Thursday, October 13, 2016

Let's talk about Jason Voorhees a little bit.

First off, I've come to the conclusion that Jason is a supernatural creature akin to a yūrei, the vengeful Japanese ghosts best known to American horror fans from the Ju-on and Ringu films. Now obviously Jason Voorhees is not a woman in white with long black hair in her face, but he fits all the other traits of the yūrei: he died violently, his death is directly tied to water, and he is the embodiment of an aimless wrath that cannot be stopped.

Second, I want to share my thoughts on why Jason kills. The motivation for his crimes have always been maddeningly vague and simplistic, but I believe that unlocking the reasons that Jason does what he does will add new insight into his story. As a passionate consumer of all things Voorhees, I’ll attempt to decipher the motivations that enable the hockey-masked goon.

Finally, I’m going to share a bit of a strange theory I’ve come to develop about the setting of the Friday the 13th films. There is something fundamentally wrong with Crystal Lake. It kills its young and traps its killers in an endless cycle of unsatisfied vengeance. I believe that Jason Voorhees is merely the perfect embodiment of the curse, but we see evidence of this theory in subtle ways over the course of the Friday the 13th mythology.

Now, bear in mind that I'm going to have to apply a little bit of head-canon here because the movies aren't exactly the product of a unified narrative vision. When all is said and done, these movies are just profit-minded slasher films that I take far too seriously.  

They’re also some of my favorite stories of all time. They’re a campfire tale, an elemental American ghost story, a myth that had an impact far beyond its creator’s intentions and ambitions. Jason’s hockey mask has now become the cultural signifier for the horror genre.  Tee-shirts, toys, and other Jason Voorhees collectibles are still being created at a staggering rate, and his fandom has only deepened as time goes on. While I suspect a big part of the appeal of these films are their cartoony storytelling and amateur acting, there’s another part of the fandom that takes Jason Voorhees and the carnage he creates far too seriously.

I am one of them.

The character of Jason Voorhees has become a sort of personal avatar of my dark side, in a way that’s not always healthy. We all have our monsters and we let them rampage for a bit before putting them away, but Jason has a hard time staying quiet in the weird little toy box of my brain. I hear him when I get drunk, I hear him when I feel sad or unloved, and I hear him when I feel disconnected from the world and the people around me. He doesn’t say anything – though I do distinctly hear that “ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma” soundtrack – but he empowers me. He says that, if the world discards you, then you can get angry. You can rage against the light and love and joy that you have been denied. You can tear it from others, so they know the pain that you live with.

If given the choice between being invisible and being a monster, there is a fierce black joy in choosing the latter.

These are not good ideas. In the end, Jason’s hatred leaves him drowned at the bottom of Crystal Lake. Anger is always a poison, but it’s one I can understand. I imagine it hurts terribly to be Jason Voorhees, but I don’t think he’s capable of being anything else.

When we talk about the things we love and the stories that move us, we’re actually talking about ourselves.


To the first point, there are two real tragedies that Jason Voorhees suffered: the first was his drowning in Crystal Lake and the second was after the death of his mother.

Fans of the Friday the 13th franchise tend to separate the evolution of Jason into Living-Jason (Friday 2-4) and Zombie-Jason (Jason Lives through to the remake). While post-Final Chapter Jason is unquestionably supernatural, the Jason of part 2-4 seems to be a living, breathing, and EXTREMELY resilient man. According to the narrative, this Jason did NOT drown in the lake, but somehow swam away, survived in the woods for a long period of time (and how a hydrocephalic child managed to pull THAT off raises a bunch more questions), and happened to watch his mother get decapitated after her murder spree, setting off the rest of the series.

This is where I deviate from the orthodox narrative. Jason ABSOLUTELY drowned in Camp Crystal Lake. He did not swim away, survive, and grow into a backwoods hillbilly slasher.

My big piece of evidence, aside from the sheer improbably of a child like Jason surviving on his own, is his first appearance at the end of the original Friday the 13th. The creature that launches himself out of the water toward Alice is covered in moss and lichen, his body blackened and deformed from years underwater. The boy that emerges from the lake is a dead THING, and that's what makes him so frightening. He’s a callback to the strange story Pamela Voorhees told to explain her rampage.


The classic yūrei death ALWAYS involves water. They fall down wells, slip into water towers, and die in rainstorms.

Sadako/Samara was pushed into the well by a parent and, while Kayako was sliced and bludgeoned to death, both her son and the family cat were drowned in a tub. Water always plays a part in the formation of the yūrei. It's because death by water invokes a sense of tragedy and melancholy, and it has very specific meaning to Japanese horror fans.

I'm going to paraphrase a section that I read in either "The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa" by Jerry White or "Japanese Horror Cinema" edited by Jay McRoy. In one of the books, the author explained that Japan is a 'wet' culture, as opposed to the 'dry' cultures of the west. The kanji for 'wet' and 'emotional' are the same thing, and Japanese culture favors a more intuitive communication than the west, which means that their horror stories tend to work on a much less rigid way than our own.

Ghosts in western narratives tend to have very specific rules and goals. They're either stuck in a loop, they're trying to be laid to rest, or they're attempting to fulfill a specific purpose. They are dangerous but can ultimately be reasoned with, escaped, or banished. Japanese ghosts, conversely, will never stop. They are unchecked rage personified. They die in or near water, which is a conduit for raw emotion, and are less trapped spirits than vengeance personified and run amok.

So. Jason.

Jason HAD to have drowned in the water. His death spurred on her mother - probably due to the corrupting influence of Crystal Lake, which I'll address later – and when she died, Jason's spirit rose in a powerful body and a heart full of unchecked violence and hate.


Jason’s intelligence has largely fluctuated over the years. The first few movies, especially Friday II and III, paint him as a sort of backwoods hillbilly idiot, more Leatherface than Lector, while the later films portray him as either a Terminator (especially C.J. Graham’s portrayal in Jason Lives) or as an angry but otherwise normally intelligent killer. I think the roots of his anger stem from his developmental issues. Bear with me here as I’m covering material that can be difficult and I’m trying to articulate this with sensitivity.

While I was in college, I worked with a developmentally disabled guy at a coffee shop. He was very large and strong, but he struggled with some of the basic tasks around the shop. He usually had someone around to help him work through his assignments, but even then he would sometimes violently lose his temper and lash out at the people around him. When I saw him act out, I felt like his behavior was coming from a place of frustration. Usually something minor had gone wrong that he wasn’t able to fix or people were demanding too much of him too quickly. After witnessing my coworker’s struggle, I extrapolated my observations into Jason’s perspective.

Pretend you're alone in the woods after having been raised by a mother who was overprotective in an unhealthy way, people "invade your space" and you lash out to protect yourself, not entirely understanding the consequences of your actions.

That's who Jason is to me.

In the films, Jason kills to get revenge for his mother, who died trying to avenge him. He predominantly kills teenagers because, well, that's what's around in a slasher film. And he mostly goes after people with some connection to Crystal Lake.

One of the more interesting peculiarities is that Jason seems to favor killing people who have gotten close to his stalking grounds. In Jason Takes Manhattan he ignores or even actively avoids killing scores of New Yorkers in his pursuit of the survivors of the SS Lazarus, the ship full of teenagers on their graduating class trip that departed from Crystal Lake harbor. I have some theories on this behavior, which I’ll get into in the following segment about the Crystal Lake Curse.


It's also impossible to downplay the fact that sexuality plays a large role in the franchise, especially since anyone who has sex or gets nude on camera is sure to be killed immediately after. This is one of the more odious and regressive aspects of the series. I choose to believe this aspect is more of a lazy cliché than an actual puritanical mean streak, but the fact remains that even Jason's origins are tied to sex. He only died because the camp counselors were too busy having sex to do their jobs.

In all honesty, I believe there’s a strong sex = death thread in these movies because the Friday the 13th series is all about titillation and both sex and violence are titillating in their own ways. However, I once came across a discussion thread on the AV Club’s website where the commentator NakedSnake said that there may be a different set of values at play in the series use of punitive violence:

“For the most part, if you get into the backbone of most of the horror movies, it’s less about the sex and more about the responsibility. Laurie Strode of Halloween, for example, does her job. In fact, she not only does her job, she also picks up the extra responsibility of doing another person’s job so that person can go off and shirk her responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, within the context of the movie, that other person suffers a horrific punishment for her lapse in work ethic. Laurie is then rewarded for her idealized American work ethic by being able to successfully confront Michael Myers on several different occasions. 
When Voorhees’ mother lays out her motivation at the end of Friday The 13th, almost everyone who listened to it glommed on to the sex the teenagers were having when her child drowned, so they believed the teenagers were being punished for the sex. But the reality is that the far more important part of her explanation is that “They weren’t watching my son.” Hence, in America, where refusing to work or fulfill your responsibilities is something to be punished, by shirking their jobs, the teenagers in question, (and by extension every teenager from that point forward by association) became worthy of their grisly fate. 
Friday The 13th was a bit clumsier than Halloween in that it didn’t draw the clear distinctions between the “worthy” teenagers who did their jobs and fulfilled their responsibilities and the “unworthy” ones who shirked their responsibilities and didn’t do their jobs, but it’s still there—at least until the later installments of both series when each of the series lost its focus about what it was really supposed to be about.” 

That doesn’t ignore the fact that the series in inexorably tied into the death of sexually active teens. The eros and thanatos urge, the twining of sexuality and death is part of the series. One could argue that Jason is the ultimate outsider, a character enacting dark urges because more positive ones would forever be denied him. Horror author Nancy A. Collins no doubt agreed, as she started her Jason vs. Leatherface comic book miniseries with Jason at the bottom of the lake, staring at his machete, compelled to hunt his victims because they could smile and laugh and love in the sunlight and he could do none of those things. The only succor he had was his hate, which kept him warm in the inky darkness of Crystal Lake.

As satisfying as that idea can be, and as much it ties into the romantic idea of the neglected child carving up campers in the woods, it's ultimately a far too complex of a motivator for Jason. The one time the movies really directly help us look at the world through his eyes is in his opening scene in Freddy vs. Jason, where one of his victims morphs into a litany of others, each extolling the sins of recklessness, selfishness, and irresponsibility that lead to their fatal meeting with Jason. The scene ends with the voice of his mother (or rather Freddy impersonating his mother) goading him onward towards more mayhem. When Jason goes off-leash, Freddy-as-Pamela later vents his rage on him, calling him a big dumb dog incapable of stopping. This suggests that there is very little conscious thought left in Jason Voorhees anymore. He's not longer a person, but a force of nature, an unchecked and indestructible emotion running loose in the world.

An unstoppable hate. A curse on Crystal Lake.

A death curse.

Jason Voorhees curse.  


I believer that ultimately the curse on Crystal Lake isn't contained just in Pamela and Jason Voorhees. I believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with Crystal Lake itself. It is a place of tremendous pain, a place where sins are revisited and vengeance extends far past the original offender. I want to illustrate this theory by discussing Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning, the only Friday film featuring a killer in a hockey mask who wasn’t Jason Voorhees.

Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning is rightly considered an inferior Friday film. There's something uncomfortably sleazy about it. Characters are introduced and killed off moments later, and the film has an icky, predatory feel that comes from hiring a porn director who stripped the story down to the most garish components.

The film received the most notoriety for the fact that the killer in A New Beginning wasn't Jason himself. Instead, the man behind the blue-triangle mask was Roy Burns, the ambulance driver whose son was chopped up by a fellow troubled teen at the halfway house where the story takes place. The film is structured like a mystery, but Roy's obvious shock at the sight of the boy's corpse and his constant knowing appearances around the crime scenes project his guilt pretty clearly. He chases after and is eventually killed by Tommy Jarvis, the child who hacked Jason Voorhees to pieces in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, who seems to take up the mask and mantle of Jason Voorhees by the end of the movie.

I joined many Friday fans in dismissing A New Beginning until recently, when I realized that Roy Burns hadn't tried to become Jason Voorhees. Instead, he'd successfully become Pamela Voorhees.

I always felt that part of Pamela Voorhees's homicidal fury came from misplaced guilt. Sure, the counselors weren't watching her son, but she wasn't either. Obviously, it's impossible to keep an eye on your child ALL the time, but that kind of incandescent fury is a complicated thing. I think that Roy Burns must have felt the same thing when he looked at the butchered body of his son.

Both Pamela and Roy were single parents. Both were blue collar, serious types. Both had boys with special needs (Jason was deformed and hydrocephalic, Joey Burns had a childlike mind), and both died at the hands of bullies while in the care of young adults. After both murders, the grieving parents attacked anyone they felt to be responsible. The parallels run too close to be ignored. There is something at Crystal Lake that forces this kind of tragedy to repeat itself, where parents take their sorrow and hatred on the young, and the dead can rise to pursue their vengeance further.

There's a phenomenal Friday the 13th comic miniseries called Bad Lands, written by Ron Marz. It describes two parallel stories, one in the past and one in modern day Crystal Lake. The historical story features a Native American man whose family is murdered by fur trappers seeking shelter from a storm, and the modern story is about three young adults trapped in a sudden snowfall. Snow replaces water in both scenes, but both stories are fraught with tension and grief. Both stories end with the killer dragging the final victim into the waters of Crystal Lake, the poor victims realizing that they've trespassed in a corrupted place. The curse of Jason Voorhees can therefore be more accurately described as Crystal Lake Curse, a legacy of murder in shadowed woodland and moon-white faces peering through the trees.

I believe this explains why Jason predominantly goes after Crystal Lake residents. In Jason Takes Manhattan he has an entire city of potential victims, but he spends the rest of the film pursuing the handful of survivors from the SS Lazarus. Most of the New Yorkers he kills are simply people who get in his way or who try to harm his intended targets. He seems just as willing barrel past New Yorkers than engage them, including a scene of surprising self-awareness where he frightens off a trio of punk rock kids in Times Square by showing them his unmasked face.

So, if he's not simply taking a machete to all of New York, why does he go after these specific kids? I believe it's because they're connect to the Crystal Lake Curse as much as he is. Young people who set foot into Crystal Lake are all marked for death. He repeats this behavior in Jason X, primarily hunting the members of the scouting party that went planet side to retrieve his cryogenically-frozen body. If no one bearing that mark is immediately around him then he'll go to work on whoever is nearby (as seen in Freddy vs. Jason, though he was also under Freddy's influence), but otherwise he always prioritizes the youth of Crystal Lake.

It's tough to pin down exactly where this curse came from. Maybe it's the violent history of the place, as the Bad Lands comic suggests. Maybe it's the strange Lovecraftian elements that are hinted at in the mostly-ignored Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Either way, there is something horrible and self-repeating happening in that tiny lakeside town. Jason is simply the purest incarnation of its wrath, but it would have found a different host otherwise

Had Tommy Jarvis not dug up Jason's body, I can imagine Joey Burns rising from the dead to take up the mask and the machete.


The dark truth about the horror genre is that the monsters are always the most compelling and most identifiable characters within their stories. They get the dark inversion of the hero narrative, where we get to vicariously experience their rampages before they're put down and order is restored again.

I believe that Jason Voorhees endured because, of all the 1980s serial killers, his backstory is the most tragic. Michael Myers is more of blank slate than a person, Leatherface is too feral and crazy, and Freddy Krueger - while more entertaining - is also the most mean-spirited. Jason is an outsider, a victim of bullying, the kid who wasn't allowed to participate, and the kid who missed his mother so much that he tried to rebuild her in his lonely woodland home. He is also the personification of the campfire ghost story, the dead thing whose anger can be understood but can't be reasoned with.        

Hang around the Jason Voorhees fandom and you’ll see a lot of people strongly identify with Jason. He’s an easy character to project onto. Everyone feels isolated, rejected, and angry, and it’s not hard for those emotions to grow into a very dark and destructive rage. For me, part of growing up was learning to make peace with those feelings, but there was a long stretch of time when my darkest impulses needed an avatar. I know that probably makes me sound like some kind of embittered psycho, but I think we all connect to power images, even for the worst aspects of ourselves.

I love Jason and the Friday the 13th series, but part of getting healthy meant putting him back in the box. Even then, at the bottom of my soul, there’s a deep dark lake.

And he’s down there.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Why I like Halloween!

Why I like Halloween!
(photo by tobisagt on Deviantart)

1) 31 days of blogging about the horror genre has added up to a lot of pressure on this final post. I can't just write about whatever other dumb movie/book/game I love (I would have done We Are What We Are, for the record.) No, this has to be something GRAND, some big declarative statement on the genre or the holiday. I will endeavor to cover fresh ground, but be prepared to be disappointed. 

2) A friend of mine recently messaged me on Facebook and asked if I ever do any writing or discussions on topics other than horror. I told her that I was flattered, but horror is just my thing. She said she'd pray that I'd change. Thing is, I don't think I want to. I really like this stuff. It's fun, it's scary in a harmless way, it brings me back to my childhood, and -- if you're willing to look at it in a weird light -- it's oddly beautiful. 

3) My childhood Halloweens were spent in Diamond Highs, an upper-middle class neighborhood in San Francisco. The streets would all dip downward along the hill, making each street into a U-shape. I lived at the bottom of one of these streets, and we'd climb up and down the neighborhoods in our quest for candy. I still remember the Japanese neighbors with the tidy stone garden in the front yard. 

4) Despite my interest in the macabre, I was still a completely cowardly child. I remember the day my music class sang "There Was An Old Woman All Skin and Bones." When they screamed "Boo!" I ran out of the room, locked myself in a bathroom and cried.  I still have a strong attraction/repulsion relationship to fear. It seems like I'm always a little creeped out on some level, but I've come to cultivate that feeling.

5) Halloween meant different things at different points in my life. When I was a child, it was all supervillain costumes and candy. Trick or Treating was fun, but I didn't particularly miss it when it was gone. My tween years were all about low-level disdain, mixed with lots of slasher movie marathons, mixed with the secret joy of giving out candy to kids. High school Halloweens mostly sucked, because I was too old for trick-r-treating and too young for clubs and parties. Adult Halloweens vary. Going to bars and checking out costumes is fun, but trying to find parking and fighting the crowds at either the Castro Street parade in SF or the 6th Avenue parade in NYC is really tiresome. 

6) I think I came to the decision this year that I'm not so much into the costume aspect of Halloween. I like checking out other people's work, but I'm not much for dressing up myself. Part of the reason is that it's expensive, part of the reason is that I don't have much of a visual imagination and can't come up with anything particularly clever until at least two days after the event. 

7) That said, one of my best Halloweens involved a time when I didn't go as anything scary. It was my first Halloween in NYC and I had some dumb plan to go as Baron Samedi. A friend and I went to the costume store on Broadway and 12th and, as I was looking for stuff in the basement area, I found a Prince Charming costume. I became entranced with it, bought it, and wore it that evening. That night, I got hit on more than I've ever been hit on in my life. Everyone seems to have a thing for Prince Charming. It was nice. 

8) I dunno what my Halloween plans are this year. Money is MEGA-tight, so I'll probably just hang out in hipster bars and soak up the ambiance. I'd rather be doing big warehouse events, but that's because I've not quite let go of my twenties while my crowd is settling down. But I'm sure they'll be fun, fantastic people watching. 

Conclusion: Try as I might, I can't really come up with one grand theory of What Halloween Means To Me. I do love the fact that the entire nation seems to cater to my taste for the week before Halloween and I've really loved checking in on all the stuff I love over the last 31 days of blogging, but every year finds me in a different state for celebration. Halloween feels like a check-in for me, the same way birthdays do. I know that Halloween is basically a horror-tinged Mardi Gras. Dan Savage calls it a straight pride parade, a chance for people to celebrate their sexuality. It's definitely bacchanalian, and I like sharing all the fun of the horror genre with people. 

One of the things I have learned over the years is that my interest in horror doesn't make me nearly as unique as I once thought it did. While I do think interest in the macabre is still viewed as a little fringe-y (witness comment #2) I think most people like this stuff just a little bit. Halloween is the one sanctioned night we let the goblins out. And, if that's not your thing, trick-or-treaters are really adorable.

Thanks everyone who's stuck with me on this 31-day blogging marathon. I hollowed out my brain like a Jack O' Lantern to bring you my favorite odds-and-ends from the horror genre.

Pleasant screams!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why I like The Sandman

Why I like The Sandman

1) I fell into Goth quite by accident. I was in my teens, hanging out with a bunch of angry suburban punk kids, and slowly figuring out that I didn't really fit in with them. I was getting into Vampire: the Masquerade and I was checking out vampire books and movies by the dozen. They opened up a Hot Topic at the Serramonte shopping mall in Daly City, and I talked my mom into buying me a big black vampire tee-shirt and some black jeans. I wore them with pride the following day and one of my shitty punk friends snorted that I looked like a Goth. I had no idea what the term meant, but I liked the sound of it. I bought the Goth Rock 2 sampler CD from the used-CD store near campus, which lead to zines, which lead to concerts, which lead to clubs, and the rest is history. 90s-era Goth comes with a reading list. The Sandman rests pretty high on top of it.

2) Calling The Sandman horror is a little reductive. While the series was marketed as a horror title early on ("I will show you fear in a handful of dust") it grew to encompass all manner of speculative fiction. Most of my favorite issues -- especially the serial killer convention -- fit squarely in the horror genre, but the book is really a meta-story about storytelling itself.

3) The Sandman is about Dream of the Endless, a personification of dreams, imagination, fantasy, and storytelling that threads through all creation. He's a Byronic hero, constantly brooding and taking himself far too seriously. The book starts with him being taken hostage by an Aleister Crowley-esque occultist. The experience traumatizes him so deeply that he spends the rest of his series pushing against the boundaries of his responsibilities. It ends with him either dying or recreating himself into a more compassionate incarnation. Despite the wild digressions, the book really centers around the character of Dream. Every story presents a new facet of his personality and the strain he's under, until the tragic ending seems both inevitable and self-directed.

4) It seems like the most popular character in the series is Death, Dream's older sister. Unlike most incarnations of the Grim Reaper, The Sandman's Death is a chipper Perky Goth with a positive attitude on life and boundless reserves of compassion. My own opinion has changed on her has changed significantly over the years. At first, oh my god, I luuurved her and we should be best friends. As time went on and I had my own experiences with people passing, I got angry with how flip the Death character came off. Death is the root of all horror in existence, so the idea of making it into a goth version of every Connie Cheerful Church Camp I've ever met made me very angry in a way that now feels like I'm projected my own fears onto the character. I've eased up some, and I've come to love Death's compassion for her charges, but I still feel like I have a different experience with the character than a lot of the fans of the book.

5) There are lots of fantastic moments both great and small in the book; Dream's dinner with his brother Destruction, the lovely African story of two lovers separated by fate, a weary yet still deadly Lucifer, the long-lived oaf Hob Gadling, the Lovecraftian dreams of cities, the illustrated difference between the fantasies of girls and boys. My favorite was the aforementioned serial killer convention. I've seen dozens of serial killer stories in my time, but I've never seen one that so viciously attacks the self-aggrandizing mythologies that serial killers create for themselves to justify their behavior. Dream seems to take a swipe at the very concept of turning the serial killer into dark heroes and it works beautifully.

6) My friends and I tried to record a Sandman podcast recently, but we got tripped up on technical issues. As the conversation grew, I was impressed that there was so much stuff to cover: so many great moments and fantastic ideas, each of us with our own interpretation of the story. People gravitate to different elements of The Sandman and each experience has it's own rewards.

Conclusion: The Sandman is one of the best stories I've ever read. I return to it from time to time. Like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, it's a barometer for seeing how I've changed over the years.

I promised myself that the first money I ever make selling my fiction will go a statue of Dream than I can put on my writing desk. Gaiman taught me that stories are sacred and I'm honored to both draw from and add my own small contribution to the Dreaming. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I like Movie Psychos and Madmen

Why I like Movie Psychos and Madmen by John McCarty

1) I must have been 13 or 14 years old when I discovered this book. We were in the Barnes & Noble in Jack London Square for some day trip. I toddled over to the movie sections, looking for books on horror. I'd been reading stuff like Splatter Movies and Men, Women, and Chainsaws. I found Movie Psychos and Madmen on the shelf and flipped open the book. Included among its often-scary photos was a portrait of both Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. How could I turn it down? 

2) The book is a comprehensive history of madmen in cinema, written in a conversational style. Splatter Movies was too informal and Men, Women, and Chainsaws was too academic. Movie Psychos was approachable. I could grasp it at my age, yet it still retained enough history and insight to be rewarding upon constant rereads. 

3) Movie Psychos was my first introduction to film history. I'd never heard of German expressionism before, but the book taught me about Dr. Mabuse and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I'd never heard of the post-Psycho run of lunatics. It was the first book to teach me about that film had a fantastic legacy to discover.

4) The book also gave me the best framework I've ever used for human psychology. Because McCarty isn't a psychologist but an excellent observer of narrative, he treats cinematic character's psychoses like storylines. Every story is a puzzle, with every subtle or overt act of madness a clue. The more I get to know people, the more I realize that we're constantly dropping clues about ourselves. Movie psychos are simply more obvious in their signals.

5) I was initially interested in the book because it had a chapter on slasher monsters, but the book is dismissive of Michael, Jason, and their ilk. For all their campfire-story intensity they aren't particularly full of depth. I was initially frustrated, but the film challenged me to ask more from my horror. Scary movies could be more than their body count. The twists of the human mind made every psycho into their own private haunted house. 

Conclusion: Movie Psychos and Madmen trained my brain in how to analyze both stories and people. It gave me a passion for the exploring the depth of cinema. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to McCarty. His book provided my first instruction on critical thought. Movie Psychos is part of the DNA of this blog, my podcast, and all the other output that comes from being a horror fan.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why I like Freddy Vs. Jason

Why I like Freddy vs. Jason

1) I first asked Kane Hodder about Freddy vs. Jason while he made an appearance with Linda Blair at some local Halloween carnival. I'd just gotten into horror in a big way, and Jason Voorhees was my big heeeero. Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday had just come out an the film ended with Freddy Krueger's gloved hand reaching up from hell to retrieve the iconic hockey mask. I was all of eleven years old and a lifetime of superhero books engrained a love of the superfight. Hodder said that the film was in development, but it didn't come out until well after I graduated high school.  I wasn't disappointed.

2) I'm ultimately a Jason guy. Jason is my Frankenstein. He's ultimately pitiable, if you're willing to be reaaaaally generous about his origin story. Freddy is fun, but he's a harder guy to like. He's the bully. The whole child molestation thing also doesn't help much.

3) I got really into following the development of the movie on the internet. Multiple scripts had been written, some with really farcical ideas on how the two characters should battle. They finally turned in a script that made neither slasher the "good guy" but gave them plausible reasons to come into conflict. The movie ultimately feels more like a Nightmare film than a Friday film, but it works, in it's own overly complicated way.  It's perhaps a little too invested in tying the mythos of both movies together, but it also understood Jason's appeal. They knew he has a big, dumb, lost kid gone bad. 

4) Freddy vs. Jason isn't particularly scary per se but it has some astonishing nightmarish images, in particular Mark's nightmare visit from his dead brother. The film bears the distinct touch of legendary Hong Kong director Ronny Yu. I got into pre-takeover Hong Kong action cinema after seeing John Woo's Hard Boiled and I loved Yu's wild fantasy film The Bride With White Hair. Yu works in vivid colors and operatic fights, which made him ideal for the FvJ comic book battles.

5) A lot of the plot is actually pretty clunky and the lead characters come off as more weird than anything else, but the set pieces are cool. Krueger's boiler room looks like a nightmarish hellscape, the flashback scenes of Camp Crystal Lake establish the brutality we've long suspected was part of Jason's childhood, and the portrayal of Freddy's corruption of Jason's mother all flesh out the mythology of both characters brilliantly. 

6) Say what you will about everything that came before, the final fight between Freddy vs. Jason does not disappoint. It's one part pro-wrasslin', one part superhero battle, with a dash of Hong Kong wire work for flavor. They ditched Hodder, the best Jason actor, over stuntman Ken Kirzinger. Kirzinger towers over Robert England, and they make a great visual contrast. The battle nearly tears Crystal Lake in two, and the addition of the nearby construction site gives them a bunch of stuff to hit each other with. 

7) Jason wins. I don't care about the final knowing wink to the audience, there's one guy walking out of the lake at the end of the movie. 

Conclusion: It's often said that the death of a monster is either parody or fighting other monsters. Freddy vs. Jason obviously falls into the grand tradition of all the great Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolfman mashup. Both Freddy and Jason had their final pre-Platinum Dunes hurrah and it fulfilled every boyhood dream of mine.         


Monday, October 27, 2014

Why I like The Ring

Why I like The Ring

1) The first time I saw the movie, I remember getting ready to leave once Rachel had discovered Samara's body and laid it to rest. She's back with her son Aiden and all appears well. Her son asks her what happened to Samara, Rachel responds that she helped the dead little girl find peace, and Aiden responds with terror. He says "you weren't supposed to help her," and ice cubes slid down my spine. The scene immediately afterward, where Samara kills Aiden's father, was one of the scariest moments in 2000s-era horror. Everything I knew about ghosts had been thrown out the window.  We were in dangerous territory.

2) The movie is gorgeous. It's got a watched-out gloomy blue and gray tone that reminds me of old Gothic horror films. I grew up in foggy San Francisco and the atmosphere of the film reminded me of home. Melancholy coastal towns work particularly well in creating a Gothic atmosphere, which fits the ghost story.

3) Horror works best when it's simple. If you watch this tape, you die seven days later. The only way to stay alive is to get someone else to watch the tape. Otherwise, a drowned girl crawls out of your TV and kills you.

4) The interesting thing about The Ring is that Rachel isn't actually that great of a mother. Horror fiction is full of overly caring, overly diligent parents and, while Rachel will do anything to keep her son safe from Samara's wrath, we get the sense that she's too preoccupied in her own life. Aiden refers to his mother by her first name, he's able to do a lot of things for himself, and he has the kind of self-assured maturity of someone who has to a lot of shit on his own. It creates a unique family dynamic, especially after we meet Aiden's father.

5) The movie is unrelentingly grim. The story is structured like a mystery, and deciphering the enigma of Samara's life makes her both sympathetic and terrifying. When you finally learn what happened to her, you realize why she will never stop hurting people.

6) The Ring has two of the most effective jump scares I've ever seen. I'm a sucker for frightening faces and the wreckage Samara leaves behind are among the most terrifying corpse effects I've ever seen. I imagine they're supposed to be waterlogged bodies left down in at the bottom of the well, but that doesn't account for the distended jaws. I also really like Noah's death. Rachel runs to save him, finds his body, and screams. We don't see what she sees until the big reveal later on, when his face is the final one we settle on.  It remains one of the most disturbing images ever captured on film.

7) The movie terrified me more than most horror films because it felt inescapable: Samara's vengeance was so lethal that the only way you could escape it was to feed other people to her. Samara looked like something otherworldly. Watching her crawl out of the well remains one of the greatest horror images of all time.

Conclusion: The Ring reprogrammed the way I viewed horror. It broke a lot of my expectations, it approached the genre with intelligence, and it created a monster that seeped into the dank basement of my subconscious. I saw Samara every time I turned off the lights. The Ring brought me back to my childhood fear and I'll love it forever.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I like The Blair Witch Project

Why I like The Blair Witch Project

1) My first big road trip was a journey to Pasadena to attend the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors with my high school friends. We saw the Munsters' doom buggy, I ran into Marc Dacascos in a hallway, we watched some pro-wrasslin', and I caught the Ghastly Ones live on stage. In between it all, I kept seeing this poster around the convention hall: 

This was mercifully before the age of viral marketing, social media, Io9's pop media coverage, or any of the other ways we're all constantly connected to streams of information. I'd heard the missing posters had something to do with a movie that had taken Sundance by storm. The second night we were there, my friends and I scored free tickets to a special late screening at a nearby theater. 

2) I had no idea what I was in for, but I was a horror fan surrounded by horror fans. Collectively we'd seen the worst possible films that humanity had to offer. What could some weird little art house movie do to us? 

3) The movie started without a lot of preamble. It looked like a genuine documentary about a haunted experience. We knew it was fiction but goshdarnit, it looked so real

4) Things start getting weird slowly. People get lost, but that's not entirely surprising given that the filmmakers are a bunch of city kids with a camera. They start losing their shit, blaming each other, and falling apart. All the while, the legend that they've been investigating turns out to be true. 

5) For me, the tension became quickly unbearable. I was acclimated to horror in from the 80s and early 90s, where everything was obviously artificial. Slashers telegraphed their kills in highly-ritualized kabuki dances. Ghosts had their tiresome dripping walls and spooky sound effects. I'd never seen real people being haunted by something whose rules I couldn't understand. Because I'd been so invested in the genre, most horror movies made me feel like I was an insider, more akin to the monsters and ghosts than the victim. Blair Witch Project put me back in the victim's shoes. 

6) As the attacks got worse, I began to wait eagerly for the daylight. The attacks always seemed to ease off once nighttime dissipated. By the end, the characters weren't even safe in the daylight. Then they discovered the old house. . . 

7) The scene of Heather making her final confession has been parodied over and over again, but the actual moment has tremendous power to it. She has been pushed past the point of endurance and has no hope left anymore. It's some of the best acting I've ever seen in horror cinema.

8) I'll never forget what happened after the credits rolled. An entire theater full of hardcore horror fans, who had seen he worst of the worst, rose up from their seats silently as one and left the theater. It was eerily quiet. They all acted like the world had ended in front of them. We left the theater into an empty Pasadena street.   

Conclusion: Watching The Blair Witch Project for the first time was one of the best experiences of my life. I was completely smitten by the movie and became it's fiercest advocate. Unfortunately, the movie couldn't survive the world-of-mouth of the real world. The shaky cam nausea was a real issue (I have a harder time with it these days) but there were also tons of meatheads who wanted blood and monster make-up. It was a soft touch movie and I admired that. The whole found-footage thing has been done to death but it's still an effective immersive tool. I really like The Blair Witch Project. I know it's become sort of a touchstore of early 90s pop-culture, but it's also one of the most important foundations of modern horror cinema.