The (wo)man behind the monster

I was 14 the first time I saw The Exorcist. It was a Saturday night in the summer of 1979, down at the Eaton Centre Cineplex. I was with a good friend of mine, Mary, who thankfully loved horror movies as much as I did, and happily spent many a weekend night with me hunkered down in a dark theatre, where we would subject ourselves to as much slashing and gore as we could stand.Exorcist_movie_posterAnd while, at the ripe old age of 14, I was still seriously underage for a seriously R-rated movie like The Exorcist, I figured that with the number of screamers under my belt, I was up for it. Several hours later, lying awake in my basement with Mary asleep beside me, I seriously doubted the wisdom of my decision.

I had heard stories about The Exorcist. It had come out several years earlier, in 1973, and now was being re-released for a limited run in 1979.

But nothing could prepare me for what would be splayed in larger-than-life Technicolor across the movie screen that night. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, it starts off rather innocently, at an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. Scary? No. But unsettling? Yes. The scorching heat, dusty earth, and deep trenches of unearthed millennia, all set against an aural backdrop of clinking hammers and the near-hypnotic Islamic call to prayer, combine to raise one’s hackles in degrees, so that by the time the dogs are fighting in the desert and clocks are stopping at the museum, you’re on edge. Something is up. Where it’s all going, you’re not quite sure, and how you’ll get from a dig in Iraq to a house in Washington, D.C. is anyone’s guess.

Eventually, all is revealed, and when it is, it’s f****** scary. Sliding ever lower in my seat at the Eaton Centre, hearing teenaged boys behind me curse and groan into their hands, I now knew what all the stink was about.

Regan_MercedesBut what left its mark the most on me in The Exorcist, and what still to this day is, to my mind, the best non-special effect ever in a horror movie, is the voice of the demon. This is the demon Pazuzu that possesses 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair. If you haven’t seen the movie — or if you have and need your memory jogged — watch this short clip.

That voice makes the movie. And the person behind it was not a creepy, Gollum-like man with a hunched back and laryngitis; on the contrary, it was a rather demure woman — the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Born in 1916 in Joliet, Illinois — she died in March 2004 — she was referred to by Orson Welles as “the world’s greatest living radio actress”. For the movie, her already rich, throaty voice was apparently made more gravelly by raw eggs, cigarettes and booze, and in fact, at one point during the film, she was tied to a chair. McCambridge talks about it here.

That voice was the source of nightmares for millions of people who filled sold-out theatres to see the movie when it opened the day after Christmas in 1973. And for me, someone who has seen the movie many times — and seen many other movies about possession — there is no demon like that one. Mercedes McCambridge set the bar at a level that, in my opinion, no one else has reached.

But McCambridge is not the only woman lurking quietly (so to speak) behind the monster in The Exorcist.

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You might recall the brief flashes of Pazuzu’s face — fleeting glimpses made all the more terrifying by their brevity. A man behind the makeup, you might assume — as I did. But no; once again, it’s a woman. Her name is Eileen Dietz. She seems a warm, lovely person. And why wouldn’t she be? We all know it’s makeup. It’s worth noting here, by the way, that the makeup artist on The Exorcist was Dick Smith, an Oscar-winner (for Amadeus, in 1984) and the only man in his field to win an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement. He died this past July.

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The very fact that I was surprised to learn that the person behind the demon was a woman is a testament to Smith’s talent. And while I remind myself there’s a person behind that mask, it still scares the crap out of me. I echo the sentiments of one YouTuber who says, “So this is the person who did that infamous face. I never knew that till I watched this video. Scariest part of the movie is that face. I close my eyes still when I know it’s coming.”

Ditto.

Tonight, when the trick-or-treaters have all gone home, and the pumpkins have all gone out, I will settle down with what many horror buffs consider the scariest movie ever made. And, between my fingers, I will marvel once again at these two women. Kudos to both for being the “invisible” artists behind the movie — and for making its monsters so bloody good.

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What was that?

Stop. Don’t move. Did you catch that?

That shadow that just scurried around the corner? That door that closed by itself? How about that soft whisper in the dark?

As I type this, it’s a warm, grey, early fall day. Looking out my office window, I notice some of the trees across the road just starting to turn. It is early afternoon, but it looks more like seven o’clock because of a darkening sky that just keeps getting darker.

I love it. I love it because it’s quietly ominous. Because of what it implies. Driving rain. Howling wind. Forks of lightning. Earth-shaking thunder. It doesn’t actually need to rain and howl and thunder; just the hint that it could is delicious.

The same applies to the shadow. The door. The whisper. In and of themselves, they’re not especially scary.

But in the right context — in a dusty corner, down a long hall, in an empty house — they imply something much more sinister.

As I thought about this blog post, ushering in my favourite month of the year, it occurred to me that when it comes to fear — truly skin-crawling, head-tucked-behind-the-pillow fright — less is more.

In my opinion, fear is more effective when administered subtly, in drip-drip-drip doses. Or, as is sometimes the case, brief, unexpected glimpses of… you’re not sure what, that are there one minute and gone the next, leaving you to wonder, “WTF was that?”

Sixth_Sense_BW_HJOOne of the best examples of this (and I’m assuming if you’ve read this far, you like to be scared, as I do) is the movie The Sixth Sense. In it, Bruce Willis is a psychologist who counsels Haley Joel Osment, a young boy who can see dead people. There are several scenes worthy of WTFs, but the best by far comes early on in the movie. It’s late at night, and young Cole (Osment) needs to use the loo. He fearfully pokes his head out his bedroom door; he obviously has been holding it, and now is bursting. He has no choice but to make the brave dash down the long hall to the john. An old bathroom… An old thermostat… And something that quickly shuffles past the camera between you and Cole that literally makes your stomach drop.

Another screen example — a little campier, perhaps, but subtly creepy nonetheless — comes in the first few minutes of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. Barbara and Johnny have come to pay their annual respects to the their mother. As Barbara kneels before the headstone, Johnny stands above her, looking around. The place is deserted… or is it? Night_Babs_Johnny_cemeteryThe wind picks up, and thunder starts to roll. And there in the back of the cemetery lumbers a lone man. A few seconds later, he appears again… only to disappear a second time behind the headstones. You can see the whole movie — and fast-forward to 5:05 to see the scene I’m talking about — right here.

The granddaddy of horror movies, The Exorcist, is well-known for several nano-second shots that fill the screen suddenly and are gone just as quickly. To this day, they scare the shit out of me. Judging by  comments I’ve seen on YouTube, I’m not alone.

My final example of less-is-more fear factor comes from a book. Books are, in my opinion, a little trickier than movies because there’s more left to the imagination. They’re also more open to individual interpretation. That said, I’m going to try to convey to you what I think is one of the eeriest sequences in what is the most haunting book I’ve ever read.

It is The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. It takes place in post-war England, at a time when the country was undergoing a quiet revolution, the aristocracy turned on its ear by an emerging middle class. (Think Downton Abbey.) As a result, many big landowners were forced to sell off property, let their servants go, and generally “make do” in monstrous homes that sat cold and mostly empty and crumbling at the seams.

Little_Stranger_coverSuch is the case with Hundreds Hall, a decrepit old mansion where the Ayres family lives, amidst leaky plumbing, weed-choked gardens and cold, drafty rooms, most of which are shut up tight because they’re too expensive to heat.

We meet the Ayres through the eyes of Dr. Faraday, a young country GP whose mother, in fact, was once a maid at Hundreds. Now, ironically, he’s been called to the mansion to visit a sick maid. The trouble is, she’s not really sick; she’s afraid.

And so we are drawn into a story where we soon learn that not all the inhabitants of Hundreds are living. (I will warn you now that while this isn’t an official spoiler alert, I do go into a certain amount of detail here that, depending on the type of reader you are, you may want to experience yourself. FYI, Stephen King called The Little Stranger, “The best book I read this year” — 2009.)

We learn early on in the book that Mrs. Ayres had a daughter who died as a child. When malicious things start to happen around the house, it gradually starts to become apparent that this ghostly child might be the one responsible.

One day, Mrs. Ayres ventures up to the old nursery on the top floor of the house. She has come to conduct a no-nonsense investigation of the rooms up there in the hopes of quelling the servants’ worries about “that nasty thing a-watching us!” Climbing the stairs, she becomes aware of “the thickening silence” and the voices left several floors below. Regardless, she presses on.

At last, finding herself alone in the day nursery, wandering the empty rooms, she becomes nostalgic. She recalls times long past when her children were young. She even remembers the nurse announcing her visits: “Why, mummy can’t keep away!”

As she stands there in the dim late-afternoon light, she looks out the dusty, cobwebbed window in time to see her older daughter walking across the yard. At the same time, right behind her, she feels a cold draft, while in the next room, comes a violent slam. There, she finds that the door she’d left wide open has slammed shut. She tries to open it, but it will not budge. She peers in vain through the keyhole, and can even see the shaft of the key. But she can’t get at it.1chairinroom

Then she hears it: the lightest pitter-patter of steps out in the hall. Softly they shuffle, pit-pat, pit-pat, past the door. They get more distant as they move down the hall. Then they stop. And back they come, pit-pat, getting louder as they pass by the door once again.

Then they fade. And back they come again. And again.

She puts her eye to the keyhole. Here come the steps once more. And with them, a dark shape flits by. She calls out the names of the servants — people she’d been talking with just minutes earlier several floors below. No one answers.

Now whatever it is that’s out there is coming closer, brushing against the door as it passes. And eventually she hears scraping: fingernails being dragged along the wall as the being passes by.

HundredsHallAnd suddenly the running and scraping stops — right outside the door.

At that moment, there comes a shrill blast from behind her. It’s the old speaking tube — a long-disused communication pipe running from the nursery down to the kitchen. Now beside herself with fear, she walks hesitantly over to it, and brings the earpiece to her ear.

“The sound, she realized with a shock, was that of laboured breath, which kept catching and bubbling as if in a narrow, constricted throat. In an instant, she was transported back, twenty-eight years, to her child’s first sickbed. She whispered her daughter’s name — “Susan?” — and the breathing quickened and grew more liquid. A voice began to emerge from the bubbling mess of sound: a child’s voice, she took it to be, high and pitiful, attempting, as if with tremendous effort, to form words.”

So simple. So understated. A few footsteps… a blurred shape. On their own, they’re rather innocent. Together, experienced in the top rooms of a lonely old house, they nibble away at the psyche — and reduce it to tears — one shiver at a time.

So too it goes with the aforementioned shadow. The quiet whisper.

In the right (wrong?) circumstances, the shadow becomes a stalker.  The whisper, a ghost. And the closing door, your last chance of getting out alive.

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