Sunday, October 21, 2012

Haunting Memories

“Scream . . . no one will hear you! Run . . . and the silent footsteps will follow! . . . for at Hill House the dead are restless!”
Poster copy for The Haunting (1963)

Halloween is right around the corner, and we’re sure to see the predictable lists containing the most frightening movies of all time. In most cases, the titles will also be predictable – The Shining, The Exorcist, Jaws. Less likely to be included, though probably as predictable as the others, is my own choice for the scariest movie: The Haunting, the 1963 original (a more gruesome and less imaginative remake appeared in 1999) based on Shirley Jackson’s novel. Movies about things that go bump in the night rarely remain scary on repeat viewings since you can anticipate where those bumps will be, but though The Haunting holds few surprises for me now, it remains the best ghost story ever put on film. From a journal entry dated July 17, 1990, here are some rather persoanl memories of that film:

When paging through Stephen King’s Dance Macabre, I was pleased to find so much space devoted to Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson also wrote “The Lottery,” the classic short story that has probably been anthologized more than any other horror tale. The Haunting of Hill House is a great book, and few films are as frightening as the 1963 black-and-white classic released under the abbreviated title, The Haunting.

Directed by Robert Wise following his Oscar win for 1961's West Side Story, this adaptation of Jackson’s story puts most subsequent ghost stories to shame. There are no white sheets floating through the hallways, no monsters, and no rotting corpses rising from the floorboards as there were in 1982's Poltergeist, but that later film can’t hold a candle to The Haunting which relies on subtlety and suggestion for its horror and does so more effectively than any other film I’ve seen.

Director Wise, best known for putting the Jets and Sharks through their paces and for bringing the hills alive to The Sound of Music, was no newcomer to the horror genre. His debut as a director came with Val Lewton’s 1944 production, The Curse of the Cat People. A year later, he led Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi through the mayhem of The Body Snatcher. In 1951, he directed the science-fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Haunting concerns a group of people, all of whom have had a brush with the supernatural, meeting in a brooding century’s old house that is said to be haunted. At least one of the guests, Eleanor, played by Julie Harris, may be haunted herself. There are strange occurrences, including loud noises in the night and a crashing chandelier, and no one is sure whether these events have to do with the house or the sensitive, neurotic Eleanor. After all, both are a little strange. Still, the mansion in which the story unfolds is a frightening, unusual place where “whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I first saw The Haunting in its entirety in the mid-‘60s when it aired on ABC-TV, but I saw the first ten minutes on Sunday November 24, 1963 at the now demolished Garden Theater, a second run movie house on West 25th Street in Cleveland, Ohio where it played on a double bill with Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire. My mother had promised to take me on Friday night (the Garden was only open on weekends), but President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier in the day, and the theater, like the whole country, was closed for business. I was disappointed that our Commander-In-Chief’s death interfered with my movie going plans (I was only six years old, and the death of a president was beyond my intellectual grasp at the time), but my cousin agreed to be my escort the following Sunday afternoon. Since I was mainly interested in seeing the full color vampire film, we didn’t stay to see all of The Haunting. That was fine with me. Based on those first ten minutes, The Haunting looked a bit too scary, even a little depressing. At the time, I preferred decidedly more ghoulish thrills, the kind that a colorful Hammer horror could provide.

When I finally caught up with The Haunting on television, I realized my original hunch was correct. This movie was too scary. It remains scary now. It’s the rare film that can truly give me goose bumps and make me turn around to see if a ghost is lurking over my shoulder when I watch it.

All these years later, The Haunting haunts me still. Whereas Poltergeist leaves me repulsed, The Haunting continues to work on my imagination. It is, after all, a film that one experiences in one’s own mind. Director Wise doesn’t show us the horrors. Instead, he does something much more frightening: he lets you imagine them yourself.

July 17, 1990

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

John Lennon: Happy Birthday to You!

John Lennon would have been 72-years-old today. Had an assassin not emerged from the shadows of New York’s Dakota apartment building on the evening of December 8, 1980 and ended Lennon’s life only two months after his 40th birthday, where would the man who founded the Beatles and provided the British quartet with its most distinctive voice be today?

Of course, it’s possible that the assassin, having missed his chance on December 8, may have returned and tried again on December 9 or 10, or some later date, and Lennon would still have fallen victim to those bullets. If an assassin hadn’t succeeded in killing him, maybe cancer, heart disease or another “natural cause” would have claimed him by now.

Let’s assume, however, that Lennon had successfully dodged the bullets, both real and metaphorical. What would he be doing now?

Shortly before his death, he joined wife Yoko Ono and recorded his first album of new original material in six years. It had been five years since Shaved Fish, his first greatest hits collection, had been released, and Lennon all but disappeared from public view after 1975. Having been one of the most public of public figures during the early ‘70s, appearing frequently in the press and on television talk shows as he battled the government’s efforts to deport him, he was conspicuous by his absence. His sudden reemergence in 1980 all but guaranteed the success of Double Fantasy. After his death, it became his third post-Beatles album to reach number one on the Billboard chart (1971's Imagine and 1974’s Walls and Bridges were the others).

It would be nice to think that he would have gone on to greater success in the years to come, but a look at the track records of his fellow superstars from the 1960s and 1970s suggests he would not. Following 1983, his more commercially-minded former partner, Paul McCartney, struggled to have hits, and wouldn’t see one of his albums reach the top 10 again until 1997; the same year Bob Dylan also made a comeback with the Grammy winning Time Out of Mind. Dylan had also hit the skids in the dreary ‘80s, and, unlike McCartney, even struggled to sell tickets to his concert appearances. Even Neal Diamond, who, by then, had defined “middle of the road,” found his albums floundering near the bottom of the top 40.

Would Lennon have fared any better?

I doubt it. This might have been good news for those Beatle fans clamoring for a reunion. The three surviving band-mates reconvened in 1995 for the only reunion possible by then, adding their voices and instruments to several Lennon demos. Had Lennon lived, I think he would have joined them. The Beatles might then have reunited more or less permanently, issuing new songs every few years (none of them likely equal to “Strawberry Fields Forever” or even “Your Mother Should Know”), and embarking on mega-tours like the ones that the Rolling Stones use to rake in the dough several times a decade.

Another possibility, one that Lennon even acknowledged as an option when interviewed by Rolling Stone in 1980, was television. Yes, John and Yoko who spent a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, and also chatted freely with Dick Cavett and David Frost during the same era, might have their own talk show now, or, God forbid, a reality show, probably titled The Ballad of John and Yoko.

I’d rather not think about that, even though it’s obvious that I already have. It’s best to remember him the way he was, as Bob Dylan has done in “Roll On, John,” the closing track on his latest album, Tempest:

“Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on, John.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, October 1, 2012

X - The Chemtrail Question

When I stepped outside one recent morning, I was confronted with a large X. It hovered in the sky above me, and the effect of the sunrise gave it a red, and, therefore, more ominous appearance. The X was the product of chemtrails, and the sky was positively wild with these mysterious apparitions on this particular morning. In addition to that X, two barely visible planes were in flight spraying what the “conspiracy theorists” insist is poison, a combination of aluminum and other substances unfit to be inhaled by humans.

A search on the internet for information about chemtrails that is not conspiratorial is pretty futile. I would like answers to the following questions:

What are they spraying?

Why are they spraying?

Who is spraying?

Who is paying for the spraying?

Who is paying for the fuel to power the airplanes?

Who is paying the pilots who fly the planes?

Who is paying for the planes?

When the planes are not in flight, they need to be warehoused somewhere. Where are they warehoused and who is paying for that? The planes are also in need of repair from time to time. Who repairs them? Who pays the repairmen and who covers the cost of those repairs? Who hoses them down and scrubs them clean?

I’m pretty sure that I know the answer to my questions concerning the cost of all this mysterious spraying. I pay for it with my tax dollars, as does everyone who heeds the call of the IRS every spring. The other questions have not been answered to my satisfaction.

It’s a rare day, indeed, when I don’t see chemtrails. I often find myself wondering if there any genuine clouds in the sky or if all those white fluffy apparitions are chemicals. Whatever they’re spraying doesn’t remain airborne, but eventually falls to earth where it then makes it way through our nostrils to our lungs. And let’s not overlook its effect on plant life and our water.

The government usually reacts to questions regarding chemtrails with silence and maybe a chuckle. Those who worry about such things are “conspiracy theorists,” after all, and not worthy of serious attention except, perhaps, from the Department of Homeland Security who might perceive them as a threat to our crumbling democracy. Occasionally, however, they have made claims that the spraying is necessary for a variety of reasons. It blocks enemy radar. It protects us from Global Warming. It does this, it does that, but what is all that spraying doing to our health?

According to Dan Bidondi, a pilot writing at, “there is a huge difference between condensation (con-trail) and a chemical trail (chemtrail). A condensation trail dissipates as the jet moves along; a chemtrail will stay and expand into man-made clouds used for various weather experiments loaded with toxic chemicals that we breathe in on a daily basis.” The chemicals include arsenic, barium, depleted uranium, mercury, and aluminum.

For more information on chemtrails, from a conspiratorial point of view, watch What in the World Are They Spraying?

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks