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For this month's issue we’ve gone spooky! Writers old and new take on all things eerie: from the history of Halloween traditions to the surreal in the films of Studio Ghibli, we look at how the uncanny has worked its way into music, film, and art. If you’re looking for a trick or a treat have a read of what Calliope have in store for the spooky season!
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The Art of Pumpkin Carving: Sacred or Sadistic?
Katie Norris lightheartedly explores the nature of pumpkin carving, questioning whether it is a family fun activity for all to get involved, or whether it is a sign of darker spirits taking their toll.
Pumpkin carving feels as engraved into my childhood as the very pumpkin grimaces that line the entry ways of houses as the end of October rolls around. There is nothing I love more than scraping, scooping, flicking and popping, until those all too familiar chunks of triangular shaped body parts satisfyingly break away from their hold. Once ordained with a tealight candle, there on the doorstep they stand, proudly flickering shadows into the night.
For those who are both optimistic and artistic, pumpkin carving can be seen as a way to encourage creativity. Once Halloween is in full swing, art isn’t just for pencils, paintbrushes and paper, but can be found everywhere - even in oddly specific fruit that no one really likes or would buy otherwise. With the bare minimum for pass marks being two triangular eyes and a few more successive triangles for teeth, the art of pumpkin carving is something everyone can do! Get the kids involved, grab Granny into it, your only requirements are a pumpkin, a knife, and basic geometry! You’re good to go! If you dive into the world of pinterest, you will even find spectacular carvings ranging from entire halloween scenes, to almost lifelike images of marvel characters and even some that utilise the stringy mess of pumpkin goo and seeds! There is truly a plethora of ideas floating around out there for you to get stuck into. So how can this innocent family activity even be considered sadistic?
Children & Knives.
Perhaps I’m starting to overthink it, but when you really break it down pumpkin carving is the repeated stabbing, manipulating and mutilating of a fruit in order to break it down into something grotesque and scary, with the end goal being to entice children to your home. I’m starting to get flashbacks to the childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang… Suddenly it’s not sounding so fun and family friendly anymore. The tradition originates from an old Irish folktale about a guy named Stingy Jack. Now, Jack dared to dance with the devil, toying and playing with him until, upon his death, he was refused entry into heaven and left roaming the earth with only a coal and turnip. The carving of turnips, and then later pumpkins, was initially a ritual to keep Jack away and to ward off evil spirits.
However, from what I can tell the only evil spirits that need warding away are these maniac, sugar-high children wielding knives into fruit for confectionery.
“I Thought You Only Murdered Boys”:
Trope, Sexism, and Heteronormativity in ‘Jennifers Body’
In this article Ellie Stewart takes a look at ‘Jennifer’s Body’ and how it uses trope to make a commentary on the sexism and heteronormativity in the horror genre.
The victim of some horrible marketing decisions and some harsh critiques at its release, the horror comedy ‘Jennifer’s Body’ is now viewed as a cult classic. The film follows longtime friends Jennifer and Needy as they navigate high school, their deeply romantic friendship, and Jennifer's newfound appetite for boys after she is possessed by a demon. While it may not be particularly subtle, the film tackles themes surrounding the trials of female adolescence, while satirizing the rigid tropes of women in horror.
The horror genre is saturated with sexist themes, even those movies that have female leads often fit their characters into specific tropes or use femenine pain to propel the story. Slasher films are particularly bad in this regard, often relying on the ‘purity’ of the girls and women involved to determine their survival. Those who are sexual are killed off while those who remail virginal are permitted to live on in the trope of the ‘final girl’. Women are often the objects at which the violence in horror is directed, used to help further story lines and terrify the audience. The crime is perceived as more violent as the women are seen as helpless and unable to fight back, even those cast in the ‘mean girl’ or ‘bimbo’ trope.
‘Jennifer’s Body’ uses these tropes to subvert our expectations when we are watching the movie. Jennifer is overtly sexual and mean, and in the beginning of the movie we are lead to think that she will be killed as a result. These traits, however, instead of bringing about her death at the hands of the band seeking fame, save her (albeit through being possessed by a demon).
The girls in the movie are also not the main targets of the violence. While Jennifer was the victim of the sacrifice, the movie is not centered around this act and instead the victims end up being the boys at their school. Not only are Jennifers victims all boys, but they are made victims (for the most part) through their sexualization of her, becoming meals after being lured with the promise of sex. While the relatively more straight edged Needy does survive to the end of the film, it is not the result of her being more pure than Jennifer, and instead is the product of her and Jennifer's affection for each other.
This brings us swiftly on to the heavy queer themes of this movie. The relationship between Needy and Jennifer gets increasingly more homoerotic throughout the film, presenting itself in the two characters in different ways. In Needy, her attraction and love for Jennifer shows itself through her devotion to her and their almost telepathic connection. Even when she is with Chip, her boyfriend, Needy is consumed with what Jennifer is doing. In Jennifer, her connection to Needy is shown in the toxicity of their relationship. I would argue that Jennifer’s jabs and competition with Needy partly originate in her lack of understanding of her emotions and inability to fully express her love for her. Their toxic and codependent relationship only grows more intense as the movie progresses. Even as Jennifer kills more boys, the connection between her and Needy remains untouchable.
It's not that Jennifer doesn’t think of Needy in a romantic sense or as unsuitable to eat, when she first transforms and goes to Needy’s house, there’s a moment when it looks like she is going to eat her, however she stops herself. We later find out that Jennifer very nearly did eat Needy, and had to leave to find someone else so that she didn’t hurt her. When they eventually kiss it is clear that even then, Jennifer doesnt have any intention of hurting her, apparently just wanting to connect to her friend. This is further confirmed when Jennifer and Needy fight after the murder of Chip and the toxisity of their relationship finally comes to a head. When Jennifer threatens Needy, Needy protests that she thought Jennifer only killed boys, to which Jennifer replies “I go both ways”. Needy is not saved by the fact that she is a girl, but instead by the fact that Jennifer loves her. The act that finally seals Jennifer's fate is not the product of physical strength on Needy’s part but instead her snapping of the BFF necklace which symbolizes the end of their relationship.
Needy and Jennifer’s relationship plays off of the tropes of toxic female friendships and the ‘mean girl’ in order to create a depth in their characters that many other horror films are lacking. Jennifer, although at first glance the perfect ‘mean girl’, seems to be acting out of a lack of understanding and an overcompensation for her feelings towards Needy. Similarly, Needy is not simply the straight edged ‘final girl’, but is motivated by her affection for Jennifer, even in her final act in the movie when she exacts revenge on the band who started everything. This characterization of two otherwise perfectly cliche horror girls allows ‘Jennifer’s Body’ to make a commentary on the herteronormative and sexist tropes that are embedded in the genre.
More Than Eerie: Did you sleep well, kids?
Were you ever scared to go to sleep as a kid after watching a film rated appropriate for children? Perhaps there’s a reason why. In this article, Emily Garrow discusses 'family-friendly' films with the potential to scare and suggests what makes them so.
There are certain movies that stick with you when you are little. Me? I was terrified of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993). All it took was for me to hear the start of Danny Elfman’s ‘This is Halloween’ and I would be on edge all day.
One might not expect something marketed as family-friendly to instil such fear. Nonetheless it appears to be a sentiment shared by many others. For ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in particular, Helena Asprou points to composition choices such as minor key modulations and fluctuating time signatures amongst others as possible causes for apprehension (Helen Asprou, Classic FM, ‘What makes the song “This is Halloween” from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ sound so creepy’, 21/12/2018). I would add that the expressive intonation in the delivery of the lyrics elevates the unnerving quality of the music by incorporating unusual harmonies.
Like ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’, the score for ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005) is composed by Danny Elfman and has an equally ominous yet entrancing quality. The frequent use of tremolando on the strings increases the sense of dread that Victor will be trapped in the Land of the Dead. The score is clearly crucial for turning a family-friendly film into the object of alarm; however, other components such as an unsettling plot and/or visuals are important as well.
The ghostly style of the stop-motion in ‘Corpse Bride’ pairs well with the morbid tone of the storyline. The Land of the Dead presents many ghoulish characters, yet while fear may initially arise upon viewing them, they are shown to be benevolent. Instead, it is the Land of the Living which is the real cause for panic as it is revealed Lord Barkis is a murderer. The conflict between the visually scary and behaviourally abhorrent characters makes ‘Corpse Bride’ even spookier because viewers don’t know whom to trust.
Yet another stop-motion family-friendly film with a dark narrative is ‘Coraline’ (2009). It’s not difficult to understand why ‘Coraline’ can be so terrifying because the Other Mother (a.k.a. The Beldam) tries to steal Coraline’s eyes and replace them with buttons. The visuals of ‘Coraline’ don’t start off as creepy as the previously mentioned films, but as the Other World deteriorates, they become increasingly warped and fear-inducing.
Other understatedly horrifying family-friendly films of note include: Jim Henson’s ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982) with unease created through the Skeksis’ malevolent expressions and gluttonous appetites for life essence; ‘Monster House’ (2006), where kids can learn to be afraid of the gloomy house on their street for reasons beyond its appearance; and ‘The Witches’ (1990) which has frightening special effects and plants the disquieting idea that some adults are secretly witches plotting to kill children.
The general assumption for family-friendly films is that the main character’s problems will be resolved and viewers won’t be left feeling distressed. Yet, with regards to the films mentioned, that might not always be the case. There isn't enough gore or jump scares to distinctly label them as inappropriate for younger audiences; however, the implications behind the subtly sinister plots are plenty to chill you to your bones without being outrightly gruesome. After the T.V. is turned off, these films leave a lingering sense of unrest which sits like an unknown hand on your shoulder.
The next time you search for a horror movie to watch, don’t discount the ones marked as ‘family-friendly’: you may be surprised just how eerie they can be.
The Subtle Magic of Studio Ghibli
Aldwin Li explores what makes the uncanny go beyond horror in Studio Ghibli films into something more magical, and potentially something to watch this Halloween.
Slight spoilers for Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
Halloween is a time for horror. This cultural tenet of the twenty-first century, upheld by such diverse authorities as your Instagram feed, Netflix recommendations and local supermarket, dictates that the month of October be dedicated to the perforation of pumpkins, the donning of disguises and the consumption of horror films. Those who revel in adrenaline and sleeplessness happily watch eldritch exorcists hound helpless families through haunted houses; those not drawn to cultists, chainsaws, and clowns find themselves exiled from the festivities of their brethren (or at least from Halloween film night). What refuge is there for us gentler souls, you ask, what end to this injustice? Fear not, for on screens near and far is a whole franchise that builds the slightly horrifying into the magical and moving: the films of Studio Ghibli.
The phrases ‘Studio Ghibli’ and ‘horror’ don’t appear together very often. Ghibli films are populated by beautiful hand-painted landscapes, small idyllic towns with incredibly kind townsfolk, and children coming of age. But sometimes darker things lurk under the surface. Spirited Away, populated by witches, giant babies and faceless ghosts, has the protagonist Chihiro’s parents eat cursed food and find themselves transformed into pigs. Princess Mononoke opens with the protagonist facing a giant, rampaging boar swarmed by a hive-mind of flying leeches, who curses humankind with his dying breath. Even My Neighbour Totoro, acclaimed for its heartwarming depiction of ‘the simple grace of childhood’ [https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/my_neighbor_totoro], features a giant forest god that speaks only in low, booming roars and has power over nature. These elements of the uncanny could easily have become the villains in another studio’s action film, but in both these and other Ghibli works they open the path beyond horror to something much more slow-moving and emotionally-charged.
Part of this is Studio Ghibli’s subtle blending of horror into humanity. Many of Studio Ghibli’s non-human beings may stand out to us first for their appearance: a shapeless slime-ghost with a mask for a face, giant wolves and boar and apes, silent mole-like creatures that serve forest gods. But what we feel more deeply is what we recognise in them. Spirited Away’s antagonist, the witch Yubaba, transforms humans into pigs and controls people by taking their names from them; the giant wolves and boar of Princess Mononoke and the trilobite-like Ohms of Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind ruthlessly attack humans. And yet both are shown in deeply human acts as they care for their young, mourn their dead, show moments of compassion to the humans we thought they despised. As the line between human and inhuman things, we find ourselves taking human acts of cruelty and wondering if they aren’t the true monsters – not helpless in the face of these fears, but in fact complicit in the stories behind them.
These stories are what give a thematic edge to Studio Ghibli’s magic. Ghibli narratives have been plumbed for their thematic significance: a search for ‘Studio Ghibli video essay’ gives results on everything from environmentalism to consumerism
to toxic work culture. But more poignant still are their subversions of the uncanny to tell human, moving stories. In Spirited Away a slime-dripping monster turns out to be the spirit of a polluted river, while the silent ghost No-Face is revealed to be a naïve being warped by gold into becoming an all-consuming monster. The talking beasts of Princess Mononoke do not attack humans for bloodlust, but out of a very human fear of losing their homes to those who want their land. These stories of corruption, pollution and invasion stand out all the more because they contrast with places where the supernatural aligns itself with healing and restoration: from the magical Cat Bus that empowers two sisters to reconnect in My Neighbour Totoro, to the regrowth of the forests in Princess Mononoke, to the purification of the river spirit and the reformation of No-Face in Spirited Away. Ghibli films have a fairytale-like way of unknotting the moral questions they knit into their characters, but the questions themselves remain to haunt the viewer.
Admittedly, we don’t usually watch Halloween films as crash courses in ethics, and it would be unfair to reduce the magic of Studio Ghibli to metaphors on morality: not every moment is designed to deliver a lesson. VICE, claiming Spirited Away as the best Halloween movie, praised the film for bringing out ‘the fear and excitement of being young […] where anything can happen’, and this is arguably one of the Ghibli films’ most distinctive traits: the willingness to craft scenes where the protagonists try to catch soot spirits, walk through a glade of forest spirits, or simply sit down and cry while eating food that reminds them of home. Studio Ghibli takes the world of the uncanny and widens the spectrum of its characters’ feelings beyond fear and rage into grief and joy and wonder, letting us re-learn the magic of seeing the world as children again. This is the subtle magic of Studio Ghibli.
Infrasound: Unsettling the Masses
Is it the story of the horror film that scares you? Or is it the unsettling sounds that leave us all on the edge of our seats? Greer explores how infrasound is used to incite fear in an audience.
When I was younger, I thought horror films were the most terrifying cinema I had ever seen, but as I grew older, I realised that they weren’t that bad…
That is a lie.
Horror films still terrify me. Whenever someone asks me, ‘Do you watch hor-’ I immediately cut them off with ‘Oh goddddd no I can’t take it’.
It’s not because of the plotlines. I can read a synopsis of a horror film on paper and realise that a murderous clown, or doll, or undead teenager is unlikely to ever come after me. There will not be a nun or possessed child on my doorstep simply because my friends and I chose to watch a scary film.
What terrifies me is the *suspense*. Whether it’s a slasher film or a psychological thriller, the ominous lead up to the unveiling of the villain or the murder of a protagonist chills my bones.
When I learned that there is a aural reason for this terror, I felt slightly better about myself. Slightly. I still won’t watch any of these films. I value my remaining sanity.
The reason for my utter abhorrence of horror? Infrasound. Filmmakers purposely utilise a frequency of 20Hz or below to create a subconscious reaction in the human psyche. This ‘infrasound’ is also labelled the ‘disaster frequency’, because it is the frequency produced by natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes and avalanches. It exists below the threshold of human perception, but some animals can hear it. While humans are unable to actually perceive the sound, it does have an effect on the brain, producing unease and anxiety. In a sense, infrasound is more a vibration than a sound, and it can cause people to physically shake. Author Steven Goodman writes that “Abstract sensations cause anxiety due to the very absence of an object or cause… Without either, the imagination produces one, which can be more frightening than the reality.” By incorporating this frequency into a film soundtrack, the end result is cerebrally terrifying. By unsettling the audience, a film using infrasound effectively breaks the fourth wall, making them feel as though they are in the film themselves. Danger and anxiety evoke a stronger response when there is a sense of immediacy. Sound affects us on a primordial level, as we have evolved to be finely attuned to our surroundings and the hidden danger that lurks around us. By mixing these frequencies with non-linear sounds (which have also been proven to be extremely unsettling for the human brain), sound-mixers have created the ultimate formula for horror and dread, turning the passive spectator into the active participant.
These frequencies are also attributed to ‘hauntings’, as it has been found that infrasound causes psychological and physiological responses which are unexplainable, leading to the fear of the paranormal. Some of the reactions to infrasound include nausea, vertigo, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and a sense of dread. Researcher Vic Tandy was working in a library that was allegedly haunted, and he experienced multiple sensations of unease and anxiety as well as seeing things in his peripheral vision. In his search for a scientific explanation, he determined that a fan in the library was emitting infrasound at 18.98 Hz. This is over 1 Hz below what humans can hear, and is known to cause optical illusions. Shockingly, these frequencies can even cause death. Scientist Vladimir Gavreau was allegedly experimenting with infrasonic weapons in 1957 when one of his colleagues died instantly of ruptured organs. People throughout the rest of the building were supposedly ill for the rest of the day. As I write this paragraph, I am listening to a YouTube video called ‘1 Hour of the Ghost Frequency’. It is not a sound. I would call it a low growl. It gives the impression of a soundtrack from a science-fiction film, and I am about to turn it off because I strongly suspect it is making me dizzy…
The idea that paranoia and anxiety can be manipulated so easily, unperceivable, is almost as scary as a horror film. Imagine if this frequency could be used outside of a movie theatre… perhaps to manipulate a crowd at a political rally…
Another fascinating source of infrasound is surprising…
They use infrasound signals generated with their feet to communicate with others. And they’re not the only animal species to communicate through this frequency. Whales, hippopotamuses, giraffes, rhinoceroses, and others all use infrasound to communicate across large distances. This does make sense, as I have personally always found whale song to be beautiful but profoundly unsettling and alien-like. This may have been due to the hidden frequency that my ears could not discern.
Infrasound is therefore secretly responsible for so much mental anguish and trauma, but is also an amazing feat of nature. What terrifies one species can be a tool for another to communicate. Is there a better illustration of the dichotomy between beauty and terror in nature?
Bosch: Hell is a Visual Pun
Brynn Gordon explores Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights through its strangest visual details.
Image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500. 220cm x97cm, oil on panel, Museo del Prado
A dark mass of bodies, lights burning low in the distance. You are surrounded by fellow sinners and strange, unfamiliar creatures. It is unpleasantly warm. There are black toads everywhere.
Though this might sound like a Friday night at the union, it more closely describes the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s iconic triptych, the Garden of Earthly Delights. Painted between 1490-1500, it explores the hazards of indulgence, and the development of sin in the world. Each panel offers a vivid window into the popular imagination of the Northern Renaissance; from the introduction of Adam and Eve in the first panel and the depiction of hedonism and lust shown in the second, to the third panel’s presentation of the consequences for the unrepentant.
The Hell panel is visually distinct from the first two. It replaces cheerful pinks and greens with deep blues and blacks, and floral imagery from the previous panels is absent. The key difference, however, is that the “Boschian” whimsy and eccentricities that build an undercurrent of fantasy and sensuality in Eden and on Earth manifest in Hell as an atmosphere as disturbing as it is fascinating.
One way that Bosch balances fear and entertainment is through his demons. As they are distinctly unlike other contemporary depictions of devils or spirits, scholars cite margin illuminations in Medieval manuscripts as inspiration for these beings. For example, the pig in a low-effort nun disguise in the bottom right corner not only serves as inspiration for Halloween costumes, but also seems to be pressuring a man into signing an official document.
While the pig could merely be encouraging this man to form an unholy compact with the devil, the nun’s habit points to the Church’s sanctioned sale of “indulgences”. A common practice in the 1400s, the Church would provide documentation forgiving an individual’s sins for a price. Thus, this image of a pushy, corrupt member of the clergy could be interpreted as the facilitator of the unbridled hedonism of the central panel, as well as a comical stand-in for nuns who would have sold such documents.
Of course, there are also creatures whose symbolism is less rooted in social commentary. The ice-skating bird who wields a bow and arrow despite his lack of arms. The moth-lizard hybrid who seems to be a promoter for the pub located inside the giant, hollow torso of a man. There is also the humanoid owl representing Lucifer, prince of hell, enthroned on a commode with a cauldron for his crown. He surveys the chaos around him while consuming and excreting sinners in a trick-mirror version of God’s creation of Eve in the first panel. A smaller depiction of an owl, associated with witchcraft and spiritual depravity, appears in both the first and the central panel to convey the inevitability of this fate.
Lucifer is also surrounded by the aforementioned black toads. Toads are symbolic of the devil’s henchmen, so if you do come across one in the union, I would suggest going home.
No less creative are Bosch’s imagined punishments for the unrepentant. Bosch was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, an influential circle of conservative Catholic residents in his hometown. It was natural that their traditionally Catholic image of hell as fiery and purgatorial would manifest in his work, although the comedically literal punishments were Bosch’s own invention. A woman, charged with the sin of vanity, is forced to stare into a mirror that is also a demon’s bum; the slothful cuddle up with (yet more) black toads; misers excrete coins into the abyss.
Particularly interesting is the arrangement in the center-right about the fate of those who enjoy non-religious music. At this time, all secular music was frowned upon by the church as it was thought to be a strong temptation. Because of this, singers are forced to perform for a sharp tongued choir-master for the rest of time, while musicians are strung up on their respective instruments. The guitarist, for one, is hanged on his guitar, while the harp player is crucified on the strings of his lute (perhaps he was also a lyre). Most amusing is the music-book they read from, tattooed onto some poor man’s buttocks. The song they sing can be listened to online today here , transcribed by a music student at Oklahoma University.
Bosch’s career spanned the period between the Dark Ages and Renaissance, with the Garden of Earthly Delights coming at precisely the turn of the 15th century. This piece possesses the clarity of vision and expanded thinking characteristic of the Renaissance but holds onto a staunchly Medieval view of Hell, and their belief that art should entertain as well as moralize. In this way, Bosch fuses absurdist horror, Christian visions of damnation and visual humor in a way unsurpassed to this day.