Despite its use of time-worn horror conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity (2007) manages to instill the creeps and dish out the scares.
Director Oren Peli’s ultra-low-budget film features a supernatural haunting by a demon in a home footage/amateur documentary format. Originally shot for $15,000, it’s “the most profitable film ever made, based on return on investment” (“Paranormal Activity”).
This movie touches all the bases for a supernatural horror flick and checks off a number of what many consider are tired genre tropes. Yet it still scares the crap out of viewers.
Tropes and conventions
Here are a few conventions and tropes in this first of the Paranormal Activity series.
Boyfriend who’s a jerk
Micah and Katie live together in his nice two-story house. She’s still a student; he’s a day trader with a thing for electronics.
Throughout the story, Micah demonstrates his dickishness by scorning Katie’s caution (respect) for the supernatural presence, her trust in experts (a psychic and a demonologist), and her disdain for contacting the presence using a spirit board. Later, he throws in her face that she’s the one who’s brought the malevolent presence into his house, using it as leverage to get his way in dealing with the spirit.
Throughout, he pooh-poohs the experts and instead wants to “take care of it,” “solve the problem” himself, but exhausts his plans to deal with the menace.
His disregard of Katie’s wishes by bringing home a spirit board shows his disrespect for his girlfriend and the demonic presence. His bravado makes the situation worse.
Micah’s character does double duty in also playing the part of the “over-reacher” who pursues occult knowledge to destruction (Carroll).
Making contact with a forbidden spirit board
This trope appears in many stories. Most notably in Blatty’s The Exorcist, where “the Ouija board was depicted as a mystical device that lured the demon Pazuzu to possess and otherwise plague Regan McNeil” (“Ouija Board”).
So, this has been done before (see “Horror Movies Featuring the Ouija Board”). But it does its job in Paranormal Activity in an omniscient scene where the camera is left running while no characters are present to witness the planchette moving and the board spontaneously catching fire. Micah’s obstinance about using the board—despite Katie’s fear and insistence against it—produces the negative energy that Dr. Fredrichs cautioned them about.
Occult experts and book research
We’ve got both in Paranormal Activity. Dr. Fredrichs is a psychic who’s not particularly woo-woo but instead asks questions to eliminate natural causes for the phenomena the young couple is experiencing.
Dr. Averies is a demonologist who, because of Katie’s hesitation in contacting him (due to Micah’s recalcitrance), is unable to help them because he’s out of the country.
Wanting to tackle the problem himself, Micah does research from books about ghosts and demons. We see shots of their pages with lurid etchings and drawings of demonic entities. Standard fare in many movies about the occult. These authorities provide “expert” information about what’s going on and constrict the parameters of Micah and Katie’s situation: “Leaving the house won’t help” (thus locking them into the setting where the spirit rules).
Carroll’s over-reacher plot
As mentioned above, Micah plays the part of the over-reacher, whom Noël Carroll describes as a “central character… in search of forbidden knowledge—scientific, magical, or occult” (Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, 118).
Paranormal Activity employs the over-reacher plot in which this “discovered knowledge is tested by an experiment or incantation of evil forces” (118). It progresses through these stages:
Preparing for the experiment:
Practical preparation: Micah buys the camera and other equipment needed to capture the paranormal activity so that it can be analyzed.
Philosophical preparation: Dr. Fredrichs’ explanation and Micah’s research (through books and Diane’s website) provide background information and justification for the experiment.
Preparations provide time and coverage to include setting, other characters (Katie’s sister), and Micah and Katie’s relationship dynamics. Carroll notes that during this stage, characters may resist the experiment. Katie does this with her disgust over the camera and the Ouija board.
Conducting the experiment:
Early attempts may fail. This happens when Katie finds her keys on the kitchen floor. And early footage of their sleep provides nothing conclusive.
The experiment succeeds and makes things worse. It unleashes dangerous, uncontrollable forces which usually destroy those nearest and dearest to the experimenter (Carroll). This happens after Micah brings the spirit board home. Katie is dragged out of bed. Inhuman, three-toed footprints show up on the powdered floor.
The entity’s destruction leads the experimenter to come to his senses and recant. Or not. Micah finds himself in too deep to fix things. Instead of coming to his senses, he doubles down by burning the cross Katie has cut herself with.
Confronting the supernatural entity:
First attempt(s) may fail. Micah tries to get Katie away from the house to a hotel, but she no longer wants to. They remain in the house for the…
“All-or-nothing battle with a climax.” Katie becomes possessed. I won’t spoil the ending. But I will say the climax is effective.
This plot demonstrates the theme that some knowledge is better left unpursued (Carroll 118).
Despite its use of time-worn conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity manages to depict characters you can care about and creates suspense, horror, and terror to carry a series still making installments fifteen years later. I enjoyed the flick. Gave me a good scare.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990.
In both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016), four wacky characters find themselves out of jobs and band together to form a supernatural pest-removal business, where paranormal investigation meets high-tech extermination. They’re called “ghostbusters.”
I can say little of depth about either of the films—especially the first one. The four male characters are sophomoric, and the comedy—characteristic of Saturday Night Live of that era—is bad and stupid. (Director Ivan Reitman, who died in February, also directed such gems as Meatballs and Stripes. Blech.) The special effects are so terrible they’re laughable.
Despite its coarse execution, Ghostbusters managed to tell a decent story that starred Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis.
Yet, the story got way better when it was reinterpreted and recast with four women: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. (And I didn’t mind screen time with the big, dumb receptionist, played by Chris Hemsworth.)
The 2016 version basically tells the original story with some freshening. The ladies are still sophomoric, but they are way funnier, the writing is better, and the special effects are much improved.
The remake contained lots of fun references to the 1984 version: the Ecto-1 mobile, the slime, the gluttonous ghosts, the Stay Puft marshmallow man, Hook & Ladder #8, and cameos my Murray, Aykroyd, Potts, Hudson, and Weaver.
The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, where I live, was dedicated a few years back, and I saw (and touched—don’t tell anyone) the original Ecto-1 mobile. Maybe someday it will visit your town too.
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 blockbuster, The Exorcist, recounts the demonic possession of adolescent Regan “Rags” MacNeil in Georgetown, D.C., and how a beleaguered Catholic priest deals with it.
Regan becomes involved with a spirit entity known as Captain Howdy by using an Ouija board. She receives seemingly cogent answers from him. But spiritualistic manifestations soon commence: rapping at night, temperature changes, noxious smells.
As her physical and mental condition worsens, she’s briefly left in the care of director Burke Dennings, a jerk who ends up dead with his head turned halfway around. This demon means business.
When medical and psychiatric evaluations are depleted, Regan’s mother Chris turns to a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Damien Karras. Karras, who’s undergoing a crisis of faith, also exhausts his medical and psychiatric excuses for not acknowledging demonic interference nor wanting to perform an exorcism. Where The Exorcism of Emily Rose fails in its due diligence, Blatty covers all the bases. We learn much about psychiatric maladies and the history of Catholic exorcism. By examining and eliminating each possible earthly cause, we’re left with demon possession as the root of Regan’s deterioration.
Although Karras still doesn’t trust this diagnosis, he goes through the process of gaining permission from the Bishop, who calls in missionary priest Father Merrin as exorcist.
After a grueling days-long rite, Merrin dies of heart failure, leaving Karras to finish the job. Finally fueled by compassionate and righteous anger, Karras challenges the demon to infest him instead—then immediately leaps out the window (like Emily Rose will do) to his death, gaining faith and absolution before he passes.
By approaching a spiritual and religious solution from the POV of a man who’s seemingly lost his faith, Blatty avoids over-simplification, self-righteousness, and propaganda—the damning faults of Emily Rose. When Karras is forced to consider the demon’s unfair cruelty causing Regan’s plight and imminent demise, he becomes truly human and thus salvific, willing to offer all he has to deliver her. Despite the utter vulgarity of the demon’s speech, actions, and underhanded tactics throughout act two, the climax brought me to an inspiring catharsis. I caught a glimpse of Christ’s victory (Col. 2:15).
I found this novel to be thoughtful and thorough. Although the dialogue at times is insipid and could have been cleared of the countless “ohs” and “wells” and exclamation points, Blatty knows how to tell an ironclad story. And his employment of omniscient viewpoint (I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow analysis this time) is flawless. It’s no wonder this book is still in print.
Source: Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper Paperbacks, 2011.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Director Scott Derrickson’s 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also deals with exorcism from a Catholic viewpoint but its ham-handed treatment amounts to little more than religious propaganda.
In the opening scene, we see shots of a crucifix on the wall and a figurine of a nun; the Rose family are devout Catholics. They’ve just lost their daughter Emily to a battle with demonic possession, and the attending exorcist, Father Moore, is accused of her death.
Moore’s goal is to validate possession in a court of law. The movie focuses on the trial and testimony of various experts, pitting materialistic science, including education and medicine, against faith, which in this case means Catholicism.
Although also a so-called man of faith, prosecutor Ethan Thomas isn’t Catholic. “Methodist, I think,” says Erin, Moore’s defense attorney. Between the lines: Thomas is a Protestant, which amounts to being an unbeliever. During the trial, attorney Thomas harasses a witness (showing how Protestants mock the true faith).
Emily was happy before she “went away to university” (read: beware the dangers of higher education, which will shipwreck your faith and open you to demons). She also went to a dance, a worldly activity of which her mother disapproved. A presence enters Emily’s dorm room and attacks her, but possession actually occurs at the hospital (a place of demonic infestation?). A neurologist examines her and suspects epilepsy. Emily discontinues medical treatment because she believes the cause is spiritual and consults exclusively with her priest. Moore advises her to stop taking the (fictional) medication Gambutrol (perhaps because medicine is a gamble?).
Erin calls an “expert” witness to the stand, although I would seriously question the expertise of anyone who appeals to Carlos Castenada… Why did the demons invade Emily? Dr. Adani believes it was because Emily was a “hypersensitive.” And why did the exorcism fail? Because of her medical treatment—specifically, taking medication. Gambutrol, it seems, locked her into the possessed state.
It turns out that Moore wasn’t as negligent as we were led to believe. He invited Cartwright, a medical doctor, to attend the exorcism. However, to meliorate any reliance on science or medicine, Cartwright is a Catholic and former parishioner of Moore’s. This doctor claims that Emily wasn’t schizophrenic or epileptic. And the horrors he witnessed during the exorcism started him praying again (science and medicine bow to faith). Cartwright says he’ll testify and gives Erin a cassette tape from Fr. Moore of the exorcism.
During a struggle with doubt, Erin finds a locket engraved with the initials “ECB,” which happen to be hers—Erin Christine Bruner. Despite her previously professed agnosticism, Christ is in the center of her name. She takes the locket as a sign she’s where she’s supposed to be at this time.
As soon as she accepts faith, she wakes at 3:00 a.m. (the “demonic witching hour”—I rolled my eyes like Regan MacNeil) to Emily screaming on tape, the recorder having started on its own. (Note that it’s a “Realistic” recorder, underscoring the reality of demons and the supernatural.) Erin detects the smell of something burning. In the film, several shots of smoke alarms are used—indicating technology (science) that fails to warn about the dangers of smoke and fire (the dark denizens of hell).
Fr. Moore recorded the ritual to authenticate it and provide a record for later review. He warns attendants during the exorcism, “Above all, do whatever I ask without question.” This is the film’s Catholic propaganda in a nutshell.
Moore admits the exorcism was “a complete failure” and that Emily refused to undergo another. He never told her to stop seeing her doctor. But he did tell her to stop taking Gambutrol: “She had to see this through to the end by faith alone.” Not science, not medicine, but faith.
Emily spoke in foreign languages during the exorcism. She may have been exposed to them earlier in life. If not, speaking in tongues—which evidenced the early Christian disciples’ baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2)—is instead treated as demonic.
When Dr. Cartwright reneges to testify (loses faith to fear), he’s immediately struck and killed by a car. Without the doctor’s medical testimony, they’ve lost. Moore insists on testifying to tell Emily’s story.
The Virgin Mary delivers the Bad News to Emily: “The demons will stay where they are. You can choose to come with me in peace and leave your body, or stay and suffer.” The reason: “Through you, many will come to see that the realm of the spirit is real. The choice is yours.” “I choose to stay,” Emily says, in essence sealing her fate as a martyr, albeit for the wrong cause.
In her final letter to Fr. Moore, Emily writes, “God will triumph over evil. People will know that demons are real. … People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?” This is nonsensical reasoning.
If a true believer (here meaning a devout Catholic) remains in demonic bondage by no fault of her own, even after crying out to God for deliverance, and it eventually causes her death, people will actually say that God is powerless and uncaring because God chose not to deliver an innocent, faithful servant.
It seems (according to the screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman, at least) that Mary is advocating for the devil instead of her Son, who never failed to cast out unclean spirits. The Apostle Peter says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, he went around doing good and healing everyone who was oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38 ISV).
Thomas’s closing argument pins a natural explanation on Emily’s stigmata (and all things Catholic); Fr. Moore’s beliefs are based on archaic and irrational superstition. “Facts are what must matter,” says Thomas. “It wasn’t the devil that did this to Emily Rose, it was the defendant.”
Erin counters with: “Sincere belief is what determined her [Emily’s] choices and his [Moore’s]. … Facts leave no room for possibilities.” This sounds like “alternative facts” and “fake news” we’ve heard so much about in recent years…
By the end of the movie, I was weary of the propagandistic treatment and hackneyed tropes of Catholic exorcism. What Blatty’s book examines jesuitically (pun may apply here), Derrickson’s film ruins. The only thing that redeemed the movie was its ironic ending: Fr. Moore is found guilty of negligent homicide and is immediately sentenced, the jury recommending a sentence of time served. He’s guilty, but free to go.
Since reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s Writing the Intimate Character(Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), my eyes have been opened to recognize omniscient POV and its techniques. We’re seven for eight with omniscient novels for my MFA Readings in the Genre: The Haunted class. Of all the books I’ve read, Stephen King’s The Shining is my favorite execution of the external narrator. King manages to employ the best techniques of greater omniscience as well as close third, executing both perfectly.
With his first line, King establishes third-person POV with the filtered yet italicized thought of the protagonist/antagonist: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick” (3). More narrated interior monologue appears on page 6. The final paragraph of chapter one ends with summary and comment: “…he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them” (14).
In chapter two, King brings Wendy’s POV on stage. Chapter three moves back to Jack’s. And four introduces five-year-old Danny. King represents a young but bright boy adequately without being literarily strangled by the constraints of internal close third.
Chapter five starts in Jack’s POV, then offers a paragraph of Danny’s on page 51, and reverts to Jack inside the Rexall drugstore. Here’s something that a writer can do in omniscient third but not in internal third: “Jack felt a wave of nearly desperate love for the boy. The emotion showed on his face as a stony grimness” (52, emphasis mine). King weaves inner monologue and flashback, follows with a paragraph of Danny’s POV on 64, then closes with Jack.
POV hops from Danny to Wendy and back in chapter eleven (114). Dick Hallorann shares a private moment with Danny, who pitches his powerful psychic fastball at Dick. The chapter closes in Dick’s POV (127).
Another touch unique to omniscient is: “Jack and Wendy… didn’t look down at Danny, who was staring” (133). If they weren’t looking, who noticed the boy staring? The omniscient external narrator. He/she sees what even the characters don’t or can’t.
The first paragraph of chapter thirteen presents the Torrance family portrait before things get rough:
The Torrance family stood together on the long front porch of the Overlook Hotel as if posing for a family portrait, Danny in the middle, zippered into last year’s fall jacket…, Wendy behind him with one hand on his shoulder, and Jack to his left, his own hand resting lightly on his son’s head. (143)
Can you picture this from the narrating global consciousness hovering before the front steps? I can. The writing is so simple, yet King is masterful at painting pictures and making characters come alive in readers’ minds.
On page 193 there’s a time jump to the future and back when Danny is stung by wasps: “Oh Danny… oh, your poor hand.!” / “Later, the doctor would count eleven separate stings. Now all they saw…” (emphasis mine).
Part 4 is introduced omnisciently with “Her hands grew slower and slower, and at the time her son was making the acquaintance of Room 217’s long-term resident, Wendy was asleep with her knitting on her lap” (325). An internal narrator cannot see another character on a different floor nor report any actions or perceptions while asleep. But it works with omniscient.
At the beginning of chapter twenty-seven King performs more sleight of hand: “She didn’t look up…, but if she had, she would have seen Danny…” (336).
POV switches from Jack to Wendy on 358–359 and back over the next few pages, then to Danny on 366. King references Shirley Jackson’s Hill House on page 414. And summarizes that autumn at the Overlook starting on 417.
Danny’s face is described externally at the bottom of 423, and Jack’s POV mentions his “sore-looking lips” (431)—both no-no’s in internal third.
I think I found a mistake (subject/verb agreement) on page 442: “There was three splotches of blood….”
The narrator takes a high-level view of the Overlook, telling its history over time, 447–448.
Dick Hallorann is introduced omnisciently in chapter forty-seven (457). When Dick is reeling from Danny’s psychic cry for help and swerving all over a Florida highway, the POV impressively head-hops in a lane-switch from Hallorann to the Pinto driver, 461–462.
The narrator forecasts the future here: “There would be little sleep for them that night…” Then shares Danny’s and Wendy’s thoughts from bed, finally moving outside: “The hotel creaked around them. Outside the snow had begun to spit down from a sky like lead” (482–483).
Omniscient can get away with filtering the perceptions of two (or more) characters at a time: “And they both heard the vicious, descending swing of the invisible club…” (496, emphasis mine). There’s a jump from Hallorann outside the hotel to Jack inside on 613.
The omniscience overhead camera swoops all over the place with the explosion of the hotel, 640–641.
If I’ve learned anything from this course, it’s that omniscient is a good choice for tales of hauntings, the spirit realm, psychic gifts, and tragic protagonists who perish before the book ends. The Shining was a good novel, one of King’s best, and I recommend it even if you don’t give a fig about external omniscient POV.
A Stir of Echoes is a 1999 supernatural thriller directed by David Koepp. It’s based on one of my favorite Richard Matheson novels (in fact, one of my all-time favorite novels). In the film, protagonist Tom Witzky is hypnotized by his sister-in-law, who gives him the post-hypnotic suggestion: “Your mind will be completely open, like an open door, open to receive everything around you.” This suggestion turns out to be way too open-ended.
In one scene, Tom switches on a baby monitor at his son Jake’s bedside. This is a metaphor for being open and tuned into activity “upstairs,” or on “the other side.” Tom’s psychic abilities have been switched on artificially. But his son comes by them naturally.
Jake “shines” like Danny Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. In fact, one scene in which Jake and his mother wander into a cemetery during a police officer’s funeral, Neil the cop follows them and discusses Jake’s psychic abilities much like Dick Hallorann in King’s 1977 novel. I can’t recall if the cemetery scene is derived from Matheson’s 1958 novel, but if it is, Matheson’s version is the original. Like Hallorann, Neil says of Jake, “Boy’s got the x-ray eyes. … Daddy?” Maggie affirms his perceptions.
Jake sees and knows things psychically and has an “imaginary friend,” Samantha—a departed spirit who haunts him because he can perceive her. This spirit relationship is like Danny Torrance’s “Tony,” who’s actually a mediumistic spirit guide. After Tom encounters a vision of Samantha, Jake tells him, “You’re awake now, Daddy. Don’t be afraid of it, Daddy.”
With another child on the way, Tom faces giving up his dream of becoming a rock star. Yet he laments that he doesn’t want to be ordinary. When Lisa hypnotizes him the second time, he receives the command to DIG. He’s not sure what it means, but he tears up the backyard and the house trying to follow through. When Maggie challenges him, he tells her, “This is the most important thing that’s ever happened to me. The most important thing I’ve ever done.”
His digging, searching for the truth, leads him to the answer he’s been seeking. It dovetails with the most important thing Samantha needs: justice for the crimes that caused her death.
This one’s got the supernatural, psychic and mediumistic abilities, and crime. My favorite combination. If you haven’t seen A Stir of Echoes, I highly recommend it. But be sure to read the book first!
The Amityville Horror is a 1977 creative nonfiction book by Jay Anson. “Creative” could very well mean “stretching the truth” because the veracity of the account has been hotly contested (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Amityville_Horror). The original cover of the book included the subtitle: “A True Story.”
Since I have nothing to add concerning the truthfulness of the events or paranormal phenomena that allegedly took place in the Long Island Dutch Colonial, I’ll focus on Anson’s use of omniscient POV.
Tasks of creative nonfiction writers
First off, readers are aware of and accept the author as narrator in the creative nonfiction format. I’m certainly no expert about this type of writing, but we understand that the development of such accounts involves writers performing tasks such as:
Interviewing everyone involved in the events
Researching ancillary information such as news reports, weather history, public records, and more
Hopefully double-checking facts
Drafting all the information into a narrative that presents the people and events understandably
Adding their own slant on the telling of the narrative, which includes surmisings, opinions, and commentary
This final point is a primary reason such books must be written in omniscient POV. The author, like a fictional omniscient narrator, stands outside the events and reports them after the fact from his or her perspective as researcher, interviewer, and interpreter.
Examples of Anson’s POV techniques
In chapter 1, Anson provides an expository overview of the Lutzes, the purchase of their new home at 112 Ocean Avenue (including diagrams of floor plans), and the events leading up to the start of paranormal activity. Although Anson includes brief commentary such as “Irritated, he returned to the truck…” (15, emphasis mine), he does not dip into the consciousness of any characters (real-life players).
Chapter 2 employs omniscient POV, beginning with Father Frank Mancuso. The opening paragraph is pure exposition about the priest. The second zooms closer with the start of his day. (17) Shortly, the first switch to another character’s POV is introduced. Here’s how Anson accomplishes the transition:
[Mancuso:] Father Mancuso had met George Lee Lutz two years earlier. … The three children were Kathy’s from a previous marriage, and as a priest to Catholic children, Father Mancuso [omniscient filtering:] felt a personal need to look after their interests.
[Both Kathy and George:] The young couple had often asked the friendly cleric with the neatly trimmed beard to come for lunch or dinner at their home in Deer Park. … [George:] Now, George had a very special reason to invite him anew: [interior monologue:] Would he come to Amityville to bless their new house? (17–18)
Several paragraphs of action and dialogue from Mancuso’s viewpoint follow. After Mancuso blesses the Lutz’s new house, Anson switches to Kathy’s POV: “Kathy really wanted to thank Father Mancuso for his contribution to the occasion” (19).
With all the bashing of head-hopping in writing circles, Anson (and many other writers of both fiction and nonfiction) employ it with aplomb. Here’s a remarkable example:
[George:] He liked the way both boys looked after little Missy. … [Interior monologue, a close mode:] They’re three nice kids I’ve got.
[Expository transition:] [George:] It was after six before George finally fell into a deep sleep. [Kathy:] Kathy woke up a few minutes later.
[Kathy] She looked around this strange room, trying to put her thoughts together. … (26)
On page 29, Anson makes an omniscient statement about the entire Lutz family that summarizes time as well as his commentary: “Over the next two days, the Lutz family began to go through a collective personality change.”
In chapter 4, Anson adds an omniscient grace note that’s easily missed. Kathy is in the kitchen when she feels a woman’s ghostly touch on her hand. Then, in the following paragraph: “‘Mommy! Come up here, quick!’ It was Chris, calling from the third floor hallway” (32, emphasis mine). If this were internal close third POV, the italicized portion would be a mistake; Kathy could not know for sure where Chris was when he called for her. But it’s a permissible technique in external omniscient.
Anson draws close to Kathy on page 41, including italicized direct thought: “Shaking, Kathy returned downstairs to her shelving. Cool down, she told herself.” Although the thoughts are direct, omniscient includes the attribution.
When George and Father Mancuso are on one of their many telephone calls interrupted by crackling, Anson inserts an omniscient statement: “Both men pulled back from their earpieces in surprise” (46, emphasis mine). Only an external omniscient narrator can pull this off.
Anson achieves another nice transition that’s downright cinematic:
[Lutz home, Amityville:] The snow had stopped falling in Amityville, as it had [traveling transition:] fifteen miles away outside the windows of the Long Island rectory.
[Mancuso:] Father Mancuso turned away from his window. (58–59)
In a single scene, the omniscient narrator moves from Mancuso to Officer Gionfriddo:
[Mancuso:] “[Mancuso] looked up at Gionfriddo, trying to read the expression on his face. …
[Gionfriddo:] Gionfriddo quickly read the priest’s thoughts…” (80)
Two pages later, Anson transitions from the police officer, who’s parked in front of a bar George just entered, to George:
[Gionfriddo:] Gionfriddo… pulled away from the curb, burning rubber like a hot rodder.
[George:] Inside the Witch’s Brew, George Lutz ordered his first beer. (82)
Head-hopping continues from George to Kathy in the same paragraph: “But, tossing and turning, he couldn’t find a comfortable position. In her sleep, Kathy was bothered by his restlessness…” (97). Additional instances occur on pages 113, 122, 130, 181, and 184.
As I mentioned previously, writers of craft books often decry head-hopping. But it’s done, it works, and it doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you?
One thing that did irk me was Anson’s overuse of exclamation points! He (too) often used them at the end of chapters (54, 68)! They kill the creepiness and seem cheesy!
So… Was Anson’s a true account of a haunted, possessed house? We’ll never know.
A fascinating possibility
If Amityville is partially or even wholly fictitious, it still works as horror. I’m not familiar with any other novels that use a straight creative nonfiction narrative format to tell a fictional story. (If you know of any, please include the author and title in a comment.) But it would be fascinating to explore this possibility, producing a (perhaps) more believable narrative like film’s “mockumentary” format. Artifacts such as floor plans would lend credibility. Feature-writing journalists would be ideal candidates to write such fiction.
Next up, Stir of Echoes (1999)…
Anson, Jay. The Amityville Horror. Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., 2019.
It’s the middle of the night. You’re lying in bed, almost asleep. But a banging wakes you. Your eyes fly open and your heart freezes. What is it? You can’t imagine what it could be. Is it a ghost—or your radiator?
When faced with inexplicable happenings in your home, a place you want to consider a safe haven, it may take time to discern the source. At first you may have no explanation for the events and phenomena. If you can find no natural cause, you may fear what’s happening. Assigning possible meaning requires you to question, research, test, and evaluate.
If you diligently rule out natural causes and consider that such happenings as seeing balls of light, glimpsing shadowy figures, and being touched by unseen presences in the night are supernatural in origin, where does it leave you?
You might decide to do nothing. If so, can you learn to live with spirit housemates? You would need to overcome fear of spirits manifesting in your personal space. For example, if you heard a disembodied voice say, “I love you” in your dark cellar, how would you feel? Warm and fuzzy? Or scared shitless? Would you ever get used to it? You could try, but you may never become perfectly comfortable with such contact.
You may face loneliness, wondering why these strange things are happening to you and your family. Could you confide in anyone else about them? Who?
If you admit to a confidant that you believe what’s happening in your home is supernatural, would they believe you? Will they accept and help you, or mock and reject you? Receiving criticism might make anyone hesitate to share their paranormal experiences with others.
In Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story, an allegedly true account of a haunted home, Elaine Mercado’s husband personifies dogged unwillingness to attribute events to supernatural causes. He provides for Elaine and their daughters plenty of doubt, disbelief, disagreement, sarcasm, and harassment. After Mercado deals with unpleasant phenomena, such opposition simply piles on more grief.
At another point in the narrative, her husband suggests a different approach. He says, “…I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. I think if we just keep our heads, whatever it is will just go away” (71).
But what if you do keep your head, and it doesn’t go away?
You could move. Yet, what if, like Elaine Mercado, you have nowhere else to go? You may be unable to escape elsewhere on your own. Elaine found herself in this situation before she became a nurse; she couldn’t afford to take the girls and move out.
Mercado is obviously an anxious person, overprotective, prone to worry. Even if you aren’t, many reasons could prevent you from leaving a problem house. If you could afford to vacate, like most people you may be reluctant to make such a drastic change. (Some folks don’t flee abusive relationships for the same reasons.) It makes it even harder to go if the entities aren’t seriously hurting you.
With my study of Spiritualism and mediumship, the experiences in Mercado’s book rang true. Because of her doubts, her husband’s opposition, and all that she dealt with that I’ve outlined above, it took her a long time to acknowledge the source of the activity in her home. However, it boggles me that, suffering as she and her daughters did, she did nothing about itfor over a decade!
Mercado disliked the thought of a medium coming (109). As a result, she and her girls suffered a while longer. She and Karin weren’t sure they liked psychic Marisa Anderson “cleaning” the house. Finally, though, Mercado acknowledged that the trapped spirits were suffering and needed to be sent on their way toward the light.
Mercado concludes, “[Experiences with spirits] proved to me, without a doubt, that we survive our physical death” (174). Although not everyone will agree with her conviction, it came to her hard-earned.
I found Grave’s End a fascinating story about why spirits may linger on earthly properties and what one family did about a haunting. Such accounts provide rich fodder for conjuring fictional tales of the supernatural.
I’ve read a ton of books about the afterlife and a few specifically on rescuing spirits trapped in the physical realm. One such book I edited and published on this topic is by Doris and Hilary Severn called The Next Room [Kindle].)
The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is one of my favorite supernatural horror/psychological thriller movies. It’s got everything I love: horror, the supernatural, the afterlife, mystery, suspense, Christianity, and Spiritualism. It shows what a haunting is like from “the other side.”
I could approach this film in so many ways. But I want to point out some things about darkness and blindness.
While the screen is still dark before the opening credits, a voiceover begins in which a woman says, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” This is the first instance of information coming from darkness that can be taken two ways: as a mother telling her children a bedtime story (beginning with Genesis chapter 1, where God says, “Let there be light”), or a medium beginning a séance with a table full of sitters.
Grace lives with Anne and Nicholas in her island manse which she keeps in perpetual darkness because the children are photosensitive and will die if exposed to strong light. Yet light in the darkness is exactly what they all need.
It’s 1945, and Grace, played by Nichole Kidman, is still waiting for her husband Charles to return from the war. The previous house servants abandoned their positions some time ago. The children bemoan the fact that, like Daddy, everyone disappears and doesn’t return.
Because they cannot leave the house, Grace homeschools the children using a religious curriculum. She’s a devout Catholic who spends much time indoctrinating the youngsters about such subjects as the four hells, notably limbo for children. As a Christian, she believes in the afterlife. But her rigid doctrine blinds her to the reality that they’re all dead. Their experience fails to align with her beliefs, so she cannot understand the nature of their plight. How and when will the light dawn?
Grace tells Mrs. Mills, the head housekeeper, that she doesn’t like fantasies or “strange ideas,” which she says the children entertain. But the children are closer to the truth—Anne, especially—than their mother is. Anne hears and sees “others” in the house, including a boy named Victor. Yet even the girl is in the dark about the reality of the afterlife.
Who are they? “Ghosts?” her little brother asks. She tells him they’re not ghosts. “Ghosts aren’t like that,” meaning people—like the kids, mother, and servants. Rather, ghosts “go about in white sheets and carry chains.” This is simply more misinformation that blinds them to what the afterlife and spirits really are like.
When Grace herself hears evidence of others in the house, she rushes into the “junk room,” where everything, like ghosts, are covered with sheets. She finds a Victorian photo album of the dead, its subjects all with closed eyes, and begins to see the light.
Grace determines to leave the house for town to fetch the priest, but on her way, she becomes lost in a fog so thick she cannot see where she’s going. Miraculously, she meets Charles returning from battle. Because he is so shell-shocked, he’s unable to shed any light on their situation—until Anne tells him the truth. Although viewers are still kept in the dark about this secret, the result is that Charles departs.
Things come to a head when Grace awakes in horror to find that all the draperies in the house have been removed, spirited away. The house is filled with light, ghastly light. The “others” are forcing her to see the light. Upon searching the house, she discovers a photograph in the servants’ quarters. All three of the servants are dead. She’s been entertaining departed spirits.
During the climax, Grace and the children at last find the “others” sitting in an upstairs room. The old woman, the “witch” that Anne sketched, is engaged in automatic writing, scribbling words she hears from the other side. Words that Grace and her children are screaming: “We’re not dead!” This is a primary tenet of Spiritualism: the dead are only so-called, for “We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death” (https://nsac.org/what-we-believe/principles/).
I love how the books and movies required for my MFA course are tying into everything I’ve studied. I’m impressed with the writers’ knowledge of Spiritualism. For example, when Anne is dressed in her communion gown (looking like a ghost), her change into the blind old woman is a reference to trance mediumship and the Spiritualist phenomenon of transfiguration. This scene foreshadows the end in which the séance reveals “the other side of the story.”
Although the medium is blind to the physical, she sees in Spirit. Because of her contact with the other side on behalf of the living, Grace and the children do see the light. But only concerning their current state: they are dead, this is what ghosts are like, and the house belongs to them. Instead of allowing the light of their new understanding to enable them to move on like Charles, they determine they will never leave. The final shot of the gates being chained indicates that what remains within are only ghosts.
To disembodied souls, the “soul body” is just as physical and solid to them as their physical bodies were, and instead of moving on (because they don’t know they’re supposed to), they remain on the earth plane among people who are still physically embodied.
The only problem is that disembodied souls usually cannot make themselves seen or heard by those still living. When loved ones and helpers in the spirit world come to escort them away from the physical realm, they refuse to go because they don’t believe they are “dead” (physically) and have no concept or belief in an afterlife.
The danger for these souls is becoming stuck on the earth plane instead of progressing to the joys of life in the higher astral realms.
Lee Allen Howard, How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted
I was excited to see a Douglas Clegg title included in our class reading. Years ago, I’d read Goat Dance, The Halloween Man, and Isis, a creepy novelette I especially love. When I saw that Isis was a prequel to the Harrow series, I was intrigued to dig into Nightmare House (1999, 2017), the first installment.
I admire Clegg as a gay writer (I considered him an early role model) and appreciate his accomplishments. He won the 1999 Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award for his collection The Nightmare Chronicles. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Clegg#Writing_career. Clegg is great at characterization, dialogue, and action. And in Nightmare House, his gothic/romantic voice fits the book. But for someone so skilled at developing and sustaining mood and atmosphere, Nightmare House proved to be a disappointment for me.
In the first scene of the prologue, Esteban (yet unnamed) shares in first person a memory of his loving grandfather, who built Harrow house. The remembrance is so warm, I was puzzled by the penultimate paragraph, which came out of the blue and fell flat:
Some believed that a great treasure was buried within its walls; that screams came from Harrow more than once; that a madman built it for his own tomb; that no one willingly remained overnight in the house; that a child could still be heard keening from within on damp October nights.
Likewise for the second scene, about his naming. And the third, of his coming of age and being disowned. The paragraph at the bottom of page 9—“I felt I should be pursuing my dreams and ambitions. I went to live in New York, and my life as an adult began.”—provides no examples, like many other passages. If the opening pages should set the tone off the book, the prologue failed.
Chapter 1, section 1 failed to draw me in. Section 2 provided such a brief history of Ethan’s early life that I didn’t connect or care. In section 3, the writing is understandable enough but comes off as under-seasoned summary that barely scratches the surface of the statements it makes: “…my grandfather… collected ancient things and did not much of anything for the rest of his entire life” (15). This says so little to characterize the man.
In section 6, Clegg takes almost no opportunity to show or describe such a magnificent old house, for example: “…in the grand kitchen that seemed made to serve banquets” (21). That’s it. No more. The same for Wentworth: “Wentworth was a round woman whose eyes never seemed to close as she spoke of missing the old man and of the days when he was his usual self” (21).
Chapter 2, section 1: “I… am writing this as a warning to you…” (39). But I felt no sense of foreboding before or after this. Nothing had happened so far to instill a drop of dread. “And then, something happened, and the land where the house would be built acquired a sense of being unclean” (42). Something happened. Such vagueness neither inspires nor moves me. “Harrow… taught him much. Harrow changed him” (44). What? How? This is more bland, indefinite summary unsupported by examples.
In section 2 the POV changes to third, narrated by Ethan, with much filtering (felt, seemed, knew, imagined, heard) (45). But it never comes off as omniscient. It’s close, limited third with filtering.
Section 10 (62–64), Ethan encounters the apparition of a girl on the stairs and whiteness. While odd, it wasn’t frightening to me. In chapter 3, section 2, the strange phenomena continue, but Ethan has little emotional response except the urge to scream at the end. Maggie admits in section 7 that Harrow is haunted: “‘Everyone in the village knows it’” (74). Yet the statement tastes flat as week-old soda pop.
Chapter 4, section 2 – “Pocket Tells a Story Between Puffs of a Cigar.” Here, Clegg switches gears and has Officer Pocket tell a story in first person, revealing his philosophy and sagacity through comment. Pocket’s character (narrator) voice is individualized but becomes tedious despite the third-person/Ethan interludes in sections 3, 5, and 7. In chapter 7, Ethan reverts to first person “to tell you more about myself” (159). We’re back to third person in chapter 8. The change in POV lends variety, but I was never sure why Clegg was doing so.
Toward the end of chapter 8, random oddities happen in the house, but so what? Chapter 9, section 1, Pocket and Ethan shout at each other. This behavior is unmotivated and nonsensical. Maggie calls on the phone for help in section 3, where Ethan says, “The Devil is in this house.” Again, so what? Lake of detail, lack of example, lack of characterization make such statements ineffective. The characters have become puppets enacting a crude script.
By chapter 10, the book disintegrates into a quagmire of more nonsense—Isis Claviger and relics and a séance and Mathilde, who killed people. The brief investment in the story and characters I had gained by the middle I now lost altogether. Ethan says of the basement: “‘It’s a complete world beneath the house’” (198). But since so little of it is shown, it’s not believable or interesting. Pocket and Ethan find the symbol of the “Chymera Magick” (200), the mark of the spiritualists. I laughed. If you’re going to toss tropes in willy nilly, they should make some sense.
Ethan reverts to first-person narration in chapter 11, where he passes through an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. Then he forgets Maggie due to a drug mist in the air. Huh? Finally, Ethan encounters Mathilde, who is—gasp!—his mother (210). Mother possesses him, and he kills Pocket.
Epilogue: “…the house itself… has a will, endowed by the magic my grandfather practiced…” (234). Justin Gravesend wasn’t well-characterized as either a wicked or occult man. The mentioned visits from Crowley and Borden? (235) Unconvincing, which is one word that describes the whole book.
Although I’m disappointed in this one, Clegg has other terrific books. Bad Karma (originally published under the pen name Andrew Harper) is a favorite thriller I heartily recommend.