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I love horror movies. When I was small, I’d stay up late on weekends to watch “Tales from the Darkside” and “Friday the 13th: the Series” (omg this was the best. It was a Canadian series, unrelated to the movies of the same name, about a cursed antique shop). My bio-mom hated the entire genre, but my dad was, I realize as an adult, something of a kindred spirit. He didn’t like to watch horror but he was fascinated by cryptids and mysteries of the unexplained and things like that. He had a little collection of books on weird happenings and oddities that he’d pour over quietly. I suppose on that front at least, I come by it honestly. Lol.
I should note, this post has nothing to do with anything spiritual or religious. I just happen to be sitting here watching “In Search of Darkness,” a new (?) documentary about horror movies and it is really very good. It has me thinking about all the horror movies that I’ve watched and enjoyed over the years. I would frankly rather watch a good horror movie than an Oscar winner. Oh, I’ll get around to watching the Oscar winner too probably but I’ll actually enjoy the horror movie and watch it more than once if it’s decent. I think the very first horror movie I ever saw – I was seven—was either “Warlock Moon” (it is soooo bad, a really awful movie with an utterly insipid female lead, but as a very little kid it scared the bejesus out of me) or “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave,” a Christopher Lee movie that was classic Dracula. I was so little that I can’t now remember which I saw first. I watched them both about the same time anyway. Needless to say, these were movies I watched late at night after my parents were asleep. I was always an insomniac even at seven.
Now, I will admit as a spirit worker, I’ll critique horror that has to do with spirits or demons or such. I’ll yell at the tv things like, “it doesn’t work like that!” dissect the techniques used to defeat the bad thing du jour, and generally amuse or annoy my husband and housemate depending on how bad the movie is. Lol. Sometimes they’ll provoke good theological discussions (I mean think about the theology articulated in a movie like “The Omen.” It touches on human anthropology, and ideas of grace and free will, getting most of it wrong according to the Catholic framework in which he movies are written) and we usually enjoy tearing it apart. Or they’ll provoke spirit work discussions about technique where we’d ask the question, “as an occultist or spiritworker how would you handle this situation?” (I wouldn’t BE in that situation because I’m not an idiot. Lol). I often like horror movies that show the viewer that the real monsters are the regular people, not the creatures that may look different (like in Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed.”). I also like animal horror like “Jaws” (the movie that guaranteed I will never swim in the ocean. Fuck no. Not ever). I have less sympathy the older I get for the college kids in movies doing stupid things and getting killed, and if there’s any desecration of cemeteries or dumb-fuckery with the dead, I tend to be like, ‘whelp, now y’all have to die. bye.” I find I have to have sympathy for someone in the movie to be at all invested. I asked my housemate Tatyana what her favorite horror movie was and she said “The Shining,” because of how it gets in your head. She likes psychological horror. I prefer “Dr. Sleep,” because of the psychic gift angle. I like supernatural horror provided its relatively accurate. I don’t like comedic horror at all, with very rare exceptions.
Sometimes, what others consider horror, I don’t. I remember a couple of years ago a friend of mine was taking a film class over the summer. I would chat with him and the teacher occasionally and the class was fascinating. They were studying four films: the original “Halloween,” (love it), “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (never been a fan…the aesthetic is visually too ugly for me) – and ok, those are horror movies, I agree. But then, they also studied “Silence of the Lambs” and (I think, irrc) “Alien.” I remember having a very lively chat with the professor teaching the course (we knew each other through a different program that I’d done for which he’d been one of the three mentors) over whether or not the last two qualified as horror. I can see it with “Alien” but “Silence of the Lambs” stumped me. He asked if it wasn’t terrifying and I agreed it was, but it was human evil. We agreed that made it no less terrifying and while I still would class that particularly movie as “mystery” or “thriller,” I did expand my understanding of what “horror” could be.
So, this is how I relax. LOL. School will be starting soon and with that an end to any opportunity I might have for wasting my time in front of what my parents used to call the ‘boob tube.’ Now I turn it over to you, my readers. What are your favorite horror movies and why? What do you watch to relax, whether it’s horror or otherwise?
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“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
–G. K. Chesterton
I don’t often write about movies but I watched this one recently with my housemate (my husband having fled to his office the moment we put it on, ha ha) and it led to a rather extensive discussion about how elements of pre-Christian religious belief, ancestor veneration, and proper protocol for engaging with all manner of spirits are often embedded in fairy tales. Cinderella is no exception to that. Now I’m not a Disney fan. I’m definitely not a live action Disney princess movie fan but my friend Tatyana talked me into watching this one against my better judgment and I actually found it quite lovely. Then Tat. read me a couple of the negative reviews and I thought, ‘God damn it. Now I have to write something.’ So, here you go.
Our stories are important. They tell us who we are. They distill the most essential qualities of our lived experience, the best of who we are as a people. Fairy tales are even more a condensation of certain eternal and essential truths, all wrapped up in magic, beauty, and sometimes terror. They inspire us to be and do better. A story like Cinderella is, under its many, many layers, the story of the power of our ancestors to see us through the most difficult and challenging of times, and a story about the importance of remembrance (1).
I never liked the Disney cartoon of Cinderella (except for the cat, Lucifer. He was awesome. In fact, my only complaint about the live action movie with Lily James is that Lucifer the cat didn’t have a larger part). She always seemed like such a doormat. Having read several of the reviews of the recent movie, I know I’m not the only one to feel that way in general about this story. But, also having read several versions of the story (I like the most gruesome ones the best, no surprise there), and now having watched the live action movie, I’ve revised that opinion (2).
Please note, there will be spoilers below.
I think there are qualities of nobility of character, loyalty, and goodness in Cinderella’s nature that are really highlighted in the Lily James movie (hereafter whenever I refer to “the movie,” I will be referring to this version alone). Cinderella’s mother dies when Cinderella is a child and her last words to the girl are “have courage and be kind.” Several reviews of the movie criticized this, but it’s excellent advice for developing character and personal virtue, especially because the two complement and balance each other. An excess of one or the other isn’t good, but if you balance them true strength can take root. Cinderella lives by this rubric as best she can and in the movie, articulates why she chooses to remain in the home later, after the death of her father, when her stepmother and stepsisters behave so foully to her. It is her home. She feels a connection to the land, a responsibility, and wants to honor that, and the memory of her parents in their home. She makes a conscious choice to stay – maybe not the choice I might make (definitely not) but it’s her choice, made from a position of strength and integrity. She could, after all, have left and found work anywhere given her kind nature and domestic skills, and this is evident throughout the movie. In fact, a friend urges her to do just that. She chooses to stay for her own reasons, and the dismal treatment doesn’t touch who she is inside. This is also an important lesson.
In one review that my friend read, the writer complained vociferously about what a poor example this was setting for her daughter but I do not think ‘have courage and be kind’ is a bad example, nor is the hospitality and courtesy that Cinderella maintains throughout the movie. It’s tested several times too: when she receives news of her father’s death and again when her step mother tears up her mother’s dress the night of the ball and the fairy godmother comes to help. Cinderella doesn’t take her pain out on those around her, but does her duty (hospitality and courtesy, kindness) as she perceives it to those outside the family first. There is nobility of demeanor, which has nothing to do with blood or wealth, but in the world of fairy tales like life, everything to do with character.
What we see is that no matter what one’s circumstances, even if those circumstances are terrible and outside of one’s control, one may still choose how to respond. It doesn’t have to make one cruel or bitter, or twist one out of true. That’s an important lesson, I think. We have a choice in how we respond to hardship. That means we have agency and control, maybe not over externals, but certainly over ourselves.
I think this is something fairy tales really bring home: personal agency and responsibility. Yes, Cinderella is couched in the story of a sappy romance, but the real story is what happens before and around all that. The romance is just part of the social trapping to make it palatable to children and childlike adults. Hospitality and courtesy recur repeatedly as important themes and life lessons and inevitably in these stories are rewarded in some way by non-human forces. There is duty and protocol, right action and right relationship external and immutable to anything happening in one’s life. Doing those things under duress is a sign of good character in the world of fairy tales and fairy godmothers.
We can learn from these stories if we’re willing to take them as they are. Too often when modern writers decide to twist them out of true to accommodate modern “values” and mores, they lose the essential wisdom embedded in these tales. Like so many of the stories we read, there are doorways to very sacred things contained in some of these children’s stories. They’re meant to imprint an awareness of what is right behavior in those listening or reading, to help us learn to choose wisely that which will shape us as adults. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s a very, very good thing. We need those stories, now more than ever.
What are your favorite fairy tales and why?
- In the original version of the story, Cinderella plants a tree on her mother’s grave and goes there, making offerings and praying every day to the spirit of her dead mother. It’s her mother that helps her, not a fairy godmother. It’s really interesting how often ancestors and the fair folk are elided, especially in Northern European lore, but that’s an article perhaps for another day.
- It’s been a while since I’ve read the original Grimm version of the story but I believe the stepsisters cut off toes and mutilate their heels to fit into the slipper and at the end, ravens peck out their eyes.
The two (Polytheists and Spiritworkers) are not the same thing, I know, but I’ve had a couple of requests lately on both fronts for good movie recommendations and after my initial response of “Good friggin’ luck,” I realized I do have a shelf of movies that I often recommend to students so I’ll give that to y’all here with the caveat that it’s hardly a full list, and my taste runs toward the macabre. It goes without saying, parents, watch these first on your own before letting your kids watch them. Many of them probably aren’t appropriate for small children.
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This is NOT the movie with Brandon Lee nor in any way affiliated with that franchise. It’s an independent film that takes place in the Welsh countryside. The Morrigan, though unnamed as such, casts a strong shadow throughout the movie as does the God Bran and it shows what it means to have a contract with the land and what constitutes appropriate justice when one breaks such a contract. It also really, really shows what it’s like for some spiritworkers. It’s a brilliant movie and we couldn’t believe it as we were watching it. It wasquite an unexpected find. Plus it has Terence Stamp in one of the most awesome outfits ever.
Heh. This is such a creepy movie. Firstly, the spirit-worker figure is deaf, which is fascinating as it plays into the way he hears spirits and communicates with them and I really liked that a lot. He’s also pragmatic in a very uncomfortable way and the whole movie shows that sometimes you have to bargain with spirits in ways that forever color the soul. There is no good ending in this one, but the best possible ending capable of being negotiated by the spiritworker. Definitely worth a watch. Again, it shows a reality of the Work with spirits sometimes people want to ignore.
The Wicker Man (original only)
I find this is a beautifully compelling movie. It’s about sacrifice and devotion and doing right by the land and a community. It’s probably my favorite movie, hands down, on this list. I won’t say more than that (though I’d be surprised if most of you haven’t already watched it. This one is well known). It’s a polytheist rather than spiritworker recommendation. To avoid confusion, you want the version with Christopher Lee, not Nicholas Cage.
The Sorceress (1987)
In French with English subtitles, this movie is based on an extant account of the medieval cultus of St. Guinefort, a cultus that survived, I believe until WWI when tanks leveled the saint’s holy spots. The cultus was extremely Pagan and animist, and quite probably a hold-over from pre-Christian practice. Attempts to curb it, however, were largely unsuccessful. There’s also a fascinating book, The Holy Greyhound by J. Schmidtt about this cultus too. Highly recommended.
This is a strange and haunting movie. I started watching it one night after my husband went to bed and then 20 minutes in dragged him down to watch it because the Dionysian echoes were just far, far too strong. This is about the dead and debt, and pain and revelation, and most of all liberation and art.
A strange but very kind young man sees monsters and sometimes fights them. Again, this one is a good spirit-worker movie, though not necessarily of any relevance to polytheists. It’s a heart-wrenching performance by the late Anton Yelchin.
This one is awesome for adults AND children. It’s all about honoring the dead and doing right by them. I have seen this at least half a dozen times and cry every damned time. It’s a beautiful movie.
What do you do if you’re a child, a spirit worker, and very gifted? What do you do if you’re obviously being called to service by Thor? While I thought the very ending puttered out a bit, backing away from the reality of spiritwork in favor of “normal” (why, why, WHY?), up until that point, it is an absolutely brilliant movie with a fierce young female protagonist.
I hated this movie the first time I watched it. It wasn’t until over a decade later, after having been a spiritworker for many, many years, that I sat down and watched it again and realized that it was all about knowing your inner landscape and claiming power – both things spiritworkers are required to do no matter the cost. It’s also a visually stunning film.
I’ve saved one of the best for last. This is a movie about a magician and wyrd-worker. It presents spiritual reality with an overlay of sci-fi/fantasy but the inherent principles and message it tells about the consequences of choice are terribly important.
So, there you are, that’s my list. Of course, While this was meant to be a list of the top 10 films, I have to also mention two entries more familiar to Northern Tradition polytheists. I adore the 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas, the film creates an original story loosely inspired by sources such as Beowulf, and selections from Ibn Fadlan‘s journey among the Viking Rus. And of course the more recently buzzed about Midsommar (which I reviewed last summer here). Enjoy!
What are some of your favorites?
It was with no small degree of both anticipation and trepidation that I went to see “Midsommar” this weekend. My gold standard for movies of this type is the original “Wicker Man” with Christopher Lee. I did not expect “Midsommar” to come near to this and happily I was wrong. It’s a beautiful, moving, brilliant movie about the emptiness and crass depredation of modernity coming face to face with deep, unshakeable piety.
This is the point that the Pagan reviewers having thus far written about this movie have aggressively missed. It’s a movie about tradition, values rooted in intergenerational piety, and the consequences of growing up in a culture bereft of community, and about the consequences of one’s choices good and bad. It’s not a perfect movie by any means (and I’ll be talking about the things that I particularly disliked below) but it comes close. It is not a horror movie nor, as so many reviewers on youtube have insisted, is it a break up movie. That happens yes, but it is the culmination of the main character’s spiritual and emotional journey, a natural conclusion to her transition out of polluted, disconnected existence and into tribe and family. (There is a powerful dream sequence where we see this visually depicted: Dani, the main character exhales and a huge billow of black smoke comes out of her mouth. I and my husband looked at each other and I whispered, “she’s expelling pollution” and from that point on, she begins integrating more and more fully into the community that eventually accepts her).
Spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
The movie begins with Dani and her boyfriend Christian on the verge of a break up. That is postponed when she suffers a terrible personal tragedy and Christian, out of his depth but not wanting to be a total dick, decides not to break up with her. From there, a Swedish friend Pelle invites Christian and some other doctoral students to his hometown for a special 9-day celebration that only takes place every 90 years. Dani eventually comes along with them. It is clear from the beginning of the flight that Dani is disconnected not just from Christian but from everyone and everything around her. That’s a recurrent theme: disconnection vs. connection. It’s particularly well expressed when you see her six months after her personal tragedy staring out at the bleak, isolated city scape. This is later contrasted with the healthy, bright, and vibrant Swedish landscape. On the plane, Pelle, their Swedish friend connects more to her by addressing her grief than Christian or any of her other peers do or try to do. He shows compassion and shared suffering. It is clear that, as so many people in the modern world are, she lives in emotional isolation.
That isolation begins to change when she and her friends arrive in Sweden. Pelle drives them to his village but they stop before they get there and he offers them mushrooms. This is their transport from mundane headspace to sacred, ceremonial states of being and its effect on Dani is remarkable. Immediately, we’re given a visual sign of the land accepting her (grass growing through her hand, uniting her with the earth). This also begins her journey from emotional brokenness to wholeness, healing, and strength.
Upon reaching the village, they’re immediately welcomed by the elders. On the way, they meet up with two other foreign guests, a rather obnoxious British couple. Things do not go well for the majority of the group. I’m not going to give a long breakdown of the entire film – I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t yet seen it; but I will offer a few highlights.
Dani tries from the beginning to understand and acclimate. Her friends do not. They behave with arrogance from the beginning. The most egregious example of this takes place after two elders have sacrificed themselves (in this community it is customary for elders to commit suicide ritually at 72, giving their life force back to the community). Not only does the British couple desecrate the ritual, possibly causing it to go somewhat awry with the elderly man, but afterwards, when the bodies have been cremated and the ashes spread about a sacred tree that serves as a communal ancestor shrine, one of the young men, after watching the spreading of the ashes, decides he has to take a piss on that tree. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. He was incapable of recognizing it as sacred, even when they attempted to explain it to him. (He gets exactly what he deserves and I cheered out loud when that happened). There are several instances of desecration and violation of sacred spaces by the group, each one bringing the appropriate penalty.
Dani, on the other hand, tries to make herself useful and while obviously out of her element, participates in tasks and even in the ritual, winning the role of “may queen,” a ceremonial role that involves blessing the fields and land. In the end, it is Dany who chooses the final sacrifice indicating her new role as a functioning member of this Pagan community, and that she has left her old, dysfunctional life behind. It’s powerful and moved me to tears more than once. At the end, she is robed in a glorious cape of flowers, bright and indicative of growth and new life.
There were things I did not like. Firstly, until a certain age, all members of the tribe live communally. I thought this was ghastly. Of course, I also find the idea of being out in nature ghastly. Lol Thank you, no. I’ll take a hut on the edge of town, if you please. They also have a particularly bred line of deformed, mentally challenged children, ostensibly one per generation that serve as a type of oracle. My husband wasn’t bothered by this, but I was. I found it inappropriate. At least the elders made it clear he wasn’t the only oracle and he is given an important and functional role in the community, which was good. There were no “throw away” people like we have so often in our culture. I did think he was creepy-cool too. Finally, the Gods weren’t really mentioned. Their symbols were everywhere and if you knew how to read them Their presence was clear as letters on the page of a book but They weren’t actively mentioned save two times very vaguely. They should have been front and center.
On a positive note, the imagery is consistently beautiful. The community is assigned work as adults based on traits they show as children and there are several instances of boys and girls being shown apprenticing to adults. That was lovely. Pay attention to the illustrations on the walls and wall hangings. They tell you exactly what is going to occur. There is one tapestry hanging outside that shows the entire progress of a love spell…a very traditional spell involving pubic hair and/or menstrual blood found in more cultures than I can count and literally one can read it like an open book. (My second outcry in the theatre was to Christian when the girl working the spell makes him a little pie… LOL “Don’t eat that pie!” because I know that spell. Also, in the same scene, his drink is slightly darker than everyone else’s which indicates that the girl probably added her own special ingredient to the drink too!).
The runes were quite correct in every instance of their use. They could, as I said, also be read like an open book to tell you what was going to occur. At the beginning, for their opening communal meal, they have the tables set up in a huge othala, the symbol for home, inheritance, and a healthy community, which is then later changed to gebo as the time of sacrifice approaches. In one instance, Christian (and I don’t think his name was accidental, though the main focus of the movie is the grossness of modernity versus the beauty of tradition and community rather than explicitly Christianity vs. Polytheism) is about to have ritual sex with one of the village girls (approved by the elders because as a small community they need new breeding stock. I thought this qualified as cheating on Dani because he’d never had the courage to actually break up with her, but at the same time, they’d not visibly been behaving like a couple so it’s possible the young girl didn’t know. Then again, there’s always one in every community…). He comes in wearing a shirt with two inguz runes on his chest. In one is the rune tiewaz, which has a secondary meaning of masculine potency and in the other, a reversed algiz, which tells me he’s not living out the end of the movie. Lol. Inguz itself is indicative of fertility and Freyr – which tells you everything you need to know about how that scene is going to play out. Dani at one point wore a dress with a reversed raido and a dagaz on its side. I would have interpreted that as her journey ending in this place but how it ends and what that means as lying within her own power to determine. When Dani finds out what Christian has been up to, she breaks down but unlike her modern world where she would have been left to deal with this grief alone, the other women surround her, hold her, breath with her, mourn with her, and guide her through the pain. It was one of the most beautifully moving moments in the entire film.
The numbers mentioned in every instance add up to nine, (18, 36, 54, 72 – numerologically they add up to nine) which is very Odinic. The sacrifices made were also Odinic, particularly with the bear being such a potent image during the final ones; however, the holiday itself was the summer solstice and one would have expected it to center around Freyr far more. It was very cool that the Deity imagery was there but I kept finding myself confused because where I expected Vanic things, I got instead Odinic and vice versa. The was a nod to Nerthus in the role of the “May” Queen (ostensibly a May queen in June because it was still too cold to crown a May queen in actual May?): she’s put in a carriage and escorted around the perimeter of the village and fields and gets to bless everything. The names of the Gods were never, ever used though, as I’ve already noted, which was off-putting. I did like that offerings were buried in the earth: seeds, eggs, raw meat, etc. It reminded me of the Acerbot rite.
Finally, there are two willing sacrifices from the community and while they are given a drug to ease their way at the end before being burned, I think they should have had their throats cut to ensure they died cleanly and did not suffer. Still, the ending was beautiful and powerful and culminates with Dani ostensibly becoming a member of the community.
The biggest things that stood out for me were the examples of modern impiety in the face of what is obviously sacred. With the exception of Dani, every single one of her companions behaved in a way that was self-centered, rude, and just horrible when simple respect and hospitality of the guest would have carried them through had they thought of it (Christian also steals his friend’s dissertation idea, which shows his general lack of character. That’s a killable offense to an academic, or should be lol). They had no respect for the fact they were being welcomed into a sacred space for a very, very special series of rituals. Now that brings up a question that the movie leaves unanswered: namely, did Pelle select the group because he knew they would behave badly and thus render themselves lawful prey to be sacrificed, or could it have gone either way dependent on their behavior? (Dani was an unexpected addition so she was a wild card from the beginning). I like to think the latter.
Overall, the message of the movie was one of the value of piety and tradition against the way that modernity isolates us from all that is wholesome. It was the story of one woman’s journey into health and healing, into sacred consciousness, and joy culminating in her turning away from destructive modern attitudes and the pollution they so often bring and finding acceptance in a family rooted in caring for the land, honoring the Gods, remember the ancestors (and not pissing on their shrine >_<), and celebrating each other. It is every bit as powerful as the “Wicker Man” (though I still prefer Wicker Man for reasons of pace and some stylistic elements. Also, in the “Wicker Man,” the Gods are named, which adds to it immensely).
I highly recommend this movie and give five out of five hallucinogenic mushrooms. 🙂
This is, I’m sure, no surprise to any cat owner. Lol. But I’ve been realizing the last few months, exactly how magical these little furry murderers can be. Lately, I’ve become fascinated by folktales and fairy tales where cats are, in some way, the heroes. This all started as my ancestor practices with my paternal, Lithuanian line deepened. Gabija, the Lithuanian Goddess of the hearth and fire, can take the form of a cat and many of my ancestors really seemed to like them. I started getting pushed to get a cat of my own, so my husband and I adopted a little old lady cat from a local shelter. That was eye opening.
I’ve noticed that she wards the house. Whenever there are jagged, miasmic, or negative energies about, she will be our first warning. Even before we pick up on anything, Elena (our cat) is alert and through her behavior gives us warning. When we are divining, she will come from wherever she’s at in the house, sit and watch without interfering with the mat, and when we’re done, she’ll wander off again. She also seems to help at managing the energy of the house. As I’ve been reading about the role of cats in folklore, Lithuanian and otherwise, my respect for the little creatures has skyrocketed. This is an animal I’ve always liked, but never really considered in terms of a working ally. So, I’m kind of shocked to find myself, as a vitki and spirit worker, thinking “cats are cool.” Lol. I’ve even seen friends’ felines engaging in behavior that to my eyes and senses looks an awful lot like prayer.
Cats are of course, associated with magic in much of the folklore I’ve been reading. They are clever and dangerous; they are also often protective. In ancient Egypt, they were sacred. In Japan, they are believed to bring luck and wealth into a dwelling. I think they do. Also, I firmly believe they bring out the best in people. I said recently, only half joking, that all diplomatic negotiations should take place in a room full of cats! When we respond to them, they make us better humans.
Finally, there are two movies about cats that I’d highly recommend. The first is a Turkish film called “Kedi” that traces five stray cats throughout their meanderings around Istanbul. It also shows the sweet and caring way random people respond to them. The second is “Cat Nation,” a documentary about the popularity of cats in Japan. It’s a beautiful example of animism in action at times.
I also recommend “The Cats of San Martino,” a short story by Ellen Steiber in the anthology “Black Heart, Ivory Bones.” It’s a re-imagining of an Italian folk-tale about the King of the Cats. I love this tale. There’s also the book “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” by Kij Johnson, a beautiful book that makes me wonder about the stories cats tell about themselves.
I’m still pondering this. In the meantime, those of you who have cats, tell me your magical tales. ^__^. And if you have any books or stories to recommend, feel free to post here.
I needed to decompress a bit when I got home from school today so my husband suggested we watch a movie. Since “The Forest,” a horror movie set in the Aokigahara Forest (or Suicide Forest) in Japan is now on pay-per-view, we decided to watch that and it was an awesome film. It did, however, raise a few questions for me (not the least of which being what the majority of Japanese think of the film) and since many of them are connected with how we treat our dead, I wanted to explore them here. For those who worry about such things, please note there will be spoilers for the film.
To briefly recap, (SPOILERS STARTING NOW) a woman goes to Japan to find her twin sister who has gone missing in the Aokigahara forest. She is determined to go search for her sister because she can sense that her twin isn’t dead. Everyone she meets (teachers, school children, a forest guide, a random teen ager, and a woman who tended recovered bodies until they were claimed) warns her not to go off the trail, that the ghosts there are angry and because she is in a heightened and ungrounded emotional state will mess with her, possibly driving her to suicide and then she’ll be trapped in the forest which…is exactly what happens. (Her sister survives). Part of me thought this is the story of a well meaning white girl who disregards and in some ways shows inadvertent disrespect for indigenous sacred space, customs, and religions and then pays the necessary price for her obliviousness. I think there are more things to be considered though and while that was certainly part of the characterization there are other complexities to parse out.
Whenever I watch something like this, as a polytheist and moreover as a spiritworker I can’t help but consider how I would approach the situation myself were I in the character’s shoes, or what I would suggest for a client (this is why I’m extremely picky about what horror movies I watch – they tend to annoy me). I have a tendency to use things like this as teachable moments. So, tonight, when the movie ended, I turned to my husband and said, “I would have done that so differently. This poor woman went into that forest—a sacred, liminal, and terrifying place—completely unprepared and with no allies in the spirit world. There are so many things she could have done differently and I’m going to elaborate on them here.
Firstly, my understanding is that the forest is located on Mt. Fuji, a powerful Kami, or holy power in his own right. It’s a very sacred place and has been for generations, many generations. The moment I reached the base of the mountain, before doing anything else, I would have made offerings to that Kami, petitioning Him for safe passage, protection, and help. (Before doing even that, I would have made a lot of offerings and asked my own ancestors for protection and aid. I would have wanted them at my back, guarding my back when I reached the forest.).
I would have taken seriously the warnings of locals, particularly those who worked in the forest. I wouldn’t have scoffed at their traditions. I would have asked the proper way to show respect in such a sacred place and to any spirits who might be present. Then, before setting out on my search, I would have petitioned my Gods and I’d have made copious offerings to the dead of the place. There is a protocol when dealing with the dead, particularly dead not one’s own, and when dealing with sacred places. None of this would have been a guarantee of safe passage and success, but I think it would have positioned one in a place of greater potential for those things.
Also, in the movie, the more upset and emotionally unstable the main character became, the more the spirits in the forest messed with her. This is actually a thing. The rune spirits are like that a bit so that at least was something I was used to dealing with. I learned early on that to work effectively with the runes, it was necessary to be incredibly centered and almost detached (certainly detached from the results of any divination one might do). If there was uncontrolled or especially unacknowledged emotion present, the runes will take that as carte blanche to mess with the rune worker. It’s just part of the contract in dealing with them. I’d treat the situation encountered in the movie the same way on general principle.
I was very much moved by the idea of the suicide forest in general. I knew about it before, of course, but hadn’t ever given it much thought. Watching the movie, even though it was a horror movie, I couldn’t help but think how very respectful to have a beautiful place, at the foot of the home of a God (Mt. Fuji) where people can go when they decide to die. In so many ways, I wish that we had more reverence for death and dying and thus for living too. Anyway, that’s where this movie took me. There’s a documentary about the real Aokigahara Forest that folks can watch here.