Friday 26 June 2020

Faking Ectoplasm: A Practical Demonstration

So the other day, for the seminar I did about the Gordon Higginson controversies, I decided to conjure some ectoplasm, the way the old school mediums did it. Here's what happened.

After having done ectoplasm, I decided to try spirit manifestation.

That second video took about seven takes. Not shown is the take where the spirit emerges from the curtains, trips over its own ectoplasm and falls flat on its face with an unghostly crash. 

I mean, obviously, what you're looking at is a person with a sheet on their head, pretending to be a ghost. Don't underestimate that – in a dark room full of people who are expecting to see dead loved ones, and hear dead loved ones, there's a much higher chance than you would think that they will in fact see a spirit, even they were looking at a person with a sheet on their head. But where's the sheet? When parapsychologist Barrie Colvin investigated Gordon Higginson in 1974, he couldn't figure out where it was either. And then realised that one chair in the room was different to all the others. And that was the chair that was moved into the manifestation cabinet after each meeting started.

And he looked at the chair, and within 20 seconds found what was hidden in it. 

Cheesecloth (or muslin if you prefer)is great stuff. It's light, it's got a loose weave and it's absorbent (which is why it's absolutely the best thing to mop up baby sick, fact fans).
When it's wet, it bunches up really tightly, and you can mould it. Here's the same amount, wet.
The old school physical mediums would sort of get it wet and scrunch it up into a tight sausage and feed it down their throats. As you can see from the video, I, not an expert at this, had a great deal of trouble keeping it down. The vomiting of the ectoplasm was only half-theatrical.

And that's how you make ectoplasm. 

Anyway, this is one of the many subjects I'm talking about in my seminar series this Summer. On Monday 29th, I'm dealing with Identity Horror, as I approach The Question in Bodies

You can find the whole program here and support my Patreon (which gives you season tickets, archive videos of past talks and advance views of my other work) here.

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Room 207 Press Webinars #5: The Question in Bodies

Recently, I decided that I should seek a diagnosis of adult ADHD. As I've gotten older, my weird neurological tics have gotten more entrenched, and I thought, You know what? Either I'm weird or there's something here that needs support. Well, it turns out I do in fact have ADHD, in spades, but what I wasn't expecting was to be told that I'm autistic too.

A lot of people, when they find out late in life that they're neurodivergent, find it a hugely positive experience, a sudden revelation that makes their lives make perfect sense. I am sorry to say that any gaining of sense was subsumed by intense anger, and crushing grief, and, most of all, the terrifying, vertiginous feeling that I had spent so many years masking who I really was that I had no idea of who I was. I suppose at this point, given how it wasn't all that long ago I finally came out as genderfluid (“they”/“them”, please. Thank you) that you might think it's starting to get to the point where I'm pretty much playing Labels Bingo, but the fact is, this is going to take some processing.

And, well, I process through horror.
The point of that, I guess, is that it makes a sort of sense that I'd be so interested in the idea of identity horror. “Identity horror” is a genre label that I made up myself a few years ago, but which I am more or less 150% certain I was not the first to come up with. I suppose that Identity Horror admits body horror, and overlaps with some (but not all) of the body horror classics. But it's more than that.

It's about the fluidity of the self, and, because it's horror, about how trauma changes that, and, also because it's horror, it allows a frank assessment of that fluidity, and the terrors it might hold. Sometimes we need to be allowed to be monsters.

Identity horror is often queer, and sometimes trans (and hence admits queer and trans discourse). Often it approaches in metaphor the experience of women and minorities in a world not constructed for them. Sometimes it's about new sorts of personhood, new orders of being. Sometimes it's about parenthood and the way we create new lives in bodies and minds. Sometimes about how relationships change us (for the horrific). Sometimes it's seductive; it approaches kinks, and taboos. Sex in identity horror is often transgressive and perverse. In identity horror, the horror of personal annihilation

David Cronenberg and David Lynch are the genre's patron saints, but it goes way back. Think about Tod Browning's unsung masterpiece Freaks (1932), or Georges Franju's wincetastic face-swap horror Eyes Without a Face (1960). Andrzej ZuĊ‚awski gave us Possession (1981), which is surely my favourite horror film, period, and which is all about sex and death and fractured selves. Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (2013) deals with what might happen people who do not know who they are; Almodovar's queasy and distressing The Skin I Live In (2013) turns a cisperson into a transperson; and Jordan Peele's diptych of Get Out and Us (2017, 2019) approach black identities in Trump's America.

But let's talk about books too. Sure, we can bring in Clive Barker and Poppy Z Brite, but what about Carmen Maria Machado and Gwendolyn Kiste?
On Monday, I'll be talking about identity horror. I'll be staking my claim to it being a real genre and talking about what it can illuminate when we think about ourselves.

To support my work, gain access to the seminars and the seminar archive and read my work early, please consider donating to my Patreon. No donation too small.

Friday 19 June 2020

First principles for the magician

This is a repost of a piece I wrote in August 2016, while I was in the midst of a breakdown. I had forgotten I'd written it. Back then, every day was an aching, gnawing ordeal. Someone mentioned it today, and told me that they come back to it often.
We would see ourselves as the secret witnesses of the world, you and I, but that would be to overstate our importance; we live in secret, inasmuch as everyone does. And we pay our attention to the moment. We claim no special status beyond the simple fact that we are magicians.

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Room 207 Press Webinars #4: Are You With Us, Mr Higginson?

In 1976, Britain's most influential and powerful spiritualist medium, coming out of what should have been an average presentation of his powers in a Bristol church, was accused of faking supernatural phenomena. A two year long controversy ensued, involving not only ordinary spiritualists, but parapsychologists and the mainstream news, which climaxed with an extraordinary and nationally reported public trial. But how did a figure as complex as Gordon Higginson – a man who never earned a penny from his psychic practice, and who maintains a fearsome reputation for accuracy even to this day – wind up cheating? Was he cheating at all? What could he hope to gain? 

In my next online seminar, I'll be presenting the result of five years of research into what really happened in that little Bristol spiritualist church in February 1976, and why it became the last great scandal of Spiritualism. I'll be putting it in the context of the history of Spiritualism and its eventual decline, and how that relates to where our culture was in the 1970s.

I will also be supplying a practical and exclusive demonstration of how to fake ectoplasm, which you can witness in the comfort of your own homes.    
Pictured: the author faking ectoplasm in 2019.

If you back my Patreon for more than $10/per month, you get to come to this and all the other talks I'm doing from now until September, along with access to the recordings if you miss them.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Room 207 Press Webinars #3: How They Get You: a primer on cults, brainwashing and deprogramming in film

We're afraid of cults. We're afraid of our kids and our friends getting tangled up with them and winding up joining. We're afraid that they might get us too.

But what does that even mean? What does it mean to be brainwashed? What's the difference between getting brainwashed and a legitimate religious conversion? Does brainwashing even exist as a thing? Can it be undone? Do you even want to?

Well, hang in there because I've spent literally 23 years writing about this sort of thing — and longer even than that experiencing it first-hand.

This seminar ran twice on Monday 15th June, at 8pm UK time and 8pm Eastern Time (USA).

It referenced:
Get Out (2016)
Our Man Flint (1966)
Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh (2018)
Doomsday (2016)
American Horror Story: Cult (2017)
The Invitation (2015)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
The Path (2016-2018)
Sound of My Voice (2012)
Safe (1995)
Ticket to Heaven (1981)
Split Image (1982)
Holy Smoke (1999)
Faults (2014)

...and sex-cult leader Keith Raniere's YouTube, but you can Google that, because ew. 

For more talks, go check out my Patreon, where you can get a dirt-cheap season ticket, as well getting access to the other content over there or see the list of upcoming talks.

Thursday 4 June 2020

We Don't Go Back #93: Midsommar (2019)

I’m not sure what there is left to say about Midsommar. Increasingly, writing about it has become something of an obligation (and if there's ever a second edition of We Don't Go Back, it's a shoo-in). But here we are. Quotes from Midsommar are taken direcctly from the script of the film, which can be found on the A24 site, which is a nice thing to have – usually I just transcribe scenes as I watch them, over and over.

Let's get the usual warnings done with. We are discussing horror here, so obviously things will be nasty, but you might be more concerned about spoilers, because we're giving away the whole thing. There is some detailed discussion of rape, gaslighting and abuse in this post. If that's the sort of thing that will remind you of something terrible that happened, or which will make you relive experiences you would rather not revisit, I'll trust that you'll know what to do. With that out of the way, let's begin.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Room 207 Press Webinars #2: The Second Haunted Generation

[Before I start: even if you don't want to give me money to listen to my talks (and maybe also if you do), please consider donating to one of the bail funds currently being managed to get protesters out of COVID-19 incubating jail cells. Here's a list. You don't have to live there or know these people, or even put in that much, and you won't get any real thanks, or even really get a medal for it. Don't make a deal of it, do it anyway. It's just the right thing to do.]

Yesterday, amidst the deluge of horrors that the news cycle bestowed upon us, I saw a Facebook link for a think piece about folk horror that described The Wicker Man as something like the “1970s version of  Midsommar”. Part of me wishes I'd saved that link, if only as a demonstration of how folk horror as a thing has become enough of a cultural phenomenon to produce godawful clickbait thinkpieces and folk-horror-themed Funko Pops. It'd be glib to say that folk horror is here to stay, because obviously it isn't, pop cultural movements are ephemeral, but it's here and it's visible and it's making money.
Wouldst thou like a piece of shoddy plastic tat?
So over the last few years, I've been writing a lot about folk horror. There was that project about the folk horror and that turned into a book that got nominated for an award (which was nice), and my big thing has actually been why folk horror has become a thing, why you had movies and TV like that made so much in the 1970s, and why it has not only been retrospectively turned into an aesthetic, but why it is happening again. I wrote about this specifically a few months ago. In this week's seminar I'll be looking at how this is, what sort of cultural conditions produce this sort of media, and specifically examining what makes new folk horror a unique genre, separate from its 1970s origins, with special reference to the works of Ben Wheatley, Robert Eggers, Peter Strickland, Ari Aster and Jordan Peele.

This seminar ran on 8th June 2020. 

Films referenced: 
Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)
Blood on Satan's Claw (Piers Haggard, 1970)
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
Ghost Stories for Christmas (BBC, 1971-1978)
Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John Hancock, 1971)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975)
Lonely Water (Central Office of Information, 1973)
Charley Says (Central Office of Information, 1973) 
Jigsaw (BBC, 1979-84)
Bagpuss (Smallfilms, 1973)
Tottie (Smallfilms, 1984)
Jim'll Fix It (BBC, 1975-95)
Rolf's Cartoon Club (BBC, 1989-95)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)
A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, 2013)
High Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015)
Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009)
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2013)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)
The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
February AKA The Blackcoat's Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015)
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Oz Perkins, 2016)
The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)
Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)