Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
-Stephen King

I’ve never been all that interested in horror movies, which might seem an odd way to introduce an issue that revolves almost entirely around such films. Growing up in a devoutly religious family, I wasn’t really allowed much exposure to them. I wasn’t even allowed to check out Stephen King books from the library (though I’m certainly willing to concede, in retrospect, that the Bible is filled with plenty of horror stories). But, while seeing a film like Terminator 2 was at least open to debate with my parents—a debate I ultimately won, because my dad wanted to see it every bit as much as I did and together we were able to wear down my mom—it simply wasn’t ever an option to watch something like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th in my house. This was partially due to a religious avoidance of anything even tangentially related to the devil, hell, or the occult, but there was also likely a good deal of normal, old-fashioned parenting involved: I was easily scared, and already had plenty of anxiety to deal with it as it was. My parents (wisely) figured I probably didn’t need anything more to be afraid of at night. If a claymation film like The Adventures of Mark Twain could lead to a week of nightmares—and to waking my parents up in the middle of the night for reassurance that everything was going to be ok—I can only imagine what Child’s Play or Pet Sematary would have done to me.

I was scared of a great many things as a small kid. Most were imagined, but that didn’t make them feel any less possible. The world was impossibly big and unfathomable, good and evil in a very concrete, black-and-white way that allowed for little negotiation. I was keenly aware of my smallness, my near total lack of agency. And that lack of control, that basic helplessness we all feel as small children dealing with an overwhelmingly large universe, is something that never entirely goes away. We learn to mask or repress it better as we grow up, but it’s still there, and it’s still terrifying. We try our best to marshal our well-worn defense mechanisms in service of avoiding potential triggers, but the world can still be a frightening place.

Fear is a funny thing. It can take many different forms and manifest in all sorts of ways. Anxiety, phobias, nightmares, dread—all of these are simply another way of saying that we are scared, that we have lost control (or realized how precious little of it we ever had to begin with), that there are forces out there larger and stranger than us, capable of reducing us to huddled masses, keeping us scared to turn off the lights at night.

What scares us most quite often makes the littlest sense, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to these ancient brains we all carry around, primed to detect threat above all else. It made sense once, thousands of years ago—when the notion of “fight or flight” was a necessary survival instinct, hard-wired into our circuitry so we’d live to see another day—but it serves us far less well today, in our modern context. There are no tigers left, not really. But still the alarm bells keep ringing.

But when we set out to create this month’s annual Halloween issue, we quickly realized we weren’t particularly interested in putting together a typical horror issue. No gore, no slasher films, no splatter-fests (other magazines and sites will be doing that all month long, and much better than we ever possibly could). While plenty of folks love films of that ilk, we’re much more interested in reflecting on a more existential kind of fear, in looking at why things scare us, rather than merely noting that they do.

So, while this is still very much an issue about haunted houses (The Uninvited), monsters (The Monster Squad), vampires (The Hunger, Only Lovers Left Alive), evil (Heavy Metal), and dread (Eraserhead, Return to Oz)—it’s also one interested a great deal in life, love, indifference, displacement, weirdness, memory, experience, authorship, childhood, and Catherine Deneuve.

Scary movies are rarely ever just scary movies. They’ve existed, and been successful, for nearly as long as cinema itself (George Melies made The Haunted Castle, a three minute short film widely considered to be the very first horror movie, way back in 1896). For nearly 120 years now we’ve gathered together in front of giant screens in the dark, laying down our hard-earned money in the hopes of having the wits scared out of us. The reason we keep returning to these types of films might seem rather obvious—they offer up terrifying narratives and spine-tingling chills, allowing us to watch horrors play out right in front of our eyes, safely removed but vicariously involved. They give us a chance to experience true fear and anxiety, without any of the actual danger; dress rehearsals for situations we hope to never face. We imagine ourselves into these stories as a way of figuring out how we would react, how we would cope with all the things that scare us most. And by doing so, we are perhaps briefly able to comfort ourselves, to make our own fears seem slightly more manageable, to wrestle a tiny sense of control back from a frightening and random universe. That way, we don’t have to feel quite so terrified about turning off the lights.
 

—Chad PermanEditor-in-Chief


These Haunted Shores

by Kelsey Ford

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

One need not be a chamber –– to be haunted
One need not be a house.

– “LXIX,” Emily Dickinson

I.

Windward House is empty. Its windows shuttered, lawn overgrown, chandelier unlit. Light from the sea dances across ceilings. The house sits at the edge of the cliff. It has survived Atlantic gales and winters with its organs emptied. Beneath, waves crack between crags. They bite and shrink and bloom.

Left alone so long, the house has settled around its bared bones. It’s become a body without lungs, caught at the edge of an inhale. All this time it’s been waiting to be filled up again, with the little girl who left it all those years ago. Whispering with her secrets until she returns. Young Stella.

II.

This is how the 1944 film, The Uninvited, opens. Two siblings, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, emerge between the rocks, next to a dead tree. They’re chasing their barking terrier up the bluff. He gets away, scuttles through a hole in a boarded up window, into the abandoned home.

Rick––played by a young, debonair Ray Milland––is a lapsed composer with a sideways smile and a gut instinct he tries to pass off as logic. Pamela (Ruth Hussey) is much sweeter, with a sharp intelligence and a wardrobe full of dresses perfect for casual dinner parties.

The house is unfurnished. It echoes with their yells and footsteps as they clatter after the dog. Pamela pauses and looks around them, at the curving banister, the chandelier in the entryway, the fireplace in the bathroom. Oh, and that view out onto the ocean!

In a rash moment, they decide to buy it. They don’t have much, but between them, maybe they could hash it. That they’re siblings, going in on a house together well into adulthood, is a strange incongruity in a movie full of them. Perhaps it speaks to the movie’s sense of displacement, or the way the characters are consistently asking questions in the wrong order. Everything in this movie is slightly slanted away from the social norms.

When they go to Commander Beech in town, he’s more than willing to give it to them for well below market price. Selling the house will keep it away from his granddaughter, Stella Meredith, played by a quavering, young Gail Russell. The house, as he sees it, is a danger to her, but she disagrees. Stella hates the idea of the house belonging to another family, and makes this sentiment known to the sibling buyers. They purchase the place anyway.

The Commander asks: “And you’d not be nervous in such a lonely house? All of the wind at nights? It plays odd tricks in old houses.”

Rick laughs. No such thing.

That night, Rick wakes to the sound of a woman sobbing downstairs. It’s a bodily howl without a bodily origin.

Pamela stops Rick from searching; it’s no use. “It comes from everywhere and nowhere,” she says. “Just when you’ve started to think you’ve dreamt it, it comes again.”

“Now don’t go making up stories,” he tells her.

This is the way, of course, that all hauntings begin.

III.

Imagine yourself in the composer’s shoes, standing against the banister and looking after your spooked sister. The hallways curve into darkness. The windowpanes, left dusty for decades, look down on that haunted, beating shore. Imagine the lack built into this home, where a resolved history should have been.

This is not like those ghost stories whispered over campfires. This is your life. You spent the last of your money on this two-story cavern that makes you wary of evening and darkness and that space between sleep and waking.

You begin to question your own senses. The way your hair prickles at the back of your neck as you work on your music. But your sister is frightened, and you’re sure hauntings and ghosts aren’t real, after all. You’re the sensible one between the two of you.

Imagine having to remain sensible, despite your sharpened senses.

And then, imagine meeting that sweet girl Stella, the daughter of the woman that died outside your new home. You see her on the street, and look into her eyes. So deep and wounded, somehow. Perhaps even she doesn't understand that about herself, but you do. She apologizes for trying to stop you from moving into that house. She explains herself, but the explanation is weak. You forgive her.

Imagine her smile.

Imagine what that smile could make you believe.

IV.

From the moment Stella enters Windward House––for the first time in seventeen years, since her mother fell to her death from the cliffs––it becomes clear that the spirits inside want her. She’s there for a simple dinner party, but after she visits the studio, and the chill of that room settles into her skin, the evening pivots toward the hauntings. She dashes down the stairs, outside. Running, as if for her life, toward the edge of the bluff. Rick saves her from the brink. Rocks skitter over, pushed by her heels as she wavers. Almost.

“I hadn’t any sense of danger at all,” she says. “I think this is where my mother fell. By the dead tree.”

Everyone is determined to keep her from the house after that, but she’s adamant. It’s her mother there. She wants to be with her. She wants to wake up and see the dawn with her.

Stella is what's at stake in this film. She's the young naïf. She wants to fend for herself when everyone is doing their best to stop her. Stella is erratic and lovely. Her eyes look up at Rick, across at her grandfather, full of a sweet yearning neither can resist.

Before the dinner party that evening, Rick runs his fingers along the piano. “There’s kind of a sleeping beauty magic about the kid,” he says. “I’d thought I’d done something toward breaking the spell. I guess not. Prince Charmed, that’s me.”

In the manner of all Prince Charmeds, Rick wants to save Stella, but there's something confusing in these hauntings. Sometimes, the force seems kind and sweet. A room fills with warmth and the smell of mimosa, her mother's scent. But then, other times, a space becomes bone-cold and all hope drains. It seems there are two ghosts. One is there to guard Stella. The other is there to attack.

The Uninvited's final act is full of the appropriate twists, although some come off a bit muddled: Stella's mother's friend, a villainous Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), takes Stella in, but for her own shady motives; the town doctor helps Rick, Pamela, and Stella stage a séance that ends with Stella speaking in tongues; and, in a final turn, Stella is sent back to Windward House while Rick and Pamela chase her elsewhere, leaving her to face the spirits alone.

Although the mythology can seem convoluted and, sometimes, a bit contrived, its root is sincere and sweet. In a way, the movie is Stella’s coming of age. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must face what they were born with, the curses they inherited from their parents.

But not everyone’s coming of age becomes a battle, as Stella’s does. Not everyone's ghosts are presented in a mansion on a bluff. Not everyone is forced to face the truth, while flinging themselves toward a cliff and the waves below.

V.

Stella becomes entangled with her past, forced to face answers to questions about herself she didn't know enough to ask: her mother isn't who she thought she was, the woman she thought was her mother is now a malignant ghost, her true mother is the protective one, with the scent of mimosa.

But focusing on that turns Stella away from the truths of the present, the man who's falling in love with her, the way her life has opened up, beyond its former solitude, and the grandfather who would do anything to protect her.

She begins to conflate herself with Windward House, her chambers with the house's chambers, her ghosts with the house's ghosts. She's been carrying their absence like a wound, and this is her chance to confront that, stitch it up. To her, the house has become another body, with aspects and intents and wishes, with expanding lungs and faded skin.

When she first visits, she comments on how glad the house must feel to be lived in again. “It isn’t fair to hate a house because someone died there,” she says. “I love Windward because she lived there for three years, and those were my years.”

When Rick threatens to tear the house down, to protect her from its malignancy, she protests: “You’re talking about destroying that house. You’d be tearing me apart.”

What she means, of course, is that tearing apart the house would be akin to denying Stella the answers she needs so badly in order to fully fill her skin. But Rick worries that Stella’s fixation on the past will keep her from looking to him for the future, and so he turns toward the hauntings with her, against his better judgment.

VI.

Gail Russell, as the waif-like Stella Meredith, is the film’s anomaly. She has a baleful set of eyes you can’t look away from, and although she is widely recognized as a mediocre actress, her performance here is staccato and strange enough to work.

Russell secured a contract with Paramount as a teenager, almost against her will, but she was so clinically shy and uneasy in front of the camera, it was difficult to predict which version of an uneven performance she would give. While filming a later movie, she nervously wrung her hands so often, they had to tie them to her sides with a handkerchief.

“I was possessed with an agonizing kind of self-consciousness,” she said. “I felt my insides tightening into a knot, my face and hands grew clammy, I could not open my mouth. I felt compelled to turn and run if I had to meet new people.”

Russell began drinking on the set of The Uninvited, a habit that haunted her through the rest of her life. There’s a shot of her online, failing an alcohol test from an officer. Her hair is tied back in a bandanna, her lips pursed out of concentration and amusement, her eyebrows lofted. In 1957, in one of many drunk-driving incidents, Russell crashed a car through the windows of a café, pinning a janitor beneath her convertible.

She died at the age of thirty-five, her liver damaged from years of abuse. In the last year of her life, she retreated into her home, painting and drinking and occasionally, according to a local radio DJ, calling in to request the song “Stella by Starlight.” The DJ says she called the night before she died; she didn’t want to be identified, she just wanted to hear the song written by a smitten composer for a character she’d played once, before everything else.

VI.

This is, perhaps, The Uninvited’s biggest legacy: that of “Stella by Starlight,” the piano piece Rick composes for Stella and plays for her the night of the dinner party, before she billowed out into the dark night, chasing her mother’s death.

“See, this is the only way I can paint you,” Rick says. “Some black keys, and some white, and fingers that are much too clumsy. But you’re in it somehow.”

A few years after the movie was released, the composer, Victor Young, rereleased the song as a jazz piece. It became a jazz standard, often cited among the top ten and covered by artists such as Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Aretha Franklin. The music has also since been featured in other movies, including The Nutty Professor, Sabrina, and Casino.

As Rick performs that evening, in the unseasonably cold studio, the candlelight wavers, and the music dips into melancholy.

“It’s gone awfully sad,” Stella says. “Why have you changed it?”

Rick answers, “It just came out that way.”

His fingers skim across the piano, the piece suddenly and obviously in the minor key, beyond his control.

And so the music sways and builds, sad and inside out. The song is Rick’s letter of intent, his portrait. He couldn’t know it would survive as the film’s ghost, echoing that promise through the strains of Miles Davis and the chords of Aretha Franklin.

VIII.

Movies are full of them. These spirits. We watch: how things were, there, in that moment. Here are actors playing characters, but these actors were people with things to do that evening, after taking off their character’s clothes and going home for the evening. Now they’ve already done those things and finished with that set, but the mere act of them having been there, once, enacting this story, gives it its power.

They become another gradation of the movie’s ghost story.

This is the power of ghosts, after all: they echo a moment, a whisper, an absence. They're infinite and mean and strange and mysterious. Meeting a ghost makes you question who you are and why you are. It puts you in front of a past that hasn’t changed, in an ever-changing present. To be able to communicate with a history is a singular thing, even as the danger of coming untethered from one’s present looms larger.

For Stella, rather than unsettle or startle, the answers the ghosts give serve to soothe her ingrained sensibilities. Knowing she doesn’t have to live up to her perfect mother, knowing that the darkness she feels bubbling in her chest is normal and innate, gives her permission to become more herself.

Finally, she can inhabit that which she’s inherited.

IX.

Imagine, again, that you are that composer. You've unearthed the lies and betrayal that have led the woman you love and the house you own to this place. It's decided, it's solved, but there's one last thing to do. You turn back, to confront this ghost you were so sure couldn’t exist. For her sake, you will face the smoke and subterfuge.

This is, perhaps, what it means to love. Or what it means to try.

There you are in the entryway. The chandelier rattles overhead. The shadows have bled along the walls, as if forcing the house into a negative of itself. The ghost with evil intent is still there, at the top of the staircase. Waiting for someone to call her out. Menacing and menaced.

This is the externalization of Stella’s internal struggle. If you can rend it from within the house, maybe it will drain from her veins as well. You’d be left with a woman lacking ghosts.

There are some battles you cannot win. But maybe, this one, you can.

Imagine tossing your meek flames through the ghost's emptiness. The candlestick clatters. The light extinguishes.

Imagine exhaling.


Kelsey Ford is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. A recent Los Angeles transplant, via Brooklyn, her work has previously appeared in Her Royal Majesty and Storychord.


The Flower of Evil

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I don’t burn; I consume myself. – Catherine Deneuve

The Hunger begins in a nightclub. Night and darkness have historically been the vampire’s domain; also: decadence and connoisseurship. Here, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie prowl through a boite, elegantly outfitted in YSL, to watch Bauhaus perform “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

The song is a poem and an invocation. The best 1980s lyrics have oddball narratives that you don’t need to understand in order to get. ‘Bela Lugosi’s dead…undead, undead, undead,’ vocalist Peter Murphy chants from inside a mesh cage. He extends his arms and raises up his jacket like a cape. This isn’t kitsch—you won’t find the silent screen crescendos of scariness that you’d see with Carl Dreyer’s or Werner Herzog’s undead. What you get in The Hunger is lavish affectlessness.

Deneuve and Bowie, obscured in semi-darkness and shades, survey the club. Bowie flashes his impressive canines. They make contact with a redhead (Ann Magnuson) and her dance partner, and the two couples drive in a hearse-sized Cadillac to a motel. There, Miriam unsheathes an ankh pendant that masks a blade, cuts their carotid arteries and drains the victims of life. Your typical vampire blood harvest and feast.

When The Hunger was released in 1983, it received mixed to negative reviews. If praised, reviewers called out its torrid commercial aesthetic. The film was director Tony Scott’s first feature—he and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, along with Tony’s brother Ridley Scott and colleague Adrian Lyne, began work in British TV spots, experimenting with form as practice for dramatic films. You can’t praise The Hunger for its sharp structure or recognizable human emotions. It’s not a heart-warmer, it’s a heart chiller. But if not exactly a good movie, it is a relentlessly cool one.

Released in the same year as Ridley Scott’s dystopian thriller Blade RunnerThe Hunger shares its science fiction meets noir aesthetic. And the two films’ images have become synonymous with what the 80s look like on celluloid: blue-cast darkness, single light sources, lots and lots of atmospheric smoke. (Goldblatt says he lit the scenes so sparingly that some footage was unusable). While Blade Runner prognosticates an entire future, The Hunger shrinks all of post-punk New York to the scope of one blood-drinking couple. But the films share a central concern: in what qualities do we locate humanity? And do human strengths define the apex of feeling and conduct on Earth?

Scott said his visual conception was inspired by Helmut Newton’s fashion photos for French and British Vogue. Newton sexualized froideur—his most striking portraits of Deneuve, Bowie and especially Charlotte Rampling are remarkable for depicting fascism as fetish. Similarly, Scott’s film straddles soft core and arthouse, pulling from 70s exploitation pics (Blood & Roses, Vampyros Lesbos) as much as from European auteurs. While 70s vampire movies may have been about anxieties of sexual identity, they are also about provocation. Here, Scott takes titillation mainstream.

He needed for this project performers who were not averse to nudity or to fantasy. Susan Sarandon, who gained cult fame appearing in Rocky Horror Picture Show and playing a madam in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, was game—the story is essentially a long build to her smokey soft core embraces with Deneuve.

The Hunger makes the problem of vampirism both scientific and sexual. The condition is the result of the mingling of human and alien blood. The resulting disease endows the victim with an extended youth followed by rapid deterioration to a kind of sentient corpse. In this story, Miriam (Deneuve) is the predator and John (Bowie) is her patient zero. After decades of immortality, and despite Miriam’s promise to preserve his life, John’s indefinite vigor is suddenly spent. He responds to his physical crisis in a recognizably human way: he consults an expert he sees on TV. David Bowie, king chameleon, is so alien that in films he has acted only as otherworldly entity: extraterrestrial tourist, goblin king. But here, as a creature confronting his ending, Bowie is given the emotional scenes, and he is unexpectedly moving .

When she recognizes John’s case is hopeless, Deneuve’s Miriam is pragmatic. She shelves her old lover amid the stacks of coffined former mates she keeps in their New York dwelling. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), the telegenic scientist whose book on sleep studies and longevity commands John’s attention, becomes Miriam’s next target.

*

Right now, the least interesting approach to the vampire genre is to say that vampires are just like us. Vampires are a terrific subject for films, of course, because they are recognizably human, but without our quotidian worries about money, social standing or biological reproduction. Thus, a vampire story has been free to focus on a single aspect of human development: on pre-adolescent and teen romance, forbidden love, transgressive sexuality, agoraphobia, petty and grand criminality, family feuds, outsider artists. A true vampire tale is prompted by an encounter with the sublime—a meeting so significant it annihilates human subjectivity. It is fitting that this annihilation arrives in The Hunger in the form of Catherine Deneuve.

Deneuve is a woman made for abstraction. She is remote as the Mona Lisa, and contains all the ambiguities implicit in that famous painted face. Whose moods live in her image, at whose prompting? What secrets does she hold, what agency does possess? Is she self-directed, or the product of a Svengali lover (Roger Vadim, her son’s father, also minted the stardom of his wives Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda) and countless metteurs-en-scene who know how to use her? Is she a victim or a perpetrator?

Three decades ago, when she filmed Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Deneuve’s fame was anchored in her dispassionate sexuality. She gained attention in the candy-colored musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but her breakout performances mined, or mimed, a darkness within her. She was the bourgeois prostitute inBelle de Jour, turned on by degradation; the schizoid hairdresser in Repulsion. Deneuve, like John Wayne or Kristen Stewart, is not an emoter, but that doesn’t mean she’s not an actor. Just as Lauren Bacall developed her signature look, a glance of glowering sexual frankness, to mask a trembling chin and unsteady nerves, Deneuve’s screen stoicism was a strategy to overcome shyness. The result was the perfect neutral: a resting face that conveys, always, a secret.

In The Hunger, the dissonance between Deneuve’s line readings and her lines is irrelevant. Unlike her early films, she is not portrayed as exiled from reality—rather, the human world falters in her sight. To look at her is to be enchanted. Susan Sarandon is audience surrogate in this respect.

The movie—maybe all horror movies—doesn’t do the things I’d usually want from a film. It doesn’t play with and pay off our hopes by protecting or rewarding characters. If the dialogue is as contrived as a contemporaneous old school porno, it’s adequate to bring the characters together. Its strengths are its sensory elements, and it is, therein, actually spooky. The rattle of a guitar somehow sounds like blood sluicing through veins. The glimpse of a breastbone, an opaque t-shirt, or a young girl’s discarded Polaroid camera suggest one’s own vulnerability.

I suppose the horror of The Hunger is meant to rest in the powerlessness of Miriam’s victims, in the funerary gloss of her environs. But it’s a delicious powerlessness—one to lust for. The Hunger is about decadence as the ultimate counter-culture and survival technique. If Sarandon’s Jamesian scientist seems to win the film’s moral debate by trying to avoid the corruption of vampire life, Deneuve’s amoral glamour trumps all. Sarandon ends the film transformed and consorting with her own female vampire recruit. Nothing human loves forever, is the movie’s tagline. The Hunger doesn't really offer the option of mortal insufficiency over immortal savagery. Yes, it’s an advertisement for the undead. When in doubt, Deneuve.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


Our Hearts Condemn Us

by Kate Horowitz

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I end up crying on the flight home from Colorado. Stars blur. The hazy grunge rock of the Only Lovers Left Alive soundtrack clangs in my ears and scrapes a shovel across the tender surface of my brain. Red lights blink atop the plane’s wings. A tear rolls from my right eye, and I wonder: If Adam, a vampire, doesn't need a toilet, where does the O negative go when he's taken from it what he needs? He makes excuses for his out-of-order bathroom to Ian, his human assistant, and offers an alternative: “Please feel free to piss in the garden.”

A drop and a half of hot salt water falls from my left eye into my lap. I wonder what a vampire's heart is good for, anyway. If he can be killed with a wooden bullet to the heart—if his heart is, in fact, working—what is its business? Whose blood is that, running through those ageless veins?

Only Lovers Left Alive

The soundtrack cover refreshes on the tiny screen of my iPod. Eve’s face rises, luminous as the moon, white as the moth on the wrong side of a window. I turn off the reading light and wipe my eyes in the dark.

I don’t want to go home. I am not ready to say the things I need to say there. We need so much, we human beings. We want so much. The simple mechanics of living are so messy, so terribly tangled. This is what divides us from Adam and Eve, the only lovers left alive: the viscera.

Sola Gratia

Bram Stoker built his vampire to mirror mankind’s animal side. Dracula was all our wildness, our base desires, our ravenous predation upon the pure among us. Jim Jarmusch’s vampires, portrayed with exquisite androgyny by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, are just the opposite—it is his humans (or ”zombies,” in the patois of the film) who are beastly, thoughtlessly indulging their degenerate impulses. The zombies have poisoned the water, they’ve poisoned the earth, and now they’ve managed to poison their own bodies, their very blood. We’ve done it now, Jarmusch says. We’ve pissed in the Garden .

Elsewhere, Adam and Eve take their lives in elegant, measured mouthfuls. They sip their ruby liquid meals from crystal cordial glasses. They live on music, on poetry, on silver thermoses of untainted black-market blood. By some agreement, the lovers live thousands of miles apart, uniting once a century for a honeymoon. They have their art, their science, their memories, and the clear, bright bond of their love to sustain them. They feed each other glittering morsels of information. Eve caresses her antique books and Adam his rare guitars, but these touches express reverence, not desire—love, not greed. Living, loving, and even suffering look chic and effortless in their cool white hands. On a night flight to Tangiers the exhausted lovers lean upon each other in perfect repose, her pale face eclipsing the darkness of his hair.

This Is Your Wilderness

I watch Eve’s long fingers run calmly down a column of Arabic text. I wonder: How often have I wanted not to want? How often have I hungered to be free of hunger? My body, my heart, my life—these are anything but effortless.

Up on the mountain at the writing workshop, my every need was met. Each day instructors offered just the right amount of understanding. I took my place at the table each night to find an elegant, measured meal. The stream water was not too cold, nor was the sun too hot. My legs grew strong as I climbed to the meadow. I rested. I climbed some more. I did not hunger. I did not want. No truth was too hard to speak aloud. For those few days up on the mountain, the world was enough for me, and I was enough for the world.

The Taste of Blood

Sooner or later, every vampire story involves a character like Eve’s sister Ava—a newly minted, Stoker-style bloodsucker, urgent and sensual, who makes all the rookie vampire mistakes. It is not, these characters tell us, just vampirism that makes you cool; for proof, simply look to sloppy, red-chinned Ava, holding her stomach and moaning after too much to drink. No, coolness comes with experience, with making the mistakes and learning from them, with watching from a detached distance as continents drift and hungry zombies cycle through ages of splendor and ruin.

Spooky Action at a Distance

I thought about building my own little cabin on the ridge. I fantasized about hiding in those heights the rest of my life, of living so far above the world that the world ceased to exist. I dreamt of breathing with ease, of watching my crumpled self unfold into a creature of strength and grace. I dreamt of living for centuries on old books and pure air and small sips of clear, bright love.

Instead, I came back down the mountain. Dreams and immaculate vampires may flourish in the thin mountain air, but this messy, hungry human being cannot. So I bundled up what scraps of serenity I could and tucked them into my pack.

Let us hope they will last me the long night flight home.


Kate Horowitz is a science writer in Washington, D.C. She owns more than one silly hat.


After Dark

by Brad Nelson

© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

“There was no message to be found anywhere in sight / Inside or out”
- Stevie Nicks, “Blue Lamp”

In 1995, W.G. Sebald published The Rings of Saturn, a novel that describes a walking tour of Suffolk, a county on the east coast of England bordered by the North Sea. In the course of this tour the unnamed protagonist endures a nervous breakdown, a source of which is his conviction that human endeavor is drawn inexorably toward death and destruction. The penumbral threat of annihilation contaminates the German author’s considerations of time and memory. “We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains,” he writes. “All that is certain is that night lasts far longer than day.” The novel’s ten chapters consist of wildly discursive histories—the slow erosion of towns that formerly decorated the Suffolk coast, the atrocities of the Belgian Congo and how they merged with the life of writer Joseph Conrad, and the still living rawness of the Holocaust. World War II and the Holocaust, the details of which he discovered had fallen out of German memory, especially glow around all of Sebald’s histories of senseless death, as peripheral and incomprehensible to one’s experience of the world as the endlessness of space at night, a tide of dark flowing over the curve of the earth.

For a long time when I was a kid I would experience regular episodes of insomnia, disconnected, shapeless nights where the hours would slow and gather together mindlessly. The atmosphere of 4 a.m. faintly echoed that of 3 a.m., on and on, like a canyon bouncing sound off its walls, building an inescapable drone in the air. I would watch television for hours and eventually hear English phrases as foreign language; they’d stream entirely through my systems of understanding, which had been compromised by my unresolving nearness to sleep. It was as if I had slipped into a new system of logic that was emerging from the vivid blur of the TV. At this point in my life my chief concern was music, in both past and present mutations, so I would inevitably cycle between MTV and VH1 as my comprehension drifted. During these hours VH1 would sometimes air the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal in edited form; they’d either surgically deleted the generous nudity or dressed it in crude blurs of underwear. Preserved were the dense ribbons of blood which whistled readily from everyone’s body.

Heavy Metal was directed by Gerald Potterton, a British animator who worked onYellow Submarine 13 years before. Leonard Mogul, publisher of the science fiction magazine from which the movie draws its name and essence, co-produced it along with Ivan Reitman, who had previously collaborated with principal writers Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum on the Bill Murray comedies Meatballs andStripesHeavy Metal the movie was intended to be an animated digest of Heavy Metal the magazine, which began publishing issues of violent and sexually explicit science fiction and fantasy comics in 1975, and was itself the American embodiment of the French magazine Métal Hurlant, which translates as “howling metal.”

The movie consists of six vignettes, each assembled by different Canadian animation studios, and a framing story from which the vignettes flow. The stories revolve around a glowing green orb known as the Loc-Nar, who describes itself as “the sum of all evils” and whose power radiates through time in recursive and expanding rings. When it first appears, the Loc-Nar melts the astronaut who brought it to to Earth, then from its immersive glow projects the film’s different stories at the astronaut’s daughter.

There’s a recurring image in Heavy Metal of bodies dissolving, the arc of human life reduced to nothing but eyes and bones draped senselessly in fathoms of goo. This dissolution happens twice in the first vignette, where a noirish New York cab driver engages with the Loc-Nar. A group of scientists extract the Loc-Nar from the desert, and the evil glowing sphere decomposes the first scientist to touch it. Meanwhile, cabbie Harry Canyon has a silent alarm installed in his car which vaporizes in a beam of light any passenger who would threaten his life. Like most dystopian visions, this first story is actually a narrow reflection of the time in which it was written; future New York essentially resembles late-’70s New York with floating cars. Canyon is seduced and betrayed by a woman who comes into possession of the Loc-Nar. He vaporizes her as well.

The second vignette is inspired by Den, a lengthy, elaborate comics saga byHeavy Metalcontributor Richard Corben. A boy discovers the Loc-Nar in his backyard and takes it up into his room. Weeks later, during a thunderstorm, the orb harnesses a bolt of lightning and launches the boy through innumerable bruises of nebulae, into a swollen, medieval realm called Neverwhere. His body blooms with muscle, and he is suddenly transfigured into an adult named Den. Robed figures gather around a dark pool to sacrifice a woman to the god Uhluthc, which is “Cthulhu,” the name of the H.P. Lovecraft deity with the mouth of a squid, spelled backwards. The remaining elements of the story seem just as considered. Den rescues the woman, who has also been augmented, but from a Gibraltar girl named Katherine Wells into a woman with enormous breasts and distended, floral nipples. It’s uninspired male fantasy even as an endless and confusing comic, but what fascinates is the dimensional quality of Corben’s drawings, the way Den’s galloping dick and an infinitely flowering field can each exhibit tremendous muscularity, bodies and landscapes twisting into dazzling helixes.

In comparison, the Den of the movie feels barely animated or detailed. The underdeveloped features of Heavy Metal’s principal characters, the way their cheeks kind of drift around bonelessly, combined with the slow, almost frozen qualities of the animation, give their eventual actions a sinister dimension. No one seems capable of expressing more than one emotion. Lines appear and dissolve on their faces, as if their skin is constantly regenerating.

An exception to this is Hanover Fiste, lackey of interstellar criminal Captain Sternn; when he makes contact with a marble-sized incarnation of the Loc-Nar, he grows intricately veined as an insect wing. The Captain Sternn vignette is based on characters initially created for Heavy Metal magazine by Bernie Wrightson, who also designed the character of Swamp Thing in the early ‘70s, conceiving him as a muscular, sinewy elaboration of a swamp. Wrightson’s characters tend to share this aspect; even his Batman is overgrown with weeds of shadow. His imagery is often as gorgeous as it is disturbing or absurd. As the newly muscular Fiste pursues Sternn, he reduces elaborate spaceship interiors to soft ribbons of steel.

The way speculative exteriors crowd almost baroquely with imaginative detail is the enduring appeal of the art in Heavy Metal, both movie and magazine. The most buoyant of Heavy Metal’s vignettes, “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” draws its concept from a series of the same name by Angus McKie, which appeared in early issues in the magazine. It only faintly resembles the comic it’s drawn from, abbreviated here to its most juvenile form; aliens get high, a mousy robot has sex with an Earth woman. It’s also responsible for the most gorgeous individual scene of Heavy Metal, where a spaceship, rendered in glossy, primary colors, and designed to resemble a cartoon grin, resonates over a government building. The spaceship is illustrated in the tradition of McKie’s best work, which largely depicts crystalline spacecraft adrift in vividly pulsing galaxies.

The final story, “Taarna,” which also draws the framing story into itself when the title character destroys the Loc-Nar, is transparently indebted to Arzach, a comic written by Jean Giraud under the pseudonym Mœbius. It first appeared inMétal Hurlant in 1975 and was serialized in Heavy Metal’s early issues. In the comic, a warrior in a pointed hat speechlessly rides a prehistoric bird through deserts that are almost lunar in their cratered emptiness. The Arzach comics were collected in 1987 and included Mœbius’ notes on their origins: “When an artist puts himself in a state where he wants to draw what exists at the deepest level of his consciousness, just on the edge of the subconscious mind, then strange things begin to happen,” he writes. “The defenses erected by your conscious mind start crumbling, and the intellect’s direction yields to messages from the subconscious.”

Giraud’s subconscious mostly illustrates itself unevenly and irreverently. In the first issue, Arzach glides by a window in a tall, hollowed stone and witnesses a woman undressing, her face obscured by the fabric of her dress. He flies to the top of the colonized rock, resolving to lasso the alpha male and hang him from the skeleton of an enormous dead animal. When he returns to the woman, he regretfully discovers her features are bear-like, her tongue amphibian.

My favorite single page in the comic depicts not Arzach on his pterodactyl but another, nameless character, a green figure in an aviator hat, who walks into a strange phallic temple filled what appear to be convalescent lepers. Though they technically populate an interior, the lepers uncoil within uncanny space, an endless white plain flowing into a horizon.

In retrospect, Giraud sees a kind of darkness and sadness in these images, grown from the dark dreams at the edge of consciousness. “At that time, the only way that I had to open myself to the subconscious plane, and free myself from the direction of my intellect, was to go ‘below,’ in those darker zones of myself which, at the time, revealed someone who was suffering, someone who was not living a happy existence, someone who was surrounded by a hard and terrible world,” he writes. “When you open those doors inside yourself, the only pictures that you find are images of death and fear.”

Readers were attracted to Heavy Metal magazine for the intricate illustrations of elsewhere such as the ones found in Arzach; they were environments that appealed to people who also found depth and imaginative richness in Roger Dean’s album covers for Yes, alien landscapes designed around innumerable vanishing points. The soundtrack for the movie reflects this sensibility unevenly, presenting a somewhat askew continuum of hard rock circa 1981. The guitars are often produced to a bodiless chug, especially on the songs provided by Sammy Hagar and former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, though Cheap Trick’s guitars retain the texture of lasers. One of the singles released from the soundtrack was Devo’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” a cover of the 1966 Lee Dorsey song, which like other Devo covers (especially their version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”) reorganizes the song into discrete patterns. It sounds faintly like the original, but disembodied and newly geometric.

Tucked into the end of the soundtrack is the first song Stevie Nicks recorded outside of Fleetwood Mac, “Blue Lamp.” It refers to a literal Tiffany lamp Nicks’ mother purchased for her after Nicks had initially joined the band in 1975. “I carried [it] on an airplane home with a friend of mine,” Nicks said in a radio interview from 1981. “They didn’t want us to take it on the plane because it was too big. Well, we got it on the plane, by screaming and yelling and crying.” The song revolves around the lamp’s ominous and magnetic glow.

My favorite song in the movie is Donald Fagen’s “True Companion,” which inhabits some wasted seconds of the “Harry Canyon” sequence. The track is five minutes long and has few lyrics, as if it were content to gently drift like the gleaming spacecraft it describes. When it expands to fit a evolving guitar solo the mutation is so natural as to resist notice, and it relaxes back into its regular shape just as smoothly, like a ripple in water.

Blue Öyster Cult also feature on the soundtrack, and they’re maybe the most direct musical embodiment of the spirit of Heavy Metal magazine. They actively wrote about science fiction and horror properties—Godzilla, the specter of Death, the reanimated corpse of Joan Crawford—merging them with their own visions of evil. Many of the songs on their 1981 album Fire of Unknown Origin were intended for the Heavy Metal soundtrack, among them “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver,” which seems to describe the death of all matter, and “Vengeance (The Pact),” which condenses the plot of the “Taarna” vignette. Blue Öyster Cult’s most horrifying songs are rendered with an irreverent, almost campy distance from the scenes they convey, which oddly deepens the atmosphere of menace and horror. This is felt particularly on their third album, 1974’s Secret Treaties, which contains indirect echoes of Nazi Germany. The album cover is an illustration of the band arranged around a Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, a German aircraft that was the first functional jet fighter plane; on the Secret Treaties cover the Me 262 is piloted by a skeleton. They deliberately inhabited this imagery even though lead singer and “stun guitar” player Eric Bloom is Jewish, as is manager and producer Sandy Pearlman, who wrote lyrics for the band drawn from a collection of poems he wrote in college called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos. The Doctrinesconstruct a kind of occultish and unstable shadow history that begins in the 19th century, and from which World Wars I and II eventually generate; the band fragmented these poems and scattered them throughout their first four albums. In an interview with Uncut, guitarist Buck Dharma explained, “I never thought we pandered to the occult or violence or any of that. We would deal with these themes much like an author or a filmmaker would. We were hammered as being Nazis or devil worshippers, we like to create mindscapes with our music but it’s not like we lived [them].”

In researching this essay, I watched “Neverwhere Land,” a sequence deleted from the final cut of Heavy Metal. The sequence depicts not the Neverwhere ofDen but the history of our world, which evolves from the Loc-Nar’s impact in a primordial sea. Animals and people murder and consume each other from the amoebic birth of life to the dawn of World War II. The version of the sequence available on the DVD has a workprint quality—characters look like sketches, and their tendency to dissolve into a chaos of lines causes them appear like squids feeding on each other. The sequence is scored with “Passacaglia” by Krzysztof Penderecki, who would often arrange his compositions for choirs in semitonal clusters, members of the choir singing only slightly differentiated notes, breeding a dissonance that over time begins to resemble an evolving vortex. “Neverwhere Land” was intended to precede the vignette “B-17,” where the Loc-Nar reanimates the corpses of World War II bomber pilots, viscera still hanging from the branches of their ribs. These sequences weave the doom of human history into the otherwise speculative fantasy of Heavy Metal, its immature visions suddenly enveloped in nameless shadow.

Horror does not necessarily express itself as a malevolent universe. It can be an indifferent one, and often is. In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks evil has no intrinsic nature, nor any motivation beyond survival. It has a discrete body, and swims through people like a virus. As an adolescent awake in raw, disorganized hours I could not begin to apprehend the horror I felt at the idea of the Loc-Nar. It was the senselessness of it, the idea that people despite their goodness or badness could become enraptured and unwoven by its gleam. Criticisms I’ve read ofHeavy Metal tend to characterize a mindlessness animating the film, but this mindlessness is crucial to the way evil operates in the movie. It’s arbitrary and accidental as fate; people can just dissolve into nothing, for no reason, without a trace. Trying to understand this, trying to hold it in one’s mind is like assimilating antimatter. Throughout The Rings of Saturn Sebald is consumed with the writings of the enigmatic doctor Thomas Browne, whose work dwelled in the metaphysical as much as the anatomical, and “who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.” “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” Sebald writes. “For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.”


Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice.


Just Suggesting This Film Makes You Weird

by Bebe Ballroom

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

My brother and his wife returned from the haunted house. It had been named something ridiculous like The Retribution or The Reaping. I had stayed home with the baby, watching a program that explored the possibilities of a prehistoric New York City. The baby liked the part where Mastodons marched down 42nd Street.

They returned from the attraction disappointed- they’d expected to be terrified and found instead that they were simply annoyed by the lazy gore and loud patrons. There is something particularly unterrifying about excessive gore, or at least there is to me. It makes me think of Des in The Last Days of Disco, who idealized his college crush until the moment she took her shirt off and suddenly he was “confronted with these breasts, which turned out to be completely surprising and, frankly, disconcerting”. He says what men think about women’s breasts “isn’t something you just blurt out… it’s far more complicated and nuanced than that”.

Des was talking about desire but I think the same can be said of fear. There is almost something pornographic about gore and special effects. Excessive imagery can be vulgar when compared to what the imagination can do with just the suggestion of a monster.

We started to discuss what would be truly scary and it didn’t include high school dropouts in ski masks. My brother brought up the death tape in The Ring, how he wanted a movie that was like that tape. His wife agreed. I was surprised by how deeply they wished to be disturbed.

The word Eraserhead rose up in my throat like vomit, though I tried to keep it down. I forgot, for a moment, about the differences between the three of us. The gap between the two of them like a bridge, the gap between myself and my brother a medium-sized state like Iowa, and the gap between myself and his wife, a distance which could be measured in intergalactic terms.

I forgot about these differences and told them about the film. Maybe it was the disappointment of the evening’s attraction, or the spirit of October, but they were in just the right mood that they decided to go for it. I couldn’t believe it. I knew I shouldn’t have even brought it up, but I did, and they actually wanted to see it. I knew as I went to turn off the light that it was a mistake.

To some, things are either normal or they’re weird, and that’s it. My brother is on the borderline. I think he wants to explore the underbelly of things, but something seems to hold him back.

Growing up in small towns that seemed like cultural wastelands, we shared our influences with each other. He would make hip hop tapes for us to listen to while we played basketball. I would play music for him on the way to school, and show him movies I’d checked out from the library. At times it felt balanced, at other times off-kilter. Sometimes it seemed like our offerings had inherent values and that mine were inferior and weird, like they weighed less than his. It didn’t help that I was probably too excitable, asked too often, sometimes not asking but pleading. It’s like I needed to show him, needed to share with him, needed someone to relate to me. A low-point was when we were teenagers and I offered him thirty dollars to watch Amelie. He dozed off before she even found the buried box in her bathroom. I dug the bills out of his back pocket and ejected the tape. What used to bother me about that was that he fell asleep—now I’m mostly mortified by the fact that I made it a financial transaction.

A few years later and I was offering up Eraserhead. “It’s really different,” I told them. Most of us have a bag of disclaimers we carry around daily. Explanations, justifications, the need to make other people comfortable.

“Are you sure you wanna watch it?”

They were asleep in less than twenty minutes. Still, this was more than enough time for them to inform me that the special effects were terrible, to criticize the film as “needlessly in black and white,” and to repeatedly question just what the hell I was thinking.

“How can you watch this?” they asked me. “What is this supposed to be about?”

The first question was a rhetorical one, meant to make me feel like a freak. But the second was a reasonable one, something plenty of people have asked in regards to Eraserhead. On the surface, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If there is a sequence of events it is something like this: dream sequence, man meets girlfriend’s parents, girlfriend prematurely gives birth, man and girlfriend marry, baby is sick and difficult to care for, wife abandons baby, man encounters a tap dancer and a neighbor lady, another dream sequence, two strange men fight in the street, man looks for neighbor lady, power outage, baby dies (sort of), another dream sequence. Of course, the baby resembles a deformed alien cow fetus, the tap dancer lives in the radiator, and the dream sequences aren’t really dream sequences at all.

Even David Lynch claims he was having trouble understanding the film’s vision during its five year creation. In his book, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says he didn’t know what pulled the whole film together until one day when he opened the Bible and “read a sentence.” Lynch wrote that he “closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.”

He also wrote that it’s his most spiritual film, and that he doubted he would ever reveal which particular Bible verse cemented Eraserhead for him. Perhaps the Bible verse is bullshit, non-existent. Perhaps he is simply adding to the legacy of his own work. Then again, maybe there is a verse that makes Eraserhead makes sense. Because I don’t “understand” any of Lynch’s other work either. Maybe there’s a bible verse that solves the riddle of each of his films. And if there isn’t, okay then. He is a Surrealist after all.

I’m not offended that my brother and his wife didn’t like the movie; I don’t uphold it as a monumental film. Truth be told, it frustrates me and freaks me out.

It’s not about culture or film snobbery. It’s about experience. It was exactly what they asked for, and I thought they could appreciate it for that. It’s something that was created out of thin air and makes you think and feel, even if it’s negative thoughts and feelings. I reminded them that there were many people behind the camera. That someone came up with that story and they made that moon and that abomination baby and that every decision involved in the creation of what they were seeing made them feel a certain way, made them forget that it wasn’t real, that it was all with purpose. They didn’t give a shit.

Some are in such unwavering control of their worlds that they can’t be shown, even for an hour or two, the possibility of other ones. For some, films are meant to entertain, art is meant to decorate, and books are meant for children.

They dismissed it and went to sleep. I remember laying in bed that night, thinking about the next day. Tomorrow, I thought, they won’t remember that they had asked for something and received precisely that. They won’t remember the film’s bleak lighting or the unbearable silence or the thrilling absurdity. Tomorrow they won’t care that they were in a different universe for a few minutes, and that they hated it so much that they followed bread crumbs back to this one.

Tomorrow I will be that cauliflower girl in the radiator, weird as ever


bebe_bio.jpg

Bebe Ballroom writes from a small river town in Missouri, where she does not possess her dream job of naming shades of nail lacquer or house paint. She was born on the same day as Woody Allen and Bette Midler, which makes too much cosmic sense to dismiss. She has cultivated inadvertent collections of chopsticks, bobby pins, loose glitter, and neglected musical instruments which haunt her from the corner of the room.


Let the Monsters Have Their Day

by Bob Schofield

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Dracula pulls up in a slick black Cadillac. A platinum skull shines on the grill. The ride is pimped, and so is he. It's the late eighties, and he's still rocking a collared cape with the bright red lining. A huge medallion glitters under the frills and puffs of his pirate shirt. He’s a thousand years old, and he looks fabulous.

“Let it begin,” he says to the moon. His voice is gravel over thunder. He looks down at the lights of some nowhere town. Straight from Transylvania to Anywhere, USA. The storm clouds turn his pale face blue.

*

The cleverest thing about 1987's The Monster Squad—let's be real, the only clever thing—is that it's debatable which “squad” the title is actually referring to.

On the one hand, there are the film’s protagonists, a group of pre-pubescent monster enthusiasts who actually call themselves “The Monster Squad,” writing it in all caps on a chalkboard in their secret tree house base. There’s a fat kid. There’s a bizarre, anachronistic greaser kid that’s supposedly “the cool one.” Sean, their earnest leader, has an encyclopedic monster memory, and a snarky best friend who looks like he was grown in a lab with DNA from the two Coreys. Ultimately, these guys are like a poor man’s Goonies. They offer very little to connect with.

On the other hand, there’s a second “squad,” this one comprised ofactual monsters. They’re the film’s antagonists, but also its true stars. Each of the big Universal Studios monsters dust off their rubber suits and puts in an appearance: Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They all come together under Dracula’s leadership to take over the world, be vaguely evil, and destroy the suburbs.

From the beginning, I’m rooting for the monsters.

It's the only option really. If you watch this movie, you're watching it for the monsters. Where else are you going to see all the classic movie monsters team up in one place? (Okay, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, fair enough, but did they also have an original hip-hop theme song to play over the end credits? Didn’t think so.) It’s what you’ve been waiting for your whole life without realizing it. It’s The Avengers of the undead.

By comparison the human characters, kids and adults alike, are undercooked, uninteresting, and deeply punchable. It’s a rough uphill climb until the monsters finally show up. I guess these kids were written to come off as “incorrigible rascals,” or something. Well let me tell you, they don't. They just seem loud and abrasive, and there’s a lot of uncomfortable homophobia floating around. There’s one early scene where they leave the principal's office, speculating on how he must be "a fruit" because he wants them to pay attention in class and stop making terrible no.2 pencil drawings of monsters. I guess it's the eighties, so you have to put a little mental asterisk by it, but boy does it sure make me want to see these little shits get eaten. I just smell something gross and fascistic about these kids and their alleged “goodness.” It feels lazy and superficial. I resent how utterly predictable their presence is. I hate that I already know they’re going to win. They’re like the Yankees or something. They expect a medal just for showing up. I’m sorry, but just because you’ve handed me a bunch of plucky white kids, it doesn’t guarantee I’ll cheer for them. And it sure as hell doesn’t make them “heroes.”

*

My deliverance comes in the form of Dracula, terrorizing some poor shmuck in what seems to be a tiny plane full of nothing but ancient Transylvanian coffins. His bat form flaps in angry puppet circles. Fur bristles. Red eyes flare. The legendary Stan Winston’s creature effects are the film’s other saving grace. The pilot and his plane fall out of the sky, and coffins scatter across what seems to be a vast demonic swamp bordering the sleepy, all American town. The film scores bonus points for unintentional Lynchisms.

You can tell what's in one of the boxes, because it says “Frankenstein” in big white letters. Dracula takes his weird pimp cane—Transylvanian fashion being rich in affectations—and turns it into some kind of DIY lightning rod. Wires wind down into the creature's neck. “Wake up, old friend,” he says, and I prick up a little in my seat. He reaches his hand down as the creature’s dead eyes open, brushes a long hand against its cheek. I feel something tug inside me. The creature is unintelligible. It says something that sounds like baby gibberish. The other monsters have gathered in a circle, howling in approval, their weird shapes writhing under flashes of electric blue.

I know the movie wants me to see this as some terrible, cataclysmic event. It’s all the great beasts of cinema, going bump in the night at once. It should mean “head for the hills,” but for some reason I can’t see it as anything but awesome. I find myself thinking of Maurice Sendak. I’m thinking of a jungle, a bonfire, and the wild rumpus. I feel like I’m watching a ghoulish version of The Breakfast Club. Suddenly, I hate this movie just a little bit less. Something unintentionally endearing has crept into the scene. My heart goes out to these monsters, these weirdly freakish nobodies. I’m seeing a family reunited, and if it means the whole world has to be plunged into some vague darkness for the monsters to win, well that’s fine with me. Monsters have to look out for one another. I’ve picked my side and I’m sticking with it, come what may. So go for it, monsters. Bring on the end times. I’m ready and willing. I’ve got my fist in the air. Turns out we are each of us a giant bipedal fish-man, a zombie wrapped in toilet paper, a wolf wearing torn capri pants, some weird bloodsucking dandy, a light-up cadaver in a box, and a criminal.

*

Still, there’s dysfunction in the house that Dracula built. He gives Tom Noonan’s Frankenstein a mission: He is to go after the kids, the other monster squad, in search of Van Helsing’s diary, which contains vital information about a magic amulet with the power to banish the forces of evil once and for all (otherwise known as putting an end to this movie.)

First Frankenstein finds Sean’s little sister sitting by a pond, playing with flowers. It’s a scene that harkens back to Karloff’s classic version of the monster. But, much to the grave disappointment of this viewer, there is absolutelyzero drowning in The Monster Squad, accidental or otherwise. Instead, everything just sort of works out, and it’s revealed that Frankenstein’s monster has been deeply misunderstood this whole time. He’s a kind soul underneath those big boots and dusty jacket, a gentle giant in need of a little understanding. It’s like Sloth in The Goonies, except he’s made of sewn-up dead people.

For me, this is the great tragedy of The Monster Squad, Frankenstein's betrayal of his fellow monsters. It cut me deep. I couldn't understand it. Have you no dignity, Frankenstein? How could you betray your dark brethren for this pack of twelve year olds and their off-putting homophobic banter? I know the film wanted me to see Frankenstein’s change of heart in a hopeful light, hand me some vague platitude about goodness being found in the unlikeliest of places or some such bullshit, but I just felt sad watching Frankenstein sell out so spectacularly. It's a misguided move, in my opinion. I'd argue there's far more solidarity and camaraderie, far more "humanism" on display among the monsters than these children, who bicker and bully with the viciousness of the worst twelve year olds.

Middle-schoolers are terrible people. They always have been, and always will be. And The Monster Squad is no different: they actually call their fat kid, Fat Kid. They do it to his face, and they do it all the time. But Dracula’s monsters move and act as one, a well-oiled machine. Maybe it's a maturity that comes from being thousands of years old. Maybe it’s centuries of team building workshops in the bowels of a secret dungeon. All I know is there must be some level of decency and mutual respect at work for such a disparate, cosmopolitan group (Egyptian, Transylvanian, some sort of merman) to come together under one roof. The only monster that can even articulate proper thoughts is Dracula, but you never see him verbally shame the poor, ineffectual mummy (always the saddest and shabbiest of movie monsters) for being so damn useless all the time. But I ask you, who is there to dry off Eugene aka Fat Kid's pillow when he cries himself to sleep at night?

That’s why it hurts me to see Frankenstein run off into the sunset with these suburban whippersnappers. The kids put him in big, Risky Business-style Ray Bans and teach him to say, “Bogus.” My douchechills are instant and severe. It’s like seeing those people that walk around in public with their kid on a leash. At one point the monster looks at a cheap plastic Frankenstein mask and pulls back in disgust. He raises his massive hands to his face, and feels its misshapen contours. He’s horrified and ashamed by what he finds there. “Scary?” he asks the little kids in the tree house. They don’t say a word. I wish I could have been there. I wish I could tell Frankenstein that yes, he may be scary, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to be scary. It’s okay to be a big walking collage of green-grey people parts. It’s okay to be a monster. Whatever you do, don’t try and be human. They’re the worst.

During the final confrontation with Dracula, when Frankenstein grabs him by the back of the neck from off screen, swooping in to save the kids at the last minute, it broke my tiny, monster-loving heart. I wept to see Dracula and his evil plans fall to pieces, the monsters falling one by one to this pack of white, privileged brats. Watching that sad, frail mummy have his bandages unraveled from the legs up. He’s holding onto the back of a speeding truck, swiping violently at the kids in the backseat. One of them ties his bandages to an arrow and shoots it into a tree. The more they drive, the more he unravels. Dust pours along the highway. I could swear there’s a moment of genuine horror and confusion in his dead, Stan Winston puppet eyes. His ancient cursed Egyptian brain is telling him, “Well, this is it.” And then, poof, just a skull bouncing down the highway, one tremendous pile of cloth. I felt sad watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon bleed out from a shotgun wound. The viewer is supposed to feel happy for Fat Kid, who finally conquers his fear and mans up under pressure. But all I can see is the quickened breathing of the terrible fish-man, how in its last moments its chest rises and falls real fast, like something laid out flat against the bottom of a boat. The Wolfman puts up the best fight. Only a silver bullet can kill a werewolf, but The Monster Squad is nothing if not prepared. His human form says thank you to the anachronistic greaser kid for putting him out of his misery, and I feel a weight bottom out in my stomach. Another monster gone.

Once it’s over, I’m left feeling bitter. It’s like my team just lost the big game in the last quarter. I’m alone on the couch, a Scooby Doo villain with my rubber face pulled off. Damn those meddling kids. I wish I could rewind it and intervene. Change the ending. I wish I could persuade those kids to just stay home. Let Dracula have his amulet, and call it a day. Let the monsters win for once. A million monster movies, and every time they lose.

Personally, I've had enough of "goodness" in my stories. It leaves so little room for anything but the big, broad, happy ending, and I'm not sure if I believe in those any more. I haven't seen too many around, to be honest. The world comes with the roughest of edges, and in every shade of grey. It can be quite a monstrous little place. And maybe that's why I find myself rooting for the monsters. I see honesty there. I see hopefulness. Maybe I love them because they were just born to lose, but I'll always be hoping they succeed. That they’ll overcome whatever it is that makes the world deem them less than human, and steal a win. Because they deserve it. And isn't that the whole point of Halloween? It’s the one time when all the dark things reign supreme. One night, when the monsters have their day.


Bob Schofield is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June. He likes what words & pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.


God's Not Supposed to Be a Hack Horror Writer!

by Letitia Trent

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

John Carpenter is considered a master of horror, and for good reason: his films are gorgeously constructed, often featuring elegantly simple plot lines that play on basic human fears and emotion. He is also a greatly intelligent horror thinker. In a 2012 round table interview with Clive Barker, Roger Corman, Ramsey Campbell and more, Carpenter outlined two major types of horror: right wing horror—the horror that is out there and must be destroyed in order to restore order—and left wing horror, or the horror inside. But there is a third horror, too: cosmic horror. Cosmic horror shows us a universe in which we have no agency. It denies the possibility of meaning and rejects the idea that we have any power to control our own existence. Cosmic horror says that not only is the world a malevolent place, but worse, that we are utterly insignificant to those larger creatures or forces truly in charge.

In the Mouth of Madness comes much later in John Carpenter's career, years after the triumphs of both Halloween and The Thing, immediately iconic films that instantly cemented Carpenter as a towering figure in the horror landscape. And, while In the Mouth of Madness is not nearly as engaging as these earlier films, it remains one of Carpenter's last great films, as well as one of the best examples of “cosmic horror” ever put on screen.

Many of Carpenter's earlier films dabbled in the idea that all of us are alone and vulnerable in the face of some inhuman, incomprehensible evil (think of Michael Myers' almost supernatural ability to stay alive, or the unstoppable alien life form in The Thing), but In the Mouth of Madness takes things one step further, pushing the idea of human vulnerability to its mad conclusion: that we cannot trust anything about reality, really, and are perhaps all merely the dreams of an unkind God. The film is largely an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, an author whose influence is felt just about everywhere in weird fiction and film. If any film or novel includes a storyline in which the very underpinnings of reality have been shaken, in which its characters come to realize they are simply a small part of a much larger, more grotesquely-populated, and far more malevolent universe than they had ever imagined, H.P. Lovecraft is there.In the Mouth of Madness is not just a Lovecraftian argument for the tenuous nature of reality, though—it’s also a deft exploration of the cult of the horror writer.

As a writer who frequently attempts to work within the horror tradition myself, I’m attracted to these narratives of powerful horror writers, the bestselling author who creates nightmares so real that readers can't escape them, even after they've put down the book (or, in the case of Madness’s Sutter Cane, before they even begin to read it). Although horror as a genre is fairly niche (just as an experiment, take a look at the “Horror” section of any local bookstore—it's going to be full of King and Rice and very little else), the idea of horror novels, and the mysterious writers behind them, is still quite potent. While Lovecraft was, in reality, a dour-faced, pinched-mouthed xenophobe, and most contemporary horror figures are anything but mysterious (think of chatty, dorky Stephen King, a baby boomer in love with classic rock and corny jokes), there's still a patina of danger around writing horror stories. When you write horror, people are always quick to ask Where do you get your ideas? The question seems to imply you owe the world an explanation, so that people don't imagine your basement is full of bodies.

In the Mouth of Madness introduces us to John Trent (Sam Neill), the sort of researcher/detective figure that often shows up in a Lovecraft story. Trent is an insurance investigator called in to help track down missing novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), whose book, In the Mouth of Madness, was supposed to be turned in to his publisher weeks before. People are already in a frenzy over Cane’s previous books, which have caused psychotic breaks and violent behavior. We see this made explicit quite early on, in one of the film’s best sequences, when Trent is with a friend at a coffee shop and Cane's agent—crazed from reading his client’s work—attacks them with an ax. We first notice Cane’s agent through a window, as Trent and his friend are talking nonchalantly. The scene takes its time, the ax-wielding maniac drawing closer and larger, as his unsuspecting victims drink their coffee, unaware, until the window smashes and they see how close danger has come. It’s a perfect illustration of one of the film’s main messages: regular life is simply a comforting fiction that we all use to keep ourselves from noticing that the universe is entirely random and full of terror.

The ax can come down at any time.

Trent survives the attack and takes on the job to find Sutter Cane (Neill plays Trent as a snarky doubter, convinced Cane and his representatives are staging his disappearance, ax attack and all). He travels to the fictional town of Hobbs End, New Hampshire, where all of Cane's work is set. To Trent's surprise, the town is actually there, inhabited by the people described in Cane's novels. He also finds Cane himself here, retreated into his own nightmare-scape in order to write a novel that will bring forth the old, mad Gods (much like the “Great Old Ones” in the Lovecraft universe, terrible Gods with great power who have fallen into a sleep).

I readily admit to feeling a shiver of delight when thinking about the possibility of calling up some great, terrible deities by way of a paperback novel with a sordid cover. As a kid, I read my first horror novels in secret, with a flashlight under my blankets, hoping desperately that nobody would find me still awake and attempt to take my book away before I got to the end. I remember this particular type of nighttime reading as hungrier than any reading I've done before: I felt desperate to know what I shouldn't know, to read things that I knew would give me nightmares, and to make it to the end. While some people reach secretly for the “dirty” books on their parents' bookshelves in order to get a taste of the adult world we kids are not supposed to know, others, like me, reached instead for novels with blood-spattered axes and knives on the covers. These two towering, intersecting concepts—Eros and Thanatos—are the first great curiosities of adolescence. We begin to understand that we can die, to understand the fear of ultimate endings, right around the same time we begin to realize that the boy or girl in the seat in front of us in homeroom makes us feel funny in places we had never really noticed before. In this way our books, the ones we read when searching for ways to understand the new terrors and delights of the adult world, call up the sleeping Gods of sex and death.

In the Mouth of Madness ends, as most of Lovecraft’s narratives do, with the detective finding a great tear in reality, glimpsing a subterranean, sinister (or, to use the Lovecraftian word, eldritch) world, and promptly going mad. Much like my teenage self, tucked away in bed with a copy of It, Trent cannot help but look as Sutter Cane unveils the monsters he has unleashed upon the world, even as he knows that what he might see could be far too much for him to understand. And here lies the problem with translating Lovecraft to film: how do you give the viewer a truly convincing glimpse of the maddening underbelly of reality, of the dizzying sense that the universe cares not one iota for our human concerns—that we might all be but the dream of some sleeping God, or the clumsy words of some hack horror writer?

In the Mouth of Madness ultimately can’t express this horror, not fully. Still yet, it aims high and succeeds in reminding us of that feeling you get when reading a horror novel that absorbs you completely. It manages to create doubt, to make us wonder if it's possible that, simply by reading or writing, we can create or destroy our small, sweet, ordered reality. After all, as Lovecraft himself once said, “There are horrors beyond life's edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man's evil prying calls them just within our range.”


Letitia Trent's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Fence, and 32 Poemsamong others. Her books include the upcoming Almost Dark (Chizine Publications), Echo Lake (Dark House Press), One Perfect Bird (Sundress Publications) and several chapbooks. She is a horror film blogger for X Factor Films and lives in Colorado with her son, husband, and three black cats.


You Can't Go Home Again

by A.J. Bradley

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"The past is never where you think you left it."
—Katherine Anne Porter

It’s a sunny day in the leafy backyard of my parents’ friends’ house. I am four-years-old, and I am playing with a little dog resembling Toto from The Wizard of Oz. I have been obsessed with this film my entire young life so far, and I will be obsessed with it forever. It becomes instantly clear, however, that this tiny dog is not what it seems. For inexplicable reasons, he now has my father’s face.

Meanwhile, the dog still has his dog body. My Dad has somehow been transformed, but still has his Dad-like head and all his own facial features. His tongue is wagging out of his human mouth, and he is prancing around obliviously, while I look on in horror.

This is the earliest nightmare I remember having as a kid.

Imagine, as a child, how terrifying this is. Imagine, as a child, that there is nothing you can do to reverse it, or to ask why this has happened, or to get your father back to being just a normal human father again. You are powerless, and the one familiar piece of this dream—the person you thought was there to protect you and be stronger than you—is now none of these things. And even worse, still a child, you don't know how to get back to safety, to home, wherever that is. (I imagine comfort-infused-with-the-unfamiliar is pretty common in childhood nightmares—after all, that’s what’s most at risk when we are still so small.)

*

The Wizard of Oz is a cultural phenomenon, a film that has entertained and haunted the American subconscious ever since its release in 1939. Disney’sReturn to Oz (1985), though, was never intended to be a sequel, and that displacement looms large throughout the entire, deeply unsettling movie. To this day, I still don’t know why I was ever allowed to watch it as a child. It seems cosmically correct that, while I can recall the exact moment when our Betamax recorded the original Wizard of Oz from TV (a Thanksgiving showing in the mid-1980’s, complete with a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial), I have no idea howReturn to Ozever slipped into our watchful, Catholic living room. It is decidedlynot a movie for children, but it’s not really a movie for adults, either. It’s a movie about memory—as much the characters’ as our own projected memories of the Oz story—but it often feels like it forgot where it was going.

Return to Oz is not what you think you remember about the film that preceded it; this version of the story does not exist in the same dimension where Judy Garland once sang on a haystack. Instead, Return to Ozis far more similar in spirit to the original L. Frank Baum Oz books from the early 1900's, stories which featured decapitations, eye-removal, and plenty of other violent acts. Directed by long-time film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather) and supposedly influenced strongly by the Wisconsin Death Trip photos, it might just be the weirdest thing Disney has ever made. Return to Oz does not give a shit about song or dance numbers. Return to Oz is not Technicolor, and is lit instead like a Victorian funeral.Return to Oz has no Good Witch of The North, or of any direction, whatsoever. Return to Ozdoes not believe “there is no place like home.” Return to Oz never makes clear if Kansas is home, or if Oz is home. Indeed, it might be inferring that home simply doesn’t exist to begin with.

*

After just a few minutes, Return to Oz quickly begins to feel like a fever dream. And, when I look back on my own childhood, the sounds and colors of bothOz films feel so intertwined with my own young life—how they influenced my beliefs about leaving home and finding adventure elsewhere—that the memories begin to feel a bit like a fever dream, too.

I am not quite sure how to emphasize just how deeply the Oz stories run in my own blood, as a kid with limited entertainments growing up in a conservative Ohio household. How much I wanted to be the tough little girl from the Midwest conquering witches and befriending weird creatures. In times of high stress, I still have nightmares that I am searching for shelter from oncoming tornadoes. The original Tin Man was my model for all the men I would ever fall in love with: soft voices, occasional criers, always searching for heart. I dressed up as at least three different Oz characters for three different Halloweens. I used to sing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to myself whenever I was sad. I played the narrator in a middle school production of the musical, and secretly hoped my best friend would get sick so I could be Glinda, The Good Witch of the North. On a shelf in my childhood bedroom stands a small clay sculpture of two Return to Oz characters, made by a friend, and though I now live in another state, I still refuse to throw it out.

As memories often can’t be trusted—they become less accurate the more you go back to them— I can’t entirely identify why The Wizard of Oz spoke to me all those years ago. But Ican identify why Return to Oz doesn’t speak, how instead it whispers terrifying riddles into your ear, just as you think you’re finally tucked safely into an otherwise familiar bed.

*

Baum’s wildly successful Oz series was first published in 1900. The initial book follows a little girl named Dorothy Gale, transported by tornado from Kansas to the magical Land of Oz. There she must defeat The Wicked Witch of the West to placate The Wizard of Oz, who claims he will only send her back home if she murders the witch. (Baum clearly lifted this from many European fairy tales: child hero, evil witch, murdering to get back home.) She does it, and reveals the Wizard as a lost Kansas man himself who never had any real power to begin with. Luckily, she clicks the heels of her magical Silver Shoes, and makes it back home. But she loses those silver slippers along the way. She loses her own evidence.

Earlier today I told a coworker: If you do not already know all of the original Oz background, you have absolutely no reason to ever watch Return to Oz. It would be like going to someone else's now-abandoned childhood house. It can never possibly be as surreal or strange or meaningful to you as it is for the person who once lived there, who once called it home.

Return to Oz opens on a bleak, late-autumn field, supposedly somewhere in Kansas in the early 1900’s. It’s six months after the tornado that originally destroyed the farm, where Dorothy (played by a young Fairuza Balk!) lived with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.

Cozy enough opening, you think to yourself.

OMG, isn’t little Fairuza Balk so cute?

Some of these landscape shots are so lovely!

But you are so wrong. You do not know how wrong you are. Nostalgia has already trapped you in its straitjacket.

*

We soon learn that Dorothy has not slept through a single night since the tornado. That she talks constantly about a kingdom she visited, the place over the rainbow where animals talk, where she killed an evil witch. Cut to hushed conversations between Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in the kitchen, conversations about taking Dorothy to a “doctor.” It’s obvious that Dorothy is being sent to psychiatric clinic against her knowledge, and the movie is all too happy to rush us off on a tour of turn-of-the-century pseudo-scientific mental health asylums. As adults, we gather this will involve some version of electro-shock therapy. (And yet I was not allowed to watch Beetlejuice.)

As the film’s darkness quickens, Dorothy’s iconic little dog Toto is left behind on the farm, along with any sunny expectations. In Toto’s place, there is a chicken named Billina. We hear Dorothy threaten the chicken with slaughter if she doesn’t get to laying a few eggs. (Every chance it gets, Return to Oz reminds you that it is not here to warm any hearts.)

Upon arriving at the gothic hospital, Aunt Em is convinced to leave Dorothy there overnight. Soon enough, Dorothy is abandoned and tied to a squealing gurney. She hears screams down the halls, and asks if she just heard screaming. She is told by a devious-looking nurse (who also plays the evil Princess Mombi later) that no, Dorothy has heard no one screaming.

There is also a kind, young blonde girl on the hospital staff. She brings Dorothy a pumpkin to comfort her. It is apparently almost Halloween. Of course it is almost Halloween—you get the sense that it is always “almost Halloween” in the world of Return to Oz.

Then, during a power outage, which miraculously occurs right as Dorothy is about to be forced into electro-shock treatment, the blonde girl helps her escape into the night. They jump into a rushing river. With the looming nurse and doctor chasing after them, both girls scream in the overpowering water, in the dark. The girl from the hospital appears to have drowned.

Dorothy wakes up back in Oz, inexplicably with her chicken, who now talks.

*

Though the brightly-illustrated 1985 poster shows the classic Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man characters skipping down the yellow brick road with Fairuza Balk, in the actual film, they are all either quickly turned to stone or kidnapped. Indeed, the main plot centers around their rescue. Dorothy’s new companions, in their place, are a much stranger, steam-punky, post-Victorian crew: a spindly pumpkin-headed creature (Jack Pumpkinhead), a taxidermed animal head called “Gump” (who is initially attached to a sofa and some palm leaves in order to fly everyone out of captivity), and a short, stout, metal wind-up soldier named Tik-Tok.

When Dorothy arrives in the once-great Emerald City, she finds every living thing turned to stone. A demonic rock-spirit called The Nome King has gotten a hold of Dorothy’s powerful slippers, and is holding her old friend the Scarecrow captive. We learn this because we are immediately bombarded by “Wheelers”, genuinely scary creatures in 1980’s rusted-glam outfits, arms and legs, all four, attached to squeaking wheels.

The Wheelers are henchmen of Princess Mombi, who owns a hallway of glass cabinets, neatly stacked with rows of beautiful heads from the city’s decapitated young women. She alternates heads depending on her mood. I remember vividly the close-up of the ruby-red key Mombi uses to open and lock her glass cabinets. I was mortified by Princess Mombi, by all those heads in the cases, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to want that key. But every time it appeared onscreen, I wanted that key.

These are the kind of dark feelings Return to Oz stirs. The movie is filled with beautiful things, objects made purely from, or for, someone else’s pain. Even as a child, I understood that these things—Mombi’s gleaming red key for decapitated heads, or, later, a cavernous room of antiques created from Dorothy’s friends’ painful transformations—were wrong to covet because they came from others’ suffering. But that didn’t stop me.

I was deeply disturbed to learn recently that L. Frank Baum actually wrote a few anti-Native American, pro-genocide pieces in the late 19th century. And yet after watching Return to Oz, it makes a kind of sickening sense: a reverence towards owning beauty, the themes of home and place as concepts in perpetual need of being re-located, found, reclaimed again.

*

There is no man behind the curtain at the end of Return to Oz. No sweet old magician revealed behind the smoke and mirrors of a false wizard, jovially giving away awards and diplomas to our heroes. The Nome King goes up in fucking flames. He is screaming, melting, eyes sinking into himself in full-on 1980’s stop-action glory. The scene is just as terrifying now as it ever was.

No Oz movie following the 1939 version has ever been as successful, yet Hollywood still insists on making them. Kids keep performing musical versions in school. Parks still play The Wizard of Oz during their free film series every summer. Oz is simply and deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Which is perhaps why Return to Oz, even if it is a more faithful adaption of Baum’s books, was such a box office failure. You think you are going to spend an afternoon in a corn field—the memory of which is somewhere deep inside your dreaming brain—but instead you get taken to a cave. You have been misled by a memory you didn’t even know you had.

Even if you’ve never seen any version of Oz, if you were born and raised in the U.S., you've likely consumed it in ways you weren’t even aware of. Something in our subconscious keeps going back to the yellow brick road. It seeps in, all that ruby, all that emerald. Stories like this are a virus and, once we absorb them into our identities, we often can’t seem to remember ourselves without them.

*

Three years ago this month, my friends and I lost a person close to us. He also talked about things he had seen and heard, things nobody else would believe existed.

Our friend escaped from a very modern, very real asylum in his own way. When I think of him—and I do all the time—I hope with all my heart that, when he jumped into his own rushing river, he made it back to the place he really wanted to be, too.

You can probably remember the exact moment you’ve entered the home of someone who has recently passed away. Or returning to your own home soon after losing a pet, or the apartment of an old flame after they have moved out. You have gone back to a campus, or an office, or a bar, somewhere that helped form your idea of the world and your own place in it—you have gone back, and you have barely known it. You are no longer the person whose ghost haunts it; since the last time you’ve been there, you’ve become the future. The things you used to love, along with that old version of you, are nowhere to be found.

*

When Dorothy is first taken to the asylum, the blonde girl—who we later learn is Princess Ozma, rightful ruler of Oz—asks Dorothy why she was brought there.

“Because I can't sleep,” Dorothy says. “And I talk about a place that I've been to, but nobody believes that it exists.”

And perhaps that is what’s most frightening about Return to Oz: that it may be the story of growing up. The threat of not learning how to keep our fears and hopes and sadness all to ourselves. The story of all of us trying to get back to a place we once left, a place we are convinced we belong. And buried somewhere deep within us is a worry that, should we ever manage to find that place again, we might not even recognize it once we arrive.


A.J. Bradley is a Midwesterner living in New York City. Her work has been featured by Rattle, the Poetry Foundation, Monkeybicycle, and other places. She is finally writing again after a long hiatus.


Top Twenty(ish) Horror Movies I Am Too Frightened to See (But Fully Imagine All the Damn Time): An Exorcism

by Arielle Greenberg

1. The one where the gorgeous short-haired girl is pregnant and lives in a very nice condominium in New York City and is going to have a baby with terrible glowy eyes and everyone knows it but her.

2. The one where the gorgeous lux-haired girl is paranoid and alone in her apartment after a bad break-up and maybe something reaches through the wall.

3. The other one where the walls breathe and Blondie is in it, plus other 80s technology.

4. The one with the beautiful seductress lounging in the tub and reaching for you who turns into a ghoulish, rotting hag when you come forth. (I have seen the spooky twins part, and the blood red hallway sea part, and the hedgerow labyrinth hunt part, but not this part. I have only read this part in the book.)

5. The suburban one with the menacing tree and the clown or poppet under the bed and the muddy pit for the in-ground swimming pool full of rousing corpses.

6. The one with the flute music and sunshine-dappled island of sexy, sacrifice-happy pagans, which I’ve written poems about before.

7. The one with the chicken lady and one of us one of us one of us.

8. The low-budget one where much of the terror supposedly comes because during the filming the girl really was crawling around on her hands and knees in the dirt getting completely ripped to shreds.

9. The one where the woman lies in a mental hospital bed and her creepy psychologist is Oliver Reed (who turns my stomach because he is such a delicious sadistic daddy of a beast) and she gives birth out of a tumor to little Aryan murdergarteners who enact her internal rage.

10. The one with the Aryan murdergarteners of the corn.

11. Any one with small, silken-haired, vapor-eyed children who dully do horrible things en masse.

12. The good, Swedish one about the vampire teenagers in love, which I wish I could see, because it does sound so smart and interesting, but nope, sorry, can’t see it.

13. The mod lesbian vampire one with the hot French blonde in evening wear.

14. The one about the woman who is going to be raped by an entire community and her lover or husband is utterly useless in fending them off. I’m not sure this is usually defined as a horror movie, but my father saw it, and his description made it sound so.

15. The one with the prom and the pig’s blood and the knives flying around the house and the horrible mother and the pallid girl whose arm stretches up out of the grave at the very end in a dream sequence which I have never seen but can completely picture.

16. The one by the Italian director with eyes held open by needles and maybe opera music.

17. The haunted house one about the house that looked exactly like the real-life house next door to the house that one of my high school best friends, Gabi, lived in, and which I’ve written poems about before.

18. The one where they stitch the mouths to the anuses and it makes a feeding tube infinity loop of gruesome. I don’t even know what else happens in this movie. I don’t know how this movie is more than ten minutes long.

19. Let’s face it: any movie with mouths stitched shut or blood trickling out of the eyes.

20. And any one with glowy-eyed, menace-smirked dolls who, in the final scene, are once again found sitting innocently on a shelf. Sure, that one. Any of those.


Arielle Greenberg is Bright Wall/Dark Room's Resident Poet. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including GurlesqueShe lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.