This is Halloween

October is by far my favorite month. I already love fall more than any other season, but October gets to claim the greatest holiday of all–Halloween. I write horror, so none of this is probably very surprising.

I still dress up. Since moving to Philly I’ve been a naughty schoolgirl, Jill Valentine (Resident Evil 3: Nemesis version), Lorena from True Blood, and Wonder Woman. As Wonder Woman, I won a costume contest and my prize was beer. So there. The two years that I didn’t dress up, I regretted it just like I knew I would. This year my boyfriend and I decided back in July to do something completely off the wall. He would be Princess Leia (Episode IV version), and I would be Chewbacca. I’ve tried my costume on, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to walk around in this thing. CUTEST CHEWBACCA EVER.

I have a lot of other costume ideas, but with Halloween only once a year, I might have to start cosplaying at Comic-Con. Next up is my long-planned-but-never-executed Dalek. I’ve also wanted to be Samara from The Ring, and the Woman in the Box from Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly. That one is admittedly a bit obscure, so it’s really a matter of personal geekery.

So, what about you? What are your favorite costumes?

Grave’s End

I had already written a post on Grave’s End when our Evil Overlord informed us that we were to write our posts as if Elaine Mercado’s account of her haunted house were in fact true. It’s easy to suspend disbelief when you’re reading/writing something that does not claim to be anything but fiction. That suspension is more difficult to attain when someone is telling you their house is haunted and nearly begging you to believe them. I have experienced strange phenomena myself, but what made this so hard for me was Mercado herself. She seems very emotionally troubled, so lacking in self-esteem that the “haunting” appeared to be an attempt to feel special for once in her life. Whereas the opportunistic Lutzes of Amityville made me want to kick them in the teeth, Mercado made me feel sorry for her. Were the family dynamics not so awkward and embarrassing to read, I might have had an easier time writing this. As it is, I’m not sure I’ve been able to accomplish what Scott has asked of us, but here is my post anyway.

I have actually experienced two of the phenomena Mercado describes in her book. Hypnagogia was, at the time she moved into the house, a thesis being explored by Dr. Andreas Mavromatis. While it could certainly account for the “suffocating dreams,” it’s a concept that had not yet entered the scientific community at large, so I suppose I can’t fault her for attributing them to paranormal activity. I experience hypnagogic sounds very frequently–“exploding head syndrome,” not nearly as unpleasant as it sounds–in which I hear voices, buzzing, crashes and booms, and on occasion I even experience the hypnagogic hallucination of being touched. It’s truly frightening if you don’t understand what is happening. Mercado also reported the sensation of being watched. I think we have all had this feeling at one time or another. Hallucinations and paranoia often attend high electromagnetic fields, which is why I believe I feel this in my kitchen–lots of large electrical appliances in there–and no where else in my home, but I have also experienced it in a farmhouse with no electricity at all and a reputation for being haunted. So I don’t doubt her insistence that she frequently felt this sensation in her house, though believing there might be ghosts can create a sort of feedback loop that leads one to think one is being watched, whether real activity exists or not.  

I do believe that Elaine believes her house was haunted. She seems like a kind and sincere woman, with no real incentive (other than an emotional one) to make up a ghost story. I’ll even go so far as to say that I believe there was something going on in the house. But I think the true source of the “haunting” was Elaine herself. Being hysterical in front of her children, and constantly prodding them to tell her if they had felt or seen anything, created a case of emotional contagion and folie a deux if there ever was one; she admits that Christine never experienced phenomena while alone in the house. This is a woman with very low self-esteem who craves validation, and she will get it anywhere she can–through her children, through a parapsychology class, through writing a book. She surrounds herself with people who will validate her as well, like her brother and his “psychic” girlfriend; her own boyfriend with his lifelong interest in spirits; and Hans Holzer, that fraudulent “Ph.D”. Even her nursing supervisor, who conveniently happens to be sensitive to psychic phenomena (and tells Mercado about the ghosts on Halloween, no less!).

Rather than a factual account of a haunting, Grave’s End was much like reading a novel with an unreliable narrator. We are viewing Mercado’s experiences in the house through the distorted lens of her faith, anxiety, and low self-esteem. The extremely negative portrayal of her husband, the frequent infantilization of her children and her obsessive relationship with them, the ghostly phenomena themselves…these are reflections of how she perceives her world, but perception does not equal truth. Thus the events themselves are called into question, since we have only Elaine’s word (and Hans Holzer’s, though he lied about his own education, Amityville, and who knows what else. But he’s dead, so I’ll cut him some slack) that they happened.

That’s about as suspended as my disbelief can get in this case. Elaine Mercado, without a doubt, believes her house was haunted. I believe she is sincere in that belief, but it simply wasn’t possible for me to deny my own experiences and knowledge in order to accept her story as truth. I’ll try harder next time.

The Others

It’s been years since I last watched Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar’s The Others. The film was released at a time when “twist” endings were all the rage (thank you, M. Night Shyamalan), due to the success of The Sixth Sense two years earlier. Much like that film, The Others relies on the concept of a ghost not realizing that it is dead. In this case, however, we’re dealing with an entire family of ghosts. And not only are they unaware of their deaths, the twist here is that they’re the ones being haunted–by the living family that moves into their home. “There is something in this house which is not at rest,” Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, says. She does not yet understand that it is herself, and her children. An enjoyable if predictable film, The Others does touch upon a few interesting ideas.

Since we are viewing events through the unreliable lens of Grace’s POV, Mrs. Mills, the children’s new nanny, is set up as the villain early on in the film. Mrs. Mills’ true role, as psychopomp, is hinted at in a shot of her ascending the staircase, toward a soft light above her. I was reminded of the scene in the excellent film Jacob’s Ladder (to which The Others is in no way comparable, but a couple of elements apply to this post), where one of Jacob’s psychopomps, his dead son, leads Jacob up a staircase and into the light. Grace, still in darkness, is not ready to make that journey. Mrs. Mills is a practical woman who is clearly concerned about the effect Grace’s behavior has on her children. She has little patience for both Grace’s continued outbursts and the charade she, Mr. Tuttle, and Lydia must put on while waiting for Grace to come to terms with her family’s deaths, and eventually takes matters into her own hands. By the end of The Others Mrs. Mills’ purpose is clear; having been through death herself, she has returned to the house she loved to guide the deceased family into their afterlife.

Grace herself is strong-willed, sanctimonious, and holds a religiously-informed worldview that divides everything into strictly black-and-white terms. Backed into a corner when Anne questions her about the arbitrary nature of “goodies” and “baddies,” she silences her daughter rather than admit that she does not have an answer. The limbo in which she finds herself could be interpreted, from a biblical standpoint and certainly from her own beliefs, as a punishment for her arrogance. “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” says Jesus in Mark 10:14-16. Convinced that she is a “godly” woman, for whom her interpretation of Christianity holds all the answers, it is not until the end of the film that Grace admits she is no wiser than her young daughter. She has been humbled in the face of her existence as a ghost, which disproves her assertion that such things cannot exist because “The Lord would not allow it.” “The Lord” seems quite willing to prove her wrong. Now that Grace has accepted her lack of knowledge about so many things, perhaps she is at last on the path toward redemption.        

The fog barrier surrounding the house represents not only the division between life and death, but the mental barrier that Grace has erected to protect herself from the reality of her situation. Limbo, a divine punishment with which she often threatens her children, is a construct of her own making. When Grace finally remembers that she murdered her children and killed herself, when they accept the fact, with Mrs. Mills’ assistance, that they are all ghosts, the fog lifts–literally and metaphorically. Sunlight is illumination, and illumination is knowledge. Daylight streams in through the windows. Freed from the darkness of their mother’s denial and from the attachment to their mortal bodies, the children find that light no longer hurts them. Meister Eckhart, the Christian mystic quoted in Jacob’s Ladder by Jacob’s chiropractor (his other psychopomp), can also be applied to the Stewart family: “‘The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you….They’re freeing your soul.'”

Works Referenced:

Jacob’s Ladder. Dir. Adrian Lyne. Perf. Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello. Artisan, 1990. DVD.

The Others. Dir. Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston. Dimension, 2001. DVD.

A Man Can’t Help His Nature

Last term we read Stephen King’s Misery, which was the first King book I ever read, 25 years ago. I was 10 at the time. (Now you know what’s wrong with me.) Consciously or not, my own work is influenced by Stephen King more than probably any other writer. At some point in my teens I borrowed *cough* my mother’s first-edition hardcovers of Salem’s Lot and The Shining. They remain on my bookshelf to this day. So, this is not my first reading of The Shining, but twenty-or-so years later, it’s a much richer and more frightening story than it was in my teens. I had seen Kubrick’s film version first, and it does not hold a candle to the book. Shelley Duvall is horribly miscast, and Jack Nicholson’s acting, in typical over-the-top fashion, makes a mockery of the creeping horror in Torrance’s gradual transformation from man to human monster.

Like the haunted houses in The Haunting of Hill House (which King references in The Shining) and Hell House, the Overlook Hotel is a character in and of itself. But the terror that the Overlook inspires isn’t just through the supernatural beings that lurk within its corridors. It’s the hotel’s apparent sentience, its ability to focus on the very worst elements of human nature and draw them out into the open; it is the ability to call out to certain people and bring them to the hotel, then systematically destroy them–an echo of Eleanor Vance, who finds her tragic destiny in Hill House. The Overlook detects a weakness in character and exploits it, turning a man like Jack Torrance, who struggles daily with alcoholism and an explosive temper, into a creature of primal rage bent only upon violence and destruction. The question we are left to ponder is how big a role the Overlook, or even the alcohol, actually plays in Jack’s downfall. Jack wallows in self-pity from the start, and is plagued by the memories of his father, who was also a violent drunk. It doesn’t take long for Jack to begin exhibiting drunken behavior even when he’s sober. Perhaps the hotel merely helps us to understand who we really are; perhaps Jack is a man haunted not by the ghosts of the hotel, but by the darkness in his own heart.

Jack is, of course, not the only member of the Torrance family struggling with his or her nature. Danny, the Torrances’ five-year-old son with an extraordinary psychic gift, cannot help falling into trances in which he sees the future. He cannot help that he has an “imaginary” friend named Tony who shows him what might happen. And Wendy, Jack’s wife, cannot help but think that she is the reflection of her mother, a bitter and hateful woman who was jealous of Wendy’s relationship with her father. Wendy is not-so-secretly envious of Danny’s closeness to Jack, and never lets Jack forget the night he broke Danny’s arm. But it is Jack’s status as the weakest member of the family which allows the hotel to possess him, his inability to overcome his failures that fuels the haunting. He will rise through the ranks, the ghosts assure him. He will finally be someone important.Yet even his five-year-old-son can see through that ruse. Jack, desperate for his life to have meaning, refuses to accept that it’s Danny the hotel really wants–for Danny’s psychic power will magnify the haunting to unimaginable proportions.

But before the ghosts destroy Jack Torrance forever, he finds the strength to fight them long enough to redeem himself and save his family. He tells Danny, “‘Run away. Quick. And remember how much I love you'” (428). The boiler that he had forgotten to dump is about to explode. Having also forgotten until now, Danny taunts the creature, who has since used the roque mallet to beat the last vestiges of Jack from its face, with this fact. The hotel about to go up in flames, the Jack-thing rushes off to the boiler to stop it, affording Danny, Wendy, and Hallorann the opportunity to escape.

Where did Jack end and the Overlook begin? Near the end of the book Dick Hallorann, kind and decent by any standard–a man who has lived a far different life than Jack Torrance–experiences a few moments in the equipment shed, while the hotel burns, where he is nearly overcome by murderous thoughts. At this point it’s clear that it is not merely the hotel that is haunted, but the very ground upon which it is built. And Dick’s thoughts could certainly be due to his “shining,” an ability nearly as strong as Danny’s. However, since Stephen King admittedly wrote Jack Torrance as a semi-autobiographical character, and was struggling with his own alcoholism at the time, it seems to be more of an acknowledgement that monsters hide in even the best of people. In Wendy, as her mother; in Danny and Dick, as the “shining” they never asked for; and in Jack, as the culmination of a lifetime of failures.

What monsters are you hiding?

Works Cited:

King, Stephen. The Shining. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1977.