Folklore in Horror

So hey! Interested in being part of an academic study on the role of folklore in horror? (You know you are!) I’m working on a new project about this, and I’d love to hear from you! To keep all my eggs in one basket, so to speak, if you’re interested in participating, head on over to the Horror DNA page linked below. I’m hoping we can get an ongoing conversation going about folklore’s role in horror, folk horror, and whatever other cool stuff we can think of.

https://www.horrordna.com/features/folklore-in-horror

I know you all have lots going on, just like I do. Thanks for considering it!

What makes it “horror”?

I’ve been thinking about genre lately. In different fields and different media, genre means different things. There are literary genres, cinematic genres (and of course a lot of overlap between these), folkloric genres… And whatever else it means, “genre” means, ultimately, expectations. Rightly or wrongly, if something is labeled, sorted, slotted into a certain genre, that can tell you certain things about that thing. Things aren’t just things: they are certain kinds of things. Things!

As both a folklorist and a horror fan, genre has certain valences for me that it may not for others. I’ve written about folkloric genres before. In film and literature and other media, I think of the horror genre as pointing to a pleasant type of dread. (It’s only pleasant, I suppose, if you share my particular interests.) It probably wouldn’t be pleasant, of course, if the kind of thing I associate with it actually happened to me. But it’s somehow pleasant to imagine it.

By way of illustration, imagine a scene: you’re home alone. It can be day or night, sunny or stormy. All that matters is that you’re in a familiar space, and that there are shadows. In my palatial one-bedroom apartment, for instance, there’s a doorway of sorts (with no door) that separates the living room from the bedroom and bathroom. Even with lights on elsewhere in the apartment, and even in the daytime, the little patch of floor on the other side of this door-shaped hole, which houses my vertical washer/dryer and abuts the doors to the bathroom and bedroom, is in shadow. (Unless I turn on the ceiling light. Which I usually don’t.)

So there’s a “natural” dark spot, so to speak. And of course, the bedroom and bathroom are dark when I’m not in them. If I happen to leave either door open, the darkness of the little laundry space and the rooms beyond are of a piece. It’s not an inky darkness. Just a slow fading of the light, as it were. My living room is lit only by a couple of floor lamps and a purple molded Frankenstein’s monster that a friend made. The light from these lamps makes it possible to see into the darkened bathroom or, to a lesser extent, the bedroom, if I leave the door open, but those spaces are still pretty dark.

Why in the world does any of this matter?

Aside from this being the greatest thing you have ever seens.

Well okay. Imagine that you’re looking into one of those darkened doorways. Into the bedroom, say. (In your own house, not mine, you weirdo.) It’s just dark. Not pitch black, just normally dark.

But then imagine that it somehow gets darker. Light is suddenly avoiding the room. The darkness somehow grows, which doesn’t even make much sense, because darkness is not a thing, but an absence of a thing. But it happens anyway. So now you’re sitting in your well-lit living room, or wherever, staring into a now utterly black space And then, over on the left, the darkness slowly extends past the doorjamb. That’s all. The dark somehow moves out of the room that contains it, extending past the doorframe just a bit, just in that one spot. But it’s still moving, creeping along, with fuzzy edges that eat the light.

So it moves along. The light from your lamps should expel it. And of course, darkness can’t move like this; again, it’s just the absence of light. But it moves anyway. It spills out into the room where you are, very, very slowly. And dimly, somehow, in the darkness you make out a greater darkness, a shape, a deeper dark, and it makes you out, it sees you, and it reaches toward you, and the darkness moves again.

This feeling, this bizarre feeling of wrongness, of supernatural dread, of malicious intent from something that should not be capable of intent, is what I really want when I engage with the horror genre. It may be frightening; it may even make you jump. But it isn’t about “jump scares.” It’s not about nuns in heavy makeup with shark teeth, or gimmicks like not being able to talk or having to wear a blindfold. It’s certainly not about extreme violence and gore.

Consider this still from The Woman in Black again. It’s a quiet scene, as horror goes, and it’s pretty mundane. Aside from the ruins, it’s not even an especially memorable landscape. A bit dreary, maybe, but hardly remarkable. But there’s this woman, and she’s all wrong. She’s all in black, her clothing is from a different time, and her body language wrong, and her face

But I’m very likely the odd man out here. It could be that you don’t find that weird woman in her antiquated funeral garb frightening at all. More generally, I know others think of giallo, or slashers, or torture porn, or exploitation, or any number of other things when they hear the word “horror.” Genre is always problematic. There’s no accounting for taste, and I know my own is shaped not only by my cultural context but also my acadmic interests and my own weird personal history.

But that’s what I want in horror: creeping dread. The unsettling feeling of malice from a source that shouldn’t be malicious. The supernatural, and specifically, the malevolent supernatural. I’ve often heard people say that ghosts and monsters aren’t scary, because humans are scary enough. And there’s some truth in this. People certainly are scary. But fear of other people isn’t particularly fun.

But enough about me. What does horror mean to you? Do you think of the reaching dark? Or of something else? Does it make sense to include supernatural thrillers in the same genre as slashers? And seriously, have you watched Sweet Home yet?

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Garbage, is what this is. Just irredeemable crap. Review done!

I mean, hi, everyone! I’m back in Japan for the holidays. My wife is working crazy 12-hour days at her university, and I’m left with a lot of time to be irresponsible. Today I used that time (irresponsibly) to watch Annabelle: Creation, because I have Netflix and I’m rapidly running out of reasons to continue having Netflix. This did not help!

The story is skeletal. In the 1940s, a group of orphan girls get a new foster home with a couple whose daughter was hit by a truck years before. The husband is weird; the wife hides away in her room all day and is never seen. The children are accompanied by Sister Charlotte, a nun who inexplicably can take confession, because who needs research when you’ve got a massive budget and Wanfluence on your side? So, whatever, the dead girl’s ghost is haunting the house, only not really, it’s a demon, and it has possessed the spooky doll (not yet called “Annabelle,” which is the name of the deceased daughter), and it wants, I guess, a body? I don’t know, it’s just a demon doing demon shit. None of this matters.

I’d love to say something good about this film, but I just can’t. It’s everything I’ve come to loathe about the post-The Conjuring film making: predictable, lazy, garish, and loud. It equates loud noises and fast edits with “scares,” and endlessly repeats the unforgivable sin of the multi-fake-out jump scare: it forces you to look one way, expecting a scare, then provides none; then it forces you to look back the other way, and again there’s nothing. The fake-outs are layered up, one on top of another, ad nauseam. I’m sure by the next Conjuring or Annabelle film these things will be 6 or 7 fake-outs deep.

Already in this second Annabelle filmthis technique is a self-conscious parody of itself: you go through several “look over here!” scrolls or edits only to have the ghost/demon jump out of a third (or fourth, or fifth) place that wasn’t even shown before, because that would be too predictable! Need something new? Add another redirect. Ooo, is the demon in the corner? No! Behind the bed? Nuh-uh! Behind the main character? Nope! It’s actually up on the ceiling, because that’s scary now! Are you scared? People don’t walk on ceilings! Scaaaaary! Listen to this old low-fi record player playing some public domain jazz song! Ghosts!

The acting is, appropriately enough, terrible. Everyone, from the younger actors comprising the group of orphans, to the bereaved couple, to Sister Charlotte are just acting so hard you guys. And they’re all doing it terribly. Not that it’s wooden: it’s just unconvincing, unnatural, and poorly written. In fairness, it may not be the actors’ faults. The script is so bland and stupid that a rewrite by Shakespeare’s ghost possessing Stephen King’s body and a recast directed by a two-headed Alfred Hitchcock/Martin Scorsese hybrid starring Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Derek Jacobi, and seven clones of Dame Judy Dench couldn’t make it good.

Did I mention I hate this movie? I hate this freaking movie, you guys.

“The Changeling” (1980)

(Wikipedia)

At long last I got off my ass (by which I guess I mean I, you know, I sat down on my ass) and watched The Changeling. And I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, for reasons which will become clear.

This is a pretty good film, see. I like slow supernatural thrillers, and this is very much that. Only it’s exceptionally slow. It reminds me of Ghost Story and The Omen in several ways. All three films feel like they were made thirty years earlier than their actual release dates. In the case of The Changeling, very little happens, besides dialogue, for long, long stretches. But it’s good dialogue by great actors. BUT but I also didn’t pay suuuper close attention to it, because it’s hugely formulaic and slow and just kind of dull.

George C. Scott, who totally owned the brilliant and underrated Exorcist III, plays John Russell, a composer who has recently lost his wife and daughter in a freak car accident. He moves to Washington state, where he rents an incredible old gothic mansion which anyone in their right mind would IMMEDIATELY assume was haunted, but, I dunno, grief? So, you know, Weird Stuff happens, and it turns out that there’s the ghost of a young boy. Russell has to help the boy find peace or something, because ghosts.

There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. Political intrigue figures into the narrative in an unexpected way. The scary elements are just the ghost’s way of communicating with Russell, who’s pretty stoic about the whole thing. (I can’t imagine George C. Scott ever acting scared in the way we’d otherwise expect in a scary movie.) It’s never really frightening, but it’s moody and full of George C. Scott, so… net gain?

Scott himself was a Great Actor (with capital letters!), but not at all a Sympathetic Actor. It’s just hard to care about him in this role. He’s George C. Scott playing George C. Scott, an upper-class, slightly snobby, hard-assed, overachieving skeptic. It’s great to see a powerful old-school actor playing a powerful old-school character; but this film was made in 1980, and as I write this it’s 2018, and alas, some things don’t hold up well. Even in 1980, Scott’s acting must have felt exceptionally old-fashioned.

Worst of all, it’s all just kind of boring, which is the worst thing a scary movie can be. (Slow does not equal boring, but unfortunately this is both.) Also, I don’t understand Russell’s motivation for solving the mystery of Joseph’s death. Why not just leave? Why waste so much time trying to figure it out when he could have just bought a nice condo down by Pike Place or whatever? (I have no idea if there are or ever have been condos down by Pike Place. It’s just one of like two Seattle landmarks I know.)

I’m sure others have noted this, but there’s a particular sequence that clearly influenced The Ring. A ghost whose body is buried in a well beneath a house is a major plot point, and the protagonists have to dig it up and get the police involved–I can only imagine that Suzuki Koji was a fan of The Changeling, because it’s too similar to be a coincidence.


Hiiiiii!

Wow. Just, you know. This year, man. This year. It sort of got away from me.

I’ve been meaning to get back to this forever, but, you know. This year, man.

I’ve just started a new faculty gig, at long last. (And naturally I pick this, possibly the busiest time I’ll ever experience, to start blogging again.) While I don’t know how many films I’ll be watching in the weeks ahead, I’ll try to crank out the odd post here and there. Hopefully I’ll settle into a rhythm with work and be able to develop something like a regular schedule.

Until then, here’s another great Castlevania music cover.

Hope everyone’s doing well and staying scared.

Recent HorrorTalk Reviews (June-July ’17)

Hey! I’m around! I’m just spread, Bilbo-like, across too much bread. Or something. Here’s some stuff I’ve done recently over at HorrorTalk.com!

  • The Passing: It’s a Welsh-language ghost story set in Wales. WALES.
  • Ghostbusters 101 #04: IDW’s Ghostbusters continue to be the best version of the guys in gray.
  • Ghosts of the Poconos: I’ll, uh, just let the review speak for itself…
  • Mormama: Southern Gothic with some ghosts and lots of half-understood computer-speak.

I’ll try to semi-regularly post roundups of the stuff I do over there. It’s a groovy site and you should check it out if you haven’t already!

Meanwhile, I’m curious to know if anyone has seen any decent new scary stuff lately. I haven’t seen anything truly frightening in ages. Any recommendations?

Yeesh

Well. *nervous cough* I’ve, uh. I’ve been away. For. A while. But… I’m back now! So… you know. Horror!

Life moves in drunken, sidewindy ways, and I find myself back in the US again. It’s been a crazy reentry and I don’t know exactly what’s next, but for the next year I’m ensconced in a postdoc. That’s right, I finished–no longer an angry grad student, but an actual angry scholar. So, you know. That’s a thing.

I’ve moved a teeny bit further north, deep into Trump country, which is a terrifying thing. (If you’re not into politics, now’s the time to click away.) Coming back from Japan in the wake of the election was extremely hard, as my lady friend had to stay there in her university job and we’re back to being long distance for a while. But coming back alone to this climate of hatred and fear… It’s shameful. I am ashamed.

So as we approach what is, if not the most “important” (whatever that means), then certainly the most visible holiday of the calendar year for most of the Western world, please be kind to each other, but also remember that words alone will not change things.

I’m busier than I’ve been in ages, but I’ll try to get back to something like a regular posting schedule. I hope you’re all well and getting through it. Resist, but also, don’t forget to laugh. From a cosmic perspective all this horror and stupidity must look pretty silly.