Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror

AmityvillecoverI have a love/hate relationship with Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. I find this novel entertaining, yet I feel like there could be more to the story. The novel was originally published as a “true story,” but most readers, and maybe even those who have never picked up this novel, know that the truth is actually fiction. If it were a true “true story,” then I don’t think I would I would feel more could be added to the story, but because it isn’t I feel it is too thin at times, for reasons I will discuss below.

The characters in the novel seem, to me, like they could be genuine people, particularly the reluctance to initially believe the house is haunted, that is, of course, unless a person already holds the belief that phenomena, such as the phenomena that occurs in the novel, can happen. I think the average person may try to find rational answers, much like George Lutz at the beginning of Anson’s book. Father Mancuso is probably the character I like the most; not because he is brave, for he is not when comparing him to other priests, such as those in The Exorcist. I believe his fear, especially after he is plagued with painful blisters and a fever. He is real, and acts real, much like a typical person would who had never experienced a haunting.

When I say I feel the story is thin, I mean clichéd. Nothing is new, and not even for the time the novel was written. There isn’t anything that goes beneath the surface of what people have, and had, come to expect from a haunted house story. There’s the swarms of flies, the sudden awakening from sleep at a certain time, and even a cross that is flipped upside down. Perhaps the only thing added that I feel is different, is a sour smell emanating from the cross.

What I give credit for is the “true story” tag for the book. From what I can tell, this was one of the first novels to claim this in this way. By doing this, Anson created instant fear in the reader because the reader had in his or her head that this could happen at any time, with the Lutz’s being proof of that. Now, the “true story” tag is overdone, much like found footage films.

Something that I find interesting, but not important to the book, is that traditionally an upside down cross is a religious symbol, that of St. Peter. In the past, and perhaps apocryphal, it was said St. Peter refused to be crucified on a cross right-side up because he felt he was unworthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus. The upside down cross came to be known as a symbol of humility and respect, not anti-Christian. One of the thrones for the pope bears and upside down cross. It would be interesting to research when the upside cross became anti-Christian, so to speak. Is it ironic that many people who tattoo upside down crosses as a display of (insert what they feel the cross represents to them) actually tattooed an ancient symbol for humility and respect toward Jesus?

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The Others

TheOthersOne of the joys of being in an MFA program like Seton Hill University’s is being able to read novels and watch films that are in the genre in which you are most interested writing. Being able to watch films like The Others is beneficial for a writer because it shows how something that seems cliché, like ghost stories, can be twisted and manipulated so that they end up being fresh.

The Others is a haunted house story which I find relatively unique among films and novels involving this type of subject matter. The story begins like many other ghost stories do in that a family lives in a house alongside ghosts who disturb their everyday lives. In this particular film, the children are also plagued by a disease that forces them to stay away from light. Really, this is an obvious clue that the family will turn out to be ghosts, but it’s handled well, and it only becomes obvious, for me at least, after the twist is revealed–that is, each member of the family is a ghost, and they are the ones doing the haunting. When I had first seen the movie, which was in theaters, this had surprised me, which is one reason I enjoyed it so. I’m unsure if more observant viewers caught it beforehand, but I wasn’t one of those people. Rather, I didn’t catch any of the hints and clues that the family is dead until just before it was revealed.

I think one thing the movie had going for it is it deals with a cliché topic, like I mentioned earlier. Viewers begin the movie with preconceptions about what’s bound to happen. Without the revelation this movie offers, it’s a forgettable ghost story, but with it, it’s  remembered for at least long enough for it to be talked about. This is something us writers should strive for: something interesting that turns the familiar into the unfamiliar, which prompts the reader to speak with others about our stories.

Something else I found effective in the film is the atmosphere that’s created. It’s dark and the children’s lives are already in danger due to their inability to be in light. Sure, there are jump scares, which is a technique that I despise, but overall the mood is set thanks to the atmosphere that not only the family lives in, but so too the viewer for the duration of the film. Anything can exist in the darkness, and with the children’s disease, it’s always dark, with only small candles burning just enough light to see the characters, yet create shadows that hide everything else. For instance, when Nicole Kidman’s character finds the old lady dressed as her daughter, the shadows hide the features of the old lady until Kidman is close enough to truly see what she looks like. In a bright environment, the light may have given away the visage of the old lady far too soon. Instead, suspense is created as the voice doesn’t quite match, then Kidman’s suspicions, followed by the accusation, and finally the full reveal. The way the scenes like these are handle are excellent, thanks in no small part to the atmosphere that’s been created.

The Others is in original film framed by a clichéd topic, which I respect because it brings something new to the old.

Stephen King’s The Shining

ShiningnovelDespite being an avid horror fan, I’d not read Stephen King’s The Shining until now. A shame, I know. What I discovered after I finished the novel is that I love the book far more than the movie. It’s not that I don’t like the movie, I love it as well, but the depth of the characters and the story are better in King’s version. I’m biased towards the written word, however, because it’s through text that an author can put the reader far deeper into the minds of the characters, and present material in a way that’s not possible through different media.

Jack Torrance is surprisingly different in the book compared to Kubrick’s interpretation. Why this surprises me is Kubrick is good at showing the depth of his characters in movies, yet I feel compared to the book, Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is not as well developed. That may also be simply because it’s hard to see Jack Nicholson as normal to begin with, but still.

In King’s novel, Jack is haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel as well as his own personal demons. He’s not a father I would want, but he does occasionally show affection for his family; an example of this comes at the end when Jack manages to gain some control over himself, and when he does, he tells his son to run and get away from him and the hotel. It’s not a long display of affection, but it does show that Jack has a least some humanity in him.

The supernatural elements are more pronounced in the book compared to the movie as well, and this may be due to King being able to delve into the minds of the characters more so than an exterior camera can. The internal turmoil Danny experiences, and his shock to discover he isn’t alone in the world has a greater emotional impact than in the film. Personally, I love books that explore the supernatural, so Danny’s story interested me. Most of my own writings have some sort of supernatural element to them–probably three stories out of five, one of five being reality-based horror (occasionally a different genre), and the last being literary. Because of my fascination, Danny discovering and accepting his powers produced a more interesting character for me.

I will have to say that I occasionally felt the book was a little slow, but I won’t say that it is boring at all, which, for a 600+ page novel, is awesome. I read with interest throughout the entirety, and it reminded me why I am such a fan of Stephen King. No, not all his books are perfect, but The Shining may be an example of one that comes fairly close.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

GhostStory_by_PeterStraubPeter Straub’s Ghost Story is an interesting story, but I did have a difficult time sticking with it. There were times I felt it was intriguing, others when it was a bit boring, and some times when I thought it was awesome.

A big part of the story I really enjoyed is the twist. Though the story begins with a group of friends telling ghost stories to one another, the antagonist turns out to be a shape-shifting creature, and this was something I didn’t expect to happen during my reading. The twist plays with what we expect and what we don’t, in both life and stories. “Hauntings” have become so popular in literature and culture that they have almost become cliché. With Ghost Story, the reader is thrown into a familiar world, that is, a haunted world; however, as the book progresses, the familiar soon becomes unfamiliar as a creature relatively unknown to our culture in the US–unless the reader knows Native American legends and creatures to some degree–is revealed to be the force behind all evil in the story. The sudden push into the unknown can produce a feeling of unease in the reader, something which can help involve him or her in the emotional atmosphere of the characters and their world.

Another aspect of the story I found great is the lack of containment for the monster;  the Manitou is not a ghost that is chained to a certain place or person. It is free to “haunt” whomever she chooses, which makes the creature much more frightening than a ghost. I would even go as far to say it can be more frightening than even a demon, as a demon must obey certain rules, in many stories anyways, such as an aversion towards holy objects, holy water, or even in the way a demon can be exorcised. When it comes to the Manitou, new rules must be figured out because of the unfamiliarity with creatures like this.

The men in the story may deserve the “hauntings” they so encounter because of what they attempted to do in their pasts, that is, Eva Galli is believed to be dead, so they conspire to hide her body rather than face whatever may happen should they tell the authorities. They end up being haunted by both the Manitou and their own pasts, which exacerbates their personal fears, and helps establish the atmosphere of the book. We all have something in our pasts that we may not want to come to light, no matter how insignificant they truly may be. The sins we hide may not even come close to the severity of trying to hide a body, but they still haunt us. In the case of the book and for the Chowder Society, they may deserve the Manitou because of how bad their sins are.

Ghost Story is a good book, one that I enjoyed at times, and although it may never take a place on my favorites shelf, it is worth the read, especially if just to examine how Straub transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar, which is something all of us horror authors should be able to do every now and the, preferably in every story.

Hell House

BE02C30A-D470-4A0B-AE03-F83E994FBAC9Img100Haunted house stories are probably one of the most common types of stories in horror. Why? I believe part of this is that a haunted house can exist in any environment, from the rural mid-west to Los Angeles to the frigid in the winter and humid in the summer Northeast. A haunted house is personal; the things doing the haunting see you at your most vulnerable–whether you’re sleeping, in the shower, or playing with the discovery of Lela Star on the internet, pre-plastic surgery, of course. This vulnerability in conjunction with the supernatural makes haunted house stories attractive.

The classic haunted house stories–The Turn of the ScrewThe Haunting of Hill House, and Hell House, to name a few–take place in extravagant houses built by the rich. But more modern settings can be found, such as in House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski–one of my top five favorite novels–which takes place in a house like you can find on many streets in America. But the classic setting can be just as effective as the modern setting depending on how well the haunting is crafted.

In Hell House, Richard Matheson eschews subtle horror in favor of a more concrete haunting. There is no ambiguity in the haunting. Hell House is haunted. That is that. This differs from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in that Jackson plays with more psychological horror. Which is more effective in creating fear? That most likely depends on the reader. Imaginative readers may prefer the subtle haunted house stories because the ambiguity of the haunting allows the mind to create horrors more in line with their personal fears. Less imaginative readers may prefer the in-your-face haunting Matheson employs in Hell House. I, personally, prefer the subtle horror because I am able to project my subconscious onto that of the ghost. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like the in-your-face stories. The former just has a longer lasting effect on me, and is one I like to emulate in my own writings.

Endings may play a large role in the effectiveness of haunted house stories as well. In Jackson’s novel, the reader is left with the question of whether or not the haunting is real or merely in the head of the protagonist. Arguments for both can be made. Hell House has a more definitive ending. The ghost is real, and he is defeated when he is reminded that he would be picked last on a basketball team because of his height. Because of his anger regarding his stature, he sure wasn’t Muggsy Bogues. Some readers may prefer the closure Hell House offers, but the ambiguous ending The Haunting of Hill House provides is more of my cuppa tea. Readers cannot simply close Jackson’s novel and move onto the next one. They will ponder over the ending, questioning the validity of the haunting. This, in turn, may force them to question their own sanity when they react a certain way to things unseen. Hell House differs in that once the book is finished, there is no questioning like that of Jackson’s novel or even House of Leaves.

The Haunting of Hill House–Shirley Jackson: “No Live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”

9780143122357_p0_v1_s260x420The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is one of those novels that is often recommended as required reading for any true horror fan and writer. Although I consider myself both fan and writer, up until now I’ve never read Jackson’s novel. Now that I have completed it, I can see why it’s so often recommended.

Jackson’s novel is not fast-paced, most of the horror is not seen, and the characters continually laugh throughout most of the novel rather than show their fear. As I read through the novel, this laughter and light-heartedness that continues through nearly to the end of the novel bothered me. I felt it reduced the tension and mitigated the horror in the novel. The more I thought about this laughing reaction the characters have, the more I began to see that the reaction may actually fit the novel perfectly. The very first line of the novel is: “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality” (Jackson 3). The horror of the novel is rarely visual, and is more psychological. What the laughing does is it shows two sides to a personality. The laughing reduces the fear of a person, a nervous laughter of sorts, and scientific studies have shown laughing and smiling, even when you don’t want to, improve moods and reduce stress, effectively helping bring on genuine happiness despite merely being imitations of happiness at first. The characters in the novel may be unconsciously laughing in order to reduce the stress of the haunting of Hill House brings about. In the case of Eleanor, the absolute reality for her is that she doesn’t feel loved at home, and wants to be special but may never be so. Continuing to exist in her absolute reality might drive her insane, thusly producing the haunting along with manifestations of the events unconsciously.

Another function of the laughter in the novel, particularly toward the end, is it shows how unstable Eleanor’s mental functioning may be becoming. When looking back at the novel, while it may seem as though the haunting is genuine at first, it may never have been. The ending, especially how it is unclear whether Eleanor has become possessed or if her mind is broken promotes speculation about the validity of the claims of supernatural goings-on at Hill House. The laughter may be an indication that the hauntings are more personal, mental manifestations of the characters, primarily of Eleanor, than genuine hauntings.

The value of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is how well the author crafts the question of whether the haunting is legitimate or not into the narrative. Most of the horror is off the, left for the reader to imagine. In fact, the novel even begins with Dr. Montague suggesting for the participants to try not to focus on the haunting of Hill House lest they may be influenced subconsciously. Despite the doctor warning the assistants of this, not once in the novel do they let go of the stories of the haunting. This might show that the paranormal events that occur in the novel are nothing more than manifestations brought on by preconceived notions and expectations that something not only could, but would happen. This expectation that something would happen in combination with Eleanor’s intense desire to belong and be wanted might have produced a mental state perfectly suited for believing and subconsciously producing manifestations that seem supernatural. Even the reader can believe Hill House is Haunted before the story has even started simply because the very first page tells the reader the house is haunted and that the house, itself, is not sane (3). But how true is this? No tenants who have ever rented the house relayed stories of hauntings, and nothing suggests something supernatural killed all of Crain’s wives, and each death can either be attributed to foul play or flat-out bad luck.

So is Hill House haunted or is it only in the heads of those who believe it is? Do the stories make something true or does the truth make the stories? Perhaps thinking about the truth–that is, absolute reality–for too long will drive you insane.

Work Cited

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. 1959. New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.

Real Psycho: Ivan Milat

Ivan_MilatIvan Milat, born December 27, 1944 in Guildford, Australia, is the convicted serial murderer known as the backpack killer.

Milat had been convicted of several crimes throughout his life before his convictions for the murders of seven people in Australia. As one of fourteen children, discipline wasn’t instilled in any meaningful way because of his parents’ difficulty in raising such a large family. As children, He and his brothers repeatedly found themselves in trouble with law enforcement. The crimes eventually grew in seriousness as he grew older, to include unlawful entry, car thefts, and armed robberies.

In 1971, Milat was charged with the rape of two hitchhikers who say he held a knife on them as he committed the crime. Though there was evidence against him, the prosecution couldn’t establish a convincing case against him, which resulted in his acquittal.

It is unknown how many people he had killed before his conviction, but in what may have been a close first, Paul Onions was hitchhiking across Australia in 1990 in search of work when Milat picked him up. Milat eventually pulled a revolver out and threatened to kill him if he didn’t listen to what he had to say. Onions ran away and was picked up by another car that took him to safety.

Two of Milat’s first known victims, British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, were found killed. Both women had been stabbed several times, and Walters was stabbed in a way that severed her spine, effectively paralyzing her. Evidence showed that after Milat severed her spine, he continued to attack her. Clarke was also stabbed repeatedly, and had also been shot in the head ten times. At the time of the discovery of the murders, police were unable to find the man responsible.

In October 1993, two more bodies were found. Post-mortem examinations revealed that the killings were connected with the two British backpackers found the year before. The two newly discovered victims had been stabbed repeatedly. Like Walters, the victims’ spines were cut, which would have paralyzed them as Milat continued his assault.

A mere month later, yet another victim of the serial killer was found, and had a severed spine as well, which showed police that they were, indeed, dealing with a serial killer.

Only three days later, two more victims were found. The male was killed by strangulation and gunshots, whereas the woman was missing her skull completely and police deduced a machete or a sword had chopped it off. It was only after these last two victims were found that the police admitted to the public they were searching for a serial killer.

Paul Onions came forward when he heard about the murders. After he identified Milat as his attacker, police raided Milat’s house and found sufficient evidence, such as sleeping bags and clothing belonging to the victims, to charge him with the murders. Also found in Milat’s home was a large, curved sword that investigators believed was the weapon used to behead one of Milat’s victims.

Milat pleaded not guilty for the seven murders and the assault on Paul Onions for which he was being charged.

In 1996, Milat was found guilty of all seven murders and the attack on Onions, and received seven consecutive life sentences. Milat maintains his innocence to this day.

In 1997, Milat masterminded a plot to escape from prison, but his plan failed.

Milat is suspected in the killings of six other women, but at this time no charges have been filed due to insufficient evidence.

Interestingly, Milat’s lawyer during the trial, who Milat fired when he suggested Milat plead guilty to the charges, said on his deathbed that Milat was aided by a female accomplice in the killings of the British backpackers.

Author