The Real Horror in Horrorstor

By: Danielle Coty (friend of the Course of Horror)

My journey to reading Horrorstor began when I became hooked on reading Grady Hendrix’s reviews of “Under the Dome.” His intensely sarcastic reviews, which became more desperate as the show went on, made me laugh. Even though I didn’t watch the show, I became invested in the weekly articles. When the season ended I discovered he had written a horror book.

As soon as I looked at the book I knew I had to get it. Its vibrant layout appeared remarkably similar to an Ikea catalog. At this time I only saw the front cover, and I didn’t catch the creepy undertones. I saw a cheerfully colored couch, not the screaming face that looms out of the picture frame on the wall above it. It wasn’t until later that I gave the back cover a thoughtful glance. Then my roommate and I went through the chapter pages before I read the book. Each one features an item with a fake-swedish name on the blue Ikea layout. But the descriptions of the items become increasingly sinister.

Yet when I sat down to read the book I still was not fully aware that it was a horror book. Instead the book starts off mocking Ikea. The new employees are trained to guide customers along the “Bright and Shining Path,” a route that has been engineered to make customers most likely to buy items. One could argue Ikea is naturally horrifying. In fact, the Wall Street Journal even published an entertaining article about how purchasing and assembling Ikea furniture has led to couples breaking up.

Despite the fact that Horrorstor includes torture, ghostly possession, and what might be categorized as zombies, I thought the scariest message was about the consequences of being trapped in a terrible job forever. With steady pressure to choose the right career, many college students fear that instead of finding a job that will inspire and support them, they will be trapped in a mindless daze for forty hours a week. The analogy Hendrix draws between working at Orsk and being a prisoner in an authoritarian prison with a devilish warden is rather obvious, but I don’t think the book suffers from that. Instead it made me think of my experience straightening shelves for hours after the store had closed, making it appear perfect so that customers could return to wreak their usual havoc in the morning. While some people may have found such a task rewarding, such as Ruth Anne in Horrorstor, I quickly figured out that job was not right for me.

Even if most of the events in Horrorstor are not everyday concerns, and being kidnapped by zombie-inmates is not high on my personal list of fears, Hendrix makes them more frightening by placing them in something that seems normal and everyday. With the sinister plot of Horrorstor hidden behind its colorful cover, it has been easy for me to recommend it to numerous friends. Sitting on a table, it appears ever-so enticingly like an Ikea catalog while the story within waits to snag unsuspecting readers. Even in the unlikely case that you dislike the book (so far everyone has loved it) I guarantee your next trip to Ikea will feel quite strange.

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The Universality of Horror

By: Jessica Dennis (Horror alum, Winter 2013)

Ishizuka-sensei and I were trying very hard to get the rowdy sannenseis (the American equivalent of ninth-graders) of Sakata Fourth Junior High School to pay attention to our English lesson, but the whispers and hushed giggles were becoming overwhelming.  In exasperation, I dropped the chalk I was holding and turned to Ishizuka-sensei.  “Do they even know what ‘Charlie, Charlie’ is?”

char

For indeed, the newest American demon-summoning trend had somehow reached my students in rural Japan.  The fad seemed to catch on overnight; all my early Monday classes started with students intoning in English, “Charlie, Charlie, are you there?” before hastily shoving their summoning papers and pencils into their desks when they noticed Ishizuka-sensei and me.  For those unfamiliar with the ritual, as I was before a quick search on the Internet between classes that day, “Charlie, Charlie” is a game in which you summon and ask yes or no questions to the demon Charlie.  To do this, you draw a cross on a piece of paper, write “yes” in two of the quadrants and “no” in the remaining two.  Last, you place two pencils on each axis of your grid, one on top of the other, chant “Charlie, Charlie, are you there?” and proceed to ask the demon questions.  If Charlie is present, the pencil on the top will shift and drop into one of your quadrants to answer your question.

After asking my students how they came to hear about the game “Charlie, Charlie,” they revealed that a Japanese YouTube celebrity performed the “Charlie, Charlie” challenge online and became viral.  Unfortunately, like a lot of western trends and holidays that come to Japan, their origins are misunderstood and often modified to fit into Japanese culture.  Christmas, for example, is considered a “date night” in Japan, where young couples go out on the town to party and drink, while families stay at home and eat “Christmas cake” and KFC… because nothing is more western to a Japanese person than frosted pastries and chicken.

comHalloween traditions in Japan are also quite different.  Unaware of Halloween’s roots in Samhain, the Celtic festival that separated the long days of summer from the darker ones of winter and when the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead were thought to be weak, the Japanese have adopted Halloween as a “family-friendly” holiday.  Whenever I walked into Daiso (the Japanese “dollar store”) during the Halloween season, I was amazed at their stock: fluffy animal and bright-colored witch costumes, streamers with happy-looking ghosts, stuffed animal bats with big, dewy eyes, and stickers with the infamous Hello Kitty dressed as a pumpkin.  Like many things in Japan, Halloween was stripped of any of its prior associations to darkness and trickery in favor of Japan’s beloved obsession with “cute.”  Halloween is a holiday that kids may learn a little about from their English teachers, or perhaps attend a small trick-or-treat event if there is a lot of foreigners in their area, but that’s it.

Although Halloween in Japan is nothing like its western counterpart, that does not mean Japan does not like horror.  Far from it, if my students fascination with “Charlie, Charlie” is anything to go by.  In fact, my students persuaded me to take the remaining class time during that particular period to explain “Charlie, Charlie.”  With the lights turned off and the curtains drawn, the students arranged their desks in a semi-circle around me while I told the origins of “Charlie, Charlie” and described other American horror games, such as “Bloody Mary” and Ouija boards.  I even concluded the talk describing a botched séance my older sister did with her friends in her room of my old house in Michigan, ending with the candles being inexplicably blown out and something crashing in the room.  When the bell signaling the end of the period rang, my students sat wide-eyed and slacked-jaw.  I wondered how many would go into their darkened bathrooms that night and stand with a lit candle in front of their mirror.

The west is not unfamiliar with Japanese horror; films like The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water spawned their own American recreations (although I argue that the originals are better).  There is an entire genre of horror in Japanese manga, anime, and video games.  Urban legends, like the notorious Hanako-san, a little girl who haunts the third stall of the third-story girl’s restroom in all schools in Japan, and Satoru-kun, who you can summon and quickly ask a question to before he tries to take you to hell, are just as well known among the Japanese population as the American myths of Bigfoot and the Jersey Devil.  Haunted houses, or obake yashiki (お化け屋敷; lit., “ghost residence”), are extremely popular in Japan and can be found anywhere from the homemade and student-run obake yashikis in school cultural festivals, to the professional renditions in city festivals and attractions around the country.  In fact, it was declared by the Guinness Book of World Records that the scariest haunted house in the world was located in Japan’s Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park, close to the base of Mt. Fuji.  Fuji-Q’s obake yashiki is located in an actual abandoned hospital that has been recreated into a maze full of demented doctors, corpses, and trapdoors.  There is no set route for visitors who enter the hospital; they have to find their way out themselves.

Despite the west’s perception of Japan as a country preoccupied with all things cute, bubble-gum pop, and occasionally weird, there is a distinct aspect of Japanese culture that thrives on horror and the supernatural.  This could be heavily influenced by Japan’s dependence on Shinto and Buddhism, where considerable importance is placed on nature and the afterlife.  In any case, after living and working in Japan for two years, I truly came to understand how much horror plays a role in any culture and how essential it is to forming its system of beliefs.  While Americans may dedicate an entire month in October to celebrating the creepy and unexplainable, Japan’s fascination with horror is spread throughout the year, from festivals for the dead or to warn off evil spirits (e.g., Obon) to animes and mangas personifying vengeful or mischievous ghosts and spirits (e.g., Yōkai Watch!).  So while you chew on candy corn and binge on The Walking Dead this month, or do your very best to avoid anything scary at all, just know that wherever you run to in this world, horror will always be right around the corner.

 Sources:

Underwater Monsters

By: Mika LaVaque-Manty (friend of The Course of Horror)

I’m grateful to my friend Gina for inviting me to contribute — she knows horror is not my genre. The last horror movie I saw was The Shining, back in 1983, and I still have nightmares. (1983 was kind of a horror-themed year for me. I also saw Iron Maiden live that year. My ears are still ringing.)

Fortunately, there’s horror-lite for the squeamish among us, and sometimes in unusual places. Think, for a moment, of Island Lake State Recreation area. You may know it: a lovely park about thirty minutes north of Ann Arbor, full of trails for hiking, trail running, and mountain biking; the picturesque Huron river winding in its leisurely way on its way south to Ann Arbor; Spring Mill Pond with its nice sandy beach for those perfect summer swims.

Ah, but in Spring Mill Pond lurks a monster! I hope you’ll never swim in it — nay, swim anywhere — without wondering what’s in the deep. Don’t think fresh water and small lakes will keep you safe! Continue reading

The Horror of the Ordinary

By: Perry Janes (friend of The Course of Horror)

Here’s the honest truth: when Gina first asked me to view and comment on the horror film IT FOLLOWS (directed by fellow Michigan native David Robert Mitchell) – I hesitated. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I’m not a traditional follower (nor fan) of the genre. I typically eschew horror film releases in favor of almost any other genre. Put another way: I’m chicken. Nevertheless. I overcame my initial hesitation and decided to give the film a viewing. And then another, and another. Because what I found, and what makes IT FOLLOWS so deeply compelling, is a film that opens direct lines of dialogue with its formal predecessors only to deliberately veer away from their examples.

Before I get to specifics, I want to say: what distinguishes the horror genre from, say, its purely dramatic or comedic brethren is a constant interplay of references, archetypes, tropes, and influences being traded back-and-forth. Virtually every entry in the genre intentionally relies on (and nods to) films that came before it. And so I was not surprised to find that IT FOLLOWS quite literally (for lack of a better term) follows in this tradition. What I did not expect was a defiant upending or rebutting of the institution it claimed to be joining. In place of familiar genre conventions – most notably the use of the close-up, which fosters a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer and limits the audience’s field-of-vision (thereby concealing potential threats and thrills) – IT FOLLOWS creates a visual language almost entirely out of medium and long shots characterized by a deep depth of field. Put another way: nothing is hidden. Foreground and background are rendered in clear, crisp resolution; landscapes contextualize (even swallow) their characters; a subtly roving camera consumes increasing amounts of space; a tendency towards high key lighting that minimizes shadow underscores this acuity of vision. In short, the audience sees everything. There are no well-concealed dangers, here. Here, the menace lurks in plain sight.

The resulting visual language creates a sort of paranoia in the viewer, encouraging its audience to scan the horizon, to probe the background, to flit with the same anxious energy seen in Jay herself (the hunted) for what follows her (the hunter). This dynamic creates the tension around which IT FOLLOWS pivots. The camera, with its well-lit deep focus, promises transparency (and therefore safety) for both viewer and protagonist alike. The narrative bounds of the story, however, defy this sense of transparency, concealing its relentless antagonist right in plain sight.

Part of what makes this approach so interesting, however, is the film’s apparent homage to its genre. Reviewers from every corner have commented on the film’s idiosyncratic pastiche. Nostalgic referents make up the film’s entire mise-en-scene (with costume and set design that defy virtually any single time period), evoking both horror flicks (like FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and HALLOWEEN) as well as supernatural thrillers (a la DAWN OF THE DEAD and CARRIE). The movie’s monster – itself inspired by THE THING – shares its shape-shifting attributes with a whole panoply of movie menaces (ranging from TERMINATOR 2 to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). A synthy, 1980’s-inspired score hearkens back to an era of low-budget “slasher” films in which murderers of every ilk bloodily dispatch groups of suburban teens.

All this sounds like a lot of jargon. Mise-en-scene. Depth of field. Pastiche. But what does it mean, really? And why does anybody care?

What’s fascinating about IT FOLLOWS, its formal conventions and its relative popularity as a horror film, is the suggestion that what scares us has begun to change. Classic conventions of the horror-film – taken at a glance – might include: a dark (or high-contrast) color palette with opaque shadows that obscures the landscape; close framing that articulates a character’s emotional subjectivity while restricting the viewer’s field of vision; sudden thrills that surprise or shock the audience; aural spikes (see: screaming) that similarly create panic and/or surprise in the viewer. Now consider IT FOLLOWS. With its slow-moving (but constantly advancing) monster, its wide-shots and deep focus, its well-lit landscapes, the film runs counter to almost everything we, as viewers, have come to expect from the genre. This, in turn, suggests a shift in what we find culturally or personally frightening. In an era rife with new social concerns – of privacy and identity in a digital age – IT FOLLOWS preys upon insecurities and paradigms that are fundamentally contemporary. It is the plainness of the film – the apparent familiarity and safeness of its presentation – that (much like its shape-shifting monster) makes it so horrifying.

The Fangs of Motherhood: Love and Terror in 2014

Blogmaster’s note: this post was written in December of 2014, at the end of the 2014 Horror class. I kept it safely tucked away for the 2015 Horror class.

By: Karen McConnell (friend of The Course of Horror)

I recently became a mother for the first time. The love I immediately felt was overpowering.

So was the fear.

As my spouse snored in the roll-away bed in the hospital room, I sat a vigil of the damned, night after night, as terrible images, scenarios, and narratives (torture porn’s greatest hits!) played and replayed in my mind’s eye over and over and over again. I was consumed—almost paralyzed—by the possibility that something terrible was going to happen to my daughter, and a memory bank of horror novels and films was all too happy to provide the endless ways in which that something terrible could occur. I was also reluctant to tell people about this because they might think I was going full-blown yellow wallpaper even to have such thoughts. Concerns about post-partum depression and its rarer but more serious cousin, post-partum psychosis, are valid and should be openly discussed, but most of the time I was overcome by happiness, so these diagnoses didn’t seem like an entirely accurate way to describe what was happening. I wondered if my always over-active imagination had turned against me. It wasn’t the first time, but this was different than the occasional, almost-pleasurable fear of the dark, the self-indulgent frisson that comes from playing the “what if?” game from the safety of a warm bed in a locked house in a safe neighborhood mostly inoculated against the real-life terrors experienced by so many. Now, I could see—actually see!—these graphic scenes played out in front of me, with the six-pound little girl I loved with every fiber of my being starring the central role. These images generally hibernated during daylight hours, but the exhaustion of caring for an infant on two or three hours of fragmented sleep took an accumulative toll, and as night crept in so did the fear, worming its way into my psyche and polluting what was otherwise a magical time.

If I were a more committed writer, I might be able to describe the gruesome stories on feedback loop in my brain. It would be a mash-up of hills having eyes, of letting the right one in, of the True Knot’s need for steam. I would make you see the things that you can’t un-see…the things that go bump in the night but don’t stop there, prying your eyelids back to examine every last speck of blood, viscera, and gore. I can’t do that, though, because magical thinking appears to be a close companion of these waking terrors, and I’ve discovered a streak of superstition I didn’t know I had: to describe these thoughts might invite their realization—to turn them from hauntings to reality. Fantastical nonsense, of course, but powerful fantastical nonsense all the same.

In recent weeks, as my daughter’s sleep has begun to regulate, mine has also improved, and these disturbances have retreated to the now thankfully rare sleepless night. You might chalk it all up to the heady combination of severe sleep deprivation and the neuroses of a seriously anxious first-time mom. After all, it’s not unique for new parents to worry excessively about their children, even when that worry is patently irrational. But I have to wonder: to what degree has a lifetime of reading and viewing these texts played a role in my reaction to the stresses of motherhood? In other words, a version of the old, simplistic “bad art leads to bad thoughts/acts” position that I’ve always been quick to dismiss? Or has it just given me a broader range of images and fears to draw on in order to feed a pathological tendency toward anxiety that would exist independent of my aesthetic choices? I simply don’t know…over the years, I’ve frequently made the argument that the genre gives us a healthy way to work through the fears attendant to everyday life, but this experience has challenged that position. Not necessarily in a way that discounts the underlying premise, but it’s much less neat a process than I had previously believed. I once could engage these works with a degree of detachment that I now no longer enjoy. Becoming a parent has made me vulnerable as never before, and it’s made me rethink just how much I took for granted prior to this life change. How much of my taste for horror was made possible by my privileged, relatively trauma-less past? How much was it due to my unconscious expectation of a trauma-less future? What a luxury to be so insulated from direct experience of the horrors of the everyday, to be able to set aside the fear this genre explores at the last page or closing credits and return to “normal” life. Post child, though, has been a different story, and now every act of violence I read or hear about packs a raw, emotional punch. A jolting, wrenching twist deep between my stomach and spine as I compulsively wonder, “what if that had been my child?” I’m not convinced that my new perspective is any more admirable than my previous one, though. Like many writing and literature teachers, I’ve often bemoaned the scourge of “relatability”—students’ lack of interest in characters or themes that are not “relatable” to their own lives—but what happens when an almost narcissistic empathy takes hold and suddenly everything becomes relatable? How might this lead to a solipsism that is just as problematic as detachment? Because even though I might feel as though I am more vulnerable now, I am—objectively—just as insulated from direct experience of most of life’s terror as I was before.

My down-to-earth, optimistic mother has never been able to understand my preference for those types of novels (you can hear the disapproving italics in her voice), and has grilled me a number of times about what it is that I see in them. If she had her way, she’d likely slap a Tipper Gore-approved warning label on each and every one of them, broadcasting their danger to unsuspecting readers. I don’t think she’s wrong to worry about their capacity to harm, but maybe harm is what they need to do. Maybe others’ terrors are too easily ignored when I don’t get a dose often enough myself. Though imperfect, maybe narcissistic empathy is preferable to intellectual detachment. Outside these brutal fantasies, my daily life is strikingly vanilla. I can walk down the middle of a street and expect not to be shot. I can break minor laws and expect a slap on the wrist, not a summary execution.­ I’ve grown inadvertently complacent about my own position in this world. But my daughter’s position? That I’m less sure of, and less able to take for granted. That’s my vulnerability now, and horror pounced.

The Return of the Freakshow

By: Doug Anderson (friend of The Course of Horror)

The television program American Horror Story has entered my life twice in the past couple of days, once from a Facebook post of the video of Jessica Lange covering Bowie’s Life on Mars for the new season and then a post on this blog.  I’ve never watched AHS though I do understand from reliable sources that past seasons have been worth it for the camp value alone.  This season’s storyline takes up a classic area of American horror, fetishism, and general weirdness, the freakshow.

Any mention of a freakshow takes me straight to Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks.  Browning made over sixty films including a number of silent movies with Lon Chaney, and of course the Bela Lugosi Dracula released in 1931.  Freaks is an oddly straightforward story of love, betrayal, and vengeance (I won’t spoil it for you but someone does get turned into a chicken.) set in a circus sideshow, a freakshow.  Freaks is best known for its use of real circus performers in the cast, real sideshow freaks including armless, legless, and armless/legless performers as well as pinheads, bearded women, midgets, conjoined twins, an hermaphrodite, and others.  Released in an America reeling from the Depression and quite content with big brassy distracting musical pictures Freaks was an unwelcome addition to the cinematic landscape.  Public outrage was such that the movie was pulled from distribution shortly after its release and shelved for thirty years until it was rereleased in 1962, quickly becoming a cult classic.  Browning made a few more films but never recovered from the failure of Freaks and soon left the industry.

Sideshows including freakshows and geek magic were brought to us by P.T. Barnum (and other circus pioneers) and were immensely popular from the middle of the 19th century into the inter-war period when changes in taste and new entertainment options chased them from the mainstream.  Disability became a medical condition and freaks became patients, and often inmates.  The ability to swallow a large number of needles only to regurgitate them a few minutes later tied neatly along a string faded along with Harry Houdini.  Magic became about furry or feathered animals and female assistants in scant clothing rather than the in-your-face horror of freaks and geek tricks.  Today if you type “geek tricks” into Google most of what you will get back are ways to trick your computer into doing what you want.  Today, the floridly tattooed and heavily pierced person you are most likely to see is making you a coffee.  And the folk with long flowing beards aren’t sitting on a stool in a dark room to be ogled but are hanging out in a hipster bar.

Magicians like Harry Anderson (yes, the Night Court guy) kept geek magic going with things like his thoroughly creepy hat pin through the arm trick.  Penn and Teller brought gory geek tricks into the light often infusing them with a political component.   Add in folks like David Blaine, Criss Angel, and many others, and the geek trick seems alive and well.  With the new season of AHS, maybe the freakshow will stage a comeback too.

If these forms of entertainment are moving back into the mainstream (along with a renewed interest in burlesque), they are doing so at a time when mass entertainments are more and more created within the digital confines of a computer.  Perhaps this new interest in very old forms of horror is a bit of a rebellion against mass produced horror with loads of CGI and makeup effects.  Geek tricks and freakshows are by their very nature real, up-close, and personal – no green screens, no computer graphics, no homogenized plots.  Long hat pins go through arms as blood drips, needles are swallowed, things move under the skin.  Perhaps we are seeing a turn in horror from the mass produced impersonal back to the personal, a time when one performer alone in the dark in a mildewed tent with the smell of sweat, liquor, and fear coming from the audience contrived to horrify and delight as he or she displayed a freakish body in the best sideshow tradition.

(Anyone interested in freakshows can check out Rachel Adams great book Sideshow U.S.A. or Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit.)

WARNING

By: Katie Levin (friend of The Course of Horror)

Okay, so I was babysitting the maybe 8-month-old child of some family friends, Beth and Alec (not their real names). They lived in a big Victorian house in kind of a borderline-safe area of Burlington, Vermont. On this cold and dark October evening, I’d been trying to keep this baby (and myself) amused; I’d somehow discovered that I could get him to stop crying if I whistled the Andy Griffith theme song. (I wasn’t generally an especially baby-enjoying person, but this game had made me fond of him, or at least feel like we’d reached a mutually agreeable way of coexisting.) Anyway, I’d put him to bed in his crib upstairs and had been settled in the living room doing my Spanish homework when I heard someone knocking at the kitchen door.

I made my way to the kitchen and there, in the window of the door, I saw a sort of flabby, moon-faced guy smiling and waving at me. I tentatively smiled and waved back. Still smiling, he gave me a kind of “wait a minute” gesture by holding up his index finger, and then he bent down out of view. I waited.

When he popped back up, he sort of slapped a piece of paper up against the window with the palm of his hand. It was clear that whatever he was showing me was the back of some Halloween promotional flyer for a local radio station; I can remember light coming through the edges of the paper, highlighting the orange and black jack-o-lantern image on the other side. On the side facing me, there were several mysterious doodles and images that had been drawn with a felt-tip pen: squiggles, something that looked like large intestines, and other small shapes. In the middle of all the doodles were the following words, written in all caps:

WARNING:
CUT BABY DEAD

Um, yeah.

So, I gave him my own little “wait a minute” gesture, then, quickly rejecting the idea of calling the police from the very visible-to-him kitchen phone, I ran upstairs to check on the baby: had he already Cut the Baby Dead, or was he about to come in and start doing it?

The baby was totally fine, sleeping in his crib. I heard the guy banging on the door downstairs as I scrambled to find an upstairs phone to call 911. As I dialed and he pounded, I realized that I had no idea what address to tell the police to come to. (Although at a population of 40,000, Burlington was the biggest city in Vermont, it still didn’t have the technology to summon 911 by phone number. Maybe that technology didn’t exist yet? Anyway, I had to figure out where I was.) I ruffled through the phone book, trying to figure out how to spell the long and consonant-rich Slavic name of the family (“Ptscyzinski? Pczycynski? Pczynynynczczczski?!?”) all the while hearing insistent pounding coming from downstairs.

Okay, so this story has no big dramatic ending. The 911 operator was great; she kept me on the phone through all the pounding until the police arrived. Spelling challenges aside, I was strangely calm the whole time this was happening; only when the police had taken the guy away did I go downstairs and sort of collapse, shaking and crying. I don’t remember the rest of the evening. The P’skis must have come home and driven me back to South Burlington; I know I slept in my mother’s bed that night. The next day, we learned that there were two versions of what was happening with the moon-faced guy: he was a patient at nearby Howard Mental Health, and he claimed to the police that he was warning Beth and Alec that bad people were coming to Burlington to cut the baby dead. Beth and Alec were skeptical, though; they knew who the man was, and he’d often walked by their house and said hello when they were on the porch. Since the baby had been born, they’d had less time for chatting; they thought maybe he was jealous of the kid and was either making a real threat or trying to scare them as a sort of retaliation. Either way, holy crap.