Youth whose brains had been properly scrubbed worked as a resistance group against the Allies. They were called, in English, the Werewolves. They kept fighting back until round-about 1948, when the Soviets gave US forces a handy excuse to airlift supplies into Berlin. Basically, the Werewolves weren’t beaten by silver, but by the realization that maybe the guys who were bringing them supplies really weren’t that bad after all. But with a name like that, it’d be a shame to pass up actual Nazi Werewolves, wouldn’t it?
Of course, it wasn’t just Nazi Germany that was up to fun and games with science and sorcery alike. The US had its fair share of nutballs trying to help out the Ally cause, as did Britain and Russia. And it’s hard to know just *what* might have been called forth by Jewish qabbalists trying to make sense of – and lessen the impact of – the Holocaust. There are already stories of one demon that’s been boxed away (literally) by a Holocaust survivor who was trying to cope with the loss of her family. Perhaps there are others – whether summoned by the Nazis, or in desperate attempts to fight them?
As for the Soviets… well, there’s not too much there that I can talk about. After all, most of the legends that survive come out of Tsarist Russia, and Stalin and his troops were too busy trying to just survive to worry about mad science and desperate pleas for supernatural aid. And yet… there *are* stories of attempts to breed an ape/human hybrid, that would be a superior warrior easily trained for the battlefield. Stories of cannibalism amongst the troops during the battle of Stalingrad (and similar situations) persist. And, of course, Russia’s pre-Soviet legends may well have still been about… just waiting for something, Nazi *or* Soviet, to trip into its territory for a friendly dinner. Many of Russia’s legends have the devil himself abroad, and could anybody blame him for wanting to have some fun with the stalwart souls busily killing each other on his stomping grounds?
Finally, while the Nazis may have been racist assholes, they weren’t necessarily universally racist. Both the people of the Middle East (including one Saddam Hussein) and of the Orient (the Japanese, most obviously) were considered acceptable to work with, if not the Aryans of their regions. Who’s to say that Hitler didn’t consider the possibilities of ghuls and djinn fighting for the Nazi cause? And, of course, the Japanese and Americans alike had countless dealings with native societies in the Pacific ocean. There were some groups of headhunters that the Japanese in particular dreaded having to deal with. Not because they were such fearsome warriors, but because when they did kill one of the invaders, they would perform ceremonial rites that were supposed to trap the soul inside the body as it rotted away. This was also largely the birthplace of the Yakuza, as the criminal and ninja clans in Japan began to unite and work for the Japanese war effort, using the title “The Black Dragon” at the time. If you’re looking for something more martial-arts oriented, this could be a great place to start.
To conclude, the Nazis had their black-hearted little hands in so many pies it wasn’t funny, which makes them invaluable punching bags for any genre fare you care to name. Was all of it true? I certainly hope not, but enough of it might have been that you can do things like establish a lone survivor in an outpost occupied by a succubus, or have an army searching for the Ark of the Covenant, without breaking suspension of disbelief. And, really, isn’t that what a lot of us are here to see?
And don’t think that Nazis are limited to WWII either. These days, the Aryan Brotherhood has a strong wing that engages in ancient magical rites, including attempts to kill their enemies with black magic. Operation Paperclip proves that a distressing number of high-ranking Nazi scientists and officials were brought into the US and Russia after the war, for use during the Cold War. Some of them even helped us to get to the moon… just what, pray tell, might they have gotten up to since then?
If anybody would be interested in more articles like this, about ‘hidden history’ and the other weird stuff in the world that can be mined for material, let me know. I’ve got a surprising amount of material to work from along these lines….
Mike Needs Your Help!!! (Don’t Let That Scare You Away)
Would any of you guys be willing to help me with a little new project I’m working on? I don’t want to give too many details yet… Your job will basically be filling out a survey question that I send out every once in a while. It will be simple, and it won’t take a lot of time… But I need people who will commit to answering the question within about a week of receiving it.
Seriously, it will only take 5 minutes to fill out. If you’d be willing to help, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org? I’m looking for 100 people.
Finishing out the pack
Hey there, Corpse Collectors!
It’s the Wolfemann here, and I thought I’d just type up a few more of those urban legends I didn’t want to clutter up the voicemail with. You’ll have to insert your own sound of a campfire crackling and owls hooting in the night, maybe somebody with an acoustic guitar and a folksong or two about Madman Marz.
Now, when I went to college, I went to UW Whitewater, home of the Warhawks. I already told you all about my story of the Three Points, but I’ve got a couple of other local stories to add to it! This first one isn’t particularly PC, but… well, it was established back in the 1800′s, so what do you *really* expect? I’m just telling the story as I heard it.
There are ghost stories aplenty in Wisconsin, which makes sense when you consider that the state’s been settled by white men since the mid-1700′s, and settled by the Native Americans for longer still. A lot of our stories come from old Native legends, particularly up by the Dells. But down south by Whitewater, more of them come from the era of German settlement. Not all of them though.
For example, we’ve got the old stories about Military Road. Military Road was pretty much one of the first highways in Wisconsin, connecting various forts across the state. Since a lot of it passed through some fairly desolate wilderness, small towns popped up here and there where folks would settle down to build the staples of Wisconsin life: A church, a bar, and a general store. These stores would be the places where all the local farmers would converge every week; go to church to cleanse your sins, go to the store for supplies, and go to the bar to start getting dirty again for the next week.
Well, as one might expect, this meant that sometimes there were more folks who came into town than who got home at the end of the weekend. One such case was one of the local Indians, who made his living as a drover, carting supplies back and forth for folks. It wasn’t much of a living, but it made ends meet, and left him with enough cash to enjoy himself at one bar or another every now and again. He’d often be one of the last folks to leave the bar, so he’d often carve himself a pumpkin or turnip as a lantern, keeping a good supply of candles so he could find his way along the road to the next town. That was one advantage of the horse and cart era; you might have been blind drunk, but your horses probably had the good sense not to go wandering off and over a cliff or somesuch.
And so life went on for some time, but one day, our drover friend had just been paid for hauling a particularly lucrative load. He wanted to celebrate, and went out to do so with the locals. He kept drinking with his new-found friends late into the night. The problem was, it was a Saturday. Normally, the bar would have been happy to let him spend his last coin there, but they didn’t want to stay open past midnight this time. After all, running a tavern on the Lord’s day would be a sin. But the drover? He was Indian stock, and didn’t have much use for Christian superstition. He kept drinking up until midnight, and when all of his ‘friends’ had left, insisted that the barkeep sell him another bottle for the road before he left. The barkeep argued with him up until the churchbell struck twelve – and then, rather than risk his soul by selling liquor on a Sunday, he just gave up and handed the drover a bottle and told him to get going.
Pleased to have gotten such an unexpected discount, the drover left. He lit up a candle, and made his way towards the crossroads by the church, drinking and laughing all the way.
Nobody thought much of it the next day, beyond an occasional muttered curse for the drunken man. Not until they found pumpkin seeds scattered all over the road, right where the drover’s tracks abruptly ended. Most folks say that the drover must have fallen off his wagon with his lantern, and gotten lost when the horses ran off in a panic at the smashed lantern. Others say that the Devil came to take him away, for disrespecting the Sabbath.
Either way, up until the horse and buggy were retired, there were regular sightings of a ghostly figure, carrying a jack o’ lantern, making his way along the road like a lost soul, seeking salvation.
Our next story is less urban legend, and more historical truth. The interesting part is that it actually involves both Whitewater directly, and my hometown of Watertown. This is the story of Myrtle Schaude, her husband, her children, and a young engineering student named Frank.
Now, Mr. Schaude was a hard-working, old-fashioned dairy farmer. Like most dairy farmers who lived near a town, he made most of his business supplying the locals. But where Mr. Shaude had lucked out was in having his farm right on the edge of the campus – which meant he was the official dairy supplier of the entire school. In the early 1900′s, particularly heading into the Depression, this was the sort of steady, reliable business that made the difference between a gentleman farmer, and a hard-scrabble life where you can barely take care of yourself. Being on the long end of the stick, Mr. Schaude decided it was time to take a wife… and he married the daughter of a friend of his, Myrtle. Myrtle was a lovely young woman, about half her husband’s age, from the town of New Glarus. She moved away, leaving behind family and friends, and took up the housekeeping and childrearing – and since the Schaudes had several children, that was a full time job in and of itself.
But, even with guaranteed business, the Depression could hit hard. Fewer students at the college meant less call for the Schaude’s milk, and that meant they had to take in lodgers from the school. And with young college students around, eyes might start to wander….
At this point in time, UW Whitewater was a men-only campus, like most. That meant that while Mr. Schaude wasn’t particularly tempted, Myrtle had boys closer to her own age around her for the first time in quite some time. Boys who, unlike her husband, were often sympathetic and gentle souls. Not that Mr. Schaude was cruel, mind. He was just of a prior generation, one that believed the husband’s job was in the fields or the barn, and the wife’s was to run the household, and piddly little ideas like “depression” or “loneliness” were just things to be gotten over. And Myrtle had quite a lot to get over, without any help to do it.
Without any help, that is, until Frank came along. Frank, as I mentioned, was a young, up and coming Engineering student from Watertown. He was a handsome young man, and one of the kindest of the Schaude’s lodgers. Being some ways from home himself, he had quite a bit of time on his hands… and, as the Schaude children were starting to get older and more able to care for themselves, so did Myrtle.
Well, it really isn’t too surprising what happens after that. Myrtle and Frank began an affair, a rather torrid one at that, even by the standards of a time long after theirs. Myrtle was happier than she’d ever been though, and being a rather unimaginative man, her husband didn’t see much in that. Everything would have gone well… if the school year hadn’t ended, at least. When summer came around, Frank went back to Watertown to help his family out at their garage. The children all had their own chores now, and Mr. Schaude, of course, had to work the fields. Myrtle was lonelier than ever, with only occasional letters between she and her lover to keep her going.
Her issues weren’t the greatest ones in the family though. Mr. Schaude was becoming ill, particularly as the summer drew to a close and the students returned. It seemed that his advancing age (he *was* in his 50′s or 60′s by now) and the encroaching cold were getting to be too much for him. First, his eldest son had to take over the deliveries, and Myrtle had to nurse her husband back to something resembling health. He seemed to be doing well as winter set in… until, one day, Myrtle took him a glass of warm lemonade (the cure-all of the day), and after drinking it, some sort of seizure set in! Sadly, the event was fatal. Frank, who had come back to school, was there to comfort Myrtle… though rumors spread that maybe he’d done more than just comfort the grieving widow.
In the end though, it wasn’t all *that* odd. An elderly man dies of a relapse of the disease that had laid him low for months… tragic, but hardly something to inspire much suspicion. Mr. Schaude was buried, and Myrtle was left to run the farm with the aid of her children, and the money from the lodgers. It was a harder life than before, but Myrtle coped.
Then, once more, the summer came about. Frank went back to Watertown, and Myrtle was alone again. Tragedy would strike again – this time, on the day that Myrtle bought her children some chocolates, and sent them off in the family car (driven by Henry) to visit some friends for the night. Henry had some sort of fit behind the wheel, and very nearly wrecked the car.
What was found out this time was that there had been something wrong with the chocolates. It struck a frenzy across the state when it was discovered that they’d been poisoned with strychnine, as everybody thought that it *must* have been done by some lunatic at the factory where they’d been made! It took some time before folks remembered what happened to poor Mr. Schaude… and that his seizure would have been just the sort of thing that would happen if he’d been poisoned with strychnine.
To make a (really) long story (relatively) short, they tested his body, and found he’d been poisoned too. Suspicion fell immediately on Myrtle, who accused Frank. But Frank, unlike Myrtle, had no opportunity to poison the chocolates. Myrtle was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Where she became the prison cook.
Some years later, she was pardoned by the governor, since everybody who knew her claimed she was a saintly woman who wouldn’t hurt a soul. Including the prison warden, who personally championed her cause. She moved out of state, and became a cook. Soon enough, her name changed and her past erased, she married into one of the families she worked for, and raised another family. She never did try to poison this one.
As for Frank, his reputation was ruined, but he wasn’t convicted, as I remember. I actually know some of the folks in his family, which is why I’ve refrained from mentioning his last name. Soon, the entire sordid scandal was erased from Whitewater’s history, with the whole farm taken down to dirt, the land sold off to the school, and used to build a dormitory on.
The same dorm, I might add, where I spent all my years at Whitewater. And people wonder why I turned out the way I did.
We had other stories too. The usual suicides and other tragedies that happen at a dorm. There was actually one case while I was there of a student who tried to hang himself in his room that failed. It turns out that he tried to hang himself from the sprinkler system, and almost *drowned* himself instead, but he managed to get out in one piece. More than could be said for most of the computers on the floor below (thankfully, I lived on the *opposite* wing from that dumbass). But none of those have the sort of punch of those last two stories.
For my final piece though… we’ve got punch again. This one comes back to Watertown proper, in one of the houses on (ironically) Church Street. Nobody’s entirely sure why, but a young boy named Eddie began acting out. Not just the usual sort of thing – he was more than a foul-tempered boy, he was afflicted by scratches, burns, bruises, and all manner of torments! The locals came to the conclusion that the boy was possessed, and an exorcism was attempted. But despite all the efforts of the priests, despite the family converting to Catholicism, despite *months* of effort… none of it sufficed, and poor Eddie reamined possessed.
Then, one day, a mysterious man came to town. He was an Indian, and he just walked in one day without being called for. He walked straight up to the house, and he introduced himself as a medicine man. By this point, poor Eddie’s family were desperate enough that they didn’t *care* who the stranger was, he offered them a shred of hope and they clung to it. All the man asked for pay was fifty dollars and dinner, so frankly, even at the high cost of fifty dollars in the nineteen-teens, they were glad to pay as long as they had their Eddie back.
They ate dinner with the man, all the time Eddie nervously, almost fearfully finishing his food, as though he was afraid that any moment might bring on another fit. By this time, the young man was a shell of himself, wracked by demonic torment, clinging to the hope of salvation like a drowning man to driftwood. When dinner was finished, the medicine man followed Eddie up to his bedroom, the rest of the family coming to watch.
Eddie was strapped down to the bed for safety, and the ritual began. The room filled with the smell of sage and tobacco, and other offerings to the spirits. The medicine man chanted in his native tongue, while Eddie screamed for blasphemies in any language his tongue could form. The boy’s mother sobbed, seeing her boy suffer so, fearing that he wouldn’t be helped by this any more than he was by the exorcism. Then the Indian took his medicine bag, and he slammed it down on the boy’s chest, holding it there as Eddie shook and screamed. Finally, he went still, exhausted by the ritual.
The medicine man drew the bag from the boy’s chest, and there were bloody spines caught in it, long as porcupine quills, though there were no wounds on Eddie’s body.
The Indian said that he had drawn the spirits out, and that he would go far from town before attempting to dispose of them, so that they would not find their way back. The family gratefully, though still somewhat nervously, paid him and let him be on his way.
And Eddie never again suffered from one of his fits.
Stealing Fire: An Alternate Interpetation of Prometheus
(Question: Did we see the creation of humanity in the opening of Prometheus? And if so, why did the Engineers point us at their WMD facility?)
Scott says that it doesn’t matter whether that was the creation of humans or not, and it may not have even been Earth.
HOWEVER! I’ve just been doing some serious thinking on this! And I’m going to subject all of you to it. Hah!
MEGA SPOILERS FOLLOW – IF YOU READ FURTHER, YOU WILL DISCOVER THE SECRET SHAPE OF THE SPACE SHIP AND WHAT’S UP WITH THE BLACK GOOP THE GUY IN THE START OF THE SHOW DRINKS… maybe. If I’m right. And if they do this in Prometheus 2, I am TOTALLY going to make Ridley Scott pay me for the idea. Or at least give me Charlize Theron’s phone number.
It’s also gonna get *really* TL;DR, I’m guessing, but stick with me here, and you may find a whole new appreciation of all the Alien films.
Now, not to pimp out another show, but the Now Playing Podcast has been doing an Alien retrospective leading up to Prometheus for their donors. And they presented a fascinating theory that really makes some intriguing sense and, if you run with it, actually ties the entire franchise together with a neat little bow (we will kindly ignore Alien vs Predator… though I get into that a bit towards the end too.)
If you notice in the beginning, the guy on Earth seeds the planet with his own DNA, but when we see the ship it is NOT the same design that we see later on in the film. Rather than a crescent, this is more of a saucer or disk. And, of course, obviously there had to be more than one Engineer dropped in order to tell humanity what to put in its drawings. Engineers who were probably picked up later on.
But, given the differing ship designs… what if that wasn’t the same group of Engineers? After all, we all know that certain groups of humans don’t particularly like each other – why would the Engineers be any more enlightened, especially since they’re apparently the numbnuts who managed to create the Xenomorphs?
I’m gonna be hitting some new-agey “secret history of mankind” stuff here, folks, so be ready for it.
The central thesis of the film is that, across the world, mankind was first seeded by the Engineers, and then tutored by them. This is the sort of thing that has actually come up across the entire globe in mythology. The Greeks have Prometheus, who stole fire and gave it to humanity, only to be punished in retribution. The Native Americans have Raven doing the same thing. The Japanese Shinto faith actually states that all humanity descended from the sky and took material form in the oceans. Early Judaism and Christianity speaks of “Giants in the Earth,” and the Book of Enoch goes into more detail as it speaks about fallen angels who took human lovers and taught them the secret arts of the angels in defiance of God’s will.
And, of course, there’s the whole “serpent, apple” thing, along with interpretations of Job that posit Satan as a more positive figure who tested God himself and was more than a smidge upset by the fact that God decided to screw around with his most faithful follower’s life for the sake of a bet. Sodom and Gomorrah has been interpreted, by some, as an orbital bombardment against a site declared too sinful to be allowed to exist.
The Egyptians believed that there was a schism amongst the Gods caused by the sky and earth falling in love, which had to be separated from each other.
And then we’ve got the Indian Vimayana and Ramayana. books holy to the Hindu faith that posit a grand war between flying chariots that used weapons of flame and light against each other.
All of these things fed into the works of such people as Erich von Daniken, a Danish researcher, and Zechariah Stitchen, who both advanced the theory that mankind was created by aliens from other worlds. Unable to grasp the concept of extraterrestrials, the ancients decided they were gods, and worshipped them.
But what is almost universal is the idea that some of the gods – particularly the ones who really cared about mankind and wanted to teach us, to make us more like them, were rebels against a greater authority, rebels who fought some manner of grand war against the original creators, who wanted to keep humanity largely subjugated, or even destroy them for learning these forbidden arts.
This was also an idea that Lovecraft toyed with, as both Shadow Out of Time and At the Mountains of Madness; ancient aliens arrive, and in the course of their wars with each other, create humanity. Perhaps of interest, Von Daniken was born right around the time these books were written.
If you’re interested in the idea, I recommend Stitchen’s work over von Daniken’s; Daniken is interesting, but a smidge more crackpotty than Stitchen was. I also have a list of shows I could point you at, but I’m starting to veer off the rails and into the orphanage.
Now, back to Prometheus!
In the opening, we see a disk-shaped ship that comes down from the sky, deposits an Engineer, who sacrifices himself in order to give birth to humanity. The ship (which descends on its side by the way), is an image incredibly reminiscent of both the Book of Ezekiel’s “wheels within wheels,” drawings related to the Vimayana and Ramayana, and of the Shinto legend that Japan was raised out of the waters by Izanagi, one of the two creator deities, who dipped his spear into the waters and drew forth life and land.
We quickly discover that this life-sacrificing Engineer (who treated his duty very much like a ceremonial, religious duty, I’d like to point out) was only one of many; his comrades apparently taught ancient man many things, like pyramid building, and even where to eventually go once they had the technology to make the journey.
When they get there, though, they find that apparently the Engineers changed their minds – that the life they’d created was due to be destroyed, and only the WMD that the Engineers had created breaking loose had earned Earth a 2000 year reprieve.
Subsequent discussion on the Cadaver Lab Facebook group has centered around things like why 2000 years ago would be when the Engineers changed their mind, or why they would have pointed humanity not at their homeworld, but instead at a mass WMD factory. My theory? They never changed their mind – the Engineers who created humanity, or at least the ones who went on to shepherd mankind, weren’t the same Engineers as we meet later.
The Engineers we meet at the beginning of the film are peaceful, and intend to create a race of relative equals. Unfortunately, to the Engineer race as a whole, this idea is a horrible blasphemy at worst, or at best the equivalent of making friends with your Roomba, or wanting to give cows and horses equal rights to humans (and teach them how to use uzis, just in case.) While they’re the same species, they’re a lot more like… say… North Korea and South Korea than (say) Wisconsin and Illinois. One wants to blow the ever-loving shit out of the other and everything they do, rather than the two of them having a friendly rivalry.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call them the Disks (the good guys, on our side), and the Crescents (the bad guys, whom we later encounter.)
The Disks show up, create humanity, and start teaching us how to get along. They teach us groovy skills like making pyramids, makeup, agriculture, weapons, armor… and astronomy. They know that, one day, the Crescents are going to show up. They know that there’s no way they can fight them off. But they hope beyond hope that, some day, their creations will be able to strike out and defend themselves. In one outpost after another, they make sure to leave a map to the primary WMD facility – basically, they leave us a map that says “when you guys can, go here.” Before they could add the phrase “and nuke the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure,” they get caught up in the battle that would lead to the Vimayana and Ramayana.
The Crescents arrive much sooner than anticipated, and a battle ensues. The war is of such a scale that the trauma is burned into the cultural memory of practically every culture on Earth. Fortunately for us, the Disks win, but in the process such damage is done to them that they are unable to continue shepherding us poor Earthlings. We’re left on our lonesome as the last of the Disks die out, but without knowing that the Disks are under control (or possibly distracted by something else), the Crescents are forced to resort to Plan B – their version of the nuke.
Just as the Disks viewed creating life as a religious duty, the Crescents seem to view the Xenomorphs as a similar being. A dangerous, ultimately destructive force. Ultimately adaptable, virtually unstoppable, something that CANNOT be allowed to exist in an “armed” state. Instead, they keep a carefully controlled room where it is impossible for the Xenomorphs to form, so long as it’s sealed. When the call is put out to unleash them, they take jars, and collect the black goop. They take those jars, put them on a ship, and then drop them onto the target in vast quantities. One of the jars, at least, will last long enough to create a Facehugger, and the process continues from there, as the Facehugger lays a Chestburster which matures into a Drone that has an instinctive, evolutionary imperative to be the ultimate survivor, destroying all non-Xenomorph life on the planet.
The mural that we see on the ceiling? That’s a warning. ”Don’t use this shit just for kicks, because if you do, one of these days you’re going to get one of these motherfuckers, and it’s all over for any chance of recovering the planet.” Because, really, once an Alien Queen is born, the planet’s a lost cause. You have to destroy the Queen, and any and all eggs, in order to have *any* chance of cleaning the rest of the Xenomorphs off of it. And then you have to kill those other Xenomorphs before one of them can lay any more eggs, which might contain another Queen.
Why it took another twenty eight, thirty thousand years for the Crescents to get around to dropping them off? It’s possible that they didn’t want to risk using the Xenomorphs. And we discover exactly why; apparently, when they prepared to do so, somebody dropped a jar, or one of them leaked, or something, and the Xenomorphs got loose. They proceed to do what they’re built to do, slaughtering EVERYTHING and then heading off. Presumably, before a Queen resulted, most of the Engineers on LV-223 had been slaughtered… but one *was* laid, and the escaping Engineer who unknowingly carried it inside of him would later land on LV-426 looking for help, just in time for the Queen to burst out of his chest, take out the Engineers *there*, and lay the clutch of eggs that the Nostromo would unfortunately encounter.
Queen dies during the following centuries, but the eggs remain, waiting for any prey to get close enough to launch a Facehugger onto.
As for how this ties into the rest of the series? Why did the Disks tiny amount of goop create humans, instead of Xenomorphs? Because the goop, when taken *as* the goop, doesn’t create Xenomorphs – or even Facehuggers. What it does, is it mutates whatever creature consumes it into the ultimate predator. The Disks, who knew what they were doing, made sure to take it in a way that would scatter the consumer’s remains to the waters, where they would evolve into a form of adaptable sentient life semi-naturally, rather than taking the “shortcut” of mutating into a facehugger (or a feral, zombie-like monstrosity, in the case of Fiifeld, who was clearly moving up the evolutionary ladder when they Flamed him.)
Note, if you will, that the Drone Xenomorphs don’t seem to be sentient. The Queens, feared by the Engineers, clearly are… and represent the “end game” of an evolutionary cycle beyond their control. The Engineers apparently view sentient life as a potential threat, and no wonder! Sentient life can talk back… and it can eventually figure out how to use the science you did, and fight back as well. When fed to a non-sentient being, the goop converts it into an extremely advanced version of itself; worms become facehuggers, etc. When fed to a sentient being, a sentient being will usually result, at least if taken in a controlled fashion.
An extremely advanced sentient being, capable of dominating its planet.
Just like humanity.
Humanity has been described as “a virus with shoes,” or even “a cancer upon the Earth.” Well, if we’re the result of a WMD, is it any wonder that we’re so destructive sometimes? And yet, tempered by the lessons and compassion of our forebears, we are capable of great acts of mercy, faith, and basically *good*. Unlike the Xenomorphs, even the Xenomorph Queen… humanity is capable of morality. It can choose to be good, or evil, rather than simply finding the most advanced way to survive, swarm, and slaughter.
And now we come around to those two movies… or is that five…? that nobody wants to think about.
The AvP series, and to a lesser extent the solo Predator films.
Yeah, I know, different franchise. But like Freddy vs Jason means that Freddy and Jason “have to” exist on the same Earth, AvP means that the Xenomorph and the Predator “have to” exist in the same universe. And, really, they fit perfectly!
Let’s posit that the Xenomorphs, after breaking loose on LV-223, don’t immediately wipe out the Engineers. It makes sense, after all; they would need time to spread and evolve, and getting from one Engineer world to the next would be just a *smidge* difficult after the first ones fell. Realizing that they’re dealing with a desperate situation, the Crescents take off for another planet, and do exactly what the Disks did. The result?
But, since they don’t have themselves coming to fuck things up, they manage to finish the plan. They teach the Predators to be the ultimate hunter, so that they can destroy the ultimate survivor. They take their brand new sentient weapon, point it at their Xenomorph-infested worlds, and basically say “sic ‘em.” The Predators, good little religious zealots trained to view killing Xenomorphs and defending Engineer technology as a sacred task, do exactly that. They find one Engineer world after another, annihilating Xenomorphs until they are bordering on extinct… but, by this point in time, their own creators have passed on, either through the simple fact of time passing or through a Predator rebellion. They miss LV-426 because, by all scans, there’s no real life there. They miss that one clutch of eggs… or do they?
At any rate, the Predators go back to their own business… but their own business is the hunt. There are Predators back home who support the hunters, yes, but ultimately they are a people with a duty. They travel the galaxies in their ships, taking trophies everywhere they can.
But, like humans, they fight with a sense of morality. Unarmed opponents? No sport, and moreover, no honor. Pregnant or immature targets? No sport, bad prey management, and moreover, no honor. (Predator, Predator 2)
Xenomorphs are a special case, since NO stage of the Xenomorph lifecycle is harmless, easy to kill, or “not sporting.” But the Pred’s can’t drive them completely to extinction because taking your first Xenomorph is basically the Hunter’s rite of passage. Taking a Queen Egg from Lv-426, they take careful precautions. They store their Queen on a planet where, if it gets loose, they don’t really give a shit.
And, every once in a while, they head on down to Antarctica and they fight the Xenomorphs, controlling the plague while maintaining their religious duty that a Hunter must take a Predator’s head.
Eventually, it gets out of control (AvP), and they send a specialist down to track down the fucking Predalien and take it down (AvP2). Of course, the *big* problem is that… well, the nature of the Predators *is* still to evolve, albeit gradually, which gives us the Boar Predators (Predators).
Ultimately… this theory, and a lot of running off at the brain, actually ties both franchises together with a nice, neat little bow. Eventually, a human gets hold of Engineer technology… and whatever Engineers are left have got questions to answer. And, when they answer those questions, they’d better hope she’s got a lot of good ol’ Christian forgiveness in her, or she might just push that button on the Xenomorph bomb bay… and start the whole mess over again. (Prometheus)
So – almost three-thousand words later, is this the idea at the core of Prometheus? Only a sequel will tell… but if it does, I want that damned phone number.