Archive for Sundry Musings

10 Film Villains Who Scare Me

You’d think that after Scream people wouldn’t ask me what my favorite scary movie is, but they do. I have no real answer, but I like to play with lists of answers. “Favorite” is a bit too general, though, so today I want to challenge myself not just with favorite horrors, of which I have many, but with scary horrors, of which, nowadays, I have few. Can I come up with 10 horror movie villains that actually, as Buffy would say, give me the wiggins?

Before the official list begins, an important note:


This is God,” says Freddy Krueger, and, alas, this man is disqualified. As an adult, I cannot possibly pass any objective judgment on Freddy’s scariness. To know why, see the intro to my book Gothic Realities.

Now, on with the show.

10.George W. Bush, from Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)


Okay, a stunt to get your attention… or is it? The film does masterfully villainize a then-sitting president. It heightened my existing fears.


9. Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th PART TWO (1981)


Jason was initially just a kinda big guy wearing a bag on his head that had one hole cut for an eye. He stalked after people quickly, hacking with whatever was handy. And his cheesy immortality wasn’t yet clear. He was just a scary, crazy dude intent on killing you if you crossed his path.


8. The mobs, from M (1931)


Yep, I think the people who come after the child murderer are scarier than the child murderer (although Peter Lorre’s performance is creepy as hell).


7. Pyramid Head, from Silent Hill (2006)


I chose Pyramid Head because he’s the most iconic, but really, all the beasties in the Silent Hill franchise that I’ve seen–both films and bits of several games–are genuinely nightmarish in a rare way.


6. Ju-On, from Ju-On (2002)


Not the scariest Japanese horror film by a long shot, but the curse may be the scariest villain both because of its inevitable operations and because of the tragic way it plays out IN THE JAPANESE VERSION ONLY. The American version makes no sense.


5.Vukmir, from A Serbian Film (2010)


The incarnation of the need to add the word “mass” to the exploitation and consumption of everything.


4. Mademoiselle, from Martyrs (2008)


Like Vukmir, a limit-seeker, but civilized… and asking bigger questions. How far she’ll go to get answers, how much she cares about those answers, is what makes her scary. Am I capable of wanting to know that much?


3. Klaus, from In a Glass Cage (1987)


Nazis asked questions, too. And raped, tortured, and murdered people. Old people. Middle-aged people. Children. Klaus preferred children. And now he’s a victim’s victim. The potential to feel sorry for him makes him even scarier.


2. Hill House, from The Haunting (1963)


It preys on loneliness and the need to belong, a person’s most intimate vulnerabilities. It makes people doubt you. It makes you doubt yourself. You feel stupid. You hate yourself at times like that. You know that feeling. That’s how it gets you.


1. Sharks, from Open Water (2003)


Horror doesn’t have to stem from elaborate themes and psychological sophistication. The movie doesn’t even have to be particularly good. I had a rare, tight-muscle-and-skin, fast-breathing, elevated-heart-rate experience seeing Open Water in the theater. Its simplicity allows the fear:

  1. Trapped in the water. As our bodies are built to survive only short times in water and then only in certain circumstances, this situation is not one we are programmed to seek.
  2. Predators nearby. We make kids laugh by threatening to gobble them up. But the threat of kids getting eaten is central in fairy tales for a reason. Fighting to keep beasts from eating us, if not fighting cannibalism, is part of our evolutionary memory. Again, we are programmed for wariness in such a situation.
  3. Sharks. Stephen Colbert makes a similar point about bears. Some have said cats have an attitude toward dogs similar to my own feeling about sharks. I’m not wary of sharks. Sure, I’ll pet a little one at an aquarium or something, but the very idea of meeting a big one in the ocean–it’s just not an option. I’m not wary. I’m REPELLED. Open Water ain’t makin’ my top ten favorites list, but sharks… are… scary. Period.

Depeche Mode Delta Machine

People I haven’t seen in years were messaging me about the new Depeche Mode album, Delta Machine (2013), because it made them think of me–perhaps because in high school I kind of defined myself with my Violator (1990) t-shirt and pansexual pose as the personal Jesus of anyone who dared to reach out and touch, well, me (few did… remember, I was also a hopeless nerd).

M_DepecheModeDeltaMachine Artwork

“In Your Room” and a couple of other tracks from Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993) inspired a few erotic fantasies, Ultra (1997) was good but not really DM-worthy, and Exciter (2001) didn’t live up to its name. Things were looking grim until the revelation that was Playing the Angel (2005), when the band seemed to recognize what it was–the most important leader in electronic music of the 80s and 90s–and seized the opportunity to create a dialogue with its early self in order to build a bridge into the early 21st century, something the band’s many progeny have tried and failed to do.

I have more to say about how the band has spanned the decades, and how Delta Machine comes close to being the band’s summa theologica that I’ve been praying for since they started reflecting on the art of playing at angelic maneuvers in the dark, but first let me just comment on that one album, Playing the Angel, one of the best alt-rock albums of the last decade. I’ll sum it up in two singles, “John the Revelator” and “Precious.” Both of these songs, and arguably the album as a whole, are answers to Violator, the apex of their career. On Violator, the song “Personal Jesus,” like many a bridge over troubled water, urges us to reach out and touch faith, and it could be about sex, drugs, religion, or all of the above. Similarly, “John the Revelator” has all the same resonances, as John could take us “up to the highest high,” but we’re also putting the Revelator on trial, letting him tell his “book of lies.” The music, while just as pounding, is almost exhausting–an addiction or fanaticism run itself dry. “Precious,” on the other hand, is the later album’s answer to Violator‘s “Enjoy the Silence.” Instead of telling us words are “like violence,” “Precious” tells us that “words left unspoken” leave us “brittle.” While both “Enjoy the Silence” and “Precious” are somber and trance-like, “Precious” borders on a dirge. Playing the angel is playing at wisdom, and it’s fucking beautiful.

Now then, I will devote a paragraph to the larger career of this longest-lasting of bands (ironically named after fleeting fashions), and then I will focus on their most recent accomplishment as a summa. When they began, they pioneered synth-pop with a kind of Marxist bubblegum aesthetic. I say bubblegum in that some of their synth riffs are so pop that one of my favorite early songs, “See You” (1982), sounds eerily like “And Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals (1963). More importantly, I say Marxist not just because teen-gay me had pictures of adorable Dave Gahan and Martin Gore in hard hats and suspenders sans shirts on his wall, but because lyrics to showstopper “Everything Counts” (1983) include “The handshake/seals the contract/from the contract/there’s no turning back.” And of course, “People are People” (1984): “So we’re different colors / and we’re different creeds/ and different people have different needs.” “Lie to Me” (1984): “Lie to me / like they do it at the factory / make me think that at the end of the day / some great reward will be coming my way.” People might be tempted to say that a big turn came in their career with the album Black Celebration (1986), which, as the title suggests, is when they turned quite Goth, and both music and lyrics became more dark, erotic, and introspective. However, just before, on Some Great Reward (1984), which gave us “Lie to Me” and reminded us (again) that “People are People” (the album of that name was released a few months earlier) we hear “Master and Servant,” the wonderfully sexual song that was also purely Hegelian, a fusion of sex and class critique: “It’s a lot like life… let’s play master and servant… in bed or in life/they’re both just the same/except in one you’re fulfilled/at the end of the day.” All the dark, brooding, self-indulgent sex-drugs-religion stuff that came after Black Celebration continues to be a lot like life, in that fulfilling self-indulgence continues to be a product of capitalist exhortations to hyperconsumerism and investments in fleeting fashion (which is what “depeche mode” means in French).

But Depeche Mode never forgot its original politics. They followed Black Celebration with their appropriately named stadium-tour supported album Music for the Masses (1987), which I have always read as a lyrical chronicle of adolescent discovery and eventual alienation culminating in the discovery that pleasure is the little treasure that, like playing master and servant, is the great reward awaiting us at the end a hard day of working at a thankless factory job (or its equally dehumanizing white collar equivalent).

So, now I have chronicled the troubled later phase of DM’s career, saved by Playing the Angel (and not hampered by the inferior but still good Sounds of the Universe, 2009) and then rewound through the Marxist bubblegum progression that brought them to this phase. Finally, to the point: their latest release, Delta Machine, the DM initialization of which receives bold emphasis in the album artwork. It’s the closest they’ve come to a self-titled album. Is Depeche Mode the Delta Machine? Is Delta Machine Depeche Mode’s manifesto? The opening track is called “Welcome to My World.” The temptation, folks, is powerful.

The trouble, however, as many of the album’s critics have noted, is the lyrics. They’re fairly generic–they continue to do that DM thing, mixing metaphors of sex and drugs and religion (track titles include “Angel” and “Heaven”), with very little direct room for reading in politics, which would seem to reinforce arguments suggesting that late DM left behind the commitments of early DM. I don’t think so, though, for two reasons. The first, less important reason, is a turn in lyrical trends that occurs (in the deluxe version, at least, which includes some extra tracks). In “Always,” the lyrics continue to be about intimate relationships, but they emphasize a need to “fight”–indeed, the song repeats that word “fight” many, many times. The final track, “All That’s Mine,” emphasizes that the speaker has lost himself. If “Master and Servant” is correct, and bed and life are the same, then the need to fight in relationships and the feeling of being lost in relationships are both comparable to the need to fight in social relations and the feeling of being lost in the field of social relations. And in 2013, what are we but lost in contradictory political rhetorics and economic helplessness? What do we feel but a need to fight, but we don’t know what, how, or whom?

But the strongest argument I have here is the music, which is really the Delta Machine. While recent DM has intriguingly continued to experiment with guitar riffs, the absence of which helped to define them in 80s, and post-Violator bluesy qualities continue to stand out as a pleasing contrast to up-tempo dance drives, this album is perhaps the most mechanical they have produced since Violator. Delta sounds are the sounds of sleep or, more profoundly, meditation and spirituality, so a delta machine in music is a mechanized production of sound engineered to create a spiritual response. It is, in this sense, a paradox–a machine with a soul. In that way, it is like Depeche Mode on multiple levels. Depeche Mode as Marxist pop embraced industrial sounds to raise consciousness about exploitations of industrialization. And Depeche Mode also named themselves after fleeting fashion and became a decades-spanning shaper of musical trends, an influencer of bands that have come and gone for decades while Depeche Mode themselves were anything but fleeting. So yes, Depeche Mode is the Delta Machine. I’m not willing to say that this album is the summa in that it’s the best they can do. It’s damned good, but I’m not willing to say it’s the end. But that’s just because they continue to wow me with seeming to be at the end of a talent that keeps coming back. Delta Machine might beg to differ, however, depending on how we take this lyric from the song “Secret to the End”:

It seems to obvious to you

You’re feeling what I’m feeling too

The final chapter in the contract expires soon

We’ve come to the end

Not Honking at a White Van

My novel Burning the Middle Ground, in print Nov. 30, was inspired by–among other things–my profound ambivalence about the impact of organized religion on American politics. Parts of it were also inspired by how incredibly creepy I find white vans. This post is about religion and white vans. It has nothing else to do with my novel, which everyone should soon buy and read and recommend to friends.

Today I drove from Louisville to Durham,following a nine-hour route through Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. With the autumn leaves in full color, the route was the second-most gorgeous stretch of road I’ve ever experienced (the first is California’s PCH; the third is I-40 through Arizona). Despite the fact that most of the territory I covered went for the other team in the election, the scenery made me feel profoundly patriotic. How could I not love every square inch of a country as beautiful as this? I felt prouder to be an adopted Kentuckian than ever, and considering how quickly Louisville has become one of my favorite cities in the world, that’s saying something.

Deeply immersed in a landscape-inspired aesthetic fervor, buoyed by the intoxicating scent of the smoke from a “scheduled burn” not far from the highway, I drifted into traffic thick enough to be annoying but not as thick as Atlanta and Los Angeles’s Friday equivalents. As I coasted cautiously in the left lane, on my right appeared a white van. Since I have exposed white vans’ evil in my forthcoming fictional page-turner, I tend to pay attention to them. Imagine my pleasure at seeing not a demonic, mind-controlling presence through the back window but an enthusiastic, innocent and very All-American-looking child, holding up a piece of paper and waving to get my attention.

I gestured to indicate that I couldn’t read his message. He waved me forward. I sped up but signaled my continuing failure. He switched his handwritten sign to the side window, and I sped up even more. Finally, I could read the print: “HONK FOR JESUS!”

Flashback: at about the same age, maybe a little farther into adolescence, I went on a church-sponsored road trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The other boys and I made a game out of doing everything in our power to encourage truckers to honk as we rode by. Jesus had nothing directly to do with our efforts. Neither did my unrealized-until-years-later attraction to the PK (Google it… what I mean is hidden on the Wikipedia list under “Other”).

The present: I wanted very much to make this kid happy, but I didn’t do it. My reason (the conscious one, anyway) was that using my car horn in the fast-moving but heavy traffic might be dangerous. What kind of example would I be setting? A moment later, I changed lanes, positioning my vehicle in front of the white van. I realized then that my Obama-Biden bumper stickers would be at least as visible as the “HONK FOR JESUS” sign had been.

The layered significance of the child’s request and my non-response rushed in. I had refused to honk for Jesus. I, an irreligious, liberal-voting homosexual, had refused a child the simple pleasure of an aural affirmation of his socially-conditioned by still heartfelt religiosity. And then, by waving my bumper stickers in his face as plainly as I do my “lifestyle choice” whenever I go into public without hiding who I am, I had reinforced every prejudice he likely has about my kind.

I felt, then, that I should have honked my horn. The dangers of falsely signaling a road hazard be damned–a kid’s happiness, not to mention his ideological future, was at stake! At that point, however, the white van was lost in a sea of other vehicles, most of which, like my own, sported license plates from red states.

At this point the post would undoubtedly benefit from moral resolution, a final decision about why I was or wasn’t right to honk my horn for Jesus.

10 Ways Presidential Debates are (like) Horror Movies

1. Oh, the suspense!

I spent much of yesterday trying not to think about the debates, which are microcosms of the terror generally associated with elections. As Alfred Hitchcock understood when he created the pre-Psycho buzz, a movie’s scariness begins with the advertising, long before you take your seat in the theater. I don’t recall feeling so anxious about a media event since the countdown to the release of Prometheus, which, like the first debate, was disappointing. If you think I’m a freak for being so obsessed, you might consider that the folks at ABC hadn’t even heard of me when they created their 2012 Presidential Elections Fantasy Game.

2.A lot can happen in 90 minutes.

The average running time of a horror film is very close to the (supposed) length of a presidential debate. In that short sliver of time, the lives of millions can change, even end.

3. The bad guys are monsters.

I usually approach the horror genre in the spirit of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft–it’s a powerful political tool that can agitate for liberation by showing the horrors of oppression. However, this image makes me feel ashamed:

This image forces me to admit that vilifying members of historically disenfranchised groups through exaggerated, racialized images of otherness is, alas, one of the horror genre’s most common refrains. Oh, and smart people are scary–fear brains! Of course, evil aristocrats are just as common as evil ethnic minorities in the horror genre, and Obama is certainly trying to paint Romney as an evil aristocrat. But then again, after what the Koch brothers and other billionaires have done, good-guy 1%-ers like Bruce Wayne seem more like a fantasy than ever. Or, as the Weekly World News reports:

4. Violence is graphic.

As Obama and Romney circled around each other on the “town hall” stage, I was waiting for one of them to visit the grossest of gross fatalities on the other. So the violence of their differences did indeed get some visual representation. Alas, Obama did not rip off Romney’s head and swing around his spinal cord like a lasso.

5.Shouting at the screen is encouraged.

Much as we are inclined to shout at the hapless onscreen victims, “Don’t go in there!” or “Turn on the lights, stupid!,” during the first debate, I wanted to shout at Obama to get it together. During last night’s debate, I was much more inclined to shout at Romney, “Oh no you didn’t!” Whatever that means.

6. Historically, the first one is usually more important than the sequels and remakes.

I read several articles proclaiming that, although Obama won last night, it didn’t really matter–the first debate is the only one likely to make a difference at the polls. Similarly, I like the remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) more than the 1977 original, but the original is the one I put on a syllabus a few years back. Then again, I did teach the 2007 sequel to the remake because it’s clearly about American engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, so maybe there’s hope.

7. The acting is often bad.

In my opinion, Obama has done a heckuva good job with the economy despite some of the worst possible circumstances. Nevertheless, that’s not what the American people want to hear, so he had to present–unconvincingly–a rosier picture. Similarly, Romney is obviously lying when he says his platform doesn’t favor the rich, but much like people don’t typically go to horror movies to see Oscar-worthy performances, nobody seems to care.

8. The narratives are often full of holes.

This one is a corollary to the last one. In my classes this week, we discussed how the movie The Fog (1980) involves a lot of creepy goings-on that don’t make a lot of sense. Similarly, Obama and Romney tell stories about their records and about each other that are a little too simplistic to pass rigorous analysis. Then again, brains are evil. See number 3, above.

9. The fate of the world could depend on the outcome.

If you pay attention to stupid religious fanatics as well as a number of anti-Obama billboards I recently saw in Ohio, Obama’s positions on gay marriage and abortion are pretty much going to bring about the end of days. Similarly, if Romney’s economic polices are put in place, the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen, and next thing you know, your kids are playing the Hunger Games. Sadly, I couldn’t load the page that yielded this image on a Google search, but I like the idea of Obama as the Mockingjay:

10. The good guys don’t always win.

According to Time, zombies are “the official monster of the recession.” While many of us in horror studies are really rather tired of zombies by now, they remain instructive, as their stories have always been political allegories in which the flesh-eating bad guys usually win. The potential for the bad guys to win often sets horror movies apart from their genre counterparts: while horror viewers do sometimes like a happy ending, we recognize that not all the stories we follow will end well. And so with the debates, and so with elections. I do hope for the best, though, Please use your brains; don’t fear that people who have them are out to eat yours, too. Vote.

Lost Souls Swimming in a Fish Bowl

I spent much of this weekend (Sept. 29 – 30, 2012) at ScareFest in Lexington, KY. It’s a convention for horror fans and ghost hunters. I’ve written about the latter, particularly in Gothic Realities, and being one of the former has shaped my entire career.ScareFest seems like my natural environment, yet I more often attend other gatherings, similarly devoted to exploring the pleasures of cultural production, that have never felt nearly as comfortable.

I like being a scholar, so unless a conspiracy of events forces me to change callings, the not-quite-comfy academic conferences will continue to spur most of my non-family travels.At these conferences, academics spend enormous sums of energy trying to prove they share their colleagues’ ample measures of cleverness; generally, this effort involves applying fashionable ideas to reliable texts. Despite my misleadingly loveless description of this smarty-pants ritual, I often enjoy it. I like listening to and talking about what others think about cultural objects. Inevitably, though, I sneak off to my hotel room or some other secluded place for virtually every meal, thinking I really ought to be more social but not really knowing how. I’ll have french fries and read one of those horror novels that many scholars consider beneath them.

At ScareFest, I felt no profound need for sequestration with fried potatoes. I was surrounded by stars and other evocations of the films that inspired my peculiar fascination with the macabre, and I felt ready to chat with everybody. Although the two most prominent headliners at this year’s ScareFest had to cancel, for me, the real stars turned out to be the other fans.

In the interest of full disclosure, and also to set the scene, I’ll admit that despite ScareFest being a fairly natural habitat for me, I had an ulterior motive, a design to see if one or more people might take an interest in my books (if you’re here because you picked up one of my flyers, you rock!). I’ve been to many a fan-devoted convention, but my first ScareFest was also my first time on the other side of a vendor’s table:

Standing at one of those tables, behind stacks of books waiting like puppies for someone to bring them home, was kind of like being in a fish bowl. To be clear, my metaphor is not (yet) mixed–it was the kind of fish bowl set up in pet stores behind displays of puppies. I don’t know if the other tables’ actually-famous folk (OMFG, Tony Todd was just down the aisle!) also feel like fish… nor do I know whether fish enjoy looking out at the people who look in at them… but before this unmixed metaphor stretches beyond the breaking point, which will occur after T-minus four paragraphs, let me get to the payoff.

Which is that the moments I spent chatting with the people who stopped by to glance at books and enter the drawing for free stuff–most of them didn’t buy anything, and that was okay–were, on average, more enjoyable than the celebrity Q&As I’ve waited hours to see. Instead of making me stand in line for hours, these chat-worthy people just filed by, some in glorious costumes, some just their glorious selves, as if they were the ones on display. I met self-proclaimed mediums, fellow film experts, and some of the creepiest-looking clowns I’ve ever seen. And whoever thought of being nice to fish? Well, apparently these people did. Aside from some obligatory Twilight-bashing, which is as formative for the fans of “real” horror as the Mormon vampire saga is for the twi-hards now coming of age, conversation dwelt solely on the good. “I love the old Universal horror movies!” “Vampires are kind of my thing.” “You guys are awesome!”

That last comment came from an adolescent (or nigh-adolescent) girl who stayed interested in my stuff even after she saw the prices and knew they were college-level reading, but she was, quite rightly, more interested in the compelling tales sold by my fellow BlackWyrm novelists Georgia L. Jones and Christopher Kokoski.Georgia, Christopher, and I have very different world views and day jobs, but since we all scribble about monsters and struggles for survival that occasionally offer insights in addition to bloody spectacles, our bowl positively bubbled with interaction. We heartily agreed that the girl who spoke of awesomeness was pretty darned brilliant herself.

Fish bowls are highly predictable. Seaweed or other life-like contrivances sway with the currents created by filters and other mechanical stimuli. Plastic characters may or may not swim around. Castles and other settings provide different paths to explore. At the bottom, there’s not much more than colorful rocks. Sometimes they’re even red.

Horror movies, horror stories, and the communities that form around them are a motley bunch, demons and fairies and slashers and ghostbusters and women in black and lots of people in jeans and t-shirts that advertise favorite films, bands, or witticisms. e.g. “Dead girls do anal.” The diverse carnival of freaks (of whom I am one) comes together not as different but to be about difference, to be radically different in a way that makes us all the same (“one of us!”). So goes the horror movie, and so goes the horror fan, each a site delighting in the predictability of connecting with others via the things that might otherwise push us apart. The fish bowl’s sides cordon off bulging-eyed gawkers. We wonder whether the strange creatures on the other side of the glass might be more free than we are.

BOOM! No more fish bowl. Maybe Mr. Myers had the right idea: