The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Sub-Worlds in Horror

super mario minus world

Since I’m noticing trends these days (and why not, I’ve got nothing to do but stare at the ceiling while contemplating civilization and life and the meaninglessness of time), here’s another one.

Is it just me or is there a thing about horror movies and thrillers hinging on some kind of subworld? Especially since the year 2000. Stranger Things has the “Upside Down”. Insidious has the “Further”. Coraline has the world of the “Other Mother”. Get Out has the “Sunken Place”. Even Us had a subworld with its secret lab maze under the carnival. I didn’t see Don’t Blink, but I guess that has some kind of Bermuda Triangle thing going on. And there’s the room in 1408, although I think that might just be haunted.

I know alternate dimensions are nothing new in speculative fiction, but it seems horror especially has been using this as a trope lately. Why? Usually horror movies prey on fears that consume us in our current society. But I’m not sure which one this is or why it’s coming up now. Is it preying on the fear that there’s some kind of other society that we know nothing about that could rise up and invade any time?

Is it rooted in climate change? The “Upside Down” does look pretty polluted.

Is it manipulation? In both Get Out and Coraline, the extra dimension is used as a way to placate the victim, luring them somewhere so the bad guy can parastically use them.

Is it… is it… ghosts? I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything for Insidious. That movie was so stupid (and the impetus for this article) I had to write something about it. I mean, the bad guy is called “lipstick-faced demon”.

Lanterns helpfully provided at the entrance to extra non-corporeal dimensions

Aren’t we a little old and jaded to be scared of “demons” and “ghosts” anymore? Didn’t Buffy put that whole genre to rest? Nowadays, horror’s family-oriented (The VVitch, The Babadook, Us, A Quiet Place) or functional relationships (It Follows, Get Out). Not ghosts and goblins.

Or maybe it’s just me who’s old and jaded. I’m so jaded Indiana Jones tried to steal me to put in a museum.

get out sunken place

My Kindertrauma: Tales from the Darkside’s “Inside the Closet”


So for my final Kindertrauma, I bring you one of the most obscure, but most trauma-causing pieces of media I was much too young to see. Some people had Pennywise. Some had Chucky. I had the creature from Tales from the Darkside‘s “Inside the Closet”.

inside the closet title kindertrauma
Tales from the Darkside was a like a cheaper, milder version of “Tales from the Crypt”. Less gore, more reliance on twist endings and psych-outs. But still, it had its share of monsters. Don’t mistake my description to think I watched the show. No, once again this lovely little memory comes courtesy of my mother, who rented it from the Hollywood Video for her class on horror. Thanks, Mom. I still love you.

For years, I thought this was “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie”. But no, these were three episodes from the show. On a rainy afternoon, I could only make it through the first before I had to leave. This one in particular is Season 1, Episode 7 (or eight, depending on what counts or not).

tales from the darkside inside the closet

Sexy college co-ed Gail has struck housing gold — Dr. Fenner is renting out his third floor room. It used to be his daughter’s and it’s the last available place in town (just go with it). She needs a place to live while finishing her graduate degree in fine arts (How did she get in this situation–kicked out? Drugs? Too much partying? Double secret probation? College houses are always packed beyond the capacity recommended by the Fire Marshall so people can split the rent).

But the veterinary professor has some rules (aren’t there always when dealing with little monsters?). He demands quiet–no radio, TV, or boyfriends. Also, there’s a peculiar small door in the room. It used to be a closet, but it’s locked now. Seems legit.

inside the closet tales from the darkside

That night, Gail hears a scuffling noise behind the door and gets no sleep thanks to paranoia. Dr. Fenner kicks a box out of anger. I don’t know why. Didn’t he want to rent out the room? Is something forcing him to? (it’s not like the creature needs to eat human flesh, as we find out.) Gail even gives him a perfect out when she thinks it’s a rat. But he says there are no rats in the house. Also, he forgot to give her any keys last night, so he tosses her a ring of keys before he has to leave.

Of course, what’s a scary show without someone snooping into things they’re not supposed to. Gail uses the keys on the small closet door. Nothing there. She puts down a mouse trap and hears it go off later that night. But now the door won’t open again.

That night, her nightlight goes out. (Why does she have a nightlight? I know there are no windows in this room, but she’s a grown woman.) All you hear is the closet door opening and something running around the room. Once she gets a flashlight, she sees the closet door is open, but there’s nothing inside. The camera pans down to the thing’s jaundiced red Gollum eyes under the bed (that’s dramatic irony!).

inside the closet eyes

Gail tells Dr. Fenner about it all, but when she tries to prove it, the closet door won’t open. Dr. Fenner again assures her the door hasn’t been opened for years, even though she put a mouse trap behind it. (Got some Yellow Wallpaper stuff happening.) When they leave, the thing pulls her luggage underneath the bed. This never comes up again. I guess she didn’t need her possessions that bad.

Some time later, Gail hears the closet door open and runs to it. Inside is a bunch of little girl clothes. She rifles around, but the mousetrap snaps on her hand and the closet door closes by itself. Further attempts to open it fail.

Now comes some belated backstory, as every good horror movie should have. Dr. Fenner’s daughter, Margaret, ran away with a house painter to Vermont. His wife died of chemotherapy due to breast cancer. How is this related to creepy stalker midget? I don’t know.

Night of the Final Day: Gail is poised with her flashlight when the door opens. She crawls up to it and shines the light, revealing this red-eyed, white-skinned monkey-thing with needle sharp teeth. It looks like a skeleton with skin. Or some D&D monster that you underestimate and then it kills your party.

inside the closet lizzie

Anyway the thing kills her by breaking her neck, then pulls her into the closet.

inside the closet lizzie attacks tales from the darkside

Next morning, cut to Dr. Fenner on the phone with Gail’s mother. No, he hasn’t seen her, but he’s only the landlord after all — he doesn’t get paid extra for detective work. While this is going on, the camera is creeping around to ominous music, so we know the monkey-thing is coming for professor. Then he gets off the phone and–“OW”–something bites him on the leg. He looks down and sees the monkey-thing (in glorious stop motion no less). This is it! He knows the truth! He can kill it! We’re saved! Happy ending!


He looks at the thing, holding his leg and rasping… AND PICKS IT UP. Ew, he’s touching it. He starts talking to it, saying she’s a pretty little girl, cooing like it’s a two-year-old child or puppy. It frickin’ hugs him. Those teeth are right by his neck, but he doesn’t care. He even cradles the thing in his arms. After some more sweet murmuring, he carries it upstairs to read it a story. The end. Here, have all my WTF’s.

All right, first off, the opening music is doing me no favors. (Goddamn 80’s synthesizers)

Second, the whole things takes place in a single house, in a single room. It could be a play–there’s only two actors and one setting. That gives a feeling of claustrophobia, which is fitting for something about a creature trapped in the closet. Third, it uses two methods of psychological horror – gaslighting and paranoia. But there’s an actual deadly monster to be afraid of (some might argue that the gaslighting becomes obsolete once the audience knows the monster exists. I can’t disagree). Fourth, it’s directed by Tom “frickin'” Savini and authored by the writer of Beetlejuice, Malcolm McDowell. Cut, print, ship it.

I don’t remember any of that. What I do remember is that thing’s red eyes underneath the bed. I remember a clawed hand reaching out to grab her feet JUST as she lifts them out of reach. I remember the girl getting killed for no reason–no karmic comeuppance, no playing God, or succumbing to seduction. She did nothing wrong. And I remember that fucked up ending where you think the professor is going to get his… but then starts baby-talking to it.

There’s something about small creatures that are creepier and scarier than big ones. Especially in my generation–gremlins, ghoulies, munchies, critters, hobgoblins, tomatoes, rabbits. One big Jason or Michael Myers is brutal. But a hundred little beasties are unstoppable–kill one, a hundred others remain. I wonder what it was about the eighties that provoked this phenomenom. Proliferation of technology? Disease? AIDS? Foreigners? Change?

I mean talk about hitting a kid where it hurts. We got both the “under the bed” and “in the closet” — the two best places for monsters to hide. Plus so many unanswered questions. What does his wife and daughter have to do with it? Did Dr. Fenner intend Gail to be killed? Why are the dolls & clothes not there, then there, then not there again? How do the cops not get wise to this, what with girls disappearing at this house? What is this thing? How did it get that way? Is it his daughter? A different daughter? Was she born that way? Deformed? An experiment? There’s plenty of animal biology paraphrenalia around the house (skulls and teeth and such), but of course there would be — he’s a veterinarian. We know it’s not Margaret because it’s named “Lizzie” by the crew. I can’t find a source for that tidbit, but one would think if it was meant to be Margaret, they’d call it Margaret. (“All there in the manual“) The only possible clue is that, as he takes her upstairs, the camera lingers on a taxidermied bear head (or wolverine, not sure) with teeth bared.

that just raises further questions futurama bender hermes

So we’ve got the dark, deformity, closed-in spaces, spooky eyes, bad dentistry, psychotherapy (Gail’s questioning her mental faculties), and sudden death coupled with evidence-hiding so no one can bring your murderer to justice. I’m surprised I’m still here and not in a padded room. I mean, jeez, how can a little boy see this much horror and trauma and not be warped.

anthony perkins psycho cinemagraph creepy


My Kindertrauma: Tidbits


For my second-to-last entry regarding Kindertrauma, I thought I’d go over some of the moments that didn’t warrant an entire article, but were still evoke shivers when I think of them.

“Recorded Live”
(one of HBO’s Short Takes; also known as “Flesh Eating Film Reels”)

I have no idea where or when I saw this, but I know I must have. Because when I was perusing old short horror films available on YouTube, this little gem came back, and I immediately had a Vagrant Story reaction (that’s an inside joke I don’t expect you to get).

vagrant story repressed suppressed memory

My dad must have recorded this off of HBO (he recorded everything, we had over 200 video cassettes in our house) and then taped over it, because I only remember seeing the end. But the end is the scary part anyway. Strips of film from reels and cassettes come alive (in glorious stop-motion, I might add) and wrap around this guy who I always assumed was a film editor. Then they either suffocate him or consume him. Very evocative of my previously mentioned fears of drowning and lingering deaths when you’re trapped and alive but can’t do anything about it.

I never knew if it was the end of a movie or what, but HBO would air these short films very early in its life, presumably when they needed to fill gaps in-between movies. I don’t think my dad intended to record it. He probably fell asleep in the chair and forgot to hit “stop” (he did that a lot). But thanks Dad for this unintentional snippet of childhood fear.

Cyborg-lady from Superman 3
superman 3 cyborg woman

Either Dad had this on tape for a time, I just occasionally saw it while channel flipping. And I’m not alone with this scene being a sore point for many kids. I wasn’t into Superman, so I just caught it by chance. Especially since any good stuff happens near the end.

Again, we have our good friend stop-motion being used to portray a super-computer melding into a woman. The metal sears to her face, wires in her skin, while she screams. Even the most horrific animes at this time weren’t this bad. Like, what did she do to deserve this? Comic book villains are goofy, they don’t get tortured like this. All she did was fall backwards. Looking back now, this should have been Braniac, but it’s a poor excuse for filmmakers pulling their punches.

Invaders From Mars

I often had insomnia when I was a kid. Probably from drinking too many Diet Cokes (that was what my mom bought) and not knowing what caffeine was. Not to mention an overactive imagination. So sometimes, if my parents had gone to bed, I’d sneak into the family room and watch late night TV. Not like Johnny Carson or Saturday Night Live. I mean the 1 AM “what do we fill time with” cable stuff. Honestly, the TV guide was as entertaining as the other programs.

The only TV that didn’t require much comprehension were horror movies. TNT or TBS was usually a good bet for these. I remember once I watched three in a row: some modern wolfman movie in a cave, “The Spookies” which I didn’t understand, and Invaders From Mars. That sounded like a simple movie. Maybe it was like War of the Worlds. With a goofy title like that, it had to have something in it for kids.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Well, the title came from a cheesy 1953 film. But this is a remake. It’s the difference between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Night of the Living Dead (1990) directed by Tom Savini. The first movie (which I’ve never seen) had big-headed green-skinned Martians and capitalized on the alien invasion/”Red Scare” trend. But the second is directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien), and special-effected by Stan Winston (every good movie ever).

The plot is essentially The Faculty or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Tommyknockers. Of course, I hadn’t seen any of those (or they weren’t yet created) so this is the first time I saw the paranoia plot, and was thus terrified. And it combines well with the “no one listens to kids” trope. All the adults around little David are suddenly acting weird, and they all have scars on their necks. Of course, no one will believe him, because he’s a kid. The only person he can get on his side, after much struggling, is the school nurse.

At the end, it’s only the boy. Everyone else has been turned, even the army, so they’re no help. Your parents are your enemies. Your teachers are your enemy. He’s utterly alone and supportless, sneaking around the spaceship that buried itself in the desert (a little like the end of The X-Files movie or Predator 2), and there’s all this freaky spaceship stuff and giant aliens that are just walking mouths. And at the end he confronts the leader, whose essentially a giant brain on his throne (reminded me a bit of “A Wrinkle in Time”). I forget what he does, either the aliens are vulnerable to salt, or he busts open a power core.

invaders from mars brain
Congratulations, Mother Brain, it’s a beautiful baby… something.

But what prevents this from being its own entry is the stupid stupid “Phew, it was all a dream” ending. Not only that, but the spaceship lands again just like in the beginning, like he’s about to relive all these events, but for real. Even an nine-year-old isn’t fooled by that kind of lazy storytelling. Well, mostly.

Mathman from Square One Television

I never liked math, but I never missed an episode of Square One. Well, occasionally I’d change channels once Mathnet came on–not a fan of detective stories. But every time Mathman came on, I had to flip away for a minute or two. I don’t know why, maybe it was something about that music, or the ominous coin-slot drop, or the black screen, but it scared the crap out of me. It hit that sweet spot of uncanny dread and fascination like I had with Braingames.

It didn’t help that the bad guy almost always won and ate the good guy. Maybe that’s why I could never watch it–Mathman was doomed. He’d would solve a few correct solutions, then chomp something wrong. (And being too young to understand fractions, his demise was unpredictable but inevitable. It was never a matter of if, but when). And suddenly the bad guy (him being a tornado didn’t help) would get the go-ahead to chase him. Being a maze, there was no escape, and as decreed by fate, the bad guy would eat him. (Really, he just covered him and Mathman would expand into pixels and fade out). But seriously, fuck that tornado guy.

Fun fact I just learned: the company that produced this segment was Blue Sky Studios, which has since made Ice Age and other average CG-animated movies.

House II: The Second Story
(at least the ending)

In the same way I caught Night of the Creeps and Invaders From Mars, House II was also frequently featured on afternoon TV. But I always caught the end of it. And as one might expect from an afternoon movie, it can hardly be called horror, unless you’re a small boy with nothing to do.

I’m not sure I was so much afraid of this as I was weirded out. From what I can remember, the ending sequence starts with a kind of revolving wall gag with a beautiful woman (who’s meant to imply woman trouble for the main character, who I think was the straight guy from Perfect Strangers? Or at least looked like him) disappearing and reappearing. There’s a green dog puppet, who’s super-cute until you realize it’s probably undead. There’s another puppet too but I forget what it is. And there’s an old man who looks like the guy on the cover of Phalanx.

snes phalanx box cover

And he’s undead too. Green mottled skin, rotten teeth. Like a zombie prospector or something. Like he got lost on the way to Mad Dog McCree. My guess is this guy’s an ancient relative of Perfect Strangers who got resurrected/summoned into the house and hijinx ensue, like Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Uncle Buck.

And there’s a big climax at the end, but I forget what it is. I think it’s got to do with being sucked into the afterlife or some other dimension. But the grandpa sacrifices himself, and then Perfect Strangers is holding him as he dies (again?) saying he’s sorry, but the old man says not to be. “I got to meet my great-great-grandson.” Then there’s a gravestone. And Perfect Strangers, his two supporting cast (including the girl who I think might be a “Imprinted Love Interest“), and the puppets ride a wagon off into a field, which seems to be nowhere near the titular “house” where everything happened. Like did they fall into the bad dimension? Or get trapped in the past and now where are they going?

I’ve never seen the first House or this movie all the way through. I’m not sure it would make any more sense if I did.

The Vacuum from Mr. Mom

Jaws was absolutely verboten to watch. Not because my parents wouldn’t let me, but I wouldn’t let me. I knew it was too scary for me. Even the music was scary. And I already had that “going down the drain” thing. Add a shark to that and forget it. But in the early eighties, people were still copying all the iconic bits. You may not have seen the movie, but you knew the music, which also sent down an occasional shiver.

I also had a blankey. It was white. It was made by my grandmother. Baby pictures show that it had a scene from Bambi on it, but it was worn off by the time of my first memory. I carried that thing everywhere. It was my cape, my sword, my whip, my blindfold, my all-purpose rope, and my lovey. Technically I still have it, or what’s left of it, which is a strip of wrinkled fabric, no heavier than a washcloth. In short, Linus was my idol.

Now Mr. Mom is a movie about a stay-at-home dad, which was progressive for 198-something (see also: Baby Boom). And of course, there’s the requisite scene where everything’s gone butt-knuckle crazy. Like in that Goofy cartoon “Father’s Day Off“. The baby’s crying, the sink is flooding, the phone is ringing, and so on and on. But what’s notable is that the vacuum starts taking off of its own accord. I don’t think vacuums could do that, then or now, but it was a “thing” in old comedy. My house had a similar vacuum with the gray dust bag and headlight for scaring the cat.

But when this vacuum took off, it started playing the Jaws theme. And it goes right for the son’s blankey. Vacuum + Jaws + loss of blankey = DO NOT WANT.

I didn’t watch Mr. Mom until decades later, at my girlfriend’s (now wife) house. And obviously, it wasn’t as scary as I remember. But I steered clear of that movie for a long time. Didn’t hurt that I didn’t understand the material at the time anyway.

My Kindertrauma: The Poison Cackler

The first thing I remember being scared of was the Poison Cackler from Fraggle Rock.

Early in life, we all learn what death is. The raccoon laying on the road shoulder. The crushed ant doesn’t move anymore. The grandfather laying in the casket and he looks so strange, unnaturally still, kinda plasticky. And as a child, you know of only a few things that cause death–being old, an unfortunate disease, extreme bodily trauma, and poison.

Poison is the scariest of these because it’s the least predictable. It works fast, and it could come from anywhere–an apple, a sword, a battle of wits with a Sicilian. But most of all, all the animals with poison–spiders, scorpions, tree frogs, and snakes. God forbid you get bit by a snake. According to all those books with “fun facts” meant to appeal to boys, a bite from a rattlesnake will kill you in fifteen minutes. And it turns your leg huge and purple. And there you are, lying in the sun, dying, with fifteen minutes to live.

That’s the poison part of the Poison Cackler. The “cackler” part is just the misophonic icing on the cake. I didn’t know what a “cackler” was, but it sounded bad, with it’s sharp K’s, like the word “crack”. And the -er suffice being an implication that it was an agent of this “cackle”. Even today I don’t associate a “cackler” with laughter. I associate it with immediate and painful death.

But the scariest part is you never see the monster. Even though it only showed up in only one episode, I have memories of it being mentioned continuously, which added to its prophetic threat. Recurring allies like Uncle Travelling Matt, Sidebottom, and Convincing John. These were powerful oracles. So powerful they couldn’t stay next to our hero’s sides (that would make things too easy). Therefore, if there was an evil recurring character, it must be really bad.

poison cackler

Now that the build-up is out of the way, look at this thing. It looks like someone asked H.P. Lovecraft to design a Muppet. It’s like a crab fucked a scorpion sideways. After being hinted at, it only appears visually in the second season episode “The Wizards of Waverly Place of Fraggle Rock”. That’s where Wembley switches places with a doppelganger wizard to get a taste of fame. (Like lots of children’s shows, you can tell them apart easily by the eyes and voice, but everyone else in the world is oblivious of these easily observed features) But the wizard does it to escape a Poison Cackler who’s been pursuing him. Oh great, not only are they deadly monsters, but they have vendettas.

poison cackler flyer poster
They never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically. They remember.

The first time you see it is from this view. It’s crawling through the caverns, holding up the flyermaking some kind of noise that sounds like shub-niggurath is really enjoying a donut. It sounds like he’s gonna orgasm if he gets his hands on the wizard. What did this guy do to him? It doesn’t help that the Poison Cackler’s theme is this ethereal heavy metal guitar riff straight of Ozzy Osbourne’s nightmare band.

Wembley gets a fake beard glued to him that he can’t get off, so when he realizes the wizard flim-flammed him in the interest of self-preservation, the crux of the episode becomes being trapped in an identity that’s not your own and no one will believe you. Oh, and also escaping the relentless unkillable thing-that-should-not-be (a la Friday the 13th).

The cackler corners the two of them. Oh great, add being trapped to that list of childhood fears. But it turns out the cackler is attracted to the wizard’s smoke pellets. They bait the monster and lead it to fall down a pit. Oh double great, falling and being trapped in a pit and never being able to get out. Let’s just keep adding on the trauma.

Here’s a thing that doesn’t help–when your Mom signs you up for a Fraggle Rock “book of the month” club and one of them is “Gobo Fraggle and the Poison Cackler” with one of the scariest pictures young me remembers seeing.

I can’t find the image, but it was essentially a gigantic mouth. Like it seems to go on further than it possibly should, like a pocket dimension. Forget the fact it’s Red Fraggle holding something up, and you can see her fingers. Forget that it looks nothing like it looked in the show.

The plot doesn’t help either, even though it’s all a farce. To get Gobo out of the rock so they can plan for his birthday party, they send him on a quest to kill the Poison Cackler looking for him (it’s like imprinting, but for death). I think it even includes the line “you know what they say about Poison Cacklers–they never forgive and they never forget”. It’s like the pre-pubescent version of “It Follows”.

When I die, it’s going to be the Poison Cackler standing there, not the grim reaper. It’s the most base personification of death that roots down to my soul.

My Kindertrauma: Wonderful Sausage from “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”

more scary stories to tell in the dark alvin schwartz

How about a change of pace? Let’s hit the pause button on films and go for some literature.

Now, I’ve never found reading very scary. It lacks the visual punch and timing. The best you can get is a sense of dread. I know some people say that when your imagination takes over, things are scarier. But for me, I know I have nothing to fear from my imagination — it’s in my head, the monsters can’t affect me there. It’s only as scary as I can make it. Lovecraft can’t stop me from giving Cthulhu a flowery hat like Mrs. Nesbitt.

But sometimes at night, when the shadows are on the wall, and something pricks you just right… ideas can’t be controlled so easily. The right combination of gross-out, terror, and fear leads to nightmares. Case in point: “Wonderful Sausage” from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

This was another procurement from my mom’s college horror class. Why do I subject myself to these things? Was it a way to try and get closer to my mother? Was I just warped to begin with? Were sources of trauma becoming sources of arousal for me — the product of living a quiet, boring suburban life and this was my way to get safe thrills? I’ll never know.

Anyway “Wonderful Sausage” combines child abduction (which I touched on in Poltergeist III) and cannibalism. There’s also the horror of everyone enjoying it. I think something in my German roots was also attracted by the sausage. The fact that there’s little explanation behind the killer’s motivation makes it more intimidating. There’s no introspection, no thinking moments (as one expects from a campfire tale), it’s just a thing that happens — a guy snatches up men, women, children, puppies, kittens (not my cat!), kills them, and makes them food.

I remember one night laying in my bed, trying to sleep. Insomnia is a terrible thing, and I often had it. Usually a result of a fast and deep mind, made worse when toxic thoughts run around your head. And the shadows on your wall start to look like a butcher holding a limb over a sausage grinder. It was the same sort of thing that happened after Creepshow — my window looks like the Creeper is standing there, like a hallucination. Half-there, half-not.

My Kindertrauma: Large Marge

large marge pee wee's big adventure

Probably the definition of true kindertrauma. I can’t think of anything more iconic than this nightmare fuel. I remember distinctly fast-forwarding through this part when I watched in on VHS. It was just too scary. It’s bad enough that stop-motion is creepy-looking as hell (see House on Haunted Hill for a great example). There’s not much I can say about it that hasn’t been said. Let’s break it down, see if that helps.

The movie’s had some dark areas up to this point, but nothing ridiculous. Pee Wee hitchhikes with a criminal, but has to dress in drag to get past a road block. There’s a few odd visual gags like the creepy clown and Francis Buxton drooling black liquid. Eyebrow-raising, but nothing traumatizing. After a jumpscare that’s not really jumpy involving some headlight glasses and cartoon eyes, ominous music starts as lights slowly fade up on a mack truck. Bad enough we spent the eighties learning about how dangerous hitchhikers were — either being one or picking one up — but we were about to find out why.

The lady in the truck could be a lunch lady or a grocery cashier or a grandma. Except for that grim look on her face. With no prompting, she speaks for the first time. “On this very night, ten years ago…” sounding like she smokes ten packs a day (and back in that time, smoking was cool. Just ask Joe Camel.) I didn’t even understand the metaphor she was using (a garbage truck… dropped off the Empire State Building) but I could hear the tone of her voice, see the lifelessness in her eyes, the gray and black fog as if traveling the river Styx. And then…

“It looked…



The face doesn’t even look like a car accident victim. It’s some goofy eye-bulging, tongue-wagging cartoon thing, like bootleg Looney Tunes. But the fact that it’s only half a second, that it’s uncanny valley stop motion, that you aren’t expecting it, makes it the worst Kindertrauma I ever seen.

And the icing on the cake is when Pee Wee enters the truck stop and says “Large Marge sent me”. Everything stops. This is a movie called Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, essentially a Saturday Morning children’s program where the whiz-bang sound effects and colorful visuals never stop. No one says a word. It turns out SHE was the worst accident she’d ever seen. And that Pee Wee was riding with…

…her GHOST!

My Kindertrauma: Ghoulies

ghoulies video box cover

When I was little, there was a video store not too far from our house. I can’t remember what it was called. Mr. Movies? Video Update? I know it wasn’t a Blockbuster because the color scheme was red and white. Anyway, as those who grew up among VHS knows, the place was like an art museum. It wasn’t bad enough to have enough selection to give a nine-year-old option paralysis or sucker him into picking “My Pet Monster“. But they had to make every rectangle a beautiful magical portal to another world, each more enticing than the next. And no section had more intrigue than the Horror section.

I mean, that’s what they were meant to do — appeal to the visceral primal nature of fear and evil. Those pictures inflamed my senses with images of deformity, darkness, evil, bare shoulders, shiny knives, thick blood, bulging eyeballs, and rotting skulls. What was in that basket in “Basket Case”? Why did that face look so skewed? How did the Critters go from a needle-toothed fuzzy animal in the first movie to some amorphous multi-faced ball in the second? What was in that baby carriage? Why was that toy monkey so angry? Why was Santa carrying an axe down that chimney? What possessed someone to stab that shoe?

But for some reason the Ghoulies cover struck me hardest. As when you are a little kid, silly stuff scares you. Mostly stuff that involves the disappearance/disposal of things and not knowing where those things go. This may also explain my fear of escalators and bath drains.

And toilets belong to that category. I don’t remember being afraid of toilets. But they were definitely mysterious, for two reasons. One, it involves poop, which is bizarre in the first place (“I make this from my body, but it smells bad, and I want to leave it behind”) and 2) the toilet sucks it down and makes it disappear (“Where does it go?”). And then there’s the big question that any decent scientist proposes: if it brings stuff down, can anything come back up?

Enter Ghoulies. I wonder how much time I’ve wasted staring at this cover. I was a big fan of Gremlins — I don’t remember a time I hadn’t seen that movie — so this seemed like a page from the same book.

But these weren’t cute fuzzy mogwais with bizarre life rules. This was a slimy, skull-like baby-thing. And it was climbing out of the swirling portal of mystery, where things fall into the black hole of mystery and they don’t come back out. They’re not meant to come back out.

But what if something did. OoOoOoOoOoOoOo.

The Books I Read: November – December 2014

bookshelf books

me earl and the dying girl
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

It’s kinda funny. It eschews notions of romance, and really, it’s more about the friend, who reminds me of Tony Goldmark. I couldn’t get that image out of my head — the deadpan, Internet snarker-troll, self-deprecating, black comedy hamball.

And that’s what the book is really about. This guy is a amateur filmmaker and it talks about his love of weird, foreign, independent cinema and his friendship with Earl, a black urban youth. And in the background is Rachel, an acquaintance who is forced by Tony’s mother to hang out with because she’s dying of cancer. The story’s not about her, but about Tony making films and then showing them to her. It’s more about his student film-making.

I think it was published as a response to YA death-roms like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “If I Stay”, but it’s more like a parody of “A Walk to Remember”. The thing is, at the end, I asked myself “did anyone learn anything?”, “did anything change?” And I’m not sure anything did. Which may have been the point, but as far as the story goes, it left it a little hollow for me. Which was disappointing, because it started so well.

13th floor christine rains
The 13th Floor by Christine Rains

I feel like this is meant for a middle school audience. Its a collection of short stories, but all the plots are mostly the same — paranormal romance. But it’s not really romance, it’s adventure. Like old-school serial, afternoon cartoons style. And they’re generally cliche. Like superhero stories. It has as much romance as an action movie. Instead of stories about romantic love or keeping couples apart, there’s Greek god tournaments and vampires fighting Big Bad Demons and werewolf girls in pack politics.

It’s an amateur book and has all the earmarks. The writing style involves too much telling, characters without goals (or stereotypical ones), and overwriting/telling the reader what they already know.

patrick rothfuss the slow regard of silent things
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

If you’re any fan of Patrick Rothfuss, you’ve heard about this book and the split decision. In the author’s preface, he states “you are probably not going to like this book” and most reviewers seem to come on one side of that extreme or the other. Sadly, I am on the side of hating it.

The biggest problem is that it’s not a story. It has no dialogue. It has no plot. It has no events. There is one, single character who crawls around the undercity, looking for interesting trash-treasures like Gobo Fraggle, and rambling in abstract, “precious” attachments. If you remember Auri from Kingkiller #1 and #2, she’s not any saner when she’s in first person. You won’t learn anything new about Kvothe or the Kingkiller Chronicle mythology from this book. I couldn’t even find a summary online to help me understand what I’d read better. It defies explanation. At least it’s short.

The good thing is Rothfuss admits this, and that’s fine. I believe that he accomplished what he set out to do, and that’s a big achievement for any writer. He knows the general audience, even the audience of his previous books, are going to have a visceral response to this. There is great beauty and energy in the way that these inanimate things are given empathy by the main character.

It’s a good book for bibliophiles and writers who want to see something different. It’s not for the masses.

clive barker the hellbound heart
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

I think I’ve learned that it’s impossible for me to be scared by the written word. Maybe it’s the medication, maybe I’m older. I hear people who couldn’t sleep after reading Salem’s Lot or The Exorcist, and I just don’t get it. This book is no exception for me.

It follows the movie quite well, so if you’ve seen the film, I don’t think you’ll get much more out of this book. The Horror Guru had a lot of good things to say about both, but I believe that not all stories fit the medium. Horror, as good as the written word has been, just thrives better in cinema. It was very “meh” for me. Maybe it’s too wordy to be scary.

Maybe it’s scarier in concept and theme than the words on the page. One thing that happens to horror as it ages is that the scariness becomes campy. No one takes Freddy and Jason seriously anymore. When you grow up and look at it, it’s just a Rubik’s Cube and a guy who fell on a nail gun.

anna sewell black beauty
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Well, it’s definitely about a horse.

This was a book assigned as reading in either fourth grade or fifth grade, maybe sixth grade. Anyway, it was never finished, not sure why. The reading unit moved onto something else that didn’t involve silent reading. Maybe policies changed.

Anyway, it falls under the category of so many other books I’ve read. It’s just boring and out of date. If you like horses, there’s a lot of detail about how horses were treated and all the equipment and things you don’t think of, like having to brush down a horse of its sweat after a hard ride or it’ll get pneumonia. But it’s lacking any overall plot, any overall story arc or obstacle or goal. It’s just a horse living. More interesting things happen to its owners, but the horse doesn’t get to hear about that because it’s in the barn.

The only reason I can think to read it is if you were SUPER into horses. Most classics are classics because they’ve got some themes that relate to today. I’m having trouble seeing where the equivalents are for beasts of burden. Just about everything we used to use horses for are now done by cars and trucks. Horses are now pets or show animals (or merchandise for princess dolls), and thus, rarely mistreated. I think there are better “talking animal” books out there that fit our society today.

dear bully
Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall & Carrie Jones

When I was at my child’s book fair, I saw this on the shelf and thought, “holy cow, this exists?” I have an interest in bullies and bullying as it exists (beyond the overused cliche seen in movies like Biff Tannen or Scut Farkus). The clincher was the few authors I recognized: R.L. Stine, A.S. King, Mo Willems. Unfortunately, those were the only authors I recognized.

Some are bullies, some stand by and do nothing, but most relate anecdotes or essays about their bully experience. The best thing this book provides is the knowledge that everyone gets bullied, popular people, nerdy people, and adults. It’s nice to know that eventually, all things come out in the wash. This means that the experience is universal. It also means that you get seventy stories of virtually the same thing.

Each essay is only a few pages, and there are seventy-five of them. After a while, the story starts being the same. I think this could have gone farther if the number was reduced and the length was upped. Find the experiences that are truly unique, or more authors that are universally well-known or use a variety of techniques, and this book could have gone a lot farther. Also, there is way too much bias on the female end. I don’t have the facts to support this, but I believe this is a universal experience. As a result, a lot of the stories are “Mean Girls” style bullying. I feel male stories would A) provide the variety the book needs and B) raise the stakes from “shunning” or “shaming” behaviors to physical threats.

girl with all the gifts m.r. carey
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

This book hooked me right away. It started by talking about a girl strapped to a chair, wheeled to her class, then put back in her cell, handled with utmost caution. I immediately thought “Galerians” which endeared me more.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. I was lucky enough to start this book without knowing what the twist was. It’s not a surprise there is one, as the tagline and summary are quite vague. The publishers must be relying heavily on word of mouth for this one. But I can’t talk more about it without revealing the twist, since it happens early on. So if you want to avoid the spoilers below the paragraph, know that I feel the book is a standard example of its genre. It peaks in the beginning and end, but sags in the middle, and doesn’t demonstrate much outside its tropes. In other words, set me up only to be disappointed in the overall story.

Now to the spoilers. This is in fact, a horror novel. More specifically, a zombie story, and not much different than the other zombie stories I’ve read (Monster Nation, The End Games, etc.) It’s very standard. There is a camp where the survivors hold up, and do experiments on the few sentient zombies, which are children. They’re trying to discover what makes them tick and how the fungus that causes zombieism works (reminds me of “The Last of Us”). The trappings I’m talking about are that, like most zombie novels, it’s really a survival story. And like all survival stories, not much happens, as you are just trying to survive. There’s a lot of walking, thinking, bickering, and observing. The “few of us against them” that we see over and over again. Hide out in a house, where are we going to find our food, run and run, but no one dies and their ultimate goal is simply “safety”.

This is where the book sags, and it’s a large portion. I know one of the themes will be that it’s the other human survivors you need to fear more than the zombies. I know that there’s going to be conflict between the protective mother of the zombie girl and the hard-nosed military leader who wants to kill her and the mad scientist who only considers everything in black and white science.

So yeah, mixed feelings. Maybe I’m disappointed because it’s not the novel I wanted. But it’s got great tension, but the plot drags out and doesn’t move past some of the tropes I wish it would. A lot could have been cut out of the middle.

shadowboxer tricia sullivan
Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

This book has two different halves that have nothing to do with each other. One half is awesome, the other isn’t.

The one that’s awesome is about Jade, an MMA fighter that goes to Thailand for some training (and to avoid a possible arrest after beating up an MMA fame whore). Holy cow, let me repeat that. A book about a girl American Mixed Martial Artist who travels half a world away to the land of Muay Thai for further training and a chance at a title shot. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Doesn’t that sound like no other book you’ve ever heard before? It did to me.

But the other half has nothing to do with this. It’s about a girl who can teleport through plants who’s being exploited by some rich white guy holed up in Thailand to deliver drugs and human traffic to various parts of the world undetected. It’s not even the same genre as the Jade story. It’s a dark fantasy with Thai mythology and beliefs about reincarnation and ghost/spirits and animals. Not what I came in for. And neither character has any relation to the other, either in spirit or plot. They just… meet… at the end.

I would so love this book if this part was excised. Each half has nothing to do with each other, it feels like it was shoehorned in to increase length. I just want to hear about Jade. I care about Jade. I’m interested in Jade. Not some girl who can walk through walls and the old rich white guy “big bad”. I can go to X-Men for that. The tonal difference is too jarring. That keeps this book from being one of the best I’ve read.

Why Am I So Damn Fascinated By Five Nights at Freddy’s?

five nights at freddy's fazbear jumpscare

I think it got popular because of the Let’s Plays. It’s always fun to watch people freak out. Bill Cosby said when a person is scared, that’s the only time they’re really being themself. I’ve been watching Let’s Play’s, reading the entire FN@F wiki, playing the memes.

Yet I don’t own the game, and don’t plan to. It’s all jumpscares. I hate jumpscares for two reasons. They’re cheap and meaningless ways to control the audience. And I hate the way jumpscares make me feel, like a weak little kitten, manipulated, afraid of everything. Just like elementary school. Yes, I have a double standard. Deal with it.*

So why am I so damn fascinated with it? Maybe because it’s Halloween. But let’s take a look at why it appeals, at least, to me.

Robots – If you’ve read some of my book reviews, you’ll see that I complain a lot about how the robots act too human. Not here. They are nice and robotty. Full of gears, wires, crossbars. This is great because they are in that space where the uncanny valley peaks its highest and falls to its lowest. In fact, I’ve seen graphs that show “teddy bear” at the top and “zombie” at the valley.

Their faces move separate from their eyes, if they have eyes… or faces. Warped or missing body parts (like Foxy). Limb joints that expose the endoskeleton. They move faster than they should, but you never see them doing so. If you read the story, you see that they refer to Bonnie as a “he”.  These things are just so awfully off you can’t look away. Even their sounds are uncanny — slowed down girl laughing or raptor-like screeching that cuts out. I think Chica scares me the most, because she’s got that second set of teeth in her mouth.

Fear and Dread – FN@F’s encompasses all ways to scare someone — the gross-out, the startle, the sense of dread. You have basically no control, no agency in this game. You’re a helpless babe with no arms or legs. All you can do is watch on cameras and maybe shut the door (a mechanic which comes with cost).

In all horror movies, it’s not the jump scare that gets you, it’s the part before that. The dread that something is going to happen, you don’t know what, but you can’t do a damn thing about it. The same held true for Resident Evil. The scary part is not that you’re in a mansion with zombies. It’s that there are more of them than you have bullets, and you don’t know where you can get more.

Also, claustrophobia. You can’t leave the room. The perspectives you are given are grainy, colorless, and fixed. It’s got key elements that are always winners — the creepy doll, the painting that follows you with its eyes, unbearable silence, fear of mental illness (with the hallucinations), and various kinds of jump scares.

A Unique Setting – As far as I know, there’s never been a horror story set at a Showbiz Pizza. There’ve been similar scenarios, like a circus, a funhouse, that are tangential. It’s the new Friday the 13th. Before we had young innocent summer camp, young innocent babysitting, young innocent slumber parties. Now we’ve got young innocent pizza-oriented family entertainment centers.  But Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza hits on that unique niche of nostalgia that only eighties kids like me can understand and appreciate. Plus it’s pretty universal to all of us who are now thirty-year-old gamers.

A Thin Backstory – Any narrative is presented though a mysterious “phone guy” to give you your tutorial. I still don’t get how it works — did he pre-record all five in a row? Does he work the 6 – midnight shift right before you enter? If so, don’t you pass each other on the way in? How did the fifth night get recorded? Are these on an answering machine? A voice mail? If so, why does it ring? Is he in a different room? Where is the phone?

Besides all that, there are the purposeful “hints” of something wrong, just enough to give a sense of “offness”. The “Bite of ’87” that phone guy mentions never gets further explanation. There are posted articles about the the animatronics’ smell of decaying flesh and pus, the serial killer who posed as Freddy Fazbear, and the five children who were never found. You are never given any more than suggestions that they exist and may be the cause of this “haunting”.

And here’s Phone Guy to tell you it’s all fine, nothing to worry about, it’s all in your head. Yeah, you might get horribly mangled, but if you play dead, that might stave off the killer robots in this Chuck E. Cheese.

That means it’s great fun to interpret all the missing elements, analyse and add your own story. Trade theories and suggest alternatives. It’s what smart people on the Internet do.  People have gotten so desperate they’re making the cupcake on the desk into a character.

Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek. No food establishment could exist with such things and still be in business. No contract that says “we have ninety days until we need to report you missing” could legally exist. There’s no rules sign that says “no pooping on the floor”. These robots have the ability to be “free-roaming” in 198X, but we still don’t have a robot that can climb stairs.

So take that for what it’s worth — the campiness of a eighties horror Blockbuster Rental. It’s become an instant, quick-play classic. Does that mean it’s bright flame that will burn quickly. I’m afraid it might be — there’s not much to the game besides atmosphere and jumpscares. I think more of the innovating setting and aesthetic than the gameplay itself. But time will tell.

*Remember those Flash thingies that masqueraded as images, that you had to find the differences or stare for a while and something would happen, then the Exorcist would pop up and scream? Fucking hated those.

Genre Mixing

DJ Mixing

Lacking creativity? Can’t seem to come up with something other than a rehash of “The Thing” or Pocahontas? Try genre-mixing.

A genre is nothing but a set of tropes and expectations. Some of the best arts in the world were created by taking standards from one set and applying them to another. Horror is an excellent mixer. It’s the onion of the cinematic world. All the settings have been taken? Put it in space (Good example: Alien. Bad example: Leprechaun 4: in Space). But no, let’s make it a comedy (Good example: Shaun of the Dead. Bad example: Killjoy). Dean Koontz is known for hybridizing, some to success and some to not. I think some flavors don’t mix. If you start introducing ghosts or other fantasy elements into a mystery, it loses the stakes, because it becomes “anything goes”. A Game of Thrones is a soap opera of “Lord of the Rings”.

There are already plenty of standard combinations: “action comedy”, “comic science fiction”, “comedy-drama”. I’m saying go one step farther. Combine “The Terminator” with an eighties family film, and you get “Short Circuit”, one of my all-time favorite movies. And Star Wars, the all-time most popular thing ever, is just a combination of template fantasy and science fiction. Tim Burton’s famous for this — “Beetlejuice”, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”, “Sweeney Todd”. And speaking of that, what other type is more genre-busting than a horror musical — Repo! The Genetic Opera and Little Shop of Horrors.

And you can go beyond movies. Video games like Final Fantasy and others have some fantastic mixing. In FF8 there are computers and CDs and TVs and radio and gun-swords and giant beasts that work for you and monsters and spaceships and aliens and sorceresses and time travel. What a salad! Japan has a lot of strange stuff like this. Read or Die has spies who can control paper. Evangelion has giant robots and teen angst. Trigun combines the Wild West and… well, to speak of anything begrudges spoilers.

You can do this with music too. Lindsey Stirling is famous for upgrading violin music with dubstep, video game covers, and stuff you’ve never heard before. Combined with awesome dancing? Sold! I have tickets to see her in July, and I’m looking forward to it muchly.

Above, you have read some of my favorite pieces of media. Like, personally favorite. And it’s not that hard to do. Granted, you can easily screw it up. There’s more bad combinations out there than good.

But the potential for brilliance is worth the risk. Here, I’ll leave you with this.