What is The Horror Doctor?

I find that I keep on reinventing my horror origin story.

As of this date, the Horror Doctor is a year old. Not me, of course unless you want to be existential about it, but this whole blog. 

I don’t think I ever really knew what it was going to become. Oh, I definitely had a plan. I was going to take a particular film and rewrite it on here in installments for my “Reanimation Station,” but for the most part I’ve written “Strains and Mutations” for my horror mashup fictions and homages (read: fanfiction), a whole lot of focus on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and vampires, and — really — my “Dissections and Speculatives”: you know, my reviews. 

A lot of my horror reviews focus on films, even though originally I toyed with looking at short stories, written narratives in general, plays, and even games. Sometimes I’ve done some “Behind the Screams,” which is an embarrassing label as it is anything other than original, though I got to write about my reasoning behind creating some of my fictional homages, so that was all fun. 

Mostly, my Horror Doctor blog reviews, takes apart, and sometimes puts together in different forms horror movies. A long time ago, I wanted to focus on lesser known movies too, but once I saw Cannibal Holocaust it was all over. I’d like to think that somewhere, in the Dark Multiverse that probably wasn’t created by Universal Studios, that the original version of my horror blog — a work displaying a long-form horror film rewrite, along with some smaller fictional experiments, and reviews of films most people don’t look at — does exist. And maybe, it might at some point anyway in this hellish timeline. 

A long time ago, my non-fictional writing mostly focused on the comics medium, and popular geek culture. I wrote for two other online publications, and a whole ton of fanfiction along with my mainline Writer’s Blog Mythic Bios: where I’d post a lot of writing experiments, which included horror. 

One problem I have is that sometimes I try to be too clever. I’m a perfectionist and it creates a cycle where I agonize over something, and it either causes great anxiety and I overwork myself, or more anxiety and it just doesn’t happen. Before really delving into horror in a focused way, I used to be even more exacting, and serious: I took myself and what I would see or watch very seriously. Horror, back in the day for me — before the Year From Hell, and you know exactly what I mean by that — was something I was afraid of as a child, kept away from the mainline Eighties and Nineties films by my parents, and something I came at surreptitiously from the corners of my youth. I would go into Hollywood Movies and look at the box art and descriptions of the films either my family wouldn’t let me sneak past, or my own fear kept me away from. 

But I read abridged folktales and classics, and eventually went to the Toronto Public Library and read Christopher Pike, and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series. I saw the Poltergeist: The Legacy series as I got older later at night, already watched Are You Afraid of the Dark, and the Goosebumps shows, and occasionally managed to get some Tales From the Crypt, when not also watching shows like Psi Factor, and Outer Limits, and your good old X-Files if you want to branch out into multi-genre classing. 

And I saw some movies, especially when the 300s became available on Cable. I was always there, on the periphery but I missed out the mainline slashers and contemporary monsters of — again — the Eighties and Nineties until much later, and I’m still catching up on them: which isn’t a bad thing as I’m doing so with the Mutant Fam of The Last Drive-In. I could seriously do worse than discover old and new films with Joe Bob and Darcy, and Fangoria Magazine as well. 

It really culminated when my late partner got me into the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and when I started going and checking out films from the late and lamented physical manifestation of Toronto’s Suspect Video store and sometimes I wish I could go back in time — for a variety of reasons — to talk about the things I learned. And I would just make these comments on Shudder when I discovered it on the movies I watched, or on Twitter after I saw something at the After Dark. 

Then the Pandemic struck. And, like I mentioned in other places I’m sure, I looked at an old Blogger journal my partner and I were going to make together back in 2011 that never happened. I was going to make The Horror Doctor — still a working title — there, but the platform wasn’t sophisticated enough and I went with WordPress, only for it to change its own format in the process too. 

But I needed a place to write my thoughts on horror that was more than just on other online magazines, or even Mythic Bios. I needed something focused. Something clearer. Like a dark blade. 

I have been writing this blog for a year. I learned a lot. I write my entries in Google Docs now and paste them into the format that WordPress has basically enforced, after a lot of complaining on my part. I finally made a place, too, for my collected Creepshow Commentaries. It’s funny. My Mythic Bios blog, that I haven’t really updated in a while, was the result of me needing a place to talk about geekery that my Reviews on Amazon just couldn’t cut, and then I went into GeekPr0n and Sequart from there. And it was a similar, but parallel evolution here on The Horror Doctor: from Shudder Reviews and Twitter streams of consciousness, to this. 

I’m sure this is all fairly interesting retrospective stuff. Sometimes, even with all of this I wonder how it all happened, and if it’s going to go anywhere. I’ve worked on this a lot, perhaps in a fairly obsessive manner. I wonder, sometimes, when that sliver of doubt happens if I can use this writing to lead me to a place where I can write professionally again: or in general really. Sometimes I wonder if I am just wasting my time. 

But this has been a transformative experience too. Not only has this space allowed me to engage with horror media in a critical and creative manner — more expansively than before — but I got to review new films based on classic horror film stars, and interact with them on social media. I can’t even begin to tell you how it feels to realize that I’ve talked with Kelli Maroney, and Barbara Crampton. I have difficulty trying to describe just having a casual conversation with Diana Prince (Darcy the Mailgirl), or even getting a DM from Joe Bob one day. It’s hard to explain the coolness of chatting with Anna Biller on Twitter about Viva and The Love Witch, not to mention Barbara Crampton and her role in Sacrifice. I have a whole section on “Dialogues” on The Horror Doctor that was reserved for Interviews with horror personages I might have, and some of those discussions could have made it on there if they were a bit more formal, and if of course I had permission to post them. 

But also having Kelli Maroney, Barbara Crampton, Diana Prince, and even directors like Travis Stevens, and Tate Steinsiek, a writer like Kathy Charles, and so many others comment positively on my articles is just something that made this year for me. 

The fact is, like many people during this time, I lost a lot this year, but I gained something else. I don’t always know what it is, or where it will lead, but I want to keep going with it. I have to be careful to pace myself. I’d been flirting with burn-out for a while. It helped to take a break for a while. Breaks are good. Breaks let you take stock, watch other things, do other things, perhaps see the difference between not giving up on something and letting something old tired go, and going back with perhaps more of a game plan. 

It’s been a hell of a year. But I accomplished a lot. And even if this blog ends sooner rather than later, I did this. I made this, and put it all on social media, and curated what I could, and did the best I was capable of doing. And whatever happens, nothing can take those achievements away from me. 

It’s been a ride. And hopefully, we can have more of them together. Technically, today is not the first day of the Blog — that would be the 29th because that is the first post I made — but this was one year anniversary of the first time I made this “About” section, and cursed at WordPress in trying toggle their weird Word Block formats in setting this basic structure up. 

And I’m so glad that you long-time readers have continued to deign to join me here in this organized house of horrors, and I am equally appreciative of those of you newcomers who want to see my black blade at work on these bloody building blocks of storytelling.

So take care everyone and remember, while I am not an actual doctor or a master of this genre, I am definitely still continuing to be one of its students, and perhaps we can continue the experiment together along the way.

I Got A Lot to Think About: Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife

Stagnation can last years, but the dead travel fast.

If I can summarize Jakob’s Wife, directed by Travis Stevens, and written by him, Kathy Charles, and Mark Steensland, it would be that bite-sized sentence above. I’ve been looking forward to seeing — and writing about — this film. Not only did Travis Stevens direct the brilliance of what misogyny leaves behind in Girl On The Third Floor, Kathy Charles write the Lovecraft Mythos remake of Castle Freak, and Mark Steensland co-write a twisted version of male sexual fantasies, addiction, and consequences in The Special, but this movie stars the renowned Barbara Crampton who plays Anne Fedder: an unhappy woman and wife of a small-town preacher who gains something that can be seen as both a curse, and a blessing.

I just want to say, as many other reviews, articles, and interviews have stated — including and especially in Meredith Borders’ “Waiting to Exsanguinate” as well as Barbara Crampton’s own “Scene Queen: The Journey of Jakob’s Wife” in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue #11 — that the element of vampirism is only part of the overall theme of the film: which is that of a woman seeking to change her life in a stale relationship, and attempting to negotiate the boundaries of love while seeking her own freedom. 

Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Certainly, vampirism being besides the point in a vampire film is nothing novel. Joe Bego’s 2019 film Bliss comes to mind, if only because I said something very similar about it. But there is a difference between that psychedelic nightmare of drugs and self-denial, and Anne’s sudden thrust into a reality that is terrifying, but all too clear: something that, in some ways, has always been around her: and she’s only seeing it now. It’s poetic that takes Anne dying to actually realize that she wants to live. But does Anne actually die?

I am getting ahead of myself. If you want to actually watch the film — and I highly suggest you should — our fangs are out, and from them are dripping spoilers. You were warned. I would suggest, as Anne says to another in her film, that you run while you still can.

This whole film is nuanced. It’s true that Barbara Crampton’s previous horror roles in the 1980s — in Re-Animator, and From Beyond — were not always subtle, but in addition to the way she portrays those characters her skill has evolved. Certainly, by the time we get to her role in Andy Collier and Tor Mian’s Sacrifice, we see she can play a character who straddles the line between different sides of morality, and someone who struggles with their place in society, and their own desires. 

Barbara Crampton goes specifically into the correlation between herself having returned to acting later in her life after marriage and raising a family, and Anne being an older woman seeking to fulfill dreams she put on hold to find love and stability. However, unlike Barbara Crampton — who never really stopped working or chasing her own goals, despite the ageism towards women in the film industry — Anne let herself become subsumed by the doctrine, but mostly the routine of married life with her husband the Pastor Jakob Fedder: a seemingly unassuming man played by veteran actor Larry Fessenden. 

I’m getting back to my point about nuance. This film could have easily gone a few ways, and I found myself being wrong with almost every prediction I had. When the film begins, Jakob is preaching to his congregation in their small town, and after — when he’s approached by a young woman named Amelia — there is almost this red herring in the way it’s portrayed playing on your expectations that the young girl is trying to flirt with the pastor, or there is something illicit business going on. A part of my mind even considered the possibility that Anne had already become a vampire, and is the presence stalking the girl later: her sympathy towards the young woman’s alcoholic mother being an excellent mask.

But that’s not what this film is about. It also isn’t about Jakob, however mundane he seems at the beginning of the story, being a terrible or a violent religious fanatic, or being completely ignorant of what happens to his wife right towards the end of the movie. He doesn’t immediately turn on her, and he also isn’t killed by her as a plot point to liberating herself from him. These are all heavy-handed, easy plot solutions, but Jakob’s Wife never takes the easy way out.

It’s true that the town, in the middle of seeming nowhere, is ruled by a patriarchal system and social expectations towards women: something we see in the attitudes of Anne’s brother and sister-in-laws, and even her husband during their dinner scene when talking about whether or not Amelia ran away “due to a boyfriend,” as opposed to something having actually happened to her. There are certainly some class and even possibly racial connotations in those deliberations and gossip given that Amelia is Black and she and her mother live in a more rundown part that town, and definitely some of that is mirrored in the way that Jakob confiscates marijuana from two younger people of colour. This is the setting that’s seeped into Anne throughout the years, an ebb and flow: a sluggish pulse of inertia that Jakob can live with, complete with the expectation of having a dutiful wife that you can see in the implicit chauvinism of his brother of his brother’s wife, but not someone like Anne whose always sought to travel, to innovate, to just … do something more with her life.

Again, it would have been simple to have Anne leave her oblivious husband to have an affair with her lost childhood love come back to town, while renovating the old abandoned mill that is apparently a town landmark. Hell, having Tom — Anne’s mischievous rule-breaking former flame — be the vampire that turns her is another place that could have gone. But it doesn’t go there. Instead, Anne breaks off the moment’s indiscretion, despite her unhappiness, because we realize she actually still loves her husband: or at least feels loyalty to him. 

And then, everything begins to go to hell. Tom is consumed by rats, unsurprisingly, found in some crates the size of … coffins. They’re coffins, complete with earth and all of that Dracula and vampire Eastern folklore goodness. After that, Anne is attacked by what we find out is an old vampire called “The Master.” No, not the Master from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer with his collared leather jacket, and snide sarcastic remarks.

We are talking about — what we find out later — is a Master that’s like Count Orlok from Nosferatu in the perpetual, final stages decay … who likes to play with her food. Or, in some cases, her toys.

A few vampire film inspirations are referred to in various interviews, one with Coming Soon’s Larry Fessenden on Unique Role in Horror Pic Jakob’s Wife, and Meredith Border’s Fangoria article as well. Films such as Ganja & Hess, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, Let the Right One In, The Hunger, and Possession are mentioned, but Dracula has also left its toothy mark on the vampires in Jakob’s Wife.

I really want to look at how vampires function in this world. At first, I thought Anne was a throwback to the way vampires used to be before Nosferatu: beings that are simply weaker, or less tolerant of sunlight, but can otherwise move around. However, what we find out is that she is — figuratively and literally — going through a transition. It’s like a less severe version of what happened to Lucy Westenra, or Mina Harker when they were being fed on by Dracula, and given his blood. However, Anne is already manifesting the hunger. At first, it’s just for animal blood but eventually she can’t even tolerate that. She already can’t eat solid food anymore, and she’s become photosensitive, but she’s changed more than this. Her physical strength has vastly increased, as have her five senses.

And, perhaps due to these new stimuli, Anne expresses a certain directness, with some coldness, that might have remained under the surface: with a fire that Barbara Crampton notes in her “Scene Queen” column. By not having to eat anymore, she also doesn’t feel the need to cook for her husband, who has taken all preparations for him as something for granted: an extension of that casual chauvinism that his brother expresses to him on the possibility that Anne is having an affair. 

But it is not a perfect, nor a permanent state. Eventually, Anne can’t feed off animal blood anymore without being violently ill, focused ultraviolet light becomes damaging to her, and the hunger begins to take its toll. It’s also clear that when she kills a human being — and she only kills one when the hunger becomes too much for her — that if she doesn’t finish off the body, even with its head partially torn off, it will reanimate as what seems to be another vampire. This is something I recall from, of all things, Blacula, where all a vampire like Prince Mamuwalde needs to do is feed and not give their blood to the mostly drained human. 

Yet it’s still more than that. Anne is not, apparently, a full vampire. And Amelia, the poor girl who hears “the Master” calling to her as well, is mostly a twisted, hate-filled bloody revenant of her former self. Even the poor man Anne kills in a frenzy comes back as a relatively mindless thing that she has to wrestle with, and it becomes hers, and her husband’s first kill together. 

Oh yes. That’s right. Remember how I said that Jakob doesn’t remain ignorant? Well, after he goes to, reluctantly as he isn’t a confrontational man, tell Tom to leave his wife alone he realizes that the old mill is home to vampires, and very nearly dies there due to the pitiable, terrifying thing that used to be Amelia. 

He returns, realizing that “the Master” is after his wife: to find his wife feeding off of her unintended victim. It might as well, in his mind, be him catching his wife with her pants down with the Devil in his kitchen.

And this is where the film gets interesting as we see, essentially, a priest and a vampire, a husband and wife, team up to hunt other vampires: to hopefully deal with the curse laid on Anne. On the surface, this is fairly bad ass: not just because we realize that Jakob’s holy items — communion wafers, cross, and water — actually work on vampires, and he even knows instinctively how to dispose of the remains of Anne’s aborted creation in the grave in their garden, but Anne has a new kind of ruthlessness in dealing with “the Master’s” other creations. The way she kills Amelia is a counterpoint to all the sympathy and compassion that she expressed to her earlier in the film: to a point where her husband, the priest, is horrified. He actually wanted to save Amelia, probably in his mind by killing her dark creator … if that’s how this species of vampire functions  of course, right?

But it’s here where their conflict really begins. This is where Jakob has to admit that Anne has changed, and not just because of her transformation. She is more independent and willful than she had been before: or maybe she had been that way before her mother died, Tom left, and all she had was good old solid Jakob and the never-changing faith of the church. But he is angry at her admitting she kissed Tom, and … basically blames her for “the Master’s” attack on her: like a spouse blaming their partner for their own rape which, given what “the Master” is like, and how Anne staggered up to the washroom to hide herself, blood-stained, violated, and screaming while her husband remained ignorantly downstairs, is more or less my read on that situation.

However, Anne is having none of it and actually calls Jakob out on his behaviour. Yet this is a fight between two people who don’t know each other anymore, who hadn’t for a while, but still at their core fiercely care for one another. Even when Jakob drives away, and goes to bed, he can’t quite stop himself from going after her, and when “the Master” uses her power to take control of Jakob, to make Anne feed from and kill him, Anne forces herself to save him instead, having come back to their home on her own. 

“The Master,” played by Bonnie Aarons, is twisted. It’s more than just her appearance. She has the ability to control and change herself into multiple rats. “The Master” also seems to have the power to fly, or at least move almost instantaneously from one place to another. She can even move objects without touching them. But more than that, she has great powers of mental domination: which she uses to not only control Jakob as a thrall, but Anne herself. There is something horrific about how “the Master” manipulates Anne like a puppet, moving her with her body’s movements. She plays with her, and she knows it, and Anne knows it. She can kill Jakob, or anyone Anne cares about on a whim. Amelia is just a plaything, perhaps a prototype to what she seemingly wants from Anne. 

“The Master” provides a lot of voice to what Anne is feeling, about being in the thrall of men, and what they have constructed. She claims she wants to help liberate Anne from being a “scurrying church mouse” as she had been when she had drunk of her own Master’s blood ages ago. This is apparently the thing: drinking your creator’s blood, in this world, liberates you from the hunger of the transition between human and vampire. This is the choice that “the Master” offers Anne.

Choice is a main component in this film. For years, Anne felt her choices taken away from her. Now she has agency again, or a new vital sense of it. She wants equality and a say in her life from her relationship with her husband. She wants to have a role again in their mutual decision making. It’s clear, when the two work together, they are a force to be reckoned with: when they kill the vampire in the kitchen, when they dispatch Amelia, and even taking that poor deceased old woman’s body for Anne to slake her hunger for a time while Jakob hunts for “the Master” during the day.

There is even one scene, after their fight at the mill, where we find out — hilariously enough — that pot takes the edge off of vampiric hunger as Jakob takes his confiscated drug and shares it with Anne. It’s here that they have a heart to heart, and she tells him that she didn’t feel valued, and he apologizes. That is the gist of their conversation. And there is this moment, where Anne seems to feel validated, and get her say in all of this: in her own fate. 

But “the Master” keeps escalating the situation. “The Master” claims to want to liberate Anne from her husband. She asks her “Were you ever really you, or were you just Jakob’s wife?” The film title drop aside, she has some valid points. Certainly, the discussion about Amelia at the beginning of the film is predicative of Jakob’s go-to behaviour along with the victim-blaming element of Anne’s current situation. He has taken her for granted for years, fulfilling her role as her sister in law does. Hell, he doesn’t even consider that “the Master” is a woman: just another man that his wife let take advantage of her, like Tom. And he’s only cooperating with her now to make her “normal” again: to make her “back the way she was.” 

Jakob’s sermon at the beginning of the film, which is Ephesians 5:28: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself,” and in the middle, which is 1 Corinthians: 7:16 “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” speaks volumes about how he views marriage, and his relationship with Anne. Anne is just an extension of him, as Eve comes from Adam’s rib.

Oh, and “the Master’ gets to that. Even while the latter proverb is almost a rebuke to Jakob about not knowing his wife anymore, mirroring his own fear of her changes, “the Master” talks about how Eve was deceived well before Adam by the Serpent, and how she deserves better. And here is where I begin to disagree with the sentiment that “the Master” is trying to “liberate” Anne.

You see, she is still using the metaphor of Eve, Adam’s wife, comparing Anne to her, and her relationship — or dependency — on Jakob. It’d be so easy, again, if this film — as Meredith Borders puts — had been stereotypical and about Anne as Jakob’s extension, as his wife. Or perhaps, to make another Biblical reference, Anne or what she represents now can be the angel that Jakob has to wrestle with to get his life back. That angel has been referred to as Lucifer, as the Devil, but in the Old Testament that angel still works for God: to test Jakob’s resolve. 


But while their relationship is central to the film, this story isn’t about Jakob, or angels. It is about demons. You see, if we go into apocrypha, Adam had two wives before Eve. His second wife had been constructed, from the bones and ligaments up, to being a full human being: an act that horrified Adam so much, God had to remove her. The parallel between a being constructed, all bloody and messy and imperfect, to a man realizing a woman has bodily functions and needs — and indeed possesses growth reminding him of his own imperfection — is not lost here. But perhaps Adam’s first wife, Lilith, is more appropriate in this theological discussion of sorts:  being not made of filth, but the same mud and dust that Adam was created from, and who refuses to be subservient to her husband. 

Lilith discovers the powers of the world, she is embolden by them, and she leaves her husband to ascend to Heaven, and descend to rule in Hell. I think this is a lesson that Anne might have taken more to heart. The problem is “the Master,” as Amelia worshipped her as a god, or a god-surrogate — being her creation — is petty. She likes to play with humans, tormenting and hunting them. Amelia is a diversion, some poor girl who just wanted to take care of her sick, alcoholic mother, for “the Master” to manipulate: even as she preyed on her the same way she did Anne. And what she does to Anne: not just killing Tom in front of her, but also attacking her, and then controlling her body — even going as far as to make Anne masturbate in front of the window — does not look like the independence she promises.

Here is a possibility: what if Anne had chosen to drink “the Master’s” blood, it solidified the older vampire’s claim over her instead of liberating her. What if Anne is just an extension of “the Master” just as she claims Eve had been of Adam, and Anne of Jakob, or her town? What if the choice had already been a false equivalent and Anne had almost been tricked into exchanging one Master for another. Indeed, even if all of those acts were sadistic lessons to give Anne a taste of potential freedom and more supernatural example of the slavery with which she already labours and can escape, either way I think the Master is a cruel, bloody mistress.

What is the ultimate tragedy is not that Jakob kills “the Master,” it’s that he takes that choice away from Anne. She doesn’t have time to make it. “The Master” is — seemingly — gone. A stake through the heart is enough. She is muck and dust, and one rat on the ground. Instead of reverting to a human, Anne is stuck — supposedly — as a bloodthirsty ghoul. Perhaps she could have been liberated, even gaining the shapeshifting, telepathic, and telekinetic powers of her creator. We don’t know. Neither does Anne. And this seriously pisses her off.

It’s fitting: that the man who hesitated in killing, who hated what he believed his wife made him become in destroying her own vampire in the kitchen, who didn’t want his wife to kill a young woman, doesn’t even hesitate to destroy a monster — but that’s not the point. It’s that the divide between them is too great. It’s more than just mortal and immortal, vampire and human. It’s a fed up woman and a clueless man too steeped in his ways.

That last scene between them is so telling. I think … I could have seen it going another way. I can picture it, after they discuss selling the house, with Jakob having an epiphany and realizing that it is not his place to dictate to his wife anymore: that it never was. He can’t help her anymore, but he won’t stop her. He has to trust that she will find her way. And Anne has to let him go. I think what Jakob robs Anne of is something I anticipated so much in this film: that she would face up to her would-be creator, and utterly defy her: to break her bond with her, and make her own way as a vampire in her own right, and not a tool with the illusion of freewill: unbeholden to anyone, or anything.

But Jakob killed “the Master” and took that choice away from her. She’s stuck in transition, a frustrating and angering process indeed, for anyone to be in. This could have ended with them going their separate ways, kind of like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, except the Girl and Arash leave each other.

Yet this is not what happens. It is left, like life, ambiguous. Did Anne want to destroy or refute “the Master” herself? Was she going to be liberated? And will Jakob the priest, and Anne the vampire destroy one another? Is it their last spat, or just the beginning of another conflict that will lead to something more?

I think it all goes back to that glorious scene, when Anne realizes it’s blood she needs, and after pouring herself a cup, she dances to a remix of Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting”: also known as “The Vampire Song,” one of the most epic moments in this entire film. I think whatever happens, Anne has a better grasp of herself now, and she knows where she stands — in this moment — as Barbara Crampton did in her role in this film, a penultimate achievement, with more accomplishments — in acting and production — to come, I’m sure. 

She Will Always Be There: Travis Stevens’ Girl On the Third Floor

A long time ago, I was at a man’s place that had seen a great many wild and passionate parties. At the same time, I also knew that there were some … less than savoury, sometimes even gross things that happened beneath the surface. Lingering hugs on women, someone watching people and being surreptitious about their activities, and a great deal of emphasis on a whole lot of feminine art throughout the entire place along with a great deal of … moisture that you could slip on, and break your neck. I always wondered, if places can record memories — or if people and actions can imprint energy into spaces — just what a building haunted by erotic energy, and intrusive or even predatory behaviour, would look like.

These weren’t just all negative thoughts, of course. At another time, after reading references to Wilhelm Reich’s concept of orgone energy — of a hypothetical universal life force generally generated or manifested by sex and erotic actions — I’d often muse about how that affected another favourite establishment: one that used to be a nineteenth century mansion before it was changed to an adult entertainment hub and night club. What would such a manifestation look like, especially when you consider how it would ride the gamut between lust, love, joy, despair, anger, anxiety, fear, excitement, and all the rest of it? And this was a place focusing specifically on making a comfortable space for women and LGBTQ+ individuals to explore while also making a profit, and still navigating a lot of the patriarchal land and social scape — with men’s desires and expectations — around it.

And this place also had a third floor. And there was always a girl on the third floor.

I was utterly fascinated when I found out about Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor, and its premise. The Girl on the Third Floor, directed by Travis Steven, and written by Stevens, Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker, is about less about a morally flawed man attempting to renovate an old house for him and his pregnant wife, and more about the house itself, what it has come to be, the forces that shape it, and the girl within it. At least, these last facts are what interest me more than anything else. I recall, when Fangoria #3 came out and I was greedily looking any information on this film before it had come out, wondering where I was going to see it at the time, with only little trails of marbles through an old house and the specifics of cinematography and filmmaking to tide me over before finding … the Girl.

I mean, a horror story that takes place in a house that used to be a brothel. Not only is that an awesome premise, but indeed: what could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong for our initial protagonist Don Koch (played by Phil “CM Punk” Brooks) — whose last name is more than suggestive about his personal traits and failings — and all of it is pretty much his own fault. It isn’t just the terrible things he did in his past, how he put his own personal advancement and desires ahead of the lives of others, and the constant transgressions against his long-suffering wife under the guise of claim to change, but what he does to the house. He comes into this place, with its pastels and pink interior, noticing the black secretions coming out of the wall and instead of asking around about its history, or talking with Ellie Mueller the pastor who actually seems to know more about this situation, he pounds holes and nails into the walls, not paying attention to all indicators that something is different about this place. Essentially, Koch doesn’t ask for help, his pride keeping him from even telling his wife what’s going on, and this toxic masculine attitude — of wanting to make a feminine place his own instead of recognizing it as something that is not what it seems — tells you everything you need to know about where this is going to end. .

Certainly, the house isn’t healthy of course. Aside from its black discharge, its marbles appearing like mobile little growths, this house used to be a high-class brothel for some upper-class society men that viewed women like their playthings. On the third floor, bricked up and concealed, is a viewing platform looking into what is now the bedroom. But it wasn’t always a bedroom. Instead, it used to overlook a platform or a stage where the sex workers involved — all young women — were used in kink and BDSM scenes where an bird-headed man would sadistically whip them, among other things, for the viewing pleasure of other men. It is heavily implied that these women, from the nineteenth or turn of the century, are there under duress or were trafficked as well, and the presence of a little girl there who constantly draws pictures, and plays with marbles — that the bird man gave her — is not reassuring in the slightest as to what this place had been really like. Eventually, at least one sex worker is murdered there, followed by a missing body, and the place is closed down, and passed on to several different generations of families with varying results.

Koch is warned, by some men at the bar he’s not supposed to be at as he is an alcoholic, that the house despises “straight men” and will actively attempt to do terrible things to them. And when you look at the history of the house, you can probably see why that might be the case. Koch is a man who has an affair with a woman named Sarah Yates (played by Sarah Brooks) and then coldly attempts to brush her off and pretend it never happened. He also drinks when he’s not supposed to do so, and when all else fails he will resort to violence to get his way. He is pretty much a spiritual descendant of the men that ruled this town and society, and an extension of patriarchy. It’s not going to end well for him.

But strangely enough, as far as malicious female ghosts go, these are surprisingly fair in that they only react to what is brought to them. They’re not fair to his dog, of course, who did nothing wrong but there is a point where any empathy or discernment is erased by the pure rage that is left behind. But it’s more complicated than that, as it always is. We find out that Sarah is actually the ghost of the woman that was killed in the brothel, and that she reacts to people — as an extension of the house — depending on how they treat it, and anyone in it. Sarah kills Koch’s dog to hurt him for rejecting her and treating her like an object. She kills Koch’s former coworker and friend Milo because despite the fact that he is the friend of both Koch and his wife Liz (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn), he goes along with hiding the affair the other man had due to some sense of reluctant homosociality, essentially being complicit in all men’s behaviour.

And then there is the spectre of what is called, outside the film, the Nymph (played by Tonya Kay): a being that resembles a deformed blond-haired woman with a ruined face that is constantly leaving, and shooting marbles throughout the house. At one point, towards the end of the first part of the film, she manages to insert marbles under Koch’s skin that writhe around and, ultimately, seem to possess and kill him.

I’ve thought about Sarah and the Nymph a great deal since I watched this film a while ago. I also read an article that I can only barely recall was on Fangoria’s online site, when it was owned by Cinestate, that focused on the critique of the patriarchal elements of this film, and the nature of the Nymph herself. Unfortunately, I can’t find the article now but I do have my own conclusions and elements that I want to focus on which might not have been completely discussed to death by many other pre-existing reviews.

It is fascinating that Sarah can manifest physically, and be seen by those she chooses. Her being able to manipulate people’s perceptions isn’t as surprisingly, but being capable of materially interacting with the living is impressive, and quite possibly the result of all that tormented, oppressed, sexual energy and anger inside the house itself giving her that strength. Sarah is a result of what happens to a woman used by men, degraded, and killed by men. What’s worse is that she seems to have been the mother of that little girl, Sadie, who had been making all of the drawings throughout the house. So it’s possible that something happened to her daughter, or herself by the brothel owner.

But it’s the Nymph that gets to me. It isn’t clear what she is. I think I read somewhere that she’s essentially the spirit of the house itself: of all those broken desires, and brutalized women by the brothel-owners, and society manifested into some kind of composite entity. Think of her as some kind of twisted genius loci that guards the place where she was generated by the sexual energy of exploited women, and twisted men’s fantasies. I originally pondered over her being a brutalized sexual sacrifice or experiment of a lodge or cabal of male magicians and occultists — especially with the almost ritualistic practices in that place, and the bird-masked man — but I think it is more effective that she and Sarah have become manifestations of rich men’s debased desires of women.

Of course, there is another interpretation of the Nymph that is equally horrifying, if not more so. While Sarah does utilize the marbles as well to lure the dog and distract Koch and his friend, it’s the Nymph that uses them more. She acts skittish, awkward, and almost childlike: like the effigy of a person, or a doll. Victorians used to call a woman the “angel in the house:” like they are some kind of delicate ornament, or a pretty toy. But angels can fall, along with pedestals, in the dichotomy of female virgin-whore. It is as though she is, or was, almost innocent until something changed her into a parody of what men want. If you watch the film, her body is that of an young adult woman, but her face is warped: as though it had suffered repeated blunt trauma … or it had been drawn by a child.

Think about a little girl being in a place built to contain women for rich society men’s pleasure. Perhaps she died in there, or maybe it was just a part of her soul that died when her mother didn’t come back, and the bird man who gave her the marble bag. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider that she was being groomed, or that the loss of her innocence created this apparition. Maybe it is Sadie’s spirit, or Sarah’s lost innocence made incarnate and corrupted over time, or just an entity that represents a woman abused to the point of inhumanity, not allowed to grow or rest, and wanting to play in the horrible ways she’d seen in that place, and in how she sees the world around her.

And it all comes back to those marbles, doesn’t it. Not only do they have a phallic resonance, in terms of gonads, but there is the idea of them being pretty little baubles: just like women, and women’s bodies. In some aspects of Islamic culture, feathers left behind in a space denotes a haunting by restless spirits or demons. But I think that the marbles go well with the imagery of the house being the interior of a vagina: made unhealthy by sexual abuse. Maybe they are like ovum, especially in how they implant themselves into Koch, but they can also be seen as lesions or lumps: as disease. Something natural can also become sick. I can definitely see a sexually-transmitted disease metaphor in there, but also I think what’s important to consider beyond the literal is that Koch sees the house as a distortion of how patriarchy views female sexuality: as something dirty, unclean, even disgusting. It is his perspective that determines the house and how it treats him. Of course, there is also the fact that marbles — as small reflective spheres — can stand-ins for eyes, for intrusive looks that can be anywhere, where not even the sanctity of personal space or the body is safe.

They are like extensions of the mirrors with their over-ornate frames in the house, making Virginia Woolf come to mind when she mentions that to men women are mirrors that show themselves written large. Yet the house’s mirrors turns the male gaze against itself, and shows it what it really is: a wall with a dark hole stuffed with paper.

Indeed, Ellie Mueller — who Liz actually talks with when Koch disappears in the second half of the film — tells her that the house isn’t always malicious. Sometimes it just tests someone, or it doesn’t bother them at all. Couples had lived there, even straight ones, their entire lives without incident. It’s only when someone brings with them these power imbalances and hypocrisies, self-entitlement and forcefulness without facing them, that the house seems to react badly. Of course, it also challenges Liz. But Liz pays attention to details. Liz sees the newspaper article — from the scrunched up papers in the wall socket behind the central mirror no less — about the origins of the house, and she consults with the pastor about it. She knows Koch’s toxic masculine behaviour all too well and is, frankly, tired of his macho and emotionally-stunted excuses. But she is not intimidated by Sarah’s presence, and the ghost and the house seem to want to show her what happened: while testing her the entire time. It gets into her head, or tries to, while it succeeds with Koch: who is just a skin-suit for Sarah now. He got inside of her, and she — and the house — are now in him, as he is also trapped in it. Liz doesn’t forgive him, or his actions that have endangered her and their unborn child. Like a man having an affair and potentially getting his spouse infected by something he caught, Koch has brought Liz to this point but she confronts this distortion of the feminine on her terms.

Liz ends up being let go by Sarah, told she passed the test for not forgiving her cheating and terrible husband again, rejecting a man’s control over her with his false promises, saving herself and her child. But she does more than that. She ends up confronting, and killing, the Nymph. This act actually hurts Sarah. It hurts Sarah more than seemingly being killed by Koch. She ends up holding the Nymph’s broken body, this being that could have been her daughter, or part of the person she used to be, or a representation of Woman twisted and used by men to point of being unrecognizable, or even as a symbol of the house’s hate: of a form of internalized misogyny. And she’s genuinely crying over it: this thing that she loved, that she despised, that was her friend, and her jailor. And now, she’s gone.

Perhaps both Sarah and the Nymph began from a tremendous sense of injustice, but eventually this anger — however justified — turned into something that caused pain for not only those related to their tormentors and murderers, but became collateral damage for everything else in their way. In the end, Liz — after being told by the pastor that each person that enters the house needs to choose to go in and face their own actions — goes further. She ends up going back into the house, finding Sarah’s body, and giving it a proper burial. Liz claims the house for her and her daughter. It is now a place without Koch, and has seemingly made into her own space. And yet … at the end, Koch is still there. Or the house now uses Koch as its new host. It is offering their daughter a marble, a beautiful promise, a terrible lie, a thing to ensnare, a toy to play with, a lesson perhaps to learn, or the hint of the cycle of exploitation and recrimination happening all over again for the next generation.

Like I said, I think about Sarah. I think about the Nymph. I consider the women, and girls, damaged by society around them, its microaggressions, and the weight of a history of trauma influencing who and what they are. I remember that some ghosts are seen in the places they’ve been long after they’ve died. Sometimes you know it. Sometimes, you don’t. So many forces shape them. And sometimes, they come to you. They approach you, and take you to the third floor, like the one at the club I loved. Sometimes, they will offer you something. And you should always pay attention to what is offered, how you accept it, and where you stand.