Friday, May 05, 2006
Strange but True!
In which V shares some strange (but true!) stuff, and reviews a good film.

Today I had the pleasure of seeing An American Haunting at the cinema. I can't properly review this without giving y'all some background, so let's start way back at the beginning.

An American Haunting is based on events that by many accounts really happened in Tennessee around 1817. You might have heard about the Bell Witch; I first read about this story in high school while I was doing a term paper about Southern ghost stories. It's a freaky story, and you can learn a little about it here. The film I saw today is just one of many that have been either based directly on or inspired by the Bell Witch (I'm pretty sure The Blair Witch Project took a lot of points from it). Whether or not you'll find this film effective really comes down to one thing:

Are you open to the possibility that weird things happen?

I'm not saying that weird things are necessarily supernatural. For example, I suffer from a couple of common sleep disorders - night terrors, accompanied by sleep paralysis. When I have these night terrors, I have the sensation of being awake in bed, and I see terrible things around me. Things like corpses, ghosts. They touch me, levitate me, slap me, hit me, pull the covers away. And thanks to the sleep paralysis, I can't fight back. Now, of course these things aren't really happening - they're part of my nightmare. But it's certainly not an average nightmare, and it certainly does seem real enough until I do wake up. It's genuinely very creepy, and anyone who has serious night terrors will tell you just how real they feel.

On the other hand, I'm not saying that weird things necessarily are not supernatural. I'm willing to bet that nearly every single one of us has, at some point in our lives, experienced something really damned weird that we have no logical explanation for. We weren't dreaming. It wasn't the wind. It wasn't our imagination. Something weird happened, and we can't reason it away. I bet this has happened to even the most skeptical of you.

Getting slightly off track here, but not really, I'd like to mention another recent film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The brilliant thing about this film was, it looks at both sides of the demonic possession issue. It shows you the religious point of view, with evidence that Emily Rose did indeed suffer from demonic possession, etc etc, all the stuff you've seen in a dozen films like The Exorcist. But then, it shows you how possession can be explained away with more 'normal' concepts like epilepsy or mental illness. That film didn't take sides. It made both cases and let the viewer decide.

An American Haunting is similar. It lets you know that the film is based on real, documented events. It also lets you know that the Bell Witch is very much unexplained and is considered something of an unsolved mystery. At the end of the film, you get a bit of text explaining that nobody knows for sure what the Bell Witch was really all about, and that this is just one theory.

And let me tell you, it's one hell of a sinister theory. There's a framing story as well, about a family living in the present day. It wasn't until the very end of the film when I realized how the Bell Witch was affecting that family that I realized just how freaking sinister it all was.

Plot in a nutshell: You have the Bell family. The father, John Bell, does some kind of dodgy land deal which results in his breaking some arcane church law and also getting on the bad side of an unpleasant woman. This woman is reputed to be a witch, and she seems to put a curse on the family.

John Bell starts getting really sick, whilst his oldest daughter Betsy starts getting the Exorcist treatment (read: levitation, getting slapped around by invisible forces, generally tormented in bed) and also starts hallucinating a bit.

There's more, but you should read up on it - it's fascinating stuff. Anyway, the film is about these events and the family's attempts to generally stop them from happening.

I found it all to be positively creepy. When I'm watching a movie and I get really creeped out, I sit on my feet. Usually this is a matter of my temporarily lifting my feet up and sitting on them for a minute or two, until I am no longer creeped out and can put them safely back on the floor. Friends, I tell you now that I sat on my feet for the entire film. The creepiness just doesn't let up. There's one scene in particular that got to me a bit, wherein the invisible force is pulling Betsy Bell quite violently up a flight of stairs.

I was creeped out by it because I don't discount the possibility that these things truly happen. I've read a couple of reviews that say this film is boring. I suppose if you're a die-hard skeptic, it would be boring. Because really, what can you possibly get out of it? I mean, honestly... this shit happens to me in my dreams every couple of months. I can handle it because I know it isn't real. Hell, I even sort of look forward to it in a perverse kind of way. But the reason those dreams are scary is because there's a small part of my mind that thinks "hey V, what if next time it isn't just one of your night terrors? What if next time, it's for real, and you don't wake up, because THERE IS NO WAKING UP because you're already awake?"

Personally, I think that small part of the mind is normal, and it's a completely natural human reaction to have. Personally, I think you have to be a pretty severe hard-ass to be able to get through life being completely dismissive of Things Unseen. I mean, come on, it keeps life interesting.

An American Haunting flips that mental switch, and makes you face the possibility that maybe you SHOULD be scared sometimes. The fact that no clear reason is given for what happened makes it even creepier. It gives a theory, sure. But no clear reason. That small part of your brain starts telling you to watch your back, because weird shit doesn't need a reason to happen. It made me think about evil, and it made me think about fear, and it's rare that horror films actually make you think as opposed to just splashing boatloads of gore in your face for 90 minutes and then sending you on your way. So in this regard, it was extremely effective and creepy, and I applaud it for that.

Here is a strange but true factoid: I went to high school with a girl who was a direct descendant of the Bell family (her dad's name was even John). She was a total freak, but not in the way that you'd expect (she wore horn-rimmed glasses and a cape to school). We were friends for a couple of years, but she was pushy and bossy and kind of a bitch so eventually I wrote her this letter telling her what a horrible person she was and I gave it to her at lunch one day. And that was the end of that.

Here is another strange but true factoid: So today after the film was over, I went to the ladies room. I'd been to the first matinee of the day, and the rest of the place was dead empty. There were maybe two other people in the entire place (and only me in American Haunting, you try being all alone in a dark cinema watching a creepy film). But all five of the ladies room toilets had blood in them. And I don't mean, like, trace amounts. Not like "oops, five people forgot to flush their tampons". I mean, serious blood. In the toilets. In all of them. I went out and told the girl who was working the concession stand, and she went in to have a look, and she started freaking out. I decided maybe it would be a good idea to come home and use my own bathroom.

Um. Yeah, I don't think I can top that. Nothing else to say here.