Sunday, November 15, 2015

Elements of Horror: Werewolves

This is one of the big ones. Werewolves may have fallen out of favor, in general, over the past fifty years or so but they remain a personal favorite of mine in the horror community. Vampires will seduce you and sip from your jugular, zombies will chow down on your flesh but werewolves will rip your guts out and leave you bleeding to death in a field.

When you think about it, Werewolves have a lot in common with vampires and probably don't have a reason to exist when vampires already do. Vampires can already shapeshift between the form of a man and a wolf. In some legends, they can even attain the half-human form that we normally associate with werewolves. But there is something soft and nearly feminine and/or erotic about being bitten by a vampire. There is nothing erotic or feminine about a werewolf.

Werewolves already take a scary part of nature, wolves, and up the ante by making them human sized. If you run into a wolf, he could probably mess you up with his fangs and claws. Now imagine a human sized wolf with the reach of a man. Those claws that can tear through your flesh like tissue paper are scary as hell. No one wants to be gutted like a fish.

Also, unlike a vampire, being a werewolf is blatantly referred to as a curse. If you become a werewolf, there are no cool fringe benefits, just waiting out the lunar cycle so you don't have to flee town again. Everyone who becomes a vampire seems to dig it, honestly. It is hard to fully embrace the werewolf lifestyle as a positive.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King posits that the Werewolf is scary because it is our id unleashed. In that regard, Werewolves are similar to the Hulk or Mr. Hyde. Instead of tapping into that mutant fear of that which we may become, we are reaching backwards into our primitive urges and fearing those. Almost everyone knows what it is like to be pushed past the point of rational thought and into pure rage (usually by someone we love). The werewolf is that side of us, lurking in the shadows, waiting to get out.

What I find fascinating about the Werewolf mythology is that it comes with that very harsh limitation of only happening once every 28 days or so. The rest of the time, you are just living your normal life. You go to work, kiss the wife and kids, hang out with friends...and then two to three nights in a row, you become a savage killing machine. And it isn't even like you operate by wolf rules, you just straight up murder some fools. This is isn't hunting or eating or defending territory, this is just becoming a land shark.

Movies have a lot of fun with the idea of total transformation, too. American Werewolf in London has one of the best transitioning scenes ever. Dog Soldiers likes playing with the idea that you can't tell anyone apart once they are wolfing out. If you are a werewolf, you become unrecognizable to yourself and others. It is like letting your inner asshole run wild with almost no repercussions (I mean, who even has a silver bullet?). In a way, it is even more seductive than being a vampire in that you can still exist in the day time. You still get to be a good person most of the time. Just those three pesky nights where you have to indulge your base whims. It really isn't that bad a trade. Until you get got.

Catch Up Elements of Horror: Technology Gone Wrong

Technology gone wrong, as a topic, blurs the lines between science fiction and horror even moreso than alien monsters. If the heart of horror is dealing with something that frightens us, then I would argue that technology run amok is a definite source.

Think about your daily life and how frustrating inanimate objects can be. Think about the copier in Office Space or that one red light that lasts a few seconds less than all the others. All technology horror is really a magnification of that frustration. There are these man-made devices that are supposed to make our lives easier but there is no reasoning with them when things go wrong. Stephen King, in particular, likes to make machines into villains well before we was even run over. Christine and Maximum Overdrive are two examples from his work where hapless victims are attacked by cars. You can't talk a car out of killing you and punching it will only get you so far.

Everyone will tell you that technology anxiety comes from the fear of being replaced by machines. People are afraid that we will become so dependent on machines that any sentience they gain will automatically screw us. Having lived through the Y2K scare, I can say that I am not particularly worried about machines going nuts. And I don't worry about being replaced by them. I think any fear I have of machines come from their failure to function. A faulty brake is scarier than a terminator to me.

One interesting wrinkle I have found is in the combination of horror and technology. For example, in the haunted submarine movie Below, you take the tension of a war time submarine mission and add in the technological threat that this complicated underwater boat can go wrong and kill you in a million ways. If a ghost can only slam a door shut or bump into something, that is enough to kill dozens of people in a submarine situation. Sometimes technology can create situations that are even more frightening.

Mostly, technology is the enemy of horror. Cell phones alone can provide maps, communication and flash lights in one small package. Every modern horror movie or story has to overcome this huge obstacle to being cut off from information or other people. Again, leave it to Stephen King to turn a flaw into a strength. In his novel, Cell, it is all about phones turning people into raving maniacs.

Fear of the future, fear of are starting to see a pattern here, right?

Friday, November 13, 2015


I was going to write a post tonight about why caves are scary but something legitimately evil has unfolded in Paris today. I don't know many details but I just read an article about an Eagles of Death Metal show that was happening in Paris. Even though the band got out, there were hostages and about one hundred people ended up dead after all was said and done. Picture that, going out to see one of your favorite bands when everything turns into blood and smoke. Maybe for a second you think it is part of the show, maybe you laugh for a second in disbelief....but then, there you are, with your friends, surrounded by hundreds of like minded music lovers, trapped in a room with armed people who only want to kill you. How do you escape? How can you ensure your friends/significant others escape?

I think we are failing, as a planet. I think petty, angry thinking is driving us mad. I think this war of all against all is a zero sum game. Don't get me wrong, I have been angry before. I have been angry enough that I might have even hurt someone if I had the opportunity. But I was always angry at a specific person. I am not sure what belief I could hold that would make me want to murder complete strangers. What roads are we creating for people where they believe that is legitimate place to end up?

The mindset is alien to me. As alien as any horror monster or concept, killing other people to spread terror is the most senseless of senseless acts. Like when school shootings happen over here and everyone says, "Let's not just mourn it, let's fix it." Well, how many terror attacks have to happen before we try to fix it? Every bomb we drop creates another dozen recruits for our enemies. Every life we take encourages others to take more of our lives. I don't see an ending and it saddens me. It saddens me that we only get one life and so many of us are getting it wrong.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Elements of Horror: Haunted House Attractions

I will do another entry about "real" haunted houses later but I wanted to address the classic Spook House before we moved too far out of normal Halloween season. There is a haunted house attraction I have never been to in Easley, SC. You always know it is about to open because they bought an old police car and splashed some paint on it to make it look like it has been in a bloody accident. Then, they prop a cardboard sign up against it indicating the date the attraction will open. As you travel up the busy 123 corridor, you can't help but do a double-take. For a second, you think you are seeing a real bloody accident.

That is kind of the charm of the haunted house in a nutshell, the visceral thrill of seeing something horrible and forbidden live and in your face. Unlike seeing it on television or in a movie theater, the haunted house attraction is appealing because there are no protections between you and the evil you are encountering. If, suddenly, all haunted house employees wanted to go ass wild and murder everyone who came through, it would be a minute before anyone caught on. Hell, you walk in on a room piled with corpses, you figure it is part of the show. Odds are good you would probably stand still, waiting to be axed with a stupid grin on your face if you are the first person in the room.

Haunts are based on the precarious social contract that we will not casually murder each other, even when it would be SO EASY. So, there is the element of danger that you don't get from horror movies. On top of that, you get an element of realism that is missing, too. Every year, you hear an anecdote about a guy who knows a guy who totally saw one of the Haunt workers accidentally hang herself in front of a cheering crowd or someone finds a real cadaver amid the decorations. You can't help but think, "Is all of this really fake or did someone slip a real dead body in here?" Not only might there be real bodies could become the next one.

Unlike movies and other fictions, you are also taking an active role in this adventure. You are getting in your car, waiting in line and finally walking through room after room in search of someone to scare the hell out of you. The only passive element is the lack of actual interaction and the various zombie shoots that have cropped up eliminate even that barrier to the horror.

I dream of a future with a fully immersive and interactive horror experience, one where you can fight off a masked maniac or hide from vampires until the sun comes up. As special effects get cheaper and the demand for more extreme experiences grows...who knows where haunts will end up?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Elements of Horror: Hillbillies

A major revelation came to me while I was living in Boston, once upon a time. Having been in the south my whole life, I was very familiar with the idea of hillbillies. They are, of course, wild and untamed mountain folk who don't abide no city slickers. I thought the phenomenon was purely southern, or southeastern. A radio comedy program I would listen to on an overnight shift as a security guard taught me that New Englanders have their own hillbillies, people from Maine. Just like we color people from Alabama or the mountains of Kentucky in a negative light, every region has another region they see as under-developed and just a step above the Wild West.

If being replaced by our children or robots or atomic mutants weren't enough to worry about, hillbilly horror shows us the disaster of going too far backwards. The threat isn't from the future, it arises from the stunted growth of our inbred past. As scary as scientific advancement can be, at least we aren't living out pure Darwinian struggles every day.

This leads me to an interesting point about horror, it almost never comes after you. Sure, giant monsters may smash your city but you never get into intimate danger until you step outside the cozy safety of normal society. Whether it is the vacationers of Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes, the day trippers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or just the poor dopes in 2,000 Maniacs, all victims of hillbillies or inbred mountain people trespass where they don't belong. There is an imaginary line around our civilization where laws don't apply anymore and the police fear to go.

The other horrific element to this is that there is no safety valve of make believe. Everyone knows they can drive about an hour in any direction and end up in dangerous territory. These people live among us (or at least near us) and could dispose of our bodies with ease. As more people opt out of society with home schooling or doomsday prepping, we are left staring at that one house on the block with the overgrown yard and wondering "What are they doing in there?"

In the worst case scenario, they are having sex with each other and producing mutant babies. They may also be stockpiling guns, developing extremist religious views or just beating on each other. Or maybe they are just down on their luck. We would rather assign sinister attributes to poor white trash because we are one missed payment away from being those people ourselves. This is a rare horror case of creating an Other out of a Same.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Elements of Horror: Giant Creatures

This one is not too difficult to figure out, feeling smaller than a predator is a pretty scary feeling. Being helpless to defend oneself against an onslaught of nature is not a great position to be in. Almost without fail, the giant creatures depicted in horror movies represent a flip-flopping of the power dynamic of the real world. Ants, moths, lizards, spiders, rats...anything we could normally just step on becomes terrifying at a larger size. Maybe we all feel a twinge of guilt killing any living thing, especially as carelessly as we would an ant. It is only just desserts that they come back and kill us.

Of course, things that are usually tiny are horrific when enlarged. Look at the mites that live in your eyelashes don't want to run into those in a dark alley. An insect writ large looks absolutely alien. These are, again primordial fears of not being the apex predator.

How about King Kong? Gorillas are already pretty formidable without being gigantic. I think the origins of Kong are a little more racist than the other giant creatures. From the depiction of the tribe on the island to the portrayal of Kong himself, something feels a little "watch out whitey" about the whole thing. I could be wrong, maybe the movie isn't about being afraid of things from far away coming to steal white women and ruin cities. No, who am I kidding, Kong is racist as hell.

My favorite kind of giant creature is a Lovecraftian monstrosity as seen in Cloverfield or as described in the Cthulu mythos. Unspeakable evils from beyond our dimension should be gigantic canvasses upon which we project our fears. Otherwise, they become manageable in some way. Say Cthulu was the size of a man. No matter how hideous or madness inducing it may to look upon him, a cage or cell should hold him fine. Make him gigantic and you have no choice but to deal with him.

Don't have much to say about this subgenre of horror. It is pretty self-explanatory. See you next time.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Elements of Horror: Creepy Kids

Enough of the broad topics, let's get back to some specific subgenres of horror. The creepy kids subgenre is a particularly fruitful one. The Village of the Damned, The Omen, Children of the Corn, The Innocents and many more horror stories benefit from the inclusion of a creepy kid. Even in movies like The Ring, where the creepy kid isn't the villain, they can add a lot to a story.

My dissection of this horror comes from second hand experience only as I have never been a parent. However, from what I understand, one of the scariest things in the world is taking on that responsibility for another human life. Movies like the Omen or Rosemary's Baby poke at a very specific fear, what if my child is pure evil?

Even for other movies where maybe the children didn't start off so bad, they are still scary. Even to those of us without children, we were all raised under the idea that harming a child is taboo. Therefore, when a kid gets possessed by the devil or develops telekinesis, how do you fight back? I think anyone short of a sociopath would at least have to pause before taking a shovel to a toddler's head, even if said toddler was trying to eat your brains. It is that moment of hesitation and weakness that is the downfall of all protagonists facing off against creepy kids. Sure, they are easy to physically over power, but what kind of monster would do that to a child?

There is also the idea that children don't know what kind of evil they are doing. Before the develop a good conscience, they are essentially little hedonism machines doing whatever makes them feel good. Just as we are slow to take action against a child, we are just as slow to attribute any genuine feelings of malice to them. This lets evil jerks like McCauley Culkin in the Good Son get away with just about anything.

Aside from the prohibitions against harming or thinking ill of children in general, things get super horrible when it is your kid befriending a vampire. If it comes down to the fate of the world and murdering your own flesh and blood, who among us could easily make that call?

Creepy children touch a lot of sensitive areas for horror fans. What they lack in physical menace they more than make up for in psychological and emotional trauma. They are one of the hardest monsters to dehumanize and one of the easiest to let get away with things.

365 Catch Up Elements of Horror: Darkness

We are going old school on this one, primordial even. Most horror stories, with very few exceptions, take place in the darkness. There is a nice, simple reason for this. Evolution. See, when we were cave people, just trying to get by in this workaday world as hunters or gatherers, we were super vulnerable. No stab proof jackets or safety equipment existed. Also, no door locks as there were no doors. And damn our biology but, we have to sleep about once a day or we go insane. The super simple, stupid advantage of light over dark is that one can see in the light and not in the dark. Adoy.

So, imagine you are a cave person and you A) can't see in the dark and B) have to sleep at some point. It just makes sense to sleep when you can't get anything productive done and to be awake while the environment is conducive to you fulfilling your requirements. There is one major drawback, this leaves you totally vulnerable. I kind of have to admire cave man logic here because, you sleep at night and leave yourself vulnerable because you were already vulnerable. All the things you hunt and kill with ease in the day can suddenly hunt you with greater ease when the light goes away. Wolves and giant cats and all sorts of vicious beasts can see you in the dark even though you can't see them. You could stay up all night, trying to fend them off blindly and then sleep when they can still see you or you can get some rest until the sun comes up and the odds become more even.

So, in our primitive minds, dark equals dangerous and light equals safe. Thus it has always been but it may not always be like that. Night time is no longer as dangerous to us. Thanks to electricity, we have lights...lots of lights. We can stay productive after the sun goes down. Hell, we can stay productive 24 hours a day. It is still easier to sneak up on someone in the darkness, but we have drastically reduced the amount of darkness in the world at any given time.

Horror movies love to take the safety of light away from us. This is the informational deficit I was talking about at its most pure. You are getting very limited sensory information in the dark. Literally anything can be in those shadows. My favorite horror movies (like Paranormal Activity or The Orphanage) use deep shadows or lack of visual information to make us scare ourselves. We have this fear of the dark built into us, a good horror story just exploits that. So from the sunless caverns of the Descent to the candle blowing out in the attic in the Exorcist, darkness is the last place you want to be when the monsters come.

365 Catch Up Elements of Horror: Dreams

Ironically, I feel asleep writing the entry on dreams. My computer battery then died and I was left without a means of easy typing all weekend (these entries are a bitch to do on a cell phone keyboard). So, I will be doing some catch up entries this week.

Dreams are one of those freakish biological phenomena of which we have almost no more understanding now than we did 2000 years ago. We kind of get the where and the when but the how and the why still have not been provided by science. As such, this is one of the areas of knowledge deficit that is currently impossible to overcome. If Shapeshifters or the middle east are mysteries that can generate horror, then dreams certainly can.

In horror stories, dreams are often ways of relaying information the protagonist would not ordinarily receive. Perhaps a dead relative is coming to give advice or a ghostly figure just points somewhere you need to look. Plot advancement is a handy trick for dreams because you really don't have to explain how they are working. Your guess is literally as good as mine.

In horror movies, dreams almost always represent a fake out. If you see the plot resolved or the protagonist die waaaaay too early in a movie's runtime, you can almost be assured that most recent plot development was part of a dream. Dreams are also great for flash forwards and flashbacks. But do dreams serve any narrative purpose beyond exposition, time killing and fake out scares?

I believe, in a broader sense, they do. To include a dream sequence in your story is to announce that the world of the film might not operate by waking logic and rational behavior. Dreams can get even more twisted and bizarre than any vampire or ghost story.  In my favorite horror movie, The Innkeepers, there is a fake scare dream sequence that serves another narrative purpose besides a cheap thrill. One of the main tensions in the movie is the conflict between what is really happening and what is a product of the main character's imagination. That the hotel is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who died waiting for her fiance leads to a dream sequence where the protagonist sees the ghost of the woman in her bedroom. The fact that the woman is in a wedding dress and kind of looks like a scary video her friend showed her earlier seems to imply that this is the mental projection of what the main character thinks a ghost should look like. Therefore, towards the end of the film, when that same ghost makes a return appearance looking exactly the same, we are left to ask if this is still just a mental projection.

I would be remiss not the mention the Nightmare on Elm Street movies in this entry. Wes Craven really took the ball and ran with it in regards to people feeling vulnerable in their sleep. Freddy Krueger is evil incarnate and pretty much impossible to kill in the first film. Later movies would allow his would-be victims to learn dream fighting techniques but those movies also turned Freddy into a dark Bugs Bunny surrogate. That first flick is still pretty hardcore and taps directly into the idea that dreams can influence reality just as much as the other way around.

To take this even further is the very real phenomenon of night terrors (which I have suffered from). I have spoken about Sleep Paralysis before but, to me, Night Terrors are different. When I am suffering a night terror, I think I am awake and seeing something in front of me. Unlike sleep paralysis, I am anything but paralyzed. I often jump up, scream or start taking swings at the imaginary things in the room (which has led to at least one of my break-ups). This is that dangerous place where dreams meet reality, I can't tell the difference and I am in full control of my body. Spooks me out just thinking about it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Elements of Horror: Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters are as old as stories themselves. Lots of monsters in ancient mythology were shapeshifters. Trickster gods like Loki or even the horny Zeus were known to change shapes at will to mislead hapless humans into bad decisions. I have talked a lot about the fear of the Other but Shapeshifters get at an even deeper fear that lies beneath the Other, ignorance.

Being caught physically short is scary enough but it can happen to any of us on the best of days. Jump scares in movies are a tiny taste of that idea, that we aren't ready for whatever is coming after us. To be physically ill-prepared is one thing but to have no intellectual grasp on a situation is even more frightening. For example, what's scarier: knowing that zombies are real and are trying to eat you or wondering why your father is lumbering toward you with blood all over him? At least in the first scenario, you know where to start (barricade the house!) but in the second, you are in a knowledge deficit that could easily lead to your death. Is my father ok? Is he a zombie? Are zombies even real? Whose blood is that? Was he hurt and that explains the lumbering or is he undead and shambling towards me? Do you run or go help him? I think the second scenario has much more intrinsic anxiety if not fear.

Shapeshifters tap right into that ambiguity. If you were to even know there was such a thing as a shapeshifter, how would you ever prepare yourself for them? They could literally be anything or anyone. Who could you trust? That's the real heart of the horror with something that shifts shape. Not only can you not trust anyone or anything you meet, you can't even trust your own senses to give you proper warning.

Like mutants, shapeshifters are also personifications of our fear of change. We like things reliable and sane. We need to know that the person we lie down next to at night will be the person we wake up beside. Other monsters, like Werewolves and Vampires, have a degree of shapeshifting within their own power set because it is a universally creepy idea that one thing can become another without us knowing.

Having recently watched 31 horror movies, I can tell you that Shapeshifters are making a comeback. Movies like Wolfcop and Honeymoon play around with the idea that the people you know aren't always what they seem.

If you could look like anyone else for one day, who would it be and why?

Next time: Dreams!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Elements of Horror: Mutants

Of all the creatures in horror, mutants (besides maybe killer robots) are the most modern of monsters. Mutation, as a concept, didn't even take a firm hold until Darwin. Sure, things that cause people to change are always a good place for horror to start but they were formerly all about magic. With the coming of the atomic age, mutants took on a whole new role, to reflect our fear of messing with nature.

Now, mutations that come with inbreeding have been a good source of horror for quite awhile. And, in a later installment, I plan to tackle the inbred mutant clans of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. The mutants I want to talk about tonight are descendants of the Morlocks from The Time Machine. Instead of mankind having devolved into mutant beasts over the course of millennia, science can create mutations in the blink of an eye (or the flash of a bomb).

Post-Apocalyptic scenarios are rife with mutants. The Omega Man is a great example. After a nuclear conflagration, Charlton Heston is the only normal human left in a world filled with mutant cannibals. Ironically, the anti-war statements of lots of mutant movies gets lost in the violence that is inherent in the storytelling. Be peaceful, but here is some conflict is an age old storytelling trick.

Unlike Aliens or Mummies, the trick of the mutant is that they are us. If we had just had our evolution tweaked a little here, developed some evil traits there, we might have developed into subterranean beasts like those in The Descent (seen above). Only with the relatively recent popularity of characters like the X-Men have mutations been seen as a potentially positive (if not downright awesome) experience to undergo.

Like the Gothic killers of Poe, mutants are representative of all our worst traits, heightened and multiplied. Robert Browning's Freaks may have tried to humanize the workers at a carnival freak show but they are still used as nightmare fuel by the horrific ending. Almost without fail, the development of a mutation (which should signal an advancement in evolution) brings out the primitive and animal instincts of a humanoid creature.

Speaking of animal, this is a little side note. Animals get mutated in movies a lot, too. Usually, in movies with an environmental message like The Prophecy, these super aggressive animals become another form of scolding us for too much science. If we didn't meddle with nature, we wouldn't have to deal with the human-looking cockroaches from Mimic.

This continues to speak to a theory that is developing in my mind, that horror is a rather conservative medium. Fears of outsiders categorized aliens and mummies but it is fear of progress that makes mutants scary. Best not to rock the boat. Best not to upset the status quo. Change can only lead to getting your face chewed off.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Elements of Horror: The Mummy

Believe it or not, Mummies used to be considered one of the big boys of the classic monster posse. You may think of them now as lame proto-zombies but the fear they represented is very different from that of the Walking Dead.

We talked yesterday about The Other and how aliens embody this idea of something wholly outside humanity. The Mummy is about something uglier and closer to home, xenophobia. Before the world got small and the revolutionary Arab Spring included twitter updates and youtube videos, Egypt was a mysterious land. That every school kid is taught the wonders of the Egyptian Empire and that such opulence could be reduced to a pile of crumbling pyramids is mind-boggling. There but for the grace of god goes our own civilization.

Foreigners as Others is not unique to the Mummy (vampires were largely European at the dawn of horror) but the reliance on mysticism is. Up until very recently, the popular view of Egypt was of a backwards, superstitious land of camels and turbans. Hell, they probably practiced some sort of magic over there, too.

Also, it was no coincidence that the rise of the Mummy as a horror figure coincided with the discovery of King Tut's tomb. This burst of ancient folklore got all tangled up in the popular idea that the tomb itself was cursed. That mystery that Egypt was veiled in made it just believable enough that they could embalm a person in such a way that they would rise again to kill.

Boris Karloff's Mummy was an Egyptian priest who dabbled in dark, arcane arts. Upon returning from the dead, his whole scheme was restore his power through blood rituals. The iconic mummy we think of when we think of the monster (like the dude above) was only in the movie for a few minutes. The rest of the time, Karloff looked like a normal man who had been left in the sun too long. Even that first movie realized that, while it would be creepy to see a wrapped up corpse move, you need more to make a good monster.

In the 1980s, The Monster Squad movie poked fun at just how ineffectual the Mummy was by having him unravel into useless bones. It wasn't until the Indiana Jones flavored Mummy movie from the 1990s that the creature returned to its theatrical roots. Again, to make the evil priest formidable, the filmmakers gave him magical powers, man-eating bugs and servant mummies that looked more like the old-fashioned creature. No longer a horrific figure, the new Mummy was a special effect laden super villain in the serial tradition.

Really, knowledge has sort of ruined the allure of this once proud monster. We now recognize that Egyptians aren't magical and dead bodies, no matter how well preserved, only really work in large numbers. Perhaps a hundred years from now, the Mummy will have fully faded into obscurity.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Elements of Horror: Aliens

On a personal note, I have decided to abandon my NaNoWriMo for this year. The story just wasn't ready to be told yet and forcing it out has been very damaging. I will continue to do these Elements of Horror Blog entries, though. Although now with a more personal touch since I am not writing in the voice of a character.

Now, in regards to aliens, I have a theory about horror that it taps into our collective narcissism and low self-esteem. Aliens are almost a perfect example of this idea. For aliens to be a threat to us, they have to exist. I think the smart money now is on the idea that somewhere out there in the universe, there must be an inhabited planet besides our own. That these other life forms would be superior to us demonstrates those low self-esteem blues. That they would also mean us harm or want our resources is very narcissistic. As we will see when I get into some of the more religiously rooted horror, I think we, as a species want it both ways. We want to be the apex predator but we deeply fear that we are not.

I watched a really great documentary recently called The Nightmare (as I mentioned in the opening blog). It talks about sleep paralysis and how many people see the same creatures coming after them while they are in the throes of their illness. These creatures look like the dapper gent I have posted above. That some people describe them as demons and others as aliens just says to me that they are The Other. Whatever our world view secretly is (secular or non), that is how our mind would interpret such organisms.

The Greys, that is the alien pictured above, are creepy but also vaguely human. Skin, eyes, nostrils, a mouth, walking upright, two arms and two legs...these things are a slightly distorted reflection of us. Why do we assume an alien would just start probing and experimenting with us as soon as they find us? Because, duh, that is what we would obviously do to them. As humans, we take apart and examine things we don't understand...why wouldn't an alien?

I would have to wonder how colonialism affected all this, too. As empires were spreading and assimilating, did that permanently change how we would have to view the Other? If Native Americans had an encounter that they could attribute to beings from beyond our world, I imagine they would not see them as conquerors but just another life form to share all of existence with.

I think the less human an alien is portrayed, the scarier they are. While greys are chilling and Predators are the off world embodiment of that jerk who killed that famous lion, HR Giger's Alien is probably the most horrific alien. It doesn't have technological superiority, it isn't smarter than is the equivalent of a shark or a vicious cuckoo bird, existing only to eat and reproduce. James Cameron expanded that vision into one of a creature that lives in glorified ant or bee colonies. This isn't a twisted reflection of us coming to kill us from beyond the stars, it is a twisted version of nature itself.

Probably the first, best example of alien horror is HG Wells' War of the Worlds. Aliens come all the way to Earth to blast us to cinders using ray beams. This is the alien as conquistador set up. Instead of following the historical patterns of aliens carrying rare diseases to which we are not immune, Wells made it the other way around. Our diseases are lethal to them and our salvation comes from dumb luck rather than ingenuity.

I think it is telling that, 100 years after Wells' story, the movie Independence Day followed a similar plot but hinged on human endeavor to win the day. I think the main difference is that Western society was emerging from the industrial revolution at the time of the War of the Worlds. Life even 100 years earlier was all but unrecognizable. Our fears were that we would meet something so far beyond us as we were beyond the indigenous people of the Amazon. By Independence Day, we figure we can give any alien technology a run for its money if we just give Jeff Goldblum a laptop to work with.

That's why I would say that we have lost the more horrifying aspects of alien stories when they are told as large scale invasions. Only bodysnatchers taking our identities or abductors threatening our anal integrity can really scare us. But, in this regard, how are aliens any different than other monster?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Gothic Horror

Horror, as a genre, is relatively new in the world of literature. Before the 1800s, there were monsters and demons and horrific acts in fiction. In Beowulf, what is Grendel but a forerunner to the Creature from the Black Lagoon? These monsters would do monstrous things but, inevitably, good triumphed over evil. You could read all the ghastly stories you wanted but you knew the hero would live, the creature would be vanquished and no ambiguity would be found.

If there is a mother and father of modern horror, they are Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. With Frankenstein, Shelley created a story where the creature is the sympathetic character. With the writings of Poe, he was just as likely to put you into the head of a murderer as he was a hero. With this shift in perspective, we reached the modern horror tradition.

Still, for all their efforts, neither Poe nor Shelley lingered in the idea of the supernatural. Although it could be hinted at, their horrors were based on science, psychology, nature and medical oddities. Torture and murder and madness could be found in the tales of Poe but not an actual ghost or goblin.
Spinning from their tradition, Ambrose Bierce, Bram Stroker and Henry James would go beyond the earthly plane and create macabre tales of ghosts, vampires and other monstrosities. Oddly, it is almost this early that the line between literary fiction and the genre ghetto of “horror” was established. One could write about horrific things befalling normal people but as soon as you brought a ghost or monster in, you were writing populist trash for degenerates.

Using other literature as a guidepost, it is easy to see that mental illness was something people found disturbing and inexplicable. In Jane Eyre, a certain psychotic is locked away in an attic, too unstable for the outside world. For Poe to not only frankly discuss the actions of the insane but also to let you inside their thought processes was revolutionary. Think about the Tell-Tale Heart or the Cask of Amontillado. Both stories are told from a first person perspective of a murderer. However, the cold, calculating evil of the narrator of Amontillado could not be more different than the fevered rantings of the narrator of the Tell-Tale Heart. Poe seemed to have a unique talent to sympathize with murderers.

I would argue that other authors could sympathize with murderers as well but they lacked the artistic fortitude to explore those darker thoughts. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect example of removing the humanity from the pursuit of evil. A failed experiment leaves Jekyll helpless to prevent his transformations into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. While the argument can be made that the evil of Hyde was present in Jekyll all along, Stevenson presents evil as an external curse brought on by science rather than an expression of internal horror.
Poe, by humanizing the horror, made it one bad day away from your own fate. Even those who came after Poe (like Machen, Bierce and Chambers) went to great pains to separate the reader from the horrific events they describe. Try reading a horror short by Ambrose Bierce. Almost without fail, each tale begins with a long and useless description of how the narrator happened across an old friend who invites him to tea. Over tea, the old friend then regales the narrator with a spectacular story involving yet a third person who relayed this amazing story to the old friend.

I have tried for years to figure out the reasons for such an approach. Normally, when dealing with horror, you have to contend with storytelling techniques that make sense. For example, once Jonathan Harker goes full vampire in Dracula, his letters home cease to be a source for the narrative. Likewise, you can’t have your narrator die and still tell the story in past tense unless you like extra cheese with your horror fiction. So, perhaps, adding in layers of storytellers makes the ending less predictable. However, you still have to have someone survive to tell the tale or it just doesn’t work. Why third person omniscient narration was unpopular, I have no idea.

In the end, one of my favorite innovations of Poe was his dwelling in the darkness of depression. Lost loves and regrets are the ghosts that haunt his characters. There is nothing supernatural about how his narrator mourns for the loss of Lenore or Annabelle Lee. That his loss drives him mad, that is a horror I think we all can relate to.

But here is the rub with all fiction: do you want to see yourself reflected or do you want to escape into a world you don’t recognize? I wonder how many of Poe’s readers in the 1800s were well-adjusted sorts who just loved to dabble in the depravity of his fictions? Did the authorities consider his work to be a dangerous read for someone already on the brink of madness? I wish I knew.
At any rate, the romanticism of the 19th century would soon give way to ever more metaphorical and metaphysical threats to hapless fictional characters. Next time, I want to jump into the deep end of the pool that HG Wells helped build…I’m going to look at the horror behind aliens.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Welcome to Halloween 365!

Hello everyone!

Welcome to Halloween 365. This blog is all about Halloween and also has nothing to do with Halloween. Allow me to explain...

Halloween is my favorite holiday. We'll get into why in a minute. The month of October always fills full of potential to me. Like anything is possible and I can achieve whatever I want. I want this feeling to last all year. As such, I have designed this blog to deal with keeping that Halloween feeling alive. Some friends may join me for guest articles. As it is, I have decided that Halloween is, for me, about 12 things.

1) Identity- You choose who to be for one day a year. Why not make yourself who you want all the time?

2) Mortality- No holiday gets us closer to the grim visage of death, but should we fear the reaper?

3) Escapism- All holidays are about this to a certain degree but I would argue that, along with the identity aspect, Halloween allows for a deeper level of escapism.

4) Wish Fulfillment- This kind of goes along with identity but, in addition to being who we wish we could be, we also behave in ways we normally wouldn't.

5) Horror- duh. But separate from mortality as there are fates worse than death bouncing around on Halloween.

6) Fun- I mean, for real. What is Halloween without some fun?

7) Exploring Evil- A safe way to peer into the darker sides of our souls.

8) Indulgence- Eating sweets, getting drunk, hookups...this is one of the more indulgent holidays.

9) Tradition- This holiday is perfect for creating annual traditions.

10) Creativity- How creative can you get? This holiday will let you know.

11) Fear- The only holiday that encourages you to face your fears.

12) Friends- The antidote to all the fears and evil is spending time with those you love.

So, all of my posts will be dealing with one of these topics. I may divide them by month. I may just write about whatever I feel like.

Today is All Saint's Day and it is pretty special because I am moving into a new house (for me). It is actually the home of some friends of mine who are working several states away for the foreseeable future.  I feel like I am in the Shining. Not just because I am moving into a fully furnished home to be a caretaker. But also because this month is NaNoWriMo.

For those who don't know, that is National Novel Writing Month. I wrote a horror novel a couple of years ago and just finished with rewrites this year. That has given me the courage to write a new one this year. So, just like Jack Torrance looking for inspiration in the Overlook Hotel, here I am moving into a place by myself for the winter in hopes of finishing a second novel.

Now, you may be thinking, how the hell are you going to keep up a Blog and write XXXX number of words daily? Well, this is a little stroke of genius I had. My book will contain chapters that are also blog entries. So, every day, I will add to the content of this blog and knock out some of my NaNoWriMo word count at the same time. Just to let you know, the blog entries will be about all things horror, so this blog will be pretty one track for a bit.

As another little cap on the Halloween 2015 experience, I try to watch 31 horror movies I have never seen before every October. Here is the complete list of the films I watched with a 1 to 5 star rating by each one.

1. Would You Rather- ***
2. ABCs of Death 2- ***
3. Banshee Chapter- *
4. Preservation- ****
5. + Ones- ***
6. Creep- ***
7. Beneath- ****
8. Crave- *
9. Proxy- **
10. VHS Viral- **
11. Dead Snow 2- ***
12. Crimson Peak- ****
13. Extinction- ***
14. Honeymoon- **
15. Intruder- ***
16. Wolfcop- **
17. Ginger Snaps- ***
18. The Voices- **
19. The Nightmare- *****
20. American Terror- *
21. At the Devil's Door- *
22. The Houses October Built- ****
23. The Pact 2- **
24. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead- ***
25. The Babadook- ***
26. Spring- *****
27. The House at the End of the World- *
28. Let Us Prey- **
29. Twixt- *
30. Late Phases- ***
31. The Haunting- ***

My two favorites were The Nightmare and Spring, neither of which are solid horror. The first is a documentary about sleep paralysis that hit super close to home with me. Your mileage may vary. The latter is a romance with elements of horror. Anything 3 stars and up I would say is worth seeing. Less than that, watch at your own risk. Be back tomorrow with a book chapter!