Ever since I began teaching writing to mental patients, I’ve become more and more aware of (and uncomfortable around) stories and movies that feature “crazy” people as villainous monsters. That’s no doubt due in part to how familiar I’ve  become with the behavior of schizophrenics and psychotics. Physical and verbal “symptoms” that most New Yorkers would cross the street (or change subway cars) to get away from, now just seem like part of the human landscape to me.

And yet, as a writer (and reader) of psychological horror fiction, I encounter mental illness again and again as a subject of horror and loathing, a source of danger and violence. In short, “good material” for the writer.

In film, mental illness typically occupies two ends of a broad spectrum. On one end, there are the spectacularly dangerous lunatics (Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter); on the other end, there are the tortured, brilliant innocents (John Nash, David Helfgott). You’re either a crazed killer or a misunderstood genius, nothing in-between.

Whenever a film grants a psychotic villain  a little sympathy, we’re usually called upon to empathize with the pain they suffer at the hands of the outside world. Quasimodo and Frankenstein’s monster—two child-like characters who could probably garner an ‘MR diagnosis’ at any mental health clinic—are both misunderstood and tormented by unfeeling mobs who they later violently turn on. The unspoken idea is that if these poor brutes were just left alone, if people simply let them “be themselves,” they’d be perfectly happy and everything would turn out fine.

There’s no doubt that the mentally ill have suffered and still suffer horribly at the hands of  “normal” people. Still, for all the suffering caused by the outside world, I’d argue that it’s the inside world that causes the mentally ill their greatest pain. That’s why my favorite on-screen portrayal of a psychotic villain is not Tony Perkins as Norman Bates, or Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter—it’s Charles A. Post as Iscah Nicholas in the 1924 silent film, Wild Oranges.

The character of Nicholas is described as a “brutish man,” a “homicidal maniac” who has somehow insinuated himself into the household of an old man and his granddaughter. An outsider (the “hero,” John Woolfolk) arrives at the island, falls in love with the girl and decides to rescue her. Nicholas, as you can guess, doesn’t like this, and things turn dramatic pretty fast.

A large man, Post easily communicates the raw physical threat we feel in the presence of aggressive psychotic behavior. What’s so remarkable about Post’s performance is how he handles the character’s more fragile moments. When Nicholas asks Millie for a kiss, for instance, the kind of “child-like innocence” he exudes isn’t endearing or even readily sympathetic—it’s pure, painful awkwardness in it’s rawest form.

Equally raw is the moment when Nicholas later collapses in tears after a confrontation with the hero.  With other actors (or other movies), this would be a signal to “feel sorry” for the villain. When Post does it, it’s not an occasion  for “comfortable” empathy. The pain that this moment elicits is shocking, raw, and real.  We understand immediately that Nicholas isn’t weeping from sorrow or frustration over what someone else has done to him—he’s weeping because he’s being torn apart by the devils inside his own skull. Not even the final scene where Nicholas is mauled to death by a ferocious dog can compete with that.

The mental patients who I teach are not geniuses, nor are they monsters. They are human beings caught in a struggle with something terrible inside of them, and if they are brilliant or sensitive or creative at all, it’s in spite of their illness, not because of it.  We don’t need to demonize the mentally ill or deify them. What we can do is see them for who they are, bear witness to their struggle and honor it. That, I believe, is what Charles A. Post succeeded at doing on the screen all those years ago.


I’ll never forget the first time I read J. M. Barrie’s own novelization of ‘Peter Pan’.

I was in fourth grade and it was reading-time in the library of my elementary school. I already knew and loved Peter Pan from the Disney film (and from an obscure audio version on vinyl with songs my sister and I had loved to sing) but I had never read Barrie’s novel. It was a short book; it looked small and unimposing. Easy. I took it from the shelf and sat down at the long wooden table and started to read.

Within the first few sentences, I realized I’d stumbled into something that was a lot deeper and darker than I could have imagined.

What hit me so hard was the level of powerful adult regret, longing, and shame that runs throughout that little book. There’s the love-hate relationship with children. And the Doppelganger-thing between Mr. Darling and Captain Hook that, onstage and onscreen, is too often little more than an excuse for a good actor to play a double-role, is—in Barrie’s book—an emotionally rich and devastating undercurrent that runs through the story. (The scene where Mr. Darling pours his medicine into the dog’s bowl and attempts to turn it into a joke in front of his family is still almost too unbearable to read.)

In Peter Pan, growing up is a kind of death sentence. Wendy seems more aware of that than anyone.

One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

That is why the scenes in which Wendy spends her final night as a child in the nursery feel like a condemned prisoner’s last night on death row.

Death has an interesting and prominent place in Barrie’s little book.  Tootles the Lost Boy baring his breast for Peter’s dagger (Strike, Peter! Strike true!), Wendy bravely walking the plank; all of these are full of the feeling of young children playing at death, rehearsing it, trying it on for size. Peter is not afraid of death because he cannot imagine the end of his own existence. Death will be an awfully big adventure, he famously says as he’s about to be swallowed by the rising tide—because, like all young children playing at death, he believes he will be there to experience it.

The primary terror that runs throughout Barrie’s little book is the terror of forgetting and being forgotten. Peter’s parents forget him. John and Michael forget their parents. Things (i.e. people) that matter enormously suddenly do not matter at all, as if they never existed.

The last word in Barrie’s little book is heartless.

‘…and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.’

It’s an amazingly unexpected ending, raw and real, and still has the power to shock me a little. Today it makes me think of the words of the Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, ‘Heaven and earth are not human-hearted / they treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs.’ Lao Tzu is presenting heartlessness as a kind of wisdom worth seeking and attaining; in Barrie’s utterance of that word you can hear both his own resentment and terror at the inescapable fate of forgetting and being forgotten, as well as the beginning of a kind of acceptance of it. He’s just standing on the threshold of it, not yet able to step all the way in. It’s a difficult place to be, and it’s called growing up.

Like many of my generation, the first time I saw Deborah Kerr was in The King and I. And, also like many of my generation, I fell in love with her. Part of the appeal (both suggested and reinforced by the film’s sharp focus on cultural, class, and sexual boundaries) was the distinct feeling that I was not supposed to fall in love with her. Which, of course, only made the whole idea even more irresistible.

Kerr did not seem young to me. (Anyone older than twelve or thirteen seemed “old” to me at the time.) She reminded me of one of my teachers at school, the kind you don’t notice you have a crush on until it’s too late. Although she was, in fact, breathtakingly beautiful, I did not think of her as being especially pretty. I realize now it was because she did not act like a woman who is beautiful, or who wants the world to know she is beautiful, because, quite simply, her beauty was beside the point.

I wasn’t really aware of Kerr again until ten years or more later when some college friends and I decided to tune in to a late movie because the TV guide said it was a ghost story and that it was very good.

The Innocents contains a number of memorable frightening images. Quint’s face drifting closer and closer to the window, his ghostly breath frosting the glass. Miss Jessup standing on the far side of the lake, her face a hollow blur, drenched to the bone in her long black dress.

But the most frightening image in the film—to me, anyway—will always be the look on Deborah Kerr’s face.

A good actor knows that you never play drunk. Instead, you play someone who’s trying not to act drunk. Likewise, Kerr never played terror—she played a human being trying, desperately, not to give in to terror.

Anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety understands that it has two components. First, you are afraid of the thing that initially inspires the fear—then, you are afraid of the fear, afraid of losing control. Kerr communicated that experience better than almost any actor on film. Which is why her performances are capable of inspiring such immediate and empathetic terror in the viewer.

Fear is viral. And it spreads more quickly in confined spaces. In Black Narcissus, Kerr plays a nun stationed in a remote Himalayan outpost trying desperately to protect the nuns in her charge from the faceless dread that’s spreading among them. It’s a losing battle, compounded by the fact that Kerr’s character herself has also contracted the same nameless terror.

Of course, Kerr was not merely known for playing damsels in psychological and spiritual distress—she played any number of “strong women” during her career. But in Kerr’s portrayals, the strength of character feels both “natural” and like an effort. You somehow never lose the sense that Kerr’s characters, no matter how in (or out) of control they may seem, are fighting a battle against overwhelming forces both outside and inside themselves.

Other actors who are famous for their on screen portrayals of “strong women” (Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck) toss out moments of fragility for contrast and, one feels, to demonstrate their range as performers. With Kerr, the “fragility” is a given, a constant undercurrent, so that it no longer comes across as “fragility”, but is simply humanity.

The lesson that creators of horror fiction (both onscreen and off) can learn from Kerr’s performances is this—that it’s not enough to produce single moments of shock and terror. To ring true and cut to the heart, you must show a gradual and inexorable decline, the erosive power of fear. And, whatever the outcome, a little bravery in the struggle.

On Friday nights when I was ten years old, I’d borrow my parents’ black, heavy Big Ben alarm clock, set it for 5:25 AM and stuff it under my pillow. Usually, the anticipation alone was enough to wake me and I’d push the off-button before it had a chance to ring. Then I’d shuffle down the hall in the dark and into the family room where I’d kneel down on the faded Persian carpet, pull the power button on the big Zenith TV and listen to the pop and sizzle as the forces inside the picture tube gathered themselves.

To this day I wonder who was the person at our local TV station who decided that 5:30 AM on Saturday was the perfect time to show every horror movie from the Universal Studios vault. The ungodly hour and the darkness contributed to my vague feeling that there was something subversive, almost indecent about these films. It did not occur to me that they’d been ghettoized, that these movies were (at the time) considered not classics, but garbage, filler between fishing shows and the morning news. But to me, the hour was holy.

Laying on that scratchy old living room rug in the pre-dawn dark, I saw for the first time not only classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and The Mummy, but also lesser-known treasures like The Black Cat, The Raven, The Body Snatchers, The Son of Dracula, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Haunted Strangler, White Zombie.

Some of the films they showed us were worn thin as Egyptian papyrus, and the light threatened to burn right through them. The ancient, noisy soundtracks gave new meaning to the phrase “thunderous silence”—when the camera panned slowly through a castle’s empty corridors or when Lugosi crept across a victim’s bedroom, the silence literally roared like blood rushing through my skull.

The visual vocabulary of those movies etched itself into my brain—the wild and ragged black and white skies, the flat staging that had the angular beauty of hieroglyphics, the mannered performances that took on the slow and formal grace of kabuki theater.

It’s useless to argue that the old monster movies of the thirties and forties are more frightening than contemporary horror films with their realistic gore and computer-generated shocks. What they are is more beautiful. The crumbling castles, the forbidding forests thick with fog, the horse-drawn carriages and villagers in their bonnets and lederhosen all have more in common with the world of fairy tales than with the brutal realities of violence and terror.

When did I first become interested in these movies? Who told me they were worth seeing? What was it that first got me out of bed and in front of the TV at that ungodly hour?

I had a friend, Chuck Scoggins who lived, like all of my friends, within easy walking distance of my parents’ house. Chuck had a gun his father had made for him, a German Luger he’d carved out of plywood with a jigsaw in his woodworking shop. It was flat and one-dimensional, but within those limits it was as perfect a replica of a Luger as any piece of plywood could be, and was a thing of beauty that I coveted.

Another of Chuck’s possessions that had a different but equally powerful effect on me was a record with a garish blood-red cover featuring the image of the Frankenstein monster on the left and Dracula on the right. Although I had not yet seen the movies, I recognized the characters from Halloween costumes and lunch boxes. The images were common, familiar as Santa Claus. Chuck showed me the record but would not play it for me until he was sure his mother could not hear it. I think he enjoyed withholding it from me until the right moment.

The right moment came one afternoon when Chuck’s mother had gone out shopping and we were left alone in the huge rec-room that held all his toys and games in crazy, teetering piles. I watched Chuck slip the disc out of the worn cardboard cover, set it on the spinning turntable, then slowly lower the needle into the groove.

The first sound to come out of the speakers was not the rumble of thunder or evil laughter or a creaking door—it was the clattering of a typewriter. The narrator was a writer, a mortal man who had gone too far and seen too much and was now on a mission to communicate to all of us what he’d seen before it was too late. The writer’s voice  told us that he was marked for death by Count Dracula whose tomb he had discovered and whose secrets he was now revealing to us at the cost of his own life.

The rest of that side was the voice of Count Dracula, an impeccable Lugosi impression by the same actor who did the voice of the writer and the voice of the Frankenstein monster on the other side. The actor, Gabriel Dell, had been one of the original Dead End kids, the tall, handsome one who usually stood on the sidelines looking intense and flicking his long oily hair out of his eyes. The makers of the record did not print a photo of the actor on the back of the record sleeve, so when I tried to picture the real person whose voice I was hearing, there was only a blank, a darkness, and out of that darkness, pictures came.

The reason that Chuck’s mother did not want her son listening to this record was a scene where Dracula approaches a young girl on the streets of London, hypnotizes her and then drinks her blood. We did not get to hear the voice of the girl, only the sound of her footsteps, and a few light rustlings that may have been her clothing as she moved. Dracula’s voice whispers intimately close to the microphone, trembling with lust, Her throat….so soft…so warm…so full of life… Then the unmistakable sound of human teeth crunching through some kind of soft, resistant substance, and the owner of those teeth softly slurping some kind of liquid suddenly rising into his mouth.

I don’t know how many times we listened to that scene, or how many times Chuck must have listened to it in private, but I do remember that there were numerous scratches right at that place that crackled like static electricity, and we had to strain to hear those other sounds underneath.

One afternoon Chuck’s mother took the record out into their back yard and snapped it in two pieces, then four, like a communion wafer. I never saw the pieces of broken vinyl, but from the genuine sorrow on Chuck’s face I knew it was true and I never mentioned it again.

By the time I got my own copy of the record, the blood-sucking scene had already lost most of its charge for me. What had not worn off was the power of Dracula’s presence, the sense of utter self-confidence, of complete mastery and fearlessness. Wolves came when he called and bowed down at his feet, zombies and ghouls swarmed up from hell at his bidding, ready to kill for him. Dracula was at the top of the supernatural food chain and had no one and nothing to fear on this side of the grave or on the other.

Meanwhile, I had plenty to fear from the bigger boys at school who shoved me to the ground and pinned me down, laughing at my struggles until they grew bored. But in my dreams it was different. In my dreams, I did not make them gaze into my ring. I didn’t stalk them like a panther stalking a gazelle, never sank my teeth into their necks. In my dreams, the ones I had in my sleep and the ones I had wide awake, it was the sound of my voice alone that conquered my enemies, the first words Lugosi says when he appears onscreen. I am Dracula. The power of that voice, the power of those three words and what they meant was mine in the moment it took me to say them, and I said them as often as I dared, practicing, until it felt true.

As much as I’d loved Lugosi’s voice, there was something about Karloff’s that I loved even more. It was a rich British accent with upper-class patrician overtones, each syllable measured out precisely like spoonfuls of tea, but with rougher, lower-class undertones that I believed those carefully measured pronunciations were a way of keeping under control. There was also a very slight lisp, which may have been one more reason for those painstaking pronunciations. I tried to imitate Karloff’s voice and found, oddly, that what helped was putting the tip of my tongue between my teeth and my lower lip on the left side.

It wasn’t until I had my own children that Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein made me weep. Karloff first appears onscreen, sitting alone in a darkened tower room, still as a wax figure. His creator slowly raises the covering of a skylight high above, allowing beams of sunlight to touch the floor at his feet. He stirs, stands, stiffly, shuffles forward uncertainly, lifting his face toward the light, then slowly raises his arms over his head and begins to make little fluttering motions with his fingers, trying to catch the beams of sunlight as if they’re butterflies. When he realizes he can’t touch the light, can’t have it, he begins to whimper and whine, his hands moving more and more frantically. His creators then shut the window above, taking the light away, and he lowers his hands, then his head, then shuffles backward and collapses in his chair, defeated. Watching that scene as the parent of a small child, I can now feel the strong cross-currents of pity and guilt cut through me, so when that window above opens and shuts, it’s my own hand on the lever, giving the light and then taking it away.

By the time I discovered his movies, Karloff was already an old man, and much was made of his essential grandfatherliness in the articles I read that dubbed him “the gentle monster”, although it was hard to think of the living-dead giant in Son of Frankenstein who tears off a police chief’s arm and uses it as a club as “gentle.”

One of his films was called The Man They Could Not Hang, and that name, more than “the gentle monster” summed up a side of Karloff that felt very important to me.

Every actor whose character dies in one movie and then goes on to act in another “comes back to life.” Not every actor gets to come back from the dead within the same movie, but Karloff did, again and again. In all of his incarnations—Imhotep, Frankenstein’s monster, John Grey, the message was the same—we are born, we live, we die, we come back. But we are changed. There was something instructive, even reassuring to me about all of that dying and coming back to life. It made me feel that I could do that too—or that one day, Karloff would show me how.

Like all good character actors, Karloff did not hide his aging. As I devoured thirty years’-worth of his films, I watched the gaunt, spectral giant with the hollow cheeks turn into the solid, white-haired eminence with the shaggy glowering eyebrows. Lugosi, rightly or wrongly, had been pegged early in his career as an exotic lover-type—Karloff was never saddled with that kind of expectation and let us watch what time was doing to his body all the way to the end.

At the end, Karloff was acting from a wheelchair because of cancer and emphysema, doing his last movie with an oxygen tank by his side. I imagine him cupping the mask to his face with one hand, holding the script in the other, then rising stiffly and shuffling out in front of the camera, the way I first saw him do on that flickering black and white TV screen, on that Saturday morning so long ago.

One sunny morning when my mother was driving me to elementary school, she turned down the radio and calmly told me that Boris Karloff had died. I remember looking out the car window at the red brick school building, the green field and pond behind the fence, the cracked black asphalt bike-walk and the little brook that ran alongside it where minnows swam. As I gazed out the window at the high flying clouds and the gnarled trees standing in a silent circle around the old pond, I felt a smile slowly forming on my face, and thought, I wonder what he’ll come back as this time?

It’s now 2010 and I will be fifty-five years old in four months. The old Zenith TV on which I first saw those movies is gone, reduced to its component molecules of glass and metal. The movies, however, are still here. I have them right in front of me as I type this, in three beautifully packaged DVD boxed sets. I can watch them any time, pause and rewind them, see behind-the-scenes documentaries and listen to director’s commentaries. I own them now, but not in the way that I owned them before—I can control them, and that seems wrong.

Still, I want my son to see these movies. I want him to have what they gave me. But I don’t want to show him too soon. I want to wait until he’s ready, but I’m not sure when that might be.

Last week I called my mother to ask how old I was when I first started watching monster movies.

“You were ten,” she said without a moment’s pause, as if she had a written record open in front of her.

“Really?” I said, “Are you sure?”  I was disappointed, and I knew she could probably hear it in my voice.

“Oh yes,” she said, “He still has a few more years to go.” I listened to the sound of my mother’s voice coming through the earpiece, her strong Kentucky accent that always surprises me a little. I’ve always thought it was impossible to tell how old my mother was by listening to her voice, although now I can hear the inevitable sound of age creeping in at its edges; I wonder if she can hear the same thing in mine.

In my hometown there were two cemeteries I had to pass by on the way home, each one on opposite sides of Cemetery Road. I remember looking through the back-seat window at those crypts squatting under ancient nodding cypress, the sky summer-humid and full of haze, glowing with a pearly gray luminescence that etched every crooked tree in hard-edged relief.

I remember looking at all of those gravestones passing by, and instead of feeling fear, I felt anticipation, excitement. I will die, I thought. Then I will rise and walk again. I will fly, far above those gnarled trees in that pearly gray sky, then swoop down low over the passing cars whose drivers will glance up and wonder what they’ve just seen. I will touch down and stalk through the fields like a scarecrow come to life and find the homes of evil men. I will rap on their windows and wait for them to look out, then make their wicked hearts burst with fright when they see my face. Or perhaps I will find a child who is alone and friendless, and teach him to be unafraid, first of me, then of the world. He will tell people what he has seen, but they will not believe him and will shun him and call him crazy. Then I will rise up behind him like the moon rising over a parched horizon, that boy’s enemies will be torn and scattered like dry leaves and he will be justified forever. Because that is what the dead can do.

Every Halloween I take out my boxed set of classic monster movies from Universal Studios and try to decide which one to spend my favorite holiday with. While I had a major Dracula obsession as a child, and Boris Karloff remains one of the film actors I love most, the film that I return to again and again is ‘The Wolfman’. For years I could never quite explain why. Now I think it’s because of the three major Universal monster franchises—Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, the Wolfman is the most human.

When I heard that Universal Studios was releasing a new film called ‘The Wolfman’ it never occurred to me that it might be a fresh take on the original Curt Siodmak script about the tormented Talbot family. After all, in nearly seventy intervening years of werewolf movies, no one (no one I know of, anyway)  had used the original characters and story-line of the 1941 Universal classic, and there was no reason to believe that anyone was going to start now.

It was when I saw the two male leads that had been cast—Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins—that the alarm went off in my head. The difficult father-son relationship was a central element—perhaps the central element—in the 1941 film, and when I learned that the new Wolfman was, in fact, going to use the original characters and story-line, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Predictably, most of the discussion comparing the merits of the old and new ‘Wolfman’ focuses on special effects—CGI versus Jack Pierce’s makeup-box—and the new version’s more graphic maiming and bloodletting.

What’s really wrong with the new ‘Wolfman’ has nothing to do with special effects or CGI, nor with graphic versus implied violence. It’s about character—specifically, Larry Talbot’s character.

In the new film, Del Toro’s Larry Talbot is a brooding Byronic figure, a Shakespearean actor with a successful international career and (apparently) groupies. Del Toros’s Talbot has “family issues” too, but they haven’t stunted him—instead, they’ve simply made him even more darkly brooding and attractive. In some scenes he resembles nothing more than Heathcliff striding purposefully across the moors. (You can almost feel the latest “mash-up” novel coming—‘Wuthering Heights and Werewolves”.)

Some critics have commented on the physical resemblance between Del Toro and Lon Chaney, Jr. There’s the bear-like physique, the mournfully haggard face—but the resemblance stops there.

I remember watching the scenes in which Chaney’s Larry Talbot attempts to flirt with Evelyn Ankers’ character in the antique shop, thinking that the discomfort I felt over Chaney’s stiffness was not what I was supposed to be feeling, that Chaney was simply failing as an actor to embody the suave leading-man quality that the script seemed to call for.

What’s perfectly clear to me today is that the wince-inducing cloddishness of Chaney’s attempts at romancing are a central part of who Larry Talbot is (or, more precisely and painfully, who he is not).

Chaney’s Talbot is a misfit of the first order, the lumbering tongue-tied doofus who never got a date in high school. Even as a grown man attracted to a woman, his first move is to buy a telescope and spy on her through the window of her home. Picture watching how a young Cary Grant would look handling this same material—stalking transformed into something gallantly comedic. When Chaney does it, there’s nothing gallant or comedic about it. It’s embarrassing, and more than a little disturbing.

For a real eyeful of Chaney’s mastery at embodying a horribly uncomfortable and uncertain man-child, just look at the way he holds his hat in his hands—has any actor ever held a hat more tragically?

Unlike vampirism, lycanthropy is not an empowerment fantasy. It’s an anti-empowerment nightmare. An ultimate and horrific loss of control.

The “morning after” scenes in most werewolf movies have always been reminiscent of hangovers, the aftermath of an alcoholic blackout—they have never looked so real as when Chaney did them.

Chaney’s portrayal of Larry Talbot is a walking embodiment of bone-deep discomfort and wracking guilt. The antithesis of the expression comfortable in his own skin. Chaney-as-Talbot is so uncomfortable in his own skin that he seems to want to tear it off and crawl right out of it—and, in a sense, that’s exactly what he does.

More than anything, The Wolfman is a story about a father and a son.

Being the black sheep of the family isn’t always a romantic, enviable role. Sometimes the bad things our families think of us turn out to be true—or, there is a place where they feel most true, where the adult egos we have carefully build-up for ourselves feel most fragile.

For many of us, that place is “home”, which is precisely why many of us leave that place and so seldom return. This is the place that Larry Talbot returns to, hat (literally) in hand, his failures unspoken, his sins unspecified.

From the moment Chaney’s Talbot returns to his ancestral home (and his father’s house), there is not a visible trace of rebellion in him. There is something broken about him, almost abject. Even when he attempts to act like an independent man-of-the-world, there’s something mildly pathetic about it. He’s like a child trying to act like an adult, just barely pulling it off.

Claude Rains, as Larry’s father, dispenses with the cliched mannerisms of the disapproving/domineering patriarch and plays Sir Henry Talbot as a long-suffering man of deep disappointments and sorrowful patience. His disappointment in his son is palpable, but so is his guilt over having these feelings toward his own son.

Rains’ Sir Henry seems to recognize from the very start that his son isn’t a dangerous renegade, but a wounded creature who is already beyond hope. One gets the strong sense that he has probably felt this way about his son long before the fateful wolf-bite—most likely since he was old enough to walk.

Still, watching Rains’ performance, you never doubt for one second that Sir Henry loves his wounded offspring. That “tough love” reaches its climax in the scene in which Sir Henry ties his son to a chair to prove to him that his werewolf fears are nothing more than fantasies. That Rains somehow makes this come off like a loving act is a testimony not only to his skill as an actor, but to Siodmak’s script and how it has brought these two men (and us) to this moment.

In the boxed set of classic Universal monster movie CDs, every jewel-box opens up to reveal an iconic image from the films, pretty much the ones you’d expect. For Dracula, it’s Lugosi standing alone next to his coffin in the subterranean crypt. For Frankenstein, it’s Colin Clive, Dwight Fry, and Karloff in the laboratory.

When I opened the Wolfman CD I was floored to see—not Chaney in full hairy makeup snarling from behind a tree, but the human Larry Talbot tied to a chair, Sir Henry leaning over him, father and son locking eyes, each one deperate to make the other understand, both of them knowing it’s impossible but both unable to give up trying.

Someone at Universal Studios had recognized that this was the film’s primal human image to honor and preserve. Who am I to argue with that?

When my first girlfriend turned sixteen I took her to the movies on her birthday. The movie? Deliverance. Yes, that’s right. Deliverance. (Happy birthday, sweetheart. Squeal like a pig..!)

What the hell was wrong with me, you might ask. (She did.) Believe it or not, I really didn’t take her to shock her or make an impression. If I’d thought about what kind of impression I was making, I probably would have picked a different movie.

Why did I take her to see this harrowing descent into the wilderness full of violence, terror, sexual assault and murder? Because I thought it was cool. A lot of people did. She was definitely not one of those people, and we broke up soon after that.

My next girlfriend got pretty much the same treatment on movie night. I remember we went parking one night after seeing Clockwork Orange and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t make out with her because I felt like someone had been jabbing me in the stomach all evening with a baseball bat—that was how I knew it was a good movie. Or, at least, that was how I knew it worked.

Fortunately, my second girlfriend thought the movies I liked were cool too—at least she kept seeing them (and seeing me). Our local college ran a Bergman festival and we went to almost every one. I remember watching Winter Light, wondering how much darker this damn thing was going to get. And then it got darker. And darker. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. A beautifully lit, black and white car wreck.

American movies were throwing the same kind of darkness at us. Deliverance, Chinatown, Deerhunter. Dark, dark, dark.

And here’s the thing—these were mainstream movies. Not art-house flicks (excluding the Bergman, of course). These were the big movies of the day that you plunked down your money for and bought your popcorn and watched. What’s more, you expected them to shake you up.

No one would have called these horror movies back in the seventies. For horror, we had The Exorcist. The Omen. Carrie. Movies that looked like horror movies.

Now I think films like Deliverance and Deerhunter may be the greatest horror films of that decade. Maybe any decade.

Long before Christopher Walken put the cherry on his ever-scarier screen persona by playing the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, he won his first and only Oscar for his role in what I believe is one of the greatest modern ghost stories on film—The Deerhunter.

The Deerhunter is a ghost story without a ghost. Like the fiction of Glenn Hirshberg and Dan Chaon, the film challenges our notions of what it means to be “haunted”. And shows us that the scariest ghosts are the ones living right beside us.

I’ve heard people wonder out loud why Christopher Walken’s character chooses to return to Vietnam and live the rest of his life playing-out that same horrific game of Russian roulette again and again in the underground gambling parlors of Saigon. What strikes me is that if Walken’s character had died earlier in the movie, seeing his empty-eyed ghost pressing the revolver to his temple again and again would make perfect sense—because that’s what ghosts do.

If the definition of insanity is repeating the same action endlessly while expecting a different result, then being a ghost must be a kind of insanity. It’s this kind of insanity that Walken’s character is gripped by, living like a ghost, forever stuck at the scene of his own violent death (even if it was “just” a spiritual death), repeating the same action over and over in hopes of getting a different result—until he gets it.

Like Christopher Walken’s character in The Deerhunter, the “ghosts” in the stories of Glenn Hirshberg and Dan Chaon are missing persons. Neither living or dead, they have entered into the land between life and death that exists in the mind of the person left behind.

In Hirshberg’s story ‘Shipwreck Beach’ a young woman visits her beloved, troubled cousin who has fled to Hawaii after the death of a friend in a drunken auto accident, a death he is responsible for. Although he seems to have relocated to the island to “start a new life”, it quickly becomes apparent to the narrator that her cousin has come here for an altogether different reason. As he circles closer and closer to his self-imposed doom, the narrator can do nothing to stop him; she also cannot look away. All she can do is watch.

Unlike Walken in The Deerhunter, Hirshberg’s doomed character spares the cousin who loves him the final spectacle of his suicide and succeeds in simply slipping away. He is presumed drowned but his body is never found, leaving an open-ended mystery, a hole in the fabric of the world through which he can slip back and forth from one side to the other, if only in the narrator’s mind.

It’s the subtlety of his disappearance that forever blurs the line between his being here or not-here, alive or not-alive. He becomes the mystery we mean when we say “the living dead.”

Another writer who deals with the “ghosts” of missing persons is Dan Chaon. His brilliant collection is itself titled Among the Missing. In the title story, the narrator’s magnetic but unstable mother has vanished, but he continues to be haunted by her influence, by her presence.

In on particularly unnerving scene, he returns to their old cabin and is frightened by the sight of a lone tree standing outside the door because for a moment it looks like a woman wearing a nightgown (the kind his mother used to wear). That Chaon chooses to end this scene by having the narrator involuntarily cry out and flee the place feels wholly natural and necessary.  It’s a subtle moment of plainspoken, quiet terror and I don’t think any other passage of fiction has unnerved me as much as that one.

In his truly horrific story The Bees, anthologized by Peter Straub in Poe’s Children, Chaon’s main character, a recovering alcoholic who has lost touch with his ex-wife and son, imagines they are dead and consequently starts seeing visions of his son’s ghost. Is the son really dead or not? It doesn’t matter. The possibility that he might be dead is enough to summon his angry spirit.


Our lives are, in a way, composed of unfinished stories; some are ongoing, some are cut-off abruptly, often without warning. Our unfinished stories want to be finished. Or, sometimes they want a different ending. That’s why Walken’s character stays in Saigon, pulling that trigger night after night.

In the end, I think that movies like The Deerhunter, Deliverance, even The Godfather, Mean Streets, and Raging Bull, had more influence over the kind of ghost stories I write (and read) than Carrie, The Omen, or the whole Halloween franchise—because they delve deeper into what it means to be human. And haunted.

When my family and I took a trip to Philadelphia in February, 2009, I brought along my copy of that big Barnes & Noble collection of Poe, hoping I could get my kids into it while on the road. Cailey did read the first few stanzas of ‘The City In the Sea’ aloud while riding in the back seat, then read the rest silently so I didn’t have the pleasure of  hearing her pronounce those final lines, “Hell, rising from a thousand thrones, shall do it reverence,” in her sweet, eight year-old voice.

After three days of running around the cold, windy streets of Philly, checking out the Liberty Bell, the Franklin Museum (and the Philly cheese-steak guy on the corner), I was scanning the well-worn green map of tourist attractions when I saw two tiny words, ‘Poe House.’

I’d been to the Poe residence in Baltimore years ago, and had more recently seen his old dorm room at the University of Virginia (sealed-off behind what looks like a sheet of bulletproof plexiglass), so I didn’t think “Poe” when I thought of Philly. But there it was, easy to miss because it was far away from the other patriotic attractions clustered together, isolated by itself in the upper right-hand quadrant of the map. “Poe House.”

On our way out of town we drove down Spring Garden Street to the corner of 8th where the old red brick house stands off by itself, a national park sign and a statue of a raven visible from across the street.

A light rain was falling when we walked up to the door and knocked. A kindly gentleman with tidy grey hair and a disconcerting but lovely Virginia accent let us in. After a stroll through some modest displays and framed documents, then an informative but uninspired 8-minute video, we stepped into the rooms where Poe (along with his wife Virginia, her mother “Muddy”, and their cat Catterina) had lived and worked.

The first thing you notice is that the national park service has not attempted the typical restoration or redecoration; instead, the rooms are bare of furniture, the walls cracked and peeling. The effect, more than being simply “spooky” is that Poe has just moved out (“one step ahead of his creditors,” as my mother would say) and that nothing has been touched since he left. Walking through these empty rooms I had a feeling similar to the one I’ve had while touring vacant apartments in New York—that odd double-vision of imagining the former tenant’s life while also visualizing yourself living there.

The night before, I’d sat up alone in our hotel room and read ‘The Black Cat’ It had been years since I’d read it. I was astounded.

One of the powers of Poe’s stories—the vivid images conveyed in them—are also one of the greatest dangers that prevent the casual reader from appreciating their full power. The razor-sharp pendulum swinging closer and closer to the helpless prisoner’s chest, the yowling one-eyed cat sitting on the head of the woman’s rotting corpse—these images are so powerful, you can carry them in your head for years, vivid as photographs, and believe that you know the stories, that you know Poe. Those images, indelible as they are, are not the half of it.

What hit me full-force as I read ‘The Black Cat’ was that Poe’s real power was his unsurpassed ability to inhabit the hearts and minds of people who are confronting (and often being devoured by) fear, by terror, sheer horror, and to convey that experience in language that somehow manages to be unforgettably beautiful while losing none of the raw, visceral reality of those terrible thoughts and feelings.

But Poe deals in a very particular type of horror that also gets overlooked by his more casual admirers.

Much is made of Poe’s “obsession with death” (and with dead beautiful women, in particular). While there’s no doubt that Poe was indeed  obsessed with death (or at least extremely ‘interested’ in it), death itself is almost never the real source of horror in his stories or his poems where it’s elevated to near-romantic (some would say necrophiliac) status—particularly when a beautiful woman is involved.

When Poe deals with Death (with a capital “D”) as an object of contemplation, not as a mere by-product of violent crime, Death is a destroyer but is also the means by which we are reunited with the ones we love—a complicated set of emotional responses, for sure, but not exactly horror.

The kind of horror that Poe excelled at portraying and generating doesn’t come from any outside source—it comes from within. The horror of loss of control, the loss of self.

When people talk about the relationship between Poe’s troubles with alcohol and his art, there are typically two schools of thought—first, the one that romanticizes or glorifies his alleged substance abuse (Man, he must have really been stoned when he wrote that one) and the one that denies it outright, claiming (often indignantly) that Poe’s stories are the pure products of superior intellect and craftsmanship alone.

When I read Poe’s stories today, they feel like brilliant life-and-death struggles between his considerable craftsmanship and his even more considerable devils, only one of which was alcohol.

The devil that Poe (or the typical Poe narrator) returns to again and again is his own horrifying inability to control his thoughts and actions. Poe’s narrators are often deeply deluded individuals, like the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ who firmly believes he is a gentle and compassionate soul right up until the moment he buries the ax in his wife’s skull.

Every alcoholic can tell you about things they did that they have no idea why they did. One moment they were laughing and playing with their children, the next moment they were raging at them. One moment the bottle is full, the next moment it’s empty. It wasn’t me. That’s what we tell ourselves. Because, in those terrible moments, it feels like the truth. It wasn’t me.

Then who was it?

Evil spirits. Witches. Gremlins. The Little people.Vengeful ghosts. The others. The one’s outside of us.

But Poe knew who really did it, and it scared the hell out of him. Which is why he still scares the hell out of us.

Poe’s best stories affect us so strongly because they occur right at that place where the harm that we’re capable of (and the guilt and fear it causes) makes us unrecognizable to ourselves. It’s the place where ghosts are born. (And it’s evidence of Poe’s mercilessness toward his narrators that there are no ghosts in his stories to take away the character’s burden of responsibility).

Poe once wrote a story called ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ in which he describes this aspect of human behavior that troubled and frightened him the most. It’s not a very good story. Taken as a work of fiction, it reads like a half-ass practice-run at  ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. Taken as a narrative/psychological/spiritual essay (like Kiergegaard), it’s ramifications are terrifying.

If there is something you know you must not do, must never do (Poe’s narrator says), then you will inevitably do it. Knowing we must not do something makes it irresistibly attractive to us.

Whether you take this to be Poe’s own personal neurosis or a central truth of most human behavior depends a great deal on how strong you’re feeling today.

This is what makes Poe’s stories tragic at their heart. So when I read ‘The Black Cat’ in that Philadelphia hotel room, it wasn’t just terrifying. It was heartbreaking.

Poe’s narrators spend a great deal of energy explaining themselves, justifying themselves, or just simply trying to make some sense of their unruly lives. Poe gives these deluded, tragic humans a desperate eloquence that reaches some pretty amazing heights (and depths).

When I read the passage where the narrator describes hanging his pet cat and attempts to explain why (both to us and to himself) I felt like I’d touched a live electrical current. Unbearable, undeniable human feelings are laid out bare for us to see, while (at the same time) the language sings. If I could have fallen to my knees in that hotel room without anyone seeing me, I would have done it.

So it was the morning after reading that story that I found myself climbing the narrow, winding stairs to the room where Poe wrote it.

When I’d first arrived at the Poe house, the friendly guide with the unexpected Southern accent had asked me if I had any questions. I had only one. “Do we know which room he worked in?”

“We have a pretty good guess,” the guide responded immediately. He told me that each floor had only two rooms; the first floor was the parlor and the kitchen. Bedrooms would be on the third floor, the highest, for quiet and privacy. Poe had most likely worked on the second floor, in one or both of the two rooms there.

I climbed to the second floor and entered the room on the right. It was small with one window. The walls, like the others, were cracked and peeling with one particularly deep and dramatic crack, jagged as lightning.

I stood there and tried to imagine Poe working in this room. I leaned on the windowsill where I imagined he had leaned, looking out at the same bare tree branches he must have also looked at while he was waiting for the words to come. I put out my hand and touched the cracked wall where his writing table must have stood and waited to feel something.

But the feeling I was chasing, the same awe and electricity I’d felt while reading his story the night before, receded. It was like, instead of putting my hand on hardened plaster, I was trying to press my hand into mercury.

I knew it was because the spirit I was looking for was not in this wall, not anywhere in this room. It had gone into the words that were written in this room a hundred and sixty years ago, and was still there. As it should be.

Before I left the room I took out my cell phone and snapped a few images to take with me—the light pouring in through the window across the peeling wall, the narrow wooden steps I’d climbed to get here.

I wanted to get a shot of the doorknob Poe had touched every day when he came into this room to work, so I knelt on the creaking floorboards to get a good angle. Then it occurred to me—I was on my knees in Poe’s writing room. And that was when the feeling finally came over me, maybe because I was no longer looking to get something for myself—instead, it felt like I was saying thank you.