Not All [Wicker] Men Are Created Equal

By: Ryan Lakin

As we have moved through the horror genre reverse-chronologically, one thing I have noticed is how much context (both historical and cultural) determines what we, as readers, find scary or not scary. The more recent texts we have studied, like The Haunting of Hill House or The Exorcist, are often the ones in which the horror feels the most visceral and immediate. The older a text is, or the farther removed it is from our own cultural context, the harder we have to work to determine what its original audience found frightening about it. As a history buff, I love reading older texts for this reason. Nothing evokes the cultural anxieties specific to a certain place and time period better than its monsters.

rl.jpgThis sense of cultural specificity is what makes The Wicker Man (1973) so effective, and the 2006 remake, starring Nicolas Cage, not at all. The original film is prototypically British, drawing on Celtic folklore, and the cultural anxieties surrounding it, as a potent source of horror. The film revolves around Sargent Howie, a British detective who travels to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, only to have his religious, conservative worldview violently clash with the pagan beliefs and traditions of the island’s inhabitants. In her article “Fear of Folk: Why folk art and ritual horrifies in Britain”, Alexa Galea contextualizes The Wicker Man within the larger debates over British national identity, and the contentious role of Celtic folklore therein, which were taking place in the mid-twentieth century. During a time in which other nations were establishing museums and other tributes to their folk traditions, Galea explains that, up until this time period, the history of Celtic folklore and traditions in Britain were suppressed, as they were deemed at odds with a British cultural identity based around “civilized,” Enlightenment values. In her words, “the horrific rendering of British folk traditions in The Wicker Man speaks of an anxiety of their affirmations – that mankind is subject to the sublime chaos of nature and that society and nature are entwined” (Galea). The horror of the film is drawn not only from the folklore of the country that produced it, but the cultural anxieties surrounding it at the time if its release.

As motion picture properties are remade and mined for material decades after their original popularity, we see how these historical and cultural shifts change the stories that once proved effectively scary. The Wicker Man remake is especially egregious because of just how specifically the original worked for its intended audience, and thus how conclusively the remake fails to recapture any of that power. The Nicholas Cage remake tries to build on American cultural cachet, positioning the pagan group as descendants of the Salem Witch Trials, now settled in the Pacific Northwest. This loose grab bag of generic witch stuff (as well as possible confusion on the part of the screenwriters as to which Salem hosted the Witch Trials) serves to rob the story of any specificity. Lacking a clear folklore on which to build a horror story, the end result is a generic story without teeth.

Work Cited

Galea, Alexa. “Fear of Folk: Why Folk Art and Ritual Horrifies in Britain.” Journal of Illustration, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 77–100.

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Don’t Turn Out the Lights

By: Nikola Jaksic

Horror works in many different ways, often largely dependent on genre. One great way all genres create horror, however, is by not giving the audience everything, and playing to the sense of uncertainty even within the genre, unbalancing the frame. It plays on our expectations in the narrative and in many ways punishes us for having them. In books, this can be done through the use of points of view, but it often works differently in film. A great way film creates uncertainty is through the presence, or lack, of light. A great example of this is The Witch, in which the use of natural lighting not only makes it a well done period piece, but also adds to the feeling of visual uncertainty that creates horror.

One of the ways natural lighting is used in the movie to create uncertainty is in the story is by taking away comfort at many points in the story. One of the most noteworthy places this can be seen is during the family’s prayer at their table (26:45) in which the room is dimly lit by a candle, giving us very few clear looks at the family. Here, even though they are together and praying, the lack of adequate light makes it seem hollow, like their company and prayer are no protection for the forces acting against them. It also uses the natural light to play on our notions of darkness in horror movies. As an audience, we have been primed to expect certain parts of horror movies. The lights dim, the music starts to play in the background, and we know to expect something bad to happen. But in this scene, nothing horrifying happens. The devil does not jump out of the darkness to snatch the family, and though there is some tense dialogue, we can chalk this up to Puritan misgivings and not active horror. This refusal to follow along with conventions of the genre and give the audience what they are expecting unbalances the frame and makes the audience uneasy, like we cannot know what is coming next. This makes all of us, even those familiar with the genre, more susceptible to the directors implementation of horror in the novel.

This comes full circle later in the movie. After everyone but Thomasine is dead, and she finally is alone in the cabin, she signs her contract with Black Peter, sealing her fate (1:25:00). In this scene, the lack of clarity that natural light gives us is an important connection to earlier in the movie. There, the lack of light brought us no horrific conclusion, unbalancing the frame in a really interesting way, and so in some sense we expect the same thing here. When we hear a voice respond, however, and a shape move just out of the glow of the candle, we realize how wrong we were to imagine that we would get away without something awful happening. Not only does the scene terrify us because we realize the chain of events that helped turn Thomasine into a witch, but we also never fully get the satisfaction we want in the reveal of the monster. Instead of revealing Black Peter to us, the light (or lack of it) keeps the audience in the dark, literally and figuratively. We know he is responsible for what happened, but what form does he take?

This final unbalancing of the frame sticks with us as an audience. One of the most recognizable parts of horror are the monsters we associate with the stories. What would the imagination of Dracula be without the creepy Count, or Frankenstein without the monster so recognizable that we confuse the name of the creator and creation? The Witch, however, refuses to give us even that. Sure, we saw a witch or two throughout the story, but the ringleader, the architect of the family’s horror? It will always remain a voice in the dark, something we can’t quite see. And if we can’t see it, how are we supposed to stop it?

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The Witch: When a Slow Plot Pays Off

By: Ana Lucena

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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.

From the Internet to the Woods of Wisconsin: The Rise of Slenderman

By: Emily Weinstein

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Since his birth on the Internet in 2009, the faceless, tuxedo-wearing bogeyman known as Slenderman has since grown from a creepy online fairy-tale to terrifying real-life horror story. Originally created by Eric Knudsen on the Internet forum called Something Awful, Slenderman seeks to attract the attention and fright of the younger generation of his readers. He then uses their attention and fear to gain control over them and force them to do his dirty work. However, this mind control is actually much more intricate. Many of his victims suffer from actually physical symptoms including coughing, confusion, and memory loss. Examples of the effects that Slenderman has on his victims can be seen in many of the Marble Hornets videos that we watched for and discussed in class. For example, in entry #20, Tim suffers from heavy and uncontrollable coughing. Additionally, Jay experiences significant memory loss, including losing all memory of the previous seven months. However, after doing some research, I confirmed that the Marble Hornets videos are indeed works of fiction. I was able to locate the IMDB page for Marble Hornets along with the names of the actors who played characters such as Jay, Alex, and Tim. Although this story was fabricated, a real-life incident connected to the mythical and creepy Slenderman did in fact occur in 2014, and this incident along with evidence from the Marble Hornets video are now being combined to create an HBO documentary in January 2017 titled, Beware the Slenderman.

First released at the DOC NYC festival on November 12th, Beware the Slenderman takes a deeper look into the terrifying real-life incident that occurred in Wisconsin in 2014, in which two 12-year-old girls brutally stabbed one of their friends in order to show their devotion to Slenderman. Specifically, this new documentary seeks to question to safety of today’s Internet as well as our younger generation’s unrestricted access to it. How safe are today’s children if they are so easily able to access information on the Internet that convinces them to commit horrendous crimes such as murder? According to research, this was not a spur-of-the- moment attack, but instead one that had been methodically planned out for months. So what drove these two young girls to want to commit such a strategic murder solely to please a mythical creature that they had read about online? This is the big question at hand, and the court charged with handling this sensitive case has struggled to determine the next step. Since the attempted murder was so strategic, should the girls be tried as adults? Or was this crime just derived from the imagination of children? It really is quite difficult to decide. In addition to looking at the Wisconsin case, the documentary will also examine the recent fascination with Slenderman as well as how this newly-created fantasy has turned into a horrifying reality.

The new Slenderman documentary will be released on HBO on January 23rd, 2017, and I can definitely say that I am very interested to see from what point of view it chooses to evaluate the case. Here is a link to the newest trailer.

A Waking Nightmare

By: Emily Zuo

An emergency siren was blaring. As the horrifying, shrill scream resonating in my head grew louder, I tried to sit up – to wake up – but I couldn’t escape. My body seemed to be pinned to the bed, and my panicked efforts resulted only in strangled, sporadic jerks. My eyes, which seemed to be drifting open and closed, saw the sunlight on my bedroom ceiling, but it didn’t register. In that moment, I knew nothing of Saturday morning – only a visceral terror as I was continuously dragged back.

It sounds like something out of a horror story or nightmare, but actually, it was my first experience with sleep paralysis, though I had no idea at the time. Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which a person is unable to move or speak when waking up (or, less commonly, while falling asleep). This happens because your brain “shuts off” your muscles during REM sleep to prevent you from acting out dreams, and sometimes, you become conscious while your muscles are still in this state. This usually lasts a few seconds to several minutes, during which people often experience auditory or visual hallucinations, feel like they’re being suffocated, or sense a menacing presence. Needless to say, the entire experience is often disturbing and terrifying.

Throughout history, these episodes have been thought to be caused by demons and other supernatural figures. The phenomenon has been the basis of folklore in numerous cultures, spawning a malevolent creature generically known as “the night hag” who sits on a sleeping person’s chest to immobilize them. Additionally, ideas of alien abduction, near death experiences, and shadow people may have originated from incidences of sleep paralysis. Regardless of if you believe in the scientific or the supernatural, experiencing sleep paralysis is often like experiencing horror in real life; you have an awareness that you lack when just having a nightmare, while still being unable to do anything about your situation. It is a uniquely horrifying event that is different for everyone who experiences it.

I have had sleep paralysis several times since then. Luckily, I’ve never felt the suffocation or pressure on the chest I’ve seen so many people describe, but I have hallucinated intruders in my room and a shadowy presence lurking next to my bed – all, of course, while not being able to move. In fact, one episode happened just last month. I was taking a nap in the lounge chair in my room, during which the sun had gone down completely, and I suddenly woke up in utter darkness to the feeling that I wasn’t alone. I then heard whispering right next to my ear. Weirdly, a small, semi-logical part of my brain immediately thought that people had broken into my house. However, upon feeling that familiar paralysis, part of me recognized the episode for what it was. I convinced myself to stay as calm, attempted to wiggle my fingers (which is supposed to help wake up the muscles), and waited it out.

Fortunately, I can say that my first sleep paralysis experience was definitely my worst, since I didn’t know what was happening (and panicking definitely makes it worse). Nowadays, I can gain a semblance of logic and wait for the awful feelings to go away. But there are many other people out there who experience sleep paralysis in much more severe ways than I have. Here is a trailer for a 2015 documentary about sleep paralysis, with the horrifying input of several real victims:

New Year, New Horror

By: Cristina Tye

Last night I came across this article on Rotten Tomatoes. It was titled “Best Horror Movies by Year since 1920,” and had 10 pages worth of information detailing what movie was chosen for every year since 1920 and scored. This article cited the percentage value given on Rotten Tomatoes for the movie, an adjusted score in percentages detailing any variations of reviews, a critic’s consensus review, a synopsis, whose starring in each movie, and who directed it. This particularized article sparked my curiosity. Although I have not seen every horror movie, especially every horror movie ranked #1 on the list, I have seen some. So, I decided to provide an analysis for two of the movies on the list detailing the mechanisms used to cause horror in each.

Winner for the year 2014: The Babadook. Rated 98% on Rotten Tomatoes with a critic’s consensus emphasizing how The Babadook relies on “real horror rather than cheap jump scares—and boasts a heartfelt, genuinely moving story to boot.” Although I personally disliked this movie, the story did boast several scary attributes and received five-star reviews. According to Carroll’s taxonomy, the Babadook is considered horrific metonymy given the Babadook is described as a human with a pale face, top hat, and pointed fingers who torments his victims after the reading of his book. The main character, Amelia, believes he is a human force, as she runs to the police believing she is being stalked by a mysterious man. The Babadook demonstrates his power and influence as he infiltrates character’s minds, planting gruesome thoughts. He also exemplifies supernatural capabilities through opening and closing of doors, mysterious items planted in food, streaming of thoughts and voices, and the resemblance of the destroyed Babadook book. The mechanisms of horrific metonymy and paranormal activity scares the viewer, causes mayhem on the screen, and creates a depressed mood. Additionally, the ending of the Babadook possessing Amelia and her eventual escape from him, represents a frame story, as the Babadook represents the story of grief within the context. Although I do not give The Babadook a five-star rating, I will admit this movie creates lasting horror and a sense of loss within the audience.

Winner for the year 2002: The Ring. Rated 72% on Rotten Tomatoes with a critic’s consensus review stating “with a little gore and a lot of creepy visuals, The Ring gets under your skins, thanks to director Gore Verbinski’s haunting sense of atmosphere and an impassioned performance from Naomi Watts.” In my opinion, I could not agree more that The Ring, with a combination of fearful pop ups, scary visuals, and dark horror, created a traumatizing film. Samara, the monster, represents a fusion monster, as she is a young girl dead, but still alive and haunting the people who watch her cursed videotape. Given her terrifying appearance, Samara seems haunted by demonic forces with supernatural capabilities in an unbalanced frame. This especially scares the audience, as Samara is able to turn on TVs with black and white static, blur human faces photographed, and move around freely in the air. Also, The Ring did a phenomenal job at using real-world situations to its advantage to scare the viewer. The fuzzy TV is common on TVs (during this time), as well as the idea of falling down a well. Implementing real-world possible horrors with supernatural capabilities and a fusion monster was genius by the producer. The scary attributes in this movie support real-world horror and a frightening film. And, the horror most definitely got to me.

Although I only analyzed 2 out of almost 100 horror films, each winning movie for the year was effective in scaring its viewer through classified monsters and other horrifying mechanisms. The goal of a horror movie is to invoke alarm, shock, or fear within its viewers.

Types of horror can change each year, so I look forward to seeing new mechanisms created to scare viewers. In my opinion, any movie that incorporates pop-up creepy monsters is the true winner of fear.

My Crippling Fear of the Film “Signs”

By: Chelsea Pingston

I was 7 years old when I first saw the film, Signs. It’s basically a science fiction thriller about an alien invasion and how a family that lives on a farm deals with it. I’m really bad at summarizing plots so click here for a more in depth summary. Anyway, my oldest sister was babysitting me while our parents were at work or running errands during the film’s opening night in theaters. She decided to take me along with her friends to see the film and told me not to tell mom or dad. I had no idea what the film was about or why she wanted to keep it a secret from our parents. I was just excited for a night at the theater with my sister and her friends (mainly because she never included me with her friends because of our age gap). I remember my excitement of the drive to the theater and the pure euphoria I felt when my sister bought me a bag of popcorn and an icee (looking back on it, she was totally bribing me so that I wouldn’t tell our parents what we were doing). All of us gathered into the theater and chose the back row where the cool kids sat and soon enough the lights turned off and the film began. The film started with me happily munching on popcorn and the film ended with me on my sister’s lap and wrapped in her shirt. She was clearly frustrated with me because of how much the film terrified me.

Once we got home that night I slept in my parent’s bed with the scene of the black, faceless alien walking across the yard at the child’s birthday party replaying over and over in my head. Here’s the scene I’m referring to (I was literally shaking when I searched for this video clip for you guys).

I began to sleep with my parents every night for almost a week. They finally sat down and asked me why I was so scared until I told them the truth (with much dismay from my sister). They were mad at my sister for allowing me to see the movie and they were frustrated with me because my fear of aliens stuck with me for another two weeks until my mom did the coolest thing any mom could ever do. She finally sat me down and called the actor who played the alien in the movie and had him talk to me on the phone and explain to me that the alien was not real and that he was just an actor. He even went as far as to tell me that if aliens were real, that they were harmless. After that phone call felt so relieved. It was incredible. That night and every night after that, I slept peacefully in my own bed.

Years later my mom and I talked about what she had done for me. She admitted to me that I had not talked on the phone with the actor from Signs, but she had instead called our local theater and asked a young usher to convince me, her daughter, that he was the actor of the alien and asked him to help me not be afraid of the film anymore. I will never forget what my mom and the theater usher did for me. It had helped me overcome not only my fear of aliens, but also every horror movie I had watched from that day forward. It helped me realize that the monsters on screen were just actors and actresses, nothing more.