The Monster You Know: Why Cujo (1981) is Terrifying

*As always, some spoilers ahead~

Now, I’d like to state for the record that I’ve never been especially afraid of dogs. I’ve always maintained a healthy respect for them and the predators they once were for sure. When it comes to large dogs, I’ve always been cautious of getting too close, of letting them pounce on me. As a little girl, I did have some terrible recurring visions of a large dog knocking me to the ground, scratching or biting my face in the fall. When you’re a child, dogs can be so large, their teeth so potentially sharp. Suffice to say, I never grew up in a house with a dog. (We’ve always been cat people, tbh.) Again, though, I’d like to emphasize that while I may have some anxieties related to man’s best friend, I’d never classify myself as phobic. I know dogs are not inherently violent nor do they have any overtly violent intentions. When a large dog jumps on you, it’s most likely because they are excited. It’s part of how they show affection. If a dog scares you, they probably don’t mean to. Unless that dog belongs in a Stephen King novel and their name is Cujo. Then, they might just want to terrify you.

I went into Cujo (1981) not so much afraid of encountering a rabid dog but afraid I couldn’t handle the violence that would undoubtedly befall this poor, titular dog. The book was written in 1981 and I greatly feared and anticipated what animal abuse I may encounter in its pages. I should’ve feared the dog more. Again, I’m not especially afraid of dogs and yet I found this book scary because of how familiar the monster in it’s pages is. I feared how probable the monster could be. That kind of horror, that fear of the mundane and how easily it can become menacing, is what struck me most about Cujo (1981). It’s horror is not only still prevalent and prescient but so deeply potential. I went into this book prepared to be more sympathetic for its monster and instead I found myself terribly compelled by the potential for what we hold most dear to become that which we fear most. Please, let me tell you why Cujo (1981) is terrifying.

Like most of King’s works, this story opens on a seemingly mundane family in a seemingly mundane Maine town. Castle Rock, in this case. In the past, there was a serial killer named Frank Dodd who operated in the area but that human monster is dead and time moves on. Every town needs a boogie man anyway. A monster to hide in children’s closets and compel them to be good or else.

At the core of this story, there are two families. The up-and-coming Trenton family who moved to Castle Rock from NYC contrasts with the considerably poorer Chambers family, who are clearly living by the skin of their teeth. Vic Trenton has ensured he is able to bring home the bread and then some to his family through an as-of-yet lucrative advertising business. His wife, Donna, doesn’t need to work and their son, Tad, has only one worry: the aforementioned monster in his closet. On the flip side, Joe Chambers is a blue collar, blue blood, mechanic who lives on the outskirts of the outskirts of town. Charity, his wife, has lived an anything but charitable existence unless you count her husband’s charity in not beating her every single night. No, instead he just ensures she can never stray too far from his reach, refusing to allow her the freedom to visit her sister Holly in Connecticut. Chambers’ son, Brett, spends his days helping his father in seeming preparation to follow in his work-boot steps. The only tangible affection that exists between father and son may just be Cujo, a much-desired gift acquired after an auto repair was traded on a fancy car was traded for a dog’s lifetime of discounted food. As Cujo would grow to be a 200-lb St. Bernard, this was a very savvy deal. 

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, the Trentons and the Chambers couldn’t be more different. Though class conflicts don’t really come to the forefront per say, the different opportunities or lack thereof available to each family +  the qualities of life of each family do ultimately contribute in different ways to the central conflict. The family”s paths cross when Vic Trenton’s fancy jag becomes in need of a repair that could be quite expensive at a town-side mechanic. Vic received a recommendation for Joe Chambers and has his family tag along on the trip out. It is on this initial venture that we meet Cujo. While Tad is entranced and Vic finds the dog harmless, Donna is immediately frightened by Cujo and does not want her son to interact with the large dog. Perhaps she senses the potential for danger, some remnant of women’s intuition spurring her strong aversion? In the 1983 movie, Cujo has already been scratched by the rabies-carrying bat, leaving a nasty wound on his nose which could have been a warning sign to Donna of trouble to come. In the book, though, the Trentons meet Cujo prior to him being infected, leaving the reason for Donna’s initial fear more speculative. Being that Cujo is a 200 lb. St. Bernard, it could just be a remnant of primordial fear for a beast coming too close to her offspring. Regardless, this first meeting goes without issue, making Donna’s reaction seem unnecessary. What is does do though is provide readers the association of fear with the dog. Intangible, illogical fear. We don’t know exactly why, but we’re afraid. Same as with the monster in Tad’s closet. (An association that we will touch on.)

After this meeting, the book walks us through several circumstances that occur between both families that will ultimately culminate in a kind of “perfect storm”. Firstly, Cujo goes chasing after a hare and gets scratched on the nose by a rabid bat. Readers are also let to believe that the subterranean cave Cujo gets his head stuck in and has his fateful meeting with the bat may also be the dumping ground for aforementioned serial killer Fred Dodd. The floor of this subterranean cave is littered with the bones of creatures who could not escape its grasp, both associating the ultimate consequences of what occurs within the cave with death as well as foreshadowing the situation Donna and Tad will find themselves in later in the book.

Additionally, during this time, readers discover that Donna was having an affair with a jerk-off “stripper” (I.e antiques refurbisher) named Kemp. (She breaks it off fairly early on though, much to Kemp’s displeasure.) Vic suspects the affair which adds to the stress he is experiencing from his job — a recent product (Zingers) from the Sharp Cereals company for which his small business does advertising caused a severe reaction in many young consumers. The red dye used to give the newly released cereal a bright, cherry hue is indigestible and causes several children to experience gastrointestinal issues. When they vomit, it looks like blood. Not great. It’s a PR nightmare and the advertising campaign Vic and his business partner Roger created for the product and the company does not help matters. (I.e. A “Nothing wrong here” slogan is a bad one for this situation.) So, Vic is not only (rightly) concerned that his wife is having an affair but he is also worried he will lose a large customer which could tank his business and leave his family in financial turmoil. Tad, meanwhile, is growing increasingly concerned with the monster in his closet, fearing what will happen when it starts creeping further out of the closet, towards his bed. It’s glowing red eyes and sulfurous smell linger in his mind. Even Donna can somewhat feel it’s presence, again sensing something is “off”, catching a whiff of sulfur that shouldn’t be in her son’s closet, a hint of the monster. To ward off his son’s fears, Vic is essentially forced to create a kind of chant/prayer to say with Tad before bed every night, a ritual that seems to keep the monster at bay. These “Monster Words” become something Tad holds onto in times of great fear.

As for the Chambers family, things are also in flux. Charity has won the lottery — $5k and she plans to use this money as leverage to get her possessive husband to let her go visit her sister, Holly. Joe doesn’t like Holly and her lawyer-husband and perfect family seemingly because they reflect everything the Chambers’ blue collar lifestyle lacks. He finds them shallow. Charity, though, thinks they offer Brett a glimpse into a better life, a better life for himself. After much argument, she managed to strike a bargain, allowing herself and Brett to go see her sister the upcoming weekend in exchange for the money. Meanwhile, Cujo is fully succumbing to rabies and the rabid urges flowing through him. He keeps imagining hurting people, tearing them limb from limb. Killing to kill. In the book, he battles these urges but it seems some unseen or supernatural force is slowly consuming him. Based on how Cujo contracted rabies paired with Tad’s recurring red-eyed monster, I believe it’s safe to say that we are meant to believe that Cujo is being possessed, in part, by the evil and murderous spirit of Dodd. At the very least, the rabies is meant to be symbolic of the primordial predator, the beast that has stalked our nightmares since ancient times, the creature that kills to kill. Because of their upcoming escape to her sister’s, though, Charity convinces her son not to alert Joe that Brett suspects anything is wrong with Cujo till they’re safely away. This means that when Brett encounters an almost entirely rabid Cujo on their property the morning they are supposed to leave, he says nothing. So, Cujo is swallowed by the morning fog, free to go fully rabid.

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Back at the Trentons’ place, things have also begun going downhill. When Vic confronts Donna about the possibility of an affair, she outright confesses to sleeping with Kemp — stressing, though, that she ended it because she loves her family. As Vic needs to leave on an urgent business trip with Roger to do major damage control and hopefully save his livelihood, he doesn’t really have time to hash things out with Donna, leaving them and us in limbo, uncertain about the future and wondering at how tenuous our futures can be. This also leaves Donna as an interestingly unlikable character (which contrasts with how likable Cujo was at first). We’re placed in this position to almost want something bad to happen to Donna – something I believe makes us feel all the more anxious later on in the story, as though we also contributed to the circumstances that led to Donna’s fate.

Anyway, Charity + Brett Chambers exit left while Vic exits right. 

Donna may have also tried to make an exit if not for one key detail on which the entirety of the plot hinges — her old Pinto is desperately clinging to life. The auto shop in town charges a small fortune (that the Trenton family, in their tenuous position) cannot exactly afford right now while the car dealership is located in New Paris, way too far for the Pinto to even dream of making. While Vic, from the hotel, urges Donna to call the dealership to pick up the car (he’ll find a way to pay for it), Donna doesn’t want to cause anymore hardship. She feels so guilty already. So, she decides she’s going to go out to the Chambers’ property and handle this small thing. They fixed the jag right quick and they can probably do the same for the Pinto. Even though she’s afraid of Cujo and uncomfortable around Joe Chambers, she figures she can suffer that much and have one less thing for Vic to worry about when he comes home. She was going to leave Tad with a babysitter but Tad outright refuses to stay at the home with the monster in his closet. More, he refuses to let his mom go without him. He can see the red eyes coming for them, smell how near the monster is. He’d rather they both stay at the house where Vic tacked up the Monster Words but Donna is determined and so, with the Monster Words Tad untacked from the wall in hand and a small boxed lunch Donna prepared to hold them over for the afternoon this errand was supposed to take, they make the unfortunate trip out to the Chambers’ property in the middle of nowhere, entirely unprepared for and unsuspecting of the doom that awaits them. 

As they go, King makes a point to emphasize how isolated the Chambers property is from civilization. There’s nothing but uncultivated land and unpaved roads. Ramshackle dwellings dot the land with miles between them. Unattended children in dirty diapers remind us of how careless these neighbors are, of how careless nature can be. In the movie, overgrown foliage and a small mound of trash obscured the Pervier property from Donna’s view as she drives by. The Pervier property is the closest to the Chambers’ and is home to uncouth, honorably-discharged-injured-in-the-line-of-duty-and-oh-so-bitter veteran Gary Pervier, seemingly only friend of Joe. Gary had planned to spend the weekend gambling with Joe and Joe’s newfound money. Unfortunately for Gary, Cujo found him first and tore out his throat. More unfortunately, when Joe went looking for Gary that morning, Cujo was still in Gary’s basement, awaiting his next victim. 
This is a particularly chilling scene in the book. Joe is hesitantly creeping through Gary’s shadowed house when he notices a dark blob on the floor in the living room, a dark stain spread out beneath it. Initially, he thinks either Gary is still passed out from drinking the other night or it’s Cujo, who Joe could not locate last night or this morning. Brett and Charity had not called about their concerns over Cujo yet. When Joe discovers Gary’s body and notes the torn throat, he understands instantly that Cujo has gone rabid. He runs for the phone in the kitchen and because it’s the 80’s, begins rapidly thumbing through the phone book for animal control. So rapid is his search and labored his breathing, that he doesn’t hear Cujo nose open the door to the darkened basement behind him until it’s too late. All Joe hears is a rumbling growl and all he sees is a brief glimpse of red eyes before he too becomes another victim, throat torn out. Good riddance.

Perhaps if Donna had been able to see the gaping hole torn into Gary’s screen door on her way to the Chambers’ or any of the blood just beyond the doorway, she may have known something was wrong. But of course she doesn’t. So, unbeknownst to Donna, she drives straight into the beast’s lair, the Pinto dying just as she reaches the Chambers’ property, a smidge away from the garage. She figures Joe can’t ignore the car now that it’s right outside his front door.

Since no one answered the phone all morning, Donna figures Charity + Brett probably went into town and Joe is in the garage. She makes to get out of the car, noting the eerie silence as she does. It’s too quiet. Just as she begins to consider what that could mean, Cujo appears. He’s covered in Gary + Joe’s blood, foaming at the mouth, and his eyes are a murderous blood red. They latch onto Donna, “The Woman” as Cujo thinks of her, and in that moment, the two become mortal enemies. Perhaps Cujo had a kind of preternatural knowledge that Donna was responsible for the incessant, headache-inducing calls at the house all morning or perhaps the spirit of Dodd possessing him saw a vulnerable woman and went ballistic or maybe it was just cruel fate but all of Cujo’s hate and rage are now directed at Donna. 

Cujo rushes the car and Donna frantically climbs inside, shutting the door just before Cujo slams into it. He growls, biting and scratching at the door, the scraping sound almost screaming. Or, maybe that’s just Donna and Tad screaming. Donna pushes a panicking Tad out of the way to roll up the windows as Cujo ferociously tries to get at them. Cujo slams and slams into the car, banging on it with his paws, growling all the while as Donna and Tad curl up inside. The car rocks but holds. Tad clutches the Monster Words in his pocket that he brought from home, hoping they will work now to banish this beast. But they don’t. Donna and Tad are now trapped in a dead car in the middle of nowhere with a 200 lb. rabid dog as their only company and with no way to contact anyone for help. They have little food and, as we learn, this is about to be the hottest summer on record for Maine. Donna hopes the mailman will come soon or that someone will see the quick note she scrawled in the kitchen about going to fix the Pinto but what she doesn’t know is that Joe put a hold on the Chambers’ mail starting THAT day and that the note she scrawled at the house would be erased by a jaded Kemp, who came by to harass her but ultimately ended up trashing the place when he found it empty. More to the point, this property damage paired with Vic’s knowledge of the affair with Kemp would sidetrack the investigation into their disappearance for an additional day once Vic realized something was wrong when no one answered the phone at home after almost 48 hrs. Brett and Charity also drag their feet calling neighbors to check on Cujo, battling their own more domestic demons.

Ultimately, Donna and a quickly deteriorating Tad end up in this mortal conflict with Cujo, a standoff in the sweltering Maine summer in a car that quickly becomes an oven in the heat, for an estimated four fucking days. It’s a nightmare scenario, horribly imagined, perfectly crafted. Every piece of both the Trentons‘ and the Chambers’ separately complex lives unified to create this situation. The trepidation and dread builds with each awful revelation that help is being delayed or sidetracked. It’s horrifyingly satisfying. Donna and Tad are trapped and like those unfortunate creatures in that subterranean cave where Cujo was infected, they will die if they cannot find an opening. Unfortunately, that opening keeps becoming smaller and smaller.

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Again, it all comes together is such a satisfying cruel way.

What I find most compelling overall is the central conflict in this story. Though seemingly simple on paper, it speaks to so many of our most deeply human fears. Though we imagine ourselves to be these apex predators, that position is tenuous at best. Any shift could tip the balance at any moment. We are confronted by this realty and the inherently mercurial nature of the universe in the form of a large, rabid dog. In this scenario, we are Donna and we are finding out in the worst way possible that we are not the predators we imagined ourselves to be. We never were. Survival is not a guarantee. It is and has always been something we must fight for — to the death if necessary. For me, this story taps into that most ancient need and the fear that propels it. Cujo (1981) is a compounding of all our most primal fears, this story a microcosm through which to explore what we do if placed in a life-or-death situation against an overwhelming foe — a foe we’ve let inside our lives because we foolishly believed we could tame nature.

I am in that car with Donna and I’m terrified. The world beyond is vicious and blood-thirsty. It wants to harm me and my young. As a reader, I’m thrust into this bitter us-or-them situation, wondering what I’d be willing or able to do under such stressful circumstances. Could I kill to kill? Would I?

And, it’s SO easy to be in that car. As in King’s The Shining (1977), the bare bones of the plot are scary in large part because of their plausibility. In The Shining (1977), it is the very real possibility of isolation turning a man into a monster that leaves us wondering just how much of the threat in the Overlook hotel was supernatural. In Cujo (1981), all of the circumstances that create this “perfect storm” are very real threats today — the obvious being rabid animals, intense heatwaves, car troubles, etc. and the underlying being dysfunctional relationships, abusive partners, bad business breaks, poorly developed infrastructure, wealth inequality, etc. All of these issues appear to some degree in Cujo (1981) and all of them are still present threats that could spiral out of control, becoming our own “red-eyed monster” creeping out of the closet. For me, at least, that is what makes Cujo (1981) so terrifying. Regardless of whether or not there is a supernatural element to the story, the plausible reality of it instills fear. 

The hopeless quality of the book’s (1981) ending, I think, also captures another level of this fear, perhaps the deepest level of this fear. In the book, Tad dies. Not because of Cujo or any other red-eyed monster. He died from heat exhaustion complicated by fatigue and dehydration. Even though Donna finds her courage and her will to survive and does challenge Cujo to a life or death battle that she comes out of victorious, it doesn’t matter. Even though Vic realizes in the midst of the investigation where his wife, son, and the faulty Pinto must be and heads over to the Chambers’ property, he is too late. It’s an unfortunate reality of survival — not everyone can make it. Also, one can do everything right or everything possible and still lose. It’s the horrifying reality and I feel like it is demonstrated very well in this novel.

Donna is motivated to survive largely because she wants to protect her son. Even though she feels guilty about betraying Vic and definitely feels like she’s being deservedly punished (she’snot – this is clearly overkill and if you think otherwise, you can fight me), she adamantly refuses to die before she can save Tad. In the movie, her efforts pay off and she is able to revive and save Tad (for some reason this was decided to be the more impactful ending????). The book, I believe, more closely mirrors reality though in that it is cruel and unforgiving. There is no bargaining with the universe, with a rabid dog, with an unrelenting heatwave. No amount of Monster Words can assuage such horrors. It’s a brutal realization and I think it hits it’s mark in this story.

Cujo (1981) draws a great deal of power from taking everyday horrors and cranking them up to an eleven. It emphasizes how tenuous our safety truly is at any given moment and how easily it can be put in jeopardy. We are all one bad relationship, one bad car day, one rabid dog away from crisis. We take the assurance of our survival for granted, not realizing we could so easily become another animal trapped at the bottom of a subterranean cave or within the confines of a powerless car, as the case may be. We place chairs in front of closet doors and write prayers, hoping they will  be enough to hold the monsters back. We make promises to never cheat again, promises to be grateful for the lives we have. We hope that all these actions are not pointless. That survival is not pointless. We try not to be afraid that, in spite of these precautions, it is. That’s all we can do and maybe, we believe, maybe it’ll be enough. We hope never have to find out either way.

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Hey~ I hope you enjoyed that brief walk through my thoughts on Cujo (1981). I recently read this book and it left quite an impression on me. I thought nothing of King’s could scare me as much as The Shining (1977) or Pet Sematary (1983) but I was delightfully and horrifyingly wrong. I hope I captured even the slightest bit of the terror I experienced while reading this novel. If you enjoyed this analysis, do look forward to more reviews of King’s works in the near future~

HACKSAW: Exploring Horror in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

*As always, some spoilers ahead….

I was not planning on writing a review for this movie. I wasn’t planning on watching this movie. While I love true crime, I don’t usually love any adaptations of it (Mindhunters clearly excluded). I find most media adaptations of true crime to be either wildly inaccurate or to miss “the point” entirely. While I do enjoy the mental exercise of exploring a serial killer’s mindset or ethos, I find that most media adaptions do not capture a serial killer’s ethos so much as they serve to glorify or idolize the killers and/or their crimes. More often than not, a serial killer is positioned as if they were a rock-star rather than a brutal murderer, their crimes portrayed as these jewels in a bloody crown. Victims are also often entirely dehumanized by being treated as secondary characters in their own murders if acknowledged at all which greatly troubles me. For me (and probably many others), I don’t like true crime because I worship perpetrators of violence and pain as being a “step above the rest”. I treat my interest in true crime as an act of bearing witness, a continuing observance for victims, ensuring that they are not forgotten and the crimes their perpetrators committed against them are not forgotten. True crime reminds me of the value of every individual life. For that reason, I find most adaptions of true crime stories to be shallow pantomimes or shameless cash-grabs, profiting off of the pain and suffering of victims and their communities. In many ways, I find Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) to be as guilty of these sins as Ted Bundy was of brutally killing 30+ women. As far as a true crime tribute movie goes, this was a dud for me. In terms of horror, though, this movie does create some truly horrifying moments I’d like to discuss.

In this review, I’m going to try to tread lightly. My focus is mainly going to be on how the film creates these tense, dread-inducing moments for viewers. Again, I do not think the movie itself is horrifying nor are the portrayals of Ted Bundy by Zac Efron or Liz Kendall by Lily Collins particularly note-worthy but I do think the film crafted some deeply unsettling scenes. Much of the horror in these scenes I want to discuss does rely on viewers having some background knowledge in Bundy’s crimes so, fair warning, I will briefly discuss those crimes throughout as respectfully as possible. 

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“As we all binge The Bundy Tapes on @Netflix and share the trailer for the Zac Efron movie, please remember the victims. These women all had hopes and dreams. They should all have movies made about them. I always try to remember what these monsters took away.” Known Victims of Ted Bundy from Billy Jensen

Here we go~

This movie mainly revolves around the “relationship” between Ted Bundy and Liz Kendall, a divorcee and a woman Bundy dated briefly during his time as an active serial killer. (The name Liz Kendall appears to be one of a number of aliases for Elizabeth Kloepfer.) Liz has a young daughter that Bundy also interacts with, acting as a pseudo-father figure. For context, prior to meeting Liz, Bundy is already suspected of having murdered anywhere from a couple – several women. To this day, it’s a bit uncertain but we can confirm that he had already murdered women by 1974 and he started seeing Liz in ‘69. Being that Bundy has confessed to 30+ murders, it seems relatively safe to assume that he was murdering and assaulting women throughout his relationship with Liz. I’m pointing this out because the movie dies not focus on Bundy’s crimes. In fact, the movie is almost entirely told from Liz’s perspective. And, seemingly, she has no knowledge of Bundy’s criminality. We are only afforded brief glimpses into Bundy’s perspective and, even then, we are still mostly on the outside looking in. The unsettling nature of many of the scenes in this movie comes from the interesting juxtaposition between what we know of Bundy and what we see through Liz’s eyes. 

Regardless of whether you as a viewer know exactly how many women Bundy brutally murdered and then mutilated after the fact, I would say most viewers know Bundy was a prolific murderer. So, when the camera focuses on Efron’s hands caressing Collins’ neck during an intimate scene, there is this inherent tension. His hands wrapping around her neck are seen through Liz’s eyes as this gentle, intimate gesture but we as viewers know what those hands are capable of. It’s a gesture of trust that we know is misplaced and misguided. So, even though the camera only pauses on his hands on her neck for a brief moment and even though it’s early in the film and we haven’t even seen a glimpse of violence, there is this menace in this gesture made by this man named Bundy. It’s foreshadowing in the film, yes, but it’s also a kind of hindsight? The foreshadowing angle works here only because of viewers’ inside knowledge of and insight from real-life, historical events. We are terrified for not only Liz but of what has happened and what is going to become.

Something I will give credit to Efron for in this film is his attention to micro-expressions and posturing. I think a lot of the power in the unsettling scenes I’m discussing comes from Efron’s ability to subtly convey that something is “off” with his character. He stares just a little too intently at his hands around Liz’s neck. When he’s pulled over by a cop shortly after that scene, we get to see this glimpse into how Bundy perfects his composure for the world. Right before the cop approached Bundy’s signature VW Beetle, Efron looks dead-eyed at the camera, closes his eyes, and then slips on the grin. The charismatic grin, the genteel and unassuming mask he used to talk several unfortunately kind women to their deaths. It doesn’t work with this cop for a variety of external circumstances, but it’s a deeply unsettling moment. It’s like seeing Michael Myers or Jason without their masks on. Flipping that switch, going from empty to full of charm is a known characteristic of many serial killers, especially those who are organized like Bundy. Seeing it in action helps remind viewers that we are not watching a tragic love story. We are watching a movie about a psychopathic killer who does not feel love or other emotions like we do. I wish the movie went further emphasizing this but casting a “heartthrob” like Zac Efron kind of ensures there’s only so far you can take that. I mean, there are still people today who think Bundy’s eyes look soulful instead of empty….

Anyway, Efron flips this switch several times throughout the film with varying degrees of success. For me, no later scenes were as compelling as this first scene. It occurs right before he’s arrested on suspicion of being the man responsible for killing women up at Lake Sammamish as well as for trying to kidnap another woman (who picked him out of a lineup). So, this scene serves as our first introduction to the real Bundy. For me, watching his mask slip puts the idea into our minds that his “relationship” with Liz is a kind of performance, another extension of this performance. Again, I wish they pushed this further but I digress. It still serves its purpose here.

The next scene I found quite disturbing occurs when Bundy is at the library one evening, presumably studying/reviewing law under the pretense of preparing for his upcoming trial (for the kidnapping case; I believe he hasn’t been charged with what happened at Sammamish yet(?)). He takes a seat in a secluded area in the library that is occupied by only three other female patrons. He makes eye contact and smiles at them, catching one girl’s eye at the table next to him. There’s a clear glimmer in his gaze. The girl is also clearly dazzled by Bundy. She’d go with him, if he asked. He know this. We know it. It’s in the crook of Bundy’s smile. It’s so easy — That’s what this scene emphasizes for me. How easy it was for him to bait the lure and make a catch. It was so easy. We saw how easy it was in the scene. That’s what makes it terrifying to me. Again, to some extent, the horror of this scene relies on us having some external knowledge of Bundy’s MO + crimes but I think this scene also conveys how easy it can be for criminals to pervert everyday interactions into something wicked. It emphasizes how unsuspecting we are, how vulnerable. That girl thinks he’s smiling at her but he’s really smiling at the knowledge that he’s “got one”. It’s the difference between a predator and its prey. Had that girl not looked down at the newspaper conveniently placed at her table and seen the picture of Bundy beside the article accusing him of kidnapping and of possibly murder, she’d have gone with him anywhere. That is horrifying. It makes us wonder would we have gone?

One of Bundy’s most notorious tricks relied on exploiting vulnerability and kindness. He would pose as an invalid, usually someone with a broken limb, and ask women for assistance with loading something large into his car “just over there”. He’d lure a woman (who just wanted to do a kind deed) to a secluded area, stuff her in his car, maybe beat her over the head with a tire iron (if he could find it), and then murder her. He infamously and successfully used this trick twice in one day in broad daylight up at the previously mentioned Lake Sammamish. He’d revisit the graves of his victims, too, and engage in necrophilia, further defiling and degrading the victims. You don’t usually hear about that when whatever biopic is going on about how charming and handsome Bundy could be. We still don’t even know who some of these poor women are but we sure know Bundy was handsome and charming. Bundy weaponized not only his charm and good looks but also our own vulnerabilities and kindness. He preyed upon both. Bundy is always characterized as this handsome and charming man, even when referencing his murders, and all I can ever think about is how much insatiable cruelty and ugliness his pretty mask hid. To that end, I think these early scenes in this movie provide a better glimpse into his maniacal character than other adaptions but I also think they still fall terribly short. 

I mention this because in the latter half of the movie, I feel like there is some attempt to address Bundy’s ugliness and cruelty. We see it in these incessant and, really, harassing phone calls made to Liz, who broke up with him after he was convicted of kidnapping and awaiting several murder charges out-of-state. (Good choice.) Though his tone is relatively kind, there’s this unsettling obsessive quality to the calls.  We see how disturbing the calls are in Liz’s reaction to them. Her shoulders hunch and she flinches. She scrunches her eyes closed, holds her breath till the ringing stops. These calls hurt her and still Bundy persists. Earlier we saw how little Bundy cared about Liz’s time and well-being when he called her several times in a row at her place of work from the courthouse just so he could tell her about this book he likes. It was inconsiderate but harmless then. He was just monopolizing her time. Now, Bundy is monopolizing her headspace. She’s clearly this object of obsession to him, this thing to possess. If he truly loved her like he claims, he’d respect her telling him to leave her alone. But, he doesn’t. Love is about appreciation, not possession and Bundy clearly does not appreciate Liz nor what she wants. He only cares about what he wants. He’s like that horrible “nice guy” ex we’ve all had who just can’t take “No” for an answer and doesn’t understand why we’re “being like that” but like multiplied to an eleven…. and also he’s a serial killer of women who looked just like Liz. (You know, usual ex behavior.)

This narcissism, self-centeredness, and complete lack of regard for everyone else is put on display when the final verdict for Bundy is read at the end of the movie. (He was arrested for the kidnapping and being questioned about the Lake Sammamish murders as well as some murders committed in Washington state before a slew of daring escapes derailed that. Clowns and their tricks, yeah?) After a sham/circus of a capital murder trial (the first ever televised trial in America), Bundy is found guilty and sentenced to death by the state of Florida for killing two women in the Chi Omega sorority house and brutalizing two other women in the sorority at Florida State University. The judge feels sorry for punishing such a “bright, young man” so severely but for crimes as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile” such a punishment must be doled out. Since the movie does not go into it, I would like to elaborate here for a moment on the severity of this attack before discussing Bundy’s reaction.

Bundy broke into the Chi Omega sorority house in the early hours of January 15th, 1978 and brutally raped, bludgeoned, and murdered Margaret Bowman (21) and Lisa Levy (20). He beat Bowman with a fire log while she was sleeping and then garroted her with a nylon stocking. Next, he beat and strangled Levy, biting off one of her nipples and leaving a deep bite mark on her buttocks. She was raped with a hairspray bottle. Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler were also brutally beaten by Bundy during this attack but they survived. Both suffered broken jaws and severe lacerations. Chandler, a dancer, suffered a concussion that left her with a permanent case of vertigo and unable to dance again. He probably would’ve killed them too had he not been scared off by an approaching vehicle’s headlights. This whole siege lasted fifteen minutes for him, lifetimes for the victims who survived.

It was a savage attack. Now, we call this kind of attack a spree kill, indicative of a chaotic and disorganized killer. Or, an enraged one on the verge of being caught. If you did not know the details of this attack or only knew what the movie depicted of the crime, Bundy’s reaction may have been slightly more palatable. There’s more plausibility about whether or not he committed the crimes. (Later DNA evidence would confirm his responsibility.) Bundy’s response to the guilty verdict he receives though is essentially, “Why are you doing this to me?” It’s been his spiel through the whole movie. Why are you doing this to me? Me. It’s all about him. Whenever Bundy addresses any of the charges against him, he always deflects in this way. It speaks to a deep sense of narcissism, of self-centeredness, and to a singular worldview. When the verdict is read, Bundy even cuts a glance to the jury he had a hand in selecting for his trial, clearly confused by how they didn’t see things from his perspective. How could he have been so wrong in his selections? How could they not see? But, they did see. They say the moments we as viewers did, where the mask slipped. They saw what Liz saw when she called the tip line and gave them Bundy’s name as a possibly suspect in the Lake Sammamish murders. What’s horrifying about this moment is how detached and inhuman Bundy appears. He’s more concerned about his own perceived persecution (for crimes he very much did commit) than he is about the victims of these crimes. He can’t even come up with convincing tears. I don’t know if Efron was purposefully being unconvincing or if it’s just bad acting, but it’s fantastically unsettling.

Now, all this said, the last piece of Bundy’s mask does not shatter until the very end of the movie. This last scene is arguably the most horrifying in the movie and is what convinced me to write a review of this movie at all. After fifteen years, Liz, now a successful businesswoman and married to a man who loves her, decides to finally visit Bundy on death row. He’s going to be executed shortly but he’s been staving off the execution by confessing to any and all unsolved murders he can. The end is closing in though. So, Liz decides to pay a final visit. It’s more for herself than for him. She wants to confess to Bundy that she gave his name to the tip line all those years ago (which ultimately led to his capture) and she wants to confront Bundy about his crimes one last time. He’s yet to truly confess them — to Liz, at least. This whole time he’s maintained his innocence. He tells Liz he’s only confessing to unsolved murder cases to bide time on death row to reopen his case. But, we know and Liz knows that all his appeals have been used up and, ultimately, the right man is going to be held accountable for the crimes in question. But, Liz wants to hear him say so.

The camera cuts back and forth from Liz to Bundy during this scene. There’s only a clear pane of glass between the two. A transparent barrier. A two-way phone, a thread, is all that connects the two. Liz produces pictures from one of the murders and asks Ted where the woman’s head is located. Bundy denies her, gives a barely perceivable shake of his head. Why are you doing this to me? Liz presses him. Their heavy breathing fogs up the glass between them. Bundy continues to refuse and refute. Why are you doing this to me? Liz was honest with him and now she wants him to be honest with her. This is his last chance. “Where’s her head, Ted?” How… how did you do it? He’s not going to answer. How can he control her if he can’t control her perception of him? He can’t answer. Not to her. Not to himself. He won’t…. until he does. In the fogged glass between them that blurred line, Bundy slowly scrawls the word HACKSAW. It’s similar to how Danny writes REDRUM  in The Shining (1977). The effect is also similar.

Liz’s expression just drops. The only way to describe how she looks in this moment is utterly, bone-chillingly horrified. Everything she feared is true and the man she once thought she loved is a monster. HACKSAW is a confession — the confession that every detective lined up in the hallway to come in after Liz is hoping to receive. It’s the confession none of them will get. Liz flees the room, finally and horribly free, and Bundy wipes the glass and his expression clear, ready for the next performance. 

It’s not the most horrifying scene I’ve ever seen but it’s in my current top ten. This scene almost makes the rest of this considerably boring and “meh” movie worth it. I don’t even think the brief flashback to Efron chasing a woman with the hacksaw and hitting her over the head is necessary, to be honest. Though I’ve been very critical thus far of the lack of violence that this film touched upon in their portrayal of Bundy, I think HACKSAW conveys so much horror and violence in and of itself that a visual representation becomes unnecessary. Like Liz, I feel like we should be left to imagine what we missed and review what we thought we knew with new eyes. This scenes makes the movie being told from Liz’s perspective make sense. Even though we as viewers know what Bundy did, we are as horrified as Liz. 

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Hey~ Hope you enjoyed this true crime/horror-esque review. I’m a bit hesitant to blend the two but I hope I did both aspects of this film justice. I didn’t particularly like this movie or want to promote it but there were some scenes from it that I just couldn’t get out of my head. If you saw this movie and have any thoughts on it or on Bundy, I would love to hear from you.

*Some of the info I got on Bundy’s crimes came from The Last Podcast on the Left‘s episodes (99 & 100, respectively) on Bundy which you can catch on Spotify. Hail yourselves~

 

 

The Shape of Horror

Halloween (1978) is a pillar of the horror genre, the slasher flick that paved the ways for such predecessors as Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In many ways, Halloween is the blueprint for the quintessential slasher flick. Teenage promiscuity, inattentive authority figures, a “blank-slate” of a killer on the loose, bloodshed and gore, an ambiguously ominous ending…. It’s everything you could want in an 80’s slasher flicker. Though not well-received at the time of its release, Halloween has since gained cult status and a pervasive presence in pop culture. In many ways, Michael Myers, our antagonist, is an exploration of what Leatherface (1974) could have been. Attempts to replicate Michael Myers extend across mediums with varying degrees of success. (I.e somehow the Halloween sequels are the worst offenders????) There is something about the looming, stoic “shape” that Michael Myers occupies in the movie and in our imaginations that is profoundly unsettling even decades later. Is it the “pure evil” of him as Dr. Loomis would have us believe? Or, is it something more sinister? Something so normal and ubiquitous that it’s horror is ignored until dragged to the surface?


In Halloween (1978), Michael Myers is a menacing and silent figure, most often appearing in short bursts and in peripheral glimpses when he is on screen. The camera will pan for a length of time before settling on a shirt sleeve, the rest of the body out of frame. We see more of Michael’s perspective of the world than we see of his place within the world. Figuratively and visually, Michael Myers exists on the fringes of society, occupying empty spaces as if he himself is nothing more than a person-shaped vacancy/ blank himself. Though quite a physically imposing and otherwise arresting figure, Michael all but drifts through the everyday lives of his victims, rarely acknowledged. When a glimpse is caught of him by another character, it’s almost immediately dismissed because he shouldn’t be possible within the setting he is seen. He is able to walk across perfectly polished yards, through upper middle-class suburban homes, and even drive slowly by ranting former-psychiatrists without drawing so much as a glance. It is perhaps his most horrifying quality — his ability to blend into his surroundings. It should not be possible. We would notice somebody like that, a threat like him….right?

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In many ways, Michael Myers represents what we fear most about dangers and monsters — that they could be anything or anyone and appear at any moment. They could be one of us. Walk among us. Michael’s blank, non-descript, standard Halloween mask also seems to be representative of how anyone of us could be masking who we truly are, masquerading in a person-suit, pretending to be human. (In Michael’a case and in a very literal sense, it of course helps that he commits his crimes predominantly on Halloween night where a Halloween mask wouldn’t be cause for suspicion.) There’s something inherently unsettling about not being able to see someone’s face and so to not be able to ascertain what they want. Nonverbal cues and facial expressions guide the majority of our interactions with others so withholding that form of communication leaves us uncertain. His very character design, though plain in comparison to many future slasher antagonists, is meant to be unsettling because it is so bland and un-notable. It allows this predator to hide.

There’s also another symbolic level to the mask I’d like to touch upon. I think Michael captures a lot of fears specifically related to serial killers, especially fears that we are growing to realize may actually have some founding to them. (This makes sense considering the time frame in which Halloween was released – the late 70’s. The late 70’s – the 80’s were the height of the “murder years” in the US. Dahmer, Gacy, Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas, The Golden State Killer… all of our monsters were active during this time.) Serial killers are not grotesque or deformed monsters though (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes might have had you believe). Often, there is nothing monstrous or very noteworthy about them other than their heinous crimes, which can be “masked” by their otherwise plain appearances. Think H.H. Holmes, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or *sigh* BTK (fuck that guy). Fairly un-notable. They don’t look like monsters. They look like us. And, that’s horrifying. It’s horrifying that we might not be able to see the monsters coming.


I think Michael’s character embodies our fears about serial killers rather well. His “mask” is made fairly obvious for us but the lack of notice or reaction from the characters around him as he passes through their world seems to encapsulate that idea that serial killers (I.e monsters) could slide right past all our defenses. I mean, that scene in Halloween (1978) of Michael following the kid Laurie babysits from the other side of the fence (from his perspective) and bumping into the kid, placing a steadying hand on the child’s shoulder, is terrifying. This innocuous gesture is made menacing. I find it interesting how in Halloween 2018 (2018 duh) Michael specifically goes after his mask that the true crime “journalists” have in their possession almost as if he needs it before he can blend in again. He’s going out of his way to get it, makes it his first priority after escaping maximum security prison again, so it must be important. Of course, for viewers of the Halloween franchise, it’s his signature. But, in terms of Michael’s character, it would only make sense that he would go after this item if it was necessary for his primary goals: stalking, hunting, killing, causing general paranoia(???) and harm. If it doesn’t serve that mission in some essential way, it serves no purpose to him. I think the degree of sheer terror expressed by the podcasters upon encountering a Michael unmasked, just the sight of him, also supports the idea that his mask is not just of physical significance but carries metaphorical implications. It’s a very real representation of the masks that serial killers assume in order to walk among us. Otherwise, we’d run screaming from them. It’s a barrier not just between us and them but between them and the world.

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Enough on masks though (for now). I’d really like to speak on what I believe the overall character of Michael represents. (A contentious issue, I know. Also, it’s an issue that the Halloween sequels have “muddied” rather than clarified. I really won’t be speaking about those or Satanic cults here — or ever if I can avoid it.) As much as Michael can be representative of our fears around real serial killers, there’s an undeniably supernatural element to Michael, as evidenced by his ability to survive just about every kind of grievous bodily harm and kind of fatality that befalls (ha-ha) him. He’s got that super hero resilience without any scrap of the moral character. Additionally, hiding in plain sight or not, Michael disappears into thin air at an alarmingly high rate. Even if I suspend my disbelief and I am willing to accept that Michael’s disappearing act on-screen is meant to emphasize how easily the monsters among us can be absorbed into our otherwise quotidian lives, Michael’s seeming invisibility is really beyond believing. Unless there is something “other” to this mysterious shape.


I’ve mulled over the idea of Michael Myers for a while now. In large part, I’d say that’s due to my love of true crime and how, barring some extreme abnormalities (noted here), Michael really captures the fear that many serial killers instill in us as well as he represents the blank slate that so many of these killers are when you begin to peel back the layers. There’s just….nothing there. There may be something inside their pasts that explains why they do what they do but nothing excuses who they are and why they exist. Why a psychopath happens. When you get down to the heart of it, some people are just empty side. For whatever reason. I think Michael portrays that and the horror of that well. It’s something I find to be very compelling about his character.


But, all that said, I’ve always felt that there’s more to Michael and what he could represent. I think there is something to be said about the supernatural qualities of Michael. It was while recently watching Ryan Hollinger’s “The Art of Halloween: Making Michael Myers Scary” (2017) in which he discusses Michael as a Reaper-esque character that I began to “see” this other side to the shape of Michael. Beyond our very real fears about serial killers, Michael can be seen as a representation of our fears of not just death but of dying a violent and meaningless death. He is very much this incarnate of violent death. Seeing him as an agent of violent death, as this manifestation of meaningless malice, adds a new dimension to what could be an otherwise 2D character for some viewers. If Michael is this Reaper-like character, it also explains why Michael is able to so easily pass through these neighborhoods undetected—he LIVES there. This kind of fear is one of the underlying reasons that suburbia and it’s sprawl exists. We gathered together in groups to thwart it, keep it from our children, and yet it is implicit in our everyday lives. It is a fear that follows our children, lives in our homes. In this way, Michael is the realization of our worst fears. He bursts our bubble of perceived safety and breaks all of the agreements we made with this primordial fear.


Seeing Michael as more of a Reaper also explains his seeming supernatural invincibility. I mean, how do you kill death? He’s also ruthless and relentless but never overly passionate about his kills (except for Laurie but I guess that’s explained in the franchise?? Personally, I like the idea that Michael chose her because she wasn’t afraid of the old Myers’ house which puts her at odds with him). Michael really acts like he’s an agent for something beyond himself. Is he just “pure evil” as Loomis incessantly suggests or is Michael unmoved for another reason? Similar to how the Joker is perhaps best understood as a manifestation of chaos, Michael may best be understood as a representation of our own fears around dying violently and pointlessly, his looming presence representative of that looming fear.


I don’t like much about Halloween II (1981) but there is a moment towards the end of the film, where Laurie calls out to Michael in the basement of the hospital that I feel speaks volumes. Michael has been relentlessly pursuing Laurie through this–oddly deserted– hospital after a failed attempt to get her earlier in the movie. Now, he is back to finish what he started. Michael ends of cornering Laurie in the hospital’s basement and she, desperately, calls out his name, “Michael” and it’s the only thing thus far that has stopped him in his tracks. Michael pauses and crooks his neck, as if confused by the use of his name in relation to himself. As if it hasn’t occurred to him for a while that he had a name. Now, much could be said about the power of names in traditional lore (specifically in regards to deities, demons, faeries, etc.) but I find it most interesting how this attempt at humanizing Michael only seems to alienate him more. It’s almost as if that name is nothing more than a mask itself, hiding something that is decidedly unsuited for the label of “Michael”. It’s one of the most chilling scenes to me in the franchise. There is so much conveyed in that crook of Michael’s head. So much to question. So much to fear. It’s always emphasized the otherness in Michael to me.  Names are supposed to be humanizing. It’s why you don’t name a pig to slaughter. It’s also why so many of our greatest ideas, our gods, our concepts of the universe, etc. are difficult to capture in words — they are beyond us. In Halloween, rather than being a touchstone of self, Michael’s very name has become an obfuscation, something that doesn’t reveal what we might think it should nor capture what it insinuates. I’m ultimately left wondering who is this shape called Michael and what, if anything, fills this character?

Is he a man or a monster?

Anyway, I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel here. Much has been said about the catharsis of horror. How the genre allows us to experience a primordial fear we have long since forgotten in our gated cities on the hills. Michael Myers is often cited as an example of this capability of the genre. He is one of the quintessential figures we imagine when asked to conjure a monster. He embodies many our greatest fears, both real and supernatural. He is the Reaper, the killer, and the shape in our peripheral, always watching, waiting.

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I hope you enjoyed that brief glimpse into my thoughts on Michael Myers. More, I hope I did the character justice. When it comes to Michael, I find much of my thinking to be jumbled. He represents so much in such a silent and self-contained character. He really is legion. It’s fascinating to consider his character–at least to me! Let me know if you have any ideas yourself! Love to hear ’em~

Who or What Is the Blair Witch?

*Some spoilers ahead (I mean, the movie came out in 1999 though so….)


Though I’ve been aware of the cult classic The Blair Witch Project (1999) for some time, it was only recently that I finally sat down to watch it. Going into the movie, I knew about several of the theories surrounding it’s plot as well as the movie’s acclaim as one of the most prominent works of so-called “found footage” film. (Though not the first work as that honor goes to The Last Broadcast (1998)?) It was the movie that revitalized the horror genre after its decline in the 80’s (in large part due to the over-saturation of endless and often pointless slasher flicks). Also, I knew that there was no “witch” despite the movie’s eponymous name. I knew that and yet I found myself looking for the witch, for vestiges of its presence. This close inspection yielded a theory about the witch and about the supposedly “witch-possessed” hermit and serial killer of children, Rustin Par, who’s influence comes to play a role in the film that I find quite horrifying. 

In Blair Witch, we are introduced to the fairly non-descript Heather, Josh, and Mike. Heather and Josh are film students working on a project for class that Josh ropes his friend Mike into assisting them with. They are going to shoot a documentary student film about the Blair Witch, a local legend. In their preliminary investigation, the three discover that there is a story of a serial killer of children attached to the Blair Witch legend, perhaps even an extension of the lore itself. Par lured pairs of children out to his remote cabin in the woods and killed the children one by one, having one child stand in the corner facing the wall while he killed the other. The second child was presumably killed upon turning around. In total, Par is held responsible for seven murders (an odd number we will return to). Importantly, Par’s cabin was built upon the Blair Witch’s old home, leading many locals to speculate that he was possessed by the Blair Witch.

Heather, Josh, and Mike are fairly non-plussed by this information and take it in stride. They are pretty blasé about the whole matter, in fact, drinking and goofing around the rest of the night. And, to be fair, the information about the high strangeness of the woods they are going to be exploring is not really presented in such a way as to inspire fear. The locals who are interviewed are quirky and odd, one woman possibly suffering from mental illness or disability — things that the trio are quick to make fun of amongst themselves. The Blair Witch and any extensions of the lore are presented as and treated as nothing but a spooky campfire story by the trio. In many ways, the trio is kind of acting like kids. It’s an attitude that I believe contributes heavily to their unfortunate circumstances and eventual demise in the woods.

Once they begin their trek into the woods and, more importantly, once it becomes clear that the trio is lost, that’s when the horror of the movie finally starts to reveal itself to me. Now, I’ve heard that there is some contention over the classification of this movie as horror since we never really “see” anything “horrifying” until the end. Creepy, yes, but scary….? I’ve often heard the movie described as “boring” because of that lack of typical build-up paired with the overall underwhelming performances of the lead cast. I think that latter point is harsh to be honest (the acting left something to be desired at points, sure, but it really wasn’t the worst) while I find the former to be kind of shortsighted??? Sure, looking at the movie as a supernatural horror flick leaves much to be desired (though we will discuss its merits). But, looking at the movie as a psychological horror flick yields something more… compelling.

Now, I know there are already several theories that look at this movie as a a more psychological kind of horror movie. A prominent fringe theory I’ve heard is that Mike and Josh set up Heather to murder her. I’m going to be straight with you – I’m not really interested in that interpretation. Yes, I suppose it’s titillating to a certain extent but upon closer inspection, I don’t really see enough evidence to warrant its prominence. It feels more like the movie is being “squished” and/or reduced and warped to fit that lens. More than that, though, I just don’t find that interpretation to be, well, scary. If that interpretation were the case, I’d say that’s boring and, further, it’s kind of lazy writing? Maybe in 1999 it would’ve been edgy? (Kind of sounds like a an M. Night Shyamalan twist now….>.>) And, I think that’s all I’m going to say on that theory for now. I wanted address it though cause it pops up pretty often.

Anyway, when I say the horror of the Blair Witch is psychological, I am referring to the increasing paranoia and fear the trio experiences as they succumb to their increasingly hopeless circumstances and their mounting frustrations with each other. Watching Mike and Josh become annoyed, frustrated, furious, and then resentful of Heather for getting them lost is horrifying not because the trio is now wandering directionless in the middle of nowhere with a possibly malevolent presence stalking them but because of how easy it is to understand the mounting anger and festering resentment taking root. I am angry at Heather too. But, paradoxically, because of how this film positions me, the viewer, most often from Heather’s perspective, especially once they all get lost in the woods (when Heather becomes the only one really filming), I also feel Heather’s growing sense of panic like my own. I desperately want to get out of this situation I have led us into.

Discovering the “witchy” ephemera hanging from the woods almost comes second to the horror of the growing tension within the group, especially since the discovery comes after the trio has already realized they are well and truly lost. It’s very clever to hide or obscure these troubling, external symbols within the intense conflict building internally within the group. Until encountering them, I kind of forgot why the group was in the woods in the first place. Once I have encountered these symbols though, I am now reminded of the initial plot and I am now considering the possibility that the trio is not just lost but lost with a now potential malevolence. It increases the fear and the paranoia. There is the paranoia that Mike and Josh feel towards Heather, believing she had in some way intentionally got them lost for her documentary. There is the paranoia Josh and Heather feel towards Mike when he confesses that he kicked the map into the river because he believed it was “useless” and “not helping”. There is the panic and fear Heather feels over not only getting the group lost but being accused of purposefully doing it for the documentary. And, now, there is this paranoia and fear over whether or not the group’s actions are being compelled or manipulated in some way by an outside, unseen force that may wish them harm. Here, I begin to question what IS the Blair Witch?

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Is or was the Blair Witch a physical being? Or, something more ephemeral? Something in the very woods itself? This line of questioning brings me back to Par, the serial killer of children, mentioned so offhandedly at the start of the movie, the serial killer who lived in the woods and killed children in pairs. Except, he’s responsible for 7 deaths, a decidedly odd number. He’s one short. Par also only kills children but, to an ancient witch-like entity, I suppose most people would be considered “kids”, especially if they exhibit immature behavior >.> If the Blair Witch is not so much a single physical being as a kind of possessing presence that inhabits these woods, what then? Through this lens, how can we understand what transpires in the movie? This is what I would like to explore.

If the Blair Witch is more of this insidious, creeping presence, the group’s fairly quick onset of paranoia makes sense. It’s the seed needed for the rest to take root. It lured Heather off the trail, compelled Mike to dispose of the map, and drew Josh out of the tent — deepening their isolation and alienating the three from each other as they quickly begin to throw accusations of blame for their circumstances. The woods are not trying to hurt them. They are trying to get the trio to hurt each other. To turn on each other. (How very Stephen King’s The Shining of them >.>) In this way, it also makes sense why we would never “see” the Blair Witch. It gives a new sense of terror to Heather’s frantic “What the hell is that?” as the trio run through the thicket of woods in the middle of the night after their campsite has been “besieged” by some unseen presence, walls of darkness and shadowy brush closing in on all sides. What the hell IS it indeed. What does Heather see or….not see? What does she feel closing in on them? Their paranoia and panic is only emphasized by the shaky and jagged camera angles and sudden cuts, making us feel as though we are also frantically running through the runs with the trio, throwing our heads from side to side in search of a threat we can feel but cannot find.

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Now, there’s been discussion about the possibility of Josh and Mike being responsible for “setting the stage” in the woods (I.e planting the cairns, the ephemera, “attacking” the campsite, etc.). It mires back to that theory that the whole movie is really being about Mike and Josh planning to do Heather harm. But, in response to the idea that Mike and Josh “set the stage”, I’d like like to point to the actors’ truly terrified performances at this point in the movie. Regardless of their overall acting abilities or lack thereof, they play at panic and terror pretty well. Also, let’s just briefly examine the premise here. If Mike and/or Josh wanted to harm Heather in any way, they could’ve done so ten feet or less into these desolate woods. They didn’t even need to take her to the woods. They could’ve driven her anywhere and dumped her body in the woods if they really wanted to. The pageantry is unnecessary and speaks to a deeply personal need to make sure the victims die afraid. By all accounts Mike and Josh barely know Heather. She’s a classmate, an acquaintance of a friend. It seems highly unlikely they’d go through all this work when there are far simpler ways to kill Heather. Occam’s razor is usually king in regards to murder. I know horror movie plots don’t really abide my logic as a matter of course but I find this theory to be a thorn in my side that I’ve got to point out at every turn. (Sorry.)


That said, it is interesting to consider that one of the guys is possessed by the Blair Witch and is acting as a kind of conduit, thus is the one planting the evidence found within the campsite itself. That’s compelling and scary. Because of Josh’s later disappearance, he seems to be the most likely suspect. It’s also Josh or Josh’s mimicked cries that lure Mike and Heather towards the killer’s presumed cabin later on. Once inside this remote and decrepit cabin, it is there that the pieces of the story assemble themselves into still one of the most unsettling conclusions in possibly all of horror cinema. Heather and Mike desperately search the dilapidated cabin for any traces of Josh. They find rubble and debris and, most disturbingly, what appears to be bloody hand-prints on the cabin’s disintegrating walls. Could it be graffiti? Most definitely, but, as established in the movie, this cabin is pretty remote and way off the beaten trail so it’s possible that it’s something else. As Mike and Heather are searching the cabin for Josh, it is, again, Josh’s cry that leads Mike and then Heather to the basement — where Par is purported to have murdered his victims.


Mike arrives in the basement first, frantic and clearly panicked.  His camera is panning back and forth, barely pausing on any one thing. He’s breathing heavily and calling out desperately for Josh and then…. He drops his camera and goes silent, as if overcome by some unseen force. The camera, though, is not forcefully dropped or flung in a scuffle so much as simply abandoned. No shadows pass by the camera nor does anything else appear on the camera’s screen to indicate what happened to Mike after dropping it. Heather quickly appears with her own camera, calling for the guys. What her camera reveals before cutting to black is that Mike is now standing in the corner of the basement, facing the wall. Just like Par would have one of the children he kidnapped do. Perhaps it is the realization of this similarity or it is another unseen force or the same force that overcame Mike or it is Josh striking or it is her own terror finally hitting a fever pitch but Heather screams and the screen cuts to black for the last time.


Again, it’s deeply unsettling and maybe especially upsetting after making it through an entire “horror” movie where nothing extraordinarily horrific has really happened. (Barring the far-too-large-for-a-human bloody tooth and the flannel scrap of Josh’s t-shirt it is wrapped in. That definitely falls within “F*ck that” territory. This doesn’t occur till close to the end of the film, though.) I struggled with this ending for a while, trying to make sense of it. Because, yes, it’s unsettling but what does it mean? And, more, what does this mean I’m regards to what is the Blair Witch?


For me, this speaks to a deeper lore than was presented initially. If the Blair Witch is a possessive presence more than a physical being and if Par was an incarnation or manifestation of that presence and if that presence was tainted by its last incarnation that wanted to cause harm and if that incarnation had unfinished business (say, it was “one short” in regards to its murder spree), I think it is entirely possible that Josh was possessed by the Blair Witch and Mike and Heather became his victims.


For me, this works in one of two ways. In the first way, the trio helps “even out” the set. 3 + 7 = 10 meaning everything has balanced out now. It’s whatever the reverse of a zero sum game is. That’s one way to look at the situation if we accept that the Blair Witch isn’t a specter so much as a possessive presence. It’s intriguing and also provides closure in that the “score” is leveled with the presumed deaths of our trio.


The second way of looking at the movie from this perspective though is far more compelling to me. In the original story about Par, there are supposed to be two victims and one perpetrator. 7 victims in the last cycle died meaning that the perpetrator was one short. If Josh is possessed by the Blair Witch, he is acting as the perpetrator and would not be considered a victim meaning that killing Mike and Heather would still leave the count uneven (9). Still one short. To me, this provides a motive for the Blair Witch’s continued presence in the woods. The witch is always looking for that one last victim to complete the cycle but, because it is acting like the last person (Par) that was possessed, a pair of victims must always be selected. Ergo, the cycle can never be completed and so the Blair Witch cannot rest. It’s the opposite of closure and arguably a more interesting narrative because of the complexity.

Of course, this theory really only works if you consider one of the trio possessed at all by the Blair Witch. It’s very possible that Josh was not the one possessed and he was just killed. If at least one of the trio is possessed though then Josh’s death could still count. Josh and Heather could very well be considered the victims and Mike the “possessed”, especially considering where the movie leaves off. Because of the early mention of possession and because of how the movie ends with a reference to Par’s killings, I’m inclined as a viewer to believe that there has to be some connection to our main characters or else why bother? Also, I’m not really sure how this interpretation would connect to the witchy ephemera found in the woods unless the possession is tied back to the Blair Witch. It’s very possible that this stuff is just present to make the woods “spookier”, I suppose, but I think it’s presence paired with whatever is “attacking” the camp at night does call into question the nature of the force that is possessing people in these woods. 

Anyway, that’s my hot take on The Blair Witch Project (1999). Obviously, there are many interpretations of this media and there will continue to be new interpretations as time goes on. This is one of many out there. I touched on only a brief selection of many moments from the movie and presented a case for one interpretation. I’m interested in hearing other interpretations, though! Please, let me know what you think about the movie and how you perceived its plot and meaning!

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Hello Dr. Lecter: Revisiting the Horror of Hannibal (Season 1)

*Some spoilers ahead (To be fair though the show did come out in 2013 so….)

The Hannibal (2013) TV series is one I come back to time and time again. I find it gripping and compelling in ways that I don’t often feel with most media. I’m tempted to say that it helps that the show has a strong source material to draw from, Red Dragon (2000) and Silence of the Lambs (2002) being remarkable works of fiction in their own rights regardless of what you may feel towards the less resounding latter works in the series. Though Hannibal (2013) clearly draws from and leans on its source material, it would be remiss to say the series does not hold its own ground. It’s own dark, fantastical, and disturbing ground. The carefully saturated and de-saturated environment of the Hannibal world paired with its haunting and, at times, deeply poetic and symbolic imagery make the series a standout. Add the meticulous attention paid to character development (or deconstruction) and the relationships between characters and their world, and you’ve got a near masterpiece. A fine delicacy, as the case may be. Something rich for the starving. I often savor on a different flavor every time I re-watch the show, a different line or scene lingering long after its execution in my mind. On this most recent watch-through, though, I found myself struck by an aspect of the series I hadn’t really given much attention to: the horror.


Those familiar with Thomas Harris’s work (like myself) going into the show may be prepared for a “disturbing” or, more generally, “scary” experience. Even those unfamiliar with the literary component of the series are no doubt prepped to some extent for a somewhat unsettling or possibly unpleasant viewing experience. After all, the titular character is perhaps the most well-known cannibal in popular culture give or take Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein (the latter of which inspired Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs). That said, those of us familiar with the books or even the popular Anthony Hopkins-led movies know that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is not really the main character. He is the antagonist and exists in opposition to FBI personnel Clarice Starling and Will Graham. Lecter is a dark mirror, reflecting the answers to the abhorrent questions both investigators seek. Though certainly a prolific character, Dr. Lecter is relegated to just left of the margins, his presence more implicated in the pages than directly confronted. (At least in the two initial works. Arguably, also, this is because the stories he appears in are not really about him.) Though described as far less imposing that he is usually portrayed in media, there is something undeniably predatory about Hannibal Lecter that makes his presence on the page all the more unsettling, like you only see him when he wants you to. Quite simply: he’s more threatening the less we see or hear from him. (To many critics, the departure from subtlety and ambiguity that Harris takes in the latter works of the series is what really eats away at the compelling nature of the character and the work. The unknown and the questionable is always scarier.)


Hannibal (2013) though bring Dr. Hannibal Lecter into the main cast. A risky choice that ultimately could have been an utter failure had Bryan Fuller decided to take it in any direction other that the one he did. In Hannibal, Dr. Lecter is undoubtedly a main character and, yet, the spotlight placed upon him seems to serve only to emphasize his shadow. Either a blanket of impenetrable composure masks his feelings from view or he is quite literally in shadow, his features obscured or distorted by carefully controlled lighting. A gleam in a dark eye (Perhaps anger? Dispassion?) here and there or a crooked lip mimicking a smile, one alligator tear…. that’s all we get. Mads Mikkelsen, it seems, goes to great lengths in his portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter to demonstrate how Lecter, in his very countenance, exercises complete control over himself, his surroundings, and more, his world. Blood like sauce + garnish is never splattered where it is not wanted. Bodies, blood, meat… all are merely elements in a larger tableau (a meal, a murder, etc.), the overall vision of which is never lost. It’s a truly remarkable depiction. More, a horrifying portrayal.


Most obviously, the horror works on a visceral scale. Blood, guts, overall gore, etc. It’s inherently scary and unsettling. Who wants to be confronted by their own mortality at all let alone at the dinner table in the form of a party spread that would make Martha Stewart jealous? That’s not the horror that struck me this or any time around. Rather, it was the psychological horror, the unbecoming of Will Graham designed down to the last drop of blood and bit of bone by Hannibal, that really shifted my axis. We are led to believe this is a cat + mouse game between Will and Hannibal right up until we realize it is more a spider + fly situation. Hannibal weaves the web so precisely that Will essentially wraps it around himself and hangs. To see how each thread comes together in the season 1 finale “Savoureux” is a study in the careful construction of dread that even Stephen King would be proud of. We see how Hannibal’s insertion/trespass/hostile takeover? into Will’s life over the course of the season (under the pretense of being his FBI-pseuso-sanctioned psychiatrist) is really an intertwining or meshing of their lives, done so that Hannibal’s crimes as the infamous Chesapeake Ripper and the Minnesota Shrike copycat killer become indiscernible from and even commensurate with Will’s increasingly erratic behavior (inflamed by Will’s purposefully untreated autoimmune encephalitis exacerbating his empathy disorder) over the season. Essentially, Hannibal turns Will into a mirror of himself, one that Hannibal can reflect his crimes onto and, of course, the consequences of those crimes. 

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It’s a reversal of the literature the series draws from and it works effectively to create a terrifying horror narrative, one who’s impact reveals how tenuous and vulnerable our own relationships can make us. Will trusted Hannibal to be his mirror, to remind him who he really is. Will trusted Hannibal to be a psychiatrist and, more, a friend. Instead, Hannibal abuses that trust and warped Will’s perception of himself until Will could not say for certain he was not responsible for the murders Hannibal committed as the Chesapeake Ripper. Will, who’s empathy disorder makes him such a profound criminal profiler because he can feel and be the criminals he profiles, could no longer discern who he was or what he was capable of being. It’s horribly ironic. Any attempts at introspection become overwhelming for Will, as evidenced by his increasing nightmares and waking visions of being drowned. Will even comes to question whether or not he can confirm that he is alive when he cannot even confirm his presence from one moment to the next. (“Buffet Froid”) His entire sense of self becomes shadowed. The more he tries to see, the less he is able to perceive. And, that was all Hannibal’s design. His “curiosity”. Hannibal, a high-functioning psychopath bar none and an unapologetic sadist, has no discernible motive for perpetrating this unbecoming of Will other than to “see what would happen”. It’s senseless. Unrepentant. Some would say “pure evil”. I would say horrifying. (If prompted, delightfully horrifying to watch.)


Of course, I would be remiss in this review if I did not mention the “stag” in the room. Throughout season 1, Will is haunted by a stag nightmare/dream creature that is, presumably, representative of Will’s guilt over killing the cannibalistic serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs (I.e. The Minnesota Shrike) in the first episode of season 1. Hobbs was a hunter and clearly saw the teenage girl victims he killed as prey, “honoring” every part of the victims as if they were merely another kind of deer. Despite this, Will feels a deep sense of grief over his actions — grief that he vacillates between identifying with remorse and revelry. Will struggles with taking the life of a man who deserved to die, struggles with the sense of power he felt when extinguishing that life as well as the remorse he felt over making Hobbs’ daughter, Abigail, an orphan by killing him. He feels a deep responsibility over his actions, regrettably claiming them rather than taking ownership over or claiming satisfaction for them (as Hannibal does over his crimes). Will’s grief and guilt (and responsibility?) manifests as the stag.

At least, that is what we are led to believe.

As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the stag is not just representative of any one emotion. More, it is more apt to think of it as representative of Will himself. Of how he “sees” himself, even, as it seems a subconscious part of him realizes he is prey being pursued (I.e hunted). This representation becomes clear and/or realized in the final episode of the series when Will witnesses the stag being murdered and devoured by the shadowy figure of the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a monster because of its cannibalistic nature, reviled most for how there is a perceived element of “choice” in its actions.  It embodies deep-seated, old human fears about how the greatest monster is often the human one. (It is also representative of transformation and change but the series doesn’t go into that aspect of the creature until the second season so we won’t do that here either.)

Anyway, I could go on about the symbolism of the stag and the Wendigo for several posts. (Sidenote: I love how the series carried over Harris’s attention to motifs and how remaining loyal to the motifs in a narrative can be powerful —-I.e. lambs, dragons, teacups, etc.) For this review, what is most interesting is the identification of the Wendigo with Hannibal and his crimes in the final episode of season 1. When Will envisions the Chesapeake Ripper’s and the Minnesota Shrike copycat killer’s crime scenes, they become painted black like the Wendigo’s flesh, entirely shadowed by the monster as if being claimed. In Will’s mind, the Wendigo slowly takes form and looms behind Hannibal as if similarly taking claim. Will’s subconscious is finally revealing what it knows—Will has always been the prey, Hannibal the predator wearing a well-tailored “person suit”. Now that the predator has struck (I.e. set Will up to take the fall for Hannibal’s crimes), Will can finally see the monster for the human he pretends to be. The scene itself is slight but its implications vast and damning. The “scales [or shadows] have fallen” from Will’s eyes and he can finally see.


In Hannibal (2013), Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a manifestation of our greatest fears when it comes to senseless violence and the cruel meaninglessness of life. He doesn’t just want to watch the world burn. He wants to watch us burn our worlds down – Just to see what happens. Hannibal is our greatest fears and our worst selves reflected back at us. A relentless reminder that we are all prey one misplaced step away from being devoured.

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I hope you enjoyed that small delve into one of my favorite television shows. There is so much to talk about in any one episode, let alone an entire season, so please forgive any oversights on my part. This was meant to be just one interpretation of the show. As I am re-working my way through the entire show slowly in between working from home, I may post reviews of the next two seasons as well.  I am also thinking about analyzing the more subtle cues and ways in which Hannibal presents the character of Dr. Lecter as a predator. (I.e his “keen sense of smell”, etc.) So, look out for that if you’re interested! Otherwise, feel free to let me know your thoughts below~

 

Skin Girl

Drumbeat batters breeze bare-knuckled. Bloody, if it could. Tut-tut-tut transforms the atmosphere into something tormented. Tortured. Just a sliver shy of a scream.

I sway to the sound, skin soaking in its scathe. Absorbing the maim and claim. The tug and tear.

In the thick of the crowd, illuminated by a mix of fire and faint moonlight, a figure fights the drum’s beating. Twists sharp turns to thwart possession. To prevail. A losing game.

Once lured in, that’s it.

Other figures clap, pound flesh till the night seems alive with its own rhythmic pulse, thrumming steadily through the battered air. A grunted chant rumbles in time.

Somewhere, deep in the wood surround, a wolf howls. Tears at night’s skin. A territorial call if I’ve ever heard one. A victorious brag. I grip the skin I’m in. Tame growl into grumbling chant. Return sight to the light bathing those gathered in shades of dark red.

The dancer nearest flame, so deeply red they’re shadow on smoke, throws back their head–theirs and the bear skull that swallows it whole. An echoing, bellicose bellow–growl–silences both flesh and drum beat.

Another deep sound, the wolf.

A last, me.

For now.

Closely, I watch the dancer shed the bear skull. Slide claws as long as fingers from their hands. Keep the grizzled pelt wrapped ’round their wide shoulders, though. For warmth, maybe. The skin in place ’round their meaty waist.

Two figures donning wolf skulls and matching hides separate from the crowd as the lone bear dancer returns to it.

Beats begin their battering blows once more. Less heavy. More lean. Like wolf meat. Night’s pulse picks up in a low thrum, a lower hum. Faintest scream.

I track the bear dancer as they cut through the crowd, one toothy smile at a time. A short laugh or two. My rhythm mirrors theirs. Overtakes it. Sleek. Light. A slow skulk. Steady hunt.

We meet where the edge of the crowd kisses forest fathoms.

Bear Dancer slashes a charming smile across their face, distinctive jaw jutting upward with its self-assured slant as if to display the many scars crisscrossing sensitive skin like trophies. One rather deep cut is still raw. Fresh. I curl my fist.

It’s him.

A grin of my own begins to stretch flesh. Tempt tearing. Bear dancer’s widens in return. Devours his face.

“Hello,” he steps into my sway. “Like tonight?” I nod, grin sharp enough to put Bear Dancer to shame.

“You dance good.” Another growl tamed into something softer. “It’s striking,” I motion to the pelt on his back. “your form.”

“Yes.” He preens, fingering the fur. I swallow fury. “A lucky catch, bear. Usually, they keep to their caves.”

“Ah?” I drag him back to me. “Where’d you get the bear then?”

“Clearing by Slim River.” His voice is proud. “Mama and cub hunting. Hare, probably. I got Mama first in the side with my spear. When she charged, I got her in the head with my handy ax. She clawed, though.” He taps his scarred chin. “A fighter.”

Huntress.” I correct.

“Yes.” Bear Dancer nods, looking grave. “Very fierce. The others threw many spears till she went down. The cub though,” Bear Dancer’s grin returns. “was easy. Little fella. A club to the head.” Bear Dancer swings his arm past my face. “Dead.”

“Dead.” I repeat, dead, stepping back into forest, spiny nettles brushing bare skin. Swirl my hips. Bear dancer follows. “Poor boy.”

“There were two.” He leans close as if revealing a secret. “Cubs. Two of ’em. Always with Mama but not this time. Very odd.” He quirks his head. “Bears don’t usually keep more than one. Too hard to feed. Keep only the strong one…. Wonder where the runt is? The little fella cried out after he was hit. Almost like a scream. Maybe–”

She heard.” I finish with too much gnash. “The sister?” Bear dancer gives me a confused look and I reach for his hands–the ones that were wearing Mama bear’s claws–settling them on my waist.

“Yes.” Bear dancer tightens his hold on me. I lead us further behind branches. Beyond the fire light’s creeping reach. “You know the story?” Now, I quirk my head. Take another backward step. “About the sister cub. That she’s one of us. Child lost from the tribe long ago. Found by bears. Clothed in their skin.”

“I hadn’t heard.” Another step. So close.

“Not from ’round here?” Bear Dancer asks. “Was wondering…. You look familiar but can’t place face.”

Finally. Trees give way to open space. A clearing. Nearby, a watery babble replaces drum beats. Flesh beats. Moonlight overtakes flickering flame.

“It’s not my usual.” I brush Bear Dancer’s hands off me and he tilts his chin. That fresh cut. Shiny red beneath the moon. I flex my fingers. Feel nails sharpen. “Face.”

A swipe of my claw to the head and Bear Dancer is down. For brother.

I’m on him before he knows what hit him, my lithe body now heavier. My skin, fur. Much better. Weight settles on my shoulders–my skull no prop large enough to swallow a head whole. Bear Dancer’s. I stare into his wide eyes, grizzly reflection in their glisten. I can’t smile anymore so a snarl will have to do. Recognize me now?

“S-s-skin-n-w-w-wwalk-ker-r.” He accuses.

No, a growl like a laugh rumbles in my cavernous chest. I told you. Huntress. 

A claw finds purchase in the mark Mama carved so I’d know and tugs. Jaw gone before Bear Dancer can scream. Then, claws like little spears and teeth like ax blades find flesh. Tear. Bite bone, too, creating their own beat, own chant. Rhythm.

And, when the song is done, I toss my head back. ScreamTear the night in two. It’s no victory screech. No brag. Nothing celebatory. It’s a warning. An announcement.

I’m here.

I’m coming.

I’m hungry.

The battle is mine.

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*Side note: those last words are coincidentally my first thoughts in the morning…. Weird. ^.^

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Split Girl

See.” Auntie would hiss, breath-half mist-half piss–spit splattering across my face like soggy freckles. “Don’t you see?”

Spittle soaking deep into bone, I’d bob my neck up down. A metronome kicked on its side. But that was never enough.

My compliance meant nothing till it suffered. Till I suffered.

Till I looked.

“Can’t you see?” A banshee-screech that bounced off mirrored glass like my small skull in Auntie’s gargantuan grip. Bang. Bang. 

“I see.” My raspy exhale fogged the glass.

“See what?” Bang.

“I see a sister slayer.” Yours. “Mommy murderer. Blood traitor.” The worst kind of betrayer. The kind that bathed in their victim’s blood and cried out in wailing victory.

“What else?” Auntie pressed–my head harder into my fisheye-like reflection.

“I see,” I swallowed. Chewed the tip of my tongue. Bang. “a pretty dress.”

“And,” Auntie dragged the consanent across her crooked incisors.  “what do you say?”

“Thank you,” Bile slid down my throat. Spit settled on my face. “Auntie.”

I was released with a huff that coated me in another spray of slimy, grimey, salted spit. Tasted like Mommy‘s tears. Probably. I wouldn’t know. Won’t. I sagged into myself.

“Good boy.” I’m not.

Satisfied, Auntie would slink off and I would scramble back from smudgey glass. Smooth my hands down silk. With fingertips, find frills, find something like-comfort-but-not-quite in the edges.

I’m not.

What? Auntie’s spit simmered on my skin. My fists clenched frills flat.

Boy. Bang. Good. Bang.

I’m not.

****

Auntie comes to see that for herself. Eventually. She has no choice but to.

Not when my shoulders brush the height of hers. Not when my eyes meet hers on an upward climb. An ascent.

The few photos kept reveal Mommy had a good head above Auntie. My good head, now. The only good thing about me, according to Auntie.

Still, Auntie takes me to the mirror. Stands me before myself and demands–See.

See what you’ve done to your mother, boy. To me.  

Auntie reaches for my lengthy curls–for leverage–but the bang is already echoing in my ears. The spit already boiling fresh on my flesh–each drip of dribble like a teardrop at the corner of two lids kissing. I flutter.

Auntie is against the glass in a spin that twirls my skirt.

“What, bo–”

See.” It isn’t a hiss. Nor, an order. It’s the slightest, crunchy-squish of a hard-shut eye opening. Blossoming. Ricocheting ad infinitum off mine and Auntie’s super-imposed reflection.

“Wha–” Bang.

See.” Frills brush Auntie’s skin like eye lashes, gentle but coated black so they curl. “Can’t you see?”

Another bang and she does. She looks and–

“I see.” Of course, Auntie spits it–in our shared face. My glassy-eyed part of the reflection doesn’t relent. though. Not now.

What?” Bang. Red joins spit. “Auntie, what?”

“I see,” She huffs when struggling only intensifies red. “a sister slayer.” Mommy’s. I bob my head. Auntie’s lip curls sharp. “A Momma’s bo–” Bang. The mirror cracks.

Auntie gasps, splattering crimson in our splintered reflection. It’s splitting down the middle. Like a large eyelid.

“See what?” Like glass, my voice cracks. Auntie can’t stifle her snicker. Bang. Bang. Bang. She stops. “You see Mommy’s what?”

“–aughter.” Auntie spits between a newly chipped tooth and mouthful of shards. I crook a brow and she tries again, “Daugh…ter.”

“What else?” I roll her limp head till she’s staring straight at the split separating as it joins. “What else do you see?”

“Blood…” Her gurgle hides her reflection’s eye beneath a red coating. Again, a try. A cry. “blood…tr…blood-y….dr….ess….”

She slumps into herself like one lid folding down and I rise from her like the other lid sliding up.

“Thank you, Auntie.”

My fingers find wet frills, edges soaked in and dyed a colour they’ve always been afraid of. Blamed for. A colour I’ve not worn since my first and only–till now–victory.

What would Mommy say?

See?

I wipe the glass before my eyes till I peek through red. Split open and smiling. Fingertips brush the toothy slash.

Good girl. I nod.

I am.

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**This is the painting in the Featured Image for this post. Saw it at a recent trip to the Whitney Museum in the city and–fell in love–but also felt like it would be perfect for this sweet vicious little story**

Ghost Girl

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

~ Edgar Allen Poe

Mama went in her sleep.

How she wanted. How she dreamed.

Death is an illusion. An imagined end. Mama rasped toward her own foreseeable ending, breaths short and shallow. We don’t live here. We live inside. When you dream, my little ghost, look for me. I will be there.

So I did.

When Mama moved on from here, I searched–inside. Reached into the recesses. Haunted my hollow spaces, hoping for a familiar specter. A lingering trace, no trick of longing.

What I found, though, was smoke and mirrors, fogged glass stretching for as far as the eye can fathom. A maze of murky reflections and, wailing through it like a willowy wind-chime in a gale, Mama’s voice, beckoning.

I’m lost, little ghost. A hazy figure in the fog. I reach for it till fingertips kiss frigid glass. Help me find my way. Cold stings skin. Just a smudgePlease. It hurts.

Mama wasn’t a beggar. A bargainer, yes, but never desperate. If she ever appeared as such, it was an act. A performance. A scheme. Artifice. Those smoke and mirrors.

See, in the waking realm, Mama was a magician. I, her faithful assistant. Mama lowered the curtain and I disappeared. She held the saw and I split in two shards.

Defying death, Mama would tell the evening’s adoring audience, her top-hat tipped to stymie applause. is child’s play. A dream forgotten upon waking. A little ghost, her hand on my shoulder, proud. of who you were. If asked nicely, they’ll return. Show you how to remember. How to escape.

Please. Mama calls now, from deep within mirrored halls. Come.

So, like a faithful assistant, I do. I split in two.

I follow the sound of Mama’s imploring cries, her delighted giggles when I hit a dead-end. Hunt the hush of footfalls, discordant echoes off emptiness. Raindrops tap-tap-tapping the glass in out-of-tandem staccato. Pitter-patter-pat. Like a taunt.

Mean.

Hiding was an acquired skill of mine–from Mama. Crouching in crawlspaces, tucking limber limbs from suspicious, searching sight. Mama taught me all I knew. Every trick…

Or, so I thought.

Suddenly, a shimmer through the fog–the sparkly band ’round Mama’s trusty top-hat. I give chase. Pat, pat, pat–around sharp corners, down splintering corridors, a tinkling of… bells? in my ears. Maybe wind whistling through chimes….?

A silvery glint twists left. I clip my shoulder veering after it. Hear an explosion of clinks and of tinkling–feel a tingling run up my arm. Realization dawns. It’s glass. The sound is glass. Broken bits and pieces flinging through the air.

The mirrors are shattering.

I pick up my pace. Ignore the jagged fragments gnawing at my heels, biting into the tender flesh. This is not the end. Mama promised. There isn’t one. Not in my dreams.

At last, the top-hat is in reach. I thrust out a numb arm. Snag the hat by its brim. Tug it close for safe-keeping to my chest.

Immediately, silence falls.

Across the void to me. Then, the quiet stretches from where I stand, top-hat in hand, to the lone mirror before me. For once, the glass isn’t fogged, my reflection only a vague impression. No, now, when I look in the mirror, I find Mama.

She stares at me, a smile slashed from ear to ear. Her hand is outstretched and, after a measured moment, I move forward to meet her.

Fingertips caress glass, warmth seemingly radiating from within. Mama’s….my eyes glance from my recently captured prize back to my face. Put it on, they suggest. Then, little ghost, you’ll remember.

So, ever-faithful, I raise Mama’s glimmering top-hat to my head.

A perfect fit. I tip the brim.

As if in approval, Mama nods. My breath hitches. In my ears, a ringing–no, a pounding. InsideMama said. I will be there. I fall to my knees. Mama does the same.

Defying death is…. a little ghost of who you were. My hand brushes a shard, fingers its cracks, its poignancies. My reflection begins to tear. They’ll… show you how to escape.

“Little ghost… Little ghost… Little ghost…” Mama reclaims my fracturing focus, her grin splitting–sawing–her in two. It’s just the crack. “Are you there?”

“No,” Slowly, back and forth, I shake my head. The fog has cleared. The curtain lifted. Dream dissipated. I clench the shard in my grip till it cuts. “I’m here.

I shatter.

****

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    Find more of my delightfully disturbing/whatever stories under the Killing It tag~

 

 

Living Dead Girl IV

Part I, Part II, Part III,

I’ve become accustomed to being watched.

Hollow, sightless eyes boring into me from beyond. Gaping gazes trying to swallow me up, their seeking ravenous for every last scrap. For anything that could fill the empty spaces. Make them a little less like windows without torches.

It’s ever-night where they are. Nana said one evening while I was studying the intricacies of incantation intonation at the table, her knobby knuckles knocking a suspiciously rhythmic beat against the window’s wooden sill. Cloudy and shadowed… Dark. So very dark. She paused then, considering before revealing, Like the inside of a sealed jar.

Pandora‘s? I remember asking, looking up from the large, dense tome laid before me. Myths and folklore were the only non-educational reads Nana allowed in the house.

Yes. Nana offered me a rare smile, resuming her rhythm. And, we’re their only company. Understand what that means, Thana? I did, then. Still do, sometimes.

Gotta keep the lights on.

Feeling observed, the sensation of it–goose-flesh and a vague, all-over tingling–is familiar. Constant. My companion. If not entirely welcome as a guest, accepted as a ward with nowhere else to go.

There is a difference, though, between what must be suffered in silent acceptance and what can stand not to be. A degree of tingling, more piercing than passively probing. Too weighty for any starving set of sightless sockets.

Not gluttonous enough for a pair of sockets filled fathomless like mine, either. 

 “Are you here to collect my soul, Reaper?” I don’t turn from the tombstone I stand before, despite the approach I can hear behind me. Steps soft for the weight of their owner’s gaze. “Or, just to stare?” Like you have been.

“Neither.” A low voice, strong but subdued. Quiet footfalls cease just short of being intrusive. “My business can wait, though, till yours is complete.” I don’t have to look to know the Reaper’s bowed their head–to match my position. I do anyway. Just a peek.

A slight glance reveals their scythe–nothing vague about its shape this close–similarly crooked in posture. Reverence may be the tool’s first lesson.

I return to my vigil.

Since I began working for Ms. Redding, once a week finds me facing off with her late husband–his grave, at this hour–a bundle of roses in hand. Gotta keep the lights on. Got to try.

Another moment of silence disturbed only by the hushed sounds of breathing and I lay my meager offering down. Then–a controlled breath–I face the Reaper standing a respectful distance away, finally able to observe them as I have been observed these past few nights. (Getting a good look at a Reaper is usually a final act.)

They are tall–enough to be imposing if they desired–and clothed in black, a long cloak obscuring much of their person from view. What I can see is utilitarian–boots, pants with knees patched many-times-over tucked snug into them. The hilt of some secondary weapon juts outward from the hip. Can’t imagine why it’s needed. My focus wanders to the promise of the Reaper’s scythe. From point to heel, its blade must be longer than I am.

Lowering the hood of their cloak, the Reaper reveals themselves to be a young man with a head of hair less kept than his discipline would seem to allow. As if conscious of the fact, he runs his free hand through his shaggy mane, attempting unsuccessfully to smooth fly- aways. In the day’s fading light, his locks look almost like raven feathers–deep black but shiny, iridescent at the right angle. Like the feather braided in my hair.

He’s striking, yes, but he might easily have been any guy I crossed paths with on campus if it weren’t for the eyes–solid white. No pupils. No irises. Like freshly fallen snow without the glare. Barely a sheen of life to them.

A slow, measured blink and I wonder if he’s not entirely blind? Was the added sense of tingling just my imagination? The shiver, my paranoia…?

“I can see.” The Reaper responds to my unvoiced suspicions, startling me out of what I belatedly realize is a lengthy once-over. “More than you I believe, Necromancer.” It is purely a statement of fact, no underlying haughtiness to it. Still.

“Sure acute vision is handy.” Again, my sight cuts to the scythe. “For aim.”

Another slow, measured blink and then, “Are you finished with your business?” He tosses a blank yet decidedly pointed glance at the solitary white bloom peeking out from its covert hiding place in my coat. A lily. Nana’s favourite. None of this Reaper’s concern.

“Done enough.” I stuff one hand in a pocket, use the other to brush through my ponytail, find the dark feather in the silvery mix. “Onto what business you’ve with me, Reaper.”

“Hayden.” I lift a disbelieving brow. “I know who you are Thana, acting Necromancer of Deadwood territory since the former….moved on. It’s only fair you know who I am.”

“You don’t know me.” I clench the fist in my pocket. Remember Nana’s lily resting in the other and what happened to the similarly innocent hydrangeas earlier at the shoppe. To the dahlias Hel took a liking to. Breathe, Thana. “I’m no acting Necromancer.” I relax my fist, stifling the wince as blood flow returns. “That would require official recognition of my being one at all.”

“By the Circle.” The Reaper–Hayden, I correct–clarifies. “They came to see you today,” A hesitant pause, almost trepid.  “…much to your displeasure.”

“In the living world, following someone without their knowledge and/or permission is called stalking.” Again, I crook a brow. “Know that?”

“I thought I’d misjudged you.” He points to his feather hanging in my hair. “And, you were selling out the ghost.”

“I’d have to be on a side to do that.”

“And, the Circle doesn’t want you on theirs?”

“They’ve made Their preferences abundantly clear.” Gar’s not you echoes in my ears, like a throbbing pulse. I shake my head, look Hayden dead in his dead eyes. “As I’m sure you heard.” From whatever shadows you crept within.

“I heard them ask you to be on the look-out for rogue Reapers.”

“Yeah,” I tilt my head. “know any?”

That earns me a faint smirk, a corner sharpened so minutely to a point it’s almost missed before it smooths back into a mask of impassivity.

“Look,” I start after a length of comfortable silence. “I don’t want any trouble. So, if you want to go now, I’ll forget I ever saw you. If not… Well, again, I don’t want trouble.”

“We’ve dead unaccounted for.” Hayden takes a step forward, still not intrusive. Just toeing the line. “It’s why we’re out of sorts. We’re searching.

“You think you’ll find some hiding here?” I question, slightly taken aback–both by his directness and the possibility of an accusation. “That’d violate our agreements.” Between Reapers and Necromancers. No playing keepsies with the spirits. It disturbs the order. Tips the scales off kilter.

“You misunderstand.” Hayden shakes his head, feathery locks hanging in his face. “We’ve dead coming to us for whom no record or their reaping exists.” Uncomprehending, I blink at him. “If you haven’t been reaped, you haven’t died.”

Oh.

Too many. Not too few.

“So… you’ve got dead-but-not-dead on your hands?” I try to piece together what I’ve learned. “And, you’re not sure where they’re coming from? Or, more importantly, how they’re getting to you?”

Hayden nods, more shiny strands falling in his face.

“That sounds like trouble.” More than I want and certainly than I need. “And, not particularly my problem.” The so why are you telling me it like it is? goes without saying.

“It would help our search greatly is we could speak with one of these…. undead. But,” Hayden’s blank eyes find mine. “as you undoubtedly know, death doesn’t lend itself to discussion so much as it does to–”

Screaming.” I finish and Hayden bows his head. From somewhere above us, a crow caws. “You need someone who can summon the dead from your world to mine.” A Necromancer.

“Yes.”

“Lots of trouble.” I remove my hand from my coat so I can rub my now pounding temple. “That’s lots of trouble.”

“It’ll be worse than troublesome if this problem isn’t rectified soon. The veil between realms is already showing signs of stress.” Hayden raises his head, blank gaze imploring. “My kind are too proud and, admittedly, too wary to ask your Circle to interfere in these matters. But, you are not Circle, Thana.”

“And, you are not overly proud, Hayden?”

“My only pride is in my work.” Hayden’s fingers flex on the snath of his scythe. “It is my purpose. Something or someone playing it for a fool cannot be tolerated.”

“I’m not a Necromancer.” Not officially. “Or one’s apprentice.” Not anymore. “It’d be a punishable offense for me to perform a summoning. Harshly punishable. Today’s earlier guests would see to that. I could be stripped of this territory.” That’s belonged to Nana’s blood for longer than the Circle’s had any to its name. “Stripped of worse if I’m discovered.”

“Were the stakes not worth the risks, I would be not but a shadow on your horizon.” Hayden intones, as solemn as the scythe at his side. “The dead deserve better, Thana. Ends proper. You know that.”

I look away, undecided on whether or not blank eyes are preferable to hollow stares. Both want so much. 

One hand runs its fingers along a silky feather’s bristles. The other, along soft, white petals. So do I–want. Other sensations have become muted–to touch and sight.

It’s getting dark.

In the sky, the sun sags, fog appearing like manifested dream to drag it under. Soon, the screaming will start. Sockets will delineate themselves from night. From nightmare. Pair up to hunt. Scratch at the glass. Desperate.

Gotta keep the lights on.

They‘ll feel less alone, Thana. Nana told me, something that can’t be taught through any tome coloring her tone. Less abandoned if there’s a little light. You too.

“I know.” Hayden’s should-be soulless eyes meet mine, hopeful. Their sheen reminds me of the sparkle Nana’s starless set seemed to hold. “I’ll need some supplies. Time to prepare, too.”

“How long?” Is that a hint of impatience I detect?

“By all means, feel free to play that other card you’ve got up your cloak.” That seems to silence any further complaints. “No? Then, I‘ll need a day or two.” Mentally, I expand upon that grocery list I never got around to today. Unexpected company, what can you do? Thinking of…

“You wouldn’t happen to have a place where I can…work, would you?” I look at Hayden. “Somewhere secluded. Not too small. Preferably near hallowed ground.” In case.

“How big?” I can’t help but grin. That’s always the first question, Nana clucked her tongue. Though the answer should be obvious.

“Enough for a body.”

For his part, Hayden remains seemingly unfazed, contemplative, perhaps, but his features more neutral than mine must’ve been when the truth of the matter was made apparent to me. After a moment to think, I raise my eyebrows.

“I’ve a place in mind.” Hayden reveals, the white of his eyes taking on a crimson tint as dusk dies. “I take it blood and bone don’t bother you?”

Another grin I can’t devour.

“It’ll save me time,” My flesh begins to tingle, nearly hum as the last vestiges of my peace sink into dark surround me. A crow’s cry becomes the beginnings of a wail–for company. Mine. “not having to collect either myself.”

Shrieks settle in my ears. Empty sockets on my skin.

It’s going to be a long night.

Better light that torch.

****

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Can you guess who we’re going to meet next time?? I wonder…

If anyone has any interesting reads on necromancy or death deities or tarot, please feel free to share ^.^ I’m interested in incorporating as many as I can in this little series here…. Is that too much of a hint for who to expect next week….?? Guess we’ll find out!

Thanks as always for reading!

All my stories can be found under the Killing It tag ^.^

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(Yes, I drew the featured image and the other skull drawing in this post. The featured image is a piece I’m working on for a class. It’s done using charcoal. My fave~~)

 

 

It Will Be Satisfied

Swamp surrounds the village, dirt little more than sponge, sopping up so much water even the slightest of us must strap net stretched across stiff wooden slats to our feet or else risk being swallowed whole. Too many have become meals, preserved in the muck for unsuspecting outside-dwellers to stumble across on one of their daring jaunts to our reaches.

It’s why we’re called the People of the Mud.

Big sister, unruly and untamable, always donning a reckless sort of snaggled smile, became one such meal.

Hushed me in my hammock when climbing down from hers disturbed me. Told me, in a conspiratorial whisper, “It’ll be our little secret little sister, yes?” and vanished into the fathomless void our world is once nights descends. Her muck-shucks remained, I noticed at daybreak.

She never returned for them.

Blood, an elder in the hobbled hut stilted beside ours said when it was clear big sister was gone for good. The mud demands blood.

Mother and father said nothing in response to the elder. Nodded, yes, but kept their mouths sewn shut. I followed suit.

Said nothing when no vigil was held. Nothing when big sister’s hammock was filled not a year later by another child. Nothing when big sister’s muck-shucks were pried from my protective hold and broken like mother and father’s stitches. Remade, so carefully, for a smaller pair of pitter-patter feet.

Silence would mourn silence.

Would mourn a farewell never voiced. A closure, unsatisfied.

In the swamp, the mud is not the only thing that makes demands. That requires sacrifice. The water–there is ritual that must be performed before it will accept our dead.

Touch. We must bless the passed with one last memory of our touch. Must comfort them a final time, skin to mud-stained skin, or else risk their disgruntled spirit coming back with a vengeance for what was denied.

Flesh swallowed by the murk without lasting comfort never satisfies.

Is never satisfied.

It slithers out of the murk and into your hut at night. Up into your hammock. Coils ’round and ’round you till its smooth, scaly touch is all you can feel. All you will remember.

It sneaks up on you while you’re muck-shucking at dusk. Watches you with beady eyes from razory reeds, saw-tooth grass, biding it’s time till you tempt fate too close and then it is tusks through your soft tissue. Skin separated from stained skin. Cloven hoofs crunching bone so you’ll never forget.

It is a jagged-jawed maw lying in wait in the shallows’ shadows. Scaled hide shades of void and muddy murk. Eyes dim until the moment mother leans too far for the laundry line and topples into the drink. Till father wades too deep to rescue her.

Then, those dull eyes sheen blood-red. Like mine and baby sister’s in our murky reflections from our perch above.

Mud people? More like Blood people. 

Blood and bone and fleshy parts people. So easily made. Easier torn apart. Swallowed. Blood and bone and fleshy parts a delicacy our world delights in dishing out almost as much as it does in devouring it itself.

After, when the red goes ruddy, Its eyes flat like void-night again, there is an acknowledgement.

A looked shared between It and me.

Fully satisfied. Appreciative.

Accentuated by a toothy, reckless curl of Its vicious maw. Gone in an instant. With a single thrash of its reptilian tail, back into the murky depths it disappears. Finally able to rest.

Baby sister wriggles in my arms.

“Ma? Da?” She mumble-grumbles, pointing a pudgy finger at the settling murk. “Go?”

Shhhhh….” I soothe her struggling, her searching, my voice less than pacifying from long disuse. “It’s a secret.”

I glance down at the red streaks still swirling in the murk, the bone fragments floating like the broken bits of an old pair of forgotten muck-shucks. They weren’t forgotten.

“Our secret, yes?”

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Wrote this while I was pissed because I missed my train. Decided to make my frustration productive. Hope you enjoy~~

***Be sure to check out the Killing It if you do***

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