Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Notes from a Country Lane

Right near my house there is a wooded country lane. About a quarter of a mile down the lane the woods open up into a meadow, three fields deep, surrounded by trees on all sides. It's a lonely, creepy, secluded stretch of road. One of the neighbours who lived directly opposite committed suicide across the way about ten years ago, and this meadow is on the boundary of that family's property. In the distance, the field has a large stone standing upright, and it's at just the right distance that it always, every time I walk by there, makes me think of that scene in The Innocents (1961), where Miss Jessel is standing in the bullrushes watching Flora.

Just perspective itself can be frightening.  You don't even need anything unsettling standing in the distance - it just has to be positioned at exactly the right point within the depth of field - that distance where your eyesight starts to blur, where you can't be quite sure what you're looking at.

That got me thinking about new horror films, especially the barrage of remakes, and how they leave nothing to the imagination.  There is no uncertainty in our ability to comprehend what we are seeing.  One movie I saw recently, Drag Me to Hell (2009) was a typical, CGI-laden turkey (nothing against Sam Raimi and Justin Long).  Obviously, effects do not make films scary. Your brain makes things scary - and if you can see an effect coming a mile off, the film slips into that cynical zone of easy anticipation.  Some of the more successful recent films that have left something to the imagination are Blair Witch Project (1999),  The Devil's Backbone (2001), The Others (2001), REC (2007), and The Strangers (2008), plus the Asian horror lot: Ringu (1998), Audition (1999), Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), Dark Water (2002), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003).  Who can forget the creepy messing around with mirrors that goes on in Ringu 2 (1999)? 


Ringu and Ringu 2 also involve trips out to the country.  When urbanites leave the city limits you know they're always in for a bad time, usually involving a revival of the not-so-buried past.  Most of the better modern horror films I've mentioned involve a retreat to the country or a country house.  Hollywood's most haunted mansions are almost all country houses.  But no one has done horror in the country house with classic minimalism so well before or since as has been done in The Innocents or its contemporary movie, The Haunting (1963).

These films look at the traditional English ghost story in the country house with an American eye. This is why they can be so incredibly frightening with such remarkable simplicity. Confident Enlightenment rationalism confronts the irrational burden of generations of secret histories. The plainest images take us right back to Gothic and Romantic candlelit scenes, and secluded estates like those depicted in Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein, where reflections, mirrors, windows make hard logic and rational self-perception rapidly unravel:

The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, cuts even closer to the bone as far as the confrontation between the rational and irrational goes. 

Jackson's novel was based on the reputedly haunted Jennings Hall at Bennington College, Vermont, where Jackson's husband worked as a professor.  Beyond its reputation as an innovative, expensive and secluded liberal arts college, Bennington has an unusual history.  There are rumours of a so-called 'triangle of doom' or 'Bennington Triangle' encompassing the hills surrounding the area, notably the abandoned town of Glastenbury and Glastenbury Mountain, where hikers have been reported to get lost, disappear, or reappear suffering memory loss.  Secret tragedies haunt all universities, but perhaps the atmosphere that haunts the local countryside provides a dark backdrop to sad news of deaths at this exclusive institution, most recently in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Fictionally, Bennington has left its mark well beyond Jackson's story.  Robert Frost is buried in the town's cemetery (photo credit: Molly Knight's blog):

The remarkably frightening story, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (1973) by Harlan Ellison features a character who is a genteel Bennington grad coming to terms with the rise of violent crime in New York City.  She is one of the witnesses of a fictionalized version of the 1964 Queen's borough murder of Kitty Genovese.  The story deals with the phenomenon known as the 'bystander effect,' wherein group psychology diffuses social responsibility.  If someone is being attacked, a group of witnesses will not help the victim because the group waits for an individual to step forward; but individualism is suppressed under such conditions, thereby ensuring that no one will aid the victim.  Of course, Bennington also provides a model for the setting for Donna Tartt's grisly The Secret History.  And Bennington grad Bret Easton Ellis, known for his moral engagement with deeply troubling themes, has depicted his alma mater in several of his novels as the fictional Camden College.  Is there a message here that a posh liberal education prepares its students for a dark descent into the unknowable?

Click here for my 2015 fifth year anniversary commentary looking back on this first post.

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