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)

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Wolves On Film: A Visual History Of The Cinematic Werewolf

Warning: this article contains some gory images, as well as potential spoilers for the films discussed.

It’s no secret: I love werewolf films. It might seem like a strange niche of the horror genre to be particularly interested in, but films about werewolves deal with the human psyche in a very specific, primal way. Unsurprisingly, the concept of a human turning into an animal – or some beastly hybrid – opens up fascinating discussions about human nature. How civilised are we? How successfully can we override our basic instincts? And what would it take to tip us over the edge into animalistic brutality?

Alongside the psychological aspect, I always look forward to seeing how each individual film chooses to interpret the werewolf and why. I can forgive a lot of narrative failings if the werewolf of the film is distinctive in the way it’s depicted. There’s no real chronology in terms of how werewolves are shown on screen, although I would argue you’re more likely to see a CGI werewolf in the 21st century than in the 20th (for obvious reasons). In a way, I find that disappointing – I’m a sucker for the costumes of horror’s yesteryear and I’d much rather see a valiant attempt at an interesting werewolf costume than a CGI construction. I don’t hate CGI by any means, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when a horror film doesn’t take that route.

Early cinematic werewolves were much more human-like, primarily due to the technical constraints of the time. The very first Hollywood film to feature a werewolf was Universal Pictures’ Werewolf of London (1935). This was followed by their much more successful – and now iconic – The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr.

By today’s standards, the make-up FX naturally seem simplistic, but the visual effects used in The Wolf Man were deliberately more complex than in Werewolf of London, taking up to six hours to apply. Both these werewolves place on the more human end of the spectrum and are easily recognised as 1930s – 1940s designs. As the genre evolved, filmmakers took more creative liberties with werewolf anatomy, but I’m quite fond of both of these. I don’t necessarily find them scary; however, I think the genre owes a lot to them.

The 1980s saw a boom in the werewolf genre with the release of An American Werewolf In London (1981), The Howling (1981) and its slew of sequels, The Company of Wolves (1984) and somewhat lesser-known offerings like Silver Bullet (1985). It’s important to note the more tongue-in-cheek werewolf films of this period too, such as Full Moon High (1981) and Teen Wolf (1985). An American Werewolf In London shares something with both of these – the portrayal of the werewolf as a sympathetic protagonist, a slave to the curse who we are encouraged to pity. However, where the werewolves of Full Moon High and Teen Wolf have more in common with the werewolf designs of the early Universal Pictures films, the titular American werewolf is definitely more wolfish. There’s barely a trace of David left by the time the transformation is complete.

The Company of Wolves – one of my favourite films – is also firmly planted in the “wolf” camp. Although there are plenty of in-between scenes, at the end of the transformation there is no difference between the human-turned-wolf and an ordinary wolf (they admittedly used Belgian Shepherd dogs for most of the filming). This is deliberate; it lends itself to the fairy tale environment that the film cultivates and blurs the line between the “real” world we see at the start of the film and the “dream” world within which most of the action takes place. Then you have the beasts who sit somewhere in the middle. In Silver Bullet, the adaptation of the novella Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King, Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form is bipedal but nowhere near as human as in The Wolf Man. The design is more reminiscent of a bear for me, but you can judge it yourself. The werewolf of Silver Bullet is also portrayed fairly sympathetically – we never find out the origins of Reverend Lowe’s curse in the film, but there’s a particularly good “nightmare” scene in which we see how troubled he is by it.

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Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form, Silver Bullet (1985)

The Howling also favours the bipedal, “upright” werewolf. I’ll be honest – of all the werewolves analysed in this article, this is the interpretation I find creepiest. I think the transformation is gruesome and the werewolves themselves are freaky-looking in a way none of the others are. You might disagree, but something about the way they’re designed unsettles me and I can never quite put my finger on what it is.

The werewolves of The Howling could be distant cousins of those depicted in Dog Soldiers (2002). The Dog Soldiers werewolves are probably my favourites in all of cinema, because they’re just such an interesting visual choice. They’re quick, tall and seemingly quite slender, but they have tremendous brute strength. We don’t see a lot of them until towards the climax of the film – throughout the majority of the runtime, we see brief flashes of them, often hidden by shadow. It makes the later scenes in which we see them fully even more shocking. Their heads are more wolflike, but their bodies are an even mix of wolf and human. Reiterating what I said earlier, I really do prefer these types of werewolves to the CGI creations used in films like the Twilight franchise. There’s just something quite nostalgic about the costumes and prosthetics for me – I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into making them and they hearken back to a time before complex computer design.

In 2000, Ginger Snaps showed us an entirely different type of werewolf. I like this design too. Ginger Fitzgerald doesn’t fully transform into a werewolf until the end of the film, but the build-up to the final transformation is beautifully constructed. Ginger Snaps is a great teen horror flick and one of my personal favourite films. Ginger’s “curse” coincides with her menarche and the whole film serves as a really interesting allegory for female puberty and sexuality, in a similar vein to The Company of Wolves – in fact, I often recommend both of them at the same time because I think there’s a lot of thematic common ground.

The most recent release I’ve watched was Howl (2015). Fun fact: Howl was directed by Paul Hyett, who had previously worked on the SFX for Dog Soldiers. I’m glad they chose to do something starkly different with the werewolves in this film – they’re distinct from the Dog Soldiers werewolves but have just as much impact. There is some use of CGI, but I didn’t find myself as distracted by it as I have been in other examples. The werewolf designs are much more human, although not quite to the same extent as the very early examples from the 1930s. I won’t spoil the plot of the film, but the twist is insane and the ending is both satisfying and deeply unsatisfying.

Although they are by no means horror films, I think it’s worth discussing the werewolves of the Twilight saga. I’ve always found the CGI in these films incredibly distracting – it’s just not integrated well with the live-action sequences. The werewolves here are not particularly creative; in essence, they are just larger versions of ordinary wolves. I was a big fan of Twilight when I was in my early teens and I especially liked that Stephenie Meyer had constructed a “culture” for both vampire and werewolf society. The “fantasy culture” idea has been done better – Darren Shan’s vampire books are a fantastic example because they go into so much detail about vampire society – and we could have an extensive discussion about her appropriation of Native American ideas and traditions, but I still think the invented history and mythology behind the werewolves (and obviously the vampires) is probably the strongest part of the whole franchise. The werewolves of Twilight are much more sympathetic than earlier examples and I credit Twilight considerably with starting the cinematic trend of the “sexy monster” – or perhaps taking the idea of a sympathetic monster and dumbing it down and sexing it up removing all the subtlety from it.

On that note, I’d like to conclude by briefly summarising the evolution of the cinematic werewolf. It hasn’t been clean and simple. Depictions haven’t neatly evolved from humanoid to more lupine, from unsympathetic to sympathetic, from one-note to complex, in the way you might expect. Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers were released just two years apart in the early 2000s and they take drastically different viewpoints. The werewolves of Dog Soldiers are animals – they are motivated by a desire to kill and devour. They are not particularly complicated, layered characters. Ginger Fitzgerald, however, is a much more complex character. The audience is encouraged not only to be scared of her but also to be scared for her.

Like many movie monsters, that’s the beauty of the werewolf as a plot device. They are us and them all at once. They can be deeply human, flawed in a way that produces pathos, and they can just as easily be deeply inhuman. In every new werewolf film, it’s always interesting to see which way the balance will tip.

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:

Could This Be A Tasmanian Tiger?

The thylacine – also known as the Tasmanian tiger – was the largest modern carnivorous marsupial. Having evolved 4 million years ago, it was hunted to extinction in 1936. It went extinct on the Australian mainland prior to this, but it survived for some time on the island state of Tasmania.

In the 1960s, searches conducted by Dr Eric Guiler and David Fleay resulted in the discovery of footprints and scat, as well as hearing vocalisations which matched those of the thylacine. It was not declared officially extinct until the 1980s, as the criteria stated that it could only be considered an extinct species if there were no confirmed sightings for 50 years. Despite its well-documented and lamented extinction – there has even been discussion of using DNA samples from thylacine remains to “resurrect” the animal – reports of thylacine sightings still flood in every year.

This YouTube video was published yesterday. Filmed by Paul G Day in Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, it appears to show a dog-like animal bounding across a field.

Compare the video with this short clip of the last pair of thylacines living in Hobart Zoo in 1933:

Day claims it was neither a fox, a dingo nor a dog. It was mentioned in the comment section that its strange bounding gait could be attributed to a limp. I would be tempted to suggest that this video is cleverly animated and that the animal has been edited in. It’s an interesting piece of footage nonetheless.

What do you think?

For more about the thylacine, check out this episode of Animal X: Natural Mystery Unit.

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:

Lunar Files #3: La Bête du Gévaudan

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

Nearly 300 years ago, the mountains of southern France were home to a predator unlike any creature its people had encountered before.

Between 1764 and 1767, the people of the Gévaudan region (now modern Lozere) lived in constant fear of a creature said to be as large as a calf. The Wolf of Chazes, or The Beast of Gévaudan as it later came to be known, claimed the lives of an estimated 113 people – most of them women and children.

The first attack occurred in the summer of 1764. A young woman herding her cattle in the Mercoire Forest in Langogne saw the creature approaching her, but, fortunately, her herd managed to drive it away. Not long after, a second girl was found slaughtered near Langogne; in the town of Les Hubacs, 14-year-old Janne Boulet fell victim to La Bête. The people of the region continued to find the bodies of cattle and their fellow villagers alike, until, unsurprisingly, theories abounded about the creature’s origins. Was it a wolf? A hybrid? Or was it a creature of an altogether different kind – a werewolf? So many brutal maulings were occurring that the people believed there was a pair of beasts, or even that La Bête was hunting with a litter of young.

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18th-century engraving by A.F. of Alençon

It became clear that the beast favoured easy prey – lone men and women tending livestock and children. Its modus operandi was striking too; victims who were not entirely devoured were often found decapitated and the creature was said to unusually aim for the head rather than the legs or throat (which would be expected of a large predator).

In 1765, the king’s personal marksman Antoine de Beauterne was dispatched to the region to deal with the beast. However, his hunt was preceded by a showdown between La Bête and a teenage girl, Marie-Jeanne Valet. Marie-Jeanne was crossing a river in the woods when she spotted the beast approaching her from behind. She plunged a homemade spear into the creature’s chest and it retreated, holding its paw to the wound. The young girl’s bravery made it into Beauterne’s official account of the events. Eventually, in September 1765, Antoine de Beauterne led a group of 40 local men on a hunt for the beast in the woods of Pommier. He successfully shot an enormous wolf measuring six feet long. Following the death of this wolf, the attacks ceased.

Temporarily.

In the spring of 1767, the beast seemed to have risen from the dead and a second hunt which is believed to have culminated in the death of La Bête was funded by a local nobleman Marquis d’Apcher. Jean Chastel, a farmer and inn-keeper, shot the beast at Mont Mouchet on 19th June 1767. Writers of the time later introduced the idea that Chastel’s fatal shot was completed with a silver bullet of his own making, a concept which lent itself well to contemporary portrayals of the beast as a supernatural entity. La Bête was stuffed and embalmed, going on display around the country. When it reached the king, it had begun to decay and reek. What happened to the beast’s remains is unclear – some records state that the body was burned, others maintain it was buried.

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Memorial to Marie-Jeanne Valet (Philippe Kaeperlin, 1995)

Without the remains, we may never know exactly what slaughtered peasants in Gévaudan in the 18th century, but modern biologists, natural scientists and animal behaviourists have proposed numerous theories. The most common suggestion is a wolf – wolves were certainly common across central Europe at the time – but it’s important to consider the context. These people lived off the land and wolves would have been a regular sight at the foot of the French Alps, so it is unlikely that they would mistake a wolf, even a large one, for some kind of unnatural predator. A popular suspect is the striped hyena, which would explain the markings survivors claimed to see on the beast’s fur. Exotic animals from Africa were a spectacular addition to the menageries of the wealthy, so it is a distinct possibility. Another prime candidate is the lion. Descriptions of the beast – the tuft at the end of its tail, the dark stripe along its back, the reddish fur – would be consistent with a young male lion. Furthermore, lions attack larger prey by jumping on the victim’s back and throttling them (cutting off their oxygen). This might explain details such as the creature’s preference for attacking the head first.

More than 200 years later, La Bête du Gévaudan remains culturally relevant and is a draw for tourists in what is now Lozere (Gevaudan is no longer the name for the region). You can find the monument to Marie-Jeanne Valet in Auvers village, along with Maison de la Bête (House of the Beast), a museum dedicated to artefacts from the case. In Saugues, there is the Musée Fantastique de la Bête du Gévaudan (Fantastical Museum of The Beast of Gevaudan) and you can find another monument dedicated to Jean Chastel in La Besseyre-Saint-Mary. The beast was even the focus of a feature film Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), which portrays the beast as a lion garbed in armour by its human master, and it is depicted as a werewolf in the TV series Teen Wolf.

If you find yourself in the countryside of Lozere one day, remember that, once upon a time, a man-eater stalked its unlucky prey in those beautiful rolling hills. Remember the legacy of La Bête.

For more:

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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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

World of Weird: Secrets of Europe’s Bog Bodies

I read an article earlier from Smithsonian Magazine about the continued research into bodies found in Europe’s peat bogs, how they are studied and how they ended up in the bogs.

Archaeologists have been asking the same questions since the Hojgaards first troubled Tollund Man’s long sleep: Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you live? Who murdered you and why? But the way the researchers ask the questions, using new forensic techniques like dual-energy CT scanners and strontium tests, is getting more sophisticated all the time. There’s new hope that, sometime soon, he may start to speak.

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Article here.