Friday, May 10, 2013

Horror-Humor Done Right

I love Ghostbusters, and this blog is going to be biased. There you go. The warning is out. These movies, cartoons, and games have helped shape me into the person I am today. These movies mix great humor with scary things to make an awesome combination that makes me happy to be part of the human race.

What really pulls me into these movies is that they aren’t all-out spoof or gags. They have a chewy core of terror. Yes, the comedy covers up those elements, but they are incorporated to get people to watch horror without even realizing it. I have to say because of this movie and American Werewolf in London, I was terrified of dogs for a very long time. I was also afraid I would be mauled by a monster in front of a large crowd while people ignored my agony.

I must mention the current video game. It’s gotten mixed reviews, but I loved it. It frightened me in ways only the best horror games have gotten to me. It submerged me in a world of occult artifacts and creepiness, which was of course mixed with humor, but still managed to spook me. There was a part where the protagonist is forced to walk down a hall of mirrors created in another dimension, and he gets trapped while looking for a ghost. I’m not sure if my game glitched or if the game was meant to do this, but I walked up and down that hallway for half an hour while mirrors shifted, images distorted, and my own sense of rationalization was muddled. Finally, I found the ghost and progressed, but to this day, I’m unsure what happened to solve the puzzle other than I had been stuck looking at myself and contemplating my shortcomings long enough. Again, there’s a lot of comedy in Ghostbusters, but there’s a touch of darkness, too.

The hint of horror in these stories pops up several times in the first film. It jumps out at the beginning when the librarian shows her true form, it shows up when the containment unit explodes, and it turns its ugly face when Vinz mauls Louis in public. The atmosphere of the story contains the essence of horror--it’s in the architecture, the surreal, radiating colors, and the design of the ghosts. I love the comedy in Ghostbusters, but the stories win my heart because of the touch of spookiness they offer.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Magic of a Masterpiece

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is magical in a dark fashion. It's been remade many times because the original has a sparkling touch of creepiness that makes it timeless. I enjoy Mickey's Christmas Carol thoroughly, as well as other remakes, but they do not have the same chill of the original. I’ve been trying to figure out what that chilling element is and employ it in some of my stories. So far, I haven’t been too successful because Dickens was such a master storyteller. However, I’ve narrowed a few things down.

I'm not very religious, but I do prefer Christmas over Halloween, and elements in this tale are exactly why. Maybe, I shouldn't say Christmas either--maybe, I should say Winter Solstice. There is interesting dichotomy with holidays at that time of year. There’s a mix between light and darkness, as well as good and evil. A Christmas Carol portrays exactly those elements. Scrooge represents the rich, evil miser and the goodness of light overcomes the veil over him.

It's obvious Scrooge is consumed by evil while his nephew, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim portray the goodness of humanity. However, the ghosts illustrate physical incarnations of the dichotomy of light and darkness. These creatures are even more mysterious because they were not humans yet they are not angels or demons. They’re pushing Scrooge to overcome his shortcomings; however, they themselves cannot be considered good, especially not the ghost of Christmas future who is basically the incarnation of death. Is the incarnation of death good, evil or just a mysterious force doing its job? Either way, the angel of death has become a very fascinating icon, as have the ghosts in this tale.

I also want to mention when Scrooge looks out his window and sees tortured souls screaming in the streets, I shuttered a little. He's viewing hell, and juxtaposing a view of hell with the tranquility expected on Christmas Eve is quite unsettling, yet very entertaining. However, the ending is happy as Scrooge overcomes his faults. The true meaning of the season shines through.

There's something else about the story I want to touch upon. The Christmas Eve in this story contains a certain magic that makes it similar to the props that push plot along in other stories. Consider the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. It's full of magic and wonder, which is similar to Dickons’ idea of Christmas Eve. Both fill the reader with a sense that anything is possible.

Because of the real contrast of night and day--a bit of magic experienced by everyone--Christmas, Winter Solstice, and all the holidays around that time of year are possessed with a certain sense of wonder brought on by the natural magic of the earth’s orbit. Maybe these holidays are not haunted with the same specters as Halloween, but they are arguably haunted with mystery. I think I love A Christmas Carol because it portrays that marvelous yet terrifying charm contained in the essence of winter nights and winter holidays.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Haunted Enough: Building the Foundation of a Haunted House

What is a haunted house? A place where spirits supposedly reside. But what does that mean for someone who has never seen a ghost? It means a haunted house is nothing more than a spooky structure with a creepy history. So, I will not base this examination of a real haunted house on secondhand testimonies from men and women I don't know or trust. I will base it off the vibe and past of one of the most interesting houses I’ve ever been inside. The Frank House in Kearney, NE, is not known for its ghosts, but by my definition, it is very haunted.

The Frank House can be found in a state of restoration on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK). It’s red sandstone facade matches the red tile roof, which causes it to take an almost uniform color of a large brick. A juggernaut standing guard in the vast corn fields of the state, the structure stands solid and looks over the school from the edge of the city. Numerous chimneys reach out of it, as if it were a factory, not a homestead. A wall of more stone wraps around the porch at the front of the house and gives the sense the building serves as a fortress, protecting the souls trapped under its roof.

According to UNK’s website, the house was constructed by the George William Frank, Jr. and was very advanced for its day--“[i]t was the first house west of the Mississippi to be wired for electricity during its construction.” The inside, which has been remodeled several times over the years, impresses guests as much as the outside. The Victorian Preservation Association claims the house also “contains one of the largest stained glass windows Tiffany designed for a residence.” Oak seems to cover everything, and visitors feel as if they have stepped back in time, especially when they visit for a holiday event like the Victorian Christmas tours held every year. Being so connected with the past, it’s no wonder it’s easy to feel as though someone or something is watching over your shoulder when you visit.

If you visit the house or the website, you will learn the family that built it lost a good chunk of their fortune and ended up selling the house. After being sold, a portion of the house became a private hospital/sanitarium before eventually becoming part of the Nebraska State Tuberculosis Hospital and served as a residence for staff ("Frank House"). If you’re ever lucky enough to tour the house, you may still be able to see leftover signs of where the house used to be sectioned off for private quarters. With a history of owners falling into financial ruin, patients being houses under its roof, and connections being made with a nearby TB hospital, the Frank House gains its own life. Histories like these bear haunted houses.

The only thing this structure does not have is the eyewitness accounts to back up sightings. Still, I bet if you talk to the right people or stick around long enough, you’ll hear a bump or two in the night. Maybe you’ll notice a figure disappear around the veranda. Possibly you’ll catch a glimpse of strange light coming from a window late at night. Anything is possible. A house with this stature is sure to keep past residents around, even after death.

Works Cited

"Frank House." The University of Nebraska at Kearney. Web. 25 Apr 2013.

"Historic House Museums in Nebraska." Victorian Preservation Association, 04 Feb 2013. Web. 25 Apr 2013.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Paranormal Participation: How Paranormal Activity Connects With Audiences

Paranormal Activity gets a hard time. I can understand the criticisms thrown its way, especially since the sequels have worsened with each entry. However, the original was one of the only movies that sent me home terrified--a credit last given to The Ring and before that Event Horizon. Maybe this movie has a lot to be desired, but it did a lot of things right to make it a truly frightening story any writer of stories about ghosts and demons can learn from.

Most of the criticism comes from the acting, the character motivations, and the reality TV effect the movie is filmed in. I have to agree with the shortcomings all three of those presented. The acting was not phenomenal, but it wasn’t terrible either. It did the trick. The character motivations were ridiculous. In the face of a presence that can obviously not be fought, no rational person would continue fighting or filming. Of course, the excuse is used they can’t run away, but not attempting to flee was ridiculous. As for the reality TV effect, there is no defense. It’s a cheap ploy, and I hope movie makers forget about it soon.

Even with the three major shortcomings, positives overshadowed them. The movie pulled creepy off extremely well. If the strongest fear is the fear of the unknown, this movie portrays the purity of the unknown. The couple has no idea what they’re dealing with. The audience has no idea if it’s a ghost or a demon, or even what that necessarily means. Eventually, the biggest mystery of all is given away, which was whether the evil could be overcome. With an answer of no, the sequels lost an essential mystery and were therefore lacking at least one important element from their conceptions--audiences cannot fear for characters if the characters are certainly doomed from the start.

The sequels also had a Hollywood flare that the original lacked--especially when viewed with one of its original endings. The lack of this flare made everything more realistic and creepier. None of the events were so extreme the audience lost any sense of realism, until Katie grew fangs and attacked the camera. Simple problems like noises in the hall could happen. Larger problems like sleep walking and night terrors also happen. They are terrifying in their own light. When they were amplified by the threat of the unknown, they became more dreadful. If the movie had been a drama about a brain tumor causing these problems, the tumor would be as horrifying as the demon because the tribulations created are realistic. When a threat connects, it becomes real for the audience and makes them question their own lives.

The original ending, specifically the one where the cops show up, worked the best. I understand the switch to a jump-inducing ending for massive audience, plus the ability to make a sequel with the new ending, but the Hollywood ending was a gimmick. The ending with the cops was chilling. There’s never full verification of a demon, and when Katie gained lucidity in the final moments, the movie made me shiver.

My favorite portion of the film would be the photo in the attic. Everything else, I felt, could be rationalized with logic in some way, shape, or form. The picture, however, was tangible evidence that something had been stalking Katie for a long time. Maybe it was her own mental deterioration collecting personal artifacts and storing them in odd places, or it could be the odder possibility. Maybe a demon held onto that photo for decades. I even wondered if it had pockets to store the photo, but relating the demon to a stalker/voyeur/pedophile still makes me cringe to think about. The situation would be no less creepy if they found an old guy up in the attic with the picture--this is invasion and disturbing to the max. The fact it was supposedly a demon just makes the threat unbeatable.

This movie frightened me when I first saw it. I went home thinking every bump in my house was either a demon or an intruder. I wondered what I might find if I looked in my attic. I couldn’t sleep that night. I loved that rush. The sequels didn’t have the same effect. They were fun like a roller coaster might be fun, but they weren’t scary, and any emotion brought up in the film was left in the theatre when I went home. They’ve also progressively gotten worse, although the third one holds a special place in my heart because it reminds me of growing up in the 80s and playing ghost games with my friends. Too bad they all can’t work as well as the first one.

On a side note, I want to mention that the commercials for these movies have been a very interesting study. They have turned into mini films--scenes created specifically for the commercials, but created without any intention of being in the movie. For instance, the third one had a game of Bloody Mary, where a woman appeared in the background. It also had a huge fire scene in the preview, which had been elaborated on in the first two movies but did not appear in the third film. The fourth movie’s trailer was a fabricated, shortened version of the film--the protagonist jokes about her house being haunted and within seconds the haunting hits full force. The reason behind this false marketing has been to lure audiences in without ruining any of the jump-inducing scares. I give the film makers kudos for handling the commercials in this fashion, but if they handled the terror the same way as the first film, they wouldn’t need to mislead the audience as to avoid ruining the pop-up frights.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grave’s End, I Guess It Worked

I find it a bit difficult to review this book. I didn’t dislike it, but I wasn’t enthralled by it either. It never bored me, though. It was written well and had a fine pace--which I respected especially since this is supposedly a work of non-fiction. My issues with the book related to the actions the characters took, but since this was based on a true story, I can’t argue those. What should be discussed, though, is how those this book's shortcomings could be improved for a fiction work.

The first character issue I came across was the discrepancies concerning the presence in the haunted house. The ghosts seemed hostile, and the characters all seemed intimidated at times (when they were being held down to their beds). However, the perceptions of the ghosts deviated. The ghosts would be illustrated in a terrifying light, then the narrator or her children would claim they felt no malice from the entities. Maybe in real life there can be times where one does not feel malice, while at other times he or she can be terrified--what one sees at night can be a lot scarier than when he or she sees it during the day. In fiction, clarifying the level of the threat would be more important.

When the house was cleared in Grave’s End, there was an explanation that the ghosts were just playing around, including the sleep paralysis scenes. This explanation seemed hollow, and the house cleansing was a bit anticlimactic. However, it did seem like a realistic cleansing based on actual events. In fiction, however, more explanation would be required, bones should be dug up, and the passing over of the ghosts should be more evident. I would be angry if this were a work of fiction and it never explained why the ghosts were in mines beneath the house and why the house was basically a portal to the afterlife.

The passing of time also worked because the book claimed to be non-fiction. It’s easy to say characters should leave a house if it’s haunted, but this story clarifies the events took place over long periods of time. Things would act up then calm down as if they never happened at all. With such cycles, homeowners can easily question the authenticity of supernatural events and can understandably justify staying in the house. For non-fiction, this built authenticity. In fiction, that structure wouldn’t work. Progression through the story should build the tension and events should happen faster and faster. With an onslaught of supernatural events, characters can only reasonably leave the home.

The ethos of this book was well done and worth mentioning. To help solidify the authenticity of these events, the narrator attempts to present the story from an unbiased angle. Although her neutrality doesn’t always hold up, she ends the book by claiming her intentions were to help others going through similar predicaments. By claiming to help others, she’s building her own credibility, shrugging off a motivation of self-gain, and making her story more believable because she is trustworthy. Although I am a skeptic of this tale, its plausibility rose far above The Amityville Horror

Grave’s End wasn’t a terrifying read. Questions were left since explanations to the events were not fully revealed. But the story worked as a piece of creative non-fiction. Motivations made sense, and things wrapped up with a humble approach. However, if this were a work of fiction, there would be many details to be worked out before it became a great story.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why so Famous: An Examination of The Workings of The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror differed greatly from my expectations. I've seen the movies and the remake countless times because I enjoy haunted house stories, but I can't say any of them were spectacular. The book, which I expected to elaborately illuminate the infamy of the cursed house, seemed simplistic. The writing itself was neither interesting in a literary sense nor elaborate in a true, biographical account. Because of the shortcomings of the book, I had to wonder why it became so popular. I'm still not positive, but I think it might be due to the sensationalization of the story to the masses. The book is very easy to read and aims to scare readers through a nonfiction stance. Since I expected more substance, I was let down.

Memories are easily corrupted, so it’s no surprise eyewitness accounts are considered weak evidence, and likewise, even if this book were nonfiction and believable, the accounts would have been inflated to make the story more interesting. But too many random events happened to make the story believable, and the narrator comes off over-embellishing those events with details no one could remember in order to build tension. However, instead of instilling fear, he comes off almost as if he’s pointing to the events and screaming, “These are real! Really! Believe me!”

The narrator’s determination to force readers into buying the supposedly true story then pushes the reader to question even more. For instance, the parents become volatile towards their children. The narrator tries to brush this off onto the house’s psychological corruption; however, when examining these events in the light of reality, flags are raised by this couple’s actions. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but hope the cops would take the children away because the parents seemed like meth addicts (can’t get warm, violent, squandering money) who were abusing their children and blaming the house for their own actions. When the mother forgot to buy her children Christmas presents, I kept thinking the real reason was because she’d blown her savings on drugs.

Though the book is portrayed as a nonfiction examination of the events in the house, a number of reports have come out clarifying the fiction of this story, but the book doesn’t work as fiction, either. As nonfiction, the events are too unrealistic and raise warning flags of domestic problems. As a work of fiction, the book doesn’t work well either because it’s blending too much and character’s don’t behave rationally in terms of a horror tale. For instance, the priest never does much of anything except complain about a rash and get sick--he never develops. The cops sit back and do not help or hinder the situation. And the family, especially the parents, seem to confront one random disturbance after another without really learning, adapting, confronting, or overcoming the problem. Instead, at the end, they simply run away, which is what they could have done from the start. Another book I’ll blog on soon works better in both senses because the characters do eventually find a way to overcome the problem of their haunted house, but more importantly, as an honest account, the events aren’t so sporadic--from marching bands to hostile statues to hooded demons--as they are in The Amityville Horror.

So, I was left wondering why this book became so popular when other haunted house stories do not. Partially, I think people want to believe the uncanny and macabre is real. Most people like to have something to be scared of, and some can only be scared when the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. This explains why Blair Witch Project became so popular, too. This book also simplifies a variety of folk lore. It’s overambitious and becomes silly to me as a horror reader and writer, but for general audiences, maybe that combination works here because it enables them to believe the folklore has some truth.

In the end, this book might just be dated. It took a different approach than previous haunted house books by masking itself as nonfiction. It lost its credibility, though, at least to a more contemporary reader. The writing style wasn’t official enough to be considered biographical, but the story also failed as a work of fiction. Reading the source of all the hype was interesting, yet it just didn’t live up to the momentum it’s gained over the years.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Floating Around on Her High Cloud

I didn't like The Lovely Bones. I didn't read it in high school when all the girls I knew couldn't stop raving about it. I didn't read it after the movie came out, and I didn't see the movie. But Peter Jackson directed the movie, and I thought maybe I wasn't giving the book enough credit. So, when this came up as a required reading, I went into the story with an open mind, and when I finished it, I watched the movie with only a slightly less open mind. After the reading and viewing, I still didn't the story.

Two things really disrupted my reading of this book. The first was the POV, which is easier to explain than the other. After giving some thought to the POV and discussing the issue with friends on Facebook, I concluded there are two problems with head hopping or reasons why writers are steered away from it: logic and clarity.

Logic is the reason in the story the narration jumps from character to character. It tends to be the reason writers use when arguing against head hopping, but it’s actually less important than clarity. Let’s face it, if a story flowed smoothly and was understandable, readers would have little problem with head hopping. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves serves as an example of this. Many readers would argue the story makes sense without a logical explanation of spinning around the heads of the characters. Writer’s can get away with head hopping as long as clarity is not an issue.

The real problem with head hopping is readers do not stay grounded. They don’t grow attached with a single character and are constantly floating around trying to understand how they’re supposed to be relating to the story. Logic comes second to clarity, and although The Lovely Bones explains the head hoping through the presence of a ghost, it lacks the clarity of a cohesive story. Basically, the reason the narrator's POV is a ghost feels like a gimmick to add logic to the head hopping, and the explanation does nothing for readers as they try to keep track of who is thinking and doing what at what point in time.

My second issue with the book was a bit more tricky to pinpoint. Bear with me as I try--the voice of this book comes off as an arrogant teen. On top of that, the voice takes on a too-wise intelligence, which causes the narrator to sound worse and more irritating than the epitomical conceited teen from Dawson's Creek or some other unrealistic teen melodrama.

Susie was not a vampire, but I associated her with to two vampires in popular fiction: Claudia from Interview with the Vampire and Eli from Let the Right One In. The difference between these two girls is wisdom. Claudia gains wisdom and matures due to it--she becomes an adult stuck in a child’s body. Eli does not gain wisdom and does not mature into an adult. Both characters are interesting and demonstrate the paths immortals can take. Susie’s voice attempts a third unbelievable route. She dies and almost immediately gains a superior intellect. She still partakes in childish games, like chasing dogs, but when she looks down on humanity, her balanced emotions are too mature. For instance, watching one’s mom have an affair and leave his or her family or watching one’s sister make love would incite a great deal of emotion in most people. A character such as Susie, preciously naive, should not become whimsical yet so astute, kind of like the Dalai Lama, just through death. She did not work as a character and fell apart as a narrator.

I also want to touch on the climax. Susie came back to earth just long enough to make love. This supposedly balanced her death by giving her the kind side of the physical act of love. The movie changed this scene to a kiss, and I'm glad they did. Beneath the teen romance, the book sent a terrible message regarding the types of sexual assault. Susie possessed a girl and made love using her body. The owner of the body did not consent to this act. A person intoxicated with alcohol or other drugs is not in a frame of mind to consent, and likewise, Ruth was not conscious to consent to this act with her body, so the book’s attempt to idolize this act was inappropriate. Regardless of how the book handles the topic, this form of rape is still rape. Again, the movie version used a kiss, which still worked and was much more acceptable.

The Lovely Bones was not clever, the POV did not work, and a terrible message was buried under the text. The only kudos I can give the book relates to the reactions of the family. Their reactions came off as realistic because unpredictability rings true in tragic situations. If the narrator had been a living family member, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this novel more.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Get Away Quickly: Illuminating the Horrible Messages Portrayed in The Others

I should have liked this movie. It had so many positives going for it: lots of fog, a creepy house, rare illnesses, obscure tombstones, an awesome possession scene, and ghosts. Still, I didn’t connect with this film. While watching it this time, I came to the conclusion the problem resides with the characters. Even though the film did many things right, the characters were so despicable, I couldn’t connect and truly enjoy the movie. Then, upon further examination, I realized it wasn’t just the characters. The film itself presented terrible messages, which disturbed me.

The mother, Grace, was abusive. She related to Jack in The Shining in this manner; however, Jack had redeeming qualities, at least in the start. Jack wanted to change, and he loved his family and wanted to be the best father he could. Grace cared more about social standards and herself than her family. Notice how she reacts when the priest “won’t” come visit them. Or consider the conversation she has with her children who claimed they would lie about their religious affiliations if it mean saving their lives. Instead of worrying about their safety or even mental well-being, she criticized them for not sacrificing themselves for their beliefs--they’re like ten! Of course, [spoiler] she also killed them, which really made her the villain, and the story frustrated me because she’s portrayed as somewhat of a heroine. At least Jack was painted as the bad guy in the end of The Shining. I guess these examples illustrate how, in reality, men are easily portrayed as villains when it comes to domestic abuse, yet society has a unfair misconception of women in the same situations.

The daughter wasn’t any more likable than the mother. She harassed her brother, was snarky, and overall, not pleasant. I suppose, if anything, the character was realistic since she inherited her mother’s attributes. The daughter does, at least, have the creepiest incident in the movie--her possession. This even seems suitable as a subliminal punishment or warning to change her ways. From there, even though she never becomes likable, she does change her ways--she starts to dislike the intruders, and eventually, after a few other events, builds up the gumption to escape and goes through her own path of discovery. Her initiative makes her the most interesting character, yet because she was so cranky, I didn’t shed any tears when I found out she was dead.

The brother was a bit relatable because I felt so bad for him, yet he was so young and such a coward, I didn’t find myself really captivated by him either. He seemed like a secondary character the female leads dominated in order to demonstrate their dynamics. There were also the three helpers, who I felt somewhat connected to, but they were secondary characters and were not given full characterization. There was also the father, who remained in a hazy stupor for his stay; I had to wonder if his state of mind was from the war and his death or if his family’s incorrigibility had left him a broken man. I sympathized with his hightailing it.

So, even though this move had a high-level of creepiness, I couldn’t enjoy it because I found myself hoping bad things would happen to the vile characters. However, the ending seemed like the worst-case scenario regarding my disposition. The abusive mother got to stay with and abuse her children for eternity--which is absurd when compared to The Shining where the abuser is removed from the family unit. The children in The Others were left being subjected to abuse for eternity. And the helpers were trapped being servants and doing yard work for eternity. None of the evil was resolved and all the good characters were punished. Well, except the father, who was rewarded for abandoning his family by getting away from the hell they’d created at the house. This movie has some truly disturbing messages.

Friday, March 15, 2013

You Should Be Scared: An Exhumation of The Realism Buried Beneath The Overlook

A few months ago, a friend asked me what book I’d recommend as a strong example of my genre and my view of writing in general. The answer was fairly easy: The Shining. I can’t say this is the best book I’ve ever read, and it’s not the scariest one either, but it’s one of the best examples of what horror should strive to be. I’ve seen the movies countless times, and this is the third time through the book. I read it with a more critical eye this time, and although I found some errors, I still hold this book with the highest esteem. This book gains my respect because it associates the terror of the supernatural with the horror of the natural. The story covers domestic abuse and alcoholism yet disguises them with the analogy of an evil hotel.

When the tale is dissected, the isolation of the oversized hotel becomes a dysfunctional home from a child’s perspective. The kitchen being too large, the halls stretching on forever, the yard being immense--the description of the hotel is the description of a house from an imaginative child. Even in a tight-knit community, a child can see his or her house isolated from the world, especially if the community turns away from what might be going on. In the time of this book, that might have been the case, too, which is illustrated as the doctor just accepts when Jack admits he abused his son. Times have changed, and if Jack were to admit breaking his son’s arm today, Danny would be taken away from the house. Even if Jack wouldn’t admit it, Danny would most likely be taken away on the assumption of abuse. Still, a child can feel as though no one will help.

Alcoholism is also discussed in The Shining. Jack is a reformed alcoholic with a anger-management problem; however, the influence of the hotel becomes a metaphor for his lapse into drinking. His problem becomes the emotional struggle in the story. He loves his family and tries his hardest to get his life right, but the stress of seeing his life swirling down the drain--a failing writing career and a failed teaching career--becomes too much to handle. Although the story explains Jack is corrupted by the hotel, the horror behind this analogy is that men and women can become corrupted and violent by their failing lives. The truths behind the fiction in this story ring true with realism, which makes this book frightening.

Of course, even though the book serves as an allegory for domestic abuse and drinking problems, the book does have some fantasy elements involved. My favorite scene involves such elements. This scene, which was not in either movie, relates to the terror of claustrophobia and kids getting locked in refrigerators, but the fantasy element is the imagination of a living corpse. When Danny is outdoors playing, a small avalanche imprisons him in a concrete tunnel. As he’s digging his way out, he hears sounds behind him and imagines they are coming from the corpse of another child who has died nearby. Corpses don’t come to life, but this plays on the unrealistic anxieties that spin forth when one is trapped in darkness. It’s a good example that the strongest fear is of the unknown--what Danny, and readers, imagine to be crawling in the darkness is more terrifying than being confronted with the creature. I love that scene.

The Shining might be one of the most famous horror stories ever written, and it deserves every bit of credit it receives. Its connections to the real horrors of life provide an excellent example of how horror writers can take the tribulations of life and spin them into fiction for terrifying results. It’s also a fun (if you enjoy being scared) story. It may not be the best or scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s one of my favorites for a good reason.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Ghostly Glimpse: The Tale Entwining the Tails of Ghost Story

I’m unsure if the phrase ghost story has become synonymous with scary story, but I remember asking my mother to specifically tell me ghost stories when I was a lad living on the dusty, wind-blown fields of Kansas. The misnomer may not be fully inaccurate, though. These stories are designed to haunt listeners much as ghosts haunt homes and tenants. Thus, Straub’s book Ghost Story lives true to its name, not because it’s full of ghosts, as the title might suggest, but because it’s full of tales that illustrate the terrors that haunt the characters and that entwine to create an all-encompassing tale readers keep with them long after they finish the story.

Ghost Story is arguably a work of metafiction; it’s a tale of a group of men who tell tales. Each of these tales was “the worst thing that ever happened to [each of them]” (Straub 38). The story turned as the worst thing the men had ever done came back to haunt them, and in turn, the worst things ever to happen to them also showed up in town. Basically, the scary stories the men tell began to literally haunt them.

This technique was fascinating as it demonstrated how a writer can diverge from his story, expand the world, and yet tie the tales back together. For example, the story of a school boy and his wicked older brother was told, and their likenesses appeared in town and haunted the area. At times I felt that the ties were too loose, too coincidental, but overall, Straub’s technique was a fine example that stories do not need linear plots. I’d also argue that this technique can be taxing on the reader and risks confusion, but it can add a terrific amount of depth to a story.

To tell this story, Straub needed to add that terrific amount of depth. This necessity was due to the need to show the existence of the evil, not just tell of its existence. Sometimes I meet people who seem to confuse the hyper-utilized rule “show, don’t tell.” Either they apply the rule to everything, though there are times the rule needs to be broken, or they quibble over line edits as a method of employing this rule. The best use of this rule is when characterization is demonstrated, not just summarized. For instance, if a woman is a great lawyer, the story needs to show her in action, not just say she’s won many cases. Worse yet, the story should not simply say, “she’s a great lawyer.” Ghost Story, similarly, shows the terrors that haunt the men and the town. It would not be enough for to simply say a monster, Gregory, was scary enough to kill. Gregory became much more terrifying as his brother, Fenny, dropped dead of fright after having a confrontation (Straub 78-79).

Likewise, as other stories built around people dying, the tension in the story built for the final confrontation with the monster. The creature itself was a shape-shifter, which meant it could take the forms of every fear presented. The only way to create a fear of a creature that can be anything is to define that creature through scary stories, or ghost stories. The book was filled with dread, yet it still concluded with the notion that facing one’s fear will belittle that fear, and in doing so, the protagonist caused the monster to turn into a wasp, which he then rips it apart (Straub 566). This ending might seem anticlimactic, but it works. The group of story tellers had already faced the monster, and defeated it, once before--they faced their fears, and this final battle was just one more step in defeating the beast. Of course, it should be pointed out that the final battle was very psychological. Without knowing for sure if the child was the monster in disguise, the protagonist was forced to kill the kidnapped girl. Making the decision to murder the child despite the uncertainty of the outcome was the challenge the book left off with. Of course, there was a happy ending.

I also wanted to mention I watched this film adaptation when I was about six years old. My sister and I happened to catch it on television at my grandparents house. It was around that time I also saw Pet Sematary. I doubt these were the first horror movies I ever saw, but they were two of the most memorable ones. I actually forgot the name of this film until I picked up the book a few years ago and realized this was that old movie. It may not be my favorite Peter Straub book--shout out to Shadowland--but Ghost Story certainly holds a special place in my heart.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flaws and Females: The Ugly and The Beautiful Inside Hell House

Hell House took my mind all over the place: from the absurd, to the frightening, to the humorous. A few weeks ago, I discussed how The Haunting of Hill House could be seen as a YA novel, and it’s obvious that Hell House was inspired by Hill House, but any child-like qualities I mentioned for Jackson’s work were stripped from Matheson’s work. His book is definitely meant for adults, but the lack of sophistication left something to be desired from a story inspired by Hill House and written by Matheson. Still, there’s something to take away from Matheson’s techniques.

Hell House was written in the 70’s, and I think the female characters falter a bit because they illustrate an outdated, almost sexist view of women. As Florence and Edith are manipulated by the evil in the house, they lose their innocence, and in doing so, they become absurd caricatures of women. Their actions do not illustrate psychologically unstable women, but instead seem to point inwards and shout, “I am an unstable woman!” For instance when Edith says, “Suck them, you fairy bastard, or I’ll get myself a woman who will!” (171), she seems to be calling more attention to herself than actually demonstrating her loss with reality.

Regarding this flaw, it could be argued that Matheson was attempting different objectives with his novel than Jackson was with her book, so it’s unfair to compare the depths of their characters. Although I agree he had different objectives, none account for his faulty females. Jackson tackled the unreliable narrator with magnificent skill, and Matheson attempts to investigate the paranormal while letting it degrade the psyches of his characters. He does a similar supernatural investigation with pseudo science in I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. The concept is fascinating that the supernatural can be explained with science, that it’s a little mysticism yet a little tangible. Still, the females come off as cheesy and artificial because they are merely mechanisms being utilized to establish Matheson’s perception of the afterlife and not fully-developed characters.

The women never became much deeper than they were in the start, and portions became laughable. Again, the women seemed dainty in the start, and at the end, they were still just sexual tools utilized by the author and by the men in the house. For instance, Florence’s possession seemed implausible, as if she was just a helpless romantic letting men take advantage of her. Also, the absurdity of Florence’s fate had me laughing when I should have been horrified.

These criticisms aren’t to say I disliked the book. On the contrary, I found it thought-provoking (although not in an ambiguous way such as The Haunting of Hill House), and portions of it were frightening. One of the most notable elements assisting the frights were the tales told within the story. Pages 54-61 of my copy specifically relate the cannibalistic orgies thrown at the house, and what readers get isn’t the terror of living through those parties, but the fear associated with the reactionary view of the present-day characters. Somehow, it’s more chilling to see stable individuals discuss and react to the horrendous events that took place in the house--their reactions set the stage for our reactions, and then set the scene for their own struggles within the house. This technique of build up through the use of backstory and character reactions happens again when Barrett discusses, with Edith, Fischer’s past. By setting Fischer up through Barret and Edith’s reactions, his history parallels that of the house. Also, by giving an impressed reaction from a skeptic, Fischer’s credibility is heightened, and readers then want to see him reach his true potential and fight the evil. Of course, in the end, he does.

The finale left me with the impression that if the first set of ghost hunters would have just called Belasco a bastard a half dozen times, the house would have been cleansed. This method for beating a great evil did not seem completely suitable. But there is an issue that arises when dealing with demons and spirits: the difficulty of finding a suitable way of defeating the monster without resorting to magic or improbable methods. I suppose, with the aid of Barret’s machine, Fischer’s tactic was as good as any. I was just left wanting something more.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1971. Print.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Over the Hill or Sweet Sixteen: A Youthful Analysis of The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House is undeniably brilliant. It jump started a revolution of ghost tales and even, some might argue, a certain brand of horror. Regardless of those claims, the book is fascinating--an interesting combination of fear and psychological turmoil. But one angle that gets overlooked regards the combination of the book's fundamental themes, what they add up to, and why they make the book even more of an unsettling read. More specifically, although the book is about adults doing adult things, the story holds elements that should technically classify it in the young adult genre.

Eleanor is the heroine of the story, and she has many of the qualities of any typical young adult hero or heroine. She has tragedy in her life from losing her parents, similar to Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen. She is also repressed. Her sister and brother-in-law restrain her from living life. Eleanor is not her own person, and through the course of the novel, she rebels and finds her identity like any typical young adult protagonist.

The secondary characters serve functions similar to those in young adult novels, too. For instance, Theodora becomes like a sibling. In the beginning, the two even jokingly discuss being related. This might be compared to Hermione and Ronald in Harry Potter or maybe even Alice Cullen in Twilight. The whimsical nature and intimate bonding serves to show the protagonist, as well as the young adult reader, is not alone in the world and should venture fourth without fear or apprehension.

Other characters might serve as guardians or counselors, which can be found sprinkled throughout all young adult novels, but one that springs forward in The Haunting of Hill House is Mrs. Montague. She is breezy and funny. Readers enjoy her character for the relief she provides, not for the admirable traits she possess. Might she then mirror other obnoxiously humorous characters such as Effie Trinket (or any of the flamboyant and humous chaperone's) from Hunger Games, or possibly to Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter. Consider Rubeus' knack for letting information slip coinciding with Mrs. Montague's planchette incident. Although I admit the parallel is not identical, it is evident that Mrs. Montague's information assists in Eleanor maturing and growing fully.

Young adult literature also often deals with teen romance, and The Haunting of Hill House tackles this puberal topic. Eleanor has a love interest--the house. It represents the unknown, her place in the world, and everything she has ever needed, much as Edward does for Bella. Maybe it's all psychological, but maybe, the house and its possible metaphysical occupants might just reciprocate those emotions.

Of course, this book is not really suitable for all young adults, even if it does hold such similarities to other young adult literature. What should be taken away from this analysis, however, is that this book is partially unsettling because it coincides with young adult tales. As a reader turns the pages, his or her subconscious recognizes the characters, the patterns, and the themes that create a young adult novel, but the perversion of that format creates an uncanny sense of apprehension for the reader. Eleanor is an woman-child, barely able to take care of herself, begging for her cup of stars, and she grows into a mature adult who is able to make independent decisions. And she does make a decision--the decision to be with the love of her life, even if it involves suicide, an even more unsettling note that contrasts the uplifting endings often seen in young adult fiction. But, from a different perspective, Eleanor did grow up and did find her happy ending, just like Bella, Harry, and Katniss.