“What’s the Frequency, Lovecraft?”: the Vibrational Horror of ‘YellowBrickRoad’ and ‘Banshee Chapter’1
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.
Two wildly different reviews in this week for Scott R Jones’ When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. The first can only be described as “glowing”, the kind of glowing that might require the reader to don a lead apron, actually, and that makes it our favourite, for obvious reasons. The second has a lot to say about the book, and much of it in the category of complaints about what the book is not. Now, Nick Mamatas (a fellow who we trust) claims that no one actually reads these reviews, and he’s very likely correct in that. But the dynamic tension between these statements from readers of WTSAR has got us thinking. Some excerpts…
the Glowing review
“There’s no denying the potency of Jones’ profound examination of R’lyehian thought. This book is a beautifully weird Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen trinity paradox, where the author prods the primordial swamp of R’lyehian existence which invokes ripples across the mindscape, thus throwing interpretations of locality and reality askew. A literary Eliphas Levi, he weaves astral light into words with such honed wit, such wisdom, such a deep passion the title of literary mage is clichéd but appropriate…”
(full review here)
the Whiny review
“… the whole books reads like a lot of random journal entries from one guy who took a LOT of psychedelic drugs, had some tentacle dreams, and then decided that collecting his own writings about his personal experiences and how you are supposed to act once you have already begun to foster the Black Gnosis equates to writing a how-to on actually getting there yourself from scratch…”
(full review here)
Have you read When The Stars Are Right? If so, what’s your opinion: is Jones a trailblazing Lovecraftian mystic? or a damp, trippy hippy with pseudopods on the brain? Does WTSAR trust in the reader to find their own way into the R’lyehian mysteries? or should it hold the seeker’s hand more, explicitly pointing to the Black Gnosis? Let us know in the comments, or better yet, write a review of your own and let us know where you post it.
And speaking of polarizing books, we here at MMP HQ are extremely pleased to hear of the imminent release of Bobby Derie’s new book, Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, coming out later this month from the esteemed Hippocampus Press. Mr Derie has been a friend of the show for a while now, and we’ve been fortunate to watch the process of the writing of what is sure to be a groundbreaker of a book that will ruffle a few skirts and spark lively debate. Mr Derie’s research skills are frighteningly impressive: many times we’ve been on the receiving end of some casually dropped piece of Lovecraftiana scholarship that has blown our minds (and we don’t mean Upworthy-style, either!) and reformatted our perceptions of Lovecraft the Man, the Product, and the Mythos. Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (with a snazzy Gahan Wilson cover, no less!) is available now for pre-order: we very strongly urge MMP readers to pick up their copy today, because this one? This one will be on more than a few lips upon its arrival, and if you’re at all interested in the seamy overlap between the perceived prudishness of classic Lovecraftiana and the boiling sexuality that froths between the actual lines of HPLs fiction, you’ll want in on the discussion. Order direct from Hippocampus Press here
Martian Migraine Press: the Best Kind of Headache
Scott R Jones’ When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality has been out in the world for a mere three months, but that’s enough, apparently, to get people talking. So we thought we’d round up a few reviews for easy tagging here on the MMP site. Excerpts below and links to the full reviews: see what the Weird Fiction community has to say about the book Laird Barron calls “sly, intelligent, and darkly entertaining. Jones gives Ligotti a run for his money in the Cosmic Horror Philosophy arms race.”
David Leingang of Unspeakable Gibberer: “What Mr. Jones has accomplished is beyond any Cult of Cthulhu or Esoteric Order of Dagon. It is not so much a practice of occultism, but rather a philosophical approach to what Lovecraft may have been hinting at in his writings. Taking a more poignant stance behind Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, and Dagon and unveiling a study in character of each of the gods, taking into account what they stand for and what teachings they have in store for those who are enlightened by what Jones identifies as The Black Gnosis.” > full review here
Allen Griffin of Innsmouth Free Press: “Once again, there is something here for everyone. At one point, the author states the whole project started as a joke. But I am reminded of Aleister Crowley’s famous pun in Chapter 69 of The Book of Lies, a pun which some claim laid bare the secret teachings of the IX degree of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a pun that would resonate with occultists over the course of decades, if not longer … When The Stars Are Right is a thought grenade and reading this tome may just send ripples through one’s thought processes. Contemplate these concepts at your own risk; you might just come out the other side a practicing R’lyehian.” > full review here
And a very well written Amazon review from Joseph Legander III: “Although relatively brief, it is in alternating turns wise, funny, insightful, practical, and a little scary. Like some exotic, eclectic cuisine, it’s full of hints of other dishes, but duplicates none of them. Traces of Buddhism, chaos magick, and shamanism are obvious. Bits of Ken Wilber’s Integral Philosophy appear (intentionally or not), and there’s even a soupçon of the author’s clearly less-than-happy Christian upbringing. But the odd alchemy at the heart of it creates something so strange, so alien, and yet so lovely that it never feels at all derivative or forced … When The Stars Are Right is simply light years beyond the typical scribblings of Necronomi-con-artists and Gothic poseurs. It combines the blackest insights of Gnostic imaginings with a beautiful, tear-worthy epilogue in the form of a letter to the author’s newborn baby daughter. Regardless of how deep in slumber great Cthulhu may be, I’ll bet he sits up and takes notice of this delightful, non-fictional addition to the Lovecraft canon.” > full review here
Jones recently appeared on the Miskatonic Musings podcast with Sean Thompson and Charles Meyer. Yes, When The Stars Are Right was talked about, but there was also discussion of embarrassing Halloween costumes, the possibility of a kind of chakra-based activation of Godzilla’s blue atomic-breath, why you should always try to include at least one giant phallus in any sculptural attempt of Cthulhu, and Jones waxing all fanboy-ish about Grant Morrison AND Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. So, something for everyone and nearly two hours of it. Right here, weirdos > http://www.miskatonicmusings.com/episode-53-always-look-bright-side-life/
Laird Barron likes the book. Reviewers and readers like the book. But the best response we’ve seen so far? Jones sent us a photo of the little girl to whom When The Stars Are Right is dedicated: his 9-month old daughter, Meridian, who finds it a toothsome read indeed! Normally we shudder a little when Cute-thulhu things happen (looking in your direction, Plush Cthulhu manufacturers!) but in this case we can’t help but allow it!
You can order your copy of When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality here. NOTE: there are ONLY 2 COPIES LEFT of the original print run, but we will be making arrangements this month to create a Print On Demand edition of the book. Missed out on the paperback? You can still order your electronic copy from Amazon (instant delivery to your Kindle) or directly from MMP (slightly-less-instant but still under 12 hours delivery). And follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates on the PoD availability, as well as news and weird links to things our readers enjoy.