Sister Monsters

Every once in a while you read an inspirational book.  I’m hoping readers will keep in mind that inspiration comes from different locations for some of us.  Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, is a source of inspiration.  With the usual Quirk Books touches, this isn’t a tome heavy on literary criticism, but it is a wonderful compendium of brief bios on women who walk(ed) on the dark side.  I find books like this encouraging in a number of respects.  First of all, these are women who did what they loved and were recognized for it.  Secondly, it gives the rest of us some hope that getting through the establishment to actual publication isn’t as impossible as presses would have us believe.  And third, it’s also a lot of fun.

It isn’t often pointed out that women played a major role in the development of the horror genre.  Some of the earliest Gothic novels were by Ann Radcliffe and Margaret Cavendish.  Probably the first fully fledged horror novel was Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  The real learning kicks in when the other names come out—many women found, and continue to find, the genre compelling.  Most of them, like most of us, are lost to history, but many of them have been rediscovered.  Here again is cause for hope; those of us who write, I think, have our eyes set on the far distant future.  We’re inscribing our “Kilroy was here” on paper—I still can’t think of ebooks as actually existing—in hopes that those down the road might know us a little better.  The fact that some of our sisters have been found suggests that we too may be resurrected some day.

There’s no plot here, and the point isn’t to present some great discovery.  This is a book that encourages women to be who they are through example.  The fact that it involves monsters and horror is simply a bonus.  As a non-female reading this it struck me time and again that women have long been informed of what they should or could do by men.  Men don’t like to see women knowing as much as they do about the shadow side of human existence, even as they relegated them to the shadows.  It’s my hope that this book will inspire women to be themselves.  And if they want to invite monsters along, so much the better.

Hidden Monsters

I don’t think much about having been born male.  I’m starting to realize that that’s because I don’t have to.  The same is true of being caucasian, although I’ve always objected to the labels of “white” and “black” as being polarizing and wildly inaccurate.  Although I grew up in poverty, my “social markers” put me in a place of privilege, even if others sharing my demographic have locked me out of the club.  These thoughts were raised by Mallory O’Meara’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.  As soon as I saw the book announced, I knew I had to read it.  As O’Meara would doubtlessly not find surprising, I had never heard of Milicent Patrick before.  I’m not surprised that a woman designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, because woman create memorable monsters (can I get a “Frankenstein”?!).

The reason I don’t think about being male is because the crumbling society built by males assumes that it’s the default.  Men have always been shortsighted, I guess.  Having been raised by a “single mother” (she was technically not divorced because a male-made religion said it was sinful), I always believed women to be protectors, capable heads of families, and far more empathetic than the men I met.  I didn’t realize at the time that we lived so close to the brink because men devalue women.  Milicent Patrick grew up in a family where this was much more obvious.  A talented artist, she incurred her family’s lasting wrath by going to Hollywood and doing what was then movie makeup work.  That she designed the beloved Gill Man makes sense to me.

O’Meara’s book is sure to make thoughtful readers angry.  Not at the author, but at the behavior of men.  Perhaps due to my unbalanced upbringing, it has taken many years to see what others probably notice much more readily: women have to struggle for that which someone like myself can simply claim.  Bud Westmore, Patrick’s boss at Universal, claimed her creation as his own work.  There are monsters in this book, and I’ll give you one guess as to their gender.  Still, I’m glad to have read it for I know I’ve found another monster fan.  O’Meara’s clearly aware of how those of us who admit this odd passion are marginalized in a world that prefers super heroes and those good with finance over those who see monsters everywhere.  This is an important book; read it and you’ll see them too.

Ghouls and Dolls

It was my plan—as if plans ever really work out—to see Annabelle Comes Home on opening weekend.  July got away from me but I finally found my way to the theater yesterday.  My current book, Nightmares with the Bible, deals with demons in cinema.  One of the chapters covers The Conjuring universe, and since this is the sixth film in that diegesis (with one tangentially attached spin-off) watching the movie was as much research as it was fun.  While the demon utilizing the doll Annabelle is clearly the main villain, the film, as in most of the franchise, interjects any number of entities.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, in real life, kept a museum of occult objects in their house.  This room contained items that had figured in their cases—they maintained demons didn’t possess objects, but people—including the doll Annabelle.

The new film maneuvers three girls (Judy, the Warrens’ daughter, her babysitter, and a friend) into the house alone.  One of the girls releases Annabelle from her blessed case, and a nighttime of terror ensues.  The demon behind Annabelle animates several of the haunted objects, so the girls have to deal with many ghoulish threats.  The film knows it is following tropes such as a car breaking down by a cemetery at night, and the idea of a babysitter being attacked by monsters, and at times it gives a slow wink to fans of the genre.  Still, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments and a few jump startles.  It also shows the clearly demon in its “true form” at the climax of the film.  When it does so, it matches traditional renditions.

Set to become the highest grossing horror series of all time, The Conjuring universe mixes films that claim to be “based on a true story” and others, such as Annabelle Comes Home, that use real settings but without claiming to follow actual events.  What I found engaging about this particular movie was the fact that the youngest girl, Judy Warren, was the one who figured out how to re-capture the demon.  There are holes in the plot, of course, but featuring a young woman not requiring a man’s help to trap a demon is somewhat unusual in a Catholic diegesis.  True, she doesn’t perform an exorcism, but Judy does contain the evil without a priest, or even her father’s direct help.  As this diegesis wends its way into American folklore, moments like this are increasingly important.  Even though there are demons here, the women don’t require men to do the heavy lifting. 

Sighs

Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow.  The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors.  After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action.  Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again.  I have to confess I’m not a dancer.  Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes.  Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing.  It does, however, in the 2018 remake.  The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school.  She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.

Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually.  Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins.  Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands.  To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save.  While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy.  Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.

Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust.  From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless.  Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves.  Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity.  Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing.  Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances.  I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.

Witch Way from Here?

Häxan is often considered a horror film.  Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early.  Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches.  Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts.  It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free.  It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.

Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church.  Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church.  The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly.  While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages.  Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology.  We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.  

When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it.  Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess.  Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction.  Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began.  Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.”  To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women.  It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.

Good Ground

Young adult literature gives me hope.  The quality, speaking for a guy who grew up in a small town with limited choices, has improved astronomically over the past several years.  One of my favorite (adult) novels is Wuthering Heights, and so it’s no surprise that I found Christy Lenzi’s debut novel Stone Field quite engaging.  Set in a different time and place, and with a younger readership in mind, it retells the story of forbidden love based on xenophobia.  The message has never been more relevant.  Although it avoids explicit language, it does include adult situations and features a strong female protagonist in an age of explicit gender inequality.  During the chaos leading up to the Civil War, star-crossed lovers are set against one another because prejudice is a most effective poison.

While not a religious story, the iconic Bible plays a large role in it.  One of the main characters is a preacher, but even without him Catrina Dickinson’s family and friends are ready to quote the Good Book as unquestioningly as a Republican (with my apologies to fiscally conservative friends untainted by this aberration).  This is beyond a realistic portrayal of American life of the 1860s, it reflects the way that many people continue to think of Scripture.  Nevertheless, in one crucial episode of the story set in the church at Roubidoux, Missouri, the iconic role of the Bible becomes clear.  It is deftly woven throughout the story in a way that might serve as a lesson for modern writers seeking verisimilitude.  Many authors fear to address religion, but the Good Book is alive and well in these post-frontier days.

Often the desire to avoid religious motivations leads to stories that lack a key element of the social fabric.  In my own attempts at fiction religion is seldom absent.  It is the way average people live.  Lenzi presents Cat as being aware of but unwilling to be cowed by the Bible.  Indeed, as the story unfolds with several tragic events (remember, Wuthering Heights) she demonstrates that Catrina knows but doesn’t accept the strictures of Scripture.  The issue of theodicy hangs heavily in the atmosphere of the novel.  To me, this makes stories appear more life-like than tales that simply suppose religion doesn’t impact people.  When tragedy strikes, many people question what God, or their stand-in for the divine, is doing.  Anyone who’s asked “why me?” has directed that question into the world of theodicy, whether intentionally or not.  Reading this story while going through a family illness may have drawn this to the surface, but it underscores just how effective it may be for a realism that is otherwise lacking, whether in fact or young adult fiction.

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.