Incident In Ghostland Poster

Trauma, Bonding: Incident in a Ghostland and the Horror of the Problematic

(Content Warning: Slight Discussion of Sexual Violence)

A single mother and her two teenage daughters, Beth and Vera, move to an inherited home in the country. Within hours of their arrival, they are brutally assaulted by unknown assailants. Years after the incident, Beth returns to the site of their assault. This sort of bare-bones description could lead to a boring, droll film. Incident in a Ghostland (which we will abbreviate IIAGL) is anything but droll. Fans of the New French Extremity and Torture Porn subgenres will know why.  IIAGL is directed by Pascal Laugier, perhaps best known in English-speaking audiences for his directorial work in Martyrs. IIAGL is a brutal, psychological piece of work.

So, for the record, I am not typically a fan of Torture Porn. I find it to be a subgenre that is too rooted in sexual violence and wanton mayhem for me to really appreciate.  But that is not to say that the subgenre as a whole is without merit. IIAGL does draw from this well, which will be addressed later.

It’s important to note that IIAGL is not precisely a straightforward film of home invasion. Nor does it merely wallow in gore. Instead, the film leans in more towards the psychology of extreme shock. IIAGL deals instead with the surreality of a shocking incident.Try to put yourself into the shoes of the protagonists: you’re young. You’ve been uprooted to new house that you wouldn’t willingly visit, let alone inhabit. And in the middle of stress and annoyance of “move,” you are suddenly attacked. You’ve been overpowered by unknown people who clearly have on thing on their mind: violence.

No adult could brush this off, much less a young teen. Add into this hellbroth sexual assault and it’s impossible to say how things might look or seem. Beth and Vera are fighting for their very lives. Asking them to craft a coherent narrative out of this situation is not only unrealistic, but also obscene.

The physicality of IIAGL is absolutely noteworthy. Horror movies are known for being physically demanding, and this film takes the cake in that regard. The violence is direct and shocking.  Laugier’s camera does not pull away from most of the violence, lingering long enough for the audience to see the end result of every blow, of every attack. It seems perverse to use the word “lovingly” to describe the applied filmcraft of these scenes. And yet, the attention to detail paid in these moments, from audio to the actual reaction of the actors, is genuinely amazing.

Where the film loses me is in the very tropes of Torture Porn. It’s use of doll imagery and attempts at perverting childhood symbolism can feel a touch ham-handed. Moreover, the portrayal of the attackers (dealing with non cis-hetero presentations and mentally challenged) can feel cheap. The use of the “depraved crossdresser” and “violent mentally handicapped” villains are not new. They often are used merely to shock. There is an element to this sort of characterization that does, in a way, add to the plot. Earlier I mentioned the surreality of IIAGL’s violence and trauma.  These elements might be cheap in a different environment, but they add a further level of disorientation to an already mind-bending film.

“We should have stayed in the city.”

So are these problematic elements necessarily bad? That depends on how they are used inside the context of horror.  In a recent video on the Scaredy Cats Youtube Channel the question is asked: “Is Horror Too Problematic To Enjoy?” The video illustrates a point I have often felt about Horror. Much of the genre deals with subject matter that is outside of polite society. Violence, the fears of the unknown, the monster that might be in the woods, all of these are concepts not well received at the colloquial dinner table. Horror, be it in print or video, has long been a place to discuss and explore the feelings too disgusting to handle in everyday life.  Moreover this sort of media can use the more marginalized members of our society as convenient foils to our fears. Unfortunately we live in a society that has been slow in accepting others outside the supposed “norm.” Media has thus been equally slow in addressing these issues.

So is IIAGL too problematic? Does it go for the cheapest routes of the genre instead of delving into the complexities of human relations?  My answer is a resounding “No!” At it’s heart, IIAGL is a story of strained relationships, of sibling rivalry, and the bonds that develop in crisis. Beth and  Vera are thrust into an unrelenting nightmare of isolation and degradation, and are forced to save themselves by saving each other. A less competently written script or director could easily cheapen this story to mere titillation, but instead opts for a higher approach.

Granted, that approach is soaked in blood, but it’s no less valid than other ways of representation. Horror is not supposed to be comforting. And even when a decision feels potentially cheap it is still living up to it’s promise: to horrify.

IIAGL is not a film for everyone. If you are a fan of kinetic, nerve shredding horror, it offers a lot. This audience may not be as broad as the slashers of old. It’s far closer spiritually to a movie like Angst than something like Midsommar. And yet, IIAGL does offer a heady punch. It’s not a film for people who just want jumpscares or a simple bloodbath. IIAGL is for a braver, darker sort of audience, one that likes their fear spiked with the unsettling surreal.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

 

IN GENRE-VISION! Post Mortem on Folk Horror

As a media creator I am always worried about what a person might imagine my intentions are regarding any subject I address. Thankfully, the majority of my work is closest to journalism. There is almost always a clear line between the facts I am presenting and my opinions.  “Missing the point” is often the most charitable way of describing my fears. At best it can be a stretch, reading intentions or messages into a piece of art that was never intended. At worst, it could be a reading that paints my intentions as destructive or cruel, something I never aim at.

Media Analysis is always something of a sticky subject for these reasons. Outside of very specific examples, I don’t imagine that most artists or creatives are especially interested in harming their audience, or others outside their audience. However, that does not mean that positive, constructive art cannot have darker subtexts. And few genres of art are so adept at this as Horror.  And what of Folk Horror? As a subgenre, we’ve talked now for a substantial stretch of time about the recurring themes of Folk Horror and it’s mechanisms, it’s tropes, it’s symbols.

What is the compelling power of Folk Horror? Why do the scariest parts of folklore persist?

There is a common idea that mythology and folklore serve the purpose of explaining the seemingly unexplainable. How many cultures can you think of that have elaborate stories, or tales of deities and folk heroes explaining natural occurrences? How many deities of thunder and lightning can you name off the top of your head? Myths and folklore persist in part because they are good stories, honed for generations by retelling and embellishment by people with long memories and a flair for the creative. These stories that existed in societies predating our own knew how to craft a narrative for their lives.

And what of our world today? Are we so enlightened that we don’t behave like our “primitive” ancestors? The answer is simple: our ancestors were not primitive in any regard.  We are not dissimilar from them. Case in point: how many urban legends can you name off the top of your head? Coca-Cola and Mentos (don’t eat them together, your stomach will explode!) Everyone “knows someone whose cousin had too many hits of Acid and now believes that they are a cup of water or orange juice.”  Everyone recalls the Satanic Panic of the 1980s; many of us remember the warning that Judas Priest and/or Ozzy Osbourne were putting “backwards subliminal messages” on their records causing suicide or Devil-worship.

“Christmas in July sales ads have gotten weird during the Pandemic of 2020.”

This is our modern Folk Horror. We all exist awash in folklore, modern or otherwise. So ask yourself…why do these sometimes absurd, often horrifying stories persist?

They are seductive. They offer a satisfying narrative. You can sympathise with at least one person in the story. From the Heavy Metal fan to the concerned parent, they offer something for everyone. Therein lies a power of Folk Horror films. For those who can relate to outsiders like Albrun in Hagazussa to Thomasin in The Witch, breaking free from a repressive life (or simply taking revenge on people have betrayed you) has a potent allure. Conversely, if you’ve lived with the moralizing condescension of an authority figure, one who you suspect (or can prove!) is hypocritical or corrupt, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man can offer a satisfying vicarious thrill.

One of the fascinating things about Horror as a genre is that it offers something unique: a universal applicability. Most people are scared of threats to their well-being, or some radical disruption to their lives. Violence might be rare in many people’s lives, but very few especially look forward to the thought of it being done to them. As such, Folk Horror offers it’s specific templates with seeming infinite applicability. Folk Horror can be used simply by plugging in pre-existing cultural symbols or phenomena into stories relating to outsiders, or the modern colliding with the beliefs of a more ancient time and place.

 

Sergeant Howie Your lordship seems strangely… unconcerned.

Lord Summerisle Well I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder here. We’re a deeply religious people.

– The Wicker Man

Incongruity is another power of Folk Horror. In theory, exposure to other worldviews or philosophies is supposed to be extremely good for people. There are nearly whole cultural movements (and subsequently, industries) devoted to the mind-expanding power of seeing another culture or people living with different lives than those of us in the Industrialized world. But what happens when to us when that culture is supposed to be similar or the same as our own? With the exception of perhaps The Witch and Midsommar, all of the films we’ve looked at in this series represent a conflict of in-group versus out-group. The feeling of incongruity arises from a willful rejection of cultural signifiers. Noroi: The Curse, is a perfect example of this.  Shinto, the native religion of Japan, should provide a cultural jump-off point for any Japanese person.  But if a particular village in one region of the country has a hyper-specific practice, literally not seen outside of one tiny area…how might you respond? Would that belief seem strange or scary to you?  Or look at Apostle. Even in the hotbed of political and social life of England in the early 1900s, there are certain elements of religious life one could expect from fellow Britons. It would be odd enough to encounter a Catholic in a culture steeped in the worldview of The Church of England, but what about a commune practicing something decidedly less Christian?

This encounter with the unexpected is one of the foundations of horror. A subversion of the expected, especially in terms of the metaphysical assumptions of a culture, can serve to be a brutal shock. Betrayal is the root of so many of our fears; betrayal of Worldview assaults our very assumptions of Life.

So as we close out the discussion of this genre, I still feel that there are questions left unanswered, fields left unharvested, as it were. What would modern American Folk Horror look like, for instance? Is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a sort of Folk Horror? Or would something more subtle, say Invasion of The Body Snatchers be better at smashing our assumptions? And for that matter, do films like November pack the same punch outside of Estonian audiences? I am convinced that the subject is not exhausted. Folk horror might lay as a fallow field for a time, but at any moment, it might spring forth from the Earth, growing strange compared to it’s contemporaries, ready to bare dark fruit.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show