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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Best First Scenes in Horror

Happy All Hallows Eve Eve!

We’ve talked about how the first line of novel can set the stage for everything that follows. The same is true of the first scene of a movie. Below are some of my favorites. Sometimes, the first scene is the best part of the movie. That includes our first entry, Ghost Ship.

Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship is an entirely forgettable movie with a cool premise and an awesome first scene. Watch it below. Skip the rest.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A scene that announced to the world that this was a different kind of horror movie. It has stood the test of time.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Technically this is the second scene, and it’s a shame, too. I’d like to include the first 10 minutes or so along with this scene, as the juxtaposition between everyday work and everyday family life and what is about to happen is stunning.

Scream

Scream is a horror classic, reinvigorating a slasher genre that had grown stale. Its best scene is probably its first, and even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably recognize the iconic opening.

It Follows

Sometimes it is the not knowing what in the world is going on that makes an opening scene so powerful. That’s what we have here in the wonderful beginning to It Follows.

Suspiria

Not much happens in this first scene from the classic Suspiria, and the death scene that follows I discussed earlier in my best scenes in horror. But the way this scene sets the stage for all that is to follow. The wind, the storm, and that score. Man.

Halloween

You can’t talk iconic opening scenes without mentioning this one. It requires no introduction.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Lovecraft and Ancient Aliens

The following was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.

Let’s set the scene. Archaeologists, stumbling through an unknown jungle, come upon a lost city of great antiquity. It’s complexity and size seems beyond the capability of the local peoples, and carved into its sides are ancient glyphs. Their meaning cannot be precisely discerned, but they seem to hint at gods who descended from the stars and built the city. Not only that, but they left a promise to return one day, when the time is right.

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I’m not saying it’s aliens…

Now the question: H.P. Lovecraft story? Or an episode of the History Channel’s hit show, Ancient Aliens? Not an easy question, is it?

If you’re not sure of the answer, don’t feel too bad. The similarities between the Cthulhu mythos and the Ancient Astronaut Theory are so strong as to defy mere coincidence.

That’s the position taken at least by Jason Colavito in his scholarly work, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. Colavito offers an engrossing, if thoroughly skeptical, history of what has come to be known as the Ancient Alien or Ancient Astronaut Theory. For those unfamiliar with the cable program and the works of theorists like Erich Anton Paul von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin, the Ancient Alien Theory posits that deep in the shrouded mist of our planet’s distant past, Earth was visited by extraterrestrials. The details can vary depending on who’s telling the story, but these ETs played a significant role in mankind’s development. Some adherents claim that human beings are a creation of an advanced race whose mastery of genetic engineering allowed them to create homo sapiens out of some lower form of life. Essentially, it’s Intelligent Design with aliens instead of God, or the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That’s the most extreme view. The slightly less all-encompassing—but still pretty extreme in of itself—tack is that these creatures found primitive man at some very early stage of civilization. Following the maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic, these primitive peoples took alien visitors for gods, basing all of the world’s mythologies on their visitations. As a corollary, the aliens acted in the role of Prometheus, giving unto early man knowledge that should have taken centuries or even thousands of years to develop. In this way, aliens were directly responsible for the construction of many of the world’s wonders. And when they left, they promised that one day they would return.

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But it’s aliens.

That’s the Ancient Alien Theory in a nutshell, and Colavito’s recitation of it adds little to what we already know. But Colavito goes well beyond simply describing the views of others. Instead, he digs beneath those views to find their underpinnings, developing a fascinating theory of his own, particularly for any fan of weird fiction. The Ancient Alien Theory isn’t grounded in archaeological anomalies or seemingly impossible cities or monuments. For Colavito, the entire Ancient Alien craze has none other than H.P. Lovecraft to thank for its creation.

I’ll let you read Colavito’s book and examine the evidence, but I’ll tell you that it is quite convincing. Nevertheless, his is a bold claim, and an ironic one, too. Lovecraft was, if nothing else, a dedicated materialist and rationalist. The kind of pseudoscience that the Ancient Alien Theory relies on would have struck him as nothing less than silly. Mystical dream quests, ancient beings from the stars, and tomes of magical incantations were useful plot devices for fiction, but to believe they could be real? Not Lovecraft.

But while Lovecraft might have scoffed at the claims of Giorgio Tsoukalos, were he alive today, we can be sure that they would find their way into his fiction. Whatever the truth of Colavito’s thesis and whatever one believes about the truth or absurdity of the Ancient Alien Theory, there can be little doubt that Lovecraft and weird fiction in general have long capitalized on the notion that there is something beyond our world and that at some point we have been visited by creatures from beyond the stars. One of the most famous passages from Lovecraft’s seminal “The Call of Cthulhu” so perfectly encapsulates the Ancient Astronaut Theory that it is little wonder Colavito and others trace that theory back to Lovecraft.

Old Castro remembered bits of hideous legend that paled the speculations of theosophists and made man and the world seem recent and transient indeed. There had been aeons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them, he said the deathless Chinamen had told him, were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific. They all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought Their images with Them.

Lovecraft goes on to speak of great Cthulhu himself, explaining that he had also come from the stars, to rule the earth. But at some point in the distant past, things went wrong. Lovecraft never explains how or why the Great Old Ones lost dominion over the earth, but lose it they did. Locked in the dark places of this world, on the highest mountains and in the deepest canyons, or simply far beneath the waves, they await the moment of their return.

This is the central idea at the heart of all of Lovecraft’s best and most sophisticated stories. Not only ancient visits, but something left behind. Something that could invade the dreams of men, that defied the settled expectations of life, the truth of which would drive men mad were it known. He revisits this motif again and again, from “The Nameless City” to “The Shadow out of Time.” Something has been here before. And always the promise of return.

The casual observer might think that it is on this point of “return” where Lovecraft and the Ancient Alien Theorists would go their separate ways. After all, the former believe extraterrestrials to be benevolent beings, while the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft care nothing for mankind and will likely wipe us from the face of the earth as an afterthought. This view is widely accepted dogma by Lovecraft aficionados, but interestingly, that’s not exactly how Lovecraft paints it. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” he writes of the Great Old Ones return,

That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.

That’s actually not all that different from what Ancient Alien Theorists claim will happen when the extraterrestrials return. It’s darker and more violent—Lovecraft was a horror writer after all—but let’s break down the basic components. The ETs won’t return until mankind becomes like them, perhaps achieving a technological level where they would be viewed as simply more advanced rather than gods. They will then teach mankind new things that heretofore could not have been imagined, ushering in a new age.

Call it fact or accept it as fiction, but it’s hard not to see the connections. And one wonders why mankind is so drawn to this notion of an outside power, meddling in our affairs, bringing us towards the light, or threatening our destruction.

Maybe Lovecraft was more right than he ever could have known.

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Haunting of Hill House

Today’s post is a simple one. It is an admonition. If you haven’t seen The Haunting of Hill House, go watch it. Right now. Put down the computer or the cell phone–unless that’s how you watch Netflix–and go. Then come back and talk to me.

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You’ve certainly heard of The Haunting of Hill House. It is a phenomenon, and I anticipate it will only get bigger. And as is always the case with anything good that happens to the horror community (see every horror blockbuster slandered as “not really horror”), some people are badmouthing it. It’s not enough like the book (and?). It’s not scary enough (really?). There’s too much icky character development (sigh). Do me a favor.

Ignore the noise.

Yes, The Haunting of Hill House is not a straight interpretation of the excellent novel. Instead, it takes its inspiration from the book, faithfully creating a story that is true to both the spirit and the letter of Jackson’s work. In fact, one could imagine this story happening either before or after the events of the novel.

But honestly, who cares? At the end of the day, The Haunting of Hill House is another highlight in this golden age of horror, and a scary one at that. Do yourself a favor. Don’t miss it

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31 Days of Horror (2018): The Dyatlov Pass Incident

Today let’s do something different. Today, let’s talk about some real life horror.

On February 2, 1959, in the midst of a blizzard and sub-zero temperatures, nine experienced hikers cut through their own tent pitched on the side of a mountain and fled into the darkness. Half dressed, they made their way down the slope of the mountain called Kholat Syakhl—which according to some shaky translations means Mountain of the Dead.* Reaching the tree line, they cut down branches to start a fire. Here, two of them, Gregory Krivonischenko and Yury Doroshenko, died from exposure. Three others, Rusteem Slobodin, Zina Kolmogorova, and the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov, attempted to head back to the tent, perhaps to gather needed clothing and supplies. One by one they collapsed in the snow, never to rise. Four others—Nicholas Thibeaux, Ludimila Dubinina, Alex Kolevatov and Semyon Zolotaryov—were found months later, buried under more than ten feet of snow. Their deaths were the most mysterious of all.

They had obviously lived longer than the rest of their companions, as they had scavenged some of their clothing. Nicholas’s skull was shattered, broken in so many places that he would not have been able to move. Ludimila and Semyon’s chests were crushed with a force the medical examiner would describe as consistent with being hit by a car. Kolevatov died of hypothermia, though strangely, he was found with his jacket unzipped and his nose broken.

That’s the shortest possible intro I can give you into the mystery that has become known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Books have been written about it; entire websites have been dedicated to it. There’s no way I can cover everything you would need or want to know about this case. If you want to dive into the mystery headfirst, check out this site. It has original documentation and discussion of the various theories about what exactly happened on that night.

Here’s a map that will help you visualize the series of events.

dyatlov-pass-map-03

It’s in Russian, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. You see the tent on the side of the slope. You see the footprints of the 9 going away from the tent and down to the forest where they built a fire. One thing that is not obvious to those who do not know the story is the yellow image on the bottom right. That is a storage area the campers set up the morning before they died. It contained extra firewood, clothing, and food.

The existence of that cache of supplies probably answers one question–where the campers were going. It is likely the case that after they left the tent, they lost their bearings in the blizzard and went the wrong direction. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late to change course.

But why did they leave the tent in the first place? Why didn’t they take a moment to put on more clothes before venturing into subzero temperatures? They are often described as fleeing in terror, but the footprints they left behind show an orderly descent down the mountain, not a chaotic flight. But there is one image that simply blows my mind, that makes me wonder just what in the world was going on.

I have linked to that image below. I warn you, the image is quite graphic. It is a picture of Semyon Zolotaryov taken the day his body was found, many months after he died. Take a look at what is around his neck. It’s a camera. A camera! Why in the world does he have it? Adding to the mystery, he was found with a pen in one hand and a notebook in the other. But unfortunately, he hadn’t written anything.

Here’s the photo.

I just can’t get past it. Whatever you think happened here–whether it was an avalanche (unlikely), the fear of an avalanche (more likely), escaped prisoners, Mansi warriors, or KGB assassins, if something happened that would scare 9 experienced hikers into abandoning the safety of their tent and rushing out into the cold, why would you leave warm clothes behind but grab a camera?

I don’t know that we will ever have the answer to what happened on that mountain, but I’m convinced the key lies with Zolotaryov’s camera. The film inside was badly damaged. The pictures recovered from the camera can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

Maybe there was something in the sky that night, something Zolotaryov was trying to capture on film. Maybe what ever that was, a missile, a plane, or something more extraordinary, that was the thing that made the campers leave their tent and rush to their death.

So what do you think? What’s your theory? What happened on that mountain side all those years ago? Let me know in the comments.

*It probably actually means Dead Mountain, as in, a mountain on which nothing grows. But that’s not creepy enough.

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Songs of Horror

Every year  I include “Dixie Drug Store” in 31 Days of Halloween. It is easily my favorite horror-themed song. Enjoy, and then enjoy a more classic telling of the story of Marie Laveau, as well.

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Lovecraftian Rock Opera, part III

In the conclusion to our review of Dreams in the Witch House, the rock opera reaches its conclusion. Darkness falls, and the fight for Gilman’s soul rages on.

  1. Blessed are the Faithful

Gilman’s friends unite to conduct an intervention with Gilman on the eve of Walpurgis Night. They urge him to put his faith in God, even as a child has been abducted from town. Meanwhile, chants float down from Meadows Hill…

4 stars

  1. Crawling Chaos

But the forces of evil aligned against Gilman are too strong. The nameless cults shout his name, and Nyarlathotep answers them.

5 stars

  1. Azathoth

Now Gilman comes face to face with the mad chaos at the heart of all things, the blind idiot god, Azathoth. This is the ultimate conclusion of Gilman’s research—the opening of the way to an ancient evil that lurks beyond all space and time.

4 stars

  1. The Sacrifice/No Turning Back reprise

Our story reaches its climax as the moon rises on Walpurgis Night. Now Gilman must decide with whom he stands—the dark forces that he has unleashed or the world of light that he has left behind. Will he fight, or will he give in?

5 stars

  1. Between Reality and Dreaming

At the heart of Lovecraftian horror, in my view, is that hope comes with a price. Victories may be won, but only at great cost. So too with Gilman.

5 stars

  1. Madness is my Destiny

At the end of all things, Gilman wonders the lost worlds. So his tragedy concludes.

4.5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Lovecraftian Rock Opera, part II

As Dreams in the Witch House continues, Gilman is falling further under Keziah’s spell. Will he turn back in time?

  1. No Turning Back

Nope. In one of the great songs on the album, Keziah arrives in her full glory. A combination of sultry and foreboding, Keziah draws Gilman further down the path of forbidden knowledge. Representing the seduction of forbidden knowledge, Keziah is a siren leading Gilman to his own destruction.

5 stars

  1. Signum Crucis

As Gilman falls under Keziah’s spell, the devout people who live in the house with him take action. For they have seen the violent light underneath his door, the same light that sages throughout the time have recognized as a sign of the satanic. Replete with heavy metal riffs, “Signum Crucis” introduces us to the witch’s familiar, Brown Jenkin.

4.5 stars

  1. Nothing I Can Do

Gilman finds himself wondering the deserted streets of an ungodly city, not knowing whether his soul is forever lost. A ballad of despair, Kaziah comes to comfort Gilman, to help him see the inevitability of his fate.

4.5 stars

  1. Legends and Lore

Of all the songs on the album, this one is my favorite. Imbuing Keziah with far more humanity than Lovecraft could ever have imagined, “Legends and Lore” is a testament to the genius of the HPHLS.

5 stars

  1. The Sleepwalker

 Gilman falls further and further under the spell of Keziah, finding himself walking down the rain-streaked streets of Arkham.

3 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Lovecraftian Rock Opera

If there’s one thing fans of Lovecraft love more than his work, it’s criticizing that work, and “The Dreams in the Witch House” has had its fair share. From August Derleth to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraftians have heaped scorn upon the novella. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that jazz, but I find these attacks to be baseless, founded more in critics’ own views of what Lovecraft should be than what he sometimes is. Just as Joshi criticizes another Lovecraftian masterpiece, The Dunwich Horror, as an “aesthetic mistake” that presents a “stock good-verses-evil scenario,” there are some in the horror community who reject the good and evil paradigm altogether in Lovecraftian fiction, particularly when the good guys win.

“The Dreams in the Witch House” not only presents a struggle between good and evil, it contains elements that truly terrify some Lovecraftians—Judeo-Christian concepts. It also has some of the best characters in Lovecraft’s fiction—Brown Jenkin, Keziah Mason, and Walter Gilman. We have call-backs to the Salem witch trials, Cotton Mather, and Judge John Hathorne, Walpurgis Night playing a central role, the appearance of the Necronomicon, Book of Eibon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and a cutting-edge mathematical explanation for magic and the realms of the Old Ones.

That’s a lot to recommend it, and perhaps it’s no surprise that two of my favorite interpretations of Lovecraft’s work came from this story—the Master of Horror episode directed by Stuart Gordon and the unparalleled H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s production of Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera. Both are great, but the rock opera is brilliant. The HPLHS cut no corners here. Brian Sammons, horror critic and author, laid it out best:

First off, the HPLHS got some talented ringers to back them up on this massive, musical Mythos odyssey. The opera has 16 tracks that feature over 17 singers, including Jody Ashworth (The Trans Siberian Orchestra, which was original formed by members of the aforementioned Savatage), Alaine Kashian (Broadway’s Cats) and Swedish metal phenom Chris Laney as the wonderfully wicked Brown Jenkin. That not enough musical street cred for you? Well, how about this, the album features 14 musicians, including Bruce Kulick (former KISS guitarist) and Douglas Blair Lucek (guitarist for W.A.S.P.). Yes, this album has links to both Savatage and W.A.S.P. Oh, you know I was a happy metalhead to learn that.

So yeah, this is not just your brother throwing something together in his backyard. Over the next three days, we’ll walk through this masterpiece, song by song. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments.

  1. The Confession/Arkham Overture

Our adventure begins with Frank Elwood taking confession with Father Inwanicki, setting up that our story will be told in the form of flashbacks. The intro establishes the overall feel for rest of the production, casting Arkham as a place of darkness and mounting dread, while introducing us to some musical riffs that will repeat themselves throughout.

  1. Dreams in the Witch House

The first real track is an ensemble blitz laying out the nature of the witch house and the contours of the story. Frank Elwood leads off, followed by the introduction of Walter Gilman himself. A chorus of characters serenades us, and then, like a canon shot, Alaine Kashian makes her first appearance as Keziah Mason, and you know you’ve got something special on your hands.

  1. Higher Fire: Breaking Me Down

We learn a little bit more about Gilman and how committed he is to the study of mathematics and the other dimensions that may surround us. Contrast that with Joseph Mazurewicz, who is equally committed to opposing the forces of evil he sees gathering in anticipation of Walpurgis Night. Gilman thinks that Mazurewicz is little more than an annoyance, part of the endless cacophony that is slowly driving him insane. But Gilman is starting to see that the very walls that surround him may hold the key to his studies into the strange geometries that make up the world.

  1. Bridge to The Stars

Gilman lays out the cosmic theory he is pursuing, as he attempts to find a way to pass between this dimension to the next. His professor and classmates are initially skeptical, but as Gilman lays out the theory, they start to believe. The chorus that follows reminds me of something out of Rent.

4 stars

  1. The Nightmare

Even as Gilman’s theory comes closer to reality, the pressure of his work has begun to invade his dreams. In those nightmares, he walks the path of ancient lost cities of impossible geometries and sees unspeakable things. Gilman the scientist finds himself turning to his faith to protect him from the madness around him. As he calls upon his Lord, a new voice enters, that of Kaziah Mason.

3 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Masters of Short Horror

Few genres lend themselves more to the short form than horror. The novel may provide a broader canvas on which to paint a story, but the short form allows for scares that are more intense, more concentrated, and more likely to frighten. Maybe it’s that maintaining tone and atmosphere is harder over a hundred pages than over ten. Maybe it’s that familiarity breeds contempt. Better to get in and get out and not think about things too much. Whatever the case, whether it’s Blackwood or Poe or Lovecraft or even modern masters like King, the best horror often comes in bite-sized chunks.

With that in mind, below are three authors of short horror out there today that I admire. I wish I could write like these guys. (Though if you want to check out my own short fiction, pick up The Fiddle is the Devil’s Instrument.)

36530066Ronald Malfi

I haven’t been shy about my love for Ronald Malfi. His novels are tremendous, and if you haven’t read December Park, do yourself a favor and pick it up. But his short fiction is out of this world. The Mourning House is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, long, short, or in between. Now Malfi is out with a collection that you won’t put down once you pick it up. Check out We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone.

Laird Barron

61rnaxisajl-_sx331_bo1204203200_A rock star in the horror community–particularly with those who have a penchant for Lovecraft–Barron can be a challenge for those who are unfamiliar with his unique style.

But if you stick with it, Barron gets in your bones, and you begin to see things in a different light. Darkness creeps into your nightmares and sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what is illusion. But in the end it does not matter, for the same beautiful thing awaits us all.

J.R. Hamantaschen

81kvua2tzdlForget that he’s named after a cookie, Hamantaschen is a master of short-form horror. Probably one of the lesser known names on this list, his You Shall Never Know Security is stunning. It’s one of the books that I still find myself thinking about on occasion, years after I last put it down. Now Hamantaschen is out with a new book, A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe, that is equally terrific. Check him out, and let me know what you think in the comments. 

 

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Last Three People You Meet in a Zombie Apocalypse

The Death Trap

Zombie apocalypses are not fair.  Who lives and who dies is as much dumb luck as anything else.  Being in the right place at the right time.  Maybe hooking up with a leader who’s willing to keep you alive.  When things go to hell, your chances at survival—at least initially—will be heavily dependent on pure, stupid, chance.  And that means that there will be a lot of idiots running around.

Maybe they are the kind of person who makes a lot of noise when they need to be quiet.  Maybe they are the person who is supposed to guard the door and let you in after you go out to get water, but then they get distracted.  These are the guys who always come out of hiding thirty seconds too soon, who start a fire in the middle of the night, who fire a gun to kill a single zombie when a blunt instrument to the back of the head would do just fine.  Sometimes they refuse to accept reality, constantly arguing that the zombies can be saved or that the group shouldn’t kill the guy who has been bit and is clearly five minutes from being a full blown Zed (note the Canadian, eh.  I’m inclusive.)  Or maybe they are the girl who insists on going after the darn dog when it runs off into the midst of the zombie horde.  Or maybe they are the dog.  (I’m looking at you Chips.)  Either way, two things are certain.  They aren’t making it to the end of the movie/zombie apocalypse, and neither are you.

The Survivor

Then there is the survivor. It may seem trite, but there’s only one type of person who survives to the end of a zombie apocalypse. It takes someone who is resourceful, someone who has some of the characteristics of the leader without the constant need to be the hero. The survivor can make it on his own when he needs to, but he seeks out a good group of other survivors as soon as he can, recognizing that no one can live on their own. He has a gun and can build a fire. He is willing to kill when he has to, and he recognizes that zombies are not people. He also knows that while only the survivors survive, they don’t always. The cruel luck of the zombie apocalypse will strike them down as indiscriminately as anyone else. But if humanity is to rebound, it will be built upon the survivors.

So that’s five. Whatever could the sixth one be?

Zombies

Whenever people make this sort of list, they always forget about zombies. But depending on the type of zombie uprising we are dealing with, the undead may be the only thing you see.

It’s commonly accepted among zomboligists that there are three stages of zombie infestation. The first stage consists of one or two isolated cases, at most a small group. Shocking yes, and no doubt the existence of a reanimated corpse would change everything about the way we see the world. But as far as a threat, a Class I event is easily contained and no great threat to the majority of people.

The second stage of a zombie rising affects an area as large as a city. Much worse than a Class I infestation, thousands will die and whatever city is hit will be lost. But unless you live in the city affected, you’ll probably be OK during a Class II event and the military will eventually regain control.

Not so with a Class III event. Class III is the apocalypse. Class III is the end of the world. What are the chances you will survive? What are the chances you will even know what is happening before you come face to face with a zombie? And when that happens, what are you going to do?

Probably get bit.

And that’s the thing. Most people won’t survive the zombie apocalypse. No matter how well thought out your plan, you probably won’t even get to put it in place. Or something simple will throw you off. You’ll be on vacation. You won’t be able to get back to your apartment and pick up your weapons. Even if you do survive, you are going to see zombies. You are going to have to kill them. No one will survive the zombie apocalypse unscathed. In the end you’ll have to choose—beat um or join um.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The First Three People You Meet in a Zombie Apocalypse

The rebirth of zombie horror has largely faded, with The Walking Dead still popular but sputtering towards an end. But as we all know, zombies never stay dead for long. And since we all know the zombie apocalypse is inevitable, I wanted to share with you my thoughts on the kind of people you are likely to meet when it begins–assuming you aren’t dead yet.

The Leader/Hero

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The leader is the guy we all think we are going to be.  He (or she) is the swashbuckling, charismatic, “come with me if you want to live” guy.  The one who always goes into the “abandoned” house first.  The guy who kills the kid after he’s been bit when everybody else is saying they should give him a chance, just to see if he is immune.  The leader decides which mythical zombie-free land the rest of the group will seek out.  Cause there’s always a mythical land.  Amusement park.  Farm.  Island.  Boat.  Whatever.   It’s there, somewhere just beyond the next rise, and the leader is going to find it.

Everybody wants to be the leader.  Everybody wants to star in their own zombie flick.  We all assume we are the important ones, the guy who is going to save humanity, get the girl, and repopulate the species.  But here’s the thing, you probably aren’t, and you probably don’t want to be.

The thing about being a leader is somebody has to follow you.  When you draw that line in the sand, somebody has to cross it.  Otherwise, you’re just another loner.  And besides, how long do you think you’re gonna last anyway?  How many times can you kick down that door before somebody bites off your leg?  How many times can you be the guy who stays back to hold off the horde while the others escape before you don’t make it out?  The leader is living on borrowed time.   Notice all those pictures?  What do they have in common?  They’re all leaders, and they’re all dead.*

*OK, technically Rick is still alive . . . for now.

The Loner

The loner is, in many ways, the opposite of the leader. He has no interest in protecting the group or saving humanity. His priority is always numero uno. He probably has a military or survivalist background, is heavily armed, and either has a stash of food and supplies or is able to acquire them easily. In the movies, the loner is a leader in disguise, the gruff fighter with a heart of gold just waiting to find the reason to step forward. In reality, the loner may occasionally hook up with others, but only when it is beneficial to him. He will also drop them at the first opportunity, preferably when the zombies need something to distract them.

The problem with the loner is he has no one to rely on when things go wrong. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s hard to survive in a zombie apocalypse. You gotta sleep. Who’s going to keep watch? What if you injure yourself? What if there are more zombies than one gun can possible hold off? No, the loner might live longer than the leader, but at some point, he’s gonna slip up. And when he does, that’s the end.

The Prophet*

You know the prophet. He’s the guy who has been preparing for the zombie apocalypse his entire life. He can’t wait till the day comes. It’s his one chance to do something great, to be something consequential. You are carrying a shotgun? He’ll have a Shaolin Spade because he knows that it represents the perfect combination of speed, stealth, killing prowess, and weight of any weapon out there when it comes to zombie destruction. The prophet already knows where he will hold up for the duration of the zombie apocalypse, and if that place is overrun, he has at least three back up plans. The prophet knows everything there is to know about zombies, has read the Zombie Survival Guide at least three times, and could teach a class on the subject, if only a school was awesome enough to offer it.

You would think that the prophet would be the most likely to survive, but you would be wrong. Yes he’s got all the info. Yes he’s got all the plans. But you know, he probably can’t follow through with them. First of all, prophets tend to be nerds. I mean seriously, how many star linebackers are sitting around thinking about what to do during the zombie apocalypse? And that’s another problem, he probably spends a lot more time thinking about what he would do in the case of a zombie invasion than actually preparing for it. I mean come on. Do you really think he has a Shaolin Spade?

Funny thing about the Prophet though.  He never shows up in movies.  In movies, nobody has ever heard of zombies.

*Sadly, I would probably be a prophet.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Songs of Horror

Today on Songs of Horror, the three best songs about vampires that I know of. The first is a classic by Gothic rock band Bauhaus. The second is a more stylized story of love in a graveyard. And the third is the most depressing love song you’ll ever hear. Enjoy!

First, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.

Now enjoy “A Boy, a Girl and a Graveyard” by Jeremy Messersmith.

And finally, “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell.

 

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Lovecraft and the Supernatural

The following essay was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.

Ask a horror fan to name their favorite purveyor of the supernatural, and H.P. Lovecraft might show up high on their list. And that raises a curious question. Is Lovecraft a writer of supernatural fiction at all?

ixpshot 083I can feel your questioning looks. After all, Lovecraft’s writing is awash with gods and goddesses, with beings that can live forever, transcend time and space, and bend men’s minds to their will. He wrote an essay called “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for Nyarlathotep’s sake!

And I’ll grant you that. But stick your spades in again and dig deeper. Walk with me down this path a little way, and let’s see what we can find. What is the foundation of the cosmic mythology that August Derleth came to call the Cthulhu Mythos? Is it magic? It’s certainly something unusual, out of the ordinary. But is it supernatural? Is it mystical? Is it miraculous?

For the most part, the answer to all those questions is no.

Lovecraft, in his seminal essay on supernatural horror, began with a statement that is as profound as it is obviously true: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But the unknown need not be the mystical or the magical. It could just be…the unknown. The empty, darkened alleyway, the black depths of the sea, the empty, long abandoned mansion—they frighten us, whether we believe in ghosts and ghouls and spirits or not, because we simply do not know what they might hold. Think of it this way—there’s nothing more frightening to college freshmen than a test on a subject they haven’t studied. There’s a reason that dream haunts long after classes have ended.

Take that thought and expand it. Stretch it out and see where it goes. Take it to its farthest limits. They called the stories Lovecraft wrote cosmic horror for a reason, and many of his tales represent the first horror science fiction. The great unknown of the wider universe can hold many secrets. And just as a technology, sufficiently advanced, will appear magic to the uninitiated, the beings that walk in the vastness of space will appear gods to humanity.

Our perspective, after all, is limited to the earth we inhabit and the things within it. We can imagine something beyond that, but most philosophers would tell you that even our imagination cannot escape the natural world and the limits of our experience.

There’s a reason most of the aliens on Star Trek all look basically the same. There’s a reason that every monster is either an amplification or an amalgamation of something we already fear. A giant is just a really big guy. A dragon is a snake or dinosaur with wings that can breathe fire. Even in Cthulhu, we see the combination of a dragon like thing and a cephalopod. Our imaginations simply cannot comprehend of something that is truly beyond.

And that’s what Lovecraft was reaching for. In his essay, “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” he wrote this:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

Interestingly, from this perspective Lovecraft seems far more intrigued with stretching the bounds of human understanding than he does on writing a good horror yarn. That already puts him in a different stance than your run-of-the-mill writer. Most of us start of wanting to scare, and if we manage to make some deeper statement than that along the way, all the better. Not Lovecraft. His unflinching focus on what causes fear and not the fear itself is one of the reasons few can match his vision.

One wonders if it is also one of the reasons that Lovecraft’s writing is decidedly non-supernatural. Lovecraft doesn’t need ghosts and ghouls to scare you. He knows that the unknown is good enough. And his interest in the cosmic keeps his feet firmly grounded on earth. So his “gods” aren’t really gods at all. Or, I should say, they are only gods to us because we cannot comprehend them. They transcend space and time in a way we cannot comprehend, but their actions need not be seen as magical. They can live so long that death seems impossible, but that doesn’t mean they are immortal. They are responsible for the mighty cities of antiquity, but they built them with methods we simply cannot understand.

There’s an aside here that’s worth exploring, one you may have already caught on to. Does that sound a little bit like the Ancient Alien Theory? In fact, does it sound quite a lot like the Ancient Alien Theory? Before there was Zecharia Sitchen or Erich von Däniken or Giorgio Tsoukalos, there was H.P. Lovecraft. He even had his own Planet X, his own Niburu—Yuggoth. In fact, one noted critic of the Ancient Alien Theory, Jason Colavito, argues convincingly that today’s obsession with ancient aliens can be traced directly to H.P. Lovecraft himself. Check out his book, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestial Pop Culture, for the details.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that the Ancient Alien Theory itself also denies the supernatural. Stories of gods, angels, and heavenly visitors are explained as simple misunderstandings. The primitive peoples that encountered these beings could not understand them, so they made up stories about gods and goddesses and developed elaborate cults and rituals to worship them and keep the stories alive. Remind you of the Cthulhu Mythos? It should.

It’s an open question whether Lovecraft intentionally avoided the supernatural or if it simply sprang from his tendency to embrace scientific theory over religious belief. And it is not the case that supernaturalism is absent entirely from Lovecraft’s cannon. There are stories where it makes an appearance, sometimes a dominant one—“In The Vault” and “The Hound”, for instance. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Take one of this stories that would appear, on the surface at least, to be one of his most supernatural—“The Dreams in the Witch House.” The story centers, after all, on a witch—who fears crucifixes no less— and has a human-faced, rat familiar. But the story is actually quite striking for how grounded it is in exotic scientific theory from the very first. Our hero, Gilman, is a mathematician, and he has determined that Keziah Mason—noted witch who fled Salem ahead of the hangman’s noose—may have possessed knowledge far more important than common spells. Lovecraft writes:

Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension… There was much in the Essex County records about Keziah Mason’s trial, and what she had admitted under pressure to the Court of Oyer and Terminer had fascinated Gilman beyond all reason. She had told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond, and had implied that such lines and curves were frequently used at certain midnight meetings in the dark valley of the white stone beyond Meadow Hill and on the unpeopled island in the river. She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab. Then she had drawn those devices on the walls of her cell and vanished.

Now that’s some heady stuff. Essentially, Lovecraft is describing Keziah as a member not of a witch-cult, but some black magic mathematician’s club that possessed knowledge far beyond our own, knowledge she could use to warp space and time. Her ability to appear and disappear at will was the result of mathematical formulae, not spell books and black cats. Later in the story, Lovecraft discusses the consequences of such a discovery.

It was also possible that the inhabitants of a given dimensional realm could survive entry to many unknown and incomprehensible realms of additional or indefinitely multiplied dimensions—be they within or outside the given space-time continuum—and that the converse would be likewise true. This was a matter for speculation, though one could be fairly certain that the type of mutation involved in a passage from any given dimensional plane to the next higher plane would not be destructive of biological integrity as we understand it. Gilman could not be very clear about his reasons for this last assumption, but his haziness here was more than overbalanced by his clearness on other complex points. Professor Upham especially liked his demonstration of the kinship of higher mathematics to certain phases of magical lore transmitted down the ages from an ineffable antiquity—human or pre-human—whose knowledge of the cosmos and its laws was greater than ours.

In that paragraph lies the entire theory behind the Cthulhu Mythos, and it is utterly devoid of supernaturalism. In fact, it explains away “magical lore” as complex mathematics. This is stunning stuff, particularly for the early 1930s when it was written. One could say with confidence that Lovecraft is one of the first writers to take the scientific theories of the day and so convincingly turn them to fiction. And that is a testament to his genius.

In this way, Lovecraft spans a gulf. His stories are fantastic, but many of them can be so thoroughly grounded in plausible scientific theory that it is difficult to call them supernatural. Which is not to say there’s nothing of the supernatural in Lovecraft. Of course there is. But that supernaturalism is not at the heart of Lovecraft, and that is the key.

Lovecraft proves that the core of the horrific lies not in supernaturalism itself, but in what supernaturalism represents—a break from the reality we expect, and a sightless plunge into the abyss of the unknown.

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31 days of Halloween (2018): A Disney Halloween Treat

When you think about Disney, you probably don’t think about horror. But you would be wrong.

Very wrong.

Everybody has their inspirations. The classics, the old Hammer movies, Lovecraft, Poe, King, whatever. But for me, as much as anything else, it was those old Disney cartoons in the Octobers of my youth.

Cartoons were different back then, kids. It’s almost like they weren’t for children at all. They were mature, often violent, and occasionally terrifying. Two stick out to me. The first was called A Disney Halloween.

Essentially a clip show, A Disney Halloween brings together many of Disney’s best Halloween-themed shorts into one package. There are probably twelve or so vignettes. The first produced the images above, “A Night on Bald Mountain.” At the time, I only knew this was terrifying. Now, I understand it is an animated recreation of Walpurgis Night, the May-Eve, when all that is evil in this world rules the dark places of the earth. Later on, there is a discussion of cats and how they have been viewed as harbingers of evil throughout the ages. It includes a brief animation of the dark shadow of a man walking through a medieval village at night in the midst of a violent storm, while the good people of the town peer out from the security of their homes. It’s deliciously creepy, and you can see it below at 34:40. I’ve cued up the video to begin with a “Night on Bald Mountain,” but it’s fun to watch the whole thing.

The second Disney offering I want to highlight is one of my favorite productions, tv or film, animated or live action. It’s the Disney animated retelling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Narrated by none other than Bing Crosby, this is, in my view, the definitive retelling of the Washington Irving classic. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Literally. I’ve memorized the songs. And none are better than this.

If you want to see the whole thing, click here.

So why do I mention all this? It’s not just to tell you how much I love Disney. My love of horror was born with these cartoons, before I even know what horror was, certainly before I could read. Horror is like anything else; a true appreciation for it only comes with exposure. We aren’t born loving it, and if we want the genre to be strong in the future, we have to pass our love for it down. Whether that means sharing these videos with your kids, reading them a spooky story, or just taking them out trick or treating, what you do can change their lives.

It sure changed mine.

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): The Horror of Remakes

I have a confession to make—dawn_of_the_dead_2004_movieDawn of the Dead (2004) is one of my favorite horror movies. Seriously, I must have seen it a hundred times. I own the extended DVD version. Every zombie movie has that sequence where the rising begins, but no movie has done it better than Dawn of the Dead. I believe the first 20 or so minutes are the finest example of zombie horror ever put to celluloid. And yes, I like it better than the original.

That’s blasphemy to come folks, and I get it. One of my other favorite horror movies is the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. I saw the remake. It did a few things well—the microsleep bits were neat. But the rest of it was terrible. The makeup, while more realistic, lost so much in the translation. The acting was wooden, the is-he-really-bad element, silly.

But here’s the thing (and this is where I’m going with all this), a bad remake doesn’t cheapen the original. In fact, if anything, it makes one appreciate all the things the original did right. And a good remake can become a classic film in its own right.

And that’s why I find it impossible to get upset with the remake bonanza that we see going on in Hollywood these days. Do I wish studios would put more money behind daring, innovative, and original productions (hello At the Mountains of Madness)? Sure. I’d also like to be on the New York Times bestseller list, but that ain’t happening anytime soon either. So when I hear that they are remaking a classic like Suspiria, I get excited. And if early reviews are to be believed, that excitement is likely to be rewarded (I’ll miss The Goblin soundtrack, though).

I guess I’m saying give remakes a chance. And to get you started, here are a few of my favorites.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The Thing (1982)

The Ring (2002)

The Fly (1986)

Evil Dead (2013)

 

 

 

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