The Witch: When a Slow Plot Pays Off

By: Ana Lucena

witch.jpg

The 2015 film “The Witch” received a vocal backlash when it was released by netizens who claimed that it is not scary, echoing similar complaints aimed at movies like “The Babadook” and “It Follows”. These three films refuse to treat its monstrous antagonists as just sources for jump scares, a trend that is being criticized by horror fans when it is innovating the genre. This raises a question: what exactly is needed for a story to be considered horror? “The Witch” is an interesting case, as its titular witch is not a conventional antagonist by the end of the movie. The running time of the film is not dominated by the witch, taking a deeper interest in the family dynamics at play instead. And yet the last time we see the witch is horrifying and original on an intellectual level.

The plot of the witch is simple: a witch is preying on a pious 17th century family that is banished from their reservation and forced to fend for themselves. We are shown the true power of the witch at the very beginning, when the family baby is stolen under his teenage sister Thomasin. The witch is disgusting, an old naked woman who grounds the baby and uses his blood for her broom. Her appearance and evil is vital to the suspension of belief for “The Witch”, as she does not appear again until near the end.

When Thomasin’s twin siblings, who blaspheme by saying they speak with family goat Black Phillip, incessantly insist a witch stole their baby brother she loses her temper and threatens them by saying that she is said witch. This leads to her parents listening to the twins and suspecting her of selling her soul to the devil after her brother becomes bewitched and dies. Knowing that Thomasin’s family did not see the witch lead the two boys to their death fills the viewer with dread as they see the family turn to religion in a futile effort to protect themselves. The horror of seeing the witch successfully kill one of Thomasin’s siblings twice makes her pain and fear at the accusations she is the cause all the more palpable. And yet, the escalation of the family’s panic is slow. If the witch had not appeared performing witchcraft at the beginning of the film, her threat would not feel palpable and the audience may be skeptical of the evil living in the woods by considering the family’s guess that it was a wolf and not a supernatural creature that got their baby. But the pacing of the film, though it has its detractors, allows for enough character development for the ending to be horrifyingly plausible while also avoiding predictable outcomes.

Seeing Thomasin join the coven of witches in the woods after all her family members are presumably killed by the end of the film widens the scope of the film’s source of horror immensely. The religious Thomasin break away from her religion by giving into a life of sin, making her late father’s sacrifice to defend the family’s religious beliefs meaningless. But it also shows that there are many souls lost to the devil that lived near her family and could have killed her own brothers. The short time it takes for Thomasin to become one of these witches illustrates the ease with which one can give into temptation and, worse, commit such inhuman acts like the murder of children. It argues to the viewer that the worst monster you can think of can come from those closest to you, regardless of the beliefs they express.

I understand the interest of film critics in debating whether to paint Thomasin as a feminist heroine, as she is freed from her oppressive family by her own means. This is fitting as witches have long been argued to be feminist icons, with several articles published recently continuing the discussion. But I see her more as a horrifying anti-villain than heroine. Though she manages to find a way to support herself after most of her already struggling family is killed by the witches, she sacrifices her soul and goes against her beliefs to do so. The time and effort taken explain Thomasin’s circumstances may have bored some viewers, but it was well-worth it to appreciate the implications of her horrifying decision.

Advertisements

That Little Reminder

al.jpgBy: Alexis Low

One day, in 2013, I had to do laundry. The washing unit seemed to be in use, shaking and making more noise than usual, but I paid it no attention. I had a lot of dirty clothes, so it was urgent that I got them done, so I asked my mom and dad who was using it, as they were the only people who lived in the house, besides me. They denied having used it. I even thought that my sister may have been using it, as her machine at her place was broken at the time.Yet, she denied using it too. Why would a washing machine be on by itself? The machine was new and it wasn’t abused. I became more curious and wanted to know what was inside, but at the same time I felt an uncertain feeling arise within me. I opened the lid and found no clothes, just soap and water rushing too and fro. When opening the lid of our washing machine, the machine usually stops running, but it kept going. Again, I disregarded this abnormal activity of the machine. I then told my mom all that was wrong with the machine. My mother looked at me with a preternatural look, a look that all horror stories begin with. She went and checked the machine herself, and came back to me sweaty and asked, ‘did you put the detergent on top of the machine’, I denied it and said that I left the lid up. She replied in a soft tone, “just put your clothes in the machine’. I surmised after washing my clothes and everything coming out fine, that the machine acting like that was a fluke. The night of this incident I would have a nightmare.

As I was sleeping, I had a very strange nightmare, or at least I think it was a nightmare. I was laying on my bed, and in the dark I saw a figure, a glowing white almost ethereal woman, coming towards me. She was so beautiful, that the perfect appearance was scary. It freaked me out and I had a stint of sleep paralysis, so I couldn’t get away. I started to panic, because she was getting closer and closer to me, and I couldn’t move. When she came very close to being right next to the bed, I woke up. I told my mother this, and she looked perturbed by the ‘nightmare’. With apprehension, she told me a story about her childhood, that could explain the woman and the washing machine.

My mom had an Aunt Gwen, who was the only believer of the supernatural in our family, and told many stories about ghosts, spirts, and how these supernatural entities could warn you about horrible things to come. Gwen believed in it so much that she vowed to come back as a ghost after she died. When Gwen was 70, she died from unknown causes and ailments. A week later, mom went into Gwen’s bedroom to get something, and said that Gwen’s impression was left on the bed. This was weird and the only thing her and the rest of my family could surmise was that Gwen was just ‘getting some rest’. A few days later, after the bed incident, my mom was washing some clothes in the basement, and no clothes were in it; the machine was on by itself, which was strange, but she paid it no mind. Then my mom shut off the washer, to reset it and turned it on back on, proceeding to put in her clothes and close the lid. It was customary in that house to put the detergent on top of the washing machine incase it went out of wack, a rule Aunt Gwen came up with, which my mom didn’t adhere to. When my mother went to check on the clothes again, the detergent was on the washing machine, and she thought it was Gwen in the house again.

Years later, Gwen reappeared, making sure my mother remembered to put the detergent on the machine, letting my mom know that she was still there—still a ghost. But why did she come to me, approach me at night? She could have just put the detergent on the washer, send that little reminder to my mom, and have been done. But why bother me? Maybe, she was warning me of something horrible to come. Its been four years since that incident. I am puzzled and I am dreading what is to come. Is it that horrible that she has to warn me in advance? I don’t know, but thanks, Gwen, for the warning.

Breathe

Scan (5).jpgBy: Suzanne Wdowik

It was late in the evening. Christmas eve, the night of presents and food and family bonding. My five cousins, brother, and I were in the basement of an aunt and uncle’s house, in near complete darkness. It was our annual game of hide-and-seek-in-the-dark. My brother Billy was It, and my cousin Mark and I stumbled into the closet as Billy counted up to a hundred. Mark took the spot by the door, while I slid back between the shelves and stacked boxes of forgotten trinkets.

As my brother neared a hundred, I slowed my breathing, listening to the rasp of my voice and the thump of my heart. With my pupils dilating and my eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, I could just make out the gray outlines of the objects in the closet, and the dark shadow of my cousin in front of me. I had my breathing under control, but my heart still thumped louder when the shuffling of my brother’s feet neared the closet door.

His voice called out in the darkness. “Katie? Give me a clue?”

According to the rules of our game, Katie had to give him a clue to his location, and sure enough, I heard a distant chirping noise. She must be hiding behind the couch in the main room.

I hunkered down to wait for Billy to find the others. As long as Mark and I didn’t make any mistakes, we should be the last ones found. But then a light made me squint. In the corner of the room, a floating blue orb had appeared. Was that my cousin’s phone screen? What was he doing? Did he want to lose the game?

Afraid of giving away my location, I pursed my lips and stifled a hiss at Mark. Instead, I silently hoped that he would put the light away soon. Sure enough, it started fading, and then went out altogether. I was satisfied for a short time, but then I heard a ragged breath next to my ear. Mark must have moved closer to me, so that he wouldn’t be discovered right when Billy opened the door. I understood the game strategy. But did he have to breathe so loudly? And right next to my ear, too?

I held my position in silence, my legs cramping up. Normally, Mark’s loud breathing would work in my favor, as Billy would find him before he found me, but I could practically feel how close Mark was to me; if my brother reached out towards the rattling noise, it would be a toss-up as to who he would hit, Mark or me. I hoped that, at the very least, the two of us were the last to be found.

Just as I was following this line of thought, I heard my brother’s voice call from somewhere else in the basement. “Is that it? Who else do I have to find?”

And then came the voice, muffled from the distance and the door between us. Mark’s voice. “It’s just Suzanne left.”

Mark was already found, already out of the closet and in the distant part of the pitch-black basement.

And the thing next to me drew a deep, hissing breath.

Browning Mountain: Living Horror at Indiana’s Stonehenge

By: Laura Dzubay

I’ve spent a decent amount of time in my life exploring abandoned places. Not too much time, but a nice, healthy amount. I’m from Bloomington, Indiana, and late in high school, my friends started introducing me to abandoned spots around town: an observatory, a waterslide by the lake, a fire tower, a water treatment plant. These spots were all frequently visited — the fire tower was a common lookout point, and the observatory appeared in practically every other amateur photo shoot that got turned in at my high school — and, as a result, they never felt dead to me. Birds flew in and out of the wide, punched-out windows of the water treatment plant, and the water slide gained graffiti every day, graffiti that told of late nights out, of friendship sagas and love stories.

That’s why the scariest place where I’m from is none of these places. It’s just a clearing in the woods.

If you weren’t looking for it, Browning Mountain would blend right into the surrounding slopes of forest. There is no graffiti on Browning Mountain. There are no high schoolers wandering around with cameras, posing next to trees. But it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary until you start getting truly close to it.

The only time I’ve ever been to Browning Mountain, I was going with a group of staff members from my summer camp, but we weren’t spending the night. We were hiking through it during the daytime, stopping at the top to get lunch. As we got closer, our group grew quiet. Any speakers that had been playing music switched off, and our chatter died away.

In the silence, I became aware of the woods around me: as we gained elevation, the trees seemed to bend in toward the ground. They were still big, but they furled in on themselves and twisted, their trunks even seemed to darken.

When it finally registered with me that they looked unusual, I still couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, so I said all I could think of to say. “The trees,” I said, to no one in particular. “Look at the trees.”

I repeated myself because at first I thought nobody had heard, and then somebody shushed me — which scared me, actually, more than the trees had.

It might be useful at this point to explain the connotations of Browning Mountain within camp. It had been the subject of rumors for years. The most common legend was that cults gathered there on full moon nights, even to this day, to make sacrifices. I didn’t believe this, because I didn’t see how they wouldn’t get caught and arrested if everybody knew they were doing it. But I’d never been to Browning Mountain, and people who had would bristle whenever others seemed to doubt them. Camp organized trips there occasionally — strictly for older campers — and I knew senior staff members who’d been scared to the point of never returning. Everyone who went claimed to hear voices and footsteps around them in the night. I knew one guy who said he’d had to sleep on Browning Mountain in a hammock once, and he’d lain awake all night long with his pocketknife clutched to his chest.

Eventually we reached the top, and I saw the main attraction. It was what has often been called “Indiana’s Stonehenge”: a series of limestone slabs arranged in a circle. The story goes that the rocks, impossibly heavy, would have to have been carried up the hill from very far away, years earlier, by unknown people and for some unknown but definite purpose. It was this obscurity that frightened me the most: the idea that someone had had a goal in mind when they’d brought these here and set them up in this way, and the fact that I didn’t know whether or not this goal had been met.

This place didn’t feel dead, but in a much different way from the observatory and the water slide. It felt alive in a way I didn’t want to touch. It made me think of the nighttime in horror stories — how the evil spirits always back off when the sun comes out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there. As we pulled out our sandwich supplies in the clearing, some of my friends sat down on the rocks while they started to eat. I didn’t — I couldn’t have said why, but for some reason I was thinking about the gnarled woods all around us and The Blair Witch Project, when the guy moves a pile of stones and then disappears the next day without a trace. I sat down at the trunk of the tree instead and ate my lunch, glad, for once, not to be staying in this haunting place any longer than I had to.

Unsettled In: The Road to the Creepiest Campsite Ever

ez.jpgBy: Ellie Zak

My girlfriend and I spent the entire summer on a road trip, where we would visit the most popular national park destinations as well as the most desolate hidden jewels of our country. But not all of these jewels turned out to be shiny and beautiful, and there was one place in particular that I would rather just put in my past.

We had been driving around in circles for hours trying to locate a free campsite that seemed not to exist. We were starving, as our campfire permit only allowed us to build a fire in designated areas, and our meal we had planned for that night was inedible until we could heat it. Finally, we decided to stay at a paid campsite we knew was located just 10 miles away. The sun had already set, but this was not by any means the worst road we had driven on, so we went for it.

As we drove, smaller dirt roads jutted off from us, and it seemed that almost every one of them had a warning. It was too dark to read the signs specifically, but we saw something about death, something about falling into a ravine, and definitely something about drowning. We were desperate though, so this wasn’t enough to stop us. We soon came upon a small town that consisted of just a handful of buildings, and though we saw cars parked and the porch lights of the bar on, we didn’t see a single person. Since it was late, we shook it off, assuming people were just inside, and continued toward our campsite. But I couldn’t shake the fact that surfaced in my mind at that moment: in all the time we had spent looking for the free campsite before, we had not passed a single car.

We finally saw the sign with the name of the site, but the relief that surfaced only lasted a minute or two before the fog set in. It came in quickly, thick as low-rolling clouds, surrounding our car and obscuring our view enough to slow us down to a crawl. Only through the occasional breaks in the fog could we see more than ten feet ahead of us. As we came upon the sites at last, we noticed that no one else was there. There were at least a dozen campsites, but not a single other camper. This was the first time we had ever been to a paid campsite that was empty, but even more unsettling was the fact that it took us five campsites to finally locate one that wasn’t reserved. Five out of six empty campsites were paid for, and it was getting late, but no one was in them.

It had been a very long time since either of us had seen another person, and my girlfriend said it was as though every other person in the world had disappeared, and we were the only ones left. Throughout our whole trip, we had been to more middle-of-nowhere places than we could count, but we had not yet experienced this degree of solitude.

As soon as we got out of the car, we realized the campsite was completely overrun with bugs, which in my mind helped explain the lack of people, so in truth it provided more of a reassurance than anything else. As we walked around to gather firewood, we noticed fresh wood at each of the fire pits in the surrounding sites and, in a moment of desperation, took it for ourselves. Once the fire was going, the bugs cleared away, and with food in our belly soon afterward, it seemed we were ready to put our uneasy feelings aside and get a good night of sleep. We worked together to pitch the tent when we saw headlights in the distance. They were gone as soon as we saw them, and as much as we listened, we couldn’t hear anything. No one was there. This happened at least two or three more times before we decided to put out the fire and sleep before we died of fright out there in the open.

Each of the things we had experienced that night had a perfectly reasonable explanation behind them. But something about all of them happening together makes me really wonder what was going on there, and if it might have been something that the logical mind can’t quite explain.

Monsters vs. “Modernity”

rl.jpgBy: Ryan Lakin

While reading Dracula, we talked a lot in class about how Bram Stoker depicts foreigners, and Eastern Europeans in particular. Throughout the novel, Stoker sets up a contrast between Eastern European culture, which he associates with “old ways” of understanding the world, such as religion and folklore, with Western European culture, which he associates with modernity, or the “new ways” of using reason and science to explain natural phenomena. In many ways, the supernatural threat of Dracula is indicative of British cultural anxieties of the time. In his article The Occidental Tourist, Stephen D. Arata argues that Dracula is an example of the popular Victorian narrative of “reverse colonization,” which was “concerned with the potential overthrow of the nation by outsiders” (Arata, 624). Fearing that British imperial power was, by the late 19th century, in decline, much literature of the period depicts Eastern Europeans as dangerous “others” who infiltrate modern British society and attempt to dissolve British national, cultural, and racial identity. By depicting Dracula as an Eastern European interloper in London, Stoker “transforms the materials of the vampire myth, making them bear the weight of the culture’s fears over its declining status” (Arata, 629).

Reading Dracula through this critical lens, I was reminded of a horror film that casts Eastern Europeans in a similar role, albeit in a vastly different historical context: Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). The plot of the film revolves around troubled marriage of Oliver Wood, an American engineer, and Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian fashion designer living in New York City. Even after their marriage, Irena avoids intimacy with Oliver because, according to a Serbian superstition, she might transform into a panther and kill him. When Oliver loses patience with Irena and begins an affair with his co-worker Alice, Irena transforms into a shape-shifting monster and proceeds to terrorize the couple.

Like Dracula, Cat People associates Eastern Europe with the primitive and atavistic. Both Count Dracula and Irena are the embodiment of ancient, supernatural forces that Western modernity is ill-equipped to defend itself from. Just as Dr. John Steward initially attempts to offer a scientific explanation for Lucy’s vampirism, Oliver dismisses the legend of the “cat people” as mere superstition and sends Irena to a psychiatrist who he misguidedly believes can cure her neuroses. However, unlike Dracula who, as Arata argues, infiltrates British society in order to create the circumstances for its downfall, Irena wants to assimilate into American culture, but is unable to due to her status as an ethnic “other.” Despite her yearning to belong to the “new world” of the United States, the values of which are personified by Oliver and Alice, the curse of the cat people ties her inextricably to the “old world” of Eastern Europe, along with its history and its folklore.

While, as far as monsters go, Irena is far more sympathetic than Dracula, the threat she poses to the other characters in the film is similarly indicative of cultural anxieties of the period. As Thomas Robert Agiro points out in his article “Mapping the unassimilable: The Balkan other as meme in Val Lewton’s Cat People,” World War II era Hollywood horror films often feature “unfamiliar ethnic figures whose suspicious differences are paraded as monstrous, thereby promoting an outright othering of particular cultures and/or nationalities,” and that Eastern Europeans are cast as villains or monsters in such films with particular frequency (Agiro). While the United States and Serbia were allies during World War II, he suggests that casting the Serbian character as a “shape-shifting monster” emphasizes the unsustainability of the alliance.

In both Dracula and Cat People, Eastern Europe is associated with “primitive” yet powerful forces which threaten Western, “modernized” societies. Though these stereotypes reveal much more about the cultures that perpetuate them than they do about Eastern European cultures, these texts demonstrate the way such stereotypes have been re-appropriated to suit various political agendas across historical contexts. 

Works Cited

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, 1990, pp. 621–645.

Argiro, Thomas Robert. “Mapping the Unassimilable: The Balkan Other as Meme in Val Lewton’s Cat People.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2015, pp. 103–118.

Tourneur, Jacques. Cat People. RKO Radio Pictures, 1942.

Fancy Some Meat Buns?

By: Jenny Hong

The Untold Story (1993) is a high grossing Hong Kong crime-thriller centered on an ex-convict, Wong Chi Hang. He started a new life in Macau and took over the Eight Immortals Restaurant not long after he began work there. When the severed hands of unidentified victims flushed ashore on a local beach, the police speculate that this was connected to the disappearance of the previous owners of Eight Immortals Restaurant and suspected Wong. However, they had no evidence- the missing bodies weren’t found and the restaurant was running regularly, doing even better with its signature pork buns (Imdb). This sounds like a mediocre thriller plot, but it shocked me and my family as it did everyone else when it came out. Not only is it set in my hometown, Macau, it is an adaptation based on a real-life tragedy.

jh

Google Street View of the current Victoria Hotel (back view) at Estr. da Areia Preta, Macau, where the Eight Immortals Restaurant used to be.
(Unfortunately, I have never taken a picture of the location (creeps me out) so I can only find the closest thing on Google Map).

The Eight Immortals Restaurant Murder is a massacre involving a family of ten that shocked the population of Hong Kong and Macau. In August, 1985, the police found 8 pieces of floating limbs near Hac Sa (Macau’s local beach) including four right hands, leading the police to speculate that there was at least 4 victims. A couple days later, 3 more limbs were found in scattered trash bags. The leading clue of the case was a missing persons report from a relative of Cheng, the restaurant owner, and he also stated that the family restaurant was suspiciously taken over by Wong Chi Hang after they went missing. The missing persons include Mr. and Mrs. Cheng, their four daughters and son (ages 18-7), Mrs. Cheng’s mother and aunt, and Mr. Cheng’s cousin (Jennifer, CT Times).

The suspect, Wong, was brought in for investigation and it is discovered that he was involved with another brutal murder in Hong Kong under a different name and successfully fled. Later, he illegally migrated to Macau with his wife and son and began work at the Eight Immortals Restaurant. Wong initially admitted that he killed the Cheng family and dismembered their limbs. He stated that the Cheng couple lost a large sum of money when gambling with him but refused to repay him, mocking that he had no solid proof, which triggered him to murder them. In prison, Wong attempted suicide and before that, he wrote a letter to a newspaper stating that he did not murder the family, and was forced to take the blame because of his criminal background and he wanted was to start a new life with his family (Jennifer, CT Times).

There are many puzzles left unsolved in this case- the remaining corpse of the family were never discovered; there wasn’t actual evidence to prove that Wong murdered the family although he had initially confessed. The police also believed that there was an accomplice since Wong was already 50 at the time but no suspect was found. What was the whole truth? The cannibalism in the movie was an exaggerated fact that aroused from the prevailing conspiracy theory that Wong had grounded the remaining flesh of the family to use in his barbeque pork buns because there was never a smell of decomposition despite the summer heat and the bodies were never found (Trivia: the sales of pork buns rapidly dropped every time an adaptation was released).

I have never watched the film since I saw it on TV when I was eight, nor do I dare walk by the alleged location of the restaurant at night. The brutal and gruesome scenes- notably the family slaughter and limb dismemberments terrified me as a child, but what truly haunts me is the cold-blooded murder that happened in my peaceful hometown where crime is rare. If you care to find out if the film horrifies you after knowing what to expect- order some Chinese and watch it here (also streams on Amazon Prime). The plot is no surprise, but you will be startled by the explicit gore scenes, morbid acting and even some ironic comic relief that criticizes the police force.