During the past couple of years, I haven’t had any time to pull together the expansive lists of links to recommended reading that I used to post here regularly. This situation may continue for some time. But in honor of the current Halloween holiday, here are some recently published items about horror pop culture, monsters, and the supernatural that are worth looking at.
These accidents of nature were known as “prodigies.” A non-exhaustive list might include floods; rains of blood or body parts; miscarriages, human and animal; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; comets, eclipses, and conjunctions of the planets; apparitions of armies in the sky; and beached whales. What united this Borgesian collection was its strangeness. Each of these phenomena departed from the ‘norm’, but not enough to be considered a true miracle. They occupied a middle ground between natural and supernatural: the preternatural.
In theory, prodigies could be explained by natural causes. But in creating them, nature wasn’t tending to business as usual. This strange, quirky, slippery realm, the realm of the monstrous, fulfilled a human need to see the moral order reflected in the non-human domain. Prodigies allowed humans to see their own desires, fears and political judgments woven into the fabric of nature itself. In a secularised form, this impulse is still with us today.
One would like to believe that journalists have enough common sense not to believe in ghosts. But in the 1970s, American culture was awash in superstition. It was a time rather like our own, filled with economic and political instability. The Lutz family’s press conference took place 18 months after Watergate had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency and the onslaught of upsetting news had led everyone to question conventional facts and truth. It was unclear whether the stable laws of the universe still held.
Anger and fear were everywhere, and often enough, they bloomed into outright delusions. Couple that with the remnants of the New Age philosophies of the 1960s, shake in a little bit of good old American folklore, and you got something like what the Lutz family’s story would eventually be: The Amityville Horror, a story that would inspire several books and more than half a dozen films, spanning from the 1979 original blockbuster starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, to the rather poorly-reviewed, middling effort released just this past October 12, called Amityville: The Awakening, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bella Thorne.
Though a lucrative and ubiquitous emblem of American mythology, it’s telling how dull the story actually is, when summarized . . .
2017: The Year That Horror Saved Hollywood (The Week)
Hollywood is facing crisis on multiple fronts: the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are shedding light on a trade plagued by sexual harassment and gender inequality, cord-cutting and streaming platforms are upsetting the regular order, and the movies are struggling through yet another dismal year at the box office. If there’s a silver lining in any of that for America’s film industry, it’s that the horror genre is still plugging merrily along, seemingly immune to the financial troubles that have befallen most studios. As the rest of Hollywood flounders in 2017, horror is in the midst of its highest-grossing year ever. On the backs of huge hits like It and Get Out, the horror genre has combined for a record $733.5 million in the US this year, according to box office data compiled by the New York Times. The year has proven that horror films are more than just cheaply made movies for niche audiences and can still cross into the mainstream to become bona fide successes.
How Horror TV Embraced Our Demons (The Week)
Where The Walking Dead does connect to Channel Zero and American Horror Story though is in its overriding sense of despair. Every time the heroes seem to be making progress, their egos lead them to blunder into some catastrophic error that destroys nearly everything they’ve built. This is a case of a long-form serialized TV show deriving a thematic angle from an economic necessity. To keep this successful show going, the story has to keep dead-ending and resetting. Fans waiting to see anything like hope in The Walking Dead are going to have to wait for viewership to completely crater. But while that nihilism can be unsatisfying to the audience, it’s also fascinating as a statement of where we are right now as a society. The phenomenal success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story mean that week after week we’re gazing into an abyss, willingly. Perhaps we’re searching for clues to how to survive it.
Retro Retail: Classic Monsters of Marvel Comics (Inside the Magic) (This article is rather sumptuously illustrated with classic Marvel horror images)
While classic monsters may find their fame from films in the Universal Studios Classic Monster movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, they’ve also haunted the pages of the Marvel Comics universe. With revised backstories and sometimes intertwined story lines, these Marvel monsters made multiple appearances in the 1970’s, both under their own titles and as team-ups (or villains for) various Marvel super heroes.
Why We’ll Always Be Obsessed with — and Afraid of — Monsters (PBS News Hour)
Fear continues to saturate our lives: fear of nuclear destruction, fear of climate change, fear of the subversive, and fear of foreigners. But a Rolling Stone article about our “age of fear” notes that most Americans are living “in the safest place at the safest time in human history” . . . .
So why are we still so afraid? Emerging technology and media could play a role. But in a sense, these have always played a role. In the past, rumor and a rudimentary press coverage could fan the fires. Now, with the rise of social media, fears and fads and fancies race instantly through entire populations. Sometimes the specifics vanish almost as quickly as they arose, but the addiction to sensation, to fear and fantasy, persists, like a low-grade fever.
People often create symbols for that emotions are fleeting, abstract, and hard to describe. (Look no further than the recent rise of the emoji.) For over the last three centuries, Europeans and Americans, in particular, have shaped anxiety and paranoia into the mythic figure of the monster – the embodiment of fear, disorder and abnormality – a history that I detail in my new book, “Haunted” [from Yale University Pres, subtitled “On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Earth”]. There are four main types of monsters. But a fifth — a nameless one — may best represent the anxieties of the 21st century.
“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.” The opening line of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree reads like the beginning of a good horror movie, and the film adaptation’s intro does little to quell this terrifying tone. With ominous music, a jack-o’-lantern title card, and Bradbury’s narration, the 1993 feature-length animated television movie produced by Hanna-Barbera seemingly set the stage for something sinister. And that’s how I remember my childhood viewing of this film, as one filled with my favorite holiday tropes. Upon revisiting it, I recognize the adaptation is much more faithful to Bradbury’s work than my younger self realized. That is to say, this is an extremely educational look at Halloween and how its tropes came to be, from witches to mummies and lots in between.
It’s hard not to relate The Halloween Tree to current juggernaut Stranger Things. Both quickly ask that viewers be emotionally attached to a young boy that has been whisked away on a journey that could determine whether he lives or dies. The characters left behind are so enamored with the boy that it makes it hard not to care, too . . .
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Three
In Part One of this series I set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to find aspects of optimism and heroism in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. In Part Two I looked at how a number of other writers, and also filmmakers — including Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Joss Whedon — have themselves produced Lovecraftian fiction with some kind of optimistic or redemptive cast.
Lovecraftian influences have also made their way into superhero comics, and today I’ll be taking you with me on a whirlwind tour of the way Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-esque ideas and themes have been used to heroic effect in colorful alternate worlds of tights, capes, and tentacular interdimensional horror.
As early as the 1940s, Gardner Fox used Lovecraftian ideas when co-creating the mystical superhero Dr. Fate. Other comics featuring Lovecraftian elements include Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, both of which feature cults and cosmic beings and come across as “The Call of Cthulhu” with superheroes (which, let’s face it, is the one ingredient that’s really missing from that story).
Elsewhere, in Brave and the Bold #32 J. Michael Straczynski had Aquaman and the Demon Etrigan team up to tackle an unnamed monster that bears an uncanny resemblance to Cthulhu. When this Cthulhu-alike summons his fishmen minions to attack the two heroes, Aquaman responds by calling up all the marine life in the surrounding area: sharks, whales, swordfish, stingrays, giant squids — everything. The resulting armada looks tough enough to tackle any ancient god that’s senile enough to take it on. And that’s before you take into account the fact that they’re backed up by a hellfire-wielding demon and the King of the Seven Seas. There’s also a meme doing the rounds with a picture of Cthulhu rearing out of the ocean with Aquaman standing atop his head in a regal pose as he commands the Ancient One to do his bidding. “I’m useless, they said,” runs the caption. “I have stupid powers, they said.” Read the rest of this entry
NOTE: This article is the final part of a series.
Captain America is the member of the Avengers who is most obviously wearing a costume. It’s not a battlesuit or a uniform. It’s not the cultural garb of a mystical race. It’s a costume. This is significant, because his costume indicates his deepest identity as a superhero. Quite simply and literally, Captain America is the living symbol of the American Dream. He stands for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Unfortunately, at least in terms of visual appearance, this makes him look like an idiot.
The Captain America film spends a lot of time disguising the costume beneath a leather jacket and army fatigues. Fortunately, the costume looks better on the screen than it did in publicity stills, where it resembled a multi-coloured boiler suit. In much the same way, the more streamlined costume he wore in The Avengers didn’t look quite so much like a piece of confectionery that had sprouted legs and started beating people up. But the problem that neither film really managed to solve is that the mask is highly unflattering. Even after replacing the silly little wings with painted emblems, the mask still looks stupid and ugly, and somehow changes the entire shape of Cap’s head from square-jawed hunk to a lump of plasticine moulded by an epileptic orangutan wearing boxing gloves. Not surprisingly, Cap takes it off as often as possible.
But in the end, does he really need the costume to be a symbol of the American Dream?
The other big superhero film this year was The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble, as it was known in the UK. The reason for the name change was to avoid confusion with the old TV series, but that still didn’t stop thousands of people all across the Internet thinking it was funny and saying, “The Avengers? If Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg aren’t in it, I won’t watch it.” Of course, the real joke is that these wannabe wits talked themselves out of seeing one of the best superhero films to date. (Funnily enough, I see that a new American comic based on the old Avengers TV series is titled Steed and Mrs Peel.)
Built upon Marvel’s pre-existing superhero franchises, The Avengers‘ big draw for the average filmgoer was Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. He was witty, sarcastic, charismatic, and egotistical — and people wanted to see more of him. Which is unfortunate, because he spends so much time in the Iron Man films and The Avengers buried beneath his armour. In fact, he gets buried beneath lots of different types of armour as he upgrades his suit more often than most people upgrade their mobile phones. In Iron Man he starts off with a bulky grey armour before moving on to the classic red and gold look, while in Iron Man 2 he carries a stripped-down armour in a briefcase for emergencies. By the time of The Avengers, I’m told he’s up to his seventh model. In the comics he has a wide range of armours for specialised missions: stealth armour, Arctic armour, sub-aqua armour, outer space armour, Hulkbuster armour, disco dancing champion armour. (Okay, maybe not that last one. But oh, if only…)
Iron Man is the superhero most defined by his costume. Without it he has no powers. In fact, without the armour he would die: a cybernetic breastplate (an arc reactor in the films) keeps his injured heart beating. But the armour can also be a double-edged sword; at one point in the comic book series, its systems damaged Tony’s nervous system, leaving him paralysed in a wheelchair, and the only way he could walk was…you guessed it…to keep wearing the armour. At this point, you have to wonder if he ever considered changing his name to Irony Man. Read the rest of this entry
Spider-Man is another superhero whose origin is steeped in tragedy. When scrawny egghead Peter Parker is granted superpowers by a radioactive spider-bite, he decides to make some money by working as a professional wrestler. After appearing on a TV show and wowing the audience with his spider-powers, he allows a thief to escape, and excuses it by saying the situation wasn’t his responsibility. He later regrets this bitterly when the thief kills his Uncle Ben (no, not the bloke who makes the rice). Distraught over the death of the gentle Ben (no, not the bear), Peter realises too late that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the costume becomes a way to disguise his identity while fighting criminals, in order to protect his loved ones from reprisals. It also becomes a symbol of his redemption, although I’m not sure if that’s ever stated explicitly in the comics. It’s more the sort of thing fanboys say when they want to look clever on the Internet.
The reasons vary for why Peter wears the costume before he becomes a superhero. In the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko stories, he wears it to hide his embarrassment in case he loses a wrestling match. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis says it’s to hide his age because the wrestling promoter won’t pay anyone under the age of twenty-one. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film, as far as I can remember it’s because all of the other wrestlers wore costumes so Peter just followed suit. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent reboot by Marc Webb (resist the opportunity for a cheap pun … must stay on topic … focus, focus), Peter never even becomes a wrestler; the dual needs of explaining why he wears a costume rather than a ski-mask and why he even needs to remain anonymous anyway are explained by having a criminal promise retribution on Peter as Peter stares at a wrestling poster.
The idea that Peter needs to hide his identity from the outside world while he himself discovers his true identity permeates the entirety of the latest film. This is something that goes back to the original comic, where high school bully Flash Thompson torments Peter Parker but worships Spider-Man, Gwen Stacey loves Peter Parker but hates Spider-Man, and J. Jonah Jameson constantly illustrates his newspaper vendetta against Spider-Man with photos taken by Peter Parker. Furthermore, in “The Master Planner” saga, one of the most iconic moments in Spider-Man’s career — the act of freeing himself from beneath the crushing weight of a piece of overturned machinery so that he can get to Aunt May’s hospital and give her a lifesaving antidote — is undercut by a doctor’s comments after Peter finally gets there: “Too bad someone like [Peter] can’t be an idol for teenagers to imitate instead of some mysterious, unknown thrill-seeker like Spider-Man!” Read the rest of this entry
Let’s face it, superhero costumes aren’t the most practical attire ever invented. If you’re going to fight heavily armed criminals, why the hell would you choose to wear brightly coloured spandex and a movement-impeding cape? The bright colours would draw the eye of anyone with a machine gun or death ray, and the cape would forever be catching in doors, not to mention flapping in your face every time there was a gust of wind.
Even ostensibly practical costumes that ditch the garish colour schemes and pointless capes aren’t much use. There’s a hilarious extra feature on the X-Men DVD where the actors can’t even step over a foot high wall because their leather costumes are too restricting.
So why do superheroes keep wearing the damn things? Did they lose a bet? In the case of Mister Miracle, then probably yes.
But if we look closer it is possible to discern a deeper meaning, a more serious significance to these outfits, and a whole wealth of iconography. Plus, some of the costumes are really cool.
Take Batman for instance. He wanted a costume that would strike fear into the heart of superstitious and cowardly criminals. And, just as he was pondering possible designs, a bat flew in the window. Problem solved. Except for one thing: Batman’s costume isn’t remotely scary. Let’s face it, it’s blue and grey pyjamas with pointy ears and a cape. In the frightening the crap out of evil-doers stakes it’s only one step up from Andy Pandy.