I recently watched the first episode of the BBC’s fascinating three-part documentary Art of Gothic, written and presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, and it was a wonderful look at the influence of the Gothic on the arts in Britain in the late eighteenth century. As you might have guessed, what Graham-Dixon calls “Gothic” art, we here stateside prefer to term Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic, to distinguish it from the period that succeeded the Romanesque in the Middle Ages. The documentary featured gorgeous photography and a cultured and urbane narration that skillfully and insightfully examined the origins of the dark and gloomy moment of terror that overtook Britain at the end of the Enlightenment.
Since it’s the Halloween season, stories about hauntings, ghosts, and horror have begun to fill the society and culture sections of mainstream publications in an annual orgy of macabre journalism. Over at Salon.com, sex and porn correspondent Tracy Clark-Flory published a piece linking horror to sadomasochistic sex, reflecting outdated conceptions of horror that trace their descent to Sigmund Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919). Or, as Clark-Flory put it in her inimitably eloquent style:
Sex, sexuality, sexiness — they are all so blatantly hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-fist-sized-dildo present in everything from slasher movies to women’s Halloween costumes. Then again, sex is such a long-time staple of horror that it’s easy not to notice or wonder about it. It just is, as the sky is blue.
I thought for a change of pace today I might talk about the past week in the supernatural—the fictional kind that is. It was a big week for supernatural horror, and I have a few thoughts about some of the highlights.
Let’s start today by passing along a bit of news. America Unearthed host Scott Wolter visited Westford, Massachusetts with a crew from Committee Films to shoot a segment for the upcoming season of his television show. According to the Westford Eagle, which incorrectly identified his show (twice!) as airing on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel (it airs on H2), Wolter was in town last week to observe a newly discovered marking on the stone housing the Westford Knight.
Yes, I am aware that Syfy showed Aliens on the Moon last night, but if you think I’m turning over two hours of primetime to listening to Nick Pope and friends blather on about how blurry photographs might or might not show alien moon bases, you have another thing coming. I watched a few segments of it, enough to know that it has nothing that would pass for proof and was generally a sub-Ancient Aliens batch of insinuation.
On the other hand, I watched the second episode of The Strain, and I’m not sure that this was a better choice. The clichés are strong in this one. I don’t know what the book was like, but this episode seemed constructed out of spare parts and duct tape. How laughable was it that suddenly a 200-page set of documents related to the incident was leaked just hours after the plane landed? I mean, I write fast, but seriously… It’s not possible to have a plausible disinformation campaign with leaked documents (200 perfect bound pages!) and a CEO scandal the very next morning! Russia certainly tried with MH17, but it took them the whole weekend to manufacture a fake story about Ukrainian culpability. And let us not get started on the ridiculous view of federal bureaucracy on the show...
The early buzz on The Strain was filled with dramatic adjectives. “Unique” got tossed around several times, though not by every reviewer. After watching the pilot episode, I can’t imagine how anyone could have applied the word unique to anything about The Strain, which is perhaps the most derivative vampire story to come to the small screen in years. In recent years, we’ve had vampire detectives (Angel and Moonlight), vampire lovers (True Blood), vampire teens (The Vampire Diaries), vampire aristocrats (The Originals), vampire slackers (Being Human), vampire capitalists (Dracula), and a bunch of Canadian vampires on the Syfy channel. The Strain, from producers Guillermo Del Toro, Chuck Hogan, and Carlton Cuse, wanted to reverse the trend toward human and relatable vampires and return them to their roots in horror.
Back when the documentary Killer Legends was broadcast on the Chiller channel, I wrote a blog post explaining a dispute I had with the filmmaker and explaining that I found his presentation to be a bit simplistic and superficial. The movie explored recent crimes that the filmmaker tied to famous urban legends, particularly those of the “Hook Man” and Killer Clowns. In writing about why I didn’t feel that the urban legends had an immediate origin in recent crimes, I wrote that “I don’t believe that most urban legends emerge from specific incidents from the recent past; if they did so, they wouldn’t be folklore and could easily have been verified by the original tellers of the stories.” I therefore presented some precedents for the urban legends in the myths and folklore of the nineteenth century.
Today I have two topics to discuss: A “Roman” hoax in Florida and an odd claim that Stonehenge was a make-work welfare program for the unemployed.
Earlier this month, South Floridians were excited at the possibility that Roman ruins had been found in Miami. A Facebook post depicting fallen pillars at a construction site in the city quickly went viral. According to the post, “This find will change everything we know about modern history if it can be dated and identified to truly be Roman.” The Our Crave “lifestyle” website ran this picture of the alleged discovery along with the first article about the claim:
Well, that was underwhelming. I went into the last episode of the first season of Penny Dreadful expecting S01E08 to live up to its grandiose title, “Grand Guignol.” Surely, if you are going to name your episode after Paris’s bloodiest spectacle and set a good chunk of the action in a theater there should be more to it than what we got. I expected to see the monsters descend on a stage show (I’d have picked the Walpurgisnacht scene from Faust, personally) during the production, the confused audience only gradually realizing that the vampires and undead and what-have-you weren’t part of the show, until finally all ended in an orgy of violence and blood. Perhaps my expectations are too high.
Last night was the penultimate episode of Penny Dreadful, S01E07 “Possession,” and viewers well-read in the horror genre will recognize this episode as an unusual combination of Reagan’s exorcism from The Exorcist and the vigil Lucy Westenra’s suitors hold over her as she succumbs to vampirism in Dracula. While superficially the two scenes that inspired this episode would seem to be vastly different, they share much in common. Penny Dreadful, as is its wont, failed to really build on its predecessors so much as reduce them to the least common denominator. It was an effective, tense, and watchable hour, but one that did not strive to be more than that.