Thoughts on ‘Insidious: The Last Key’ From a Storyteller’s Perspective

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There are two healthy — and at times nearly interchangeable — haunted house/paranormal possession film series right now.

James Wan produces each, and Patrick Wilson starred in the initial films for each series, while the stories that make up the movies are said to come straight from the life of medium Lorraine Warren. I genuinely can’t recall the plot to The Conjuring after watching Insidious 2, and can’t remember which film hosted the Darth Maul Demon after sitting through the less-than-stellar Annabelle (a prequel to The Conjuring, if you’re keeping score.)

But after eight years, it seems like the Insidious films are going to continue to concentrate on the life of Lorraine Warren, while The Conjuring stories are going the route of the horror anthology. And after viewing Insidious: The Last Key, I’d have to say I’m tired of following the demonic encounters of the main protagonist of the Insidious movies, Elise (our bio-fictionalized Lorraine Warren.)

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Insidious: The Last Key’s visual elements and pacing are its only strong suits. The dialogue, sound effects, music, characters, and story arc are hamfisted, disinteresting, and at times, scatterbrained. There are countless moments where Elise is expositing on the why of the haunting that I felt completely unnecessary. We’re horror fans, we suspend logic; and more often than not, the why is better left unspoken, or at least open to varied interpretation.

The film does very well in showing the development of the haunting of Elise’s childhood home in New Mexico. How it corrupted her prison guard father, then its modern-day caretaker; how the Key-Fingered Demon itself was released, and the way in which it accomplished its deeds. The visual elements surrounding the emergence of the Key-Fingered Demon in the basement of the New Mexican home was the centerpiece of the film. The demon is a worthy villain, its purpose clear: bringing out the demonic from within the living.

Thoughts on the characters

Elise and her forgettable, cringe-inducing sidekicks are called to her childhood home. She hadn’t been back since she was a teenager, driven off by her abusive father. Her only regret, that she left her younger brother, Christian, behind. Christian is a bystander in childhood, and adulthood. His only contribution is birthing two daughters who will aid Elise in confronting the demon. The girls are all-too eager to help their kooky aunt out, a woman they’ve never met nor even heard a word about from their father. One of the girls, Imogen, is a medium like Elise, and ultimately enters the Further (spirit world) to rescue Elise from the Key-Fingered Demon. There is a recurring ghost girl with more presence and personality than Imogen.

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Plot misses

In the scenes focusing on Elise’s childhood, the looming presence of the nearby prison, and its light-flickering executions, permeates the story, but is never developed.

Christian never believed his sister saw ghosts and hated her for terrorizing him with her stories. By the end of the movie, he is shown no evidence, experiences nothing of the hauntings, and never considers whether Elise has endangered his daughters, or worse, but all is forgiven.   

The movie reveals that Elise’s father was guided by the demon to do hideous acts, which leads Elise to a moment of empathy for her father, but it doesn’t quite spell out whether all of the heinous acts were demon-driven, or just the most vile. It’s important, because if the violence against his daughter wasn’t also demon-driven, the empathy she shows him is out of place.

When Elise begins seeing entities in her bedroom as a child, the Darth Maul Demon from Insidious briefly appears. Everyone knows this particular demon. Why show him if he’s not going to appear again in the house? You see Darth Maul again in the final scene, which attempts to set up a new movie, but it’s completely unrelated to Elise’s childhood home, and was an unnecessary, and distracting, addition early on.

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Who would I recommend this movie to?

If you didn’t like Annabelle or Annabelle: Creation, but liked the first few Conjuring and/or Insidious movies, this film is good for one theater viewing, and no subsequent home viewings. If you know nothing of the earlier Conjuring or Insidious installments, then this movie is probably a waste of your time. Insidious: The Last Key relies too heavily on fandom. There is little depth to the storytelling self-contained within the movie. You’re expected to have seen one of the earlier installments to be invested in the lackluster story.

Joe Sullivan is the author of several paranormal and dark fantasy books, available on Amazon.

 

Preview: A Strange Love & Relationship-Themed Paranormal Anthology from Cemetery Gates Media

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In February 2018, we (Brhel & Sullivan) will release a book of ten short stories entitled Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities. With this collection, we aim to present the difficulties of sustaining flesh-and-blood relationships through a novel lens — through the weird and uncanny.

Paranormal themes and plot elements help us explore interpersonal relationships in unique, often amusing, ways; but at their core, these tales are not about ghosts or strange premonitions — they’re about flawed, everyday individuals navigating the complexities of dating, marriage, and loss. If anything, the strange situations that our characters encounter only parallel the seemingly arbitrary, uncertain nature of real-life love and companionship. And while you may not ever communicate with a dead lover or have a preternatural insight into a different time or place, you can likely relate to the tragedy, the euphoria, the insanity that the act of loving often entails.

The stories can be considered romances in the broadest sense. Each tale is built around a central character’s quest for a more secure, fully actualized, and loving intimacy. However, most of the stories would not properly fit within the expectations of the already established, paranormal romance subgenre.

With books like Tales from Valleyview Cemetery and Corpse Cold: New American Folklore our goal was to entertain readers with spook stories, featuring uncomfortable plot elements that approach real-life horrors. And in Carol for a Haunted Man we portrayed a helpful, Dickensian apparition, and a mortal protagonist who was struggling to rebuild his personal and professional lives. While this collection is a mix of both thematic styles, we hope to satisfy readers who’ve enjoyed our campfire oddities, as well as those who’ve preferred our more literary moments.

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Some of the highlights from the new collection include:

  • “Her Mourning Portrait” is the story of an artist who immortalizes his dying wife, and then must face the consequences of aging without her.
  • “Side by Side” is a quirky cemetery tale about a confrontation between a long-deceased man and his widow’s second husband, regarding the final resting place of their beloved-in-common.
  • “Lady of Cayuga Lake” recounts the last hurrah of a separating husband and wife, a final vacation which takes a turn toward the paranormal when they both spy a ghost over the lake. Will they have what it takes to work together, confide in each other, and solve the mysterious disappearance of Mary Gold?
  • “The Lost Cache” tells of the strain an obsessive hobby can have on a marriage. Hillary appears to give Eric every chance to engage her, and work his way back toward an intimate companionship, even going so far as to plan out a special evening of hiking and geocaching in an old cemetery with her husband.
  • “Play It Again, Sam” is a science fiction story regarding the discovery of a technology that can influence recorded memories. Sam is an engineer hoping to alter his ex-wife’s perception of their seminal, shared moments together, enough that she has a more positive view of him in the present.
  • “Her, He, and a Corpse Makes Three” focuses on a love triangle between a living couple who work in a funeral home, and the woman’s recently deceased, yet spiritually returned ex-boyfriend.

Ben Baldwin is once again responsible for the cover art. Ben previously designed the cover for our episodic novel, Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop.

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The following is a complete short story from Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities, entitled “Beyond a Blood Moon.” It is a brief homage to the chillers of Guy de Maupassant and Edgar A. Poe.

“Beyond a Blood Moon”

I was awoken one night in bed, likely due to the absence of my fiancée. I can only assume that it was this silence past midnight, which a light sleeper can’t help but notice once they’ve become attuned to the constancy of their nightly, bedroom environment. And this absence, was likely what my unconscious found unsettling enough to stir me. Sara’s breathing was often measured, hypnotic, a comforting layer to my night. Her respiration, often the last thing I took hold of in my twilight mind before plunging into the great unknown, and then my first lifeline back to cognizance each morning. But when I stirred that night, due to the silence, and reached for her — I couldn’t help but convulse, in considering a multitude of fears and possibilities.

I left our bedroom and wandered my home. Her sneakers were gone. She enjoyed jogging late, and I hated that she had no fear of the night. As I dressed and put on my shoes, I considered whether I was the reason for her jogging well past midnight. That she wouldn’t want to worry me if I were still awake, while she took the path around the block and through the cemetery. So, since there was no way I was going to fall back to sleep without seeing her safely home, I headed out into the night.

There were intermittent clouds, but the moon was full and bright, illuminating the areas where the amber-yellow street lamps fell short. As I turned from the sidewalk and into Valleyview Cemetery, I noticed the beginnings of a lunar eclipse. I hadn’t seen one since childhood, and stood in awe as the Earth’s shadow consumed the reddening lunar surface. At the time, I considered how strange and seemingly unimportant such a spectacular astronomical event had been to me. It had been over twenty years since I’d stood in my parents’ front yard and last waited for the moon to vanish.

I rarely consumed local media, there had to have been some mention of it in the newspaper that morning. To think that ancient societies would plan for months, and even years, in advance, to celebrate a full lunar eclipse — and here I was, casually catching one as I searched for my missing companion.

I continued on through Valleyview after the blood moon passed. The lunar disc retained some of its reddish hue, but the street lamps on either end of the cemetery were enough, for me to find my way down the winding paths of the hillside graveyard. I came upon Sara, not far from the central outcropping of mausoleums. I ran to her crumpled form. I knew her instantly by the powder blue sneakers with their pink bands.

I screamed her name as I attempted to revive her. She was lifeless. I could make out the strangulation marks on her neck, her bruised face, as I gave my best effort at resuscitation. She had been murdered. I’m still not sure whether she had even been robbed. I called 911 and the paramedics, fire department, and police drove into the cemetery. It was the last time I saw Sara’s body, as her family wouldn’t allow me at the wake or funeral, since I was awaiting arraignment for homicide.    

I had no choice but to put my hands on her, and attempt my best at reviving her. I had to touch her, feel with my own hands the bruising on her cheek, her broken right orbital bone, the sinewy strangulation marks on her neck. I began to mourn her, long before the first medic arrived on the scene.

There was no one else to charge, imprison, and punish. It really made sense for the police, community, my friends, and family, that I was the one who extinguished a loving, generous, woman — one who I had long imagined as the mother of my children, my lifelong partner. For eight years I went mad in a single cell at Shawangunk Correctional Facility. I had no visitors, no one waiting for me — no one to serve my time for. I wrote letters to Sara’s family, my own family, pleading my innocence and the truth of my unabashed love for her. They went unanswered.

During my eight years I married Sara in my mind, had children with her. We went on family vacations, advanced in our careers, even had spats, and differences which we eventually overcame. She and I advanced into old age, and I was ready to die alongside her when I was granted parole.

The first night I was able to leave the halfway house, I went right to Valleyview and lay upon her ornate altar-tomb. It was a frigid, overcast February night, and I intended to fall asleep and become a part of her monument. A monument to my love for her, the love we had shared the four years we were together, and the eight I had shared with her in dream.

With my finger I traced her name in the granite, then the inscription beneath which read: “Devoted daughter and fiancée, a beautiful soul taken too soon.” I shivered at the mention of ‘fiancée,’ that her parents left her connection to me at her burial site. It surprised me, and gave me some small consolatory pleasure in my waning hours.

The chill had already consumed me, and was now leaving my body along with my life’s energy. It began to snow. A thin white blanket covered me and the altar on which I began to drift into that place between conscious and unconscious. But as I resigned myself to my end, and was preparing to embrace my final sleep, the altar moved beneath me. The shock of the tomb cracking mere inches from my face, gave me the rush of adrenaline I’d need to be fully cognizant of what then occurred.

From the few inches of darkness, revealed by the cracked top piece of the altar, a waxen, partly shriveled, human hand emerged. I pushed myself onto my side, to avoid the ghastly intrusion by my beloved. The aged, embalmed hand proceeded to scratch out the inscription on the tomb. I watched as an eerie incandescent green glow passed from the fingertips to the stone, bright enough that I had to momentarily shield my eyes.

It wasn’t half a minute when the task was complete, and the hand returned to the dark of the tomb, the altar gently scraping back to its settled position. I looked to the inscription, to see what damage had been done, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. I assumed I had experienced some sort of delusion, brought on by my deteriorating condition.

When I lay back on the tomb, resigned to complete my purpose, I looked up into the overcast sky, and the clouds soon parted — revealing the Earth’s colossal umbra as it consumed the moon. I had no prior knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse, and I had to shield my eyes, as I was shaken to my core by the specter of the blood-red disc.

I turned away from the dreadful astronomical event — and when I did, I caught sight of the inscription on the tomb, which was now illuminated in a reddish hue from the heavenly body. Where the inscription had once read: “Devoted daughter and fiancée; a beautiful soul taken too soon.” now read, in an ordered (what I can only describe as ‘angelic’) script: “Devoted mother and wife; to be together again, if only in dream.”

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The Director of ‘Get Out’ is Producing a ‘Twilight Zone’ Reboot and I Have Mixed Feelings

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You can binge the show to your heart’s content on practically every steaming service, but it’s been over a decade since a new episode of any iteration of The Twilight Zone has aired. That’s all about to change, as Jordan Peele, director of the mega-successful horror/thriller Get Out is executive producing a reboot on CBS’ All Access streaming service.

As a long-time fan of the original show, my interest is certainly piqued. The Twilight Zone is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic and celebrated series in television history, and I’ve long since hailed it as “like My Favorite Show, guys,” but will it actually be good — or will we be longing for Rod Serling and his tobacco-stained intros?

Why I’m Excited

Anthology storytelling is in again

 

Anthology horror has made a comeback in recent years. Series like Black Mirror and Dimension 404 harken back to anthology horror/fantasy from yesteryear, filling the gap that The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, and similar shows once provided. It’s clear that there’s an appetite for this format of storytelling, and there are creators out there producing new and interesting stories. The Twilight Zone worked because it delivered quality stories in a half-hour format — simple, no nonsense, 30 minutes and you’re done — and it’s clear that style can work in a modern setting, and that there’s an appetite for it.

Peele knows suspense/horror

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I didn’t see Get Out until a couple months after its release, as the Hype over the film was out of control; it seemed to good to be true. To my surprise, the movie was not only decent, but genuinely unsettling. (Spoiler alert: I was creeped the F out when Chris was tied to the chair and that blind dude from Office Space was explaining how he’d be taking over his body.) Peele delivered a tense, fun thriller, borrowing ideas from The Skeleton Key and The Stepford Wives and creating an original work that deftly mixes horror and humor. Dread-building and wit were essential to the tone of The Twilight Zone and Peele’s style fits in that regard, definitely more so than, say, a director like Rob Zombie. That would be insane.

The world is still messed up

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The 1960s were rife with massive, anxiety-inducing world and social issues — the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War — and The Twilight Zone managed to address some of these in a subtle, under-the-radar way, using aliens, monsters, etc. as analogues for real-world players and situations. With the world as screwed-up as it is today, there will be no shortage of issues to touch upon in a new Twilight Zone series. Peele addressed issues of race and privilege in Get Out and I’m certain he’ll be tackling those, and more, in his run.

Why I’m Leery

The series has been rebooted before, to mixed results

 

I can’t speak with real authority on this matter, as I have only seen a handful of episodes of either iteration, but The Twilight Zone was rebooted in the 1980s and for a short time in the early 2000s, and neither show lived up to the original in terms of storytelling, cinematography, music, etc. Put simply: “The Twilight Zone is coming back”!” is not a groundbreaking idea. The original show has taken on an iconic status in American/TV culture, and any attempt to replicate it is almost a fool’s errand. It hasn’t worked yet, and it might fail again.

No one has freaking CBS All Access

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I remember when Star Trek: Discovery was announced and everyone bemoaned the fact that it would only be available on CBS All Access. Well, now I’m bemoaning the fact that CBS is planning on airing this show exclusively on its no-name service. It just seems outlandish to subscribe to a service that’s so niche when providers like Netflix and Hulu feature shows from a wide variety of channels. I don’t know anyone who subscribes to CBS All Access, and I’m certainly not going to join it just to watch the new Twilight Zone. Throw in a Tales From the Crypt reboot too and maybe I’ll consider.

I’m going to have to do a free trial or something and see what the first few episodes of the series are like, whenever (and if ever) it airs. I’m cautiously optimistic. Peele has a good track record (I actually really dig his comedic stuff in Key & Peele), but he’s not the only one involved. Whatever happens, I’ll keep watching Mr. Serling and his eerie-as-hell original , which shall never leave my Netflix queue.

John Brhel is an author of paranormal and fantasy fiction. Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop, which he co-wrote with Joe Sullivan, has been compared to The Twilight Zone by many reviewers.

10 Real-Life Locations That Inspired The Stories in ‘Corpse Cold: New American Folklore’

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We often base our tales in actual locations around our home state of New York. It’s fun to take everyday places, locations we’ve visited once, or often, and infuse them with our brand of lore.

Here are some of the illustrations from Corpse Cold: New American Folklore paired with their real-life inspirations!

“Amityville Beach”/Amityville Beach, Long Island

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This popular beach is located in the Long Island village of Amityville, the setting of the infamous Amityville Horror, which is mentioned in our story.

“Friendship: Dead and Buried”/The Last Ride burial simulator

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The character Kevin Morrissey in “Friendship: Dead and Buried” is treated to a “ride” on Six Feet Under, which “simulates” an actual burial. Six Feet Under was inspired by The Last Ride, a traveling amusement park attraction in the Northeast United States that offers a similarly visceral experience.

“The Big ‘M'”/Eagle Bay, N.Y.

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The supermarket featured in the story “The Big ‘M’ was inspired by a now-closed grocery in Eagle Bay, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. This is a picture of the market as it appeared in the 1980s.

“Dracula’s Bride”/Ukranian Catholic Church

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The chapel that the kids in “Dracula’s Bride” chase the elderly Mrs. Ellsic to is actually modeled after a Ukranian Catholic Church in Johnson City, N.Y. Corpse Cold co-author Joe Sullivan grew up in the same neighborhood, where the church still stands.

“Moss Lake Island”/Echo Island

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Echo Island

The small island featured in “Moss Lake Island” is inspired by Echo Island, situated on Big Moose Lake in N.Y. Big Moose Lake is only a short drive from Moss Lake.

“Two Visions, 1984″/Roscoe Diner

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The Roscoe Diner, where journalist Ross Davie picks up the hitchhiker in “Two Visions, 1984,” is a popular diner in Roscoe, N.Y., located on Route 17.

“Woman on the Campus Green”/Wadsworth Auditorium

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The entirety of “Woman on the Campus Green” takes place at SUNY Geneseo, where Joe Sullivan once attended college. A climactic scene in the story takes place in Wadsworth Auditorium, a performing arts venue on campus.

“The Blue Hole”/Peekamoose Blue Hole

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“The Blue Hole” is inspired by a real swimming hole in Grahamsville, N.Y., in the Catskills.

“Jesup”/Tioughnioga River

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This story was inspired by actual alligator sightings during the summer of 2017 on the Tioughnioga River, which runs through Whitney Point and Lisle, N.Y. It was no urban legend, as two alligators were eventually caught.

“Last Train Home”/Buffalo, N.Y.

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The train line featured in “Last Train Home” is based on the Buffalo Metro Rail system in Buffalo, N.Y.

Learn more about Corpse Cold: New American Folklore!

‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ Is Being Made Into A Movie, But Can They Pull It Off?

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If you grew up in the 90s, like me, you probably spent some time in front of the tube enraptured by the lite horror-fantasy of Nickelodeon’s anthology series Are You Afraid of the Dark? 

Maybe you stayed up until 9:30 on Saturday nights for SNICK, scared to death by the likes of Zebo the Clown or the Ghastly Grinner. Or perhaps you caught the episodes as re-runs after school, hunkered down on the couch with your Ecto Cooler and Bagel Bites, ready to revel in the spooky stories. I watched the show as much as I could, and I still very much enjoy it, even some of the 1999-2000 reboot.

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Don’t take this dude’s nose. Seriously.

I’ve wondered throughout the years if the series could ever be adapted into a movie. When news broke that Guillermo del Toro was directing a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark flick, I thought, ‘Well, if they could turn that into a movie…” But when I interviewed AYAOTD co-creator D.J. MacHale last year, I asked him if another reboot of the series or a movie adaption of the series was in the works, and he said there was nothing in development. He doesn’t own any rights to the series, anyway.

Well, apparently someone at Paramount decided that it would be a good idea to adapt this beloved show into a movie. Paramount Players, a new division at Paramount Pictures, is taking existing Viacom property (AYAOTD being one of them) and rebooting them to appeal to younger audiences. The guy set to write the script is Gary Dauberman, who penned the screenplays for this year’s mega-successful IT, as well as Annabelle: Creation.

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Could this guy turn “The Tale of Train Magic” into a blockbuster film?

Why I’m worried 

As a huge fan of AYAOTD, this news intrigued me, to say the least. I mean, how often do you see publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter talking about the freaking Midnight Society? Millions of kids watched the show back in the day, but it’s not like there is some huge cult fandom out there (Definitely check out the You Scared Of This? podcast, though, for insight from other geeky fans). It’s definitely cool to think about kids today discovering the “franchise,” but could a modern-day full-length film really capture the essence of what made the show so great?

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Like The Twilight Zone before it, Are You Afraid of the Dark? offered a new story, with new characters and locations, each week. You might have a vampire episode one week, and the following week an episode with aliens or water demons or 50s dream girls searching for their lost love. It was the variety and the short, concise storytelling that made this show something to keep coming back to.

When they tried to make hour-long episodes of The Twilight Zone, the results were mixed. And while the 1983 movie had its moments, it certainly didn’t live up to the appeal of the original half-hour concept. This show was best as a half-hour anthology, hands down.

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Maybe just watch the show instead. Yeah, do that.

More pressing is how does Dauberman plan on incorporating The Midnight Society into the film? The group opened, closed, and narrated each episode, and only had their own actual storyline in the three-parter “The Tale of the Silver Sight.” Will the movie feature the Midnight Society as the show did, as mere storytellers introducing each episode — or will they be direct players, experiencing spooky situations themselves?

The film version of Goosebumps, that other popular 90s series, went with the latter option. Rather than focus on one existing story, they turned R.L. Stine into an actual character, and made Goosebumps an actual in-universe book series. I actually enjoyed this movie more than I had expected, and I thought the concept worked well enough, but AYAOTD is different. Goosebumps had dozens of well-known titles to play off of — Monster Blood, Night of the Living Dummy, Say Cheese and Die. It’s a much more popular series than AYAOTD — kids still read these books a ton today. I can’t see a movie where monsters from the show, like the Crimson Clown or the aliens from “The Tale of the Hatching,” all come to life, and where the show exists in their universe. 

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It’s fine.

Maybe it will work, though. Paramount is clearly trying to play off the popularity of other nostalgia-driven properties featuring kids, such as IT and Stranger Things.  Those two properties have shown that it’s possible to tell interesting horror-esque stories with child actors. My first instinct, though, is that this will be an Are You Afraid of the Dark? adaptation in name only. 

What are your thoughts? Tell us if you think this movie will be as awesome as “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark” or as terrible as “The Tale of the Virtual Pets.”

John Brhel is the author of spook books, available on Amazon, and a fully illustrated book of horror tales inspired by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which was 968% funded on Kickstarter.

 

You Know ‘A Christmas Carol,’ But What About the Forgotten Christmas Stories of Charles Dickens?

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Most everyone has read, seen, or experienced Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in some form or another since childhood. The tale will likely remain a cultural touchstone in the English-speaking world for centuries. Any further discussion of Carol serves little purpose at this point (it must be read and reread, often) but I believe many well-read people, who may even know of the existence of the other Dickensian Christmas works, may come to appreciate one or more of these unloved Christmas novellas, as much as another turn through a Skipping Christmas or Little Women.

“The Chimes”

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The year following the release of Carol, 1844, saw the release of The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. While The Chimes begins on New Year’s Eve, the moral themes and rich vs. poor dynamics from Carol are very much in play. The book was well-received, but it was perceived as a much more radical expression of Dickens’ message, as he really leaned in on the immorality of inequality at the time.

The Chimes is a story of an elderly man, Trotty, who is ultimately unsure of whether or not mankind is inherently beastial in nature, and undeserving of salvation. He is drawn to a church tower and comes into contact with the spirits and goblins of the bellchamber, who inform him that he is already dead, having fallen from the tower. The spirits admonish him for losing faith in mankind’s inherent drive toward moral and ethical nobility, and Trotty is shown visions of his children and niece suffering through life to the point that his daughter considers killing herself and her daughter to end her suffering. At which point, Trotty begs for release, and is able to touch his daughter and prevent her from plunging herself and her child into the river.

Unlike Carol, The Chimes ends with questions regarding the future of Trotty and his lineage. The reader is left imagining that the family must still likely suffer dearly, if they’re to make it through the tough times of life, although they now have a spiritually stronger patriarch to guide them.

“The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home”

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1845 saw the release of The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home. This novella is a departure from the sermonizing of its predecessors, focusing more on sentimentality and the Victorian domestic ideal of home.

The Cricket is a proper fantasy story, with a cricket who acts as a guardian angel to John and his young family. An elderly stranger comes to stay with John and his family, and the antagonist, Tackleton, a Scrooge-like miser, is bent on convincing John that his wife has cheated on him with his mysterious lodger. Meanwhile, Tackleton has pressured a girl to marry him while she loves another. John is pushed to the brink by Tackleton’s accusations, and even asks his wife for a divorce. The conflicts resolve with the unmasking of the mysterious lodger, while Tackleton has a Scrooge-like turn of character and assists in the resetting of John’s happy home.

“The Battle of Life: A Love Story”

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The following year, 1846, saw yet another holiday release from Dickens: The Battle of Life: A Love Story. The Battle is the only of the five Christmas books that has no supernatural elements. The tale follows the romantic relationships of two sisters, and is likely Dickens’ most Austenian work. The end twist is reminiscent of the reveal from The Cricket.

I would not recommend The Battle for Christmas reading, as it’s the furthest of the five from my own sentiments of what constitutes a ‘Christmas story.’

“The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, A Fancy for Christmas-Time”

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Dickens’ final Christmas book was released a full two years following The Battle, in 1848. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, A Fancy for Christmas-Time is a return to the form and formula of the first two novellas. Redlaw is a teacher who can’t help but pore over the past, continuously contemplating his griefs and regrets, and cursing all of the people who’ve wronged him in his life. He infects his students and friends with his bitter, angry character, and is an all-around nasty man.

A spirit visits Redlaw in an attempt at stemming the tide of Redlaw’s intense angst and rage over the loss of his sister, and other woes. The ghost is his proper spiritual double, or the higher, more virtuous version of himself which he has long neglected. The pair converse and the apparition asks Redlaw if he’ll let the ghost help him forget his most painful memories. Redlaw agrees, and is cured of the memories, and is also given the gift of helping his friends and students forget the past. However, while Redlaw and the people whom he ‘treats’ have forgotten specific painful incidents in their lives, they now feel a misplaced, unjustifiable anger, as if Redlaw’s anger had really been a sickness.

Redlaw realizes the damage he has wrought and attempts to pray it away on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day sees Redlaw’s prayers answered, as he and even people who have wronged him ask each other’s forgiveness.

My recommendations

I’d recommend reading The Chimes and then The Haunted Man this Christmas season, and if you enjoy those stories, to move onto The Cricket. However, I’d read Little Women again before I’d read The Battle.

haunted-man-coverIf you’ve gotten your fill of Dickens and are looking for something more contemporary, I’ve written a short Christmas book called Carol for a Haunted Man. It is very much in the spirit of Dickens’ Christmas tales, and something I’d describe as a new Dickensian-style Christmas story, filled with nostalgia, moral sentiment, and an erudite apparition.

Here’s the description from the back cover:

“As some authors dream into the history of their town or city, Jacob Martin sought to reestablish the comforts of his childhood by moving back to the street where he grew up. Lost in life, newly divorced, and separated from his three young kids, Jacob is driven to write a book worth remembering, as a way of giving his life a new lasting purpose and meaning.

“Finding himself at a standstill on the novel, a lonely recluse during the holidays, Jacob manages to connect with an attractive woman, and befriend an older man from his distant past, an author like himself. As Jacob soon discovers, nostalgia can be a healthy distraction, or it can be the noose by which one hangs.

“CAROL FOR A HAUNTED MAN is the tale of a daunted man’s will to succeed in the face of despair. It is a novella inspired by, and in homage to, the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens.”

Carol for a Haunted Man can be purchased at Amazon, along with Cemetery Gates Media’s other works of paranormal fiction.

A Look Back at the 1999-2000 Reboot of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’

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Most fans who remember the Are You Afraid of the Dark? Nickelodeon TV series think fondly of the early Nineties Midnight Society. Gary, Frank, Kiki, Betty Ann, and an ever-changing crew of friends sitting around a campfire telling memorable tales like “Old Man Corcoran,” “Watcher’s Woods,” “Laughing in the Dark,” and “Crimson Clown.” There are at least half-a-dozen stories from the original run of the series (1992-1996) that I would argue as ‘the best’ episode, while there is perhaps one story from the 1999-2000 run which I might consider in my personal top ten.

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Are You Afraid of the Dark?: The New Class

The series was revived with an original member of the Midnight Society, Tucker, taking his brother’s place as leader of a new group of kids. Andy, Megan, Vange, Quinn are, most often, pale imitations of the original Midnight Society (Frank, Kristen, Kiki, Betty Ann?), with Quinn perhaps being the only new archetype, although he seems to fill Betty Ann’s role of quiet peacekeeper nicely. Frank really felt like an over-the-top asshole, but it still made sense that he was friends with these people and really enjoyed telling stories; Sam was a tomboyish heartthrob for both Gary and young, male viewer alike. The New Midnight Society had little to offer regarding the stories of the storytellers themselves.

There are a number of good episodes from seasons 6 and 7, episodes that meet the standard set by the original run. There are even a few exceptional episodes that any serious fan of the original series should not miss out on. Unfortunately, many episodes attempted to draw interest by focusing on trends like Giga Pets, lazer tag, computer games, sports, and one even made an Olympic champion figure skater into a pregnant alien. It’s really about what the later seasons seem to be missing. Seasons 1-5 built their success on retelling timeless stories and re-purposing urban legends – the kinds of tales which would’ve appealed to both our parents and grandparents when they were kids.

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Cause virtual pets are scary AF.

The following are my recommendations for revival episodes of AYAOTD? that one should watch, if they enjoyed the original series and don’t want to sort through the chaff that is the majority of the 1999-2000 series. There are certainly episodes worth watching in addition to these six, but these are the stories I believe will feel most similar to the original run of the series.

Season 6

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Like Jumanji, but spooky.

“The Tale of the Forever Game” is a good restart to the series. Tucker tells the story about two friends, Mark and Peter, and Peter’s little sister, Monica, who get lost in the woods while biking. It has the feeling and tone of a story like “Whispering Walls,” while full of moral dilemma for Peter. The trio is hopelessly stuck, and the kids are being hunted down by a beast, while Peter plays a game reminiscent of Jumanji with a boy, Nathaniel, who occupies a tree.

 

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Hunting = bad apparently.

“The Tale of the Hunted” deals with the moral debate over hunting. It’s well-done for a kid’s show, and doesn’t really pick sides at the end. The female protagonist hunts with her father, and one morning she wakes up and discovers what it’s like to be the one who is hunted.

 

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This hip dude liked vampires way before “Twilight.”

“The Tale of Vampire Town” is wacky, a callback to the richness of character from a Season 1 tale. A boy, Adder, believes himself to be a great vampire hunter and convinces his parents to take him on vacation to a town with history and lore tied to vampires, specifically a series of catacombs which lie underneath the inn where the family is staying.

 

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Featuring a pre-Star Wars Hayden Christiansen.

“The Tale of Bigfoot Ridge” is the tale I teased as a ‘Top Ten’ AYAOTD? episode. It would fit nicely in seasons 1-4. A boy and his sister are trying to get over the disappearance of their friend, who went off the backside of a mountain while snowboarding. The brother and sister end up searching for her, and get lost themselves during a snowstorm. They find an abandoned cabin and attempt to survive the night, while the storm is the least of their worries. Many of the other episodes focus too heavily on the trendy sport, activity, or product of the time. This episode has snowboarding in it, but, thankfully, doesn’t try to tell a story about snowboarding.

Season 7

“The Tale of Highway 13” is the story of a repetitive haunting, where a truck races a haunted car, driven by two friends who rebuilt the car, to a one-lane bridge. The boys must continually race the truck until they either die trying to win, or solve the mystery and take a different action. This is a timeless tale, really well done.

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Don’t try this at home.

 

“The Tale of the Reanimator” is perhaps only the second time that zombies were done well by AYAOTD?, the first being “Water Demons.” It has some of the flavor of the Reanimator movies, but it feels more like the mad-scientist experiments of Goosebumps: Stay Out of the Basement.

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Like “The Reanimator,” minus the decapitations.

So, if you’re a fan of the original AYAOTD? series and have never seen an episode of the two revival seasons, I believe you’ll enjoy queuing up these six episodes and watching them back to back. Perhaps you’ll even delve deeper into seasons 6 and 7, and catch me up on a gem I overlooked.

Addendum:

I can’t imagine I’ll ever write an episode guide for the first five seasons of AYAOTD? since so much has been written and said about it already. So, I’ll just give my picks for best episodes – in no particular order: “Midnight Madness,” “Old Man Corcoran,” “Dead Man’s Float,” “Laughing in the Dark,” “Water Demons,” “Silent Servant,” “Crimson Clown,” “Dark Music,” “Super Specs,” and “Lonely Ghost.”

Joe Sullivan is the author of spook books, available on Amazon, and a fully illustrated book of horror tales inspired by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, currently live on Kickstarter.