Ideas have power. Whether that idea is that an evil bogeyman’s name is verboten and to just think it is to give it life or the idea is a past trauma that comes to define your present actions, ideas are counterintuitively enlarged by our refusal to entertain them. Perhaps this is where horror comes in as a kind of cathartic force, giving people places to process the heinous, whether it is a malevolent entity invoked by his very name or the notion of an individual transmuting into a bat.
And speaking of ideas, who in the hell had the idea to impose three shoddy movies on each other for this year’s annual imposition? Oh yeah. That germinated from me. Augmenting the agony was my scrupulosity which demanded that I actually watch the three movies that I imposed on our resident trash panda, Blake. OCD aside, I think in keeping with the spirit of imposition that we come up with some kind of stipulation next year that in order to impose a movie you have to have first, you know, seen it.
Similar to my own responsibility for conjuring up the absurd plan of watching and analyzing three bad movies is the trope of the forbidden dangerous that is prevalent throughout horror cinema. In horror, the outlandish and the desire to attempt the outlandish are often sources of a character’s unraveling. Horror movies are constantly trafficking in the idea of the allure of the taboo, be it an ouija board purchased from a pawn shop, an unwise seance (aren’t all seances unwise?), or the exotic antique. Perhaps this idea of the dangerous forbidden is nowhere better represented than in W.W. Jacobs’, “The Monkey’s Paw” where Sergeant Major-Morris has a small, mummified paw that he gives to a Mr. White. The paw is a talisman that grants the owner three wishes. The story is a cautionary one of the danger of manipulating fate. While such a tale should scare me away from ever wanting the power of having my desires granted, I am more disturbed by the prospect of discussing the three movies our own McKenna Rishmawy has imposed on me: The Bye Bye Man (2017), The Bat People (1974), and The Vigil (2019).
What I would give for three wishes right now.
In The Bye Bye Man (2017), there is the dangerous forbidden, but, unlike the Jacobs short story, no allure. Opening with a pastel-colored pan of a suburbanite husband on a shotgun shooting spree, the film then cuts to the present day where Elliot (Douglas Smith) and his girlfriend, Sasha (Cressida Bonas), are moving into a dilapidated house with their friend, John (Lucien Laviscount). Not long after unpacking, the new college residents discover that all their furniture has been haphazardly stockpiled in the basement.
Ignoring the oddity of this find, the three friends then decide to throw one of those heartwarming ragers. Elliot even goes so far as to invite his married older brother Virgil (Nick Trucco of Battlestar Galactica fame), who, in turn, not only comes but brings his wife and his five year old daughter. Witnessing such parenting skills, we should not be surprised when the five year old, Alice, is unsupervised and wanders into the bedroom to find a gold coin and open a small door. The symbolic import is clear: a boundary has been violated.
I am not sure what is more incredulous: the fact that Virgil brought his five year old daughter to a rager or the fact that after the rager Elliot and Sasha start studying Rilke. Husband and wife directors Stacey Title and Jonathan Penner want to unambiguously announce to us one of their themes, by using the words of Rilke, that “fortune is truly like a coin tossed by the hand of God.” As Elliot opens the nightstand to return the coin, he finds frenetic scribbling that says, “Don’t say it. Don’t think it.” Peeling back the paper, he reads three capitalized words, “BYE BYE MAN.”
Enter another dangerous forbidden: the seance. Calling upon the stereotypical goth girl, Kim (Jenna Kannell), the college students light some candles and close their eyes. It is here that Elliot first says the Bye Bye Man’s name (which isn’t it more of a title?) aloud and hallucinations ensue. Sasha is constantly cold and has a cough, but it is Wisconsin after all. John sees maggots in people’s hair, but, again, it is Wisconsin. Elliot hears unexplained creaks in the floorboards and sees a hooded figure (yet again, Wisconsin). Kim calls off her attempt at a psychic cleansing and warns that something evil is coming.
Cribbed from better movies, the scares are hollow, and there is little here that does not feel rehashed and reused. Even the premise is a water-downed version of the concept behind the original Candyman (1992). However, even ideas that are not original can be potent if presented in a well-crafted way. And yet The Bye Bye Man (2017) has all the subtlety of a Blake Collier critique of Hereditary.
But perhaps what the directors were going for was a metacommentary on the strength inherent in the replicating nature of ideas by demonstrating that just as the malevolent entity at the center of their movie copies himself through the repetition of his name so too their own hackneyed movie idea is made more powerful by the fact that it is borrowed from better sources. Such an ennobling explanation of the movie’s lack of creativity is perhaps even a bigger delusion than the ones that our main characters begin suffering from. Taking my cues from the tagline of the movie, I suppose I am just wanting to avoid and repress any honest engagement with these movies.
Elevating avoidance to a virtue, the film depicts all attempts to investigate or confront the titular character as a means to destruction. When Sasha goes to the landlord and learns that the nightstand belonged to someone else, she is catalyzing a series of events that will lead to her own death. Yet the movie seems ignorant of the futility of its own repeated phrase since to avoid our fears is only to give them a more prominent presence. As someone who struggles with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I know all too well the false saviors that avoidance mechanisms are. Compulsive thoughts that are aimed at averting your eyes only magnify those fears that we try to shrink until they are invisible. Cloaked in church clothes, avoidance compulsions might look like reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over every time you have a blasphemous thought. We might ruminate over Bible verses when we have an intrusive sexual or violent thought. What appears to be sanctifying is actually shackling because these avoidance compulsions provide a temporary reprieve, only for them to then become intertwined and interlaced with the obsession you were trying to expel in the first place. Such retreating tendencies form a feedback loop where the more you practice them, the more you have undesired thoughts, and the more you have undesired thoughts, the more you practice them. Your sanity is at sake.
Grappling with his own sanity and desperate to reverse the curse, Elliot tracks down the expression, “Don’t say it. Don’t think it” at the local library where he discovers a dead file. Mrs. Watkins (Cleo King) supplies him with a dossier that recalls the opening rampage where Larry Redmon (Leigh Whannell) slew a set of housewives. After telling the story of the mass murderer, Mrs. Watkins observes that much of the file has been redacted, presumably where the Bye Bye Man’s name was mentioned. Ultimately, avoidance leads to alteration and even the negation of narratives, keeping us from dealing with hard truths. Elliot does pass on the name to Mrs. Watkins though because here he has not fully subjected himself to a refusal to acknowledge the looming evil.
Inexplicably, Elliot decides the answer is to call upon Kim to come and do another seance. Kim agrees but we see her covered in blood. As they are riding back, Elliot spots a bloody hammer in Kim’s bag. Crossing a railroad track, Kim hallucinates a car wreck and some potential victims standing in the path of an oncoming train. Running to their rescue, she is under the sway of the Bye Bye Man, so Elliot does what is natural: grabs the hammer, runs after her, and screams like a lunatic that she is being tricked.
Ignoring Elliot’s pleas, Kim is killed by the train and a Detective Shaw (a surprise appearance by Carrie-Anne Moss) arrives to take Elliot into custody since witnesses saw him chasing the girl with a bloody hammer. Further indicting Elliot is the fact that Shaw discovers two bodies at Kim’s apartment. Conveniently, Shaw finds Kim’s suicide note where the girl confesses to the two murders. No longer able to hold him on charges, Shaw releases Elliot, who returns to the house. Upon arriving, Elliot thinks he hears moaning and hallucinates seeing John and Sasha having sex. He beats John over the head with a bat and then ties him up. Then, he throws the nightstand out of the house and goes to the address of the owner.
As it turns out, the owner is the widow of the serial killer, Larry Redmon, and played by Faye Dunaway. She tells the story of her husband and explains that he was a reporter covering a teenager who murdered his whole family. Elliot learns that the widow survived by never hearing the name of the Bye Bye Man. Her advice? Elliot should kill all of his friends and then kill himself. Suicide is offered as the ultimate avoidance behavior.
Elliot returns to the house but not before running over the librarian, Mrs. Watkins, who had gone crazy and killed her family (she heard the name, remember?). At the house, Elliot thinks he sees John attacking him and shoots him, but then he realizes he shot Sasha. His brother Virgil and Alice (again, why does this guy insist upon bringing his little girl to the most dangerous situations?) are at the door. Elliott tries to not to say the Bye Bye Man’s name and ends up killing himself. The movie has truly descended to the nadir by trying to portray suicide as a heroic way of defeating the monster.
Before the credits, Alice tells Virgil that she found some coins in a nightstand with some bizarre writing in it. Virgil asks what the writing said, and Alice says she cannot read in the dark. The curse has ended, right? Well, in an obvious attempt to set up a sequel, Detective Shaw shows up at the scene and a wounded John whispers, “Bye Bye.” Though the movie was contrived and lacking in fright, it did serve to accentuate, albeit against the directors’ intentions, the folly of avoidance and its effectiveness as a device to ward off evil.
The scariest part of this Wisconsin located film is that Ian Olson does not make a cameo.
Turning to a movie that deals with a subject adjacent to avoidance, director Jerry Jameson’s The Bat People (1974) is a film about repression. Honeymooning with his wife, Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss), at times a bat specialist, an immunologist, and a doctor of preventative medicine, is spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns. The doctor and his wife, Cathy (Marianne McAndrew), get lost, and the doctor is bitten by a fruit bat. Cathy is worried that her husband might have rabies, but he won’t let that ruin their time on the slopes. Fever dreams and nightmares frustrate the mild-mannered Dr. Beck, who is repressing the animalistic impulses within him. Thus, if avoidance is a cognitive defense mechanism, then repression is a desiring defense mechanism. Despite Dr. Beck’s best attempts, he cannot prevent himself from transforming into a bat and killing hapless individuals. When he confesses his fears of changing into the winged creature, he is referred to a psychiatrist to treat these delusions. And yet, akin to Elliot from The Bye Bye Man, the more Dr. Beck represses his fears, the worse his savage instincts become. In contrast to The Bye Bye Man‘s supernatural roll-out of jump scares, The Bat People is centered around mood and a kind of surrealism. Critiques are rampant about the cheesy special effects in the movie, but, fortunately, the feature does not rely on them. Rather the story is more about a juxtaposition between the predatory nature of Sergeant Ward (Michael Pataki) who is falsely presented as a force for good as he pursues Dr. Beck and the reflexive, bestial nature of Dr. Beck.
Ward is more predatory than any winged monster as he makes suggestive comments about Cathy and eventually tries to rape her. Spared from violation, Cathy does couple with her husband, which leads to her assuming a bat-vampire nature and together they escape to the caves where they seek a furtive existence beneath the world of man. In terms of repression then, the movie is ambiguous. Dr. Beck and Cathy embrace their true nature and urges, but they also descend into the depths so as not to have to interact with the surface world. Whatever is signified by the film’s conclusion, we can infer the flimsy nature of repression. As what James K.A. Smith would call desiring animals, we are ultimately lovers and so many of our actions are precognitive. The solution to our base, bestial impulses is not to repress them then but to have them formed through liturgy and prayer, through Word and Sacrament to train us as creatures that sit, shake, and roll over when the Creator commands.
In the previous two movies we have seen avoidance and repression, in The Vigil (2019), Keith Thomas’ directorial debut, we see both on display. The movie opens with a young boy forced by a Nazi to shoot a woman as a shadow lurks in the background. The film then shifts to Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a former Orthodox Jew, who is coping with past trauma and trying to distance himself from his previous life. Reb Shulem, a member of his former community asks Yakov to be a Shomer for the recently deceased holocaust survivor Rubin Litvak. A Shomer is an individual in Jewish tradition who holds vigil or watches over a dead body. Shulem had previously hired a Shomer but that person left because they were afraid. Having prior experience, Yakov agrees to perform the duties but only after negotiating a higher pay. The widow, we are told, has Alzheimer’s and will not protest to the new hire.
Upon arriving at the house of the deceased, Yakov almost immediately begins hearing noises and even sees a shadowy figure, a form that even appears in some of Mr. Litvak’s photographs. Then, Yakov falls asleep and has a nightmare of his younger brother being tortured by some anti-Semitic men. Upon waking up, he finds a video on his phone of Mrs. Litvak approaching him and touching his face while he slept. The video file mysteriously vanishes. Hoping someone will validate these experiences as hallucinations, Yakov calls his physician Dr. Kohlberg. He takes more of his own medication, wondering why it will not dispel the visions. Throughout the runtime, I observed how Yakov medicated himself in ways beyond just taking pills. He turns to his phone to text a girl he likes. He FaceTimes her. He looks to Google. I was reminded how often I try to find solace in my phone, whether it is through texting, social media, or a search engine. Digital dopamine rushes provide a kind of distraction, but when the pendulum swings back towards pain, the result can be crippling. Even though The Vigil was hailed as the good one out of the three impositions (it was not good, at least not by my estimation), its flawed story did not keep it from being the one to most completely address the theme of facing the forbidden. Thoughts and emotions are inseparable and so, for Yakov, the decision to deny his past is one of both avoidance and repression.
In a scene that seems like slovenly writing and an exposition dump, Yakov finds a television in the basement of Litvak explaining how the recently deceased has been tormented by a Mazzik, an evil force that attaches to a person that is full of grief and trauma. The only way to kill the entity is to burn its face before dawn of the first night that it appears. Yakov sees one and then flees the basement. Then, he gets a call from his dead brother who says, “Why did you let me die?”
While Yakov tries to leave the house and get Shulem, Mrs. Litvak warns he has been in the house for too long. Avoidance and repression have an expiration date. Eventually, we have to meet the monster. Unwilling to accept her words, Yakov flees and experiences intense cramps before being forced to return to the residence. Confronted by the Mazzik, Yakov has a flashback of his brother being killed by a car after being tormented by the men that we saw in the nightmare earlier. Apparently, Yakov froze while his brother was assaulted and has carried the guilt of the boy’s death with him ever since. Deciding to act, the reluctant protagonist witnesses the Mazzik shape-shift and reveals his true face to be that of his own. In avoiding our own pain and traumatic memories, we are avoiding ourselves. Hesitating somewhat, Yakov finally sets the face on fire. Banishing the creature, he looks on as Litvak contorts and a flashback reveals the dead man to have been the boy from the beginning who was ordered to shoot the woman by the Nazi. The Mazzik had latched on to Litvak ever since. Therefore, the movie hints at a more profound theme of communal trauma, and, in so doing, hints at a better movie.
Avoidance and repression are reflexive responses to fear, but, as we have seen in the previous three films, they are ineffectual. As members of the body of Christ, we are not denying ones but dying ones, taking up our crosses and presenting ourselves as sacrifices. The more we try to foist upon ourselves a kind of identity that we have made, the less self-knowledge we have. Exposing ourselves to our fears and forfeiting the fight against what haunts us, we are sacrifices that are living because the truest death is the death of denial. Accepting ourselves for all the shameful impulses and embarrassing fringe thoughts will not only shrink them but also is the authentic way to be as the wounded faithful. Avoidance is the unbelief of Jonah, even the avoidance of writing an imposition article.