Halloween Haunts and Delusions

In Delusion, you are the protagonist. Through broken rooms and dark corridors, you must make your way around the crumbling mansion if you are to survive. Imagine a haunted house with a narrative, not just one that you watch, but one in which you play an integral part.

What is Delusion? Created in 2011, it’s touted as the original interactive horror theater, leading guests through a new story each fall around Halloween.

I had the opportunity to visit for the dress rehearsal this week, and it did not disappoint. It’s really an experience like no other; where haunted houses can be scary, they lack the cohesion of narrative, which, to me, brings meaning to the world. So when you combine a haunted house with an actual story, what you get is one of the most engaging Halloween events around.

This year, the theme was vampires: an ancient, twisted family of the undead reside in this abandoned manor, sometimes helping the guests to get where they’re going and sometimes locking them in coffins or trying to drink their blood. Meanwhile, we were being hunted by the family patriarch and searching for a way to destroy him and his unearthly brides.

One of the most delightfully eerie parts involved moving through a dark basement corridor by only the thin, flickering light that one of our number had to stay behind and produce by cranking a machine that reminded me of a manual pencil sharpener. Another had the actors crawling along the floor in perfect imitation of the best J-Horror, grasping at ankles as we ran past to escape.

While vampires may not be particularly scary to me—and overall this experience is not quite jump-out-of-your-pants frightening—this interactive play more than makes up for that with the power of its acting and stunt work, the intrigue of its narrative, and how the guest is not just an observer but an active participant in the experience. Needless to say, I hope I get the chance to go again next year!

Craving more blood Halloween goodness? All this month, the Horror Writers Association will be posting a daily blog series called Halloween Haunts written by members of the HWA. Keep an eye out for my post on planning a Hallowedding on October 18th; in the meantime, check out Four-Color Frights by James Chambers.

Happy October!

Advertisements

Haunting TV Reads PANDORA

If you checked out all the participating blogs for Coffin Hop this past Halloween, you may have stumbled upon the art blog Horror Made or its partner YouTube channel, Haunting TV. Both are run by the brilliant and talented Jeanette Andriulli, who drew, as part of her monster series, the Pumpkinhead that I won for Coffin Hop:

PumpkinheadNow the multi-talented Jeanette has chosen to spotlight PANDORA in the book excerpt series of Haunting TV, “The Spider’s Nest.” In the following video, you’ll find a chilling dramatic reading of one of my favorite scenes from the novel complete with stunning original artwork. Click, like, share… and enjoy!

Movie Review: “As Above So Below”

as-above-so-belowIf there’s any location on earth that deserves to be a horror movie setting, it’s the Catacombs of Paris. Miles of tunnels wind beneath the surface of the city, filled with six million corpses, dead ends, flooded areas, dead drops, and more. While a small section is open for public tours, the vast majority of these tunnels is available only to extreme risk-takers who are willing to break the law and venture deep into the dangerous underground. Battery dies on your flashlight? You’re dead. Run out of water? Dead. Lose your way after a cave in? Lost and, eventually, dead.

Seriously, tell me there’s a scarier place on earth.

Therein lies the appeal of low-budget found-footage horror film, As Above So Below. And while it uses the catacombs to creepy effect, it doesn’t quite manage to live up to its horrific promise.

The movie starts slowly after a prologue in a cave system in Iran. The main character, Scarlett, is a fearless woman who has multiple doctorates, speaks six languages, and has a black belt. Oh, and she’s also an alchemy expert seeking the legendary Philosopher’s Stone.

Some clues lead her to believe that the stone may be hidden in the catacombs, so she gets a crew together and they descend. There are some truly tense moments here that will make anyone with even mild claustrophobia squirm. Early into the tunnels, they find an entrance to a “bad place,” from which no one has ever returned. Of course, they end up having to go in. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie.

That’s when the creepy stuff starts happening. But… that’s sort of all it is. Generic creepy stuff. Exactly the kind of stuff you’d expect the be lurking in the background of dark tunnels. And then of course there’s a ringing phone, a dusty piano, a burning car… you know, horror movie stuff. We encounter some interesting mythology, including a cool riff on the “as above, so below” saying when the world seemingly turns upside-down. I think they could have done more with that, actually. I also don’t think I’m really spoiling anything when I say they find the entrance to Hell (really, who saw that coming?) and of course it bears the inscription, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

This is where the movie loses all logic and descends into pure visual madness. There is little explanation for most of the things we encounter, and a lot of shaky-cam to obscure what’s actually going on. My guess is they used that because even the filmmakers weren’t quite sure.

So despite all the creepiness, which was, in fact, pretty well-done, I had a few beefs:

What’s the point of having this be a search for the Philosopher’s Stone? I realize they had to have some reason to go digging around at the bottom of the catacombs, but I’m not sure this narrative thread held up too well. Especially the wishy-washy direction it eventually goes in.

Why is there an inscription in Aramaic that, when translated, just so happens to rhyme perfectly in English? Seriously. That’s not how language works. Words that rhyme in one language won’t rhyme in another. Take “bug” and “rug,” for example. In Spanish, that’s “bicho” and “alfombra.” See? They don’t rhyme. I really couldn’t get past this, probably because they keep repeating bits of the stupid rhyme throughout the movie. For someone who speaks six languages, you’d think Scarlett might have questioned that.

Is it creepy, though? Yes. If you have any interest in the catacombs, I’d recommend it for the cool setting alone. But if you’re looking for a brilliant horror movie, this probably isn’t it. Oh well. We can always reserve our hopes for The Pyramid, which looks basically like As Above So Below 2, but in Egypt.

FINAL VERDICT

Plot / Originality: 4 out of 10 broken piano keys

Acting: 6 out of 10 broken piano keys

Visuals: 8 out of 10 broken piano keys

Music: 7 out of 10 broken piano keys

Script: 4 out of 10 broken piano keys

Scare Factor: 7 out of 10 broken piano keys

Overall: 6 out of 10 broken piano keys

Movie Review: “Oculus”

OculusWho would have thought a horror movie about a mirror would turn out to be a unique narrative with surprising twists and turns? Not someone who’s seen the 2008 flop, Mirrors, let me tell you. Color me pleasantly surprised by Oculus, the story of a demonic mirror with the ability to bend reality.

Though the movie starts off slowly, it does a great job introducing the characters, who feel authentic and understandable for all their quirks. Eleven years after a tragedy that left their mother mutilated and murdered, brother and sister Tim and Kaylie reunite in their old home. Tim has spent this time incarcerated, while Kaylie has become an obsessive-compulsive supernatural expert intent on destroying the old mirror that once resided in their father’s office.

The narratives of what happened to the siblings as children and what is happening to them now as adults run parallel… at first. Usually I’ve got this kind of narrative pinned down from the start: we’ll see the two stories play back and forth, both simultaneously reaching their climaxes (I’m talking about the stories, guys), and emphasizing the outcome of the adult scenario as a means of overcoming what they failed to accomplish the first time around.

What we get, instead, is an intricate, singular story in which the two narratives twist into one another. Time comes undone. The actions of the present somehow transform into and affect the actions of the past, and vice versa. Somehow, Tim and Kaylie seem to be simultaneously children and adults.

This works to great effect in a story wherein the characters go insane around a possessed mirror, experiencing delusions that make it impossible to tell what is real. This unique type of narrative takes the viewer along for the ride, creating the same unsettling loss of reality for the audience. It’s tricky to pull off because eventually that audience might stop caring about what’s happening, if they can’t tell what’s real.  Oculus, however, manages to retain a great deal of suspense; in fact, not knowing what’s real ends up being an important plot point that leads to a particularly horrific finale.

Katee Sackoff will spend a good chunk of the movie freaking you out.

Katee Sackoff will spend a good chunk of the movie freaking you out.

Aside from that, the movie is saturated with a creeping dread and some truly eerie visuals that will keep you as far away from mirrors as the last time you watched Candyman. If you want to see a unique, surreal psychological horror flick, Oculus should be at the top of your list.

FINAL VERDICT

Plot / Originality: 10 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Acting: 9 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Visuals: 8 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Music: 6 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Script: 8 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Scare Factor: 7 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Overall: 8 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Finding Beauty in the Macabre: NBC’s Hannibal

Now that the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has concluded, and the show has been renewed for at least one more season, I’d like to take this opportunity to implore anyone who hasn’t been watching the show to catch up.

Yes, you might have seen the movie Hannibal (starring the iconic Anthony Hopkins, and Julianne Moore as Clarisse Starling) and Red Dragon (Hopkins again, and Edward Norton as Will Graham). Those are arguably Hollywood fluff in comparison to the dark, artsy, surreal, psychological twister that is 2013’s TV incarnation. The show stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham (much darker and moodier than the Fight Club actor, who was surprisingly blasé in Red Dragon), Laurence Fishburne as FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford, and Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

It also, apparently, stars Carcosa from True Detective.

It also, apparently, stars Carcosa from True Detective.

In the show, Will Graham is a professor with a strange gift for empathy: he can basically see into the minds of serial killers, observing crime scenes and visualizing how the murder went down (a little like Dexter‘s keen eye for blood spatter, but more visceral). He aids the FBI in hunting down the Chesapeake Ripper.

Season one is part serial killer of the week, part descent into madness, wherein Will vacillates between believing he is physically ill, and mentally ill.

Yep, totally normal clock.

Yep, totally normal clock.

Throughout, his friendship with Dr. Lecter proves to be a psychological game of cat-and-mouse. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Hannibal asks Will to draw a clock.

Season two moves the story forward. No, they will not be stretching out the serial killer of the week trope the way other shows might be tempted to: instead, we find Will being framed for murder, revelations about the true nature of our favorite characters, and a cat-and-mouse game in which it is almost impossible to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse.

One of the most striking aspects of this show is how dark it is willing to go. Our protagonist, Will, exhibits some… questionable behavior. He must play the part of a killer in order to convince Hannibal that he’s on his side, and throughout, we’re never quite sure just how much he enjoys the killings he has committed.

Also, at this point, almost the entire cast has eaten people.

Also, at this point, almost the entire cast has eaten people. Cheers!

What the show may be best known for, however, is its unique visual aesthetic: macabre, artistic tapestries of death, killers who display their victims in a myriad of horrible and beautiful ways. As a writer who explores that strange connection between beauty and horror, I find these visuals very intriguing and bold for a network TV show.

Like these angels.

Like these angels.

Hannibal tree

And this corpse tree.

And this totem pole made of bodies.

And this dude that was turned into a cello. (Did I mention I'm a cellist?)

And this dude who was turned into a cello. (Did I mention I’m a cellist?)

Mikkelson, for his part, embodies the role of Hannibal in a way that is entirely different from Hopkins. Not having read the books, I can’t say which is more accurate to the original canon, but he certainly brings out something unique in the classy cannibal. Whereas Hopkins is immediately creepy, his staccato voice alone creating a sense of unease, Mikkelson’s Hannibal is a subtler kind of monster. At first, he seems quite benevolent, obviously brilliant, and even friendly. But once you glimpse the psychopath within, who is willing to toy with the lives of those around him out of sheer curiosity, the true depths of his depravity surface. And for one so intelligent and charismatic, as successful psychopaths tend to be, it’s both easy and chilling to see how he manages to get away with so much, right under the FBI’s nose.

I, for one, look forward to seeing where they go in season three… and which of our  characters survived that blood-soaked finale…

True Horror in True Detective

Everyone’s been talking about it: Mathew McConaughey. Woody Harrelson. The King in Yellow. Carcosa. And many have been asking, even since the finale, what does it all mean?

One of the reasons this show has people buzzing (and frantically flipping through old horror novels) is because it deftly crosses genres in its brief 8-episode run. What appears to be a noir / Southern Gothic detective mystery is overlaid by a larger story of horror and modern mythology.

Hey, I'm warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven't watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

Hey, I’m warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven’t watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

THE KING IN YELLOW

This show is all about storytelling. Through interviews with the detectives, we get the story of a gruesome murder case that Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart solved (or thought they solved) back in ’95. The case comes back to haunt them in the present, as it seems the mysterious figure behind it all—the King in Yellow—is still at large.

On the show, he is spoken of in awed whispers, along with the word Carcosa. Everyone watching quickly realized this was a reference to a book of short stories by Robert Chambers, published in 1895. Chambers, a forerunner to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, wrote about a play called The King in Yellow that drove people mad during the second act. He also wrote of a strange lost city called Carcosa, which he nabbed from an Ambrose Bierce short story called “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Lovecraft (as well as many others) later used both of these motifs in his writing.

the king in yellow

The connections between The King in Yellow and True Detective run much deeper than mere name-dropping. For instance, Carcosa is inhabited by people wearing skins, and the cultists behind the killings of True Detective wear animal masks. In fact, masks play an important role in Chambers’ stories (there is even one called “The Mask”). And there’s that weird line in the finale of True Detective where Errol Childress, aka the King in Yellow, tells Rust to “take off your mask!” (before he stabs him).

True Detective’s vision of Carcosa is deliciously creepy as well. Carcosa is described as having “twin suns,” “black stars,” and “strange moons.” It is a cursed place filled with dead trees. On True Detective, some of these aspects are mentioned by people who claim to know of Carcosa. Psycho-killer Errol Childress’s lair of Carcosa, which we see in the finale, is a dark tunnel system filled with those strange stick-sculptures that appear throughout the season, mimicking dead trees.

I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.

THE HORROR

If this show were your typical crime series, the ending would have given us some twist that explained everything: who was the killer, and why did he do it? We find out that scarred Errol Childress is the killer. We find out that he is truly evil and psychotic through his seedy house, the way he fluidly transitions from one accent to the next as if he doesn’t have one fixed identity, his narcissistic god-like mentality, and his eerie lair. But why would someone do these things? What is behind his cult?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

That we are left to grapple with on our own, just like Rust and Marty. The ending of the season is reflective of the ending of classic horror tales: the broken characters, having come face-to-face with true horror, must reconcile their experiences with their lives. In many Lovecraft stories, these characters go insane or become suicidal.

The horror elements come out in more than just the ending, though. This thread of weird horror, best known in Lovecraft’s writing, explores the idea of peeling back reality and glimpsing the infinite and the incomprehensible beyond our world. Perhaps Rust’s drug-induced hallucinations are more than they seem. Perhaps he’s seeing into greater dimensions of reality, seeing the circle of time from the outside.  Carcosa, it is said, is a city outside of time. Part of the horror of Rust’s story, then, are these moments when he traverses into the infinite.

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Most people who get these glimpses go insane. Rust’s character is appealing because he can have these experiences without going completely nutty.  For instance, other characters who have harrowing experiences related to the Yellow King or Carcosa start screaming or babbling manically when they speak of them. We understand their horror through their reactions to it.

This idea of seeing vs. not seeing the horror ourselves, as viewers, is an old trope used by the likes of Lovecraft. In the finale of True Detective, we are privy to a videotape of one of Childress’s crimes. We don’t see the full video, but those who watch it end up screaming in horror. This is even more disturbing than showing us what is on the tape because it is left to our imagination. It is unthinkably horrific, like many of the things Lovecraft wrote about.

CREATING MODERN MYTH

The way True Detective has tapped into this mythology of the Yellow King and Carcosa is not, perhaps, the way we would expect a modern TV show to use literary allusions. Viewers expected an explanation and resolution of the Yellow King and Carcosa, but we were left feeling that, though Errol Childress is dead, these ideas that fueled his killings are not. Characters on the show declare that the King in Yellow was before and is always—out of time, eternal. It doesn’t die with the death of one man.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

The show is accomplishing the same thing as all of the literature that has used this mythology. Chambers, Bierce, and Lovecraft are not the only ones to write about the King in Yellow and Carcosa. What they’ve done, however, is to develop a new mythology. True Detective is only one more piece in the puzzle, building on this mythology in a literary way.

This show is all about storytelling. In the last scene, Rust talks about how, as a kid, he would look up at the stars and make up stories. This is exactly what our ancestors did thousands of years ago. They made up stories, which were passed around and built upon until they became mythologies. They created a shared literature, and True Detective revels in this idea.

I’ve always been interested in mythology. My first novel, Pandora, involves Greek mythology. My current novel includes Native American mythology. These are ancient mythologies. The King in Yellow is a new mythology. We can trace it back to its beginning. We are doing, now, exactly what our ancestors did. Time, as Rustin Cohle says, is a circle. We do the same things over and over again.

True Detective is a story as ancient as stories themselves. We seemed to have entered an age where television can accomplish the same things that literature has been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. And that is pretty damn cool.

Feminist Horror in “You’re Next”

You're NextFebruary is Women in Horror month, so it was a good thing I decided to watch You’re Next by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. What starts out as yet another home invasion/slasher movie effortlessly switches directions, taking the Final Girl trope to a badass extreme. Part John Carpenter, part Wes Craven, part R-rated Home Alone, You’re Next is a pleasant surprise and a hell of a good time.

The movie begins with a family reunion* meant to celebrate the parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. All three sons and one daughter, as well as their significant others, arrive at a secluded mansion in the forest. Petty bickering ensues. Just as these opening scenes begin to drag, several men in animal masks show up to terrorize the family, their dinner now interrupted by chaos and silly amounts of screaming.

There is one character, however, on which we begin focusing more and more: Erin, the Australian girlfriend of one of the brothers. She is the only one who reacts to the situation with some kind of sense, rather than senseless wailing. While the others freak out, she starts locking down the house, gathering weapons from the kitchen drawers, and setting up traps.

As it turns out, Erin was raised on a survivalist compound. Now, what should be a simple, good old-fashioned family slaughter turns into a nightmare… for the killers. That’s right. Guess what, killers? YOU’RE NEXT!

you're next sharnie

I knew this was a winner when I started shouting at the killers, “Watch out! She’s gonna fuck you up!”

Sharni Vinson, who plays Erin, has some truly gruesome and fantastic scenes during which she unleashes her fighting and survival skills on the assailants. One cool, well-shot scene involves using a flashing camera in the dark. Another involves a blender.

While strong female characters can be found in horror movies, most often the Final Girl survives simply by virtue of being the female lead. Slasher movies subsist on the viewer’s titillation in watching this female suffer, survive mostly through luck rather than her own merits, and slash knives impotently through the air while blubbering uncontrollably into the attacker’s face. Erin delivers something fresh here: a Final Girl who doesn’t run around like a headless chicken but instead takes matters into her own hands and acts like a hero. She’s a little like Dana from The Cabin in the Woods blended with the badassery of the cave divers from The Descent.

More often, male leads are the heroes, while female leads in horror films are portrayed as the victims. This creates a serious power inequality, which is reinforced again and again in popular films. Erin may be physically injured and traumatized throughout the course of You’re Next, but it is clear that she is hero rather than victim, and she alone earns her survival.

While following in the horror tropes that it seeks simultaneously to satirize, You’re Next ends up being both unflinchingly brutal and darkly funny. I found myself thrilled watching this reversal of power dynamics and gender roles, and I’d love to see what the guys behind You’re Next come up with next.

*Caveat: before the family reunion gets going, the very first scene of the movie is a sex scene. Why? After seeing the movie, I assume it’s tongue-in-cheek. Don’t worry, though. It only lasts about 3 unsatisfying seconds.

Under the Dome: Book vs. Show

Under-the-Dome-21

Now that season one of CBS’s “Under the Dome” is over, we can look back to its source material—that 2009 tome by Stephen King—and see how the show sizes up against the original. King has stated that the show is not a direct adaptation from the book, but rather a parallel story in which the dome has a different explanation. Still, there are strong echoes of the novel throughout, from the main characters to that strange repeated line, “Pink stars are falling in lines.” To be honest, neither the show nor the novel knocked my socks off, but they were both passably entertaining distractions.

So which is the more successful iteration of King’s story about the small town trapped under a mysterious dome? To answer this, I had to ask a few questions: Which is scarier? Which has better writing? Which has more interesting and engaging characters? Which has a better storyline? A clear winner emerged.

SCARIER?

under-dome-cow

I have to admit, the cow was pretty cool.

Though it’s not anywhere near King’s scariest work, I would still classify the novel as horror. The murders are gruesome. Drugs and religious zealotry play with reality and fear. Halloween plays a fairly prominent role. And there are some creepy moments of necrophilia.

The show, however, strays quite a bit away from horror. Even though it’s still a town (of some bad and psychotic people) trapped under a dome, somehow everything is just… so adorable. You know Junior, the crazy dude with wicked migraines who killed and then raped a couple of girls? In the show, though he kidnaps his girlfriend, we are somehow led to believe it’s only because he loves her in his own twisted way. Instead of images of burning and Halloween, they give us images of butterflies, mini-domes, eggs, and a surprising amount of pink. Way too much “pink stars are falling.”

Quick, guys! Run away from the horror... of the butterflies...

Quick, guys! Run away from the horror… of the butterflies…

Answer: BOOK

BETTER WRITING?

Every time I tuned in to “Under the Dome” on Monday night, I ended up cringing at some of the sloppy, stilted writing. The characters all seem a bit dumbed down, telling us what’s happening on screen as if they have a constant need to explain reality to each other. Often they all agree upon a conclusion based on one person’s gut feelings, rather than clues or logical explanations. The show loses its attempt at mystery in too much vagueness… like when our group of heroes decides who their leader must be (the “monarch” from the dome’s inane message, “The monarch will be crowned”) based on the flight pattern of a special undead butterfly…

King’s logic in the book, on the other hand, is a little more solid. The book explains more than the show, but of course the show has been left deliberately at a critical moment to get the viewer to tune in for season two. Though there is a lot more depth in the book, to arrive at that depth King had to write a seemingly-endless 1,000-page narrative that ended up being overlong, overdramatic, and kind of a drag.

The show writers decided there would be a spontaneous fight club for an episode. So there was.

The show writers decided there would be a spontaneous fight club for an episode. So there was.

Answer: BOOK

BETTER CHARACTERS?

The book’s characters are more fleshed-out than the show’s version, due mainly to the extended character study and backstory. Some characters, like Junior and Big Jim, are much creepier and more psychotic: forces of evil that cannot be persuaded to back down. Barbie is much more than the pretty face on the show. Julia, unfortunately, is just about as annoying as she is on the show, thanks to her silly story about getting her pants pulled down in second grade, and how that somehow changed her as a person.

"I just... don't understand why I have to be called Barbie."

“I just… don’t understand why I have to be called Barbie.”

The show’s version of the characters are mostly awkward and wooden. Even Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad) who plays Big Jim can’t quite salvage the show’s muddling of his character. The child actors (including goofy Joe and whiney Norrie) say everything so emphatically. And of course Junior isn’t the twisted necrophiliac he is in the book.

Answer: BOOK

PLOT TRAJECTORY?

When I was watching the show, I often ended up thinking to myself: what the hell is going on? For some reason, there is a mini-dome with an egg inside, and only four specific people can touch the mini-dome without getting shocked, and a butterfly makes the entire dome turn black, and pink stars shoot out of the ground when Julia throws the egg in the water, and why is any of this happening? The finale offered no answers. I still have no idea what’s going on.

“Hey, guys… did we drop acid?”

The book was much less focused on the fantastical elements that baffled me above, and instead provided tense, frightening, and even harrowing scenes (I just remembered that awful gang-rape scene…) depicting people reacting badly to a crisis situation. Though I found these scenes more interesting than the ones in the show, the overall story was too long and puttered to a lame and predictable ending.

Answer: BOOK

Obviously if I were to pick which incarnation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome is better, my choice is the book. That’s not saying a whole lot, though, since I found the book largely unsatisfying. Here’s to hoping King’s next offerings, both in literary and visual forms, will exceed the mediocrity doled out by both versions of the story of Chester’s Mill.

Ten More Pieces of Creepy Classical Music

When I’m writing a dark scene for a novel or story, nothing sets the atmosphere like a bit of creepy classical music. One of my most popular blog posts of all time is “Top Ten Pieces of Classical Music to Listen to on a Dark and Stormy Night,” but there are a lot more than ten pieces of horrific classical music. That’s why I compiled this second list of ten more pieces to add to your collection. Ranging from intense and apocalyptic to mystical and eerie, these pieces set the mood for a bit of reading, horror movie soundtracks, or just a night in front of the fireplace with ghosts roaming behind you.

10: “Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Movement 4” – Antonín Dvořák

The rousing opener of the final movement from the New World Symphony sounds a lot like the music from that movie about the shark… and the head that floats up from the sunken ship… you know the one I’m talking about. We’re going to need a bigger orchestra. Get the mp3

9: “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la nuit – Maurice Ravel

This piece was based on a poem depicting a goblin and his midnight mischief. The rumbling and flitting of the solo piano conveys the goblin’s quick movements, his scratching on the walls, and the shadow he casts against the moonlight. Get the mp3

8: “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird Suite  – Igor Stravinsky

The name pretty much speaks for itself with this one: a wild, frantic, infernal dance forced upon some magical creatures in the ballet about the immortal firebird. Get the mp3

7: “The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29” – Sergei Rachmaninoff

This dark, gloomy symphonic poem was inspired by the painting of the same name, which you can see in the video. The music suggests the movement of Charon’s oars as they row through the river Styx. Get the mp3

6: “Aquarium” from Carnival of the Animals – Camille Saint-Saëns

This mystical, eerie piece depicts the mysteries of the ocean. It makes me think of those alien deep-sea creatures that use lights to lure in their prey in the darkness, or the way sunlight filters strangely through the top layer of water. Get the mp3

5: “Gnomus” from Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky

By turns abruptly off-balance and insidiously creeping, this movement depicts a gnome running around. Its descending chromatics add to the unsettling nature of the piece. Get the mp3

4: “Dies Irae” from Requiem – Giuseppe Verdi

This terrifying depiction of the Latin funeral rite sounds just like the Apocalypse, don’t you think? Get the mp3

3: “Dance of the Knights” from Romeo and Juliet – Sergei Prokofiev

Dark, sinister, foreboding—and then suddenly quiet, peaceful, but still echoing the dark theme from the beginning. This piece is basically awesome from start to finish. Get the mp3

2: “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” – Krzysztof Penderecki

You may recognize this piece from a little horror film called The Shining, though it is meant to represent the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. It is perhaps the most overtly disturbing piece on the list, with its screeching and scurrying violins, and its use of sudden pizzicato and tremolo. It replaces melody with dissonance and disjointedness, making it somewhat unpleasant to hear. Still, the atmosphere it creates is genuinely frightening—and, as it turns out, perfect horror movie music. Get the mp3

1: “Neptune, the Mystic” from The Planets – Gustav Holst

The theme of distant, mysterious Neptune is eerie, ethereal, otherworldly—and one of the subtler pieces on the list, though it creates much emotional resonance with its dark, unsettling tones and sinister, tinkling celeste. The ghostly, haunting quality only increases when the choir comes in, making it chilling and beautiful at the same time. It is one of the more underrated and understated movements from the Planets Suite, but it’s perfect for creating the atmosphere of a strange, creepy world quite different from our own. Get the mp3

Movie Review: The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-posterOh, how I wanted to like The Conjuring. It’s got a traditional haunted house setting, ripe for ghostly creepiness. It’s got James Wan. Hell, it’s got Vera Farmiga, who’s had a number of enjoyable roles in horror films. It’s even got a pretty effective atmosphere going for much of it. But it has about zero originality.

The film opens with what I found to be the creepiest part of the whole thing: a video detailing the case of a freaky-looking doll who is terrorizing a couple of nurses at their apartment. The case, we learn, is a previous one of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two real life paranormal investigators who have made cameos in various books and movies, and who become the stars of The Conjuring.

From there, we meet a family of seven as they move into a rustic house in the country big enough to shelter all five of the couple’s daughters. As you might imagine, strange things begin happening: the clocks all stop at 3:07 am, they find a boarded-up spiderweb-covered cellar, and thumping noises wake them in the middle of the night. Yadda yadda. Nothing new here. At times creepy, but extremely par for the course in any haunted house offering doled out by Hollywood.

the-conjuring music box

Also, a creepy music box with a clown in it. I feel like this belongs in the cellar from The Cabin in the Woods.

Once the haunting sufficiently terrifies the family, it’s time to call in the paranormal investigators. Enter Ed and Lorraine: interesting characters who are well portrayed, but ultimately detrimental to the mood initiated by the family’s victimization by an unnamed force. As soon as they arrive at the house and set up their equipment, some of the mystery and intrigue disappears. We feel safer, somehow, because the experts are here to save the day.

The unhappy clan is joined by a skeptical police officer who is there to oversee the proceedings. This character provides the obligatory “convert the skeptic” subplot that all demon possession movies must include. For they immediately determine that this supposed haunting is, in fact, a demon possession—not even close to a surprise, when the revelation comes.

Which leads us to the quandary: how many religion-based possession movies do we really need in our lives?

Come quick! I just realized we're stuck in a rehash of old horror tropes!

Help! I just realized we’re stuck in a rehash of old horror tropes!

The problem with so many horror movies about possession is that they limit themselves to things that are only scary to people with particular religious beliefs. In an increasingly secular world, let’s face it: we just aren’t as scared as we used to be of demons and other religious horrors. The mantra of these movies inevitably becomes the idea that we can only fight evil via the power of God, which immediately alienates anyone who doesn’t share this belief. At this point, the mystery is gone, and with it, the fear: we know what it is, and we know how to stop it. Once you introduce God into the narrative, you’re operating on a Deus ex machina where logic need not apply, and the only way to solve your problem is with crosses and holy water.

I doubt I’m the only nonreligious person who feels left out of these kinds of movies, because not only do I feel no sense of fear from them, but I also find it hard to root for the good guys, who tell everyone that they will only be saved if they believe in God. They play with the viewer like they play with the token skeptic who must necessarily be converted by the end of the film. I’m not totally against religion in horror, but look, can’t we do something different for once? Aren’t there any other religions aside from Catholicism with the potential for creepy shit? Something aside from the traditional ideas of God and Satan?

Maybe I went into this one with my hopes too high.

I understand that this movie is “based on the true story” of one of Ed and Lorraine’s investigations—but that’s no excuse for its lack of creativity. This is a mundane film: all of its tropes have been done to death time and again. I think it’s time we exorcise from Hollywood its treasured notions of exorcism, because it’s getting old. Pretty much every exorcism movie after The Exorcist has been lame and extraneous. The Conjuring is, sadly, no exception.

FINAL VERDICT

Plot / Originality: 3 out of 10 mysterious music boxes

Acting: 7 out of 10 mysterious music boxes

Visuals: 7 out of 10 mysterious music boxes

Music: 6 out of 10 mysterious music boxes

Script: 5 out of 10 mysterious music boxes

Scare Factor: 6 out of 10 mysterious music boxes

Overall: 5.5 out of 10 mysterious music boxes