Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.

Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.

Book and Bell

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan, is a book I’ve read before.  The subtitle was used for a cinematic version.  I discovered the book, however, through what might be considered a chance encounter with the author.  He was teaching a course on offering distance education courses at Rutgers University, and, as an adjunct teaching over eight classes per year, I’d been selected for the distance education program.  (As life goes, of course, I was hired by Routledge for a full-time job before I could actually deliver the course.)  By a strange irony, I had watched An American Haunting just the weekend before the course, and I had no idea who would be teaching it.  Neurotically punctual, I was the first one there for the class, and as Dr. Monahan and I talked, I knew I’d need to read the book.  I posted on it back when I did, but this time I decided to pay better attention than one can on a bus.

Of course, when you watch the movie first, which I had, you know “the reveal” well before it comes late in the novel.  In case you’ve done neither, I won’t give it away.  The tale is based on an historical haunting, attested in sources from near the period.  And it is a strange kind of possession story.  The “witch” is actually a demon conjured by a trauma, and although book wraps things up nicely, it leaves a few questions at the end.  I suppose that’s appropriate for a scary book.  One of my current projects involves tracing the accounts behind fictionalized narratives to their originals.  The Bell Witch was well researched, and is a good example of how the line between fiction and fact can be effectively blurred.

The Bell Witch legend is credited with influencing several horror films, including The Blair Witch Project and others which tellingly have “Bell Witch” in their titles.  The story has a fairly incredible longevity, given that it was a localized legend from early in the nineteenth century.  Monahan’s novel is written as a “confession” from the schoolmaster, and historical personage Richard R. P. Powell.  This blurring of the lines makes for the kind of ambiguity that gives horror its particular ability to stand between fact and fiction.  The early versions of the lore, combined with elements intended to offer verisimilitude, leave plenty of queries at the end.  So much so that I’ve occasionally contacted the author for clarification.  What really happened?  It depends which side of the line you prefer.

Not so Hollow

It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.  I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.  Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.  The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.  I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.  After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.  This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.

The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.  The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”  It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).  The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.  I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.  The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.

Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.    His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.  Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.  His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.  Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.  I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.  It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons. 

Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.

Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.