pretty pretty #2

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons there is this whole thing about precious jewels and the pull, comparable to madness, that they have on people. The rocks in this story are a giant pile of emeralds and I will always remember the ending, where one of the characters gets to keep a single emerald as a sort of kindness on Poirot’s part and there is a great line about how all sorts of jewels are beautiful, but emeralds suit her the most, because green is the colour of magic. :B And it totally is. Green is also associated with water in western culture, especially deep, mysterious water. It is not a coincidence that the Hollywood remake of Dark Water is full of a murky, sickly, dangerous green:

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Incidentally, both the original Japanese and re-made Hollywood versions of Dark Water are great movies, and amazing haunted house stories. Really atmospheric and gloomy and sad.

In the early years of the 19th century, green was dangerous, because green paint mixtures  and green dyes were made using arsenic as a main ingredient, which provided the paint with a rich, emerald colour, but then also provided people with death. Green is obviously no longer the silent killer it once was, so thankfully for all of us, we can now enjoy the following photos in the privacy of our own homes and underwear, even if our houses don’t look like this themselves.

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superstitions, compulsions and unfinished business

While I was cleaning the bathroom the other day, I came across at least three spiders, and instead of just spraying them with water and letting them swirl away down the drain like any normal person, I left them and cleaned around them, all because of that superstition that says it’s bad luck to kill a spider inside your house. They’re meant to be like house guardians. I don’t even know the actual wording of the superstition!!! And yet, I still allowed it to control me.

Then two nights ago, I was about to go to bed, when I saw a thick spider on the wall. Normally the spiders I come across are just Daddy Long-legs, and I leave them to roam about the house as they wish, but this juicy, squat specimen had to go. What if it crawled in my ear during the night and laid eggs? What if pushed it’s way into my mouth and I swallowed it and added to this statistic? No, it had to go. I squashed it with a slipper. A painless death, but a death all the same. Will I now be haunted by seven years of bad luck? Will horrible things keep happening to me, until I can atone for the sin of killing a spider inside my own house?

The weird thing is, it was harder to kill that spider, than it was to decide to leave the other three Daddy Long-legs while I was cleaning. The compulsion to obey this vague superstition, this curse, was too strong, so when I killed the thick spider, it felt like I was breaking out of chains. I felt a vague and ridiculous thrill at not doing what I was told, which just added to the danger and the sense of validity surrounding the superstition itself. This is a pretty personal post I guess, because it’s not something I talk about usually, but there are so many things that have this compulsive hold over me, and while I do manage to keep it all under control most of the time, when I do slip up, it’s like the house decides to enslave me.

Do you ever have really weird and morbid thoughts? Maybe something makes you think of funerals and you imagine a friend or family member dying, and then imagine the funeral in unwanted detail and obviously the thought of that is horrible and maybe makes you really anxious, but you can’t stop? Or you’re walking along outside and you see a rusty nail on the pavement and you imagine stepping on it and having it carve it’s way through your entire foot? And you don’t want to be imagining these things, but there is nothing you can do to make your brain just chill out and stop producing anxiety when there really is no rational reason for it. Well, I have lots of morbid thoughts at really random times and I hate them. Now that I’m older, I can more easily decide to think about something else, but while I can consciously think other, more diverting thoughts, I am still aware of the morbid ones lurking just below the top layer of my mind. It feels like I am merely sitting on them and squashing them underneath a heavy wooden board, but then I feel them squirming beneath and know with terrible certainty that they will eventually be able to toss me aside and take over again.

Sometimes, the only thing that makes it better is touching a piece of wood (another superstition), or if I’m at home, and the morbid thoughts happen to involve someone breaking in perhaps, or something burning on the stove and setting the entire house on fire, then the only thing that helps get rid of the anxiety these stupid thoughts cause is giving in to the compulsion that wants me to regulate the parts of the house that are involved in them. So, it wants me to check and re-check and re-re-check that the front door is locked, and that all the burners on the stove are off, to turn the lights in a room on and off, on and off, so that I am sure that there is nothing that’s creating a fire hazard, or a choking hazard for our dog, even though I can see after the first check that there is nothing. Nooooottthiiiingggggg.

Now that I’m out of adolescence, I am able to disobey these compulsions much more easily, some of the time without any anxiety at all, but when I was younger, it wasn’t so easy. It still elicits a peculiar set of emotions though. It feels deeply ridiculous to be walking up and down the hallway while checking that the door is locked, because you know that it’s fucking locked, and it feels comforting to know that you are doing something to prevent catastrophe, and shameful that you’re giving in to this irrational demon on your shoulder, and also hopeful that the scribble of anxiety in your gut might lessen a bit, if you just stay obedient and do what your brain is telling you to do, while all the while knowing that you need to stop, and that you’re going to stop right now or you’ll never be able to keep on top of this. It makes you feel like you’re both in control, and very deeply out of control, all at the same time.

There is a kind of ritualistic aspect to it too. You find yourself feeling like a ghost, repeating the same movements over and over again, touching the same objects over and over again, interacting with the same parts of your house over and over again. It’s no wonder that ghosts or hauntings in stories get fixated on certain rooms or certain areas of their house. Those ghosts that always walk down the same staircase, the ones that always open and close the same cupboard doors, the ones that only make their stomping footsteps heard in certain hallways, they’re all feeling the compulsion of unfinished business, and they’re giving into it. It’s actually deeply sad. They’re trying so hard to do this one thing, because they think something good will happen if they finally do it right, that they’ll finally be able to leave, without realising that they could just let go, disobey, and float away in freedom to whatever place of peace awaits them. :[

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Happy Halloween! In honour of this occasion, here are some vintage photos of ~ghosts and hauntings.

The Lord Combermere Photo, 1891 – The figure visible in the chair on the left is reputed to be the ghost of old Lord Combermere of Combermere Abbey. You can read more about him and this photo here.

Henri Robin and a Specter, 1863 – Henri Robin was a 19th century French Illusionist who sought to disprove the Spiritualist beliefs popular at the time. He admitted to using two-way mirrors to make “spirits” appear, and the photograph above is a staged promotional image for one of his shows.

This photo is one of the many “spirit photographs” taken by a controversial early 20th century medium and Spiritualist called William Hope. Although he was outed as a fraud and his photographs proved to be hoaxes by a man called Harry Price, Hope continued to practice and publish his spirit photography even after being exposed. One of his most famous supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Wem Fire Apparition, 1995 – This photo of a ghostly girl looking on from a raging fire was taken at Wem Town Hall (Shropshire, England) in 1995, by photographer Tony O’Rahilly. No one remembers seeing her there. It is believed that she is the spirit of a young girl who died in a similar fire at the town hall in 1677. However, I have just now seen a Daily Mail article that claims this photo is a clear hoax.

spooky halloween stories

This Halloween eve, please enjoy one of the creepiest stories you are ever likely to read – The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins.

“I don’t like to look out of the windows even – there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.”

D:

Also! The Gutenberg Project is such an awesome resource, so here is a link to another fun haunted house story, The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins.

~enjoy~

new haunted houses

I watched Paranormal Activity 4 over the weekend and while it was fun to watch, it was definitely the weakest of the series. I don’t think anything can top the first movie, but the second and third were both great in their own right and both contained some really clever ways of frightening the audience and creating tension.

Number 4 though, kinda fell flat. I liked that they evolved to the point where instead of just cameras, the action happened through more contemporary technology like the Kinect sensors as well as Skype and webcams etc. There were a couple of eerie moments like “Katie” reappearing in the weirdo house across the street as well as suddenly appearing in the Kinect sensors. Also I thought this scene was very creepy, especially because it was so calm and subdued:

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The greatest frightening moments, in terms of creating a feeling of tension and dread was definitely the kitchen knife disappearing haha.

I felt like they had some really cool ideas, but they didn’t really follow through on anything. I kept expecting some of the devices they used to actually amount to something, but everything sort of coasted along at the same level of tension and atmosphere, until the end, which was exactly like the ending of Paranormal Activity 3 in terms of action and was therefore quite boring and unsatisfying. Like… the cat had no purpose, the cool “garage door open” automatic voice was never used properly, the opening and the shutting of the fridge came to nothing (I would have even preferred the standard horror movie trick of the scary thing appearing suddenly behind the closing door), the Kinect sensors were only used a couple of times in quite tame ways and probably most important of all, the two lead characters eventually stopped checking their recorded footage.

I think part of the success of the first three movies, especially the first, was that the characters, even while perhaps being skeptics in the beginning, had no choice but to believe and be frightened through watching the recorded proof of the events happening to them the morning after. There is just something so creepy about that idea. In 4, this was used only a couple of times, most notably when the creepy kid walks into the main character’s room as she is sleeping and falls asleep next to her, which she watches and gets weirded out by the next day. However, the rest of the time, no one really listens to anyone, especially the parents, and as a result, the creepy things that happen to them are not really that frightening to watch because their reactions are so skeptical right to the end. I liked the relationship between Alex and Ben for that reason, because it was mostly quite natural and they discussed the unexplainable events happening around them and on their recordings, even if they did nothing much about them.

Like remember the amazing use of the rotating camera in Paranormal Activity 3??

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Even without the funny and shocking addition of the sheet thing, it just created SO MUCH TENSION. Like I definitely watched through my fingers because it was almost unbearable.

And the awesome and creepy Poltergeist-like goings on in the kitchen of Paranormal Activity 2:

And not to mention the titan of these movies, Paranormal Activity The First, with the horrifying stomping noises, and the staring scenes, which were the first time in a very long time I had felt completely unnerved and legitimately frightened by a horror movie:

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I love that all four of the movies rely on using the horror of the unseen to such great effect (and the first two movies also use sound very effectively as well), however number 4 really did feel like it was just one big tease. I can kind of see that they thought they’d maybe push their luck and see how much they can stretch these moments of “nothingness” out, but it didn’t really work. Most of it was just too mundane to reach the breathless eeriness of the earlier films (especially the ending).

However I still really love the contemporary houses and contemporary technology used for these films. While I am a very huge fan of the classic haunted house story, with gothic mansions and mists and mysterious scratching in the walls and other crap, until this series of films, I had never felt the necessity of the haunted house story being updated for modern times. I think that horrible feeling of invasion and wrongness is heightened when set in a space that more people can identify with, rather than some beautiful gargoyle mansion or a lovely old house like in the Amityville Horror. I think the mundane, suburban nature of the houses in the Paranormal Activity series worked really well. I think I’ve said this before but I like that they don’t seem like film sets, but actual houses where someone lives, with cushions and socks and blankets strewn about, and the lack of any curated use of colour or decor. The first movie was filmed in the director’s own house, and although I am too lazy at this moment to google whether the rest were filmed in real houses also, it is enough that they feel that way.

Obviously the houses are only relatable to most people because of their contemporary contents and their banal architecture, not because many people share the same kind of lifestyle, since these characters are all obviously rich. So I kept wondering what a haunted house movie would look like, and how it would function, in a small, less cavernous, less affluent house, and if you could create the same kind of feeling of being hunted down in your own home, with less room to play with.

top 5 haunted houses in fiction (imo)

Apparently we have a ghost in the house. A few days ago I was watching TV really late at night and everyone else, including our dog Marlo, was asleep. Suddenly, I hear a scary low rumbling growl and look in the hallway where Marlo was sleeping. He’s standing up alert, with his fur puffed out and eyes glowing, growling at something up on the ceiling. So, I went over there to see wtf he was looking at and there was absolutely nothing there.

This is a photo of the corner he was looking at, from his perspective:

I sat with him for a bit, while he calmed down, but he still kept his eyes on the Something that had alarmed him up on the ceiling. I thought it may have been some kind of insect, but there was absolutely nothing there, like n o t h i n g, trust me. Not even a mosquito. Maybe he had a nightmare and woke up scared and confused aw. OR…

it is a ghost.

In honour of this event, I wanted to do a post of my top 5 favourite haunted houses.

5. The Lisbon house in The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides is obviously not a tale of a haunted house, but I think the Lisbon sisters’ house still falls into this category. This is probably the saddest house in this list, instead of being the scariest. I have not actually read the book, just seen Sofia Copolla’s movie, so the following might not have any relevance to the novel.

I love all the shots of the girls’ knickknacks in their room and the way they seem to use this slow creeping of their things to cement some sort of control over their fate and their environment. Their stickers and perfume bottles and clothes thrown everywhere are as different from the rest of the house, which is controlled by their parents, as their existence is different from the other girls in their school, after the suicide of their youngest sister. Teenage girls’ rooms are amazing places. I think some haunted houses revolve around the emotional connection the ghost/ghosts have to the objects that used to be theirs and I also think that a haunted house doesn’t need the ghost of a dead person to fall into that category.


I keep thinking about Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and how she is kind of like the Lisbon Sisters, only while their collection of things seems to always be changing and moving and being added to, Miss Havisham’s is obviously static and collects dust. But, they both use the things around them as an anchor to normalcy – Miss Havisham madly tries to hold on to what she thought would be her perfect day, the culmination of her upbringing and the point to her life, while the Lisbon sisters exercise as much freedom as they can in their rooms, by collecting and arranging different little things, and cling to the hope of a normal teenage life. All their belongings and objects are kind of little throwaway things, without much value except to them personally (and I guess to us as viewers or readers of the Virgin Suicides and Great Expectations). And indeed Miss Havisham’s wedding feast definitely has no value as food to anyone any more. Here is a really relevant quote from the Virgin Suicides film:

“So much has been said about the girls over the years. But we have never found an answer. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls… but only that we had loved them… and that they hadn’t heard us calling… still do not hear us calling them from out of those rooms… where they went to be alone for all time… and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”


4. The Paranormal Activity house

First of all, holy shit this movie completely blew me away. I had gotten so used to shock horror and gore horror and dumb horror that it was so refreshing, and truly terrifying, to finally watch a movie like this, where you don’t see the villanous terror and get immune to it, where the atmosphere of dread and stress builds so smoothly and where the movie never devolves into cliches or stereotypes (apart from the burning Ouija board, but even that was cool). Technically this isn’t really a haunted house since the demonic horror that plagues the characters is specifically attached to Katie and follows her throughout her life, rather than being attached to the house itself. But I still love this house as a haunted house. I love that horrible feeling of invasion; of something unseen and unknowable invading the most private space in a person’s life and making a home a completely unsafe place to be. The director used his own house to shoot the movie and you can definitely tell that it’s not just a decorated film set. All the furniture and decoration is much less visually interesting than a deliberately staged set would be, but that also contributes to the movie’s feeling of reality and how something as innocuous as a bland house in the suburbs (albeit a giant rich house) can take on a whole new life as a suddenly horrifying place to be.

3. House of Leaves

This is the first book I read that made me think about books as objects. I know lots of people are put off by it, but I really enjoyed the way the layouts of the pages followed the plot line. This is probably the most poetically haunted house in this list. I just love that beginning image of someone discovering that the dimensions of their house are somehow a little larger on the inside, than on the outside. Some of the things that happen in the book, particularly when various characters descend into the darkness of the heart of the house, are g e n u i n e l y blood chilling. Although I thought that what began as a really interesting and spooky novel about a haunted house, kind of evolved into something completely different by the end of the book. It kind of became a love story instead? I was a little disappointed with this when I first read the book, because after a while all the beautiful horror stuff was put to the side a little bit, but now I’m starting to really like this shift. I don’t know… That’s what haunted houses are about anyway, I think. Love and lost love and the connections that still remain.

2. Hill House

Hands down, the single greatest haunted house story in the world, and in my opinion the single greatest horror novel also. There’s a shameful Catherine Zeta Jones movie adaptation of this, but it does not bear much resemblance to this amazing book. I can never get over the opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I also really like this anthropomorphising paragraph. I like how the house itself is a living, thinking entity in this story. Or is it…

“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.”

1. Blair Witch house

This is one of my favourite movies. Like in Paranormal Activity, I love that feeling of never quite being able to see what is causing such mayhem. I love how it’s always just outside your field of vision and how the characters use their camera as a kind of shield. I love all the little bits and pieces of different stories and legends that are woven together to create this myth of the Blair Witch. Everything is only suggestive, and there is never a coherent ending to these little stories, but every detail in the movie seems to suggest the evil presence of the Witch. The house at the end of the movie is the scariest house and the scariest ending I have ever seen. Corners are somehow horrible, just on their own, since they are often empty, but still seem to contain something. But this particular corner….

If someone starts saying how this movie is overrated and it wasn’t scary and nothing happens, then I always think they need to go out and buy themselves a new imagination.

P.S. All pix were found through google image search, except the very top one, which was obviously taken in our home.

turn of the screw and ambiguity

Yesterday I watched the 2009 BBC adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, starring Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. Aaaand I wasn’t really impressed. Just getting over the fact that it contained LADY MARY AND MATTHEW was hard enough, but I thought it was so hammy and it ruined the point of the original story, which to me is about not knowing whether the character of the governess is actually experiencing malevolent ghost activity or whether she is just going insane. This adaptation firmly takes the view that she is, indeed, being harassed by ghosts and that everyone else in the story is a fool for not seeing it.

Henry James’ novel is one of the best haunted house stories that have ever been written. The brilliance of it is that it creates confusion and suspense in the viewer, because everything is so ambiguous. Nothing is made explicitly clear – we never know why the uncle seems so completely indifferent, we never find out why exactly Miles was expelled from school (although certain things are sort of implied), we never know whether the two children are actually possessed by the ghosts of Jessel and Quint and, ultimately, we never know whether the governess is seeing things for what they really are, or if she is indeed just a crazy young woman. Nothing is ever made explicit, and every point of view a reader could get behind, has some piece of evidence in the story to disprove it.

But this adaptation did exactly that – it made everything very clear and obvious, so instead of having a movie which was eerie and understated and captured the true spookiness of this story, I just got some horrible bearded man leering at me while Lady Mary tries unsuccessfully and pathetically to deal with two creepy blonde children (who incidentally didn’t really capture the dual nature of the Miles and Flora of the book, in my opinion) and the baffling existence of Matthew Crawley, who gives us no reason why he is so attracted to this particular case, and then in the end starts seeing the same bearded King Leer while they lead Lady Mary off to the gallows.

I think they made a huge mistake in presenting the view that the events of the story are actually the result of the malevolent activity of the dead Quint and Miss Jessel (who is more of a sad figure in the book), instead of allowing their viewers any chance of coming to their own conclusions. Just the fact that Matthew Crawley began to see the apparition of Quint towards the end of the movie was enough to completely close down the story. The key to The Turn of the Screw is not knowing whose truth is true, but that was taken away from the viewer in this adaptation. Instead of experiencing the satisfying ambiguousness of it all, in the end all we got was a dead-eyed creepy little girl repeating the same lines from the beginning to a new governess, heavily implying that the ghosts of Quint, Jessel, and now also Miles, are still there, waiting to wreak more dramatic havoc.

As well as not really caring for the extra character background given to the governess (Ann in the movie), I also didn’t really understand why it was set in the 1920’s? The costumes did look really pretty though. And the production value is pretty high, so the house and the costumes etc. were definitely worth looking at.

I think the Innocents (1961) is a much better adaptation of this book. It has some truly great acting from everyone involved, as well as having probably one of the creepiest opening credits of any movie:

I think it really captured the atmosphere of the story. I was hoping for an updated, lusher version of this, but the 2009 Turn of the Screw did not really deliver anything I was interested in.