Love Bigfoot, Hate Racism

Author’s notes: I talk quite a bit about racism – specifically anti-black racism – in this article. I am a white person, so naturally I do not have first-hand experiences of discrimination and cultural appropriation. With all that in mind, I still think this is an important topic to discuss and I welcome feedback, both positive and critical.

Furthermore, I use the term “Native American” in this article. Where it’s relevant, I’ve referred to a specific tribe. I know terminology is a sensitive issue but I’m a Brit, so, again, comment if you have more expertise in this area.

There are a few central issues I want to discuss in this post. Firstly, I want to reflect on the racism inherent in the history of cryptozoology. Secondly: for quite some time, I’ve taken issue with how and why we choose to apply the label “cryptid”. The dictionary definition makes it seem simple, but this is deceptive. Then finally, I’d like to broaden out from cryptozoology and look at race issues in paranormal encounters generally.

This is not an easy or fun post to write, but it’s something I’ve considered for a long while and I think it’s a topic worth delving into.

It’s an unfortunate fact that racism dug its ugly claws into the field of cryptozoology early on and it has been hanging on ever since. An important part of cryptozoological investigation is figuring out how and why a cryptid might have evolved. We ask ourselves: where did it come from? Is it related to any known animals? Analysis of this type is crucial, for obvious reasons, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, it played a role in the deeply disturbing rise of so-called “scientific racism”. Scientific racism has been an unfortunate aspect of our society’s advances since the 1600s, with some of history’s best-known thinkers, Voltaire among them, believing that people of different races evolved from separate origins. In the 1920s, this idea of distinct origins, called “polygeny” or “polygenism”, made its way into the academic movement that would later become cryptozoology.

The herald of this worrying development was the De Loys’ Ape, now widely regarded as a hoax. Swiss geologist François de Loys “discovered” (I use this term very loosely) a creature at the Colombia-Venezuela border in 1920. It was larger than the average spider monkey and had no tail. After shooting it, de Loys and co. propped the creature up on a crate, photographed it and skinned it. He told no-one about the encounter until 1929 when his friend, anthropologist George Montandon, found the photograph in his files. Montandon took a great deal of interest in the case, largely because it provided a platform for his theories about polygeny/polygenism: this unknown creature was a suitable origin point for the indigenous people of South America. Loren Coleman, a prominent American cryptozoologist, stated in a 2009 article on Cryptomundo: “George Montandon, who was the first initial force behind de Loys’ ape, was actually a racist and anti-semetic [sic], who also thought that “Whites” derived from Cro-Magnon man, “Blacks” from gorillas, and “Orientals” from orangs and gibbons.”

The modern scientific community has rejected both De Loys’ Ape – generally considered to be a white-bellied spider monkey – and the idea of polygeny. But that underlying racist ideology has never truly gone away. The article I cited earlier from Loren Coleman was written because he had received an email from a man who wanted to posit a “theory” (damn, am I using some terms loosely today!) about Bigfoot: “Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Orangutan man and the Skunk Ape… are half man and half Gorilla and half man and half Orangutan. …The Gorilla has black hair and skin. When those men bred out the hair the Black man’s skin remained black… The creature that Roger Patterson filmed in 1967 was half man and half Gorilla.” Coleman was understandably shocked not only by the racist content of the email but the absolute seriousness with which it had been written. He concluded the article by writing: “Let us look closely at what we do in cryptozoology, and be careful, whether it develops in the talk of Bigfoot being “primitive Indians” or the supposed origin theories regarding Yetis. Let us look deeply at the biases influencing such thoughts and conjectures.”

It’s that final point about looking deeply at our biases which I want to pick up on now. For a while, I’ve been thinking about the relationship we have to the mythology which is indigenous to the land we come from. It doesn’t present much of an issue for me as an English woman (ancient British mythology and our modern folklore are in no way off-limits to me) but it’s a different story for white Americans engaging with Native American folklore, mythology and religion – or religions, to put it more accurately. Whether it’s appropriate or not, they are engaging with those traditions: I’ve seen a lot of paranormal and unexplained encounters online in recent years which focus on malevolent entities from Native American mythology, particularly the Skinwalker (part of the Navajo/Diné belief system) and the Wendigo (from the belief system of several Algonquian tribes). There is nothing wrong with this, but 9 times out of 10 the person who experienced the encounter is white (and occasionally not even a white American – explain to me how some guy in Yorkshire is seeing a creature from Native American folklore in his back garden). There’s even a whole subreddit, r/skinwalkers, devoted to incidents.

That’s not to say this trend is powering on with no criticism whatsoever: Indian Country Today published a report last year covering the widespread critical response of the Navajo/Diné people towards an episode of Ghost Adventures which was filmed at Skinwalker Canyon. The Ghost Adventures crew had come to “investigate” stories about supernatural goings-on at the canyon and claimed to have been invited onto the Navajo Nation. “Misinformed”, “exploitative”, “ridiculous” and “appropriative” were all adjectives applied by Navajo critics to the content of the episode. Ghost Adventures is just one of a slew of paranormal documentaries which have overstepped the line in this field. The series Lost Tapes has not one but two episodes dealing with Native American mythology, one with the Skinwalker and the other with the Wendigo. If you haven’t seen Lost Tapes, the basic format of each episode is a fictional encounter with a supernatural creature, based upon real anecdotes and eyewitness accounts. Who are the people being attacked by these creatures in both Lost Tapes stories? White people. I’m not suggesting we should exclude mythological creatures from cryptozoological investigation; I’m just saying we should do so sensitively and with the consent and approval of the people to whom that mythology belongs. Bigfoot is a cryptid with its roots in a number of First Nations mythologies, including that of the Nlaka’pamux people, the Sts’ailes people and several other tribes in British Columbia. This is something which is rarely acknowledged, so I think a good step would be to start listening to criticism from Native Americans and First Nations people when they take issue with how their tribe and their ancestral knowledge are being represented. Ghost Adventures did not pay attention to criticism and nor did Lost Tapes, which is what made their depictions so insensitive, problematic and, to an extent, offensive.

By coincidence, while I was in the process of writing this article, one of my favourite YouTubers Caitlin Doughty posted a video of her visit to the “Apache Death Cave” in Arizona. She made some really interesting points regarding the concept in American popular culture of Native American “curses”. The history of the Apache Death Cave, being the site of a massacre of Apache villagers, was exploited by white settlers as a tourist attraction from the 1920s until well into the 1970s. Doughty states that the American fixation on “Indian burial grounds” and “Indian curses” is born of “guilt, obsession and avoidance” and this stereotyping is actively harmful to Native Americans. A 2015 article from Atlas Obscura (which you can read here) explains the trope of the “Indian burial ground” thus: “The idea that one could disrespect American Indians, that theirs was a history on which we had trampled, was, embarrassingly but truthfully, sort of new to much of the American public in the 1970s.” From horror movies to real-life paranormal encounters in the US, the historically inaccurate idea of the “Indian burial ground” is pervasive and indicative of mainstream white America’s inability to come to terms with its bloody past.

If we work to eradicate racism from our research (professional and amateur), our fieldwork and our academic community, cryptozoology can be a real force for good. In a 1993 article for The Scientist, Paul McCarthy interviewed a number of cryptozoologists, one of whom was physical anthropologist Frank Poirier: “Poirier has done fieldwork in Africa and Asia and has found reports of animals by indigenous peoples to be of great value in his conventional research. He feels that the dismissal of indigenous reports of undescribed animals “is nothing other than racism–you know, comments like ‘What would this native know?'” He points out that when gorillas were first reported in Africa, Europeans “just totally dismissed those reports.” And this keeps him looking.” I believe we need more of that attitude. Cryptozoology is all about keeping a platform available for these stories and anecdotes, and treating people’s eyewitness testimonies with respect.

Loren Coleman put it succinctly and perfectly in his Cryptomundo article: “There’s no place in cryptozoology, hominology, and Bigfoot studies for racism.”

Further Reading and Information

Loren Coleman, Racism in Cryptozoology (Cryptomundo)

Mark Baard, America Goes Cryptozoology Crazy (Wired) – Loren Coleman argues that mainstream zoology’s dismissal of global cryptid reports as local superstition is “a form of racism”.

Darren Naish, De Loys’ Ape and what to do with it (Scientific American)

Morgan-Is-Mothman, Something that’s been on my mind for a while… (Blog post about racism in the cryptozoology community, Tumblr)

Vincent Schilling, Many Outraged at Ghost Adventures’ Navajo “Skinwalker” Episode (Indian Country Today)

Caitlin Doughty/Ask A Mortician, I Visit the “Apache Death Cave

Dan Nosowitz, Why Every Horror Film of the 1980s Was Built On “Indian Burial Grounds” (Atlas Obscura)

TV Tropes, Indian Burial Ground

Colin Dickey, The Suburban Horror of the Indian Burial Ground (New Republic)

 

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The Hidden Files #4: The Jersey Devil

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

One stormy night in 1735, a New Jersey woman named Mother Leeds went into labour. Her husband was an alcoholic and Mrs Leeds had been forced to provide for her twelve other children alone – naturally, it had not been an easy pregnancy. So the legend goes, upon discovering she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, Mrs Leeds had exclaimed: “Let this one be a devil!”

All seemed to be going well as the midwives assisted Mrs Leeds with the delivery of a healthy baby boy. However, before the eyes of the shocked women, the newborn began to metamorphose into something unspeakable. It grew in size, sprouted enormous draconic wings and a forked tail, and its head became that of a goat. The creature roared, slit the throats of all the assembled midwives with one great sweep of its claws (in some versions, it kills Mrs Leeds too), and then vanished up the chimney and flew away into the night. Mother Leeds never saw her child – or whatever foul beast she had given birth to – again.

The eerie tale of the Jersey Devil, sometimes called the “Leeds Devil”, is one heck of a legend. But is it just that – a legend? Those who still call the Pine Barrens home think not.

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The Jersey Devil, as depicted in Animal Planet’s Lost Tapes (2009)

Throughout the 19th century, many claimed to have spotted the Jersey Devil lurking in the forests of New Jersey. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph believed he had seen the creature while out hunting in the grounds of his Bordentown estate in 1820. The Jersey Devil was also blamed for a number of livestock killings in the 1840s, but sightings truly peaked in January 1909. Between 16th and 23rd January, hundreds of reports were published in newspapers across New Jersey, each containing a strange encounter with the state’s most famous monster. The hysteria spread from NJ to Delaware and even Maryland, with schools closing, workers refusing to leave their homes and vigilantes roaming the woods in search of the beast.

As is often the case with these things, no evidence was ever found and no-one could prove anything. That said, reports from rural townspeople and farmers kept on stacking up until well into the late 20th century. The odd sighting is even recorded today.

Of course, we all love an occult mystery like this, but it’s the historical context that surrounds the legend which interests me most. Brian Regal, a professor of the history of science at Kean University, wrote an article for Skeptical Inquirer in 2013 which delved into the story’s bizarre links with 17th-century Quakers. Daniel Leeds arrived in NJ in 1677 and began publishing an almanac (a type of reference book for weather forecasts and calendars). But Leeds’ almanac contained material related to astrology and symbolism which his fellow Quakers frowned upon as “pagan”. The Quaker community accused Leeds of working for the Devil; Regal points out that the use of astrology in Daniel Leeds’ publications indicates he was likely a Christian occultist rather than a devil worshipper. He eventually converted to Anglicanism and continued publishing his almanac – and arguing with the local Quakers while doing so – until 1716, when his son Titan took over the family business. Regal writes: “Titan redesigned the masthead [the heading at the top of the almanac’s front page] to include the Leeds family crest, which contained three figures on a shield. Dragon-like with a fearsome face, clawed feet, and bat-like wings, the figures, known as Wyverns, are suspiciously reminiscent of the later descriptions of the Jersey Devil.” Titan Leeds entered into a feud with Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) which lasted six years until Leed’s death in 1738. Franklin had “predicted” Titan would die on 18th October 1733 (mocking the Leeds family’s interest in astrology) and, when Titan plainly didn’t, he continued to joke that Leeds’ ghost was the one attacking him in the press. According to Regal, “Largely out of fun, Benjamin Franklin had publically cast his rival almanac publisher as a ghost, brought back from the great beyond to haunt his enemies. It is interesting to note that the traditionally believed period of the “birth” of the Jersey Devil (the mid-1730s) coincides with the death of Titan Leeds.”

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Philadelphia Post, 1909

The Jersey Devil is perhaps not the cursed child in which we are led to believe. I think it’s much more likely that the legendary beast is the result of a number of historical and cultural forces. Brian Regal summed it up thus: “The elements that led to the creation of the Jersey Devil are by and large un­known to even monster aficionados. The Quaker rivalries, the almanac wars, Daniel Leeds and his son Titan, as well as their monstrous family crest drifted into the mists of time, leaving only the vague notion of a frightening denizen of the Pine Barrens.” The Leeds family gave their name to Leeds Point, an area in the Pine Barrens which features heavily in the myth of the Jersey Devil, and many local people are still able to trace their heritage back to this bunch of rebellious Quakers and almanac-makers. When interviewed for Vice, Bill Sprouse – a direct descendant of the Leeds family – remarked: “”I think suburban New Jerseyans want the same things suburban kids anywhere want: a sense of belonging to a place, a sense of history, a sense of local identity… and the Jersey Devil story helps fill that vacuum to an extent.” The people of the Pine Barrens, known as “pineys”, encourage the legend and you can understand why they would. It’s good for tourism, it provides a link with their state’s history and it’s a fantastically scary story.

I try to keep an open mind while writing this series of blog posts and usually I’m successful, yet I find the tale of the Jersey Devil just a little too hard to believe.

Having said that, would I want to find myself in the Pine Barrens, alone on a dark and stormy night? Definitely not.

Further Reading

The Hidden Files #3: Mothman

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

Author’s note: in this article, I alternated between referring to the creature as “Mothman” or “the Mothman”. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding the name among cryptozoologists, so I used both.

“Couples See Man-Sized Bird … Creature … Something”

That was the headline chosen by the Point Pleasant Register for their report on a sighting of Mothman. The story was first printed on 16th November 1966, and it detailed the experiences of two young couples who had spotted something otherworldly standing in the middle of the road when they were driving outside of town.

They described the creature as being grey in colour, with glowing red eyes and a ten-foot wingspan. It followed them for some time, flying overhead as they drove.

Oddly, this matched a sighting from a few days prior, in which five gravediggers in Clendenin, West Virginia, claimed to have seen a humanoid figure fly out from the trees and over their heads. Over the coming weeks and months, more and more reports piled in of a strange creature sighted overhead around Point Pleasant.

There are lots of theories regarding what witnesses were seeing (or believed they were seeing) in the late 1960s in West Virginia, ranging from demons to aliens. The most common is that it was a case of mistaken identity. Sandhill cranes may have wandered outside of their usual migration route. Similar to witnesses’ descriptions, they can have a wingspan of seven feet and have red markings around their eyes. Sandhill cranes aren’t native to West Virginia, which would explain why the witnesses were unable to recognise them. Other likely culprits include large owls or herons. There are still Mothman sightings being reported today – the most recent incidents I could find happened in Chicago between 15th and 16th April 2017 and were recorded by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) in this article. In November 2016, a man driving along Route 2 in Point Pleasant even managed to capture a photograph of a creature he believed to be the Mothman.

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(c) WCHS, viewer-submitted photo (2016)

You might be tempted to dismiss the Mothman as just another big bird mistakenly identified, but, for those who believe, the plot only thickened in 1967. On 15th December, the Silver Bridge – crossing the Ohio River and connecting Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, Ohio – collapsed, resulting in the tragic deaths of 46 people. The bridge collapsed due to a tiny crack in a single link (called an eye-bar). In a suspension bridge, all the weight is equally distributed and just one minor break can cause an immediate collapse of the entire structure. It took no longer than a minute for the bridge to fall.

Journalist and UFOlogist John Keel posited in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies that the Mothman makes portentous appearances before major disasters. The book deals with his investigation of the Mothman sightings, reports of animal mutilations and strange phone-calls he received, with these unusual events culminating in the collapse of the Silver Bridge. According to a Portalist article, creatures similar to Mothman have been spotted prior to some of the worst tragedies of the modern era. Before the 1986 disaster at Reactor 4, Chernobyl, the article states: “… a bizarre winged creature was seen flying over the town [Pripyat] on numerous occasions. A few workers at Chernobyl also allegedly saw the same creature hovering over the plant… Many claimed the creature resembled a man-like bird with red eyes, and some came to refer to it as “the Black Bird of Chernobyl.” Was the Black Bird of Chernobyl the same creature as the one seen prior to the Silver Bridge disaster?” In 2007, another bridge – this time, Interstate 35 in Minneapolis – collapsed, killing thirteen people and injuring 145. Again, reports “trickled in that a Mothman-like figure started appearing near the bridge about a month prior to its collapse.”

There isn’t a contemporary event which receives more press from conspiracy theorists than 9/11 (jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, anyone?) and Mothman has made its way into the witness reports there too. The Portalist article notes that reports emerged that a strange crane-like creature had been spotted near the World Trade Centre in the days before the terrorist attack. This article from Ranker also describes the creature seen around the Twin Towers as “a black winged creature” and refers to another creature, sighted by an American tourist not long before the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, which was “large and black” and appeared with “a loud whooshing sound and a terrible screeching”. Whether you believe all these catastrophes to be connected or not, it’s undeniably an unsettling hypothesis. Does Mothman appear simply as an omen of disaster? Or is the creature more deeply involved?

Although we may never have all the answers, Mothman is evidently still at the forefront of the popular imagination. Since 2002, the town of Point Pleasant has hosted their annual Mothman Festival and in 2003 a 12-foot tall metal sculpture of Mothman was erected. 2005 saw the opening of the Mothman Museum and Research Centre. John Keel’s book was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Richard Gere, which was released in 2002.

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Mothman statue, created by local artist Bob Roach

I find the Mothman case fascinating. I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, but I appreciate that the good folks at the Mothman Museum and Research Centre in Point Pleasant are keeping the story alive and continue to investigate.

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Further Reading

What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Scooby-Doo Direct-to-Video Movies (1998 – 2008), Definitively Ranked

I’ve compiled a playlist of bangin’ Scooby-Doo tunes to listen to while you read (here).

I love the Scooby-Doo movies and I’m not ashamed of it. The direct-to-video movies almost singlehandedly resurrected the franchise. Sounds dramatic? Time for a history lesson, then.

By the mid-1990s, Scooby-Doo had changed hands several times. Turner Entertainment bought Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1991 and Hanna-Barbera became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. after Time Warner and Turner Entertainment merged in 1996. When the TV series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo ended in 1991, a TV movie, Scooby-Doo in: Arabian Nights, followed in 1994, but no new Scooby-Doo episodes were being produced. Instead, the franchise’s popularity (and profits) relied upon reruns on Cartoon Network and Boomerang.

Enter the first direct-to-video movie.

Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. teamed up, aiming to create one new Scooby-Doo movie every year. Their strategy was simple: advertise on other VHS tapes and get the kids excited, keep costs low by releasing the film straight onto video and, crucially, reinvent the gang without losing its nostalgic value.

It worked. 29 direct-to-video movies have been made so far, with a 30th addition to the canon due for release this year. These films were an integral part of my childhood, to the extent that I partially credit them with my passion for the paranormal.

In tribute, today I’m ranking the first 12 direct-to-video movies. I may one day rank all 30, but these are the 12 films which I vividly remember watching as a child.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read the spoiler.

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12) Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! (2007)

While certainly not the worst of the series, Chill Out somewhat spelled the end of the “classic” era for me. They clawed it back a bit with Goblin King (which we’ll discuss in a few entries’ time); however, Chill Out just wasn’t quite as strong as the earlier films.

It works just fine as a kids’ movie and it’s entertaining enough, but the humour is a bit more inane and it doesn’t transcend the label of “kids’ movie” in the same way as some of the others on this list. I didn’t personally care for it that much, even when I was younger.

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11) Aloha, Scooby-Doo! (2005)

Aloha is another one that never really appealed to me. I liked it well enough the first time I saw it, but it didn’t draw me in like some of the others. I’d watch it if it was on TV, yet I never found myself desperate to see it again. It’s an interesting choice of setting and the plot is a bit different, which is always welcome. Even the monster design is distinct and spooky, although it never scared me as a kid.

10) Scooby-Doo and the Monster of Mexico (2003)

I had a real internal debate about whether to put Monster of Mexico or Goblin King in tenth place. In the end, Goblin King is a better film on a technical level, even if Monster of Mexico is my favourite out of the two. I have to at least appear to be objective.

Massive pro of this film: the music is really good. And even if el Chupacabra isn’t quite depicted the way it is in Latin American folklore, there’s an attempt to be culturally accurate and capture a sense of setting. You can’t really expect culturally sensitive analysis of mythology from a Scooby-Doo movie, but nothing in Monster of Mexico is outrageously offensive. It’s a lot of fun.

9) Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King (2008)

Goblin King surprised me. After seven films which utilised the age-old formula of the bad guy in a mask, Goblin King incorporated supernatural elements and there’s real threat throughout, which I didn’t expect from it. Tim Curry portrays the eponymous foe and he’s always amazing, so that completely elevates the film.

It also reminds me a lot of the TV movies from the 1980s, like Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf  (1988) or Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School (also 1988). Scooby and Shaggy kind of do their own thing in those TV specials; you don’t see the rest of the gang. Fred, Daphne and Velma are in Goblin King, but the focus is very much on Scooby and Shaggy. I think that can be quite refreshing; it scales things down a bit.

8) Scooby-Doo in: Where’s My Mummy? (2005)

Where’s My Mummy? essentially borrows its entire plot from the 1999 film The Mummy, to the point that one of the minor characters is voiced by Oded Fehr, who played the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay in The Mummy. I adore The Mummy, so I was never mad about it. We also get some cool scenes of Velma doing… archaeology, I guess? She’s helping reconstruct the Sphinx and wearing ancient jewellery round the camp, which I don’t believe is considered to be best practice among historians. Anyway, what do I know? It’s pointless trying to critique this film for playing fast and loose with history.

It’s a legitimately exciting film though, which is why I ranked it eighth. I feel like I’ve mentioned the soundtracks to these movies a lot, but this is another one with a fabulous score. The key chase scene is accompanied by this bizarre jazz song called Mummy’s Rags and Riches. It’s kooky and I love it.

7) Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster (2004)

Oh boy, Loch Ness Monster is one hell of a Scooby-Doo flick. It captures all sides of the cryptozoology debate, in that the gang are investigating the case, but so are an amateur cryptozoologist and a professor of natural history.

It’s painfully Scottish (or, at least, Scottish as seen from an American perspective). It’s set during a Highland games event, for goodness’ sake, and the main chase scene is accompanied by a lively tune that features some prominent fiddle-playing. There’s plenty of bagpipe interludes too. We also get to meet Daphne’s Scottish cousin who, for whatever reason, bears the distinctly Irish name Shannon. Couldn’t they find anything more obviously Scottish? Mhairi, maybe? Iona?

Despite its cringeworthy Scottish cultural references, the plot is better than many of the films previous mentioned on this list. It also has a really fun ending [– Velma notes that she’s glad they never proved or disproved the monster’s existence, because “Some mysteries are better left unsolved.” The film ends with Scooby spotting what could just be the Loch Ness Monster swimming past them.]

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6) Scooby-Doo: Pirates Ahoy! (2006)

Pirates Ahoy! is another one that surprised me. I saw it again more recently and I was shocked by how enjoyable and “watchable” it was. Ron Perlman and Dan Castellaneta are in this one, something I never noticed as a child but was delighted to realise upon rewatching.

It takes place in the Bermuda Triangle; the gang are on a mystery cruise with Fred’s parents. An eerie fog engulfs the ship and the gang are kidnapped by ghost pirates, who are seeking a golden meteor which fell into the ocean years ago. It all culminates in an enormous maelstrom, so it’s sort of like a low-budget, animated Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Yes, it’s a bit silly, but aren’t all of the films on this list kind of daft? I look pretty ridiculous reviewing these as an adult woman.

5) Scooby-Doo and the Legend of the Vampire (2003)

This was the first of the direct-to-video movies to return to the franchise’s original format: the villain is a crook in a suit rather than a supernatural foe. Despite this, Legend of the Vampire scared me the most as a child (I had a real phobia of vampires as a kid – it took a while for me to get to the stage where I understood that they’re not real). This isn’t an excuse, but the character designs for the vampires in this film are legitimately quite a lot to handle for a kid, particularly the “head” vampire, the Yowie-Yahoo (allegedly an ancient Aboriginal myth…).

This was the second outing for The Hex Girls – we’ll chat more about them later – and the music in this film is fantastic. It’s super catchy; be warned that you won’t be able to get Woah, Get Away, Yeah! out of your head once you see the chase scene. Props to Holland Greco for that song. It was a perfect choice, even though I couldn’t watch that chase scene as a kid without my hands over my face.

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4) Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001)

It’s entertaining to watch this now, knowing how much of a crazy notion it was at the time that you could transport yourself into a video game. As a kid who only used the computer to play literacy puzzles on a CD-ROM (imagine that) and never dreamed that I might one day own a computer that could fit in my hand, it blew me away. In a modern world where you only need to slip on a pair of goggles to venture into virtual reality, Cyber Chase seems so quaint and nostalgic, but I think it has retained its magic.

Out of all the Scooby-Doo movies, Cyber Chase is the one which was most obviously influenced by pop culture. There’s a touch of Jumanji in there, a dash of The Matrix, more than a hint of Tron. It’s a really great adventure movie. I don’t think it was ever the best of these direct-to-video movies, but there are a lot of good things about it. The plot makes sense (mostly), the soundtrack is cool and we get loads of references to past eras of Scooby-Doo – the video game that the gang are sucked into is based on all their adventures, after all. Cyber Chase is the film that most expertly handles the fickle friend that is nostalgia.

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3) Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost (1999)

Most folks look fondly upon Witch’s Ghost and I’m one of them. It introduced the musical phenomenon we mortals call The Hex Girls, who “play” some incredible songs throughout the movie. I’m still a bit peeved that no marketing team ever thought to produce a Hex Girls CD, because you can bet your butt I’d have had that on my Christmas list. I think The Hex Girls probably inspired my interest in Wicca and witchcraft. Thorn, the lead singer, is “part Wiccan” and has “Wiccan blood” (although that doesn’t make any sense because Wicca isn’t an ethnicity). By and large, it isn’t a bad portrayal of Wiccans or witches, just a flawed and cliched one.

Witch’s Ghost also features the majestic Tim Curry (his first outing in a Scooby-Doo movie) as Ben Ravencroft, the descendant of the falsely-accused witch Sarah [spoiler: she wasn’t actually falsely accused]. That’s another thing that I’m always surprised to recall about these movies – they starred actual big-name actors. Then again, Tim was in that Worst Witch adaptation from the 80s that looked like it had a budget of roughly £10, so maybe this isn’t saying a lot.

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2) Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders (2000)

I know, I know – ranking Alien Invaders above Witch’s Ghost is a controversial move, but I feel it’s one I have to make. Alien Invaders is silly and fun, yet there’s a beautiful sentiment about friendship and solidarity at the heart of it which I don’t think Witch’s Ghost quite captures. Shaggy falls in love with Crystal, who shares his hippy outlook on life, but at the end of the movie, they are forced to part ways [spoiler alert: Crystal is revealed to be the real alien of the film and must go home]. Instead of being a dick about it, Shaggy realises he was lucky to spend time with her and they’ve cultivated a beautiful friendship, and he accepts that she has to leave. Damn, wouldn’t it be nice if all men were like that. Alien Invaders even manages to have a genuinely surprising twist [: initially, the aliens are proved to be a hoax. But the film concludes with the revelation that Shaggy and Scooby’s love interests, Crystal and Amber, were the real aliens all along].

It’s snarky in a really fun way too. For example, in one scene, one of the main antagonists (Steve, voiced by Mark Hamill) tells the gang: “It’s nothing personal, you just know too much.”

Fred responds: “Yeah, that’s always our problem.” If that exchange doesn’t sum up everything that’s good about the Scooby-Doo franchise, I don’t know what does.

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And the best direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movie is…

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)

God, what can I say about Zombie Island? It’s not just the best Scooby-Doo film; it’s a great film in its own right. If it wasn’t an animated film and the humour was pitched to a slightly older audience, it could pass for a solid horror movie. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate for kids, because I know for a fact that I loved this film when I was a child. It’s just a little more mature in its themes and its plot than the Scooby-Doo series of the 1970s and 1980s.

It was also the first of the direct-to-video films to be made. It introduced a relatively new twist to the franchise: the idea that, this time, the monsters are real. It’s cynical – at the start, the gang have given up solving mysteries and they all have jobs – but not so cynical that you feel uncomfortable. It’s still a nostalgic riot that treats the original series with affection. Without Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, I don’t think What’s New, Scooby-Doo? (the 2002 – 2006 updated TV series) could have ever existed. Zombie Island was successful enough that it kicked off the movie canon and it made a new TV series commercially viable. It also opened the door for darker interpretations of the franchise, like Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013). There was even a Scooby-Doo parody of The Blair Witch Project, which aired on Cartoon Network in 1999 and has never been broadcast on the channel since. No, that isn’t a joke; you can watch it right here.

I especially appreciate it (speaking as a feminist) for its wonderful portrayal of Daphne. She was always a little bit ditzy in the original series, often fulfilling the “damsel in distress” role, but Zombie Island gave us a career woman Daphne who is still her fun, fashionable self. It was practically inspirational for a weird child like me to see a popular female character who travels around the country for her ghost-hunting TV show. That has been lost in the more recent films – I watched Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery (2014) and Scooby-Doo and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery (2015) a little while ago in preparation for this article and it was disappointing to see Daphne depicted as boy-mad, tactless and superfluous to the investigation. Her portrayal seems to have regressed rather than progressed, which is a real shame.

So there you have it! All 12 of the Scooby-Doo movies released between 1998 and 2008, ranked for your entertainment.

Please like and share if you enjoyed this, and feel free to argue with me in the comments if you think a different film deserved first place.

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:

Urban Legends: The Black-Eyed Kids

In 1998, a journalist named Brian Bethel, of Abilene, Texas submitted a tale to the story archive on Obiwan’s UFO-Free Paranormal Page. In his submission (here), Bethel recounted an experience he had two years prior in the car park of a cinema. Having driven at night to pay his internet bill and utilising the light from the cinema’s marquee, Bethel had parked up to write a cheque. While sitting in his car, he was approached by two adolescent boys who asked if he could give them a lift home. They’d forgotten their money and they wanted to see Mortal Kombat, they said.

Bethel knew something about them was… off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. The longer he spoke to them, the stranger they seemed. They kept trying to reassure him, insisting that they weren’t going to harm him, that they were just two little boys who needed a lift to their mother’s house. Then they began demanding, let us in, Mister.

As the boys became more persistent – and he was being unconsciously persuaded by them, his hand drifting to open the car door –  it dawned on him.

Their eyes.

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Bethel’s story is widely accepted to be the earliest encounter with the Black-Eyed Kids (often abbreviated to BEKs) or Black-Eyed Children, although, according to ThoughtCo, “Reports of BEKs spiked in 2013”. This was the first encounter with the BEKs which I read – at the age of 10 or so – and it has stayed with me. There’s something about the Black-Eyed Kids that resonated with me. I’m finding it uncomfortable to write this post even now; I keep looking over the top of my laptop screen.

The BEKs are, according to whispered legends (and internet forums), an invasive force. Whether it’s into your car or into your home, they want you to let them in. This has led many, questioning their origins, to wonder how much resemblance they bear to the vampire of myth. As it was put in an article on the Creepypasta Wiki, “…[the] encounters frequently emphasize that the children must be voluntarily admitted or invited into the house or car in question, and in this way are reminiscent of some vampire legends. However it is unspecified what happens should you comply with their demands, as no reports of the Bek [sic] have included that happening… ” Although no conclusive evidence of their existence or of a hoax has ever been provided, each story bears some common features. The encounter takes place at night or during a storm. The child (or children) attempts to persuade the victim to let them in – for a lift home, to use the telephone or to wait for help. The victim is consumed by a mounting sense of dread until, finally, the penny drops. Is this the modus operandi of evil entities or an indication of mass hysteria, spreading by word of mouth?

Sightings of BEKs are not limited to the US; the stories come from all over the world. Here in England, we have our own tales of Black-Eyed Children, such as a little girl  sighted on Cannock Chase (you might remember Cannock Chase from a previous article). In 2014, Soul and Spirit Magazine published an article about the experiences of psychic medium Christine Hamlett, who believed she had caught the black-eyed child on camera.

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The Black-Eyed Girl of Cannock Chase. (c) Christine Hamlett.

According to the article, sightings of the child can be traced back to the 1980s. As with many UK examples, this case is generally described as a “ghost” and encounters differ significantly from US reports like Brian Bethel’s, so they are potentially unrelated phenomena.

Whether you believe in the Black-Eyed Kids is entirely up to you. It’s an urban legend, after all. A tale from a friend of a friend – or even some WordPress blogger – shouldn’t be enough to convince you. It didn’t quite convince me, even when I first read Bethel’s account.

Still, when I read the story of the first recorded BEK encounter at the age of 10, I couldn’t help but wonder: what would have happened if Brian Bethel had opened his car door? What if he’d rolled his window down a little too far? What if he had let them in?

What happens to the people who don’t figure out what’s wrong with these children quickly enough?

The answer doesn’t quite bear thinking about.

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For more:

 

Review: “My Scientology Movie” (2015)

I’m two years late to the party, but I finally got round to delving into Louis Theroux’s documentary on the Church of Scientology, My Scientology Movie (2015). Directed by John Dower, the film documents the attempts of Theroux and crew to create some sort of dialogue with the Church itself – with varying success. The Church refused to participate in the making of the film (in fact, many of their letters to the producers of the documentary are shown within the film itself), so the documentary takes a different approach to most: the filmmakers prodded and poked until they got a reaction. Many of the key anecdotes from ex-Scientologists are re-enacted with young actors and the audition process also makes up part of the film.

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I expected the film to be interesting – as an outsider, I find Scientology to be fascinating and I’ve enjoyed all the documentaries of Theroux’s that I’ve watched – but I wasn’t prepared for how unsettling it is. Throughout the film, Theroux’s interviews are interrupted by unidentified individuals who simply appear out of nowhere, cameras rolling and demanding to know exactly what he thinks he’s doing. It’s genuinely quite disturbing to see the ease with which they track down dissenters, traitors and anyone else they perceive to be a threat to Scientology’s aims. At one point, the main interviewee, ex-Scientology Inspector General Marty Rathbun, is greeted at the airport terminal by three high-ranking Church executives. His footage of their psychologically abusive rhetoric, insisting that the Church doesn’t miss him and that he isn’t living “a real life”, is difficult to watch. As Theroux puts it in the film, “They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realize that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics.” The way Scientology is presented by its followers – a misunderstood, intensive self-help course, essentially – is directly at odds with the reality shown in the documentary. They come off as paranoid, invasive and frequently rather scary.

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A large part of the film focuses on Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, who took over leadership after the death of the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. It also deals with allegations of Miscavige’s violent outbursts towards Scientologists such as Jeff Hawkins (another interviewee and ex-Scientologist) and harassment of journalists and defectors from the Church. The footage shown of Miscavige at grand Scientology galas is disquieting too – all dictators worth their salt have a sense of the theatrical, I suppose.

Regardless of how Scientologists come across by virtue of their own actions, it’s a very balanced portrayal of the Church. It’s clear that they didn’t set out to make a film about how “evil” the Church of Scientology is; they simply dive into the oddness of it all. In many ways, it’s an incredibly funny piece of filmmaking. It was referred to in a Telegraph review as “Pythonesque” and I’d have to agree – it almost seems beyond belief. Cars with blacked-out windows, ominous letters and visits from sketchy Scientologist minions are strange things to see in a documentary, but it’s real edge-of-your-seat stuff.

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I’d highly recommend My Scientology Movie. Louis Theroux is on top form, the documentary itself is structured in an unusual and interesting way and I really felt for the ex-Scientologists interviewed (or, at least, for some of them). I got the impression that they understood that they could never really escape. No matter how far they run, the Church will always track them down, learn who they’re fraternising with and what they’re doing. That’s terrifying.

My personal thoughts on Scientology can be summed up in an excellent quote from John Sweeney, a BBC correspondent who was harassed by Scientologist operatives while making a documentary about the Church. In a 2012 article for The Independent, he said of the Church of Scientology: “In the 21st century, everyone has a right to believe in anything or nothing. But not everything that claims to be a religion is a religion. It could be, for example, a brain washing cult.”

My Scientology Movie is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 19 days.

P.S. If you’ve heard nothing from me by next month, you know that they’ve silenced me. 😉

World of Weird: Alien ASMR by GentleWhispering!

I think the prize for spookiest (and cutest) ASMR video ever has to go to Gentle Whispering! I was so excited to see Maria had uploaded a special video in preparation for Halloween. It’s as relaxing as all her other videos, but it also made me smile – our alien overlords have never seemed so adorable.

The video is linked below: let her give you a makeover so you’re ready to invade the Earth and brainwash the Earthlings in time for Halloween!

Review: “IT: Chapter One” (2017)

Warning: to avoid spoiling the plot for you, I have changed the font colour of any spoilers so that you won’t immediately see it. Spoilers are contained in yellow parentheses like [this] – if you would like to read the spoiler, simply highlight it with your cursor.

“And now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown!”

I saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It yesterday. I’ll confess: I haven’t read the book nor seen the original mini-series (a heinous crime for a horror fan), but in a way, I’m glad that I went in without any expectations. Misery by Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite books, but when I finally got around to watching the film adaptation, I found myself nitpicking at tiny changes to the material. I’m grateful that this wasn’t the case with It.

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I was incredibly impressed with this film. It struck a beautiful balance between subtle psychological horror – it wasn’t afraid to leave the scares implied or ambiguous – and balls-to-the-wall gore. [Six-year-old Georgie having his arm bitten right TF off within the first 10 minutes springs to mind.] I’m not particularly a fan of blood and guts; it’s why slasher films have never appealed to me. Nothing in the film felt gratuitous to me. Even Pennywise, who could have been taken way over the top and way too far, was a perfect match for the tone. With his ruff and pantaloons, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is more like an antique doll than Tim Curry’s grease-painted nightmare. He’s more childlike, which makes it even more horrifying when he reveals his true form [and his jaws gape with sharklike teeth]. I’m also not a fan of horror films that lack the money shot, if you’ll pardon the phrasing – the moment when the monster is finally revealed, after snippets and glimpses throughout. It’s why I never found Freddy Krueger particularly unsettling. I knew what he looked like before I’d even watched the film; there was no suspense. I want some build-up. We see Pennywise a lot in this film and, if I’m honest, my principles got blown out of the water and I didn’t care. Dude was terrifying.

It also managed to be endearing in a way I didn’t expect. The child actors are all excellent – I sometimes find films in which children are the protagonists a little bit cringeworthy. Such a lot can go wrong, but every single one of the Losers (as they call themselves) are sincere and believable. It’s as much a coming-of-age film as it is a horror flick. It’s about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, the awkward inbetween that is adolescence. [Pennywise, or It, is a tainted, twisted version of the far more innocent clown and it seems to be the loss of innocence made manifest.] The Losers are all overcoming unique challenges, but they share a profound sense of uncertainty. I appreciated the depth to which we got to see their lives and empathise with them. My only criticism would perhaps lie with Richie, the wisecracking wannabe-Casanova of the group. Don’t get me wrong, he’s hysterical and the young actor playing him (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame) has impeccable comedic timing which would rival that of an adult comic. I just felt as though I’d seen very little of his home life [in comparison to the trauma we see affecting the others], although perhaps that was intentional – maybe he hadn’t got much of one to speak of. More Richie, please!

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The film also captured a great 80s vibe. It was giving me a hint of The Goonies, and seeing the kids cycling along the roads strongly reminded me of the holy water scene from The Lost Boys too. It had that same kind of dark humour – frightened, foulmouthed adolescents, what’s funnier than that? I love films with a throwback aesthetic: if it’s done properly, it can be transcendent. And It absolutely was.

A sequel has been neatly set up. This film takes place during the protagonists’ childhood, and the second film will return to them as adults [when the creature reappears after the requisite 27 years and they are forced to fight Pennywise again], splitting the plot of the book and mini-series into two separate halves. I’m very much looking forward to it.