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. 

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.

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.

Made Family: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

I bought the Director’s Cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed in the latter days of Suspect Video’s existence: a unique Toronto movie store, and cultural landmark. 

You know, to this very day, I don’t know why I bought it. It wasn’t the discount, at least not completely. It wasn’t even because it had been directed by Clive Barker. As it was, I’d only read Barker’s Books of Blood, and I am almost ashamed to say that I’d not watched any of his mainline films: not Hellraiser, nor even something based on his work like Candyman. Seriously, I’d only watched The Midnight Meat Train, and Dread

But I bought Nightbreed, long after I read about a contest in which fans of that world were to write stories set in Midian. And I had no idea what any of it was about. All I can remember, like a half-unmade dream, is that the title, and the premise of a community of monsters against humanity stood out at me. Or maybe this is only what I remember in retrospect. I know that there were a few cuts of this film, and that its initial release had been compromised by many studio decisions, and that “Occupy Midian” was all about restoring Barker’s original vision of the film to its audience. 

I’m not going to talk about that, except for the fact that I am glad I got this DIrector’s Cut, and watched only this version. What I will tell you is that it was only far after I watched the first Hellraiser, and before Candyman, during the height of the 2020 Quarantine that I opened up my copy of Nightbreed, put it in my portable DVD player, and saw it in its infinitely dark and glittering world-building glory. 

I saw a protagonist suffering mental trauma, never really quite finding his place in the world, and getting gaslit by someone he trusted, and then slowly realizing after running from the woman he loves that his delusions about a city of monsters free in the night, hiding underground, were all true. Madmen became his allies, and his brothers. Humans reveal themselves to be the ignorant monstrosities they really are. And the monsters that the main character always feared kinship with, yet secretly yearned to be a part, were complex, beautiful, terrifying, and so very vital and alive. And there were so many different creature designs, and mysteries, and a story that felt like both an ending, and the begijnning to another. I think what really got me was that throughout all of it, as the protagonist progressed, it wasn’t all about him, even as he navigated his way between two worlds the woman he thought he had to leave never abandoned him. Not once. 

And I watched this film all the way from the late insomniac night to the wee hours of the sunlit summer morning during a time of earthly purgatory. Yet, somewhere, I knew the monsters — the Nightbreed — were still dancing their labyrinthine, Dionysian dances of which no mortal could ever truly be a part. 

Monsters. Creatures. Outcasts. Dreamers. Beings of the night. All of them live in the city of Midian. Just think about it for a few moments. This film was released, such as it was, in 1990 and had antecedent in the late 80s. This was a movie about monsters where humans invade them, where the greatest murderer is a man, and the man who becomes one of the Breed is the hero: or at least, an exemplar of sympathetic beings that just want to maintain, and then be reunited with their home. During a time when markets were inundated with generations of films about evil monstrosities, things not human, things being different as threats to the humans that eventually destroy them — or are destroyed by them — I can see why executives couldn’t deal with that concept: even if they had read Barker’s 1988 novella Cabal from which it was based. 

I’ve read Cabal recently. And it read like an expanded story from The Books of Blood, all tight third person limited thoughts, otherworldly descriptions of monstrosity, sex, fear, and desire, and the petty parts of people warring with the melodrama, and the messy, hopeful life inside of them to show what they really are. I recognized Boone in this story, and his girlfriend Lori, and the tormented Narcisse, and the sadism of Decker. Certainly, the perspective on Decker himself — the psychologist who is both Boone’s gaslighter, and a secret serial killer with his “murder-hard” — was disturbing, and fascinating in turns. And it was particularly intriguing to see the psychic link that the young Nightbreed Babette made with Lori, and what they shared together. 

But honestly? I prefer the film version of this story: Nightbreed itself. Much of the plot is the same between both novella, and film. But there are differences. Lori has many more doubts about reality in the novella and has a distinct and instinctual revulsion of the Breed that she encounters when looking for Boone. We never see the strangely alluring spined beauty that is Shuna Sassi which we are introduced to in the beginning of the film. Rachel is more reticent and distant from Boone and Lori, even when the latter had saved her daughter Babette from being killed by sunlight. The priest Ashbury, who is a crossdresser blackmailed by the small-town Albertan police captain Eigerman, isn’t rendered into a mutilated, maddened torso by the scattering of Midian’s god Baphomet, but becomes a twisted version of Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses: killing the bigoted police officer to pursue his obsession on the Breed. Eigerman doesn’t survive to get petty revenge. In the novella, we see that Midian is a ghost town, but that the real Midian is established under the town’s cemetery, and Boone is first shot down in an abandoned house by Decker, getting the police to follow suit instead of claiming Boone is going to shoot him in the woods.

We see the brutality of human systems in the film, and their joy in it. Boone is brutalized by the police after they capture him when Decker frames him for another serial killing. And for a small Canadian town, we see that the police have a large armoury of weapons that would make some soldiers in the military envious when Decker mobilizes them to exterminate the people of Midian. This fervour reminds me so much of Barker’s  “Skins of the Fathers,” it hurts. And we see that this isn’t the first time. Indeed, in the film Rachel telepathically shows Lori the systematic genocide of the Nightbreed over the millennia by various human holy crusades that couldn’t bear their physical differences, and practices. It is graphic and upsetting, especially when you see how humanized they are, when you look at the Breed living their lives in the catacombs of Midian. It is the moment where you see the mural on the wall showing their history, and their underground markets, and rendez-vous that you realize what is at stake with this coming purge. 

And, like in the novella, Boone decides to save Lori’s life over the vows he made to keep Midian a secret: and it not only costs him the home he long sought, but even that place and people’s safety. However, when he returns and accepts what he is, and what he has done — like a more active Robert Olmstead trying to save the people of Innsmouth — he helps create a defense for his people. He even encourages Lylesburg to release the Berserkers: terrifying Breed not in the novella that are contained by their fellows because of their violence, just to allow women and children a chance to escape. 

But what gets me is that Boone isn’t alone. Lori never leaves him, and indeed goes back to save him from the jail, but unlike the novella it isn’t just Narcisse who aids her but both Rachel and Babette. There is this sense of comradery, this bond going deeper than a predatory bite turned into a supernatural rebirth, or baptism by the blood of a sundered, burning god. You see a disparate people, rejected by the world, or at least misunderstood by it, coming together to free one of their own: an outsider from even other outsiders, and they all return to where they belong: for as long as they have it. Narcisse’s death, after he sought Midian for so long and gained such power, to be killed by a psychopath like Decker is still heartbreaking, and there is something fearsome in Decker — in the film — having searched for Midian through the delusions of his other patients, just so the human monster can kill all other monsters that aren’t human. He is a counterpoint to Boone, especially in how he massacres families of both species, and I am for one glad that in the Director’s Cut Boone kills him for good. The tormented Boone dies with Decker, and after he encounters Baphomet one more time — with Lylesburg unfortunately dying in the film — he is re-baptized Cabal: to work towards gaining his people a new home that he lost them … no matter how long it takes. And meanwhile, Ashberry is a throwback to that terrifying Moses — chosen or marked by a deity beyond his understanding — to destroy these beings as so many so-called holy men had tried before: and all for a purpose beyond his understanding, and those of our own.

At the end of the film, we see the Breed did escape — though many also died — and they dwell in a farm. And the mural that we saw at the beginning shows both Cabal and Lori as Breed who will lead their people to a new home. 

When I think back to Nightbreed now, it reminds me of an older story I read years back. In Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming,” we see a young boy named Timothy who is raised by the Elliotts — a family of ghosts and monsters — attending an All Hallow’s Eve family reunion. He keeps hoping that his powers will manifest, or he will start drinking blood but he never does. He ends up realizing that one day, he will grow old and die like an ordinary human by his monster family, and it breaks his heart. Yet the poetry of it is that this story is part of a larger one where the Elliotts themselves begin to decline as humans stop believing in them, as their homes are obliterated and appropriated, and Timothy — the human among them — helps them survive by carrying their stories onward: even recording them for the new world. I wonder, now, if Cliver Barker read Bradbury’s story at one point as it has a few beats with itL but while Timothy never becomes a monster, he is part of that family that took him in, just as Boone for all of his mistakes, becomes Nightbreed as more than merely being an outcast, or vampiric: but in continuing to wander, and help his family search for home.

There are a few subtexts here. It is no coincidence that Barker created this film in the 1990s given many LGBTQ+ events such as the AIDS activism, and anti-homophobia marches occurring for a vibrant people and subculture trying to survive a world that wanted them dead or buried. Also, the intersectional addition of Hugh Quarshie as Detective Joyce as a Black officer who sees the atrocities of the police on the people of Midian is no accident either: as you can see the evil of what happens when one diverse or historically discriminated group is silent the poor treatment of another. At the same time, I can see how many queer-adjacent spaces of kink, and polyamory, and geekery and — yes — horror fandom can relate to this film. We that glorify in watching blood, and sex but also justice, and the search for a new home, and even as we sometimes hurt and reject each other too, those that remain and remember what’s important will bust each other out of the jail cells of our personal despair, will band together, and celebrate what we love in macabre and beautiful dances in the night. It means a lot, to think of those late night revelries — dancing spirits — finding where you belong all the way past the twilight.

And some of these things are why Nightbreed is important. Many of them are why Nightbreed is important to me. 

A Tell-Tale Heart

I said it a year ago, on the first Halloween of The Horror Doctor, that this is the time when the veil between worlds is thinnest. It’s a time of costumes, candy, and contemplation. 

A year ago, it was the first Halloween everyone spent in Quarantine from the grim harvest that was COVID-19, before we had a vaccine. It was also the first Halloween without my partner Kaarina Wilson: an avid horror lover. 

So I wanted to enjoy my Halloween twofold, for the two of us, since she wasn’t here anymore to celebrate with me, or her family, or on her own. So I decided that from September to October would be a Grand Halloween, and I would do my damnedest to enjoy it all before I’d have to deal with a reality that I’d rather not.

And I did well. I went to my friends’ virtual horror viewings. I attended some Lost Drive-In Watchalongs, and even interacted with Joe Bob and Darcy, and the fine folks that also love them. And I watched as many of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, having returned and being all online this year, that I possibly could. 

So I’m not sure what this was going to be, this latest October 31st post, before the events of a week or so again, when my grandmother passed away.

My grandmother and I used to talk a lot. We were close. I was a demanding child, somehow to counterbalance the extreme introversion and shyness. I had her make me things all the time, when she could, and I was exacting. I wish I could tell you what I had her make for me, but it’s all lost to time now. 

During that time between my childhood and adolescence, I was a nervous being. In retrospect, a lot of my maladies were probably the result of anxiety. And my grandmother played cards with me, we watched television — usually Early Edition, or Keeping Up Appearances, or Are You Being Served? — to calm down.

But then, she also read to me. A lot of the time it was from books she already had like Little House on the Prairie, but sometimes I wanted her to make stories. To create them. I was fascinated, and scared, by horror. My parents wouldn’t let me watch 1980s or 90s horror, so I wanted as much of the classical stories as I could get away with. Now, my grandmother was many things, but she didn’t make stories. But she did retell them. I remember being in the basement of a house that saw at least four generations of my family on my Mom’s side, a dim place with crackled red and white checkered tiles with a bar that never saw much use anymore, and a fireplace that did. I recall, like my horror, being fascinated and terrified by that fire place. We would put in wood, but mostly white paper birch that we used to write on from a tree in the front yard, to burn. I’d stay away from that old grate as it would barely contain the crackling embers that spit out, as my grandmother would nudge it with a poker, as she would tell me about the heart buried under the floorboards, and the man that put it there: haunted by his crime of murder: committing it, and hiding it from everyone except himself.

It didn’t take long to realize that she was retelling Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and possibly conflating it with “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it did the trick, and it made me want more. And to do more.

I made all kinds of weird clay creatures from Magic Model plasticine and Play-Do in that house that she displayed for a while. I would create men out of Silly Putty, give them Lego armour, make vehicles, and crash them down the long stairs into the basement into a million pieces just to reassemble it all, and do it again, and again. And again. I am pretty sure she knew I did it too, but let that slide as I had some aggression to work out, those dual forces of creation and destruction that are so intrinsically part of my character. 

There were always woods where she and my grandfather lived, in her own parents’ house. I was always exploring, and contemplating the many ghosts that could be in the area from my late relatives alone. It was a bubble of time that also managed to make me very aware of it having passed. 

Sometimes, my grandmother let us get away with some things. For instance, while my parents didn’t want my brother and I to watch horror films, she would rent us movies, and some of them fell under that umbrella. I am pretty sure we watched Anaconda and Mimic under her watch while my parents were busy dealing with adult matters. And this isn’t even going into when we could get away with staying up a little later. I recall one time, at night, when there was a TVO horror movie with a woman affected by a love potion by a man, who dies, and her ghost haunts him still from the obsession he gave her. It was probably the first time I’d seen a simulated sex scene in a horror movie. There were many other times as well, and this didn’t even include when I could sneak snippets of Tales From the Crypt on Fox 29 when we were over for Passover Seders. 

Things were not always easy between us, especially as I got older. I was questioning a lot of my parents’ beliefs, and therefore those of the family. My grandmother was noted as being a peacemaker, but sometimes what that meant was that she would strongly advise something “for the good of the family,” even if you didn’t like it. Even if, sometimes, it was kind of tone-deaf. She couldn’t help it. It was probably socialized into her, her whole life, being a matriarchal force in a patriarchal family and culture. She would always side with my parents when I just wanted more freedom, and less structure, and her spoiling only went so far. 

Poetically enough, it all came to a head one summer when she blamed my first girlfriend for my rebellious behaviour. It should be mentioned that my first girlfriend wasn’t Jewish, but that I was rebelling far before I met her. She literally took me aside, and chewed me out over it, and essentially told me to tow the line. Never mind the fact that I’d missed spending more time with my friends at this time in my adolescence, at one point being dragged out before I could finish watching Fright Night with them, or not going on cottage trips despite my good grades, and academic behaviour. It was an unfairness that struck me, and those phone calls I used to make to her talking about new ideas, and my days, stopped. I didn’t feel like she was on my side, which I needed her to be — just once — but in a choice between me and my parents, it was kind of inevitable where that decision would land. As it was, it drove me further into my own rebellion, and alienated me a great deal. Years later, I would talk about this incident in Pornsak Pichetshote, José Villarrubia, Aaron Campbell, and Jeff Powell’s horror comic Infidel: which was funny, as my own father once called me a heathen, so there in a symmetry in the miniseries published two of my letters. Infidel is a comic about differences, and how in attempting to overcome them, sometimes they tear us apart. Sometimes, as Stephen King notes, the monster wins. 

I know I didn’t win, then. And this was a powerful experience from my grandmother that I carried with me for the rest of my life, for good or ill. Sometimes the people you love, that might even have good intentions, make mistakes. Sometimes, they simply come from a different place, and they will not see your perspective.

Sometimes, they will fail.

Our relationship was changed. I buried my part of it in the floorboards when I could. I moved as far away from it as I could, which I began to do with other relationships that failed as well. 

Of course, she was always there. She would be invited over to my parents’ and I made token appearances: and made them as brief as possible. I drew her birthday cards. And when COVID-19 hit, I wrote her letters: especially when she sent me birthday money, which she always did without fail. Eventually, over time, what was anger became just awkwardness, and distance, a gap of age and time. I knew she was never going to change who she was, and I wasn’t going to do so either. I didn’t go to many family functions. I still don’t as they aren’t really places for me anymore, unless I have the will and the lack of anxiety to do so. 

When she was sick, it’d not been the first time. I guess a part of me, just like with Kaarina, thought or hoped that she would pull through. Despite our differences, I still loved her. She was stubborn, you have to understand. So am I.

So, one day, I was told she didn’t have enough time. And, despite missing Kaarina’s passing and others, I made my way with my Dad to the house. It’s hard to see someone you saw so independent and strong, and stubborn, even when you disagreed with them, even when you remember all the times you spent with them, tired and worn away. She wasn’t speaking anymore. It was like she was in between dreaming states on that easy chair in the Den. The following morning, she passed. 

It was as though the darkness in the halls of that house I always walked through consumed the dimming light, and it grew throughout the entirety of the week of the services and the funeral. And I realized, with her being gone, that all of it was gone: the childhood, the house that was a part of my reality — even on the fringes — the anger, the disappointment, her distinctive chuckle, and all of it. She loved mystery novels, she always read them and got them from my Mom, and I can see how Poe came to her mind all those years ago when she retold those stories to me. 

And I suppose the mystery is how it all came to this point, which is life, and the horror of realizing one day I would be lying down like that in my own home surrounded by people that knew me: if I was lucky. If I am lucky. 

Reality sucks. I wanted to stave it off for just one more month, but these Twenties evidently want to suck as much as their twentieth century counterparts. And I have been angry, hurt, sad, and terribly tired. 

But this is something I have to write, something real, as autumn becomes fall, and Hallow’s Eve passes to the Morning. It was my grandmother’s house and the land that helped nurture the horror inside of me. It was those stories that made me want to know more, in addition to the remnants of old pulp comics she kept, and books that were collected. It was the little moments of grace where I got to see, and gained things I probably shouldn’t have but she let it pass. 

So maybe I did bury that old part of me. But perhaps, through seeing what was important at the end, I don’t have to have it drive me mad. I don’t have to have it beat through my conscience for the rest of my life. I got to see her again, for at least one last time. 

Rest in peace, Bubby Rose. You were almost a century old, and you saw wonders and horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. I am going to a Halloween Party with friends today as of this writing: where we will participate in a roleplay game as monsters attacking some heroic antagonists coming into our Dungeon. Maybe it’s not what the family might be interested in, and I know you would have hated even the idea of me hurting simulated lives, but it interests me, and I intend to have as much fun for as long as I can.

A funny thing though, before I end this post. When we used to eat at her house more often on weekends, when I stayed up late I would sometimes see some other television shows. And on a channel called TNT, far after Dinner and a Movie earlier that evening there was a strange man in a cowboy hat sitting on a lawn chair that was always hitting on a red-head that viciously never gave him the time of day. I never understood the point to all that, or the weird movies that played … But I do now. It was great meeting you that first time, Joe Bob. And thank you again, Bubby, for that little indulgence. 

Next time, on The Horror Doctor, I think we will talk about something else. Something else to do with family.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 5 – Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past

To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write this Commentary this early morning during my nocturnal hours. I finished most of the films of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, even as my grandmother was fading from almost a century on this Earth. Frankly, I just didn’t know if I had time.

Time.

If there is one thing this episode of Creepshow has in common it is literally the theme of time. Remember when I left off my last entry wondering what surprises this show would have for us next week? Well, they weren’t exactly surprises. When you study a literary or cinematic trope for a while you identify beats and patterns. You can generally see where the story is going when you are practiced enough, or you’ve seen a fair bit. 

It’s like knowing people are born, they live, and they die: just as you have, you are, and you will — or that there are cycles to events that will always come around again. Sometimes you might forget the particulars, or lose yourself in the moments — and those are the places and situations that stand out from what is otherwise a predictable existential framework. 

“Time Out” is a story written by Barrington Smith, and Paul Seetachitt, and directed by Jeffrey F. January. A young man named Tim gains an inheritance from his grandmother Catherine, who recently passed away. I can’t begin to tell you how that hits close to home due to the fact that as of this writing two or three days ago my grandmother also passed. But unlike The Complete Works of Shakespeare that I was given, Tim gets a wardrobe that his grandfather — a World War II veteran who also apparently had a monkey’s paw (and thank fuck it wasn’t going to be a repeat of that episode, or the story from which it was derived) — got in Germany. Tim had also been at his funeral when the segment starts, and his grandmother warns him away from the wardrobe before he can go in there with the key he discovers in the drawer.

That wardrobe is no gateway to Narnia, however, and the key is no Silver Key back to some halcyon childhood, or dreams, or other planes of existence. Instead it contains a pocket of time outside of the main flow of linear time. And Tim takes advantage of it. He does much of his academic and legal work, spending hours in that wardrobe getting it all done just come out without even a second of external time passing. I’m not going to lie: as a writer, and creator I would have abused the hell out of this artifact. Imagine how many works I could create in there: though whether or not I’d be able to get a wifi signal based on the different flows of time is a whole other matter.

No, the wardrobe has two drawbacks: the first is that time does pass for you, and you will age more quickly. The second is that you must keep that key on you. Otherwise, the doors automatically close, and they will not open.

Tim is a man that wants to make up for the lost time of his father who died prematurely in a car accident before he could finish law school, or spend time with him. The poetic cruelty is that while he accomplishes tremendous amounts of work in shorter periods of time — relatively speaking — he accelerates his own physical decline, and doesn’t spend time with the family he’s making. The man even has a mini-stroke at a younger age: with the doctor going as far as to say he has the health of a man ten years older than he should be. 

It’s the same challenges someone would have in a high-pressure job, and having a family: in the workload always being on you, and the people you love wanting to spend time with you whether you are in your own mind a success, or not. But as Tim’s grandmother Catherine puts it, “you can’t cheat time.”

Tim almost backs off. He almost listens to his wife in saying that she doesn’t care about his position, but that she just wants him to be with her and his son. He should have listened, right? But Creepshow is about more than retribution, but also morality tales. In the end, he goes into the wardrobe one last time, and his key falls out of his pocket: outside. We already saw what happened to the cat at the beginning of the segment, and poor Kitty didn’t make it to Ulthar. And what makes it worse is after Tim turns into dust, his son goes into the closet — too — and the door shuts. That is how the story ends.

Tim’s grandfather had done the same thing. His father died in a car crash. And both Tim and, presumably, his son will follow them. There is always just that one more thing, you know? That one more task. Then you can rest, right? Then you can replenish yourself, or heal. But it’s always that one more thing, that becomes many more, and even when you see it coming the pressure, and the expectations on yourself keep accumulating … until it is inevitable. Until it’s too late.

This story hit me hard, and it would have done so even before the events of this week as I write this Commentary. Even now, I’m writing this extremely late when I should be sleeping, when I’m mindful of the habits that I kept when I was younger not necessarily serving me now that I am getting older. Imagine if Tim had pre-existing medical conditions, and he used that wardrobe. It’s grim, either way you look at it. But damn, did that story deliver. Damn, did I want Tim to make other choices. 

And sometimes, as I said earlier, you don’t see it coming: though there is this nagging feeling that you should. History repeats itself, or at least human arrogance dooms us to a cycle of events. In “The Things in Oakwood’s Past” we find ourselves in a glorious animated feature as directed by Enol and Luis Junquera, written by Daniel Kraus and Greg Nicotero, and directed by Nictero and Dave Newberg. Unholy hell a lot of work went into this production. And Mark Hamill is a voice actor in it too: playing Oakwood’s self-serving Mayor Wrightson.

The story begins in a news segment obliquely referencing a Carpenter Arctic Expedition Collection: a reference to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing, and perhaps even Lovecraft’s novella  At the Mountains of Madness.

But then we have the actual story. Two hundred years ago, the people of Oakwood disappeared and left that mystery behind them. Now Marnie, the town librarian, found the journal entries of the previous librarian even as the town has discovered a time capsule in the form of a chest that doesn’t look ominous at all.

Apparently, the cycle of disappearances is older than merely 1821. They occurred in 1621, and even 1421 with the Mi’kmaq First Nation. Marnie discovers all of this in the journals, and the realization that the people weren’t killed by plague or war, but by a demonic monstrosity that slaughtered them. And, fairly soon, this iteration of Oakwood will be having its two hundredth anniversary. Marnie wants to stop this from happening, and according to the journal, the original townsfolk believed that the key to preventing their destruction is in the capsule: which, conveniently, has the date “1821” on it. It is also found under a particularly friendly tree that has the same markings in the journal and chest of not a Jack-o-lantern from hell. She and Mac, the news reporter interviewing her, have a great and wholesome attraction as they seek to solve this mystery: especially after the terrifying slides of villagers being massacred and flayed alive.

But Marnie’s father, the Mayor, has them stopped and they can’t open the box prematurely. You can already see where this is going, of course. It turns out, the chest contains the evil that they desperately seek to stop. It’s Pandora all over again. An added twist to it is that the historian Marnie is reading lies about the chest containing the salvation of the town: that an elder killed his daughter, and was then exonerated, and he told the people about the chest to make them open it, and slaughter everyone.

The monsters are grotesque and Lovecraftian. I thought there would only be one, but Hell is generous. We watch as the Oakwood people of 2021 are flayed open, cut in half, amputated, and murdered. Marnie barely escapes, with her father charging the sheriff in getting her — barely — out of town. A demon has a camera strapped to it as they all return into the chest, probably to wait another two hundred years. Why they do this, I don’t know: and it almost doesn’t matter. Demons always have rules, which I’m sure they hate but they will do whatever they can in the meantime within them to get their full of flesh and blood. No one else survives.

It’s sad as you see that these people had lives, and even the historian from two hundred years ago had his very human reasons to make that lie. We see what hell looks like as the demons not only don’t care, but they revel in showing it to viewers. The newspeople attempt to shrug it off and mention something about Rider’s Lake, and I don’t know if that is a reference to anything else. No one really learned a thing about history. The story will live on. It will continue on.

Creepshow outdid itself with this episode. Time comes for everyone involved. And seriously? If this were the last episode of the season, I would be all right with that given its strengths in making us relate to the characters, have empathy for them, dealing with the consequences of hubris and greed, and also telling some good stories, and creating even better art all around. But there is another episode, and I have to say: this one will be harder to live up to … or die for.

And This Hole Leads to Another Hell: Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror Imprint

This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme subject matter, and Trigger Potential. As with its predecessor, Reader’s Discretion is advised. 

I know how I opened up with my first article on Takashi Miike’s Imprint. I said a lot of things, and I explained why I reacted and said the things that I did. However, it wasn’t entirely accurate. You see, while I did write those words first on Twitter, what actually got me to truly look at Imprint, beyond my visceral reaction, was the following I wrote afterwards on Facebook: which goes into more detail:

I just watched Masters of Horror‘s Imprint.

I don’t say this lightly, you understand, but Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so much. You use folklore brilliantly, you are excellent at illustrating human cruelty, and genuinely making a viewer feel really bad. Seriously, the amount of horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck I felt in this one episode that — surprises of all surprises — wasn’t released on North American television has been the most I’ve felt in a while.

I mean, damn. Granted, it wasn’t as disgusting as that one scene in Audition. *That* fucking scene.

But still, Takashi Miike … you suck. You suck hard. And not a horror director, my ass.

There isn’t much of a difference. Takashi Miike has claimed he isn’t a horror director, but I disagree: even though I know now that he’s created a wide variety of films across different genres. But I will say this. On Facebook, I was called out on my reaction, and some people didn’t understand that I was reacting strongly to one particular scene, and aspects after that. And then, I looked over what I wrote and realized that while most of it is venting, there are two aspects of this film that my mind began to digest in addition to, and beyond, the torture scene: mythology, and narrative.

It really all comes back to the character of the Woman as played by Youki Kudoh. She tells Christopher, and by extension the audience — us — three stories. One is about her poor, but idyllic childhood before she is sold to the brothels so she can make a living. Then there is Komomo’s suicide. Then we find out that the Woman stole the jade ring, and framed Komomo for it. In the screenplay, she goes as far as to help the other girls torture Komomo, but in the film she mostly watches in absolute horror as they do so. Then after that we find out that she strangles Komomo with the rope from which she hung. And then we see that her tale of her family and her relationship with a kindly Buddhist Priest was all a lie: that her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother an abortionist for a struggling peasant village. We even see her dispose of the fetuses, her Mother and herself: the late-term aborted lives looking nothing less than gangly human jellyfish. 

And the Woman is raped. She is molested her entire life. First, by the Buddhist Priest who shows her depictions of Heaven and Hell, and tells her she will obey him or she will go to Hell. Then, by her father after he beats her mother within an inch of her life. And then, as we saw before, by customers. She tells Christopher that “I had nothing. Only this hole bound for hell. Trading it to make my living was only natural.” 

All of this would be horrifying in, and of itself, right? From a very young age, the Woman is taught that her hole — her vagina — is a conduit to Hell, that just by living, by making a living with it, by giving birth, she is a sinner, and she will go to Hell. It doesn’t matter if she’s obedient, or not. She even tells Christopher: “Men don’t like our holes, they yearn for the hell behind them. The hell they were in before being born.” It is a cycle of samsara, or maya: of the mind being clouded by the senses, and pain. In a way, she is basically saying that everyone — this whole world — already is Hell: on that perpetuates itself.

But there is another layer. There is another level, or realm, of Hell. A lot of Far Eastern philosophy and theology posits that there are several hells. So, at the start of Imprint we see that the Woman has a pinwheel in her room. This pinwheel begins to spin without so much as a breeze. And then, when we see that the Woman’s Mother isn’t a midwife, but is an abortionist, we see a multitude of pinwheels blowing on the riverside: the same river where she and her daughter dump the aborted fetuses of the women that come to them … who are too poor to have other mouths to feed, but whose husbands or men continue to impregnate them nonetheless. The pinwheels are placed there by the Mother to commemorate the lives of those dead children, before they are even children. It is a Japanese custom to plant these pinwheels at the site of miscarried and stillborn children, for the deity Jizō to protect and guide their souls to the afterlife. 

Yet for a pinwheel to turn on its own in a brothel is probably an inauspicious sign, especially as we know the souls of the dead are all around Christopher and the Woman. There is another Japanese custom, or rather a myth. It’s said that if a wife of a miserly man rarely eats, a second mouth will form on the back of her head, eating twice what she would, and screeching obscenities if it doesn’t get what it wants. This mouth can also form if a miserly man accidentally hits his wife in the back of the head with a wood axe. But, more tellingly, a woman can develop this second mouth, complete with moving snake-like hair if they let a stepchild — perhaps a child — starve to death. This is the myth of the Futakuchi-onna.

The Woman herself resembles Kuchisake-onna, or the folkloric Slit Mouth Woman, but she is really a Futakuchi-onna. The reason for this, as we see a hand-like creature with teeth form from the side of her skull — her parasitic twin “Sis,” like a female version of Basket Case’s Belial still attached to their sibling — is that, in her final story, we find out that her Mother and Father were actually Brother and Sister. They were forced out of their town  as a result of their incestuous affair, and forced to wander and eventually settle in this peasant village. The Woman is cursed as a result of this incest taboo. But there are other folkloric elements. Her Father is a miserly individual that takes most of her Mother’s money from abortions to feed his alcoholism. In addition, the Mother has aborted many children, possibly many of her own before the Woman, and perhaps those spirits have cursed the Woman by extension. In the script, the Woman says the reason her Mother saved her after leaving her to drown was that she survived in the river for two days: the Mother realizing what she was earlier, and not wanting to be cursed by letting her die, or perhaps starve to death. An interesting fact is another way a Futakuchi-onna is created is when a mother starves her stepchild in favour of her biological child, and her daughter can also become possessed as a result. It isn’t precise, but most myths aren’t.. Most folklore is dirty, and bloody stuff.

The Woman is no exception to this, and neither is what the Futakuchi-onna presents. William Leung says it best in his article in his work Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint. That second mouth is all about repression, about the resentment and bitterness inside a woman buried deep down, and manifesting as this other being. In the Woman’s case it is her sister that she all but absorbed in the womb, but it serves that purpose. After all, the Woman is raped by her Father, her Mother’s Brother, and her Sister gets her to kill him: smashing his head open, making a wound in the back of his skull, with a rock. We see a scene in the draft of her Mother looking expressionlessly on as the trader takes her away after this, but it’s not included in the film. But “Sis,” which is a great nickname as it sounds almost like “cyst,” even if it’s not intentional, also makes the Woman take the jade ring, and frame Komomo for the theft: as she likes “shiny things.” It makes sense. In the screenplay, the Woman’s Mother even mentions that they had once come from a family of affluence, with rice and Western candy abound. This didn’t make it into the film, but it makes sense that if “Sis” is that feminine rage of being violated, that she is also that greed for the food she barely got growing up, and jealousy for a life of riches she will never have. 

But I also remember fox possessions from The Tale of Genji, how the spirit of a fox or some similar entity will use a woman — as women are considered to be natural mediums of the supernatural in Japanese lore — to cause mischief, and express resentment, but also communicate truths, and hidden knowledge. “Sis” knows things. She can not only mimic Komomo’s voice, but she even seems to know things about Christopher himself. 

The two sisters, this Futakuchi-onna, reveal two truths to Christopher for the price of one. The Woman explains why she killed Komomo. And this is where her Hell ideology comes into play. When you consider that her Father is her Mother’s Brother, and he abused her Mother, possibly raped her, and molested her as well, then considering how the Buddhist Priest educated her about Hell after violating her, you see the cycle of karmic suffering closing in a much tighter circle. Everything is interconnected for the Woman in an unbearable way. Combine that with the fact that she’s seen what happens when men have sex with women, and create disposable fetuses, and her own experiences in the brothel you can see how she equates sex and family with Hell: easily.

There is a concept I was introduced to back in my Japanese Literature and Film class. It is called Amae. It is a term utilized by the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi in his book The Anatomy of Dependence: which deals with the idea of a uniquely Japanese need or drive to be in good favour, and dependent, on everyone around you. More specifically, Amae is supposed to be rooted in the parent-child relationship, and having someone take care of you. 

Komomo is depicted in Imprint as a naive girl wanting someone to save her. In a way, her description of her family — who she claimed didn’t abandon her to the brothels — is similar to how Mother tells the Woman about their family in the early draft of the script. Komomo firmly believed that in another time, she would have been a Princess, never mind the fact that the other prostitutes claim her family committed suicide out of shame, and she was sold by her foster family to cover their debts. Moreover, Komomo believed Christopher would come back for her, and take her to a whole new life. Now, you can easily interpret this as your typical “Princess waiting for her Yankee Knight to rescue her” trope, but I can argue that Komomo feels Amae to the family she’s lost, still dependent on them for her personality, then the brothel — especially when she gives the Woman her portion of rice when the Madam starves her for not working — and then towards Christopher who she believes will take care of her: like a father-figure. 

Amae is supposed to be an ideal of social interactions, and the love of a child-parent relationship. The Woman, understandably, doesn’t feel this: or at least not in the same way. She never had anyone to take care of her. Her Mother made her work for her keep, albeit teaching her how to assist in taking lives. Her Father neglected, and violated her. And the authority figure that is the Priest used her for his own gratification. The Woman is used to this cycle, as horrible as it is.

But then, she meets Komomo once she comes to her brothel. She reaches out, and offers her rice when the other girls don’t even bother. According to the Woman, she even defends Komomo’s dreams and hopes from those girls by threatening them: to make them look like her. However, you need to remember that any form of attachment to the Woman is Hell. From the vagina, or hole you enter into the world through, to the penises that use you, and the guidance that becomes exploitive and coercive. But this kindness, this arguable … Amae, it’s too much. It’s not the same as the twisting cleaving that the Woman’s whole life has been based on. Even “Sis” is only “helping” her because they are forced to share the same body. 

So the Woman, after “Sis” has her way with the ring and the punishment, sees Komomo. She sees her completely destroyed, but still holding onto that hope. She explains to Christopher that if the Devil saw them together, he might just think Komomo is just as bad as she is as she is her friend. And so, the Woman claims she tried to hate her, and killed her herself so that God or Buddha would take her away. More than anything, I believe that after Komomo’s torments the Woman was simply offering her a mercy killing: because if she hadn’t, Komomo would have continued in that brothel, as the nature of her punishments were made to spare her face, and sexual organs — the Madam’s property — as the patriarchy in the form of the syphillic solicitor and his bobbing cockhat laughed at her misfortune. The way the Woman could have seen it, Komomo continuing on would have seen her dream of seeing Christopher again die, and she would have been tortured to death, or killed herself: both fates condemning her to Hell.

In an act of love outside of Amae, the Woman releases Komomo from her suffering — away from this vindictive patriarchal system that punishes you for behaving or misbehaving. According to the Woman, it’s the only conscious and sober choice she’s ever made in her life. Or perhaps, in that sense, the Woman takes on a maternal role: becoming the parent that takes care of the child, of the innocence still in Komomo, by helping to end her pain. It may also be a major sense of thematic empathy. It is no coincidence that Komomo’s body is seen in the same elegantly crumpled position after her torture by the other prostitutes as the Woman’s had been when she was a girl after her father raped her. Of course, it’s also possible that the Woman killed Komomo because she resents the dependence and approval that Amae entails, and that between her and “Sis” they destroyed that possibility. Then again, the Woman is still dependent on the brothel to live, and her “Sis” who dictates her life, and is the most assertive element of the two of them.

And then, speaking of “Sis,” there is her truth to Christopher, and how it brings this whole twisted film full circle. Christopher tells the Woman that the reason he loved Komomo was that she reminded him of his dead younger sister. That is a pretty disturbing revelation on its own, until you also take “Sis’” words into account, and how they affect Christopher: triggering his last flashback in which he remembers his sister begging for her life, after doing “what he asked” before he kills her.

Think back to the whole thematic structure of this film. The Woman and “Sis” have to share an entire body between them, and how “Sis always gets what she wants.” Her Mother and Father were Brother and Sister, and her Father beat her Mother, and then terrorized the both of them. Christopher killed his sister, presumably after raping her, and then wanted Komomo to himself because she was basically a sister-surrogate for him. Also, consider what Komomo might have gone through had Christopher found her alive: what the status of a Far East Asian woman, who had been a prostitute, would be in a Caucasian-dominated nation like America. In fact, you can go further with this inquiry when you consider the idea that programmer and writers Chris D. and Wyatt Doyle present in their commentary track on the Imprint’ DVD: that Christopher first found Komomo as a child. It doesn’t look good either way. Komomo wanted a parental figure to protect her. Christopher would have essentially replaced the brothel in having the power of life and death over a woman who reminded him of the sister he murdered. 

Christopher can’t face these truths: that he is part of a system that exploits the women and girls he claims to love, that he destroyed both of them. He tries to kill the Woman, and it is telling that when he shoots her in the head, she appears to him as Komomo: with her brains oozing out of the back of her skull, from a wound not unlike that of the dead pregnant woman’s head at the beginning of the film; not unlike that which apparently creates Futakuchi-onna.

It all comes back to holes leading to Hell, doesn’t it? At the end of Imprint, Christopher is back on the Japanese mainland: in a deep pit of a nineteenth century Meiji prison. The male guards are dressed like proper Imperial soldiers. They mock him for killing an innocent girl — in the screenplay it was for killing “a whore,” perhaps the property or merchandise of society as William Leung puts it — and he will spend the rest of his life there: after they “have some fun with him.” He’s left with his water ration, to rot in his own sense of personal horror. In the script, he smashes his head against the wall and sees Komomo reaching out to him and then morphing into his dead little sister as he screams. In the film, he holds his water ration containing the vision of a dead fetus. Perhaps he sees it as his murdered innocence, or a representation of a potential and love killed by him, and a patriarchal world. He holds the bucket, and cradles it, singing a broken lullaby as the spirits of Komomo and his sister stand there: each holding a pinwheel. 

The ending to Imprint in the screenplay implies that the Woman has survived, that as she put it to Christopher, he couldn’t kill her. In the film, after the credits, we see her. Her “Sis” doesn’t manifest, as she does in the screenplay. Instead, she is cooking a fish, and enjoying it. Then, she looks up, and it feels like she is looking right at us: at the audience. She smiles.

I thought about that. I wondered if Christopher really had killed Komomo, or planned to do so. Did the Woman change into her? It was probably a thematic device, but as I think about this entire debacle, this tightly knit hole into hell, I recall Yugiri’s failed affair and the pain he causes in The Tale of Genji towards the women in his life. I think about Komomo suspended with her own urine pouring over her broken body after the women in life almost sensuously torture the hell out of her. I remember how Murasaki Shikibu was an attendant of the Imperial Court, but a minority as a woman with power. And I consider the message that Shimako Iwai’s presence as the sadist in Imprint makes: of the person who created the story that made the basis of the film almost knowingly looking at Komomo, and us: the audience.

And I think about how involved I got, and how there is a complicity in watching a narrative unfold. There is a complicity in being, or letting yourself, become part of a system of sighs and sin and slaughter and slavery: fact or fictional. You get caught up in the cycle of it. You feel like it’s more than second-hand embarrassment or chagrin, or even empathy. You feel like you are a part of it, by virtue of seeing it happen. And the liminal figure of the Woman knows this, her smile bidding you to see if you can handle her Matrixial “truth” better than Christopher: if you can deal with the hell you make, and carry inside of you. Either way, Takashi Miike’s film leaves its mark on me. 

This Hole Leads to Hell: Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror Imprint

This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme graphic subject matter, and Trigger Potential. Reader’s Discretion is advised. 

After I saw Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror film Imprint, I wrote the following on Twitter:

I don’t say this lightly but … Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so hard.

You know, #Audition was terrifying enough, even disgusting. You know the part. But #Imprint … I haven’t been so filled with horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck in a while. Damn, it was brilliant.

I mean, Takashi Miike, you had to know there was no way #Imprint could be shown in North America. You just had to … I mean … Dude. Come on, man.

You suck. Your work is brilliant, but you are such a troll. Not a horror director, my ass.

So why did I respond like this? 

Right. So, years ago I took a Japanese Culture and Film course. And one of the requirements of this course that I took was that our entire class had to read Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari: also known as The Tale of Genji. It is here I learned a lot about Japan’s Heian Period, the concept of fox possessions, Buddhism and its place in that whole monarchy, a constantly rotating court of royalty and nobility, silken finery and subtle cruelties, many cherry blossom viewings, women generally getting screwed over, and a whole ton of romantic and erotic affairs. I understand, of course, that this isn’t precisely history: even though Murasaki herself, its creator, was a Lady-in-Waiting and poet in the Imperial court: credited with creating the first Japanese novel in Japanese: once considered to be a woman’s written language, or that of poetry compared to the masculine and more overused royal Chinese characters: or so I recall from the time. 

What I do remember, more than any of this, is this one scene in The Tale. The protagonist, Genji, the “beautiful shining prince” who is also one of the Emperor’s illegitimate, yet high-ranking offspring, has many affairs. I didn’t understand him. I tried to relate to this man in this court in this society and time. But he had a son, named Yugiri who is more sombre and less outgoing than his father, though far more along in his studies at the court and through the classes than he is. Unfortunately, there is one chapter where Yugiri endangers not only his standing, but his relationship with his wife, all to harass another woman who wants nothing to do with him. 

The fact is, I couldn’t stand it. It drove me absolutely up the wall that this character would do that. In fact, I got so angry I threw the book across my room. Later, I told my Professor about this, and he thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. No, more than that. He was pleased. He was pleased because I would never have even done that if I’d been bored, or I didn’t have any feeling invested whatsoever. 

The truth of the matter was that I got invested in that ephemeral, but flawed and worldly place, and sometimes it made me uncomfortable. But it also made me think.

And it made me care. 

I don’t have a material copy of Imprint to throw across the room, and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it. Imprint doesn’t take place in the medieval Heian Period, but in the Meiji Era: the nineteenth century where the Japanese Emperor was officially restored to the head of state after the dismantling of the Shogunate, and the nation’s adoption of many Euro-American sciences, technologies, and philosophies. 

Yet the American journalist Christopher, played by Billy Drago travels seemingly away from these developments to a far island “of whores and demons” to find a woman he loves: a prostitute named Komomo that he left some time ago. Now, thanks to Joe Bob Briggs and The Last Drive-In, I’ve watched Takashi Miike’s Audition, and I saw that liminal place between different perceptions and perspectives of reality and time. I already knew that there would be one scene — at least one scene — that would really fuck with me. In other words, I knew even based on this small amount of information about Imprint, no good was going to come of this.

But holy damn.  

There is something mythic, with an element of the kaidan — or ghost story that Takashi Miike has mentioned — to the setting right off the bat. Christopher is on a boat with a group of labourers when the boatman finds the bloated corpse of a pregnant woman floating in the water. This is a prelude as to what’s going to come. Fascinatingly enough, according to the screenplay written by Daisuke Tengan, who is also the screenwriter for Audition — the woman’s hand was apparently supposed to move towards the boat, or at least from Christopher’s perspective. This would have foreshadowed even more of what happens in the film with Christopher, and who he encounters. 

The island is a place out of time, with some Victorian dress for the prostitutes there — women with red dresses and wigs, blackened teeth, milk pale skin — clamouring to offer their services behind the bars of their brothel: literally a tarnished, gilded cage. Christopher is still looking for Komomo, and is directed into one establishment for the night by a syphilitic solicitor with a rooster hat on his head, and a missing nose. It all starts to fit together into an image that, when you look back on it, makes a whole lot more sense. But by then, it’s too late, and you’ve seen the horror in it. You’ve been taken into it.

Takashi Miike makes you invested in a young, disfigured prostitute who is never given a name: sitting off to herself, and not bothering to even solicit her services. Half of her face is stretched tightly, a birth defect. But it doesn’t take away from her presence, or the layers of personality she exudes. Youki Kudoh plays her role well, seemingly demure but worldly, tired, and beautiful. You can already see there is a lot more to her, and whatever Christopher finds is going to be through her. 

No one on the island seems to know Komomo, though Christopher has followed her trail to this place, but this disfigured girl — who seems to see or sense the dead — does know her. The girl plays this for laughs at Christopher’s expense, though in the screenplay I read she is dead serious about seeing the spectres around her: that both he and she can see. It makes me frustrated in another way, as Imprint is a film adapted from a short novel or novella written by the writer Shimako Iwai titled Bokke e, kyōtē, which is a regional Okayama expression or series of words meaning “really scary.”

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English translation of the novella, but from what I’m given to understand the story is written in a way where the prostitute — who also doesn’t seem to have a name — is telling a patron a story, or a series of stories, but the reader never gets to see the patron, or read what they have to say. The whole interaction is, according to William Leung in his indepth Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint, in “a monologue format.” Interestingly enough, that would mean Bokke e, kyōtē is written solely from a female perspective, a narrator who is the only force that makes sure her male patron even exists in the story as the reader only knows about him through her one-sided conversation, and Shimako Iwai is the writer that makes this possible.

It is equally unfortunate that this Okayama dialect couldn’t be utilized in the film: making Imprint a foreign language film with English subtitles would have done dividends for it, and added that authenticity to the setting. But Showtime is an American network, and apparently Takashi Miike did the best he could by having the actors speak a form of accented English to approximate the dialect. Also, it might have been problematic to determine what language Christopher, or Billy Drago, would have spoken if everyone was speaking a form of Japanese. Someone might have had to speak English, anyway. Even so, It’s interesting to look at how this discussion of the novella, whatever its original language, translates through the screenplay, and into the narrative of the film. Writers and critics like Leung examine the presence of Christopher as an embodiment of an Occidental masculine gaze, or a narrow need to seek out “truth”: to know, and comfort one’s self in that knowledge regardless of anyone else’s status around you. I’ve read reviews where Billy Drogo’s acting is criticized for being flat, and unconvincing but while this might not have been purposeful, I think that his performance in addition to his appearance as a dissolute Westerner adds to his character: showing the audience, making it clear to us, that he has something to hide: that the man doth protest too much when he says his only goal is to find the woman he loves.

I think it’s also telling that Christopher and Komomo, as played by Michie Itô, are the only named characters in this film, while everyone else — most of them women — don’t have any names at all. I would argue, and perhaps others have already done so given that this film was released in 2006 and many have already made their … mark on it, that Komomo is only mentioned by name in that she is the only thing that’s important to Christopher. Everyone else, as described by the prostitute — the woman he’s staying with for that night — are the Madam, the woman’s Mother, Father, the Buddhist Priest that taught her about Heaven and Hell, and — eventually — Sis. The other prostitutes don’t even have names, and the brothel solicitor is just a diseased cock.

The fact is, this island — by thematic design — and from the way the woman describes it as a place of “whores and demons,” exists away from a defined, empirical reality. This is not a place where people have names, or lives, or futures. This is where people come to fuck, and die. At the same time, as a critic or scholar like Leung would mention, this place is very much a part of the mainstream culture and society that rules it. Women and girls are given away from places of famine and cultural shame to brothels to work with what the prevailing society thinks is their only defining trait: their bodies. 

It’s interesting. In Western philosophy and aspects of Gnosticism you have the figure of Sophia — of Wisdom in the form of a woman — that a philosopher, generally a man, always pursues. But Leung in his work defines Youki Kudoh’s prostitute character as “the truth.” And as “truth?” She is somewhat deformed, but also sultry, coquettish, sly, but also silent at first until she unfurls herself, and reveals what she truly is. The writer Iwai created her novella, the inspiration for Imprint, with the idea of her character having a secret, and moving on from there. 

So let me get back to making this more personal, even though it is fairly clear at this point in the game that Imprint isn’t particularly Christopher’s story, or from his perspective, but it has always been dependent from the storytelling narration — and subsequent layers of lying and unraveling description — of Youki Kudoh’s character: of the woman. 

As I said before, the Woman is identified as “truth” by Leung, and even Christopher — presumably due to his journalistic instincts — singles her out to spend the night with him, and possibly get him the answers that he thinks he wants.

And, eventually, she tells him what happened to Komomo. It is a painstaking process, in which first he finds out she was here, then she died, and is then told she committed suicide through hanging. And this is the part where … my visceral reaction comes into play.

We find out why Komomo died. Komomo, who was a favourite girl at the brothel, was accused of stealing the Madam’s jade ring. She is taken to the linen closet by the Madam and her fellow girls where they torture her. Brutally. Takashi Miike doesn’t fade out from the scene, or hint on things. It makes sense. In the interview “I am the Film Director of Love and Freedom: Takashi Miike,” he admits that he took one non-descriptive line about the situation from the script, and constructed this entire scene.

Of course he did. 

No. You see it happen. You see it all happen. You see the girls burn her armpits with incense sticks. You watch as one particularly sadistic girl with a red-gold wig — actually played by Shimako Iwai herself — with a relish almost bordering on eroticism, even love — drive acupuncture needles into each of Komomo’s fingers, under the nails to the point of seeing blood bloom like in the introduction of the Masters of Horror series. Then, they hold her mouth open and drive those same needles into her gums, Iwai’s character taking special delight in placing the needle just inches away from Komomo’s eye. Afterwards, they hang her upside down and question her. The thing is, in the script, she had urinated all over herself during the needles sliding into her, Takashi Miike has it so that she pisses on herself as she’s suspended by that rope. And, the entire time, you hear her screaming, begging, grunting like an animal, writhing around, her eyes rolling back into their sockets from the agony, as she is utterly dehumanized.

That scene fucked me. It wrecked me. This was the mental equivalent of me throwing The Tale of Genji across the room. It filled me with rage, at seeing this poor girl — who did absolutely nothing, who was even kind, and just told stories to keep her sanity, who waited for Christopher to find her — tortured by these merciless other women, while the solicitor laughs at her with his rotten cock bobbing up, and down on his head. It was disgusting, and I wanted all of these evil bitches to pay for what they did to her, while at the same time feeling major empathy, and a sense of protectiveness for this fictional woman. 

Takashi Miike’s Audition was hard on me. I’m not talking about when Asami Yamazaki tortures Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, although that also sucked, but I mean the vision Yoshikawa has of a mutilated man drinking Asami’s vomit out of a dog bowl.

I just … I couldn’t.

This scene of dehumanization, and the body losing control just hit me, and while Audition made me feel ill, this part of Imprint made me angry. And yes, looking back, this — these are the transgressive places — is where I said that Takashi Miike sucks. And he sucks hard.

At the same time, the scene is brilliant.

Think about it, if you want. Here are these women, these — as Youki Kudoh’s Woman puts it — “daughters of joy,” trafficked sex workers having internalized a society that rejected and used them, and indoctrinated them into provided male pleasure, using their instruments of that indentured profession in their culture to inflict non-consensual pain on a body that is like their own, but it isn’t one of them: not for the purposes of this exercise. Incense sticks are supposed to create a smell that will relax you. Acupuncture needles are made to provide health benefits for the body, or sadomasochistic releases. Even the rope, that suspension, can be tied to kink practices like Shibari and erotic bondage in general. Komomo’s mouth is held open, used for another’s pleasure, and long phallic objects are inserted into soft, pliant places.

Even her cries of pain can be sold as sounds of pleasure to an audience indoctrinated into responding to such. I will never forget the sadist either. Shimako Iwai is not only a writer, a tarento — a television celebrity or personality — but also a pornographic director, and someone particularly vocal about sex, and sexual pleasure. And here she is, playing a sadist using all of those tools against this character, and you realize she doesn’t give a jot about that jade ring. In fact, none of the girls do. Not even the Madam does. It is all about Komomo, according to the Woman, having been “too good,” “too favoured,” and this theft is just an excuse to release all of that suppressed feminine resentment on someone else. It’s horrific because these women have also been victims, but like demons in hell, they have reached the point — in a manner similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale as they tear apart a chosen criminal — where they will tear apart their own for doing exactly what they rest of them have been doing, even excelling at it, even loving the men, or the man doing it. And they themselves love inflicting this cruelty on her, things that had been done to them by men and society in many different ways.

I wanted to hate those women, and that anger remains, but the true horror here in Imprint I feel isn’t supernatural or limited to one innocent individual’s suffering, it’s that this twisted patriarchal order and internalized misogyny, exists and created this entire thing. Leung definitely delves into this idea when he mentions how Christopher ignores that whole reality just to focus on Komomo. Hell — and I don’t use the term lightly, as the Woman herself goes into her ideology of Hell as the film goes on — he even sees them suffering, behind those bars, ravenous and desperate, and when he sees the dead pregnant woman float by. In the screenplay, he doesn’t even acknowledge the corpse while the labourers pour sake into the water, except to notice it grabbing at the boat. In the film, he at least has the decency to take off his hat as the labourers offer prayers.

This place, in Imprint, is literally Hell. But as the Woman’s Sister says at the end of the film, hell is a place but it’s not a space you can run away from. You carry it with you.

Takashi Miike in the documentary “Imprinting: The Making of Imprint” explains that he told Michie Itô, as he directed her during her torture scene as Komomo that  “It’s like you are in a pretty field of flowers, and an old man is bashing your head in with a stick.”

That sentence sums up that world, that scene, and what comes after, pretty well. 

The Colours of Ari Aster’s Midsommar

It’s hard to bring something new to a previous, or even an ongoing conversation. Sometimes, it’s hard to say anything at all. 

I don’t remember when I saw the preview to Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror film Midsommar. Certainly the first look at the Fangoria issue, and its cover featuring the film, made me wonder just what kind of horror I would inevitably be facing this time around. But, deep down, I knew what it was going to be. The truth is, I’d seen it before.

Or I thought I did. In a few interviews with Ari Aster, he says that he’d been going through a terrible breakup, and it influenced the script that would become Midsommar. I can believe that. It doesn’t take much to relate to the idea of a beautiful, ongoing, sunny world where your heart is shattered into a million pieces, and you are obliged to just keep smiling, or at least go through the motions of the dance. I think we’ve all been there, really. I know I have. 

Midsommar can feel like a fever dream in what seems to be an idyllic situation, except you feel that sense of loss pounding away in your chest, the music around you muted and distant as your mind tries to withdraw from the stimuli but also attempting to keep away from the pain. The scene where Dani Ardor, played by Florence Pugh, at a party with her boyfriend and his friends and the forced and detached look on her face comes to mind.

But as I’m writing this article, and I think more about my initial impressions of a movie I saw a year and a lifetime ago, I realize I relate to this film and the atmosphere in another way. You see, before I knew about Dani’s actual physical loss I read the premise to the film in which she is essentially at this outside communal event while essentially going through the process of a strained relationship, and the inevitable separation that is soon to follow. It’s those similar motions, almost being walking wounded in the heat and light of summer, being only being linked with someone in name, trailing awkwardly, not wanting to bump them, and end the mirage — even needing to have them remain to deal with a deeper pain, or fear — but knowing, deep down that it’s inevitable, and a part of you blaming yourself for this coming dissolution. 

Through the year or so, I’ve read and watched a lot of commentary on this film. I’ve seen people claim that Hårga commune is central, and that its ethnocentrism and isolationism — and its penchant for human sacrifice — symbolizes fascism, and racist ideologies: and the dangers that a cult has on the psychology of someone who suffers from depression and loneliness: how a sense of belonging and love-bombing can indoctrinate someone into abhorrent beliefs. Likewise, I’ve even heard that others believe Midsommar isn’t a horror film because it has a “happy ending” for the protagonist. Still more think it is about the end of a relationship, and how that ultimately plays out at the end of the story. 

I can see all these different aspects. It’s no coincidence that in a deleted scene in the film, on the road to the Hårga commune in Sweden, that the students pass an anti-immigration sign, and that Mark — the practical joker and general asshole of the group — tries to bait Pelle, their friend who belongs to the commune, by showing him a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark: in reference to the Nordic runes that the Hårga utilize. However, while these scenes and others are in the Director’s Cut, they were taken out for a reason, because they were either too on the nose, or they took away from the rest of the film, or both. Ari Aster also acknowledges these influences, and it’s no coincidence that there are only Caucasian people in the Hårga, and it’s pretty clear that Josh — a Black student — along with Simon and Connie — who appear to be Indian — are pretty much going to die, though their deaths seem to be ritualized due to the Hårga knowing the former will try to break their rules and steal their secrets for his research, and the latter because they want to leave and potentially reveal to the world the secrets of their ninety year cycle Midsommar ritual: including the ättestupa– the elder suicide — in the movie (though social or hegemonically-supported suicides of the “unhealthy” or the “undesirable” do have some fascist overtones).. 

The connotations are all there. The Hårga are not innocent. They know exactly what they are doing, and they will lie, and massage events to make things go their way. The fact that they sent Pelle as an exchange student to America, and he purposefully brought these friends over to the commune shows a great deal of organization on his, and their, part. Pelle knows, for instance, that Mark has an inherent irreverence towards life, that Josh only cares for his research over everyone and everything else, that Christian — Dani’s distant boyfriend — is a sycophant, narcissist, and generally weak-willed, and if you go by the deleted scenes, has this penchant for gaslighting his girlfriend. And he knows about Dani’s loss, about the murder-suicide of her sister Terri and her parents. 

At the same time, the Hårga genuinely seem to believe in what they practice. They think that seventy-two — numerologically adding to nine altogether, perhaps like the Nine Worlds on the Nordic World Tree — is the full winter lifespan of a human being. They do not seem to have a central leader, though there are elders that have a variety of functions even though they do have regimented roles in their society. The Hårga don’t seem interested in exterminating other diverse people, or outsiders, or even having authority outside of their land, but they use them in their ritual when it occurs: either through sacrifice, or keeping genetic diversity — a lack of inbreeding — in their commune. They definitely practice eugenics, and while the mention of their oracle — the deformed boy Ruben — supposedly represents “racial or genetic purity,” it is also an ancient custom in many different cultures, and even among nobility and royalty. 

I think this film is all of those things. My issue is with those who believe it is only one thing, or another. Midsommar can be an allegory for fascism and extremism, or cult indoctrination, or racism, or even a breakup revenge story. You can even make a case of Midsommar being a critique of North American grief culture, and a lack of a sense of community, empathy, and a centralized sense of self and independence that just fills empty and hollow.

As for me, I think like Ari Aster’s other film Hereditary, this film is about grief. It is about dealing — or not dealing — with a profound sense of loss, and the failure of one social order or group in helping someone dealing with that, and what might fill that void instead. None of the above insights are mutually exclusive with this idea, but it’s pretty reductive to say that one or the other, or another, are all that film is about. 

I’ve had a bit more time to think about this. When I first saw Midsommar, I felt kinship with Dani. I know what it’s like to lose something, or someone, or feel it happening — and you don’t want to admit it. Or the logical part of your brain knows where this is going, but the emotional part still holds on … until it doesn’t anymore. The fact that Dani’s initial grief happens in winter makes no difference that she is still dealing with this in summer, and trying to keep up appearances. Dani suffers from anxiety and depression, and somewhere along the line she’s had to learn to “act normal” or “pass” with it. And this before her sister and parents die. 

Dani is living the North American dream. She’s gone away to college. She’s living on her own, for the most part. During this time, she has a steady boyfriend. Dani also has a therapist, a casual friend she talks with about her problems, and medication. She is even studying psychology or psychoanalysis at school: either to help herself, or her sister who has constantly, throughout their life, been suffering from her own mental illness. Clearly their parents didn’t know, or didn’t want to know — or were incapable of knowing — the extent of it. 

We see what happens. After texting her sister, and calling her parents multiple times, she gets the news of their deaths. It breaks her. And all she has is the comfort of a boyfriend who is pretty much done with their relationship, who isn’t comfortable enough to be there for her when she needs help or is not wired with the empathy or the mental tools to do so, and his friends who don’t feel much of anything to her beyond her being a nuisance. The times she’s nodding blankly at a party she doesn’t want to be at, lying in her bed for all hours, and then going into bathrooms and either crying, or trying not to have a panic attack — and making sure no one else can see her “moments of weakness” — really strikes me. 

And Florence Pugh plays this out well in her body language, and her facial expressions. She tenses up her forehead into a creased brow, and her mouth turns into a literal frown: face bordering constantly on an ugly cry. She looks like she is constantly on the edge of bawling. I know, from the other end of this, how painful that is: to see it happen to someone that you love. In the beginning, when Christian is holding her and she is screaming her agony, there is this numb, almost helpless look on his face. And I know that look. I’ve been there. It sucks. It was one of the few times I almost felt bad for Christian, but then I felt worse because of knowing his wavering feelings or his uncertainty, and seeing how Dani needed someone to actually be there for her: to actually hold her.

To be held. 

Pelle asks Dani, as they are at the commune and Christian has forgotten her birthday, if she feels held by him. And that question stayed with me. It still does.

The thing is, Dani was looking for something even before those deaths. There is a picture in her room depicting something very similar to the Hårga art we see at the beginning, and during the film’s events. Even after the ättestupa, for all of her horror, she starts unconsciously mimicking the gestures of the Hårga in her movements as she stumbles off. And the Maypole Dance, and the way she begins to start talking in Swedish with the other girls even after imbibing their medicinal drink, and winning that contest to become May Queen: I don’t believe it was rigged. I think she genuinely, and unequivocally, won that dance. Something Dani is attracted to all of this, something Pelle might have seen, but even the Hårga with their Oracle could plan for so much. 

Critics have compared the Hårga to fascists or cultists, but I see them as an older culture. Those stones on their property, and runes have been there for a long time. Their Midsommar meals and all their rituals — even their deceptions, especially their fabrications — are choreographed to the nth degree like a Passover Seder writ large: commemorating various events, stories, and applying them to their followers in a seasonal and cyclical manner. Even the pictures of the May Queens seem to go back a great deal in time, and there is something about the fact that Midsommar happens every ninety years. This is not new. This isn’t the 1980s messianic cult of Jeremiah’s Children of the New Dawn in Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film Mandy: with their masculinist overtones, and a pyramidic temple tribute to an egomaniac. That cult would not survive the death of their leader, having been made to essentially glorify him. And Red Miller, played by Nicolas Cage, made sure of that. That temple, that structure, burned in memory of his wife, Mandy Bloom whom the cult brutally immolated alive: leaving Miller a ravening, grieving, psychopath driving into a horizon of darkness.

Midsommar itself isn’t the only horror film, as some have said, created in broad daylight: Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man definitely comes to mind on that front as a series of celebrations with at least Celtic folklore influences. But Midsommar’s central theme, I feel, is grief and the loss of not just family or loved ones: but a previous, and tenuous, sense of self. Dani’s journey, if anything, aside from the Hårga’s pyramidic wooden temple that is burned purposefully with its own sacrifices — the last decided by Dani herself — reminds me of Arthur Fleck’s from Todd Philips’ The Joker.

The Joker was released the same year as Midsommar. Like Arthur, Dani loses her sense of family identity, perhaps already having been distant when it still existed. Her relationship with Christian, while had actually happened, was no longer present. She had been around people, and a society that ignored her and, low-key in her case, judged her for her mental illness and not being able to fit in, or “pass” as “normal.” Like Fleck, she keeps reaching out for a connection, and meets maybe one person who cares from her home, but mostly just disinterest, or disdain. She is gaslit by someone she trusts, and made an after-thought. You notice that throughout the film she barely even smiles. 

But just as Arthur Fleck lets go of the faulty and defunct illusion of what he thought he was, or wanted to be, to embrace the chaos that is his nature — a state without an origin — Dani finds order and meaning with the Hårga. They provide a sense of community. The women want her to bake with them. The girls dance with her. She is made May Queen on her birthday, or around then. For the first time, in her entire life, or at least in a long time she feels special. And when Christian runs off to be with Maja, another girl at a breeding ritual, she finally airs her grief: and the Hårga performatively channel it with her. It’s not a ruse, or an artifice. They feel her pain, and they work with it. Where Arthur Fleck finds solidarity with the furious, resentful mobs of Gotham and channels their rage into a dance of destruction and violent liberation, Dani makes a decisive choice to end a failing relationship that represents the lack of connection with the world from which she came. There is something cathartic, you can see, as she watches that pyramid with Christian in the bear suit inside burn. And that smile on her face, while twisted, is genuine. It might as well be painted in her own blood, but I suspect she doesn’t need that: as what we are seeing is what’s now in her heart.

I think that Dani, from the new paradigm she’s shifted into, is actually happy. She is in a culture that has strong matriarchal and gender-shifting elements, and a communal society. Death has a meaning in it, and it is not an arbitrary thing. It’s certainly not a lonely end, or a lingering one. She knows her fate now. Other critics say that Dani will be horrified once the love-bombing, or the honey-moon phase of the cult’s seduction ends but I don’t think that’s how it will play out. I think she has the structure and the support of people. The deaths and sacrifices happen rarely, and most of their life is pastoral. Dani is a part of the Hårga now. She is their May Queen. She is their flowering, smiling, goddess-figure. 

You see, I think the terrifying thing about Midsommar isn’t the machinations of the commune, or the fascist and cultic overtones of the Hårga. It’s the fact that Dani has embraced it. It’s that she’s happy. It’s this burning alive of her former boyfriend, and her peers, and human lives, and her accepting her own ritual death one day is — in fact — her happy ending: the happy ending of a now twisted mind in a world-view that is quite legitimate to her. And it leaves you unsettled, just as it makes you think.