Halloween is a weird time. I mean that literally. Weird as in wyrd, and weird-ing. Reality loses its fixation on the daylight consciousness as we find ourselves in a sidereal realm of phantasmic entities and pale visages. Halloween is Samhain, a liminal time and the passing over into the cold and dark seasons of Fall and Winter.
It is a time of harvest, where the veil is thin, and reality may be intruded upon by… the Other.
But in the age of electronic culture, our spooks are mediated by the T.V. The movie. The weird voices crackling through the audio recorded.
In a secularized culture that has so deeply repressed the supernatural world, assuming it is all a vestige of superstitious consciousness, the liminal meeting with the Other creeps back in through the kitchen window of pop culture, psychedelia, science fiction, and yes, horror.
Horror movies bring us back to the magic of enchantment through an animistic world full of spirits. Horror sneaks animism—the belief that the whole universe is minded and alive, even the rocks and the rivers and the mountains—back into our consciousness, if only for a few hours in the dark cave of our living rooms. They force us to consider the possibility, against our “rational” selves, that the Other—the ghost, the spirit, the entity—could be real.
So, here are a few movies to watch this Halloween. Movies that the Other, and the others, might be real after all.
What would a horror movie list be without The Shining?
I hope by now you’ve watched this movie, but if you haven’t, and if this somehow is less appealing than the modern-day jump scares films you can find (dime a dozen) at your local Redbox, hold on. Hear me out. This movie carries an important message.
Can a hotel be alive?
Can places, and not just people, have memories?
Are certain people able to be sensitive to these places that have memories…places that shine?
Mr. Halloran explains it best in this scene.
“When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say like, when someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice, but things that people who shine can see.”
There’s a lot more to say about The Shining. Now a classic of horror films (and of film, in general), the movie was released in 1980 and has since produced a plethora of creative conspiracy theories. It tells the story of Jack Torrence, a writer and father, as he slowly descends into murderous violence while working as a caretaker for the Overlook Hotel.
His son, Danny, is gifted with the ability mentioned above: he “shines”. Danny has the ability to see into the spiritual world and function as a shamanic mediator between the living and the dead. His creepy ally, “Tony”, is a little person who lives in his mouth and warns him about possible dangers and entities with violent motivations. Danny will go into trances and see horrific images about the Overlook Hotel’s bloody history.
Jack Torrence, it seems, is also sensitive to a place that “shines”, but he succumbs to the evil influence of the hotel, losing his sense of self and becoming ensnared as an agent of the dark and labyrinthine spirit world.
There’s really not much else I can say without spoiling the film, but it’s enough to mention for the list here that The Shining is a movie about navigating the animistic world full of spirits and living places. It suggests that places can be full of memories and even beings (we aren’t really sure if the hotel houses many ghosts, or perhaps one, dark force). Even the movie itself, due to its ambiguity and subtly in filmmaking, is almost a haunted film in the sense that analysis are always finding something new to discuss what’s hidden in a single frame.
The Shining reminds us of an animistic cosmology, a world which is full of mind, where both good and bad spirits (and places) must be carefully navigated with the help of spiritual sight. Perhaps the true horror of The Shining is being reminded that our reality might be more like the Shining than not.
“There is evil in the wood”
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Jumping to 1980 to 2016, The Witch is a debut film written and directed by Robert Eggers. He credits Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for his directorial style, and you can tell.
This movie carefully resurrects the demon-haunted world of New England puritans. It tells the story of a father, William, and his family as they are banished from the colony for what appears to be an act of religious pride (we aren’t sure what). William, with his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas leave for the wilderness to strike out on their own and start a farm.
But the family quickly descends into superstition and chilling violence after their youngest child Samuel is stolen by a witch in the wood.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I can say that it is terrifying and sublime. Wondrously dark. The Witch is a story about the encounter with an older, magical consciousness at the borders of civilization (literally at the borders of the wood), and the inability of Christian superstition to protect itself from succumbing to those powers. It is also a film about embracing the desire to “live deliciously,” to bring into oneself the sensual, magical and daemonic reality (or to find it in oneself). It is a film about the fear of the Other, exploring feminism, women, and the archetype of the Witch as everything that the Puritanical religious imagination desired to suppress.
Ultimately, it is a dark tale about the rise of that wild Other as it triumphs in all forms against religious suppression.
Don’t miss this one.
“The body has to adjust, of course… we weren’t built for this sort of thing.”
We move now from the immanent world of sublime Others, shining places and animism to cosmic horror. From animism to cosmicism.
The Void (2017) is a retro kind of horror film that calls to mind John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hellraiser, and mixes it with some H.P. Lovecraft. Always a good recipe for terror.
First of all, definitions. “Cosmicism” was a word developed by the grandfather of metaphysical horror, H.P. Lovecraft. He writes:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
So, it comes down to the idea that the universe is too big for the human mind to comprehend, and ultimately, if we were to tap into higher realities, they would drive us into madness and despair. While most of us in the spiritual and consciousness culture would rather think of higher realities as full of light, we should also remember the flip side. That there are realities and worlds that might be vast, powerful, multidimensional, and even indifferent to human existence. Multi-armed and psychedelic entities writhe with tentacles and shapes we’ve never seen before, and colors and geometries that break the mind (like the classic The Color Out of Space).
The Void tells the tale of just such an encounter with higher dimensions driving scientist and his cult of followers into the dark and monstrous geometries of the Void (watch for the mysterious pyramid symbolism), complete with body horror and horrific existences beyond life and death.
This is the perfect movie for Halloween. Riffing on the idea of cosmicism, The Thing (1982) is a John Carpenter adaptation of the 1938 novella Who Goes There? It details the story of an Antarctic military research time encountering a parasitic alien entity that assimilates and mimics other life forms. The Thing combines cosmicism with body horror to really get under your skin.
Beyond the hauntingly grotesque technical effects by Rob Bottin (who was in his early 20s at the time of filmmaking), The Thing is concerned with the horror of the human becoming inhuman. It retrieved some of the Cold War paranoia from the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia and mistrust.
Who is human, who isn’t? Do the characters who are assimilated still believe they’re human?
In one telling scene, the protagonist MacReady describes the Thing as a kind of fractal monster. “Every part is a whole.” The blood test is designed to betray the creature’s mimicking abilities by burning a sample of blood, and forcing the alien parasite to react to defend itself.
When you’re finished with classic film on cosmic bio-terror, go ahead and read the The Things by Peter Watts, the movie as told from the perspective of the alien parasite:
I was so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.
If that doesn’t give you the chills, what will?
JUNJI ITO AND COSMIC SPIRALS
“I find the spiral to be very mystical…It fells me with a deep fascination… like nothing else in nature … no other shape.”
Now I’m breaking the rules a little bit. Technically, this isn’t a film, but if we’re talking about cosmic and metaphysical horror we can’t ignore the manga artist horror extraordinaire Junji Ito.
First of all, there’s some excellent animated versions of Ito’s stories on YouTube, like “The Enigma of Amagara Fault”. Play a few of these great productions and prepare to be creeped out.
Ito is infamously well known for his mind crawling, visionary illustrations. His horror is cosmic in the sense that, in the manga Uzumaki, the abstract concept of a spiral (and by extension, the Fibonacci sequence) invades a small town. It doesn’t just appear as things in the world, like a snail shell, but as the abstract idea in itself. A kind of invasion of the Platonic world of ideals into mundane reality.
As the philosopher Eugene Thacker writes in In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy, “The spiral-as-thought is also “thought” as inhuman… Uzumaki suggests that the Absolute is horrific, in part because it is utterly unhuman.”
Ito’s stories, like Uzumaki or the comic animation above, explore the same cosmic body terror of the human world opening up to the non-human, and the human becoming inhuman.
Horror reminds us, sometimes gently, sometimes with a rush of a pounding heartbeat, that the world we live in may not be what it seems to be. No, despite the machinations of reason, it may be something more.
Perhaps the spookiest meditation to entertain in this liminal time the idea that the world is deeply mysterious, enchanted, and unknowable. Doubly so, we are part of that mystery, as there are occluded shapes and hidden shadows, writhing folds and shuddering dimensions—perhaps a tentacle or two—unknown even to ourselves and lurking within.
Stay spooky, readers. Whatever you are.
PS: Not scared enough yet? Jeez. Watch this great video on Junji Ito and how media scares us.
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