I’m A Feminist And I’m Scared Of Dying

Hooked you in with that title, didn’t I?

Something interesting often comes up in conversations about my hobbies and passions. The fact that I’m a feminist and a leftist is generally accepted with little more than sought-after reassurance that I’m “not one of the preachy ones” (spoiler: I am). People are equally comfortable with my other passions – ghost hunting, tarot and horror films – and are usually quite enthusiastic (or at least happily indifferent) about them. A small minority of the people I’ve met have been ghost hunting and still fewer have ever attempted to learn tarot, so I get to be the “expert” in the room despite being no such thing.

The interesting point that arises is often expressed like this: “For someone so political, it’s odd that you’d be into such illogical things.”

It’s a fair statement to make. I’m very serious about my politics, but conversely I’ve participated in an activity – namely ghost hunting – which is not widely considered to be a “serious” endeavour. Despite this contrast, I find myself feeling self-conscious about both of these passions. I portray them as something they are not when I talk about them, something frivolous and silly. Ghost hunting is my “weird little hobby”; feminism is “just me being a hairy bra-burner, haha”. Neither of those things really represent how I feel, because I take them both very seriously indeed. There’s also plenty of crossover between the two, because the personal is political for me. I think about feminism in the context of my life every day – for example, my love of horror films has led me to analyse them more deeply and ask myself: how are women depicted in these films and why? How do horror films handle feminist themes? I can combine my “serious” interest with my “silly” interest, and that works for me.

But if we properly psychoanalyse me, if we strip my flag-waving, marching politics and my love of anything spooky back to the barest bones, what do we find?

Someone who has a really weird relationship with the concept of death.

I am not consciously scared of dying. I joke about what I want done at my funeral, I love crypts and cemeteries, and I especially love mummies. I don’t find myself squeamish at corpses in particularly nasty crime documentaries.  I’m relatively comfortable at the top end of exposure – at least as much exposure as an average person who doesn’t have to deal with dead bodies in person can possibly have (perhaps I would change my mind in the presence of an actual cadaver).

It is not physical death that scares me. Like anyone else, I would like to go painlessly one day and, on a more personal level, I like the idea that I could greet Death warmly as a friend like a folk hero might. I think it is the death of my drive, if you like, that unsettles me. The idea that I might pop off one day and leave the cause forever. As someone who wants to make a difference, I am deeply afraid of being cut off and leaving nothing behind. What if all the writing and arguing and campaigning just never pay off? What if I can change nothing about the inequality rampant in our society? You might instead describe that as a fear of impotence or inferiority (and, damn, have I got a lot going on where inferiority complexes are concerned) but that’s what is truly frightening for me.

The relationship between ghost hunting and death is more obvious – who doesn’t want to know if our consciousness can remain on this mortal plane? – although I think politics has a lot to do with death as well. Where you stand on politics has a lot to do with what you consider to be “surviving” and what you consider to be “living”. Feminism and socialism are both movements devoted to improving people’s quality of life. Socialists object to a world in which you (and your labour) are exploited until you die. Feminists object to a world in which women are treated as willing bodies rather than human beings. Women and girls are murdered on our TV screens, over the pages of our crime thrillers and all over the world in real life, and I find that far more upsetting and scary than any amount of standing around in dark tunnels and damp caves, calling out to spirits.

As strange as you might find it, I can comfortably sit in the grey area between “serious” politics and “silly” paranormal pursuits.

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How To Tell A Good Scary Story

Did you ever go to sleepovers as a child? Or did you ever go camping away from your parents? If so, then you’ll likely recall that, along with your pyjamas, your toothbrush and an extra pair of undies, the key thing you needed to bring with you was a stonkin’ good scary story. There was always one kid who was the best storyteller, the one who’d seen horror movies they were way too young to watch, the one who had the cousin’s girlfriend’s sister’s friend who was almost killed by a poltergeist. If you were a weird kid like me, that storyteller was probably you. I swear to you, I once nearly made a girl piss herself. That’s not an exaggeration.

The fun doesn’t have to end there. Get your friends over for a horror movie or organise a camping trip, relive those golden days and wow them with the best scary story they’ve ever heard, one which will chill them even now.

Here’s how to do it.

Firstly, the set-up.

The standard is lights off, torches on, which is obviously a classic combination. Holding the torch up under your chin to give yourself that Tales from the Crypt lewk is a must if you go for this option. However, a lot can be achieved by having all the lights off except for a lamp (or two). Throw something over the lamp – a thin t-shirt will do – to make it dimmer and, voila, you’ve got ambient mood lighting.

If you choose to tell your scary story on a camping trip, huddling together with torches around a roaring campfire (although health and safety comes first!) is the way to go.

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Next, the story.

One of the most important things that really sell a scary story is a believable background. You need to open your story well. It’s up to you whether you leave it enigmatic and open-ended – say, by starting your story with something along the lines of “I heard this a few years ago…”/”I read on the internet that…” and going from there, never quite disclosing your source. I’m quite fond of the “vague familial connection” trick (you might have noticed I used it in my introduction) in which the person who experienced the paranormal encounter or freaky incident is linked to you, the storyteller, by mutual friends or relatives: “Apparently, the freakiest thing happened to my older sister’s best friend’s cousin…”

Once you’ve laid out where your story originated, it’s time to find some inspiration. It may be that someone you know has had a scary experience, or you may have even had one yourself. If so, feel free to dress that up and present it. If you’re not lucky enough to have a plethora of personal paranormal adventures at your disposal, never fear! You could retell an urban legend but apply it to an abandoned house or creepy park near where you live, or you could even borrow a generic horror movie plot and use that. No-one will mind if you repurpose an existing legend like the babysitter and the man upstairs, Bloody Mary, the vanishing hitchhiker or Slender ManNobody needs to know as long as you can convincingly embellish it and make it your own.

The very first scary story I ever told was a fairly bog-standard ghost story. The basic plotline was that a girl was babysitting her neighbours’ children. She cooked their tea, watched television with them for an hour or two and then put them to bed. She went back downstairs to relax until the parents came home, but kept hearing noises like footsteps running up and down the stairs and across the upstairs landing. She checked, thinking the children had woken up and were misbehaving, but she found the children were sound asleep in their beds.

I can’t really remember how it ended – I think the gist of it was that the house had been an orphanage or some bullshit, which obviously would never fly as a plot twist in a real horror story – but the plotline rarely matters on occasions such as these. My story was not particularly complicated, but it didn’t need to be to unsettle the room full of prepubescent girls. Instead, it was my performance of it that was of greatest importance. We were sitting in the dark and I deliberately positioned myself next to the wooden coffee table and punctuated the footsteps part of the story by tapping quickly on the table. What can I say, even as a little girl I had a flair for the dramatic.

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Finally, go for the jugular.

If it fits into your story, leave your ending as ambiguous as possible. Leave your audience wondering what the monster really was or whether the protagonist got out alive.

Even better, a skilled storyteller will draw their audience into the story. Let them know that no-one is safe and they could be next. As I said, I can’t remember the ending of my ghost story, but I vividly recall the mother of the girl who was hosting the sleepover opening the living-room door to check on us, just as I mentioned that the orphans still haunted the house which used to be their home. That was just sheer good fortune, but it did the trick. Everyone was in bits.

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Drop your own ideas and your favourite experiences of telling or hearing scary stories in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

Warning: spoilers for the film Ravenous. You don’t need to have seen Ravenous to read this review, but I’d recommend it and I think you should watch it anyway (I’m biased, but whatever).

I suppose you could consider this a spiritual successor to an article I wrote last year entitled “Why Viy (1967) Is Criminally Underrated”. Viy doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, nor does Ravenous. This is just about the only quality they share, which is why this blog post is only tangentially related to that one. After all, one is the very first Soviet horror film ever made, based on Eastern Europe’s rich oral traditions and folklore; the other is about, well, cannibalism. Neither that article nor this one are, in actual fact, reviews. Instead, they’re both think-pieces of a kind. I just fancied having a chat about Ravenous.

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You might not expect interesting philosophical analysis from a late 90s horror film, but, with this particular film, that’s what you get. Call me deluded – I’m sniffing Jinkx Monsoon’s perfume, clearly – but I remain absolutely convinced that Ravenous is an incredibly clever film disguised as a stupid slasher flick.

On paper, it sounds ridiculous. During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is shipped off to serve at an outpost in California called Fort Spencer and, whilst there, he meets a motley crew of characters. They encounter Mr Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells them the strange tale of how his party became stranded in the Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism. It transpires that Colqhoun is the real danger, having killed and eaten his fellow travellers, and he does the same to most of the soldiers by luring them out to his former hunting ground. In the world of Ravenous, eating human flesh or drinking human blood causes you to become a Wendigo (a real creature from Algonquian myth, if you’re wondering) and imbues the cannibal with renewed strength. This sets the scene for the central moral dilemma of the film: is it alright to eat people if it saves you from dying? (Again, if you’re wondering, the answer is a resounding “NO”.)

Of course, this is only the “central moral dilemma”, to quote myself, on the surface. Cannibalism being wrong is a blindingly obvious moral to have at the centre of your film and I wouldn’t blame you if that was the main thing you took away from it, but, if one takes the time to pick away the bland Hollywood veneer, there’s a frankly astonishing amount going on. So let’s start with the cannibalism – what does it actually mean?

The way I see it, cannibalism in Ravenous is a vehicle, of sorts, for two main ideas. The first has to do with colonialism; to put it simply, both cannibalism and colonialism are about consumption. One is personal and one is political, but at their core they are both about stripping the resources out of another entity, be it a person or an entire population. In the latter third of the film, Colqhoun makes a little speech to Boyd in an attempt to persuade him to give in to his cannibalistic desires. It’s a fascinating monologue to dissect. He sees the westward journeys of “thousands of gold-hungry Americans” into California as a prime opportunity to satisfy his appetite. While discussing his not-so-secret cannibal plans, Colqhoun mentions “manifest destiny” – a philosophy, popular in the 19th century, which dictated that Americans had a duty to conquer and expand territory. The film’s events take place in 1847, a pivotal moment in American history: the following year would see the loss of Mexican territory and the absorption of Texas into the US. Although Colqhoun never sees his scheme realised, American expansion in the late 1840s was a significant concern for the nations of Latin America and especially for the people already living on American soil before the white settlers got there. If I wanted to be really blunt, the insatiable appetite which characterises the Wendigo – punishment for transgressing social norms – is the most visceral, exaggerated depiction possible of the white man’s greed.

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The second theme that the film’s cannibalism helps to convey is homosexuality, specifically repressed homosexuality. This repression is obviously period-typical (no gay pride in 1840s California, unfortunately) but it lends such an interesting dimension to the film. Nobody is ever described as homosexual and no overt homosexual acts occur, yet the unresolved sexual tension is simmering away throughout. During the “manifest destiny” monologue, Colqhoun attempts to persuade Boyd to “just give in”. There’s plenty of talk about “acquiescence” and, truth be told, it all comes off as rather seductive. If you look at this scene in context, there are quite plainly layers to it – at this point in the film, these two men have had multiple conversations about the “certain virility” which comes with the consumption of human flesh, and Colqhoun has licked Boyd’s blood off his fingers and had what I can only describe as a literal orgasm. Robert Carlyle has openly acknowledged the homoeroticism.* Floating round YouTube, there are some great bits of commentary from him and, at 9:52 in this video, he even says: “Go on, kiss him!” when Boyd is gazing down at Colqhoun in the final scene. He talked about it in more depth in this interview from 4:48 onwards and put it absolutely perfectly: “[Colqhoun] doesn’t just want to eat Guy Pearce, he’s going to have Guy Pearce at the same time.” Taboo as it may be, cannibalism is perhaps the most intimate act we can imagine, so it’s no surprise that a film with a single female character (incidentally the only main character to escape unscathed – you go, Martha!) and otherwise populated by men trying to eat each other is more than a little homoerotic.

This could probably be an article in and of itself, but isn’t it weird that all the greatest fiction involving cannibals is wildly homoerotic? Watch NBC’s Hannibal (2013 – 2015) for an obvious example or even Red Dragon (2002), which is still homoerotic AF. Regardless of what the straight boys say, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have got a lot going on in every single adaptation.

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But back to Ravenous. Spirituality and religion crop up enough in this film that the issue warrants mentioning. Although it isn’t explored to its fullest potential, there’s a scene early on in the film which delves into cultural relativity, especially where religion and mythology are concerned. The soldiers prepare to go and assist Colqhoun’s party, who are stranded in the mountains, but before they leave, George (Joseph Running Fox) shows Boyd and Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) a painting of the Wendigo and describes the myth – how the Wendigo steals the strength of others by eating them. Hart remarks that “people don’t still do that”, to which George replies: “The white man eats the body of Christ every Sunday.” Not only is that a pretty chilling line, there’s something damning about it. It’s a brief but smart comment on our perceptions of primitivism and “savagery”; what we consider to be macabre is relative and subjective.

One of the soldiers, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), is described by commanding officer Colonel Hart as being Fort Spencer’s “personal emissary from the Lord”. Although God is invoked at various points throughout the movie and we see crucifixes up on the walls, Toffler is the only character who is explicitly shown to be religious. And, boy, is it hammered home how pious he is. The first thing we see Toffler do on screen is erect a large wooden cross on the roof of a building. Later, he is called upon to say grace at dinner and pray for Colqhoun’s recovery after the soldiers find him near-comatose in the snow. Toffler is really only a minor character, but he plays a crucial role in the portrayal of spirituality here. It wasn’t until I watched the film again that I realised quite how insidious and deceptive Colqhoun manages to be before the big reveal. During the montage of the soldiers making their way through the mountains to rescue Colqhoun’s party, there’s a short scene between Toffler and Colqhoun. Toffler is working on a hymn one night and is struggling to find a rhyme for “servant”. Colqhoun is shown to be listening and he supplies a word, “fervent”. It’s heartbreaking to watch the second time around, seeing how pleased Toffler is and knowing what happens to him. Within the first half of the film, Toffler is murdered (in fact, pretty efficiently eviscerated) by Colqhoun.

Religion’s tangible presence in the plot and in the visuals dies with Toffler, but morality is a near-constant topic of discussion. Colqhoun calls it “the last bastion of the coward” – it becomes clear very quickly that he sees Boyd’s resistance to cannibalism as a mark of inferiority. That’s an interesting little twist which isn’t particularly common. If I’m being honest, I can’t think of another cannibal-themed film in which the cannibal perceives those who don’t partake to be “less than” and is actively encouraging others to join in rather than hunting them down. We could take the Hannibal Lecter franchise, for example. Hannibal deceives people into consuming human flesh, but there’s never a sense in any of his incarnations that he’s trying to indoctrinate them; it just amuses him to trick people. It’s a rare thing that the horror in a cannibal film comes not from the cannibal attempting to kill and eat the protagonist, but from the cannibal attempting to make the protagonist a cannibal too. It’s a very specific kind of horror, a kind which deals with threats to moral integrity moreso than physical safety.

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The last thing I want to discuss is not the film’s plot or its message but its tone. There are some glaring discrepancies between the marketing and the finished product. The trailer seems like it was intended for a different film, conveying the film’s violence but not its wit and philosophy. What’s being sold is something in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe The Hills Have Eyes, when Ravenous is instead a far more intellectual piece. It reminds me a lot of The Grey (2012), another film woefully misrepresented by its marketing. What we were told to expect was an action-packed movie full of manly men doing manly things and Liam Neeson punching a wolf , yet The Grey is a quiet, thoughtful film about bereavement, masculinity and the natural order.

Ravenous was a bit of a car crash behind the scenes, from what I’ve read, changing directors mid-shoot** (twice, actually) and suffering due to some wacky budgeting and scheduling. Antonia Bird, the final director hired and ultimately the one who would see the project through to the end, stated that several elements were introduced to the film without her consent during post-production, such as the quotes which appear on screen at the start of the film. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, Bird said: “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” I agree with her regarding the quotes; they cheapen the message as a whole and it’s probably the only part of the film I have any real problem with. Bird was interested in recutting the film and I think that was a good shout too. The film would have benefited from a re-edit, although I don’t think that should happen now. No-one should touch it except for Antonia Bird and she sadly passed away in 2013. She also made the comment that Americans didn’t “get” the film, struggling to parse its odd blend of horror and humour. I like that it veers back and forth between high camp, gallows humour and balls-to-the-wall gore. It does a bit of everything and I really enjoy that.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me for the duration of this article. You can probably tell how passionate I am about this film from the fact that I’ve written over 2,000 words about it. I’ve been working on this since 28th January of this year, gradually editing it. In the interim, I’ve watched Ravenous multiple times and, after each viewing, I’ve come back to this article and added or changed something. That’s the magic of this film. I could watch it a thousand times and always feel that I was watching something innovative and, in my opinion, beautiful.

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*It brings me so much joy that Robert Carlyle is 100% on board the “Ravenous is homoerotica with cannibalism” train. He gets it.

**They were going to hire the guy who directed such masterpieces as Home Alone 3, Big Momma’s House and Scooby-Doo. No, really, they were. I’m not kidding. The actors went on strike and Robert Carlyle gave Antonia Bird a call, thank Goddess.

I have no doubt that I’ll write more about Ravenous in the future, because there’s so much to unpack. But this will do as a starting point.

 

World of Weird: The Isdal Woman

I’ve just caught up with the latest series of BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime. This week’s episode focused on the strange case of the Isdal Woman, whose body was found in the Isdalen Valley near Bergen, Norway, in 1970. Her charred body inhibited identification and she possessed at least 8 passports, discovered in her luggage. All labels on cosmetics and clothes she owned had been removed. Although isotopic tests performed just last year on her teeth established that she grew up in central Europe and was probably born in Germany, the woman’s true identity remains as much of a mystery as that of her murderer.

Watch the BuzzFeed Unsolved analysis here:

Review: “What We Do In The Shadows” (2014)

Alright, so technically this is a retrospective review and I’m years late to the party, but I watched What We Do In The Shadows for the first time recently and it’s fantastic. I haven’t had so much fun watching a film in ages.

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Everything about it is hopelessly endearing: the characters are well-developed and likeable, the plot is fresh without losing a nostalgic touch and it’s just so funny. I generally prefer a straight-up horror film – at best, the horror-comedies I’ve seen have made me smile or prompted a chuckle or two, but What We Do In The Shadows made me laugh out loud. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic (although I swear I’m not exaggerating), I laughed so hard that it actually hurt. That’s partly due to the dialogue being razor-sharp and subtly witty; however, the things that made me laugh most were all the references. Normally, references to other films just irk me and remind me of classics that I’d much rather be watching, but the jokes were so tightly crafted and beautifully woven into the plot (there’s a particularly good Lost Boys reference which had me wheezing). It dares to imagine what modern-day vampires might get up to and how they would interact with the modern world. What would they think of films like The Lost Boys or Blade? How might they feel about vampire literary tropes? It explores these questions – along with deeper introspections on mortality and being human – without ever becoming cheesy in the way other films have.

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It’s also one of the finest mockumentaries I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It sounds ridiculous, but there were times when I forgot that it wasn’t a real documentary; the tone and style are absolutely flawless. I found myself believing that there could be vampires hiding away and flat-sharing in Wellington. It’s easy to be drawn in by it because it’s so incredibly detailed and the protagonists all have such interesting backstories.

What We Do In The Shadows balanced being a genuinely solid horror flick, a brilliant comedy and a silly, sweet film. I don’t mean “silly” or “sweet” in an insulting way (it’s such a clever film), but it goes all in while fully acknowledging how daft the premise is. That’s why this works and why something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t.

So here’s to What We Do In The Shadows, the best new (at least, new to me) film I’ve watched this year.

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Why “Viy” (1967) Is Criminally Underrated

I initially planned to write a straight-up review of Viy, in the same way I wrote my review of the recent It remake, but I thought about it more deeply and realised that I had more opinions about it than I could pack into a review. A lot of my thoughts on it are not strictly related to the quality of the filmmaking or the narrative techniques – they have much more to do with the atmosphere and the film’s cultural value. Thus, instead of a review, this is more of an opinion piece: an analysis of why I found this film (occasionally) scary but mostly rather endearing.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses [like this]. The font colour has been changed, but you can highlight it with your cursor if you would like to read the spoiler.

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Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (1967)

Viy (transliterated from the original Russian Вий) was produced by Mosfilm, a film studio still thriving today which produced more than 3,000 films over the course of the Soviet Union’s existence. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, it was officially the first horror film to be released in the former USSR. Despite its cultural significance, hardly anyone in the West – besides hardcore horror fans and academics of Soviet culture & history – seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s such a shame, because Viy rarely receives recognition for managing to be funny, surreal, philosophical and even genuinely unsettling. The barriers that prevent Viy from claiming its title as a classic are myriad: English-speaking viewers don’t seem to be fans, by and large, of having to read subtitles, the surrealism can be baffling if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief for 80 minutes, the special effects sometimes look dated (although not often) and there’s quite a lot to get your head around culturally. I don’t think you need to be an expert on Russian/Ukrainian folklore or the Eastern Orthodox Church (I’m not) for it to make sense, but you definitely need to pay attention.

So what’s the story? The protagonist is Khoma Brutus, a student at a seminary – a school specifically for theologians and future clergymen – who gets into an altercation with an old witch during his school holidays. Upon fleeing back to school, he discovers he has been summoned to a small Cossack village to preside over the funeral rites of their princess (or princess-equivalent), who asked for him by name on her deathbed. The rites require Khoma to spend three nights alone in the church with her body, reading Scripture to help her pass on to Heaven. As it turns out, she doesn’t plan to go quietly [spoiler alert: the witch he got into a scrap with has taken the form of the pretty young princess and she rises from her coffin each night attempting to violently curse him]. Khoma is forced to use his wits and his faith to protect himself from the demonic forces that begin to encroach upon the church.

Visually, the film is stunning. The special effects are mostly very simple, with lots of practical effects and costumes, which lends the film a timeless quality. I’ve mentioned before that I am exhausted by the saturation of CGI in modern cinema, so Viy is a bit of a treat for a grumpy CGI naysayer like me. The sets, especially the church (I’m obsessed with the church), are beautiful too. In one of the earlier scenes, Khoma and his two friends are looking for somewhere to stay and are wandering over the gloomy fields. There’s a thick mist hovering over the land, reminiscent of the older adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s the closest equivalent in my own mind – it has that “dark night on the moors” vibe.

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Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma in Viy (1967)

“But is this Soviet film from 50 years ago actually scary?”, I hear you ask. And my answer is: kind of?

It builds up tension very well, but then it often drags and doesn’t seem to know what to do with the suspense it’s built. I can forgive the people who found it “boring” or gave up on it after about 20 minutes. Furthermore, most of the horror is concentrated in the latter half of the film; Khoma doesn’t actually end up in the church alone with the corpse until almost 40 minutes have passed. There are also some unintentionally hilarious scenes – I don’t think the scene in which Khoma is ambushed by the old hag is supposed to be as funny as it is [although the tone abruptly changes when he starts beating her to death]. I found the humour in the film charming, even if it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether the comedy is intentional or not. I still haven’t decided whether the audience are meant to laugh at Khoma belting a few notes in response to the owls hooting in the distance (but, damn, has the boy got pipes!).

However, there are a couple of scenes which are legitimately chilling. When Khoma’s first night keeping watch over the body begins, there’s no music – all we hear are his own footsteps. It’s eerily quiet and claustrophobic. Khoma is locked in and in the immediate vicinity of a cadaver, so you very much feel that you’re locked in there with him. There are some good jumpscares too; I’m normally anti-jumpscares, but at the time, they were an innovation. [Black cats burst out of nowhere and run across the church floorboards, birds descend from the rafters, a gust of wind blows out the candles he has just lit, and it all adds to the atmosphere.] The resurrected princess is creepy as well. With her long black hair, wide eyes and deathly-pale skin, she’d fit right in with Samara from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. There’s a really interesting contrast in that she’s crowned with flowers and is outwardly very pretty, but she’s also screaming curses [and eventually summons a powerful demon to enact her revenge].

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The princess rises from her coffin, Viy (1967)

I think I used the word “endearing” to describe the film earlier and I’m sticking with that description. I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards it by the end. I really like Khoma and Leonid Kuravlyov’s portrayal of him is one of the most charming parts of this film – he’s initially cowardly and quite pathetic, begging not to be forced to conduct the rites, but he pulls himself together. He makes a fine tragic hero. There’s something childish about him and it’s engaging to watch him mature. Most importantly: he’s just an ordinary man. He spends as much time drinking with the local Cossacks as he does fighting demons. He complains about not being able to smoke his pipe in church (he resolves to just use snuff instead). He doesn’t have any supernatural powers and he isn’t on a mission from God; he’s simply a man doing the best he can with the resources he has.

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Khoma sees the body, Viy (1967)

I’m fond of Viy, despite all its flaws – its odd acting choices, its occasional musical outbursts (why does Khoma have to keep singing???), even its glaring tonal shifts. It deserves more hype than it gets. On an academic level, it’s a fascinating peek both into Slavic folklore and into the style of popular films in the USSR in the 1960s. On a personal level, it’s a well-crafted horror film with thoughtful subtext and plenty of philosophy.

Oh, Viy. You’re wonderful, and you deserve better.

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The princess cries blood, Viy (1967)

Spooky Semana: 29/08/17

Spooky Semana: a week (ish?) in which I saw a higher-than-average frequency of spooky sh*t.

Wednesday 23rd

While cooking at a voluntary project I’m involved in, we ended up chatting about what we wanted at our respective funerals. The general consensus was no black attire would be permitted at any of them and the music for the service would need to be eyewateringly inappropriate. “My Heart Will Go On” if the cause of death is cardiac arrest, “Wind Beneath My Wings” if it’s a hang-gliding accident.

Thursday 24th

Not necessarily ~spooky~ but a new tarot deck arrived in the post! I ordered the Wild Unknown after deliberating and lusting after it for months… finally I caved. It’s beautiful – the card stock is just right, although the cards are bigger than I’m used to, and I’m finding the imagery a wee bit challenging. But all in all, a lovely purchase and a nice reward to myself after my exam results.

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Friday 25th

My brother and I wound up binge-watching BuzzFeed Unsolved. I’ve been disappointed in BuzzFeed’s previous videos dealing with tarot, mediumship and other aspects of parapsychology – they’ve either seemed sensationalised and insincere or they’ve been sceptical to the point of making the viewing experience uncomfortable. The couple of tarot videos they made really misrepresented it. However, Unsolved is fantastic – Ryan is a believer, Shane is a sceptic, and they chat about cases and go on wacky investigations together. It’s great. Catch the latest episode here.

Sunday 27th

Taylor Swift dropped the music video for her new single Look What You Made Me Do, the first from her upcoming album Reputation. Taylor Swift might not be a name that you associate with the content of this blog, but the opening to the video was near-terrifying. The music video opens in a cemetery, as a zombified Taylor crawls out of a grave marked “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation”. The lyric video is equally dark, with its angular style, serpentine imagery and red/black contrast. Watch the music video here.

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Thanks for the nightmares, Tay-Tay.

Monday 28th

Michael O’Shea’s horror-drama The Transfiguration is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and major digital platforms. You can take home the tale of an isolated boy obsessed with vampires who starts to blur the line between his real life and his bloodthirsty fantasies. I stumbled upon this film by chance in a sponsored Facebook post and, having now watched the trailer, I can’t wait to sink my fangs into it.

Watch the trailer below:

Tuesday 29th

Two of my favourite drag queens, Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel, released Part 2 of the “Death” episode of their web series UNHhhh on Monday and I’ve just caught up. In the episodes, they discuss their fears about death, their thoughts on the afterlife and, OH HONEYYYY, they design the most sickenin’ funerals possible. Watch Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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Hope you enjoyed this round-up of my weird week! Sorry for the lack of posts recently – I’m hoping to get back on top of my pile of drafts soon and crank out some new content!

World of Weird: Amelia Earhart survived?

For 80 years, the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific Ocean has persisted in the popular imagination. It was thought that we would never know what happened to the aviation pioneer, her navigator Fred Noonan and their Lockheed monoplane. The general assumption was that the pair crashed near Howland Island in the Pacific due to poor visibility.

But the emergence of a blurry photograph, believed to have been taken in 1937, might shed some light on this mystery. In the image, a man and woman – possibly Noonan and Earhart – stand amid a crowd on a dock in the Marshall Islands; a Japanese Koshu ship appears to be towing Earhart’s plane in the background.

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Noonan stands on the far left, Earhart sits on the dock in the centre of the group wearing a white shirt. On the far right, the Koshu ship and the plane can be seen. (Les Kinney/U.S. National Archives)

The photograph was sourced from a mislabeled case file in the US National Archives by retired treasury agent Les Kinney, who began looking into Earhart’s disappearance after his retirement. This fresh evidence is to feature in an upcoming documentary on the History Channel (US broadcast: 9th July), which will propose a new theory – Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and were essentially the first casualties of the conflict between the US and Japan during the Second World War. Potentially, both died in Japanese custody as a result of the international dispute.

The following footage was shot shortly before she began her circumnavigation of the globe.

One day, hopefully we’ll know the true story of how Amelia Earhart’s final flight ended. Until then, we can only wait for more evidence to be discovered.

For more:

Review: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Caitlin Doughty

ATTENTION: SPOOKY BOOK RECOMMENDATION!

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

– Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

I’ve been watching Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube series Ask A Mortician for a couple of months and I love her work with Order of the Good Death, so I decided to order her (bestselling) book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From The Crematorium. I had to wait until my exams finished last week to start it, but that meant I was looking forward to reading it even more.

I’m going to start by saying this book is fascinating – I learned so much about the funeral industry and about crematoriums (crematoria?) and it answered questions I didn’t even know I had about the cremation process. In particular, I didn’t realise how different funeral traditions and norms are in the USA (I’m from England). I honestly devoured it; I haven’t read a book so quickly in years.

However, I think it’s also important to note that you need to keep an open mind for this particular read. This book is a passionate manifesto for death positivity, encouraging people to embrace the more hands-on mourning traditions of the past and to rethink the way we talk about death. If you’re not ready to even consider getting on board with it, it might be worth reading up on Caitlin’s ideas a little bit more so you can read the book in context. Nothing in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is disrespectful or sensationalised, but Caitlin is pretty frank about what happens to the human body (and inside it) in the period between death and cremation. I didn’t personally find the things she discussed uncomfortable; however, that’s a matter of attitude. I find mausoleums and cemeteries to be interesting places and I think the differences between death rituals around the world are intriguing too, so I’m not too squeamish. If you’re squeamish, I don’t think that would make the book less enjoyable, provided you’re interested in the subject.

I’ve dropped some links below if you want to give this book a go – I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in ages. It was funny and tragic and a bit gross in places (one anecdote about molten human fat getting all over her dress springs to mind); I would highly recommend it.

Links

Official site: Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Amazon: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From The Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty

Waterstones: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Ask A Mortician YouTube channel

 

 

Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths From The Campaigns of Alexander the Great

For the past year, I’ve studied two sources about Alexander the Great for my Classics A-Level – The Age of Alexander by Plutarch and The Anabasis (Campaigns) of Alexander by Arrian. Although I’ve mostly been looking at Alexander’s battles and his character, both sources are full of… interesting anecdotes in which Alexander’s enemies (and sometimes his friends) die in brutal ways. Brutal, but morbidly fascinating nonetheless.

So, in order to entertain you by combining my love of weird, gross things with my passion for history, I’ve ranked the Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths from Alexander’s campaigns.

5. Cleitus the Black, who was only trying to be a good friend

I’ve ranked this fifth because, while it’s not what you might call a creative way to go, it’s actually pretty heartbreaking. Cleitus had saved Alexander back in 334BC at the Battle of the Granicus, slicing off the arm of a Persian soldier (Spithridates) who was about to attack him. You might think that this incident would obviously leave Alexander indebted to him.

You would be wrong, because this is Alexander the Great we’re talking about. What better way to reward your friend for saving your life than murdering him with a spear six years later? Cleitus took issue with Alexander’s “Medizing” – his adoption of Persian customs – and the famously short-tempered king responded to criticism by killing him.

Cleitus did manage to get one sick burn in there before he was stabbed, reciting a line from Euripides’ tragedy Andromache: “Alas, what evil customs reign in Greece!”

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“Alexander Kills Cleitus”, Andre Castaigne

4. The Macedonian Hostages at Tyre

In 333BC, Alexander embarked on a siege of the island fortress of Tyre, which lasted for seven months. The island was out of range of his siege artillery, so Alexander and his engineers had to rely on technical innovations and new strategies to attack it.

Tyre was not only an island, but it was an island with fortified walls of about 150ft. This presented problems for Alexander; however, these walls were ideal for the Tyrians to make a show of strength and make their rebuke of Alexander’s negotiations clear… by throwing Macedonian ambassadors off them in full view of Alexander’s army.

In the long term, this was not a wise decision. When the Macedonians eventually broke through the walls, they had grown tired after the long siege and were ready to have their revenge for the deaths of the hostages. An estimated 8000 Tyrians were slaughtered and a further 30,000 were sold into slavery.

3. Calanus, the fiery philosopher

Alexander met the elderly philosopher Calanus while in India and was impressed by him, especially by an analogy Calanus made using a piece of animal hide to advise Alexander on effective governance (new party piece, anyone?). Calanus subsequently joined Alexander’s entourage on their return journey to Babylon, but fell ill along the way. At Susa in 323BC, the dying man decided he would cut his own suffering short via self-immolation – burning himself alive.

Arrian writes that there was “a solemn procession” accompanying Calanus to his funeral pyre, although in Plutarch’s account, there was a raucous drinking party in his honour. Knowing Alexander, I’m tempted to go with the latter option. Either way, Calanus went out with a bang, or at least a nice crackle (I’m so sorry).

Fun fact:  Calanus’ final words to Alexander before he went to his pyre were allegedly that they “(would) meet again in Babylon”. Alexander later died in Babylon. Spooooooky.

2. Anaxarchus, philosopher and gobshite

Anaxarchus was one of two key philosophers in Alexander’s entourage who fought for his attention. The other was Callisthenes, who was implicated in a conspiracy against Alexander and arrested. Following Callisthenes’ arrest, Anaxarchus became the favoured philosopher, despite having views which conflicted with Alexander’s own – he was sceptical of Alexander’s status as a demi-god and had a theory of infinite worlds (an early variant of the parallel universe idea), which upset Alexander because he had not yet conquered even one world.

The philosopher finally met his demise at the hands of Nicocreon, the tyrant of Cyprus, in around 320BC. He had insulted Nicocreon once during a visit by the Cypriot leader to Alexander, and Nicocreon clearly took offense. Anaxarchus was pounded to death in a giant pestle and mortar (don’t worry, I don’t know how they managed that either).

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My artistic interpretation of it.

Honourable mentions:

Callisthenes – Anaxarchus’ rival philosopher. Allegedly died of “excessive corpulence” in prison, which is paradoxical but also a horrific mental image. Imagine it. Go on. Gross, isn’t it?

Batis – a eunuch (I don’t know why this information is supplied to us by the authors) and the ruler of Gaza, a settlement Alexander encountered on his way to Egypt. After the city’s capture, Alexander had Batis attached by his ankles to a cart and dragged round the city’s perimeter several times, à la Hector in The Iliad.

The People Who Drowned In The Desert – in 325BC, Alexander decided to make his way back to Babylon by crossing the Gedrosian Desert. Arrian relates the difficulties of this journey in his account. On one occasion, heavy rainfall – they were crossing during monsoon season – made a stream burst its banks next to their camp, resulting in a huge loss of life. The majority of those who drowned were women and children rather than members of Alexander’s army.

And one close-call (spoiler: he doesn’t die) – Stephanus, a boy known only for being remarkably ugly but astonishingly brave, who allowed himself to be set alight with naptha as an experiment for Alexander’s entertainment. He survived but was badly burned. And that’s how he earned the nickname Disco Inferno.

1. Bessus, the one that (nearly) got away

Bessus was a relative of the Persian king Darius III. After the Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander defeated Darius for the final time, Darius escaped but was kidnapped by Bessus and his accomplices. Bessus declared himself king and fled with his hostage, which was followed by a lengthy pursuit by Alexander across the empire. By the time Alexander caught up with them, Darius had been murdered and abandoned in the back of a wagon. Such a nondescript demise for his arch nemesis was not what Alexander wanted.

When Bessus was eventually captured by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s companions, his execution had to send a message about the status of a king, suitably avenge Darius to please the people of Persia and get Alexander’s rocks off   demonstrate Alexander’s ruthlessness towards those who would challenge his throne.

There are two stories about how Bessus was executed. In Arrian’s version, Bessus had his nose and lips cut off, was paraded around in a collar and then finally executed. But in Plutarch’s version – the version which places so high on this list – Bessus’ limbs were tied to trees which had been bent over. When the trees were released, the attached limbs were torn off. 😦

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Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed this – please consider liking/sharing!

For more about Alexander:

  • Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander – the funniest book you’ll ever read.
  • Plutarch, Lives: The Age of Alexander (I’d recommend getting this in physical format, but it’s shorter than Arrian’s account so you could probably get away with reading it online. Here’s the contents page and here’s the first section, provided by Lacus Curtius (University of Chicago).)
  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great
  • Livius.org, Macedon (masterlist of all their Alexander articles)
  • Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Alexander the Great