Review: “From Here To Eternity”, Caitlin Doughty

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

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

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

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

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

Links

Caitlin’s website (x)

Order of the Good Death (x)

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Review: “Unexplained”, Richard Maclean Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

Episodes, Unexplained Podcast

Download links: iTunes, Soundcloud

Twitter / Facebook

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

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.

 

All Hail Jilliah: Is “The New Harry Potter” A Scam?

I’m posting something a little different today. This isn’t spooky, not really, but it’s certainly a weird bit of Internet phenomena.

I was on YouTube earlier today and an advertisement played before a video I was planning to watch. Normally, I’d skip ads, but this one caught my eye because of the bizarre way in which it had been filmed. In the video, a young woman is sitting outside talking about her “favourite book of all time”, entitled The Jilliahsmen Trinity.

The channel is called “Summer Froxpen”, which I’m assuming is the name of the woman in the video. This video was uploaded on 14th May 2018 and the channel has no other content. She sounds like a Londoner to me, but I would appreciate it if anyone else could narrow it down.

There’s a thriving community of book reviewers on YouTube, many of whom are girls and young women, so I believe this video is an attempt to cash in on or emulate that. This clip has nothing in common with those. The camera work is shaky; however, the sound is professional and you can hear her well, despite what sounds like a busy park in the background. She also never clearly shows the book – something even the most amateurish of YouTube book reviewers would remember to do – which suggests to me that it isn’t a copy of a real book.

It’s really quite surreal. Weirder still is what she actually says in the clip. She states that the book “just changed her life” which is fair enough: many people would argue that a book changed their life. She goes on to say that she connected with the book on “a spiritual level” and that she understands the universe and the people around her better as a result of reading the book. She alleges that there’s a community of people who have read the book and that they have “evolved” and are at “the next level”. Between 1:58 and 2:20, she reads a passage from page 46. Even factoring in the lack of context, it’s absolutely nonsensical. It’s like one of those random word generators online.

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It doesn’t even look like a real book.

The story doesn’t end with “Summer”. I did a quick Google search and found the book’s website. There is a poorly-written synopsis, an order form (although there is no clarification of what you’d be ordering for the hefty price-tag of £100) and a short press release claiming that there are seven books which have already been adapted into screenplays “… to hit cinemas worldwide consecutively from late 2018 to 2023 from a top five major world distributor.” On the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), there is a page for the film which slates it for release in 2019, yet the Norwegian model Frida Aasen is the only cast member listed. The website makes the bold claim that the Jilliahsmen Trinity franchise will be as successful as the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight series. Their “marketing department” (ha!) seem really keen on the Harry Potter comparisons: YouTube personality (I hate that term) Tal Fishman, also known as ReactionTime, even uploaded a video on 21st April 2018, promoting the book as being “like Harry Potter”.

There are a number of social media links on the website, but the Twitter account only boasts a single tweet (published yesterday) and the Facebook page appears not to exist. Only the Instagram account is particularly active, with three posts and nearly 30,000 followers. The latest post is simply some blurry footage of a copy of the book and a lit candle being placed on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Furthermore, there are 60 Instagram posts tagged #jilliahsmentrinity. Earlier posts – from mid-April – are mostly young people complaining about the price of the book or reporting that the link to purchase it on the website doesn’t work, but more recent posts are promotional and don’t read like anything a normal teenager would post on their Instagram. Although there are a lot of users commenting that it’s a scam, there seems to be no response from the account owners. Any ordinary teenager would viciously defend their favourite book, implying that the account owner, in most cases, probably doesn’t exist or is being paid to promote it. Most of the accounts have no other posts aside from the clip or photo featuring the book.

I also found another odd video made by a “fan”. This might be even stranger – it’s just a girl dancing to a pop song and then stating that she’ll be following the book series “like a shadow”. WARNING: this video contains flashing images.

As is wont to happen when the Internet freaks out over some weird scam or fake news, a Reddit community was established last month and its subscribers have been busy digging into the layers of unconvincing PR surrounding the book. Reddit user MalmoWalker found that the website’s domain expires in December 2018 and was created using a free website builder. The website TV Watercooler warned freelancers in February not to accept any offers from companies alleging to be involved in the production of the JT films, as they believed it to be a money-laundering scheme. There have also been several press releases, all with poor grammar and blatantly not written by a journalist (or, at least, any journalist worth their salt). One article claims Jennifer Lawrence is being considered to play a main character in the film adaptation. The key issue is that this was published on the site for the Chicago Evening Post… which hasn’t existed since 1932, when it was absorbed into the Chicago Daily News. The website was created on 9th September 2017, according to Wikipedia, and there are no profile pictures associated with any of the reporters listed. I also stumbled across a website called Ireland Breaking News – which doesn’t appear to have published anything prior to 17th February 2016 and doesn’t have any articles remotely related to Ireland in its Local News section – and a press release quoting the laughable statistic that 5.8 million copies of the book have been sold.

Crossroads Today published an article, written largely in gibberish, last month asserting that the British branch of the Rothschild family are suing the book’s author for defamation. I’m new to this Internet sleuthing malarkey, but I’m going out on a limb to say that the website seems fake. One of the main characters is a fictional socialite named Gabriella or Gabrielle Rothschild – the name changes depending on which pretend article you’re reading. I’m no expert, but I can guarantee that we would have heard something in our national news if the Rothschilds were suing anyone. After that fun bit of anti-Semitism – the Rothschilds are Jewish, OF COURSE they’re controlling the destiny of the universe! – the article claims that the book also includes as characters “every major bloodline synonymous with high finance capitalism and illuminati [sic] theology”, such as the Windsors and the Rockefellers. Hilariously, the article spells their surname “Rockerfella”. “Illuminati theology” might be the funniest thing I’ve ever read; it’s fairly common knowledge that the Bavarian Illuminati were established in order to advocate for the separation of church and state. I think the word these con artists were looking for is “ideology”.

Looking through the information, it seems obvious to me that The Jilliahsmen Trinity is a scam.  There’s no author to be found, the plot synopsis makes no sense, the characters have inconsistent names, there’s no buzzing fan community and the promo work is like nothing I’ve ever seen (and, as a bookworm, I’ve been involved in the pre-order hype of a lot of books). However, I can’t deny that it has been unsettling to delve into its weird marketing. Although I know the way “Summer Froxpen” talked in her promotional video was a performance and the zealous obsessive Instagram posts are fake, so much of the PR has a strange spiritual element. There are a couple of posts using the hashtag #NewWorldBible or talking about how the book is “scripture” or “heavenly”. It’s borderline creepy, watching teenagers promote a fake book in this cultish way. According to the subreddit, the police are now involved.

“Summer Froxpen” ends her video by declaring: “The answers are all in this book. It’s mad.” I hope they are, because I have a lot of questions.

World of Weird: “My Monster Boyfriend”

Lindsay Ellis – formerly known as Nostalgia Chick if you were into Channel Awesome a few years ago – has posted a new video essay on YouTube. I’m a big fan of her video essays, but this one was particularly interesting to me and also relevant to this blog so I thought I’d share it. My Monster Boyfriend delves into animal/monstrous bridegrooms, a feature of folklore around the world, and how they’ve been portrayed in fiction. She charts the development of this motif from 18th-century literary versions of Beauty and the Beast (and earlier variants of this story) all the way up to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water.

The Curse: Womanhood and Horror

Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for the films Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), The Company of Wolves (1984) and briefly for Teeth (2007).

In many horror films, there are underlying themes of the exoticisation (and often, demonisation) of puberty, sex and womanhood. Slasher films are particularly guilty of this. Especially in early examples of slasher films, the “final girl” survives to the end of the movie and defeats the killer. Usually, she survives because she is a virgin and the other female characters – normally sexually active women – are punished by the narrative for their promiscuity.

It’s true that women are often the victims in horror films that treat puberty as a cause for alarm, as a step into a world of violence and fear. However, there’s certainly no shortage of women who commit violence within the genre and, equally often, such violence is presented as a coming-of-age ritual for the female protagonist. Either as a victim or as a perpetrator, her experiences with fear and with conflict are integral to her “growing up.”

Bearing all these questionable implications and complex history in mind, it’s a small miracle that any “feminist” horror films exist at all.

Motifs which crop up a lot are menarche and menstruation. The most recognisable example is in Carrie (1976), as the film opens with the protagonist Carrie White experiencing her first period in the school gym showers.  Her fanatically religious mother had never taught her about menstruation, so she initially believes she is bleeding to death and has to be consoled by her teacher. This is a pivotal moment for shy 16-year-old Carrie, who is already bullied by her classmates, and from then on, she begins to wield incredible telekinetic powers. Although the origin of Carrie’s power is never directly explained in the film, her emotions appear to be what drives her telekinesis, becoming a strength rather than a weakness. As with Carrie, it’s easy to see why menstruation makes its way into so many female-centric horror films. Menstruation is cyclical, linking it to curses and prophecies within horror – you know the one, “Every 20 years, the great god Cthulhu demands a virgin sacrifice.” Furthermore, menstruation is the only entirely natural process by which blood is excreted from the body. Despite being an absolutely normal and non-threatening experience, it lends itself to narratives that treat menstrual bleeding as equivalent to violent injury like stabbing or mutilation. The point of the horror genre is to unsettle and unnerve us. Body horror is fairly common in female-centred horror films, with notable examples including the black comedy horror Teeth (2007) which deals with the myth of vagina dentata (toothed vagina). What better way to scare us than to convince us (at least for roughly 90 minutes) that our own bodies might turn against us?

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Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma)

It is for this reason that menstruation makes a frequent appearance in films that explore lycanthropy (werewolfism!), which in most myths is dependent on the lunar cycle. A good example is the film Ginger Snaps (2000). In the film, Ginger Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old girl, starts her period. On the same day that she receives “the curse”, as she refers to it, she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Her younger sister Brigitte must find a way to cure her before Ginger is completely transformed into a monstrous creature. There’s very much a conflict between the girls’ mother’s romanticised idea of menarche, the school nurse’s calm explanations and Ginger’s own experiences. Her transformation is marked by exaggerated indications of puberty – we see her struggling to shave off thick hair, her period seems to go on for weeks and her sexual awakening results in a near-death experience for her boyfriend, who contracts lycanthropy like an STD and has a period of his own. Of course, the film is hyperbolic, but when you go through menarche as a teenager, these new and often painful experiences can feel very much like a nightmare.

At its heart, Ginger Snaps is a film about sisterhood. It explores the complex bonds between young women, related by blood or not, by candidly depicting internalised misogyny. The Fitzgerald sisters frequently denounce their arch-enemy Trina Sinclair as a “slut” and she responds in kind, but all the teenage girls in the film are a united front when it comes to boys and their tenuous, uncertain interactions with them. In fact, Trina’s death scene and her conversation with Brigitte prior to her death is particularly fascinating. In reference to seeing Brigitte hanging out with Trina’s ex-boyfriend, Sam (who helps Brigitte find the cure), Trina says to her: “If you’re so f*cking smart, you won’t give him the satisfaction. Somebody, just once, shouldn’t give that f*cker the satisfaction!” That doesn’t strike me as something a nemesis would say. To me, that sounds like Trina trying – if haphazardly – to protect Brigitte from Sam and from earning a reputation like hers. The girls show awareness of the sexual double standard earlier in the film. Lamenting her bad experience with her boyfriend, Ginger remarks to Brigitte: “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door.”

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Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett)

Along those same lines, menarche is undoubtedly linked with the onset of fertility and sex. It’s fairly archaic symbolism and bears less relevance in the modern era, as obviously not all women want to or are able to have children. However, I still find it interesting. Take the film  The Company of Wolves (1984), for example, based on the short story of the same name from the 1979 anthology The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. All the stories in the anthology deal with womanhood in some way – whether it’s through menarche, marriage or sex. The film is no different. While it is admittedly not an easy film to understand, due to heavy use of surrealism, ambiguous symbolism and a blurred boundary between the real world and the “dream” world, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful film, but it does take a few repeat viewings to take in everything. There’s so much symbolism in every frame and it can be a bit perplexing initially.

The Company of Wolves also features werewolves, although they are portrayed differently to the lycanthropes of Ginger Snaps. Here, although the film makes it clear that anyone can become a wolf, the werewolves serve primarily as stand-ins for men. This stems from the morals of early fairy tales, which Carter extrapolates in The Bloody Chamber. The original tale Red Riding Hood, which inspired several stories in the anthology and also the film, can be interpreted as a treatise on virginity. The wolf is a predator, out to steal away Red Riding Hood’s innocence and “devour” her, but she must be vigilant and stick to the path. The Red Riding Hood character – named Rosaleen in the film – is caught between two perspectives: that of her grandmother, who tells her stories of the wickedness of men, and that of her mother. Rosaleen’s mother responds to the grandmother’s influence on Rosaleen with this: “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women.” At the end of the short story and the film, Rosaleen chooses to stay with the wolf who has tricked her and eaten her grandmother, who represents the old traditions as well as Rosaleen’s childhood. Leaving behind her parents, the village and the expectations that they had for her life, she transforms into a wolf herself and they flee into the forest together. The Company of Wolves is a much less cynical film than Ginger Snaps; it’s whimsical in many ways. When Rosaleen escapes the stifling morality of her village, there’s a note of hope, in contrast to the bloody culmination of Ginger’s struggle.

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The Company of Wolves
(1984, dir. Neil Jordan)

Perhaps the choice that Rosaleen makes at the end of The Company of Wolves – the choices that all the women in these films make – holds the secret to making a horror film that treats women’s experiences sensitively while still being, well, horrifying. Strip the protagonist of her autonomy, prevent her from being the focus of her own narrative, and you’re guaranteed to make a film with sexist subtext, if not an overt misogynist message. This is the case in many of those slasher movies I mentioned (it’s no secret that it’s a genre for which I don’t particularly care). Giving agency and a voice to women in horror doesn’t reduce the terror, but it does stop the film from contributing to real life attitudes and stigma.

Author’s note: I’m aware that this article doesn’t cover the full extent of how women are portrayed in horror, but I’d need to write something the length of a PhD thesis in order to analyse it properly! I’ve chosen to keep it (relatively) concise by focusing mostly on the representation in horror films of women’s physicality and of women’s social experiences during puberty.  This particular post is already almost 1500 words and I’m wary of letting it meander.

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

ATTENTION: SPOOKY BOOK RECOMMENDATION!

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

– Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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

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

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

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

Links

Official site: Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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

Waterstones: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Ask A Mortician YouTube channel