Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ghost Kills Girl: Real-Life Horror

Not many people know it, but I am a survivor of a real-life horror story, chronicled in a website I recently created,

In 2008, when she was fourteen, my brilliant and beautiful daughter, Martha Corey-Ochoa, read in a book about an eighteenth-century Russian prince named Aleksei Petrovich Romanov, who was tortured to death by his father, Tsar Peter the Great. (Aleksei really existed, you can look him up here.) Martha fell in love with Aleksei, despite the three-century gap in their ages, and believed that he loved her back. She considered herself his wife and widow, and often wore black in mourning. She put a toy plastic silver ring on her finger as her wedding ring.

Martha experienced heights of ecstasy in her love affair with Aleksei, and suicidal depths of depression at his absence. She physically felt his touch. Her marriage to him separated her from her friends and kept her from pursuing romances with living boys. She kept her love a secret from my wife and me until June 3, 2009, when she told us about him. I had her see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with an unspecified mood disorder with psychotic features that was probably bipolar disorder. From then on she was under psychiatric treatment, including psychotropic drugs and psychotherapy.

In 2010, Martha was torn between her love of Aleksei and her desire for a living boy, Yihan, and attempted suicide by drinking laundry detergent. She survived, but fell into a deep depression. She believed herself to have been unfaithful to Aleksei and to have lost him as a result. She considered suicide again in 2011, and spent a month in a mental hospital. Finally, on August 27, 2012, at the age of eighteen, she committed suicide by throwing herself out the fourteenth-story window of her dorm room on her first night at Columbia University. Her death made international news, even reaching the London press.

I will never know exactly why Martha killed herself, but I believe that Aleksei played a role. If what she said was true, then the ghost of this Russian prince was a deformed destructive being (a DDB), deformed positionally (because he still lived even though he was dead), destructive in the effects he had on her. If he was only a delusion caused by mental illness, then Martha herself was the DDB, deformed psychologically in such a way that she destroyed herself.

Martha enjoyed the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, because it bore such similarities to her own life: eastern European undead prince has love affair with living girl that leaves her forever marked. She was also partial to Twilight and its sequels, again because of the love affair between the undead male and the living female.

The only difference between Martha's horror story and the ones I've seen in movies is that the effect on me was not horror, but grief. I lost my only child to this monster. Still, she lives on in my memories, and to honor her, I created a website of her writings--poems, essays, journals, fiction--most of which focus on or are inspired by her marriage to Aleksei. I encourage you to visit the site:

George Ochoa

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mary and the Living Dead

One of the things I like about Jon Towlson's book Subversive Horror Cinema is how it directs me to horror films I haven't seen yet. Here are two of them I recently saw: American Mary (2012) and Survival of the Dead (2009).

American Mary is about a medical student named Mary, who, when trying to make ends meet, finds a profitable career doing body-modification surgery for people desperate to alter their bodies: identical twins who want to swap limbs; a woman who wants a forked tongue; people who don't like their genitalia; and so on. She is doing so well she quits medical school and goes to work full-time as an underground surgeon. And she has another secret: she is getting diabolical revenge on Dr. Grant, a surgeon who raped her, She performs 14 hours of surgery on him, without anesthesia, hacking off his arms and legs, sewing his mouth shut, and keeping him locked up until she can think of more things to do to him.

Mary qualifies as a deformed-destructive being (DDB) if only for the cruelty of the revenge she takes on Dr. Grant, putting herself in the category of rape-revenge horror movie vixens such as Jennifer, the star of I Spit on Your Grave. About her other surgeries, however, there is some uncertainty. Is it truly destructive to cut up and deform a body when the owner of the body wants it done and is willing to pay for it? Perhaps not, if one considers it from the point of view of American capitalism (as the title of this movie suggests). Americans highly value the right of the individual to the pursuit of happiness, and what will make these patients happy is bod-mod surgery. Further, the sanctity of private economic transactions is what the USA is all about, and Mary is engaging in such transactions with her patients. So, from that point of view, she is not a DDB for being a bod-mod surgeon.

Still, if one believes there is a natural order to things, and that destroying parts of a human body and deforming it for non-medical reasons is a violation of that order, then Mary is a DDB just because of the body modifications she carries out. This is why viewers of this film cringe when she carries them out: belief in a natural order is deep inside us, deeper even than capitalism. There are at least two warring final vocabularies at work in this movie--American capitalist and medieval great chain of being--and the clash of them produces the uneasy mix of horror and humor that this film skillfully delivers.

The other film I recently saw, Survival of the Dead, is neither as inventive nor as horrifying as American Mary.

This is the sixth film in the George A. Romero series that began with Night of the Living Dead, and enough is enough. Even the original Planet of the Apes series only lasted for five films. The shambling, ravenous zombies are at it again, this time trying to eat a military unit and two warring families on Plum Island. The film moves right along and is, as were the earlier films, entertaining (except for Diary of the Dead, which was not), but there is nothing substantially new here, and the stakes are low. It's essentially a Hatfield and McCoy film, and who really cares which side of that struggle won?

The DDBs in Survival of the Dead, are, I suppose, the zombies, but by this point they have only a faint supply of deformity and destructiveness. We have seen them many times before, in this series and its many imitators, and we know how to kill them and avoid them. The horror is all but gone. It's like what happened to the Frankenstein monster by the time Abbott and Costello met up with him in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

At the end of the film there's a bit of social satire about the futility of war. This bit is itself futile. You don't make six movies about zombies vs. humans if you really think violent conflict is futile. On the contrary, it can be quite lucrative.

George Ochoa

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book Review: Jon Towlson's Subversive Horror Cinema

Book Review
Jon Towlson
Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present
McFarland 2014

Subversive Horror Cinema has almost everything that one looks for in a book on horror movies. It reminds you of horror movies you've seen and gives you information on movies you haven't seen. It has a nice collection of stills, an interesting premise (that there exists a tradition of subversive horror movies), and a capable style. This all makes for an entertaining voyage into horror moviedom.

The one thing it lacks is variety in the analysis of films. This is because the movies Towlson discusses are all chosen as examples of one thing: subversiveness. Towlson defines the "subversive school of horror" as "a more radical wing of the genre involving its ideological use for potentially progressive purposes." Two words in this definition stick out: "radical" and "progressive." In America, at least, these are terms of approbation frequently used by left-wingers to refer to themselves. So what this definition really means is "the left wing of the genre." I ought to know; I have been a left-winger all my adult life. As a young man, I believed in anarchism, and now I'm a member of the next closest thing, the Democratic Party. Therefore, I don't mind that some films in the horror genre have a left-wing bent, nor that there is now a book about them. What I mind is how monotonous the book gets when every analysis of a film tries to show the film's subversiveness.

Just about every discussion of a film in Subversive Horror Cinema reaches the same conclusion: it's attacking patriarchy, government, religion, racism, repression, individualism, misogyny, the military, or some other thing some left-wingers oppose. All the other horror movies--the majority of them, says Towlson--"can and should be considered reactionary." "Reactionary" is another buzzword, like "radical" and "progressive." All it means is "right-winger."

Thus, Frankenstein makes the cut, because it undermines heterosexuality, eugenics, and aristocracy; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man does not. Night of the Living Dead, yes, because it attacks government, racism, and the Vietnam War; Fright Night, no. Indeed Towlson saves most of the good films for his subversive list, and leaves the junk to the rest of us.

In my book on horror films, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I mention that deformed and destructive beings (ie, monsters) are constructed out of subversive materials. But my use of "subversive" is more in line with its dictionary definition of "intending to undermine an established order." Such an order need not be political; it can be the order of nature, such as the human genetic code subverted in The Fly (1986). Had Towlson followed this definition of subversive, his book might not have been better, but the analyses would have been more varied.

There are a few other imperfections in this book. For example, Towlson reports that Reagan was elected president in 1979, whereas the correct year was 1980. And I recently saw a movie called Girly (1970) that I thought Towlson would want to analyze, but he didn't seem to include it. Then I found it in the book under its original British title, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. He did have it. Maybe he is perfect.

George Ochoa

Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Keeps Following

I just saw It Follows (2015), and I liked it. For most of the running time it was appropriately scary, and this is something that is often rare in horror movies. Proving once again that you don't need big name stars for a horror movie, It Follows is largely stocked with young unknowns, including the lead, Maika Monroe as Jay, a pretty blonde. After having sex with her boyfriend, she learns that she has just been transferred a curse: to be followed around by a nameless thing that takes the form of a single individual following the accursed. The follower may be male or female, young or old, naked or clothed, known to the accursed or not known, and it always walks at a steady pace with its eyes riveted on the accursed. If it catches up with you, it will touch you, and if it does, something bad will happen. I seem to remember playing schoolyard games of tag with this kind of premise--if "it" touches you, you become "it"--but the movie makes it somehow more relentless and awful.

Another thing about the thing: no one but you can see it coming, because to everyone else it's invisible. You can make it visible by covering it with a drape or having it throw a TV set at you, so in that sense it's physical, not spiritual. Supposedly if you have sex with someone, you can transfer the curse to that person, but there are a few codicils to this rule that seem to nullify it.

My biggest problem with It Follows is the ending. I thought the movie was just going into the third act, when suddenly the credits rolled. I like a frisson as much as the next horror fan, but this ending seemed to be more of a copout, setting up the sequel without bothering to tie up the present movie.

Overall, though, It Follows was scary and entertaining. The deformed destructive being (DDB) was at once utterly vague and completely incarnate, easily outrun but somehow always about to reach you.

George Ochoa

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The She-Beast

The She-Beast (1966) is one of those horror movies that is bad, but not so bad it's good. An Italian production, it involves a witch who centuries ago was dunked to death in a lake in Transylvania. It is hard to see what makes her so evil other than her hideous makeup job--her face all pebbled and grotesque, her teeth snaggled. As usual for this kind of movie, she vows vengeance against the local populace for killing her.

Flash forward to the present day. A just-married English couple decide to honeymoon in Transylvania, of all places, just around the day when the witch is supposed to reappear. The husband loses control of the steering wheel and the car splashes into the accursed lake. The husband gets out safely, but his bride (Barbara Steele) is missing--presumably lost in the lake. The witch reappears, perhaps revived by a jolt of Steele's spirit or something. The rest of the movie is mostly Transylvanian village high-jinks, with a ludicrous car chase wherein bumbling cops try to catch the husband and a local count--von Helsing, no less--and a gratuitous cock fight, a lecherous innkeeper, and a witch who is asleep most of the time. Finally it all works out, with Steele restored to her groom. However, in the last line, Steele hints she'll be back--the obligatory frisson, but with a bit of a chill that works better than most of the dialogue in the movie.

The worst thing about this movie is that it can't decide what genre it belongs to: horror or comedy. If horror, it fails miserably. The witch has a genuinely ghastly face, invoking the deformed part of the deformed-destructive formula necessary for a horror movie. But she isn't really destructive. Supposedly she is killing people, but it never becomes clear who or how many she kills. The movie never stops for a body count. Most of the time the witch seems to be played for laughs.

However, if this is a comedy, it also fails miserably. The attempts at humor, especially those by the innkeeper and the Keystone Kops-like police, are overly broad and repetitious. There are a few mildly humorous lines that allude to the Communists who are running the country, and how they expropriated von Helsing's castle, forcing him to live in a cave. But there aren't enough to save the movie.

About the only appealing thing in the movie is Barbara Steele, who is beautiful as usual, and always on the balance beam between good and evil. But there isn't very much of her. Most of the time she is in the lake, where we can't see her, and instead have to look at grimmer things, such as her groom and the witch.

George Ochoa

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Case of CASE 39

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: the Purpose of Horror Films, I talk about how appearances in horror films affect actors' careers. The movie Case 39 (2009) is a case in point.

For those who missed it--probably many--Case 39 is an evil child horror movie, in the tradition of The Bad Seed and The Omen. All you need to make this type of film is a cute, wide-eyed, innocent-looking child who, when properly lit and coached, can look like the spawn of Satan (literally so in the case of The Omen). In Case 39, the child, Lilith (played by Jodelle Ferland), is apparently abused by her parents, so much so that when the social worker, Emily (Renee Zellweger), shows up one night, the parents are busy stuffing young Lilith into the oven, taping the oven shut, and setting it to bake. This does seem like a terrible thing to do to somebody, especially one's child, so Emily gets the parents arrested and takes Lilith home with her. This is where the trouble begins.

As cute as Lilith is, it turns out that she can force people to have terrible hallucinations that drive them to kill themselves, and is just generally, well, a bad seed. Zellweger figures out that Lilith is some sort of demon that does need to be destroyed, perhaps not in an oven but maybe in a a lake.

The movie is not a great horror film, though the good performances of Zellweger and Ferland boost it above the level of pure retread. What is most interesting is where it stands in Zellweger's career. Many are the actors who get their start doing horror films; a few advance beyond this level to become stars; and then some of these stars go back to doing horror films on the way down. This is Zellweger's fate. She started off appearing in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), got her big break opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (1996), and went on to several strong starring vehicles such as Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). But by 2009, when Case 39 was released, she was not doing so well. It was the year she turned forty, good roles were hard to get, and so she appeared in Case 39. Her career has not yet recovered, though you never know what will happen next in Hollywood.

Just to show the symmetry of this, Bradley Cooper, who supported Zellweger in Case 39 as her boyfriend, was moving in the opposite direction at that point. He had already made a horror movie, The Midnight Meat Train (2008), and now was appearing in another one--Case 39. That same year, The Hangover (2009) was released--which was Cooper's big break. Since then his star has been rising, all the way to an Oscar nomination for best actor in American Sniper (2014).

It appears that horror films can be helpful to an actor's career, especially in the beginning, but can spell trouble later on. Aging can also be a problem, especially for women: Zellweger is six years older than Cooper. At least horror film fans are loyal. When other options are gone, there's always horror.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The "Being" in Deformed-Destructive Beings

I notice there has been some confusion about my use of the term "being" in the theory of deformed and destructive beings (DDBs, or monsters). Basically, "to be" is what a thing does insofar as it is just itself. A man asleep on the sofa is sleeping, but even more fundamentally he is "being"--existing, there, having the property of actuality. If there were no one on the sofa, the man would lack being; he would not be. However, my making you imagine him through words would give the man fictional being. He would not exist in actuality, but he would have a fictional existence; he would fictionally be.

My theory is that we have a hunger to know being--to know all of what exists, is actually there, even if it is just a man sleeping on the sofa. Most likely, this hunger has been given us by natural selection. People with curiosity and interest in the surrounding environment were more likely to survive to reproduce than people who paid no attention to what was around them. Knowledge of what had being gave our remote ancestors an advantage over all the other animals, because we not only knew what things were there; we could think about them, name them, figure out how to use them (if they were useful) or avoid them (if they were dangerous).

At least some of our ancestors specialized in knowing and conquering the dangerous things, such as lions, venomous snakes, and hostile humans from the tribe next door. Perhaps to know and conquer these things was a sexual display, intended to impress potential mates.

So pronounced was our hunger to know being--including the dangerous types--that we turned to fiction to come up with even more beings than actually existed. We created fiction--in prehistory as legends and myths; in modern times as novels and movies. To create new beings, we deformed the existing ones--gave them fictional features, such as the horn on the otherwise horselike unicorn. Some of these deformed beings were fictionally dangerous--ie, destructive if they had really existed. The fictional deformed-destructive beings were especially palatable to some of us who had inherited the genes for liking that sort of thing. And so the horror movie fan came into being.

Note: Some of the thoughts in this post are inspired by my reading Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, and thinking about how it applies to horror movies.

George Ochoa