Dr. S. Trimble

Writer | Teacher | Cultural Critic

Category: Hauntings Series

Send in the Clowns (Again)

~ Starring: A new Pennywise and a time-shifted Losers’ Club ~

*spoiler alert: this post contains details about the plot of It (both the novel and the 2017 film)

It’s back. (I mean, It’s baaaack….)

Pennywise the Dancing Clown has returned in a new film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 nightmare, It. More broadly, the creepy clown seems to be emerging as one of the pop culture expressions of life under Trump. (You can check out my first thoughts about this phenomenon here…) American Horror Story: Cult is directly exploring this terrain, reprising season 4’s Twisty the Clown and upping the ante with these white-faced fellas:

We’ll see where AHS is headed in the coming weeks. Rolling Stone’s Jenna Scherer has, I think, already pinpointed one of the show’s key challenges: pre-election creepy clown sightings have given way to post-election Nazi rallies. As Scherer puts it, “Clowns are scary. IRL Nazis are scarier.” I’m not about to dismiss a show before I’ve seen its story unfold. And Cult might do some very interesting things before it’s through. But the danger of being so on the (big red) nose is that it’s fairly easy to miss your mark. I kinda prefer my stories to offer insights you sense like breath on the back of your neck… before they tap you, finally, on the shoulder.

So one of the things that intrigues me about the new adaptation of It is the way it sidles up to our historical moment. The decision to reset the childhood part of King’s story in the late 1980s means that Chapter Two will take place roughly now. It also means that the kids who call themselves the Losers’ Club are no longer Boomers coming of age in the 1950s and 60s but belong, instead, to the generation that grew up with Reaganomics. They’re immersed in the late capitalist moment we’re still navigating. This isn’t to say that their terrors are drastically different as a result. One of the things I love about King’s stories is the timelessness of the childhood fears he explores. But now those fears are gathering shape and playing out in a political landscape bookended by Reagan (Chapter One) and Trump (Chapter Two). The rottenness at the heart of Derry, Maine is old. It goes all the way back to the first settlers and their mysterious disappearance. And suddenly It is about how the present—our present—inherits this rot.

I suspect I’ll have more to say on this when I see Chapter Two. For now I want to focus on the two characters whose grownup fates will, I think, determine how much the new It can illuminate about our time. I’m talking about Beverly Marsh and Mike Hanlon, the only girl and the only black boy in the Losers’ Club. Thoughtful reviewers have already pointed out that some of the choices made in this adaptation flatten Bev and Mike, in particular. So each of them is menaced not just by a terrifying clown, but also by the horror clichés that haunt them: the damsel in distress and the token black kid. What I want to do here, then, is breathe some life back into Bev and especially Mike. To notice what they do to give It texture and depth.

King’s story is about kids metabolizing the bad feelings that saturate the adult world, struggling to give those feelings story and shape. Bill, the leader of the Losers’ Club, is living in the aftermath of the disappearance of his little brother, Georgie, who’s lured into the sewer in the film’s prologue. His parents’ grief is turning Bill into a ghost in his own home. Mike, who lost his parents in a house fire when he was small, is struggling to grow into the man his uncle expects him to be—expectations that are meant to help him survive the ruthlessness and racism of 1980s America. And Bev lives alone with a father who abuses and menaces her, regularly demanding, in that too-soft voice that seems to belong to abusive men, that she confirm she’s still his “little girl.”

Part of what’s great about King’s storytelling is the way familial dysfunction is enmeshed in its social context. When Bev isn’t at home with her malevolent father, she’s navigating a town in which kids and parents alike have labelled her trash and a slut. Where the smarmy local pharmacist can be conned by a thirteen-year-old who bats her eyes at him. Bev is besieged by sexism. But she’s also a badass. While her handiness with weapons isn’t as emphasized in the film as it is in the novel, it’s Bev who decisively wounds Pennywise—twice—with a spear. And when her dad tries to lock her in their apartment, she fights back and wins, braining him with the lid off the toilet tank.

Yes, there are choices in this adaptation that undercut some of Bev’s badassery, including the fact that she’s taken by It and becomes the object of a rescue mission at the end of the film. (In the novel, the group—including Bev—tracks the monster into the sewers together.) I don’t love this storytelling move, which is where the trope of the damsel in distress really shows its teeth. But I also wonder if it says something about the way vulnerability is unevenly distributed across the Losers’ Club. After all, Pennywise takes Bev directly after the fight with her dad, when, having just expended buckets of courage, she’s momentarily overwhelmed by fear. In this sense, the monster represents a hard truth about girlhood: violence at home is often just the beginning. I think the film could make this point without having It single out and kidnap our heroine, but either way she’s one of the key characters through whom we see the lines of force connecting home and town. Through whom we see that fear has a decidedly public context.

The other character who illuminates this point about the social context of terror is (if we’re paying close attention) Mike. If Bev highlights the patriarchal dimension of Derry’s rotten core, then Mike exposes its whiteness. As Zak Cheney Rice reminds us, in the novel Mike is the historian of the group—a role the film, sadly, transfers to cute, chubby, white Ben Hanscom—and Mike’s family history is all about “living in the crosshairs of white supremacy.” But because his backstory doesn’t get the play it deserves in the film, it takes some work to connect the dots.

Let’s start with the Black Spot, a key site in Derry’s history of terror. We know from the novel that it was a speakeasy set up by Mike’s dad and some of his fellow soldiers in the 1920s and then burned down in 1930 by Maine’s Legion of White Decency. The movie pushes this event into the 1960s. You have to listen carefully to hear Ben explain, in the background of a scene, that the Black Spot was a nightclub burned down by a racist mob in 1962. And in Mike’s first encounter with It—behind the butcher shop where he delivers meat from his uncle’s farm—he sees black hands reaching around the edges of the shop’s back door as smoke curls out into the alley. The industrial-looking door, the alley, and the number of hands are all more evocative of a nightclub fire, but it’s the story of the house fire that Mike shares with the group as an account of his deepest fear. So, as I see it, the scene conjures both the fire that killed Mike’s parents and the burning at the Black Spot, suggesting that what happened to his parents is part of the history of racial violence seething beneath Derry’s surface. Mike’s final encounter with the town bully, Henry Bowers, seems to confirm this when Henry expresses sadness that he didn’t start the fire that killed the Hanlons himself.

I noticed something else on a second viewing of the film: a subtle difference between Henry’s attack on Ben and his fight with Mike. When Henry is menacing Ben with a knife, a car drives by in which two adults deliberately look away from the assault. A red balloon in the backseat alerts us to Pennywise’s role in the unseeing, but the clown himself isn’t there. But when Henry is beating on Mike down in the Barrens, Mike sees It lurking in the bushes, observing. Henry hurts lots of kids, but Pennywise only watches hungrily when Henry is hurting Mike. Which suggests that his hatred for Mike Hanlon is particularly venomous. The kind of hate that draws Derry’s demons out into the open.

So Bill might be the leader of the group. And Trashmouth Richie might steal the show a little. But Mike and Bev reveal how vulnerability and terror are differentially distributed in Derry. Mike, who ultimately pushes the murderous Henry Bowers down the well that is the heart of Derry’s rottenness. And Bev, who pikes the clown in the throat when he turns to her wearing her father’s face. These are the two I’ll be watching in Chapter Two, looking for what their grownup selves might be able to tell us about now.

A now in which a man who brags about grabbing pussies can become President… and Nazis gather in American streets.

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On creepy clowns and creeping candidates…

~ Starring: Pennywise the clown and his presidential counterpart ~

A woman is speaking. A few feet behind her stands a man in a big-shouldered suit and red tie. As she moves around the stage, addressing the audience, his signature poof of orangey hair lurks in the background. The orange hair, the bright red tie, the sour expression. He’s just standing and watching, but it’s unnerving as hell. The cameras repeatedly capture this dynamic: a woman is speaking; a man creeps behind her.

trump-loomingWhenever I see these images of Clinton talking and Trump lurking, my horror-obsessed brain skips across the media landscape to another menacing figure: the creepy clown that’s been cropping up in the US, Canada, and the UK since August. From reports of clowns trying to lure children into the woods of South Carolina to the one who hitched a ride on the back of a Detroit bus, wigged, white-faced characters are turning up in unexpected places. And I’m not the only one who’s making the connection to Donald Trump. The emergence of a Trump-as-Pennywise meme and Mary Valle’s cool piece in The Guardian indicate that people are wondering if creepy clown sightings have something to do with, as Valle puts it, “a bona fide human-like sociopath [who] is very close to grabbing the One Ring of Power.” Is Trump a kind of lodestone drawing these frightening figures out into the open?

So here’s what I’m thinking…

scary-clownThe “official” take on clowns is that they’re cheerful, benevolent, kindly figures—bringers of magic into the lives of the young. And I’m sure that there have been children for whom this is true. (Okay, I’m not actually “sure,” but I’m willing to entertain the possibility…) But if I ever encountered these nice, kindly clowns as a kid, I don’t remember them. What I remember is Pennywise the dancing clown, the red-haired baddie at the heart of Stephen King’s It (1986). Pennywise represents pure fear to King’s kid protagonists. He moves from grin to glower in a heartbeat, just as the clown himself morphs into a monstrous black spider at the story’s end. (Seriously.) What King captured so well is the twisted underbelly of the supposedly fun-loving maker of balloon animals. Pennywise is what you get when the smile becomes too big, the gestures too frenetic. It’s too near, too much. And it would kill for just a little more of your attention.

The distance between the official perspective on clowns (fun! innocent! warm-hearted!) and the “kid fears” version is, at bottom, a result of the tension between a dominant story and the uncanny double it breathes to life but disowns. The double embodies all the bad feelings that the “true” story can’t admit. If Trump is the Pennywise of presidential candidates, then, I can’t help but wonder if he’s exposing something about the presidency itself—about the power, whose power, it’s supposed to represent. After all, this is an office that, until 2008, was held solely by white men. This monopoly has been supported by an official story that posits white masculinity as the epitome of reason, responsibility, and benevolence. But beneath this story is a counter-narrative according to which white masculine power rages, terrorizes, exploits, and wounds. For some of us, Trump is this “bad dream” version of white masculinity.

For others, white men are suffering through a bad dream in which arguably the most powerful political office in the world was “taken away” from them eight years ago. (For a brilliant take on the rightwing conspiracy theory that Obama “stole” the elections in 2008 and 2012—and what it means for the upcoming election—check out this excellent piece by Jamelle Bouie in Slate.) And from that same paranoid perspective, another “other” now threatens to take the title. In short, this is a point of view from which Obama and Clinton are playing keepaway with power—and white men are the hapless victims stuck in the middle. (I won’t provide a link, but just consider Alex Jones’ most recent claims that Obama and Clinton are literally demons who reek of sulfur…) No wonder, then, that a Pennywise candidate has emerged to take it all back.

trump-as-pennywise

Image credit: facebook.com/ILIWIWUITMABOIP

But some of us — many of us — know not to trust this clown. Some of us are well served by a lesson we learned when we were kids. No matter how much they insist your happiness is their main concern, white men that pull faces, wiggle their fingers, and engage in sleight-of-hand are seriously bad news.

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Idle Hands?

~ Starring: my brother Justin, a willful child, Left and Right, and a monkey’s paw ~

When I was a kid, my older brother, Justin, used to crack me up by reenacting a scene from Sam Raimi’s cult horror classic Evil Dead II (1987). In it, the besieged hero does battle with his own demonically possessed right hand. My brother fully committed to the physicality of the scene, grappling with his suddenly unruly limb and smashing imaginary dinner plates over his head before—with an ironically gleeful “Who’s laughing now, sucker?!”—carving his right hand off with his chainsaw-wielding left. It was tough to tell whether he was more hero than hand or more hand than hero. Who—or what—were we rooting for in this bloody battle of wills? What did it mean for a (body) part to rebel against the whole? And why was it both hilarious and horrifying?

So maybe it’s my brother’s fault that I’ve become weirdly fixated on the the severed, possessed, or otherwise wayward hand, a trope that shows up more often than you’d think. Last summer I was reading Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (1967), a moody little novel about a teenage girl living in London with her silent Aunt and brooding Uncle, a maker of puppets. Midway through the book, Melanie opens a kitchen drawer and discovers “a freshly severed hand, all bloody at the roots.” It comes out of nowhere. Melanie faints. And when she awakes the hand is gone, the episode done. But what was it doing there in the first place? Dainty painted fingernails and ragged at the wrist, it could be evidence of a crime: a fleshy reminder of the gendered mutilations that move the patriarchal household. Or is it the aftermath of an attempted grab for power? In a domestic space controlled by a malevolent puppeteer, does a dismemberment ensure that nobody else—and no girl, certainly—pulls the strings?

How willful is the wayward hand? Let’s consider some evidence.

A grim story. Angela Carter would want me to start with a fairytale. (After all, when her protagonist discovers the hand in the drawer, she assumes that she’s going out of her mind before concluding that “Bluebeard was here.”) So I want to begin with the Grimm brothers’ tale of the willful child. It was Sara Ahmed who first told me this story. She uses it to launch her exploration of what it means to be called “willful,” where “willfulness” is an accusation made against some of us more than others. In the Grimm story, the willful child defies her mother, so God allows her to become sick and die. When she’s buried, her arm repeatedly rises up through the loose soil of her freshly dug grave. Only after her mother arrives to strike the arm with a rod does it stay buried and the child find “rest.” The child disobeys her mother and displeases God, but her willfulness persists even after her death. It’s displaced, Ahmed notes, onto the arm that refuses to stay put; the hand that rises from the grave again and again, marking the place of a body that’s been made to disappear. I’m here, the hand says. Still here. This turn to the willful hand leads Ahmed to wonder about the relationship between the part and the whole: parts are charged with “willfulness” when they fail—or refuse—to cooperate with the whole. The stubborn arm stands in for the child who wouldn’t bend to parental authority; who threatened not to reproduce the family unit. The willful child was an unwilling part.

A bloody revolution. When I started reading Clive Barker’s “The Body Politic” (1985), I thought of my brother and giggled. Barker’s short story is about a guy named Charlie whose hands are plotting to free themselves from the tyranny of the body. Cautious Left and militant Right, they meet on Charlie’s chest at night while he sleeps, conspiring in gestures and bobbing fingers. But after Charlie’s wife becomes alert to the situation, Charlie wakes to find his hands around her throat. So we go from twistedly amusing to darkly disturbing pretty quickly. Right eventually “frees” Left with a meat cleaver and Left skitters off into the night, waking other hands from their complacent slumber until the narrative is thick with bloody dismemberments and autonomous, spider-like members. And I have to be honest: I don’t know what to do with this story. I’m generally inclined to root for the little guy; to take the part of the parts that push back against the oppressiveness of the whole. But I’m uneasy about the fact that Charlie’s hands—or Left and Right, I should say—murder a woman (and, by extension, her hands) en route to their freedom. Besides, I have my own embodied experience with an uncooperative part. In fact, when Sara Ahmed gave the talk in which she first introduced me to the willful child back in 2011, I had just found out that my heart is less than reliable when it comes to keeping the rest of me ticking. True story. While I was listening to Sara talking about willful parts at McMaster University, I was a couple of days away from having a pacemaker implanted in my chest to keep my heart from taking coffee breaks. So while I wanted to root for Left and Right and their bid for freedom, I also felt Charlie’s pain. Maybe “The Body Politic” is a deeply conservative short story that casts revolution as a murderous, body-rending—and so unthinkably horrifying—scenario. Maybe. Or maybe it captures something of the violent logic of the concept of “the body politic” itself: of a political imaginary that assembles the parts in such a way that the refusal to do one’s part can only be seen and experienced as murderous, mutilating aggression. Clive Barker is writing in Margaret Thatcher’s England, after all, when the Conservatives framed striking unions as “enemies within” siphoning strength from the national economy. I’m not sure yet whether “The Body Politic” reproduces or scrutinizes that political vision, but for now, in my mind at least, Left and Right are the willful child’s creepy cousins.

A too-willing part? W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) tells the story of a mummified monkey part that grants its holder three wishes. Unlike the hand of the willful child and unlike Left and Right, this one, at first glance, seems to be all about service. But the paw arrives at the English country home of Mr. and Mrs. White by way of Britain’s colonial maneuverings in India; and the Sergeant-Major who carries it warns that the man who had the paw before him ultimately wished for his own death. So when Mr. White wishes for two hundred pounds and the dried out little paw twists in his hand “like a snake,” we fear that something is amiss. The money arrives the next day in the form of a payout from the factory where the Whites’ son, Herbert, has just been killed in an accident. This death sets up the final two wishes: with one, Mr. White reluctantly—at his wife’s insistence—asks for his son’s return from the grave; and when this wish results in an ominous knocking at the front door, a “fusillade of knocks” that echoes through the house, Mr. White uses his last wish to get rid of whatever is on the other side of the door before his wife can open it. (There are two hands in this story, then. There’s the little paw that’s too eager, too willing to fulfill the wisher’s wishes and there’s the unseen hand knock knock knocking on the Whites’ front door.) From one point of view, I suppose “The Monkey’s Paw” can be read as a colonial-era tale in which all that’s evil, mysterious, and contaminating originates in faraway places and then infiltrates and undoes whatever is “properly” British. But I wonder if we can read, instead, for the way the paw manifests a strange continuity between servitude and subversion: for how the fantasy of the grateful, solicitous colonial subject—Your wish is my command—twists like a möbius strip, revealing an aggressive underbelly. The part will serve, but it’s going to cost you.

My brother might tell you that I’m overthinking this; that whether it’s suddenly sentient or raised from the dead, a hand that turns on you—or turns up where it shouldn’t be—is funny because it’s weird. But I keep thinking about his reenactments of the Evil Dead, and how sometimes he’d act the part of the sawed-off hand itself; the one that, after the hero’s severed it from his wrist, skitters around the cabin on its own, still attacking the body of which it was so recently a part. Which brings me back to perspective. From the point of view of the whole, the wayward part is dangerous. But from the point of view of the wayward part, the whole system must come down.

Version 2
Next up! Private Eyes (Starring: The eye in the curtain, the man outside my window, and two Screams)

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Through a side door: on kid fears

A tiny version of me.

~Starring: a tiny version of me, Father Ferguson, and The Further~

It’s not so much a memory as a story I’ve been told: a two year-old version of me crouches beneath the dining table in our old house. I’m asleep, but screaming. Whether terrified, enraged, or some combination, I’m responding to a dreamworld that’s mushroomed open inside my home, expanding it from the inside. I’ve been racing through that parallel space, darting through openings and weaving among objects that both are and are not the hallways, doorways, and furniture of our tiny house on Queen’s Avenue. As an adult, I have no recollection of that other world or what I was doing there, but my night terrors are now part of my personal mythology: when I was a kid, I used to go somewhere in my sleep and run, shrieking, from (or maybe toward) whatever I found there. This went on until, out of options and in a desperate bid to soothe whatever wild energy I may have been sensing, my parents allowed their minister to bless our house.

There was a kind of exorcism. And, soon after, I stopped screaming. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t about cause and effect.

My project as a scholar has been to seek out suppressed perspectives, ways of seeing that might unsettle what we think we know and help us feel the world’s contingency, its openness to transformation. Appropriately, then, I think this project is deeply rooted in an experience I can’t recall, because once upon a time a smaller version of me used to open her eyes and see something else—something more than a hallway, a tile floor, or a dining table. Until a few years ago, I hadn’t given this much thought, but then my mom and I went to see James Wan’s Insidious (2010), and it gripped me in a way I really didn’t expect. (My mom is my brave but somewhat reluctant horror movie buddy. She watches some scenes with her hands over her eyes, and is usually good for at least one “jump” in her seat that startles me more than the movie does…) I’ve decided to start my series on haunting by telling you about this movie because, when I watched it, I felt it picking up some of the fragments of my kid fears and putting them together. It felt like an invitation to reconstruct that “other” realm that sometimes surfaced in the midst of my family home and made it what Freud called unheimlich—unhomely or uncanny. The furnace had teeth; there was an eye in the curtain (more on that another time)… So in these writings on hauntings I’m coming at my research through a side door. It’s the door that Avery Gordon, in her fantastic book on ghosts and haunting, describes as “the door of the uncanny, the door of the fragment, the door of the shocking parallel.” It leads down a rabbit hole of discarded memories and strange feelings and the other traces of experience that make us tick.
    Ready?

Insidious is the story of a kid who goes to sleep one night and doesn’t wake up. Dalton Insidious_DaltonLambert, we find out, is a skilled traveler of the astral plane, an ability he’s inherited from his dad. His consciousness journeys into other realms when he sleeps, and this time he’s wandered too far, becoming lost in a place that paranormal investigator Elise Reiner calls “The Further.” While he’s gone, the tortured souls of the dead vie for possession of his unconscious body, using it as a conduit through which to fleetingly access the world of the living and ultimately looking to steal it for keeps. And while these lesser entities terrorize the Lambert family in “this” world, a particularly malevolent figure that Elise describes as a “parasite” keeps Dalton trapped in its corner of The Further.

Insidious_ParasiteRealizing that Dalton can’t make his own way home, Elise sends his father, Josh, to retrieve him. The family secret, you see, is that Josh used to travel as Dalton does; as a child, he’d experienced what his mother had understood to be night terrors, until, alerted by the presence of a shadowy figure haunting her son in a series of family photographs—coming nearer and clearer with each image—she’d enlisted Elise’s help. “Night terrors” were the this-worldly manifestation of his repeated wanderings into The Further. They stopped when Elise repressed his memory both of where he went and how he got there.

I liked this film from the beginning. I began to feel invested in the story early on when Dalton’s mom, Renai, ventures into the attic of the Lamberts’ new house and sees an old wood stove inexplicably roar to life, its decorative metal-work animated by the flickering orange and looking, all told, unnervingly face-like. When I was a kid the furnace in our basement did something like that. Frightened by an Ontario Hydro commercial—one way scarier than this one, though it’s creepy in its own right—my mind rewrote the big metal box in the utility room as a grinning, fire-breathing monster. In fact, when I first recalled the stove scene in Insidious so I could write about it, I “remembered” it as Dalton’s scene, not Renai’s, and pictured the front grate on the stove snapping open and closed like gnashing teeth. My own cloudy memory-images—flames licking fangs, me nervously dashing past the threshold of the beast’s lair—mutated my recollection of what’s actually a pretty low-key scene; feelings and associations rewrote what I saw. So when Insidious went from hungry stoves to night terrors, I was all in. And then it took us into the Further… 

Insidious visually renders its parallel dimension as an amorphous, edgeless darkness in which recognizable landmarks—the Lamberts’ old house, in this case—appear like faded photographs of themselves, their thresholds roiling with mist, their outlines uncertain. In the Lambert house we encounter what seem to be shades of its former inhabitants, including a white family arranged in a mid-century living room tableau: mom at the ironing board, dad reading the paper on the sofa and, next to him, daughter number one staring straight ahead. As Josh moves on from the room, we hear the sound of a shotgun cocking and firing. He goes back to find daughter number two wearing a why-so-serious grin and standing, holding the gun, in front of the sofa on which all three family members are now slumped.

Why so serious?

In my research and teaching, I’m beginning to explore the socio-political pasts that haunt the houses of horror fiction, and this, certainly, can be read as a gesture in that direction: the twisted underbelly of the American nuclear family; a monstrous daughter violently intervening in a space shaped by patriarchal power… But here I’m interested as much in space as time because, like many haunted houses, this version of the Lamberts’ home is bigger on the inside than it should be: through an ominous red door in the attic, the interior of the house bleeds into a nightmare dimension complete with a “workshop” in which Dalton’s demon sharpens its claws while an old gramophone warbles Tiny Tim’s creepily off-kilter “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” The Further stretches the house from the inside, and Dalton’s been busily exploring—and mapping in his drawings—an unseen extension animated by horror, fear, rage, sorrow, and other “bad” feelings.

I have no idea where I was during my night terrors, but thinking about the film’s visual rendering of The Further led me to a realization about them: I “know” that this world is ghosted by alternative iterations of itself, that it sometimes gives way to other layers of experience and perspective into which we can be emotionally pulled. I’m not saying that I was busily projecting myself onto the astral plane as a kid (but I’m not saying I wasn’t, because that’s a pretty cool story). I’m just saying that once upon a time I physically navigated and emotionally responded to a place that was different—though not unconnected—from this one. I opened my eyes and saw something else, and it was terrifying or enraging or exhilarating or maybe all three. I’ve been wondering if my history of reading and watching horror stories has kept some element of that experience alive; if the combination has helped me become attuned to the other stories—other ways of seeing the world—that become discernible if we attend to shadows and ghostly presences and things that go bump in the night.

Next up! “Idle hands”: some thoughts on severed, possessed and revolutionary hands in horror stories…

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