The day I pull my own hair so hard I cry, I know it can’t go on. Or to be more precise, that I can’t go on. Everything has become muddled and chaotic, infused with anxiety. I operate in a panicky zone of uncertainty. I can only work alone; anything involving other people is problematic. I work on evading anyone who annoys me because I might – no, I will - become unreasonably angry. I am enveloped in a suffocating, selfish fug of dread. The possibility of intimate conversation terrifies me. The simple question – how are you? – could provoke any manner of honest and terrible responses. My fear of dogs, always present, intensifies. The sight of a tense, bristling dog makes me sweat and shake.
Even my body is breaking down. My energy dips and wanes each day. I crave sugar and salt, chocolate and meat. My skin itches. My leg has developed patches of eczema, like rust on metal, lichen on stone. I scratch them mindlessly till blood leaks under my fingernails to form a perfect burgundy crescent line separating the white from the pink part of the nails. My chest beats fast, staccato one-two, one-two, like a tight red drum in my chest. I sleep with earplugs in to dim the sounds that might make me panic. I read to dull the thoughts in my head. In moments of lucidity, I am scared. I sit in traffic, thinking – Is this it? Is this ever going to end? – And, most terrifying of all – Is it still me? Because, you know, it doesn’t feel like me anymore. It feels like a bad version, a blurred photocopy, a self of newsprint smudged with tears.
I’m no longer in the driving seat you see.
The Black Dog. He names it for me, the kind doctor. His eyes squint at me in sympathy. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, gently. ‘It’s a brute, that dog.’
I’ve listed my ailments; those strange, pressing urges, the blank undertow of sadness that smothers me, night after night. I’ve told him of the fear that disrupts my rest with teeth-clenching anxiety. Of the long, heavy, blank sleeps that can overpower me, so I wake, dry-mouthed and heavy-eyed.
‘Maybe it’s my hormones?’ I suggest. Slow, fat tears trickle down my face. I wipe them away, absently. These days I cry so much I barely notice the constant flow.
The doctor straightens up. He cocks his head to one side and says quietly, ‘Poor old you.’ It is such an un-doctorly statement, I forget to cry. ‘Well, I don’t think this is PMS. What you describe – the listlessness, the panic, the overwhelming feeling of sadness, these all tally with the definition of depression.’ That’s when he names it. The Black Dog. I feel a terrible sorrow mixed with a dawning relief at his diagnosis. His face is calm and kind.
‘Is there a history of depression in the family?’ he asks.
Is there a history of depression in the family?
Yes. Yes, there is. I can see that now. Like an ancient poison it has infected us, generation after generation. I see it now, exposed for what it is in the clinical environment of the doctor’s office. I see it in my mother’s despairing rages, my grandmother’s glassy stare and the strange, asynchronous workings of her mouth. And now I see it in my own mirror, in the ugly lines at the corner of my mouth. I see it in my flat, panicked eyes. It’s a dreadful, quiet homecoming, a recognition of what has always lain beneath. Is it still me?
It’s been inside, quiet, dark, waiting. As a child, when I bit my hand in rage or pulled my dolls to pieces…was that it? Like a detective I examine myself for clues. That night I hit my head off the wall to stop thinking. That was definitely it.
Maybe in time I’ll be proud of this. I’ll see it as part of my family heritage, as genetically distinctive as the dimple in the cleft of my chin, my long fingers, or the slight upward tilt of my nose that I see replicated, endlessly familiar, on strange faces at family funerals. For now, the tears trace lines on my face, a map of erosion, the long, slow slide of hot salt over sore skin.
I start taking the pills. They are tiny, like little dots of white on my palm. I find it implausible that they can stem such a huge and weighty tide of emotion. But I try. I remember to breathe deeply when I can.
As the days go by, the tautness in my chest loosens, little by little. I can now drive my car without visualising all the possible accidents that will happen; the flickering images of blood and twisted metal begin to pale and recede. I sleep past the white-night hour of three in the morning. I say hello. I ask how people are. Once I catch myself laughing, unguarded. The sound shocks me.
Some things don’t get better though. As the general anxiety fades my fear of dogs intensifies. There are so many dogs. They are everywhere. Little dogs bark at me from gardens, short, throaty, angry yaps. When I go by, they hurl themselves against gates, in a blurred frenzy of pink gums and sharp white teeth. It’s the big ones that terrify me most. I see them throw their large bodies against their leashes, their powerful chests working with ribby muscles as they strain and pull. I stop walking around the city to avoid them. These animals are only domesticated on the outside. I can see them for what they are. In their rolling eyes, their curled snarls, I see their true nature; they are jackals, wolves, carnivores.
The heavy wall of anger and despair is lifting, slowly but surely. Now, like a recovering car-crash victim, I feel the pain in my limbs. I can’t stop eating. Everything tastes pungent and delicious. I don’t fall asleep anymore, I crash into sleep, and it’s heavy and blank, a flat, implacable wall.
It’s then that the dreams start.
The dreams are always the same. I’m walking down a road, a flat, unmemorable country road. It’s summer. I can smell the dry heat, the cut, shrivelled grass. I hear the hum of insect-buzz, and feel their tiny wings bat against my face. I’m walking parallel to a deep ditch, backed by a large dark-green hedge. Suddenly I realise I’m seeing with a curious double vision, one that remains fixed on the dusty road, and the other which has risen to give me a birds-eye view of the hedge. Behind the hedge I see him.
He’s a huge black dog, crouching, his hackles raised and his powerful body coiled and tense like a bowstring. I know he is waiting for me, but I can’t stop my feet leading me inevitably towards the hedge he lies behind. I wake just as he is about to spring, my mouth parched and open, hot, damp patches livid on my chest and the back of my neck.
I call my mother. This is unusual. We don’t phone each other a lot in my family. Years of tense silences and uneasy conversations lie behind this.
‘Was I ever frightened by a dog? When I was little?’
My mother is silent for a moment. ‘No,’ she says eventually. ‘Not to my knowledge. You’ve always been afraid of dogs.’
I persist. Maybe if I’m more specific.
‘Is there any time you recall that I saw a dog pounce from behind a hedge?’ I need to know the origin of this dream.
‘No.’ Her voice is sharper now. I’m a little startled. In recent years, she’s been so much calmer.
‘Sorry,’ I say automatically. ‘Sorry for bothering you.’
‘It’s fine,’ she says in a softer voice. ‘When are you coming to visit me and your granny? I’d love to see you.’
‘Me too,’ I say. There are tears in my eyes. I mean it.
I put down the phone. A patch of eczema flares on my ankle, pink and angry. I scratch it until the blood wells up in dark beads.
Last night, the dream changed. I was walking down the road, when I realised my viewpoint had changed. I could still see from the birds-eye view, but when I looked downwards, my old trainers had disappeared. In their place were two glossy black paws, stretched out to show long, cruel nails. The wave of horror wakes me abruptly. I’m sweating, panting, lungs bursting with effort.
Is it still me?
‘So now you dream you are a dog?’ The doctor is making interested notes. He shakes his head. ‘The good news now,’ he says. ‘I’m very happy that your symptoms have dissipated, and that your blood-pressure is down. You’re feeling better in all respects but this very particular anxiety.’
He puts his pad down. ‘I’d recommend cognitive behavioural therapy to you. It’s a good way to address these kinds of fears, which seem to come from nowhere.’ He pauses, head cocked on one side ‘But I’m curious. Are you sure you’ve never been bitten by a dog? Scared of one as a child?’
I consider the conversation with my mother. ‘Almost positive that I wasn’t.’
He considers it. ‘Maybe you heard a story about one that frightened you?’
I think. Something in that last sentence sounds familiar. I close my eyes and raise a hand to stop him. There is silence. I hear the clock tick on the white-painted wall, slowly, calmly measuring the seconds, the minutes, the hours…
‘Yes,’ I say finally. ‘Yes. I heard a story.’
I’m five years old. My grandmother is making a new dress for me in the kitchen, her clever fingers pulling and tugging the material under the whirring needle of the sewing machine. I am tiptoe-stretched, head following the flashing movement of the needle. Quietly I reach out one chubby hand towards it – ‘Stop!’ shouts my grandmother, suddenly, pushing my hand away. I’m opening my mouth to cry, when she pulls me onto her lap. I rest my head against her soft, warm neck. ‘Hush now,’ she says, and her voice is quiet, murmuring. ‘Hush or the Black Dog will hear you.’
The Black Dog of Cratloe. How could I forget about him? According to my grandmother, the Black Dog ran beside the road beyond Limerick. If he ran alongside you, that was good, and you’d have a safe journey. If he jumped out at you, Fate would follow you, like the dog itself, until you met your bloody end. My grandmother claimed to know a man who had died a week after a cycle home. The dog had run at him repeatedly during the stretch of road by the estuary, he told her, run at him over and over again, so he had to keep cycling and shouting, faster and louder, until it finally vanished at the foot of the Cratloe hills. ‘It did him no good,’ my grandmother says, nipping off the thread with her sharp teeth. ‘Sure wasn’t he dead a week later. God rest him.’
I get to my feet and leave the surgery, rejecting all offers of referral. There is nothing wrong with me anymore. My fear is real. It is out there in the woods, hiding by the road, waiting for me.
That night I dream again. I’m back on the road. This time it’s dark. Beyond the hedge is the silver salmon-flash of moonlight on water. The air smells different, moister, and loamier than before. I stretch myself out. Every muscle in my body lengthens and tautens as I flex slowly behind the hedge. Then I hear it, faint in the distance, the whirr of bicycle wheels. I tense. Nearly there. The whirr grows louder, and I am running quick, sure, low to the ground, the grassy earth under me damp and firm. He sees me. His mouth opens in a perfect round 0 of shock. I keep running, darting out and back from the hedge. It is intoxicating, the dew-fresh smell, the speed, the frightened, phlegmy catch of his breath as he pedals faster and faster. The chase goes on, I run in and out, just missing his front wheel, until the bike swerves, and with a ripping sound of rubber on tarmac, it stutters, and crashes to the ground. I grab his collar in my mouth and start to drag him away. He is crying now, in hot, blurting breaths, face contorted, but the faint light shows me who it is.
When I wake up, heart blundering in my chest, everything has changed. There’s blood in my mouth, but I can’t find a cut. There’s blood under my nails, but there’s no scratches on my legs. I feel a glass-shatter of pure, high terror in the soft pouch of my stomach.
Is it still me?
What do you do when what you fear most becomes invisible?
When it hides inside?
I sit down with my mother and my grandmother. Their eyes tell me they know what I am going to say. My grandmother is already nodding.
‘I have it too,’ I say simply. ‘The Black Dog.’ My mother’s face is gentler than I have ever seen it. She brushes a hand over my hair, with a gossamer-light touch.
Wordlessly, I extend my hands to her and my grandmother.
Is it still me?
Their eyes are warm, reassuring. We grip each other, palms warm, fingers taut. Together, our weakness is our strength. I feel the power coursing between us, from generation to generation, from Black Dog to Black Dog.
STORY NOTES BY TRACY FAHEY
‘The Black Dog’ is a story originally published in 2018 in my second collection, New Music For Old Rituals that weaves together strands of a local legend, that of ‘The Black Dog of Cratloe’ with the wider apparition of the Black Dog in folklore, with other elements of pathography, genetic mental illness and lycanthropy.
The Black Dog is of course a popular trope in global folklore; possibly most manifest in English folklore, with variants of the Black Dog legend in most counties in England. The Black Dog may be a direct descendant of Cerberus in Greek mythology; most stories tell of it as a pre-shadowing of death. It also makes several appearances in Irish folklore. T.J. Westropp, in his A Folklore Survey of County Clare documents the story which directly inspired this one, that of the ‘Black Dog of Cratloe’.
However, in this story, I was powerfully attracted to the metaphor of the black dog in contemporary culture, as a euphemism for depression. Diarist Samuel Johnson first used the term in the 1780’s as a metaphor to describe his own struggles with a depressive disorder, and Winston Churchill popularised the term to describe his own encounters with the illness. This image is a striking one; the idea of a dog who follows, who won’t go away. Writing about a mental disorder also introduces the idea of the unreliable narrator – to my mind, a story always works particularly well if there are several different explanations for how the narrative unfolds. For those who have experienced depression, or its high-octane sister, anxiety, this feeling of persistent onslaught is particularly relevant. I was also interested in the idea of genetic inheritance and the vulnerability of families to the transmission of certain mental health conditions.
Illness, and the feeling of dislocation it brings, is a theme that runs through several of my short stories. We write, inevitably from the standpoint of our own bodies, minds and experiences. From my own auto ethnographic experiences of illness, I’m powerfully aware of the (often almost unacknowledged) interrelationship between the body and mind, particularly in the area of chronic illness, which takes a mental as well as a physical toll on the self. Illness itself is a liminal space where the sufferer is plunged into the intensely introspective terrain of one’s own body and mind. However, it’s also a space of Unhemlich alienation from the self; a stark realisation of the divorce that has happened between the ‘normal’ terrain of wellness, and the uncertain, grey world of illness.
In exploring the idea of the black dog as a signifier of mental illness, there’s a very deliberate reason I’ve played with the werewolf motif. We’re familiar with the legends associated with the werewolf, rising to prominence in Germany in the 1591 with the trial and execution of Peter Stubbe, a serial killer who believed that he became a wolf and committed his crimes while in this state of physical and mental transformation. This notion of lycanthropy as a mental disease is one that has survived until the present day. Today it is recognized as ‘clinical lycanthropy’, a rare syndrome whereby sufferer is convinced that he or she can transform into an animal. This belief in transformation of self is connected both with body-image ideas and as an add-on expression of a psychotic episode caused by another mental health condition such as schizophrenia. Lycanthropy is most commonly associated with men and male werewolves, which is strange, as in most fairy tales and legends, the wolf is a complex character; not only a vicious male predator, seeking out young girls to seduce and eat, but also as female, operating on a lunar cycle, ruled by blood and the moon, prey to monthly shifts in mood and hormonal changes. Many horror movies such as the Canadian Ginger Snaps, which align women with wolves, can also be read as a metaphor for the darker side of the transformation from childhood to womanhood. In such narratives, lycanthropy is also used as a signifier of mental illness.
In ‘The Black Dog’, I was interested in drawing these different strands together – from global trope to local legend, from illness to werewolf stories. It was important that the narrator’s illness could be read in a variety of ways, from depression to menstrual psychosis to lycanthropy. It was equally important that the end be a resolution of sorts; a coming-together of generations of the same family to recognise and join forces to withstand the toll of this mental health condition, or conditions.
And so ‘The Black Dog’ is that rarity; a horror story with a deeply hopeful ending.
I hereby dedicate this story to all in our community of writers who struggle with challenges of the body and mind. Discussing and exploring these issues honestly together offers a chance of catharsis. Thanks so much to Jim Mcleod and Ginger Nuts of Horror for inviting me to be part of this conversation.
Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction.
In 2017, her debut collection The Unheimlich Manoeuvre was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. In 2019, her short story, 'That Thing I Did' (The Black Room Manuscripts IV) received an Honourable Mention from Ellen Datlow in her The Best Horror of the Year Volume 11, with five further stories on Datlow's Recommended Reading list for 2019. She is published in over twenty-five Irish, American and British anthologies.
Her PhD is on the Gothic in visual arts, and her non-fiction writing has been published in edited Irish, English, Dutch, Italian, Australian and American collections and journals. She has been awarded residencies in Ireland and Greece.
Her first novel, The Girl in the Fort, was released in 2017. Her second collection, New Music For Old Rituals was released in 2018 by Black Shuck Books.
The Unheimlich Manoeuvre: Deluxe Edition by Tracy Fahey
The Unheimlich Manoeuvre explores the psychological horror that occurs when home is subverted as a place of safety, when it becomes surreal, changes and even disappears…
In these stories, a coma patient wakes to find herself replaced by a doppelgänger, a ghost state reflects doubles of both houses and inhabitants, a suburban enclave takes control of its trespassers, and a beaten woman exacts revenge.
Just as the Heimlich Manoeuvre restores order, health and well-being, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre does quite the opposite.
This new Deluxe Edition contains Fahey’s essay ‘Creative Evocations of Uncanny Domestic Spaces,’ five additional stories, an original print and piece, ‘Remembering Wildgoose Lodge,’ and complete story notes for all tales featured in this edition.
Read our review here
As you read this, I will have just retired from a 35-year career as a mental health professional in the National Health Service (NHS). During this time, I have worked with some of the most inspirational yet vulnerable people, and every single moment was a privilege.
When I answered the call to contribute to this remarkable series of essays from the equally remarkable Ginger Nuts of Horror, I was at a point where my retirement paperwork had been submitted and the focus shifting to my prospective writing career. Ironic, then, that in the same week, my contemporary mental health novel Finding Jericho should be snapped up by Demain Publishing, and the need to explore the stigma of mental illness and social exclusion, core issues of the novel, would be at the forefront of my mind.
I start with a word of caution. There is a chance that some creatives will read this article and take offence or find it preachy, snubbing the content based on what may be perceived as the moral high ground. As a writer, I say – that is your prerogative. As a mental healthcare professional, however, I say, I really don’t care. This is an issue far bigger than any individual writer with a frail ego.
One thing is fundamental to any moral tenet, societal perception often defines its worth, its relevance and, above all, the level we all, as a community, tolerate it. This is true of the horror genre, and it is certainly true of mental illness. So much so, I am often asked how, as an advocate of mental health and social inclusion, I can support, let alone contribute to the genre. Most mental health professionals are, quite rightly, cautious around the horror genre. I say ‘quite rightly’ because, historically, there is evidence the genre has declared open season on the mentally ill over the past decades, perpetuating the myth of mental illness and its misinterpretation in society, namely that of mental illness as a vehicle for fear.
For example, in 1966, the great Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Phillip Jenkinson and challenged about his movie Psycho. Jenkinson cited that mental health professionals and patients alike had informed him during a therapy session that the film had, in their view, “set back the cause of mental health by several years”. In response, Hitchcock mentioned the case of a man who had admitted killing three women, claiming that one murder had taken place shortly after watching Psycho. As part of his argument, Hitchcock suggested that the perpetrator had already considered and committed heinous acts and to blame a film for inciting another was wholly unfair. And to this I would have to agree. However, Jenkinson’s original statement was, in fact, talking about the mental health cause, that is, societal view of mental illness in generic media. In this instance, I fear the great director seriously missed the implications of the statement, and the longer lasting effects.
When I see writers tackle mental health and horror articles, there is a primary focus on how the lived experience of mental illness informs and influences their work, or how the art of writing can help in the recovery process. Both have value in their own way, the insights gleaned from the likes of Brian Kirk in his remarkable articles while researching his 2015 novel, We Are Monsters, are invaluable to those creatives who have endured the same issues, the garnering of hope that mental health is something that is not insurmountable, ultimately becoming a forum for shared learning on the road to recovery.
This is also important because recovery and hope are at the heart of reducing the stigma of mental health. The effects of stigma are simple and well documented, it stops suffers talking about their illness and is a core element to them not seeking help, be that from professionals or family. Stigma also impedes the recovery process, making a person feel excluded from society that has no wish to understand their needs. This is the true impact of ignorance. And there is no excuse for it.
Poor horror writing is a countermeasure to hope as it perpetuates stigma. Take the following paragraph from Finding Jericho:
“No matter what we choose to call those with mental illness―nutters, head-bangers, psychos, crazies, idiots, to name but a few―never forget these are not, and never will be, terms of endearment. There isn't any affection attached to such labels. They're only brands that serve to de-humanise and isolate.”
Like it or not, when it comes to the depiction of mental illness and madness, horror writers have responsibilities. Not only to their readership but to those who must endure these terrible illnesses. We can advocate for the person, or we can contribute to the stigma, the choice is ours, be it conscious or made in ignorance, through a lack of research or wilful, hackneyed writing.
If writers make that conscious decision to depict mental illness in a one-dimensional, sensationalist narrative, then this article is perhaps not for them. Just like their work will not be for me should I happen across it. For those who want to make a difference with their work and take the time to write tales that are sensitive of the issues, then perhaps the following considerations may prove useful.
From a mental health professional standpoint, stigma reduction has basic components that, if applied to the narrative, will support the development of tales that will not perpetuate misconceptions and myths traditionally associated with mental illness. These components are
For a writer, awareness means research, it means being clued up on how different illnesses affect people, not just in terms of symptoms, but how these symptoms can impact on day-to-day living. There is a wealth of information from mental health charities (MIND, RETHINK MENTAL ILLNESS, SANE, etc) that can give writers an insight into the true influence mental illness has on the person and their family. Many of these sites also contain examples of people’s lived experience of mental illness and its implications. Real stories, real horror, of loss and despair but ultimately a testament to recovery.
I’ve already mentioned about being responsible when writing about mental illness, but this next piece of advice is underlined in triplicate. There is NO established link between mental illness and a propensity for violence. Statistically, those who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence, given the socio-economic decline often associated with deteriorating mental health. Using mental illness as an excuse for characters committing heinous acts is not only inaccurate, is also highly offensive. Give characters another reason, think about the influences society has on decision-making, be that good or bad, benign of maleficent.
The writer is in a unique position where, if there is an established readership, the characters can inform and raise awareness. Having characters who overcome their mental health crisis, even if this is in some small way, demonstrates a sense of hope, and hope is key to recovery. I understand that characters must reflect society in order to ground them in the real world and make them relatable to readers. You may well have characters who, as part of their worldview, use some of the less favourable definitions of mental illness already discussed here. What I would say is let’s have some other characters who challenges their statements from time to time, putting forward a counterargument for such perceptions, challenging the stigma. If nothing else, this can add tension and interesting dynamics to the scene and, in truth, is more in keeping with 21st century mental health initiatives. Think about the recent Time to Talk campaigns, let’s, as writers, challenge the silence associated with mental health.
Good writing is the art of provoking emotions unique to humanity, stoking the fires of interest and intrigue, each the building blocks of human curiosity. No more so than in the horror genre, where the most basic concepts of fear and thrill are aligned. The act of telling tales requires nuance and, above all, a will on the behalf of the writer to be more than schlock, more than a cheap shock at the expense of the most vulnerable people in society.
I will end this article with a plea to all creatives working in the field of horror, irrespective of the medium, and it is this, when it comes to depicting mental illness, don’t be lazy and ignorant, don’t be cheap.
Be informed. Be better.
Dave Jeffery, January 2020
Madness is relative...
Jonathan Dupree knows this all too well. He’s moved in with his mother to look after his uncle, a life-long sufferer of mental illness.
When school kids target Jonathan, he makes a pact with a local gang to fit in, a pact that will see him betray his family and seek redemption from a most unlikely source.
The question is, will it work?
As found on the BBC Headroom Recommended Reading list.
“Jeffery has created a fantastic text that is useful for adolescents who are either carers or service users themselves. Wonderful.” – Madness and Literature Network.
On a superficial level, I was immediately struck by her physical appearance. Sigourney Weaver is a striking woman, but not stereotypically “pretty.”
I was 15 when I first watched Aliens, and 22 by the time I saw Alien. Yes, I watched them out of chronological order. Despite being part of the same franchise, I consider both movies to be exceptionally different, albeit underpinned by one amazing, badass character — Ellen Ripley.
According to Xenopedia, Ellen Louise Ripley was born on 7th January 2092 and began her career as a warrant officer with Weyland-Yutani commercial freight operations. During her assignment on USCSS Nostromo, she first encountered hostile Xenomorphs on planet LV-426, commonly known as the Archeron.
Later, promoted to Lieutenant First Class and attached to the Colonial Marines as a civilian advisor, she encountered yet more Xenomorphs, while revisiting LV-426 on the USS Sulaco, cumulating with Ripley blowing the Alien Queen out of the Sulaco’s airlock.
Ripley is not a soldier and she is not trained in combat, but she is determined, tough and amazingly resilient. Alien is a slow-burn sci-fi horror story which doesn’t fully kick into action until 45 minutes has passed. (Director, Ridley Scott himself joked that nothing actually happens in this time.) It has been described as a haunted-house movie, except the old house is a creepy spaceship. You would even be forgiven for assuming Ripley is a mere supporting character after Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Yet it is Ripley who faces up to the Xenomorph, devises an explosive survival plan, rescues herself, her cat Jonesy, and escapes. She floats away in hyper-sleep, hoping to be rescued from deep space.
Set 20 years later, in the action-packed horror/sci-fi blockbuster Aliens, it is clear Ripley is now suffering from some serious PTSD and anxiety disorder, and has no wish to revisit the alien threat. It is her recurring nightmares and concern for the people of Hadley’s Hope (a colony now living on LV-426) that sparks something powerful inside her. A burning need to do the right thing and also to confront her fears.
The first time I watched Aliens was with two friends in their den. Our respective parents had no idea. I remember being totally blown away, and not just because of the impressive action sequences. I’m out and proud as queer these days, but at 15 I wasn’t fully sure. I just knew Ripley was one of my very first girl crushes, and I longed to have someone like her in my life.
On a superficial level, I was immediately struck by her physical appearance. Sigourney Weaver is a striking woman, but not stereotypically “pretty.” Her beauty comes from her energy and her attitude, and the way she carries herself. In Aliens she is make-up free, wearing typically masculine attire and sporting a rather unfortunate haircut. Yet rough, tough, macho marine Corporal Hicks falls for her pretty much instantly. Forget about any other romantic movie you’ve ever seen, and think about that moment where Hicks shows Ripley how to use a pulse rifle.
Ripley: What's this?
Hicks: That’s the grenade launcher. I don't think you want to mess with that.
Ripley:You started this. Show me everything. I can handle myself.
Hicks: [chuckles] Yeah, I noticed.
Screw when Harry met Sally, I wanted a love like Ripley and Hicks.
As an impressionable teen who also wasn’t traditionally pretty, that affected me in a million positive ways. It’s not about how you look, it’s about who you are, that will attract people to you. Ripley really emphasised that. Stuck in space with a bunch of hard-ass marines, she doesn’t try to lean into any particular angle other than her own. She doesn’t butch herself up to fit in, but she equally doesn’t try to emphasise her femininity so that those big, strong boys will do everything for her. She exudes complete and utter confidence in herself and her abilities. And she is fucking fabulous.
Ripley sparked a love for kick-ass females, and who I will probably always look to as a timeless and indisputable feminist icon. I remember watching her in both movies and thinking how bloody brilliant it was that she gave no apologies to anyone for any part of her. She would not back down and she would never give up, she simply rolled up her sleeves and got on with the damn job.
It would be hard to talk about Ripley without mentioning the theme of The Mother. In Alien, MU-TH-UR 6000 known as MOTHER is the AI mainframe in the Nostromo, and as well as auto-piloting the ship, was responsible for monitoring the crew. A poor guardian, however, MOTHER also ensured the survival of the deadly Xenomorph specimen taken from LV-426. Ultimately, MOTHER is destroyed by Ripley, along with the Nostromo.
In Aliens it is Ripley herself who takes the maternal role. Tormented by the loss of her real daughter while in hyper-sleep, she is quick to adopt and protect orphan Newt. While the Alien Queen attempts to colonise the planet with her own, deplorable offspring, the movie culminates in the ultimate face-off between two strong and determined females, fighting both for themselves and for their children.
But Ripley is a mother to everyone, not merely to Newt, as she guides and advises the marines. She sees and anticipates what needs to be done, and her concern for the Hadley’s Hope colony overrides all her fears. She is the epitome of a strong matriarch, leading and protecting her community. She respects those who deserve her respect, but has no time for those who give her any shit. She accepts everyone based on their merits and their behaviours, but she also understands that people can change when given the right guidance and support.
Except Burke. Fuck that guy. Right?
Or maybe not. In one of the most famous deleted scenes from Aliens, apparently cut because of a continuity error, we see Burke's original demise. While searching for Newt inside the Hive, Ripley finds Burke, cocooned to the wall with a Chestburster inside him. He begs Ripley for help. She gives him a hand grenade and moves on. Behind her, Burke apologises for everything he has done. Ripley is a total badass, but she is also kind and fair. She is still a human being filled with surprising amounts of empathy. Even towards a jerk who would have happily killed her, and Newt, for money.
Ripley has no comparable military training to that of the marines. She does not have any obvious special skills or abilities, and she accepts leadership begrudgingly. But she survives due to her determination, her willingness to meet the problem head on, and to take control of her own narrative. She will not allow anyone to control her — not a Xenomorph, not a manipulative male, nor a corporate company. She walks her own damn path yet she doesn’t need to walk all over others to do so. She’s learned that if she wants to survive, she needs to help herself, but that doesn’t make her selfish or immune to others’ needs, in fact it makes her more empathetic. It equally doesn’t mean she’s not scared. Of course she is scared, but she’s also incredibly brave. Above all, she is undoubtedly and assuredly a badass.
Tabatha Wood lives in Wellington, New Zealand and writes weird, dark fiction and uplifting poetry. A former English teacher and library manager, Tabatha’s first published books were non-fiction guides aimed at people working in education. She now teaches from home while writing in her spare time. Her debut collection, “Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange” was released in March 2019. Since then, she has been published in two “Things In The Well” anthologies, plus Midnight Echo and Breach magazines. Tabatha is currently working as the lead editor in a team of twelve for upcoming charity anthology from Things In The Well, “Black Dogs, Black Tales,” which aims to raise money and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
You can read stories and articles, and keep up to date with her upcoming projects at https://tabathawood.com.
THE HORROR OF HUMANITY: Whose Hand Am I Holding Anxiety, Horror and The Haunting by Daniel Pietersen
Everyone gets nervous. Everybody worries. Whether it’s jangled nerves the first day before a new job or nights spent years later worrying whether that job is going to pay the bills, nervousness and worry will happen to everyone. Eventually. Indeed, it could be said that worrying - the ability to imagine threats that might harm us, even unlikely ones, and then plan how to avoid them - is a defining aspect of our humanity. Nervousness and worry, and the technologies we’ve developed to minimise them, have got us to where we are today.
It’s ok to be nervous.
It’s ok to worry.
As long as, at some point, it stops.
Anxiety is often considered to be synonymous with nervousness or worry. Common dictionary definitions even describe anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease” and when considering acute anxiousness - short-term unease focused on a definable event or thing - this is broadly correct. Yet the feeling of acute anxiety soon dissipates once the source of worry is no longer present, often to be replaced with a sense of relief or even elation.
Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. Chronic anxiety, or Generalised Anxiety Disorder, is what the UK’s NHS describes as “a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event”. They continue by stating that “people with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed”. The American Psychological Association adds that “people with [GAD] usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry”. Not only this but the weight of GAD can lead to further issues such as chronic fatigue, the sense of inadequacy and fraudulent self-identity known as Imposter Syndrome, and a host of physical symptoms “such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat”.
In some cases, GAD can lead to suicide.
It’s often difficult to help non-sufferers understand what it is like to live with a mental illness as one of the main failings of modern attitudes to our health in general is that visible symptoms are prioritised over the non-visible. This often leads people to assume that if they can’t see an illness then the illness must not really exist. Yet, in the case of anxiety the external symptoms listed above actually give a useful insight into the internal experience of suffering from GAD. Sweating, trembling, dizziness and a rapid heartbeat are all symptoms of an experience that many non-sufferers will understand; fear. In fact, the word anxiety is cousin to the German word for fear, Angst, and they both share a root in the Latin angere, meaning to bind, to cause pain, or to torment. To suffer from GAD, at its most elemental, is to exist in a near-constant state of fear. Worst of all, it’s not fear of any specific thing. It’s not a fear you can fight or flee from. It’s fear that suddenly rises, like a cold mist, from the pit of your stomach and up to your chest where it clamps an icy claw onto your heart. In archaic Latin, angere also means to strangle and that, in a word, is how it feels to suffer the worst bouts of GAD; it is as if your ability to function in the world - to breath, to choose, to think - is being strangled until it withers and dies.
Yet fear, surely, is part and parcel of horror? Why would someone, someone like myself, who suffers with this persistent fear be at all interested in horror? The reason, I think, is complex and it’s something I’ve only recently been able to think about fully.
Horror, to a very large degree, is about the fear of death. Not necessarily about dying, although that is often a common theme, but all the trappings of death. The restless dead, the returned dead, the will-not-stay-dead. Even insanity, another major theme of horror, could easily be considered a death of the self, if not of the body. The problem is, I have to admit, that death doesn’t frighten me. Or, perhaps more accurately, it doesn’t frighten me in horror stories. It’s unpleasant to dwell on how one might be killed, yes. It’s unpleasant to think of mouldering corpses. It’s unpleasant to think of being driven mad. Yet, in horror stories, that unpleasantness is the entire point. The unpleasantness, when limited and accepted, becomes enjoyable. And I do find horror hugely enjoyable.
By being enjoyable, however, it can no longer frighten me.
What frightens me is the horror of anxiety.
Not the horror of death, but the horror of life.
To try and explain this I want to talk to you about my favourite horror film. In fact, I want to talk to you about the best horror film; Robert Wise’s 1963 classic, The Haunting. Wise’s film was adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, published in 1959, but I’m going to concentrate on the cinematic version as, rather than the more explicitly supernatural source, I feel that it talks very strongly about the experience of suffering from long-term anxiety.
The film tells the story of four individuals, their stay at Hill House - “built ninety-odd, very odd, years ago,” we are told in the prologue - and the things that happen to them there. The main protagonist of the story is Eleanor Lance, who has been invited to the house by Dr John Markway, an investigator into the paranormal, to take part in an exploration of the “evil old house”. Eleanor came to Markway’s attention as a prospective assistant due to poltergeist activity she experienced as a child. They’re joined by the psychic Theodora - “just Theodora,” as she insists to Eleanor - and Luke Sanderson, nephew of the house’s owner.
The four soon realise, through a series of increasingly unsettling events, that they are not alone in the house’s skew-walled corridors.
Yet it is not the events that are important to the film but rather how those events are experienced and interpreted by Eleanor.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists a number of symptoms of GAD: restlessness, irritability, tension. Combined with the “intrusive thoughts” of the APA, a dose of anxiety-related Imposter Syndrome and anxiety’s tendency to cause disturbed sleep this could almost be a biography of Eleanor.
We first meet Eleanor as she is unsuccessfully trying to borrow her brother-in-law’s car, the only way she can get to Hill House. Eleanor’s sister, Carrie, refuses to allow it because, as she announces with some foreboding, “there’s a very good reason Mother was afraid for you to go anywhere”. Carrie isn’t convinced by, or perhaps doesn’t care fore, Eleanor’s explanation of going on holiday. Tensions rise and Eleanor’s niece even mocks her in a sing-song voice for blinking, a sign of stress. Eleanor flares into anger and, ultimately, steals the car. Eleanor’s irritability is stirred up again as she arrives at Hill House to find her way blocked by the sinister Dudley, caretaker of Hill House. Throughout the film Eleanor is quick to snap at other characters or mutter about them behind their backs. She even drives her car at Dudley as he begrudgingly opens the house’s gates. Eleanor has spent her adult life looking after her invalid mother, who has only just recently died. The trip to Hill House is the escape from her previous existence she feels she’s always been denied - she confesses to Theodora that “I’ve been waiting all my life for something like this to happen” - and any barrier slows that escape. Her tension and irritability is justified by Eleanor as being part of her restlessness, her destiny to become something more than she is. As the NHS definition of anxiety tells us, she can’t remember when she last felt free of worry.
Yet this is simply a fantasy.
She stayed with her mother because she couldn’t bring herself to decide not to and, ultimately, she will stay in Hill House for the same reason. Both situations, bound up with death as they may be, are easier for Eleanor to accept than building a life in the real world. Eleanor’s frustration and irritation is created not by the people who she believes block her way but the blocks she herself puts in her own way.
This is one of the terrible ironies of anxiety; those suffering from anxiety both want and simultaneously absolutely do not want to take action, to change their lives, to do something worthwhile. Anxiety is a great, inner turmoil between conflicting drives that rends and tears at the sufferer’s mind.
There is little more exciting for the anxious than the thought of some future event, one which will finally see the sufferer recognised for what they are. There is little more relieving than those events being cancelled. Eleanor’s first thought, once she finally sees Hill House, is to call the whole thing off and leave.
Interestingly, The Haunting reflects Eleanor’s experience of this turmoil through the film’s dialogue.
Group dialogue is often confused. Characters talk over each other, with conflicting aims forefront in their minds. Equally, at times of heightened excitement, they are often talk while facing away from each other, at differing depths in the shot or while reflected in mirrors. Eleanor is no small part of this; although nervous and unsure she is a full part of the group, talking freely and sometimes aggressively. She is faltering in her social interactions, however, and she finds her minor missteps frustrating; she’s surprised and wrong-footed when Theodora refers to her as “Nell”, the diminutive form her family use, until it’s explained that Nell is a common shortening of Eleanor.
Eleanor deals with this in the same way she deals with all conflict; by retreating from it. The Eleanor who interacts with the others in Hill House is only part of her personality, a brittle mask. Much of what we learn of her true thoughts and desires comes not from external action but from an internal monologue presented as voiceover. In these thoughts Eleanor repeatedly mulls over events that are happening and how she will deal with them, interspersed with idealised plans for the future. There’s little apparent order to her thoughts, however; plans are dismissed as unfeasible as quickly as they are summoned up and she worries that she’s reaching beyond her allowed station. For anxiety sufferers, this scattering of mental processes is immediately recognisable. Many people with anxiety find planning inordinately difficult because they are constantly fending off unconsciously generated intrusive thoughts - often thought of as referring to thoughts of violence, either against others or oneself, intrusive thoughts are more properly any which are unwanted or which cause unnecessary distress - that derail the conscious process of planning.
Eleanor’s monologues also reveal another damaging effect of anxiety; Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is complex but, at root, it is the persistent belief that you are not worthy of the situation you find yourself in - whether that be a job, academic accomplishment or even friendships - despite demonstrable evidence that you are. The anxiety of being an imposter also brings with it the threat of being found out, denounced and ridiculed. Oliver Burkeman’s short article in the Guardian newspaper considers the idea that Imposter Syndrome stems from the sufferer comparing how they feel with how others appear, especially people the sufferer may look up to. For me, this is a key insight into anxiety as a whole. Anxiety makes the sufferer over-analyse their actions and thoughts, yet they don’t see this over-analysis happening in anyone else. This apparent otherness generates a feeling of alienation, of imposterism, which then itself becomes melded into the cyclical process of over-analysis.
This manifests in Eleanor as a constant belief that the rest of the group don’t want her at Hill House, that she doesn’t deserve to be there, despite having been specifically invited by Markway. Markway’s expression of concern for her well-being after the first night in the house, for example, is taken as a hint that she should leave and she constantly frets that she will be left behind when the others are exploring the house.
Reading this, you might well feel that anxiety sounds pretty exhausting. That’s because it is. The constant grind of over-thinking thoughts you can’t fully control and running through various, increasingly unlikely scenarios which justify the belief you are utterly unworthy is horribly draining. Yet, just as this mental activity tires the sufferer it also often prevents proper sleep, or even sleep at all. Sleep itself becomes a trial - long hours where the mind free-wheels without even the routine distractions of daytime to occupy it - and then a time of dread. Eleanor evens claims to sleep on her left side because she “read somewhere that it wears the heart out quicker”.
The Haunting illustrates this sense of exhaustion by having some of the house’s most extreme manifestations occur at night. Perhaps the film’s most well-known scene comes during the first night. A terrible pounding echoes through the house, terrifying Eleanor and Theodora, but unheard by Markway and Luke. The spectral pounding re-occurs on the third night, accompanied by strange howling, and this time the entire party hear it. Yet the most terrifying scene, for me at least, happens on the second night.
Eleanor wakes in the middle of the night to hear indistinct mumbling and laughter coming from the walls of her room. She reaches out to hold the hand of Theodora, who is sleeping in the bed next to her, as the laughter fades into the sobbing of a child. Theodora squeezes her hand tighter and tighter, which Eleanor interprets as fear. Despite her best efforts, Eleanor is overwhelmed with terror and cries out, coming to full wakefulness. It is at that point we realise that Eleanor is not in her bed but has, at some point, moved to lie on a chaise longue. Theodora is asleep on the other side of the room, much too far away to hold Eleanor’s hand.
With rising terror, Eleanor comes to understand the consequences of this revelation.
“Whose hand was I holding,” she gasps.
This is the crux of the film, in my opinion. Eleanor starts to realise that the hand she was holding was that of Hill House. She starts to realise that someone, something genuinely does want her to star. She doesn’t have to return to the living world that terrifies her so.
What interests me - and frightens me - most about The Haunting is how the film blends the traditional horror of death with the anxiety-horror of life. The events of the film are not an all-in-the-mind delusion - Jackson was apparently very clear to Nelson Gidding, who adapted the book for film, that her story was supernatural - and all the characters do experience things, both alone and together, which are inexplicable. They all encounter the “preternatural”, to use Markway’s phrasing. “Suppose the haunting is all in my mind?” asks Eleanor. Markway replies; “Well you can’t say that because there are three other people here”. This confirms that it’s not just Eleanor who experiences the terrors of Hill House. Both Luke and Markway are led out of the house by the apparition of a dog-like creature and they also hear the pounding on the third night. More obviously, even cynical Theodora is scared of the things she is hearing and feeling, often more thoroughly than Eleanor. Her psychic abilities allow her to sense the presences that lurk in the house but also, crucially, sense when they have left. Theodora knows that the supernatural events are real but Eleanor knows they have intent, an intent that is focused on her. “Oh, God, it knows I’m here,” she exclaims at one point.
Eleanor isn’t irrational or deluded. The source of her anxiety is evidently real. There is something inexplicable happening in Hill House but, crucially, her anxiety is also based on fact to at least some degree; Markway is using her to prove the house is haunted whilst Luke uses her to prove it isn’t, and even Theodora seems to delight in belittling Eleanor out of boredom. Although it may feel like it to the sufferer, anxiety rarely springs from nothing. It is more that the minor troubles and inconveniences, the disappointments and embarrassments that everyone experiences at some point take on far greater significance, far greater longevity.
Markway attempts to calm Eleanor by pointing out how pointless it is to be scared of noises in the night; “Were you threatened?” he asks. His error is that he doesn’t understand what “threat” means to Eleanor. The anxious mind creates threat, building it around a speck of worldly concern as a pearl accretes around grit.
Ultimately, Eleanor accepts the attention of the house over that of her new friends and becomes one of the spirits who linger inside its walls; “we who walk here walk alone,” she explains in the film’s epilogue. This is easily interpreted as Eleanor’s suicide but I can’t help but read it slightly differently.
Eleanor has always had a purposed in life, even if she hasn’t realised it. She cared for her mother for eleven years and her presence in Hill House helps Markway with his investigations. She has always resented this purpose, though, and is terrified of being defined by it, trapped by it. In one key scene Luke discovers writing on a corridor wall which is revealed to be the words HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. This understandably terrifies Eleanor and it’s easy to assume that the phrase is intended to be yet another demand for help from her now-dead mother; “Help, Eleanor! Come home!”
What if it isn’t, though?
What if the phrase is a plea from Hill House? What if it’s asking Theodora, Markway and Luke to literally help Eleanor come home?
This is perhaps a stretch but in the final act of the film Eleanor rushes through the house, no longer afraid. “I want to stay here”, she announces. “I want to stay here always. I will not be frightened or alone anymore”. She eventually declares “I’m home, I’m home”.
I read this not as Eleanor simply accepting death but more subtly rejecting the fear that life has held for her. She chooses a different way to live, one which may not be comfortable or even comprehensible to the others. It’s notable that the Eleanor who narrates the film’s closing lines is calm and unhurried, a far remove from the Eleanor who was wildly terrified of being “sent back” to the real world.
This is why The Haunting is my favourite horror film. It’s a chillingly effective haunted house tale, complete with bumps in the night and sinister shadows, but it also understands how I often experience the world.
I am always frightened. Always. I find life horrifying, in its truest sense; the choices and the indecisions, the confusing noise of it all, petrify me. To quote Anne Radcliffe, the vast expanse of possibility that entails being alive “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates” my ability to hold my own sense of self together. I am not outwardly shy - public speaking is, perversely, something I enjoy greatly - but I am an introvert, like Eleanor, in the sense that I find social situations draining and bewildering. I constantly doubt my value and my worth, convinced that I am only begrudgingly tolerated even despite evidence to the contrary. Thoughts flutter in my mind like bats in the night, frustratingly near-visible.
I am so very, very tired.
Yet, thankfully, my experience of anxiety is relatively mild. I am not suicidal and so I like to hope that Eleanor isn’t suicidal either, not in her heart. I find life frightening but not hateful, not as long as the sun still shines and my wife still smiles. Even Eleanor smiles as she admits her love of collecting buttons. The Haunting reminds me that being frightened isn’t the worst thing in the world, as hard as that might be to remember that when anxiety holds my hand in the night.
Hill House isn’t a place I would like to stay, not in the way that Eleanor stays, but I certainly visit from time to time.
There are a number of studies that show the benefits of turmeric and its effects on mental health for more information this article has a lot of information
Daniel Pietersen is a writer of fiction and critical non-fiction, concerned with the theory of horror and related areas. He is a regular contributor to Sublime Horror and Dead Reckonings and lives in Edinburgh with his wife and dog.
A warning in advance; this essay will have more spoilers than the Kentucky Georgetown Toyota factory, so read on at your peril if you haven’t seen either Berberian Sound Studio or In Fabric and have any desire to do so.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012) was Strickland’s first horror, and is principally a love story to cinema - specifically both a genre and a critical role in movie making. The genre is Giallo, the particular style of horror-thriller exclusive to Italy (itself a noteworthy influence on the American slasher film and worthy of an essay way longer than this one all on its own), and the role is that of Sound Engineer, the oft-forgotten unsung hero of the silver screen.
It’s apparent from his movies that Strickland himself holds the importance of sound – and that of the humble sound engineer - in high regard, the equal of anything put to screen. This love is apparent in the two radio plays he either wrote and/or directed for Radio 4.
The Stone Tape (Radio 4; 2016) was a re-imagining of the 1972 Nigel Kneale (Quatermass) horror classic, co-written by Peter Strickland and Matthew Graham (Life on Mars). If you’re not familiar with the original work, it examines the nature of hauntings and the concept that the stones of a building can act as a recording medium for past events (the “stone tape” in the title).
The Len Continuum (Radio 4; 2015/2017), like Berberian Sound Studio, stars Toby Jones, and shares a similar theme – that of existentialism and the fluidity of reality, the boundaries between consciousness and sub-consciousness.
Toby Jones always has the unique and quite remarkable knack of instantly improving any film he’s in, even when he’s playing uninteresting or poorly fleshed-out roles (Captain Mainwaring in the mediocre yet well-meaning Dad’s Army remake, or the bland Ollie Weeks in The Mist). When he’s given the chance to shine (such as when playing Stoke City Football Club Über-fan Neil Baldwin in Marvellous), he elevates the source material to another level.
Berberian Sound Studio is one such role. Jones plays Gilderoy, a quiet and softly spoken sound engineer. We meet him just as he arrives in Italy for a new job which he believes is to work on a film about horses, but turns out to be something quite different – The Equestrian Vortex turns out to be an Italian Giallo film, and unlike anything that Gilderoy has ever worked on before.
Gilderoy, subjected to working his audio magic to brutal footage of gory torture sequences, begins to feel more and more disconnected from reality. The film is a catalogue of his eroding sanity, where reality itself seems as pliable as the footage with which he works.
As with all of Strickland’s movies, Berberian is a far from conventional narrative and also a far from typical horror movie. Appropriately for a film whose primary narrative motif is that of the power of sound, much of the imagery is either deliberately hidden from view or shown as flickering blurred images on black and white screens. The horror is portrayed through the dubbed-on screams of increasingly frustrated and tormented session actresses, or through the Foley work of Gilderoy and his unhelpful and bored assistants.
The loud noises of chopped vegetables accompany hinted-at torture sequences, and thrown fruit and rattling chains provide the ambient sound for both the torturers chamber and proclivities.
Like the serene countryside imagery of The Detectorists, Jones’s other standout role, the scene sometimes shifts to the nature documentaries that he’s more familiar with, Gilderoy’s attempts to stay focused and – more importantly – sane.
One of the segments in the final act – as Gilderoy’s grasp on reality is at its most tenuous - is set against a cacophonic soundscape set to imagery as equally overwhelming and baffling as the iconic Stargate sequence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
For a film concerned with the power of sound, the audio design of Berberian plays as powerful a role as anything on screen. Birmingham band Broadcast provided the soundtrack, a psychedelic soundscape clearly – and appropriately – inspired by the seventies soundtracks of Goblin and Bruno Nicolai. The haunting choirs and the pumping modulation of synthesizers of Gilderoy’s nightmares nestle uncomfortably against gentle pastoral themes for the more soothing of his BBC British wildlife documentary visions - Even the title itself refers to Cathy Berberian, a US Soprano who married Luciano Berio, a pioneer of electronic music.
At the end, now doubting not only his own sanity but also his very existence, Gilderoy is alone in the silent sound studio, confronted with the flickering screen of an empty projector. He stares into it, blinded by and absorbed into its brightness, vanishing into the whiteness of the screen that has dominated his recent days, weeks or months.
Was Gilderoy ever real at all? Has he been lost to madness, or has he been there for the entire movie?
Fade to black. End credits roll. If Gilderoy only existed on celluloid, he’s gone now, erased by the end of the film. He only existed if you were there to see and hear him.
To be honest, I did exactly as I did at the end of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Burdened by the weight of an expectation that could never realistically be fulfilled, I convinced myself I’d enjoyed it, although – realistically – it had left me a little cold. It was unique, but I felt much like I did when I’d finished watching Lynch’s Eraserhead – a little bemused and frustrated by the lack of a coherent ending.
But then I lay in bed that evening, thinking about it. Dwelling on it. And in the quieter moments of the next few days at work, thoughts of Berberian would pop back into my head. Like I’d also later experience with Matthew Holness’s Possum in 2018, it had sunk into my consciousness and wouldn’t let go.
Later viewings confirmed its brilliance, with every watch uncovering a new layer. A whispered phrase I hadn’t caught before, a shot, glimpse of something, or an expression from a character – some nuance I’d missed.
As an aside, Berberian Sound Studio was adapted for the stage and presented at the Donmar Warehouse in the February and March of 2019. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a performance (as a birthday gift from my wife, also a huge Strickland fan). Gilderoy was ably played by Tom Brooke, who was familiar to me as the angel Fiore from the HBO adaptation of Preacher. Considering the surreal nature of the source material, I was concerned as to how well it would translate to the stage – but I needn't have worried.
It was as powerful on stage as it was on the big screen – in fact, due to the relatively intimate surroundings of the Donmar, the claustrophobic intensity was, at times, almost too much to bear. On a screen, you can look away. In a theatre, that doesn’t help.
And so, it was with some excitement – and nervousness – that I approached Strickland’s new horror, In Fabric. The trailers suggested a more conventional horror plot; that of a haunted inanimate object, in this case a possessed/cursed red dress – and it would feature another appearance from Strickland’s apparent muse, Fatma Mohamed.
Berberian, due to being set at the height of the era of the Giallo, was clearly grounded in the seventies. Much like Wheatley’s High Rise though, In Fabric is set in some undefined time which could be anywhere between the seventies and the nineties. (It’s interesting to note that Ben Wheatley is one of the executive producers of In Fabric, and that and his movie High Rise – the adaptation of the “un-filmable” J.G. Ballard novel - share a certain aesthetic).
Lonely divorcee Sheila is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who lives with her son Vince (and his odd girlfriend Gwen, played by – to me, at least – a virtually unrecognisable Gwendoline Christie). Against the backdrop of a series of mundane blind dates and an unsatisfying job at the bank with annoyingly condescending – yet well meaning – bosses, Sheila stumbles across the aforementioned red dress (catalogue colour: Artery) in Dentley and Soper’s Department Store, a bizarre environment where even the PA system makes announcements in inappropriately portentous tones (“A dramatic affliction has compromised our trusted department store. Get out graciously.”)
There she meets the store clerk Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), a bizarrely dressed and bewigged Store Clerk, who ultimately convinces her to buy the red dress. Miss Luckmoore is far from normal, riding the store’s Dumb Waiter at night in between bouts of undressing the menstruating store mannequins whilst her masturbating boss looks on. (His resemblance to a certain elderly royal did not go unnoticed by my wife, and her expression of “Prince Philip’s ropes of jizz” from our first viewing will not quickly go forgotten. If anybody wants that for the name of their jazz fusion band, my PayPal address is my normal email address).
In Fabric is, at times, very much played for laughs, with the scenes between Sheila’s bosses Stash and Clive (played by the ever excellent Julian Barratt of Mighty Boosh fame and Steve Oram from Sightseers) being a highlight.
With the dress ultimately claiming the life of its unfortunate host – and a few others en-route – it finds a new owner in the form of Washing Machine repairman Reg Speaks. Reg has, unbeknownst to him, an unusual quality – the ability to put anybody listening into a weird orgasmic trance when he discusses potential washing machine issues at length.
This skill is not, however, appropriate to the plot.
Like Berberian, In Fabric is clearly inspired by Strickland’s love for Giallo. Colours are bold, especially the deep reds of the dress and the Dentley and Soper’s décor. However, it’s not just that that the films share in common – both Berberian and In Fabric heavily feature horror seeping into the mundane; Lucio Fulci meets Ken Loach.
For Gilderoy, it’s the harsh contrast between the – albeit, artificial - horror he’s confronted with in his new job and the mundane letters from his Mother back in England; For Sheila and Reg (and the others in their lives) it’s the horror of the dress and the oddities of the department store, versus their existences of humdrum repetition.
Sheila religiously reads out their phone number when anybody phones, like a mantra. Reg talks about his washing machine repair details as a dull, repetitive chant – with hypnotic, almost magical, effect.
It’s all about the horror in the mundane; the discord in the monotone.
In Fabric is an utter delight, and I’m looking forward to watching it again. It’s a more straightforward narrative than Berberian but is no less bizarre and quirky. The almost anthology nature of the movie came as somewhat of a surprise (with the introduction of the dresses second owner, Reg), but everything comes together neatly in a narratively satisfying conclusion.
Those doomed by the dress are forced to repair the dress; to make the dress. Are they in Hell? Is Dentley and Soper’s department store just Hell with a perfume counter?
The wonderfully named Cavern of Anti-Matter provide the soundtrack, and it’s very reminiscent of the best work of John Barry – in particular his work on The Persuaders and The Ipcress File; all strings and harps, echoing and haunting.
Strickland, like Lynch, has an apparent and distinctive style. Both Berberian and In Fabric were met with much critical acclaim but appear more divisive to an audience outside of cinema critics. Ultimately, I’m genuinely excited about what Peter does next – even at their most confusing, his films are both approachable and visually and audibly striking.
Strickland’s distinctive DNA is watermarked across every frame and note – like the films of David Lynch, I’d argue you could recognise his work from just a few frames – perhaps even a single shot. He’s one of the most interesting and original people in horror cinema at the moment – along with Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) – and whatever comes next from him will prove that the industry continues to be in rude health.
About the author
David Court is a short story author and novelist, whose works have appeared in over a dozen venues including Tales to Terrify, StarShipSofa, Visions from the Void, Fear’s Accomplice and The Voices Within. Whilst primarily a horror writer, he also writes science fiction, poetry and satire.
His last collection, Scenes of Mild Peril, was re-released in 2020 and his debut comic writing has just featured in Tpub’s The Theory (Twisted Sci-Fi). As well as writing, David works as a Software Developer and lives in Coventry with his wife, three cats and an ever-growing beard. David’s wife once asked him if he’d write about how great she was. David replied that he would, because he specialized in short fiction. Despite that, they are still married.
I have terrible Impostor Syndrome, not just in relation to my writing but in almost every aspect of my life, (I spent a year thinking that a group of writers hated me (they didn’t) because they said “Who are you?” And my brain translated that as, “Who do you think you are lowly mortal, wanting to come out for dinner with us?)
It’s this Impostor Syndrome that has stopped me doing so much in my life, and was one of the reasons that after a childhood of writing, I didn’t start writing again until my mid 30’s. It wasn’t until a trip to my local library introduced me to my local writing group that I felt comfortable to write again, although it was read by no one except myself, my husband, and my fellow writing group attendees. It was at one of these meetings one of the group, upset by a rejection, stated, “It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, it’s who you know that’s important.” Now I’m aware that they probably meant this in a negative way, and I decided that they were probably right in their statement, though maybe not in their meaning. It really doesn’t matter how good a writer you are. If you aren’t sending your writing out there into the writing world it can’t be published. Also as is the way in most occupations, you find out about new opportunities from your colleagues. So I decided to bite the bullet and attend my first writing convention Edge-Lit, taking my husband along for moral support. Now most people who go to same conventions as myself, probably know who I am. I am usually smiley, chatty, friendly, and as the day unfolds and the alcohol is drunk, I tend to get louder and more sweary, so I am quite difficult to miss (being 6ft 2in also helps). But when I first started to attend conventions this confidence was faked, I would stand outside the convention, take several deep breaths to calm myself, put on my best fake “airhostess” smile, and sashay through the crowds. Now at my first convention I had my husband with me (he is great at chatting to people), and that definitely made it easier for me, but for my second convention I went on my own, and my Impostor Syndrome made another appearance.
Now I’m pretty sure that my Impostor Syndrome comes from the fact that I was bullied as a child (as I’m sure most people have experienced at some point or another), for me it left me fearing that I would be left on my own with no friends, or that if I try to talk to people they will snub me. At this convention I still really didn’t know anyone, and if people chatted to me and asked me to join them, I would make polite excuses about needing to go to panel, or a workshop, and make my exit. As I was so worried that any in-depth conversation would reveal me to be the boring, useless, amateur that I was. This fear has now been neatly pushed back down into its cage (most of the time), but this took years, the incident with the “Who are you?” was at my fifth convention, and there are still incidences that happen now (I’m always sure when I sub an invited story for an anthology, that the editor is trying to find a nice way to tell me my story isn’t good enough), so that gremlin of anxiety is still there sitting on my shoulder, but there are ways to make him less conspicuous. So here are my tips on overcoming Impostor Syndrome:
1.Bite the bullet and join that writing group or attend that convention. You have to take that first step.
2.If they have a welcome event, go to it. The red cloaks and volunteers are amazing people, and will take you under their wing. They are the best!
3.Visit the dealer room. The publishers and dealers are all really friendly people, and it is a good place to go and decompress. The dealers and browsers tend not to be rushing off for a panel or workshop, so you can have a chat, find out what new authors you might like to read (or meet. I was so excited when I realised I was stood next to Simon Bestwick at my first convention), and of course buy books.
4.Go to panels and workshops. The former as it gives you time to not have to talk, you can just absorb the advice and knowledge from awesome writers. The latter as it gives you a safe space to talk, these are a great place to meet other writers from all points of their writing careers from very beginners to more seasoned pros.
5.Take a friend, a lot of the writers who go to conventions go solo, they go to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, but with my Impostor Syndrome this was something I just didn’t have the confidence to do initially. So it can feel easier if you take someone with you, whether this is to a convention, festival or writing group. It can also help to look online at the social media pages for the events, often people will post on there if they are new or attending on their own. Remember there is strength in numbers.
6.If someone chats to you, or you want to chat to someone (no matter how in awe of them you are) then do it. Writers as a whole are solitary beasts, and introverts to a man (or woman). My best friend who I have known for years thinks it is hilarious that the person who she knows as the most introverted person ever, is probably the most extroverted at writing conventions.
7.And finally Fake it until you make it. I still have to take those seconds out, take those deep breaths, and put on my airhostess smile. But those incidences are become fewer, and I hope one day when you see my smiling, laughing and chatting at a writing convention you will know that, that’s my real smile and not the mask that we all have to slide over our faces once in a while.
Penny Jones knew she was a writer when she started to talk about herself in the third person (her family knew when Santa bought her a typewriter for Christmas). She loves reading and will read pretty much anything you put in front of her, but her favourite authors are Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and John Wyndham. In fact Penny only got into writing to buy books, when she realised that there wasn’t that much money in writing she stayed for the cake.