Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Tuesday, October 31, 2023
ON THE TWENTY-NINTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN (delayed post) ... I put together and finished "The Feeble Light of Dreams," as you can see below. My plan had been to do at least four of these illustrated poems, but as usual, my monsters wound up eating much more of my time than expected.
Meanwhile, I continued watching heaps of horror flicks, including the following group of non-supernatural but also not traditional slasher ones: The Invitation (2015); The Beast in the Cellar (1971); High Tension (2003); Creep (2014); and Dementia (1955).
The Invitation is another one I've had on my watch-list since it came out, but put off due to lack of interest in the subject matter, in this case a yuppie dinner party gone awry. The first two thirds seemed to confirm my suspicions, but the cold and sudden brutality of the betrayal that precipitates the climax won me over, making the long windup worthwhile.
The Beast in the Cellar is similarly very dull until the last third, when it is redeemed by a flip of the script with the identity of the monster, contrary to both narrative and social prescription. This British work of biddie horror masquerading as a subhuman maniac slasher has some great ideas, but it would have worked much better as 45-minute Tales of the Unexpected episode than a 90-minute feature.
High Tension has the opposite problem: its first two thirds functions as a bone-crunchingly well-executed (ahem) slasher that is fatally tripped up by a nonsensical "twist" with no clear point (other than maybe casual homophobia?). Maybe the twist was more effective in 2003-- plots where it turns out one of the main characters was the whole time a figment of another character's imagination, with the latter actually carrying out all the hallucinated character's actions, have since become obnoxious and laughable through overexposure.
Creep doesn't have either problem: it is incredibly tense and hypnotic from beginning to end. It's a first-person mockumentary/found-footage film that serves as a claustrophobic character study of the titular psychopathic Creep, who has enlisted the POV videographer through a Craig's List ad to come out to his remote cabin and document a day of his life before his supposed imminent demise from cancer. Though there is no gore until the final shot, the emotional violence of Creep is more jarring than most slasher kills.
Dementia is an awesome '50s art horror film with no dialog. It documents the nightmare of young woman lost in a labyrinthine expressionist city populated by film-noir archetypes. Every moment is beautifully shot and contributes to the propulsive narrative's momentum, which mirrors the way the protagonist is carried along by the dictates of dream logic and her own urges. It was shot outside the studio system, self-funded via the filmmaker's profits from the theater he owned in Portland (the J.J. Parker theater, which is still operating as the Guild Theater on Taylor and 9th). As a result, it mystified critics at the time and was pegged as an experimental film by an outsider artist, which it really isn't. It's a straightforward and entirely legible work of noir-infused, Twilight-Zone-esque horror that just happens to have no dialog.
Monday, October 23, 2023
ON THE TWENTY THIRD NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I finished drawing this, the last drawing for "The Feeble Light of Dreams." On to the next sonnet!
Since previously, some of the horror movies I've watched include the following supernatural witchy ones: To the Devil a Daughter (1976), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), The Devil's Candy (2017), A Dark Song (2016), and Saint Maud (2019).
To the Devil a Daughter is a mash-up of The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary's Baby. It is very much an attempt by the legendary Hammer Productions to eschew their usual gothicism and cash in on in the 70s satanic possession craze. The result is an awkward, often dull narrative that nevertheless contains elements that Hammer can always be counted on to nail: an awesome Christopher Lee performance as a warlock cult leader; charming and surprisingly bloody creature effects; and innovative ritual sacrifice scenes.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Devil's Candy, A Dark Song, and Saint Maud are all recent indy horror films that critics lauded and horror fans embraced, as reflected by their frequent appearances on best-of lists. However, I've put them all off until now, and as it turns out, in all but one case, my lack of interest was justified. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is well-made, competently written, and stars the highly entertaining Brian Cox. But it really fails to capitalize on its setting, instead betraying a weird prudishness toward both disgusting anatomical detail and the suggestion of salacious deviance. It's also unclear why the reveal of centuries-old witchcraft as the culprit comes so late, given that this is the film's only intriguing aspect. The Devil's Candy is also well-made but fairly rote and safe in delivering its whispering demon house narrative. It drops a lot of references to metal music culture, with a metal-infused score, but since metal has no clear and direct connection to the plot, the main purpose with this aspect seems to be to pander. Saint Maud is well-made too, even exceptionally well-made, with powerful performances by its leads. But once again, it could have gone much further with its subject matter, which in this case is monomaniacal religious delusion. I'm not sure why these three films are so widely recommended when God Told Me To, Carrie, The Shining, Necromantik, and various other classics do so much more with their respective topics.
A Dark Song, however, is worthy of all the praise it's received: its exhaustively well-researched tale of a protracted and brutal occult ritual both pulls no punches and is truly unique.
Wednesday, October 18, 2023
ON THE SEVENTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I continued working on this, the last drawing for "The Feeble Light of Dreams."
I also continued watching a bunch of horror movies, which included revisiting some I hadn't seen for a long time: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), Q The Winged Serpent (1982), The Night Flier (1997), and The Spider Labyrinth (1988).
Killer Klowns is kind of like Human Centipede in that its concept alone suffices to immortalize it, but its execution is mediocre. It does have some truly creepy vignette scenes in the middle, though, when individual Klowns are out on the town. This movie absolutely terrified me as a kid, particularly the idea that some homovorus creature could pass as a grotesque human and perform light entertainment to get closer to us. Something about the mocking tone of horror comedy made it much scarier to me than straight-faced horror.
Q The Winged Serpent is a Larry Cohen classic that I remember being played on late night cable a lot. It's one of the few giant monster movies that actually works as horror: first, because the titular flying creature is worshipped by a cult that offers it gruesome human sacrifices; and second, because the creature stalks, snatches, and devours individual victims on rooftops, diving unseen out of the clouds from above. Very fun, weird movie!
The Night Flier is another one that I would see parts of on late night TV. It's the only TV adaptation of a Stephen King work that is both good and less than 2 hours long. And Miguel Ferrer is great in it as a compellingly detestable tabloid reporter.
Finally, The Spider Labyrinth is an Italian horror film that should be much more renowned, up there with other late 70s-80s Italian classics like Suspiria, The Beyond, and Demons. It's the only Italian film that really understands and nails Lovecraftian horror. In fact, it's one of the few films period that accomplishes this so well with an original narrative. And that narrative-- wherein a young anthropology professor's struggle to escape his predicament in a strange Eastern European town only serves to entangle him more and more in the seductive web of a spider god cult-- is perfect. I wish there were 100 more movies with exactly this plot.
Saturday, October 14, 2023
ON FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I finally finished this, the drawing for the third stanza. Only the coda left.
While working on it, I also watched a bunch more horror movies, including: Humanoids from the Deep (1980), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), The Human Centipede (the first one), and The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014). Humanoids from the Deep is notorious for its lecherous fish people, but I just found it disappointing: even the monster impregnation scenes were boring. The Human Centipede is obviously one of the most notorious exploitation films of the 21st century, but this reputation is entirely down to its concept (which is admittedly stomach churning). The actual movie is merely competent and much less disturbing than one would think. Meanwhile, the notorious I Spit on Your Grave is too disturbing for its own good, shocking us by venturing way out of its depth, into horrific trauma that its cartoonish slasher script can't handle.
But I'd definitely recommend The Taking of Deborah Logan. This is an excellent found footage horror film that both avoids the common absurdities of the sub-genre and delivers lots of surprises and genuine scares. It's best known for one "nightmare fuel" shot near the end, but it's no one-shot wonder-- instead, that shot is indicative of the creativity of the whole thing.
Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Catching up ...
ON THE FIFTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I watched easily the best Gray-alien horror movie, Dark Skies (2013). It does everything right. We never see the aliens fully or up close. To the extent they are shown, they look more like shadow people than typical rubbery sci fi aliens. Instead, the horror lies in what each member of the protagonist suburban family fails to remember about the traumatic intrusions they have been experiencing. This horror manifests in the harrowing psychophysical side-effects and fragmentary evidence of their brains being edited and remixed every night. Throughout, the Grays remain both incomprehensible and omnipotent, so that the characters never stop feeling as helpless as field mice under an owl's shadow. Dark Skies never even shows us a ship, wisely withholding any definite details that could trigger disbelief.
And by disbelief, I don't mean the usual kind that we suspend in order to engage with supernatural fiction, but rather a stronger disbelief that describes the bounds of real plausibility. After all, this is what makes the Gray alien an interesting monster compared to ghosts or vampires or squirming abominations-- it retains a real plausibility for our secular world that the other legendary creatures have lost. The problem with so many Gray-alien horror films, though, is that they break one or more of the viewer's private rules of reality, which differ for everyone but are always far more fragile than rules of fictional coherence.
Through flexible ambiguity and unrelenting focus on the characters' subjective experiences, Dark Skies somehow doesn't break even the strictest of these rules. And besides passing this crucial test, Dark Skies is just a really well-made thriller, with strong performances, nuanced characterization, and detail-attentive storytelling. Probably owing to a distaste for the subject matter at the time, it was poorly reviewed upon release, but it has since received positive reassessment and become a cult favorite.
ON THE SIXTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I went back and watched the 1975 NBC TV-movie, The UFO Incident, which is a dramatization of Barney and Betty Hill's testimony in their 1961 case of alleged abduction. All subsequent instances of purported alien abduction derive from their paradigmatic encounter narrative. Flying saucer sightings had become a major public phenomenon by the 1950s, coinciding with the height of Cold War paranoia about Soviet spy-craft and nuclear weapons, along with the golden age of alien invasion B-cinema. But before the Hills' testimony (excepting a couple of cases in Brazil that diverge markedly from the canonical tropes) there had never been a serious claim of direct contact and prolonged interaction with the extraterrestrial pilots of the saucers. With the Hills, all of the classic elements appear fully formed: sighting a UFO overhead while driving down a lonely road at night; electrical disturbances in the car; the deliberate suppression of memory of the subsequent abduction, resulting in "missing time"; recovery of the suppressed memories under hypnosis; small gray-skinned humanoids with very large eyes who communicate telepathically and control the minds of the experiencers; capture and conveyance aboard the alien craft, where the abductees are stripped, probed, and surgically altered in some sort of medical lab; and a concurrent rash of UFO sightings in the area. Even the proper name for the Grays, Zeta Reticulans, derives from Betty Hill's claim that she was shown a star map to the beings' home world, which she later drew and found to be a match for Zeta Reticuli, a binary star system about 39 light-years away. (Of course, it's quite possible that these events occurred in reverse order: she consulted stellar charts first, made the drawing, and then "recalled" under hypnosis having been shown something resembling her drawing.)
The TV movie itself is a serviceable dramatization of the Hills' testimony. The Grays are only shown briefly in muddled dream-images during the hypnosis sessions, but even these glimpses are too much, given how terrible the masks are. Despite such flaws, however, I recommend watching it just for James Earl Jones' incredible performance as Barney Hill. Jones not only carries the whole production but actually elevates it to peak Gray-alien horror on par with Dark Skies. His portrayal of stark-frozen terror unto and beyond the brink of madness is so real, it honestly seems to shock the other actors.
Only a few days after The UFO Incident aired, Travis Walton reported his own abduction by the Grays, which supplied the material for his book, Fire in the Sky. Then, in the wake of the Hills' and Walton's success, Whitley Strieber's Communion appeared-- and the genesis of a legendary American monster was complete.
ON THE SEVENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I tried to watch something called The Fourth Kind, but it was so terrible, I gave up. Instead, I went through various lists of Gray-alien horror movies and watched a bunch of trailers. I didn't find anything notable that I hadn't already seen.
As for the reality of the Grays: My own personal rules for what a real extraterrestrial visitor could be and do are set by three suppositions based in hard science: (1) faster than light travel will never be feasible for a galaxy-scale civilization (at least, not for one that can avoid detection); (2) all or nearly all sufficiently advanced civilizations become post-organic machine or bio-machine civilizations; (3) if another civilization exists in our galaxy, it is almost certainly millions of years older than ours. From these suppositions we can conclude that if extraterrestrials have visited our solar system, they have done so using undetectable autonomous robotic probes. This scenario falls under the "zoo hypothesis" solution to the Fermi Paradox. (I.e., the paradox that is really more of a question: if intelligent life eventually develops on most planets with Earth-like conditions, then there should be many interstellar civilizations besides our own in our galaxy; why, then, have we not seen any sign at all of their existence?) The zoo hypothesis claims that at least one civilization has spread throughout our galaxy, but it masks its presence in order to prevent disastrous colonial contamination; instead, it opts to study other intelligent species surreptitiously. This would make Earth a kind of wildlife reserve.
The Zeta Reticulan narrative also falls under the zoo hypothesis, but it violates supposition (2), if not (1) as well. It simply wouldn't make sense to send organic beings that require life support in large spacecraft so as to study an alien civilization for millennia in secret, nor would it be feasible without faster than light transportation, nor would this even be an issue for a post-organic civilization. Thus, extraterrestrials would not come in spaceships. They would be the spaceships. And these autonomous probes would not be large visible objects either. This still leaves open the possibility that something like the Grays could be real insofar as unseen alien zoologists in our solar system could be watching us and might even have come to Earth in the past to study human biology up close. But the canonical Grays derived from the Hills' testimony and made iconic by The X-Files et al. almost certainly don't exist. This in turn means that very few if any of the claimed alien contact cases can be enlisted in support, however tenuously, of the only plausible scenario involving the presence of intelligent extraterrestrials in our solar system.
This realization has killed the capacity for most Gray-alien horror to terrify me, at least for any considerable duration. Which is what I'm actually concerned with here: the fear generated by the possibility of the Grays' reality. I guess what I have been chasing after with this topic is the experience of pure terror I felt as a child when I saw alien abduction documentaries on cable and believed 100% that the Grays were out there grabbing and experimenting on people and wiping their memories. No other monster has ever scared me so much.
But I feel that the Gray is now going the way of the changeling and the vampire and becoming simply another nightmare creature that serves as an analogy for terrestrial human pain and helplessness, as exemplified by No One Will Save You. In any case, I have found that with even the best Zeta Reticulan horror films, I'm only able to make contact with ephemeral flashes of the excitingly sleepless, look-over-your-shoulder terror I once felt. Which is sad.
ON THE NINTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I wrote this! And drew some more. Up next: more drawing.
Pictured: Betty and Barney Hill and Delsey the dog
Monday, October 9, 2023
ON THE EIGHTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I worked on this, the third stanza illustration.
I also continued watching a bunch of horror movies featuring the Grays, aka the Zeta Reticulans, which I will report on soon in a gap nights list.
Thursday, October 5, 2023
ON THE FOURTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN (and into the FIFTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN) ... I finished drawing this, the second stanza illustration. Phew, spent more time and energy on it than planned! I did also continue my investigation into the Grays in horror movies while completing this. I actually found a good one! Will report on tomorrow night.
Wednesday, October 4, 2023
ON THE THIRD NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I started this, the drawing for the second stanza of the same sonnet.
While drawing, I continued on down the rabbit hole of horror movies about being abducted by the grays and re-watched Fire in the Sky (1993). Like Communion, this movie adapts a purported real-life abduction case. Though it definitely breaks my rule of never directly showing the grays, it does at least delay their reveal until literally the last 15 minutes. I remember watching this movie in the theater with my dad when I was a kid and being quite terrified by the ending. And it does hold up. Even among horror films that don't reveal the full monstrosity until the climax, Fire in the Sky is unusual in that for first hour and ten minutes it doesn't even try to be a frightful-- it's all just unspooky character melodrama. So, it has the structure of a movie-length jumpscare. The abduction sequence is also intrinsically horrific because it's so disorienting. Nothing in the grays' ship makes sense, and most of it is disgusting. It's quite inventive and well-executed. Nevertheless, I would still say it doesn't make good use of the grays per se because it turns out that these aliens actually look like unshelled turtles. They just wear space suits that resemble the Communion grays. More importantly, they don't have the mind-control and memory-altering powers that make *True Grays* distinctly scary.
Tuesday, October 3, 2023
ON THE SECOND NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I finished this drawing. Which, again, is an illustration for the first stanza of "The Feeble Light of Dreams." On to the second stanza.
While working on it, I decided to go ahead and watch the movie I mentioned last night, Communion (1989), about Whitley Strieber's purportedly real-life abductions by the grays. I had seen parts of it previously but never the whole thing.
It is deeply silly. The best thing about it is Christopher Walken's iconically unhinged performance as Strieber. However, I will say it is creepier than No One Will Save You (and similar fare like Signs), as the grays remain both inscrutable and godlike throughout. There is also a meta-creepiness to projects like this, where at least one of the main people responsible devoutly believes the grays and their doings to be factual. Inhabiting the mind of such a person is unsettling regardless of the credibility of their claims.
The biggest mistake Communion makes as a horror film is showing the grays too much-- or showing them at all really. All of the alien effects are laughably bad. But more importantly, because of the all-powerful mind-control and memory-wiping powers of the grays, there are some truly tense scenes before we see them, where the characters know that what is happening at that moment is terribly wrong, that there is something unbelievably horrifying in the room with them, but they can't see it. And they can't remember what happened later. And the film doesn't show us what it is either. It just confirms that the terribly wrong thing is real. Communion could have built its paranoia up to genuine terror if it had never violated this constraint. Just never actually show the grays first-hand. Only show second-hand evidence, e.g. drawings, along with objects or animals that remind the characters of them. Moments like this when done right are look-over-your-shoulder spooky!
Monday, October 2, 2023
ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN ... I drew this. I decided to do Inktober-ish posts this year instead of another horror movie analysis marathon. The drawings will mostly be illustrations of stanzas from some creepy sonnets that I have written. Probably one drawing every two-ish nights, four drawings for each sonnet. This first one is for the first stanza (in red) of the sonnet to the left, "The Feeble Light of Dreams."
I did watch while drawing this (so, giving it only about 70% attention) a new horror movie I already knew I wasn't going to love, No Will Save You (freshly released to Hulu streaming). It was well-directed, well-acted, and had a clever ending I quite liked. But it banged again and again on my rawest pet-peeve nerve concerning aliens. The aliens in this are the classic Whitley Strieber Communion grays (if he had copyrighted that stunningly creepy design instead of claiming he really encountered the grays, he'd be very rich). But instead of vastly more intelligent beings, these grays behave like rabid bears, chasing the protagonist all around her house and getting stabbed by her-- even though it's later shown they can easily anti-gravity-beam freeze her wherever she goes and zoop her up without ever getting out of their ship. This is such a waste, repeating the mistake of Signs et al., because the grays remain creepy only because they are one of last otherworldly creatures the scientific secular mind can almost believe are real. That is, you don't necessarily have to suspend rational thought to be scared by them. But in order for this to work, maintaining strong credibility throughout is paramount. Anyways 😤
Saturday, September 30, 2023
A broken window, ashes whirling, chanting
heard between the slats—such mysteries here.
They worshipped at a ghoulish altar, planted
hooks in minds, controlled the rest through fear.
This church of secret faith, a burned out husk
of cinders now, but listen: rites abide.
You walk between the blackened beams at dusk
and find the stairs below, where something hides.
Though charred and dead, they still must chant to keep
their god asleep, their lungs with leather stitched.
You want to meet the worshipped thing, so creep
and cast your light, descend to vaults bewitched.
The bulb soon dies, but not before it shows
the rotting mouths that move and serve as host.
Friday, September 1, 2023
My teacher lures me out at night to meet
in spectral woods with rings of sculpted quartz.
He traces curves with bloody finger cleaved,
the curves of naked forms and chiseled art.
I learn my skin desires my teacher’s blood
when crystal-frozen shapes receive their taste.
Seduction makes my teacher’s teaching good,
my body aches for trials never faced.
The things inside the quartz are living minds,
imprisoned long ago for cosmic love.
They beat and howl against their crystal bindings,
stirred by bloody touch and stars above.
Now lustful screams and gleaming naked
skin compel their bone-white walls to break.
Friday, June 30, 2023
Wednesday, May 31, 2023
It could crawl in your ear while you’re sleeping,
the worm with its hunger for dreams.
It would pull out the threads of your brain,
and you’d play at its game as it opened your seams.
In despair you have felt no one wanted your thoughts,
but the worm could survive on their gleams.
And its curious call in the depths of the night
that you’ve listened to silently, patiently, mumbles in streams.
When the line has gone dead,
you have wandered and walked with the moon in its beams.
But the call, was it sent to your house or your head?
Did it ask, “Has the worm ever said what it means?”
Monday, May 1, 2023
I tried to keep my blight from spreading—tendrils bloom
beneath my skin—but now my neighbor’s corpse is ash.
They want to know the truth, to end the pile of bodies’ rise;
I know that truth but do not wish to make a stir, or clash.
By dark our town has fallen quiet, though bursts
of choked up sobbing break in now and then.
At dawn a doctor all in white will come,
and house by house she’ll drag each family out to pens.
She’ll stick and test our flesh there, one by one,
and when she reaches mine, she’ll find the oldest line.
So, shyness forces me to spread the sickness further;
wrapped to hide the truth abroad, I flee before the sun returns.
The truth is: death came quick for me last week,
but still I walked and spoke in town just fine.
Friday, March 31, 2023
On the way to the sea,
she says she’s always been afraid of water,
since her father tried to drown her.
She’s never felt distain for him, though,
like what she must now see on my face.
I ask her to explain,
but she turns away.
Soon our van reaches the beach,
and we all pile out.
Hours later, at dusk,
she whispers that she will answer what I asked,
if I follow her down under the pier.
When walking with me nearer the water,
she hesitates, trembles.
She’d only sat and watched the rest of us swim all day.
Under the darkening pier, her eyes are wild.
I propose we retreat above.
But she only speaks of her father’s vision.
Her arms encircle me as the waves surge.
Her father tried to teach her to fear water
because he foresaw her drowning here, with me.
She’s not trembling now.
Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Every morning, my stepmother counts her teeth.
She doesn’t know I watch her through the mirror.
She never finds any out of place.
Never too few, never too many.
My mother died before I could speak her name.
And ever since, father has been alone—that is, until last month.
Even my jaded sisters love father’s new wife. Not me.
So helpful, so pretty—where did she come from?
After dinner, I happen to see her though a crack in the bathroom door.
She pulls something from her mouth’s roof,
a white snapping thing she drops in the toilet.
Why didn’t I warn him?
By morning, she’s gone.
And we find father twisting, convulsing, changing.
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
I thought the tapping on my roof all winter was branches,
until one day between the eaves I saw him.
A bony man, more a thing, slid back to cower in darkness, under the beams.
I told my older brother, who owns the property.
He brought a ladder and a box.
He climbed to the hollow spot, shone a light in, saw nothing.
So he crawled in.
I waited a minute, two, then called out, shouted.
There was no reply, no change, only quiet dark.
My brother had always been stolid.
It was impossible this was a joke.
I went up and thrust a rake toward the darkness that took him.
Right off the rake struck a wall of black moss.
As if the shadowed space had only been an illusion.
On the other side of the wall, in the attic, I found nothing.
And nothing has come through the mossy wall since.
In a blink, as she steps on the path,
she sees her hand letting go of her little brother’s hand, forever.
That day, she was sure her brother was tricking her, trying to scare her.
Hours later, she was still sure.
And eleven years on, she’s back here, where he was last seen, alone.
All their searching found not one trace.
She’s clung to the same belief, though, ever since,
what they called denial, then fixation.
That her little brother is only tricking her.
She used to take a boyfriend here and squeeze his throat during sex,
each time harder. Until, bruised, he left for good.
At twilight, turning to go, she glimpses a flash between a white oak’s roots.
Her brother’s eyes, unchanged, twinkle at her, then disappear.
Sunday, January 1, 2023
Small giftwrapped boxes were left on every doorstep in our neighborhood, early one misty morning.
Most of us refused to touch them, wondering who brought them and why.
Neighbors watched those who opened their boxes from outside windows, anxiously anticipating.
The folklore professor recognized the markings on his box as the runes of a lost people.
He drew down a tome and read aloud how these people schemed to give deadly gifts.
But this warning was ignored or unheard by the bitter widow, and the rest.
Inside the boxes they each found a mirror cut in a unique shape. And they each gazed into it.
The widow saw in hers a lost youth in a life she thought she should have had.
For this life, she offered the mirror her face, by cutting it off and laying it in the box.
Monday, October 31, 2022
ON THE THIRTY-FIRST NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … on this SAMHAIN, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, when phantasms, goblins, and Yōkai come through to visit us in the night … I made a FLOooOOoOoooOoOOOWCHART!!!
The flowchart below attempts to categorize all the species of doppelgänger that we have discovered over the course of our cinematic investigations. Keep it handy in case you run into a doppelgänger and are having trouble identifying what kind it is.
I became more obsessed with the doppelgänger theme than I intended to. I just had noticed that a lot of the movies on my watchlist happened to involve doppelgängers, so I thought underlining that commonality would be a good way to add some flavor to this year’s series. As I went along, though, it became more and more clear to me that not only do most horror movies involve doppelgängers in some sense or respect (as I had suspected), but further, the doppelgänger itself is not so much a species of monster as the mother of many different types of monsters—a meta-monster, if you will. For this reason, the doppelgänger is an almost boundlessly rich subject of investigation, both aesthetically and philosophically.
The higher order conclusion I have come to, though, is that the doppelgänger is able to proliferate in so many mutually exclusive forms, across so many fields and dimensions, because fundamentally it is the product of a paradox. The necessary and sufficient condition a doppelgänger must meet in order to count as a doppelgänger is that it be an entity that is what it is not. This apparent contradiction creates a paradox which can then be resolved in various ways, according to the senses given to the terms of the condition. If by “an entity that is what it is not” we mean an entity that appears identical to another entity but is not fully, substantively, or internally equal to that entity, then the condition is no longer contradictory. Entities that are only superficially the same are certainly permitted by logic. Or, if by an “entity that is what it is not” we mean a mind that has split into separate aspects that are antagonistic to one another and that may or may not occupy different bodies, then, again, the condition is no longer contradictory.
As we have seen, there are many other senses we can assign to the condition so as to resolve the paradox. Each of these senses produces a different type of doppelganger. So, my conclusion is that the reason the doppelgänger is the mother of many kinds of monsters is that, in essence, it is a walking paradox, which is in turn a monstrosity on a meta-cosmic level.
It is a well-known maxim of classical logic that a standing contradiction permits any and all statements to be proven true. That is, if one stipulates that an entity X both exists and does not exist, then one can use an indirect proof, i.e. a proof by contradiction—where if a statement leads to a contradiction, we can conclude that it is false—to show that any claim at all that one can concoct is true. For instance, statement A says that psychic vampires from space control the media and that psychic vampires from space do not control the media. Given that A is true, if I then suppose that it is not the case that all readers of this post are immortal, I can conjoin this supposition with statement A to show that it cannot be true that it is not the case that all readers of this post are immortal. Therefore, all readers of this post are immortal. Then, instead of “all readers of this post are immortal,” I can substitute in any statement I want and prove that it is true as well. This is called the principle of explosion.
For a monster (or meta-monster) to use its essential paradoxicality to threaten us with such an explosion of entities from the nether reaches of the imagination puts one in mind of Pandora’s box. If the Doppelgänger’s Paradox is allowed to stand, then the existence of all monsters is substantiated. That is, the gates of hell are thrown open and all the demons of our nightmares are free to walk the earth.
And with that … thanks for joining me! See you next year, and have a Happy Halloween Forever!!!
ON THE THIRTIETH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … the Eve of Samhain … I reread the most influential and probably the all-time best horror short story about doppelgängers, “William Wilson” (1839), written by my favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe. Let’s go through it together.
SUMMARY WITH COMMENTS:
The narrator calls himself “William Wilson,” but this is a pseudonym. He doesn’t want the present account to further increase the infamy attached to his real name. The name chosen by the narrator already indicates the presence of a doppelgänger. He is Will, son of Will. Two wills mirror one another between the given name and the surname, with one the progenitor of the other.
The narrator begins at the beginning by explaining that he was born into an especially “imaginative” and “excitable” family, hinting at a history of mental illness. He suggests vaguely that he had shown signs of his family’s “evil propensities” in early childhood. He will return to this point at various moments in the story, but never to clarify it, only to ominously emphasize its significance.
The narrator then moves on to his preteen years at a primary school in a gothic English village. He is well-liked by all the other schoolboys—except one. This one happens to have the same first and last name as him. The narrator’s namesake competes with him at whatever activity he engages in and challenges every assertion he makes. The narrator always comes out about equal in these struggles with his double. But this equality itself causes him to fear that he will lose his distinctness among his peers. The double seems more interested in personally tormenting him than in gaining status, though. In this section, the narrator circles back several times to place special weight on the double having his same name. It’s almost as if the double has been conjured up out of an accidentally repeated incantation of the name, as in an echo.
Not only does the narrator share a name with the other boy, but the two also arrived in the village on the same day. This causes older classmates to assume that the two are brothers. What’s more, as the narrator later learns, he and his double were born on the same date. The narrator notes that his double’s one comparable deficiency is that some throat abnormality makes it impossible for him to speak above a low whisper. This is perhaps the creepiest aspect of this story’s doppelgänger: his inability to speak at standard volumes actually amplifies the effectiveness of his words in the quiet, pregnant moments that he must wait for to communicate.
Over time, in dress, physique, attitude, and mannerisms, the narrator’s namesake comes to resemble him more and more. And the double gradually learns to mimic the narrator perfectly in habits, gestures, and thinking as well. Strangely, the other boys never say anything about the double’s extensive campaign of imitation. The double’s motive for mirroring the narrator in every way lies in his desire to aggravate the narrator, for he knows that every point of similarity vexes him. Added to this, the double adopts a patronizing air toward the narrator, wherein he constantly offers unsolicited moral advice. Worst of all, the advice usually turns out to be good. That is, if the narrator had followed it, he would have been better off. During one especially heated argument, something in the double’s expression reminds the narrator of his earliest unformed memories. The excellent prose here suggests movement of an unconscious truth fighting to break through the liminal barrier.
One night, the narrator creeps out of his room to play a prank on his double. He finds him asleep in his room. When he accidentally shines a lamp on him, he sees to his horror that his double’s face has changed to become identical to his own. It’s as if by imitating the narrator for so long, the double’s face has been reshaped to match the narrator’s. This causes the narrator to flee from the school that night, never to return.
The narrator continues his education through secondary school, during which time he becomes a habitual partier, booze hound, and general ne’er-do-well. One night, his double tracks him down and briefly harasses him before disappearing into the night. The narrator is unable to locate him again. Soon the narrator progresses to university, where he becomes even more of a sot, womanizer, and gambler. He finds that he actually excels at gambling, though, which leads him to become a card shark who bilks his rich young associates. He manages to totally ruin one of them, taking his entire fortune in one game. At the moment of the narrator’s triumph, the double returns and reveals how he won through cheating. As a result, the narrator is expelled from university and must flee to Europe.
Wherever the narrator goes, his double follows him and frustrates all his schemes. So, the narrator resolves to kill his double the next time they meet. This occurs at a masquerade ball in Rome. The narrator is about seduce the host’s wife when his double stops him by whispering in his ear. The narrator grabs his double and throws him into a side room with a large mirror. The pair draw the rapiers that they each have as part of their identical matador costumes. They battle. The narrator gets the better of his double and stabs him repeatedly. The door is then thrown open by the other guests. When the narrator turns back, he finds that the double is gone. Only his reflection in the mirror remains. And this allows him to see that he has mortally wounded himself with his own rapier. (Presumably this whole account has been given while the narrator is on his death bed.)
THOUGHTS & THEORIES:
A common interpretation of this story is that it is an allegorical representation of conscience and the role it plays in a person’s life. Under this interpretation, the narrator’s doppelgänger is said to be an elaborate delusion that began in boyhood and grew progressively worse, due to ignoring his conscience while engaging in various vices. This is of course supported by the narrator’s own repeated reference to his family’s history of mental illness. That would make his doppelgänger of the antagonistic-self type, manifested as a dissociative hallucination, like what we saw in The Other and Black Swan.
But to me, this interpretation seems too simple. Perhaps schoolboys are more apt to get away with behaviors that would otherwise be seen as symptoms of psychosis, such as carrying on one-sided debates with imaginary friends. But why then, if the narrator’s delusion starts small and grows progressively worse over the years, does his double begin fully formed as a boy that shares his name but is still distinct in other respects—a boy whom the other students acknowledge and interact with? I think that the story allows for a reading in which the doppelgänger exists outside of the narrator’s head just as much as it supports the reading in which it is entirely imaginary.
If the doppelgänger does have some substantial reality, it might be as a psychic emergence through the narrator’s obsession. Perhaps some force within the narrator, like an ethereal beacon—as a product of his family’s weird affliction—drew a boy with the same name and the same birthday to be enrolled at the same school. And perhaps this force imposed the narrator’s obsession with his own conscience onto this other boy, so that he was mentally and physically transformed over time into the narrator’s doppelgänger. This condemned the other boy to become the puppet and the shadow of the narrator’s unconscious self. Then, in their final confrontation, the narrator was able to fully absorb the double into himself in the psychically volcanic act of stabbing the vessel of his own conscience.
This would be like Blacula imposing the identity of his dead wife reborn onto Tina, or Billy’s pa imposing the role of murderer onto Billy, but by physically transformative means rather than through social coercion. A psychic force reshaping the human body in this way is best exemplified in David Cronenberg’s film The Brood (1979).
In any case, that both of these interpretations are available in the text is only one indication of how innovative this story is. Doppelgängers had appeared in folklore throughout the world, such as in the changeling tales of Northern Europe we looked at, but the narrative of a double appearing and taking over a protagonist’s life is original to Poe. ETA Hoffman’s 1815 novel The Devil’s Elixirs concerns a monk who uses a potion to awaken his lust and manifest it as his evil twin. This version of the doppelgänger is closer to Stevenson’s later novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than to what Poe is up to, though. Soon after Poe introduced his much richer and trickier version of the doppelgänger in this story, other major authors started stealing his invention and repurposing it for their own mind-screw tales, most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 1842 story “Howe's Masquerade” and Dostoyevsky in his 1845 novella The Double (which, as mentioned, was itself rebooted a century later as The Man Who Haunted Himself).
What “William Wilson” has that all the works inspired by it lack is a terrifying intimacy. It depicts the narrator’s protracted close relationship with his double as he grows more and more like him. Poe is unflinching in working through the horrifying implications of this situation, to a degree achieved by no one else. What could be more unnerving about our doppelgängers than how touchingly close they come to us while remaining radically set against us?
Sunday, October 30, 2022
ON THE TWENTY-NINTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Dark Half (1993), directed by the late, great George Romero and based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
A boy named Thad suffers from dizzy spells and hears birds that aren’t there. He undergoes surgery. The remnant of a parasitic twin, kind of a teratoma complete with an eye and teeth, is found in his brain. After the twin is removed, Thad’s condition improves. Twenty years later, Thad is an unsuccessful literary author who teaches creative writing at a college in Ludlow, Maine (one of King’s favorite settings, along with the fictional towns of Derry and Castlerock). Secretly, however, Thad writes pulpy slasher novels under the pseudonym “George Stark.” George Stark himself appears in the novels as a vicious hardboiled killer who sports a greaser look and drives a ‘66 Toronado. The Stark books are wildly successful and generate enough revenue for Thad to live comfortably in a large house with his wife and twin baby boys. One day, a blackmailer who has learned that Thad writes the Stark books threatens to expose him unless he pays out. Since Thad resents that his genre work sells so much better than his “serious” fiction, he decides to just announce the truth to the world. He “kills” George Stark in a mock burial for a People magazine article. Unfortunately, George Stark is more than a pseudonym. He is a psychic entity that inhabited Thad’s parasitic twin and has subsequently manifested materially as a tulpa through the George Stark novels. He doesn’t appreciate Thad’s attempt to get rid of him. In retaliation, he starts slicing up people in Thad’s life. The sheriff suspects Thad of these murders because he and George Stark share the same fingerprints and face. No one believes Thad’s story about a fictional character coming to life. Meanwhile, George Stark threatens to slice up Thad’s wife and babies as well if he doesn’t start writing another Stark sequel.
I love the novel this movie is based on. I think it’s up there with Pet Sematary and Misery as one of the best horror novels from Stephen King’s prime, i.e. one of his best works period. It owes much of its success to the fact that it is essentially a retelling through the lens of supernatural horror of something that actually happened to King. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, King wrote a few of his more controversial works, including Rage, a novel about a school shooting, and Roadwork, a novel about a Ruby Ridge-type standoff, under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman.” A bookseller discovered that Bachman was really King and threatened to expose him, just as The Dark Half’s blackmailer does. Like Thad, King replied by going public and “killing” Bachman. The prose of The Dark Half reflects the author’s intimate familiarity with this situation and gives the reader a lot of insight into the writing process for both Thad’s “serious” work and his pulp novels. It also provides extensive excerpts from the George Stark novels, which are a delight to read for their exaggerated indulgence in salacious ultraviolence.
While of course Romero is one of the all-time great horror directors, and while his talent for engrossing the viewer with clever shots and editing is fully in evidence here, a great deal is lost in the conversion from page to screen. I’m not sure a work that depends on the internal experience of reading and writing fiction for its best effects could ever work well as a film, even with a director as innovative as Romero. Still, it’s certainly an above average King adaptation. It’s just that I would very much recommend the novel over the movie. One highlight is Timothy Hutton in the dual role of Thad and Stark. Hutton manages to make Stark a terrifying monster who is completely distinct from Thad’s easygoing yuppie dad.
TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS:
As Thad explains to his creative writing class, “Each one of us is two separate beings. There’s the outer being, the one we show to the world at large, inhibited, timid, often a pathological liar. And then there’s the inner being, the truthful one, passionate, uninhibited, even lustful. Most of us keep that inner being hidden away, locked up. But the fiction writer doesn’t have to do that.”
The Dark Half obviously deals with the doppelgänger as antagonistic self, along with many other aspects we’ve already encountered, but the new turn here is hinted at by the last line of Thad’s speech: the doppelgänger as fictional creation made flesh. All the way back to The Other, we have seen doppelgängers that are products of a traumatized mind forming alternate identities through delusion or disguise. But The Dark Half’s Stark goes much further. First, the particulars of his appearance and mannerisms have been richly detailed, and meat has been put on his bones in the form of a decades-spanning backstory. Next, he has been allowed to self-actualize himself over the course of dozens of adventures. Finally, he has come to life in the minds of millions of readers. Together these factors work to create a doppelgänger that is not merely a repressed aspect of Thad’s psyche or his memory of a lost sibling but is in fact a wholly independent being. If Stark were not a mass murderer, we would have to say that he has as much a right to live as the person whose face he shares.
This is the doppelgänger as tulpa. A tulpa is a sentient being who comes into existence through the concentrated imagination of a creator, i.e. it is a being that is imagined into existence. King often speaks of his writing process in parallel terms. He claims that his characters have wills of their own, such that he must follow them wherever they go, whether he wants to or not. So, composition for King is closer to spirit channeling than to carefully designing a building.
Meanwhile, once fictional characters are released into the wilds of the public imagination, they do seem to have their own wills. The more popular of these characters are materially embodied in many different forms, including various actors’ portrayals and fan cosplays. Each embodiment of, say, King’s most famous villain, Pennywise, is a doppelgänger to all the others. It’s also one cell of a larger body that allows Pennywise as a coherent entity on another plane to gain a stronger foothold in our world. That is, a tulpa becomes its own doppelgänger as it attempts to take on physical substance through its scattered presence in various bodies. Particularly powerful tulpas of this nature, i.e. figures of worship, plant their doubles in our highest institutions and have been known to elicit human sacrifice in order to further substantiate their reality.
Saturday, October 29, 2022
A marine biology PhD student is assigned to a research project that requires her to join a small fishing trawler with a crew of six on its last haul of the season. The skipper plots a course to a particularly bountiful spot, but the coast guard warns them off, as this destination has been designated an exclusion zone. The skipper ignores them, against the order of his captain (who is also his wife), and heads into the exclusion zone anyway. Sonar picks up a huge mass heading toward them. The trawler slams to a halt, as if having hit a shoal. The skipper claims the collision broke the radio, but he in fact disabled it himself to avoid the penalty for trespassing into the exclusion zone. The engineer notices strange contusions on the ship’s wooden hull, as if something is eating at it from outside. The student puts on scuba gear and dives in to have a look. She finds that a number of bioluminescent tentacles with lamprey-like mouths have grabbed the boat. The tentacles belong to a huge unknown creature, possibly a colossal marine worm, lurking in the darkness below. Slime from the creature leaks onto the boat. Though the creature releases the ship, the slime carries parasitic larvae that infect some of the crew. The crew and the student are soon at each other’s throats in a struggle to determine who has become a host for the creature’s offspring.
Sadly, this movie annoyed me quite a bit. It opens strong, establishing its bona fides with authentic scenes that show the routine of life aboard the trawler. At times in the first act, it even feels like a worthy successor to Jaws. Its likable seadogs stand in contrast to the aloof science student while the boat heads out onto the open Atlantic to confront an unstoppable monster that will require everyone to put differences aside in order to survive. This all works well until we hit act two, after the student returns from her dive. Then, the movie runs aground on its own Sargasso sea-like obstructions, in the form of extremely poor characterization and a series of pointless anticlimaxes.
It’s upsetting to me when scientists in movies don’t act like scientists. After the main character stumbles upon the greatest discovery ever for her field, she makes no further attempt to document it, can’t be bothered to offer more than a vague account of it, and doesn’t even ask if she can use the radio to report the finding. Again, this is a PhD candidate in marine biology encountering a huge unidentified bioluminescent organism with tendrils strong enough to stop a fishing trawler. Such a find (1) would guarantee her tenure, a lecture tour, and a lucrative book deal, i.e. it would grant an enviable career to a person who, just as a function of contemporary academia, must have been scrambling tooth and nail for years to gain any foothold at all; and (2) would revolutionize her entire field, impacting not just our understanding of the marine worm, if that’s what it is, but of the entire ecosystem in which such a large predator could go undetected. For her to react with mild concern instead of going into adrenaline-fueled, high-gear researcher mode would not happen. She simply could not have survived in contemporary academia long enough to have received this assignment if she were that indifferent to both her career and her field of study. That is, this moment reveals her to be a nonscientist scientist character. The maddening thing is that the narrative does not at all mandate that she be a nonscientist scientist. She could document everything she sees, be as excited about it as any scientist would be, and even attempt to send all her evidence back to shore, and the drama would play out the same. They are hundreds of miles out to sea in an exclusion zone with a broken radio.
Furthermore, entirely apart from this issue, which admittedly won’t bother some people, the script itself seems to be infected with a parasite that causes it to neutralize any momentum it manages to build up. The creature lets go of the ship all too easily, which prompts the characters to wonder if they are being baited for a greater trap. Nope, they just escape free and clear, no further attacks. The crew struggles to control an infected character, which strains relations between the character’s mother, his romantic interest, and the skipper. Will this lead to a schism involving a loose madman later on? Nope, the character abruptly dies before the argument about what to do with him is even over. One of the creature’s offspring is rapidly growing in the ship’s water tank. Should they kill it or, as the student insists, attempt to capture and release it? Neither. The creature escapes on its own before they can try either approach. And so on. It’s as if the film cannot stomach its own tension. This is really disappointing given the strength of the opening and the potential of the material.
TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS:
For its release to streaming during the pandemic, Sea Fever was reframed as a work about the horrors of fighting to establish a quarantine. But that’s really only one of the film’s many quickly resolved subplots. Nevertheless, let’s discuss the doppelgänger as an infection by a parasitic species. Sea Fever does get the science right in one respect: how its parasite affects its hosts’ minds is in keeping with actual terrestrial parasites. Unlike the cosmic organism in Carpenter’s The Thing, it doesn’t simultaneously assimilate and mimic the host’s cells, nor does it supplant the host’s mind with its own independent identity, like a puppeteer-type symbiote or a demon. Rather, it causes its hosts to generate neuro-active chemicals that create a desire to carry out certain actions, e.g. to immerse oneself in water, that promote its own survival and reproduction. This is a dynamic seen in, for instance, parasitic wasps and the so-called “zombie fungus.” Consequently, Sea Fever’s characters become paranoid, such that they hyperscrutinize each other’s every behavioral quirk. Since the double within here is not a coherent and purposeful will but a biological process that alters one’s thinking, the characters become alienated from their own brains. (I’m mostly extrapolating here, since, again, the film only briefly develops this scenario before deflating it. Actually, a much better version of this same plot, which does explicitly delve into these questions, is The X-Files episode “Ice” (1993). Like Sea Fever, “Ice” is inspired by Carpenter’s The Thing but replaces the alien entity with a terrestrial organism based on actual parasites.) This gets to the root of the horror involved with the doppelgänger as an antagonistic aspect of the self: we are led to wonder if control over our own minds was only an illusion to begin with. If a parasite can influence our behavior by excreting natural chemicals, our behavior must already be controlled by chemicals native to our bodies. That doppelgänger consisting of the biological urge to procreate was there from the beginning, pulling our strings and merely letting us believe that our minds were ever our own.
Friday, October 28, 2022
ON THE TWENTY-SEVENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), directed by Basil Dearden and based on a novel by Anthony Armstrong.
A pre-Bond Roger Moore stars as a button-down British businessman named Pelham. He so rigidly adheres to set habits that his marriage has become sexless and acquaintances regard him as tedious. One day, while driving to work on a London expressway, he experiences some sort of identity transfusion. He sees himself at the wheel of a silver Lamborghini Islero instead of the sensible Rover P5 sedan he is actually driving. He unbuckles his seatbelt, swerves into the fast lane, and floors it. This leads to an accident that lands him in the hospital with a head wound. He flatlines on the operating table. When he is resuscitated, two synchronous heartbeats appear on his heart monitor for a few seconds. Upon recovering, he resumes his habit-bound lifestyle. However, over the course of the next few days, various people mention having seen him gambling at a club, playing pool in a tournament, and chatting up an attractive young photographer—all of which he adamantly denies. And he has proof that he was at home during the alleged sightings. At the same time, his wife notices someone parked in a silver Lamborghini Islero outside their house. Things become serious when Pelham’s doppelgänger is accused of conspiring with a competitor to buy out the company he works for. Ironically, Pelham’s frantic paranoia and determination to unmask the imposter cause his wife and colleagues to conclude that he is not himself. Is Pelham suffering from a unique form of Capras delusion (i.e. "l'illusion des sosies," the illusion of doubles), as Pelham’s psychiatrist believes, wherein his own dissociated behavior has formed an independent identity? Or did his accident allow in another world’s version of him—a version that is more fun, sexier, and overall better liked than he is?
This is a well-made conceptual chiller. Like The Tenant, I find the idea of the narrative more interesting to think about than actually watch play out. But Armstrong’s slick Hitchcockian directing together with Roger Moore’s abundant charm and layered acting make it a late-Swinging London treat. I think the pitch with Moore must have been to cast him against type as the dull Pelham so as to sell the idea that there is a restless tiger of a man lurking under the starchy surface. Moore wouldn’t star as Bond in Live and Let Die for another three years, but he had already played the TV version of The Saint’s titular man of intrigue. And for his part, Moore said that his favorite of his own films was this. (Not being a Bond fan, like at all, I’d tend to agree.)
TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS:
As much as The Man Who Haunted Himself maintains a tone of frantic paranoia throughout, every scene ends on a melancholy note. It’s as if Pelham is already grieving the loss of his life to a worthier usurper, since no one really likes Pelham-prime anyway, least of all himself. This melancholy is inherited from the true source of the film’s narrative, a short story by Edgar Allen Poe called “William Wilson.”
See, the novel that The Man Who Haunted Himself is based on, The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham, is itself just a twentieth century reboot of Poe’s story. The first person to steal this story was Poe’s Russian translator, Dostoyevsky, with his novella The Double. Probably the most recent iteration of the story is 2018’s Cam, which makes the double-haunted main character a cam-site sex worker. “William Wilson,” like all of the works derived from it, is about a protagonist whose life is progressively taken over by a doppelgänger with the same name and face. More on this story in a few nights (stay tuned), but suffice to say that it strikes the same melancholy note of resignation.
The most interesting spin that The Man Who Haunted Himself puts on this story is the idea that refraction of identity through trauma can release a repressed version of oneself into the world as a physical copy. Pelham’s doppelgänger is both livelier and crueler than he is. Pelham-secundus is sexually vital, risk-taking, and confident, but he is also deceitful, mocking, and selfish. Pelham-prime is none of these things. So the self that is set free by the accident can be seen as a demon that has seized upon an opportunity to escape hell by manifesting as the id-oriented version of an existing man. Pelham caused this demon to be let loose by being untrue to himself. This new fold to the narrative speaks to what an antagonistic doppelgänger truly represents: an aspect of oneself that one is at war with. Whether one works to imprison one’s chaotic lustful side, as Pelham does, or one is instead enslaved by an addiction, the doppelgänger can symbolically embody one’s opponent in an internal struggle. On the other hand, as the psychiatrist who traffics in such psycho-symbolic explanations is horrified to discover in the finale, sometimes the inexplicable duplication of bodies and personas is all too real.
Thursday, October 27, 2022
A film crew sets out to make a documentary about the shaman culture of Thailand’s Isan region. They decide to narrow their focus down to one shaman in particular, a woman named Nim who serves as the vessel for a local goddess. Her older sister Noi was supposed to be possessed by the goddess, but she refused and converted to Christianity. So, the role fell to Nim. During interviews with the sisters, Noi’s nineteen-year-old daughter Mink, who tells the crew that she doesn’t believe in shamanism, begins experiencing odd symptoms. She suffers from blackouts, hears belligerent voices, sometimes behaves like a small child, lashes out at people without provocation, and in brief spells, bleeds from various orifices. Her doctor cannot explain her condition. Nim initially believes that the goddess is moving on to possess Mink, in lieu of her mother. After Mink is hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and the family learns of Mink’s other extreme acts during her blackouts, Nim instead realizes that evil spirits have been progressively invading Mink. When Mink returns from the hospital, their possession is complete. Mink spits up black fluid, cackles, makes lewd propositions, and tears up housewares in full Regan MacNeil-style. Nim calls upon a more powerful shaman to help her exorcize the legion of devils in an elaborate ceremony. Things don’t go according to plan.
The Medium is steeped in a dense broth of Thai folklore. The first half especially functions as something of a real primer on the world of Isan shamans. Though the interviews are with actors improvising in fictional roles, what they say is based on intimate familiarity with rural Thailand’s actual spiritual practices. And the footage of the Loei province countryside and its local feasts and parades is gorgeous. The narrative has one too many family-drama surprises, but this ultimately only adds to the authentic feel of the documentary supposedly being constructed. A cascade of melodramatic shocks is after all de rigueur for the modern documentary. Going into the third act, however, The Medium transitions into found footage territory. As Mink grows more demonic and exceeds the family’s capacity to control her, the crew increasingly relies on hidden camera feeds and chaotic handheld coverage. This leads to something of a logistics disconnect in the conclusion’s explosive epidemic of cannibalistic evisceration. It’s unclear how the footage we are watching could have been recovered, or who was left to recover it. Regardless, there’s a lot to learn from and savor in both halves of The Medium. I definitely intend to watch it again.
TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS:
It’s interesting that Nim becomes a shaman through a benign possession by a loving goddess. According to western folklore, i.e. Judeo-Christianity, all spirit possession is an invasive displacement of the self for evil ends. Even when the divine is said to speak or act through the believer, as in Pentecostal folk belief, it just does so temporarily in order to communicate revelation or healing. Only a demon, says western mythology, would take up permanent residence in us. The shaman tradition presented in The Medium challenges this assumption, though. Perhaps we have misjudged the doppelgänger. Perhaps not all alien spirits who come to reside within our bodies, or bodies identical to ours, do so with evil intent. Perhaps it is only our refusal—out of a misguided reverence for absolute psychic autonomy—to share our minds with others that opens us up to truly malign entities.
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
ON THE TWENTY-FIFTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Three on a Meathook (1972), a no-budget exploitation slasher written and directed by William Girdler.
Four young ladies in go-go shorts drive out to a lake for a day of skinny dipping. A young man named Billy watches them from his fishing boat. On their way home that night, the ladies’ car breaks down. Luckily, Billy happens to drive by and offers them a place to stay until they can call a garage in the morning. They hesitantly accept. Billy takes them back to the creepy old farm house where he lives with his pa. He serves the ladies dinner and sets them up in the guest rooms. All seems well. When pa learns of the guests, however, he starts berating Billy by ominously alluding to “what happens” whenever Billy is around women. Billy assures pa that this time, things will be different. Everyone goes to bed. Fifteen minutes later … cut to a killer POV shot. One by one, each of the guests is stabbed, chopped, or shot to death. In the morning, pa shows Billy the grisly scene in the guest rooms. He ruefully explains that Billy murdered the women while in a sleepwalking trance—just like he did before. Billy refuses to believe it and drives off. In town, he meets a young woman and invites her out to the farm house. This time, he’s sure things will be different.
This movie is awful. But it’s also pretty great. That’s not to say that it’s another obnoxious “good-bad” movie. Girdler was an accomplished and talented filmmaker with a really interesting career. He made all nine of his movies in six years, including a couple well-regarded works of supernatural horror, and he died in a car accident shortly after his 30th birthday. Three on a Meathook, his second picture, was self-financed and shot in his home town.
What’s awful about it is that the entire middle 45 minutes (out of 85) consists of slow and pointless filler. There’s an extended sequence where we just watch Billy in a bar watching Gridler’s own funkadelic band perform (their music is actually pretty good, but it adds nothing to the story).
What’s great about it is that the first thirty minutes and last ten deliver on the promise of a squirm-inducing, greasy slasher. It’s incredible that Three on a Meathook was made two years before that cinematic masterpiece often cited as the first slasher, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All the hallmarks of late 70’s and even 80’s slashers are somehow already in place here. There is an extremely silly axe-decapitation moment that would fit seamlessly in any Friday the 13th knock-off.
What’s also great about it is that watching it feels like being at a sketchy 70’s drive-in. I can think of no better example of what the term “grindhouse” means to me than this movie. First, “Three on a Meathook” is a title whose sole purpose is to snag eyeballs. Second, its narrative is abrasively sensationalist in that it’s very loosely based on the legendary exploits of a real American serial killer, Ed Gein (thus forming a bridge between two of the best horror movies ever made, Psycho and (again) Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Third, its opening scenes offer plentiful cheesecake nudity. Fourth, it actually played in those multi-billed runs at cheap theaters and drive-ins from which the term “grindhouse” derives—a “grind” was a back-to-back continuous presentation of movies that started at a cut-rate price in the morning and increased in cost toward nightfall. Fifth, the only version of it that I was able to find anywhere (on Youtube and Internet Archive) is a worn-out and yellowing video transfer. So, it’s still not in any sense a premier work. Can you name another horror movie that nails all five of these grindhouse characteristics so well?
TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS:
The easily-predicted twist of Three on a Meathook is that Billy is not actually murdering the women, in a sleepwalking trance or otherwise—pa is. Pa has suffered from a dissociative break as a result of his wife becoming a cannibal for health reasons (this insane revelation drops in the last five minutes with no further explanation), which necessitated him locking her up, telling Billy she died, killing whoever showed up at the farm, and secretly feeding her the bodies. Pa could not cope with being a mass murderer, so he projected this role onto his son. Then, in a folie à deux, his son came to accept the projection.
So, here we have an identity caused by a stress-induced mental break, as in Black Swan. Then, that identity is imposed on another to manipulate that person’s behavior and self-image, as in Blacula. This is done so as to deflect responsibility for murders, as in giallos like Opera. And finally, Billy internalizes pa’s delusion to the extent of reproducing it, as in Hour of the Wolf. Furthermore, this narrative was inspired by Norman Bates’ dissociative roleplay as his mother’s doppelgänger in Psycho. The appearance of this amalgamated psychological version of a doppelgänger in even such a typical piece of grindhouse fare as Three on a Meathook should stand as strong evidence that the doppelgänger is a specter haunting all of horror cinema.
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
ON THE TWENTY-FOURTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman. Portman’s tour-de-force lead performance here won her the 2010 Best Actress Oscar.
Nina is a ballerina at the New York Ballet company. She is in competition to play the dual role of the White Swan Queen and her wicked twin sister, the Black Swan, for a production of Swan Lake. According to the overly handsy director, Nina’s precise technique and innocent persona make her perfect for the White Swan. However, these same traits prevent her from embodying the more chaotically passionate Black Swan. So, the director initially casts another dancer. He changes his mind when Nina bites him in reply to an unwanted kiss in his office. Still, Nina struggles in rehearsals to perform adequately as the Black Swan. Then, a wild night out with a hard-partying rival dancer (played by Mila Kunis) breaks Nina’s immaculate shell. This in turn releases her doppelgänger, which appears with increasing frequency in a rising crescendo of hallucinogenic sequences.
Portman is perfectly cast, as she naturally has a ballerina’s poise, disposition, and physique. Her Oscar win was well-deserved. And I certainly enjoyed Black Swan’s propulsive emotional drama, accomplished cinematography and editing, and brief but effective bursts of phantasmal imagery. But the overtness of Aronofsky’s simple metaphors together with his sometimes absurdly high-key psychodrama tends to annoy me—which is why I have had this movie on my watch-list since it came out but put it off until our doppelgänger-horror marathon made it unavoidable. These signature Aronofsky traits are present in Black Swan, but I found them much less annoying than in, say, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. (Pi has the added annoyance of being a film about a mathematician’s descent into madness made by someone who clearly has only a rudimentary familiarity with the concerns of higher mathematics.) This is largely due to the fact that Portman and Kunis are so riveting in their respective roles, though.
TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS:
Black Swan contains lots of mirror imagery—mirrors mirroring mirrors when the dancers are in wardrobe together; walls of mirrors when they are dancing; mirrored movements in their synchronized dances; and dancers who from a distance look nearly identical, with the same clothes, hairstyles, and general physiques. Narratively, a number of dancers are competing to take on the same role and thus are intentionally striving to best serve as doppelgänger to a character ideal in the director’s mind. Added to this, Nina’s overbearing mother was herself a ballerina whose career was cut short. Thus, she wishes for Nina to become her duplicate so as to fulfill her ambition vicariously. No wonder, then, that Nina’s madness takes the form of an imaginary evil twin who originates in mirrors and migrates into the faces of the other dancers. A high pressure situation involving doublings and re-doublings of identity causes Nina’s reflection to come to life as the lustful and violently free spirit she has never let herself be. So, once again, we encounter a type of doppelgänger that actually exists in our reality, the doppelgänger created by a broken mind.