Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paranormal Activity

I feel really bad that I missed Paranormal Activity in theaters.

It was the one movie that I really should have made the effort to see. All the ads made this film look like the second coming of Leatherface. Remember these ads?


Anyway, the people who know me in real life were dying to find out my opinion on it. Unfortunately I missed it in theaters. Partially it was because I was a little intimidated by its supposed intensity, but mostly it was because I could never get the money and the time together. I'm sad I missed it in the theater because I would love to have seen it done properly. As it stands, I watched a DVD of it while on three different types of medication for an epic ear infection, which made the whole thing extra-surreal.

It's also making writing this review a challenge.


Is Paranormal Activity good? Depends on the audience. Kids who expect horror to be nothing but gore and jump-spike scares are gonna feel let down by this one. I liked it. It reminded me of how little you actually need to tell a scary story. The movie works just on sound and suggestion, on strong performances and a slow escalation of terror. Much like The Blair Witch Project, it's a movie that keeps a claustrophobic focus on the leads. In both movies, as shit begins to unravel, I really came to dread nightfall and the terrible escalation of the demon's assault. If that's your cuppa tea, go check it out. Final Girl's reviews are here and here, with a less-gushing one by Flick Filosopher.

The other thing I took away from the movie is the characterization of Micah and Katie, the doomed couple who find their suburban San Diego home under siege. Micah is one of those take-charge alpha male idiots who sees the supernatural siege as something he treat like a home-improvement project. He constantly shines on and ignores poor haunted Katie and refuses to accept help or treat the threat with any degree of caution or respect. He's basically the pushy jerk in every slasher film that dies the most horribly, only fleshed out and broadened into a real character. Our sympathy really lies with poor Katie, torn between a jerky boyfriend and a menacing spirit. Perhaps she courts her doom by not being assertive enough, but they're both people I can believe in. That's the kind of stuff I like: characters that exist as something other than knife-bait.

Go check it out, as it's probably one of the most important American horror films of the last few years. While you're at it, wish me a speedy recovery from this miserable ear infection. Also, for the record, I liked the theatrical ending more than the alternate DVD ending.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Grave's End by Elaine Mercado

Maaaaaan, I hate these conversations.

So you tell people you're a horror writer and they're all like, "Do you believe in ghosts?" and internally you're all like "Do you ask fantasy fans if they believe in elves?" (but then you catch yourself in a contradiction because you've met some fantasy people who really really really believe in elves and you just want to ask them if high school was really that bad) but you're all polite and deferential and you say "well, I don't actually believe in ghosts but they make good stories" and then someone who's been waiting to pounce on the conversation the way Hobbes pounces on Calvin when he comes home from school butts in and says "Well I saw a thing one time and felt a presence one time and my dad died but I knew he was there and we lived in a haunted house as a kid and I lost my virginity to an Inuit spirit named Pridefoot" and they look at you with a hint of defiance and challenge in their eyes because if you say you don't believe them then you're calling them a liar or crazy to their face and you're challenging something special they experienced that has subtext of mortality, which is the biggest scariest thing of all beyond turning out like your parents and you say something evasive and inadvertently but unavoidably condescending like "Well, I believe YOU believe that you saw something" and there's a rift in the conversation because they're saying something completely fantastic and they can't back it up and you just can't buy it so you go back to safer conversation topics like why the Tea Party are a bunch of uneducated old fart hypocrites for raising cain about the Occupy Wall Street crowd and why the Catholic Church no longer has any right to claim any sort of moral authority because of of institutionalized practices stretching over decades covering up the abuse of children in their care and you know you're a) not getting laid that night, b) no one is going to invite you back, c) you're not allowed to have any more G&Ts and you're stuck drinking from the Miller High Life like you're a 15 year old and d) you are somehow the dickhead because people, even snotty rational atheists like you, need something irrational to believe in and all you've done is piss in everyone's Ovaltine at the party by pointing out the obvious, which is that you're making some damn fantastic claims and that witness testimony is super subjective and people who have certain personality types are more likely to see fantastical explanations to things and confirmation bias is a thing and our minds release chemicals when we confirm our suppositions and that has a narcotic effect and blah blah blah.

Good for you.

I believe that Elaine Mercado believes something was inhabiting her home in Grave's End.

I believe that Elaine Mercado admits in her book that she's prone to panic attacks and night terrors and things like that. I believe her when she reports that her husband and children report very different views on what she experiences, specifically that they are either skeptical at points or believe that the presence in her home is benevolent which makes me wonder about whether or not her tendency to feeling anxiety might be more fine tuned than the people around her. I believe that she discussed her failing marriage and her children maturing in a way that would lead me to believe that there was a lot of turmoil in her life and that might influence her perception of events. I believe that she has religious beliefs that are not necessarily at odds with belief in spirits haunting her home and one thing can feed the other. I believe that she chronicled what appeared to me to be a series of minor events over the course of ten-plus years that could easily be interpreted in a variety of ways over that time. And, not to kick too hard, I believe that a woman who appears on paranormal shows and pursues work as a clinical hypnotherapist, which is a heavily debunked field, might have a variety of reasons to tell this story this way.

And, given that paranormal expert Hans Holzer is the one who pushed the bullshit Indian burial ground story in the Amityville haunting forward, I have to say my skeptic's alarm kept going off.

But, if I were to meet her in a party or meet someone who held her beliefs, I would probably say "I believe YOU believe it's true."

And then I'd change the subject. Man, I'm a firm believer in gay rights. How about you, fundie weirdo?

As far as paranormal things go, it's a pretty good story. Mercado is a good writer. I felt a lot of sympathy for what she was going through. The whole thing doesn't reek of opportunistic profiteering that The Amityville Horror did, and it's a pretty damned good story of a middle aged woman trying to start over. Little balls of light and trapped miners don't mean much to me, but this woman getting out of a bad marriage, beginning a new career, and raising kids meant a lot more. I kinda barreled over her perception of experiences in my previous little tirade but I was totally on her side through the challenges in her life. She seems like a smart, sensitive, caring woman. She and I share different belief systems, but she seems like a cool woman.

In fact, I will say this about the book. When she's talking about ghosts, I kinda blinked out. When she talks about herself, I was completely engaged. I rocketed through it in a couple days of erratic reading.

It was a good story.

Gentle reader, you can probably assume that this is another assigned reading for my ghost story class. It is.

I know you're reading this, Professor Scott.

When I read the syllabus and saw we were doing "true haunting" books, my alarm bells went off. I know you're a paranormal investigator and I've seen you tell a mean true-life ghost story. I was worried that my opinionated dickhead skepticism was going to flare up and you were going to flunk me or go all kajukenbo on my ass. In the back of my head, I was all "man, we're a literature class, what are we doing reading a bunch of pseudoscience?"

I did learn a lot from it. I learned how believers expect these stories to be structured, how belief reflects what we see, and how our funny little minds work when we're frightened in our homes, how much chaos rests in the center of our spirits. It was an interesting read.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm taking Pridefoot out on a date tonight. She called me last week on a ouija board and I think it could work this time. We're gonna see Paranormal Activity. Please don't kick my ass at the next residency.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Amityville Horror

Of course it's all fake.

The hauntings that occur in The Amityville Horror are so reliable and violent and...well...obvious that it would left the fringe-y world of parapsychology and become the darling of the scientific community. Things fly, devil pigs talk to children, bugs fill rooms for no reason, stuff flies around and crashes like a low-rent air show. It's all very dramatic and impressive and I'm absolutely mystified that anyone took this book seriously.

I came into The Amityville Horror knowing it was bunk. Besides my natural and intense skepticism, I have a friend who is very active in the skeptic and debunking community. He sent me a bunch of articles and podcasts dealing with the Warrens, paranormal investigators who sound like a couple of crass opportunists, and George Lutz, the homeowner who sounds like a crass opportunist with a screw loose. Before I opened page one, I knew I was dealing with a work of fiction.

Strangely enough, that made the book more palatable.

A lot of horror tales boldly declare they're based on trues stories. It's a part of ghost stories. "We're just down the way from where that girl scout with the lazy eye and hare lip killed the rest of her troupe with a lacrosse stick" or whatever variation you'd care to hear. It lends veracity to the tale, as well as chillingly suggests that it could happen again.

So, whatever. You wanna say you're a true account? Oooookay. I'll be your huckleberry.

The core problem with The Amityville Horror is that it tries to have it's cake and eat it too.

The book tells a lurid story. Mass murders, cursed priests, satanic malevolence, and all that good EC comics stuff makes for a great ghastly tale. Unfortunately, the book reads like it's trying to maintain the pretense of straightforward journalism. Part of it is due to the weaknesses of Jay Anson's style, which can be politely described as leaning toward the hyperbolic. Part of it is due to the fact that it's not really structured like a linear narrative. It's more a series of vignettes. Every chapter is essentially a self-contained story. A bunch of spooky shit happens, the parents act like utter cocks, the priest wheedles and moans and bitches out again, and something really scary happens and a bunch of exclamation points start sprouting on the page like mushrooms on a dry old turd. Not to trash too hard on the man's efforts, which had some nifty imagery and works as a fun beach towel/bedside table book, but it's not much of a narrative.

The only real character is the priest. The parents are sketched out so vaguely that I can't tell if their rising temper at each other and their kids is due to supernatural malevolence or simple bridge-and-tunnel douchebaggery. The priest gets the most pages and most of them portray a cowardly, indecisive Hamlet, forever vacillating on whether or not to help the family and passing off responsibility by appealing to his conservative superiors. Frankly, he comes off like a punk. Fuck that guy.

Speaking of which, I'm noticing a theme in these books.

Between this and Grave's End which is another true life account of the supernatural, I can't help but notice something in the inhabitants of these haunted houses. Both of the books deal with deeply religious people and I can't help but believe people with a strong attachment to believing in gods don't have much of a problem making a jump to believing in ghosts.

Just sayin'.

The movie was much better.

In describing The Amityville Horror in his seminal non-fiction book on the genre, Stephen King called it one of the first "economic horror stories." Think about it. You buy a new house that should be waaaaay out of your price range, you make some rough peace with the fact that people died horribly in there, then you move in and the pipes fill up with black oil and doors rip of their frames and rooms fill up with bugs and the nastiness just keeps escalating. You can't really deal with a fixer-upper when it is actively working against you.

It kinda made sense to me as a kid but it makes a whole lot more sense now. A week ago, I moved into a new apartment in Bushwick. I'm just another hipster kid gentrifying a neighborhood, but it's hard work building a home. It's a tiny room in a basement that was never meant to house people. There is no ventilation in the place, there is no closet, my stuff doesn't fit in the room, the stove barely works, and there's a bunch of teenagers running a craps game going on in front of my place. Yet somehow I gotta make it work. And it's much easier than if some dead asshole started turning over my furniture and knocking over the cheap ass canvas wardrobe I had to buy to keep my stuff.

The movie focuses on that aspect of the tale. The priest is barely in the movie, the family is likable, the performances are good, and shit gets real intense.

Watch the movie. Skip the book.