Wednesday, 23 December 2015

We Wish You a Scary Christmas

If we were to read aloud some of the lyrics of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” slowly, and without the feel-good music and images of food and gifts, the words quickly become ambiguous. Why must we watch out? Why mustn’t we cry? Unless, of course, Santa Claus is not all that he seems. If Santa Claus has a dark side, then it becomes rather concerning that a strange old man sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake. 

Santa's dark shade?
(That little girl doesn't care, as long as she has her apples)
The trailer for the new release Krampus (dir. Michael Dougherty) plays on the ambiguity of these words and links them to a version of the story behind the Germanic celebration of Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6th. Having left out their boots the night before, good children awake to find that their boots have been filled with small gifts by the Saint; bad children are instead dealt with by his demonic, goat-like counterpart Krampus. This could involve being thrown into a bag and beaten with a birch rod or even being taken back to Hell. This part of the story is still celebrated in Alpine Germany, Austria, and some of the adjoining regions by young men running around their towns in costumes and masks (and with no small amount of Glühwein in their stomachs).

The Finnish genre-bender Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, dir. Jalmari Helander) has the same words and black humour at the centre of its English-language trailer. Rare Exports is more of a thriller than a horror comedy, but the tongue-in-cheek feel is still there: it is a story of a group of Sami reindeer herders responding to hard financial times and attacks by Santa’s Little Helpers (who turn out to be dirty, beared men who inexplicably shed their red suits part-way through the film) by capturing a Little Helper and attempting to sell him to a visiting researcher.

Putting aside the black humour and the mythological reinterpretation, along with the troubling suggestion that the rosy-cheeked gentleman from the North Pole only wears a big hat to hide his horns, both films turn on the hinge of their domestic drama. The family members in Krampus are at each other’s’ throats  long before “the shadow of Saint Nicholas” gets a chance, and Rauno and Pietari are struggling through the aftermath of the loss of a wife and mother along with their monetary issues. It seems a straightforward mythic reading to say that the monsters are present in these films so that the respective communities must unite in opposition to them; it’s equally fair to say that monsters can be simply used “to keep kids in order and in their place”, as Christoph Waltz did with a smile when he explained the Krampus story to Jimmy Fallon.

A Christmas monster both evidences the duality at the centre of many myths and festivals and allows us to skip over some of the more uncomfortable ambiguities in our celebration of Christmas. Once we start to wonder why Santa Claus watches us sleep or how he has access to our houses, the house of symbolic cards swiftly falls. We then have to wonder why parents who spend the year warning their children of the dangers of strangers (especially those who offer candy or wish to touch them) suddenly flock to local shopping centres to place their kids on the knees of costumed men, as if summoned by “Jingle Bells” coming on the air. No, it’s better to fear a goat-man: that way we don’t have to wonder why Santa Claus always seems to show up with gifts and candy-canes once the parents are asleep, let along probe any double-entendre of him coming down the chimney.

Luckily, the Santa Claus who makes the problematic overtones of his role visible with this
chimney joke gets taken off the streets by Rutger Hauer’s vigilante here immediately after telling it.
Despite Christmas being the most magical time of the year, it’s also the most stressful for many. The celebration brings families together but can bring a lot tension along with it. And it certainly stretches a lot of budgets. For these reasons and others, it’s a season with a high suicide rate – another shadowy flipside to the Season to Be Jolly. When it is looked at in this light, it’s certainly understandable that Christmas monsters still have their place in the modern celebrations of the festival. Perhaps spooking each other into familial or communal togetherness with ghost stories or Krampus costumes can be a cheap and enjoyable addition to the standard cultural fare of Christmas crackers, late-night gift shopping and off-colour jokes involving mistletoe. If the goal of most monster stories is to bring the community together around the fire, away from the things that go bump in the night, they can certainly do this job at Christmastime too.  And most of all: be good to each other (for goodness’ sake). 

Jason Archbold (our wonderful guest blogger) is a Cotutelle PhD candidate at Macquarie University and the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig-Universität. His dissertation explores morals and ethics in apocalyptic fictions. When he is not dodging zombies as part of his research, he can be found investigating cultures through cooking or buried in a mass of comic books.

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Burton Conspiracy (Part Three): A Christmas ... Miracle?

As the season-to-be-jolly nears its climax, Danny Southward tries his hardest to keep us all in a suitably Gothic mood. Here, finally, is the thrilling conclusion to the three-part Christmas series on The Burton Conspiracy.

The Burton Conspiracy:
Part Three- A Christmas ... Miracle?

Welcome to the grand finale of my warped over-analysis of the Burton Theory, an attempt to tie three major animated films of Tim Burton's opus (Frankenweenie, Corpse Bride, & The Nightmare Before Christmas) together into one unifying theory. If you missed Part One and Part Two, then just follow those links for a slice of madness in which we establish our tragic hero, Victor, as he is seduced by a delusion which promises placation, companionship and a fulfilment of his desires. This time we reach the thrilling finale, and finally feast our minds on the actual Christmas themed film: The Nightmare Before Christmas.

That boy has legs for days. 
Having made the decision to abandon reality and adopt the delusion in our previous film, Corpse Bride, we finally find a Victor entirely engrossed in his Gothic Horror delusion. Our tragic hero has given into the allure of the dark thoughts that clouded his mind and adopted a persona that is the very representation of his own dark imagination: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King. How are Jack and Victor the same?

Other than their stylistically similar physiques, [and penchant for pinstripe trousers] Victor's scientific vigour continues through each character. From his interest in resurrection and science in Frankenweenie, through his scientific examination of the butterfly in Corpse Bride, and finally seen in Jacks insistence that there is a scientific method for identifying the essence of Christmas. His dog has also followed him through this transformation. His corporeal essence being returned by sparks when he is Sparky, before he degrades to Scraps and bones, and now finally as Zero, in which there is nothing left of his physical body, no sparks to sustain it, no scraps left, nothing, only the soul, Zero.

Victor, finally fully submitting to his delusion, becomes trapped in a world in which he is King, in which he is adored and loved for the strange quirks that branded him as strange and a loner as a child. He is idolised, he is adored and respected by the denizens of New Holland, which has followed his transformation through the ages too, now becoming Halloween Town, literally a nightmarish world populated by sycophantic horror stereotypes. Nightmare deals with Jack-née-Victor attempting, however, to escape this reality as he seems to realise that the horror cannot define him so thoroughly. Jack seems eager to escape the monotony, yet the real escape he seeks is from the delusion and his own mind trapping him in a reality filled with creatures eager to worship at his feet.

Jack, adored by all of the warped denizens including:
Vampires, A Doppelganger (the mayor), a Mummy (child), Witches etc.
And so the narrative details Jacks attempts to flee, to transpose familial happiness (epitomised by Christmas) upon his world- as he states of Christmas Town The monsters are all missing and the nightmares cant be found/ And in their place there seems to be good feeling all around []/ Ive never felt so good before. [This entire sections seems infinitely more tragic if considered as a man trapped inside his hellish delusion suddenly glimpsing into other peoples houses and discovering happiness there, that there is a world outside of his own darkness] Nobody here is dead, as Jack sings, which is key. Jack longs for an escape from his Gothic trappings and discovers happiness and familial joy, as personified by his trip to Christmas Town. Jack attempts to affect this change, only for this new persona to be forcibly rejected by the society he is so desperate to re-join, who literally shoot him down in flames. Tellingly, after the crash, Jack sings

Well, what the heck, I really did my best/ And by God I really tasted something swell, that's right/ And for a moment, why, I even touched the sky/ And at least I left some stories they can tell, I did/ And for the first time since I don't remember when/ I felt like my old bony self again/ And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King that's right I AM THE PUMPKIN KING!

Meant as a revelation for the character, Burton invites the audience to rejoice here, as Jack triumphantly decides to revert to his spooky ways. In actuality though, this is an incredibly tragic moment; Jack has decided to return to the fantasy, his attempts to move out tragically failing and his clear mental instability leading to an outright rejection, rather than any attempt at understanding. What first seems like a triumphant return is, in fact, a damning decision to abandon reality rather than join it, to return to the pumpkin king persona. Once this has been decided, Jack returns to Halloween Town, saves the day and gets the girl [interestingly, another re-animated corpse] and all is well again.

"Get Back into your comforting delusion, Jack! You don't belong here."
He is rewarded for his decision to further separate himself from the world and return to his solitary delusion. He is rewarded for choosing the self-destructive path and so falls forever into an illusion of security and happiness. Jacks attempts to return to the world, to snatch back some semblance of happiness and normalcy is rejected in favour of the delusions of grandeur, Gothic trappings and a version of himself that has fully detached from the human, from the rejection of the world. Jack's story is that of a man trapped in his delusion, and becoming aware that something is awry. He attempts to escape, glimpses happiness, community and familial love and, in his attempts to replicate this, to join that very society and free himself, he finds only rejection. Dejected, rejected, and seemingly without hope, the man returns to the comfort of his delusion, to tragically remain in the soft embrace of his own sycophantic mind trap.

This is a story of one mans slippage into a world that comforts him, and how this slowly distorts the world around him, until it is all-encompassing. The delusion rejects him and demands he stay at all times. It shows him his desires, then warps them and twists them to the perverse, pushing him out and pulling him further in. When he attempts to leave, he is confronted with a hostile world that can no longer tolerate the imitation of happiness that he presents to them. Rejected, the man resolves to return to the delusion, to the safety there presented, perhaps never to leave. 

These films represent a boy and his dog, a boy increasingly stuck within his delusions, and the spirit of the dog that he always resurrects to help him. It is not the happy tale that each ending to the three films suggests, it is never about finding love, but rather the appeasement of a mind by a force desperate to draw it in. A sinister delusion that draws our poor protagonist further and further into itself. 

This is the Burton Conspiracy. The warped and twisted tale of Victor, a poor boy destined to spend his life behind his eyes, stuck inside a delusion of his own making that seeks to trap him. So perhaps we should all sit down and watch these movies again. Not as the light-hearted childrens films they pretend to be, but as an example of something far more sinister, far more disturbing and, ulimtately tragic.

This, however, is just a theory. Thank you for joining me along the way for this festive treat, and I hope that you enjoyed the read! 

Danny Southward is a third year PhD researcher in creative writing and contemporary Gothic at the University of Sheffield. His work mostly centres on metafictional and metamodern motifs. When not over-theorising, he can be found crying in a corner repeating 'it's all one film, it's all one film!' or drinking copious amounts of spiced apple. Tis the season. Merry Christmas,

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Burton Conspiracy (Part Two): Deeper Into the Delusion

As part of our season of jolliness, Danny Southward (of dubious fame) continues his dark descent into the opus of Tim Burton in the second part of this special three-part blog series. This time, Corpse Bride!

The Burton Conspiracy:
Part Two- Deeper Into the Delusion

Welcome back to The Burton Conspiracy! My personal adaptation of the Burton Theory in which I attempt to link Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, Corpse Bride &, finally, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Last time, we saw a boy, struck with the guilt of killing his only companion, slip deep into a delusion to soothe himself, to assuage the guilt and make peace with the death of his dog. Lets continue along this merry Christmas jaunt, shall we? Settle in, try not to let your chestnuts get over-roasted and ignore those hoof beats on the roof. For the love of God, ignore them.

Still a better love story than Twilight. 
So, we move to our second film, in which Victor seems to have slipped deeper into his deluded state. Corpse Bride revolves around Victor Van Dort and his impending arranged marriage to Victoria Everglot. After a disastrous first wedding rehearsal, Victor flees to the woods to practice his vows, only to accidentally propose to the eponymous corpse bride, Emily, who whisks him off to the land of the dead. Here he re-unites with his dead dog and learns that love is, indeed, about sacrifice. Or is it? Its hard to determine exactly what Victor learns in this tale, what his journey provides in terms of character progression, but something certainly does change within this character. Something that slithers nicely into place with our burgeoning theory. Because I believe this story is not about sacrifice, but about abandonment. It is about a desire to move outside of loneliness and a thought experiment that draws the thinker deeper into the own delusion they seem so eager to escape. So, let's get started on part two!

First, we should establish the Victor of Corpse Bride, Victor van Dort, and the Victor of Frankenweenie, Victor Frankenstein, as the same character, and thus Corpse Bride as a continuation of the story started in Frankenweenie. Despite the name changing to Van Dort, the lead of Corpse Bride seems to heavily resemble a grown Victor Frankenstein (interestingly here, though Victors name has developed Dutch nomenclature, linking somewhat tenuously to the New Holland setting of Frankenweenie). Both Victors share physical similarities in both face and general body type, as well as keeping a keen interest in science: Victor is seen preparing a scientific drawing of a caged butterfly in the opening sequence, highlighting different aspects of particular interest (head detail, leg detail etc) mirroring young Victor's keen interest in the same. 

Both had similar reactions to turning Google's Safesearch feature off.
Left- Corpse Bride's Victor. Right- Frankenweenie's Victor
As Victor matures, our theory suggests that he seems increasingly entrapped within the mundane, as illustrated by the drab, grey-scale town he now inhabits, filled with its automaton citizens moving in time to the mechanical clicks of the clockmaker’s wares.  Increasingly isolated from the automatons of the town as he grows older, and now without the dog that he so desperately loved, Victor grows into the awkward youth we see in this film. As a consequence of this isolation, Victor, I believe, imagines the ensuing scenario in order to question whether or not he would be suitable for social interaction. The film, in this light, becomes a tragic tale as Victor fights to imagine a world in which he can fit into and, in the process, shows his desire to break free of the delusions that plague him. Sitting alone with his scientific drawings, the film opens as Victor imagines a scenario in which he would be able to enter society, to end his loneliness, and so comes to the conclusion of an arranged marriage (thus removing his own agency in finding a suitable partner). The delusions he once sank into, during Frankenweenie, once more begin to take over as he imagines himself living in a Victorian-Gothic setting, in which such a marriage might emerge. His own anxieties over this potential joining of society, however, begin to distort this illusion.

Victor invents an idealised scenario in which the woman with whom he is to marry is both instantly attracted to him, and attractive to him. His own anxious mind, however, begins to contort the illusion, much as we saw in his previous delusion and, in a twist that demands far more Freudian scrutiny, his idealised woman becomes a facsimile of his mother's original form (she has since warped in his delusive mind to the form we see in Mrs. Van Dort.)

You know what this blog needs? More side-by-side photo evidence
Left- Mrs.Frankenstein (Frankenweenie). Right- Victoria Everglot (Corpse Bride)
With a part of his mind actively warping the illusion to undermine his attempts to break free from the loneliness that he has become accustomed to, Victor's illusion begins to collapse, with the perfect marriage becoming instantly unstable. The actual act of marriage becomes fraught with worry and Victor, struggling to imagine a world in which he could attain this perfect woman, perfect marriage and an end to his loneliness, falls deeper into his delusion, inventing an entire scenario in which his previous obsessions with reanimation, once again, resurfaces in the form of his accidental marriage (again, lack of agency) to the corpse bride, Emily. The delusion here seems to be attempting to pull him further in, to claim him by offering him the very eternal companionship he so desires, if only he will give into his Gothic fantasies, marry the undead and remain with this fantasy forever. As part of this fantasy's attempt to draw him in, Victor is soon presented with the remains of his beloved dog, Sparky, whose body Victor imagines has been reduced to the 'Scraps' for which he now names his dog. The living bone remnant of the dead dog, the delusion suggests, can be his if only he chooses to abandon his quest for societal integration. 

Via this narrative Victor wrestles with the idea of self-sacrifice and with the idea of compromise. He comes to the conclusion that he must sacrifice his ties with the real world and move further into his delusion in order to achieve happiness, choosing to sacrifice his life and live forever with his undead wife. Victor chooses death, chooses to achieve happiness by sinking further into his imagined world, his fantastical undeath. However, of course, as soon as this seems a viable option, the delusion once more self-destructs, denying Victor the happiness he has sought by returning to the Gothic setting- the usurper Baron Barkis (a la Otranto) returns only to reveal his plan and be dispatched as social order is restored. Once he has chosen happiness, it is once more snatched away by a mind unable to accept that such a thing can be achieved.

Sad Victor is sad.
We leave the film as Victor’s fantasy corpse bride dissolves (tellingly) into hundreds of the copies of the caged butterfly which he released at the beginning. He wishes for freedom from his mind and from the delusions that bind him, questioning whether he can enter society, can have companionship after so long alone and with a mind so warped. He releases the butterfly, a symbol of his freedom from himself, at both the beginning and the end as happiness and his chance for freedom from the warped trap of his delusion fly away, leaving him still left within. Victor is left with the pseudo-incestuous relationship with his wife-mother unresolved, trapped in the Gothic setting which he has already once attempted to escape via his own death. And so, confronted with this delusion, with a world he has already rejected, a love interest seemingly conjured by his own mind and still as isolated as ever, the film ends and Victor watches the colourful butterfly, that symbol of freedom and a world beyond his own, leave him to his fate. He is pushed and pulled in and out of the delusion, which repulses him as much as it seeks to contain him, which offers him happiness, only to deny it to him. Our poor Victor, it seems, has fallen into the grips of a malevolent, almost sentient, delusion, which seeks to trap him as much as reject him, and it is here where we leave him for now. 

Before we move to the final film, it is interesting to note the movement of colour throughout these films. At first entirely black and white (Frankenweenie), we are increasingly introduced to colour as we progress deeper into Victor’s delusional world, with Corpse Bride introducing a more colourful palette in the world of the undead as an enticement for Victor away from the real world until we reach the full colour of our final film. Again, though, colour is used in the final film to denote a world Victor wishes for, a deeper fantasy, though one that will ultimately reject our tortured hero.

And so we approach the end of Victors journey as we reach the festive final film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. The adventures of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, as, bored with his life, he attempts to culturally adopt Christmas as his own, resulting in a collision of Halloween and Christmas. Well, more dark than hilarious for our poor protagonist, as I hope youll agree.

Gothic + Snowflake = Tragic Theory
Stay tuned for part 3! Where we finally reach the bit that is christmassy, & Jack, the Pumpkin King, who sings his merry way further into misery

Keep watching for the the final part coming to the blog soon! Or re-read Part One, for the horrific origin story. Danny Southward is a postgraduate researcher in Contemporary Gothic and Metamodernism at the University of Sheffield. He says he has never married a re-animated corpse, but we don't trust his shifty eyes...

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Burton Conspiracy (Part One): The Nightmare Begins

For an end of the year treat, Danny Southward (of Sheffield Gothic fame) presents a holiday special three-part blog on the Burton Theory.

The Meme that started it all.
Mind = Blown
The Burton Conspiracy:
Part One- The Nightmare Begins

Its the most wonderful time of the year. Weve murdered the tree and dragged its carcass into the house, festooning it with intestine-string tinsel links. Weve made our ransom lists and sent them to the one who watches us sleep. We've left out bribes of milk (or alcohol), carrots and pies by the fire for the seasons herald and his cleft-hooved companions who pull his mighty supernatural sleigh. Weve got the terrible jumpers ready, the Rennie on stand by and were already anxiously anticipating this years stand-off with the solitary Brussels sprout that is, inevitably, left rolling lonely around our plates after a fit of epic gluttony.
Yes, Christmas is magical, and so it seems only fitting that we round off the year here at Sheffield Gothic, with a small series about that most gothic of Christmas films: Tim Burtons A Nightmare Before Christmas. Having been recently inspired by the revelations of the Jar Jar Theory (missa wanna believe, maxibig) I became engrossed in the search for other incredible fan theories and stumbled across The Burton Theory. The theory posits a general connectivity between the majority of Burtons opus, suggesting that the central theme is that of a boy and his dog. The theory attempts to create a single continuity between each character and their other representations within the cinematic universe. Its an interesting read and, of course, has been mercilessly picked apart by the great internet hive mind (the main criticisms citing the changing time periods as a major flaw).

Having recently rewatched some of these films in a fit of what can only be described as Burt-mania, I felt compelled to adapt that theory to one that presented itself, tempered by my own Gothic readings, and which bypasses some of the major issues with setting. Im only going to be looking at Frankenweenie (2012), Corpse Bride (2005), and, of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for this post and, in doing so, hope to describe how these three films tell the story of a boy striving for an idealised future, while his own anxieties work to undermine and destroy all illusions of such.

Merry Christmas!

Thus we begin!

Our theory begins with the last film to be released, but the first in our proposed timeline- Frankenweenie. In the town of New Holland, with the festival of Dutch Day fast approaching, young Victor Frankenstein loses his beloved dog, Sparky, to a car accident. As may be guessed from the title of the film, the narrative then follows a frankensteinian plot, with young Victor resurrecting Sparky by... Science? Lightning, at the very least. Things take a turn for the worse as the secret of his process leaks to other children of the town, whose own attempts to revive their pets lead to disaster as each resurrected animal turns into various horror-film monsters which ravage the town festival. Ultimately Sparky, the Frankenstein's Monster of the bunch, is seen to sacrifice himself for the good of the town, though he is re-resurrected for a final happy ending.

Seemingly a simple story of one boys love for his dog driving him to extreme lengths, there are more subtle undertones to the film that I want to explore here, and which have larger ramifications for a unifying Burton theory. And they all stem from Victor, who is anything but simple; he is a complex and, importantly, isolated child. As we see from the opening sequence, Victor spends the majority of his time alone in his parents attic, producing stop motion films that reflect his obsession with horror and monster films (note the posters on his bedroom walls in a later scene) as Victors father says:
All that time he spends [in the attic]- a boy his age needs to be outside with his friends.
To which Victors mother replies:
I dont know that Victor has friends, dear. Other than Sparky.
A fact corroborated later by Edgar, an Igor-like child from the same school who, when coercing Victor to initially become his partner for the science fair, says who else will be your partner? You dont have friends. What we are being presented with is a child who is alone, who is isolated from his peers and finds company only with his dog, Sparky. So when Sparky dies as a consequence of Victors actions during a game of baseball, the boy is naturally devastated. I want to suggest that from this point, Victor creates an illusionary world, or rather, enters an encompassing delusion to deal with the death of his beloved dog. 

Victor, grief stricken and inconsolable, resorts to SCIENCE, 
Victor imagines a world in which Sparky is still alive and he has not, in fact, ended the life of his only friend, but rather accidentally killed and found the means to re-animate this dog. Victors guilt over the death of Sparky, and the rather mundane death of his only companion, manifests in a fantasy in which he is able to resurrect him, to keep his friend alive. This fantasy, however, continues long past the mere resurrection. Victor continues with the delusion, playing the scenario out as his guilt begins to corrupt the ideal: first he is coerced into sharing the formula for life with Edgar; then his favourite teacher is expelled by an angry mob; and finally the results of his attempting to resurrect the dead turn into an all-out monster brawl with classic horror movie monster facsimiles of Godzilla, the mummy, Gremlins, the werewolf & the vampire coming to trash the town, all of which are stopped by Sparky and Victor. 

Victors obsession with these movie monsters works its way into the delusion as he fantasises that he and his dog are the heroes of the story. The situation has deteriorated, yet Victor posits himself and Sparky as the saviours of the town, ultimately culminating in a showdown at the windmill, where Sparky dies for the second time. Here, though Victor creates an end for Sparky that is a far cry from the tragic and fickle death which sparked the delusion (Burton even has Victor mimicking his earlier posture during the Sparky death sequence, held in place and crying no, in order to mirror the earlier scene). Instead Sparky dies a hero, sacrificing himself for the greater good, yet even this is unacceptable to Victor, who has created such an all-consuming fantasy that he imagines Sparky resurrected for a second time and a rather false happy ending with Sparky getting the girl as we fade out into the sky.

What have you seen Sparky? What have you seen?!

Victor, unable to deal with causing the senseless death of his only friend, his adored dog, and increasingly isolated from the world, invents a fantastical delusion in which he is able to save his friend. And a delusion in which he is able to not only bring Sparky back to life, but to create a more justified ending for the dog, not merely ran down by some un-named driver, but killed fighting a threat to the town. A heroes death, in fact, and one that is not permanent.

A seemingly harmless thing, so far, but as we will see as we continue, though Victor has created this delusive world, it is the world which will work hard to contain and ultimately trap him. How does this theory fits into the next two films? How could one child's delusion connect with the corpse bride and the Pumpkin King? Youll have to wait until the next blog to find out! Stay tuned for incestuous dreams, more dead dogs and a tragic fall into fantasy.

Keep Watching for the parts two and three, coming to the blog soon! Danny Southward is a postgraduate researcher in Contemporary Gothic and Metamodernism at the University of Sheffield. He says he has never re-animated a corpse, but then again he also says dogs can't look up, so make of that what you will.  

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Devil Wore a Yellow Turtleneck and Trainers, or, Finding Fear in 'The Wicker Man'

For our final meeting of the year, Sheffield Gothic sat down to watch the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. As with any GRG film viewing, The Wicker Man was met with a lot giggling and at least two Outlander comments.

Warning: The following post contains SPOILERS

Danny was not impressed with the opening sequence

Watching in 2015, it is hard not to giggle at The Wicker Man. Stylistically it is so very, very '70s, and the accompanying soundtrack could easily make it very difficult to take the film seriously. Having just read director Robin Hardy's recollections on the making of the film, published in a Guardian interview in 2013- that the film was in fact shot in November and the leaves and blossom had to be glued by hand to trees to give the impression of spring, and that the goat in the final scene urinated all over the crew as they were filming inside the wicker man itself- didn’t make it in any easier.

My first experience of the film was at a sing-a-long version; we were studying it as part of our Modern Gothic module, so it seemed like a good idea to go along. Watching the film for the first time as your fellow cinema goers heartily belt out ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ was certainly an interesting experience, I’ll say that much. Despite the bawdy singing and the laughter, I was still surprised when the credits rolled and one of our classmates leaned forward and asked: ‘I thought this was supposed to be scary?’

Because it is scary- how can it not be? The Wicker Man terrifies me more than any blood, gore, jump scare or CGI demon ever could. Not that these things don’t affect me; back when we showed the 2013 Evil Dead I spent the majority of the film hiding behind my hands (when I wasn’t wincing or trying not to jump out of my seat.)

From its innocuous opening to its fiery conclusion, The Wicker Man both plays upon and draws out our fears as an audience. The film raises a number of questions about the way societies and belief systems function, how irrational actions and atrocities can appear justified when facing desperate circumstances. We may not like the dour, devout Howie but we are nonetheless aligned with him as the representation of modern methods and logical thinking. As the islanders reject Howie’s faith as no less strange and unrealistic than their own, what we as viewers experience is arguably the rejection of rational. The revelation that by refusing to be drawn in by the island’s odd traditions and instead following his sense and reason Howie has only succeeded in dooming himself is one that sits uncomfortably in the pit of your stomach long after the film is over. Rewatching with this knowledge is no less ‘scary’, either. The villagers' feigned ignorance, their unwelcome attitudes, their suggestions and warnings that Howie leave before May Day all become far more sinister on a second viewing. The scene in the school room, which alienates and disturbs Howie, and in turn the viewer, becomes wrought with a sickening anxiety when we realise that Howie is little more than the beetle tied to the nail.
"He goes round and round until he winds up tight to the nail."

Christopher Lee reportedly declared The Wicker Man to be the best film he had ever made, and it certainly marks one his finest performances. He is utterly convincing as the charismatic and intelligent cult leader, Lord Summerisle. As viewers, we can only watch in horror as he leads Howie in a merry dance (literally) towards his death, catching the policeman in a trap that has closed tightly about him the minute he sets foot on the island. For me, as ridiculous as it looks, the fact that Lord Summerisle sends Howie to the wicker man dressed in a bright yellow turtleneck and trainers, leading the swaying chant as it burns, only adds to that horror. It’s not a particularly unbelievable cult, clad in druid robes and chanting in a faux ancient tongue, and as such it’s hard to disassociate. The mantra of ‘this is not real, this could never happen’ that applies to many modern horror films does not apply to The Wicker Man. After all, the rationalisation, the refusal, is the very thing that traps Howie within the burning effigy. And it’s terrifying.

Disclaimer: My fear of The Wicker Man definitely saved all our lives that one time Sheffield Gothic visited a small Yorkshire village on a research trip, were accosted by strange locals, and left in a hurry. They made out like we were the suspicious ones, but I knew better…

...But then again we are a pretty dodgy bunch.  Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher in Gothic studies and gender at the University of Sheffield.  She's the co-leader and head baker of our cult.