Halloween Meltdown ’16: Obon Edition

This week was Obon, a major holiday which is a sort of festival of the dead (though that’s undoubtedly an oversimplification). We visited Nara for the festivities, which unfortunately were rather less festive than we’d expected. There’s normally a matsuri, or festival, accompanying the more ritualistic parts of the celebration, but apparently Nara has split the matsuri and the main ritual components across two days. We went to Nara Park on August 15th, which meant we could see the ritual, but missed the fun and street food of the matsuri.

Still, Nara’s a wonderful place, and as always we did see some very cool sights.

The main event of the evening, as it were, was the Daimonji, a ritual wherein fires are lit on a mountainside that form the kanji dai, or “big.” I don’t really understand the significance of this character in this context, but this brief post from a Nara tourism website gives a little more information. Here’s a still from my crappy smartphone recording (the lights floating UFO-like above the crowd are the fires on the mountainside forming the dai character):


It would have been nice to get the full matsuri experience. Instead I had to content myself with some mango soft-serve and sub-par kara age (fried chicken). Still, it was fun, and I always love visiting the Kansai region.

Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Halloween stuff started appearing this past week or so, as both Obon and Halloween have to do with the spirits of the dead. We grabbed a few little pieces of kitsch at a Seria (a hundred-yen store, basically a dollar store). Because as we all know, Halloween starts in August.

The two large graphics are actually glass coasters which proclaim, in glorious Engrish, “Now it is HALLOWEEN today! I will carry out appearance of a pumpkin and will surprise everybody!” If that doesn’t get you in the spirit, nothing will.


“The Last of Us” with a Brogue: “The Hallow” (2015)

TheHallow2I was excited for The Hallow, because I’m always excited when there’s a new Irish horror film. This one is about Adam and Clare Hitchens, Londoners who move to an unspecified island off the Irish coast so that Adam can pursue his not-entirely-clear job that has something to do with trees and fungus. The couple moves into a rambling old mansion with their infant son Finn, and Adam promptly sets to spraypainting trees and collecting gooey fungus samples. (It seems that Adam works for a logging company and is marking trees for… cutting down? Or for not cutting down because they’re infected? It’s never explained.)

Immediately, local Colm, a creepy and unnecessarily angry fellow, starts doing the horror movie thing where he gives the couple cryptic warnings but doesn’t specify precisely what he is warning them about, because it’s horror so of course he doesn’t. It seems that the Hitchenses are encroaching on the territory of “the Hallow,” a misleading collective noun which in fact refers to a colony of weird gooey creatures that the locals have learned to live with. They can be kept at bay with iron and bright light, but of course Adam and Claire don’t buy into local superstition, and they don’t bother with these protective measures. And of course bad stuff happens as a result.

If I seem more than usually disparaging, it’s because of how much unrealized potential The Hallow had. The first act, wherein the family settles in to their new digs and learns about the local craziness, is admirably low-key, with decent acting by all and some lovely cinematography. Unlike so much modern horror, it is not at all blued or washed-out or gritty: instead the colors are vibrant and the scenery gorgeous. But in the second act things take a turn for the trite, and it becomes just another “you messed where you shouldn’t have been messing” creature feature.

It takes its inspiration, albeit very loosely, from medieval Irish tradition. According to this tradition, Ireland was settled by a succession of different non-human races before the Milesians, the ancestors of the contemporary Irish, arrived from Spain and conquered their predecessors. This prior race, the Tuatha de Danann, were driven underground by the victorious Milesians (“underground” most likely being a metaphor for the otherworld, though sometimes it seems literal). They remain in Irish legend as godlike figures with powerful magic, sometimes friendly and sometimes antagonistic toward humans. And they have persisted in Irish tradition to the present, when they’re conflated with fallen angels and generally referred to as the fairies. (The fairies, in the interest of full disclosure, are the focus of my dissertation.)

The Hallow makes it clear, almost from the beginning, that the monsters the Hitchenses encounter are the fairies. It also makes it clear that they aren’t really supernatural beings, but (former) humans who are infected with a bizarre strain of cordyceps fungus. Cranky neighbor Colm gives the Hitchenses an old book, bound in what looks like tree bark, which contains badly-photocopied stories of fairies and changelings and other tidbits of Irish folklore, because of course he can’t just say, “There are monsters that will kill you if you don’t behave properly.” And as you may have guessed, since the Hitchenses have an infant son, the changeling lore comes into play almost immediately. (Changelings are fairy impostors left in place of human babies, which the fairies take away to live with them in the otherworld.)


The thing is, all of this is great, as far as it goes. I love it when traditional elements are reimagined in new contexts, a tactic which has been at the center of a ton of horror. This is what Catherine Tosenberger has called a “recovery story,” in a great article that every horror fan should read [1]. This is essentially the idea that the familiar versions of folk narratives are inaccurate, distorted by the agendas of the people who collected and popularized them. The real stories are dark and violent and only distantly resemble their “sanitized” storybook versions. This is what The Hallow offers, and the idea that there is a biological reality underlying a supernatural belief tradition, while not new, is still interesting enough to merit exploring in film.

But it doesn’t work. Everything here is too pat, too familiar and formulaic, for the compelling background to carry it. Dad gets infected and starts acting Jack Nicholson-y; Mom has to protect the baby; parents fight, dad ultimately redeems himself. After the initial setup things just become interchangeable with any number of other creature-horrors of the last twenty years. There are chases through dark woods, some slightly icky but basically tame and generic body horror-ish scenes, a creepy little girl; and none of it is executed in a way that stands out from any other similar movie. The ending is equally generic, and the film commits the heinous sin of inserting a random, pointless and nonsensical jump scare after the end titles.

The Hallow isn’t a bad film by any stretch. The acting, in the non-monster-filled portions of the film, is good, as is the camerawork. Some of the special effects are good, too, and for once the CG (which is used sparingly, as far as I could tell) doesn’t detract from the experience. But the monsters are, after all, the point, and it’s very hard to care about them, or even about the hapless protagonists. While it’s true that their only crime was not following local custom, we just don’t have an opportunity to develop any connection with them before monsters start doing monster stuff. And by that point things quickly become too predictable to care.


[1] Tosenberger, Catherine. 2010. “‘Kinda Like the Folklore of Its Day’: ‘Supernatural,’ Fairy Tales, and Ostension.” Transformative Works and Cultures, March. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/viewArticle/174.