“What’s the Frequency, Lovecraft?”: the Vibrational Horror of ‘YellowBrickRoad’ and ‘Banshee Chapter’
I’m currently reading through the slush pile for RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, up to my neck in stories of dread machines that tweak human perception just enough to allow other dimensions to be experienced. I mention this only to give you a sense of where my mind is at these days. Probably editing this book has tweaked me somewhat towards seeing what I’ve come to call “frequency” or “vibrational” horror in two recent movies that could, without too much conceptual massage, be seen as the grandchildren of Lovecraft’s tale From Beyond. The films in question are YellowBrickRoad (2010) and Banshee Chapter (2013), and both have as their central horror not physical monsters from this (or any other) world, monsters encountered by entering a physical space, but a kind of creeping psychedelic paranoia surrounding the idea that the monsters of other planes, coterminous with ours, are always here, in our space, waiting for us to see them. We need only adjust the frequency, and there they are, right over our shoulder, or already in our heads. Indeed, the second film I’ll be talking about, Banshee Chapter, makes specific in-media reference to Lovecraft’s story. Both films are highly effective mash-ups of traditional narrative and found-footage techniques.
written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
starring Clark and Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler
Not unlike its precursor, The Blair Witch Project, much of the initial horror in YellowBrickRoad arises from the fear of losing oneself in a wild place: being alone, and hurt, in the woods, with people you have learned not to trust. Anyone who has spent an unwanted emergency night in the forest will feel this film on that level. (I have, and did.) The plot: an obsessed filmmaker and his wife (and a standard-issue crew of photographers, cartographers, wilderness guides, a psychologist, an intern, and one townie keen to join the expedition for reasons of her own) set out to solve a 70-year old mystery that had been covered up by the military and recently declassified. In 1940, the population of an entire New Hampshire town dressed in their best duds and started a walk along a trail that led into the northern woods. Most vanished from the face of the earth, others were found horribly mutilated, and one resident managed to return, but died insane and rambling about music that only he could hear.
It’s this aspect to the story that moves YellowBrickRoad into “frequency horror” for me: the evil the film crew encounters on the trail is intangible, ever-present but non-local, and insidious. When, three days into their expedition, the crew begins to hear old-timey dance hall music, it comes from everywhere, and nowhere. The intern reports that her GPS is on the fritz: the device reports them as being in Guam in the morning, Paris by noon, Barcelona by evening. Similarly, the cartographers (a brother and sister team) begin to experience difficulty keeping their coordinates coordinated: the numbers work going up the trail, but are radically skewed on the return. “The land is like liquid,” the brother states.
Not only the land, but also time and their own internal psychic experiences become malleable. Personality flaws and grudges are blown into high relief, and under the influence of the music, cracks begin to appear in their minds. Memories are no longer reliable or even accessible, simple cognitive tasks (as tracked by the team psychologist) become increasingly difficult, frustration and anger and confusion build and build until someone snaps and the killings begin.
But even that is not the central horror. For a lesser flick, it might be. Kill-crazy madman with a machete stalking innocents through the bush is a standard trope. But in YellowBrickRoad, that madman, and all of his companions, know that something is terribly wrong. And by the time they get him secured and are preparing to save themselves, it is already too late. Whatever it is that is affecting them on the trail (cosmic radiation? geomagnetic fluctuations? ghosts of the dead townspeople? God? It is never explained, which is wonderful, a good nod to Lovecraft, and to the scriptwriters credit) turns up the volume and they are plunged into as disruptive and terrifying an alteration of reality as I have ever witnessed on screen.
Essentially, the terror of YellowBrickRoad is auditory in nature. Sound is the evil thing in the woods: monstrously loud, deafening, shake-you-to-your-knees, make-your-ears-bleed sound. It leaves no room in their heads for anything other than the desire to escape that hellish noise. And it is hellish: a thrumming, discordant, spiking roar that on a decent sound system or coming through good headphones will make you wince and feel sick with vertigo. (Big kudos to the sound design people on this film.) Nothing can stand against this aural assault, which seems malevolent and calculating. Imagine the BWAAAAAM noise from the film Inception, jacked-up on steroids and angel dust, just waiting for you to almost get your bearings before jumping you from behind. It’s like that. To borrow from another Lovecraftian narrative, imagine the Colour Out of Space as a sonic entity. Sanity and reason, relationships and ethics, everything breaks and dissolves beneath it. The group splits, and splits again. The madman breaks free and escapes, and begins to hunt them all down. The ones he can’t catch suicide by various gruesome methods. It all ends in awful, destructive noise and madness and death.
Now, there is a meta- aspect to the film as well, one that plays into the ending, which many have found disappointing. The title is meant as a clue: it is said that the original townsfolk, disillusioned by the Second Great War and wishing to escape into the fantasy of the films they watched religiously in the towns theatre (The Wizard of Oz being a favourite) were called into the northern woods by the evil force that resides there. In one of the opening scenes, the declassified coordinates for the mysterious trailhead take the confused team to that very same theatre, where they meet the townie girl who leads them to the actual trailhead and accompanies them up the trail. By the end, we’re left with the team’s leader, the filmmaker, following his obsession to the “end of the trail” and abandoning everything and everyone he ever valued along the way, only to find himself walking into that same theatre again, where he is presented with a horrific Silver Screen vision of the end of all things. It’s a weird Ouroborous of an off-note, and as mentioned, one that many viewers of the film found unsatisfactory, but at the end of the day I think what we’re looking at in the final scenes of YellowBrickRoad is the internal experience of a man finally losing everything, including himself, to utter horror.
Banshee Chapter (2013)
directed by Blair Erickson
starring Ted Levine, Katia Winter, and Michael McMillian
The horror of Banshee Chapter is less vague in its origins, and targets its victims more specifically. In the film, beings from another dimension have influenced military scientists to synthesize a version of DMT (which, in case you don’t know, is in its normal state already the most powerful psychedelic known to man, and endogenously produced in trace amounts by our pineal glands), which is then used in covert MKUltra-style research, administered to unsuspecting hippies and radicals and the like, with disastrous effects. A modern researcher into these experiments manages to procure a sample of the drug, takes it, and disappears, leaving only disturbing footage of his drug trip and notes toward a book on the subject, notes that reference mysterious “numbers stations” and broadcast relays in the desert. Not long after his disappearance, a journalist friend of his, obsessed with learning what’s happened to him, begins to put the pieces together.
Her journey takes her to his so-called “friends in Colorado” who provided him with the experimental drug. The second act takes place in the house of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque character (played with scenery chewing gusto by Ted Levine) and if you’ve ever been so unfortunate as to experience chemically altered states in strange environments with hostile people, then these scenes will certainly resonate with you. (I have, and it did.) The paranoia ramps up considerably here, with double-crossings and betrayals and general drug-induced mind-fuckery weirdness, until the agenda of the other-dimensional beings becomes apparent: the DMT acts as a radio receiver for the beings from beyond, who then enter this reality and wear humans like suits. Again, the evil comes to us through a tweak in our perceptions, a change in the frequency of our being.
Much as with the creatures in Lovecraft’s From Beyond, seeing these beings means they can see you, and the third terrifying act is a mad and ultimately futile scramble in the desert to locate the secret government broadcasting station that allows the beings access to our world. The Thompson character even goes so far as to drop a complete synopsis of From Beyond on the journalist before a pivotal scene, which almost seems too meta to work, but it does, somehow. Banshee Chapter fulfils the early promise of Lovecraft’s story, and in the process treads some interesting ground rarely seen in current horror. Like YellowBrickRoad, there’s no way to actually escape this evil, since it is vibrational in nature… if you’ve ever been spooked by the idea that radio waves are in fact passing through you right now, loaded with music and information and god knows what else, then this film understands you. These things are everywhere, they are at your elbow even now… like the nameless protagonist in From Beyond, once you’ve seen them, you can’t unsee them. “It would help my shaky nerves if I could dismiss what I now have to think of the air and the sky about and above me.”
Personally, I’d like to see more treatments of this theme, as I think it’s a really effective way to “transmit” horror to the viewer. What are your favourite “frequency horror” films? Enjoy the trailers for YellowBrickRoad and Banshee Chapter below, leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re feeling suitably inspired, consider submitting a story to our RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond anthology!
Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in both Summer of Lovecraft and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.