Eigen League of Monsters, Part Three: G-g-g-g-ghosts!

Posted: October 19, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, monsters, October Horror
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Part of my ONGOING SERIES about just what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why I think it’s meritorious to discuss this subject.  Long story short:  in a group of monsters like the kind on the hierarchy, my theory is that they sufficiently fulfill a necessary number of roles in the human consciousness with regards to horror.

Today I’m going to talk about two things, for reasons that I hope will be eventually made clear:  1) Unclean Spirits, and 2) Malphas, a Mighty Prince of Hell (&. al).

While these two things are in different places in terms of danger-assessment on the Hierarchy, I believe that a number of their storytelling mechanics are very similar and that we can talk about these two different things — wicked or unclean spirits representing the souls of the departed, and un-born demonic entities with a passionate interest in destroying all of humanity — under the same essential rubric:  the Intangible Malign Intelligence.

Not Pictured: Ghosts

So, I want to digress for a second and talk a little bit about how I think horror works.  Outlaw Vern, the internet’s leading expert in Seagalology (we are in the same club of Internet’s Leading Experts on things), talked at one point about why he doesn’t like torture porn (and, unfortunately, I can’t remember where he talked about that), and it boils down to this:  it’s not a moral issue.  It’s the fact that he believes that in a horror/monster/slasher/stalker movie, the real engine is the the suspense generated by the CHASE, not the actual murders.  The chase is like a sentence in a story, while the murder is a kind of punctuation, a kind of gory interrobang at the end.  The torture scenes, then, aren’t bad because they’re upsetting — they’re bad because they’re structurally out of place, like the filmmakers are writing a story in which they try to increase excitement by just taking exclamation points onto the ends of all their sentences.

Anyway, I can’t find where he said it, but I think it’s a pretty strong argument and it’s something worth looking at (UPDATE:  Nope, here it is, on his review for The Collector).  What it shows, first of all, is why it’s so easy to make a bad monster movie — writing sentences is hard, designing exclamation points isn’t.  Any half-assed writer or film-maker can just make a spiky-looking punctuation mark and slap it onto a badly-thought-out-sentence and sell the damn thing for a million bucks.  Actually writing the story is a little more difficult.

The other thing that it let’s us do is it gives us a neat way to look at horror movies.  If we excise the murders from, say, Nightmare On Elm Street, is it still scary?  Or, let’s say rather, what if the murders were just ordinary old, stab-in-the-heart murders instead of gleefully insane murders?  I’d argue that it still is a pretty creepy movie, and that the nature of that horror is rooted not in the ingenuity of the deaths (which is necessary not for the purpose of being scary, but for the purpose of not being boring) but in the ingenuity of the scenario that LEADS to the murders.  In this light, I think it also shows why, despite all his big talk, Freddy Kreuger is, in fact, just an unclean spirit who thinks he’s someone special — because the horror here relies very heavily on the primal mechanic of just what it is that makes ghosts scary.


It’s weird, but I think that the farther back you go in human history, back to the most universal sorts of monsters, the simpler the mechanic of horror becomes. We’ve had ghosts since pretty much always, and what do ghosts do?  They say, “Boo!”

Wolf-Man doesn’t say that.  The Mummy doesn’t say that.  Dracula doesn’t say that (he does say, “Blah!” sometimes, though).  Ghosts jump out and they say “Boo!” and they have since time immemorial and honestly, that’s basically their whole deal.  Ghosts are where they aren’t supposed to be.  That’s it.  If you look at any of the really good ghost movies (and there aren’t many; if we accept my assertion that Nightmare On Elm Street is one…well, that’s one.  Put The Ring up on that, too, and I think Candyman, regardless of Holland’s assertions to the contrary), and you take away the imminent threat — the danger of being sucked into the bed or getting gouged by a big hook or some shit, because that stuff is gross and creepy but it’s obviously not enough to hang a whole movie on (as all of the OTHER Nightmares on Elm Street, Ringus, and Candymen taught us) — take away all that shit and what do you have left?

Freddy’s face appearing in the ceiling, or his creepy hand showing up in the bathtub.  Naomi Watts coughing up an electrode, or seeing a weird artifact on her polaroids, or Samara coming out of the television.  Tony Todd is in the room with you … and now so is Virginia Madsen.  AUGH!

These aren’t, I want to point out, the same thing as “jump scares”, although they can exist in common with jump scares.  If you imagine a big Venn Diagram with “Things Are Where They Shouldn’t Be” and “Blah! A Cat Just Jumped Out From Behind a Garbage Can!” there’d be some overlap.  But while you can startle someone by throwing a thing out at them, the “Boo” mechanic works best when it really violates our sense of the natural world.

You know, we’ve got pretty good mechanics when it comes to figuring out how things are supposed to exist in space.  Really, a huge portion of our brain is devoted to visual processing, and that means identifying and following objects, tracking objects that have left our line of sight, locating objects in space and working out geography — our brains are good at it.  And movies can just completely fuck with those senses in terrible ways, and THAT is the primal mechanic of the ghost.  Hands reaching up for you out of a drain, or little girls appearing in the mirror where you know they can’t be.

Well, it’s one of them.

The Malign Intelligence

Unless you’re making a wacky surreal horror extravaganza, you can’t really get away with making a move just about things that are out of place.  Even Poltergeist, which is the most “Things Just Keep Moving Around” movie of them all, I think, doesn’t skimp on part of what makes the Unclean Spirit work, as it exploits a secondary mechanic of the brain:  the Theory of Mind.

Dang, I guess this one isn’t as funny as my other ones, but that’s what happens, it’s all about psychology, now.  Theory of Mind is basically this:  human beings have a thing in our brains that lets us figure out if a thing is just happening randomly or if there’s something behind it that’s thinking.  Mostly, we get it whenever things happen without apparent pattern amongst things we don’t quite understand — it’s like, you know how you tend to think of your car as being like a person, because of all of its weird idiosyncrasies  and whatnot?  But the Car Guys just think your car is a car?  That’s because they know what the fuck is wrong with your car.  It doesn’t look like a living thing with a personality to them, it looks like a big machine with a busted radiator belt or something (I do not know if radiators have belts, who cares?).

What's wrong is...your car is possessed by Satan. Sorry.

The point is this:  we’re actually already wired to notice intelligence, and we’re also wired to get wigged out about intelligences that we can’t find.  So when shit just starts moving around your house mysteriously, but to some enigmatic purpose (!?!?), or when you get the feeling that the boundaries of your world are being violated not just by weird quarks or some shit, but by an actual intelligent thing that is looking for you, your brain is already prepared to flip its shit.

I think that’s why I want to put the Demons and the Unclean Spirits together, because despite the discrepancy in their origins, we’re still basically dealing with the same mechanic — there is a malevolent intelligence that is trying to get you, only you can’t always see it and you can’t touch it or just hit it with a brick or something, and it’s operating according to rules that half the time you don’t even understand.

The Intangible Bifurcation

But in fact there are TWO ways that the Intangible Malign Intelligence creeps us out, and the first one (“Boo”) leans a little bit towards the ghostly side, while the second one is obviously demonic:  Possession.  Now, I still tend to think that the root issue of possession is one that’s very similar to the root issue of ghosts just being in places they aren’t supposed to be, and all of this ties together in a “Things are Supposed to Follow Rules” sort of a way.

If you look at some of the good possession movies (The Exorcist, FallenFallen is a good movie, shut up Holland), you’ll notice something interesting:  despite the fact that the idea of possession sets us up pretty neatly for a very good “I am My Own Worst Enemy” premise the same way that Wolf-Man does, those movies do not use it.  Inevitably, movies about possession are not about the protagonist being possessed, but about the people around the protagonist who are possessed.   And it’s the same sort of notion as the Theory of Mind idea, right?  We have a Theory of Mind about our friends, and a general idea about how their minds should behave, and then suddenly there’s a new Mind, and it disrupts the theory.

I think you can make a case that certain movies that we might ordinarily think of as being invasion or zombie-like movies (Ghosts of Mars maybe, or to a lesser extent Evil Dead, Virus, or Signal) are really essentially possession movies, because the real engine that drives the horror isn’t necessarily the ubiquity of the threat the way it is with zombies, but in the way that the behavior of ordinary people is changed into something malicious and incomprehensible.

Like all of us, the Evil Dead just want to be loved. And also to murder things.

(The thing is that, again once you take out all the murders, Evil Dead just comes right down to Bruce Campbell looks at his girlfriend but there is some other demonic mind behind her eyes).

Some of the Bodysnatcher movies (Invasion, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Faculty, The Puppet Masters…all of which are actually basically the same movie) sort of stride a line between the zombie movie (which is about how the ordinary world is just completely consumed by monsters) and the possession movie (which is about how your friends suddenly stop behaving the way that they’re supposed to), and I think this may have something to do with why Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is the only real classic there — not because this isn’t a fruitful combination, but because whenever you’ve got two primary horror tropes in your movie, there’s bound to be a sense of things getting kind of confused.  (Although, The Faculty is pretty great.)

Haaaahahahahah. The Faculty. Hahah.

What we end up with when looking at the Intangible Malign Intelligence is at it’s core:  something that is invisible but aware, that has inserted itself into your life but isn’t subject to your ability to harm it, and that has a sort of spectrum of ways that it can mess up the rules of the world:  from just being where it isn’t supposed to be, to making objects and stuff do what they aren’t supposed to do, all the way up to squeezing inside people and making them do the sorts of things that we know they aren’t supposed to.

So Where Did We Go Wrong?

You know, it’s weird.  I don’t think that we really did go wrong, per se.  I think that there are a lot of stupid ghost movies, and there are a lot of stupid possession movies, but I think when all’s said and done, the ratio of good Intangible Malign Intelligence movies to bad ones is actually a little bit higher than it is for Dracula or Wolf-Man.

When people do go wrong with it, I think it’s because of the same reason that anyone goes wrong with a horror movie:  that they start thinking the kill is more important than the pursuit.  And the thing about the IMI is that it sort of automatically forces the movie into some of the ballsier endings that good horror movies have — like, how do you kill a ghost, anyway?  You’ve established that it can’t be hurt by guns or dynamite or whatever, so what are you going to do about it?  Well, you’re not going to fucking do anything.  If you’re LUCKY you’ll escape the ghost at the end, but you aren’t going to kill it.

I think that’s why you get so many of these movies with downer endings, or endings that at least imply that the danger isn’t really over (Fallen, Nightmare On Elm Street, Candyman, even The Exorcist, when you think about it).  The whole setup dictates a more intimate portrayal of the horror and a more daring look at what we have to do to come to terms with what scares us.

Except in the remake of the Haunting, where the house just turns into a giant monster and so they blow it up.  That…was not a good approach.

The ghost that is also a giant house is...the scariest ghost. I guess.


A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Ring
The Exorcist (I actually haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, so you’ll have to watch it and tell me if it’s better)
Poltergeist (this movie is basically a very long set-up for just one joke, but it is a very good joke)

  1. […] you, as opposed to a ghost-as-an-element-of-story), that I describe in my Eigen League post on G-g-g-g-ghosts!:  firstly, they ARE where they aren’t supposed to be, and secondly, they cause people to […]

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