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Maul Rats: Dehumanization and the Built Environment in Horror

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For every terror that lies in wait in the woods – lurking with dripping fangs and razor claws – is there a corresponding menace to be found in the human-made world? I would argue so; after all, who among us hasn’t in the course of shopping or working looked around and noted the ironic inhumanity of a human-manufactured shopping experience? Discomfort with capitalism is as old as capitalism itself, and doesn’t always take the form of a Marxian critique or a suggested public policy change – no, it often emerges in art. In punk rock, in performance art, and – of course – in horror.

Once upon a time, I had a job at a record store in a downtown mall in the city where I live. Each day, I’d ride the train in to work and read on the ride. Often, I’d burn through paperback horror novels, which, thanks to a mall employee discount, I could obtain on the cheap (I polished off most of Clive Barker’s catalog this way). At one point, while taking a class on political ideology and wound up reading anarchist and Marxist critiques of capitalism on my journey in to punch the clock and on my breaks. It was both disorienting and orienting at the same time – reorienting, I suppose you’d call it. A reexamination of what my day-to-day life was by the light of a radically unforgiving and consuming flame. There were things of great and terrible value I that learned in that class. One of them was the concept of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon; the prison-concept and forerunner of the modern surveillance state, an institution in which prisoners are both eternally observed and unable to see those observing them. The idea is that each prisoner internalizes their warden, and becomes their own captor – a metaphor that was decidedly not lost on many of the critics of capitalism that I read on my way to the mall.

My thoughts returned to those bygone train rides recently while I was reading Grady Hendrix’s excellent Horrorstör, a 2014 horror-satire set in a supernaturally beset IKEA-spoof (called ORSK in the novel). I was thrilled to encounter my old friend the Panopticon in the pages of Horrorstör, along with descriptions of both the human and inhuman elements of retail that I recognized immediately. Hendrix precisely describes the recycled air, corpse-lights, and general sensory bombardment of the designed retail environment. While the details of his book are more IKEA-specific than my retail experience, Hendrix’s emphasis on the human elements of his tale brought me right up close and made me care about the entire cast – the wage slaves, dead-enders, middle management, all of them. In this, the humanized aspect of Hendrix’s story is our cast of characters, and is contrasted sharply with the dehumanized built environment, which we discover is a prison built on the ghost of a prison – as Marxian a vision of big retail as one could ask for.

I think that Horrorstör is an extremely clever update of a theme that was, perhaps, best explored by a previous generation in George Romero’s masterful Dawn of the Dead (which was subjected to a decent if imperfect remake by Zack Snyder and James Gunn in 2004). Dawn of the Dead was, of course, Romero’s macrocosmic answer to the microcosm he presented in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Whereas Night addressed issues of race and Cold War paranoia, Dawn was aimed explicitly at consumer culture and capitalism. Like Horrorstör, it transpires entirely in a designed environment that has been rendered hostile. Our cast is carried from the supposedly neutral world of commerce to the red altar of carnage, into the cold light of the uncanny, a light by which we are presented with the terrifying truth that the store – the mall – was never really neutral to begin with.

A built environment need not be physical, either – not necessarily. One built social environment in particular has invited consideration by creators of horror: the corporation, that arrangement that has, since its humble beginnings, taken on the foundational importance – the throne of primacy – once occupied in some places by the Holy Roman Empire, or the Mayans. The corporation is all around us, providing for our human needs and attempting to answer our human questions in a profoundly inhuman – -some would argue anti-human – way. This has been addressed widely in horror – for example, in films as diverse as Severance (a blood-soaked, chav-tastic 2006 British-German romp through workplace retreats), 2017 SXSW Steven Yeun gem Mayhem, and my favorite example: The Cabin in the Woods, which is usually celebrated for its fourth-wall-breaking deconstruction of horror tropes but is just as much a fourth-wall-breaking deconstruction of corporate dehumanization, both literal and figurative.

All of these considerations of built environments and our response to them emphasize the alienation of good, essentially human people from their surroundings, which suddenly take on a hostile or threatening cast. Bret Easton Elis is another kettle of fish entirely. Ellis’ American Psycho is generally accepted as modern horror canon, but Ellis’ other work sometimes escapes the notice of fans of the fiendish, or at least is less often considered in this specific light. 1998’s Glamorama, for example, qualifies as horror-satire as much as thriller-satire – and one that lampoons the built environments (both physical and social) of celebrity with visceral verve and viciousness. My favorite example of the Bret Easton Ellis approach to horror can be found in his 1994 short story collection The Informers, the best of which – “The Secrets of Summer” – should be studied carefully by any writer of short horror fiction for its lean, mean approach to sociopathy and the lessons that monsters can teach us about one another. Monsters are the key (but aren’t they always?); in Ellis’ work, the dehumanized – and dehumanizing – elements of the story are the characters themselves. Rather than set a cast we care about against a backdrop that seeks to do them harm, we meet a cast of wolves, snakes, and jackals – soulless predators all. But in the land of the monsters, is anyone really a monster? Or is “monster” a word necessarily born of comparison, of boundaries that must first exist to then be crossed? What if those boundaries never existed in the first place? In this way, Ellis offers us a truly transgressive vision of capitalist horror wherein we see not the contest between our dollars and our souls – but the bare, fleshless fact that it was never really a contest to begin with.

There are too many approaches to this question to list all of them here. But you don’t need me to list them all – now that I’ve got your gears turning, what are your favorite examples of a terrifying built environment, or of dehumanized humans in an unnatural social arrangement (is it, perhaps, Chopping Mall, arguably the worst movie of 1986)? Leave them in the comments or at me to let me know!

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The First Shred

When author DLW first approached us and informed us she had a trilogy of novellas, I was interested. I had been looking for Grim Fantasy, it’s on our wish list. I also have a soft spot for series, I think that makes us a little different than a lot of publishers who hear about series and really want a proven first book or two before they commit. But we at Madness Heart Press believe in building a brand with writers who want to build a brand. Her synopsis made no sense to me, but lots of things don’t make sense to me, and there seemed to be some gritty darkness at the core of her story, so I decided to give it a shot.

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Lip Gloss and the Inverted Cross: ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’

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If there has ever been a better real-life example of idle hands being the devil’s plaything than Archie Comics, I would be amused and delighted to hear about it. (No, really: at me.)

From 1942 through 2014, Archie may have received the occasional update or fine-tuning, but he stayed the same basic Archie: redheaded, beloved of Betty and Veronica, safe as milk. Then, recently, Archie and the gang were delivered from the idle hands of his former curators and into the hot little mitts of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, where the devil got delightfully mixed up in things.

Aguirre-Sacasa, you see, rebooted the entire franchise from the ground up, giving it an occult twist. This included a reboot of the character Sabrina Spellman, a teenage witch who first appeared in Archie in 1962 and originally had a tween-oriented TV show that premiered in 1996 and ran for an inexplicable seven seasons.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the new direction of Archie Comics. When I was first dipping a sneakered toe into the comic book ocean, Archie was considered inferior to the capes-and-tights fare that I consumed (although in the late 80s and early 90s, it would have been more accurate to refer to superhero titles as “skintight leather and refrigerator-size machine gun comics,” but I digress). The new Archieverse in the comics is dark, and often delightfully so. I’ve been particularly pleased with the artistic direction. Have a look at the cover of issue #1 of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (the comic), drawn by Robert Hack:

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As far as comic books go, I’d recommend Sabrina (or Afterlife with Archie) if the aesthetic appeals to you as much as it does to me.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (the Netflix show), on the other hand, is a little more complicated. The series is a companion to 2017’s Archie adaptation Riverdale (which airs on the CW, the network for which Sabrina was initially developed). Sabrina is competently – at times beautifully — shot, and I find Kiernan Shipka’s version of Sabrina Spellman to be entirely charming. That said.

Sabrina’s corner of the live-action Archieverse can be viewed three ways. Seen one way, it’s a disjointed horror jukebox, alive with neon and noise but – in the end – little more than a product of its references, some of which are more obvious than others. Alternately, it can be viewed simply on its own terms: as an arch, self-aware little supernatural horror series. Lastly, if we cut through the rich referential fog that it inhabits, and remove the tropes it borrows from more satisfying shows, we’re left with the least appealing version of the show: Sabrina as the archetypal Good Witch, locked in a struggle with a Satanic straw man whose implications are much scarier than the generic corn-maze boogeyman conjured up in episode 1.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is at its most lovable when it’s glorying shamelessly in its own references and pop-horror-culture obsessions (which may explain, but does not excuse, its appropriation of some very specific real-life religious imagery – but we’ll get to that). To give you a taste of how baroque this magpie-like plucking and juxtaposition can become, I offer my favorite episode of the series, “Chapter 5: Dreams in a Witch House.” It shares the premise of my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the season four finale “Restless.” In both “Restless” and “Dreams,” the cast of regulars is trapped in a world of dreams that reveal their insecurities and fixations.

Like “Restless,” “Dreams” structures itself as a series of dreams within a dream – unlike Buffy Summers, however, Sabrina and her pals seem to inhabit a story almost entirely about stories. At one point Chance Perdonno’s Ambrose is trapped in a recursive sequence in which he quotes from Hamlet – and then “In the Desert” by Stephen Crane – while “Night of the Living Dead” plays in the background — all in an episode whose very title is an H.P. Lovecraft reference. All of the above takes place in just four minutes, while still advancing the plot in a serviceable way (and delivering gory horror chills). It can get a little dizzying, but also intoxicating – a pink-champagne neon ride through a labyrinth of mirrors, where 21st-century teens get down (ironically? We’re never really sure) to “the Monster Mash” at a literal Halloween sock hop.

The problem is that we’ve seen this show before, both literally and figuratively. When you shear away the glittering pop culture detritus, you’re left with a remarkably unoriginal story, even for a property that has been a going concern since 1962. Call me old-school, but I had a lot more fun watching Buffy Summers hit most of these plot points the last time around, and that was two very long decades and a string of lesser imitators ago. Sabrina’s sidekicks are particularly one-dimensional, considering that they’re given an entire season to develop, not just a pilot episode, and while Ross Lynch can (I suppose) be forgiven for his Harvey Kinkell, given the thin material he’s presented with, he is one of the least interesting on-screen love interests I’ve ever seen.

So: if Sabrina is one part by-the-numbers supernatural teen drama and one part a cyclone of pop culture surfaces, what is its secret sauce, the X factor that Netflix seemed to be banking on here? Satan, that’s what, and Satan with a focus on cheekiness and quantity rather than intelligence and quality.

While there have been many dubious distinctions to mark the last three years, I’d argue that there have been a few positive developments in the zeitgeist, and one of those positive developments is a clear-headed, calm, open discussion of Satan and Satanism. This is a sentiment that – when expressed out loud – usually requires a bit of explanation. “A positive development?” you might ask. “Doesn’t Satan represent evil – represent human depravity – represent everything that decent people should be against?”

Not the way I figure it – and not the way that the Satanic Temple figures it. I’ve been a member of the Temple since 2014, although my philosophical interest in Satanism goes back about a decade and a half further than that. I should make a few things clear right out of the gate. First, neither I nor the Satanic Tempe believe in a literal, magical, actual Satan. I/we honor him as a literary symbol, a representation of rebellion against arbitrary tyranny and religious irrationality and oppression.

The Satanic Temple is the subject of “Hail Satan?,” which was at the Sundance Film Festival last year and will be released more widely on Good Friday of this year. 2018 also marked efforts to bring a 3,000-pound Baphomet monument to state capitols in Arkansas and Oklahoma. These are sites where Christian activists erected massive religious idols on public land– the Temple exists, in part, to serve as a counterbalance to such efforts and to preserve separation of church and state, and part as a nontheistic religion that promotes compassion and human freedom. But I’m not here to evangelize – if you’re interested in learning about what the Temple stands for, you can read the seven tenets here and an FAQ here.

And the aforementioned real-life Baphomet monument brings us back to the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and to the show’s odd specificity in appropriating a symbol for its absurd and slanderous portrayal of the (real) Satanic Temple – the (fictitious) Church of Night. Below, you can see a comparison of two monuments, one from the Temple’s original monument (top) and the one representing the Church of Night in Sabrina (bottom):

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Over and over in the show, the Church of Night is identified visually with the Satanic Temple, while perversely demonstrating actions that run counter to each of the Temple’s Seven Tenets. Sabrina is presented as the Good Witch, endlessly lecturing the Bad Witches (with their Baphomet monument, black clothing, and blasphemous ways) about the various ways in which they are Evil and she and – get this – the Catholic Church are Good. At one point Sabrina asks, regarding the Church of Night, “Why should they get to tell me what I do with my body?” (Satanic Temple Fundamental Tenet #3: “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.”) Members of the Church of Night are portrayed as superstitious believers in magic who look askance at science. (Satanic Temple Tenet #5: “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world.”) In another scene, Sabrina says (of the head of the Church of Night): “He’s not divine. He’s flesh and blood, and can be corrupted.” (Satanic Temple Tenet #6: “People are fallible.”)

Tell me: which sounds like the organization that represents evil, by Sabrina’s supposed standards? The Satanic Temple, which the show goes far out of its way to very specifically misrepresent, or the Catholic Church, portrayed as such a generic Good that the only college ever mentioned in the course of a show about teenagers in a small-town high school is Notre Dame?

Sabrina could have been so much more. It could have gone in the direction that the Magicians (another show better than this one) did, which was to almost entirely eschew the black/white paradigm in favor of something more interesting, nuanced, and wild. You don’t need to do away with fantasy to have a morally complicated show, as any Game of Thrones fan could tell you.

How did this show go so wrong? Sabrina is a wonderful character, who represents deep progressive values that I share. Her pals are equally great, on the surface – lovable and fierce, advocates for their communities, excellent role models one and all. So why are the show’s metaphysics so maddeningly unreconstructed – so reactionary?

Part of it, I think, lies in the true source material – no, not the comic books. Sabrina makes the same mistake that its forebear, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, did when it invented the genre. Buffy was one of the all-time great TV shows, and one whose influence on Sabrina is obviously stamped in the DNA of every on-screen moment. But like Buffy, Sabrina adopts – wholesale! – the grotesque “morality” and the worldview of witch trials and witch hunters, of the Malleus Maleficarum – in short, of G(o)od versus (d)Evil.

It’s 2019, and we deserve better than that.

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A Voice at the Edge of the Firelight

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Horror storytelling takes as many forms as there are media in the world, and in the world of 2019, that means a great many forms indeed. From the page to the cinema to the console, technological innovation provides creators of weird and unsettling art with new tools to use and terrifying new themes to play upon. But — as any grim-faced stranger with too-wise eyes might tell you in a moonlit field on a summer evening, sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Sometimes the old ways have a taste that you can’t get on your tongue anywhere else, however hard you may try to slake your thirst.

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Familiar, Unfamiliar: Uncanny

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
An original painting by Carl Jung from his unfinished masterpiece, the “Red Book” (an exploration of his own unconscious).

Fear and curiosity are sometimes so intricately interwoven in my poor rattletrap psyche that it’s hard for me to separate them at all – a trait I think I share with a lot of people.

When faced with uncertainty, the unusual, or the unexpected, who hasn’t experienced an odd combination of repulsion and fascination? All of us live our lives in a flow of sorts. When something happens that jars us, that forces us out of our routine, it resets our perception in interesting ways.

Hereby hangs a tale.

I’m a juvenile-onset diabetic (meaning I have diabetes mellitus type 1). That’s the diabetes you get from having a treacherous autoimmune system and an unlucky combination of genes. (The more common type, which often can be controlled with diet and medication, is diabetes mellitus type 2.)

I was diagnosed when I was a toddler, which is even early for someone with type 1 diabetes – it usually manifests itself like the lamest X-man power imaginable around age 11 or so.

Some of the high points of my youngest days took place at special camps offered for diabetic kids. For the purposes of this story, let’s call my old stomping grounds “Camp Uintah.” Camp Uintah’s summer program was offered in an appropriately woodsy area in the mountains, and we participated in the usual camp activities – hiking being one such activity.

I was probably eight or nine – a prime age for nature hikes and the high tide of my fascination with bugs &c. – when I had an experience that shaped my views on both fear and curiosity quite deeply.

Uintah’s hikes were a great chance to get out into the pine forests that blanket the mountains of my home state. They’re beautiful, and the scent of the air there is unlike anything I’ve experienced anyplace else. In the spirit of encouraging any budding naturalists in the group, the appointed leader of this particularly memorable hike was a biologist from some local college or another. He certainly looked the part, with that weird disdain for normal fashion that becomes a sort of narcissistic fashion in and of itself among some academics.

At first, I had a great time. The trail wound through the fragrant shade of the woods. The sun was out, but the temperature was mild. As we rounded a switchback, a few kids noticed a gargantuan grasshopper lying prone in the dust on the trail. Ordinarily, a dried-out grasshopper husk would be quite a trophy, but unfortunately our appraisal of its condition was initially… off the mark.

The damn thing was obviously dead. Its limbs were frozen in that stately Pharaoh pose that deceased insects favor and its wings were partially extended and dry. But it jumped. Continue reading Familiar, Unfamiliar: Uncanny

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The Best Godzilla

If you haven’t guessed by our plans to run a ‘Summer of Kaiju’ next year, I adore giant monsters. The Jewish Godzilla was my facebook profile picture for years. I grew up watching Godzilla vs Mecha-Godzilla then rewatching and then rewatching it again. I watched it so much that to this day I can remember the stupid prophecy about the sun rising in the west (which meant that it was reflecting off the water) which brought Godzilla back to life so that he could beat up the surprise twist evil Mecha Godzilla. I like giant monsters fighting, I like them breaking cities, I like everything about giant monsters.

I even care about things that are tangentially tied to giant monsters.

I want this album very badly.

I care less about giant robots.

But that brings me to what I consider the best Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen. Shin-Godzilla. Before I get into the movie itself, let me talk about how I witnessed it. I watched Shin-Godzilla on an airplane on my flight to Tokyo. My best friend, Rudie, was getting married to his longtime fiance, and I was flying to stand by his side. What makes it even more magical is that Rudie had gushed about how amazing Shin-Godzilla was for a very long time.

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Us’ 2nd Trailer

Like most people, I left “Get Out” using the phrase “I’m shook.” the movie was incredible. But not only was it incredible, it also created a new dynamic in very very visible pop culture.

Like most people I knew Jordan Peele from his masterful comedy stylings with Key & Peele, I was pretty much set to enjoy some light comedic horror with some tongue and cheek hilarity reminiscent of Simon Pegg. Pegg’s movies have a tendency to start off as a mockery and slowly evolve into the perfect love letter to the genre, I was ready. Instead, we were given a movie that only tangentially touched on horror tropes while highlighting real social issues and thought processes that keep real systematic racism around.

I was not ready. Get Out fucked me up. It revealed a side to Peele’s intellect and social commentary that I simply hadn’t prepared myself to deal with. Peele cemented himself as a creative mind in horror to be respected and watched. It was the sort of movie where after watching it, you needed to watch it a few more times just to catch all the nuance.

Now his second offering is upon us. “Us” and already we are seeing a movie that takes us far and beyond the limits of what we are normally comfortable with. From the soundtrack choices to the striking visual of horror during daylight, the trailer alone is a lovely jaunt through adrenaline-laced terror. Yesterday on Super Bowl Sunday, Jordan dropped another trailer on us, this one seems to offer more of the story, but everything is still a mystery.

Us drops on 3.22.19. And we cannot wait.