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Yet More Free Scary Stories

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All these classic stories are in the public domain,
available in their entirety online or as free ebooks
(22-31 October 2018)

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The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil’s Backbone, the Film

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What is a ghost?
A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again?
An instant of pain, perhaps.
Something dead which still seems to be alive.
An emotion, suspended in time.
Like a blurred photograph.
Like an insect trapped in amber.

— Narrator, The Devil’s Backbone

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Whether as writer, director, or producer, Guillermo del Toro is known for films which mesh fairy tales and horror, among them Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and Julia’s Eyes. Many of his films are classified as  “dark Spanish fantasy” or “gothic horror,”  and his films are, indeed, full of horror. Del Toro has called The Devil’s Backbone (2001) his “most personal film.” Like many of his others, this film features ghosts, orphans, and abandoned children, all tangled together, trying desperately to survive and to figure out what has happened to their previously happy lives. Ghosts and murder, betrayal and tragedy, pain and destiny and loneliness: these are the themes of The Devil’s Backbone, where evil is not so much supernatural as it is a daily human reality. In The Devil’s Backbone, the most terrifying evil is not external but, instead, within the humans themselves.

Marisa Paredes as Carmen, The Devil’s Backbone ©

At an isolated orphanage in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, Headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is an amputee, secretly supports partisans, and has a stash of gold intended to aid their cause.

Federico Luppi as Casares, The Devil’s Backbone ©

The co-director of the orphanage is Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), who has long been in love with Carmen, and who is helping her hide gold for the Resistance.

Fernando Tielve as Carlos, The Devil’s Backbone ©

A young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is left at the Home by his tutor, who neglects to tell the boy that his father is dead, killed in the War. Before Carlos even realizes that he will be permanently staying at the orphanage, he sees the ghost of a boy his own age.

The Devil’s Backbone ©

Though the other orphans speak in whispers in the dark of night of “the one who sighs,” the adults do not even discuss the War with the children, though it has affected all the boys’ lives, let alone talk about a ghost or anything else supernatural with them. The orphans make up their own stories about the ghost and why it may be haunting the orphanage. The orphans do not know the ghost’s “secret,” so they make up reasons for its haunting the Home.

The Devil’s Backbone ©

The adults don’t seem to know about the ghost, but all the adults at the Home have secrets, none more so than the violent and angry caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). He was once an orphan at the Home himself and has returned only to get at the hidden stash of partisan-gold.

Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, The Devil’s Backbone ©

Jacinto terrorizes and abuses the orphan boys. He steals keys at night to secretly search for the hidden gold. He ruthlessly manipulates the women at the school by having sexual relations with several of them, pretending to be emotionally attached to each of them, including Headmistress Carmen and young Conchita (Irene Visedo, below L), who is herself in love with Jacinto.

Irene Visedo as Conchita, and Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, The Devil’s Backbone ©

And this is the place where young Carlos is now trapped, like the ghost that he keeps seeing. Unfortunately for Carlos, Jacinto is not the only person at the Home who bullies the boys. One of the orphans, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés, below L), is just as ferocious and tyrannical as Jacinto.

Íñigo Garcés as Jaime, and Irene Visedo as Conchita, The Devil’s Backbone ©

Jaime, who is in love with the pretty Conchita, takes out his frustrated, unrequited love on the younger boys, especially on the ten-year-old, fellow orphan Carlos.

To deal with his own emotional pain, abandonment, and loss, Carlos decides to overcome his terror of the ghost. He begins to investigate the boy-ghost, hoping to discover the ghost’s secret. How did a mere boy, after all, become a ghost trapped for eternity at the Home? Did the boy die in the War, or did he die in the orphanage itself? If the boy did, in fact, die at the Home — which would explain why the ghost is still there, haunting the other orphans — how did the young boy die? Was he a victim of illness, accident, or murder?

Carlos is desperate to discover the ghost’s secret before he himself is killed — by Jacinto, by Jaime, or by another wayward bomb like the unexploded one in the Home’s courtyard — and becomes a ghost forever trapped in the place Carlos hates most in all the world.

In Spanish with subtitles, The Devil’s Backbone is as much about the perils of war as about ghosts, and as much about man’s cruelty to each other as it is about the things that haunt us, whether they be the pain of abandonment, ghosts that roam the corridors at night, or our own secret pasts.

The Devil’s Backbone is available for about $2.99 for rent from Amazon,  YouTube, and iTunes.

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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

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Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) — written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by  JA Bayona, and produced by Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) — is the only one that I would caution adults not to allow children to watch. As in many of del Toro’s other films, there is a strong connection between fairy tales and horror, but I’m not talking about the sanitized versions of fairy tales that most children are now familiar with. If children, especially those under age 10, watch this film with you, they may be quite distressed. By the time you discover why young children should not watch The Orphanage, it’ll be too late: they’ll probably be seriously upset by this film, if not actually traumatized, so be warned. The Orphanage is R-rated for a reason, and there are no special effects, bad language,  or graphic violence to warrant the rating: the mature rating comes purely in the content of the story itself.

Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

Laura (Belén Rueda) spent many of her formative years in an orphanage, where she loved, and was loved by, the other children. Despite her having grown up without parents, Laura she remembers being happy in that orphanage.

The Orphanage ©

In an attempt to “pay back” society for her secure and relatively happy childhood, she purchases the old home and decides to take in special needs children.

Belén Ruedo as Laura, and Fernando Cayo as Carlos, The Orphanage ©

With Laura are her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), who’s an MD, and their son Simón (Roger Princep), who doesn’t know that he’s adopted nor that he’s seriously ill (he’s HIV-positive).

Roger Princep as Simón, The Orphanage ©

Simón already has a couple of imaginary friends, but he makes a few new imaginary friends at the orphanage-now-home. This starts to disturb his parents, who aren’t sure that he’s not just trying to get more attention at a time when their focus is going to be divided among the new resident children, all of whom will have special needs.

Roger Princep as Simón, and Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

On the day of the party to welcome the special needs children who will be living at the orphanage,  Mama Laura sees a strange, hooded figure, and she thinks it is Simón, trying to get attention.

The Orphanage ©

When the strange figure then attacks her, Laura is frightened, not only for herself but for Simón, who goes missing on the same day.

The Orphanage ©

And Laura’s life deteriorates from there.

Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

Laura becomes a sort of detective, trying to discover what might have happened to her son. She also invites a psychic (Geraldine Chaplin) to visit the orphanage in an attempt to locate the missing Simón.

Geraldine Chaplin, The Orphanage ©

Though her husband and other grieving parents who have lost children attempt to convince Laura that Simón is dead, rather than merely missing, she refuses to give up hope. She travels all around the area looking for her son. When husband Carlos suggests they leave the scene of their tragic loss, Laura insists they remain at the orphanage, if only because it was the last place anyone saw her son.

The Orphanage ©

Laura then decides that the mysterious hooded figure she saw on the day Simón disappeared must have been a ghost. She is determined to make contact with any ghosts who might be at the orphanage, to ask them for help locating her son.

The Orphanage ©

Some reviewers of the film complained that the ghosts were a minor part of the story, and I have to admit that they are, but I found that a strength of the film rather than a weakness. The Orphanage is about loss and grieving, about guilt and hope. It’s about parents and children, husbands and wives. It’s about how tragedy can forever change everything in our lives, and how some people simply cannot live with the devastating pain of irreparable loss.

It is not a film for young children: you will just have to trust me on this.

In Spanish with English subtitles, The Orphanage is an intense and excruciating psychological drama, masking itself as a ghost story. Yes, there are some ghosts, but that is not why this is a powerful and memorable film.

Winner of 14 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards) and winner of 8, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, The Orphanage is available for rent for $2.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from Vudu.

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The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

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I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of what I loved about the book was what I still love: are there really ghosts or are they figments of troubled people’s imagination? Last year, I saw the original British film adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, and was completely spooked by the great performances and the cinematography. I don’t know how I missed the film before, given my obsession with scary movies and my complete worship of Deborah Kerr, who plays the spooked governess. With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, The Turn of the Screw has fantastic acting, and the performances are plenty scary without any special effects.

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Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents (C)

Deborah Kerr stars as the Governess, Miss Giddens, who comes to an isolated estate to care for two orphans, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens),

Pamela Franklin as Flora, and Martin Stephens as Miles, The Innocents ©

who are just too beautiful and too-too perfect to be believed.

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Still, Miss Giddens is happy enough with her lovely charges and with the gorgeous house, despite all its creakity-creaks and spookity-shadows and creepity closed-off rooms. She’s happy with the beautiful gardens and the beautiful lake and the outdoor picnics with the ever-so-beautiful children and… oh, all of it.

Even if she occasionally does think she sees something out of place and inexplicable…

The Innocents ©

Oh, it’s just her imagination, isn’t it, because she’s happy with the house, the garden, the lake, and she’s so incredibly happy with the sweet, innocent, beautiful, orphan children. Most of all, she’s happy with those sweet children.

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, The Innocents ©

Until she begins to be unhappy with them.

Why? Maybe they’re too beautiful. Maybe they’re too perfect. Maybe they’re too mature. Maybe…

Martin Stephens as Miles and Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, The Innocents ©

Well, it’s bad enough that Miss Giddens thinks the two siblings are keeping secrets from her and lying about it. Even worse when they two of them go off on the grounds by themselves without her permission or knowledge. And it’s really not very proper at all when she says “goodnight” to Miles and he kisses her in a totally inappropriate way.

The Ghost and Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), The Innocents ©

When Miss Giddens begins to see ghosts, she gets scared. When she begins to suspect that the children know all about the ghosts, who seem to be the ghosts of people that the children actually knew, she gets worried. But when Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the lovely orphan children may, in fact, be possessed by the ghosts’ evil spirits, well, that’s an entirely different story. Miss Giddens feels morally responsible for the children’s welfare, so she simply must do something drastic to protect them from physical, psychological, and spiritual danger.

The film stays close to the source material in never revealing whether or not the children can also see the ghosts, leading us to question the Governess’ sanity as she attempts to free her charges of the evil that she believes possesses them. Are the ghosts merely a figment of her imagination? Are the children possessed?   Is Miss Giddens dangerously crazy? You’ll have to decide those for yourself in this scary classic.

If you’ve read the Henry James novella, you’ll really appreciate the film’s subtlety. If you’ve seen the later remake of the same work, The Others, there’s no comparison: both films are great though they are completely different from each other.  The Others is one of my top 7 Wonders of the Horror World.

Whatever version of The Innocents you find — dated 1956 or 1961 — make sure you have the black & white film, not the colorized one: the stark cinematography helps create the scares in this completely non-CGI horror classic.  The Innocents is available for rent or purchase from Amazon.

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Land of the Spirits

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New Mexico’s official state slogan is “Land of Enchantment,” adopted by the railroad industry to encourage tourism, but the Anasazi word from which that saying originated actually means “Land of the Ancient Ancestors” or, alternatively, “Land of the Enemy Ancestors,” and New Mexico is, indeed, a land filled with the spirits of ancestors and of the deceased.

I’ve been able to see spirits — some might call them “ghosts” — since I was a little girl. Of course, I never told anyone in my family about them: they would have just said I was making up stories. But I did tell a few of my friends, who also wanted to see them but never could, especially after we moved into the house that even my parents declared was “haunted.”

The first time I realized we were living in a house of spirits was when I was 11 years old. I was “babysitting” my siblings on New Year’s Eve while my mother and stepfather went out for the night. I was sitting in the living room, watching old movies, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little girl — about the same age as I was — sitting on the steps, holding on to the railings, her face pressed against the wood.

At first, I thought it was one of my siblings — most specifically, my younger sister, who, being only about a year and a half younger than I was, didn’t understand why she couldn’t also stay up to babysit our younger brother. When I turned toward the stairs to tell her to go back to bed, however, there was no one there. I wasn’t frightened: I simply thought she’d jumped up and run back to our bedroom.

I turned my attention back to whatever movie I was watching. I don’t remember the title, only that it was an old one, and that it was in black-and-white. The little girl reappeared. Without turning my head, I told my sister to go back to bed because she wasn’t “old enough to babysit” (like I was, at age 11, but things were different back in those days). The little girl didn’t move. Annoyed that she was “disobeying” me, I turned to her again. She wasn’t there. No one was.

Now I began to feel goosebumps on my arms, and an unsettling fluttering in my stomach. I turned away from the staircase. I could distinctly see the little girl in my peripheral vision. She was wearing a nightgown, had a blanket and doll, and had long blonde curls. She was just sitting there on the stairs, looking at me. She was most definitely not my little sister.

I didn’t tell my parents when they got home in the early morning hours, woke me from the chair where I’d fallen asleep, and shuffled me off to bed, shutting off the TV, where the off-air signal was blaring.

Soon, my mother began to complain about something unusual in the house. Actually, about lots of unusual “somethings” that were going on: the vacuum being unplugged from the wall while she was running it, the stove burner being turned off while she was cooking, the washing machine dial being pulled out (thus, turned off) in the middle of a load, hearing footsteps when she was alone in the basement, things moving around the house, footsteps.

My stepfather heard the footsteps, too, most often late at night long after we children were in bed. He’d stand at the bottom of the stairs and shout, “Get back in bed. Quit running around. Don’t make me come up there.” Except we were all in bed, usually sound asleep, and we simply didn’t know what he was talking about.

I began to see the little girl more often, all over the house. My parents experienced more disturbances around the house: the locked front door unlocked and open, the screen door from the kitchen to the back yard unlocked and propped open, flowers from the “garden” along the walk uprooted and left on the sidewalk that led from the house to the garage at the back of the property. Noises: running footsteps, giggling, crying, talking — always in the room next to the one they were in, or upstairs, or in the basement — crying, sobbing, weeping.

They had the house exorcised by a Catholic priest (and these were the days before The Exorcist, book or film). Things got worse. They talked to the neighbors, who readily admitted that previous residents had complained of the same things, mentioning a little girl who’d died in the house under mysterious circumstances, a little girl whose parents had been forced to leave the house and the neighborhood because of suspicions about their involvement in her death. No one, the neighbors told my parents, had lived in the house longer than 6-9 months. It was haunted: that, they claimed, was why my parents had gotten such a large house for so little money.

They had the house exorcised again, this time by the Monseigneur himself. I watched from the adjoining rooms as he made his way around the house. As long as I didn’t turn my head, I could see the little girl standing beside me. The second exorcism, too, worsened the “hauntings.” My mother insisted that she couldn’t live in the house any longer, especially since the “ghosts” — she always insisted there were more than one, although I never saw more than the little girl — seemed to have a special animosity toward her.

I wasn’t surprised. She was violent and abusive. I assumed the little girl didn’t like my mother any more than her own children did, myself included.

We moved after 3 years, though my parents hadn’t yet repaid my mother’s parents for the loan they borrowed from them for the downpayment. My mother tearfully insisted that she simply couldn’t take the “persecution” anymore.

Over the years, more in some places than others, I continued to see spirits, always noticing that if I turned my head to look at them straight on, I couldn’t see them. Sometimes, they seemed sad, sometimes angry. Mostly, though, they just seemed to be there. With me. Near me. I didn’t know why. When I was younger, it never occurred to me to try to communicate with them. I just accepted their presence as a part of my life experience.

After my boyfriend and I moved to New Mexico, officially “The Land of Enchantment,” but really “The Land of The Ancestors” or “The Land of the Spirits,” I saw spirits more often than I ever had before, especially after we moved to the little house on Big Rock Candy Mountain. I saw the pets we’d lost to death — even those who’d never lived in that house — and I saw lots of old Spanish women, dressed all in black, including veils, walking around the house outside. I saw them from the porch, through the windows, going down the flagstone path to the bridge over the arroyo that cuts across our entire yard, moving among the trees in the back yard.

I talked to my adopted Little Brother about it: he’s Lakhota, and I thought he’d understand. He was envious. He told me he wanted to be so “spiritually advanced” and “intuitive” that spirits appeared to him. I was confused. He told me that he’d talk to the Grandfathers (the Elders of his tribe) about the spirits I was seeing, but assured me that it was a privilege (he lived in New Mexico for a time when he was young, but apparently, never saw any spirits).

The Grandfathers were very impressed, he told me, and said that the spirits of ancestors — not necessarily personal ancestors, but of humans in general — only appeared to those around whom they felt safe. The Grandfathers told him that spirits, animal or human, always appear first in one’s peripheral vision and that if you turn your head, you will no longer be able to see them.

“Eventually, when they feel safe enough around her,” the Grandfathers told my Little Brother, “the spirits of the ancestors will appear in front of her. Just tell her not to look at them when they come to her: they’ll come around in front of her one day. Perhaps, they’ll even talk to her.”

My Little Brother was very excited. I was stunned. Seeing spirits meant that I was “spiritually advanced” and “extremely intuitive”? I could agree with the latter statement since many therapists had told me that, and I was, after all, a writer who listened to my intuition when writing my stories, novels, and poetry. The Grandfathers told me, via my Brother, that I could speak to the Ancestors and Spirits — I didn’t have to do it aloud — and that my acknowledging them would make the Spirits feel safer.

I did, sending the old women around the house, who seemed to be Spanish ancestors, welcome and blessings. Whenever I saw the spirits of our beloved pets, I told them I loved and missed them. The spirits came so regularly that I simply greeted them as a matter of fact.

The day my boyfriend first saw one of the Spanish ancestors, who simply seemed to have lived on this land at one time, he caught a glimpse of her walking down the path from the house to the bridge over the arroyo, past the barn where he was working. He thought it was me, looking for him, so he went to the bridge to see what I wanted. No one was there. Confused, he came to the house, asking me what I’d wanted. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about: I hadn’t left the house. He was frightened.

I reassured him, telling him that, after four years in this house on Big Rock Candy Mountain, he’d finally seen the ancestors himself. I don’t think he could make up his mind whether he was pleased or upset. I assured him that the ancestors weren’t unhappy or sad: they were simply on their land. How did I know that, he asked. I just do, I told him. He decided to trust me.

He also now sees the dueñas — plural of housewife, matron, proprietess, lady — as I’ve come to call them, and also says the same thing to them that I say, something I got from my Little Brother: Blessings on your path, Ancestor. He also now sees our cats who’ve died, one of whom was his first, so it gives him great happiness. I feel the cats sometimes rubbing against my ankles, but when I look down, none of our current cats is there. He wants very much to feel them rubbing against him.

I’d like the spirits to feel safe enough to come from my peripheral vision and stand before me, or walk in front of me, or simply pass me where I can see them more clearly. I would feel honored that they felt so safe with me, which is what the Grandfather’s of my Little Brother’s tribe said it would mean.

I’d also like New Mexico to stop hiding behind the deliberate misinterpretation of the original Anasazi saying for the area, which originally also included Arizona and parts of Colorado, and change the motto from “The Land of Enchantment” to “The Land of the Ancient Ancestors” or “The Land of the Spirits.” I don’t think such a change would “scare” tourists away since most of them wouldn’t be sensitive enough to see the Ancestors anyway. It would, however, attract those who were spiritually enlightened, intuitive, and able to honor the past which the Ancestors lived in.

I think that would please the spirits immensely.

Because, unlike the “spirits” in horror movies, like the “Book of the Dead” scene in Nicole Kidman’s The Others, the spirits are nothing to fear. Instead, they should be welcomed and embraced as part of our history.

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