The Christmas Ghost Story: Spook Rock

It’s time for another Fox Spirit Books ghost story for Christmas. For some, 2020 may have been all the horror needed. But a little chill in the darkest days is just what the doctor ordered — if she’s the Prof she does anyway. There is a real Spook Rock (in fact there are several in New York). It can be found in a picturesque little town that would perfect for a Hallmark movie — or a horror film, as two young women discover…

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K. A. Laity

“Well, isn’t that a picture?”

April wasn’t sure if Joyce was being sarcastic. “Picturesque. I promised you picturesque. I deliver.”

“Quaint. Isn’t that what they call it? Perfect for a haunted house in the dark, but quaint in the daytime.” Joyce laughed. “Your aunt didn’t actually die here, right?”

“No, in the hospital in town.” An early COVID-19 casualty wavering between life and death for a couple weeks then gone. No visitors allowed. Not that they were close anymore.

“In town?”

“I told you. Town is what we came through off the thruway. This is the village.”

“Spook Rock is such an inspiring name.” Joyce sighed and grabbed her bag from the car. “The porch is nice. Huge.”

“Just imagine us sitting out there on a summer’s evening, sipping wine.” April pawed through her handbag to find the big old key for the front door.

“April, it’s winter.”

“Okay, hot chocolate?”

The door opened easily, no creaking at all, despite Joyce’s muttered predictions. The smell was a bit musty. The house had been closed up for months as the estate stuttered through its process.

“Old lady smell,” Joyce wrinkled her nose.

“Old food more like,” April said, throwing her bag on bench in the foyer. “Her neighbour—Elizabeth something…Wylding maybe? She said she threw out what was gone bad on the counters and whatnot, but I’m sure there’s more.”

They explored the house, opening doors and curtains. Everything was coated with a fuzzy layer of dust, but mostly neat. Only her aunt’s bedroom showed any sign of her presence. The patchwork quilt on the bed was folded back as if still awaiting her return.

“I’m afraid to open the refrigerator,” April confessed.

“That’s why we brought lunch from Zabar’s,” Joyce said. “Can you start a fire in that?” She pointed at the fireplace.

“Of course. Auntie taught me when we were living here after mom’s divorce. You cold?”

“Of course I’m cold. I’m from Queens. We don’t live in Hallmark cards like you melanin-deprived people. We like radiators that overheat everything so you have to leave the windows open.”

“Your mother would never stand for that. I know better.” April laughed and picked some sticks out from the kindling box.

“You didn’t see some of the places we lived before, like the horrible apartment in Astoria.” Joyce shuddered.

The fire took off quickly. The wood was really dry. April added firewood to the list she had begun. The furnace kept the place reasonably warm, but it was a drafty old house. The stone fireplace was especially welcome this time of year. The flicker of the flames was cheery, too. The sun descended early leading up to Christmas.

“Shall we tackle the fridge now?”

They worked methodically from the kitchen through the dining room to the sitting room, cleaning, clearing and vacuuming up what they could, tossing unidentifiable bits and pieces into the garbage bags Joyce had remembered to bring. It was funny how they adapted their usual work habits to new circumstances. April was the idea generator, Joyce was the logical problem-solver. Their PR firm was really taking off—until the coronavirus shut everything down.

Manhattan rents don’t recognise emergencies.

They were making good progress when a fuse blew. Everything went quiet. It wasn’t quite dark but it was definitely getting there. Add flashlights to the list.

Joyce popped out into the hallway, phone in hand with the flashlight on. “Do the ghosts come out now?”

“It’s just a fuse. Or a circuit breaker. I forget which.”

“Down in the spooky cellar?”

“It’s not spooky.” But April remembered how she had hated it as a kid, mostly because it always seemed to be festooned with spider webs. They trooped down the stairs, Joyce lighting the way with the phone over April’s shoulder. The stones of the walls felt very cold, but there weren’t cobwebs that she could see.

The metal cabinet was on the west wall below a window and beside the washer and dryer. April was pleased to see they looked like recent acquisitions. She jiggled the latch of the box open. None of the circuits had labels but the one in question showed red while the rest were white. She flipped the switch over and then back to clear it. The vacuum started whining above them. “You didn’t switch it off.”

“I was startled,” Joyce said. “What is that smell? Did something die down here?”

She hadn’t noticed it at first, but now April could taste it on her tongue. “Maybe she had a mousetrap and…you know.”

“Whatever it is, it is rank.”

April pulled the string for the bare bulb in the center of the cellar. There were some boxes and a tool bench on the wall opposite. Hammers and saws hung neatly on a pegboard. Shelves held flower pots and gardening items.

“What’s that?” Joyce pointed to the round wooden cover with a handle on the floor. It looked like the top of a barrel.

“I don’t remember,” April said, but almost at once she did. “Oh…”

“Is it the old sewer? That’s where the stank is coming from. Need some Clorox down here.”

Joyce bent over to reach for the handle but April stopped her. “Don’t!”

“What’s up, buttercup?” Joyce looked at her in the gloom. “Horrible childhood memories stirred up?”

“No. Yes. Actually yes. It’s the old well. Auntie told us not to open it but I did and I dropped my favourite bracelet down there and she said I would never be able to get it back and I cried all day over it.”

“I’m sorry for that, kiddo. But as childhood traumas go, that’s pretty mild.” Despite her tone Joyce looked worried. April knew she was overreacting but there was something about the well that made her stomach clench. And it wasn’t just the stench.

“Let’s run to the hardware store and see if there’s something we can get to kill that smell.” It was late but they were probably open until five.

The shop looked just the same as she remembered, like a log cabin surrounded by pines. The old geezer at the counter had been replaced by someone younger. He was helping an elderly woman with a cane wearing fancy lace facemask. “If you gotta be safe, why not be elegant?” she whispered to Joyce as they headed down the aisle. They had utilitarian cotton masks that were easy to launder.

“What do you think? Bleach? Or something stronger?”

April sighed. There wasn’t a wide range of cleaning products. “I’m not sure.”

“Maybe we should try Walmart. Is there a Walmart here in Spook Rock? And where is the rock? I don’t want to know where the spooks are. No haints for me.”

“It’s on the river, just south of the bridge we came over from the house. We can go by there tomorrow.”

“Why is it called that?” Joyce picked up a blue bottle to read the ingredients.

“There’s an old story that lovers parted by their parents would meet there but one time, spring I guess, the floods were too high and they drowned. Native American tale, I think. Not sure which tribe.”

“Mohican.” April started. The young man from the counter had made his way over to them. “But it’s nonsense.”

“Mohican, ah.” April wasn’t sure what else to say.

“People of the water that are never still.” He smiled but only politely. “Stockbridge-Munsee community around here.”

“So then why is it called Spook Rock?” Joyce asked. “We’re not on some ancient Mohican burial ground, are we? That would be bad news.” She smiled at April but the hardware guy wasn’t amused.

“This land is pretty much all burial grounds for my people. What are you looking for?”

April felt chastened but maybe he was just trying to change the subject. “Uh, we need something to put down an old well to get rid of the stink.” She did not expect him to look so horrified.

“What? Are you nuts?”

“I’m sorry. Is that offensive to your people’s um…”

“Yes probably, but you’ve got to know it’s criminal to pollute the watershed.” His expression made clear she was an idiot. “You can’t put bleach or other harsh chemicals down a well. You’d cause a huge die off of plants and animals and possibly poison people who use the same water system. All these old wells are connected.”

April could feel her face blush crimson. White guilt! Oh, god. That was it. What must he think of her? Clueless consumer trash.

“What do you suggest we do?” Joyce asked. As always she was focused on practicalities. “The smell is atrocious.”

The hardware guy turned away and for a moment April thought he was just going to ignore them, but he reached behind the counter and grabbed a business card. “Call this guy. He’ll see what you need to do.”

April took the card: Tom Miller, Dowser. “Okay. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

Later as they ate the grocery store pizza in the much cleaner kitchen, April confessed her embarrassment. “He was probably muttering under his breath about stupid white ladies the rest of the day.”

“Nah, he just called you a Karen and complained to his other customers about city folk coming up here to gentrify their old village.” Joyce sipped her wine. “Too bad, but maybe that was your meet-cute moment and you messed it up.”

“Shut up!”

“Seriously, we’re in a Hallmark movie here and you had your meet-cute and blew it. As the Black best friend I only get the Obama-safe handsome Black man in the closing moments of the movie. I can see the cut of his suit right now.”

“You are too much.”

“So what’s a dowser anyway?”

April sighed and picked up her wine. “It’s a person who finds water. I learned it in a movie with Russell Crowe. You use these rod thingees and they cross when you’re over water and you dig down to find the well.”

“So, this is going to be some Obi-Wan kind of guy? Intriguing.”

However, when they met Miller the next day, he defied their expectations by being young and peppy and not at all mystical. “I don’t know how it works. It just works. My dad taught me, his dad taught him, and so on.”

“Okay but there’s some kind of magic behind it, right?” Joyce was clearly disappointed.

“The well is in the cellar,” April said to change the subject. They gathered around the wooden cover and Miller took it off. If anything, the smell was worse today, maybe because the rest of the house was clean. The dowser crouched down. You couldn’t see the water. It was too far down in the dark. But you could smell it. April suddenly felt nauseous. Joyce fanned the air away from her nose as if it might help.

Miller sighed and stood up.

“What should we do?” Please don’t let it be real expensive.

“If it were me,” the dowser said, his hands held up as if to fend off expected objections, “I’d cap it, bulldoze the house, and move far, far away.”

“What?!” April felt faint.

“Sell the house, pass the problem on to someone else. You could do that. Not entirely ethical but you could do it.” He sighed again.

“What’s wrong with it?” Joyce asked. April was still in shock.

“It’s dead.”

“How can a well be dead?” April wanted to laugh. Maybe he was more woo-woo mystical than they thought.

“Water is a living thing. A well is a living thing. This is not a living thing.” He explained as if it were perfectly logical. “You could seal it up and try digging elsewhere to find a new well but I don’t think you’re going to find something within easy reach of the house. Didn’t you notice the state of the woods behind here? Something dead, something deep.”

“What kills a well?” Joyce looked equal parts dubious and curious.

“Usually it’s runoff from manufacturing or mining. Chemicals get in the watershed that shouldn’t be there. I honestly don’t know what’s in your water. I just know dead water when I see it.” He sniffed. “Or smell it.”

April couldn’t wrap her head around the idea. All her plans were sunk into making this house a success, a refuge from the financial woes, a place to rebuild their business. A place to get back to normal after this hellish year. Not a new curse.

They didn’t laugh as much in front of the fire that night. They ate coldcuts and watched videos on April’s laptop until they got fed up with the slowness of the internet. The phone signal was poor and they hadn’t set up wireless yet. Joyce hadn’t even unpacked the router.

They decided to go to bed early. April tossed and turned in her aunt’s bed, feeling all the lumps. She woke to the night wind and the trees scratching the siding on the house. She dreamed there were eyes in the woods watching them, then woke to find the moonlight bright outside her window. Every time she closed her eyes, she heard his words again, “Dead water.”

She woke bleary-eyed, yawning to a tapping at the door. “You up?”

Joyce stuck her head in, hair tied up in a bandanna. “Is the water we’re using in the shower dead too? I don’t want to shower in dead water.”

April sat up and rubbed her eyes. “The shower? Um…” She generally needed coffee before thinking. Then she remembered. “The water goes through a filter—no, not a filter. A whatchacallit: water softener. Which I think does filter it. Yeah.”

“You sure?” Joyce didn’t look as if she slept very well either.

“We can go look if that would make you feel better.” She hadn’t even thought about the rest of the water in the house. At least Auntie had put one of those filters on the tap in the kitchen. April grabbed her comfy robe to pull on over her flannel jammies. It was colder this morning, too.

The reason it was colder was that the furnace was off. It was off because the cellar was flooded with black water. “Oh my god.” It took a lot of effort not to simply burst into tears. April sat down on the top step and stared in dismay.

“You suppose there’s a pump?” Joyce asked. “Maybe this happened before.”

“If so, it’s probably down there.” She didn’t fancy wading through that muck to go look.

“I saw some gardening boots in the hall closet.” Joyce was off at once to grab them. April took off her robe. It wouldn’t do any good to get it wet. In her head a little chorus of Not fair! Not fair! was playing, but she tried to ignore it.

“Here,” Joyce handed her the boots which at least looked like they could fit. Her aunt was a head shorter than April but she seemed to have big feet. They were bright red with yellow ducks in rain hats on them.

Gingerly she went down the stairs, her bare feet sliding around in the boots. She stepped into the black water and it was cold. Her body trembled. It was probably just because she was so tired. At least the boots didn’t seem to leak. Stepping carefully April went over to the light to pull the string but her hand froze.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just thinking what are the odds of electrocution?” She laughed but it wasn’t funny.

“If you were going to get electrocuted it would have been from the furnace or whatever controls it. The wires from the light aren’t in the water.”

“You’re right, of course.” The string clicked and the bulb lit and somehow it was even worse. April assumed the water might look oily, like the flooding in the gutters outside their building on Grove Street in the Village. But it was just black. Darker now with the light on. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something move or thought she did. But it was just black water. It didn’t have eyes looking at her.

“Maybe by the tool bench?” Joyce suggested.

April waded over. There was nothing on the bench that looked like a pump. Everything was carefully labeled. Auntie was a stickler for that, she remembered. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’

There was a movement for sure. On the right. What if it were a rat? They said rats could swim. Were there rats out in the countryside? She had seen enough of them in the city. April stared into the black water, mesmerized. There was a curious sound. Probably just the splash of the water, magnified by the walls of the basement. Maybe it was the cold of the water, the earliness of the hour, or just the overwhelming panic of dealing with house troubles, but she started to tremble.

“Your aunt must have had a plumber. Where would she keep the number?” Joyce as always thinking logically.

April coughed and shook herself. “The phone book in the nook.” Yes, let a professional deal with this.

Suddenly a red plastic ball popped up from the water. April let out a yelp. It looked so incongruous. There was really nothing sinister about it, but that was it for her. Out of the water, up the stairs, boots off.

By then Joyce had found the little phone book by the old landline handset in the alcove made just for telephoning back when it was a new and fancy thing. April was shaking with a chill as she lit the burner on the stove to make some coffee. Thank goodness for gas.

“Here it is. Baumbach, plumber. Think it’s too early to call?”

“Call.” April grabbed the old French press she found in the cupboard and filled it with the special grind they’d brought with them from the city. She stared dully at the kettle even though she heard her aunt’s words again about a watched kettle never boiling.

“Lillian says—that’s the plumber—that chances are the floater came off the sump pump and that’s why it’s flooded. Apparently that happened before. She was after your aunt to replace it but—”

“The floater?” April started. “Is it a red ball?”

“Yes, that’s what she described. The sump pit is just beyond the tool bench, she said. Joyce stared at April as she laughed. “What?”

“It popped up from the water and I was never so startled.” The relief pouring through her veins was better than caffeine. Why had she been so scared of a little red ball?

“Anyway, she says if you can get it back on the arm thing it will kick in again and start pumping the water out.”

April sighed. “Are those rubber gloves still under the sink?”

An hour later they were still at it, which is to say April was trying to reconnect the ball and Joyce was being encouraging from the steps. “If there were another pair of boots…”

“I know. And you said the plumber could come later?” April had found the ball right away. It was still floating. Finding the arm was tricky. They had found a diagram online so she knew what it ought to be like but it was hard to find in the black water.

“Yeah. I think it might be, you know, a little deeper?” Joyce didn’t like to criticize especially when she wasn’t helping. “What if we covered your arm in plastic wrap? That way you wouldn’t have to worry about the water coming over the gloves.”

“I can just wash up with antibacterial soap. At least we have plenty of that.” April thought she saw a glint of metal through the water and dipper her arm a little deeper into the black. “I’ve got it!”

She tried to feel for the end of the arm to slip the floater back on it. It was hard to do without seeing it. The splashing sounds of the water became almost musical, a sort of drone. The floater resisted her attempts to bring it under the surface and it was almost as if there were voices in the drone but it was just a trick of the ear or so she imagined and then something grabbed her hand.

April went face down in the black water, choking, sputtering, thrashing at the waves, the hands, the eyes looking at her, were her eyes open in all this muck? How could that be—and then gasping, flailing, blinking, sobbing. “April, April!”

Joyce had the back of her shirt in her fist, pulling her up. They both tottered for a moment and then April found her feet, coughed, spit, vomited, then righted herself again. “Upstairs, now.” Joyce dragged her to the steps and marched her up. They both stripped off wet clothes right there in the kitchen, then ran to the bathrooms to shower.

“Mouthwash!” Joyce called as she grabbed her towel. “Get that muck out of you.”

April rinsed her mouth, coughing and gagging, three times. The hot water ran out in the shower before she washed off all the soap but she was already shivering so the cold didn’t matter. By the time she dried and dressed again, Joyce had a second pot of coffee brewing and eggs scrambled in the pan.

“Drink this. Eat this.” Joyce sat a plate in front of her as she refilled the coffee mug.

“I’m not sure I’m hungry after that.”

“Look at you shake, girl. You might be in shock. Eat.” Joyce looked somewhat shaky herself as she started eating. “What happened?”

“I was reaching for the arm…” April paused. She didn’t want to sound like she had lost her mind. “Maybe the pump…created some kind of suction…I don’t know.”

“Did you hear something?”

April looked up. “What?”

Joyce was crying. “I heard voices. I heard weird sounds. I kept seeing faces, eyes in the woods behind the house at night. I was thinking it was my imagination. That I just hated the country side. But I saw it—saw something—pull you into the water.”

“No.” Her voice was no more than a whisper.

“Look, you know me. You know I’m a skeptic of—well, just about everything. I didn’t want to give in to the idea of bad vibes, or dead water, or whatever. But I have a strong instinct for self-preservation. We are not in some Hallmark movie here, we are in a horror film. Even if the horror is just old houses that turn out to be money pits, I am done.”

April tried to speak. She thought of all the things she wanted to say. How they needed this to get their business going. To survive the pandemic. To not admit defeat.

Joyce lay a hand on her arm. “I know how stubborn you can be. I know when you have a vision and you move hell and earth to get it, sometimes even if it’s not worth it and yes, I mean the Andersen account.” She gave a little laugh, but April didn’t respond. “You know how Black people are the first to die in horror films. So I’m leaving today. I’m going to pack up, call a cab to take me to Amtrak, and god help me, I am going to Queens to shelter with my family.”

“I can’t,” April said, crying.

“I love you, my friend, but I love life more. Maybe there’s nothing down there. Maybe it’s just black water from, I don’t know, roots and dead leaves. Maybe it can be fixed. And just maybe this place should be burnt down and the earth sowed with salt. But we can close it up for now. Come back after the holidays. Come back in the spring. Come back some other time, but leave it for now. Leave with me.”

April pushed the eggs around on her plate silently. Joyce sighed, poured some more coffee and ate. When she finished she washed up the dishes and went to pack.

The plumber came before Joyce was ready. She was trim, fiftyish, and no-nonsense. “I told your aunt to replace that armature or the whole damn pump a dozen times. I can order you a new one and install it next week.” The pump started right up. April could hear the whooshing (and nothing else at all, no voices).

“Where does the water go?”

Lillian jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Out back in the woods there’s a ravine that leads away from the house towards the quarry. It’s all downhill, so no worries. It’ll all be cleared away, toot sweet as the man says! But seriously replace this. It’s no fun having to dig around in dirty water to try to reconnect it. Especially if you don’t have the equipment!” She held up her elbow length gloves.

“Yes, I should probably do that,” April agreed, waiting for her to leave. But she couldn’t think even afterward, one ear cocked to hear that the pump was working, the other…well, the other just hoping not to hear anything. The plumber left her notes and estimates, but April left them on the kitchen table and went to feed the fire. It was the only heat now. Lillian had said the furnace might kick on as soon as the water level went down, and suggested turning on the dehumidifier, which was sitting on a cabinet by the shelves of pots. April had mistaken it for an air conditioner. It was humming now, too.

Joyce gathered up her things by the front door as the taxi arrived. “I will call you every day until I change your mind.” She hugged April fiercely. “Don’t be so stubborn. We can resurrect our careers from Queens as well as we could from here. Just keep me from fighting with my dad about every little thing.”

April dozed on the couch, listening the crackle of the fire. She tried not to look at the flames because she kept seeing eyes in the orange, yellow and red.

She woke and it was twilight. The house was silent. Outside birds called. April closed her eyes again.

She woke struggling for breath, deep in black water, hands holding her down, mouths open. Then a log in the fire popped loudly throwing sparks against the screen. A few made it through the grill to glow and die on the cobble stone hearth. It was only a dream. But her heart raced. She sat up.

It was dark now. Full night. Where had she left her phone? Upstairs maybe. No, there on the coffee table next to her laptop. It was only 7:34. There were two messages from Joyce. Probably texting from the train. She must be in Queens now. Although she had slept most of the day, April felt heavy and tired. She should check email and throw another log on the fire, maybe in a moment…

Arms, hands, fingers, eyes, always eyes. April sobbed, heard an owl, wondered if she were awake this time. Yes, awake. The fire had burned down to red coals but still warming. She was shaking. Maybe caught a chill from the water. A bitter taste in her mouth like ashes. She got to her feet, feeling shaky. It seemed to take an enormous amount of strength to pick up a log and put it on the fire.

Dehydrated, that’s it. Fires always suck up the moisture in a room. She needed water. April picked up the crocheted throw from her aunt’s rocking chair and wrapped it around her shoulders. Where am I going? Oh yeah, kitchen. She shuddered again as a memory from her dreams tried to surface. Water. Eyes. Hands reaching.

She let the tap run, grateful for the purifier. Filling a glass she appreciated the crystalline beauty as it sparkled in the moonlight. The furnace had not come back on. She turned the tap off. It was silent in the house. There wasn’t even a wind blowing. Hadn’t it been raining before?

Silent? Maybe the pump had done its work. She started, thinking there was someone looking in the kitchen window but it was just the moonlight. Was it a full moon tonight? Maybe.

April put on the boots just in case and opened the door to the cellar. It was pitch black. Maybe she should get her phone for light. She took a hesitant step onto the stair. It was only a few steps down and then she could switch on the overhead light.

So quiet. So black.

There was a sound here. She cocked her head to make it out. It wasn’t voices. There was a word for that, how your brain turned random images into faces, random sounds into voices. Maybe it was just her own breathing which had become a little labored. Maybe she had caught a cold. Maybe it was her heart hammering. Just a few steps. Just do it.

Her will faltered.

Maybe Joyce was right. Maybe she should just lock it up and walk away and think about it later. Or sell it off. Whatever. Why had she been so stubborn about it? Maybe because she had never in her life had something that was hers, just hers, not shared with somebody else. But this place, this deadness, this…

What was that sound? So familiar and yet—

Water. The pump had stopped.

It would be all right. Not too deep. The boots were tall. If she headed directly straight from the steps she would find the string for the light

—but she stepped off a cliff that had not been there and plunged into deep water, impossibly deep, black water, rotten water, leaves, limbs, trees—could there be trees under the water?—no, limbs not trees: hands, arms. Fingers that reached for her, fingers that pulled at her clothes, fingers that tried to open her mouth and stop her ears and yet she could still hear. She didn’t want to open her eyes. She didn’t want to open her mouth. She didn’t want to hear the churning sounds. Maybe it was just her chilled flesh that felt the motions, swirling around her, wrapping her in its labyrinth.

April tried to hold her breath, not to breathe in the way the voices coaxed her. She couldn’t move her arms and legs, couldn’t kick away, back up to the surface. A thousand screams filled her head or maybe it was just her brain demanding air, life, air more air. And her limbs sagged and her heart cried and maybe drowning wasn’t so bad, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing, maybe the quiet peace of it was what she had been looking for anyway or so the voices soothed her. Dead wasn’t so bad maybe.

Until she saw their eyes.










Women in Horror : Round Up

Well, this wraps up Women in Horror month and our series of guests posts, by women about horror.

Elvira, Hostess of Horror

We will do a quick link round up of all the posts so you can make sure you haven’t missed anything on our tour of movies, books and horrors from mythology, but first we just wanted to state the obvious. Women don’t only do horror in February. There are a huge number of talented writers, musicians, directors, artists and other female creatives out there living and breathing the horror genre. So while we hope our month of celebration has got you thinking about where you can find women doing horror and how women are treated or mistreated by the genre, we hope you won’t stop there. 

We recommend checking out, The Cultural Gutter, Popshifter, Ginger Nuts of Horror as great starting points. 

The blogs

K.A. Laity : The Haunting of Hill House
Snippet Sunday : Winter Tales
Kim Bannerman : Disability, Motherhood and Personal Autonomy
C.A. Yates : A Monstrous Love, Crimson Peak & The Writer
Jan Siegel : Fear of the Female in Vintage Fiction
Aditi Sen : Bengali Ghosts
Interview of Emma Bridges By Margret Helgadottir : Making Monsters 
Snippet Sunday : Respectable Horror
Su Haddrell : The Weird in the Normal
Jenny Barber : Short Fiction Queens
Kerry Fristoe : My Bloody Valentine 
Sharon Shaw : Women who Fight Back
Leslie Hatton : ‘What Have You Done to Solange’ Exposes the Legacy of Misogyny 
Snippet Sunday : Pacific Monsters
Angela Englert : Once, Twice, Three Times a Villainess: Karen Black, Sex, and Twist Endings in Trilogy of Terror
Amelia Starling : Female Spirits and Emotions in Japanese Ghost Stories
Snippet Sunday : Asian Monsters
Zoe Chatfield : Lost Cities (Unfriended)
Carol Borden : Cat People

Women in Horror : Cat People

Cat People (1942)

Carol Borden

Cat People (1942) is a fine entry into the tradition of films that cause modernity—and gaslighting—some trouble by having a woman turn into an actual panther. Well, not as much a tradition as I might like, but it’s a start. Based on, Val Lewton’s short story “The Bagheet,” and adapted for the screen by DeWitt Bodeen, Cat People was produced by Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by RKO noir superstar cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca during the war at an extremely low-budget. There is no gore or on-screen transformation effects. There are only the shadows, a woman’s fear of herself and her own sexuality.

Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is an illustrator whose work is published in fashion magazines, highlighting the most modern of clothes. She is from Serbia, perhaps a refugee fleeing the Nazis and the war in Europe. She is definitely fleeing her home town, a village she and her fellow townsfolk believe was settled by devil worshippers who escaped execution in the 16th Century. And Irena is definitely trying to escape her fear that there is something evil inside her. Big cats fascinate Irena and her favorite subject is a black leopard at the Central Park Zoo. It’s an animal that an old maintenance man considers a killer. One day, Oliver Reed (no relation) approaches Irena as she draws. She tells Oliver (Kent Smith) she is fascinated by the big cats. And really, who wouldn’t be?

As they become closer, Irena tells him the story of her town. They were devil worshippers and were executed by the Serbian King John, aka, Jovan Nenad (1492-1527). The worst, however, escaped into the mountains. Now their female descendants are cursed to become panthers when they are sexually aroused or jealous. Oliver isn’t put off by her story. He is a modern lad and believes superstitious worries can be defeated by rationality and the love of a good man. Almost convinced that she was letting a fairy tale frighten her off of love, Irena accepts when Oliver proposes.

But when at a Serbian restaurant with Oliver and her friends right after the wedding, Irena is spooked when a cat-like woman approaches their table and calls her, “My sister.” Irena knows in her heart that this woman is one of her kind, another cat person. At home, Oliver has been respecting Irena’s boundaries, sleeping in another room and not pushing her to be intimate, but Irena becomes so distressed that he confides in his co-worker and best friend, Alice (Jane Rudolph). Alice suggests a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Judd is a terrible psychiatrist. Dr. Judd falls in love, or in lust, with Irena.

Cat People was made in a psychoanalytic time, a time with a lot of optimism about modernity and science. Dr. Judd reflects it, cynicism and all. He doesn’t just pursue a scientific understanding of the human mind, but believes he already rationally understands what is before him and that he already knows all there is to know. More tragically, Judd believes knowing something is enough to cure or protect one. To Judd, Irena is just another another woman with a sexual dysfunction that is coded as “frigidity” or Lesbianism (“My sister”), albeit with an interesting clinical lycanthropic twist. Less philosophically, Judd is convinced that there’s nothing wrong with Irena that a more modern attitude in general and a healthy attitude toward heterosexual sex in particular can’t fix. Failing that, there is nothing wrong with Irena that sexual intercourse with a man, regardless of her fear or lack of desire, won’t fix. It is an era when what was considered sexual dysfunction sometimes called for realigning a woman’s sexual attachments with what we now consider “corrective rape.” (If I ever had a “corrective rape film festival” it would feature a lot of movies starring Sean Connery). Oliver was ahead of the curve compared to Judd at a time when it was not conceivable that a woman could be raped by her husband, especially when he is trying to help cure her fear that she could turn into a panther and kill him when she really gets going.

In saying all this, it’s not that I think Cat People is anti-rational. It’s more that it respects that while we pursue reason and understanding, we remember that are not already, inherently reasonable, rational, or objective. It leaves space for the unknown and the unexpected—the thing that is unbelievable but nonetheless true. It’s easy to think we already know everything and being modern has led us to believe so for the just over a hundred years or so that we have considered ourselves living in the modern world. While we might believe humans can know or understand anything, there is still a lot to discover, learn and understand. I believe Dr. Judd wants to help Irena. I believe he believes that once she has sex with a man, she will realize her fears are irrational and will fade away. But Judd makes a mistake in believing that he is only concerned with Irena’s well-being. Judd is too attracted and attached to Irena to be dispassionately, rationally helping her. He won’t listen to Irena. He already knows. And already knowing the answer is not scientific, my dear doctor.

But however you feel about his methods, Dr. Judd makes for some great cinema. He hypnotizes Irena, allowing for a fantastic, phantasmagoric dream sequence. Afterwards, Judd tells Irena that he can help her and recommends Irena tell Oliver nothing about her fears. Irena, however, doesn’t believe Judd understands or can help her. Irena comes home to find Oliver and Alice together. Worse, Irena find out that Alice knows about her problems. Irena is angry, embarrassed and appalled that Oliver would discuss something so private with Alice.

Alice is the first person to decide that Irena is not just haunted by superstitious fears, but is, in fact, transforming into a panther. Oliver turns to Alice for comfort and support. Alice admits that she loves him but would never do anything to threaten his marriage saying, “I’m the new kind of other woman.” Irena already knows Alice loves Oliver, though. And she becomes increasingly hurt and jealous. This leads to one of the most eerie stalkings of cinematic history. As Alice walks down the street, she thinks she hears a growling panther in the shadows. And at the YWCA, a panther (Dynamite) growls from the shadows and tears Alice’s bathrobe to shreds as Alice, terrified and vulnerable, treads water in the center Y pool. Irena then appears to ask Alice if she’s seen Oliver. Alice’s decision to believe Irena seems less a product of “feminine intuition” and more a decision to trust her instincts and not to deny her experience. Something happened at the Y. Alice doesn’t know how it happened, but she’s not going to pretend it didn’t. That’s how you end up dead.

After Oliver decides to divorce Irena and marry Alice, Irena menaces them both at their work. Oliver and Alice are now pretty sure Irena is a cat person. Dr. Judd, however, is still convinced he can fix Irena. He decides that what Irena needs is the love of a good man or at least the love of a terrible pschiatrist and he makes moves on her in her own apartment. Irena rebuffs him, but he continues and she finally transforms into a panther and slashes him. Because he is the kind of mental health professional who carries a sword cane, Judd draws a sword from his cane and stabs her. Wounded, Irena runs back to the zoo and opens the cage to the black leopard letting it kill her.

There is some crossover with another Val Lewton film, The Seventh Victim (1943). Both films share themes of Satanism, suicide and men who fall for troubled women. And both share two actors and at least one character: Dr. Judd. It is in The Seventh Victim that Dr. Judd’s terribleness as a psychiatrist is underscored. I mean, what therapist would be prepared for a woman who actually does turn into a panther? In The Seventh Victim, we discover that Judd has a reputation for sleeping with his patients—and perhaps worse. There is also a character played by the same actress who played the Serbian cat woman in Cat People, Elizabeth Russell. In The Seventh Victim, Russell plays Jacqueline’s neighbor Mimi. Mimi is terminally ill and decides to go out and enjoy herself one final time before she dies. Dressed up for her last fling, Mimi looks a great deal like the woman who calls Irena “sister” in Cat People. Is Mimi the same woman? Do Cat People and The Seventh Victim occur simultaneously? Is Dr. Judd that unlucky a psychiatrist? (And will there ever be a Dr. Judd, Occult Psychiatrist series?)

The sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), is another Val Lewton production, this time directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise and with another screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen. As with Cat People (1983) it is less satisfying to me than the original. It unfortunately completely lacks all cat people and suffers in some ways from its title. It does bring back the original cast as Oliver and Ann’s daughter Amy becomes friends with Irena, who might be a ghost but even I admit is probably not. Irena helps Amy through a difficult time—including a woman who tries to kill her, played, again by Elizabeth Russell. Curse of the Cat People is a thoughtful and melancholy film—and a bit disorienting to watch with Cat People. But again, there are no cat people. Even Irena appears only as a maternal and protective human albeit ghostly figure. And cat people are what I am here for.

Cat People was remade in 1982 starring Nastassja Kinski as Irena Gallier and Malcolm MacDowell as her brother, Paul. And director Paul Schrader unleashes all the power of 1980s color and style. Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie even provide the soundtrack. But in trying to make Irena’s secret more shocking–that she can only sleep with her own kind, i.e., her brother, it loses some of the power of the original. And it sadly adds rape back into the mix—this time making Oliver the rapist, which is just sad. It’s not like we are much more comfortable with women’s sexuality in 1982 or even 2018 than in 1942, no matter how much we would really like to be there.

Women in Horror : Lost Cities

Lost Cities by Zoe Chatfield

In April of 2015, I sat in a movie theater as I had done so many times before. Lights dim, trailers play, opening credits roll. But unlike times before, as I sat there, watching two characters – a boyfriend and a girlfriend – talk and flirt via Skype on screen, I heard my own voice playing out through the theater speakers. I am certainly not alone in the category of people who always find it a little odd to hear themselves in recordings (Is that really what I sound like?) And boy, is there a difference between hearing yourself talking in a video taken on an iPhone and hearing yourself sing through the giant speakers of a theater. It’s even more overwhelming when the song is one that you never wanted to share with people in the first place.


I am a part of a band with two friends that I’ve known since my freshman year of high school. We formed the summer after our senior year, and recorded 11 songs total (split into two releases) at the end of that summer and during our freshman year of college. We recorded “Lost Cities,” along with the other songs on a single microphone in the living room of a family friend’s illegal apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. (The apartment was in a building meant for businesses – the spaces for rent were intended as offices and studios. There were only shared bathrooms in the hall and he had rigged a shower in his kitchen that definitely wasn’t supposed to be there). I stood closest to the microphone, singing the melodies and the words I’d written. Emily stood a step or two behind me, singing harmonies, and Athena sat at a little Wurlitzer keyboard.

Some of the songs I was eager to share, happy with how they’d turned out. One was about my friend’s relationship with her boyfriend and how I thought they needed to break up. I liked it because I’d managed to use the ridiculous metaphor – and image – of someone wearing rainboots in a desert to talk about the state of their relationship in a way that I thought turned out to be pretty clever. It was also fun to sing, and we managed to write the song using only two chords on the piano without it sounding annoyingly repetitive. “Lost Cities” was also about love, but unlike my song about wearing rainboots in the desert, it was not one that I wanted to share. The song originated from a story familiar to many children of divorce: upset over a relationship that just needs to die already. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, and the fact that I was an eighteen year old still living at home, I was incredibly hesitant to perform it after putting music to it with the band. I was resistant to record it and put it online. It took debating and deliberating and a little bit of pressuring from peers. Finally, I gave in. We performed the song at gigs, we recorded it for our online release.

We uploaded the songs to Bandcamp with an album cover I (poorly) designed myself. It featured a picture I’d taken of my sister around the age of four, standing against a mural in New York City that consists of a tide of hearts dropping down from a helicopter like bombs. Besides promoting on our personal and band page on Facebook, we did nothing to announce the music to the world, and expected little to come of it – the songs were now out in the universe, for mostly just a few supportive family members and nice friends to listen to. Out of all the songs we recorded, this was the one I was most sensitive to, the only one I really didn’t care to “promote”. So of course, this song would become the one that now has over 1.5 million plays on Spotify, that has been heard by people in 58 countries around world.  In essence, it seems to be the song that will never die. It continues to, fittingly, haunt the band. It definitely continues to haunt me.

To say the least – given the complete lack of professionalism both in our recording and promotional process – we never expected to be contacted about licensing our song to be in a movie. What’s more, when we first agreed to it, we didn’t know the details of the movie we were licensing the song to.


At this point, I think I should provide more information about the song. Each verse begins with the phrase “Lost cities, what a pity” and goes on about a failing romance; for example, “No one knows when it’s time to accept a lost love and say goodbye.” The chorus plays off of wedding vows – “Til death, til death, til death do we part. Til death, til death, til the death of this love.” Then, Emily sings “ooo’s” that emulate the sound of wedding bells. 


We pondered over the type of movie and scene the song would be used for. None of us were particular fans of the romance genre, and assumed that that our song about love had landed somewhere in that realm. Probably something super cheesy. That was a guess we all agreed on. Some kind of break up scene. Or a couple getting into a big fight. Maybe one of them storms off, slamming the front door of a little apartment they share, as I sing – “destroy yourselves already, you’re halfway there….” Maybe a somber, lonely person is walking down the street as we sing – “don’t you see there’s no home, no home left for love here.”

I suppose we weren’t completely wrong in our guesses. There was a couple in the movie. And they did go through turmoil. However it came as a surprise (although looking back – we probably shouldn’t have been that surprised), that the song would actually be in a horror movie. (I guess “til death do we part” works better as literal than nuanced while playing in the background of some scene). The movie, Unfriended, originally debuted at a Canadian film festival before being picked up by Universal Pictures and re-released in theaters internationally about a year later. The movie takes place completely on computer screens (good for us – not only did the song play, but it showed the character opening it up on Spotify, our album cover and title sitting in the corner of the screen. This was particularly exciting for my little sister. She was seven at the time the movie came out in the United States and very proudly talked about how she was famous now. Don’t worry, we didn’t let her watch the film.) Six friends, including the couple I watched as I first heard myself subtly singing in the background, are on a joint Skype call when they start getting messages from a classmate who had killed herself the year before. You can probably fill in some of the blanks here… the ghost starts messing with them (the big game changer is that she’s using online platforms to communicate and haunt them). If you don’t want spoilers for this movie that’s been out for a few years now, don’t read the next sentence. Long story short, everyone periodically dies.

The last two people to die are the couple that start the movie off. In the beginning, they are flirting and happy. By the end, infidelity has been revealed. They’ve watched their other friends die in disturbing ways. “Lost Cities” plays twice in this one and a half hour time, in conjunction with the sad spiral their relationship takes. My songs about failing relationships and distaste for rom-coms may already be clues to a larger attitude of mine: an overall cynicism about romance. So it was definitely a little satisfying for the song to be a prelude for the scene when the couple in the movie dies. Much better than some normal break up scene when you know the couple will find each other again in the end. When you know there will be a happy ending. This had no happy ending. In that way, cheesy horror movies will always be more honest than cheesy romantic movies. Romance reveals our desires, our fantasies, what we wish our lives could be. Life rarely pans out to these dreams. Horror reveals our fears, our downfalls, the reality that we break under pressure, we regret mistakes when it’s far too late, that we are all imperfect people, and in this movie, bad people. It is more violent, more extreme, and at times, more otherworldly than our realities. But beneath the cheap scares, there is a truth. If I had to choose a genre for this song to appear in – this song that I had a fear of sharing at all – I’m glad it was horror.

Snippet Sunday : Asian Monsters

Blood Like Water 
by Eve Shi

My friend Budi told me that Pak Eko saw the creature toward midnight. The retiree was watching a dangdut singing competition on TV when a faint thump came from his front porch. The second time he heard the sound, Pak Eko went to wake up his sleeping son. The young man, feeling entitled to a full rest after a day’s work at the sub-district civil office, only grunted.
Armed with a knife, Pak Eko carefully unlatched the front windows. The porch, its tiles dull and cracked under the fifteen-watt lamp bulb, seemed empty. Pak Eko caught a whiff of something rotten, and then it was gone. He was about to close the windows when the creature appeared on the left side of the porch.
Pak Eko’s terrified yell rang out in the cold night. Ten minutes later, his immediate neighbours
arrived at his house in trickles. By then Pak Eko was lying on his bed, eyes closed and taking one slow breath after another. His son, looking mildly embarrassed, sat by the bed and massaged his father’s temples with cajuput oil smeared fingers.
‘It smelled a bit like fish,’ the young man mumbled. ‘Very tall—all my dad could see was
its chest. That’s about it.’
Budi’s uncle had been among the neighbours who gathered outside Pak Eko’s room. Budi passed the story on to me while we were crouching beside a stream, a manila-paper windmill sticking out from its bank. We had been struggling to position the windmill just so, to make the water constantly slap at its sails and rotate them.
‘Sounds like an awesome night,’ I said. Uneven grass separated the stream from the village’s main street, a bumpy, potholed stretch of asphalt. Beyond the street lay fields of unharvested rice, the water glinting with reflections of the five o’clock sun. ‘The kids in my class talked about it all day long.’
‘That creature was a lelepah,’ Budi stated, with the confidence of someone who was well-versed in Central Javanese folktale. As if I, along with the other children in the village, hadn’t absorbed the same stories from our elders. ‘Don’t you agree, Wiya?’
‘Pak Eko must’ve had a pond on his porch, since those creatures only eat fish.’
Budi flapped his hand in a familiar gesture: Clever Wiya, resorting to sarcasm whenever she
can’t come up with a quality response. I briefly considered dunking him into the stream, and
instead kept my thin smile on.
‘Lelepah aren’t even from here,’ I added. ‘They live at Progo River, near Magelang. That’s far to the south.’
‘Maybe one of them got lost. Or, yeah, it could be something else!’
As we continued to fiddle with the windmill, Budi wondered aloud what else the night visitor might have been. A burglar? No, they come in groups and rarely work solo. Pocong, a living corpse? But it wasn’t wrapped from head to toe in a white cloth. Genderuwo, then? No, they usually stalked women and children. And Pak Eko saw no fangs or fur. Finally, Budi concluded that the creature had indeed been a lelepah.

Women in Horror : Japanese Ghost Stories

Women in Horror: Female Spirits and Emotions in Japanese Ghost Stories
by Amelia Starling

Summer in Japan is ghost season. The windows of every bookshop display tales of spirits and monsters, nestled between strings of paper lanterns. During the humid, uncomfortable nights, people huddle together to share these stories. There is nothing quite like the prickly, icy feeling of fear crawling over your skin to fend off the relentless heat.

Forget the floating white sheets with unfinished business, who will disappear to rest peacefully once their task is complete. In Japan, there is a detailed classification system for different kinds of ghosts. The word rei is used as an umbrella term for the ghosts of deceased humans (in Japanese it is written as 幽霊, with the first symbol meaning ‘faint’ or ‘dark’ and the second meaning ‘soul’). There are many categories of rei. There are the shiryō; ghosts who haunt loved ones and sometimes attempt to take them to the land of the dead, kosodate-yūrei; ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth and return to care for their children, and jibakurei; spirits that are tied to a specific location.

Whilst rei can be male or female, the prevalent image of them is female. A typical rei is a woman with long, prehensile black hair, wearing a white burial kimono. She has no feet; instead she hovers above the ground. Each rei haunting is unique, as each human life and death is. As such, there is no standardised way to deal with them. Each has its own reasons for haunting, and its own terms to be fulfilled before it rests.

Here we meet Okiku, the heroine of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki,’ a well-known Japanese ghost story. In a plot, she bravely helped to save the true ruler of Himeji castle and overthrow his imposter, and protected herself and her lover by defying an undesirable suitor. In revenge, the suitor framed her for the theft of a gold plate and hoped to blackmail her into marriage. When Okiku still refused, he killed her and tossed her body into the castle’s well. There she remains as a jibakurei, her wronged, restless spirit forever counting the plates in search of the missing one. People stopped visiting the well after dark, for fear of confronting her wrathful spirit.

Okiku’s untimely, violent death caused her spirit eternal torment, and spread fear to those she once loved. But there is another category of rei which present their feelings in much more harmful ways. When people die with strong emotions, such as rage, jealousy, or hatred, their spirits remain connected to the human world, enacting vengeance on anyone or anything which crosses their path. They behave more like forces of nature than ghosts, being powerful enough to inflict illness and death and even cause natural disasters. Of all the types of rei, these are the ones which no-one ever wants to encounter. These are the onryō. Aside from their abhorrent deeds, what makes onryō so terrifying is that they can seldom be reasoned with or banished. Unlike other rei, their desire for vengeance is insatiable.

The story ‘Of a Promise Broken,’ collected by the writer Lafcadio Hearn, features a tenacious onryō. A husband promises his dying wife he will never marry again. But soon he does, triggering the onryō of his deceased wife to rise. She haunts the new wife every night, ordering her to leave the house. If she tells her husband why, she will be torn to pieces. Sick with fear, the new wife tells her husband and he orders two samurai to guard her whilst she sleeps, for one night he must go away on business. When he returns in the morning, he finds the samurai in a bewitched sleep. His wife’s decapitated body lies on the ground. Beside it floats the onryō, with her wild, unbound hair and dishevelled white burial gown, clutching the torn off head…

It is an old Japanese belief that women are more susceptible to high levels of emotion, which makes them more likely to transform into rei (and in particular onryō). This perhaps explains why the dominant stereotype of a rei is female. Many rei stories are about young women who are betrayed by lovers, die tragically during childbirth or from sickness, or are murdered for their defiance like Okiku.

It’s unsettling to consider pitying something so horrifying, but knowing their stories it’s easy to understand Okiku’s and the deceased wife’s motives (if not their actions). In life, they were honest and true. Their mistreatment ignited their emotions, and gave them no choice in what they became. They induce fear not only because of their unnatural actions and appearances, but also by providing a glimpse of the corruption emotional upset can create. With understanding them comes the realisation that we could also become them if the circumstances arose.

These ghost stories are not just about death and hauntings. They are also full of heartbreak, anger, rage, and jealousy. Traumatic events leave their mark on the physical world, which yūrei are tragic reminders of. Feeling these emotions makes us human, and the legends of the onryō show us that they can be the scariest things of all.


‘Banchō Sarayashiki’ (Himeji castle version):

‘Of a Promise Broken’ by Lacfadio Hearn:


Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist who loves travelling and collecting stories. She is a graduate of Creative Writing from the University of Winchester, and lives in the UK. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales at, with particular interest in Japanese folklore. She is also a content editor for Folklore Thursday. You can follow Amelia on Twitter @amyelize.

Women in Horror : Once, twice, three times a villainess.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Villainess: Karen Black, Sex, and Twist Endings in Trilogy of Terror

by Angela Englert

Karen Black initially rejected Dan Curtis’ TV anthology Trilogy of Terror (1975), joining the production only after her then-husband, Robert Burton, was cast in one of the film’s sparse supporting roles. So she was the star, but she did it for her dude, which is appropriate given the movie’s ambivalence about women’s empowerment. Afterward, she may have had cause to regret it, as she believed that her performances in the film – because there were many – typed her as a horror actress. She was probably right, and she wouldn’t have been the first whose fearless brilliance in a genre movie closed doors rather than opened them. But she was fearless, and she was brilliant. Even if Trilogy were a proper theater-release film, her work would never have been acknowledged by the Academy, not in a movie where she gets chased for a third of it by a puppet, but no one will ever persuade me that Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror didn’t earn herself a statuette, even if it might have been shaped like a Zuni doll.

Trilogy was based on three Richard Matheson short stories, and they each bear the hallmarks of the spring-loaded twist endings and pulp horror he excelled in. If the punchlines seem a bit dated better than 40 years on, it’s at least partially because we’ve been audience to so much they have influenced in that time, from Fight Club to Puppet Master. The three vignettes featured in Trilogy center on three very different women, all played by Black, each taking the lead character’s name as the title of the piece. While there is no continuity among them, Trilogy ends up naturally being about all the ways a (white, heterosexual) woman in the 1970s could be victimized, not neglecting how she might best victimize herself. 

The first story, “Julie,” is probably my favorite, and it’s still disquieting and quite fresh. Julie teaches at a college, and Chad (played by Black’s husband, and I’m not sure whether that makes this one more or less icky) is her student. We first meet Chad when he and a friend are sitting in the quad rating the attractiveness of the women around them. When Chad spies Julie, herself much more on the Velma than the Daphne side of things, he finds himself wondering what she looks like “under all those clothes.” It’s an idea he can’t shake, and so he pursues her with the unblinking predation of a Duran Duran song. When Julie yields to his advances, he takes her to a drive-in movie and drugs her soda. With Julie unconscious, Chad abducts her and at least takes pictures of her in sexually provocative poses. Later, he will use the pictures to blackmail Julie into a nonconsensual affair and – it is implied — pretty much any depraved thing Chad can imagine. The twist is revealed to Chad abruptly, as Julie suddenly refuses his commands during an assignation and declares herself bored. Julie explains, “Did you really think that dull, little mind of yours could possibly have conceived any of the rather dramatic experiences we’ve shared? Why do you think you suddenly had the overwhelming desire to see what I looked like under ‘all those clothes?’” It turns out that Julie has been psychically topping from the bottom, as it were, using Chad’s sadistic exploitation for her own jollies. And now that she’s bored, she has poisoned Chad’s drink – nice touch, Julie – before moving on to the next unwary victim, cloaked again in the habit of a plain, nebbish teacher.

I think what bothers me most about “Julie,” and Julie for that matter, is her monstrousness depends on how she relishes the feigned powerlessness that makes her a victim of abuse. Not a D/s relationship, but assault, coercion, loveless abuse. If she were only a black widow luring men, especially a wicked man like Chad, to their doom, that would be relatively unremarkable, and it’s not hard to understand a powerful person wanting to be dominated in a sexual relationship. That’s a cliché. But Julie wants to be victimized, and she puts down elaborate roots in a life where she has fashioned herself into an ideal victim. It’s not simply about destroying Chad’s soul, if he has one, and it’s not simply about lying in wait, laughing behind her hand at his presumption of her innocence, though she seems to enjoy that, too, in the end. Maybe if Black’s portrayal were less persuasive, Julie’s portrayal would be less persuasive, and it would be easier to write her off as a kinky monster whose inconsistency is in service of a plot that takes a hard right turn into a twist ending. But Black gives Julie too much interior life to believe that, and we see this in her public humiliation by Chad, her private displays of grief for her concerned roommate. That’s where the real creepiness, the insatiable wrongness in ”Julie” asserts itself. It speaks to twin destructive myths about women’s empowerment and enjoyment of sex that still lurk in our culture everywhere from pornography to romcoms: that women make themselves powerful only at the expense of men and that women fundamentally want to be – let’s say overpowered by men. And that’s disturbing as hell.

Black similarly played both sides of a very bad penny in “Millicent and Therese.” Of the three stories, this is one that probably has aged the least gracefully, only because the twist – surprise, sisters Millicent and Therese are one person with two personalities and a blonde wig – seems fairly hackneyed by now. But I have to say that Black’s portrayal of the two “sisters,” plain, obsessive Millicent and gorgeous, licentious Therese, is convincing enough that it’s still possible to doubt the plot you see circling for a landing is what’s going to happen until it’s over. I particularly admire her zeal as Millicent, who anticipates Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis in Halloween with passionate harangues about Therese’s inborn evil, seducing their father and murdering their mother, and her own plans to stop her, once and for all. And Black’s  self-satisfied malevolence as Therese is similarly unimpeachable.

The last part of Trilogy is the story that has made the biggest pop cultural impact, a one-woman play that has Black as Amelia, a woman torn between filial duty to a codependent mother and being an independent adult with a boyfriend. Amelia’s strained one-sided phone conversations with her mother and boyfriend are masterful work by Black, as she tries to juggle a standing dinner date with mom and a birthday dinner with her boyfriend. There’s so much emotional weight shifted in these scenes, particularly as Amelia finds herself rationalizing her mother’s demands to her boyfriend, abruptly starting a fight with him. Her loved ones alienated, Amelia’s night takes a bizarre turn for the worse as she’s chased around her apartment by her would-be gift to her anthropologist boyfriend, a surprisingly resourceful, possessed Zuni warrior fetish doll. The whole thing might have been silly, but Black sells it all, making her struggle with the toyetic, fanged symbol of her thwarted independence immediate and visceral.  After jamming the doll into a blistering oven, Black’s jagged smile reveals a final character in the story’s twist ending. Amelia has destroyed the doll, but becomes possessed by the Zuni warrior inside, who now waits to cut mother’s apron strings along with mother’s everything else.

There was no reason particularly Dan Curtis needed to cast one actress to star in each of the vignettes, but it was a wise choice, not only because Black’s consistently excellent, but her presence also draws attention to the reverberating themes of women turning on themselves. Not only is she every heroine, but she is also every villainess. It’s all in her. Without an actress of Black’s skill, it’s doubtful how well any individual story would have worked. They each require so much of their lead, not only to be plausible and pitiable, but fierce, physical, forbidding, and she largely has to do it all on her own. It’s a rare accomplishment that rightly has given Black a share of immortality and has given women still today a mirror of themselves in the eyes of a society that doesn’t know whether an unfettered woman is friend or foe.

Sunday Snippet : Pacific Monsters

The FS Books of Monsters are a Horror series curated by Margrét Helgadóttir (and in the early volumes, Jo Thomas), who are women in horror. 

Tina Makereti

It came out of the sea on a Saturday morning, heaving its body onto the rocks beside the boat sheds in the darkness before dawn. It sat in a shallow pool potted with black mussels and a slick of seaweed while it took a few breaths, then drew itself up the stairs. It could smell rust and exhaust fumes.
The dragon boaters had woken it the day before, crowds of them, their barrage of noise muted only slightly by the shallow watery cradle of the harbour. Somehow the tides had brought it in as it slept, released from its bed in the depths of the Pacific by the rumblings of a quake. It wasn’t just their yells that woke it, or the slice of their paddles in the water—a thousand small splashes that sounded like storm rain from where it lay. They brought something else with their bright-painted hulls and racing arms. It felt them moving above, pushing against the limits of their age just as they pushed through the water, a hard-held breath waiting for life to happen. It felt the enormity of future somethings beating in their chests. It opened an eye and saw the firm thighs flash, the twist of wrist tendon.
It wanted them.
It watched all day, one eye and then two, from just below the surface. A girl looked right into one of those round dark lenses just before she plunged her paddle, but quickly dismissed what she had seen as reflection—the heat and sweat of the day causing distortion in her vision. Even so, that afternoon she developed an aversion to water, preferring to keep fingers and toes above. The others on her team teased when they noticed her reserve, dipping their own fingers in to splash her. The thing beneath could almost taste the juice in their taunts. It dreamed of nibbling their sweet digits.
Still, it stayed—calm, quiet, breathing in salt-wet infused pockets of air, readying itself for the closing of gills and opening of lungs. It could wait. The upper world would still be there when it was ready. Last time, the land under the sea had rumbled the thing up from below in great surges, wave after wave, until it found itself pushed up into the harbour and past, washing through a beachfront house with the massive tide. The house had been quickly abandoned when the sea came knocking; so it stayed awhile, slumping and sloshing from room to room, curious about the upper world. The house was wood, and spare, and the contents were now damp and sandy and preparing to rot. There it found a woman’s petticoat among some items pushed into a wet corner, and a framed family portrait that had remained miraculously nailed to a wall. It wondered about the smooth-skinned creatures in the picture, with their coverings and ruffles and silky heads. It reached thick fingers to the bulbed seaweed and baby mussels that formed stringy colonies on its own head, felt its own calloused black barnacle skin, and made a sound very like laughter.

Women in Horror : What Have You Done to Solange?

‘What Have You Done to Solange’ Exposes the Legacy of Misogyny

By Leslie Hatton

Horror films have long been derided for using women—and women’s bodies—as props to be sexualized, violated, and discarded, with both Italian horror and American slashers being singled out for their misogynist portrayals of women. Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? represents a unique entry in the horror canon. Not only is it a tightly-plotted Giallo and an early slasher, it also upholds and subverts genre tropes and cultural expectations through its depiction of women. Even the title of this film seems different from the norm, seeming to question the morality of what was done to the titular character and the implied trauma that resulted from this mysterious and unnamed action.

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Set in London, but using Italian dialogue, What Have You Done to Solange? chafes against the restraints of the typical Giallo by contrasting the conservatism of a Catholic girls’ high school with the sexually charged atmosphere of Italian cinema. Although the film is about a series of murders of young women, it is told through the plight of Enrico Rosseni, a young professor of phys ed and Italian at St. Mary’s school who is considered the “cool” teacher for being far less conservative than the rest of the cast.

Enrico is cool, all right. So cool that he’s cheating on his wife, Herta, with one of his students. Herta is portrayed as a vengeful shrew who clearly suspects him of infidelity but the film presents Enrico as the sympathetic character. When one of Enrico’s fellow teachers, Professor Bascombe, casually mentions that he suspects Enrico of having an affair with Elizabeth, Enrico confirms it. One would expect him to lose his job or be reprimanded, but Bascombe brushes it off, even suggesting that no one could blame him with a wife like Herta.

Still, Enrico is not the only man to exhibit despicable behavior in Solange. Professor Newton continually peeps through a hole in a glass window into the girls’ locker room, in a scene that is the literal manifestation of the male gaze. Also subject to the male gaze is the dead body of the first murder victim Hilda Erickson. Inspector Barth of New Scotland Yard passes around the gruesome crime scene photos to the staff at the school. In one of the more literal cinematic examples of misogyny, it turns out that Hilda has been stabbed in the vagina. It’s death by rape, with a large knife as the substitute for the penis.

For all its grisly detail, Solange is a gorgeous film. Prolific porn director Joe D’Amato lensed the film, and elevates what could have been a sordid exploitation film into something approaching high art. D’Amato uses extreme close-ups of women’s faces to convey an intimate understanding of the struggles that they are facing, or in one scene when Elizabeth and Enrico are making love, the pleasure that Elizabeth is experiencing. At other times massive wide-angle shots indicate the lack of power of the characters in the film, such as the imposing stairwell at St. Mary’s school, or the park in which Enrico and Herta are having a picnic.

When Elizabeth and Enrico are kissing in the boat along the banks of the Thames, the camera is voyeuristic but refined, with dappled sunlight and green foliage obscuring the two lovers’ bodies. This scene is also vital because it sets the entire narrative of the film into motion. Not only does Enrico become enraged at Elizabeth’s hesitancy to have sex, shouting “There’s always something that stops you from being a normal girl!” (using “normal” as code for “sexually active”), he also dismisses what he interprets as a contrived excuse: Elizabeth claims to have seen a murder take place, and as it turns out, it’s Hilda Erickson who is the victim. Instead of being sympathetic and tender, Enrico clearly feels like he’s owed something, and in typical macho fashion, denies the validity of what Elizabeth has witnessed, until the truth is revealed in the news. Rather than apologizing, he begs her not to tell the police, fearing for his reputation, not hers.

Elizabeth, however, has been damaged, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with her. She suffers from PTSD and continues to have flashbacks to the murder scene. Intriguingly, Dallamano uses this to give Elizabeth some autonomy. Both of her flashbacks take place in sexualized situations, which only exacerbates the feeling of sex as an act to which one must submit. Then she works up enough courage to let her voice be heard, coming forward to the staff at the school about what she has seen: it was a man dressed as a priest who killed Hilda.

Not all men in Solange are as despicable as Enrico. Shockingly, it’s Inspector Barth who calls Enrico out on his bad behavior. He calls Enrico into the police station for questioning, not as a murder suspect, but as someone who has something to hide. “You are thinking about something other than Hilda,” he accuses him, voicing something many watching the film are probably thinking, something which Elizabeth doesn’t have the freedom to say.

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More students at the school are killed and so is a local woman, all in the same way as Hilda Erickson: a knife to the vagina. The teachers and staff members at St. Mary’s school are questioned, but despite the revelation that it may be a priest, none of the priests at the school are considered suspects. Only after Elizabeth is drowned in the bathtub is Enrico determined to find out the identity of the murderer. Is it his conscience making itself known or merely the desire to clear his name? We never really know. He and Herta, who for some reason decided to reconcile, start asking questions and eventually the truth is revealed. Her name is Solange.

Now we have a character in the film to attach to its title, as well as a face. Camille Keaton, the protagonist of the iconic rape/revenge slasher I Spit On Your Grave from 1978, is Solange. In this film she is unable to get revenge on those who destroyed her life. She was part of a clique with other girls at the school who had orgies with older college boys. After Solange got pregnant, her “friends” feared exposure and in a twist of internalized misogyny, convinced her to have an abortion. The experience was so traumatic that she has been rendered mute, and is suffering from “infantile regression.”

Here the film presents contradictory depictions of women. While the sexual agency of the young women can be seen as a good thing, Enrico is disgusted when he learns about it, suggesting that the girls are probably on drugs, too. The double standard is obvious: he can cheat on his wife with a student, but those same students shouldn’t be having sex of their own volition.

As it turns out, it’s Bascombe, Solange’s father, who has been killing everyone responsible for his daughter’s predicament, something which seems honorable until you consider the sexualized nature of the murders. In his shame and rage, he took on the role of vengeful vigilante. His daughter’s suffering is written all over her face at the end, but not even Herta offers her solace. Solange is presented as damaged and unclean, as if her trauma is infectious. Inspector Barth says it best in the film’s closing line, “Solange has been paying for everybody.”

Misogyny victimizes women in multiple ways: it characterizes female sexuality as bad while upholding male sexuality as good; it transforms us into chattel; and encourages us to harm our fellow sisters in order to be favored in men’s eyes. What Have You Done To Solange? reveals that the damage has come full circle. At a time when victims of misogyny are condemned, harassed, and disbelieved, we must ask the sobering question of not what was done to Solange, but why it had to happen in the first place.

Women in Horror : women who fight back

Shadows of the Mind: Women in Horror Who Fight Back

by Sharon Shaw

[Contains spoilers for the films The Descent (2009), The Babadook (2014) and IT (2017)]

I’ve been experiencing a lot of “I can’t do this” over the last couple of weeks, and, counter-intuitive though it may sound, watching horror movies is sometimes the only thing that can cut through the treacle that my brain becomes when I’m experiencing a depressive episode.

Why counter-intuitive, you ponder? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Horror has something of a poor rep when it comes to the portrayal of women, particularly, and for a significant portion of the genre this is well-deserved. It’s not unique in this; the traditional action movie, with its male-power-fantasy framework, is frequently guilty of having women characters who are thin on the ground at best, and thin full stop when they do turn up. Their agency is often lacking, and far too often their presence is mainly in order to take the role of prize, to be awarded when Johnny Template achieves his goal at the end of the film. While I am no stranger to the practice of empathising and identifying with someone who is of a different gender, sexuality or culture (I think it’s a great habit that everyone should get into as early as possible), it can be a bit isolating when you can’t find characters who look and feel like you that behave in ways that are meaningful, reassuring and strengthening. It can be even more isolating when the society you’re trying to fit into expects a certain type of behaviour that doesn’t match yours, and there are few examples to tell them different.

And I do mean few examples, not none. The action story plays with anger, giving guidance on how we can push back against frustration, and it can be a power fantasy for women as much as for men (the early Alien and Terminator movies and Mad Max: Fury Road are some of my absolute favourites). But I don’t think “frustration” tells enough of the story, and it’s fascinating to me how those examples all contain strong elements of horror; not just playing with anger, but with fear.

Horror is (or should be) what we experience when we witness the subjugation of someone who is already physically weaker and more vulnerable. Repetitive, boring or downright bad horror does nothing to challenge the status quo; women start out as vulnerable and end up as dead or driven insane. Slasher flicks and torture movies that just replicate this pattern are the worst because they reinforce it and numb the audience to true horror, eliciting the “freeze” response, so they end up laughing instead. There’s no fighting this reaction; its intent is to keep you still long enough that the predator doesn’t see you, and all you can do is wait for it to pass. If the message is “can’t win, don’t try”, then the story is worse than useless. If, however, the characters are framed as victims initially but are able to come back from the brink, even when the process is flawed or incomplete, this has great lessons when we ourselves feel trapped by fear.

The Descent (2009) is, for the most part, a story about a group of women who face their challenge with planning, determination and an innate drive to fight, no matter what. It does end on the consequences of the freeze response, but like the Little Match Girl, where the protagonist succumbs to cold and exhaustion even as she holds the key to her salvation in her hands, reads to me as a cautionary tale against it.

The Babadook (2014) shows a complex fear of emotional responses, and how the refusal to process or even acknowledge them can manifest as deadly threat. Amelia’s monster is a complicated creation of dismissed trauma, unaddressed grief, repressed self-doubt and shame. Eventually it threatens her son, and while he is able to stand up to her, Sam is too small and frightened to tackle the demon; she is the one who must hold her ground against the Babadook.

Amelia models a core of self that still remains under all the terror, that stubbornly refuses to let the monster have full sway over her house, her child or her mind. The moment that breaks me and gives me wings every time is the expression on her face when she plants her feet and roars at her antagonist, “YOU ARE TRESPASSING IN MY HOUSE!”

By distinguishing throughout the film between his mother and the Babadook (when Sam yells at it to go away it’s always slightly to the side of Amelia) he gives her the key to its eventual defeat and us a clue as to how we can tackle our own unwelcome reactions – by personifying them slightly outside of ourselves we may enable a detached confrontation which gives us half a chance of success.

Amelia also provides the massive revelation that accepting the presence of such a huge and hideous beast in our basement, while we may not be able to outright destroy it – or even want to, if it is bundled up with the loss of things we loved and have no desire to forget – is a form of resilience. If we give it regular attention, nurture if necessary, and make sure our loved ones (at least the ones who cannot protect themselves) are kept safely away from it, then we need not fear that it will once again grow huge and stalk unopposed through our house.

IT (2017) presents a take on the impotence of existential fear in the face of someone who has known a different kind of immediate, life-threatening fear. While trauma can cause manifold problems of its own, the necessary steps to heal it have the potential to inoculate and protect in times of crisis.

While Bev is damselled slightly by her capture and role as motivation for the boys to reunite and take on Pennywise (a specific choice for the film adaptation), there is something powerful in his inability to kill her, and particularly in his frustration that he cannot even make her afraid of him. She has been targeted by the monster through symbols representing her own body – hair and blood – which are initially terrifying, but she is able to reconcile with them in part because of the support she receives from her friends. They acknowledge the gore in the bathroom that her father cannot see, they help her to clean it up, and as a result she knows they are stronger together than they will ever be apart – and it is Bev who feeds this back to them at their moment of separation, even recognising that this is exactly what Pennywise wants.

This is what gives fire to the inner voice that commands her to strike at the clown twice, and at her father when he finally turns on her openly. In the book it is hinted that It is behind Mr Marsh’s obscene and violent behaviour, but for me the strength here is that he is not – Bev has already experienced a child’s greatest terror; that of the parent who not only fails to protect you but is themselves a threat to your very life. She has faced, and fought, this emotional betrayal, and the void that lies behind Pennywise no longer holds any fear for her – let alone the hyperdontial clown.

Fear can easily be the dominant emotion for a woman. It’s not overwhelming for all of us, and obviously it can affect those who aren’t women just as much (what with it utilising those pesky brain chemicals we all share in some measure). But socially, statistically, women (including anyone whose gender wasn’t designated correctly at birth) experience more vulnerability than men. We are soaked in it throughout our lives; we are often expected to suck it up and get on with life despite it. The #metoo movement and how widespread it is makes that clear; behind each one of those stories is guilt, shame and trauma, all of which are rooted in fear.

And this is why I think a horror movie – a good horror movie – can serve as a great power fantasy for girls and women. When they’re done right they’re like a gut-wrenching fairy-tale, and while the “stay inside the circle” story serves its purpose for young children, sooner or later this must give way to “how to fight the beasts outside the circle

“. We cannot stay sheltered forever. If some form of trauma hasn’t already taken away that safe cushion of dependence, life will eventually. We need guidance on how to handle it when it happens, and how to recover from it afterwards, and if we find the right stories, we will have exactly that.


Sharon Shaw is the co-host of The School of Movies podcast, where she and her husband Alex have spent several years reading (some might say way too) deeply into the films, and occasionally TV and video games, that make up the pop culture landscape. She is also the editor of Alex’s book series, The New Century Multiverse, and a voice actor in the audio drama productions of the same.