Mean Girls

by Tess Lynch

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When I was in high school, there was a hazing ceremony that was in the final stages of its existence. In it, some senior girls would choose girls from the junior class, lead them down to the beach, blindfold them, and torture/humiliate them (mildly, like making them fellate a banana). Later, I heard of this same stuff going on in my friend’s sororities in college. The worst thing anyone I knew ever had to do—and the thought of it still makes me want to wash my hands over and over and over—was to reach into a toilet that had been filled up with various garbage (mashed-up bananas, muffins, etc) and then smear it all over themselves.

I did not join a sorority. I want to make this really clear. At Brown, sororities weren’t really goin’ on; I do know, however, that at many schools they are goin’ on. I also know how it feels to want to feel confidently part of a group of people—after all, it’s the antithesis of the loneliest depths of human existence. When you’re a part of the herd, you’re protected. You can hide in its center. A family does the same thing: a family can swallow you, cushion the beating the world can sometimes deliver. The scariest horror movies, for me, are always the ones about feeling isolated from your allies, alone except for your enemies (Open Water, Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Blair Witch ProjectPoltergeist (go with me, Carol Ann is away from her family and the only company she has is THE DEVIL)). Being constantly rejected, or deceived, is to be stripped of any protective barrier. It’s a terrifying thing.

The best scary movies match their violence with malice. Violence is too commonplace to be “scary” — not just modern violence, but the violence of the food chain, of traffic accidents, of war; what is truly scary is sadism, insanity, abject loneliness, and the kind of stubbornness of will that afflicts religious nuts and people like Hitler. For me, ghosts and monsters aren’t as scary as the guy inSaw or the sharks in Open Water (it’s okay if you were bored by Open Water, I understand that too). We’re talking fear that comes from the strongest desire to hurt other people.

There is a Lord of the Flies element to high school, obviously; I might go so far as to say that this cruelty, this pecking order, becomes most pronounced in the ladies’ cliques that form between junior high and early college. There’s something called “relational aggression" that forms in groups of girls; having a scapegoat creates the opportunity for girls to bond while bullying or making fun of their target. This is how cliques form. The seriousness of relational aggression undulates—the severity of name-calling, taunting, and even physical violence that’s too minor to be called abuse (outright, that is)—and makes it hard to understand where poor manners become sadism.

I used to totally partake in this crap. I think many of us did. Most of it was routine, but some of it crossed an invisible line. Looking back, it’s easy to say “Man, I was an asshole,” when you think of one example; think of another, slightly more severe, and you just skip past it. I wonder if the sorority girls who made their pledges reach into toilets think of that episode, ever. It can fill you with shame, but at the time, you were probably laughing. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a perfect scapegoat. She’s naive, she’s uncool, she lets her period get all over the place. She’s also spooky, because she’s got telekinesis; I like to think that Carrie’s ability to, say, make a lightbulb explode with the force of her anxiety is a metaphor for both the shame of adolescence (i.e. wondering if you’re “normal”) and the incredible potency of teenage emotion. It also doesn’t help her relationship with her mother, who’s super-bananas. Margaret White had big enough problems with her daughter as a child—because Carrie was born from SUPER SINFUL SEX TIME— but when she discovers that Carrie wants to go to the prom, which is always a bonerfest, she starts getting really abusive, driven by a blind need to protect her. Margaret is the scariest kind of insane person: she really thinks that it’s her duty as a mother to keep Carrie pure (a kind of purity, surely, that is impossible — she calls Carrie’s breasts “dirtypillows”) and would clearly go to any extreme to protect her daughter. There is something infinitely scary, too, about a person who considers life to be inconsequential, especially when compared with the glory of the afterlife. Watching the film, you begin to understand that Carrie’s mother might actually kill her in an attempt to save her.

Carrie’s mom is a creep, but at least she’s a nutty crusader, and not a sadistic high-schooler. Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) is a popular girl, and we all know that popular girls in horror movies are up to some crazy-ass shit in terms of plotting to torment the outcasts. She and her friends make fun of Carrie in the infamous shower scene, and a well-meaning, sympathetic gym teacher named Miss Collins punishes them by giving them army-drill-nightmare-style detention, suspending them from school, and banning them from the prom (the chorus of Halloweenie zombies goes NOOOO! NOT OUR PROOOOOMMMM!).

I’d like to take a moment to say that this is an interesting comment on what happens when adults intervene in the lives of teenagers. I feel as though it almost always makes things infinitely worse. I’m not sure how to get around it, really—when your kid is being bullied, or you, as an adult, see cruelty to another human being, especially a child, you really feel as though it’s up to you to stop it (silence being consent, and all that). But the turning point inCarrie is surely when Miss Collins tries to remedy the situation by, essentially, using her power/authority to punish Chris, Sue (the more sympathetic popular girl, who urges her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom) and friends. It disrupts something, some natural order. In many true stories about high school bullying (the case of Lori Drew, for instance), things turn sinister when an adult steps in. Maybe this is because the whole point of bullying is to gain power, and when it comes down to it, adults still have more power than high school bullies. Adults can take away important things, like prom, or a car, or money. And this makes a power-hungry 17-year-old girl very, very mad. Where before she might have been enjoying an admittedly delusional bit of fun, she is now out for blood.

Spoiler Time!

As the prom gets underway, we reach a crescendo of teenage horrors: first, of course, that something you want very badly will be presented to you, everything will seem perfect, and then it will all be revealed to be a horrible prank which makes you look like a fool in front of everybody; second, that you will get pig’s blood all over your cute gown; third, that your batshit-crazy mother will be right (AGAIN). Oh, and then there’s also the fear of being trapped in school auditoriums — can’t forget that one!

The carnage is too awesome to describe. What’s scary about the auditorium/prom queen scene in Carrie is that you find yourself, after having spent so much time with poor Carrie White, actually enjoying her revenge. You want her to get back at all the assholes who have been so horrible to her (but not, of course, some of the innocent and halfway-innocent people who just happen to be enjoying their prom until —!); it’s a glimpse into what it’s like to exact revenge on bullies. It’s horrible, but you understand. Twenty-five years before Columbine, it’s an interesting comment at what slow, simmering rage can do (and the shitty sequel to Carrie is, of course, sub-titled “The Rage”; Brian de Palma’s absence is W.S. Merwinian in this film. Skip it). But it’s not over! After the prom, you still have to face your mom!

Carrie comes home to see that her house has been filled with lit candles. Her mother is hiding in the shadows. After Carrie bathes, her mother insists that they pray together, and tells Carrie about how she was conceived (marital rape—no wonder Margaret White is bonkers about coitus). Following this, Ol’ Marg stabs Carrie in the back—either believing Carrie to be possessed by the devil because of how she came into being, or because of her own pent-up rage and jealousy at Carrie’s ability to live her life without the same oppressive fear of eternal judgment. Either way, Carrie unleashes her powers once again, bringing down the whole house on top of her mother, and herself.

What if the things we wished for when we were desperate, vulnerable, and helpless—that we’d be avenged somehow, or that those who caused us suffering would suffer even worse—could happen? Willed into being by our thoughts? Mean girls find safety and power in numbers; there is a bond in a clique, and those groups make their own rules. They can cause change, they can alter the course of someone’s life, they can wreak havoc on another person’s psychology; however, they fail when their target is desperate, with nothing left to lose. This is true horror: alienating someone until they are somewhere between human and animal, fighting to survive, un-buffered by the comforts of others. He or she becomes a stranger, almost unrecognizable.


Tess Lynch is one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Grantland, Salon, The Morning News, The Awl, Granta Online, and n+1


Danse Macabre

by Summer Block

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

My love of horror movies started with a rickety old cartoon of skeletons cavorting in a graveyard. I remembered it so vaguely that I might have made it up, but a quick search revealed it to be the 1929 Silly Symphonies short ““The Skeleton Dance”.” Far from the errant bit of cultural detritus I imagined, it is in fact a well-known and well-regarded piece of early animation, #18 on an industry list of the “50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.” It was directed by Walt Disney himself and animated by Ub Iwerks, co-creator of Mickey Mouse.

The five-and-a-half minute long cartoon begins with a crash and a bolt of lightning, followed immediately by a pair of wide eyes that take up the entire screen. These eyes resolve themselves into those of an owl, sitting blinking on a bare branch in a dark, wind-swept graveyard, framed against an impossibly large full moon. His hoots sound more like the thin cries of afflicted children than anything explicitly avian. A church bell strikes midnight and the owl is soon joined by a pair of yowling black cats, and then by the first in a series of antic dancing skeletons. It was here that I remembered one of the most unsettling parts of the cartoon: this skeleton, tiptoeing through the headstones with exaggerated caution, seems scared of himself. There is a convention in horror, particularly children’s horror, that the denizens of the darkened forest or the haunted manor rule their realms with a cackling confidence. What can a ghost or a vampire have to fear in a graveyard? By contrast, this ambling, fleshless corpse is clearly living in a state of disgust at his own grotesqueness. Imagine the agony of living as an animated pile of semi-decomposed matter when you still have sense enough about you to be terrified by an animated pile of semi-decomposed matter.

Now that’s horror.

This ghastly realization is abandoned as the skeleton is joined by his undead compatriots and they all begin a lengthy dance sequence lightened by moments of slapstick silliness. (The original tag line for ““The Skeleton Dance”” was A laugh riot from start to finish!”) The skeletons use each others’ bodies as pogo sticks; they torment a cat. One plays another’s spine as a xylophone, a bit Disney found so enchanting they recycled it in several more cartoons. The skeletons also join hands and dance around in a ring, in a near-perfect copy of any number of medieval danse macabre illustrations. (And if the Middle Ages had had pogo sticks, the joke would have killed then, too.)

I first encountered ““The Skeleton Dance”” on home video, as part of a clip show compilation of scary Disney moments called either Disney’s Halloween Treat orDonald’s Scary Tales (and trying to differentiate between these two near-identical clip shows from 1982 and 1983, respectively, led me down an internet rabbit hole of Disney minutiae, including dozens of blogs and message boards dedicated solely to the chaste love of Disney cartoons, where I discovered that an adult’s ardent love of children’s media is somehow even more creepy when it’s not obviously sexual).

Disney’s Halloween Treat was released on VHS in 1984, when I was five years old. I watched it at home on a rented video tape, the fear I felt at witnessing Death itself command a cartoon mouse to play piano only further compounded by the eeriness of the video store itself, and the empty, fluorescent-lit aisles I would wander down, occasionally venturing into the “grown-up” Horror section, just to dare myself to look at the box covers. I remember the cover art on each of the four Disney compilations as clearly as the content itself, including the specific feel of the thick, yellowish plastic coating used to protect the boxes and the sharp plastic spines that would form at the edges when it inevitably fell apart anyway. At home I would often watch the movie while holding the empty box, turning it over and over in my hands.

This week I watched both Disney’s Halloween Treat and Donald’s Scary Tales again, as well as the 1977 compilation Disney’s Greatest Villains and 1983’s A Disney Halloween. ““The Skeleton Dance” ”appears in all four, though in Disney’s Halloween Treat and Disney’s Greatest Villains it is colorized and relegated to the credits. I will spare you the tedium of recounting which clips appeared and reappeared on which tapes, but together these four compilations contained dozens of scary Disney highlights including The Legend of Sleepy HollowFantasia’s ““Night on Bald Mountain”,” and the evil queen transformation sequences from both Sleeping Beautyand Snow White (both of which were much darker and more beautiful than I had remembered).

What stood out again, though, were the earliest black and white shorts, like the 1929 short ““The Haunted House”,” in which Mickey Mouse seeks shelter from a storm inside a haunted house. It, too, is marked by goofy slapstick bits, including Mickey battling an inside-out umbrella. Which might be a little funny, if it weren’t immediately followed by the Grim Reaper pointing a bony finger at the piano and commanding Mickey to “Play!” in a metaphor too self-evident to need elucidating here. A long dance sequence follows. There is the same humor and grotesqueness here, the same primitive feeling made more jarring by the weird, constant bouncing movement that early cartoon characters are so often doing, like they’re trying to escape their skin. As with Grand Guignol or Macbeth’s porter, the coarse humor brings the horror into starker relief. (As a child I didn’t notice that ““The Haunted House”” also contains several moments of racist humor for which it was later banned, but now that only seems to add to its sense of crudeness badly disguised as fun.)

So why was ““The Skeleton Dance”” so scary to me as a child? Well, it involved skeletons, of course, but more than that, it seemed completely otherworldly, less like a proper cartoon and more like something I had found by accident and ought to put back again right away. Largely this was because it was already fifty years old when I first saw it, and it was in black and white, and it had no dialogue and no plot, and its relatively crude animation and ghoulish, goofy gags made it seem primitive in a way that was authentically terrifying. That it was supposed to be funny only made it more scary, because what kind of sicko would find that kind of thing funny?

It was also innocent, in its way, and quite obviously sincere. By the early eighties, both children’s shows and horror movies were becoming increasingly self-aware and glib, but part of “The Skeleton Dance”’s power was its nakedness. It wasn’t trying to be arch, or knowing, or funny at any but the least sophisticated of levels. This also made the cartoon feel dated, from a time before the one I and my parents inhabited, and imbued it with the dread of old things so common to horror. I still feel a slight frisson of dread at the sight of very old things, particularly old photographs and films. The past is indeed a different country, weird and alluring, and the scariest things so often come out of a deep past. To a five-year-old, that deep past might as well have been 1429 as 1929. By contrast, other cartoons on the Disney compilations, even old ones like Snow White and Fantasia, were in color. They had sophisticated music, dialogue, well-known plots, and recognizable characters; they were clips of proper movies I had seen before in their entirety. They felt created, the manufactured output of animators and writers. “The Skeleton Dance” felt like something that had just always existed in that Warehouse Video, waiting for me to find it.

This five-minute short contains everything I look for in a horror movie today: it is weird, old, uncanny, and unselfconsciously, almost offhandedly, terrifying. It also contains everything I love about Halloween, itself a blend of the goofy, the benign, and the depraved: the candy corn and plastic lawn zombies and softly rotting porch pumpkins; the costumed kids and the costumed coeds; the trashy orange jello shots, cutesy seasonal lattes and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In its sentiment and sadness and sexiness and silliness and scariness it is the holiday that best typifies the human condition. And of course, it happens in the fall, that time of plentiful harvests and gathering dark, where trees are burning with their brightest color even as the days get shorter and the year weaker and very little seems to separate us from whatever is on the other side. Despite the layers of irony that surround many contemporary Halloween traditions, at its fundamental level the holiday is unsophisticated. It’s about waning fertility and squash totems and ancestor propitiation and appetites and appeasement. It arose from a strange, wicked, black and white past, one marked by both riotous excess and guileless contrition.

This year, I suggest celebrating the holiday by watching cartoon skeletons dancing gayly in a graveyard, coarsely living in the midst of death.


Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications.


Mia Farrow & the Netherworld

by Bebe Ballroom

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Mia Farrow was eleven when she first met Frank Sinatra. “Pretty girl,” he said to her father, who returned with: “You stay away from her.” She was two years into the never-ending bed rest of polio, a disease she said marked the end of her childhood.

Eight years later, she accidentally spilled her purse out at Sinatra’s feet. First came the retainer, and then the jars of baby food for her finicky cat. Part of a green donut and photographs of her beloved horse, too. And then, finally, the tampons tumbled out. She later said that she began to love Frank Sinatra right then, that in that moment she felt “a column of light rising inside her, pulling particles from dark dead corners”. There were thirty years between them—she had never heard his songs or seen his movies, but thought he had a beautiful face, “full of pain and somehow familiar”.

“And I was thinking, please forgive me, Frank Sinatra, it’s all my fault, I probably shouldn’t have held hands with you, that was forward of me. I gave the wrong impression, I can’t go to Palm Springs with you, or anywhere else either. I have no idea what I’m doing, I don’t know anything at all, I’ll only disappoint you, I have no pills or diaphragms and no clear idea of what people do since I’ve never done any of it myself, so please let’s just forget the whole thing. I’m sorry about the hand holding.”

-Mia Farrow, What Falls Away

Together they traveled to Las Vegas and Miami and Palm Springs. The crowds always thought Sinatra was singing just for them, but she felt he was singing to her alone. He stayed up into the wee small hours of the morning, drinking with friends on one coast or another. While he slept late into the afternoon, she’d put on a wig and go down to the hotel lobby to watch the people. She cut her waist-length hair herself, with a tiny pair of scissors meant for maintaining fingernails. She cut it to a length of one inch, much to the mortification of the media, the producers of Peyton Place, and her longtime friend Salvador Dali, who referred to the axing as “mythical suicide”. But not Sinatra. He loved her short hair.

He may have supported her shocking new hairstyle, but he did not support her acceptance of the starring role in the film adaptation of Ira Levin’s best-selling book, Rosemary’s Baby. It seemed he wanted her home, somewhere he often wasn’t, on the off-chance that he may sleep in his own bed that evening. He read the script and said he couldn’t picture her in the part. Suddenly she couldn’t picture herself in it either and thought, “I half-hoped he would take the matter out of my hands and just tell me not to do it…” To complicate things, Sinatra wanted her to co-star in The Detective, an upcoming film he was starring in, and feared the two commitments would overlap.

“Roman Polanski, thirty-three years old and internationally respected, was set to direct. It would be my first opportunity to star in a feature film, but more important, to prove myself as an actress. If the project succeeded it might place me in a position where I could choose good projects and roles. My goal was to make just one worthwhile picture a year. Then I would have plenty of time to be a wife and maybe even someday be a mother.”

The opening credits of Rosemary’s Baby are precisely girly—neon pink cursive letters across aerial scenes of Central Park and the many apartment houses of Manhattan. An eerie toy piano plays as Farrow’s voice sings breathless “la la las” on the soundtrack. As she sings her haunted, made-up lullaby, the camera slowly focuses in on The Bramford building.

The Bramford is old world Europe, something ancient, ornate, and heavy. Everything is made of dark, high-lacquered wood that only seems to grow darker as the film progresses. It has impossibly tall ceilings, meticulously-carved woodwork at the eaves and the arches, and a resounding echo in the halls.

Although the interior scenes of the film were all shot on-set in Los Angeles, The Dakota was chosen for all exterior shots of The Bramford building. Since it’s creation in 1884, The Dakota has been an exclusive Manhattan community with residents like Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, and Boris Karloff. John Lennon—who lived there for nearly seven years—was murdered in 1980 just outside its doors.

In the film’s first scene, newlyweds Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) are shown a grand vacancy at The Bramford. The previous owner—an elderly woman with a green thumb named Ms. Gardenia—died only days before in her sleep. How curious that, before her passing, she had somehow managed to move a 9-foot armoire in front of the door of the back closet. Rosemary wonders aloud why she would block off her linens and her vacuum cleaner. The manager suggests that perhaps she was becoming senile.

Hutch, an old family friend of Rosemary’s, informs the couple of the building’s ominous “Black Bramford” legacy.The Trench Sisters had called the Bramford home—a place where they performed “dietary experiments” that included cooking and eating their young relatives. Adrian Marcato, a 19th century witch who claimed to have “conjured up the living devil”, was mobbed and killed just outside the lobby. And then, of course, there is the most recent event: an infant found in the basement, dead and wrapped in newspaper.

In response to Hutch’s horror stories, Rosemary merely replies, “Awful things happen in every apartment house.”

The Woodhouses decide to fill the vacancy at The Bramford, and soon after, we see Rosemary decorating the apartment with a handkerchief tied around her head. She paints all that dark wood bright white and she is happy. She hangs wallpaper and curtains and revels with giddy pride at the previously blocked off linen closet that she has made over with gingham contact paper. We see fabrics and colors that match the 60’s swing dresses she wears, sweet flowers of yellow and white. There is yellow everywhere. She even has a yellow buttercream oven, a yellow buttercream kitchen table, a yellow buttercream refrigerator. The textured (and hideous) throw pillows on the olive couch hint at the color palette of the upcoming decade, all goldenrods and avocados.

“The sixties were in full bloom. Roman was humming, ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,’ and I painted the walls of my dressing room with rainbows, flowers, and butterflies. When I was done painting, they brought in a ping-pong table and I pestered everybody to come play with me.”

As Farrow settled into her days on the set, The Woodhouses began to settle into their cream-colored apartment. Five closets on the park. One wonders how many millions the apartment would go for today, and thinks that Guy must have been doing alright with his Yamaha commercial, even before he made that deal with the devil.

Much like Mia Farrow at the time, Guy Woodhouse is an actor on the edge of notoriety. As Rosemary likes to repeat to each new person she meets, “he was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross, and lots of television commercials”. (Guy claims it’s the latter that has “all the artistic thrills”, and I still can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or earnest.) Rosemary recites these same lines to the Castevets, the elderly couple that lives next door. The Woodhouse apartment and the Castevet apartment used to all be one large space, so it’s easy for Guy and Rosemary to hear the couple’s constant bickering through the bedroom wall. (“Roman, when you come back, don’t forget the root beer!”)

Shortly after they meet, the Castevets invite the Woodhouses over for dinner. Guy and Rosemary promise one another that they won’t make a habit of spending time with the Castevets—they will be polite and attend just this one evening.

Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) seems like anyone’s well-traveled and world-wise grandfather, perhaps with more regal an air. He claims he has been everywhere in the world. “Name a place,” he says, “I’ve been there.” One is impressed that he can actually name five different cities in Alaska, let alone that he’s been to every single one of them.

Minnie Castevet (a perfect Ruth Gordon) wears colorful dresses with netted hats, and nearly every piece of jewelry she owns, all at once. She entertains frequently, moving around the room like a spaz, her crystal and bakelite bangles clapping together. Her hair is that amazing accidental lavender-tinted gray, a sculpted puff of cotton candy on top of her head. She hails cabs by frantically blowing into the piercing metal whistle that hangs from one of her bracelets. Rosemary says that Minnie must be the nosiest person she’s ever met, a title readily earned by her constant interrogations: Where is Rosemary going? Who is she having over? How much does this furniture cost?

But how odd that, when they visit the Castevet’s apartment for dinner, all of the photographs and paintings appear to have been taken down, leaving only barren nailheads and dusty outlines of frames on the walls. And what strange sounds emerge in the evening, as if a group of people were all somehow chanting in unison.

Not long after settling into their new home, Guy and Rosemary begin trying to have a baby, which makes Rosemary incandescently happy. “Baby Night” has been marked on her calendar for optimal conception. The couple sits down for a romantic dinner, but the evening is ultimately derailed by the intrusion of Minnie Castevet, who shows up at the door with what she calls a “Chocolate Mouse”— homemade chocolate mousse that Rosemary feels has a chalky undertaste. Shortly after dessert, Rosemary passes out, an event which Guy later credits to her mixing wine with cocktails. While she’s passed out, Rosemary has vivid dreams of sailing, the Pope, and… darker things.

“…One day I found myself—me from convent school, who prayed with outstretched arms in the predawn light—tied to the four corners of a bed, ringed by elderly, chanting witches. The Pope brought over his big ring for me to kiss, while a perfect stranger with bad skin and vertical pupils was grinding away on top of me. I didn’t dare think. After finishing that scene, the actor climbed off me and said politely, in all seriousness, ‘Miss Farrow, I just want to say, it’s a real pleasure to have worked with you.’”

Around this same time, Guy gets his breakthrough role at the expense of another actor’s tragic misfortune. Soon, Guy is distant, working late hours and carrying his temper around on a short fuse. Rosemary tells her husband that they need to talk about why he can’t even look at her anymore, but he dismisses her concerns with a laugh. And when she becomes pregnant, it seems as if even Rosemary is able to forget the distance, at least for a little while.

“During the shooting [of Rosemary’s Baby], one evening Frank and I took Nancy and her beau out to dinner. As we sat at Trader Vic’s in the light of two stubby candles, I sipped a sweet drink and poked at the gardenia floating on top. The talk flowed easily and all was well—until the evening swerved. This had happened countless times before: after dinner and enough Jack Daniel’s, Frank was likely to suddenly decide not to go home, but to Las Vegas instead, or Miami, or New York. He would feel the pull of that other world—the third part of his life—and it would be pointless to object. By now I was used to these abrupt departures alongside my husband, who was soon to metamorphose into a virtual stranger and would forget many things, including me. My stomach knew to turn over.”

Predictably, Minnie over-involves herself with the pregnancy, arriving at different intervals throughout the day, with a vitamin drink or a square of mystery cake in hand, expecting Rosemary to down it in the doorway and hand back the empty dishes. The drink is gray, peppered with black and blue, remnants of things unknown. God knows what’s in any of Minnie’s offerings; Rosemary eventually starts dumping them down the sink where they belong. The Castevets soon insist that the couple make an appointment with an acquaintance of theirs, Dr. Sapperstein, claiming he is the best doctor in New York City. Guy agrees that it makes sense for the baby, and Rosemary ultimately abandons her own trusted doctor and places herself in Sapperstein’s hands.

In a delightful act of rebellion, Rosemary plans a holiday party for their old friends, or their “young friends” as she tells Guy, the ones they used to see before they met the Castevets. She says this party will be special because you have to be under sixty to get in. He objects to her planning a party in her condition. She continues with the plans, despite the fact that she looks like a hollowed-out summer squash.

Mia Farrow weighed ninety-eight pounds when shooting began on the film. Roman told her to lose weight for the pregnancy-pain scenes, and she did it. I imagine Farrow, on the balcony of a posh Palm Springs hotel, Sinatra seated across from her eating bacon and reading the paper, and her picking at an open grapefruit, dead-eyed. Polanski also had her “absentmindedly walk across the street in moving traffic, not looking left or right” at one point, following behind her with a hand-held camera, because nobody else on the crew was willing to do so.

In her memoir, Mia Farrow wrote that filming was going well, but that “Frank was baffled and outraged by the pace." His expectation was that she would keep her commitment to The Detective, even if it meant walking out on Rosemary’s Baby before the film was complete.

“The ultimatum was clear. But if I left Rosemary’s Baby, certainly my career would be finished. I thought of the months and long days and countless takes and everyone trying so hard. I thought of the people whose trust I’d earned, and I thought of my own work, which for the first time in my life might have some value. To lose Frank was unthinkable, but I didn’t believe he would leave me. I also realized that in this decision I would define myself. If I walked out on this project, in time even he would see that I had done a less than honorable thing, and he would respect me less.”

The papers came without warning or a single mention of the word divorce. Sinatra’s lawyer served them to her on the set. She quickly signed the papers without reading them. She was devastated, but applied herself to the remainder of the movie with a “fervor usually reserved for prayer”. She spent most weekends after that with Roman and his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, an actress who, like Farrow, seemed to be hovering on the verge of success.

Rosemary’s exposure to the dark plot unraveling around her comes not from the black alleyways of the occult but from simple parlor manners. The darkness is let into her life by a desire to be accommodating and sweet, to be perceived as polite. She would never risk making or taking offense, and it is only behind closed doors that she mocks her neighbors, and quiets her husband when he is laughing too loudly at their expense. The terror of the plot is rooted in modern times, in a cosmopolitan apartment building. The villains blend-in seamlessly with little effort and little suspicion from others, rendered practically harmless by their elderly stature and setting.

The new horror of the age lay not in the obvious gruesome monster or the known dangers of the past, but rather in the smallness of everyday modern life, hidden just barely out of sight in suburban homes and apartment houses, in linen closets covered with heavy furniture. It’s not about wondering what’s happening deep in the woods in the middle of the night, but instead obsessing about what’s happening in the building across the street, how deep the blackness of a soul can be, and what it is capable of doing for fame or money or some bizarre fulfillment of itself that we struggle to understand. It’s a type of fear that acts as a precursor to some of the strangest truths of today, all those endless newscasts filled with bewildered neighbors, chanting in unison: “This is a nice, quiet street” or “Never in a million years would I have suspected them”.

It’s the same dark horror that punctuated the very end of the sixties with a bleeding black mark. Sharon Tate—Roman Polanski’s eight-month pregnant wife—and a handful of others, murdered by the Manson Family, at the behest of their deranged leader, just one year after the release of Rosemary’s Baby.

In her memoir, Mia Farrow paints an intimate portrait of what she remembers of her past. She comes across as honest and self-aware, idealistic and hopeful. But mostly she comes across as warm. She is the type of person who romanticizes things, and is crushed when they fall short. These are the easiest people to love.

Perhaps it was the times, or her delicate features, or her sweetness, but when I read the book, I saw Farrow treated mostly like a doll, lovely but helpless as people picked her up, rearranged her porcelain arms and legs, and put her back down again. She is remarkably kind to her offenders.

“Every time in my life when the commonplace has veered into the netherworld, it is as if I am watching television and I can’t change the channel.”

The last scene of the film reveals all to be worse than Rosemary had ever allowed herself to imagine.The scene is horrific not in its revelation—which the audience has expected for some time—but rather in how quickly after the reveal the world begins to return to its mundane ways: a room full of sharply-dressed elderly people, quietly having drinks and talking about this or that, unthreatened by Rosemary, crying in a chair in the corner. She lets the fear wash over her completely, she cries in her hands and spits in her husband’s face.

But how quickly that fear is replaced by something else entirely, something inherent and maternal, deep in her bones. Her pale slight wrist begins to rock the black bassinet at a rhythmic pace, one that only a mother would know


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.


Actually, I Don't Have Any Friends

by Andy Sturdevant

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

If there was any justice in this wicked world, the 1999 film Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies would be invoked with the same breathless reverence by pop culture obsessives as other junk-food landmarks like Teenagers From Outer SpaceManos: The Hands of Fate, and Mondo Cane. But there is no justice in this world—only random, inscrutable, bizarrely scripted bouts of misery, punctuated by random bursts of black humor and liberally applied plot holes. In this way, perhaps, life is just like Wishmaster 2.

For all of its considerable trashiness, I genuinely love Wishmaster 2 in a way I love few other movies. This is a little surprising to me sometimes, because I am not generally a great connoisseur of kitsch. I’m certainly not the type of person whose apartment is cluttered with Shannon Tweed memorabilia and Three’s Company lunchboxes. I don’t even like the horror movie genre, for the most part. But there is something about Wishmaster 2 that is so wonderful and so strange that it defies easy categorization. It’s a clumsy morality play with prison-flick trappings; it’s an over-the-top supernatural mystery; it’s a race-against-the-clock legal thriller; it is even a tragic same-sex love story between a small-time Russian gangster and a genie. There is no other movie in the world likeWishmaster 2.

Wishmaster 2 is the sequel to Wishmaster (1997), an unremarkable horror film with trendy self-referential overtones that was produced by Wes Craven and was notable more for cameo appearances by a series of 1980s horror movie stars than anything else. It was a mild commercial success, though it came along a little too early to cash in on the wink-wink school of meta-ish horror films popularized by Scream a few years later. The franchise was turned over to a director, writer and special effects artist named Jack Sholder, and hisWishmaster 2 went straight to cable two years later. In fact, it’s only currently available on DVD as a twofer with the first Wishmaster. I first saw it when my art-school pal Katie made me watch it after she’d happened upon it on Showtime one night in 2001 and found it utterly delightful. I did, too.

To be fair, it’s not an overlooked masterpiece of any kind. Though it makes an earnest attempt to span a few genres, it’s too loopy and disjointed to be a really good horror film, too crude to be a great special effects showcase, too sloppy to be a great metaphysical thriller, and too broad to be an effective satire about greed and desire. It’s rife with gaping plot holes, the core of the narrative is a weird mishmash of quasi-Catholic and Zoroastrian mysticism, and it features some of the most amateurish swearing I have ever heard professional actors utter onscreen. In one amazing sequence, a prison inmate is barely able to sputter out the phrase “I’m going to own your, uh, little, uh, white, yellow yuppie…motherfucking….uh, golf-playing ass,” as if he’s hearing the word “motherfucking” for the very first time. Despite—or probably because of—these considerable shortcomings, I would still rather watchWishmaster 2 than hundreds of putatively “better” movies.

The plot is something like this: a group of art thieves, led by a nose-crinkling goth named Morgana (played by a very Katie Holmes-ish actress named Holly Fields), accidentally release an ancient genie from a magic ruby in a bungled museum burglary. Morgana’s associates are killed and she flees. This genie, the so-called Wishmaster, who also calls himself “Nathaniel Demarest,” allowshimself to be arrested for the museum break-in, so that he can go directly to prison. Why prison? Because prisons are full of desperate people, and the Wishmaster’s earthly task is to grant wishes, following the “Monkey’s Paw” model of wish fulfillment. He then harvests their souls. His technique is practically artisanal in its commitment to handicraft—the Wishmaster tricks people into making wishes that, if interpreted literally, will somehow kill them. For example, in an early scene where a regretful man says “I wish I’d never been born,” in those exact words, he shrivels up into a fetus and then vanishes. After the wisher dies, their soul is his.

So the Wishmaster must harvest a thousand souls in this painstakingly inefficient fashion in order to jump-start some sort of vaguely defined apocalypse; meanwhile, Morgana, with the aid of an ex-boyfriend-turned-priest named Father Gregory, must try to stop him by invokingblah blah blah. I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and I still have no idea what is going on for half of it. There’s a bunch of nutty subplots, too: a Chechnyan gang war, a love story between Morgana and her “lover-priest,” the betrayal of a prison kingpin by his two identical twin bodyguards, some gratuitous self-mutilation, and much more.

None of this matters, really, because even a mediocre, confusing or downright bad movie can be redeemed by great performances. And above all, there are two outstanding performances in the movie that make it so much fun to watch. The first is Andrew Divoff as the Wishmaster, in a performance that is endlessly rewarding to watch and re-watch. Divoff (who has sincehad a role on Lost) is a wiry, squinty actor that looks somewhat like a cross between a creepier Morrissey and a lankier James Woods. Much of the screenplay calls for him to simply stand around awkwardly, grinning and saying things like, “Is that yourweeeeeeeeeeeesh?” Moreover, the director’s instructions for Divoff seem to have largely been limited to “OK, let’s have another weird, inappropriate grin here.” But from these crude materials Divoff creates a marvel of an unforgettably bizarre character. Divoff does for weird, inappropriate grinning what David Lean did for sweeping, panoramic desert sequences.

The second stand-out performance is by one Oleg Vidov as Osip Krishkov, a Russian gangster that becomes the Wishmaster’s confidante, and—if one pays careful attention—his lover. Vidov’s IMDb profile seems to indicate that he was a Soviet teen actor, and there is a wounded adolescent vulnerability to his character. Things do get nominally hot and heavy between Morgana and Father Gregory, but there is a smoldering attraction between the Wishmaster and Osip that burns everyone else off the screen. This attraction is quietly expressed in the two men’s lingering conversations, nominally about the legalistic framework of the wish-making process, but that actually seem to be euphemisms for something else entirely. (“Rules were made to be broken,” suggests Osip coyly, as the Wishmaster smacks his lips in delight.) The Wishmaster and Osip remain together long after it makes any narrative sense for them to do so, and when the Wishmaster cruelly abandons his loyal friend three-quarters of the way through the film, sparing his life but leaving him drunk and broken in a Russian bar, it’s the one legitimately emotional note in the whole movie.

The movie runs out of steam in the final act, a gory, unbelievably silly showdown in a Las Vegas casino. The action is stalled by the Wishmaster’s increasingly nitpicky parsing of the wishmaking process, which grows more and more lawyerly over the course of the film. “A wish cannot change that which is eternal…Any wishes pertaining to me are circumscribed by the prophecy,” he explains to a bewildered Morgana at one point, sounding less like a demonic genie and more like a student loan officer explaining repayment schedules. The film’s low point is perhaps a particularly insulting scene in which the Wishmaster tries to bribe Morgana into giving up her immortal soul with the promise of unlimited poker chips. But before the film collapses under the weight of extensively baffling plot holes and loopy mysticism, so much of what comes before it is weird and fun. Consider wonderful exchanges like these:

Inmate: What’ll it take?

Wishmaster: Your soul. [pause] And a pack of cigarettes.

*

Kingpin: Your drugs! I want your drugs!

Wishmaster: What kind of drugs would you like?

*

Kingpin: Well, well, well. What do we have here, boys? [jazz hands] Wishmaster.

Wishmaster: I like to flatter myself.

Kingpin: Flatter this, motherfucker. [this comeback is not followed by a specific threat; it just kind of hangs there in the air while everyone stares at each other anxiously]

*

Cop: You must be a real good [stumbling over the swear word] fu-u-u-uck, if you’re worth taking the injection for.

Wishmaster: [weird, inappropriate grin]

Cop: You got a boyfriend?

Wishmaster: [weird, inappropriate grin]

Cop: You got a boyfriend, you sly dog you.

Wishmaster: [suddenly serious] Actually, I don’t have any friends.

Cop: [pause, followed by a blank stare and blinking; it’s unclear if this is intentional or if the actor has temporarily forgotten his next line] What the fuck is wrong with you?

These exchanges lose a lot of in transcription. Still, scenes like these, even after seeing them dozens of times, make me collapse into hysterics. I have never really been able to determine how funny scenes like this are intended to be (if at all), or why I find them so wildly entertaining. It scarcely matters, anyway. One of the joys of living in this age of information overload is that, occasionally, these little packages come your way through the unlikeliest channels. You claim them and you feel very possessive of them, since so few other people know or care about them. Wishmaster 2 is, for me, just such a small reward for living in a time defined by almost unlimited options for entertainment, a film that probably no one else besides Katie likes in quite the same way I like it. You have your own films like this, too. They are your own private jokes and minor obsessions and become part of your lexicon. Do I wander around my neighborhood muttering, “Your drugs! I want your drugs!” to myself sometimes? Yes, I sure do.

So there it is. I love Wishmaster 2’s endearing awkwardness, and its bizarre sense of humor, and the fact that there’s an entire subplot involving Russian gangsters so that Andrew Divoff can speak a few lines in Russian because he is fluent in Russian. There are a lot of trashy made-for-cable horror flicks out there, but there is only one where a socially awkward Persian genie kills Tiny Lister in a mystical prison dance-off and then possesses his body in order to bust his secret Russian boyfriend out of Los Angeles County Jail.

And that flick, ladies and gentlemen, is Wishmaster 2.


Andy Sturdevant is a writer and artist living in Minneapolis. He has written about art, history and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites, including mnartists.orgRain TaxiMpls. St. Paul, and heavytable.com. He also writes“The Stroll,” a weekly column on art and visual culture in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis-St. Paul for MinnPost. Many of these pieces are collected in his first book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow.


Welcome to the Losers' Club

by Letitia Trent

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

There’s something comforting about the low-budget nature of It, the general shoddiness of the special effects and the score, about the fact that you would never mistake this for anything but an early ’90s TV moviea very special Stephen King adaptation lasting over several nights and no doubt taped on VHS by families around the country, the commercials artfully snipped by whoever had the remote control. And a movie about memory should be told through tacky sets and aging sitcom actors—if It were some kind of grand achievement full of technical wizardry it would get too big for its themes, which are actually rather small and ordinary, when you get right down to it.

Quite simply, a group of twelve year olds—a self-proclaimed “Losers Club”—are called upon to fight a shape-shifting evil that appears every thirty years. More than just a standard horror story, It is also a celebration of desperate people joining together with others who have something in common: the fruits of loneliness. These misfits destroy evil with the power of imagination, something they’ve come to rely upon more than most other children their age, being so isolated in their everyday lives. They fight with the know-how acquired through long nights spent watching Universal monster movies and reading books alone in their bedrooms. They are children steeped in the small, private, and completely controllable worlds that they’ve created in order to survive.

I was a lot like many of those kids in the Losers Club: nerdy, poor, a little fat, a little asthmatic. I, too, longed to connect, to find kids who would understand and embrace me as I already was, others with whom I could read and discuss The Bell Jar or Nine Stories. Books pointed to the possibility of connection with other people. They seemed to imply that, if you suffered enough, someone would notice. And that eventually, somebody would care.

Unfortunately, real life does not work this way. I waited diligently, thinking that someday I would meet another similarly ostracized kid on the bus, someone who also happened to like reading and movies and writing. This did not happen. Maybe I was too picky—the other outcasts all seemed to me to be nose-pickers in stained t-shirts, or kids who punched holes into the art room drywall. So I spent my pre-teen years absorbed in basic middle school survival (head down, hair in my face) and began to think that maybe books hadn’t gotten it quite right.

I saw the famous clown-in-the-drain scene from It, by accident, at the age of nine. I was supposed to be asleep, but I often snuck out of bed at night and turned on my little black and white television with the sound turned way down. I was a bad sleeper, too anxious to fall asleep until fully exhausted, so I often stayed up late, reading with a flashlight under the covers or watching television. I had to time my surreptitious viewing of TV movies and late-night shows just right, because if my mother came into the room immediately after I’d turned the television off, she would notice the still-glowing afterimage lingering on the old-fashioned screen. But I was safe on that fateful night: my parents—who slept in the living room of our little trailer so that we could take the bedroom—were snoring, and so was my sister in the bunk below. Through the particle-board doors, thin as cardboard, I could hear everything.

I turned on the television and saw an almost sweetly innocent image: a little boy chasing a paper boat down an overflowing road on a rainy day. The boat slipped through the gaps in a sewer drain, and the boy followed, trying to reach the boat before it was swept away. And then Pennywise (Tim Curry) appeared, all joy and balloons at first—but then all teeth. I immediately switched off the television when he revealed his mouth full of fangs, and quickly got back into bed. I hid under the covers for a while, but it was too late: I couldn’t sleep. For the first time in my life, I was frightened awake, and I liked it.

Re-watching It recently, I realized that the movie is pure wish fulfillment on a certain level, a personal message from a former isolated nerd to all us other nerds who wanted life to be different than it really was. Stephen King created a world in which the misfits were the ones who had the unique tools needed to defeat the monster. This monumental undertaking forged an unbreakable, almost spiritual bond between them; killing the monster knits them together. And, despite the ways in which their various childhood traumas play out as they age, they manage to emerge thirty years later as relatively successful adults. What more could a former outcast want than a group of permanent friends, and a guarantee that life will get better?

But what is a monster, really, within the world of It? The kids kill Pennywise, but the real monsters remain all around them: bullies who enact their own troubled lives on weaker peers; parents who smother, ignore, or abuse. And then, of course, there’s sexuality—an ever-present danger left unstated directly in the film, but still imbuing seemingly everything.The threat of it—most troublingly embodied in Beverly (the only female in the group), whose storyline revolves around her changing body and the various dangers it presents to her—and the thrill of it. They are at the cusp of sex, experiencing it in glimpses and half-understood jolts of feeling, but it remains mostly murky to them, and terrifying.

So why an actual monster then? Well, it is a horror movie, and it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to exploit our greatest collective fear: the existence of some elemental, basic evil that simply preys upon us. Pennywise is a Lovecraftian cosmic evil, something that lives in a parallel reality, peeking through only to feed and to terrorize. King’s genius here was in making Pennywise a clown, a figure that has both delighted and terrified people for centuries. And Pennywise is quite possibly the single greatest evil clown ever put on a screen—a horror that requires no special effects. There’s something inherently aggressive about clowns—they assault the senses with their bold makeup and bright clothing—but it’s often hard to tell what’s going on beneath the paint. Thus, in It, we’re never quite sure exactly what Pennywise is. He contains opposites: laughter and fear, reality and imagination, excitement and dread. His forced jocularity alone is enough to terrify. He makes it possible for the Losers Club to come together and forge bonds, but he is also a very real and palpable danger to the world they know and love.

It implies that these kids, these lonely losers, are uniquely suited to fight this particular evil—unlike all the other kids—and that finding each other was not simply dumb luck, but a grand design. Isn’t that a comforting idea? That we, the sad ones, the lonely ones, are special in ways that we never could have imagined and that we will, if we wait, be loved and accepted by others just like us? It almost makes the evil clown seem worth it.


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


Parental Misguidance

by Michelle Buchman

photo courtesy of the author

photo courtesy of the author

“Walkers or survivors?” the woman at the registration desk asked, as my friend April and I approached the table. “Walkers,” I replied. She checked our names off a list and instructed us to walk inside the back entrance of Petco Park, a baseball stadium normally home to the San Diego Padres. We made our way up the endless flight of stairs to the upper deck where more volunteers greeted us.

“Walkers?” they asked.

“That’s us.”

Another round of names checked off a list. The woman told us to wait around, that they would come and get us when they were ready. More waiting. At San Diego Comic-Con,waiting is second nature. That very morning I had spent three hours in a line for a panel I didn’t even get into. But this time, I didn’t mind. I was waiting for a moment I had dreamed about since childhood.

I was about to be turned into a zombie.

SDCC is every nerd’s perfect vacation fully realized in the span of four exhaustive days. Sci-fi. Fantasy. Animation. Horror. Literature. Film. Television. Art. Pop culture. Celebrities. It’s a bizarre cycle of waiting in line for hours to see a room full of famous people from far away, walking the exhibit hall spending money on things you don’t need, seeing people dressed up as pop culture characters you should probably recognize but don’t, eating overpriced food, drinking all evening at the hotel bar, passing out, sleeping for a few hours (if you’re lucky), then getting up the next morning and doing the whole thing all over again. For me, it’s a place to meet friends, old and new, every year; four days where I can feel okay talking about my over-enthusiastic love for all things scary and sci-fi with people who feel the same way. There’s no judgement, no weird looks. So when the Walking Dead FX team set up a zombie obstacle course, I signed up straight away, secure in the knowledge that I would be with my people.

Zombie films always held a special place in my childhood. My parents showed me Night of the Living Dead when I was eight or nine and, rather than being terrified, I fell in love. Mom and Dad never shielded my brother and me from gore or violence, and it did little to scar us or set us on a path towards juvenile delinquency. Instead, I fully embraced all things scary. I consumed the Romero films fairly quickly, becoming an expert in the zombpocalypse along the way. As a kid, I had a whole plan in my head, which my mother and I would discuss quite seriously: Where would be the best place to go? An island of course, or the rural country. The best weapon? Surely, you can’t use a gun—every zombie around would hear the shot and know where to find you! A machete is optimal and severs the neck in one clean cut.

You know, practical strategies like that.

As I stood in line, I called my mother and father in northern Massachusetts, “Oh my god, are you still alive?” Dad teased.

“Well I’m not undead yet,” I replied.

There were about twenty people in front of us in line.. We saw the makeup tables being set up and the artists at work transforming willing participants into zombies. I thought back to the days of watching horror films with my family in our basement living room.

“Hey Mom, do you remember the first scary movies you showed me?”

Batman?” she replied. Memories of Tim Burton’s film flashed through my head. My parents had shown it to me at five years old, apparently not aware that Jack Nicholson’s Joker would terrify most kids. I’m still scared of clowns to this day.

“Yeah, but what about actual horror movies?”

“Oh, it must have been the Hammer films then. The Frankenstein and Dracula ones with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.” I remembered the vivid colors and array of monsters every bit as much as the Jem dolls that used to litter my childhood bedroom.

“Classics. Then you started showing me all the ‘50s stuff with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff.”

“Papa loved those. Your great-grandmother took him to the movies as a kid, she used to get the actors names all mixed up and called him Kris Borloff. Papa showed those to me when I was little too. Remember how much you loved Vincent Price?”

Throughout my childhood, Price was my absolute favorite. He starred in all the best horror movies, but my favorite was The Fly. At the age of eight, I showed it to my six year old brother—who promptly had nightmares about the ending for weeks.

I decided to write Vincent a letter soon after, to let him know how much I loved all of his films. If I was lucky, maybe he would send an autograph back! Dad went online and tracked an address down for me. I used my favorite pen for the occasion, the one with special red ink and ghosts and mummies plastered on it. My father even put a special ‘92 Olympics stamp on the envelope instead of the regular American flag ones.

Months later, in October of that year, Price passed away from lung cancer. Mom had the misfortune of telling me the news and breaking my heart. I burst into tears as my mother sat there with me on the sofa. I used her sleeve as a tissue, brushing the hair out of my eyes…

“MICHELLE,” my friend yelled into my ear. “It’s our turn.”

I looked at her and realized we were at the front of the line.

I sat down in a chair where a woman with sleeve tattoos greeted me. There were three different steps to the process, she explained. The first was airbrushing and hair. She squirted a giant dollop of shampoo into the palms of her hands and rubbed them together before running them through my hair, giving it an oily, unkempt look. She then pulled out an airbrush and covered all visible skin with makeup. Another artist came over and began to airbrush black shadows and bruises on my face, creating the appearance of decayed, rotted skin.

Part one was complete.

Another woman, carrying a small brush and tray with her, directed me to sit down in another section of chairs. “We’re going to do your teeth next,” she explained. “You have to open your mouth and make sure your lips aren’t touching any teeth or else you’ll taste how awful this stuff is.” She dipped her makeup brush into a greenish-black glob and began painting it on my teeth. Everything was coming together.

photo courtesy of the author

Finally, I was told to stand while a guy with a paint can and brush stood in front of me. The bucket was full of a dark red substance. “You can close your eyes if you want, I’m going to fleck the blood all over you to make it look disgusting.”

At last, I thought. These are my PEOPLE.

“Can you make it look extra gross and bloody?” I asked. “I wore an old white t-shirt just so I could get blood all over it.”

He threw his head back in laughter. “You are the most excited person I’ve seen today by far. We can definitely do that. I like when people want to bemore disgusting.”

He started flecking red splashes all over my neck to make it look bitten. The fake blood was freezing, and I flinched as large portions of it hit my skin. He started at the top of my forehead and worked down to my legs, even covering my old sneakers with splatters of red. During the makeover, we started chatting about our own favorite scary movies, discovering that we shared a love of Italian horror directors (Dario Argento in particular). They knew how to stage a brutal slasher murder scene or a gory zombie massacre.

When the blood splattering was finished, the man directed me to an area with all the other finished zombies. I took a look in the mirror and squealed in delight. A childhood dream come true.

Minutes later my friend April walked over to me, finished with her own zombification. I asked her to take a photo of my newly undead self—there was no way this momentous occasion was passing by without photographic documentation. I quickly composed a group text to my brother, mother and father and sent out the photo.

“Cross number one off Michelle’s bucket list,” wrote my brother.

“My baby! Best you’ve ever looked,” Mom texted back.

“I’m so proud,” Dad responded.

As I sat in the holding area, I stared down at all the red covering my shirt and legs. Nights spent watching old Romero movies on the sofa with my parents once again flashed through my brain. Mom and Dad never had a problem with guts or violence in these films. In fact, they eventually upgraded me to gorier fare like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and The Frighteners, both of which remain all-time favorites of mine.

Instead of sheltering us from scary movies, my parents used them to encourage creativity. They gave me full control over our clunky old camcorder as an eight year old, letting me fill up blank VHS tapes with all the weird short films I wanted to make. One involved recruiting my brother and all our friends to help film a story about a murder that took place in a neighbor’s backyard pool. We all took it very seriously, of course, going to great lengths to make sure that the fake blood we created looked as red and disgusting as possible. My dad always made sure we had all the supplies needed for whatever twisted kill scenes we could come up with. A parent that helps their kids makes themselves into zombies with fake blood? That’s love.

These days, not much has changed. Visits back home to my parents’ place usually consist of a movie or two (there’s not much else to do out in the middle of nowhere). Not long ago, mom suffered a minor stroke, leaving her unable to work and stuck at home for much of the day, so I would come home on weekends, full of movie recommendations aimed to cheer her up. The four of us watched Cabin in the Woods as a family recently, laughing at the inversion of typical horror tropes. We get along now better than ever, still using horror films as a stepping stone to help bond us together. No regrets about the immense amount of carnage witnessed on screen as kids. No torment as adults due to bloodsuckers, gruesome murders, or grotesque monsters.

Just a pair of old, blood-spattered sneakers and a lot of zombie love.


Michelle Buchman is a writer and social media manager living in Boston, MA. She enjoys whiskey, soccer, puppies, and oxford commas. Find her at midnight movie screenings at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.


Brotherly Love

by Katie West

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Ghosts, vampires, ghouls, and zombies are not intrinsically frightening things. Their capacity to create fear lies mainly in their ability to shock. But the best creature movies actually scare us because they represent a threat to the people and lives we have taken the time to cultivate, appreciate, and value. Real fear is born out of real caring. To be truly afraid, you have to understand the value of your life. Scary movies can attempt to frighten us, but they can’t terrify us; they can startle us, or give us nightmares, but it’s never real fear. Feeling genuine concern for a person, whether fictional or not, takes time and investment; rarely can Hollywood studios afford the luxury to invest that time, and so most scary movies fall short.

Quantifying such an abstract and subjective feeling as “being afraid” is difficult, I know, but I don’t think getting scared is as easy as Hollywood would like to believe it is. Vampires, poltergeists, psychopaths, and the undead simply don’t rank high on the fear scale for me. There’s nothing of value there, because there’s nothing for me to care about. Real fear is being faced with a black abyss—devoid of everything we value—and not knowing how to move through it. This abyss often starts with the end of love, and it’s why I can’t see a way out of it. And most scary movies simply can’t capture that depth.

Television shows that deal with scary situations do a better job of being truly frightening. This is because television studios thrive on having time to invest—the goal of most shows is to garner viewers that are obsessively involved with the characters that the writers create. Personally, I refuse to watch any show unless it has vampires, werewolves, aliens, or some other sort of supernatural element to it. I think this is because scary television shows, like scary movies, aren’t really about the scary things; they’re about the people the scary things are happening to. When a character you spend time with every week is being chased by a werewolf, or haunted by a ghost, it’s easier to feel scared because you’re much closer to genuinely caring about that particular character.

My favorite television shows are the ones that are built first and foremost upon a foundation of deep relationships that I become invested in—and then pour a whole bunch of demons, wendigos, or killer ghosts on top. It’s a recipe for the kind of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat suspense that most horror movies attempt, but are often only able to achieve through an over-use of dramatic music and quick camera edits, shortcuts to our compassion and emotions.

One of my favorite television relationships—one that essentially drives the entire premise of its show—is the relationship between the Winchester brothers from Supernatural. Since 2005, Sam and Dean have hunted werewolves, slayed dragons, exorcised demons, been to hell, dealt with angels, and thwarted an apocalypse or two. Still, Supernatural is not really about supernatural things, even if there’s a monster of some kind in every episode. Rather, Supernatural is about the relationship between Sam and Dean. And it’s clear that nothing scares Sam and Dean more than one another. If they were fans of U2, which they most certainly are not, they would sing “I can’t live, with or without you” while staring deeply into each other’s eyes. The love story of Sam and Dean Winchester is as epic as the ’70s rock anthems that provide the soundtrack for their lives. And, because of that intense love, the fear I feel watching them struggle with one another is also intense; it moves closer to a real fear because of the investment I’ve made in the characters. This is why fandoms are frequently so insane as well: we feel with the characters in a meaningful way. We feel their love and, as a result, their fear becomes an actualized concept within our collective psyches.

Throughout the series the Winchester brothers have encountered a bit of everything, from ruthless archangels to Bloody Mary, leviathans with jaws that dislocate to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, from rugarus that feast on human flesh to Death himself. Their friends and family have been killed; in fact, both Sam and Dean themselves have been killed at some point. Both have literally been to Hell and back. Dean has been to purgatory; Sam was a human meat puppet for Lucifer.

If real fear stems from real caring and a heightened understanding of the value of life, then the Winchester brothers have got it on lock. Sam and Dean have spent their entire lives fighting supernatural beings, but no one has dealt them more damage than the damage they’ve dealt one another. It’s a complicated relationship, one only made more so by the fact that both have given up normal lives with women they love in order to live a life where they are basically each other’s only companions. It’s an ordinary relationship between two brothers living extraordinary lives. They make mistakes with each other’s trust. They hurt one another for their own good. They lie to spare each other’s feelings, to avoid each other’s pity. They annoy each other and die for each other. It’s a relationship I envy: it’s a relationship I wish I saw reflected in my relationship with my own brother.

I want to be Dean and I want my brother to be Sam.

But instead, we walk through the mall and he mentions in passing that we’ve never been close, with a nonchalance that makes it obvious he’s ignorant to the fact of how that hurts me. He calls me only to ask me questions about his schoolwork. He texts me only to tell me when a new kpop MV has been released. I watch three episodes of Supernatural instead of making the 45-minute drive to see him. I only text him to comment on the series finale ofVampire Diaries.

My brother and I have lived privileged lives barren of tragedy and trauma. There have been no hunting trips to destroy vampires to strengthen our relationship, but it’s what we both suspect is about the only thing that would work. We’ve spent 26 years developing the timbre of our relationship and have yet to reach a point where we simply say, “I love you.”

I want to know my brother’s favorite kind of pie, and be able to sit down at the end of the day and have a beer with him. I wonder what it would be like to be “The Wests”, and what that would even mean for the two of us.

At the end of season five of Supernatural, Lucifer has taken over Sam’s body, but Dean refuses to let go of him. He drives the Metallicar (the black 1967 Chevy Impala that features heavily in every season) to confront Lucifer. Lucifer beats the crap out of Dean as he begs Sam to come back to him. Dean doesn’t even fight back. Do you know what this means? It means that the prospect of being beaten to death by the Devil himself is not as frightening to Dean as the prospect of having to live without his brother. And the thing that ultimately ends up saving Sam is this love for Dean. It’s a love that can redeem Sam after he’s been possessed by the devil; it’s a sacrificial love. I wonder if that sort of fear exists in my relationship with my brother. Would I die for my brother? I’m not even sure how to imagine it. Am I afraid of living without him? Does it terrify me to picture a life with no midnight texts about G-Dragon’s newest song? Could the memory of my relationship with my brother redeem me, if I were lost? The fact that it probably couldn’t is perhaps the scariest feeling of all.

It’s an acknowledgement of the way our family accepts distance and losing touch. It’s accepting that a quarter century of invested time has only resulted in an “afraid” on the hypothetical scale of fears. The terror seeps in when realizing that we don’t lie to each other to spare each other’s feelings, or to avoid each other’s pity. We don’t hurt each other for our own good, we don’t annoy each other, and we wouldn’t die for each other. That particular feeling is very much like looking into an abyss, and not knowing how to move through it. For the Winchesters, family is everything, it’s the reason for existence. But life isn’t like television. Life is scary because we care, but aren’t sure if it’s enough. Life is staring out at the black abyss, because we’re not sure if it will ever be enough.


Katie West is a writer, editor and photographer. She likes cats and watching shows with vampires and werewolves in them.


Bonus Materials for the Rejected 23rd Anniversary Edition of Ghost Dad

by Andrew Root

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Lavish DVD box sets have become commonplace in today’s retinue of film marketing strategies. Producers, eager to capitalize on an already beloved product, will churn out countless editions of the same film, packaged with a myriad of special features, bonus materials, and imaginative trinkets designed to pry the hard earned cash from your wallet. When done imaginatively and with careful attention paid to the spirit of the film and the level of intrigue that the public has, these special edition box sets can be quite a lucrative commodity. The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions contained more bonus materials than the running time of the entire trilogy (including multiple commentaries, photo galleries, and behind-the-scenes featurettes), and contained specially made figurines and book ends, appropriately priced well above the theatrical version of the films, arguably setting the benchmark for DVD special editions.

However, the film need not even be decent for the producers to put together a sumptuous and enticing package. Showgirls, one of the worst films ever made, was re-released on DVD in 2004 with a host of bonus features, including (but not limited to) shot glasses, playing cards, a “how-to” tutorial on giving lap dances, and a nude poster of star Elizabeth Berkley so that customers could play “Pin the Pasties on the Stripper.” It sold. You better believe it sold.

Certain films, though, are doomed to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: neither beloved enough to be investigated to the nth degree, nor reviled to the point of being fascinating. Ghost Dad is one of those films. June 2013 marked the twenty-third anniversary of this lighthearted Bill Cosby comedy about a spectral patriarch trying to make sure his children are provided for after he drowns in a taxi, but no special anniversary edition re-release was forthcoming. Director Sidney Poitier (yes, that Sidney Poitier) did not push to assemble an opulent set of bonus features, or reunite the cast for special interviews to commemorate the platinum anniversary of one of the very worst films of 1990. But why not?

As it so happens, several bonus features and sundry collectibles actuallywere amassed, enough to slake the thirst of even the most rabid DVD collector, but all were ultimately rejected. Presented here, then, is the list of contents for the Ghost Dad Ultimate Bonus Collector’s Edition Re-Release that might have been:

  • Feature Commentary from director Sidney Poitier Rejected due to excessive apologies and half-hearted explanations. Producers felt that it “brought the tone of the entire film down”.

  • Official Soundtrack Re-Recording by Henry Mancini Rejected because the original instruments could neither be found nor replicated—all had apparently been burned and/or destroyed in 1992.

  • Authentic obstacle-based board game! Help steer Elliot Hopper (Bill Cosby) through the various dangers of his day, such as Amanda’s roller skates on the stairs, the faulty elevator at his office, and the psychotic, devil-worshipping cab driver. Rejected once producers realized that, in order to avoid a thoroughly morbid ending to the gameplay, a player would have to deviate wildly from the actual plot of the film.

  • “Parenting Tips & Tricks from Elliot Hooper” advice booklet Rejected because producers felt it was “deeply hypocritical.” One even went so far as to say that the negligence and delayed gratification that Hooper displayed towards his children, coupled with the mood swings he exhibited even before his death were “troubling” and “not suitable for prospective parents.”

  • Re-Syncer playset Modelled after the gadget that Sir Edith Moser used to bring Elliot Hooper’s voice and physical presence back into synchronization. Rejected due to “an excessive number” of electrical burnings during test phases.

  • “On Intercorporeal Maltransference” by Sir Edith Moser Designed to be an exact replica of the book which the character of Sir Edith wrote, explaining the thematic link between science and theology which is explored by the film. Rejected when the producers “couldn’t be bothered” to actually write it.

  • “Casting Ghost Dad" mini video game! As Sidney Poitier, you must try to pin a contract onto Kim Basinger (who was nearly cast in the film, but pulled out, labelling the script “horrible”). Producers claim that the game was faulty and only allowed the player to cast “desperate actors” and child performers who “didn’t know any better.”

  • “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette (focusing on the high-tech special effects used to simulate Bill Cosby’s passing through an oncoming bus) Rejected due to insufficient length. Special effects technicians were unable to elaborate beyond saying “We used a blue screen.”

  • Guide to the pronunciation of the rare masculine form of the name “Edith”Producers noted that apathy levels were far too high to move beyond the development phase of this guide.

  • Elliot Reads Bedtime Stories A set of cassettes, similar to the ones seen in the film, featuring Elliot Hooper reading bedtime stories to his daughter. Producers were quite confident that Cosby’s charisma, energy, and comic timing would be enough of a selling point for this feature and unfortunately rushed production on the obsolete technology format. Their elation faded when they realized that cassette players were now a decided rarity.

  • Where Are They Now? Listing the career accomplishments of the stars of the film. Rejected on the basis of being “too depressing.”

The final blow came when the original cover art, which had been produced exclusively for the special edition box set, landed the producers in a legal battle with the filmmakers behind The Invisible Man. As it turns out, they had been meaning to file suit against Ghost Dad for many years, but were heard to remark that they “didn’t really think it was worth it.”


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.