Wednesday, September 30, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Crazy in that good way.

Well, Screamers and Screamettes, we've come to the very last installment of this year's Silent Scream Series: The House of Silent Scream. Before getting to the last anniversary post, I just want to thank everybody who participated and everybody who followed along. I've had a great three years doing this blog and that's due in no small part to the readers and writers I've met online. Thank you all.

But enough of that, on to the guest blogger.

Hey, that's no guest blogger! That's my wife!

Booknerd - aka Jessica - runs the much loved Written Nerd lit blog and is co-owner of the soon to open Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene.

And she married me. 'Cause she's nuts.

Ladies and germs, Booknerd . . .

Truth be told, I’m not much of a fan of the horror genre as a whole. I possess one of those imaginations the Victorians worried about when they advised women not to read too many novels. While I love the fantastic in art, and I usually enjoy the emotional rollercoaster a good story puts me through, I’m too prone to post-viewing nightmares to enjoy most films that are particularly grisly, psychologically tortuous, or uncanny – which rules out most of what CRwM writes about here.

The one counterintuitive exception: I kinda love zombie movies. Sean of the Dead viewings in our house are in the multiple dozens, and I even saw Land of the Dead in theaters. Maybe it’s that the violence tends to be pretty cartoony; maybe it’s the seeming manageability of the supernatural threat (especially with slow zombies). Partly, I think, it’s that zombies are kind of like a natural disaster: they don’t have any particular beef with you, they’re not even really malicious, they’re just hungry, and there are lots of them. Fighting them takes more wilderness survival skills (axes, barricades, traps, etc.) than mystic knowledge or sheer screamy stamina.

Really, what I think I love is the idea of what happens after the apocalypse. I’m one of those delusional, naïve people who thinks I’d be one of the survivors, and that the world wiped clean of civilization would offer all kinds of opportunities. No laws, no systems, a small community of people learning how to live all over again. The untended shopping malls full of loot are as delicious as the chance to re-learn how to grow food and protect oneself from predators. The riches of culture free of charge, plus the prospect of a more authentic engagement with the manual-labor stuff of life: it’s a big part of the appeal of films like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and even Mad Max (which I’ve recently discovered I also kinda love). This is way bigger than zombies: it’s a postmodern yearning for authenticity combined with a consumerist desire for all this stuff. Or just a child’s fantasy of running amuck when authority is gone. The downside is all that death and stuff, but the adventure is worth the ickiness.

The Rene Clair short film The Crazy Ray (alternately titled Paris qui Dort or, my preference, At 3:25) presages the whole post-apocalyptic genre – but does it without the icky consequences, making it possibly the perfect non-horrific horror film. In this end-of-the-world created in a more innocent era, everything turns out okay in the end, but our heroes have in the meantime gotten to enjoy all the heightened dramatic experience and freedom from societal strictures that the apocalypse can offer. It’s an eerie, lovely, funny, original film, and one that I feel must have had some kind of subconscious impact on the imagery of later post-apocalypse films, though none have ever pulled it off so elegantly.

The film, set in the gorgeous Paris of the 1920s, opens with a handsome young guard in the Eiffel Tower. On ending his shift around dawn, he descends to the street to find – everyone is gone. The scenes of an empty Paris are as striking as the empty modern London in the first scenes of 28 Days Later, and must have been just as challenging to film (though in retrospect, it doesn’t quite make sense that there are no vehicles in the street – more on that later.) The young man, increasingly distraught at the lack of Parisians, finally comes across a few folks (a pickpocket, a cop, etc.), but they seem to be in an unusual state of suspended animation (whether asleep, or frozen in time, the film never makes entirely clear, but it’s a Sleeping Beauty’s castle kind of situation).

Finally the young man comes across some other folks in a state of full consciousness. Turns out they just arrived in Paris on the plane from Marseilles, leading them all to conclude that their altitude somehow protected them from the sleeping sickness that has afflicted the city, if not the world. The company includes a cop escorting a bad guy, a “butter and eg man” (a great old slang term for a rich but unsophisticated businessman, the “bridge and tunnel crowd” of his day), and the requisite lovely young lady, among others. They wrack their brains to figure out what has happened, but of course they can’t. So they do what every small band of survivors does in the wake of the apocalypse: they go out to dinner.

In one of the most hilarious and charming set pieces of the film – all the more so because it’s done entirely with body language and gesture – the characters sit down in a restaurant and, with the influx of free champagne from the untended kitchen, become increasingly aware that all rules are off. They dance on tables, they insult the aristocrats sleeping nearby, they dance with the sleeping girls, they pick pockets and take clothes off others’ backs, they laugh and weep. It’s like the mall madness in Romero’s movies, but with a rather Parisian elegance to the debauchery. Finally they stagger out, with the butter-and-egg man attempting to stuff some bills in the pockets of the comatose maitre’d.

When the band of survivors decides to hole up in the Eiffel Tower, just in case the unexplained incident returns, another part of the post-apocalypse story kicks in. There’s only one girl, remember? The male members of our band of outsiders begin to feel unkindly toward each other, as the title cards remind us “The last woman on earth!” But unlike the unpleasant misogyny of the “save the breeders” mentality of 28 Days, or the genuinely uncomfortable sexual tension of other last-girl films I can think of, Rene Clair plays it as a largely comical love octagon. There are moments of real drama when the two youngest suitors grapple on the edge of the tower, with terrifying panoramas of Paris below them, but somehow it all still seems in good fun – the naughty glamour of the weird post-nuclear Ann-Margret lounge number about “thirteen men and I’m the only gal in town”, with a St. Germaine stylishness.

More delightfully transgressive incidents occur; the robber with his skill at lockpicking becomes a valued member of the company, for example, and the butter-and-egg man finds his comatose Paris tart in the arms of another eggman. Eventually, a telephone call leads the company to the source of the apocalypse: a crotchety but not particularly scary scientist, who seems to have produced the eponymous Crazy Ray as an experiment in putting the world to sleep and then forgotten to check on the results. With the help of his daughter, the company manage to convince the old gent that he has to put it right, and some very scientific equations on chalkboards ensue. But fix it he does, and in such a way that the world starts up again at 3:25 AM, just the moment when it went to sleep, so that presumably, no one is the wiser. The film ends with the cop chasing the robber again – all’s right with the world.

I find it interesting that the same scenes and tropes that inform world’s end sagas now are present in Rene Clair’s film, but also that they’re so rarely infused with this amount of cheeky fun. Presumably all the heroes are worried and terrified about the lack of other conscious humans, but in reality it all seems like a bit of a lark. It almost feel s like cheating to get all the post-apocalypse fun without the actual apocalypse – and of course it is cheating. Where were the crashed cars on the streets if everyone fell asleep simultaneously? How could the scientist possibly fail to notice that he’d caused the end of the world? Why didn’t the sleeping people starve to death after sleeping for weeks? But of course, those kinds of logical problems are present in the most deadly serious horror films as well, with results that are often far less enjoyable.

The Crazy Ray is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, but also seems to inform so many. I’d highly recommend it for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, for a look at how the world might have ended at 3:25 – not with a bang or a whimper, but with a champagne toast.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stuff: There's a monster on the front of this shirt.

Because, honestly, you look better dressed. And, what the hey, this is a neato shirt.

Monday, September 28, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Know when to fold 'em.

It's possible that you might be reading this blog even though you have no interest in the horror genre. You might have some obsession about glow-in-the-dark plastic fangs or maybe you've mistaken me for somebody else. For the unlikely few who read this, but no other horror blogs, it's a real pleasure to introduce you to Curt, master o' The Groovy Age of Horror and one of the horror blog world's essential figures.

I could talk talk talk about Curt's blog: His wide and varied interests, his thorough explorations of ideas and works, his humor, his smarts. But I want to actually get to his guest post, so I'll focus on just one thing. Of all genuinely popular blogs I know, Groovy Age is the only one that evolves out in the open. If Curt starts diggin' on Green Lantern or neuroscience or whatever, then Groovy Age will incorporate it. And incorporate it well. Most horror blogs find a schtick and they stick with it. You'll have a handful of aggregator fodder rituals designed mainly to capture Horror Blip points and a few running gags, but you don't risk the dip in readership by going too far off the reservation. But not Curt. With the Groovy Age you can watch somebody deeply in love with genre entertainment explore everything that means, going where it takes him rather than trapping it into easy, lazy concepts and categories. It's the reason Groovy Age remains required reading no matter where Curt takes it.

Ladies and germs, I am very proud to present Curt Purcell!

Richard Sala's comics are stuffed with visual elements, character types, and narrative tropes that seem ripped from the iconic stills and posters that have glommed together in my imagination to form some impression of what the more lurid silent serials may have been like. I've seen almost no silent cinema--NOSFERATU, VAMPYRE, METROPOLIS . . . that's about it--but Sala's comics certainly made me curious about the distinctly European arch-villain genre. When CRwM invited me to participate in "House of Silent Scream," it seemed like the perfect excuse/motivation to finally delve into some of that material.

I turned to DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER, Fritz Lang's 1922 two-part, four hour adaptation of the original novel by Norbert Jacques. I'm sorry to say, I found it to be a transitional fossil of mainly historical interest.

For a thriller that promises suspense and action, it moves at an excruciatingly leisurely pace, making for a very long four hours indeed. It delivers, pretty modestly and without much pizzazz, only meager dollops of the stuff that makes Sala's comics so fun--disguises and secret passageways and hypnotism and all that sort of thing. Then, what little visual punch it strives for depends more on effects that are now atrociously obsolete than on the striking designs and compositions that make NOSFERATU and METROPOLIS enduringly iconic classics that will never cease to look amazing.

What disappoints me most about the film, though, is the way it doesn't seem to grasp its own core concept. Mabuse is supposed to be a mysterious arch-villain and master of disguise--so why do we see his real face within the very first frames, and for much of the movie thereafter?!? From the beginning, he's never a mystery to the audience, and he only becomes more familiar, further weakening his air of menace.

Having said all that, I can see glimmers of promise that certainly must have shone brighter back in the day. However obsolete it looks to me now, I'm not terribly surprised that DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER was popular and influential.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

True Crime: Fakenstein?

THe NY Times is reporting on a multiple court cases involving the forgery of horror memorabilia. From the article:

Over the last several months, collectors of movie memorabilia have been rocked by claims that a Georgia-based collector, Kerry T. Haggard, has corrupted what had been seen as a relatively safe market for classic horror film posters by selling or trading forgeries of the promotional art for pictures like “Frankenstein," "Dracula,” and "The Mummy."

In July a Los Angeles collector, Ronald Magid, filed suit against Mr. Haggard in Federal District Court in California. Mr. Magid claimed he had been persuaded to swap Mr. Haggard 20 genuine posters and other memorabilia valued at about $150,000 for nine items Mr. Magid said were fakes.

In August another collector, James Gresham, filed a similar suit in Federal District Court in Michigan. That suit claims that Mr. Haggard had joined a restoration artist to create forgeries, 28 of which Mr. Gresham bought or traded for in deals he valued at $852,400.

In an answer filed on Monday to the California complaint, Mr. Haggard denied committing any fraud, contending in turn that Mr. Magid had not only damaged his reputation with smears on various Internet sites, but also sold him items that Mr. Haggard, upon reselling them, were told were fake. As of Friday, federal court records available online did not show a response by Mr. Haggard in the Michigan case.

Because I don't trade in high-priced horror collectables, I can find humor in Haggard's profoundly skewed sense of self importance. Again, from the article:

In response to an e-mailed query, Mr. Haggard said he was the victim of a “colossal frame-up.”

He added: “The monsters of fiction that I have loved & adored so all my life have destroyed my life in a conspiracy not seen since Lee Harvey Oswald."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Link Proliferation: "Many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore."

Somebody Might Get A Head, But Someone Might Get Hurt interviews Colin Dickey, author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. Dickey's new book explores the wonderful world of 19th Century psuedoscience and some of phrenologies more lurid aspects.

From the interview:

IDEAS: Whose skulls made for the most inviting targets?

DICKEY: The three categories of individuals who were most interesting for finding out about the human mind were criminals, the insane, and geniuses, in the sense that they represented the extreme versions of the human mind .... It was easy enough to get the heads of criminals and the insane. Nobody wanted these, really. You could go to any asylum cemetery and root around and not be bothered, or hang out at the gallows and scoop up an executed criminal. Those two were pretty easy. Getting the heads of geniuses proved to be considerably more difficult.

IDEAS: Just how common was grave robbing for phrenology?

DICKEY: It was probably not too common, though significant enough to be a recurring theme. I think it was really more the fear that this was happening on a much more widespread basis, especially in Vienna, where phrenology began. Among detractors of phrenologists, there was something close to a panic about people’s heads being stolen from the grave. Franz Joseph Gall, the guy who invented it - he was very clear that he didn’t take heads illegally. He got them all through legitimate means, although he said at one point, “If I had Gabriel’s killing sword, Kant and Goethe would have to watch out.”

How Green Were the Nazis?

If you haven't yet discovered the joys of online book retailers AbeBooks' "Weird Book Room," then you need to check it out.

This weeks selections include such fabulous tomes as How Green Were the Nazis?, The Haunted Vagina, and The Waterless Toilet: Is It Right For You?.

Jung, Man, There's No Need to Be Sad

The NY Times has an interest piece on the publication of Carl Jung's "Red Book": the surreally mystical quest narrative/dream journal/psychadelic puzzle that's been locked away from general public for about a century. From the article:

This is a story about a nearly 100-year-old book, bound in red leather, which has spent the last quarter century secreted away in a bank vault in Switzerland. The book is big and heavy and its spine is etched with gold letters that say “Liber Novus,” which is Latin for “New Book.” Its pages are made from thick cream-colored parchment and filled with paintings of otherworldly creatures and handwritten dialogues with gods and devils. If you didn’t know the book’s vintage, you might confuse it for a lost medieval tome.

And yet between the book’s heavy covers, a very modern story unfolds. It goes as follows: Man skids into midlife and loses his soul. Man goes looking for soul. After a lot of instructive hardship and adventure — taking place entirely in his head — he finds it again.

Some people feel that nobody should read the book, and some feel that everybody should read it. The truth is, nobody really knows. Most of what has been said about the book — what it is, what it means — is the product of guesswork, because from the time it was begun in 1914 in a smallish town in Switzerland, it seems that only about two dozen people have managed to read or even have much of a look at it.

The story includes a beautiful multimedia slideshow of book.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

House of Silent Scream: After midnight.

That the mind behind "When Is Evil Cool?" (the 2009 winner of the just now created "Best Blog Name Award) is both genuinely funny and genuinely interesting would be enough to recommend that fine blog to any and all folks who dig what I do here.

But wait, there's more! Have I mentioned Warrior Wednesdays: a post series dedicated to the single greatest film about tragic death of community organizer Cyrus, the One and Only, and the consequences thereof?

Now how much would expect to pay? Don't answer yet. Because you're a great crowd, wiec? is going to throw in an extra blog. That's right, a whole other blog, free, gratis, for nothing, just cause we like your face. When you dig on wiec?, you also get "Random Picture Day," a blog with twice the brilliance of your average blog, without all those pesky words!

Now how much would you expect to pay? $10.99? $56.23? $1.7 billion?

All this can be yours for the low, low price of reading the following guest post in our third anniversary Silent Scream Series. Boys and girls, I introduce wiec?

When I was a little kid we’d visit my grandma in New Jersey about every other month. The car ride was very long and so my dad would pull over to a deli called The WaWa and let me pick out some comic books from the rack to read on the long ride home. I’d usually grab a Green Lantern or an issue of Rom the Space Knight. They also had a magazine there in New Jersey that I could never find at home at the local five and dimes. The magazine was called Famous Monsters of Movieland. Whenever I saw it I definitely used to snatch it up.

For an 8 year old kid Famous Monsters was a treasure trove of black and white goodness. The pictures were from mostly black and white horror movies from yesteryear. It had articles about said movies but I usually just skimmed those. The best part, were all the photos. I used to cut them out of the magazine very carefully when I got home from Grandma’s and taped them to the wall. I had a huge collage going that went from the floor to the ceiling and practically covered an entire wall of my room. There were Frankensteins of all stripes. Draculas everywhere. Tons of creatures and ghouls great and small from movies I had never heard of. One of my favorites was this picture from a movie called London After Midnight.

It seems the writers and editors of Famous Monsters really liked Lon Chaney. They were especially fond of his portrayal of a vampire in London After Midnight. It’s easy to see why. The scraggly hair popping out from under the top hat really made him stand out. The wide unblinking eyes and the jagged teeth stuck in a perpetual smile made him seem cartoonishly ghoulish. Chaney’s vampire was one of the freakier looking portrayals of a vamp out there. 9 out of every 10 issues of Famous Monsters featured the vampire from London After Midnight in one form or another. And 9 out of 10 times that picture was cut out and taped to my wall.

The story to London After Midnight is a pretty silly one though. The movie is not a straight up vampire flick. At first it seems like it might be a sort of Twilight Zoney sort of Tales from the Crypty kind of affair but it quickly dissolves into a who done it and why with a bunch of over the top, unbelievable detective work that would have no place in either the Jessica Fletcher or the Colombo playbooks of detecting.

In other words the story is a bit hard to follow but I’ll do my best to explain it. It starts off with an old man who is found murdered in his home. A detective (played by Lon Chaney) from Scotland Yards is dispatched to investigate. It is apparent that it was suicide after a note is found. The detective is skeptical but life goes on and the investigation is called off. 5 years later the old mans house is empty and in a state of disrepair seeming to be all but abandoned. All of a sudden a creepy guy in a top hat (Chaney) and a pale woman dressed in a long robe are seen prancing around the old man’s yard.

I was going to spoil the rest of this movie for you (and I still am) but I’m going to avoid a play by play account of the events. Mostly, I’m not going to do this because the events of the movie make no sense. I mean, it is just such a silly story. Lon Chaney plays the detective sent to investigate this mysterious stranger (who is played by Chaney). All the suspects of the old man’s murder 5 years back all seem to live in a house next door to the house were the murder took place and were the stranger now lives (the movie shows that the stranger has bought the dead man’s house’s deed). Then it appears that the old man is still alive and living in his house and that stranger and his silent female partner are vampires. A bunch of talking between the suspects goes down (that all goes nowhere. Remember this is a silent movie after all). The detective hypnotizes all the suspects. The “vampire” skulks around with a lantern. The hypnotized suspect reenacts the murder and is caught red handed by Chaney’s detective. Case closed.

“Huh? “ you might be saying to yourself. None of that makes sense.

I’ll explain: Chaney’s detective figured the dead old man didn’t kill himself 5 years back. He was murdered. How does he know this? He just knew. He then waits 5 years and comes back dressed as the vampire stranger. Buys the dead old man’s house. Hires a guy who looks like the dead old man to live there. Hires a girl to play his vampire wife (just because) and the two of them do all their skulking about to make the suspects next door nervous. Because the suspects are nervous they hire Chaney’s detective character to investigate. He investigates and hypnotizes them all and then waits. Under hypnosis he figures which ever of the suspects originally murdered the old man will try it again with old man decoy he hired to live in the house. He figures right and arrives just in the nick of time. In other words, the stuff of nonsense.

You might be wondering what the point to this movie was. The story is pretty thread bare in the logic department and when it’s all said and done makes zero sense. The critics when it was originally released didn’t much like it and most audiences where left confused. However the movie is considered to be a minor silent movie classic. The reason why is it’s history and place in silent picture lore plus some of the weird events that surrounded it. Also the iconic make up gimmicks Chaney used to portray the vampire stranger made it a stand out and a favorite to silent era fans over the years.

Instead of trying to make sense of the actual story to London After Midnight let’s look at the story behind the story or film rather London after Midnight. Here are 5 things I uncovered…

1) London After Midnight is one of the silent era’s most important “lost” films. A lost film and there are plenty from the silent era, are movies that were lost or destroyed over time. Over the years studios would make movies that would disappear from their vaults due to theft or were sadly in hindsight junked by studios to make room in their vaults for newer films. Other lost films are gone because the nitrate in the actual film they used back in the silent era was very flammable. Fires in studio vaults would happen often and would wipe out tons of archived movies. Also the nitrate film they used back then was very unstable and if not stored at the right temperature the film could deteriorate quickly. Movies would literally rot inside their canisters.

Also London After Midnight was made before TV and video. Most studios didn’t see the point of keeping and archiving movies after their original theatrical run. The storing and archiving of old movies was expensive too. Sadly it is believed London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire at the MGM studios in the mid 1960’s. There are no surviving copies of it to be seen anywhere. Next to Erich von Stroheim’s 10 hr long film Greed, London after Midnight is considered one of the most sought after of the lost films.

2) The make up design for Chaney’s vampire stranger is considered by some to be an example of his best make up work. Lon Chaney was known as “the man of a 1,ooo faces.” He solidified his rep with the stuff he did to himself in Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre
Dame. Early works like his portrayal of a legless and abusive gangster in The Penalty and as an armless knife thrower (he used his feet) in The Unknown showed Chaney would put himself through anything to get a good performance out of himself.

The vampire stranger is one his best loved characters. The frightening look of the character was what fans of the movie really liked. Even though the character spends much of the movie skulking around hallways and doing very little else (in other words no murdering) the work Chaney did to himself to get the character out was quite stunning. Chaney made special thin wire circles (like lenseless monocles) that he fit into the inside of his eyelids to get the hypnotic googly eye effect and wore special wire attachments inside his mouth and the sharp teeth dentures that held his mouth in that perpetual fanged up grin. Both were said to be very painful for him. Also the way the vampire stranger walked was quite creepy. He had a sort of stooped over gait that made him look dangerous and sinister. Movie experts speculated that Groucho Marx famous walk was fashioned after Lon Chaney’s vampire stranger.

London After Midnight also briefly showed Lon Chaney’s famous make up kit. The kit was a treasure trove of simple gadgets and makeup that he used to pull off some his beloved characters through the years. It is shown briefly when Chaney’s character explains to the folks in the movie how he dressed up like a vampire. Chaney’s make up kit now resides in The Los Angeles County Museum where it was donated for safe keeping after his passing. Many consider it to be the central artifact in the history of film makeup effects.

3) London After Midnight was written and directed by early horror and thriller director Tod Browning. Tod Browning made several silent pictures with Lon Chaney and later went on to direct early talkies such as Freaks and Dracula with Bela Lugosi. While Chaney and Browning made much better films together in the years before London After Midnight it turns out Midnight was their most successful. It raked in $500,000 at the box office when it was released in 1927. Most reviewers (and me) thought it was not some of their best work. With some major changes to the plot, years later Browning remade Midnight into a talkie called Mark of the Vampire. Mark of the Vampire starred Lionel Barrymore as the detective and Bela Lugosi was cast as the vampire stranger.

4) London After Midnight was used as part of the defense for a man accused of murder in Hyde Park London in 1928. He saw the movie at his local theatre and claimed Chaney’s vampire stranger’s performance was so scary he temporarily lost his sanity and strangled a woman in the Park. His plea of temporary insanity was later rejected and he was found guilty and convicted and jailed for the crime.

5) If there are no existing copies of the movie out there how did I see it? How can you see London After Midnight if you are so inclined? In 2002, Turner Classic Movies commissioned famed film restoration producer Rick Schmidlin to produce a 45 minute long reconstruction of the film using only still photographs and production photos. Working from Browning’s script it was well received by horror fans. Most people who had seen the original theatrical version felt it was an adequate adaptation of the confusing film they saw back in 1927 and film historians praised Schmidlin for his efforts. He won a Rondo Award later that year for his work. It can be seen late at night around Halloween on AMC.

I saw Schmidlin’s piece when I rented The Lon Chaney Collection from Netflix, It’s a box set of some of Chaney’s best loved and lesser known films. On the same disc as London after Midnight is one of his lesser works The Unknown. That’s the one where Chaney plays a man pretending to be an armless knife thrower. He actually has his arms (and a hand with two thumbs. Oops spoiler alert.) who’s wanted in connection to some murders he may or may not have commited and is well worth checking out. Also on the same disc is a documentary of Lon Chaney career in movies and is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. The documentary is very through and is straight up excellent.

Thanks for reading my exhausting account of London After Midnight. And thanks to CRwM for letting me blather on about it. Good Night everyone.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Music: Blame David for this.

My friend sent this link and, though he didn't mention it, I'm pretty sure it works like the cursed tape in Ringu and if I don't pass it on to you - yes you, dearly doomed reader o' mine - then bad things will befall me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Comics: Play them like a Harpe from hell.

The Newsrama site is hosting a preview of Harpe: America's First Serial Killers, a graphic novel that recounts the "true story" of Micajah and Wiley Harpe, two 18th Century outlaws who tore through the frontier from 1797 to 1799, leaving an estimated 20 to 40 victims in their wake.

I use quotes on the "true story" not to impugn the veracity of the comics creators, Chad Kinkle and Adam Shaw, but rather because it is difficult to separate frontier legend from the actual criminal career of the Harpe brothers, so the project is inherently going be a little wobbly on the truth matricies.

Still, whatever the author's allegiance to the historical facts, the Harpe's story is sufficient grisly enough to make a promising premise for comic project. Worth checking out.

Monday, September 21, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Dig that cat.

It is very likely that the next guest blogger needs no intro. Iloz Zoc has a major horror blog of his own, Zombos Closet of Horror (with affiliated twitter stream) and he's also the League of Tana Tea Drinkers' own George Washington.

That's enough for us to respect him; but why should we love him?

We dig hard on Iloz Zoc's work because, in the fine tradition of late night television horror hosts, his blog is populated by a cast of eccentric horror types who not only make his post a pleasure to read, but remind viewers that behind all the screaming and shouting, the real reason anybody gets into this horror stuff in the first place is because it is fun. Even when Iloz and company pan something, they're having a ball doing it. To steal and maul a phrase from Lou Reed, "He's Zombo, and his worst film-going experience is better than the best one a snark's ever had."

ANTSS thanks Iloz and the entire Zombo cast and is proud to present them all to you. Enjoy.

"No, that's not it," said Sosumi Jimmy Jango, Zombos' lawyer. He continued to search his memory while pulling yet another paper from his briefcase.

We were sitting in Zombos' library, waiting for Jimmy to shuffle through a few more papers before he read Uncle Hiram's will. After twenty years gathering dust in Zombos' Irish tin box, it was time to finally reveal old Hiram's wishes. He passed away while moose hunting. The annoyed moose helped him on his journey. Seated around the table were Zombos, myself, and Zombos' furthest relative from Nova Scotia, Clorinda. Billy Bounce Boukowski and Jeremy Singleton, distant relatives on Zombos' side of the pond, were also in attendance. Glenor Glenda, our housekeeper, served drinks all around.

"Glad to see everyone could make it," said Jimmy, reaching deeper into his briefcase. "I got it!"

"The will?" asked Zombos with much hope in his voice. He was getting tired of sitting so close to his distant relatives. I never could get him to explain their names or lineage.

"No, the movie this all reminds me off," said Jimmy. "The Cat and the Canary, the 1927 version. It starts off with an old geezer's will being read after twenty years, too."

"I know that one," I said, "the geezer was Cyrus West, and his relatives are summoned to his old dark mansion, overlooking the Hudson River, by the family lawyer Roger Crosby. Twenty years after his death for the reading of his will. He and Uncle Hiram must have been twins.

"On a dark and stormy night," added Jimmy, chuckling. "Just like tonight." We looked at the rain drops splashing against the library's windows when he said it.

"So, what happens?" asked Billy Bounce. His gruff voice punctuated the Bounce part of his name really well. He tipped his third Jack Daniel's, daintily held in the baseball glove he had for a hand, over and down in one gulp.

"It's a silent movie directed by Paul Leni, a German Expressionistic director, who talents included blending humor with his stylishly-filmed horror," said Zombos.

Billy smiled. "Sounds like an oxymoronic, don't it? Funny horror?

"It does," I replied. "But Leni's movie provided the creative template--hairy arms reaching through secret panels and around doorways, sliding bookcases leading to secret passages, upright bodies stuffed in closets, flopping down when you open the door, sinister housekeepers, spooky mansions--stuff like that was recycled in the old dark house movies that followed, and it provided much comedy fodder for Abbott and Costello, too."

"Hold That Ghost!" piped up Jeremy. "I love that movie. Keeping the money in the moose's head. Hilarious."

"Oh, and Laura La Plante is so marvelous in it." Glenor spilled a drink as she spoke. "I wish I'd inherit a vast fortune like hers."

"When you do, let me know so I can send you the dry cleaning bill," said Zombos dryly, grabbing a napkin to daub off the wet stain on his jacket.

"Whose Laura La Plante?" asked Clorinda.

"She plays Cyrus West's most distant relative, Annabelle," answered Jimmy. "Anabelle's the looker who winds up getting all of West's inheritance if she can prove she's sane enough to keep it. Of course, the trick is to make her go loopy during the night so the next in line will get the money. An escaped homicidal lunatic from a nearby asylum--he's called the Cat-- is on the prowl, too, spicing things up."

"So who's the guy who saves the dame?" asked Billy. "There's always some guy around to save rich dames in movies, am I right?"

"Right you are," I said. "That would be Paul, played by Creighton Hale in glasses and much chagrin. He's not much of a hero type. Skittish from his own shadow, really. Being a woman in a 1920's movie, Annabelle can only be rescued by her potential suitor, of course. I mean, woman weren't expected to be unmarried with vast fortunes pending and all that. Paul provides the comedy relief, but eventually succeeds in subduing the killer and winning the rich dame's hand."

"I'm not sure I'd want to immediately get married if I inherited a fortune," said Clorinda. "I mean, why spoil the fun of all that solitary spenditure."

"I don't know, but so far it doesn't sound too scary," said Billy.

"Well, of course in its day I'm sure it had enough fright per frame to make it the box office success it was, but Leni directed it more for black humor." I took my White Russian from Glenor's serving tray and took a sip before continuing. "Still, his sharp direction keeps the horror elements moving briskly through the cobwebs and gloom. His eye glides past long hallways filled with billowing curtains from opened windows, it plays with each relatives' sinister potential for thwarting Annabelle's inheritance with its expressive closeups, and it goes beyond verisimilitude as emotionally charged superimpositions coalesce into dramatic scenes. I would have loved to see his camerawork in Browning's Dracula."

Jeremy, Billy Bounce, Jimmy, and Clorinda looked at me.

"Superimpositions," interjected Zombos, "are images put on top of other images."

"Oh, I get it," said Jimmy. "You mean like the towering medicine bottles that slowly turn into the mansion's ominous silhouette, or the image of the grandfather clock's gears striking midnight over the scene of the reading of the will, as everyone is gathered around the table in the library."

"Right," I said. The Hermle Grandfather clock in the west hallway starting chiming the twelfth hour.

"Ooh, that gives me goosebumps," said Glenor shivering.

"Speaking of goosebumps, that creepy housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant--love that name--played intensely by Martha Mattox, provided the role model for sinister butlers and maids in subsequent films," I said. "She reminds me of that other creepy housekeeper in Robert Wise's The Haunting, trying to scare everybody with talk of ghosts and such. Of course, being the only person in the mansion for twenty years, it's no wonder she's a bit nipped around the buds."

"Now this is odd," said Jimmy, holding up two envelopes. "I only remember one envelope from your Uncle Hiram, not two. That's funny. This is exactly what happened in the movie. The killer slipped in the second envelope into the wall safe just before the reading of the will. It named the next relative in line for the inheritance should Annabelle not last the night."

"Killer?" asked Billy Bounce. Glenore had given up on refilling his glass and just left the bottle of Jack Daniels with him. "What killer?"

"Well, in the movie, the lawyer Roger Crosby is murdered. It's his body that eventually winds up doing a pratfall from Annabelle's closet. So the movie turns into a whodunnit when that happens." Jimmy cleared his throat. "Umm...well. I'll figure this out soon enough. Zombos, where's the checklist I left you? I want to see if I recorded this second envelope twenty years ago."

"Over in the Irish tin bisquit box, by the bookcase there," pointed Zombos. Jimmy stood up, stretched, and walked over to the bookcase.

"The intertitles are lots of fun to read, too." I added. "Nice transitions are used for the text to create a spooky effect here and there. The opening title credits appear as a hand wipes away the cobwebs covering them. For a silent movie it all moves pretty briskly as Leni's gliding, ever inquisitive, camera keeps the mood gloomy and spooky, and us in the middle of the mystery. It's a testament to the film's novelty that it's been remade five times."

"Speaking of time, I say, Jimmy, did you find the checklist? Jimmy?" Zombos looked over to the bookcase. We followed his gaze. "Now where the deuce has he gotten to? Did anyone see him leave the room?

"I'll go check the closets," I said jokingly. No one laughed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Let's get ready to robot rumble!

What do you do with something like Alpha Video?

Alpha Video deals mostly in the z-grade public domain detritus of early film. They repackage wrecked prints of (often justifiably) obscure flicks, slap on some evocative cover art, and then clog the bargain bins of America's DVD retailers with the results. I have yet to see a silent flick from Alpha that wasn't transferred from some highly damaged print and matched with painfully modern and cheesy music. Furthermore, their marketing borders on the deceitful. I've been stung more than once by an AV copywriter who decided to pitch a melodrama as a horror or suspense film. They also have the annoying tendency make literally true, but somewhat misleading claims about, say, their films. If, for example, Bela Lugosi makes a cameo, you can be sure he'll get top billing on the cover.

That said, Alpha's often the only source for some of the more obscure silent era flicks. So little of the silent era is still with us. The unstable nature of the film medium, lackluster preservation standards, and popular disinterest means that, aside from a truly tiny percentage of films, most of film's earliest works are lost forever. Consequently, when we talk about the development of film, or a particular genre within film, we tend to make the record the fact and ignore all those data points we know existed, but are no longer present to us. The problem is that what we know is miniscule compared to what we don't. Of all the silent films ever made, experts estimate that only about 10% or 15% are still around. For horror fans, this includes the first two werewolf flicks (The Werewolf, 1913; The Wolf Man, 1924), the earliest adaptation of Dorian Gray, an adaptation of Balzac's trapped-alive tale La Grande Breteche, the first adaptation of Fantomas, another Golem film, a handful of haunted house flicks, and (most famously) Lon Chaney's London After Midnight. And that's just taking into account flicks we know we've lost. The unknown unknowns could include all manner of revelations.

The end result of this legacy of loss is a distorted sense of the roots of the art. We think, for example, that silent horror and fantasy consists of a handful of George Méliès films and, later, Nosferatu and Caligari.

In so much as any added glimpse of the era - especially films outside of those three or four flicks consistently revered by modern horror community - gives us a fuller picture of the past, it is something to be grateful for.

Ultimately, while I wish Alpha had better prints, I'm thankful they've got prints at all.

That includes the chopped up remains of The Mechanical Man, a French 1921 sci-fi action comedy directed by early auteur André Deed. MM is both a treat and a disappointment. Originally an 80+ minute flick, all that remains are a scant 17 minutes. This means that what remains is largely incomprehensible, even with a cheater title card up front that lets you know what the plot is. The upshot is that the titular robot is one of the earliest robots on film (beating Metropolis's Maria out the gate by a few years) and it features what's most likely the first robot vs. robot battle scene.

The story of The Mechanical Man is now only comprehensible through secondary sources. The plot involves an evil criminal mastermind (one of many female kingpins in silent cinema, it was a surprisingly common trope) who uses her gang to steal the plans for a giant mechanical remote control man. She takes her metal monster on a rampage at a opera house only to run into a second mechanical man, this one built to thwart her plans. Along the way there's a jailbreak, a murder, a faked death, and a gypsy. Though, with so much footage missing, it is no longer clear how all those elements fit in. Visually, the interest in The Mechanical Man (or what's left of it) is pretty much in the title character, the intriguing lead villainess, and a few well-performed stunts. It lacks a strong visual style and there's no evidence that, even in its entirety, it would rank up there with better known silent genre works.

Still, as a early example of sci-fi filmmaking, it merits attention. What I recommend is skipping to chapter 5 and just checking out the robot. Here's some action shots.

This chopped up flick is a sadly appropriate monument to tragic career of Deed. Though now largely forgotten, Deed's was briefly a major name in the French film industry. A comedic stage performer, Deed's got into the film biz in 1901, when the industry was just leaving its larval stage. He first gained fame as an actor, appearing in nearly 160 films. By 1905, he was an internationally famous actor. He jumped behind the director's chair in 1909, eventually helming 38 flicks. The last of these film was The Mechanical Man, which he also wrote. In 1915, his fame as a star waned and he started spending more time behind the camera. His last major role was in 1928. He had some small bits in flicks into the 1930s, but mostly he was washed up. He died broke and is now a footnote in French film history.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Link Proliferation: Bad reviews, jumping Frenchmen, zombie math equations, and more.

Does "It's Better If You Don't See the Monster" Really Count as a Scientific Hypothesis?

The Science Daily site runs a story on a test that links voluntary eye closing to an increase in the scariness of scary music.

Here's the science:

In her new study, Prof. Hendler found that the simple act of voluntarily closing one's eyes — instead of listening to music and sounds in the dark — can elicit more intense physical responses in the brain itself.

Prof. Hendler's research suggests that, when our eyes are closed, a region in our brain called the amygdala is fired up. The experience of scary music becomes more emotionally and physically intense. And the converse of the scary music effect may be true: happy music could produce a joyous effect when our eyes are shut as well.

Listening to sounds with our eyes closed seems to wire together a direct connection to the regions of our brains that process emotions, says Prof. Hendler. "Music is a relatively abstract emotional carrier," says Prof. Hendler. "It can easily take one's subjective personal experience and manipulate it. Our new findings, however, suggest that the effect is not only subjective. Using a functional MRI (fMRI), we can see that distinct changes in the brain are more pronounced when a person's eyes are not being used."

According to the article, volunteers in Hendler's lab were subject to "spooky Hitchcock-style music" though it doesn't specify what songs were used.

Before There Were Bloggers

Over at Quigley's Cabinet, there's a nifty post comparing the critical reception of Shelley's Frankenstein to Stoker's Dracula. Guess which one got panned and was dubbed a "tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities"?

Notably, Quigley points out that the critically drubbed book was an instant success while the well-received tome had to wait decades before popular opinion caught up.

Doing the Math, Zombie Style

Remember Robert "with a question mark" Smith?, the mathematician that showed that every hero ever depicted in a zombie movie is doing it wrong (hole up and aim for peaceful coexistence) and every kill-happy douchebag ever depicted in a zombie movie was doing it right (hit fast, often, and hard)?

For those who weren't here last time we covered this work of this oddly monikered mathematician, Smith? used analytical tools meant to predict the spread of diseases with latency periods to model zombie doomsday scenarios and formulate a response. The solution: Humans need to go on the offensive ASAP and press the attack until every zombie is dead. Smith? and co. call this strategy "impulsive eradication."

Though this flies in the face of just about every zombie work out there, a new article about Smith?'s theory drops the formula he used and some nice numbers.

Here's Smith?'s formula, where S = susceptible humans, Z = zombies, R = removed elements:

Get that? In plain English it states that, in a zombie crisis, if Z can be kept well under S, then a loop of zombies being removed rapidly depletes the value of Z. As Z approaches and surpasses S, the number of zombies grows rapidly and the number of humans shrinks faster and faster.

How fast? From the article:

If an infection breaks out in a city of 500,000 people, the zombies will outnumber the susceptibles in about three days.

So, as grimly as it plays in Romero's Night, the strategy that you should just arm every National Guardsman and redneck you can find and tell them to shoot every zombie they see is, mathematically speaking, the best strategy.


Over at the Fortean Times, there's a review of the new tome Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour.

This book is basic a giant compendium of large groups that freaked out in some way or other. The review includes a few nice entries from the dictionary:


Alabama: 21 September 1973

On 21 September 1973, 57 of 120 members of an Alabama marching band either fainted or felt ill shortly after performing at a high school football game. The incident occurred on a hot, humid evening after band members had travelled 100 miles (160km) to reach the away game. The game was particularly exciting as the favoured visiting team lost 7–6. The band successfully performed their seven-minute half-time routine, remaining on the field in a kneeling position while their counter­parts from the rival school performed. When the rivals’ drill was completed, the visiting band briefly stood to attention, marched to the grandstand, and were seated, when without warning a girl fainted. Over the next 10 minutes, five other girls suffered a similar fate. During the following 20 minutes, the girls rested on benches and several were sent to the hospital. During this period, many more band members reported feeling sick. Many of those affected seemed to be over-breathing, felt a tingling sensation in the limbs, and developed a choking sens­ation. Some also reported stomach pain or cramps, dizziness, nausea, and weakness. 

CONTEXT During an exciting football game, a group of musicians in a marching band were apparently dressed too heavily for the warm weather conditions. This appears to have triggered minor dizziness and fainting, which in turn generated extreme anxiety in other band members who subsequently succumbed to mass hysteria.

A second wave of symptoms occurred as band members were boarding buses after the game. Over the next three days, 10 more girls were stricken, with five experiencing relapses. Tests ruled out food poisoning. Heat stroke was also eliminated as the cardinal symptom, and fever was absent. While heat may have played a minor role, according to Dr Richard Levine of the United States Public Health Service who investigated the episode, mass psychogenic illness was the primary culprit. Levine states that “the discipline of a precis­ion marching drill, the discomfort of wearing heavy clothes in a hot environment, the excitement and disappointment at losing a close game – suggests that the setting… was appropriately tense for mass hysteria to occur.”


Dolagobind Hamlet, Orissa, India: July–August 2004

Between July and August 2004, at least a dozen schoolgirls began to exhibit fainting spells. Upon regaining consciousness, they would behave like cats, meowing, walking on all fours, and clawing at their faces. The school, in the remote hamlet of Dolagobind in Orissa, India, was temporarily closed. The first sign that something was amiss was on 26 July, when Sasmita Mohapatra, a Class 10 student, fainted during prayers. Later that day, two more students fainted in a similar manner, only to regain their senses and start acting like cats. On other occasions, they would act like cats and then faint. School headmistress Manjubala Pande told journalists that the following day “some six–seven girls started crying, fell down on the floor making sounds like those of a cat. We immediately informed others in the vill­age but after the faintings and behaviour repeated, we were forced to shut the school.” The girls were between the ages of six and 12. Each of the school’s 75 students, including the affected girls, were then taken to a nearby hermitage where they were told to recite Vedic mantras in hopes of ridding them of the evil spirits. Other cleansing rituals were also being organised. Similar outbreaks were reported at other area schools. Pande told the Indian News Agency: “They get normal after a few hours.”

CONTEXT Possession states are a form of psychological defence mechanism against pent-up stress and reflect cultural beliefs. In modern India, cats are symbols of bad luck. In some places they are believed to be the incarnation of witches.

Soon after the strange outbreaks at Dolagobind Girls’ School, other schools within the region reported mass outbreaks of fainting, though there were no specific descriptions of meowing or other cat-like behaviour. Other outbreaks were reported at schools in the Oupada section. Over a two-day period, no fewer than 20 students from a variety of classes lost consciousness. Some were taken to the Iswarpur Primary Health Centre after complaining of nausea and vomiting, but were examined and soon released. Panic swept through the school – and the region – amid rumours that the same evil ghost or ghosts responsible for the closing of Dolagobind Girls’ School the previous month were at work again.


Mhondoro, Zimbabwe: June and July 2002

In July 2002, a phantom goblin scare swept through the St Mark’s Secondary School in Mhondoro, Zimbabwe. The headmaster of the school, which is operated by the Anglican Church, reportedly fled the school and was hiding out amid claims by parents that he was in control of tiny creatures who were sexually harassing both girls and female teachers. Commotion surrounding the hysteria forced the school’s temporary closure. The community was in an uproar over the accusations and angry parents were turning up at the school, demanding to see the headmaster.

Several students and teachers told journalists that they had also been beaten by “invisible objects”. In all, at least 30 stud­ents said they had been attacked. One teacher, who did not want to be identi­fied for fear of being victimised, said that some of the students were possessed by evil spirits: “I witnessed one incident when a student went into a trance… He was demanding meat, threatening that after finishing with the students, the spirits would attack the teachers next. We are living in fear here.” The outbreak coincided with mid-term exams.

The strange turn of events left the school’s assistant headmaster in the “hot seat”, having to deal with the community. Somewhat “shell-shocked”, he was reportedly referring inquiries to the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. He also insisted that his name not be published in the newspapers, citing Public Services regulations. In trying to put on a “brave face”, he was quoted as saying: “Everything is now back to normal and I understand lessons have resumed.” Despite the reassurance, his words did not seem to be taken seriously and the situation seemed to be far from normal.

The first signs of trouble began six weeks earlier when some students claimed that “mysterious beings” were harassing them in their hostels at night. The creatures were known as zvikwambo and mubobobo in Shona, and tokoloshe in Zulu. According to one student: “About 30 students have been victims of the attacks and we can’t bear spending another night at this haunted place... A friend of mine was bitten on the arm after she wrestled with a ghost which wanted to sleep with her.”

Several of the school’s female teachers were said to be thinking about quitt­ing their jobs. Just like their students, the teachers said they were being sexually assaulted at night by strange creat­ures. A statement issued by some of the teachers read in part: “Sometimes we get up in the morning to find the bedd­ing mysteriously wet and we suspect foul play.”


Maine, USA: 18th /19th centuries 

The phrase “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine” refers to a famous condition in the annals of neurology and cross-cultural psychiatry, the origin of which remains contentious. In the north-eastern United States, along the northern fringe of Maine and New Hampshire, and in the adjacent Canadian province of Quebec, small pockets of people, especially in isolated communities and lumberjack camps, exhibit dramatic responses when suddenly startled. These include a combination of jumping, screaming, swearing, flailing out and striking bystanders, and throwing objects that may be in their hands. The most extraordinary feature of these displays is “automatic obedience” – briefly doing whatever they are told. “Jumping” is (or was) especially prominent among residents of French-Canadian heritage, and in Maine, hence their nickname the “Jumping Frenchmen” of Maine. There are two main theories to account for “jumping”. Some consider it a nervous disorder of probable genetic origin; others interpret the condition as a social phenomenon. 

CONTEXT The “Jumping Frenchmen” phenomenon was unique in the context of the environment of isolated logging communities in the north-eastern United States and Canada during the 18th and 19th centuries, and may have originated as a formalised response to “the kicking horse game”. 

The “Jumping Frenchmen” first gained public attention in 1878, when promin­ent New York neurologist George Beard boarded a train to the Moosehead Lake region of Maine to see the phenomenon first-hand and wrote up his observations in an 1880 edition of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. He encountered numerous “jumpers”. One 27-year-old man sat in a chair while holding a knife that he was about to use to cut tobacco. Sudd­enly he was struck hard on the shoulder and ordered to “throw it”. The knife flew from his hand and struck a beam. He again forcefully commanded the man to “throw it”. Beard wrote: “He threw the tobacco and the pipe on the grass at least a rod [16ft 6in/5m] away with the same cry and the same suddenness and explosiveness of movement.” Beard noted that the condition appeared to run in the family, began in childhood, lasted a lifetime, and was rare in women. Beard described the jumpers as physic­ally and mentally strong. He speculated that jumping was caused by temporary degeneration from exposure to their rustic environment, but made no conclus­ions about racial heredity, or a diminished capacity to make rational judgments.

Interest in “jumping” was rekindled in the 1960s and led to a debate as to whether it was a disorder or habit. Reuben Rabinovitch, a Canadian neurologist, wrote in 1965 about his childhood experience with “jumping”. He said that while growing up in Quebec, the exaggerated reflex was common to all of the children in his village. Each spring, lumberjacks came out of the woods and set up camp nearby, sharing their food, music, and entertainment. In this way, Rabinovitch was exposed to “the horse kicking game”, in which children snuck up on their victim and suddenly poked them while making the neighing sound of a horse. The “victim” then jumped up in the air and flailed out while blurting out a horse cry. A vital part of logging camps, the horses were often temperamental, and the lumberjacks could be badly hurt from being kicked when entering a stall. Typically, one lumberjack would sneak into the stall next to his intended victim’s horse and wait. When the victim arrived, the prankster would “reach over and sudd­enly and violently poke his victim and give vent to the loud neighing cry of an enraged horse. This would most often frighten the victim into jumping away from what he thought was his own horse about to kick him.” Dr Rabinovich’s anecdote sugg­ests that social and cultural factors were import­ant in the development of “jumping”.

Dr E Charles Kunkle, a Maine neuro­logist, also emphasised the influence of learned roles in analysing the game reported by Rabinovitch, noting that this game involved subjects who, when start­led, were “expected to produce a formalized response of jumping violently, flailing out, and shouting angrily, often imitating the cry of a kicking horse”. Kunkle felt that this represented a “socially condit­ioned reflex, reinforced by example and by repeated stimulat­ion” and a “part of regional folklore”. As a physician, he was able to talk to and examine 15 jumpers. Kunkle said that jumping seemed to develop and flourish in “relatively closed and unsophisticated communities and in entirely masculine work groups”. 

In 1986, two Canadian neurologists, Marie-Helene Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Marc Sainte-Hilaire, and psychologist Luc Granger, published their study of eight jumpers in the region of Beauce, Quebec, where men traditionally worked as lumber­jacks across the border in Maine. In six of those examined, the symptoms began with their work as lumberjacks. One man, when startled, “would run, swear, throw an object he was holding, strike at bystanders, or obey commands”. He said that one time he “jumped from a height of 10ft (3m) after a sudden command”. The researchers noted that all eight subjects would scream, most would throw an object in their hand or strike out, and half briefly obeyed commands shouted at them immediately after being startled, such as “jump”, “run”, or “dance”.

Is “jumping” nature or nurture? Some scientists believe these symptoms occur in rare individuals suffering from a dysfunct­ion of the human startle response known as hyperstartle, with local culture shaping the response. Others think it is more common and akin to a regional habit. It appears that “jumping” resulted from a set of social conditions that may be related to other examples of hyperstartle. There is probably a genetic predisposit­ion to excessive startle in the general population, but this does not explain the prevalence of “jumping” in isolated Maine commun­ities. While certain medical condit­ions can cause excessive startle, jumpers have no known conditions, suggesting a social and cultural linkage. Rabinovitch suggested that as lumberjacks were confined to the northern woods from autumn to spring, they invented distractions in their isolation and boredom involving the only contacts available, men and horses. The jumping syndrome then grew out of the lumber camps and moved to surrounding towns and vill­ages. “Jumping” appeared to die out with the passing of the traditional logging camp. Tractors replaced horses, lumberjacks became less isolated, and the incidence of “jumping” declined. Experts have noted that even severe “jumpers” lost their exaggerated responses as they were removed from the continual stimuli, which suggests an origin in operant conditioning in a closed community. According to the principles of operant condit­ioning, acts that are reinforced tend to be repeated, while those that are not tend to diminish in frequency. 

COMMENTS: A plausible explanation for “jumping” is that it began as a local idiom that became institutionalised among a select group of people. If logging camp inhabitants lived with the knowledge that they might be surprised by a sudden “poke”, and exaggerated startle was the expected response, then this conditioned social reflex became a normal part of social intercourse.


Laredo, Texas: 1993 

In early March 1993, a newspaper hoax created excitement in Laredo, Texas (population 130,000), after the Morning Times of Laredo published a bogus account of a giant 300lb (136kg) earthworm measuring 79ft (24m) in length. The creature was reportedly found dead, draped across Interstate 35, tying up traffic. 

CONTEXT The incident highlights the influence of the mass media in the information age, and how susceptible society is to journalistic hoaxes. 

According to the story, entomologist Luis Leacky from Laredo State University had located a mucus trail along the Interstate, speculating that the creature had mutated from the nearby Rio Grande. Laredo police and US Border Patrol officers reportedly converged on the scene in rubber gloves, removing the mammoth worm with the help of two cranes and a large truck.

Local police were deluged with hundreds of calls from inquisitive residents as scores of people drove to the scene to glimpse the fictitious worm after the journalist who wrote the story, Carol Huang, wrote: “Because federal environmental guidelines do not outline the proper disposal method for large earthworm carcasses... authorities have left the creature in the Target store parking lot until Monday, when zoologists and EPA officials are expected to arrive from Washington.” Even before the store opened, a Target worker said that curiosity seekers kept asking if the worm carcass was inside the building. 

Huang, who was dismissed from her job the same day, said she wrote the account on her computer as a joke but was flabbergasted to see it appear on page 3A several days later. The news editor who allowed the story to appear, Thomas Sanchez, left his job shortly after the incident, but said the account ran “by accident”.


Ecuador: February 1949 

On the night of 12 February, a radio play based on HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds sparked pandemonium in Ecuador. A reporter on the scene said the broadcast “drove most of the population of Quito into the streets” as panic-stricken residents sought to escape Martian “gas raids”. The drama described strange creat­ures heading toward Quito after landing and destroying the neighbouring commun­ity of Latacunga, 20 miles (32km) to the south. Broadcast in Spanish on Radio Quito, the realistic programme included impersonat­ions of well-known local politicians, journalists, vivid eyewitness descriptions, and the name of the local town of Cotocallao. In Quito, rioting broke out and an enraged mob marched on the building housing the radio station and Ecuador’s leading newspaper, El Comercio. Rampaging mob members blocked the entrance to the building, hurling stones and smashing windows. Some occupants escaped from a rear door; others ran to the third floor. Groups poured gasoline onto the building and hurled flaming wads of paper, sett­ing fires in several locations, trapping dozens inside and forcing them to the third storey. As the flames reached them, the occupants began leaping from windows and forming human chains in a desperate bid to reach safety. Some of the “chains” broke, plunging terrified occupants to their deaths. Twenty people were killed and 15 injured. Soldiers were mobilised to restore order, rolling through the streets in tanks and firing tear gas canisters to break up the demonstrators and allow fire engines through. Damage to the news­paper building was estimated at 50,000. Help was slow to arrive, as most mobile police units had been dispatched to Cotocallao to repel the “Mart­ians”, leaving Quito with a skeleton police and military presence. 

The tragic events began with the sudden interruption of a regular music programme with a special bulletin – “Here is urgent news” – followed by reports of the invading Martians in the form of a cloud, wreaking havoc and destruct­ion while closing in on the city. “The air base of Marisal Sucre has been taken by the enemy and it is being destroyed. There are many dead and wounded,” the announcer said. A voice resembling that of a government minister appealed for calm so the city’s defences could be organised and citizens evacuated in time. Next, the “Mayor” arrived and made a dramatic announcement: “People of Quito, let us defend our city. Our women and children must go out into the surrounding heights to leave the men free for action and combat.” At this point, a priest’s voice could be heard asking for divine forgiveness, followed by a recording of church bells sounding alarms throughout Quito. Positioned atop the city’s tallest building, La Previsora tower, an announcer said he could discern a monster engulfed in plumes of fire and smoke, advancing on Quito from the north. It was at this point, according to a New York Times reporter, that citizens “began fleeing from their homes and runn­ing through the streets. Many were clad only in night clothing.” The panic was not limited to Quito. In some parts of the country, hundreds of terrified Ecuadorians fled into the mountains to avoid capture, believing, according to the radio, that the Martians had already taken over much of the country. 

COMMENTS The rioting, murder and public unrest is the most extreme reaction to a War of the Worlds radio recreation, exceeding even the original 1938 episode.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Music: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang

There are two routes to genre innovation. First, you can cargo cult it. Take the thing you dig and try to recreate it with the elements you have on hand. Second, you can take the object of your obsession back to first principles and see if, through a bit of aesthetic husbandry, you can grow something similar from the same seeds.

Both of these routes necessarily lead to some sort of innovation. Cultural context is one of Heraclitus's rivers and, even if the intention was for some complete copy, the result is always some mutant offspring. Neither guarantees quality. Like the products of actual cargo cults, standing on the shoulders of giants too often justifies stunted development. The results can be shallow and redundant. On the other hand, attempting to go back to first principles requires a certain amount of hubris that you 1) can not only puzzle out the necessary elements, but also 2) have the necessary talent to transform those elements in something vital and new. Tons of Brit bands were exposed to the same influences as the Beatles. And, yet, only one of them became the Fab Four. There's also a danger that you fall into this obsessive "prior art" trap. Searching for the magic origin story of an artistic accomplishment can turn into a snobbish prejudice towards source material. It is a valid observation that Anthony Newley influenced David Bowie; the conclusion that Anthony Newley must, therefore, be better than David Bowie does not follow. Down that path lies a sort of sterile, dogmatic traditionalism.

Though neither of these routes is really any more guaranteed of success, it seems to me that cargo cults are more common. A cargo cult take less investment. It better fits the faddish way in which we consume music. And it is a young artist's answer to the problem of developing roots in a biz that gives you just a few short years to find your identity. (What more efficient way for a singer/songwriter to project an entire backstory. political outlook, and fan expectation framework than slipping small bursts of DiFranco hiccough laughter in between the songs in her set?)

Consequently, though they are not necessarily better bands, I think relative scarcity gives artists who try to assemble works derived from first principles gives them an added element of curiosity. One wants to see them if only because they aren't something you see everyday.

Groups peddling a fusion of psychobilly Americana and goth glam are a dime a dozen. What makes Miss Derringer, a shifting quintet build around the core duo of foxy vox Liz McGrath and guitarist Morgan Slade, is their precise, tight sound (these guys ain't another sloppy Cramps rip). I also feel they've got a genuine affection for the roots of the music they play. MD doesn't just dig psychobilly and and its rocka- ancestors, their sound has a grim, lean country and blue undercurrent.

The Betty-Boop-by-way-of-Suicide-Girls (with a hint, just a hint, of Cyndi Lauper) charm of the charismatic McGrath doesn't hurt none either.

Here's them doing "Click, Click, Bang, Bang" live. It's off Winter Hill, their new long player.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

House of Silent Scream: "The Original Vamps: Silent but Deadly"

Tove is the coolest person I know.

She writes articles on fashion history and culture on her own blog, Thread for Thought, but is just as comfortable discussing what makes the sleazy Brit serial killer pic "10 Rillington Place" so pleasingly cynical. She's just as insightful about the 1936 Soviet anti-American propaganda comedy musical "Circus" as she is about the work of John Waters.

Plus, she allegedly made out with a one-legged French sailor once. Allegedly.

All this meant that, when I decided I was going to look for voices outside the horror blog world to include in this series, she was immediately on the short list of people to ask. I'm very happy she could contribute and very excited to introduce her on ANTSS.

Occasionally fancying myself an exotic woman of mystery too, I have a special place in my heart for that early 20th century icon, The Vamp. When my friend suggested I write about them, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit some silent films when this aesthetic was solidified in concept and look.


Though Theda Bara (1890 – 1955) enshrouded her adult life in mystery, she was born plain old Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, OH. Hollywood producers gave her the anagram of “Arab death,” on the one hand cultivating her image of smoky, exotic sensualism -- claiming she lit incense on her sets and swathed herself in tiger pelts -- and on the other hand, hyping the macabre and frightening side of her.

The vamp image, incorporating the requisite sex and death themes.

Most recognize the term "vamp" to mean a femme fatale -- an irresistible woman who leads to the destruction of those who surround her, typically men. But the term was initially coined only after the success of Theda Bara's single surviving film, A Fool There Was (1915), in which her gleefully man-destroying character is listed in the credits simply as “The Vampire.” Based on Rudyard Kipling's poem The Vampire (1897) and Sir Edward Burne-Jones' painting of the same name (1897); the visual inspiration is obvious:

Sir Edward Burne-Jones's "The Vampire"

In A Fool There Was, The Vampire is seen in her nightgown several times, casting a spectral quality over her. Opaque and voluminous, they are not lingerie we are accustomed to today, but were risqué for the time, obviously derived from Burne-Jones's sex-laden picture.

The Vampire grinning over her dead lover.

The Vampire grinning over her dead lover.

When wearing outerwear, The Vampire wore the amusingly impractical (and thankfully short-lived) hobble skirt, topped with exotic turbans and heavily kohled eyes. To seduce her victim she drops a flower and lifts her skirt to reveal her ankle -- she is unashamed to show blatantly erotic skin.

What differentiated Theda from other actresses of her time was her other-worldliness, which she cultivated with her Oriental aesthetics. The horror genre is filled with tales of distant or remote lands; the audience's presumed unfamiliarity with the locale makes the fantastic tales slightly more plausible; the storyteller prays on the public's inherent mistrust and simultaneous attraction to the exotic, The Other. Though the most exotic location in A Fool There Was was Italy (puzzingly portrayed as a palm tree paradise more suggestive of the Far East), The Vampire produces a non-specific and highly erotic exoticism. Not a tremendous actor, it was largely Theda's unusual costumes and makeup on and off-screen that enshrouded her in Oriental mystique and secured her notoriety.

Theda Bara in hobble skirt and turban ensemble

Theda Bara in hobble skirt and turban ensemble

Promises of harem girls with all the connotations of master / slave dynamics and orgies have been irrevocably linked to soft, sheer, feminine fabrics that simultaneously cover and reveal forbidden flesh (see my post on Innerwear as Outerwear on this subject). Seemingly anticipating the Egyptian madness that occurred after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Far East captivated the imagination of the Western world. Designer Paul Poiret (1879 - 1944) made his mark on the fashion world by morphing the 19th century S-shape silhouette into un-corseted, athletic figures, and he incorporated many lose-fitting, Oriental-inspired designs to this end including harem pants, “formal” silk pajamas, and turbans. Poiret designed extravagant costumes for stage productions, hosted legendary Arabian-themed costume parties, his fondness for theatrical-scale dress-up evident in the fashions he produced for general consumption.

Paul Poiret, harem ensemble, 1911

Paul Poiret, harem ensemble, 1911

Even earlier was Emilienne d’Alençon (1869 – 1946) who performed at the Folies Bergères in the 1890s (with trained rabbits!) and was just as famous a courtesan, who wore an Art Nouveau inspired Salome costumes:

The Ballet Russes' performance of “Schéhérazade” in 1910 was enormously successful, due in large part to the extravagant costumes of vague eastern inspiration:

Ida Rubinstein in Ballet Russe Scheherazade, 1910

Ida Rubinstein in Ballet Russe "Scheherazade," 1910

Erte, who worked with Poiret and with whom I am obsessed, was yet another costume designer who marketed sensual Oriental decadence for lavish stage productions.

Erte Fashion Sketch with turban and harem pants

Erte Fashion Sketch with turban and harem pants

Mata Hari (1876 – 1917), the exotic Orientalist dancer of Dutch descent who posed as princess from Java while acting as courtesan and spy, was executed by firing squad just 2 years after A Fool There Was. Rumor has it that she blew a kiss to her executioners.

Mata Hari

Similar to our Theda Bara, non?

Theda Bara publicity shot for Cleopatra

Theda Bara publicity shot for Cleopatra (1917)

Theda tapped into a cultural obsession with styles of the Far East, while exploiting the unease and xenophobia that often accompanies our regard of The Other, rolling it all into a destructive, man-eating "vampire" character. The Vamp concept was to evolve, though never to shake the ruinous qualities Theda imbued in her.


As Theda's star waned, a new Vamp talent stepped up: Louise Brooks (1906 - 1985). If Theda was the vaguely ancient, exotic vamp, Louise was her modern flapper vamp successor. As women's rights gained momentum in America, a powerful new woman emerged, wearing visible makeup as she walked to the voting polls, smoking and drinking and dancing in shift dresses that bared shins! Even as many women embraced this freedom, societal concerns of propriety remained and moralist detractors prophesized of hedonistic anarchy. Dress also changed radically in the nineteen-teens, with fewer layers that a woman could slip into (and out of!), exposing more skin than ever. And so Louise Brooks was a very different looking vamp from Theda, even while her characters carried the torch of man destroyer.

Louise Brooks, 1928

Louise Brooks, 1928

Pandora's Box (1929) was adapted from 2 erotic plays written in the 1890s by Frank Wedekind, but updated to modern times. As many young women cut their cumbersome long hair, Brooks as the Lulu character sports her own iconic, modern bob and wears clothes un-constrictive enough that she can do light gymnastics (like swing from a strongman's biceps), hinting at the newly acceptable athleticism for women (see my post on Athletic Aesthetics). The erotic zones had shifted and multiplied since Theda Bara’s time, moving from the ankle to the shoulders, back, legs, and breasts which were often displayed braless.

Lulu appears practically naked in this Y backstrap dress.

Having become a somewhat accidental murderess, Lulu goes into hiding and curls the famous hair, sweeping it off her forehead. Ridiculous as it sounds, Brooks' hairstyle was so recognizable that this shoddy disguise actually succeeds in confusing the audience a little, though Lulu is discovered anyway.

Lulu is a dangerous vamp not because she's dark, controlling and malicious, but because she's a beautiful young woman whose very power is derived from her lack of pretension and seeming ignorance of her own sexual potency, her delicious un-self-conciousness. One-upping Bara's Vampire, Lulu was a double threat desired by both men and women, so potent was her sexual power. The Pandora of the Greek myth was not an inherently evil woman, just one whose curiosity got the better of her, with unfortunately dire consequences. Lulu is not even interested in money or advancing her social status -- she shows equal preference for newspaper moguls and paupers, all of whom are trying to exploit her. However, she shares with other vamps her unrepentantance for acts that inconvenience or even destroy others and herself -- they are all animalistic, with no regrets.

She’s an unusual vamp fatale because she doesn’t have malicious intent. “Money, they all want money!” she complains of her blackmailers and suiters alike. She's not a gold-digger, she's simply a careless and carefree pleasure-seeker -- exactly what conservatives feared about real-life flappers and, by extension, the women's movement.


Since these early 20th century beginnings, the vamp has been resurrected in film and fashion many times. Blood sucking, literal and figurative, has unavoidably sexual connotations, and fetish gear has both influenced and been influenced by vamp(ire) lore. Fashion photographer Helmut Newton channels the sexy and macabre themes of bondage and female sexual power regularly. Even as women expose themselves in his photos, they seem to retain absolute authority over their settings:

Helmut Newton photo, c. 1990s

Helmut Newton photo, c. 1990s

Impulse control is often explored in times of economic or political turmoil. True to point, there has been a rash of vampire productions recently including Twilight and the True Blood HBO series, but truth be told, I much prefer the original vamps!

Further Reading:

  • Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, Rebecca Arnold
  • Fashion Fetishism, David Kunzle
  • Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power, Valerie Steele
  • Seduction: A Celebration of Sensual Style, Caroline Cox
  • The Girl in the Black Helmut,” Kenneth Tynan