“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

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)

 

 

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.

 

The Bitten Files #1: Sava Savanović

This is the first installment of The Bitten Files, a series of blog posts exploring vampire legends.

In the small village of Zarožje, Serbia, an old watermill once stood in the valley of the Rogačica river. According to legend, the villagers risked their lives whenever they went to mill their grain, for inside the gloomy structure resided a terrifying creature: the vampire, Sava Savanović.

Sava Savanović is part of a long tradition of vampire folklore in Eastern Europe: “In the Balkans, where a vampire cult flourished in the late Middle Ages, a vampire was suspected of infesting a graveyard when people reported seeing apparitions of the dead that pestered them and bit them, or sat on their chests and suffocated them at night… Vampires also were blamed for plagues, invisible terrors that bothered people at night and wasting diseases that brought death.” (Guiley, 1992: 344) There were efforts to preserve the watermill as a tourist attraction, although, as one of the mill’s owners was quick to assert in an interview with ABC News, no-one was ever permitted to sleep there overnight. Renovations to make the mill a proper (read: safe) site for tourists began in early 2010,  but this was not to come to fruition. At the time of its collapse in 2012, the mill – owned by the Jagodić family – hadn’t been in operation since the 1950s, but the vampire who was said to have made his home there remained a significant figure in the collective consciousness of the surrounding villages. The village council even issued a warning to the public upon the mill’s collapse. Sava was now homeless, they declared, and would be on the lookout for somewhere new to rest in peace (or not, as it goes).

How seriously the villagers took the warning varies depending on which news outlet you’re looking at. However, Sava’s legacy is serious business indeed. The people of Zarožje made an official complaint to the local police that the city of Valjevo, on the other side of the valley, had stolen Savanović from them when the city made him their mascot in 2010. He was also the subject of an 1880 novella, Posle devedeset godina (After Ninety Years), by Milovan Glišić and the 1973 horror film Leptirica which was inspired by the story. It’s interesting to note that Leptirica is widely considered to have been the first Serbian horror film. Whether it’s any good is another matter entirely…

 

Although widespread belief in vampires has died out across most of Europe, Serbia’s best-known vampire remains an important aspect of the country’s cultural history and its cinematic and literary canon. His peasant-purging days might be over, but – like a true creature of the night – Sava Savanović lives on.

Further reading

Dragona Jovanovic (2012) Vampire Threat Terrorizes Serbian Village (ABC News)

Sasha Ingber (2012) The Bloody Truth About Serbia’s Vampire (National Geographic)

Tyler Tichelaar (2017) After Ninety Years: A Newly Translated 1880 Serbian Vampire Novella (Gothic Wanderer, WordPress)

Rosemary Guiley (1992) The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (pp 344)

Note: there are a number of Serbian sources, two of which are available here and here. I can’t read or speak Serbian (although I’m taking a module of Serbian-Croatian next year at uni) but you’re welcome to comment if you do and you find something in the Serbian articles which you think ought to be included here.

 

Lunar Files #4: The Beast of Bray Road

This is the fourth installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

The woods around the city of Elkhorn, like those throughout much of Wisconsin, are dense and teeming with wildlife. But since 1936, eyewitnesses have been reporting something unexpected and inexplicable out there in the rural Midwest. The creature has been spotted sprinting across roads and darting into the forest and most witnesses only get a split-second glance at it before it vanishes.

The story of the Beast of Bray Road became a matter of public interest in the early 1990s. Journalist Linda Godfrey published an article for the local newspaper in Delavan, Wisconsin, on 29th December 1991. She believed it – the tale of an unknown canid kneeling by the side of the road – to be “sort of a throwaway story for a slow news week” and initially thought little of it. Upon releasing the article, she began to receive hundreds of messages, full of strange accounts about wolfmen and canids which stood on two legs. You can see Godfrey’s original sketches here and here (I want to avoid posting them here for copyright purposes – they are Godfrey’s intellectual property, after all). She has gone on to write over 16 books about unexplained encounters and, although the peak of the sightings was between 1990 and 1992, the Beast of Bray Road has remained a prominent part of local culture.

On Godfrey’s blog, she suggests that what she calls “the Manwolf” is most frequently seen between 10:30pm and 5am, with most sightings occurring between August and October. This is when the cornfields are at their highest, allowing almost anything to lurk out there. The creature earned its epithet from the many sightings along Bray Road, a short stretch of rural road outside Elkhorn, although Godfrey and others believe this particular “beast” to be one of many inhabiting the Midwest and possibly the wider United States.

You can get a feel for what Bray Road is like from this video, a 5-minute tour of the route by Donna Fink:

 

Even in daylight, the road seems isolated and eerie, sparsely lined with farmhouses. It’s not hard to see why a creature aiming to stay hidden would select such a spot to settle down. According to the sightings, the Beast of Bray Road appears to live off roadkill, small animals and whatever it can find in people’s backyards. It has never harmed anyone – in fact, the beast does its best to avoid contact with humans – but its size makes it a formidable sight.

Although we are no closer to understanding what kind of beast makes its home near Bray Road, public interest has not died down. Just last month, I saw a Facebook post by the National Cryptid Society about a strange sighting of a wolf walking on its hind legs on Townline Road, Elkhorn: “A wolf that “ran across the street almost like a man.” That’s what Danny Morgan said was the “craziest thing I’ve ever seen” in an e-mail to WTMJ sister station TODAY’S TMJ4.” Wolves may walk on their hind legs if they have sustained significant injuries to their front legs, but the photo included with the article is bizarre. Lon Strickler, a spokesperson for Phantoms and Monsters, elaborated with further details from the witness: “He noticed the wolf in the cornfield… His camera was handy, because he had never seen a wolf in the wild. He slowed… and when the wolf approached the road it stood up on 2 legs and walked quickly across the road. He said it walked just like any human would… [it] didn’t stumble or look awkward. The wolf was also swinging its front legs, like a human walking.” Take a look at the original post here and at a full analysis by the National Cryptid Society here. Hoax or not, the interest in this case demonstrates that Dogman or Wolfman sightings are still a hot topic in the Midwest.

Let me conclude by saying I have no evidence to prove or disprove the existence of the Beast of Bray Road, or, for that matter, the existence of any of the creatures I write about in this series. But it’s a story I’ve casually followed for a few years and I look forward to reading about new sightings and studying the latest pieces of photographic evidence.

No-one ever knows quite what they’ll see when they’re driving along Bray Road at night.

Further reading:

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)

The Hidden Files #2: Bigfoot

This is the second installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

Bigfoot is, undoubtedly, the most famous cryptid in Western culture. It is an iconic and instantly recognisable legendary figure – a primate measuring more than 7 feet and making its home in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest.

But how did Bigfoot make its way into the popular imagination? Why do we pore over every blurry photograph and shaky piece of footage?

In the 1920s, the accounts of J.W. Burns were compiled and published. These detailed his interviews with the indigenous people of Chehalis, British Columbia, and recorded their belief in giant “wild men”. Burns used the term sásq’ets to describe this race of hairy hominids, a word he borrowed from the Halkomelem language. Sásq’ets would later be Anglicised and become Sasquatch, a synonym of Bigfoot still used today. For many white Canadians and Americans, Burns’ compilation was their first brush with Bigfoot.* “Wild men” commonly feature in Native American and First Nations mythology,  and the white settlers who liaised with indigenous North Americans often found that the tribes had very clear ideas of where “Bigfoot territory” was – whether that was in the mountains or in a certain section of the forest.

According to Doubtful News, there were 3,313 sightings of Bigfoot between 1921 and 2013. This data was compiled by Josh Stevens, a PhD candidate, into an infographic which you can see here. The sightings span America, with a particular density of sightings along the West coast. However, the most famous piece of Bigfoot evidence is probably the Patterson-Gimlin film. Even if you don’t recognise the names, you’ll likely recognise this iconic still from the footage:

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Frame 352, Patterson-Gimlin film (1967)

For many people, this is the image that springs to mind when you think of Bigfoot. Filmed in 1967 in Humboldt County, California, by Roger Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin, the footage is alleged to show a female Bigfoot. Since it was released to the public, the film has been stabilised and analysed. Despite extensive investigation, the Patterson-Gimlin film has never been definitively proven to be a hoax, unlike other Bigfoot “evidence”.

Although no Bigfoot specimens, living or dead, have ever been found, sightings persist and the numbers keep growing. The towns and counties said to harbour Bigfoot populations encourage this. In Skamania County, Washington, it has been illegal to kill a Bigfoot since 1984. To do so would incur a $1,000 fine or a prison sentence of up to a year. Although the Skamania authorities neither confirm nor deny the existence of the creature, they believe the law promotes other types of conservation via public awareness. Furthermore, the town of Willow Creek in Humboldt County – on the border of the Six Rivers Forest, where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was filmed – has built a roaring tourist trade with more than a little help from Bigfoot. The town is known as “the Bigfoot capital of the world” – it is home to a Bigfoot museum and even a Bigfoot restaurant. If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that this is obviously big (pun fully intended) business, but it’s also a testament to Bigfoot’s legacy. The creature has become part of the fabric of American society. Bigfoot is as All-American as any cryptid could be.

On a personal level, I think Bigfoot is the most likely of all recorded cryptids to exist. Maybe that’s the result of growing up in the UK rather than within the culture that fostered the Bigfoot mythos. However, the standard Bigfoot description – that of a large primate – seems plausible to me, a layman (or laywoman, as it happens).

*Note: we could have a much longer discussion about how Native and indigenous mythology is appropriated, misinterpreted and downright falsified by some cryptid enthusiasts, but I’ll save that for another article. The current Bigfoot “mythos” (for want of a better word) owes a lot to indigenous tribes who are rarely credited for much of the information.

Further reading:

The Hidden Files #1: British Big Cats

This is the first installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

What secrets do the forests, fields and moors of Britain hold? Could the British countryside be home to creatures roaming far beyond their natural habitat?

Since the 1950s, many eyewitnesses have asked themselves these same questions.

You wouldn’t think the quaint countryside of the south of England could shelter such mysterious creatures, but Devon and Cornwall made the Big Cats in Britain list of the top 10 counties with the most sightings. The most famous sightings of British big cats are arguably the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. Sightings of the Beast of Exmoor began to be reported in the 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1983 that the beast achieved a degree of infamy: a farmer, Eric Ley, reported that he had lost over 100 sheep over the course of three months. Each had been mutilated and had had their throats torn out. In 1988, the complaints about the number of livestock deaths prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to send Royal Marines into the area to seek out the Beast of Exmoor. Several men believed they had spotted it, but no conclusive evidence was ever found. Similarly, the Beast of Bodmin made headlines in 1992 as the alleged culprit of livestock mutilations. Both creatures were described as panther-like or puma-like, despite neither of these cats being native to Britain.

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Photograph showing a large cat which is believed to be the Beast of Exmoor

The earliest cases in the 1950s include the Surrey Puma. The Surrey Puma was first seen in 1959 and by the mid-1960s, the police had developed specific records for big cat sightings – a collection which included a plaster cast of a paw print and a photograph of a remarkably long cat taken by Ian Pert, a police photographer. Another interesting case from the 1980s is that of the Fen Tiger, a big cat (unlikely to be an actual tiger!) which had apparently made its home in Cambridgeshire. The first sighting was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that actual evidence was supplied by William Rooker. He had captured two minutes of footage which appeared to show a large feline with black fur and, in his words, “a flat face”.

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Copyright to British Big Cat Society & William Rooker (1994)

The image above is a still from William Rooker’s original footage. If you scroll down to the end of this article from BBC Cambridgeshire, plenty of people have added their own accounts in the comments section, the most recent comment dating from 2009. Clearly, the Fen Tiger and big cat tales nationwide are still present in the public imagination.

So how might we go about explaining these cats’ peculiar choice of home? The most plausible theory is that the presence of larger cats – especially those which are not native to Britain – is the result of new regulations introduced in 1976 under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Prior to this, it was ostensibly legal to own wild animals in this country without any kind of training or licence. The act declared that owners of certain types of exotic animals, particularly big cats, now required a permit. Perhaps some owners simply released their pets into the wild to avoid having to apply (and pay) for an ownership licence. Alternatively, owners may have released big cats they had been keeping as pets when the animals grew too large for their enclosures or became too difficult to handle.

Near where I live, a local man by the name of Lew Foley was well-known for keeping a pride of lions at his home in Cradley Heath. Last year, his friend Norman Catton claimed in the Birmingham Mail that Foley had released his lions over the Malvern Hills and in addition may have helped other people release their animals – possibly other big cats –  after the 1976 act. I must stress that this story remains unconfirmed, but it’s possible. In 2009, a statement from Big Cats In Britain made it clear that “There’s probably more than one up on the hills.” Without knowing how many other big cats may have been released, the Birmingham Mail suggested at least four or five felines could be prowling in the hills. Either way, I think it’s an interesting piece of local history and I like that it has taken on a “local legend” quality.

These cats are often called “phantom cats” and it’s been noted that these stories descend from the tradition in British folklore of the Black Dog, a ghostly canine who roams the moors and is an omen of ill fortune. Sightings of big cats are not generally considered supernatural in the way that the Black Dogs of the past were – instead, the idea of the cats having escaped from captivity bolsters people’s beliefs.

I think it’s entirely plausible that small numbers of big cats were released in the 1970s and might have survived in the countryside, but it’s also important to note that the big cat craze has resulted in several hoaxes, including a toy tiger being left in a field (prompting panic and a police helicopter search) and a cardboard cut-out of a panther being photographed and presented as evidence.

Draw whatever conclusion you like from reading the anecdotes and accounts of sightings, but you might want to take care if you’re walking alone across the moors or the hills of England – just in case. You never know what’s out there.

For more:

Please be aware – both documentaries briefly show images of the mutilated livestock in some “big cat” cases.