“Midsommar” (2019) Review

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Midsommar is the second film from the director of breakout hit Hereditary (2018), Ari Aster. It follows a group of American friends embarking on a summer research trip.

The protagonist Dani, portrayed by Florence Pugh, is the odd-one-out. She’s tagging along on her partner Christian’s (Jack Reynor) “boys’ trip” with his friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’re accompanying their Swedish classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to the isolated rural commune where he grew up, with the intention of participating in the community’s summer solstice traditions.

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I’d been anticipating this film for a number of weeks; the trailer drew me in immediately. It promised a wacky fever dream played out in broad daylight – still an unusual and exciting choice for a horror film – and it ticked the folk horror box for me. I love horror films that centre on cults or rituals (The Wicker Man (1973) is a firm favourite of mine – we’ll dig into the inevitable comparisons between these two movies in a mo) but I particularly appreciated that this movie took an anthropological view of them. The friends are all postgraduates (or graduate students, if you’re in the States): one of them, Josh, is writing his thesis specifically about Midsummer traditions in Europe. We really get to delve into the beliefs in the commune and the way their society functions, and it provides some food for thought regarding cultural relativism.

Firstly, I’d like to chat about the visuals, because this film is stunning. Even the gruesome scenes are somehow so visually arresting that I couldn’t look away. I loved the juxtaposition of the gore with the pastel-painted buildings, idyllic countryside and beautiful costumes (I deliberately bought some embroidered skirts to capture the vibe, LOL). The interiors of the buildings are elaborately decorated with painted scenes of Midsommar traditions. After a bit of research, I found that highly decorative farmhouses are a part of the cultural heritage of Hälsingland, where the film takes place.

Midsommar exceeded my expectations of its weirdness. Despite repeat viewings of the teasers and extended trailer, I didn’t have any inkling as to how big a role drug use would play in the narrative and the visuals. Every instance of drug use is accompanied by undulating effects, with trees and flowers appearing to breathe. However, even before they start indulging in illicit substances, it’s very trippy – as the protagonists are driving into the commune, there’s an especially cool (and nauseating) upside-down shot that slowly turns the right way up when they pass under the overhead banner. It stood out to me, mainly because it made my stomach churn.

I also wasn’t expecting this to be quite such a black comedy. Confession: I haven’t seen Hereditary yet, but I’ve been told that it also has scenes and visuals that could be classed as gallows humour. There were some moments – amid my gasps of shock and my outbursts of disgust – that made me laugh out loud, as did everyone else in the audience. There’s a really unsettling “sex scene” in which Christian is chosen to “mate” (ewww) with Maja, a young woman who has come of age. An older woman pushes Christian’s bum and guides his thrusts, which I admit to (childishly) finding hysterically funny. Other women in the village encircle them and imitate Maja’s moans. The motif of imitation – not mocking but empathetic – recurs throughout the film and manages to be creepy, amusing and moving. The collective moaning/screaming/cries of pain are jarring but OTT. It’s kind of… campy? It was an odd choice and I definitely liked it.

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Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)

On the topic of empathy: I was intrigued by how the film played with both our feelings of empathy as an audience towards the characters and between the characters themselves. I found myself questioning who exactly I was supposed to care about and agree with. The film suggests that the commune is cultist and amoral, but they aren’t necessarily bloodthirsty – this is their way of life. By the end of the film, they fully embrace Dani and she finally has a family who value and respect her feelings. Dani witnesses the sex ritual and has a panic attack, fleeing to the communal sleeping quarters to weep. The other young women gather around her, wailing alongside her and accompanying her through her grief over the final collapse of her relationship with Christian.

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Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)

I enjoyed watching the exploration of empathy because I really identified with Dani. I think Florence Pugh’s performance is stellar. From the moment we are first introduced to Christian, it’s apparent that he is a toxic influence in her life. He never validates her feelings, he doesn’t pay real attention to what’s going on in her life and he seems to see her personal problems as a burden rather than something he can support her through. I found him to be infuriating beyond belief, which is a testament to Jack Reynor’s acting (even if I don’t necessarily agree with his thoughts about the character).

The characterisation is my main argument against the obvious comparison to The Wicker Man. The burning temple at the end of the film is very evocative of the iconic closing moments of Wicker Man, but I’d argue that that is where the similarities end. Midsommar is much more of a sociological piece than Wicker Man, which makes more use of religion as a subject. Midsommar is by no means secular; however, it’s less about the gods and more about the interpersonal relationships.

The other point of divergence between The Wicker Man and Midsommar for me – you might disagree – was my response to the ending. I was gutted by the finale of the former; I think Howie is a great horror protagonist and the final moments of the film are some of the most evocative and eerie in all of cinema.

I had the opposite reaction to Midsommar‘s ending. The film culminates with a ritual burning; every 90 years, the Hårga sacrifice nine people as an offering at the summer solstice. Six of the sacrifices are already dead, but two members of the cult offer themselves up to be burned alive.

The final sacrifice is chosen by Dani – her reward for winning the title of May Queen earlier in the film. Surprise, surprise: she selects Christian. She doesn’t speak during the film’s closing scenes, so we can only guess at her motivations: I felt that her panicked response to witnessing the sex ritual was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It broke the seal on all the feelings of resentment that she had pushed down. Florence Pugh and Ari Aster have differing opinions on the ending. Pugh suggested in an interview with Salon that Dani is “…completely gone now. She doesn’t realize what’s going on, and she’s just really happy the fire is going up… I don’t think I would’ve supported Dani as much if she knew that he was in there. I don’t think anybody is that sinister.” Aster argued that, while he hoped that the character’s deteriorating mental state came across to viewers, Dani definitely knew what was happening. I’m tempted to agree with his assessment. I think it makes Dani a much more complicated – and therefore more interesting – character if she is motivated not by madness but by the taste of freedom. The ending is far creepier if we imagine that her mind was unclouded throughout and she simply wanted rid of her arsehole boyfriend. Freaky.

I also noted that, earlier in the film, Pelle asks Dani if she feels “held” by Christian and if he feels like home to her. They seem to be kindred spirits; there’s a subtle link between the two of them surrounding the cleansing power of fire. Pelle’s parents burned to death, but he had a broader family all around him to carry him through his grief. Dani purges herself of the negative element in her life – her last link to the outside world which has left her to wallow in her trauma – by sacrificing Christian via immolation.

Although it’s a brutal conclusion to the film, I couldn’t bring myself to hate Dani. I know what it’s like to be manipulated and gaslit, and to have the perceptions of a group of narcissists projected onto me. So, for better or for worse, I was very into the weird revenge fantasy of Midsommar. Sorry ’bout it.

The final shots of Florence Pugh’s face reminded me strongly of Thomasin (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) at the end of The Witch (2015). Both films end with young women liberated by acts of violence. You could argue both women are going from the frying pan into the fire – Dani escapes her relationship with a narcissist by effectively handing him over to a cult, Thomasin escapes the cage of her Puritan upbringing by signing her soul over to Satan. Ultimately, I think I enjoyed the two films so much because the protagonists are young women and they are both complex in very disturbing ways. There’s still something revolutionary to me about seeing a narrative play out in which a woman is allowed to be unsettling and to make us uncomfortable with her choices and behaviour, without being punished for it within the story.

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The Bitten Files #2: Mercy Brown and the Vampire Panic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a report on tuberculosis every year. Currently, about one-third of the world’s population is infected with TB. It is also the infectious disease with the highest mortality rate, with 5,000 people dying of the disease every day. Although the term “tuberculosis” didn’t come into use until 1839, TB has been with us since ancient times. Our medical knowledge has, of course, improved exponentially since the Industrial Revolution and treatment in the modern world is often inhibited purely by stigma rather than by lack of resources.

Why all this talk about tuberculosis, you might be wondering. When is she going to get onto the vampire stuff?

Fear not, dear reader. I think we’re there.

In the latter half of the 19th century, rural New England was plagued by tuberculosis. Known at the time as consumption, due to the rapid weight loss experienced by those who contracted it, it struck fear into the hearts of communities. It’s easy to see why: it was so infectious that it wiped out whole households. At the time, tuberculosis hadn’t been identified as a bacterial disease so the source of the infection was unknown. The disease induces symptoms which – especially if unexplained and poorly understood as they were then – are undoubtedly terrifying. A raging fever and night sweats plagued the “consumptive” person as they grew ever paler and weaker, coughing up blood.

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Mercy Brown’s grave marker, Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter, RI

This tragic epidemic led residents of the northeastern United States to suspect a supernatural culprit. They believed that the dying were having the life drained out of them by none other than their own deceased relatives. In accordance with local superstitions, they started to exhume the bodies of the recently deceased in order to confirm that these wandering spirits were causing havoc from household to household.

The earliest (recorded) case came from Bennington County, Vermont. It was that of Hulda Burton, the wife of Captain Isaac Burton. Hulda was dying of tuberculosis and, in an effort to save her, the captain had his first wife Rachel (c. 1770 – 1790) exhumed. Believing Rachel to be the entity draining his new spouse of her life force, Burton agreed to have his late wife’s liver, heart and lungs burned and obviously hoped that Hulda would be cured; sadly, this was not to be and Hulda died in 1793. Vermont was also the site of one of the most notorious incidents in the so-called “vampire panic”. On 14th February 1817, Frederick Ransom, aged 20, passed away. Fearing his son would return to plague their family, his father had Frederick’s heart cut out and burned on the blacksmith’s forge.

But by far the most infamous case was the story of Mercy Brown. Born in 1873 in Exeter, Rhode Island, she was only 19 when she died in 1892. Her mother and older sister had already passed away, and her younger brother Edwin suffered alongside her but did outlive her. After her death, Edwin’s condition worsened and the family believed his illness to be the foul work of the undead. They persuaded George Brown, Mercy’s father, to exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters. George was justifiably reluctant, but he gave in due to the pressure of those around him The cadavers of Mary Eliza, his wife, and Mary Olive, his eldest daughter, had decomposed at the expected rate. When her body was examined, Mercy’s heart was discovered to be full of blood and she did not appear to have decomposed much at all, despite the exhumation taking place two months after her burial.

We know now that the environment can have a significant impact on what happens to the body post-mortem, and Mercy’s corpse had been stored in a cold crypt above ground, decelerating decomposition. However, to the 19th century New Englander mind, this was proof that Mercy was the fiend who had returned from the grave to harm her brother. Her heart and liver were burned and the ashes were mixed into a tincture for Edwin to drink. Unsurprisingly, Edwin himself succumbed to the disease two months later.

The phrase “vampire panic” is a bit of a misnomer. Although the newspapers of the period made reference to beliefs in “vampirism” – and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between these practices and the vampire found in European folklore – there’s no evidence that the people of New England used that sort of terminology themselves. It’s unlikely that the word “vampire” was in common usage. “Panic” is also perhaps too strong a word. It implies that this was a one-off when a belief that the dead could do harm to the living was prevalent in various cultures and for an extended period of time.

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“The Vampire”, Edvard Munch (1895)

It also implies that this was a spree of connected traumatic events, whereas the truth is more complex. There is a century between the first and last notable incidents, so it is possibly better described as a “superstition” or an ongoing practice to which the inhabitants of New England resorted when they could not rationalise what was happening to their communities. Ritual is a very important thing across all human cultures and, macabre as it may seem, the ritualistic burning of undead hearts assuaged the community’s fears – and even if it didn’t, they were perhaps comforted by the thought that they were doing something in the face of an unknown, faceless enemy.

Further reading

The Great New England Vampire Panic, Abigail Tucker (Smithsonian Magazine)

New England’s Vampire History, Joe Bills (New England Today)

When Rhode Island Was “The Vampire Capital of America”, Charles T Robinson (New England Today)

Vampire Island, Timeline (documentary) – a bit sensationalist, but is at its core a decent examination of early modern beliefs about vampires

Review: “From Here To Eternity”, Caitlin Doughty

I loved Caitlin’s first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, so I was mega excited to get my hands on her second. From Here To Eternity: Travelling The World To Find The Good Death recounts her adventures around the world, exploring the mourning rituals and funerary practices of a range of cultures.

I’m a big fan of Caitlin’s YouTube channel Ask A Mortician, so I couldn’t help but hear her voice in my head while I was reading. She writes the way she speaks and it’s full of her personality. She’s really funny and engaging. The illustrations by Landis Blair are beautiful; they’re so evocative and, at the risk of sounding like I’m twelve years old, cool.

Caitlin’s advocacy for better public understanding of death, more transparency in the funeral industry and greater family involvement in funerals is fantastic and a very worthwhile cause. Although she’s lighthearted in the way she writes and in the way she presents her work on her YouTube channel, I found From Here To Eternity moving, particularly the chapter about the Ruriden columbarium in Japan. A columbarium is a space where urns can be kept in niches in the walls (example here). At the Koukokuji Temple in Tokyo, cremated remains are represented by small LED Buddha statues. They glow blue, but when mourners visit their loved ones’ resting place and enter the deceased person’s details, the Buddha which corresponds to their loved one glows white. Caitlin discusses the project with the monk who presides over the columbarium, and I was touched by his desire to memorialise those who had no-one to tend to their graves.

A couple of reviews I read were critical of the fact that three of the eight chapters (not including the introduction and epilogue) dealt with death rituals within the United States. I don’t quite understand that critique, if I’m honest. I personally felt that they were each sufficiently unique and interesting – for example, the first chapter documents Caitlin’s visit to a cremation at America’s only open-air pyre in Colorado and the other two America-based chapters deal with a so-called “body farm” and natural burial.

It’s a relatively quick read (perhaps that’s just because of the pace at which I devoured it, haha!) but thought-provoking and insightful nonetheless.

Links

Caitlin’s website (x)

Order of the Good Death (x)

Review: “Unexplained”, Richard Maclean Smith

I picked up Unexplained: Supernatural Stories for Uncertain Times while out shopping last week – it was a bit of an impulse buy, admittedly, but I’m really glad it caught my eye. I bought it under the impression that it was a collection of ghost stories (based on the title and cover); however, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Unexplained is an interesting combination of spooky storytelling and sceptical analysis.

The book is based on Maclean Smith’s acclaimed podcast of the same name, which I wasn’t previously aware of. I’m not a great lover of podcasts but I’d certainly give it a go. It sounds as though it takes a similar approach to the book, an approach which I appreciated and found refreshing. He leaves each mystery as open-ended as possible, dealing thoroughly with a range of explanations but never pushing one conclusion over another. While the author is upfront about his atheism, he’s a fantastic storyteller and definitely conveyed his enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The author strikes a great balance between relating the accounts of unexplained encounters while also making the book very personal. He starts with his own grandad’s experience – which I won’t repeat because it’s such a fascinating tale to read, it’s worth buying the book just for that – and the result is an incredibly engaging book that could have become cold and clinical if poorly handled. I appreciated the dedication in the acknowledgements too; Maclean Smith writes that he hopes he has written respectfully about the individuals whose tragic deaths are explored in the book. Too often, paranormal enthusiasts forget the real people behind the mysteries and, knowing that, my heart sank a little when I realised that the Elisa Lam case is examined in this book. Her death at the Cecil Hotel in 2013 took the internet by storm, especially when footage of her in a lift, hours before her death, was made public. I recall how upsetting it was to see all the armchair analysis of her behaviour in the YouTube comments, so I was impressed with how sensitively the section about her death was written. It was lovely to read a paranormal-themed book which was socially conscious.

As for the tales themselves, I already knew of a few (hard not to when you actively seek out spooky sh!t). That said, each was so meticulously researched and presented a clear account. I had heard of the Dybbuk Box, but it has had so many owners that it’s often difficult to keep track of what happened when and to whom if you research it. The author managed to string the various stages and strands of the saga together so well.

The section on Skinwalker Ranch is spectacularly scary. I’m not sure why that chapter in particular frightened me so much, but I thought it was brilliant.

If you’re looking for a straightforward anthology of terrifying tales, you’d certainly still enjoy Unexplained, although I think it’s more suited to those with an interest in the “how” and “why” of extraordinary encounters. If you’re interested in the psychology which may lie behind many paranormal experiences, I’d highly recommend it.

Links

Episodes, Unexplained Podcast

Download links: iTunes, Soundcloud

Twitter / Facebook

Hannah Verdier, Is Unexplained the world’s spookiest podcast? (2017, The Guardian)

Spooky Women You Should Support

I wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day on this blog but I’ve struggled to come up with an idea for how to do so in a way which fits the ethos and theme of Jude And The Obscure. Finally, inspiration struck. This blog post is a tribute to women whose blogs, YouTube channels and published works I follow and who have inspired me to embrace my weird interests. Of course, I can’t list every woman who ticks those boxes – there are so many fantastic female activists, writers and content creators out there –  but this is a selection of those who have really changed the way I think.

Caitlin Doughty

Owner of Undertaking LA, Founder of The Order of the Good Death, Death-Positive Activist and Author

I’ve mentioned Caitlin’s work multiple times on this blog (specifically here and here). Her YouTube videos on the Ask A Mortician channel deal with death from all angles, and it’s never insensitive but always fun. She examines the relationships between death and race, gender and class in a way I find necessary and relevant.

She’s seriously had an enormous impact on the way I feel about death and mortality. Watching Caitlin’s videos and reading her fabulous debut book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes helped me realise that grief is a process rather than a singular emotion; she taught me that bereavement is not something you “should just get over”. It’s not morbid to engage with our death and mourning traditions – if anything, it’s deeply cathartic and healthy. I love Death Mom and you should too.

Her Instagram is here.

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Lucia Peters

Writer and Editor

Lucia Peters is the brains behind my favourite blog of all time, The Ghost In My Machine. TGIMM is a hub for spooky stories and creepy cases from history; I’m especially fond of her Most Dangerous Games series. I’ve never done any research into this, but it often seems like online communities which focus on the paranormal or on topics we perceive as “spooky”/”creepy” are dominated by men. All the popular storytellers on YouTube (the likes of Lazy Masquerade and Mr Nightmare) are men. It’s incredibly cool to see a woman find success in this field and, as with all the women on this list, I’d urge you to support her work.

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Sarah Chavez

Director of The Order of the Good Death, Founder of Death & The Maiden and Blogger at Nourishing Death

Through engaging with Caitlin Doughty’s work, I discovered Sarah Chavez’s fantastic blog posts which are available across multiple platforms. I particularly admire her work around the decolonisation of death – she posts such interesting and beautiful photos on her Instagram (@sarah_calavera) which provide insight into ancient and contemporary Mexican funerary traditions. I really liked this post she wrote about the Disney film Coco (Oscar-winning Disney film, might I add!). Much of her writing deals with the “reclaiming” of death and, by extension, our own bodies. Whenever I read something of hers, I always find it thought-provoking.

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Amber Carvaly

Director at Undertaking LA, Death-Positive Activist and Artist

Amber is part of the all-female team at Undertaking LA, alongside Caitlin Doughty and funeral arranger Susana Alba. Like Caitlin, she advocates for more open discussions about death and greater involvement of families in the preparation of their deceased loved ones for burial or cremation. I particularly enjoyed this piece she wrote for Dead Maidens in 2016 about planning ahead for funerals – plenty of food for thought!

You can find Amber on Instagram as @yoshimidreams.

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Kelly-Ann Maddox

Spiritual Counsellor and YouTube Content Creator

I mentioned Kelly-Ann briefly in my post about tarot – I discovered her while trying to find YouTube videos with tarot tips – but I’ve come to appreciate her for much more than that. She’s a witchy heroine of mine. I said that she “exudes warmth” in that blog post and I think that’s largely why I subscribed to her channel; she’s laidback and candid in a style many other pagan channels seem to shy away from. She’s completely changed my view of how my spiritual practice is “supposed” to be. I spent a long time convinced I was doing it wrong: I didn’t understand all the New Age terminology and felt stupid, and the witchy Instagram craze made me feel fake because I don’t dress or decorate in a particularly spooky way. Kelly-Ann’s work has taught me to own all of it and just set out on a voyage of discovery without worrying what other people think.

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HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!!!!

A Quick Update

There hasn’t been any significant activity on this blog since early October last year, so sincere apologies for that. I had a busy (and difficult) end to the year and unfortunately blog posts had to take a backseat. I also managed to miss the blog’s 2nd birthday on 16th January, despite the fact it happens to be the day after mine. The calendar widget at the bottom of the page did publish the scheduled reminder, even if I didn’t get round to marking the day.

My mental health deteriorated badly at the end of October 2018, which has meant moving back home and taking time off from university. Although I won’t go into any more detail than that, I understand how important it is to be honest about your struggles – we all go through periods of feeling low, although stigma remains when it comes to talking about it. I’ve been there (and still am there, to an extent) and you’re not alone.

I’m hoping to be a little more active over the next few months, but I still have some big decisions to make regarding university and I’m very much still recovering, mentally and physically. I’d like to add some more entries to my “files”* series; however, I have to be realistic about how much content I am capable of producing. I need to manage my own expectations more than yours, dear readers!

Stay spooky.

Love,

Jude x

*The Bitten Files / The Hidden Files / The Haunted Files / The Lunar Files

Why Do Women Love Witches?

[Feminism] encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. – Pat Robertson in an Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment, 1992

Witches or an equivalent figure can be found in folklore all over the world. To some, the witch is and has always been a benevolent figure: she is a healer, a wise or “cunning” woman with secret knowledge of tinctures and poultices. In many cultures, it is difficult to draw a distinction between witchcraft practices and natural medicine. To others, the witch is symbolic of Earth’s greatest evils. The witch serves the Devil; she turns from God and claims metaphysical power – both miracle-working and devastatingly destructive – on her own terms. Furthermore, to many people in contemporary society, the witch is symbolic simply of personal power, of a force outside the norm. The word “witch” has numerous connotations and, although the idea of witches is ancient and common to cultures worldwide, the term itself means something different to everyone. The image you visualise when someone says the word “witch” is informed by the media and the traditions you have been exposed to, whether this is with regard to literature, cinema, art, religion or folklore and folk traditions.

I think you can tell a lot about a culture from the way it perceives and depicts its witches – thematically, it’s often an extension of that culture’s views regarding women and power –  so I want to delve into the evolution of the witch in popular thought. Why are so many women, myself included, claiming the label? What does it mean to be a witch in the modern world?

First and foremost, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the “witchy” aesthetic and the actual practice of witchcraft. Of course there are women who engage with both, but just because someone has crafted a particularly spooky Instagram feed, it doesn’t necessarily mean she practises witchcraft. However, I do feel that the two are linked and have their roots in the same central issue: the subversion of our expectations about women. Witches are associated with darkness and with the macabre but, on a more general level, with all the things that make us uncomfortable. Utilising witchcraft and the symbolism of the witch as part of an aesthetic or style grants a certain power. A witchy woman can be intimidating; even if she does not participate in witchcraft practices, she can cultivate an untouchable persona in a society which seeks to make her vulnerable, to convince her that she is flawed and to prey upon her self-doubt.

I wanted to address that stylistic aspect before digging into the juicy historical and spiritual stuff (which are the areas in which I’m most interested).

In an article for The Guardian this April, the author Madeline Miller explored the relationship between witchcraft and perceptions of women: “In the late 19th century, the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted something revolutionary. The persecution of witches, she said, had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women. A witch, she said, wasn’t wicked. She didn’t fly on a broomstick naked in the dark, or consort with demons. She was, instead, likely to be a woman “of superior knowledge”. As a thought experiment, she suggested that for “witches” we should read instead “women”. Their histories, she intimated, run hand in hand.” According to Miller, Gage was onto something. She argues that words used to describe male practitioners of magic, such as “warlock”, “wizard” or “magus”, don’t carry the same negative connotations we associate with the term “witch”. The cultural context of witchcraft is inherently gendered.

The word “witch” is still used to describe women in the public sphere who are disliked; Miller gives the example of Hillary Clinton’s portrayal by her detractors during the 2016 presidential election, demonstrating that “witch” has often been a stick with which to beat women, especially vulnerable women and social outcasts. A witch is unnatural and dangerous, posing a threat to the most fundamental unit of our society: the family. Able to blight crops, cause friction in the family and burden a home with illness, the witch is a direct threat to the integrity of the household. I find this particularly interesting because, throughout much of feminist theory, the household is also the frontline of misogynist oppression. We measure a lot of feminist progress by how women live within their own homes: for example, how evenly housework is shared between couples, how much husbands and male partners contribute to childcare, how women are treated and whether their personal autonomy is respected. We have been (rightly) preoccupied with how accessible it is for women to leave the domestic sphere, if this is what they want. The implication of calling a powerful woman in politics – like Hillary Clinton –  a “witch” is that she represents an erasure of the values people want to impose upon their households, families and on society in general. During the US election of 2016, there was much emphasis on patriotism and a very prominent pushback against anything perceived to be “unAmerican” or “anti-American”, of which “traditional family values” forms a significant part.

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(c) Tito Mouraz (2016)

Witchcraft and magick have been perceived solely as the domain of women in many cultures. In Norse society in the Late Iron Age, a female shaman was known as a völva and these women practised a type of ritual magic called seiðr. Although men practised it too, it was considered “unmanly” for them to do so, bringing a specific dishonour called ergi (roughly translated as “effeminacy”). Ergi and its adjectival form argr are also associated with Viking taboos around homosexuality, about which you can read more here. With women’s history and the history of witchcraft so intimately bound together, it’s no wonder that women have sought to reclaim the word “witch”. Our fascination with the world of the witch is certainly a product of our collective feelings about powerful women and the way we talk about them. However, I think there’s something deeper, something in the subconscious, which draws women to witchcraft long before we’re able to comprehend this socio-historical link.

Anne Theriault, writing for The Establishment in 2016, described her childhood brushes with magic. Having spoken to other women who recall performing rituals at sleepovers – all in the spirit of fun, of course – she considers these attempts at witchcraft as almost “… like a girlhood rite of passage…” and I would agree with her. I had those experiences too. I was an odd child anyway – I saw a ghost when I was about six years old and, since then, have been invested in anything paranormal. When I was in primary school, I and one of my friends would say we had magical powers. We were only pretending, but we would sit together and “practise” our magic. This intensified as I got older. In secondary school, we played games like light as a feather, stiff as a board and talked for hours about the mysteries of the universe at sleepovers. I can remember one incident in particular when I was about 13. A group of us were at one girl’s house watching Eurovision (ha!) and went out into the garden while the boring voting bit was happening. We sat in a circle with a stick of incense poked into the ground and a friend suggested we “try something”. Each of us cupped our hands together and, one by one, she went round the circle, rubbed her hands together and held her hands above ours for a minute or two. Then we looked into our hands and could “see” a ball of coloured light. (Mine was blue, by the way.)

Having done more research into New Age and witchcraft practices, I realise now that my friend was probably inspired by the idea of auras, an energy field which surrounds a person and appears a certain colour, indicating something about the health or the traits of that person. The colours we saw were likely perceptual distortions; however, it was harmless fun at the time. This was by no means a sophisticated ritual, but it straddled the line between being scary and exciting.

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(c) unknown

I have a great love of witches in folklore and in fiction; for me, they symbolise something very profound and complex about the role of women in society.

Note: there are, of course, plenty of men who call themselves “witches” and there is certainly a good article to be written about them. I just don’t think I’m the one to write it; I happen to be most interested in witchcraft within the lives of women.

Further reading

Goddess Remembered: The Burning Times (1990) (documentary, National Film Board of Canada)

Lisa Bonos, Vulnerable women used to be suspected of witchcraft. Now witchiness is a sign of strength. (Washington Post)

Matilda Hill-Jenkins, Meet The Women In Modern Covens (The Debrief)

Stevie Martin, Are More 20 Something Women Turning To Witchcraft? We Asked An Expert (The Debrief)

Madeline Miller, From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches
(The Guardian)

Ania Rybak, How Did Witchcraft Empower Women In 2017? (Mookychick)

Anne Theriault, The Real Reason Women Love Witches (The Establishment)

 

 

Leave Anubis Alone: Ancient Egypt and the Horror Genre

It occurred to me recently – as these things often do – that there aren’t many horror films which use the ancient world as a setting or plot device. Of those which do, the vast majority are based on the mythology of ancient Egypt (or, at least, our modern assumptions about ancient Egypt – we’ll chat more about that later). It struck me as interesting that, although I could name quite a number of Egyptian-themed horror films off the top of my head, I could count the horror films (that I knew of) inspired by ancient Rome and Greece on one hand. We seem comfortable with a good sword-and-sandals epic, but a horror film? By Jove, no.

In this post, I want to examine why ancient Egypt is such prime fodder for the horror genre. Where does the perception of Egypt as “spooky” come from? Why don’t we feel the same about any other culture from antiquity? And, finally, just what is our problem with Anubis?

the mummy 2

In order to find the root of the squeamish fascination we feel for ancient Egypt, we need to look back at Western culture’s first foray into the land of the pharaohs. Although explorers from Europe – along with those from the Middle East – were travelling to Egypt from as early as the 13th century, the birth of modern Egyptology came with the French invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, artefacts were uncovered and writings were translated, and it was easier than ever before for Europeans to engage with the mysteries of Egypt.

That said, Egypt was still a land of mystery and, in the popular imagination, of threat. In 1892, 30 years before Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of terror Lot No. 249 was published. In it, an Oxford student reanimates a mummy he has bought at an auction and uses the undead fiend to attack his enemies. This marks the first example in literature of a malevolent, resurrected mummy and the story has had a significant influence both on later horror fiction and film. Doyle had previously employed a mummy as a plot device in the short story The Ring of Thoth (1890) in which a young Egyptologist meets an Egyptian man who discovered the secret to eternal life over 3000 years ago. The love of his life died before he could administer the elixir to her, and he has been searching for her sarcophagus and the ring of Thoth – which contains the antidote which will allow him to join her in the afterlife – ever since.

By the time Carter cracked open Tut’s tomb to reveal the treasures within, the public were all too ready to accept the possibility that a curse might strike those who dared enter the tomb. There were eleven deaths in the decade following the tomb’s opening which were popularly attributed to the so-called “curse of the pharaohs”; the most famous of these was undoubtedly that of Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the trip. The burial chamber was opened on 16th February 1923 and Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, sustained while in Egypt, on 5th April. Despite the mania in the press over the curse, Howard Carter never believed in it.

The mummy had all the makings of a movie monster and, in 1932, Universal Studios’ The Mummy was a smash hit. The rest is movie history, enabling the success of the rebooted Mummy franchise in 1999 as well as spawning shelves upon shelves of low-budget offerings.

The curses, resurrected corpses and strange rituals are all part of a narrative which casts ancient Egypt as completely foreign. There’s certainly an element of racism there – we see Greece and Rome as “more like us” and Egypt as distinctly “other”. However, I think an important factor in the continued popularity of Egypt as a setting or plot device in the horror genre is the Egyptian attitude to death. I don’t believe the “hands-on” approach that the Egyptians took to caring for their dead is a concept we’ve ever quite got over and it has potentially become even more alien to us as we’ve dissociated ourselves from death and the handling of our dead. With our aversion to corpses and all that is associated with them, mummification is an invasive, morbid idea to us. Even an ordinary Egyptian person who couldn’t afford to be mummified upon their death would be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert with food and useful everyday items by their relatives. We pay people to do that on our behalf.

the mummy

The Romans buried their dead outside the city walls and the Greeks seemed to define the separation between the living and the dead very clearly. The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, written circa 441BCE, concerns this separation. Polyneices, considered a traitor by his city, is refused burial – thereby disrupting the natural order and keeping the dead among the living (i.e. above ground). His sister Antigone defies the ruling and buries him herself, and she is sentenced to be buried alive. Again, this disrupts the natural order; a living girl is given the treatment of the dead. My point here is not to say that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were averse to seeing the dead or that they did not have their own set of complex funerary rites, but we seem to fixate less on these than we do on mummification and the beliefs the Egyptians held about what happened to the soul after death.

Speaking of ancient Greece and Rome, I did some digging of my own for horror films set in either. I had seen two flicks which fitted the bill: the first being Minotaur (2006) and the other, Cyclops (2008). Cyclops is the only Roman-themed horror film I could find. Set during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14ACE to 37ACE), Cyclops is the story of the last surviving cyclops, which is captured and displayed at the Circus Maximus. It’s a TV movie and truly looks like one; the cyclops is possibly the biggest waste of CGI I’ve ever witnessed. Minotaur has been described as “highly forgettable”, which is unfair – I’m sure Tom Hardy, a far more talented actor than this film deserves, wishes he could erase it from his memory. It’s a film marred by racism – it’s very Xerxes in 300 – and none of it really makes any sense. Despite being set in Crete, nearly everybody has an ambiguously Celtic, or otherwise non-Cretan, name. It’s one of only two horror films set in ancient Greece that I was able to find, both of which deal with the myth of the Minotaur. The second is Land of the Minotaur (1976). Like the other two films mentioned, it’s not brilliant, but it does have Peter Cushing which is always an advantage.

I noted that, when it comes to horror films set in or inspired by ancient Greece or Rome, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to stick to what they know and make a straight-up creature feature. The Minotaur just happens to be the closest thing to a classic movie monster – in the vein of Frankenstein, Dracula or, indeed, the Mummy – that Greek mythology has to offer.

It could be argued that the mythological figures and deities of ancient Egypt simply lend themselves to the horror genre, although I believe it has more to do with our modern misinterpretations. Finally, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about Anubis.

Anubis – or Anpu, Anubis is the Greek rendering of the name – was associated with mummification and embalming. He acted as a psychopomp, guiding souls into the afterlife, and presided over a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart in which the heart of the deceased would be weighed against Ma’at (the physical representation of truth, symbolised by an ostrich feather). If the heart was lighter, the dead person could continue on their journey into the afterlife. If heavier, the heart would be eaten by the demon Ammut.

BD_Hunefer_cropped_1

The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Hunefer (c) Jon Bodsworth.

Anubis wasn’t an evil or malevolent figure in the mythology, so there’s no real basis for his portrayal in many films as a monstrous entity – I think it’s the jackal head thing that freaks modern moviegoers out a bit. Yes, he took part in the judgement of the dead and might seem unsympathetic to us, but he was an important deity. A post on WritingRaider described him thus: “[In Hollywood films, Anubis] has been the main antagonist, killing and sending curses to the heroes… manipulating battles like some evil Bond villain… In truth, the Egyptians didn’t think so.  He was a protector and a caretaker… It is easy to interpret Anubis as evil in today’s culture because of his connection to the dead in Egyptian religion.  But we must keep in mind, that today’s view of the dead is very different from the ancient Egyptian view.  The Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife and there were trials to get to paradise, but once you had proved yourself worthy… there was nothing but peace and happiness.”

My concerns are twofold. As somebody who studied Classics and is a massive horror fan, it makes me rather sad that nobody seems to have thought to tap into the sheer wealth of weird in Greek and Roman mythology. We seem to live in a time of sequels and reboots, and this is just something different I’d love to see. My other issue likewise stems from my appreciation for the rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl. As much as I love The Mummy (1999), I can’t help but feel put off by the portrayal of Egypt as a strange and scary society.

Further Reading

Miscellaneous

Richard Cavendish (editor) (1992) Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Little, Brown and Company. (An excellent guide to the basics. Useful for comparing key myths and traditions from various religions.)

Egyptian Religion

dollingch (2014) Egyptian Culture – Anubis In Egyptian Religion. WritingRaider.

Lucia Gahlin (2001) Egypt: Gods, Myths and Religion. Anness Publishing. (A book I read and re-read like a child possessed. It’s a brilliant, comprehensive look at religion in Egypt, from the mythology to the priesthood to worship by ordinary people.)

Peter Piccione (1997) What Life Was Like On The Banks Of The Nile. Time Life UK. (Another one I read obsessively as a child.)

Ancient Egypt in Popular Culture

Christian-Georges Schwentzel (2017) Why we love (and fear) mummies. The Conversation.

Films mentioned

The Mummy (1932)

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Minotaur (2006)

300 (2006)

Cyclops (2008)

Creative Writing: “Wings”

This is the second of the two pieces I’ve saved from my now-deleted WritersCafe account; it’s also the closest to “horror” of the two. I hesitate to call it “horror” because I think it takes a lot of skill to write horror and I’m not sure I have (or ever had) quite the ability. I wrote this in November 2014.

WINGS

The battlefield is silent now.

A pale and eerie mist has descended, encompassing the expanse of grass and dirt like a funerary shroud. Second Lieutenant James Lerwick lies under it, sharing it with his comrades, the damp of the ground beneath him soaking through his uniform.

The quiet is so unnatural that he wonders if he is dead yet.

Tentatively, James spreads the fingers of his left hand. They are numb but functioning, as are those on his right hand, so he tries to struggle into a sitting position. Fiery, sharp pain sears through both his legs and he whimpers. The explosion flung him like a child’s ragdoll. He wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the bones of his legs have shattered; they certainly feel like it. He is stuck.

His eyes are burning with tears. He prays – not an infrequent gesture this year – that someone will find him. Some luckier soul will be blundering through the mist over the battlefield, searching for other survivors, and see him here in the mud. Maybe his prayers are futile, but he has survived so far on faith alone and he isn’t willing to give up now.

“Help!” he shouts into the gloom, “Help me!”

Then he listens, for the splash of boots in the mud or even – though he doesn’t quite dare to hope – a response.

But nothing happens.

His lower lip is trembling and he has to fight the urge to break down and cry. If he is going to die, he might as well go with dignity, the way his mother would have wanted. It is hard not to weep when he thinks of her anticipating his next letter in vain. James clears his throat and calls out again. His heart is pounding, like the rumble of war drums.

The skies overhead are darkening as he waits. James is losing sight of the bodies around him and panic sets in. How will anyone find him now?  He glances at his watch and squints at its grimy face to find that it is nearing 8 o’clock in the evening. He has no idea how long he has been slumped here. He watches the seconds tick by until 8 o’clock passes. His mind is drifting and perfectly blank.

The silence is broken by the harsh croak of a raven. It startles James. He can see the murky shadow of the bird circling overhead, its wings outstretched. The raven swoops down and lands elegantly a few feet away. James has never seen one up close; they are truly massive birds. From its beak to the tips of its tail-feathers, it must measure at least the length of his forearm, if not more. Its feathers are smooth and dark, but its eyes are darker. He has never seen a creature with less emotion in its eyes. It is almost human in its apathy. It looks up into the sky and James follows its gaze.

Two more ravens are approaching. One lands beside the first, but the last raven hurtles to the ground and collides with its fellow birds. The second raven squawks. They squabble noisily, comical in their fury. If he were not in his present situation, James might have laughed.

“Alastor, ‘ave you lost your mind?!” James is elated at the sound of a voice. Finally, someone has found him! He surveys the surrounding area, seeking out the silhouette of his saviour.

He sees no-one. There is no-one emerging from the fog, no-one stumbling over the uneven ground.

Then he realises.

The voice came from the ravens.

He is convinced that he is hallucinating. That is the only possible explanation. In his pain and desperation, he has imagined a voice. It could even be the shock.

“I was distracted!” This voice sounds younger than the first, more uneasy. It reminds him of his own voice when they first handed him his gun. It sounds so real and close that he doubts himself.

Dread in his heart, he turns back to the ravens. They are hopping about, plucking at the uniforms of the dead. He remembers hearing that ravens are scavengers. He has never witnessed them feasting though. The sight of them plunging their beaks into flesh and tearing it away, spraying blood in all directions, makes bile rise in his throat.

One of the ravens lands on his chest. He can feel its talons digging in, even through layers of clothing. He tries to knock it away, tries to scare it off with a yell, but he can’t move. He is paralysed by some unseen and unknown force. The smell of decay, of sickness, rolls off the raven in pungent waves.

“I think we have a live one, boys.” It has a soft, insidious voice, like the silk of a murderess’ gown over floorboards, and James decides this must be the first raven, the imperious one, the one who seemed to know exactly what it was doing.

Oh Christ, he thinks. Whatever you are, please don’t hurt me.

“Been ages since we’ve ‘ad summat fresh,” The second raven mutters. It joins the first, settling on the other side of his ribcage. Its beak is smeared with blood from its meal. The third raven stands behind them both, an eyeball on a string of crimson sinew dangling from its beak. The iris is brown, the pupil still dilated with fear. It tilts its head back and starts to swallow the eye in revolting gulps. If he could move, James would vomit.

“Surely you mean someone fresh?” The first raven says slyly, and the three cackle in unison.

James knows for certain in that moment, with the trio of ravens laughing raucously on his chest, that he is going to die tonight. Not at the hands of the enemy, but under the claws of these birds from Hell.

 

Creative Writing: “Samhain Night”

I recently closed my account on WritersCafe.org, having been inactive there for quite some time, but I did salvage a couple of pieces of short spooky fiction which I’d written.

This was written for a Halloween competition at my school library in October 2014. Of the two I’ve chosen to keep, this is less like true “horror” fiction – I hope it’s still a fun read and as creepy as 15-year-old me thought it was when I wrote it.

SAMHAIN NIGHT

This is the night that, in ancient times, we called Samhain. It was the time when we led the cattle back from their pastures and gathered in the harvest. We lit our bonfires to banish the cold. Even now, the leaves fall like hanged men, carpeting the ground in crisp brown layers. The days become shorter, the nights longer. It marks the descent into the dark half of the year. Relief will come in bright February, on the day we once called Imbolc, but we must always wait.

This is the night when our world and the Otherworld are no longer separate. The line between them is blurred; the veil is lifted. This is the night when spirits pass between them, unencumbered, walking amongst the living but leaving no footprints. They are the spirits of those who came before us. They are wise now, for they have seen into the mist of the beyond, into the other side. On this night, souls can return to their earthly homes for the evening. Those who do are the lucky ones.  They can see the ones they used to love, be within the walls of a house once more. They can silently soothe grief, easing heartache with their numbing touch.

But there are spirits who return with a purpose.

No longer mortal and imbued with the knowledge of the Otherworld, some visit not to comfort but to foreshadow. They know who is destined to join them. The banshee comes as a messenger, her pallid flesh as white as her tattered gown. She wails and keens on Samhain night, her screech so piercing that it shatters glass. She howls the names of those about to die. Some say she weeps for them in sorrow, as a mother would. Some say hers is a siren’s song, luring them to the Otherworld.  In a beautiful maiden’s guise, she beckons them with her bony fingers and they follow willingly. There are tales of spirits who sit at the riverside, washing the blood-stained armour of damned warriors. They sing, like washerwomen at work, as they soak the clothes that each brave knight is doomed to die wearing.

These spirits cannot harm, nor can they change what is predestined to be; they can only forewarn and accompany mortals into the Otherworld.

Some spirits are not so kind. The banshee’s counterpart, the bavanshee, leaves the Otherworld only to hunt. For one night, she pursues human prey. Although her green garb of the finest silk and her ethereal beauty are notorious, more infamous still is the unearthly origin of such splendour. She lurks at the edge of abandoned paths through the woods. She is a patient predator. Should a lonely young traveller lose their way, she sidles out from the shadows. Her smile is beautiful but careful, and it hides her teeth.  What teeth they are – fangs like sacrificial blades. As the trusting traveller approaches, her grin widens and she pounces, feasting on blood until the light of dawn graces the earth.

From the west come the eternally restless slua. Rejected by the earth itself, unwelcome in the Otherworld, they are condemned to wander as penance for their sins. They leave naught but destruction in their wake. Crops fail as they pass; livestock perish in their grazing-fields. If they find a window unlocked on Samhain night, they creep in. They cast scarcely a shadow. They hunger for pure souls, to wear as they would a cloak, so that they might be accepted into the Otherworld. Lingering in a cursed crowd, they appear to some as thick fog or a murder of crows at a crossroads.

The presence of spirits is to be feared on Samhain.  But worse still is the emergence of the ancient one, the darkest deity of the old religion. They call him the crooked god, the king of the burial mound, the death of summer. The Otherworld is his domain, and he rules with an iron fist. His powers are tenfold that of the wandering spirits. On Samhain night, our world is his domain.

His name is Crom Cruach. On Samhain night, he is free.