Head Full of Ghosts: A Complicated Relationship With Horror

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The show had horror fans hooked at hello because, frankly, most of us are not picky. We’re like the family dog that wags its tail at a treat, no matter if it’s a crappy store-brand Milk-Bone or a piece of steak. We (yes, I’m still speaking for you, horror hound) don’t mind the familiar and recycled as long as we can consume it without gagging. To the general populace, the recycled bits of classic horror might be naggingly familiar in some recess of their pitiful and atrophied culture-lobe of their brains (mmm, braaaaiiiins!!!), but to them it plays as totally fresh and new, and frightening.

Tremblay, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts (p. 100). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

In a our recent series on Paul Tremblay’s novel Head Full of Ghosts we briefly touched on the idea Paul Tremblay was using the novel, in particular “The Last Final Girl” blog chapters, to explore his own complicated relationship with the horror genre. The quote I’ve referenced above has stuck out to me as Tremblay’s thesis statement, and as a horror fan, I happen to agree with what he’s saying. In general, horror fans are not picky. I found myself asking if there is really anything wrong with that, though? In Tremblay’s novel the filming of a horror reality TV show has painful real-life consequences for its cast, but that’s just a conceit of the novel. In real life no one really gets hurt by horror fans’ demand for content. Right? This is a question that I wanted to explore in a little more depth, but we were struggling to stay on topic as it was, and I had to cut several talking points from the episodes.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said on the podcast that I had seen nearly every horror move that came out in 2019 in the theater. Most of them were objectively bad movies, and I loved them despite being aware of all of their flaws. It’s not just movies, books, and comics for me either. I love the entire horror aesthetic. Every October I listen almost exclusively to horror punk music. I’m very protective of my horror, and I’m used to defending it from those who consider it to be an unwholesome form of entertainment.

My favorite horror punk band, if you were wondering.

 

As I read Head Full of Ghosts, I didn’t feel my usual knee-jerk reaction to defend horror and to insist that no real-world harm could ever come from it. Tremblay was a fellow horror fan. I knew he wasn’t demanding censorship or calling me a degenerate. I could be honest with him, and, if I was being honest, I had noticed a few things of late.

Blurring Lines

I was browsing Netflix last year and I stumbled across a show called “Haunted.” The premise of the show is “real people” describing their own “true” encounters with the supernatural. The encounters are then dramatically re-enacted by much prettier people. There are dozens, if not hundreds of shows exactly like it. Like the fan Tremblay describes, I didn’t mind the familiar and recycled premise. Actually since I pretty much knew exactly where it was going, I thought it would be the perfect thing to put on as background noise while I was cleaning the house. The first episode was pretty much what I expected. I barely even remember it. There was a family. There was a ghost. Ghost didn’t care for the family. Hi-jinx ensued.

The second episode, The Slaughterhouse, hit me like a bomb shell. Two sisters discuss their experience of being raised by a father who had this habit of…murdering hitchhikers. They described in vivid detail, which was then promptly re-enacted, how their father would kill people and hide the bodies. I was pretty floored. Horror and True-crime are interests that tend to go hand-in-hand, and it will likely not surprise anyone to hear that I have a passing knowledge of all the big serial killers. I had never heard of these killings, or these sisters. I was watching the episode, and as the body count rose I found myself wondering how I had never heard of this case. Then the episode ended. The sisters escaped the house, but apparently never went to the police. The father died without ever being accused of a crime, and as far as I can tell the family has just been destroying/hiding evidence this whole time. The only reason their story was even featured is because their devil-worshipping, serial-killer father’s spirit supposedly haunted them.

Obviously this story isn’t true. I think. I hope. I went into the show expecting most of it to be made up anyway. I’m not actually a big believer in the paranormal…though if you ask me again in an old graveyard, late at night, my conviction may waver. I googled around, expecting to find out that the show was, in fact, fictional. All I could find was a Reddit post of other horror fans asking the same question. One reply to that post is from a user who claims to have called Netflix customer support, who informed him only that “the show was not scripted.” There’s really only two options here. The first, and 99.9% most likely option: the show is fiction. The second is that Netflix is profiting and platforming two sisters who let their Dad get away with murder and continue to withhold evidence of a numerous crimes.

Even as I write this I wonder why this particular show bothered me so much. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Netflix did anything wrong. After all, Netflix was most likely engaging in a kind of Alternate Reality Game. I tend to love those. Two of my favorite podcasts are The Black Tapes and Rabbits. Both of those never admit that they are fictional podcasts. The whole thrill of an ARG is an extra layer of immersion. It’s like comparing the Indiana Jones movies to doing an escape room in real life. The escape room is a fraction of the cost of a movie set, and a fraction as visually convincing, but there’s just something about being there. Experiencing even a small part of actual adventure in reality cannot be compared to passively watching a movie.

The Netflix show caught me off guard. Almost every ARG I have encountered overreaches at some point. They give themselves away by taking the narrative to a place that either couldn’t happen in reality, or it would have been impossible that the events of the story weren’t international news. In the case of the Netflix show, I was asked to believe that two people came to Netflix with a scary story that had real-life implications, and Netflix didn’t bother to look into it. It wasn’t enough of a reach to fully break the immersion for me. Should it have been? It’s not quite like The Blair Witch project, whose marketing insisted that it was found footage of a real life disappearance. You can easily find out that the kids are actors. That no disappearance occurred. Haunted didn’t feature “found footage” of still living people. This was just two people telling a story, and a few paid re-enactments.

A more famous example of the illusion getting a little too real is the allegation that Cannibal Holocaust was actually a snuff film (safe to click). The special effects were so realistic that Italian authorities thought the film makers had actually killed their actors. It sounds silly in hindsight, but that was also kind of the intended effect of the film. They wanted you to believe it was a snuff film. The director had gone so far as to make the actors sign contracts not to appear in any kind of media for 1 year following the release of the film. He was able to contact them to get them to appear in court, and they were then allowed to do interviews to show the public that they were still alive. The film was still considered an obscenity, but the murder charges were dropped. On one hand, I suppose he couldn’t have asked for better publicity then to have made a torture-porn movie so realistic that he was actually charged with murder on the basis of it. On the other hand, why would we want to believe (or almost believe) that we were watching people die?

There was a loud banging sound from underneath Marjorie’s bed, like something was trying to ram up through the floor. Marjorie screamed and my parents went quiet. She said, “Who’s doing this? Stop it! What I’m doing and saying isn’t enough for you? Everything I’ve done isn’t enough for you? I’m scared and I’m cold and I want to stop. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

Tremblay, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts (pp. 227-228). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

Personally, horror immersion has a very steep “uncanny valley” for me. I like realism right up until the point where I actually start to think it’s real, then I immediately need to know that it isn’t. I sometimes wonder if it’s right to keep trying to find out exactly where that peak is. I wonder why we (myself included) keep wanting to walk right up to the edge and look over.

The Moral of the Stories

This is one of the most misogynistic aspects of the show: not only is it impossible for a silly girl to know what the patriarchy knows (i.e., Christian verse and scripture, canonical works of literature; everything written by and for men, of course), we’re supposed to actively fear that she has acquired that knowledge. That obnoxiously Christian theme of forbidden knowledge hits us over the head as heavily as a cudgel. Yes, I said a cudgel.

Tremblay, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts (p. 243). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

Exorcisms are increasingly popular. It’s difficult to get good statistics on just how much more popular exorcisms have become, but based on the sheer number of exorcists working in the US compared to the population it seems reasonable to say that demand is up. I’m sure there’s a variety of reasons for this, but I’m sure the popularity of possession horror movies plays no small part. My personal theory goes something like this:

We have a series of different stories that follow a similar pattern, and have some basis in the actual religious beliefs of billions of people. The popularity of the obviously fictional stories creates a demand for content. Paranormal investigation reality shows start popping up. They’re cheap to make, and if they’re even marginally popular it nets a television network a huge return on their investment. The reality TV shows aren’t “fictional.” They reinforce people’s beliefs in the supernatural and make the fictional stories seem increasingly plausible. A feedback loop has been established.

The Exorcist is the quintessential possession film. Almost everything that has come after has been influenced by it. It established a pattern.

  1. A patient, usually a teenage girl, exhibits strange behavior
  2. The behavior increases in severity placing stress on the family unit and prompting them to seek help
  3. Modern medical and psychological treatments fail to improve the behavior. In fact the behavior is continuing to escalate. The family feels physically threatened.
  4. In their desperation the family opens their mind to spiritual solutions
  5. A return to the “old ways” is necessary to solve the problem.

The Exorcist is as much a movie about the priest as it is a movie about a demonically possessed girl. The priest is on the verge of losing his faith. He is a trained psychologist, and after his mother dies he begins struggling to find meaning in what he’s doing. When a single mother at her absolute wits end begs for his help he reluctantly agrees to see her daughter. The daughter exhibits obvious supernatural abilities, and it’s through the priest’s literal battle with a devil that he is able to reaffirm his faith. In a strange way, by confirming the existence of true evil we also confirm the existence of its opposite.

A well told story is a powerful thing. Especially when it taps into feelings that we all can relate to. Most of us struggle to find meaning in our lives. We want there to be a deeper purpose to existence. We want evil to have a name and a face, if only so we can recognize it and avoid it. The moral of The Exorcist is that modern science can’t give us meaning, and it can’t show us where the evil is. Those aren’t things that science even really attempts to do. The Exorcist wants you to know that there is a deeper purpose to life, and that it is through faith that we will find it.

It’s how you remember it. How you choose to remember it. Ultimately, you think she’s floating because you want to believe it. Admit it. You believe, despite yourself, and even if it is only for that moment, that Marjorie is possessed by some supernatural entity. You believe because it’s easier than dealing with the idea that you just willingly watched a sick, troubled teenage girl purposefully choose to jump from a ledge.

Tremblay, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts (p. 253). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

The Exorcist doesn’t have much to say about the problems of “the old ways” though. As I mentioned on the podcast, I don’t think it’s intended to be a misogynistic argument, but at the time of writing the Catholic church is a patriarchal organization. They are the heroes of the film. It is to them the film would have you turn. In addition to outdated social structures, a strict adherence to “the old ways” will often find itself at odds with medical advice. I’m going to make an assumption that people seeking exorcisms probably see themselves as being at step 3 of my “Exorcist” pattern. They either won’t/can’t seek medical treatment, or they have and it hasn’t worked. I worry that the cultural impact that The Exorcist has had includes an increasing appeal to arcane rituals that may do more harm than good in most cases. As Nate rightly pointed out on the podcast, no one asked Margery if she was taking actually taking her medicine. No one confirmed this. They instead proceeded to step 4 of the pattern.

None of this means that I don’t like The Exorcist or it’s themes. It’s not a coincidence that my two favorite genres of fiction are horror and fantasy. Both of them allow me to indulge in a wish for a more interesting world beyond the ordinary. I am one of those people who gets some comfort from the idea of there being a deeper meaning to life. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there are problems when you allow this wish to turn into magical thinking. It’s very easy to go too far, and make decisions that have real consequences. Evil is not so easily identified and it doesn’t always take a demon to corrupt a human.

I stumbled upon a Reddit threat a while back that exemplified this problem. The original poster was asking if he thought it was just impossible for some people to see ghosts. He was asking if certain people lacked the required psychic sensitivity. Numerous people in OP’s family had seen ghosts, but he never had. There were a variety of replies. Some people said that, yes, only certain people had the gift. Some suggested that he may be subconsciously blocking his mind from the possibility. They never entertained the possibility that he couldn’t see it because it wasn’t there. That bothered me too.

Closing Thoughts

“Let me ask you this: Does watching the movies make you feel—I don’t know—empowered or comforted in a weird way?”

“In what weird way?”

“It’s empowering that you’re able to overcome the images on the screen, which are more over-the-top and overtly supernatural than what you actually experienced.”

“Okay. I’ll admit what you were saying about the books and movies being a comfort, there’s some truth there. But it’s not about overcoming anything. It’s about making what happened to me seem more explicable when compared to the lurid ridiculousness of those stories.”

Tremblay, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts (pp. 111-112). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

Like Paul Tremblay, my own relationship with horror is complicated, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tremblay saw things he didn’t like in the world of horror, and he wrote his own horror fiction that adds to the conversation. Head Full of Ghosts is a possession story that not only functions as an excellent horror novel in it’s own right, but also manages to have that meta-conversation on some the possession subgenre’s more problematic tropes. I think Head Full of Ghosts also serves as a warning to the genre. A television show like The Possession coming into existence is not hard to imagine, nor are the consequences of such a show hard to foresee.  Horror fiction is and always has been a sort of safe space to explore the ever-present darker side of life. Horror can be deeply personal, and we’re all going to draw different lines (within reason) with regard to how far is too far and how immersive is too immersive. That doesn’t mean that we as fans can’t have a conversation about how to ensure that our entertainment isn’t the cause of real-life human suffering.

 

 

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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