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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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horror

So, There Are Two Sides To A Haunted House Story…..

On August 10, 2001, two films made their debut in American theaters – The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, and Session 9, starring Peter Mullin, screamed into theaters with varying degrees of success. The Others was critically acclaimed, particularly for Kidman, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Although not nearly as successful, Session 9 has become something of a cult classic, with mixed to positive reviews.

I saw both films in their original releases and it struck me then that any theater running both films would do well to bill them as a double feature (I made a point of telling the theater manager this idea, to no avail). Upon repeated viewing, thanks to the DVDs, I still think they’d make a great cinematic duo. For those of you who have not yet seen either film (and where have you been???), the premise of both is the Haunted House.

The Others is a fairly traditional interpretation of the gothic haunted house/ghost story. Set in an isolated English manor in Jersey, the Channel Islands, shortly after World War II, it is a locked-room mystery. The household servants have seemingly vanished overnight, with no explanation, leaving Grace Stewart and her two young children, Anne and Nicholas, to fend for themselves. In addition, the children suffer from a condition (Xeroderma Pigmentosum) that prevents them from being able to withstand the light from the sun. Their lives are structured within the confines of the multi-roomed, heavily curtained house, which is in constant shadow.

The arrival of three new servants (Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle and Lydia), who have their own ties to the house, only seems to exacerbate the unsettling noises and incidents that the children insist are real and that prove there are ghosts. Being a strict Catholic with no room for the unexplained, Grace retreats further into denial, which only fuels the tensions between her, her children and the servants until, at last, she is forced to confront the truth.

  1. Isolated buildings (house, asylum), further isolating the characters.
  2. Death is the inciting incident, although it is not revealed until the end.
  3. Weather is also an indicator – fog in The Others is limbo for Grace and her children, symbolic of their own uncertainty.
  4. Photographs play an important role and are used to signal the film’s secret.
  5. Grace has a strained relationship with her husband.
  6. Graves/cemetery on the property that links to the secret.
  7. Both films skew towards one gender as the driving force, with the other gender in a supporting or other role – The Others is primarily female-driven.
  8. Use of the location to demonstrate the character’s internal life – in The Others, the house is compartmentalized, much like Grace herself.
  9. Grace holds a terrible secret that is tied to the inciting incident (#2), hidden not just from themselves, but from those around them and which is revealed, in the end, by a ghost.
  10. Grace comes to understand and accept her role in her fate and that of her children, which is what resolves the film.
  11. Grace and the children reclaim the house as theirs.

Session 9 is set in the present day at Danvers State Hospital, an actual former insane asylum, a gothic structure of deep red brick built in the 19th century. It, too, is a locked-room mystery, a haunted house/ghost story, in which five asbestos workers, led by independent contractor Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullin), are hired to clear out a portion for city use.

From the moment he and Phil Cronenburg (David Caruso) drive onto the property to meet with a city official to pitch their bid, Gordon is mesmerized by the building, haunted by its shadows and items left behind by the patients and doctors, and even seems to hear a voice whisper his name (Hello…..Gordon.). After winning the bid, they are joined by Mike King (Steve Gevedon), Hank Romero (Josh Lucas) and Jeff Fleming (Brendan Sexton III).

Each man is himself haunted and the asylum serves to act as a mirror – Hank’s desire to strike it rich is signified by his constant purchase of scratcher tickets and then finding old coins dating back decades within the walls of the asylum; to cope with his own stress, his concern over Gordon and resentment of Hank, Phil indulges more and more in alcohol and weed; Jeff is paralyzed by nyctophobia (fear of the dark) and is limited in where he can work; Mike, a failed law student, finds a box containing the recordings of counseling sessions between a patient (long since deceased) and her doctor and becomes obsessed with listening to them.

As the tension cranks up, tempers flare and a co-worker goes missing, the nineth and last session reveals who belongs to the mysterious voice that first greeted Gordon.

 

  1. Isolated building, which further isolates the characters.
  2. Death is the inciting incident, although it is not revealed until the end.
  3. Weather is a mood indicator – although there is a rainy scene, most of the film features sunny days, Gordon’s attempt to put up the false front that everything is fine.
  4. Photographs are an important signifier – in Session 9, they were used as a form of therapy for the patients. This is replicated later in the film.
  5. Gordon has a strained relationship with his wife.
  6. Graves/cemetery on the property share links to the film’s secret.
  7. Both films skew towards one gender as the driving force, with the other gender in a supporting or other role – Session 9 is male driven.
  8. Use of location to demonstrate the main character’s internal life – Gordon end up weeping in Ward A, where the more violent patients were kept.
  9. Gordon holds a terrible secret that is tied to the inciting incident (#2), hidden not just from himself, but from those around them. This is revealed to him, in the end, by a ghost.
  10. Gordon, wracked with guilt and grief, cannot accept his fate and therefore becomes the asylum’s newest resident patient
  11. Gordon pleads with his wife that he misses her and that he just wants to come home.

This is not the first time similarly themed films arrived in movie theaters the same summer (Dante’s Peak and Volcano in 1997 and The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes in 1999) and, given that Hollywood relies on the tried and true, it won’t be the last. These two 2001 films stick out, however, because the filmmakers took the same premise and the same tropes and re-interpreted them to make two, uniquely different stories.

Note – in 2006, Danvers State Hospital was sold to a developer and was completely gutted, leaving only the brick façade, to make apartments. Session 9 is the last film of any kind to show the asylum as it was after it had closed and prior to demolition. Don’t get me started – clearly, no one took the time to watch Poltergeist (1982), which demonstrates the dangers of building on haunted ground.

Danvers, Massachusetts was formerly known as Salem. Yes, that Salem.

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So, I love to watch scary movies……

…….and the spookier, the better, like Carnival of Souls (1962), The Haunting (1963), or Suspiria (1977). Haunting, surreal, these films engage your imagination and get under your skin. They’re scary because you’re emotionally involved with the characters and you root for them to escape until the very end.

Suspiria is an interesting film because the actors spoke their native language (English, German and Italian). Since they knew the script, they simply responded as if they understood. When the film went into post-production, the German and Italian languages were dubbed into English. The film would be dubbed in other languages for release in foreign markets.

I also discovered Japanese horror films, starting with Ringu (after seeing the American remake, The Ring) and then Ju-on (The Grudge). I was delighted – they are surreal and spooky and go in directions you don’t quite expect. Nor are the stories wrapped up in a tidy bow – there are loose ends that don’t get explained and an unsettling feeling that even happiness has an underlying sense of sorrow.

From my experience, Japanese horror films have an ambiguity to them that modern American horror films do not. I find that ambiguity fascinating, which is present in The Haunting – is the house haunted or is it Eleanor? – because with each viewing, you feel closer to uncovering the answer to the question, even as it ends. This kind of story-telling isn’t as present in American horror as it used to be, and I wish it would make a come-back.

Because I enjoy their horror films, I want to learn Japanese. This is due to the fact that a lot can get lost in translation. There may not be an English equivalent to specific word, so the line or meaning gets changed. Language is important – emphasis on the wrong syllable or vowel, and it can turn a compliment into an insult. One word can have multiple meanings, depending on context.

Thus, learning the language. Besides, it’s good for the brain, it’s a useful skill (because you never know when you’ll need it) and it makes it easier when traveling to a country where that language is spoken.

🙂

A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.
A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.

So, I had the opportunity to see a performance of Frankenstein…..

…….featuring actors Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Johnny Lee Miller (Elementary), alternating the lead roles of the Creature and his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The novel by Mary Shelley has captured the imagination of people the world over and has been given countless adaptations for film, television and stage, either adhering to the source material or being a loose interpretation. The novel has also been an inspiration in popular culture, ranging from comic books to video games to toys and models.

This stage adaptation written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle premiered in 2011, at the National Theatre, where it was filmed live and screened in selected theaters across the world. It was given an encore screening by Fathom Events on October 25, 2016, with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

It was tragic and beautiful, haunting and horrific. Unlike the Universal classic with Boris Karloff, this adaptation of the novel, Frankenstein gives the Creature his voice and soul as he struggles from his (re)-‘birth’ to find his place in the world. His loneliness and desire for companionship and belonging defines the Creature, even as he is constantly rejected for being physically different than those around him. He is called ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’, a ‘monster’ and is brutally thrown out, even as he secretly offers his catch from hunting and kindling to keep an old man and his family well-fed and warm.

His desire for love comes in the form of another creation by Frankenstein (Miller). Because of a hellish nightmare of the two potentially having children, he destroys the female creature before she becomes fully animated.

The tale of Frankenstein and the Creature transcends its original time – it is a cautionary tale of blindly following science (Jurassic Park is another example of this); it is a story of a man running from his responsibilities to his creation, thus setting off a chain of events that leads to the deaths of those he holds dear; it is the story of trying to find one’s place in a strange world, of trying to make connections and find love; it is the story of brutal rejection and vilification instead of compassion and empathy.

I first read the novel in high school, as I’m sure many of you have. I don’t recall much of my initial impressions of it, but this theatrical production moved me to tears. I wept throughout a performance that had been filmed five years previously. As cruel and angry and hateful as the Creature became, I understood his hurt, his rage, his desires, his difference.

But where he had been abandoned and abused and vilified and had no one to turn to for any kind of support, I have been blessed with friends and support. By no means has it been perfect, but from the Creature’s point of view, it might be.

Frankenstein isn’t just the first science fiction novel to be written. It is a novel about humanity – those who throw it away (Frankenstein), those who find it (the Creature) and how people react to it in those who are not like themselves.

The first step to de-humanizing a person is to take away their identity, their humanity.

There is a reason that the Creature in the novel has no name.

We are the Creature. And we are Victor Frankenstein.

And I continue to weep.

frankenstein

Recommended:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley (Biography) by Miranda Seymour
Romantic Outlaws (Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) by Charlotte Gordon

So, I was reading my favorite Shirley Jackson novel…..

…….the terrifying, subversive ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, while waiting for a friend at my local wine bar. I was finishing up my dinner and was completely engrossed with Jackson’s prose.

“Hello!” came a voice at my elbow and I jumped with a yell, that immediately turned to giggles from both of us. I love scary stories, but don’t often get spooked by them.

This startled reaction was a first for me, as any and all who know me know that I am a lover of horror and supernatural fiction and non-fiction. It also reminded me of how Robert Wise had a similar action while reading the book.

In the audio commentary of the The Haunting (1963), Wise recounts how he was reading the book in his office. He had just gotten to a particularly tense scene when writer Nelson Gidding (who was working in the office next door) burst into the room. Robert Wise “jumped about three feet off the chair” (1) and realized that if the book could inspire such a reaction, then it should make a fine picture.

True horror doesn’t come from gross out imagery that is shoved into our faces – granted, it makes for a squeamish, shocking effect, but it’s also desensitizing. Horror comes from fear of the unknown, that which hides in the shadows and cannot be fully seen. What we can’t see is far more frightening than what is seen.

Shirley Jackson knew this – in reading The Haunting of Hill House, one is never entirely sure if the house is actually haunted or if it is Eleanor who is the haunting. This ambiguity is what lingers in our minds, why we can’t let go of it and why it haunts us. It’s also why some stories, like Jackson’s novel, take on a life of their own and become part of our language.

IMG_20160227_115204-2-2-2

(1) quote from the audio commentary by Robert Wise

Recommended Reading:

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
A Head Full of Ghosts – Peter Tremblay
‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Hell House – Richard Matheson
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

And now a word from Edgar Allan Poe……

“I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.”

Edgar Allan Poe
January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849

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