Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Exorcist

The Halloween of my freshman year of high school didn't seem like it was going to be anything special. A handful of friends and I had gathered to watch horror movies at my friend's house - let's call him Kyle to protect his anonymity. It was a massive old homestead in rural Minnesota, buried deep within a grove of skeletal trees that from afar looked like an old lumber pile dropped in the the middle of a featureless span of farm fields. The house was thirty minutes away from any town whose population had more than three digits, but it was clear that this had to be where we met. Kyle's dad had a movie collection unlike anything we'd ever seen, big enough to put all the local video stores to shame.

Next to the living room sat what looked to have at one point been a dining room. It had long been repurposed to hold countless carefully labeled and numbered VHS tapes which were stacked in towering piles around the walls of the room. Kyle's Dad would rent movies and copy them onto extended play videos that would allow for three or four films to be condensed onto one tape. Tapes were continually being copied on a couple of secondary VCRs in this room, the start and end times scrawled in a notebook before being transcribed into a computerized spreadsheet. We joked one time that if anyone left an anonymous tip with the FBI, agents would burn the house down upon witnessing the scale of the piracy. Kyle's dad responded by pulling out a handgun from the back of his pants and saying "I'd like to see them try."

It was still early in the night as we sat laughing over the credits of some awful B-movie that I've since forgotten. We didn't know what movie would be next, but Kyle's dad wandered in and was more than happy to offer a suggestion. "Want to see something really scary?" he said (a reference I wouldn't get for years). He disappeared into his video library and returned holding one of the rare tapes that he'd actually purchased. Surely this had to be good if he'd shelled out more than the price of a rental on it. "Try this one out," he said as he tossed us his copy of The Exorcist.

Demonic possession and exorcisms were nothing new to me. I'd been raised Catholic and had spent countless Saturday mornings sitting in religious education classes taught by nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the same order as Mother Teresa. These grandmotherly nuns wouldn't let us leave class without hugs, always spoke in soft, kind voices, and would occasionally regale us with tales of horrors from the pits of hell. We were told how Satan could enter the bodies of anyone he chose and how priests could then drive him out with nothing but the power of their faith. We were told stories of how the devil would assault priests in the night, assailing them for hours with bodily anguish and awful hallucinations. Their only weapons against the devil were tightly grapsed rosaries and endless strings of Hail Marys. Reading the synopsis on the back of The Exorcist, I thought I knew what I was in for.

As we got deeper into the film it slowly dawned on me that there were things the nuns had left out of their stories. Things more horrible than my mind could imagine at the time. I could deal with spinning heads, pea-soup vomit, and Linda Blair's transformation from cute kid to sallow-eyed monster. What I wasn't prepared for was the blasphemy. As fathers Merrin and Karras prepare to conduct their exorcism of Regan, Father Merrin points out that above all else the demon will seek to undermine their efforts with lies. For all the physical transformation on display, its primary method of attack is psychological.

It was an attack that caught me off guard. The unrelenting stream of profanity spewing from Regan's mouth was an assault on all the doctrine and traditions I'd been raised with. "Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras, you faithless slime," is a line that's haunted me ever since. Not so much for the vulgarity, but for the seed that it planted in my head - the possibility that the demon wasn't lying and that this horrible fate awaited the ones I loved. When the camera pans slowly into the room where Regan sits on the bed, masturbating with a bloody crucifix, it was a shock to every bit of Catholicism that had lodged itself in my brain. I'd never conceived of anything that was this blatant an affront to God.

Even worse was the film's refusal to grant us a happy ending. We sat there silent as the credits rolled, none of us sure exactly what to say. We tried to sleep shortly afterward, sprawled on the living room couches, restlessly pondering questions of faith. I found out later that week in school that one friend was so shaken up by the film that he'd confronted his parents about it. He was raised in a branch of Pentecostal Christianity far stricter in practice than my own Catholicism, and had never encountered any stories of possession like that of The Exorcist. He was upset up the whole week afterward, forced for the first time to truly confront what it meant for God to allow evil to persist in the world - particularly evil of this magnitude, that preyed not on the wicked but on innocence.

Which, I think, is exactly what the film intended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Life of Fear: UFOs and Alien Abduction

The early 90's was a great time to be interested in UFOs, alien abductions, and the paranormal. I can't say what was responsible for the boom of TV shows and movies centered around this theme, but it was a subject that simultaneously attracted and repelled me. I'd frequently allow myself to be scared away after digging too deeply into first-hand accounts of abduction, only to come crawling back for more, searching for answers. I used to have frequent dreams in which alien crafts would land in my backyard, or in which I'd be visited by blank-eyed greys. Below are a few of examples of media that was probably responsible for this.


Before YouTube made streamable video commonplace, (or even before the internet, really) shows like Sightings were all I had for those inticing scraps of poorly shot home-video footage purportedly capturing glimpses of the supernatural. Saturday afternoons at 5:00 were sacred for me, and I'd run to the TV to get my weekly dose of speculation  - one new episode, one rerun - about things that lay beyond the mundane. The most attractive aspect of this show was its sense of possibility. It was flooded with questions that were never fully resolved and interviews packed with anecdotal evidence that stoked my imagination.

Unsolved Mysteries

This show was another staple for fans of the paranormal, granted extra legitimacy (or so it appeared to my young mind) by virtue of its evening time slot that followed the nightly news broadcasts. The show gained extra points for including interviews with witnesses whenever possible, giving it the same feeling as an episode of 60 Minutes or the like. While I wasn't as faithful a viewer of this show, I still have vivid memories of a segment on the Cash-Landrum encounters that haunted me for months.

The X-Files

I remember when the premiere of the X-Files was announced. It seemed too good to be true. Here was everything I wanted in a TV show - aliens, UFOs, government conspiracies, and every instance of the paranormal you could imagine. Even better, it focused on a pair of FBI agents who were actively looking for answers. Fictional or not, Mulder and Scully were my weekly companions into the unknown, belief tempered by skepticism, relentlessly uncovering events that the wider world refused to acknowledge.

Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?

In my opinion this ranks among the best found-footage films just for how convincing it appeared to be upon its release. The practical effects on display are unparalleled, and the mystery surrounding the source of the footage only added to the hype.

The cover of Communion by Whitley Streiber

I've never read this book, and the cover may have something to do with that. This portrait of a grey alien seems almost friendly in a way, with its Mona Lisa-esque smirk. But those eyes. Those impenetrable black pools destroyed me from afar, making me afraid to even approach this book, let alone crack it open.

When I try to pin down exactly why these shows were so appealing to me, I come to several conclusions. The air of mystery surrounding the paranormal was immensely attractive. This was an entire field of study with countless open questions. The experts were seemingly baffled. The answers couldn't be found in books. To my scientifically hungry (but untrained) mind, this was a veritable buffet of problems waiting to be solved. All I had to do was watch the skies and hope for some firsthand evidence to appear.

Compounding the mystery was the not-so-subtle sexual dimension to alien abduction. These were tales of men and women waking up naked before a crowd of horrible beings who would proceed to probe, prod, and examine them. I watched these shows and read these stories in my early adolescence, a time when the mechanics of sex were still vague and slightly terrifying. Is it any wonder that there was some resonance, especially when the abduction narrative may have origins in the subconscious sexual fears and desires of the abductees?

While my skepticism regarding visitors from the skies has only increased with time, I'm still fascinated by what the phenomena says about our need to believe that somewhere out there life has evolved along a track parallel to ours. An undercurrent of hope runs through UFO mythology. Despite the fear of abduction, manipulation, and experimentation, there's always the possibility that we're being used for a greater purpose. Faced with something as frightening as alien abduction, I'm not surprised that some abductees interpret their experiences as part of a grand plan in which accelerated evolution and genetic modification will allow them to join our extraterrestrial brethren among the stars. What can I say? They, like I, want to believe.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Life of Fear: Dreams of Scale

I've mentioned once before that in my real-life job is in the field of astrophysics. At its core, my task is to take some of the most massive objects in the galaxy and render them in symbols, code, and glyphs until they become comprehensible. Reducing unfathomably large objects such as supergiant stars to abstractions that can be easily held within the mind is something I do daily, but I'm frequently aware that it dulls some of the wonder I used to feel when thinking about the scale of the cosmos.

A simulacrum of the universe.
The human mind is limited to the realization of small collections of objects. We can only accurately judge sets of four or less before dividing larger sets into smaller groups. We are able to maintain close relationships with about 150 people at most. When trying to comprehend large numbers, I often think of the film Paper Clips, in which a class of middle school students attempt to gather a single paperclip for each life lost in the holocaust in order to better comprehend its true scale. What started as a cute idea for a project balloons into a devastating realization of the magnitude of the tragedy. The macroscopic world operates on a scale that's beyond our ability to fathom - the universe as a whole is orders of magnitude more complex. At the same time there are multitudes of infinities within each of us. Cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks equally vast in number as the stars in the sky. At the risk of sounding too Lovecraftian, I think there may be something to the idea that insanity would accompany a true understanding of the size and emptiness of the gaps between stars, or atoms.

These are streams of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars.
Ever since I was a child, I've had intermittent nightmares in which my perception of scale was altered. The dreams typically accompany illness or fever, but I've had them a few times when perfectly healthy - most recently about a year ago. The dreams are identical each time. I find myself formless, floating in a large void. I'm without a body, but retain my normal human sense of vision. There's nothing to see though, just darkness in every direction. After floating for some time I sense an object approaching me. I can't see it, but I know it's there because of how terrifyingly massive it is. In real life I'd be torn to shreds by its tidal forces long before reaching the surface, but in the dream I'm drawn ever closer, until it dwarfs me.

Eventually I find myself alone again, approached by another object, but one that quickly shrinks in size. As before, it's formless, almost invisible, and as I get closer the object continues to shrink. I loom over it as it becomes pointlike, then somehow smaller. I have nothing more than a sense that it's becoming tinier and tinier with time, but where a normal object would vanish, I'm acutely aware of this one. I seem impossibly huge until the object it finally vanishes and the cycle repeats.

It's hard to put such an abstract experience into words, but the experience evokes panic to the point where I usually wake sweating. I've searched online for an explanation, or some similar accounts, and the best I've been able to find is this, which tentatively links the phenomenon to a neurological dysfunction called macro/microsomatognosia (or Alice in Wonderland syndrome). However I try to rationalize the experience when awake, it's just as terrifying each time I encounter it. While I can explain it away as the side effects of sleep paralysis or nighttime hallucinations, there's always the lingering feeling that I haven't experienced a distorted sense of scale at all, but a moment when the veil is lifted and I'm able to perceive the universe as it truly is.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Bélmez Faces

In 1971, in Bélmez, Spain, a housewife named Maria Cámara noticed an image of a human face on the cement floor of her kitchen. The face gazed out impassively and resisted any attempt to wash it away. It appeared to be scoured deep into the surface of the floor. Maria's husband and son were only able to remove the image by destroying and relaying the concrete of the floor.

Shortly afterward the face reappeared, this time frowning as if angry at the attempt to remove it. Understandably disturbed, the Cámara family reached out to friends in the community and word of the phenomenon quickly spread. Additional faces began to appear in the stone walls of the house. Any attempt to remove them was also unsuccessful. Some claimed that over time they would evolve, their position and expressions gradually shifting as they moved through the stone.

Within a year the house became a tourist attraction and was dubbed La Casa de las Caras (The House of the Faces). The Bélmez faces eventually drew a large amount of scientific scrutiny. Analyses of the composition of the images revealed them to be forgeries created by chemical etching. Despite this fact, some parapsychologists maintain (as parapsychologists are wont to do) that the images are thoughtographic projections - manifestations of the Cámara family's subconscious minds projected into the stone.

I read about the Bélmez faces in an anthology of the paranormal (whose name is long forgotten to me) when I was about ten years old. Amidst all the malicious hauntings and creatures featured in the book, the faces were by far the most enigmatic due to their sheer benevolence. They were baffling to me - what could these strange beings want with the Cámara family?

After reading this story, I was haunted by the photographs shown in the book. Their crude smirks and scowls floated in the back of my mind as I tried to sleep that night. I'd seen similar faces in our house - most frequently buried amidst the patterns in the grain of the wood doors. What if these faces turned malicious? What if they started changing? My thoughts spiraled into panic and I ended up downstairs in the living room with my father. It was only then, in the well-lit room with the lull of a TV sitcom laugh track in the background, that I was able to fall back to sleep.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Life of Fear: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I could probably just say that Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scared the crap out of me as a kid and leave it at that, because I know I'm not alone.

Class parties in elementary school were supposed to be a cause for rejoicing - days few and far between when we wouldn't be burdened with worksheets or sitting quietly at our desks. The teacher would retreat back to her corner of the room and mull over stacks of papers while we were left to revel in cupcakes that were more frosting than cake and Dixie cups brimming with lurid punch. To help us cope with the inevitable sugar crash, the day would end with the class sitting in the dark and watching a movie. I'm not sure what occasion inspired our second grade teacher to choose Willy Wonka, but it occurs to me now that she (lacking the ability to turn us all into apples) might have picked this film out deliberately to try and inflict some emotional scars on the class.

There are three scares in this film that stand out vividly in my memory to this day:

1. Augustus Gloop falling into the chocolate river. Near-drowning aside, the thing that's most horrifying about this scene is the boy's reappearance in the transparent tube that sucks chocolate off to be processed elsewhere in the factory. The claustrophobia of the situation was awful, made even worse by the fact that the boy was so close to his distressed parents but unable to be helped by them in any way. The fact that he's sucked away to the incinerator only makes it worse, as does Wonka's nonchalance in the face of ostensible child death. This was the first scene in the movie when I realized I might be watching a madman.

2. The tunnel scene. You know the one. If watching one kid get whisked to his doom wasn't enough, there's this warped bit of psychedelia to follow it up. A lot of people get hung up on the rear-projected images of bugs crawling across faces and what appears to be an actual chicken being decapitated. To be honest, I don't have strong memories of those. What I do remember is Wonka's blank-faced stare at his passengers' fright, and his atonal song that builds slowly into a scream, then a shriek. "Are the fires of hell a'growing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?" My adult self loves that the screenwriters thought all of this was suitable for a childrens' film, but I don't think I need to elaborate too much on what it did to me the first time around.

3. Violet Beauregard's inflation. In retrospect, this scare wasn't that frightening on its own, but it was just enough to put me over the edge. Even scarier than the fact that Wonka freely admits the girl would retain her azure skin tone after undergoing some horribly vague "deflation" process was the fact that a pattern seemed to be emerging. Two children had been dispatched, and three still remained.

I saw the direction this was going and I didn't like it. At this point in the movie I was done. I tried desperately to concoct a scheme where I'd be sent home, allowed to switch classrooms, or even wait out the rest of the movie elsewhere. The best I could come up with was to ask my teacher if she had any papers to grade or sort, which was really just a plea for something to occupy my time. To her credit, she came up with a task on the spot and let me work on it across the hall in the library. (Maybe she wasn't so mean after all.)

Eventually the principal wandered past, and seeing me sitting there alone at a table with tears streaked across my face, asked what I'd done to earn this punishment. How could I make her understand that I wasn't the one who had misbehaved? In the movie that I had just watched, the adults were the insane ones. Worse, they could be actively malicious, and to ruinous consequence when placed in positions of power. Before me stood the most powerful figure in the school, and she thought I was in the wrong. Did I want her on my bad side? What had I done?

"Nothing," I said, and went back to my work.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Life of Fear: Stories

Sometimes I think about all the horrifying things I've seen in movies and wonder how they'd add up if I ran the numbers. Just how many deaths have I watched for entertainment? How many dismemberments, disembowelments, and eye-gougings have paraded across a screen for me to laugh, scream, or shudder at? Still, for all the grotesqueries I've witnessed, I usually find that it's the things that aren't shown in a film that hit the hardest. This might be why I respond more viscerally to horror that I read as opposed to horror I watch. A good imagination can be your worst enemy, and the best horror fiction uses just the right amount of ambiguity to leverage your thoughts against you.

More recent examples will follow, of course, but right now I want to devote some time to the three books of my youth that left the deepest mental scars. Of the three, one can't even be considered horror at all. Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School is about an elementary school whose blueprints were botched prior to its construction. The result is a building erected on its side, like a skyscraper, rather than horizontally. The altered design is enough to send the entire school into disarray, and all sorts of crazy things happen within the school to place the students' education and general well-being in peril.

The first story introduces us to Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher in the school. Mrs. Gorf turns her students into apples when they misbehave, or even when they don't - she's really just concerned with keeping the kids quiet so that she doesn't have to teach. So one by one, over the course of one fateful week, each kid commits some minor infraction and ends up on her desk as a shiny red delicious.

The amount of fear this story inspired in me seems ridiculous now. Maybe the reason it hit home was that Mrs. Gorf bore a uncanny resemblance to my own 2nd grade teacher, who I'm sure would have turned me into an apple had she possessed the power. For a story to take that fear of an adult who didn't particularly like you and turn it into a tale where they became outright malicious had more than a little resonance at the time. I put this book right back on the shelf after reading that story and let my eyes slide past it every time went to get something new to read. I avoided this book for months, but eventually my curiosity grew too strong. I skipped the Mrs. Gorf story and read the rest of the book to find out with some relief that the following chapters weren't nearly as grim.

Book number two was Choose Your Own Adventure #6: The Green Slime. This is the first book that told me a story whose characters met an unhappy ending (and actually died if I remember correctly). The fact that it was my choices that led to their demise made it that much worse. I haven't seen a copy of this book since I returned it to the library back in the eighties, so I can't say much more than I remember there being far too many wrong choices to make, even for this series.

Another perennial favorite, one that caused more nightmares than probably any other book in my life, was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels. Anyone who's read these books knows immediately why they're memorable - and it's not for Alvin Schwartz's collections of retold folk tales, urban legends, and poems, although those are good. It's the illustrations by Stephen Gammell. The stories aren't actually all that scary, nor were they when I was a kid. Some are appropriately gruesome, but they're balanced by other stories that end with sufficient humor or irony to soften the blows.

But the pictures. Oh god, the pictures. These images are etched forever in my memory, particularly the following:


Despite how horrifying they are, I was fascinated by these illustrations. These are some of the most iconic pieces of art ever to appear in children's books, and they've been the source of no small amount of controversy since their release. I'm dismayed beyond words that HarperCollins elected to remove the art from the most recent edition of the books. Gammell's work has been replaced with offensively generic art that's laughable when you look at it alongside the original paintings. (See this and this for more information on Gammell and the controversy.)

Sure, I understand, parents want to protect their babies from everything scary in the world. It's true that all of these books inspired legitimate fear in me as a kid. But I got over it. I learned to self-police when I was reading and eventually grew braver. The curiosity that these books inspired eventually led me to re-read them (in two out of three cases), and they quickly became some of my favorites. The lesson they taught me wasn't that books are scary and bad and to be avoided at all costs, but that the written word can be powerful enough to evoke emotion as strong as that which you'd experience in the real world. It's the reason I still love to read, and for that I thank each one of these authors, however warped they may be.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Life of Fear: Monsters

Lots of kids are afraid of monsters underneath their beds. I had monsters in the ceiling.

When I was about five years old, my parents had ceiling fans installed in the bedrooms of our house. I was fascinated with the thought that the installation would require a hole to be drilled into the ceiling just above the foot of my bed. Something previously permanent, in what should have been the safest place in the house, was being breached. It seemed inevitable that something... some thing would take advantage of this newly opened portal.

I have vivid memories of lying in the dark watching the newly installed fan spin. Logic would seem to dictate that since the fan plugged the hole, I was safe. Nope. Its gyrations created a vortex that drew supernatural creatures from the ether and sucked them into my room, like bugs caught in the water of a draining tub. Closing my eyes didn't help. I could feel them brushing against my face in the fan's breeze.

Eventually I started to see the shapes that these monsters had adopted. They flew from the ceiling, circling the the room: lurid, cartoonish figures that bled from the pop culture, television, and comic books my mind had soaked up. Frankenstein's monster, Freddy Krueger, Dracula, Satan, even some superheroes - it only occurs to me now that of all the possible monsters that could have terrified me, the ones that were the most frightening came in human forms. Maybe it was that those seemed more realistic, as if I realized that something the most likely to do me actual harm would come in the form of another person.

I'm not sure whether I fell prey to a particularly vivid nightmare or some form of sleep paralysis that night, but the specters were banished with a scream, dispelled by the light from the hall shining into my room as my parents rushed in. I never saw the monsters again, a fact that I attributed to the litany of prayers I recited each night afterward as I fell asleep. I'd make bargains with God, enumerating the names of the monsters from whom I required protection - scariest first, least threatening at the end. I'd keep my face buried in the pillow, half in trust that there was nothing hovering above me, half out of fear that my gaze would wander back to the ceiling and I'd discover with sickening dread that I was wrong.

A Life of Fear

Happy October, everyone. I'm going to try something a little different here to try and get into the mood of the season.

Underneath my own personal fascination with horror movies lies a deep obsession with the nature of fear. Even though it's a rare film these days that actually scares me or even unsettles me, my initial attraction to the genre was one born of genuine fear. I have the suspicion the same is true for a lot of horror fans, even if a sustained love of horror seems to often bloom into more of an interest in the grotesque, the subversive, the transgressive, and a more general appreciation of the medium of film. Regardless of all the layers of meaning contained within the label "horror fan," for me it all started with things that scared me out of my skull.

It wouldn't have turned out quite like this if was I born with the ability to look away. I was the kid who always lifted up rocks to see what squirmed in the mud. At the doctor I've always watched the needle poke into my arm. My chances of surviving as a character in a horror film would be next to nothing - I'd be the one opening the door to the basement. I'd head out into the woods to investigate the strange sounds and lights. I'd be the one reading the cursed book or digging up the sordid history of the abandoned cabin. So where many people hide their eyes when something horrific shows up on the TV or movie screen, I find my own become locked open, fixed to the screen even when I don't want to see what comes next. In horror stories, knowledge tends to come with dire consequences. Unfortunately in most situations, I can't stand not knowing the truth.

So throughout this month I'm going to turn the microscope around to myself and examine the things that have terrified me in the past. I'll also take a look at what still has the ability to do so today. I'm not going to limit myself solely to films, but since this is typically a film blog, and film is what got me into horror, there'll be a lot of movie-related talk.

I'd also like to hear from you all. Tell me the things that kept you awake when you were a kid. Tell me about the dark things that run circles in your brain. I'll recount my experiences more or less chronologically. Stay tuned.