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Ghoul's Errand

A horror culture gazette.

Musing: American Horror Story: Freak Show, TVMA, 2014 (SPOILERS)

I have a touch and go relationship with American Horror Story. I’ve seen five seasons and liked two: Murder House and Freak Show are the only ones that don’t (ironically) feel gimmicky, or seem to run completely off the rails halfway through. I’ve rewatched both in the last week to find I’m still drawn to them.

I can’t explain my attraction to Murder House. I love a chance to get into dangerous teen boys’ heads, and the Harmons’ couple dynamics feel very realistic. Compared to other seasons, it’s fairly cohesive on the whole. The house porn certainly doesn’t hurt, either; I’m in love with those built in Tiffany fixtures.

Then there’s Freak Show. This was actually my third run through with it: the first left me stunned, the second made me cry. Unlike the other arcs, most of the protagonists enter the series as innocents, genuinely good people who happen to be in bad situations. They are victims of circumstance, nothing more.

This time I noticed a couple things.

S4 E1 displays that the freaks mostly move under cover of night and are subject to police harassment. Jimmy, whose fingers split into two pairs rather than four individuals, tastes freedom by renting himself out as a masturbatory aid. Dot and Bette, conjoined twins sharing a body below the neck, are welcomed as the newest members of the troupe. Antagonist Dandy Mott sees them and immediately attempts to buy them.

Something definitely felt off here. Turns out the plot was gearing up for a fairly offensive denouement.

S4 E2 sees the freaks involved in both a sit in and a senseless police murder: the body is returned by being thrown from the back of a truck that never fully stops. It also has the first appearance of two of the only four black characters: Dora, the Motts’ maid, and Desiree, a woman with three breasts and purring with sex appeal.

In effect, the writers chose to borrow some fairly traumatic Civil Rights imagery for a group of exclusively white people, then made it clear they couldn’t be arsed to humanize their nonwhite characters at all. Dora serves up distractingly dated head-bobbing sass alongside her meals, and Desiree alternates between Jezebel and mammy archetypes throughout.

From this point, there are all kinds of microagressions towards POC: while begging, (Legless) Suzi kills a dancer who gets more handouts than she does; a little girl asks Desiree if she’s a real lady; Bette makes a passing reference to someone as “high yellow”. Quid pro quo, Desiree and Dora both spit out “white” as an insult, as though their presence at all is equally threatening. It should be noted that Freak Show takes place in Florida in the early 1950s. While this was probably a common mindset among white people in the actual time and place, it has absolutely no business being broadcast on national TV in the 2010s.

While black cast members get the worst of the insensitivity, there are a few other notable minority players:

Ma Petite, an Indian woman somewhere around 2 feet tall and treated like a doll across the board. She’s frequently seen putting makeup on ringleader Elsa and, on one occasion, is delivered to her as a literal present. Twice she is removed from her bed in the middle of the night, the intruders only announcing their arrival at its foot. Her lack of personal agency borders on disturbing; it’s eventually revealed that she was bartered for soda to serve as a surrogate child for Pepper. She’s doomed to a life of just-go-with-it, and eventually killed by someone pretending to hug her, then snapping her neck.

Salty, Pepper, and Meep, all of whom are played by able actors in heavy makeup, all of whom are affected by unspecified mental disabilities. Meep is the least verbal, only able to say his name but otherwise functional; he’s framed early on for a cop murder and becomes the truck-delivery casualty. Salty and Pepper have the same nondescript issue, which appears to be a poor-taste play on microcephaly. Pepper is Elsa’s first “adoption”, and Salty was obtained solely to give her an “understanding” husband. When he dies of old age, Elsa can only speak of him with disgust, calling him stupid and unwilling to learn compared to his wife. Pepper becomes inconsolable with grief, so Elsa returns her to her non-freak sister. Lacking any meaningful dialogue, all three characters are presented as disposable.

Dell Toledo, a strong man, the only member of his immediate family without “lobster claws”, and of uncertain sexuality. He’s married twice to women with masculine physical traits and spends a lot of his screen time at a local gay bar. Stanley, an openly gay con artist, sees him there and blackmails him into murder (though Dell’s current wife, Desiree, drops hints that she already knows). It would appear that Dell finds it more shameful to be gay than to be a freak. Even though he has the ability to pass as “normal” in either situation, he’s much more willing to defend and admit to being the latter.

Ethel Darling, a bearded lady, showtime announcer, camp chef and broad Finnish stereotype. Like other poorly scripted Finns, she’s self-reliant, alcoholic, and as quiet as a TV series permits her to be. She’s never exclusively ethnically identified, but if you know what to look for- if, say, your own family is among the .2% of American Finns- it’s dogwhistle clear. I’m calling attention to her because it feels great to see a fully developed character that looks and sounds a bit like you. Why the writers chose to quietly specify yet another white cast member rather than pay attention to the characters noticeably lacking is anyone’s guess. I certainly didn’t need any more representation: drawing attention to Ethel is icing a cake so much that it becomes inedible.

The actually physically different freaks: Amazon Eve, Legless Suzi, Toulouse, Paul the Illustrated Seal. Though their stories come across piecemeal throughout the series, they are largely filler compared to the repeat-seasons stars: CGI’d Sarah Paulson, prosthetic’ed Evan Peters.

I’ve stopped watching other AHS seasons at various points for doing something in extremely poor taste. I’m ashamed to admit that the sit in sequence didn’t even blip my radar the first two times around- I took it as a normal discrimination experience without ever stopping to consider why. To quote Pepper’s sister, “God doesn’t always give with both hands”: yes, Freak Show handles segregation, but only to the extent that it serves the plot. As an audience, we deserve and ought to demand better.

This is a great season for feeling disgusted and nihilistic. I won’t be watching it again.

Musing: The Dark Knight Rises, 2012, PG13

Here’s a brief and funny thought about a movie that’s neither:

All Batman villains have a literal je ne sais quoi. Either we cannot place their motives or they are in a grieving stage exaggerated to the point that it’s not easily recognizable. They are frightening and dangerous because we cannot fully understand them, and a good Batman movie knows how to ruthlessly exploit that.

The Nolan trilogy was doing great until this last misfire. Batman Begins: the Scarecrow seeks power through giving people terrible hallucinations as revenge for a lifetime of bullying (stage 2, anger). The Dark Knight: the Joker, twice over, forces two parties to decide which one has more right to be alive because…???? The Dark Knight Rises: Bane hijacks the stock market and seals off the city because he is being paid very well by the real antagonist.

Lackluster, to say the least, but it matches the rest of the production. There is not a single moment that bothers to connect you to the average Gothamite or encourages you to wonder what you’d do in their shoes. (There is a lot of forced discussion about the haves and the have nots, with the haves represented by 90% of the speaking characters.) Worse, there are several total rewrites on character backstories, which might be acceptable if there ever was a clear one for Bane. Where we’re used to villains that leave us chilled and introspective, we’re presented with a super strong possible former prisoner with an obnoxious accent. Lackluster, to say the least.

The Batman origin story is about facing fears. New chapters to the Batman saga are kept fresh through fear: dazzle the audience with something we can’t comprehend, put us in the batsuit with him. The Dark Knight Rises feels like a mockery. It tackily exploits the known (don’t even get me started on that national anthem scene) while constantly changing the rules of the unknown. Don’t bother. Rewatch The Dark Knight instead.

Game: Nitemare 3D for DOS, 1994

Player Beware! Admittedly, I haven’t finished the game in its entirety… but I got nothing. Nitemare 3D is pretty much harmless. Pro tip, I guess: the bats cause damage and, unlike other enemies, circle you in a tight radius. Kill them on sight and save yourself some grief.

From the “That Explains A Lot” file: some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my dad’s lap, playing this game. Too young to read, even (I would have been 2 or 3 upon its release), I called Nitemare 3D “The Hand Game” thanks to the forced perspective. I’ve probably spent 100 hours shooting at monsters while my dad steered, inevitably more intrigued than frightened when a new creature showed up.

Twenty years later, having forgotten the game’s name, I tried to describe it to Mr. Flax. He said it sounds a lot like Wolfenstein and that I probably misremembered the antagonists- how would a toddler know what Nazis are? After some extensive searching, I’ve finally found The Hand Game again (in emulator form). Now we’re both reasonably sure it’s Wolfenstein repackaged with a custom skin on it and lowered thusly down to a PG rating. Admittedly, everything about it screams “shareware”.

You are Hugo, whose girlfriend has been kidnapped and hidden somewhere in the bowels of the huge, pixellated house on the title screen. To find her, you need to search floor by enormous floor. Enemies are around every corner, so there are two stackable map trigger options: view the maze and/or view the monsters relative to your position. Pickups in the form of potions and giant floating 3D rendered eyeballs will fix your health and keep the maps running, respectively. Your maps’ lives are tracked with bars, and yours is tracked with an image of your own face… which, even at 100%, doesn’t look that great.

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You all right, man? You’re looking kinda…
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…oh.

I’m featuring Nitemare 3D thanks to a gag I noticed. The enemies are all rough sketches of Universal movie monsters… and I’m pretty sure they come at you in the order of the movies’ releases. Downstairs: Frankenstein with a knife, a mummy. Upstairs: skeletons and a lady with a beehive, both with the ability to give you an electric shock. Outside: a wolf man. One doesn’t play DOS emulators looking for visual detail; it’s nice to see a little reminder that the game was made with love for the genre.

Obviously there are better horror games- more recent, faster, scarier, easier on the eyes- but if you have half an hour to spend on a kooky little holdover, you could do a lot worse. Recommended!

Film: It Follows, R, 2014

Watcher beware! It Follows is an overblown metaphor about an STD: there is one instance of (plot-relevant) graphic, nonconsensual sex and one use of chloroform. Also, sorry for the lack of images: this is a library borrow that has been returned.

It’s summer, very nearly my birthday, and I’m miserable at an overnight job. Money this week has been a bit of a struggle- I’m paying off a (fantastic) early birthday vacation- and my Facebook feed is loaded with day job people relaxing in the sun. I’m about to launch a media analysis project and have been feeling altogether too zoomed in. I am not living the dream; it’s more like I’ve sold my soul to it.

Enter It Follows, the truest-feeling movie I’ve seen in ages. We go into horror movies expecting to feel a range of thrilling emotions- would you believe this one left me nostalgic instead?

It Follows follows an incestuous knot of nothing-special teens helping member Jamie with a sticky sexual problem. Jamie’s involved with a slightly older man, Hugh, who suddenly starts acting strange, capping it off with chloroforming her, handcuffing her to a chair, and explaining It in eerie detail. It is spread by sex, and It stops once you sleep with someone new. Hugh doesn’t cover what It does, exactly, beyond relentlessly pursue you, but he does note that It usually appears as a stranger and occasionally as someone you know. He then drops Jamie off down her block in her underwear. Horrified, the rest of the squad- Kelly, Yara, and Paul- get her a blanket and call the police.

Jamie quickly learns that “follow” is the best word for it: her first extraordinary encounter is with a woman who spots her through a classroom window and walks straight toward her. Jamie dodges into a hallway. The woman keeps coming. She shouts to her and finds that no one else can see her. After an unnerving but easy escape, Jamie returns home and stays up all night with the others, who can see she’s so upset that they don’t even question attempting to fight an invisible enemy.

Shades of The Ring, you’ll say, The Happening, and, once you get some visuals, The Sixth Sense. You’re not wrong. All of these movies rely on a certain subtlety: the concepts are more frightening than anything we actually see. It takes its time getting up to speed: initial scares primarily consist of Jamie seeing a weird-looking person coming closer and closer, and her friends watching her consequent freakouts and not knowing what to do. By the time It makes contact and the squad finally believes Jamie, you’ll be thoroughly unnerved by powerwalking as a concept.

Plot B concerns Jamie reclaiming her sexuality. It is a problem no one wants; Jamie’s uncertain whether she’s more obligated to spread it or suffer through it. Appropriately enough, It Follows is set in a lake town in midsummer: there’s a fair amount of beach-read will-she-won’t-she in between the scares. The kids are vaguely aged somewhere between 16 and 21 and have lived on the same block forever. Conversations increasingly begin with “remember when…” and end with confessions of impropriety with one person to another person. It’s nostalgia in the worst way, a soft-focus, pastel reminder of the days when boredom led to experimentation… until consequences set in.

I’m featuring It Follows because of the accuracy of its protagonists’ concerns. It’s very easy to step back into their shoes and be frightened with them; questionable sex and failing mental health are terrifying at any age but especially when both are brand new concepts. For the record, I grew up within walking distance of my best friends’ houses, and we’re all from an oceanside tourist trap: a lot of the visuals are familiar and comforting to me on a level that might not translate. Still, I firmly believe that if you have friends you’d die for, you’ll connect to It Follows. Strongly recommended.

Show: My 600-Lb Life, TV14, 2012-

Watcher beware! This show has at least one graphic surgery per episode, generally lasting several minutes. My 600-Lb Life is sponsored by the medical center where they take place; suffice it to say the editors spare no details.

This program is focused on demonizing, then rehumanizing, an already traumatized set of people. I am not including images because, frankly, the exploitation is the most horrifying part.

What hooked me was the fact that everyone carries it differently. While every protagonist is so heavy that it’s actively endangering them, there’s a surprising amount of variety among body types. Some folks look like pupated Tim Burton characters, some have only a massive spare tire. Consider the poor woman whose lymphedemas meant her lower body outweighed her upper body 2:1, or the man whose cellulite was so prone to infection that it was constantly leaking and hardening.

Every episode begins with the featured patient describing how humiliated they are with themselves, then moves straight into discussing the generally similar traumas they’ve encountered, in between ECUs of the protagonist eating junk. The stars almost universally express that they know they lack control and are afraid of truly examining why. Bariatric surgeon-cum-producer Dr. Nowzaradan enters to offer a miracle cure in the form of stomach stapling. Based on their attitude, he performs the surgery or doesn’t.

Exploitation is an ugly, ugly storytelling device, and My 600-Lb Life makes certain that the audience only relates to its characters out of empathy they’re not entirely sure to trust. I’d estimate about two thirds of the featured people are sexual abuse survivors; while all of them clearly wound up with eating disorders, there’s no other common thread between them or likeable, individual trait given any real focus. My heart hurts most for the man who began eating badly after his first wife was murdered: halfway through the episode, his second wife and their toddler walk out over his “attitude problems”. It’s unclear whether we’re meant to sympathize for a man still obviously grieving or a woman whose spouse mentally abandons her as he does so.

I am featuring My 600-Lb Life because lack of control is probably my biggest, most realistic, and most relatable fear. Despite its simplistic sideshow sheen, this is ultimately a program about people who freely express that they live in a nightmare… and who, as often as not, don’t get to leave it.

Back. Sorry

I make the same mistake every time I get a new job.

Somehow I got it into my head that the right job will mean I no longer need hobbies. I seek work that will happily consume me, and to which I will willingly give all my spare time, convincing myself, every time, that I am completely fulfilled with desk work. I have never been salaried, so I always imagine that treating my contract job like this will rapidly move me up the ladder- after all, salaried jobs occasionally require one’s total focus.

If my life was a scary movie, we’d be yelling “Don’t go in there!” with each job change.

Case in point: I bailed on Ghoul’s Errand because I started working for a cable provider, and boy did I want to do it right. After the initial gloss wore off, I realized my basic function is to wait for a problem to arise, then tell other people about it. That’s all. That’s it. And while we wait, we can watch literally anything in the catalog… included a decent selection of horror.

So for a while I glutted myself, thinking the joy was in the watching, only to find that I’m the only coworker with any real appreciation for the finer, scarier things in life: no one wanted to watch them with me. Slowly I gave up on that, and almost immediately fell into a pit of doubt and self loathing. My old demons sat on my shoulders and whispered into my ears:

>You don’t like your job.
No, I don’t like my job.
>You don’t like anything.
No, I don’t like anything.

Meanwhile, boyfriend was putting together an Amazon order and trying to make it large enough to qualify for free shipping. He shouted out did I want anything? and before he finished the sentence I was yelling “GOODNIGHT MOMMY”.

And I realized I had an answer for the demons.

I love scary movies.
>No, you don’t.
Yes, I do, and I like writing about them even more.

And faced with the truth, they ran off screaming. I’m positive they’ll come back for the sequel, but the shock at seeing them won’t.

So I’m back, and slowly saving up money in the hopes that I can support being an author full time (turns out I do like working at a desk as long as I’m doing something intelligent). Thanks to the daily overexposure, and largely for want of time, you’re going to have to take quality over quantity, heaven forbid.

Thanks for bearing with me, guys! There’s a really interesting one coming soon, I promise.

Anne

Look: Totally Not Haunted Eye Painting, Dumpster, ???

Mr. Flax and I live on the bottom floor of our complex, and are compelled to walk by the dumpsters any time we enter or leave the building. People tend to drop their moving-out stuff a little ways from the dumpsters: they separate the trash and the not-quite-trash. One day someone tossed what appeared to be an oil painting class portfolio, and I adopted most of the lot.

Unfortunately, the paintings are oddly sized, and we’ve only just gotten around to framing them. The first: this gorgeous eye on strangely-shaped upcycled cardboard.

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The eye, in particular, has always made Mr. Flax uneasy. Once we hung it up, though, he put his foot down about allowing it in the apartment… we have enough mirrors that it’s difficult to avoid this effect.

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So now idk what to do with it, except tell people about it in the hopes that it’ll scare them too. ❤

Happy hauntings!

Look: Vince Cardboard Human Skull, Cardboard Safari, 2016?

Ooooh guys. If only money was no object.

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Per Amazon, it’s an 8x6x6 inch cube that you assemble yourself; this is the largest one in stock, and there’s only four left. Jump on it, if you can!

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Film: The Hallow, NR, 2015 (Spoilers)

[SPOILERS]
Watcher Beware! Graphic, but not remotely realistic death of a baby; offscreen death of a dog; moderate gore throughout, specifically connected to the eyes; not-great treatment of women on the whole.
[END SPOILERS]

Well, fellow monsters… this is the first entry to Ghoul’s Errand that I’m almost certain will give me nightmares later. I can’t give The Hallow an unqualified recommendation- some of the imagery is that disturbing- but it’s easily an 8.5 out of ten.

The elevator pitch for The Hallow must have been something like “The Evil Dead meets Celtic fairy tales”. The frenetic pace and strong adherence to Murphy’s Law is lifted right from the former, with Irish bogeymen in place of Kantarian demons. Combating the baddies even comes down to reading from an old, magical book.

Unique to The Hallow is an understated, believable married couple and their incredibly well-behaved baby. Adam, some kind of botanist channeling Jack Torrance, has moved his little family to a cottage in the middle of the forest for research. Claire keeps house and minds baby Finn, and turns up with her husband to keep the Problem with No Name at bay. They’re adorable and we’re jealous of them. Their only apparent issues are a rude neighbor who broke their window and the moisture causing increasing damage to the house’s structure.

Little by little, bits of vegetation begin leaking into their house along with the water. They increase in size and intricacy, knotted to the extent that the plant is no longer identifiable. Claire finds one about the size of, say, an infant in Finn’s bed, and the fun officially begins.

The Hallow relies heavily on horror tropes, but at a pace that will keep you guessing, seeming to get them all out of the way within the first half. It’s also easily the prettiest movie I’ve seen this year, with sets balanced equally between lush and claustrophobic. Seriously, check out these screenshots.

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By the way, this is like 80% of the HOH subs on Netflix.
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Dig that Rembrandt lighting. Mmm.

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Weird, wonderful, unforgettable- but not the best. Pretend it’s a B movie and you’ll leave thrilled.

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