Are You Happy? Evil Dead and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

A dimensional incursion has occurred between the genre of comic book superheroes, and horror has occurred. It began, cinematically, in Moon Knight, with just a hint of it in No Way Home, but now the singularity has happened and I decided that I couldn’t contain it anywhere other than in this textual laboratory.

Have you ever began something with a singular purpose – like a Sacred Timeline – and then through a series of tangents, spin-offs, unfortunate events, and poor life decisions, or varied Choose Your Own Adventures you find yourself in a complicated web where you have to confront all of these things in some kind of existential test filled with dread? This is basically Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I could go into Marvel lore – both comics-wise and cinematically – but let’s be honest, so many others have, and are, already doing so in the different planes of reality. So now, I ask you – my readers – to take after the example of the Infinity Warriors that some of you already are, and remember the Creed:

No Spoilers. Because, after this moment, reading past this point means that all the responsibility falls onto you. You were warned. 

When you look past sorcerers, in this world with their martial arts and academic leanings, and witches with their raw power and their own erude learning, what you are left with is a magician. And while Stephen Strange and Wanda Maximoff are sorcerer and witch respectively, it is Sam Raimi that is the magician. And what are magicians excellent at displaying?

Misdirection.

It’s a trait that carries over from his work in the horror genre: where you think that the plot is going to go one way, or the story is going to end in another, but something else happens entirely. And in Sam Raimi’s case, it is usually a mad-cap situation that goes down.

The events of the film play behind my third eye’s mind. We see an alternate version of Stephen Strange, called Defender Strange, with one of the few human singularities or cosmological constants in the multiverse – America Chavez whose ability is to travel all realities – fleeing a monster covered in runes and incantations. We think, and we are primed, to believe that he will sacrifice himself to save America’s life by letting the monster attack and kill him. We are led to believe he will send her away as the creature corrupts and changes him into a zombified version of himself: an undead body warped and twisted by an evil spirit to become an antagonist as America gets the mainline Marvel Cinematic Strange to help her escape evil. 

Instead, we see them trapped attempting to get the Book of Vishanti in this plane between universes, and Strange decides to drain America of her power: effectively killing her instead of letting the pursuing demon’s master have her power to travel the multiverse instead. This is such a prelude to the critique of Stephen Strange – all the Stephen Stranges throughout the multiverse and the one we know – that will happen throughout the film: taking him to an uncomfortable psychological place.

This is where we see Stephen Strange and his arrogance: his inherent, deep-set need to know best over the needs and consent of others. He can even violate the friendship and trust of anyone at his side if it threatens “the greater good.”

And then, the Stephen Strange we know wakes up: having seen all of this as a nightmare. But we know it wasn’t just a dream. As it turns out, and as America explains later on to him and Wong – the former sorcerer Librarian and current Sorcerer Supreme – there are people powerful enough to dream themselves into their alternate selves in other realities: to get a glimpse of what their lives might have been like if other roads had been taken. It is eerie, and disturbing when you think about what we all dream about, assuming this only applies to “the important,” especially given that America herself never dreams when she sleeps: as she is the only one of her kind in the multiverse.

Think about it. Imagine all those dreams where you die. Or you are still in high school. Or you are losing your apartment.

Or you find yourself falling.

Consider that all of these scenarios happened to you, or are happening to you, in the multiverse. And then take that realization, and apply it to those other selves dreaming of you. This existential dread is just the beginning, and it’s something that Stephen Strange has to face when he looks at the corpse of Defender Strange on the rooftop before him. I mean, holy Gothic horror Batman: looking at your dead double or Doppelgänger after hearing that he betrayed the girl he was friends with would shake your core faith in yourself, I don’t care who you are. Talk about the foreshadowing and ill omens you do not want. Forget having a living harbinger telling you that you are going to fuck something up by messing with it in the horror genre, just look at your own dead body, and think to yourself: I need to seriously reconsider my life.

And with this foray into the morbid uncanny in mind, let’s look further into some messed up character psychology. We are primed to think there is a Big Bad, some kind of powerful demon or supervillain that sent these monstrosities after an innocent girl like America: to get her power to expand their power throughout the multiverse. So what does Doctor Strange do? Well, he realizes he needs help. He has an entire legion of his fellow brother, sister, and sibling sorcerers in the temple of Kamar-Taj to protect America, but he knows that having a fellow Avenger might help: someone with familiarity with the Mystic Arts.

Wanda Maximoff has had a bad time of it. When you look at the intertextuality or continuity of her between films she had killed the man she loved for nothing, fell into delusion and denial over his death and unconsciously used Chaos Magic to take over an entire town and recreate her lover and make children from nothing, was manipulated by an ancient witch, and then lost all of what she built, and ends up in the possession of the Darkhold: a tome of dark magic that corrupts the essence of the person using it. We’ve seen the Darkhold affect people in Agents of SHIELD: scientists, soldiers, and even an artificial intelligence, and none of it was pleasant. So imagine how horrifying a concept it is for someone of Wanda’s ability to be influenced by this book. 

To give you an idea of what the Darkhold is: it was, in the comics, created by followers of an Elder God of Darkness and Chaos named Chthon as a way to leave his mark on the world from which he was banished, and to eventually come back into it. Now, Chthon refers to the earth, but also has very Lovecraftian overtones, and the Darkhold is essentially Marvel’s — and Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog’s — version of the Necronomicon. Nothing good ever comes from possessing a book of forbidden knowledge. And, like the Necronomicon in H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos, it has copies. And while I am still unsure if Agents of SHIELD is canon, or not a parallel reality to the mainline cinematic universe, that copy was taken by Ghost Rider elsewhere to be destroyed, presumably in hell or some infernal plane like it. Agatha Harkness had another copy, which Wanda had taken from her.

So basically, this book is inspired by Marvel’s equivalent to a Great Old One, who in the comics made Scarlet Witch to conquer the world and multiverse. It is a nice parallel to Alan Moore’s analogue to the Necronomicon in his and Jacen Burrows’ comics work Providence, the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya, or The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars with its own prophecy of the Redeemer: a figure will return reality into an inherently non-human chaos. Basically, Wanda is Chthon’s Redeemer even if, like Moore’s Lovecraft depiction, she doesn’t intend to be.

But comics and scholarly geekery, and whether or not Moore was inspired by the Marvel Darkhold or some other Mythos story, we come back to Sam Raimi. If you have watched the Evil Dead Trilogy, you have seen the Necronomicon before. The Naturom Demonto, or the Necronomicon Ex Mortis is a book that details Kandarian funerary rites, prophecies, and passages that allow for the summoning of demons. Mainly in Raimi’s films, whenever this book with a cover of warped human, or demon flesh and made by the Dark Ones, is opened and people stupidly read from it in a cabin within the woods, it summons entities called Kandarian Demons. And these demons are all about possessing people, turning their bodies into living, gibbering, autonomous weapons called Deadites that maim and kill human beings out of amusement. And you can only destroy them by cutting them into little pieces. Generally, once you call on the power of any version of this book: from Lovecraft’s with its rituals to deal with Great Old Ones, Marvel’s Darkhold with its black magics, or Raimi’s Naturom Demonto or Ex Mortis, it never ends well for anybody.

So we have Wanda, whom Strange approaches, in her meadow and her snug little cabin to help guard the life and soul of a young girl. But like any horror film, you see that cabin is cursed by the proximity of the Darkhold and Wanda has only been masking the diseased nature of the land around them by her own magic. It only takes Strange a moment to realize that the human disaster that is Wanda Maximoff has been the one secretly sending those monsters after America: so she can use her powers to travel to the multiverse to be with alternate versions of the sons she lost.

Wanda is also the second person in that film, after Stephen’s former lover Christine Palmer, to ask him if he is truly happy. And she confronts him with some truth bombs about his hypocrisy in opposing her: about how his own selfishness, and also keeping his own counsel in dealing with the Time Stone cost so many lives while she wants to do is go to her children. We see that her delusion hasn’t abated. She’s simply consumed by the power of the Darkhold and the obsession of her getting her family back: at all costs. And if she has to kill a young girl to do it? Well, the girl is an anomaly and therefore not human, and according to Wanda “she doesn’t count.” I mean, it is not atypical. After all, witches sacrifice children to empower themselves, or accomplish their goals all the time in folklore. Just not superheroes.

So yes. It is safe to say that Wanda the Scarlet Witch has traded reason for madness.

Horror films love to deal with that age-old trope of the road paved with good intentions. And here, too, Stephen avoids answering the question about whether or not he’s happy.

The following fight between Wanda and the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj is nothing short of a deadly one-sided slaughter, with some resonance with Raimi’s own Army of Darkness. Wanda doesn’t resurrect the dead, or summon more demons. She simply preys on the minds of the adepts, and uses her raw power to overcome their traps. 

But it becomes clear, as America Chavez’s power is activated by intense fear and she and Doctor Strange are sent throughout the multiverse that the only way to stop a Darkhold-infused Scarlet Witch is to find the Book of the  Vishtanti : the Darkhold’s positive opposite empowered by Elder Gods opposed to it. 

So the Book of the Vishanti, that can basically create a spell that can instantly accomplish its goal, feels reminiscent of August Derleth’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos: in that he wrote stories where the Elder Gods were good, and the Outer Gods were evil. One can see Marvel, in making their conception of the Darkhold that made it into this film, thinking of Chthon as some kind of equivalent to an Outer God, and the three Vishanti  deities as Elder Gods. Certainly, there is some influence there, even if the  Vishanti  and Chthon are all Elder Gods in Marvel’s mythology. 

Yet it is also important to talk about these books, and books of power themselves, in the context of Sam Raimi. Books are important in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film series. The Book of Vishanti is supposedly the only one of its kind in the multiverse, much like a text equivalent to America Chavez, whereas the Darkhold has multiple copies in different realities based off the Temple Cthton created on Wundagore Mountain in one plane. In Army of Darkness, Ash Williams is sent back in time due to the events of Evil Dead II, the sequel and revision to the first film, and he has to find the right book – in this case the Necronomicon Ex Mortis – to fight off the scourge of the Deadites and return home to his time. He ends up in a graveyard facing what seems to be three copies of the Necronomicon – two of them being false – and when he finds the right one he fails to speak the magic words (which were inspired from the alien Klaatu’s orders to his robot ally Gort in the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, which is funny when you consider the presence of the Illuminati’s Ultron Iron Legion). The Necronomicon, in the case of Raimi’s third film in the trilogy, isn’t just the source of chaos in existence, but it has potential solutions as well. However, there is a more direct parallel between the Book of Vishtanti and Raimi when you look at Evil Dead II, the Necronomicon also possesses missing pages that contain a space-time vortex spell, and a prophecy of “the Hero From the Sky” that Annie Knowby, the daughter of Professor Knowby and Henrietta Knowby – who is possessed by a Kandarian Demon and made into a Deadite also referred to a lot of the time as a witch – uses to banish the evil of the book, and accidentally Ash as well. Of course, the Ex Mortis itself is a lot like the Darkhold with its own prophecy of Wanda as the Scarlet Witch.

Of course, there is an interesting parallel in that Ash Williams fails to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex Mortis peacefully in Army of Darkness albeit by his own foolishness, while Stephen Strange and America Chavez also fail to keep the Book of Vishtanti when Wanda obliterates it. 

Interestingly enough, and speaking of the destruction of books, the burning the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Raimi’s films also eliminates  the Deadites, while the obliteration of the Darkhold – while it also costs the life of the person that damages it, as we see in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – essentially robs its user of much of its magics: including the ability to dreamwalk.

Dreamwalking is another fascinating element in this film and its mythology. It is a practice, taken from the Darkhold, that allows the user to possess any of their alternate selves through the multiverse. So imagine that while normal dreaming lets you see through the eyes and minds of your alternates at times, dreamwalking gives you the power to control your alternates like puppets: overriding their sense of choice and freewill to do whatever you want. It is a terrifying skill, and one that apparently angers the damned. It isn’t to be used lightly. In fact, Wanda only utilizes this power when she has no other way to reach Stephen Strange and America in the multiverse. And when Stephen Strange ends up using another copy of the Darkhold to dreamwalk back to his own reality, he is accosted by spirits that twitter, taunt, and torment not unlike Kandarian Demons except they are essentially demonic shadows without bodies: the very same he begins to utilize against Wanda before she can absorb America’s power. 

But when you get back to the entire plot of the film, it is one great horror misdirection. The hero at the beginning of the film attempts to kill his charge for his conception of the greater good. Another hero has gone mad, and is willing to terrorize murder a young girl to find her created chidren in another realm: committing war and essentially genocide against an entire ancient order to get to her.

Yet I think that what ultimately gets to me is the absolute personal horror in this film.

Not only do you have the fact that fear is the only thing that America Chavez can use to activate her power to travel to, and portals to other realities, and her living with the burden of having accidentally banished both of her mothers to other planes, but it all comes back to Wanda Maximoff and Stephen Strange. Wanda Maximoff continues to make a whole series of moral compromises: from sending monsters after America, to slaughtering an order of sorcerers defending a child, to essentially violating and controlling her alternate counterpart in the Illuminati reality – even abandoning her in the plane between realities without knowing or caring if she has powers to get herself back – all the way to tormenting and potentially killing Wong, and draining the energy out of a young girl as Agatha Harkness tried to her back in WandaVision. It is sad to see a misguided hero become essentially a villain, or at least a seriously corrupted antagonist, and it is only after America Chavez literally gives Wanda a reality check by forcing her to see her alternate and her sons terrified of her that she sees what she has become. This realization, that she is basically a monster, that she looked into the abyss and became the things that used to torture her and use her, that she swore to destroy, that “her children” were afraid of her, breaks her. 

And then we have our friend Strange himself, the supposed hero of this film. What we find is what happens when a man who thinks he knows best is pushed to the nth degree in different realities. The Illuminati themselves, created by one version of Doctor Strange, also believe they know what they need to do for the greater good, and overestimate their power: costing the majority of them their lives. Black Bolt and Mr. Fantastic die horrific, grisly deaths for superheroes under the Scarlet Witch between the former having no mouth and he must scream, and the latter being peeled away like a cheese stick: complete with Captain Carter getting cut in half by her own shield, and the Rambeau Captain Marvel crushed by her own statue. Poor Professor Xavier, whom I actually thought would be the worst of the lot, was actually the most compassionate in wanting to free Stephen Strange from their capture of him, and even attempting to remove Wanda from her captured alternate’s mind before she snapped his neck. It’s a strange thing to see when you consider Xavier’s interplay with Wanda in the Marvel Comics when they were sometimes allies, and oftentimes enemies as she was Magneto’s daughter.

The reason I mention the Illuminati’s deaths, most of them not particularly graphic but some of their off-screen and shot angles of demise allowing the imagination to fill in the blanks and make it worse, is that they die because they captured Stephen due to them having killed their own Doctor Strange, and other variants of him. Essentially, what Stephen Strange discovers, and what they reveal to him, is that the Strange of their universe attempted to use the Darkhold’s dreamwalking against Thanos and, as a result, destroyed an entire other universe. He hadn’t told them, or his version of Christine Palmer what he was doing – taking it on himself to “wield the scalpel” – and it cost trillions their lives. 

It is like Defender Strange’s attack on America writ large, and making Stephen Strange see his gamble against Thanos in his reality and allowing him to understand the cost in doing so: even if it was the only way from his perspective with the Time Stone. But it gets worse. Stephen and Christine end up in a dying universe, looking not unlike the fractured reality of The One Who Remains in Loki. It is there that Stephen meets what can be called Sinister Strange, who is mostly mad and failed to save his universe: who has taken it on himself to absorb the power of the Darkhold, and murder his alternates for fun in other universes. Essentially, this Doctor Strange took the burden of his failures, and of doing everything himself, messed up, and hated himself so much he kills himself in other places, over and again. And when Stephen realizes the full extent of this, and duels with him, the other’s death is more like a mercy killing.

Because what Stephen Strange finally confronts in looking at his mirror darkly, is that he is afraid of failure, of being alone, and he drives people away in response by embracing perfectionism. He sees his arrogance, and the price it exacts on himself, and everything around him in other planes. And instead of being able to use the Book of Vishanti and its Light magic, he must use the copy of the Darkhold that destroyed the mind of his counterpart: facing darkness, using Dark Magic and the realms of the damned accomplish what I think is one of the best subversive aspects of this film. He can’t take the easy way to victory. He has to work, and suffer for it. 

Stephen Strange manages to dreamwalk into the corpse of Defender Strange while he is trapped in Sinister Strange’s universe, essentially reanimating him, and weaponizing the spirits of the damned attacking him around him to use against Wanda and her own servants. Essentially, to borrow yet another comics franchise analogy with another underhanded sorcerer, he Constantines Wanda before encouraging America to draw on her own determination to use her power, and give the Scarlet Witch her wake up call. In essence, Stephen Strange has to function as his own Kandarian Demon to possess the dead body of his alternate self to defend the girl that this same alternate had once befriended and tried to kill. The Zombie Strange we’ve seen in previews, who had all been typecast as an antagonist, is actually a hero using dark magic to protect a girl’s life, and give her a chance for agency. 

Usually, in a Sam Raimi film a spirit possessed or controlled body is a problem, such as with Ash Williams’ or even Ash himself. Ash too had to face down his own doppelgänger in Army of Darkness, a few times over, his own strange little alternate selves and demons in the mill before having to deal with his undead one later. Another interesting parallel to Ash Williams and Stephen Strange is that they both have tremendous pride that can lead them into doing terrible things such Ash not saying the words in the graveyard and unleashing the Army of Darkness, and Stephen Strange believing he can take any problems head on without consulting anyone.

The differences are that while Ash just kills his undead counterpart, and doesn’t seem to learn a damn thing in the films, Stephen Strange does learn to trust the help of others through using his undead double – which is hilarious in retrospect as I was telling him to burn the body under my breath as I thought the Zombie Strange would be the beginning of an undead plague –  and lets America Chavez make the decision and judgment call that saves them.

In the end, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s own horror beats and sensibilities, complete with the twist at the end where everything seems resolved until that third eye opens on Stephen’s forehead like his sinister counterpart’s: that surprise, weird, ending that characterizes his Evil Dead work. It is something of a mess at times, and some parts feel more diluted than others, but it definitely succeeds in capturing the weird, the uncanny, and even the zany of Raimi and the world of Doctor Strange. I can totally forgive the insanity and haphazardness at times, especially when you consider you are dealing with madness. It is a story without a villain — save for an evil book that enables terrible behaviour and Monkey’s Paw wishes — but plenty of monsters to face, and antagonisms within the characters themselves. But then you need to ask yourself: at the end, when everything is said and done, and you have a moment, and you think about all the possibilities and your choices, and what you have seen: did you find what you were looking for?

Are you happy?

I think I already know my answer. And maybe one day, I too will stop hitting myself. 

Experiencing Max Brooks’ World War Z During World War C

Back on January 7, 2022 and in his Fangoria Terror Teletype “Monstrous Musings Column,” Phil Nobile Jr. asked for freelance pitches in his article “Things to Do in 2022” with the observation that most pitches have become “repetitively autobiographical,” and that many more readers are getting to the point where they “want to read informed, smart content about the genre, not about the writer.”

It’s something I’ve been mulling over ever since, and I will admit that it felt personal, though Nobile also added that it is his opinion, and perhaps even that of Fangoria’s Digital Editor Angel Melanson. Certainly, I would imagine that this sentiment would not apply to horror figures such as Barbara Crampton with her “Scene Queen” column, or the various interview that luminaries such as Jordan Peele and Ari Aster have given to each other, but even then while their lives definitely figure into their discussions, it is often more the insight into their already established careers that have the most fascination for a horror readership. It also makes me wonder if Nobile is referring specifically to digital content itself (with a majority of Fangoria’s print edition being filled by veteran writers and figures in the genre), as you will find many articles in which the writers involved attempt to relate their life experiences to different horror media. 

I know I’m not different. Many of my articles on The Horror Doctor and elsewhere are specifically focused on how I relate to something. I think it’s a very human thing to do, especially in the face of uncertainty, trauma, and fear. I’m also different in that while genre is important to look at, as opposed to merely my own life experience, I think that the stories told within that genre are equally – if not even more – important. 

This is a long segue into being reintroduced to Max Brooks’ novel World War Z during this Pandemic. The first time I read it was back in 2009, and the second time I exposed myself to this specific brain-virus again is the year of this writing, 2022. However, World War Z was published in 2006, and the audiobook that I listened to this year was released in 2013. Let’s look at these years. In 2006, several years passed since 9/11 and the War Against Terror. But more specifically, we have the SARS epidemic in China back in 2002, and then H1N1 spreading in 2009. This is around the point, at least in North America, where we began to see hand sanitizer dispensers crop up in public spaces outside of hospitals. The fear that a Pandemic could happen in our generation thanks to poor governmental organization, and global ennui was really prevalent, and the spectre of it never disappeared. And look at the zombie films, as unliving, walking, representatives of what a Pandemic represents truly coming to the fore: You have your 28 Days Later, Quarantine, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and a whole other host of cinematic, slavering, creeping, infections.

The era when I first read World War Z was long after I read Dracula, and I’d become very aware of epistolary narratives, though definitely before I’d truly come to appreciate the horror subgenre of found-footage films. I recall reading it as I traveled from Go-Train between Toronto and Oshawa to visit the partner that bought it for me. H1N1 was still a fear, so much so that in a horror writing contest called “Dark Idol” I attempted to be clever and write a story called “Hypochondriac” where the main character is terrified of getting a vaccine that ends up turning patients into zombies, only for his girlfriend to turn right when she’s giving him oral sex. Yeah. I made the themes relate back to one another much in the way I circle back to a point in my current writing, but between the awkward gait of the prose that would have made a zombie frustrated, and a “just a dream” hallucination from the vaccine he actually had leading up to that point, I didn’t want to think about it.

But it all circles back for me, now.

In 2009, World War Z was just a pseudo-historical narrative of different people’s stories being affected by the spread of the zombie virus, and watching how civilization almost dies, and then radically changes as a result of surviving the waves of its Pandemic. It also makes each source of – shall we say – An Oral History of the Zombie War, very compelling, and incredibly human in both how it depicts suffering, fear, hope, and a grim determination. I absolutely love how Brooks manages, or at least attempts, to encompass a variety of cultural and individual experiences in dealing with the unthinkable: almost the ridiculous. I’d heard about the 2013 film loose adaptation, that focuses on just one story and seems to lose the point of the entire human experience by altering the slow, creeping Romero nature of the zombies and cutting out all of those stories. I’ve said for a long time that World War Z would have benefitted much from being made into a miniseries, or webseries for streaming: which Netflix could have easily done as it created original programming in 2013. At the time the only other work I can think of that attempted to bring together so many stories into a world surviving the undead is The Walking Dead released in 2010: and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s 2003-2019 comics run of the same name, the Cable-televised version starting off strong before eventually succumbing to its own inevitable melodramatic rot.

However, after bemoaning this (I am sorry, but not sorry for these unintentional zombie puns), a friend of mine reminded me of the audiobook which I listened to now, again, in 2022: the closest thing to a multifaceted audio, oral history of a zombie apocalypse, or at least a global disaster. The World War Z audiobook, narrated and voiced by luminaries such as its creator Max Brooks, then Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Nathan Fillion, Denise Crosby, Alfred Molina, René Auberjonois, Bruce Boxleitner, Henry Rollins, Jeri Ryan, even Martin Scorsese, and other all-stars, feels like the vocal equivalent to different episodes of a series about people that saw, survived, and look back on different human facets of a zombie pandemic. Their voices reanimate the conflict between life and death, society and chaos, in a whole other way – these eye-witness accounts, recollections, and reflections, feeling more ever-present, more vital: especially after existing several waves of our own global Pandemic, and its effects on our world, and lives. 

If reading World War Z came at a time in my life, and in the world, where it became apparent that global health was letting itself become vulnerable to a superbug or virus, and North America was exhausted by various wars in the Middle-East, along with wondering how I was going to get my own work done in Graduate School and what I would do from there, listening to the audiobook is something that comes with its own existential angst. Aside from freelancing jobs, I have been long unemployed after Graduation, isolating at my parents’ house even before the Pandemic, and watching an incompetent government reign in America, and waves of sickness deciminate people and overwhelm medical systems. They are similar places, but while the former was an abstraction of something that could happen, and was going to, the latter is an experience which it has – and it still is.

It’s eerie. While Max Brooks used Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two as the inspiration for his narrative, as well as the zombie films and tropes of George Romero to create the solanum virus – the disease that creates the zombies that he introduces in his Zombie Survival Guide of 2003 in which he actually outlines an infection scenario that is expanded on in so many ways in World War Z, he might as well have predicted many of the events of 2020, and even some that preceded it.

The parallels are fairly clear. At one point, set presumably after the Bush Administration – though Brooks seems to be intentionally ambiguous about this – a new Black President and his running mate, nicknamed “The Whacko” are elected into office, the comparisons between Barack Obama and Joe Biden being fairly clear: though I can definitely see some Duane Jones in the little characterization we are told of that leader and his mannerisms. There is so much misinformation and denial about the zombies, even when the governments of the world are warned about the virus in advance. There are interviews that cover the terrible socio-economic conditions of North America, how the Pandemic is changing how everybody works, and what is important in a world attempting to survive, and then rebuild. There are tensions with Eastern Europe, especially Russia: even though as far as I know, it isn’t attempting to become a theocracy yet. There are accounts of people fleeing with items that will not help them in the long run, and taking all essential products from others, and falling for poor advice. Hell, even the false zombie cure or vaccine called Phalanx has some disturbing ties to all the debate circling around Moderna, Pfizer, and the like: though Phalanx is a placebo to prevent international, or at least American panic, while the vaccines of our world actually work. 

You also have constant reports of a death toll, and seeing how bureaucratic structures simply can’t – or aren’t willing and able – to change fast enough to combat this virus, and many people choose to remain ignorant, or even see it as a sign from God, or at worse even try to appease and embrace it. There are obvious differences. While the threat of societal breakdown was, and is, possible if medical infrastructure is overwhelmed by the vast numbers of infected in our world, Brooks’ universe is one where civilization takes a major hit. But Brooks’ world also has stages where the change of seasons will allow for the virus to spread again through its carriers, and has lulls and waves: though ours tends to happen in Winter and Flu-Season, while Brooks’ occurs during Spring and Summer thaws. 

I think there is something that The Whacko, who became President after his running mate, says that sums up everything that we have been feeling. While he is talking about America, and its idea of the “fair deal”: of doing honest work and be rewarded for it, he also mentions: ”The numbers are declining, thank heavens, but it doesn’t mean people should let down their guard, We’re still at war, and until every trace is sponged, and purged, and if need be, blasted from the surface of the Earth, everybody’s still gotta pitch in, and do their job.”

And make no mistake, what we have gone through – what we are still going through – is a struggle akin to a war: a world war. And this isn’t even talking about Russia and Ukraine and the spectre of atomic conflict, or the environmental damage that has created longer winters in World War Z (due to a nuclear confrontation between Iran and Pakistan) and our own pre-existing behaviour.

COVID-19 is heavily infectious. And while it isn’t incurable like the solanum virus, it mutates and if people take unnecessary risks it will continue to persist and remain a potentially deadly adversary. Like zombies, COVID-19 isn’t an opponent you can negotiate with, bomb (The Whacko’s comments not withstanding), shoot, or intimidate into surrender. It is definitely not something to ignore. While solanum spreads through bites and fluids passed into cuts or openings in a person, COVID-19 is airborne in enclosed spaces. And while you can’t survive solanum, it is possible to beat COVID, though it can have its price and potentially overwhelm our social structures if left unchecked. Despite their differences, take away the symbol of the zombie and what you get is our twenty-first boogeyman made manifest: our fear of plague and contagion every bit as frightening as the terror that makes the herd instinct do some incredibly stupid things.

I don’t know if anyone, beyond health professionals and zombie hunters, wears thick and almost cumbersome gear. I am not sure if masks are a part of Max Brooks’ World War Z, or what effect the virus has on fashion and social interaction. Ours is insidious. See, The Walking Dead likes to focus on how “the walking dead” aren’t the undead, but humanity as it struggles with a force greater than itself, trying to wipe it out completely. Who maintains their integrity? Who rises to the occasion in extraordinary times? Or who will resort to foolish actions? Who will be selfish? Who will have incredibly rash and irrational moments that can mean not only the differences between life and death, but between questioning their morality, or losing it completely? Who will admit they were exposed to something that made them sick as they stay in places, with people, that are vulnerable and don’t want to become sick?

The people of World War Z and their responses are different. With solanum, some people have attempted to isolate if they have the infrastructure and the resources to hunker down, or to keep moving and migrating and always being vigilant to whom they spend their time. With COVID-19, it is isolation that is both the greatest boon if you can manage – if you aren’t an essential worker – but a major killer for a herd-based species like us. I can’t even begin to tell you how being separated from my friends and loved ones for two years has affected my health and sanity. And how many relationships of mine ended, in one case terminally.

The thing is, we do our part too. We take the vaccines that now thankfully exist for a year. We put on our masks in this grim Halloween game, something we need to keep doing despite many governments and organizations relaxing those mandates. There is something absolutely soul-killing about seeing people attempting to return to business as usual, to parties and gatherings as though they can’t get sick again, as though they can’t die, as if you are the one that is mentally sick, and perhaps you are: maybe you do need help – and if so, you should seek it out.

Many of us, like the people in World War Z, will never be the same again. Some persevere, now working from home, or having new jobs and mobility they didn’t have before. Others lost everything, and they still have to struggle to get something akin to stability back. Their favourite places no longer exist. Many have larger families. Some have no families at all anymore. There is a story of a shut-in, in his case a self-identified otaku in Japan, who feels a lot like I was before our Pandemic, and I know I couldn’t have improved as much as he had done.

For me, and this is where it is personal again, I struggled to get out of the house before COVID-19 and I was in the process of rebuilding my life before the virus destroyed all of my plans. It is a major event for me to even go to the movies with my brother, or see my small group of friends, or go on a date. There are places I can never go back to. People I won’t see again. And there is so much trauma I haven’t even begun to process yet.

I am a freak. I watched Cronenberg’s Rabid and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse in the midst of the Pandemic. It is always on my mind. The day I visited my partner in the respiratory ward of a hospital before the virus officially hit, where I had to put gloves and a mask on felt not only like the dress rehearsal of her death and isolating myself from all other people, seeing them from a distance, but the beginning of this grim Halloween harvest that never seems to end.

It reminds me of something in the novel. Actually, it reminds me of two things. At one point, Max Brooks as “Max Brooks” is interviewing a filmmaker who created movies during the Zombie War for morale. And to give you a strange feeling, at one point the filmmaker refers to “Marty,” you know: Scorsese, who also does voice-acting in Brooks’ audio adaptation. Anyway, this movie-maker mentions how “Marty” created a film called Avalon: in which the residents of a college of the same name fight valiantly against the zombie hordes. The version that most people see is the one where the heroes are valiant, brave, and those that die presumably go out tragically, if not with nobility. But then the filmmaker tells “Brooks” that there is a longer version of that film that “Marty” chose not to release during the height of the Pandemic: a cut which shows the worst of humanity, the lows, the despondencies, the vilest and cruelest excesses, and even the despair of the heroes, or protagonists in question. “Marty” wanted to show the best of humanity in the worst crisis of their world, to prevent depression and even suicide rates. It is only after the worst of the Pandemic is over that “Marty” releases the longer cut to show the multifaceted nature of the human condition in the crucible of life versus death itself.

Right now, after several waves and quarantines, I think this is my longer cut of my own observations between COVID-19 and World War Z. At the beginning of the novel, “Max Brooks” is supposed to be working for the UN: to create a report on the event, only for it be greatly paired down for its consumption. It is only after he gets furious over many of his testimonies getting cropped out and his interviews ignored, that his boss tells him that what he should do is something else: that he should write a book.

I think back to Phil Nobile Jr. and Angel Melanson talking about how they believe horror readers, at least of Fangoria, are exhausted by autobiography as opposed to facts and genre details. And maybe where The Horror Doctor, and my writing in general, shines is precisely in looking at those emotional and personal elements. And while I can examine other considerations, perhaps I should do something different with my writing: with my experiments. Because while I can say something about the genre and tropes of World War Z, how it is just as much a world-building serial extension of the ghoul mythos created by George Romero and John Russo as Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, and how the cinematic adaptations of both Brooks and Kirkman do not do them justice, I think it’s important to say something about people – and even horror fans and creators’ minds – during this time.

When you compare World War Z to COVID-19, the novel reads like the past two years of our world accelerated and condensed into something of a four year singularity, or a potential implosion. Brooks’ fictional pandemic lasted from 2004 to 2008, but ours began in 2020 and still continues now in 2022. But our War, our World War C isn’t over yet, but I think that despite this fact, this is a timely article to write. We are all feeling it: the C, for cyclical, nature of this conflict and how literature and horror imitate and even anticipate the timelessness of our struggle, and the stories that we live and leave behind in its wake. 

Journal of an Olympian

Yo, Chris. Like we said, they were going to wrap up that Armitage Racist Sex Cult shit faster than DJ Jazzy Jeff getting thrown out of a Bel-Air Mansion. I still can’t believe the depths of this evil, crazy shit. It’s almost literary levels of what the fuck. How I get these? Groundskeeper Grandpa’s shack built more solid than that fucking house of horrors. Damn, man. I told you not to go in there. And hey. I’m TSA, remember? I got friends. Just, Jesus Chris. This fucking title too. Made a whole fucking memoir. Like Mein Kampf. Kind of glad most of it got burned in your fire. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

— Rod

It won’t be long now.

I’m afraid, of course. Any sane man would be, even at the cusp of an achievement like this. If there is even the slightest margin of error, I …

Marianne is worried too, but I’ve assured her that I will be all right. We will be all right. 

I’ve taught Dean well, and he already has a fine family of his own. They know exactly what to do. I see all of the issues now, in retrospect. The mind has to be prepared for the process, both parties to form the Coagula. It isn’t just the host, but the brain — the mind — of the pilot as well. I am so glad that I detailed that video recording while I still could, before this vessel fails, and I can finally get a new one. I hope it will be comforting to those who will join our Order. Perhaps, even our family. That Missy, she is a fine woman for Dean, and the rest of us as well. 

There were mistakes, I will admit it. Perhaps some hubris on our part. On mine. The Doppelganger Experiment was supposed to make this process easier. After all, while they did fail to have any influence over the populace despite what we might have promised that Administration, I still think they would still stand to be fine donors for those of us who are more fortunate. It was a stepping stone, certainly, to gaining the resources that we’ve needed to make this Transmutation possible, and the friends and allies to keep us strong and focused. The poor coloured Doppelganger already lost his original counterpart. I still think it’s unfortunate that the initial process was messy, at best. I suspect that that brain had been too damaged, even with Dean’s brilliant hands and the teachings of our Order such as we established them. Again, we didn’t account for the psychology of the mind, or needing another mind as a foundation to bolster the parts of the brain required to function. Or Missy. We really needed a Missy, back then. Even so, the subject survived with a few of his memories intact, though not enough to grant us — or our allies — any other leverage. If only we could have told the world that we saved such a man, such a politician. 

I’m so sorry, Mr. President. 

That had been our first real experiment. And it was a long road. Up until my time, the Order had pursued Transmutation, immortality, the Holy Grail, through spiritual means. There were so many leads. We had people, family even, in all different branches of endeavour, especially our greatest and most prominent American institutions. We even had a family member in the Orne Library itself, at that University in Massachusetts. We regained so much lore from him, back when we were the Knights Templar. He did a fine job, keeping out the … undesirables, the riff-raff, the dilettantes, and the unclean, while leaving the choicest morsels to us, and our friends. Recommended scholars only. Unfortunately, he was never the same after the Late Spring of ’27. He’d already been a fierce opponent of miscegenation, but that business in that village of inbred hicks broke him. He couldn’t see what needed to be done. It’s a shame, what happened to him in the 1930s, but he’d already been a shadow of his former self. He’d have been horrified at what we’re trying to do now, at what we are transforming into out of pure necessity. But we never had time for short-sightedness. We had to move on.

The Manuscripts were too fragmented, and only hinted on ways to do what we had to bloodlessly. Transcendence and a simple exchange of minds would have been nice, but we are still not evolved enough. It would have been too wasteful to let those other minds, and their skills die. Or worse, allow them to exist in our old shells without proper guidance. No, the body is still the only thing we have to work with, and the more sophisticated, if crude the better. No, two things from the University encouraged us, and me once I took over. I’d heard the stories about the coloured boxer in Bolton, and it was easy for those doctors to revive him. Even if my time in Germany hadn’t happened, even if I didn’t see the future in blood and muscle overtake me, I already knew achievements like these would be possible. That strength. That endurance. That resiliency. But then, there were the records. From Pluto. To think the world doesn’t believe it is a planet anymore. If only they knew the extent of it. Those records were incredibly useful. Only, we don’t want canisters. 

Flesh and blood is the key. Flesh and blood are the tools to ascension. 

The coagula is the way, the merging of Lower and Upper Egypt into the body of an eternal empire. The gods knew this, in any culture. They could cleave themselves together. And like Aristophanes’ story, that is exactly what we will do as we find our other, better halves, and guide them into perpetual life. Adaptation is the key. It always was. Artificial selection, cultivation, and a gentle guiding hand is all that’s needed to shape the perfect form to marry towards the perfect minds. 

Dean and Missy are a part of that in a more metaphorical sense. Hands and mind. Jeremy is a little rough around the edges, but he will come around. He favours the body, just like his Grandpa. I can respect that. Hell, I will be able to keep up with him when this is all said, and done. But the true prize is Rose. My darling granddaughter. She’s saved me. In some ways, she’s saved me more effectively than her parents. She has a new friend. She’s bringing him here soon. And I can’t wait to meet him. 

I’m tired. It’s been a long couple of decades, and there were a few times that I doubted our path. That I doubted myself. I am afraid, but it is just a shadow of the adrenaline I used to feel when I ran those races. When I sprung down towards that finish line. It was the fear of failure, of being left behind, of collapsing under my own weight. It was the terror of being humiliated, shown up, used up as someone better than me took my place. Because I was too slow. Because I wasn’t fast enough. 

But soon all our hard work will pay off. Everyone: the Greenes, the Kings, the Wincotts, the Jeffries, the Waldens. Even Tanaka. They will all profit from the fruits of our labour, and the discoveries of our alchemy. Baser elements transmuted into gold and platinum.  From mud into marble. 

From Black to White.

And they will always remember that it was the Armitages that brought them these gifts. And we will always lead them, and the Order, well. 

I can’t wait for Marianne to feel my strong, dark arms wrapped around her, and a stamina that will never tire. And virility that will never end. And she will have her time as well. Rose already has a new friend for my darling. I am so proud of her.

And I feel so fortunate to you too, Walter. Hopefully we will get a chance to talk before the procedure. You deserve far more than just an impersonal video tape. You will be my new lease on life. You will be my ascension to a new space that was barred to me. Titans need to be protected, and restrained. Centimanes will guard our gates. And Cyclopes will create our lightning. And you will be my lightning, Walter. You will let me strike faster, and harder than I ever did before. I will be able to start again. 

Yes. Thank you, Walter. Thank you for volunteering to give me this new chance. 

Because I haven’t forgotten Berlin. I’ll never forget that day. I will finally do it. 

I’m going to beat you, Jesse. 

I’m going to beat you.

Holy supervillain rant crazy rants, Batman. Pretty sure fucker was talking about Cthulhu shit, bro. Cthul. Lu. Shit. And the Clones around America too. Damn, dude. Not sure what we’re going to do about that. Kind of above my pay grade.

But there’s a whole list of names here. All those old white families. Cocky sons of bitches. And a bit about what they were going to do to you. And what these asshole sons of bitches did to so many others. Don’t worry. We’ll find them, Chris. We’ll get them. One name at a time. 

Lost Cause

For Mia Chainsaw

I know what you did. 

Oh, it was clever. Those kids came in, on their fancy bus, with their millennial friends, and they were going to take away what was rightfully yours. Ssh. Don’t speak. You can’t speak now anyway. I always had a suspicion, you see, about this town. About Harlow. But I never had proof. I never had proof about this place, or the areas surrounding it. They came into that homestead, you know, to that window into hell, and they found all the toys. All the “art.”

But they didn’t find them. Any of them. 

That’s when this town started to die. Oh, I bided my time Ginny. Can I call you that? I feel like we are connected somehow, you and I. Viscerally. No no. They had you on that ambulance too long. I know the distances. The heat. We’re in Texas, and many people just die on the way here. This town never dreaded sundown, or maybe that’s not accurate, is it? No. See, this small place here? Right. This place, where you were born, where you grew up, and where you are going to die soon — very soon from what the doctors tell me — is more of a sundown town. I guess it makes sense. I had of time, and some contacts here: like the one who phoned me up. It figures your family came here from East Texas after the Civil War. None of you like outsiders, of any kind. 

I guess that’s why it took so long for people to go to that property when my friends, and my brother were slaughtered by your local heroes. Your unsung boys. Your glorious dead.

No no. I know. The time they got there, the whole family was gone. A regular old Sawyer Adventure, am I right? 

And Tom Sawyer is running around again.

You’re probably not one for liberal Seventies culture, right Ginny? My friends and I were. We just wanted to see if my grandfather’s remains were safe. The irony, or the poetry I guess, is that I did have family here. In this land. In this place. I took it over again. Refurbished it. I came all the way over from the old Hardesty place, from my land, and I waited here. I wanted you all to be nervous. I wanted to be patient. I was wanted you to slip up. 

The problem is, I found the others. Seventies counter-culture. One was an easy rider, but he got run over. The other, Sawney Bean, was a cackling, mean son of a bitch. Not surprised you don’t understand the reference, but he liked to cook too, and trick people off the road. And that old man .. you know, he was apparently one hundred and thirty-seven years old. It reminds me of a short story I read in college. “The Picture in the House,” even heard of it? By Lovecraft. No. You probably think he was a queer, but anyone was Grandpa, the character in that story would’ve been him while he was still up and about.

There were few other freaks, too. But I’m not interested in them. 

I want Tom Sawyer. I want Ed Gein. 

The Moonlight Killer had a sack over his head like some of your great-grandpappy’s friends, I’m sure. But that … piece of shit had many faces. I studied about him, after I got my mind back, such as it was, as it is. Austin University had a good Law Enforcement Program. I studied all kinds of killers too, and how they work. The problem is, Ginny, is that I never saw his face. He was large. Tall. I never doubted for a second he could still be a threat in, what his seventies, like us? He’s not like us. His whole inbred cannibal family of killers are mutants. His fucking Grandpa lived over a century. No. I know he’s going around, killing those kids. 

You told him to go into your room. 

They didn’t get all the evidence. He’s the only one that came back. He had no where to go, after his whole family was gone. I know. Between me and Lieutenant Boude Enright, my Uncle Lefty, we exterminated those sons of bitches. My uncle didn’t make it, but I continued what he started. 

And he is the only one left. 

I’ve been by the old place. Oh, I’m sure you never had a tacit deal with the Sawyers. You just looked the other way. It was silent. Implicit. Strangers came into town, or undesirables, and they’d just disappear. I don’t need to go into who they are, or were, right? I think it’s pretty clear. 

Your last boy. The one in the orphanage. I can’t believe how many teeth I had to pull, to find anyone who’d talk about someone so large. So easy to see. He was in that house. Wounded. You took him out. You brought him to town. Got him as your ward. Adopted him. The town found him “mentally incompetent,” or nowadays developmentally delayed. He was nothing without them. I remember that now. They always bossed him around. Beat him. Told him what to do. I’m sure he enjoyed it, but he couldn’t so much as take a shit without their approval. He played when left to his own devices. We went into his playground, and we had no idea we stepped into hell. And then his family unleashed him and hell on a DJ named “Stretch” Brock. She’s a hard-ass now, despite them. Told me a lot more about that son of a bitch than I knew. 

How long did you keep his chainsaw in that room? Oh when those kids came in with that deed, you were already planning it, weren’t you. How long did he have, to take those rusted pieces out, oil them, put them together again? Putting the gas inside? Does he have some kind of workroom under your house? 

It doesn’t matter, really. Because, you see Ginny, you did me a favour. Before all of this, he didn’t have his mask anymore. It, and the rest, probably rotted away ages ago like all the corpses of all his family’s victims that were left. He’s been killing those city kids, and anyone in his way. He’s fast now. Cunning. Playing. But he’d never do it himself. He’s just an empty, blank thing on his own. A whimpering animal. He was all docile and placid for you, for years, taking care of your kids, and you. No one knowing who he is, but suspecting. No evidence. No proof. 

But then these fucking kids come in. Poor kids. I knew their grandparents, too, you know. We all know each other here now, don’t we, around these parts. They should’ve listened to their grandma. 

I’m not a grandma, Ginny. I am the last Hardesty thanks to your ward. And he is the last Sawyer. And you are the last McCumber. You could’ve handed him into authorities. You could’ve avenged the lives he and his family had taken. You could’ve made up for all the people you turned a blind eye towards as they went to their deaths. You could’ve saved young lives. 

Oh I know. I followed the paperwork. They didn’t have the deed. Yes. They fucked up. You could’ve come here. Challenged them in court. Even won. They didn’t have a chance, even with that fancy city money. But you got angry. They threw your sweat tea right in your face. They disrespected your great-grandfather’s memory. They intruded into your home. Into his lair. They woke him up, out of that puppy docility, out of dormancy. They brought him out of hiding for me.

You brought him out of hiding for me. 

You know, I think he loves you. The sick thing is, I think despite you using him as a killer, you treated him better than his entire family ever did. I’d almost feel sad for him, pity if he weren’t a mad beast that needs to be put down. 

No. Don’t struggle. You’re done. Your heart is too weak. Broken. He’ll find out. He’ll know what’s happened. He’ll lose his cool, and he will rage like a wild animal. More people will die, like those city kids, I expect. But they were going to die anyway. But then he’s going to get sloppy. Careless. He’s going to want his “Moma’s” body. Sawyers honour their kin by mummifying, or wearing them. But I got you first. 

I got you, and I will play all Little Red Riding Hood but, this time, I will be the Big Bad Wolf. And that sick bastard is going to suffer a long time before I’m done with him. Maybe he’ll really know what it’s like when someone takes away the only people you love left. Go to sleep, Ginny McCumber. The South’s not going to rise again.

Doctor! Doctor! Come quickly! Her heart stopped! I don’t think —

*

Yeah, she’s gone right? I’m sorry to hear that Doctor. Yeah, this letter is legit. I have custody of her body, and I will take charge of the autopsy. Yes, it is part of the continuing investigation into the killings. Is the suspect her ward? He ran when the ambulance picked her up at the orphanage, yes? 

Right. 

I’ve been reactivated for this case. Thank you for your time, and cooperation. I will do my best to find this killer for the State of Texas. 

I promise. 

Face Off

2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre Spoiler warning in effect.

For Magi Savage: Happy Birthday. 

I finally got you, you son of a bitch.

I’m sorry Melody, Lila. I told you not to come here. But none of you listened. You didn’t listen to the police. You didn’t listen to your grandma, may she rest in peace. Just like we didn’t listen.

“You don’t want to go fooling around other folks’ property. If some folks don’t like it… they don’t mind showing you.”

But you liked showing us, didn’t you. 

Come on, you bastard. Right here. Right now. You killed everyone I ever loved. You almost got me. But you fucked up. I got away. I almost didn’t. It was touch, and go. Went catatonic in ’73. People thought I died in ’77. I think I was one of them. But I didn’t die, you motherfucker. 

Look at me. 

Look at me, goddamn you.

Those girls, those kids, opened a crack in a window leading to hell, but it’s me you … no. Fuck that. 

It’s me that wants you.

After 1973, it was all about you. In 1977, I heard you were on the run. You and that whole disgusting family. I went back to school in Austin. I learned how to shoot a gun. Went right into Law Enforcement. Been a ranger. I was always hunting you fuckers down, went I finally got my badge. But someone always beat me to it. Like my Uncle. Yeah. He started carrying a chainsaw, just like you. Two of them. It didn’t help him. 

No. I only need the one. This one. 

Studied more than Law, but Criminal Psych. See, I remember that house of yours, and all your little toys. I wanted to know what made your mind work. How you tick. You Ed Gein-wannabe in a family of Sawney Beans. I wanted to know how your fucked up mind works, because I wanted to do more than just kill you. 

I want to hurt you. I want to hurt you bad. 

Oh, you like this huh? I found your little precious mother in that field. No. Virginia McCumber wasn’t your Mama. She found you in that house, after everyone else was gone. Your were always the runt. The mascot. You did everything they told you to, but when they were all gone, you had nothing else but that house. And she found you. Took pity on a simpleton. All your trophies were gone. You had no reason to live without your cannibal kin. She took you in, and you did everything she told you to do. 

And then she died. 

A beast never sleeps forever. That’s her face, right? Made her a fucking taxidermic mummy just like Grandma. Well, here’s Grandma, asshole! Here’s Grandpa too! And Nubbins! And Bobby’s plate. And your father-brother or whatever inbred monster of a cook that took me back to dinner! Jerry, Kirk, Pam … even Franklin! Poor, annoying, sad Franklin. My brother. They’re all here. I decided to wear them. Do you remember me now, motherfucker? 

You made my Grandpa into a toy. That’s what we were in this neck of the woods for, in ’73. I just decided I’d return the favour. I want you to look at them. I want you to look right at them because they’re the last thing you’re going to see after I shoot you, cut off your arms and legs, and take your face. Maybe I’ll wear it. And dance around. Then I will burn all of this. Your family, my family, my friends, and you. I will turn you into ashes. You fucked around on my property! It’s only fair I finish what I started on yours!

Look at me, you cocksucking piece of shit! I wanted for this. I don’t give a damn about those girls, or anyone else. Not anymore. They all laughed at me, thought you were a figment. Or long gone. I didn’t care how many people you killed, or helped — as if you really did help out in a fucking orphanage for fifty years! I wish I could’ve exposed you to your Ginny! I wish I could’ve shown her what a monster you really are! 

I wish I could’ve killed her myself. Right in front of you. Just so you’d know. You’d know exactly how I feel. 

Don’t you dare walk past me! I’ll do it! I’ll shoot you! I’ll saw your balls off! 

Don’t. Fucking. Ignore. Me.

Don’t …

Why are you looking at me like that. Why …

Get back here. Get …

I …

I …

I don’t know what’s worse. I don’t know if it’s that you don’t care, or that you think we’re the same. 

But I’m not like you. I … 

I hate you. I hate you so much. I want you to suffer. I want to kill you. I … wanted to kill you. For fifty years. I’ve hunted you for fifty years. 

My family. My friends. My uncle. My brother. You’re the only thing left. From that time. 

Goddamn you. 

You’re the only thing I’ve got left.   

Stranger in the Land of Get Out

The first time I ever knew about Get Out was at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Here I was, sitting with my partner at the time, watching this preview unfold at the theatre about a young Black man named Chris and his white girlfriend Rose going to her parents’: introducing him for the first time.

I recall a part of me inside cringing, knowing that something really bad was going to happen to Chris. This feeling only got worse at the sight of Georgina, the Armitages’ helper, with her Stepford wife smile, and tears slowly trailing down her face. This is complete with Chris being bound to a chair, and the presence of hypnotism, and the whole implication of slavery happening under a polite veneer at the Armitage property. You see, I thought that what was going to occur was that the Armitage family used mesmerism or brainwashing, even torture – physical and mental – to break down minorities, Black people,  and get them to serve them in modern day slavery: a racist cult that made their slaves appear to obey them out of freewill. In my mind, I was seeing Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner becoming a horror film version of Twelve Years a Slave. I didn’t know Jordan Peele at this time, or watch any of the work he did, which was comedy. But I knew this film was going to be a big deal. 

There has been a lot written about Get Out over the years, including how some people were surprised that white people, or other groups could relate to – and root for – Chris in the circumstances of the film. And while there has also been a lot of social commentary examined, and I absolutely believe that in the hands of anyone other than Peele the whole brain transplant element that skirted like the line between old B film horror, and genuine contemporary appropriation metaphor, might have fallen flat, I think I will lead with how I specifically related to Chris.

It’s, arguably, an intersectional place. There is a lot of baggage, and societal stereotypes around Black identity, and that carries its own resonance. That is not what I am attempting to unpack here, as it’s not my place. But the tension that Chris feels as he is introduced to Rose’s family, whose identity and background is different from his own is something with which I can relate. 

I was born into a Conservative Jewish family. That has its own cultural and historical weight when dealing with the rest of the world, and it’s even more impactful when you have interfaith, or interracial relationships. For the most part, when I have discussed this I’ve focused on my family’s perspectives and treatment of me and my partners, as most if not all of my partners haven’t been Jewish in the slightest. But one thing that is ingrained, on some level, from at least my experience is to always be careful of those people that aren’t Jewish: that are non-Jewish, or Gentile. There have been many experiences where Jews were considered allies by Gentiles, or even friends in different nation-states, and groups, only to get turned on later, and either become ostracized, exiled, abused, or even killed. And Jewish history has had its own Biblical and historical encounters with slavery, and genocide. 

This is something I was taught by my family, by synagogue, and by Hebrew School: the outside world will accept you to an extent, but it can turn on you quick when things go wrong, or even if you are doing too well, or you are too different, or you are “assimilating too efficiently.” And there are other groups who, historically, have tensions with my ethnicity, and even if they hadn’t been hostile interactions they grew up in cultures that believed in stereotypes, and might even subconsciously project them onto you. Now, for me, I wanted to live my life. I still do. I want to believe in the power of independence, individuality, and knowing where you come from, but not letting it dominate you: or keep you from new experiences, and especially something like love. 

But then we get to the other side, which is the strength of the bond you might make with someone who isn’t in your group, and being among their kin: in their territory, away from your own, or even the illusion of an open society. When Chris is invited to the Armitage home it seems friendly enough, but there are the awkward jokes, the looks, the things that aren’t said – especially the things that aren’t said – and sometimes little microaggressions that your partner might not see, or even participate in without consciously knowing. 

I can only speak for myself. One girlfriend’s mother sat with us in her car after she drove me home, and told us she knew that despite our different backgrounds, she was all right with us: all the while I knew she would castigate my girlfriend about it behind my back. Her siblings would be friendly to my face, but I always felt a tension there, and words that weren’t said. Her father never talked to me, or rarely did. It felt like there was this quiet, tolerance there. They were Eastern-European and Mediterranean respectively, raised by Eastern Orthodoxy, and they had a Jew in their household – that, granted, they invited – who nevertheless was dating their daughter. I would see the iconography of a culture that sometimes persecuted mine, even if Eastern Orthodoxy had a better relationship with Judaism than Catholicism or Protestantism arguably did. But I never once forgot that Eastern-Europeans did unleash pogroms on my ancestors, and that once in the Old World, a Jewish man being intimate with a woman from those cultures could result in his beating, or death: or worse.

In another situation, I had a partner with Northern European background, and their ties to Protestantism. And while they were nothing but friendly to me, we travelled there – the two of us – to see them deep in the North. I found myself in an old house, generations owned, not unlike that of the Armitages but without the forest or the deer as far as I knew. And that isolation, even though I met them before in my region, made me nervous: to be a household that wasn’t mine, alien but not, and I can remember Chris’s apprehension even as I can consider what I felt watching the city recede to the wilderness of the North, and away from what I knew. 

There is this idea of xenos: of guest-friendship. It is the idea that the stranger, or the outsider should be honoured and treated as one of your own. At the same time, there is xenophobia, which is the fear of the outsider, that can often lead to misunderstandings, and hatred. There is a barrier where it is all right to be friends with someone different, but anything beyond that can be difficult, and go bad. This is a lot of baggage. But you can see, looking at Chris at the Armitage residence, feeling his immense discomfort, and his sensitivity towards those gestures – even second-guessing himself and feeling bad that he;s feeling those emotions, wondering if he’s projecting them at times due the gaslighting of the family in this case – why I can relate. 

When I finally did get to watching it, I saw there were differences between my preconceptions of the film, and what I saw. Brainwashing and mesmerism were elements, but there is also the weird science of that brain transplant, the attraction of Chris as a commodity which is an extension fo the objectification of slavery in America. I never trusted Rose, not even from the previews, and sure enough I was right. She had a very Delilah resonance about her, and I knew she was going to betray him: that she was luring him to her family to be abused, and used for some malicious purpose. 

The fear of the outsider, and the Other is strong, and it can condition you if that is the culture – or a culture – in which you have been raised. Is that household kind and simply ignorant, or are you projecting? Or under that veneer of politeness and hospitality is there a genuine resentment, or hatred of you simply because of where you come from? Are you the friendly stranger to become potential family and are there expectations of you to bring something to the table as if you are a resource, or are you to be the Other sacrificed to maintain, or even increase the power of the group that despises you, or sees you only as that object with which they want to exploit, or be rid? Are you being treated by a host, or a potential enemy? Are you a guest or an outsider? These are ancient, human questions, and instincts. 
I’m glad I saw Get Out. And, looking back at this writing, and my attempt to explain how I relate to Chris and the soul of the film, it makes me wonder if I succeeded, or just projected my own experience in lieu of that understanding. It’s funny now, when I think about this film and how important it is, or could become. I think about how people equate the Jewish experience with whether or not someone has watched Schlinder’s List. And I wonder if, just like Dean Armitage and his vow that he would “vote for Obama a third time” if he could, if one day someone will claim to even begin to understand Black experiences and trauma because they watched films such as Roots, or Get Out itself?

Whatever the case, I wasn’t ever threatened or hurt. I definitely didn’t have someone wanting to use my body, or a cultural history of chattel slavery with which to contend. But the feeling of being isolated, being a stranger in a strange land and not knowing where I stood, but historically having negative cultural experiences howl at me from beyond the void of time, making me question if what I was feeling was valid, but ultimately wanting to at least leave the discomfort and tension of the situation  is something that I think is a human experience. And I think, at least once in our lives, especially from lived minority experiences, we’ve all felt the need to run, to get away from the stereotypes and perceived notions of others, to find our sense of people, of family again: or sense of self.

To Get Out.

At a Fork Between Space and Time: Phantasm and Doctor Who

It took me the longest time to realize where Ghostwatch came from.

In Russell T. Davies’ era of Doctor Who, during the time of the Tenth Doctor, the term was used by the British media to refer to the manifestation of strangely humanoid apparitions that appeared everywhere in the 2006 episode “Army of Ghosts.” Of course, these “ghosts” were actually Cybermen from an alternate reality attempting to come into this world: or that of the show itself. What I didn’t know, then, was that “Ghostwatch” was a reference to the BBC 1992 pseudo-documentary that terrified British television watchers everywhere by using their actual media spokespeople and staff to stage an elaborate tongue-and-cheek televised haunting turned bad. 

I could write a lot about Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch in its own right, as it falls into my whole found footage and epistolary cinematic fiction kick, but it was another reminder of that intersection not just between fantasy and comedy with horror, but science-fiction – especially weird science-fiction – and the horror genre. And when you have something like Doctor Who, a particularly weird science-fiction series running from 1963 and onward, stopping for a time in 1989 and 1996 respectively, only to be resurrected in 2005, it is a bizarre and zany patchwork that has covered a few genres, and stories, and story concepts in its time. I used to talk about this series a lot. Hell, I once spent years at an online magazine covering entire episodes of the show, and speculating on all of its elements before truly digging into the horror genre full time in these latter years. 

And then, one day, I encountered Phantasm.

It wasn’t a direct path. It never is, with me. A lot of my interests, and discussions, result from a series of geeky tangents, kind of like my Horror Doctor Blog: which bears no relation to Doctor Who in any way, just to be clear. But one day, I was on the Angry Video Game Nerd’s channel, and James Rolfe and Mike Matei were playing an unofficial game called Terrordrome: Rise of the Boogeymen: a Mortal Kombat-like simulation where you could fight as your favourite characters. And they were all there, these horror icons from the late seventies to eighties and nineties: Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Candyman, the different Ghostfaces, goddamn Herbert West, and of course freaking Ash Williams. But there were some others too. I’d only known of Leatherface in passing back when I first watched this, and Pumpkinhead. I had no clue that Maniac Cop was a thing.

And then, I saw him.

I saw this giant of an old man in a formal black suit. And he was strong. Insanely strong. He could use telekinesis as well, but he also summoned creatures that looked mysteriously like Jawas from Star Wars to do his bidding in battle.

And he also summoned silver spheres. 

I had no idea who this gentleman was, and it bothered me. It especially concerned me whenever he got hit and, instead of bleeding red blood, yellow fluid came out of him instead. This wasn’t right. How could I not know who this fascinating, terrifying character was? I read up on him after the fact and saw that he was just called The Tall Man. 

And that was it. But this is where I also found out that there was a horror series called Phantasm: created by the architect of Bubba Ho-Tep – coincidentally one of my favourite films – Don Coscarelli. And yet, this wasn’t enough to get me to watch them, or i didn’t have access to them at the time before I encountered The Last Drive-In, again through James Rolfe and Diana Prince – or Darcy the Mailgirl – and found out there had been an entire Christmas event where most of the films had been shown. 

Why did I watch these films, and hunt down the illusive Phantasm II regardless of being a completionist? It’s because not only did this Tall Man, who as it turns out also inspired the creation of the memetic Slender Man, intrigue me as it looked like an extremely unlikely iconic villain, and one I didn’t know about, it’s that something about him vaguely nagged at my senses like Slender Man would people’s collective nightmares. I had seen him, or something like him, before – and not Angus Scrimm, the actor that portrays him. 

It started with the silver spheres, I know that much now. In 2007, still under Davies’ tenure as showrunner, the Doctor Who episode “The Sound of Drums,” has The Master – The Doctor’s Time Lord archnemesis – working with, or possibly having engineered the Toclafane: a race of silvery sphered aliens that are supposed to help humanity, but actually serve him in decimating it in an event called The Year That Never Was. And, as it turns out, these creatures used to be human beings from a far distant dark future that all but had their brains regressed and changed to fit into their metal carapaces that possess blades capable of cutting many people apart. They are said to also be mostly ruled by their baser instincts, and to attack from those impulses. 

Now, Phantasm watchers, what else has blades that come out of them and attack people directly and have human brains inside them obeying – or working with – a terrifying potential alien antagonist? Of course, the Silver Sentinels are more direct and will drill into a victim’s skull, and they are removed from the skulls of the transformed dead by the Tall Man to serve him directly and, as far as I know, only the Giant Sentinels from Phantasm V are capable of firing lasers instead of the Toclafane with their own energy weapons, and their hive mind, but the parallels are hard to ignore: to the point where I wonder if Davies had been inspired by Coscarelli’s films. However, science-fiction has its own share of strange and bizarre creatures, especially cybernetic humans gone wrong, and Doctor Who itself from which Davies could have more than easily been inspired. 

Of course, now that I’ve seen the Phantasm films I’m also thinking again about the Lurkers: those Jawa-like beings I mentioned earlier. These particularly strange and outlandish things are the result of the Tall Man mutating dead bodies, those he is supposed to be caring for in his guise as a mortician, into his own mindless servants: their brains taken specifically to power and pilot his Sentinels. They, like the Tall Man, have yellow blood: an ichor that slightly resembles the reagent used by Herbert West in the later Re-Animator films, except that solution is a light neon green instead. It is fascinating to note that, at one point in Phantasm IV: Oblivion, the Tall Man exists in the American Civil War injecting fallen soldiers with needles filled with the yellow substance in a manner not unlike something the good Doctor West would do.

But then there is the idea that the Tall Man attempted to access the realm of the dead, or a mortal incarnation of him tried to do so, that resulted in his creation, and the creations of the Lurkers, the Sentinels, and his other undead monstrosities. Years later, in Steve Moffat’s run as showrunner in Doctor Who, he introduces the concept of the Nethersphere where, as it turns out again, Missy – the female incarnation of The Master, having survived death once – downloaded the consciousnesses of all the recently dead into a Gallifreyan Matrix data slice, or hard-drive to upload into Cybermen obedient to her will. Essentially, she hijacks the deaths of countless humans to make her army of the dead: engineering an afterlife in the form of the Nethersphere to do so. It is reminiscent of something The Tall Man says to the priest in Phantasm II: ““You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!” The Tall Man’s afterlife, or homeworld or dimension, is a dark place of endless storms in a black desert and binary sun mocking the landscape of the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine, and more like a purgatory or hell in itself of his own creation accessed through his Dimensional Fork Gates much like Missy’s Nethersphere is accessible through her own jury-rigged Gallifreyan technology. Could Moffat have been inspired by Coscarelli’s films as well? Who knows.


Yet one interesting parallel remains in my mind, or from my sense of aesthetics. Look at William Hartnell’s depiction of the First Doctor. Consider his suit, and his hair colour and style. Now think about the fact that whenever he is grievously injured, he Regenerates. He shapeshifts. Doctor Who was made in 1963, and by 1979 – when the first Phantasm film was released – we are all the way at the Fourth Doctor who has a device called a sonic screwdriver that allows him to access and manipulate certain elements. He is also an inventor and he can create things almost on a whim from pre-existing materials, and he travels through space and time. None of this is news to those who follow the series.


Now look at Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man. He is a lengthier old man with a similar suit, but whereas Hartnell’s Doctor is flippant and snappish, The Tall Man is grimmer and far more menacing, his voice rough and brusque. He was derived from the nineteenth century mortician Jebediah Morningside: a man was also something of an inventor or a scientist. Both seem to have less patience for the young. The Doctor himself is surprisingly strong, as Gallifreyans are made to be sturdy and do not have the same physiology as humans. The Doctor uses his TARDIS to explore, and The Tall Man utilizes his Gates to move around: the former primarily through Time and Space, and the other through what seems to be alternate dimensions of reality, and sometimes different time periods. However, The Tall Man also shapeshifts but not always when he dies, and even his limbs – when severed – can change into other creatures entirely. Fascinatingly enough, Davies does create a clone of the Tenth Doctor from a severed limb of his later in the series, but that is just coincidence as I feel that was an accident when it was combined with human DNA whereas The Tall Man’s mutations are all purposeful and malicious. And while The Doctor has a sonic screwdriver to help him, it seems a tuning fork in the hands of the protagonists often disrupt The Tall Man’s Fork Gates, his technology, and sometimes even himself. The Doctor does have aspects of telepathy too, whereas The Tall Man has telekinesis. The Doctor is able to Regenerate into different genders, and The Tall Man can change his shape to match different genders. The Doctor is impatient with his human Companions and the species in general but over time warms up to them, whereas The Tall Man sees them as resources, though he has a draw towards and wants to capture Michael Pearson – who he always calls “Boy” – and Reggie, who he loves to torment like some kind of multiversal pet of spite.


Interestingly enough The Doctor once said he was half-human, and as a Gallifreyan he has two hearts, and The Tall Man seems to have come from a human at one time. Also of note, The Master – who has the Toclafane and their version of the Cybermen – is seen as the antithesis of The Doctor, while The Tall Man with his Sentinels and creations, his own resurrections in the form of duplicates and even gender changing as well can be seen as another. I can go on, I’m sure, and I want to make it clear that I am not saying that Phantasm was inspired by Doctor Who, or that various eras of Doctor Who were clearly inspired by Phantasm, but the parallels are striking and I feel that creative “cyber-pollination ” is a thing.


I feel like I might have managed to offend two fanbases in two different genres in writing this piece such as it is, but it all comes back to horror and science-fiction: especially weird science fiction again. Things like Doctor Who are almost ridiculous. In a few other writings, I’ve talked about how The Doctor is the sublime and silly answer to the malevolence and apathy of a Lovecraftian universe: a dream that delves into nightmare to emerge, sometimes with some loss, triumphantly to face alien bees, vampires, and B-List foes like Cybermen, and Daleks once again. But Phantasm, with the Tall Man? He is on that other road. He represents that place where reality is never fixed, always changing, always shifting, a dream from which you can’t awaken, and yet the fight and the struggle keeps going. Doctor Who is the madcap insanity that laughs in the face of cosmic madness. Phantasm is the horror that keeps coming back throwing dwarves, mutants, robots, and undead in your face. Neither should work, these chimerical juxtapositions, but they do because in the end, both are strange stories that constantly reinvent themselves. And both are different sides of the Weird. 

Mamuwalde, Screaming: The Two Films of Blacula

I’d watched Shudder’s Horror Noire documentary back in 2019, and it introduced me to many films I’d heard about, and some that I did not. 

For instance, Ganja & Hess was one of the movies I’d never heard about: this experimental, almost lyrical dreamlike piece about vampires made by the Black filmmaker Bill Gunn and starring Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead fame. And then I also got around to watching Candyman, and while I still love Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden,” Tony Todd brought him to life in a whole other way that I’m glad I got myself to see. I was never a true horror fanatic, and all the permutations, and so I came into looking at some of these films starring Black actors, and created by Black filmmakers from a fresh perspective: looking at art that I wouldn’t have considered back when I was younger. Certainly Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us helped me along the way to this fascination, with both the dread of seeing how racism would be incorporated into horror – especially from the relationship dynamic of the former film – and the pacing and fine social commentary inherent in both. 

And then, you have Blacula.

I admit: I would have slept on it in my old, dark, subterranean coffin if it hadn’t been for Horror Noire. I’d heard of it in passing, along with a ton of other Blaxploitation films of the seventies, and had my preconceptions about what they – and it – would be like. Just as I feared Get Out and watching someone from outside a family background get his humanity and freedom taken away – the notion guest-friendship turned into a thin veneer to cover a distrust and injury of the outsider and knowing he will always be so in certain places, which has overlap with me on a personal level that I might go into in another post – I was thought something by the name of Blacula would take that racism to the nth degree and make a spectacle of it.

A little while back, I was saying to someone that if Get Out had been created by anyone other than Jordan Peele with his understanding of pacing and punchlines, the brain transplant element would have been what it’s always been portrayed as in popular culture: a B movie curiosity at best, with little contemporary fear, or resonance, involved. But Get Out had Jordan Peele and his crew, and Blacula had William Crain, and William Marshall. 

Imagine a man and his consort sent by their elders to stop the slave trade in their land, perhaps even on the entire African continent, and they go to a powerful European statesman: who happens to be Dracula. Consider the man, a prince of his people, urbane and educated watching as this fiend turns him into a monster – infecting him with his own systemic imperialist and white supremacist curse – and locking him into a coffin for over two centuries while his consort starves to death helplessly next to him. He is named by this elder monstrosity, derisively, Blacula. Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch given that they are in Transylvania and they would be speaking in Romanian, or possibly Latin as nobility, but this is entertainment and English is the accessible language of most films from America. But with that aside, just think about this prince waking up, having only the hunger, being in an alien land and world, finding the person who seems to be the reincarnation of the woman who died separated from him by a box, creating other monsters from needing to feed, losing her again, and then taking his own life when he realizes he’s pretty much done. 

That is Blacula. And it is a good movie. I like that William Marshall, who plays him, named the vampire Mamuwalde and gave him the entire backstory of having come from the Abani Tribe – while smacking of some exoticism – making him his own character independent of Dracula, and giving him a whole other world as his foundation. It isn’t perfect. Certainly the homophobia directed towards the gay couple – Bobby McCoy and Billy Schaffer – by both Mamuwalde in casually killing them when they release him, and even his eventual hunter the L.A. Police Scientific Division specialist Dr. Gordon Thomas calling them a derogatory term is something other reviewers, such as Kevelis Matthews-Alvarado in her guest post on Horror Homeroom Blacula (1972): Flawed But Important, have pointed out, and criticized. Those sentiments were a part of the seventies, of course, especially amongst the higher echelons of that society and the police that guard it. 

I read a few articles on Blacula after I saw the first film, and there were a few in particular that focused on how he became a vessel for the racist white heterosexual hegemony’s or kyriarchy’s demonization of women, and other minorities.  Daisy Howarth, in her essay Monster to Hero: Evolving Perceptions of Black Characterization within the Horror Genre, focuses both on Get Out and Blacula: and particularly on Mamuwalde embodying a “black hypermasculinity” to compensate for being enslaved or having racist white European prejudices internalized into his very being. Howarth also makes a comment about Mamuwalde reflecting a critique of a facet of Black 1970s counter-culture when she states that his “victims tend to be those that compromise his masculinity, which seems to be an advertence towards an effort to regain a form of power, whether that be over women in dominant positions or homosexual black males. The expectation of macho masculinity is also reflected through the Black Panther movement of the 1970’s that sought for a ‘discourse of recovering Black manhood’, and thus Blacula’s choice of victims emphasises his pursuit to become less of a monster and more of a man.” The fact that a powerful movement like the Black Panthers had issues with the white-controlled police, but also dealt with internal politics and gender issues is an interesting parallel with how Mamuwalde deals with the first gay couple – the first interracial couple defying the patriarchal system to which is implicit in his blood now, as kinkedsista points out in their Blog post “Blacula”: A Commentary on Vampirism, Slavery and Black Male Identity

Kinkedsista’s article, specifically, is one of the first works I’d read on Blacula immediately after watching it the first time. She examines further how Mamuwalde was already affected by European biases when she looks at how he is European-educated and dressed in a Western style, compared to his consort Luva who is dressed in the aesthetics of their people the Abani, or the Ibani Tribe. Matthews-Alvarado mentions in her article that the Africa – or African group – described in Blacula is fairly exoticized, even perhaps Orientalized: and that by telling Tina Williams that they had come from a Tribe of hunters, along with his bestial appearane when he needs to feed, it hearkens back to some “primitive” imagery. So again, we have Mamuwalde as embodying a force of European imperialism, and the racist stereotype of “the beast or the savage.” 

At the same time, as Howarth explains with regards to Tina Williams’ – the seemingly reincarnated Luva – struggles, Mamuwalde represents an idealized link back to a culture from which Black Americans had been separately from – by force, and time. She states “In this sense, the duality of being living and dead or monster and lover, forms a disparity that reflects on the greater issue of being black and American. Therefore, if Tina chooses to pursue her love for Blacula she must also choose between existing in ‘a compromised contemporary black community’ and ‘an African idealised civilisation of the past’. In order to obtain a sense of her lost heritage Tina must enslave herself to Blacula and thus ideologically she can no longer be both contemporary woman and inherently black, highlighting a struggle to obtain black pride in 1970’s America.” 

It is an interesting counterpoint to the vampires that Mamuwalde creates as a result of simply feeding on victims – not even purposefully creating them – perhaps another subversive look at racist views, sometimes internalized, of male Black virility or hypersexuality. They are ashen, discoloured, and twisted. Chris Alexander, in his article The Beauty of Blacula, states that William Crain “gives his black vampires a powder white sheen that makes them look authentically ghost-like but also adds an odd, disturbing reverse-minstrel aesthetic, as if the characters have to turn into “whitey” to exemplify their evil. This device is likely accidental, but that’s irrelevant. It’s there. And when those ghouls go for their prey, they run screaming in slow-motion. their fangs bared, like banshees from the pits of Hell.” In retrospect, their aesthetic is reminiscent to that of the undead in Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 film Pengabdi Setan, or Satan’s Slave, which have ties to Indonesia’s pontianak myth: making me wonder if there was some creative influence, or if this is a case people drawing on their own folklore, or stereotypes to take “internalized evil” and make it overt for the sake of creating a statement: or using what they have in their cultural consciousness. 

Mamuwalde’s vampires are more earthly and far less ethereal or ghostly than they appear. They can eat food, and drink wine. They can even have sex. By the film sequel Scream, Blacula Scream, directed by Bob Kelljan, it’s also possible they can make themselves look more human by drinking a large amount of human blood. They can’t see themselves on a reflective surface. Crosses seem to repel them. And they can be killed by a stake through the heart, or exposure to sunlight: that doesn’t so much turn them into ashes, as it just renders them deceased, with the exception of Mamuwalde himself possibly due to his advanced age. Mamuwalde is the only one who can shapeshift into a bat, and from what we see in both films he has the power to compel his creations to do what he wants and, when doesn’t, they generally go on a mindless feeding spree and multiply. But what is also interesting is that he has the power of mesmerism or fixation: and some of his creations do as well, mainly the friend of Lisa Fortier in the sequel from which he feeds. Yet Mamuwalde himself can communicate telepathically with Tina, though it might have something to do with her being Luva’s reincarnation, and a possible bond between them.

Mamuwalde’s vampires are more earthly and far less ethereal or ghostly than they appear. They can eat food, and drink wine. They can even have sex. By the film sequel Scream, Blacula Scream, directed by Bob Kelljan, it’s also possible they can make themselves look more human by drinking a large amount of human blood. They can’t see themselves on a reflective surface. Crosses seem to repel them. And they can be killed by a stake through the heart, or exposure to sunlight: that doesn’t so much turn them into ashes, as it just renders them deceased, with the exception of Mamuwalde himself possibly due to his advanced age. Mamuwalde is the only one who can shapeshift into a bat, and from what we see in both films he has the power to compel his creations to do what he wants and, when doesn’t, they generally go on a mindless feeding spree and multiply. But what is also interesting is that he has the power of mesmerism or fixation: and some of his creations do as well, mainly the friend of Lisa Fortier in the sequel from which he feeds. Yet Mamuwalde himself can communicate telepathically with Tina, though it might have something to do with her being Luva’s reincarnation, and a possible bond between them.

So now we are the crux of it. I was surprised at how good, and compact, Blacula actually is as a film. The heroes, or hunters, are refreshingly intelligent. When Dr. Thomas wants to prove that vampires exist, after researching them extensively first, to his girlfriend and coworker Michelle Williams, and then his colleague Police Lieutenant Jack Peters, he uncovers Mamuwalde’s corpses: to let their actions speak for themselves. Mamuwalde himself outsmarts the LAPD and Thomas by luring them to his hideout, only to have his vampires waiting for them: including one who is on the police force, and hiding in plain sight. We’ve mentioned the aesthetics of the vampires as well, and honestly? Mamuwalde’s charm as portrayed by Marshall Williams: his intelligence, gravitas, and tormented state go a long way to selling this character with such a ridiculous and exploitatively insulting moniker like Blacula. His relationship with Tina, that ephemeral, beautiful, unexplained bond is portrayed well and how he reconnects with her after initially terrifying the hell out of her is clever. And that ending: where he loses her again, and he decides to go meet the sunrise is haunting and poignant. The hunters don’t kill him. The white-owned police don’t destroy him. It’s only at the end, when his reason to seriously exist, is gone – when his own arrogance and violence from the curse on himself thwarts his ambitions in addition to the death of Tina, that he decides he’s finished, and he faces his fear in the sun: to die.

And there is the sequel I mentioned, Scream, Blacula Scream.

I almost didn’t watch this one, given how well the first film ended. But it had elements that intrigued me. So imagine the plot beats to the first film by Crain, except Bob Kelljan and the writers Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and Maurice Jules add a voodoo element and a coven family rivalry into the mix. You have Lisa Fortier, played by the amazing Pam Grier, who seems to be the love interest of this film. And then you have her boyfriend Justin Carter – a former LA policeman and African antiquities collector – who starts investigating vampires after Mamuwalde comes back into the scene, and he has to convince his former white colleague, or boss, Lieutenant Harley Dunlop, that they are dealing with vampires. 

Lisa’s foster brother, Willis Daniels, is passed over as head of the voodoo coven after his mother – the previous leader and voodoo queen – dies. He tries to get revenge, and take power from Lisa by using a dark ritual to resurrect Mamuwalde from the bones he’s left behind from the previous movie when he committed enthunasia on himself. It doesn’t go well for Willis because, although we never see Mamuwalde reform or come back, he comes out of the room and converts Willis to one of his undead servants. And for all of Willis’ and his girlfriend’s seeming humanity even after all of that, Mamuwalde has no chill, and he immediately can take control of them whenever he wants, and is not above threatening their existences.

Mamuwalde also hunts some of Lisa’s friends, as he did Tina’s. He has a bond with Lisa, but she isn’t Luva’s reincarnation as these events seemingly happen a year after the first film. However, because she is a natural practitioner of her art, he hopes she can use sympathetic magic to “purge the curse” from inside him, and let him become mortal again so he can return to his people … somehow. Of course, despite all the vampire minions he has, Lisa’s boyfriend and his police friends interfere, the ritual is interrupted, and Mamuwalde finally loses it. He embraces his vampire slave name Blacula out of pure spite, giving up on his humanity, kills a lot of people by throwing them awkwardly into walls, and Lisa stops him with a voodoo doll she made of him: though what ultimately happens to Mamuwalde after this remains ambiguous as it doesn’t seem to have died … again.

So what it comes down to, for me, is which is the stronger film?

Right. I prefer the first one. Blacula is tight. It has a premise, an engaging fixation for Mamuwalde, a fascinating series of interactions, some terrifying sequences, and a tragic but fitting end where Mamuwalde finally realizes that his actions are almost as culpable as those of his foes, and ends himself. Scream, Blacula, Scream is a bit more disjointed, repeating quite a few plot points of the first film, somehow set in the same city with different characters and no one remembering what happened a year ago, and skimping on some special effects like Mamuwalde reforming from some charred bones in an arcane ritual. 

However …

The fact that Mamuwalde is far more vicious makes sense when you realize the peace of death was stolen from him by some young, idiot upstart. His torment of Willis is so much clearer in that light when you consider what he took from him. His disgust over his creations is a projection of his own self-hatred, and it is the thing of which he wants Lisa to help him be rid. I do think the whole Lisa and Willis rivalry element should have been played out more, or at least have Willis and Justin – who hate each other – have one last fight. But rendering that boastful, arrogant, overcompensating Willis into a broken slave has its own resonance too. And seeing Mamuwalde’s own evil come back to roost does have some beats on its own. How can he redeem himself, or be redeemed, if he took so many lives, and controlled them for his own benefit? What ritual could rid him of that? Even so, as Gregory Day points out amongst other elements in his article Blaxploitation Cinema: ‘Blacula’ / ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’

I love how Maumwalde confronts some pimps about using their “sisters” as slaves in imitation of “their masters,”  and doesn’t – or perhaps doesn’t want to – see the mirror image of himself in them as he makes his own thralls. I do really wish they’d kept his silver-inlined cloak as opposed to simply giving him the whole red lining of Dracula. I mean, we know he has ties to Dracula. If the flashback sequences weren’t enough, we saw this in the first film. Calm down, merchandising department. 

But I think it’s his relation to Lisa Fortier that does it. Pam Grier is a popular actress in and of herself, but her character represents something interesting in everything about which we’ve been talking. Voodoo, or perhaps elements of it, has West African traditions combined with Catholicism – or Christianity – due to the slaves being taken from that region and being forced to convert by their enslavers. Voodoo, or vodoun, isn’t always Christian-influenced but the fact that both Lisa and Willis speak French when performing their rituals seems to illustrate that some Creole or other influence came into these rites: either from colonized West Africa, or in America itself. And the way that Lisa starts to seemingly purge the evil out of Mamuwalde is reminiscent, and we go back to the start here, of Ganja & Hess: where the vampires of that world can only find peace – in this case death – through prayer, and sitting under the shadow of a cross. Ganja & Hess had been released in 1973, while Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream had come out in 1972 and 1973 again respectively. I also, though, like the idea that voodoo in this world is its own power, and affects vampires and people differently despite any links it may or may not have to other religions or spiritual systems. 

Yet here is what gets me. In light of Matthews-Alvarado, Howarth and kinkedsista’s articles, and their observations of black hypermasculinity, and European influences, and a Black woman’s place in those dynamics, we find a complete opposite to what finally stops Mamuwalde: as, you know, it is the last film in the series so far since the 1970s. Lisa Fortier is a Black woman in touch with her spirituality — her roots — just like her boyfriend. The police target her group specifically, especially, the racist Dunlop who is far less sympathetic than Blacula’s Jack Peters, and defies them when they try to pin Mamuwalde’s murders of her coven. And unlike Tina who is killed because she let herself get drawn into Mamuwalde’s cycle, and the female cab driver Juanita Jones who dies because she insullts him by calling him “boy” and has no choice at all in what she becomes, Lisa is a powerful Black woman who chooses her contemporary world over Mamuwalde’s exoticized past and the infection of European racist slavery that he offers. It pains her to do it, to hurt this wounded man, a great man made a slave and part of a vicious cycle of subjugation and a treasure trove of Black history and culture – who came to her for help before giving up, and into his worst nature. He is literally going to punish Justin the way that Dracula did him: perpetuating the cycle by infecting another intelligent and educated Black man with systemic racism. And Lisa stops that in its tracks with her ties to the traditions of the past, and the power of the present: of her own mindfulness and love for a better future. She does what she does allow herself, her loved ones, and her own life to survive.

In the end, I think Blacula was a better movie but Scream Blacula Scream, while as Chris Alexander put it, was about his victims, had a better message. Even so, Pam Grier’s quiet but fierce performance notwithstanding, Blacula is my favourite of the two. As of this writing, there is currently work on a reboot to the series. And I’d like it to focus more on Mamuwalde’s character development, and that of the other characters: perhaps in a retelling in the ‘70s or ‘90s, or even in the aughts. I can only hope that whatever they make, it will capture the grandiosity of Marshall’s character, and apply the message of both films to this time because, like poor Mamuwalde, suspended between life and death, motion and stillness, hunger and despair, the enemies outside and the ones they put within, it is timeless.

To a Queen of the Damned

I was in Thornhill Secondary School, going through the great variety of fantasy and science-fiction books there. 

I must have been in the horror section again. Up until that point, I’d read Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine books primarily. To this day, I’m not sure what actually did it. Maybe it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer becoming a formative part of my youth, and creative mind. It could have been my friend who was making her own vampire stories. And I’d heard of Interview With the Vampire as a film that girls loved.

And so, that afternoon, at my high school library I borrowed a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire: card catalogue, and stamp, and all. I read it everywhere: at home, at my friends’ and even at the synagogue services I was forced to attend. It’s been years since that time, but I can tell you that my brain expanded reading that book. I saw the baroque writing, the lush descriptions, the sensuality that my younger mind was not prepared to process along with the homoerotic subtexts, and … the world-building. The world-building hit me like a fuckton of blood bags. It was one thing to discover what another child vampire like the Anointed One from Buffy but with far more personality like Claudia could do, and the idea that vampires weren’t affected in the slightest by holy symbols, or places, or even stakes of wood. It had no human hunters. No slayers. No Van Helsing groups.

It was just vampires. Vampires attacking other vampires, loving other vampires, trying to find out about themselves, trying to reconcile their predatory natures with their former selves, and their emotions. It was a vampire telling a human journalist a story about his miserable eternity, even if – as we find out later – it wasn’t the entire story, or even the complete mood of Louis. We find out about Revenants: of beings that were not given blood quite right, or in the precise amounts to make them anything other than beasts. Before The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned, it was more than possible – at least to Louis and Claudia – that these were some of the first, more primitive vampires who prey on even other vampires.  We got more description of how organized vampires are in Europe, compared to the New World: with covens and covenants, and their need to constantly reinvent themselves when they exist for too long. There was a period of time when ancients existed, but most of them were killed by younger vampires that rebelled against them, and only a few survived.

Interview With the Vampire is where I learned that vampires weren’t just soulless beings but remembered every part of their existence, and some didn’t acclimate to their new inhuman state well and either went insane, or mindless. Many would commit suicide. I learned they all had different powers depending on who their sires, or progenitors were, and some were better suited to their vampiric nature than others. There is a moment where you see Louis, who up until this point, had basically been acting like a human with supernatural abilities realizing that he isn’t a mortal anymore and fully embracing his reflexes, and instincts – his nature – which costs another obnoxious vampire his existence. And of course, older vampires are more powerful than the young, but they can increase their power by feeding off of even older vampires. Telepathy, telekinesis, inhuman speed, incredible strength – these were some of their powers, and we see how these beings have been venerated as gods by humanity, and demonized later on, and made into myths even later than that.

I made it from Interview to The Vampire Lestat, where we find out Lestat isn’t just some inhuman dandy serial killer monster, and has faced far worse than Louis and Claudia could ever dream: and tried to protect them from it. The fact that he had male lovers, and brought across – or turned – his own mother was strange to me, but Anne Rice showed me a world where other rules applied to other beings, and it got me thinking.

If White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, Clan Brujah was inspired by Lost Boys, and Clan Nosferatu by the film of the same name, then Clan Toreador are definitely descended literarily from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles: beautiful, swift, psychically gifted artists, poseurs, and obsessive beings whose morality is different from the humans that they hunt. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards that faction when I really studied that game lore. I was also fascinated with Lestat’s creator Magnus, who was a wizard that stole immortality from captured vampires, and experimented with various younger victims before settling on Lestat before killing himself. That obsession with experiments, and perfection, and making something better as horrifying as it was, really got to me – as did Anne Rice’s writing.

And I hadn’t even watched the film until after reading those two books. It led to a good time with my girlfriend, though I almost didn’t want to interrupt the movie in my living room as it was so good. And the film adaptation of Queen of the Damned, starring Aaliyah as Akasha the Queen and Mother of all Vampires, was the first film I saw with my girlfriend and my friends after my parents revealed – and grudgingly accepted – they knew she was my girlfriend. I remember her and I holding hands as we watched Queen of the Damned unfold on the screen, complete with that bloody bathtub of roses scene, and all. 

I went on to make my other vampiric mythos: with a Chalice of the Damned that had blood that was supposed to offer immortality to the wizards that created it, but whose magically generated blood only made monstrosities, and then blood-dependent vampires. I made a vampire magus who figured out how to remove his own heart, and became almost impossible to kill before I even knew about Koschei the Deathless. But none of this would have been possible without Anne Rice, and her work.

I think about it now, that she’s passed on: how Interview With the Vampire was that perfect combination of history, mythology, folklore, sex, sensuality, and epistolary fiction: that interview format that was essentially a dictated journal, or an autobiography of an immortal. And I think far before Frankenstein, and Dracula, this is the format that informed my writing interests to this very day. 

Over the years, I’d heard about Anne Rice and her personal views, as well as her other works, but I would never get over her vampires. I personally loved Marius: who was level-headed, an artist, and had started to master his advanced vampiric abilities. He was an ancient Roman that revelled in the Renaissance. But I think I related the most to Louis, to a nature of melancholy and bitterness that nevertheless hid a spark of true, and aggressive, potential. Perhaps these days, in some ways, I can more see the Lestat in my creative endeavours, but I think I will always try to endeavour to be a balanced and powerful creator like Marius.

And as I wrap up this commemorative retrospective, I truly hope that wherever you are now Anne Rice, that you know you were a true Queen of the Damned. Thank you for making me more interested in vampires beyond being blood-drinking monsters.  May Lestat brat you into the Afterlife. May this Interview never end.

Ash Vs. The World

Ash has had it. 

Between the Book that nearly sucked him into itself almost as hard Sheila’s enthusiasm, and the Book that’s bitten him also far less pleasantly, he’s narrowed it down to the one on the top of the rocky altar. He curses the Wise Man again for making him try to remember the ridiculous stuff, simple things, about “the words” and neglecting to tell him about which Book was which, and hopefully without any more fucking witches. 

He’s about to take it. But then, he does remember. Right. 

Ash clears his throat, throwing out his hands, perhaps getting points for dramatic gestures. “Klaatu, barada …”

And then, it fails him. No. No, this isn’t a thing. He knows this. He’s got this. He told the Wise Man. He’s a college student from Michigan State University. He’s good at memorizing useless trivia. He intones the words again. “Klaatu, barada, nick …”

Nick? Nick? Nick what? He recites a few words under his breath, each one with the letter “n.” But he isn’t sure. No. This is ridiculous. Ash said he’d get back to the Book that bit him, but the truth is, he’s done with this. He’s done with howling winds chasing him, with trees trying to eat him, broken bridges, with cutting off Linda’s cackling head, and the dead wanting to fuck him up. He’s sick of being bled on, black bile spewing on him, and getting torn apart. He’s definitely up to here with being possessed by demons, Deadites, or whatever the hell they are, and being thrown into a past of primitives, even if those grapes and those girls, and Sheila — kind, beautiful Sheila — are the best things after losing Linda, and barely knowing Anne, and his job at S-Mart, and trying to remember if he’s lost Cheryl too, and Scott and Shelly, or if it was Linda, then Anne and those other chuckleheads, and if any of this is actually real. The words are driving him just as crazy. He feels like he should know them, that they’re familiar somehow. Maybe he should have paid more attention in that Film Class elective. Right now, though, he wishes this was like he was in the fucking Wizard of Oz, because what could be simpler than tapping together some ruby slippers?

As it is, he’s tired of double-tapping these Deadite bastards. Ash just wants to go home. 

There’s no place like home, he thinks to himself, focusing on what he’s going to do when he gets back, thanking whatever isn’t insane in the universe and reminding him with that ghostly tingle in his stump that at least he didn’t lose his sexing hand. This bullshit ends now.

“Klaatu, barada, nic –” he coughs the rest of it out.

He looks around. Nothing’s happening. Just a creepy graveyard with three fucked up Books in it. He did it. It’s done. He reaches out for the Book of the Dead, ready to get this over with, taking it off the cold, rough stone. No problem. 

And that is when he sees it. It’s lightning, in the sky. No. It’s a shape. It’s coming closer. It’s …

*

Storm clouds gather in the darkening skies. Lord Arthur shouts orders to the men over the terrified screams of horses, and the cries of the people. In the middle of the turmoil of lightning and the thunder crashing, the Wise Man comes out. He looks around in the chaos, the wind whipping into his hood, and sweeping back his long grey hair and beard.

“Something is wrong!” He calls out, perhaps more to himself than to the rest of the people. “Something’s amiss …”

And that is when he looks up and sees it. The light …

*

There is something shining in the darkness of the firmament. It’s silvery, and round. It looks down from beyond the skies, from beyond the clouds, and the ozone. Only the stars are farther as it orbits the planet. 

A port forms, a dark rectangular shape opening into something not unlike a crypt of its own. A form stands in the black gateway of the hovering ship. It sees the electro-magnetic disturbances on the island below. It is not surprised. There had already been anomalous signs. Extra-dimensional, and temporal fluctuations had been occurring at an alarming rate. They weren’t due to directly visit this world for another six centuries. They were only to watch. To listen. Safeguards had been put in place as the proper protocols to prevent extra-dimensional incursions, these ones localized on another continent of this world millennia ago, were compromised: sending the signal to the ship. 

The figure’s head inclines. Its visor begins to rise. These extra-dimensional parasites, the servitors of their non-Euclidean creators, could not be allowed to spread: not on this world. Not on any other. An eerie light pulsates on the horizontal line of the figure’s face as a beam fires out, piercing the starry darkness … and making contact with the rotating blue and green sphere below it. The planet glows brighter than all the celestial bodies around it for a few moments before it disappears: completely and utterly vaporized. 

Gort stands at the entrance to the ship as it begins to close. Then, he turns around, and makes his way back in. His visual and audio receptors recorded everything. Even with the generations of Wise Men and the commands entrusted to them, this species could barely follow ritualistic instructions to protect themselves, never mind have been trusted to develop more powerful resources of energy, or making their way into the wider galaxy. This incarnation of the anomaly — what this world’s natives called the Naturom Demonto, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis — has been destroyed. The potential incursion has been contained. For now. 

It’s a pity.

That human. 

He should have said the words.