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Fact or Fiction: Found Footage Horror

What is Found Footage Horror?

If you’re newer to the horror community, then you may not be aware of the found footage style that makes up a widely celebrated part of the genre. That being said…

Relatability and Morbid Fascination

The dark, savage aspects of human nature have a certain allure that cannot easily be disregarded. We’re more likely to see characters who are awkward, trashy, creepy, oblivious, or skeptical throughout the movie—the found footage style has been known to explore those traits more fully since it needs to feel like candid camera footage. As a culture, we tend to have a fascination for things that we can identify with and many people find reality entertainment more relatable—while others find them to be like a trainwreck they can’t stop watching.

Fact or Fiction?

When The Blair Witch Project premiered in 1999, the world witnessed what could reasonably be believed to be real footage of three student filmmakers. These students would go on to disappear while filming their investigative documentary; their footage, as revealed by the movie, was later found by a third party and published for the world to see. The documentary-style film allowed the audience to see through the eyes of the protagonists. We were able to step into their shoes, with a growing sense of trepidation, as they dove into the gruesome legends woven into the history of Burkittsville, Maryland (Derry 228).

Indie Horror Creation

There are only really a handful of found-footage films that directly benefited from the cult following The Blair Witch Project developed at the turn of the century. Regardless, the horror genre branched out into the of found-footage and made it feasible for indie filmmakers to put themselves out there with a low film budget and then expect a larger profit margin in return. Since the mockumentary style of The Blair Witch Project required nothing more than handheld cameras, or more recently, a GoPro. The technology was no longer a barrier. There was a preference of unknown faces that were hired for talent because it would leave the audience with a more authentic quality of film. The promised result was an otherwise cheaply produced finished product with no over-the-top special effects. This style lent directly to the perceived authenticity of the events that would occur within the confines of the film (Derry 229).

Growing Popularity of Reality Horror

The rising popularity in this “reality” horror soon caused the film budgets of these types of movies to rise significantly and the profit margin to subsequently decrease—but why is that? Because, when you think about it, if a found footage film is properly executed they can be an indie filmmaker’s dream. Then again, there also has to be the consideration that most indie horror filmmakers would love to have their film be the next Blair Witch Project. Most just aren’t naive enough to believe that their film will achieve that level of notoriety. Even a movie such as Cloverfield (2008), arguably one of the highest budgeted movies in the style can showcase archetypal lo-fi aesthetic (Kring-Schreifels), but then they blow their budget on special effects. Explosions, enormous alien monsters, and entire buildings being knocked over certainly didn’t help them to cut costs. If their featured talent hadn’t done a wonderful job at performing their roll, it would have been a lot less convincing (although, let’s be real, none of us thought it was real—unlike many with The Blair Witch).

Convincing Storytelling

Thankfully, it’s no longer the believability factor, as much as it is the feel of authenticity and the purity of the scares or creepy story they tell. So, it’s now far less important that these films are regarded as found footage, if we’re distinguishing films being true to the style. If we’re looking for a true found footage film, we must consider movies that fully utilize a diegetic camera, which means that both the camera and if applicable, the person behind it are part of the story. Since the diegetic camera in found footage films is acknowledged by the characters, it can be considered a prop of the fictional world (Turner 8).

Whether we are witnessing the events of the film through security footage, or we’re experiencing the events as a camera-wielding character or part of a film crew, we’re left with room for interesting developments. Even though I won’t deny that security footage style is a diegetic camera, it does have the drawback of removing the closeness we’ve obtained with the character behind the character. When we’re seeing through the camera being held by one of the characters, it feels like we’re literally seeing through their eyes.

The Eyes of Narration

Going back to the previous example of Cloverfield we rarely see the character behind the camera and the longer we go without acknowledging that character, the more closely we get pulled into the him. When he’s nosey, we’re also inclined to be curious of what’s going on—likewise when he’s in a situation where he’s afraid for his life, the audience feels uneasy and fearful. I feel like this not only happens because we’ve identified as the character behind the camera, but because if that character dies, then we’re unaware of where the story will take us next. Typically, someone else is conveniently around to pick up the camera in order to continue to film. We’ve been allowed to suspend our disbelief just long enough to identify as the person behind the camera (Turner 4).

Anything that allows the viewer to more closely relate to the film or the characters within tends to provide a more interesting viewing experience. Whether it’s considered a diegetic camera film, a found footage film, or a “reality” horror film, if “the viewer cannot maintain distance between the events of the story and their own viewing,” then they cannot help but becoming part of the story (Turner 8).

The Beginning of Found Footage Horror

The Blair Witch Project isn’t considered the first found footage horror ever created—that honor is regularly attributed to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) regardless of whether it was deserved or not. After watching Cannibal Holocaust I started to wonder why it was declared as being found footage at all—sure it utilized the technique for the recovered documentary crew’s film, but there was also a significant part of the movie that is noticeably shot with an objective camera. I submit to you that if we’re going to consider Cannibal Holocaust a found footage film, that we also consider Hellraiser: Revelations (2011) a found footage film.

Reality Entertainment

In many ways, shows like “The Real World” and “Cops” were more of an influence on the initial popularity of a movie like The Blair Witch Project than its found footage predecessors (Kring-Schreifels). Like the reality television trend that people were already enjoying, The Blair Witch Project blended fact and fiction; which appealed to the landscape of entertainment of the time and has helped it continue on as the benchmark for all indie horror creators. So despite the fact that The Blair Witch Project isn’t considered the first of its kind, it still held a unique draw for younger generations of adults who were already immersed in the trend of reality television.

YouTube and Access to the Internet

Just six years after the film’s inception, the world saw the arrival of YouTube which made it even easier to blur the lines between fact and fiction; it’s been noted by those involved in the film, that their successful marketing tactics slipped through a narrow window of an audience that was on the brink of overly accessible information. That, in today’s world, someone looking for more information on Heather Donahue, the female lead, would be able to find with no uncertainty that she was in fact, an actress who had not gone missing at all (Kring-Schreifels). Still, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez drew on the most important aspect of creating horror by heightening tension and fear; they accomplished this by way of primarily composing the movie as POV shots which limit what the audience sees and creates feelings of anxiety (Turner 16).

Acceptance of New Styles

The Blair Witch Project took a simple and otherwise unprofound concept and made something that rocked the entire genre of horror (Derry 229). Rather than spur a new series of films, however, it signaled the beginning of almost a full decade with no overly notable films in the style (Derry 230). Hill explains that “horror nostalgia emerges precisely when new generations of audiences have embraced more recent developments in horror,” which leads to a sort of conservation of horror as it was when they first found their love of the genre (Hill 101). So when found footage films were making their way into the genre, children of the eighties were clinging to their late-era slashers like Scream and the newly emerging torture porn of Hostel and Saw. There was also an overwhelming boom of paranormal and supernatural horror films that were created in the 2000s.

Unrepeatable Success

Fans of the horror genre are known to form an emotional attachment to the version of a film they see first, regardless of which one is considered the better film. As a result, those who saw The Blair Witch Project during their youth are more likely to prefer the original to the remake Blair Witch of 2016 (Hill 101). It was clear that a remake of The Blair Witch Project would not be as successful as the original; not only because the guerrilla-style marketing campaign couldn’t be replicated, but a remake would hold less appeal for those who enjoyed the original film (Hill 102). Over twenty years since its premiere and there are still people who look back at The Blair Witch Project wanting answers. Of course, this isn’t because they still believe (if they ever did) that it was a true documentary, but because the movie left them with questions—namely, what does the Blair Witch actually look like?

There is no denying that what The Blair Witch Project accomplished was phenomenal. From the boots-on-the-ground marketing campaign to the missing person posters designed to boost the level of authenticity of the film, the filmmakers utilized tactics that could never again be repeated. The nostalgia for a time since passed contributed to the success of The Blair Witch Project and in essence has contributed to the success of many of the found footage films that have come since.

Works Cited

Hills, Matt. “Horror Reception/Audiences.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 90–108.

Kring-schreifels, Jake. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ at 20: Why It Can’t Be Replicated. 30 July 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/07/30/movies/blair-witch-project-1999.html.

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Chasing Transgressions: Censoring Excess in Exploitative Horror

Ever since the introduction of the Hays Code in 1927, films in the horror genre have fought to remain true to the voice of the genre. The consistency in which film creators have chipped away at those codes since their inception has brought us to where we are today; while movies like Hellraiser (1987) have still had to deal with censorship before they premiered, what is deemed excessive or exploitative is brought to new heights with each film that dares to push the limits.

Fully banned in Kansas…

When Frankenstein (1931) was first released, the local Kansas board banned it for the entire state; thousands of unhappy moviegoers wanted access, so eventually, the board relented. The Kansas board bastardized the movie with so many cuts that it, “would have stripped it of all its horrific elements,” which brought the intervention of the MPDDA and fewer cuts (Petley 132). The film standards that were enforced in the 1930s didn’t take into account the production of the horror genre; after wondering where the line would be drawn for a genre that consistently dug further into the dark, it was decided that:

As long as monsters refrained from illicit sexual activity, respected the clergy, and maintained silence on controversial political matters, they might walk with impunity where bad girls, gangsters, and radicals feared to tread.

(Cited in Petley 131)

Those standards wouldn’t last for long. The lines within horror are blurred, humans can be the monsters who don’t refrain from illicit sexual activity, demonic representations within films regularly disrespect the clergy, and have had a tendency to be outspoken on controversial political matters [see Night of the Living Dead (1968)]. Censorship for violent or graphic content was incredibly strict from the inception of the Hays Code until the 1960s when the standards for censorship were relaxed (Petley 130).

With the growing popularity of television sets in the home came tight restrictions for television programs. Televisions made entertainment easily accessible to people in the comfort of their own homes—this created stiff competition for filmmakers. While television standards were stricter, it allowed film production codes to be lowered in order to lure viewers back to the theater with the prospect of seeing something more forbidden. When Hellraiser was first released in 1987, audiences may have been a little shocked at the overt sexualization of pain and violence.

The graphic nature of the gruesome torture scenes cut in between scenes of sexual conquest and that starts within the first fifteen minutes. The mise-en-scène we are given with Julia’s flashback to her affair with her soon-to-be husband’s brother Frank sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Frank appears at the door, confident if not rude and slightly mysterious, drenched from the downpour of rain. He imposes himself upon Julia and we see her in her most innocent and unassuming form—cut to her walking into the third floor attic, a dusty, dingy, room in ill repair, to be alone with her thoughts.

Every inclusion of prop, from the knife that he cuts her nightgown strap with, to the wedding dress he lays her down upon to begin their torrid love affair, is essential to the story. Frank will take what he wants from Julia; having never been with a man who so confidently takes what he desires, Julia falls lustfully into their fervent and passionate, if not taboo, lovemaking. Engaging with Frank atop her pure white gown, sullying her presumable innocent reputation, is at the core of what Hellraiser translates to. Pleasure that feels sinful, Pain that feels pleasurable—two things that, with the Lament Configuration, blend together seamlessly.

The scene continues, cutting from the flashback of the affair to present-day Julia in longing remembrance, and then to her husband as he struggles to move a bed into their home. Frank and Julia climax in the flashback, Julia begins to cry, and Larry cuts himself deeply on a nail protruding from a wall. In these five minutes, we have excess in the taboo sexual act of cheating, the emotional show of Julia’s aching desire for Frank, and the adverse reaction Larry has to his own hand gushing blood. The movie continues on in this manner, unapologetic and all the more entertaining for it—we spend the next few minutes watching the floorboard soak up Larry’s blood and subsequently reconstitute most of Frank’s body.

Pinhead from Hellraiser

Torture Porn and Erotica?

Some people might have found those two scenes to be subversive or even repulsive—some, according to movie critics at the time, found it comical. As if the excess pushed it from a horrifying experience, to a campy overdone joke. I think, when appreciated for the time it was created and given a little benefit of the doubt, it sows the seeds of a completely gratifying horror experience. Any attempt to relate to Julia, one might actually feel sorry for her—she feels as if she’s fallen in love with Frank and that he loves her back. The truth that she doesn’t really take into consideration is that desire and love don’t always coexist; Frank doesn’t actually care about Julia past using her for his own personal gain. We find out later, Frank’s coercive nature leads her to bring back men for him to feed off of and escape hell. Her own selfish desires lead her to assume that once he’s back in his skin (quite literally), they’ll rekindle their love-affair.

Violence and sex have had a tendency to be viewed differently in different countries. Where America has historically fallen back on christian outrage when it comes to depictions of sex (especially premarital sex) on the big screen, violence has been considered more acceptable. Alternatively, as Dumas has noted, countries like Sweden have had the opposite policy (29). People experience an incredible amount of shame and anxiety surrounding their own sexual desires that may or may not be considered taboo within an otherwise moral society—this of course causes an internal conflict for the audience (Dumas 29). What’s more is when Hellraiser’s Pinhead suggests that, “pleasure and pain (are) indistinguishable,” within his realm, it cements the concept of sexualizing brutality.

A certain morbid curiosity has escalated the gory nature of horror films with the release of each new feature. Post 9/11 audiences seemed to be even more desensitized than before—torture porn like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) hit the theaters—horror fans flocked to experience the repulsion and anxiety that comes with watching the suffering of others (Pinedo 345). A world where fear and uncertainty were becoming more commonplace, there became a vaccuum for horror. These gratuitous, taboo, excessive movies gave viewers a space in which we were free to be afraid.

Excess turns exploitative when the horror no longer fits around an underlying story, but instead, a story is made to fit around underlying ideas of violence and repulsion. Like pornography that attempts to have a plot—just look at any motion-picture porn parody—exploitative horror like The Human Centipede (2009), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), A Serbian Film (2010), and Tusk (2014) is simply an excuse to showcase gratuitous violence. These films are still liable to be heavily cut (Petley 146-147) and for good reason.

What is interesting is that such exploitative films are defended regularly, but are they films that need to be defended? A Serbian Film’s subject matter is indefensible, yet there are people who try to reason away the infant rape scene by bringing up that it wasn’t a real infant. Regardless of whether it’s a real infant or not, it’s meant to convey the scene in the most realistic way possible so as to instigate a severe repulsion response. It’s even suggested that “the masochistic and sadistic aspects of the film-viewing experience [implies] that viewers get some form of sexual gratification from these images,” (Pinedo 347) which in the case of A Serbian Film is beyond horrifying.

Horror and sex have a long, intertwined history, the eroticization of depictions of violence is nothing new. However, a horror film’s ability to stimulate viewers sexually, “not only draws their attention, but also primes them to react more strongly to other feelings, such as suspense and fear,” (Pinedo 347). In the end, what is considered exploitative or excessive is dependent upon the audience—there will always be those who object, just like there will always be those who call for more violence, gore, repulsion, and explicit sexual content.

Strong reactions and emotions have historically created experiences fewer people can forget. As an example, who can forget the release of Hostel in 2005, where viewers were not only fleeing the theater, they were reportedly throwing up in their seats. If the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” is true—which it certainly seems to be within the horror genre—then these outrageous claims of such violent repulsion created a more morbidly curious audience.

Works Cited

Dumas, Chris. “Horror and Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Primer.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 21–37.

Petley, Julian. “Horror and the Censors.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 130–147.

Pinedo, Isabel C. “Torture Porn: 21st Century Horror.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 345–61.

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Featured Indie Horror Indie Horror Creation Indie horror film makers

The Indie Horror Creation Process: Scare Me (2020) & Make Cool Sh!t

While some of us were wondering when we’d be able to get our next haircut, Josh Ruben (indie horror creator/director/actor of Scare Me) and Aaron Kheifets (host of Make Cool Sh!t) were immersed in getting new eyes on indie horror-comedy Scare Me (2020). When considering the classic horror comedies, such as The Evil Dead (1981), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Gremlins (1984), or even newer films like Jennifer’s Body (2009), Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010), and The Babysitter (2017) we see that there are consistent themes present—demons, aliens, or in the case of Tucker and Dale, stupid teenagers. These movies tend to take serious horror topics and spoof them, but in a legitimate way that eases us into scary themes through a variety of comedy tropes.

Scare Me (2020), a movie that defies the genre in every other way fits into this trend as well. Josh Ruben took a simple concept and created a film that is not only hilarious and over-the-top (in the best way possible), but is also chilling in its commentary on an issue that remains a hot-button issue in our culture.

This movie is a perfect mix of comedy actors who just so happen to capture horror with ease; Josh Ruben (of CollegeHumor), Aya Cash (of You’re the Worst), Chris Redd (of SNL), and Rebecca Drysdale (of Becks) are all the movie needs. The small cast created a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere that allowed us to suspend judgment as we waited to see what happened next. What we got, was a literary adventure with a dark realistic twist.

The Horror of the #MeToo Movement

As a woman in an industry that portrays women as victims or sexual objects, this movie was refreshing. The lead female character is not only intelligent and hilarious but also successful without needing to be hypersexualized. Josh wrote this movie at the height of the #MeToo movement; he pulled his inspiration from women in his life who had experienced trauma at the hands of men.

What emerged from that trauma and feminine nightmare was a horror-comedy that (perhaps) unwittingly showcases what it’s like to be made into a victim, where a woman might otherwise have been an independent and strong character. The movie cut my safety net and plopped me into a dark alley with a creepy guy with bad intentions.

While some men might not be able to appreciate this movie for the horrific scenario that it is, it’s likely that any woman who watches this will be able to relate in some way. I can honestly say that this movie hit all of its promised marks—it made me laugh (hard), but it also terrified and left me with anxiety that lingered far longer than anything else I’ve seen recently. If you’re still wondering whether or not you should watch this movie (you can find it on Shudder or YouTube), just watch it. It’s a perfect representative of horror-comedy.

Make Cool Sh!t – A Journey Through Indie Horror Creation

While Josh Ruben was busy at work directing and acting in his first feature film, the producers of Make Cool Sh!t were busy bursting in on actors at comically inopportune moments to try to capture the grit of creating an indie horror film. If you’re an indie creator thinking of making a movie, I highly recommend this podcast—you’ll find it to be an invaluable resource of information on what to do next.

Aaron Kheifets wasn’t on the set during filming, but he became the voice of the process; his insights on it are invaluable even if he balks at the idea. After all, he earned a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology then broke the news to his mother that he was going to be a comedian. I would say he has more insight into human psychology than he gives himself credit for.

Using Kheifets, a longtime associate of Ruben, as the voice of the podcast was an excellent choice. He brought personal touches and academic cognizance of issues that an audience might not otherwise understand. For those of us who foresee our futures in the horror industry, we look at an undertaking like Scare Me and hope that one day it will be within our grasp as well. Josh Ruben showed us that hoping for our big break is unproductive and counterintuitive. You might as well be sitting in the dark and trying to read Homer’s Odyssey.

If you want to be successful, you have to put in the work; being discovered happens so rarely and as we see in Scare Me, entitlement doesn’t pay off. Ruben showed us that it’s difficult but unavoidable (and worth it!) if we truly want to make it happen.

Behind the Minds of Indie Horror – Let’s Talk Indie Horror

I interviewed both Josh Ruben and Aaron Kheifets in regards to their work on Scare Me and Make Cool Sh!t. It was an eye-opening experience where I was given an opportunity to pick the brains of some really talented individuals. They gave me some really honest answers to some really difficult questions. It showed me that they were more than just actors, or characters. They were human.

So, if you have a chance to watch the interview I conducted with them, check it out! It’s some pretty insightful stuff and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed talking to them. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

If you’ve already seen Scare Me, then let me know what you thought of it in the comments below!

Also, check out this article on How to Write and Promote Your Indie Horror!

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Featured Indie Horror Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers Short Horror Stories

Infernal

Looking into the mirror, my eyes were bloodshot. Of course they were bloodshot, what did I expect having only slept four hours in the last three days? It was getting to be a pattern and it was starting to take a toll on me. My fluff of a ragdoll cat, Jekyll, stopped midway through weaving himself around my ankles and looked up lovingly at me—his soft mew broke my trance.

“I’m coming Jekyll, you’ve got to let me brush my teeth!” My toothbrush hung lazily in my mouth and I found it difficult to keep from drooling on my clean pajama top—thank god I was single. I caught my eyes again in the mirror before I turned the hot water handle, rinsed off my toothbrush, and spit. There was blood in the sink again, Jesus—was I falling apart? My toothbrush made a hollow clunk as it hit the bottom of the toothbrush holder. When I opened the medicine cabinet, I was greeted by the same rainbow of pill bottles that was waiting for me every night. I emptied Tuesday’s compartment into my hand and tossed the array of antidepressants, vitamins, and sleeping pills back with a handful of water that I splashed up from the spigot. Here I was thinking that these were supposed to make me feel better, but the last few days had proven they weren’t working.

The water splashed down on Jekyll—that was when he let out a pitiful cry and jetted out of the bathroom. I sighed, it was laborious and made my back creak; my shoulders stung with the pain of exhaustion. For a moment, I could have sworn I caught a whiff of smoke, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared. I hastily closed the medicine cabinet, but as the mirror swung closed with a snap, I looked back up at my reflection and my eyes succumbed to my exhaustion. It lived on my face as the puffy purpling bags under my eyes—a desperation for sleep, filled the void within me. When I finally opened my eyes again, I caught a glimpse of something over my shoulder in the mirror, I felt myself start, but before I could even think I had spun around to face—nothing. Just empty space. It felt like the entirety of the Kentucky Derby was stampeding across my chest, the wind was knocked clean out of me. There wasn’t anything there. You’re seeing things, Lorna. Dr. Mason said hallucinations were a possible side effect. Calm down.

I shuffled out of the bathroom and flicked the light switch off behind me. Just seeing things. My feet scuffed the floor in my outrageously fluffy panda slippers and I flopped down into the tangled mass of plush blankets and nest of pillows I had made for myself. Jekyll made his usual rounds after hopping up on the bed, being sure to step down with what seemed the weight of a small child on my stomach before he settled contentedly between my ankles and I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

It couldn’t have been more than a few hours later when I jerked awake, my tangled hair at the back of my neck soaked in sweat. I had been startled awake by a loud crash that had come from my bathroom. I yelled out at Jekyll, with what I’m sure was more than a few choice swear words, but he stood up at my feet, stretched, and answered me with a trill. My breath caught uncomfortably in my chest and it churned relentlessly with the loud thud of my accelerated pulse. My eyes burned with exhaustion as I made a feeble attempt to see through the inky blackness of my room. I still hadn’t let out that breath. It didn’t feel safe to, not yet.

“Hello?” I heard how shaky my voice was as it came out of me. Yes, Lorna—the killer stalking around your house is totally going to answer you and tell you that they’re there. I reached over to my bedside lamp—CLICKwhatCLICK, CLICKwhy isn’t my lamp turning on? Rummaging through my nightstand drawer revealed a dusty flashlight, prayer aided it being brought back to life despite the likelihood of corroded batteries. If I was going to be murdered in my own home, I would rather see it coming. My bare feet met the cold laminate flooring, a shudder ran through my body, and I felt around for my slippers. My spotlight was fixed on the open bathroom door and I felt as if my eyes were bulging right out of my skull. Any moment, I was sure that I would see someone dashing from the shadows and persistent nausea met that paranoia with gusto.

By the time I had padded silently over to the bathroom door, I felt silly—the emptiness glared back at me like an innocuous April Fool’s joke. I don’t know what I had expected to be there, or what I would have done if there had been something there, for that matter. My exasperation gave me a false confidence and I was just about to turn to go back to bed when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the shower curtain rustle and heard the rings clatter against the tension rod. If I had known how to juggle, I might have caught the flashlight as it leaped out of my hand. I rolled my eyes at my apprehension and snatched the flashlight off of the floor. You’re way too high strung for your own good. It had to be the meds playing tricks on me. None of this was happening; no doubt, waking up in the morning would have me feeling foolish.

Just then, another calamitous crash came from down the hall and any renewed spirit I had gathered drained from me altogether. My knuckles must have turned white due to my vice-grip on the flashlight. Get it together Lorna. My other hand felt for the baseball bat that I had stashed behind my bedroom door. My palms were so sweaty that it felt as if they had been slicked with butter; suffice it to say, it made gripping the bat with any security quite difficult. After abandoning the flashlight on the dresser, I hefted the baseball bat over my shoulder and peeked out of my bedroom around the corner. Without the benefit of the flashlight in my hand, I struggled to see through the darkness of the hallway, but I had decided that if there was someone in my home they were going to get a fight.

I stepped down the hallway in silent trepidation, the clatter of drawers opening, closing, then opening again, and then a cacophony of silverware clattering to the floor. Each step brought me closer to the sinister orange glow that bathed the walls with flickering shadows. Another step and a sudden crash of my metal barstools caused me to jump so high I could have sworn my head brushed the ceiling. Paralyzed in fear, I grasped the baseball bat tightly to my chest and pressed myself against the wall, as if trying to make myself smaller. Go, Lorna, just go! I forced myself off of the wall and gripped the bat with new conviction, a surge of adrenaline propelled me forward and into the kitchen.

What I saw myself come face to face with was enough to elicit the kind of scream that clawed its way out from my gut. A figure of a man being devoured in flames stood hunched amid the destruction and spreading fire in my kitchen—wherever the flames danced upon his skin, the flesh hung off of him in charred strips. His black eyeless sockets turned to me, but my eyes were fixated on his twisted features, where the fire had melted his face it sagged off his jaw and exposed the charred bone beneath. I clutched the bat feebly as he rose to stand upright and began to slowly amble toward me.

My feet carried me backward, mirroring his footsteps and I saw that each step revealed scorched floorboards; I continued stepping back, unblinking, the heat dried my eyes, they began to burn. I heard a hiss at my feet but stumbled over Jekyll before I could register he was even there. The man lunged toward me and in a knee-jerk reaction, I swung the bat off of my shoulder with as much force as I could muster. I was stunned to find it only caught air on its way through the man’s form and adopted a fast-burning flame. The baseball bat burned like a torch as it sunk into the drywall on the other side of the figure. The flames spread up as if fed by gasoline and rage and before I knew it they blanketed the ceiling above me.

The man was unfazed by my assault, his arms still reached for me. Without hesitation, I scooped up a growling Jekyll and scrambled clumsily back through my bedroom door and slammed it behind me. He was squirming violently in my arms, his fearful anticipation brought his claws down hard into my shoulder, but I held him tighter as I witnessed that same orange glow filter in under the gap of my door. Shit, shit, shit… Smoke rose from under the door, flames soon followed and I felt the sharp edge of my bedside table bite the back of my bare thigh.

Fire consumed my door as if it was comprised of nitrate film—what the fuck—I couldn’t open my window fast enough and doing so while holding on to my wrathful ragdoll was practically impossible. He spit angrily at the combusting monstrosity that stepped through the curtain of fire that used to be my door. Fuck this. I gave my window a good shove and it let out a loud whine. Jekyll was the first through, but before I could follow an excruciating pain shot through my leg—and then I fell and everything went black.

When I came to, I was laying on my back and could feel the hard chill of the sidewalk beneath me. I could hear someone call, “she’s awake,” but I could only see blackness and the outlines of two people above me.

“Miss—,” I heard a deep husky voice and I knew it was addressing me, but I didn’t know how to make my body respond to it. “Miss—Jones?” Another figure appeared above me, and they all slowly came into focus. A police officer was addressing me abreast the two EMTs who then disappeared from my view—when I tried to sit up, they jumped to help me, and the dull ache in the back of my head became more pronounced.

Ten minutes went by and my eyes were still dry from being overwhelmed with smoke. I mindlessly clutched my singed and shaken blackened mop of a cat, his claws clung tentatively to the blanket I had draped over my shoulders. I was surprised they had found him at all. The cold curb bit at my exposed legs, but the heat radiating from the blaze behind me reminded me that I much preferred the cold at this very instant. I could hear as my roof cracked and caved in under the burden of the fast-moving fire. The insurance company is never going to believe this… I’m so screwed.

“Are you alright to speak with me now, Miss Jones?” The police officer was back to ask his questions. He probably thinks I did this myself. I blinked repeatedly until I was able to break my gaze away from the darkness across the street. When I finally was able to look up at him, I saw he was looking at me as if I were an escaped mental patient—the 911 operator had sent everything but the kitchen sink after a neighbor had called to report a scream and smoke coming from my home. I’ll have to find out who it was so I can thank them.

“What was it you said was the cause of the blaze?”

“I—I’m not sure.” It wasn’t entirely a lie if I didn’t know what the hell I had just seen in my home, was it?

“What happened right before the blaze broke out?”

“Sleep, I was sleeping, my cat woke me up and I was headed to the kitchen.” I still wasn’t technically lying.

“The ambulance is going to take you to the hospital to treat you for smoke inhalation and those burns on your ankles.” I had already had enough strange eyes on me tonight, so the idea of being under the watchful eye of strangers made me shiver. Even though I knew I would soon be laying in a hospital bed with a nurse dressing my wounds, I started to feel sick. It was a deep, relentless, twisting anxiety that told me the burning man may have gone up in flames with my home, but that it wouldn’t be the last time I saw him.

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

Hexing, Cursing, and Crossing: The Truth Behind Baneful Magic

In antiquity, the distinction was made between “white,” and “black,” magic (excuse the quotes, those terms are the most recognizable, although I personally reject the concept of colors in magic). In The Book of Black Magic and Pacts, we’re told that, “Esoteric Medicine, which consisted in the application of occult forces to the healing of disease in man, and included a traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties resident in some substances disregarded by ordinary pharmacy, produced in its malpractice the secret science of poisoning, and the destruction of health.” Every witch knows that it’s not always black and white—many times there are shades of gray.

Baneful magic has existed as long as magic has existed—that is to say, as long as we as a species have believed in helpful magic, we have believed in harmful magic. Hexes, curses, and crosses are but a few of the names that baneful spells within witchcraft or magic culture are referred to as. So why is there such a huge culture of misinformation surrounding baneful magic? Why do people label it as being “black” or “dark”? Well—to be quite frank, it’s simply the result of a bad reputation and possibly a little ignorance. It’s unfortunate that noted authorities like Waite are still being trusted when their beliefs and assertions are so far outdated, but they do give us a good idea of how far we’ve come.

To say his belief that, “White Ceremonial Magic is … an attempt to communicate with Good Spirits for a good … purpose. Black Magic is the attempt to communicate with Evil Spirits for an evil purpose,” would be a ridiculous oversimplification.

Traditions of Baneful Magic: What’s the Difference?

There is a common saying within the community of magic practitioners, that “a witch that cannot hex, cannot heal.” This always seems to strike a foul mood in practitioners who are adamant that magical practices can only include fluffy, happy vibes and should only exist to help people and not to interfere with free will, nor should it be used to harm anyone. The overall concept is that magic itself is not good, nor is it evil. Just like a knife is not in itself good or evil. The operator of the equipment decides how to use it—so if a construction worker decides to knock down an orphanage instead of the building set to be demolished, you’re not going to blame the wrecking ball. So, let’s explore the differences between the different types of baneful magic.

Hexing

Hexing, when it comes right down to it, is a baneful spell—this is a spell cast by a practicing witch—that is intended to cause a specific, non-beneficial result on an intended target. In metaphysical literature, it’s quite common for the word “hex” and “curse” to be used interchangeably, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the word “hex”. That is to say that hexes are inherently evil, as many witches who practice baneful magic typically have a good reason for casting such spells.

An example scenario that a witch might cast such a spell for, is when a mother is fighting for custody of their children through the court system, but the father (and intended target) has a history of domestic violence, drug abuse, or worse. The mother has done everything within their power to secure the safety and future of their children, but somehow the father still has a pretty good chance at winning custody. In this circumstance, a witch could target the father’s lawyer to do poorly in his court performance, which might help turn the tables in the favor of the mother—or—the witch could target the father to have all of his lies exposed.

What is a curse to one person is a blessing to someone else. It just depends on where you happen to be sitting. That’s why the ethical lines are so blurry.

Hexing is a tool that a witch can use to interfere with free will in situations that call for it—of course, there are also individual witches out there who are just nasty people and love nothing more than to watch people suffer. Overwhelmingly, people generally fall into the good category and don’t go out of their way to ruin people’s lives. There is also the lesser-known fact that practicing baneful magic takes an incredible amount of energy and will often leave a witch feeling exhausted, irritable, or even sick. I can tell you from personal experience that the worse the intended hex is, the worse a witch will feel afterward.

Dark Witch in the Woods
Dark Witch in the Woods

Cursing

There are two schools of thought when it comes to what a curse is. Some people believe that a curse is simply, wishing bad things upon someone who has slighted you in some way. This could be as silly as, “I hope you step in water whenever you put on fresh socks,” in an effort to ensure the person is forever uncomfortable—or it could be something much more serious. As a general rule, however, curses are not actually spells—they are manifestations of intentions, with no specific ritual attached to it. Now, some witches may disagree with this definition, but I’d like to reiterate that hex and curse can be used interchangeably. Most often, the layman knows curses as they relate to the grievous incidents that surround certain objects, projects, or historic events.

Famous Curses

There are also curses that have played significant roles in history; we can look at practically any culture on earth and find a curse that is commonly believed to be true. These curses can range from the ridiculous to the significant, but one thing is certain, they get a lot of attention by those who believe in the supernatural and paranormal.

The Curse of King Tut (or the Curse of the Pharaohs)

Tutankhamun is famously known to have been a pharaoh of Egypt during the 14th century, but when the tomb at the base of his pyramid was opened in February 1923, no one could have known the tragedy that would follow. Perhaps this curse is a result of a hysteria over the death of the archaeological team’s lead sponsor just two months after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s mummy. At the time, it was believed that he had died from King Tut’s curse, when the reporters from Britain made the baseless claim—as it was found that he had actually died from an unidentified bacterial infection. However, when other members of the archaeological team died soon after, the curse was revived; ever since there have been movies inspired by the terrifying prospect of being cursed by the mummy of Tutankhamun.

The Curse of the Hope Diamond

When French gem dealer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased a large diamond in the 1660s it was believed that the 112-carat monstrosity had been stolen from the head of an idol in India. The legend followed that the priests of the temple where the idol had been vandalized cursed the precious stone upon its theft. Some believe that it was Tavernier himself that had stolen the diamond from the Hindu goddess’s statue, and the legend of its curse was spread by newspapers and jewelers alike. Its original owner after Tavernier acquired it, was King Louis XVI of France, who gave it to both Princess de Lamballie and Marie Antoinette to wear. Both women along with King Louis XVI were met with the guillotine during the French Revolution and so the curse of the Hope Diamond was born.

After the first three to possess the jewel met such a gruesome death, it was believed that anyone who was unlucky enough to possess it would also die in mysterious ways. Allegedly even jewelers who kept it at their shop met this unusual fate. Henry Philip Hope came into possession of it in 1839 and died the same year, but eventually, it came into the possession of American heiress Evelyn Wash McLean in the 1910s. McLean ended up dying and ownership defaulted to a jewelry company in the U.S. that sold it to the Smithsonian in 1958. To this day, the famously cursed jewel remains on display in the United States through the Smithsonian Institution. Many who want to be more logical about so many deaths would believe that this curse was actually a product of greed, an attempt to make the jewel that much more valuable.

The Kennedy Curse

The assassination of President Kennedy was the lynchpin that marks the beginning of the curse of the Kennedys. Robert Kennedy was also assassinated five years later, Senator Ted Kennedy somehow survived a plane crash only to drive off a bridge later on. Robert Kennedy’s son died as the result of a drug overdose and his second son died in a skiing accident. Then, JFK Jr. died in a plane crash with his wife and sister, and finally the wife of RFK Jr., Mary Kennedy committed suicide. Talk about a family curse!

The Curse of Rosemary’s Baby

Often when movies like Rosemary’s Baby are said to be cursed, it’s typically as a result of a marketing strategy; a means to boost ticket sales and they’re later found to be a simple publicity stunt. There are many who believe that all the negative happenings surrounding the production of the movie wasn’t just a little bad luck.

Ira Levin Reputation Tanked

Despite the book’s adaptation into the feature film and lingering popularity over the last five decades, author Ira Levin’s reputation, career, and personal life were all but ruined. Religious institutions around the world were not pleased at what they perceived to be Levin’s attacks on organized religions, with the Catholic Church even asserting his book was blasphemous. Levin’s wife left him the same year that the film was released and as a result of his poor luck, he became more terrified and paranoid as time passed. Not just that, but due to his reputation as a blasphemer, he had to publicly denounce Satanism on a regular basis and his later attempts to salvage his career with a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby failed miserably.

The Fall of Castle

William Castle, the man who initially picked Levin’s novel up to purchase the rights to the film ended up becoming the producer for the project. Unfortunately for Castle, not only did he develop severe kidney stones, but his mental health also suffered due to the volume of hate mail he received as a direct result of being associated with the film. He later made claims that he hallucinated demonic scenes from the movie while he was under anesthesia during his surgery. His reputation never recovered.

Death, Substance Abuse, and Assault

Numerous other stories are related to the curse that is believed to have surrounded Rosemary’s Baby, one truly famous story involves the film’s composer Krzysztof Komenda, who fell into a coma after a falling accident. Some link his coma to that of Rosemary’s friend within the film, Hutch who was targeted by a witch’s curse. Like Hutch, Komeda never recovered from the coma but instead died the following year. John Lennon was another popular death associated with the curse of the film, since he was assassinated just outside of The Dakota in 1980, the building featured as Rosemary’s prison within the film. Another famous story that is linked to the curse, is the murders of Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, as well as their unborn child. Victims of the Manson Family and their leader, Charles Manson.

Crossing

Crossing comes from a separate tradition altogether—it’s not technically considered part of the witchcraft tradition, since voodooisants, hoodoos, and folk magic practitioners don’t generally consider themselves to be “witches”. Being cursed with Zombification might not exactly be something that conjure, one wishes for, but as opposed to other ways in which folk magic practitioners practice baneful magic it might be one of the least painful ways to suffer. Crossing within folk magic cultural practices might be similar to curses and hexes in theory, but it’s wellknown that regular “black” magic doesn’t hold a candle (pun intended) to the type of crossing that is done within voodoo, conjure, hoodoo, and folk magic. This is in part due to the fact that crossing often involves personal talismans, like blood, hair, and fingernails which amp up the power of any magical working.

Final Thoughts

As in the article presented by the Scientific American, what really makes people wary of so-called “black” magic, is the “bad is black” effect. “[It] only underscores the importance of finding ways to combat the various ways that our inherent biases can influence perceptions of guilt and innocence.” This essentially submits that anything with the label of “black” is automatically associated with being bad. What should really be taken away from this article, is that hexing, cursing, and crossing are used (much of the time) in a way that vindicates the practitioner of any wrongdoing.

As a witch that practices baneful magic, I don’t often advertise the fact, I prefer to not have to debate, argue, or even calmly explain my own beliefs and practices. Nor do I feel that anyone outside of the practitioner has much of a right to know the whys or hows. I would never divulge on whom these practices might be focused! Witchcraft and any other magical practice is a very personal thing—so, if you’re the target of someone who is claiming that they’ve done black magic on you, or that they’ve cursed you, you can in most cases, discount their claims. No magical practitioner worth their salt goes around telling their targets that they’ve done work on them. You can rest assured that those who claim they’ve cursed, hexed, or crossed you simply want you to believe they have and effectively scare the shit out of you.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes…

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest … because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.”

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Work Cited

Dhruv Bose, Swapnil. “Dissecting the Curse of Roman Polanski’s Horror Classic ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.” Far Out Magazine, 24 Nov. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “A Voodoo Practice: Mysteries of Zombification.” Puzzle Box Horror, 2 Apr. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “African American Folk Magic: Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork.” Puzzle Box Horror, 12 Feb. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult.” Puzzle Box Horror, 12 Feb. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Punishment for Grave Robbing Epitomized in Short Horror Film, Toe (2020).” Puzzle Box Horror, 5 Apr. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Rosemary’s Baby Review: Terror in Plain Sight.” Puzzle Box Horror, 24 Jan. 2021.

Freuler, Kate. Of Blood and Bones: Working with Shadow Magick and the Dark Moon. Llewellyn Publications, 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “The Utterly Wicked Truths About ‘Dark’ Magic.” Puzzle Box Horror, 11 Sept. 2020.

Grewal, Daisy. “The ‘Bad Is Black’ Effect.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 17 Jan. 2017.

“The Distinction between White and Black Magic.” The Book of Black Magic and Pacts: Including the Rites and Mysteries of goëtic Theurgy, Sorcery, and Infernal Necromancy, by Arthur Edward Waite, Weiser, 1984, pp. 13–15.