Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #1: Freaks (1932)
By Amy M. Vaughn

1 October 2020

Freaks (1932)
Director: Tod Browning


The first time I saw Freaks, I was still a teenager. I distinctly remember a frisson traveling through my then-slight frame at the sight of the very unique bodies and abilities on display. It was the 80s; in terms of sideshow culture, we were adrift between the ten-in-one and Jim Rose. What I was seeing was new to me and felt taboo.


My immediate affection for the film was also due to the so-called “freaks” not being the actual monsters of the story. The plot revolves around an elegant trapeze artist who intends to marry a little person for his fortune, but all the while she is carrying on an affair with the strong man. The beautiful people laugh at and show disgust for the freaks. It is made plain that they are the bad guys, while the sideshow performers are portrayed as good and decent people who are only violent when provoked. Little alienated punk rock Amy liked that very much.


Over the years, I’ve gone back to Freaks every now and again, always identifying more with the varied and uncommon than with the fit and statuesque. Over the years, I’ve also gained several different diagnoses of mental illness until finally bipolar came along and stuck. (It’s rapid cycling bipolar 2, for those familiar with the lingo.) I would never claim to know first-hand what the uniquely bodied go through, but I do know what it means to be different. Stories of “freaks” who have adapted to their situation, who have a community looking out for them, who figure out how to live fulfilling lives—those stories speak to me, give me hope. I eat them up. Of course, other people find “freaks” intriguing for very different reasons.


From royal courts to the back rooms of medieval taverns; from rented halls in Victorian England to dime museums in Times Square; and from the circus sideshow to the traveling carnival’s ten-in-one, biologically unique people have spent history making a living by being on display. Freaks simply brought them to the big screen.


Why will the public pay to see “freaks of nature,” especially since, speaking in generalities, people who are not different become uncomfortable around people who are? Whether it’s morbid curiosity or questionable sympathy, disgust or titillating fear, the Other holds fascination, and the uniquely bodied are well aware of the attraction and repulsion they provoke in the average person. So, while it may not ease their discomfort, the commercial exchange gives the viewer permission to stare.


Yet, it isn’t as simple as that.


In his book Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show, Michael Chemers describes the complicated social expectations faced by “people with stigma,” by which he means people who look different.


[P]eople with stigma are expected not to make too much of their misfortunes, not to show bitterness or self-pity, and certainly not to impose themselves too much on normal people, who have their own problems. The rhetoric of equality that pervades American society is ironically pernicious, because it obliges the stigmatized not only to achieve certain goals and take responsibility for their failures but also to be meek and deferential, to perform inferiority; stigmatized people generate resentment when they perform in ways that do not acknowledge this inferiority.

Micheal Chemers

Yet in freak shows, instead of easing people’s discomfort, the disabled poke right at it. Or as Chemers puts it,


Perhaps one reason that freakery continues to compel our attention is its categorical refusal to help alleviate the anxiety that disability produces in nondisabled people. On the contrary, freakery systematically and strategically nurtures that discomfort in order to exploit it for profit (emphasis added).

micheal chemers


He goes on,

[I]ncreasingly, historians and theorists of disability are coming to applaud the freak show for its ability to make transgressive and progressive statements in contrast to dominant ideas about how people with disabilities ought to behave.

michael chemers


Freaks, therefore, was transgressive before that was even a thing. It took a taboo subject and turned it on its ear. The title, Freaks, from the man who directed Dracula just the year before, promised viewers an Other to despise. Instead, it humanized the Other and vilified those who would demean them! Perhaps needless to say, it didn’t go over well in 1932.

But today, Freaks stands up. The edit moves along, though the pace of the movie may be due in part to the half hour Browning was forced to leave on the cutting room floor. Regardless, when the film does bog down, it’s because one person or another is recreating their act, exhibiting their specialness.


In researching my novella Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, I watched Freaks yet again, and I read about the lives of its stars, as well as those of many other sideshow performers. Some of their stories are tragic, but just as many aren’t. The recurring theme seems to be that regardless of the hand life deals you, it’s still up to you to choose how to play those cards.

Within the sideshows those hands varied wildly, and were organized into a hierarchy. First came the “born freaks” (conjoined twins, Armless Wonders, Bearded Ladies, etc.). Then there were the “made freaks” (the Tattooed Ladies, people who had succumbed to accidents, and so on). Third were the working acts (fire eaters, strong men, mesmerists). And finally the gaffed freaks, acts based in deceit (the headless lady, the spider woman).

Johnny Eck, often billed as “The Amazing Half-Boy”, “King of the Freaks” and “The Most Remarkable Man Alive,” starred in Freaks as well as a number of other films.

In the documentary American Carny (2007), Todd Robbins swallows swords, eats glass, hammers nails into his head, and more. Robbins lives and breathes the sideshow, but he won’t let anyone call him a freak. “Freaks,” he says, “are the royalty of the sideshow . . . all the great freak acts were a demonstration of the human spirit’s ability to overcome almost any obstacle, and it was a very empowering experience. So don’t call me a freak, because I am not worthy.”


My intention is to take this humble attitude into our investigation. I won’t be able to talk about every sideshow horror movie ever made, that would require a much longer format. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on those that will tell us something about the perception of the biologically Other in society. Tod Browning’s Freaks, for its part, was an important early step in the struggle for rights and respect for the differently bodied and is still relevant today.

While I doubt we’ll make a very big dent in the problem of the stigma of disability—there’s an entire academic discipline whose job that is—we can raise questions and give the issue our attention. We can seek to better understand the biologically unique in real life and in story. And we can talk about the role of the horror movie as the new sideshow.


My bet here at the outset is that fake mutations and lab-made monsters may abound, but when it comes to the real thing, “freaks” will be treated either fairly, sympathetically, or even with kid gloves, because those of us drawn to horror are often freaks ourselves.


4 out of 5 Gooble Gobbles

Available for rent nearly anywhere online that rents movies.

In the Trenches

In the Trenches: The Imperceptible Toll of Gun Violence Activism

Joanna MacGugan

12 May 2020


The world has turned upside down since I first composed this essay in March. It has been unsettling to see gun violence become intertwined with the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gun sales are soaring. According to The New York Times, about 2 million guns were sold in the United States in March, the second highest month for gun sales ever behind January 2013, following Barack Obama’s reelection and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Domestic violence is on the rise as victims are forced to shelter with their abusers and social support is limited. Those who suffer from mental illness may now find themselves with access to guns while in self-isolation, heightening their chances of dying by suicide. Armed extremists are storming state houses and conflating gun rights with their demands that governors abandon common sense public health precautions. In the midst of this madness, Canada witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in its history when a gunman posing as a police offer killed twenty-two people in Nova Scotia; some of the guns he used were reportedly obtained in the U.S. [source: CBC]. Gun safety advocates are endlessly responding and adapting to every new challenge that emerges.

So much has changed since March, but the central message of this essay remains the same. No matter what kind of “new normal” arises in our post-COVID-19 world, gun violence will persist – but we won’t stop fighting it.

I’ve been involved in gun violence prevention for a relatively short time. Seven years ago, I was perched on my desk chair, my five-month old sleeping in his rocker beside me, ready to begin the workday. Almost immediately, details of the grisly scenes unfolding in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary began to trickle in. This was the beginning of a new reality for my child – lockdown drills, metal detectors, and bulletproof backpacks would become ordinary elements of his childhood. The horrors of that day are seared into our collective memory. Apart from 9/11, I don’t know of any other event in recent American history that has shattered our sense of security or our faith in humanity in quite the same way. I wasn’t ready to dive into activism at the time. Kids, grad school, and teaching consumed every ounce of my time and energy, and I had nothing left to give.

Two years ago, I realized I didn’t have the option of sitting on the sidelines anymore. I needed to engage with progressive activism as I watched division and chaotic leadership threaten our country’s security. The Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida occurred just as this realization crept up on me. Shortly after the shooting I attended a local meeting for gun violence activists and met a young single mother who had lost her only child, a bright seventeen-year-old, to gun violence on the streets of Boston. Her extraordinary strength and commitment to creating positive change despite her unimaginable grief was the pivotal moment for me; I knew I had to join this fight with everything I had to give. My local group began to coalesce last spring, and I assumed leadership in July. We had a busy autumn growing our team, building community partnerships, increasing public awareness of our state’s ‘Red Flag’ laws, and advocating for the passage of critical firearms bills in the State House.

It was exhilarating to lead the charge at first, but as I settled into my leadership role, I discovered that the work we do is gratifying and profoundly unsettling in unequal measures. We have plenty of legislative successes to celebrate, and we appear to be winning against the powerful gun lobby as more state governments are passing common sense gun safety bills into law all over the country. Twelve states and Washington, D.C. passed lifesaving Red Flag laws since the beginning of 2018, bringing the total number of states with Red Flag laws to seventeen (Source: Everytown Research). But we also deal with daily reminders that our work is rooted in the bleakest of death statistics. As I composed the second draft of this essay, details broke about six people shot dead at the Molson Coors campus in Milwaukee. Lately, the grimmer side of this work is weighing heavily on me, and the kind of optimism that I need to keep going is increasingly elusive. The fatigue is real, and burnout seems inevitable. When you see us rallying in public, you might think we’re strong and determined. You may not notice our exhaustion, and you may not realize how much of a toll this work takes on our mental health.

On a rainy evening last December our local group paused all activity to honor victims and survivors of gun violence as part of a national network of vigils to mark seven years since twenty children and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We heard from celebrated surgeon Dr. Michael Hirsh, who told us about his friend and colleague John Wood. John left the New York City trauma center where they both worked to deliver crackers to his pregnant wife for her nausea, was held up at gunpoint by a young kid demanding his wallet, and shot in the chest because all he had in his pocket was crackers and the young kid felt disrespected – details that Dr. Hirsh learned twenty years later. Dr. Hirsh has since dedicated his life to preventing gun violence by establishing voluntary gun buyback programs along the east coast. This wasn’t the first time I had heard his story, and it wasn’t the first time I wept at the terrible injustice of it.

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We also heard from the leader of Clark University’s March for our Lives chapter, who has close personal ties to Newtown. We sat in silence and watched a slideshow featuring gun violence victims annotated with the dates of their deaths and where they died – victims of all ages, genders, and colors, because gun violence doesn’t care about boundaries. My voice broke as I read the names of the twenty first graders and their educators who perished at Sandy Hook. I was overwhelmed with heartache. I left the event in tears, wondering if I’m cut out for this work. I fear I don’t have a thick enough skin to keep absorbing horrific stories of trauma, loss, and hard-fought for survival. I’m not sure I’m strong enough for this work. I’ve found it difficult to muster the kind of optimism that I need to keep doing this work since that raw December day.

Stillness provokes reflection. In the winter lull after the busy work of event planning subsided, I had time to reflect on the heavy and heartrending work that we do. Nothing had prepared me for the heartache that comes from spending days immersed in gun death statistics, survivors’ stories, and tragic headlines. Did you know that firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens, and black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die by guns than white children and teens (Source: Everytown Research). I’m not talking about school shootings that dominate the headlines every few months or so. It’s critical to understand that 100 Americans die by guns every single day – many from suicide, city violence, or domestic violence. This is not normal; it doesn’t happen in other developed countries. Firearm suicides claim the lives of 23,000 Americans every year, including 1,100 children and teens – these statistics hit me especially hard because I’ve known three people who ended their lives with their own guns (Source: Everytown Research). So far this year, thirty-eight children under the age of 11 have died and 111 have been injured as of 26 March 2020 (Source: Gun Violence Archive). This number includes children who died from unintentional shootings, most often because adults left their loaded guns unsecured and accessible – a sickening and wholly preventable epidemic of gun violence.

GVP-Infographic 2

The data tells us that we have become a nation of gun violence survivors. Nearly everyone I have met since I joined this movement seems to have a personal story about how gun violence altered their lives. I have met survivors like Jody Marchand, whose husband shot and killed their teen daughter Olivia in front of Jody’s eyes, and Brenda Moss, whose son Shawn was shot seventeen times. These women honor their children by committing their lives to eradicating gun violence (Jody started the Live for Liv Foundation in Olivia’s honor. Watch Brenda’s stirring address to Moms Demand Action volunteers immediately after news broke of the shooting in an El Paso Walmart). It amazes me that they have mustered the strength to continue despite their unbearable memories; I constantly ask myself why can’t I do the same? When I hear survivors’ stories, I often feel powerless to stem the tide of violence even as our movement celebrates a rising number of successes.

The pensiveness that the December vigil stirred up in me has been amplified by regular reminders that American gun culture is haywire. Our nation is truly weird. Is it not bizarre that gun rights extremists are free to storm state houses with their cherished AR-15s because it is legal to carry firearms, but not umbrellas or protest signs on sticks because they could be used as weapons (Source: Rolling Stone)? Even here in Massachusetts, known for being a remarkably liberal state, I’ve had to learn how to respond to gun extremists who can’t think or feel beyond the NRA’s talking points or their precious 2nd Amendment. It boggles my mind that there are so many people who would rather do nothing than enact reasonable legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers because, they argue, doing so would punish law-abiding citizens. And think for a moment about those who advocate for arming teachers as a viable ‘solution’ to prevent school shootings. Teachers are called to teach, not take up guns against their own students or use their bodies to shield children from bullets. I don’t know a single teacher who is actually on board with this and, as a former college instructor, that’s a hard no from me. Gun safety advocates are not just fighting the massively powerful gun lobby, we’re also fighting those that have absorbed the NRA’s devious marketing messages – which amounts to a depressingly colossal number of Americans.

Some days pessimism wins. One of my more frustrating moments arose during a recent volunteer meeting. Our guest speaker, a local police officer specializing in gang violence, closed his Q&A session by sharing his opinion that common sense gun laws really won’t change patterns of gun violence in our city. My jaw dropped; in an instant he had negated our group’s entire raison d’être. His words were exactly the opposite of what we needed to hear from one of our community partners, and they affected me deeply. ‘What if he’s right?’ I wondered. What if the localized actions we take aren’t making a meaningful difference to the bigger picture at all?

Our work centers on survivors’ trauma, rising gun violence statistics, and embittered opponents; too often, these factors converge and result in feelings of powerlessness. Society hammers the importance of ‘self-care’ into our heads, but it’s hard to see how a ten-minute meditation practice will magically dissolve the feeling that our advocacy work may not be enough to change the world for the better. When negative feelings overwhelm, I force myself to think about the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary students who never welcomed their first-graders home from school. I think about Jeremy Richman, who found life after his daughter Avielle’s violent death in the halls of Sandy Hook so unbearable that he chose to end his own life. I am in this fight for Jeremy, and for those who continue to struggle with everyday life after the horrors of Newtown. I have to make the conscious decision to choose hope.

I paint a less-than-rosy picture of our advocacy work, but I have to acknowledge the positive as well. If it was entirely negative, I would have fled from this movement in the first few weeks, and simply given in to those who insist there are no effective solutions to America’s gun violence crisis. I have witnessed a tremendous outpouring of support for our work, and I’ve organized a core group of committed volunteers that step up to get things done. It is an incredible feeling meeting like-minded activists who are working to build strong community partnerships and common ground with responsible gun owners. We are educating the public about life-saving Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or ‘Red Flag’ laws, and we are advocating for gun violence research that will give law enforcement better tools to do their jobs. We are working to save lives.

We find ways to keep going because we know there are millions of Americans who agree that our country urgently needs common sense solutions to this gun violence crisis. If you see yourself as one of those people, please know that you give us the strength to choose optimism over defeat every day that we do this work. I leave you with this plea: if you see us rallying in your town’s public spaces, please step up to us to say, ‘thank you,’ or ‘keep going,’ or ‘how can I get involved?’ These small acts make it easier for us to choose hope. Be like the woman who barreled towards our table at an arts event to gush that she’s been waiting for a local group like ours to form, or the gun enthusiast at the same event who shared that he believes in common sense gun laws and values our work. Be like them, and you’ll remind us how important it is to see the negatives not as a signal to give up, but as motivation to keep going. That’s how we will stay in this fight until we win.

March on the White House-August 2019
Moms Demand Action March on Washington 2019

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Joanna MacGugan is a social historian hailing from central Massachuetts. She earned her Ph.D. in medieval studies from the University of Connecticut in 2019. Since leaving the ivory tower she has been involved in gun violence prevention and dabbled in freelance editing and writing. She is currently writing a book about social practices and literacy in late medieval Dublin.

Parenting in Pieces

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Parenting Ourselves During the Pandemic

by Christine Davis

17 March 2020


For Americans facing the Coronovirus, the thought of slowing down is overwhelming. We pride ourselves on being busy, exhausted, overworked. The American mother never sits. This may be a time of reckoning in more ways than one. Your faith can only be found strong if it is tested. Your society can only be found strong if it is tested. There are some ugly aspects of our culture coming to the surface.

We clearly value individual family units over the community. Stockpiling more items than necessary for a few weeks, and leaving nothing behind for the next customer, is a cruel assertion that you matter more than they do. On a recent trip to Sam’s I noticed folks with huge carts mounded full of paper and canned goods. The shelves were bare. What about people who live paycheck to paycheck? They can’t afford to hoard items, so they will have to go without. Is this selfishness what we want to teach our children?

We ask our children to help their friends if they fall down, but our healthcare system isn’t built that way. People don’t have the money to get the help they need. Imagine our kids telling their friends, “Oh, you fell down, it will be $5 to get you up.”

I constantly remind my toddler that he has to listen to me because I’m on his side. “Mama is here to help you make the right choices. You need to put socks on so your feet don’t get cold.” And yet, our world is so broken that adults can’t make the right choices. We can’t trust our leaders to provide for us.

I keep seeing posts about keeping kids home from school. Nothing mentions what happens when a parent misses work for too many days and gets fired. Or that parents will have to go to work sick because they will use up their sick days caring for their children. Or that missing a week of work might mean there’s no money left for power or food. Any mention of these problems leads to negative comments about how parents (read, moms) should be prepared with babysitters willing to watch sick children, and a healthy savings account.

Really? When women bring up the problems they face in a pandemic situation, problems which stem from participating in a workforce that wasn’t built for them and doesn’t care to accommodate their children, everyone’s first instinct is to accuse them of poor planning. How the fuck do you plan for a global pandemic? Would you ask a man what he did to prepare?

Our total lack of empathy comes from the “boot strap” ideology this country was built on. Mind your business. Plow your own field. See where that gets us? We will die this way. If not a real death, at least a spiritual one.

This pandemic is a teachable moment. Not so much for our children, they already love grandma and grandpa, but for the adults who have lost our way. We need to value the elderly and those vulnerable to illness as much as we value ourselves. Looking out for them should be a top priority. We need to protest and change systems that prevent our citizens from caring for their families and seeking treatment for their medical issues.

We need to hand out toilet paper instead of hoarding it. I have 16 rolls.  Maybe I took too many. Come over if you need some. I have extra elderberry gummy vitamins. They are as much yours as mine. Why did I suppose they weren’t? When we fail to share our resources, when we fail to empathize, when we fail to fight the good fights just because they don’t apply to us (I have insurance), we lose our humanity.

There is a lot at stake in how we react to this pandemic. When people are selfish, I often hear the insult: “You are acting like a child.” Well, in this case the inverse is true. Children would never act this way. By the time toddlers are three they can stand in line, say please, choose one toy to bring in the van, and share at the park. My son invites everyone he meets to our house. Maybe we should watch and learn from them.

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In 6th grade Justin Davis had a dream that a girl in his class was waiting for him outside his house; she was just standing there in his cul-de-sac in Lewisville, North Carolina. The next day that girl, Christine, turned around on the bus and started talking to him. They’ve been together ever since. In addition to being a cool part of her husband’s premonitions, Christine Davis works as an English instructor in Flagstaff, AZ where she now lives with the afore mentioned hubby and their two children, Jett and Cadence. She writes for the local Flagstaff Mom’s Blog, attends MOPS, goes to church, screams a bunch about the various failings of the current presidential administration, and most days seems pretty normal in public. She is also working on her first poetry collection. Her poetry can be found in Paragon Press’ special political issue, Snapdragon Journal, Clarion literary magazine, Four Ties Lit Review, and more.

Meet our Staff

SlashnBurn is pleased as bourbon pecan pie to reintroduce staff member, Case Duckworth.

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Case has risen through the SlashnBurn gladiator pits to become our new managing editor. Check out his bio below:

Case Duckworth primarily reads picture books to preschoolers to make his living. In his spare time, he reads fantasy and science fiction, crochets, and makes up writing challenges for himself, which he rarely completes. He’s uncomfortable with the concept of favorites in general, but holds strong opinions. He likes to say that he is mercurial, a word he came across while reading about a famous author (he thinks Mark Twain, but can’t be sure) that means he has strong opinions but holds them loosely. He’s been writing seriously, if not well, since seventh grade, and reading well, if not seriously, since first. He has two dogs and fosters more.

Parenting in Pieces

Welcome to the launch of SlashnBurn’s Lifestyle section. First up is our new parenting column, Parenting in Pieces, from author, Christine Davis. Check out her bio after the column.


50 Shirts                                                                                                                                                by Christine Davis                                                                                                                              12 November 2019

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I was eight months pregnant with my second child when the urge to nest hit me full force. I found myself sorting the shirts in my three-year-old son’s closet into four piles: too small, out of season, stained, and keepers. There were so many shirts. Way more than I thought there would be. How many? I counted. That couldn’t be right. How in the hell did my three-year-old own over fifty shirts?

That morning I had read about a 17-year-old mom in a detention center whose baby threw up on her onesie. The mom was given no change of clothes or way to do laundry. Her baby had to sit in that same onesie, in a very cold room, for days on end. That mama could do nothing.

I sat in front of 50 shirts, crying, because I couldn’t do anything either.

My son had a red shirt with navy dinosaurs, a yellow shirt with a teal shark, a cream shirt with an orange and black raccoon. A rainbow of colors. A kingdom of animals. Each morning he could say, “No, not that one. Stripes, mama.”

I kept a change of clothes in the back of my Prius,  just in case. It’s what all the moms I knew did; we planned for those little inconveniences. We hoped to outsmart fate, and for most of us a diaper blowout was the worst that might happen.

My son had three changes of clothes in his cubby at daycare, for different seasons. Extra underwear. He called underwear, “big boys.” He was big enough to dress himself, but he didn’t want to, and he didn’t have to. Of course, his mother, father, or teachers could dress him. The thought of being separated from us would never occur to him. To a child the adults around them are like sturdy trees, at once part of the background and vital as breath.

NPR and various other news agencies reported how donations of diapers, hygiene items, and clothing were turned away. My kid’s dinosaur shirt could not be that detained mother’s kid’s dinosaur shirt. I was legally not allowed to love my neighbor, to help the immigrant, to clothe the poor.

How do you explain that to a child? The mom in the cage with her kid will have to one day explain the forces that put them there, and held them there, and would not let help in. Will she even believe that there were people who wanted to help? Will her child?

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Photo provided by Reuters.

I imagined breaking into a detention center with 40 out of the 50 shirts. I imagined my swollen belly breaking the locks, shoving my way in. I imagined having the kind of power that could not be denied. I didn’t have that power any more than the mom in the cage had another onesie.

I watched it all happening on the news and did basically nothing, just like all the other moms with a change of clothes in the back of their Priuses. What could we do? We could donate to the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). Some of us did that. It didn’t feel like enough.

The baby in my belly would be named Cadence Kitt, after my great-grandmother Kit, who washed my socks every time I visited her. She washed them after I played outside. She would wring them out by hand and often cry, thinking of how when she was a little girl she only had one pair of socks and one pair of underwear, which she cleaned each night.

I suspected she was both thankful of where life had taken her great-granddaughter, and heartbroken for the little girl she had to be during the Great Depression. Life can change so quickly in only a couple generations. Could my great-grandmother have even imagined not being allowed to wash the one pair of socks?

I folded the shirts to donate and sat down. I was tired. This world is tiring. Some people think we shouldn’t have children anymore. But children are not the problem.

My sincerest hope is that someday the babies kept in cages will rise up, cut from the fabric of hardship, and with undeniable power demand better of us all– hold us all to account. Or that, once out, their mothers will.


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In 6th grade Justin Davis had a dream that a girl in his class was waiting for him outside his house; she was just standing there in his cul-de-sac in Lewisville, North Carolina. The next day that girl, Christine, turned around on the bus and started talking to him. They’ve been together ever since. In addition to being a cool part of her husband’s premonitions, Christine Davis works as an English instructor in Flagstaff, AZ where she now lives with the afore mentioned hubby and their two children, Jett and Cadence. She writes for the local Flagstaff Mom’s Blog, attends MOPS, goes to church, screams a bunch about the various failings of the current presidential administration, and most days seems pretty normal in public. She is also working on her first poetry collection. Her poetry can be found in Paragon Press’ special political issue, Snapdragon Journal, Clarion literary magazine, Four Ties Lit Review, and more.

30 Horror Reviews in 30 Days, Day 17: Haunt (2019)

What’s Under the Mask? A Review of Haunt (2019)

Mateo Keegan Burbano

1 November 2019

Click here for previous 30 in 30 reviews


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Haunt

Haunt, cowritten and codirected by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, opens on some dude dressed up in a soiled clown costume doing some home improvement to his torture house. Elsewhere, college student Harper, played by Katie Stevens, is hiding in her room from her abusive boyfriend’s constant texts and her overbearing female roommates. She lets her friends talk her into going out to party for Halloween, and breaks up with her boyo, via text, as she leaves.

The girls meet up with a couple of random dudes at a bar, and they decide to pile into a car together to check out a haunted house attraction. They GPS the address for the haunt that leads them out into the boonies. Harper is convinced the truck following them is driven by her ex dude.

They find the haunt purely by happenstance. A creepy ass clown is working the door., He has Harper pull out liability waivers instructions for the haunt from a lockbox by the entrance.  As they enter the haunt, they must leave their cellphones in the lockbox.

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Abandon all hope ye who’d cheap out on a DIY haunted house.

At first, the haunt is your run of the mill, amateur-run haunted house. They enter a glassed off room. A haunt worker on the other side, dressed as a witch, appears to torture a woman. It seems a bit extreme, almost real, but the group brushes it off as part of the show.

The group quickly realizes that the haunt is legit a place where they be murdered. The group gets divided and separated. Harper’s friend, Bailey (played by Lauryn Alisa McClain) has her arms slashed up by a rusted razor blade while playing a game of blindly identifying mystery body parts by pushing her hands and arms into holes in a wall. The group panics, as does the other group after one of them disappears in a maze of ventilation shafts, only to see her get murdered by the haunt worker in the witch costume.

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Um…nope. That’s a hard pass.

The haunt gets progressively more dangerous, as the group loses members to death traps and murderous haunt staff. Our lead extra-struggles, because she grew up in a haunted house. A house haunted by the presence of her physically abusive father. She hasn’t been back home in years. She fantasizes about returning to be embraced by her mother and to find her father is long gone. The film attempts to use this real-world based trauma to lend the film some girth, but her conflict mostly gets lost under the weight of having to juggle too many characters.

The rest of the film is given over to gruesome killings and thinning of the herd until Harper gets the attention her character deserves. Harper’s ex shows up, but the buildup to his appearance doesn’t lead to much. He’s quickly and nonchalantly dispatched by a haunt worker. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a subversion of genre expectations, or a betrayal.

We learn that the haunt workers doing all the killings are biohackers. All but one are physically monstrous under their masks. They’ve engaged in horrific body and facial modifications, tattoos, piercings, implants and more. These are horror fetishists and murder enthusiasts, but they are still human. They make mistakes and can be fought off, making them more terrifying than the superhuman threats of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. The story behind this group, what their guiding principles might be, how they found each other and came together would make an interesting film in itself.


You’ll have to watch the movie to see the killers unmasked.

Haunt is like the movies Hell Fest (2018), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Cube (1997), Escape Room (2019), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and House of a 1000 Corpses (2003) had a bastard love child, smeared it in shit and blood, and squatted it out in some backwoods DIY haunted house.

The film makes imaginative and gruesome use of the Haunt’s many rooms and mazes. There are a number of twists that are executed well and never insults the audience. The film seems to mostly use practical effects to pull off its many bloody, violent deaths. The gore factor is on full blast. This film is definitely not for the squeamish. The film’s ending satisfactorily uses the final girl trope and brings some of Harper’s personal issues to a conclusion. While this group of haunt killers is defeated, it isn’t hard to imagine that there might other similar groups out there, leaving the door open to a sequel.


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3.5 out of 5 fire pokers to the brainpan

Haunt is currently available on Shudder

 

30 Horror Reviews in 30 Days, Day 16: Pyewacket (2017)

Pyewacket (2017): The Horror of Grief and Loss, as Expressed by a Girl who Shops at Hot Topic

Mateo Keegan Burbano

31 October 2019


pyePyewacket is written and directed by Adam MacDonald, and stars Nicole Muñoz and Laurie Holden of The Walking Dead fame as her mother. The Reyes family is struggling to make a go at it as a family of two, the father and husband having died sometime in the past year.

Nicole has turned to the occult and dark rituals as a way of coping with her father’s death. She hangs out with the punks, emo kids and wiccans at her high school, and spends her weekends going to book signings of occult authors. Her mother feels stuck, unable to move on in her life after her husband’s death. Without talking it over with Nicole, she moves them out to a rural cabin in the woods, far from Nicole’s school, friends, and much else. Nicole doesn’t take this change well. After a particularly charged mother daughter fight, the mother, in anger, calls Nicole and her friends losers. Nicole storms off into the woods with her occult supplies and performs a ritual to summon a vengeful familiar, the Pyewacket.

As part of the ritual, Nicole has to cut herself. She cuts deeper than she means to and is surprised by how much blood there is. She soon regrets her actions, when her mother bandages her up and tearfully apologizes for her earlier words.

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Threads are thicker than blood.

Like the film The Babadook (2014), Pyewacket explores different manifestations of grief and loss. Where The Babadook focused on the mother’s duel experiences of grieving her dead husband and suddenly being the sole person responsible for raising a child, Pyewacket focuses on how loss is experienced by a teenage girl who is also dealing with figuring out who she is as a person, where she fits in, and her sexuality. Where the creature in The Babadook represented need and insecurity, the creature summoned by Nicole represents all her feminine teen angst and confusion.

Nicole and her mother begin to grow closer to one another, yet Nicole suspects that her summoning of the Pyewacket was successful. At night, she hears movements and noises. Nicole and her mother almost have a headlong collusion with another car, and Nicole believes the creature was responsible.The film’s tension builds and adds to the girl’s paranoia with the sound of discordant strings and shadows moving throughout the house. A dark shape unfolds itself from the corner of the ceiling in the girl’s room. The girl wakes up in the woods, barefoot, with her hands covered in blood, and no memory of how she got there.

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Nothing wrong has ever happened from suddenly uprooting to live in a cabin in the woods.

Nicole becomes further alienated when her friends turn on her after she confesses to using black magic to hurt her mother. Nicole spends more time alone in the cabin after her mother starts working in a local giftshop. She returns to the books that started the whole mess and reaches out to one of the books author’s through email, the same author from the signing. He gets back to her and tells her the history of the Pyewacket. He describes the evil creature as a river that flows through the summoner and warns her the demon will turn on Nicole after it’s done with her mother. To rid herself of the Pyewacket, she has to perform the summoning ritual in reverse. She’s warned that the creature can take many forms and to not trust anything she sees.

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Mommy dearest.

What follows is a terrifying, claustrophobic sequence as Nicole battles the Pyewacket, after it assumes the form of her mother. The film ends violently and sadly. Pyewacket might be too slow for some horror fans, but its final gut punch is doubly tragic in how it could have been avoided if Nicole and her mother had been able to be open with each other about their struggles with grief and loss, a warning to more than just horror film protagonists.


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4 out of 5 Satanic rituals in the woods

Pyewacket is currently available on Hulu.

30 Horror Reviews in 30 Days, Day 15: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

What do you Lose in a Do-over: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Mateo Keegan Burbano

31 October 2019


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Christopher Landon is back to direct and write the sequel to 2017’s Blumhouse hit, Happy Death Day (2017), based on characters created by Scott Lobdell. Also, back are all your favorite characters that you’re indifferent to from the first film, with a handful of new comic relief characters. Jessica Rothe is here as the lead, Tree, trapped in a Groundhog Day cycle of repeating the same day over and over, having the day reset with her death. Israel Broussard is Tree’s love interest, Carter, and Phi Vu plays Carter’s roommate, Ryan.

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Jessica Rothe trapped in a time loop of acting in the same film franchise.

The film opens with Ryan stuck in his own time loop. Turns out, Ryan is a physicist and engineer who’s built a quantum cooling reactor that’s responsible for the time loops Tree suffered through in the first Happy Death Day (guess what ever explanation offered in the first film is thrown out the window). Ryan’s own time loop begins when he’s stabbed by the returning babyface masked killer. Tree, Carter, Ryan, are aided by Ryan’s lab partners, and newcomers to the franchise, Dre (played by Sarah Yarkin) and Samar (Suraj Sharma). Their attempt to use the quantum cooling reactor to close the time loops result in Tree being reality kicked into a parallel universe, and the sequel’s attempt to justify its existence.

Before being jettisoned into an alternate reality, Tree quickly recaps the events of the first film. A quarter of the sequels’ plot is dependent on you remembering what happened in the first film, and since specific plot points from the first film weren’t exactly memorable, good luck of keeping track of Tree’s relationship to her roommate, her affair with her married teacher, and the relevance of a hospitalized serial killer. The film’s need to stick to calling back to the same day of the first film (Tree’s birthday) to justify its title’s play on the phrase “Happy Birthday” is more of a hindrance than anything else.

The film squeezes in some slapstick comedy with the college dean and campus security guards that just adds confusion about what tone the film is going for. In the alternate universe, Tree’s mother is still alive but Carter, the boy she loved in her original universe, is dating someone else. The film pushes these two plot twists hard to prove the film has conflict beyond the first film’s conflict. Tree brings Carter, Ryan, Dre and Samar together to close the time loop in this alternate universe but struggles over whether or not to return to her own universe, where she might have the boy, but her mother has been dead since she was a young child.

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We’ll solve this problem with…science!

As the team tries to figure out the right equation to plug into the quantum reactor, their plan relies on the recursive Tree dying and repeating the day to work out that equation. What follows are questionable sequences of Tree committing suicide to avoid being murdered by the masked babyface killer (who’s here to give the franchise an iconic visual, I guess). Suicide is played off for laughs but portrayed with enough detail that someone who really is suicidal could use the film as a how-to primer.

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Money and white privilege offer the most extreme suicide options.

In the end, Tree must decide if a do-over where she can relive her life without her past traumas is worth sacrificing how those traumas strengthened her into the person she is now. Casting aside the needless confusion of tying into a prior money-making film, Happy Death 2U is saved from being a completely needless money grab in how its story presents the argument that who we are, despite all the painful experiences we endured, is our true selves. To erase those traumas by some convenient McGuffin, to play what-if that awful thing didn’t happen, would erase that stronger person we’ve become.


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3 out of 5 Dead Mothers

Happy Death Day 2U is currently available on HBO GO

30 Horror Reviews in 30 Days, Day 14: Spider Baby (1968)

Want to Play Spider? A Review of Spider Baby (1968)

by Amy M. Vaughn

30 October 2019

Click here for our previous reviews.


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For a certain kind of person, Spider Baby is a feel-good movie. I know that isn’t one of its official classifications, but I think it belongs there, right alongside horror, dark comedy, independent, low budget, B, and exploitation. It absolutely transports the viewer to another time, a weirder mind, a world away from whatever shit they’ve faced that day. Plus, it’ll make you smile. That is, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys dark wit and can appreciate watching a filmmaker do a whole lot with very little.

Spider Baby was filmed over 12 days in 1964 on a budget of $65,000, which translates to roughly $500,000 today. It wasn’t Jack Hill’s first time directing. He had Blood Bath (1966) and Mondo Keyhole (1966) under his belt as well as uncredited experience on The Wasp Woman (1959). He was also one of six additional directors, aside from Roger Corman, on the clusterfuck that was The Terror (1963). But Spider Baby was the first time he both directed and wrote. And it’s the kind of film that once you’ve watched it—or even made it halfway through—you want to look up who wrote it and what else they’ve done. (His other writing credits include Coffy (1973) and Switchblade Sisters (1975).

No, this isn’t a piece about Jack Hill, but knowing who wrote Spider Baby, who directed it, and when it was made gives us an idea of what to expect. For instance, other films with similar budgets released the year Spider Baby was made include The Creeping Terror (1964) and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (1964). If you’ve watched either of them, then you know the answer to “What should we expect?” is “Not much.” But what we get from Hill with Spider Baby is so much more than its contemporaries.

One of Hill’s master strokes was to bring in an aged Lon Chaney Jr. By this time, Chaney’s alcoholism was keeping him from getting steady work, which is why Hill could afford him. Chaney abstained from drinking during the two weeks of filming, and the DTs are responsible for his shaky hands and at least some of his profuse perspiration plainly visible in the film. (It was also brutally hot on set, as they were filming in late summer with no air conditioning.)

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“Fuck you. I’m not sweating, you’re sweating.”

Chaney plays the sympathetic role of Bruno, the Merrye children’s guardian. The children—Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn)—have a degenerative disease that strikes around the age of 10. It causes them to regress through their young years and will finally leave them in a condition of “pre-human savagery and cannibalism.” Bruno, the family chauffeur, swore to the children’s father on his deathbed (where he still resides) that he would care for them always. The children are already starting to show signs of “pre-human savagery” when a distant aunt shows up to claim the Merrye fortune with her lawyer and her brother in tow. Merrye mayhem ensues.

This movie is droll in the best sense of the word. There are a few standard jokey dialogue bits and sight gags aplenty, and the stereotyped characters, especially the greedy aunt and the self-important lawyer, are milked for laughs. There are also gross outs and jump scares and other horribly fun things that have come to define horror comedy. One of those delightful crossbreeds in this film is Sid Haig. Hired for the way he could contort his body, it was his first starring role and he resolutely succeeds in putting pathos and even joy behind the monster he portrays.

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Touch, touch, touch, touch me love. Just one touch, touch, touch, touch me love. Just one touch, touch will do. – John Lennon (1980) via Sid Haig

The real horror of Spider Baby comes from witnessing Bruno in his losing battle as he tries to protect the children from the world and the world from the children. His unconditional love is no match for their complete amorality. Besides having the same strength and physical abilities as young adults, Hill (who would go on to be one of the best known exploitation filmmakers ever) doesn’t pussyfoot around the issue of the children’s sexuality. One of the tensest scenes in the film occurs when Virginia, playing the game she calls “Spider” with her uncle, sits in his lap while he’s tied to a chair. It is expertly crafted to induce discomfort and squeamishness in the audience, and then it ends in a snap as she bounces back to her childlike ways.

From the kooky, spooky theme song played over cartoon faces in the beginning credits, to the house whose floorplan makes no sense, to scenes where two actors are obviously never on the same set at the same time, this movie has ample opportunity to fall apart. But the quality of the acting and the unique nature of the premise hold it together. The many foibles simply make it quirky and endearing.

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White meat, anyone?

During filming, Spider Baby was called Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. Then, before it could be released, the production company filed bankruptcy and the movie went into legal limbo. Three years later, in January of 1968, it was released as a drive-in second feature called either Spider Baby or Liver Eaters, depending on what it was being shown with. It did not do well, not least because it was nearly impossible to market. How do you advertise a movie the likes of which has never been seen before? Among its taglines were “Seductive innocence of Lolita, savage hunger of a black widow!” and “Spider Baby will give you nightmares forever!” These were par for the course for the day, but they didn’t exactly capture the humor and poignancy that makes this movie special.

After a brief run it faded away and, for decades, it was considered a lost film. But in the 1990s, Jack Hill acquired the “answer print,” which is the first version of a film that is color-corrected and has the sound properly synched. Because of this find, Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told was made available to a new generation, where it appealed to a certain kind of person and gained the cult following it has today.


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5 out of 5 Tarantulas named Winifred

Spider Baby is currently available through Tubi and Amazon Prime


Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books. Among them are Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and The Shelter (Cabal Books, forthcoming). She is also serving as editor for Dog Doors to Outer Space: A Compilation of Bizarro Writing Prompts (Filthy Loot, forthcoming). Amy lives in Tucson and online wherever writers go to avoid writing.

Poetry: Glen Armstrong

29 October 2019

We have new poetry from Glen Armstrong.

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Glen holds an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and teaches writing at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He edits a poetry journal called Cruel Garters and has two new chapbooks: Simpler Times and Staring Down Miracles. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Conduit, and Cream City Review.


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