Monsters in Common

The thing about monsters is once they’re released they go wild.  Antlers is sometimes criticized for cultural appropriation—it takes the wendigo, an American Indian monster, and uses it in an Anglo story.  There’s perhaps some truth to that, but the wendigo is the perfect monster for the social commentary the film makes about the poor.  Those who’ve never been poor can’t really understand, and I can’t blame them for it.  Pointing fingers at symptoms like drug abuse is pretty typical.  It’s not directing the extinguisher at the base of the fire, but at the dancing flames that keep shifting as the base consumes.  In short, I found it a powerful movie, and one that is beautifully filmed.  Yes, it does lift an American Indian monster, but that monster was released long ago.

The wendigo was addressed by Algernon Blackwood in his 1910 story that goes by that name.  It has appeared in other horror venues as well.  Antlers is the first full-fledged horror movie I’ve seen to use it and it builds the story up nicely.  And it does so by tying religion into the narrative.  In brief, Lucas Weaver, a twelve-year old, is protecting his father and younger brother.  After being attacked by a wendigo, his father has become one.  Lucas’ teacher, Julia Meadows, was abused as a child and recognizes it in Lucas.  She become determined to care for him but his father has given over to the spirit of starvation that inhabits him.  

I could’ve used this in Holy Horror because when Julia is searching Lucas’ desk at school she finds, among other things, a Bible.  At one point Lucas’ brother asks if God is dead.  His father has told him that he is.  And when the police are trying to determine what they’re up against, the former sheriff, an American Indian, tells them about the wendigo.  Native beliefs are treated as superstitions, of course.  The wendigo is brought out because of cannibalism.  The use of a native monster and the role of the landscape in the film make this a fine example of folk horror.  And it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning the poor.  Those who criticize the film for that have perhaps lost sight of the monster.  Monsters belong to everyone.  The golem, the wendigo, the mummy—these all play a role in someone’s religion and culture.  They also serve to haunt anyone who’s concerned with fairness and justice.  And that’s why we must chase any monster that roams free.

Remaking King

Pet Sematary is (or was), according to Stephen King, his most bleak book.  The first movie made from it (Mary Lambert, 1989) never reached the iconic status of The Shining or Carrie, but it nevertheless conveyed the dread of resurrection.  It also followed the novel pretty closely.  The new movie version, which came out last year, uses the more slick, modern horror style that just doesn’t have the same feel as the slow pace of dread.  The whole thing feels rushed to fit too much in.  It does add some nice touches, however.  Borrowing the creepy animal masks of The Wicker Man, it adds a religious procession of children to the eponymous cemetery right at the start and uses a mask to add menace at the end.  There will be spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me at getting to movies, be warned.

The main source of fear, which is only shown a couple of times before the accident, is the speeding Orinco trucks along the road that kill people and pets.  Since horror is an “intertextual” genre there are several knowing nods toward the 1989 film, sometimes lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.  (Can you have security watching horror?)  King’s novel, and the original movie, point to the impending death of Gage, the young son of the family.  Faking out the viewer, the new film has the truck killing Ellie, Gage’s older sister, instead.  While this must’ve made Jeté Laurence’s role fun to play (for the dead child comes back—and when the monster is a fragile little boy of four or five it’s hard to believe) but it interferes with the explanation of death to her that makes up so much of the story.

Why the wendigo is brought in only to be dropped is a mystery.  The wendigo would make for a great movie monster, but trying to squeeze mention of it into an already crowded plot doesn’t really help.  The ending of the new movie is well set up, and the realization that she’s living dead on the part of Ellie is well played out.  Otherwise the film assumes the watcher already knows how it goes.  I suppose that’s a perennial problem with remakes.  The source of horror in the novel and in both films is the idea that the dead can come back.  It’s an ancient fear and one with which all of us eventually deal.  Now that the nights and early mornings are turning cooler and darker, movies like Pet Sematary come readily to mind and we know the horror season has begun.

The Werewolf in Summer


It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.

Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.

When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.

Naming Evil

WetikoBooks don’t tell us what is true; books tell us what could be true. When I was growing up, under the influence of the Bible, I thought that non-fiction books were the truth. I came to understand that people disagreed about the truth, but it took a long time before I realized that books were merely the attempts of their writers to argue their version of the truth. If someone knew the actual truth that person would be a god. These thoughts came to me as I read the fascinating and mystical Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil, by Paul Levy. In many ways this is a mind-altering book. For one thing, Levy has made me reconsider how real evil is. Looking at what’s going on in the world it is increasingly difficult to deny the reality of objective evil. Levy’s book gives it a name and even attempts to analyze whence it comes. He calls it “wetiko.”

For several years now I have tried to find information on the monster known as the wendigo. Wetiko is a version of the same word, and it was this that drew me to Levy’s book. The wendigo is a shape-shifting creature that preys on humans. It is mentioned or featured in a few fictional books, and most recently featured in an episode of Sleepy Hollow. Since most academics don’t treat monsters seriously, it is difficult to find accounts of the beast. It is often discussed as a fictionalized version of cannibalism. It is a monster always hungry. The more it eats, the hungrier it becomes. It is this aspect that leads Levy to use it as his main metaphor for evil.

The evil that Dispelling Wetiko focuses on is the extreme selfishness our society has come to embrace. For example, our entire economic system is a fiction propagated by the ultra-wealthy. By defining a fiction as valuable and making it available to everyone else by a system of debt, the one-percenters keep everyone else, literally, in thrall to them. There is no gold to back up the fictional value they claim they have, and yet they consume others constantly in their evil greed. In a nuanced argument Levy suggests that this evil is real. Becoming conscious is the only way to combat it. There’s so much going on in this book that it has to be read several times, I’m sure, to get it all figured out. As I finished this one, however, I thought I had read a book that may actually be true.


ManitousOne of the yearly autumnal rituals we’ve established is the watching of Escanaba in da Moonlight. It is a silly, crude, and profound movie that revolves around Native American lore—namely, the creature known as the bearwalk. Despite the high level of interest in monsters on the internet, the bearwalk continues to be elusive. Robert C. Wilson wrote a novel, Crooked Tree, about this Ojibwa legend, but academics have seldom explored it. The few resources I found pointed me to the wendigo. Wendigos are frightening spirits of the forest, sometimes presented as skinwalkers, or shape-shifters, who prey on unwary human beings. Some writers call them werewolves, but this isn’t exactly correct. Frustrated at finding no solid information, I picked up a copy of Basil Johnston’s The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Johnston, who is Anishinaabe, writes to preserve the heritage of his people.

Manitous don’t have a direct equivalent in English. Some have been inclined to designate them as gods or spirits, but they inhabit that strange realm that overlaps with humans as well. The Ojibwa viewed the world as more animate than western science allows. People were part of this larger universe, but were not the sole end of intelligent life. The tales in this book map out an unseen territory where manitous may be found in lakes and streams, in the hearts of trees, in the early prototypes of humankind, and yes, in the wendigo. The wendigo (also spelled windigo or weendigo) is a representation of excessive acquisitiveness. They often begin life as humans, but become cannibals. As they eat other people their hunger grows, along with their bodies, and they cannot be satisfied. The more they eat the more their hunger remains. They are, therefore, extremely destructive, roaming the woods seeking human victims.

Throughout The Manitous, Johnston gives little in the way of editorial comment. One of his stories is a parable for the coming of Europeans and their subsequent treatment of Native Americans, but most of the tales are of the natural world. The wendigo occupies the last chapter of his book. Before putting the matter to rest, however, Johnston makes a poignant and valid point. Although the Ojibwa no longer believe in a literal wendigo, the treatment of the earth by corporations has taken its place. Always hungry, excessively greedy for more to be taken from the earth, industrialists have made the wendigo look as if it were an amateur slaughterer. Living lightly on the land, the Native Americans tried to take only what they needed. Europeans, on the other hand, created new things in order to keep the hunger going. And those who constantly create new needs grow wealthier and wealthier. Instead of naming this inherently destructive system the wendigo, we call it progress and happily invite it to live among us.