In Hollywood, there is always a filmmaker that reinvents a genre. With Jordan Peele (Get Out), Ari Aster (Midsommar), Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Doctor Sleep), Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), there seems to be a new golden age of horror going on. Not only that, there have been directors who are able to return a classic “back to form,” following a string of bad sequels and spinoffs, such as David Gordon Green with the new Halloween (2018). Recently, however, aside from The Invisible Man (2020), there hasn’t been much new horror worth seeing this year.
Every year in the Chathams, during Halloween, we are always looking for the next great thrill. In the township, there is the Roberts Chatham Cinema. I have only recently heard of this place but felt intrigued to attend a showing, but this seems unlikely. With the coronavirus still raging on, I would imagine only mainstream theaters still being open, like AMC.
On October 25th, while in the area to attend a trunk r’ treat festival at the Florham Park recreation center, I decided to take a look at the Roberts Chatham Cinema. Sure enough, it was closed. There was even a poster for Emma (2020), which had to have dated back to February this year. Looking inside, through the windows, the place looked humble and a little old fashion. For me, it would be pretty cool to see some classical inside. The last time I saw a silent movie, Nosferatu (1922), it was at the Darress Theatre, in Boonton. There was even a live organ player providing music as the film played, just like in the old days. That was last year’s Halloween for me!
Nowadays, aside from another modern screening of The Nightmare Before Christmas, I haven’t found any showtimes for a scary flick this month. Thank God for Netflix and libraries!
While staying healthy during COVID-19, and therefore watching a ton of body horror flicks, I find myself indulging in the early roots of horror. I’m talking about as far back as Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and H.P. Lovecraft. I believe it was actually during one jolly Christmas that I received a book of short horror stories, Classic Tales of Horror (2015, edited by Canterbury Tales). The best that I can remember reading classic horror was when attending Morris Hills High School, doing literary assignments involving tales of terror by Edgar Allan Poe, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
Though I am more familiar nowadays with Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, this collection has brought me back to where all the nightmares began. As I read them, I study them in-depth, learning something quite obvious. These classic horror tales continue to influence modern horror tales, with their timeless subjects and themes. Here are a few examples below for those who are not only looking for the best thrill on the big screen, but within the pages of the old texts.
Quoting a phrase from a recent James Bond flick, “sometimes the old ways are the best way.”
“The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce (1894)
The biggest enemy they say is the one you can’t see. In this year, most would believe that is the coronavirus or any airborne germ. Since the earliest horror, there is the supernatural. Here, we have a story involving an inquiry trying to understand the mysterious death of Hugh Morgan, who claimed to have encountered a creature that lacked color, or had a color that rendered it invisible. Written in epistolary-style sections, Bierce leaves things open to interpretation, having readers, like the story’s witnesses, wondering if this death was the cause of mental illness, a forest animal, or something much more sinister.
It makes me think of modern horror flicks, like the Paranormal Activity series (2007-15) and Lights Out (2016), where there is an antagonistic force that no one sees. The main characters are left to fend for themselves and most end up dead. In some stories, there are secondary characters who become witnesses to the incidents or become de facto detectives in the mystery. In the end, they remain divided, using spiritual beliefs or science to come up with an explanation for the unexplained.
Almost as mysterious as Bierce’s own infamous disappearance during a trip through Mexico Revolution, we are left wondering what was “that damned thing” Hugh Morgan encountered. What is scarier than a monster we cannot see. For whatever explanation, as we continue the lockdown, it does not make us want to go out during the night.
“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
Another thing that has plagued mankind’s fears is the unknown. Often it comes in the form of a forest. During 16th century New England, there was plenty of wooded areas covering the lands that were filled with wild animals and savage tribes, making Puritan settlers fearful of exploration. For them, the woods were a separation from civilization, a separation from God. In New Jersey, there is an area known as the Pine Barrens, where even Native Americans spoke of a creature lurking among its trees. We call it the Jersey Devil.
Known for themes that center on inherent evil and sin, within the setting of a Puritan community, Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) addresses the Christian beliefs of depravity and unconditional election. Our protagonist believes himself to be one destined for salvation. Yet, a trek in the woods, and encountering a pagan ritual, forever rocks his world. Brown witnesses his wife Faith and the townspeople he has known all his life take part in dark magic, only for the setting to suddenly bring him back to his village. This surreal ending leaves him wondering if what he experiences was real or just a bad dream.
A forest is a classic setting for horror. Today still, the woods either encourage us to stay where the bright lights are or entice us to explore what lies within the dark. There’s the typical cabin-in-the-woods scenario (Evil Dead, 1981), often involving young people living a carpe diem lifestyle (Friday the 13th, 1980), or like Brown himself, wanting to know if the bedtime stories are true (like in The Blair Witch Project, 1999). Recently, with Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015), we head back to those colonial woods, and while watching the deterioration of a single-family, separated by their Puritan society due to their religious pride, we still find ourselves terrified by what beyond the trees.
Horror master Stephen King once referred to this tale as “one of the 10 best stories written by an American,” and cites it as an inspiration for his O. Henry Award-winning short story, “The Man in the Black Suit.” Both stories contain the same theme of meeting the devil within the woods; a classic setting that represents the dark world where sin is king. His son Joe Hill would create his own devil story with the novel Horns. Only then, the main character went into the woods to become evil. Hawthorne simply brought us on the first trip into the wilderness.
“The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker (1891)
Though you know him as the creator of the world’s most famous vampire, Stroker created other classic horror tales. With “The Judge’s House,” he brought us not to a medieval castle, but to an old Jacobean house out in the middle of nowhere, where a young student wants peace and quiet to study. All is well, except for the rats, and the legend of a judge notorious for his harsh hangings. The student is warned of the strange occurrences associated with the building, but of course, ignores it all.
Haunted buildings are another classic horror setting. We often think about evil people, but even places can be linked to the darkness. In my classic horror collection, even some haunted house-themed stories use the word “house” in their titles, like a cardinal rule. In Hollywood today, there’s classics like House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Amityville Horror (1979), and The Conjuring saga (2013-16). In each, there is impending doom within their doors. Rarely, if the story ends with survivors, do these houses become destroyed. Like ghosts, they are forever. Their evil infects the land it stands upon.
Occasionally, some group of punks in their Halloween costumes trespass on the private property, daring themselves to go inside. Sometimes, they do in for fun (as they say in the old days: wine, women, and song), or learn the legends are true the hard way.
“The Vampyre” by John William Polidori (1819)
Speaking of vampires, have you ever heard the story of how Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein? There was a dark night, a fireplace was burning, and a group of friends dared each other to write the scariest tale. Shelley finished her tale and so did another. Both of whom created two classic monsters in horror. Though it was Stoker who would reap the glory of starting the genre, it is Polidori who first opened the coffin.
In the last two decades, we experienced a trend of vampire franchises. From the action-packed like Underworld (2003-16), to the romantic like Twilight (2008-12), to the erotic and controversial like True Blood (2008-14), to those with ridiculous plots, such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012), and even in various Japanese anime, such as Shiki (2010), vampires are a favorite monster.
Polidori’s tales feature another young Englishman who travels Europe with a new friend of mysterious origins and strange habits. As the journey goes on, the more he is consumed by the truth surrounding his fellow traveler. Much like Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, this man faces a great evil that modern times has forgotten.
As far back when I was studying at Centenary University, I have always wanted to know where the original vampire tale came from. With legends existing in Europe as far back as ancient times, the original undead have thrilled imaginations and continue to be a classic character of horror. And Polidori’s Lord Ruthven was the original bloodsucker.
“William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
In my reading adventures, I came across Stephen King’s latest novel, The Outsider. In my movie theater sessions, I have seen Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). In both cases, they involve doppelgängers. But they are not clones made in a genetics lab, they are more like entities out of a nightmare. The plot seems kind of stupid, yet very terrifying if you think about it.
Like many Poe stories, we have a character who seems to be at conflict with himself; the self versus alter self. The second William looks, dresses and acts like him, and everyone seems to accept this double just the same. But the first William cannot handle this, and it leads him to grief and madness. A common misconception is that the second William is nothing but a hallucination of the first. However, there are many scenes where other people have seen the second William themselves. The truth is the first William cannot handle seeing another person like himself. This is a threat to his own personal identity. When there is another being who looks and acts like you, and people give that double more attention, it’s like you don’t exist.
Every human being has a purpose on this planet. So, when there is another like you seemingly living your life, it is a threat to your existence. The double may feel this way as well and feel the need to “remove” you, then take your place. Most of the time, we see in horror, characters facing evil force in the form of the supernatural or real life-or-death situations. Yet, nothing seems more terrifying than coming face-to-face with another you! If there is something that can bring out the good or bad of you, it’s when you’re confronting yourself.
“The Open Window” by Saki (1914)
If there is one thing that I can say about this story. You don’t need ghosts to tell a scary ghost story, especially one that is secretly something else.
Saki (pen name for British author Hector Hugh Munro) is known for his wit and mischief, even for the macabre, while pointing fun at Edwardian society and culture. In this short story, we are given a typical ghost story setting with a twist we don’t see coming. I used to think only modern horror would do more unconventional things. But apparently, storytellers have been doing such stuff before cinema existed.
Today, it reminds me of a particular slasher, April Fool’s Day (1986). Aside from its cheesy holiday-inspired title, the slasher takes the typical troupes along with a few liberties. The ending result has divided critics and audiences, but when I saw it for the first time, I saw shocked… and then I laughed! And then I watched it again with other people to see their reactions.
Saki’s story also reminds me of the much more modern slasher Happy Death Day (2017). It looks typical and cliché, but with its Groundhog Day-inspired storyline and Scream-style humor, we are given a new kind of horror. Of course, it can still be scary and tense in some scenes, paying homage to classic slashers, like Halloween and Happy Birthday to Me.
I would recommend Saki’s story to those who do not watch or read too many horror stories, especially if they wish to be amused.
“The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens (1866)
Remember Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1979)? Remember the Final Destination (2000-11) series? In both cases, we have a protagonist who knows when danger is coming.
Dickens may be the man who wrote one of the greatest Christmas tales of all time, but even he dabbled in horror. In fact, this short story involves ghosts, but with a different purpose. Whereas some spirits come to help mortals see the light of their mistakes, these spirits foreshadow terrible things to come. With unreliable characters telling the story from their limited perspectives, we are again left in the position wondering if there were ghosts or just someone’s imagination.
Dickens was said to have been inspired by a true accident for this story. This was known as the Clayton Tunnel crash, which occurred in 1861, when a train ran into the back of another, killing 23 people and injured 176 passengers. It was then the biggest railway accident in British history. Sometimes, even the worst events can inspire the best art.
Seeing or reading a horror story, you don’t often see a character who is aware of the impending danger. This is supposed to happen after several chapters, after several incidents, or after there are sequels. When I saw Oculus for the first time, it was when the characters knew all the strategies of the evil force and prepared themselves in advance. Yet, the storyline had to go back to explain the situation, showing two timelines, past and present. Even then, it still left viewers in the position of wondering how this tale would be resolved.
There may be actual signals in Dickens’s tale to foreshadow or directly tell what will happen next. But even then, you’re still left guessing for this horror tale.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (1902)
I can remember watching this horror flick called Wish Upon (2017) about a teenaged girl with a Chinese music box that grants wishes with heavy consequences. I can also remember a cartoon series, based on George Romero’s Creepshow, where four kids use a preserved monkey’s paw to get money and have a cool, interactive video game-style adventure with monsters. The premise was simple: don’t mess with fate. It is a classic message that transcends any genre.
Like many protagonists in this lesson, the White Family learn it the hard way. During a visit from a friend, who brings a mummified monkey’s paw, the father wishes for money to set up his family for life. But any wish made with dark magic requires a blood price.
In the many adaptions made since there remains a debate. Was it really fate or just a coincidence that tragedy strikes so soon after the first wish? Is it also safe to assume that the knocking at their door by “the thing outside” is really their departed loved one or just noise caused by the weather? Could it be that grief can make us see and believe things that can only be true in nightmares?
“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907)
Heading back to the trees, Blackwood’s novella at first seems like an adventure tale taking place on the beautiful Danube. Throughout, he gives vivid descriptions of the river, the shining sun, the blowing wind in the perspective of two friends on a canoe trip, of whom camp out on an island with alluring willow trees. But when the narrator gets to the part about how the willows “moved of their own will as though alive,” your knuckles around the book become white.
When I think of a land that takes on a life of its own, I think of the modern sci-fi thriller Annihilation (2018). When a meteor crashed to earth and creates a barrier, known as the Shimmer, everything within it changes. A team of soldiers and scientists realize the Shimmer functions as a prism for DNA, distorting and transforming everything, plant, animal and even human. Addressing thought-provoking subjects on depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction, Annihilation is ironic in its title. Death and destruction may bring an end to something, but with any ending, there is a new beginning. For those who don’t like change, this is as worse as death.
In Blackwood’s tale, we see a similar premise of individuals disintegrate on the isolated island. More strange episodes occur, and their sanity is tested. Towards the end, things become more surreal, leaving us for the record in that frustrating position on what really occurred. I guess that is the true technique in the greatest horror ever written; show but never explain. Because within our own heads, fueled by our own imaginations, can the scariest things be made more real than what is written on the page.
In conclusion, perhaps we don’t need to be going to the local movie theater to get a thrill during this Halloween. Instead, why not we head down to our local library and check out the classic horror books. From this, we can also rent an old horror movie at the library, or on Amazon, or on Netflix. Just recently, I got to see for free on YouTube, The House on Haunted Hill, and there were one or two scenes that actually made me jump! Besides, anything with the iconic Vincent Price is worth seeing!
Though COVID-19 has put Hollywood on brakes, perhaps this is an opportunity to dabble into the roots of classic terror. At the same time, we can still enjoy Halloween, while social distancing. If we find ourselves getting scared of a classic horror story, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bummer if treat or tricking at night is canceled.
…Though most definitely, I hope to see the ghouls in the neighborhood come out to my house for candy! I further hope, in this final week of October, that the Roberts Chatham Cinema can open its doors for a one-night fright fest!