Horror-Tober VIII: Under the Skin

Written by Alexander Greco

October 28, 2020

I don’t know if Under the Skin is scary as much as it is unsettling, disturbing and deeply nihilistic.

I still don’t even know if I know what Under the Skin is about.

It’s about a girl who’s an alien who seduces male humans to come back to her home so she can steal their skin and turn their bodies into some sort of ground-beef-ish sludge. Then, she seems to gain self-awareness and decides to run away from that life, briefly living with some random stranger who tries to form a real relationship with her, and inevitably meets her demise at the hands of a terrified would-be-rapist.

But there’s still so much to the movie that is A) confusing, B) left unexplained and C) random.

Who are the “aliens”? What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing?

On top of this, the movie takes a major shift about halfway through the movie (at the point of “self-awareness”), with not just a shift in the events and actions of the characters, but also a shift in the mood, atmosphere and, seemingly, the themes of the movie.

The movie shifts from disturbing, Lovecraftian horror to depressing, Dostoyevskian existentialism at the midpoint, transforming from a story that seems to be focused on psychopathy or amorality to a story focused on the human condition.

Then, taken in its entirety, Under the Skin seems to be a movie about self-consciousness and awareness, the dawning of empathy and a struggle with identity. More specifically, I think this movie delves into a look at the human condition, and, inadvertently, delves into a look at female identity and the human condition as a female. However, while I do want to delve into these things, and more, first, I want to try to understand what is happening in this film.

If you haven’t seen this film, I am on the fence about recommending it.

It’s great, it’s a fantastic film, and it’s both a subtle and highly complex film. However, it can be tough to watch, and it’s certainly not for everyone. It’s an exceedingly unsettling, uncomfortable and at times deeply disturbing film, and it excels at hammering home these emotions in subtle, quietly screaming ways.

This movie is so good at being uncomfortable that we get to see Scarlett Johansson completely naked a number of times, and these moments somehow manage to be exceedingly unpleasant to watch. I can respect that.

Anywho, let’s begin.

Literal Analysis

Summary

Some of this I guess would fall more into a film theory, especially since much of this wont play into the other parts of the analysis, and since of this I think might contradict portions of the analysis. Still, I think this is an important aspect of the film to look at (since, you know, this is the part where I actually try to understand what the fuck is going on).

I’m don’t want to spend too much time summarizing the movie, and there are a lot of small details to go through that I suppose support the major themes and story arcs, but fuck it, we’ll make do.

I was debating whether or not this movie should be broken into 2 parts, 3 parts or 4 parts, but I eventually settled on 4 parts.

The first part I’ll call the “Amoral Arc”. The second part, the “Dissonance Arc”. The third part, the “Discovery Arc”. And the fourth part, the “Annihilation Arc”.

In the Amoral Arc, we first see the “motorcycle man” bringing a limp woman into a van. While supposedly still in the van (though the van seems to possess extradimensional space), the alien woman and protagonist of the film takes off her clothes and puts them on herself. We see the possibly human woman begin to cry, though she is still limp and paralyzed.

Then, the alien woman goes to buy more clothes and some makeup before driving around asking men for directions. This tactic also serves as a way to flirt with men and try to bring them home with her, which seems to be her method of hunting/talking prey. Once she gets a man to come home with her, a man who also seems less likely to be noticed if they go missing, she lures them into her dilapidated house and into another extradimensional space—a massive, dark space, where the floor gives way to a large body of strange fluid the man sinks into while the woman walks on it normally.

Later, she tries to use this same tactic on a foreign swimmer, but the swimmer tries to save a man and his wife from drowning. Exhausting himself in the process, the foreign man fails at saving the couple and collapses on the beach, where the alien woman strikes his head on the rock. She and the motor cycle man take the foreign man and his belongings, both ignoring the couple swept out to see and their screaming infant they left on the beach.

In the Dissonance Arc, the alien woman continues preying on men in a similar way, first seducing and victimizing a man she met at a club and then an unsocial deformed man.

However, during this arc, their seem to be slight disturbances to the psyche of the alien woman. First, some men yell at her while she is parked, and she seems confused by this. Later, while going to and while at the party, she seems confused and even frightened by what is happening. Later, she receives a rose as a gift while in traffic, and the rose has blood on it, which seems to deeply disturb the woman.

While driving around with a man who continuously complements her and her looks, she seems more distracted than she was before and barely answers the man (who nonetheless returns home with her). After a short montage of random people out and about the city, the woman is sitting in her van alone at night, and a group of men come and attack her. She drives off, unharmed, but she does seem slightly disturbed by this.

Afterwards is the scene where she seduces the deformed man, and ends the Dissonance Arc.

Also in this Arc, however, we see how the skin is removed from bodies that have been in the tarry-fluid long enough, and we see that their bodies are processed and fed through some sort of trough into a red light. Where they go is not and is never explained.

The next arc, the Discovery Arc, begins with the alien woman looking at herself in the mirror, and then letting the deformed man leave. After this, she leaves the city, driving her van until the engine stops, then walking through a dense fog until she eventually makes her way to a town.

Here, she eats food that she immediately spits out, then wanders around until a man tells her a bus will be coming shortly. She gets on the bus with the man, and the man offers to help her (which she accepts). She ends up living with the man, and the two seem to develop something like a relationship, though the alien woman is an incredibly awkward individual. During this time, the motorcycle man and 3-4 other motorcycle men set off in search of the woman, each riding across the land in different directions looking for her.

The man and alien woman inevitably try to have sex, which seems to end disastrously when he tries to penetrate her. She freaks out, gets him off of her, sits on the end of the bed, and inspects her vagina (or where a vagina would be). We don’t know what she sees down there, though the reality of what she is (which we discover at the end of the movie) raises speculation.

The woman leaves, and this begins the Annihilation Arc.

This arc essentially consists of the alien woman traversing through a forest, where she runs across a lumberman who acts aggressively towards her, eventually to the point of rape and murder. She sleeps in a hiker’s rest area alone, and wakes up to find the lumberman molesting her.

She runs off into the woods, trying to escape the lumberman, but ends up finding his truck. She gets in his truck (I don’t know why) and the lumberman finds her. She honks the horn (I still don’t know why), then gets out and runs away again. The lumberman chases after her, and eventually catches her, pins her to the ground and begins trying to rape her.

However, at one point, he stops and recoils in horror at the sight of something, letting her go. We see that her skin is coming off, and beneath her “normal” human skin is jet-black flesh.

The lumberman runs away, and the woman begins peeling off her skin, revealing more and more of her body beneath. She even takes off the skin around her head, revealing a simplistic head with few features, then looks at her tarry body with her human head/face. The lumberman returns and pours gasoline, kerosine, oil or some other flammable liquid on her, then sets her on fire. She runs away, though she is still engulfed in flame, and runs out of the woods and into an open, snowy field, where she collapses.

Then, the movie ends.

Analysis

Each Arc of the film warrants its own literal interpretation, and then the film as a whole warrants its own literal interpretation.

First, the Amoral Act. What we see here, and what is even hinted at a few times, seems to be a take on entities who possess either a completely different form of morality than humans, or they possess no morality whatsoever.

This is an exceedingly interesting topic for me, amorality, and if you’re less familiar with the concept, it’s not that something possesses a bad or evil sense of morality, it’s that they possess no morality whatsoever, except perhaps a survival instinct.

While Lovecraft hasn’t explicitly covered amorality in his writing, he has explored to some degree the concept of an alien morality, or something that exists beyond a sense of morality, that operates under different existential parameters than humans do (typically ones that humans cannot understand or fathom). I personally have explored the concept in much of my fiction (so hit me up if you ever want to read some of it *wink wink*), and the key to understanding it, funnily enough, is empathy.

You have to be able to put yourself in the mindset of an individual, organism or other cognizant entity capable of agency or action, and think of what you would do in that situation. What would you do if you acted purely instinctually, or purely out of survival, or purely out of some cold, calculating, sociopathically-detached plan?

And Scarlett Johansen pulls this off perfectly. Watching her is like watching a praying mantis, a barracuda or a Komodo Dragon disguised as a human.

In the Dissonance Act, we see small shifts in the alien woman’s behavior (I keep calling her “alien woman”, but literally no one has any names except for Andy and the dead couple, so fuck off).

So, what is happening here?

Why would the alien begin to act oddly? Why is it afraid of the club and large crowds? Why does it react so strangely to the sight of blood?

And is the alien beginning to develop some sort of mental dissonance, or some form of self-awareness or awareness in general that runs counter to its previous understanding of the world?

What we can surmise from the club and from scenes throughout the film is that the alien woman does not actually know how to socialize whatsoever, which falls back to the “reptilian mind” thing. When the woman is seducing men, she almost has a program she runs to seduce them. She has her initial question, then she tries to figure out what they’re doing, if they’re free, if they have an excuse for her to get them in the van, and then finally to try and seduce them to bring them home.

She isn’t actually socializing with them, she’s running a program she uses to hunt her prey.

This is why she may seem so uncomfortable by going to the club and why she acts so strangely in situations with other humans that don’t fall under her pre-programmed responses. She doesn’t know what to do.

Now, as far as the blood, perhaps she doesn’t even know anything about human anatomy (evidenced later by her reaction to sex) or human biology.

And is she changing psychologically? It’s certainly possible, though what would do it? What would make that change? This I think I’ll get into later.

We must also discuss what the fuck is going on in the aliens’ house.

So, there’s a floor made of a tar-water/fluid/solid-floor/thingstuff, which the aliens seem to have some control over, since they can walk on it and others’ end up sinking into it.

There also seems to be some sort of psychological effect the place has on people, since no sane person would take a look at the endless black expanse of that room and think it was a safe place. In addition, there’s the blood-flesh-meat-slosh trough, and what the fuck is going on there?

I think we can assume the skins of humans are being harvested to be used later as suits, and then the flesh and organs of humans are being harvested to be used as flesh? Or fuel for something? Or maybe just discarded as waste? We don’t know, we really don’t know.

There’s a lot we don’t know, such as what the dark fluid is, or what the aliens’ purpose on Earth is. So, while some of these mysteries could be scoured for more details, I think we’ll have to leave this as a dead end.

Next, the Discovery Arc. I think this arc is relatively simple, though there’s three elephants in the room.

The deformed man, the motorcycle man/men and the sex scene.

There’s a few other minor things, such as the cake, the woman’s strange behavior in certain scenes and her aversion to dark castles, but I think these are either obvious or explained by what we previously discussed: not acclimated/adapted to this world, does not know how to behave as a normal human and so forth. These we won’t split hairs over.

With the deformed man, almost immediately after being released by the alien woman, he is tracked down and attacked by the primary motorcycle man. We can assume this is because he has seen too much and his existence might lead to the aliens’ discovery, but then the motorcycle man essentially kills him in broad daylight, and the motorcycle man even sees a witness and does nothing about it, then steals someone’s car. This isn’t discrete and seems somewhat odd.

Next with the motorcycle man/men, why is/are he/they hunting down the alien woman?

And what will they do when they find her?

Now, I have a theory about this, but I won’t delve into it until later.

Finally, the sex scene, and this is actually an incredibly interesting scene. In this scene, when the alien woman stops to look at her vagina, there are a couple things happening here.

One, perhaps something went wrong with her skin-suit. This is definitely a possibility, especially since we see the skinsuit tear later, and we see the body that is revealed underneath.

Second, and this is what I think, the alien woman has no idea whatsoever what sex is or what is happening as the man tries to penetrate her. I think it shocks her so much that she has to stop and try to figure out what is happening, which is insanely ironic, since her whole schtick for the first half of the movie is seducing men with the promise of sex, and essentially using her self as sexual bait without even knowing how sex works.

There is also the possibility that both of these things are true at once, and the sudden introduction of sex also brings a moment of shock and epiphany.

But why does this then make her leave the man and go out into the woods alone? Why does she no longer wish to stay safe and in his company?

Maybe she realized sex wasn’t what she thought it was. Maybe it was painful or uncomfortable for her (also ironic). Or maybe there really was an anatomical redundancy that kept her from actually having sex (the lack of a real vagina) and she didn’t want her cover to be blown.

I will probably come back to this in a bit, but it’s probably one of the most interesting scenes in the entire movie just because it immediately creates a network of implications connecting so many other events, themes and subtext throughout the film.

Finally, the Annihilation Arc, which is also relatively straight-forward, but with one simple thing we need to figure out:

When the woman was born, created, awoken, etc., did she know what she looked like on the inside, or did she live her entire life identifying with her exterior form? And did she always know there was another body under the skin

Or did she not discover this until the end of the film?

And while I think the prior sex scene is incredibly interesting (for scholarly, intellectual reasons), this moment is obviously the crux of the film.

It leads to many questions, and I don’t know how many answers there are.

Did the woman always know this was who she was and what she was like? Or was this a moment of self-discovery? Or was this a moment where she realized her own mortality and her body’s limitations and inevitable destruction?

So then, the question that follows many of the events of this film: How much does the woman know?

How much does she know about humans? How much does she know about herself? How much does she know about the consequences of her actions?

In the beginning of the film, I think there is an assumption of superiority in the woman. She is the ultimate femme fatale, who lures men back to her home to use them as a resource for her species. However, we slowly begin to see that she is incredibly awkward in unscripted social situations, that she may or may not understand human anatomy/biology, and that she may or may not understand her own anatomy.

At the same time, we slowly see this outward perception of superiority vanish and a sense of vulnerability slowly grows, until, at the end of the film, we see that she is essentially all but helpless when she’s alone (another very interesting thing to reflect on with this film, the complete turnaround from seduction-control-superiority to rape-helpless-vulnerability).

This will factor into a future part of the analysis.

Now, something else to discuss here, in the broader scope of the film: what are the aliens doing? What is going on?

More specifically, what is going on with the woman?

Now, I have other things to get to with this analysis, and this portion has already dragged on long enough as it is, but here’s my theory about the woman.

In the opening of the movie, we see an eye being formed, and then we hear the woman practicing phonemes (z-, th-, t-, s-, p-, f-, etc.). Immediately after this is the scene where the paralyzed woman is brought into the back of the van and the naked alien woman takes off all of her clothes and puts them on herself. The body of the paralyzed woman presumably is disposed of in a similar fashion as other used bodies.

So, I think this means that the alien woman was newly created or constructed, and is being “programmed” to speak while she is being made to look like a human woman. I also think it’s possible that the paralyzed woman is actually an alien herself and may have undergone a similar psychological transformation as the Johansson alien—meaning this woman was the previous seductress alien and was replaced by Johansson once it gained self-awareness.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t have much to back this up with. There isn’t much evidence for this, but it’s a gut feeling I have. I suppose a more rational take on this is that this is just some woman they found who just so happened to have the same sized clothes as the Johansson alien.

I do think, however, that it’s not a stretch to imagine the male aliens created the Johansson alien, or maybe the Johansson construct-alien, in order to carry out their aims (whatever they may ultimately be).

And so, this is why the Johansson alien seems to know so little about anything­—they’re programmed only to fulfil one task, and she hasn’t had enough experience to know how so many different things work (socialization, sex, biology—human and her own). Once she “goes rogue”, the other aliens try to track her down. This could be because they think she’s in danger, or it could be because they’re going to “recycle” her like they did the other female alien.

We don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll ever know. This movie is based on a book by the same name, written by Michael Faber and released in 2000, so the book may have more answers for us, but for now I think we’ll have to be content with what we have.

Gender Analysis

I don’t want to spend too much time with this portion of the analysis. This isn’t to minimize its potential depth or significance, this is simply because I think the true meaningfulness of the movie resides in a much deeper place, and I don’t think the director and co-writer, Jonathan Glazer intended it to be about gender.

However, the pieces of the puzzle are all but staring at us in the face, so I think an exploration of the significance of gender in this movie is warranted.

First, there is the foundational element of sexual dynamics here to examine. The seductress alien is primarily seen as an object of sexual attraction. There is something interesting that happens is done in the movie, something I don’t think even the creators are aware of. The woman-alien can only be an object throughout the movie because no human knows her true nature until the end of the film.

Throughout the movie, humans can only project their sexual idealizations onto the female alien because they cannot, and maybe can never understand the woman, as a subject. Because of their ignorance of what she is, it is impossible for them to know anything about the woman except for surface information. She can only be an object, until the very end of the movie. At the moment she becomes a subject (at the moment her inner self is revealed) the only human to have seen her inner self elects to destroy her.

Now, following this line of the seductress alien as an object of sexual attraction, there are two ironies on either side of all these interactions.

One, the men who are sexually attracted to her are only attracted to her because of her outward appearance, showing a shallowness to romance and sexual attraction. In some ways, it shows a sort of hypocrisy in love and romance and sexuality, since the woman is desired simply because of her looks. If anyone were to discover who/what she really was, they would immediately lose their attraction to her.

Another tangential irony to this is the fact that it might not even be possible to have sex with this woman. Her body may be physically incapable of sex, and only capable of looking attractive. In this way, the men who desire to have sex with her are completely fetishizing a non-sexual entity (non-sexual meaning incapable of procreating or having sex). Now, this might not be the case, simply because there’s a bit of ambivalence in the sole “sex scene” of the movie as to what the Johansson alien sees when she peers down at her vagina, but one of the possibilities is that she discovers a shallow dead end.

So the men sexualizing her may be sexualizing something that has no actual sexual function, and simply “looks pretty”, further adding to the idea that she can be considered nothing more than a sexualized object by anyone else in the film.

Two, the Johansson alien probably doesn’t even know how sex works, or what sex really is. There is a scene where she sees blood and freaks out. Why does she freak out? I mean, admittedly, I would freak out as well if I was handed flowers by a stranger and they were covered in blood, but I don’t think this is why she freaks out. When she sees the blood, she reacts, but then she doesn’t do anything to wipe it off.

This seems to indicate that she gets upset by the sight of blood not because she knows what blood is, but because she doesn’t know what blood is. If she did know what blood is and reacted how she did, one would assume she would want to wipe off the blood.

This can lead us to believe that she doesn’t understand the fundamentals of human biology. Later, when she tries to have sex, the seductress alien freaks out for one of two reasons:

  1. She is physically incapable of having sex
  2. She suddenly realizes what sex actually is and this bothers her

I think the second has to be true, because it’s true whether or not the first one is true. Either way, whether she’s physically capable of sex or not, she doesn’t understand what sex: either she doesn’t know human anatomy and her anatomy, or she doesn’t know the process of sex.

What this means is that she spends the entire film as an object of sexual attraction—more than that, her entire purpose in life seems to be luring men to their death so they can be harvested—and yet she doesn’t even understand sex. Her entire purpose on Earth seems to be centered on sex and sexual attraction, and yet she doesn’t even know what sex is, how sex works or the anatomical structures responsible for sex.

Another aspect of this to look at is the shift in power dynamics from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie.

In the beginning of the movie, the seductress alien is in full control. She lures men back to her home, like fish willingly putting the hook into their own cheeks, and guides them to their own deaths. She is in complete control, she possesses an air of superiority about her, and she is the predator.

However, in the end of the movie, she is completely vulnerable and has no control. She is an environment she doesn’t understand and cannot use to her advantage like her home, and she is being aggressed upon rather than being docilely followed by the individual sexually attracted to her.

I don’t entirely have a great analysis of this, but it seems to be about the social dynamics of sexuality, as well as perhaps a commentary on the different modes of behavior dependent on one’s gender.

However, while there’s more to delve into with these few topics I’ve mentioned, as well as other avenues left in the dark, I do think I’ll move on now to a more universal analysis.

Human Analysis

While I think the gender analysis might be the more obvious one, given the sexual nature of Under the Skin, I think the film deserves to be looked at on a deeper level.

Under the Skin is an exceedingly lonely film. The first half of it feels inhuman and detached, for some obvious reasons. The female alien is a cold, amoral, nearly-mechanical being who, as we learn throughout the film, doesn’t seem to know much about humanity or even their own nature.

They have pre-programmed socializations with one agenda, luring men to their deaths, and any other social interaction seems to be difficult for them to have. They don’t know how to react except in short, awkward responses, and sometimes with no responses at all.

Then, the female alien seems to gain consciousness or awareness of a sort, and goes off on their own—first developing a romantic relationship that quickly fails, and then being killed/destroyed by someone who attempts to rape them.

In many ways, this film reflects the human condition for everyone, regardless of general.

We all become programmed with social responses and behaviors that we use in a variety of situations, but we don’t have many original responses to things—we don’t know how to act in novel situations.

In addition, we all have “masks” or “skinsuits” we wear to hide who are underneath—both to ourselves and to others. We develop personas we use to mask our underlying nature, our underlying agendas, and our underlying identities. However, we sometimes even develop these personas to hide who we are from ourselves.

Or, we develop personas without developing any underlying identity, sense of self, or other psychological structure beneath our personas. Many people in some ways are only the skinsuits, with nothing else inside of us (psychologically/behaviorally speaking).

On top of this, we as humans seem to use each other mindlessly. We use each other for our own self-gain, for our own self-pleasure, for our own self-validation, and we do this all with our pre-programmed social behaviors without any thought of how the other individual might be affected by us and our actions.

We use our skinsuits to get what we want, and we don’t think twice about it.

However, there can be an awakening of sorts where we realize all these things, and this, I believe, is the awakening that occurs at the midway point of the film.

The midway point of the film, primarily involving the deformed man, is interesting in many ways. The fact that her last victim and the first victim she saves (or attempts to) is the way he contrasts with the beauty of the female alien. However, I think the deformed man signals a shift in a sense of self-awareness and self-image.

The ugliness (I’m sorry, guy, if you really look like that) of the man I think represents a self-projected self-image by the man. It’s his own insecurities, loneliness and sense of self-worth projected or manifested onto his appearance.

So there’s this implication here of the man’s outer image not mattering to the female alien (though we know this is because A: she isn’t planning on having sex with him and B: probably doesn’t actually care about human beauty standards).

This contrast in attraction might signal the female aliens psychological shift, which seems to come about by seeing her own reflection. This seems to be a shift in perspective where outward appearance and outward behavior stop mattering, which means there must be something else that matters.

This triggers the female alien into leaving the city she’s been living in, presumably to get away from the life of sexual seduction and human harvesting in order to maybe discover herself, or try attempting to understand what is happening.

A psychological shift like this unfortunately does not happen in everyone, but it is still an incredibly important turning point in many people’s lives: the realization of the true nature of one’s self, and the attempt at creating a different life than they are already leading.

However, perhaps the woman is still living a lie. She attempts to form a relationship which still seems to be entirely dependent on the woman’s appearance. Would the man she met on the bus still have brought her home, fed her, clothed her, sheltered her and so forth if he wasn’t attracted to her and didn’t think there would be a sexual reward in it for him?

And still, the relationship is also built on a lie because the man does not know who the woman actually is.

It isn’t until the end that the woman’s true nature is revealed, and we see that she is the pitch-black-bodied alien. She is immediately killed or destroyed immediately after.

This scene is interesting in our current conversation for a number of reasons.

First of all, the fact that the man is trying to rape her is, unfortunately, a purification or distillation of the underlying desires all men who meet the woman have. Rather than the overlaying social behaviors used to either mask what they want or get what they want, the lumberman simply tries to take what he wants.

Here, his underlying agenda is not masked or gained by pre-programmed social behaviors or responses, and his actions directly reflect his desires.

As far as the alien woman goes, the fact that she is destroyed after her true nature is revealed shows goes back to the idea of her being only an object of sexual attraction throughout that film, until the moment her true body his revealed. At this moment, the projected sexual object is shattered, and the individual perceiving her (the lumberman) recoils in fear.

This I think also has multiple angles to view it.

I think one could say that we as individuals do not enjoy seeing others for who they truly are. We don’t want to actually know a person, we want to create an idealized projection (whether negative or positive) of who we want them to be, with three modes of idealization: desire/attraction/love (sexual or otherwise), neutrality/ambivalence, and fear/disgust/hate.

The moment the lumberman’s idealization of the woman was shattered by seeing her true form, his model of reality was damaged or maybe even destroyed. As a defense mechanism, he attempted to annihilate the thing he suddenly understood too well.

I also think it’s interesting to note that the lumberman’s behavior mirrors the alien woman’s behavior as well. First, he gives some semi-bullshit spew of dialogue, where he’s not actually connecting with the woman, he’s just asking questions and talking at her.

All of these questions seem to be gauging how risky or not it would be for him to prey on her. Once he’s gauged that she would be safe to rape, he finds her again and stalks her through the woods until he finally catches her. This exactly mirrors, at least on a structural level, what the woman does when she herself preys on men.

Now, there’s another, more complicated angle that I find exceedingly interesting.

First, we build this premise (which we already started building):

Sex and sexuality is idealized and romanticized throughout the movie. The protagonist her/itself is a sexually idealized object which is not perceived as its own subject (its own subject for what it really is) until the end of the movie. However, pretty much every individual the protagonist comes into contact with sexually desires her, so all of their underlying motivations align with the same sexual motivation the lumberman-rapist has.

So, the sexual motivations begin as idealized/romanticized, but they are still the driving force.

The moment we have direct contact with the true nature the man/men’s motivation(s) (the assault/rape scene) we also come into direct contact with the true nature of the woman (revealing her body).

So there are two “bare” forces or concepts that come into direct contact—the true nature of the sexual motivations, or of the libido, and the true nature of the woman herself.

It is possible that the thing the lumberman actually recoils from while attempting to rape the woman is the fact of his own actions and behaviors. He might be recoiling from the sudden realization of what he is trying to do.

See, the black, alien body beneath the human appearance can be seen as symbolic of the actual, violent, insidious nature of the aliens’ actions/agenda/motivations. So, when seeing the true body of the woman, the man is seeing the dark, violent nature of behavior and motivations (possibly the dark nature of libido in general).

The sight of the woman’s body is the realization of a dark, insidious motivation, and the sight of the woman’s body may be the realization of one’s own dark, insidious motivations.

How so?

This is where it gets a bit complicated (if it hasn’t already) so I hope I explain this well.

There’s a fun trick you can play with films like these—in theory, any film with a woman who is evenly remotely sexualized or put into a romantic light. Part of the meaning of the movie is derived from the fact that we are watching it.

We as the viewer are perceiving characters in a sexual light, meaning we as the viewers have been observing Scarlett Johansson in a sexual light. If we ourselves are sexually attracted to her, then perhaps we’ve been existing vicariously through the male characters.

Of course, this does not end well for us as the vicarious/voyeuristic observer. However, then there is the sex scene with the guy the alien woman meets on the bus. He so far has come the closest to having sex with the woman, but it inevitably fails. Finally, the observer’s sexual frustration peaking at the fact they haven’t vicariously had sex with Scarlett Johansson yet, the lumberman attempts to rape her.

We as an observer might be torn by this.

The individual who has been sexually idealized to such an extreme throughout the film has yet to have sex with anyone yet, but now, finally, the sex will happen. However, it is through force that the sex will happen. It is rape, it is violence, it is wrong in so many ways.

The lumberman seeing the alien woman has who she truly may be the audience-observer seeing their own libidinal motivations at their darkest—their sexual desire and frustration taken to an extreme—and the darkest nature of what lies under the skin is revealed.

This can be extended beyond sexuality into any number of things we pursue in our lives—any number of obsessions, desires, motivations, agendas and so forth. The moment of witnessing the Johansson alien as who she truly is reflects the moment of seeing anything we desire or obsess over for what it truly is.

Perhaps it is people we desire, perhaps it is pleasure we desire, perhaps it is status we desire, but there will always come a moment where our idealized, romanticized projection of our desires becomes torn, and a truer reality reveals itself.

The knee-jerk reaction, of course, to such a revelatory event is to annihilate the evidence of such a reality.

We Have Come to Terms

And that concludes the analysis.

This analysis has already become exceedingly long, so I don’t want to spend too much more time here.

Despite being a relatively unknown box office flop, this movie has garnered an impressive number of accolades, with many credible sources stating it’s one of the greatest films of all time.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly an excellent film, and one that deserves your attention if you’re into things like this (like I said previously, it’s definitely not for everyone).

Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate you reading this (especially such an article as long as this one). Please let me know if you have any thoughts, comments, questions or critiques.

See You Later, Space Cowboy.

I Know the Pieces Fit: An Analysis of the 1982 The Thing (Part 2)

Written by Alexander Greco

September 17, 2020

Where you been hiding lately?

Where you been hiding from the news?

Because we’ve been fighting lately,

We’ve been fighting with the wolves.

Ben Howard

Now, I will pivot into the second half of the analysis, the inversion of Thing as Metaphoric Object.

Analysis Part 2: Thing as Phenomenological Object

While the first half of the analysis is fun and interesting, and possesses moral/ethical/political considerations that are worth discussing (and will be discussed), this second half of the analysis is far more interesting to me.

For this, we will be examining what the Thing is to the humans.

For this, we will be examining the Thing from the perspective of humans as a metaphoric, narrative object, meaning: what is the Thing from a symbolic and psychological perspective?

But, if this is more important and more meaningful to me, why begin with the other analysis?

Because, while we are now looking at the Thing as an object, the nature of it as an object must be understood as an object capable of subjectivity.

When the humans are perceiving the Thing, they are not looking at an inanimate object, they are looking at a conscious and rational object.

However, the Thing and the contents of its subjective experience is a “black box”, a programming term that here means the contents of the Thing’s consciousness and cognition cannot be known.

In programming, a “black box” is a piece of code that has a function—there are inputs, which are then processed by whatever code exists in the black box, and then there are outputs produced by the code—but the function of the “black box” is completely unknown. The contents of the unknown programming can be guessed by looking at the inputs and the resulting outputs, but the code within nonetheless remains a mystery.

The fact that the Thing does have a consciousness and is capable of rational thought is known. There are measurable inputs and measurable outputs, the inputs being reality and events, the outputs being the actions the Thing takes. However, the humans do not know what the consciousness and rational thoughts of the alien are—they cannot examine the “code” inside the Thing’s “black box”.

So, when the humans perceive the Thing (possibly the most apt name here), they perceive an organism they cannot fully understand, with a psychological/cognitive/subjective black box that they cannot examine.

All humans are actually like this to all other humans.

No two humans can actually know what is happening inside the other human’s mind—not fully, at least.

The minds of all humans are like “black boxes” to all other humans.

Here, I can recall the fictional (though, unfortunately, not completely unmoored from reality) anecdote of the lesbian in a Muslim society.

She might be the only person on the planet who knows she is a lesbian. She might not have shared with any other human the fact that she secretly has a sexual and romantic attraction to other women. This, being a function of her mind, experience, psyche, etc., remains a content of the “black box” of her psyche.

This “black box”, however, extends beyond just our thoughts, our motivations, our sexual preferences, our beliefs and so forth, and extends to things like our memories—which then extends epistemologically to our actions, our experiences, our decisions and so forth. Not only can we hide from others what we think, feel or believe, but we can also hide from others our actions, our patterns of actions (actions taken as part of an agenda) and the things we have experienced in our lives.

Now, one of the great peculiarities of humanity is our ability to communicate the contents of this “black box” to others. We can tell other people: This is what I think; this is how I feel; this is what I have done; this is what I have gone through in my life; etc.

And here, we find the interwoven segments of a functioning, healthy society (or, on the micro-level, functioning, healthy relationships): communication, honesty and trust.

Humans have the ability to communicate what resides within our “black boxes”, so long as we trust what the other person is communicating.

By knowing what these contents are—so long as we also know these contents do not indicate a hostility towards us—the people we know can be perceived as something we understand.

That may be one of the most important functions of language and society: providing every individual with a socio-linguistic structure that allows us to understand to a high enough resolution who everyone else within a society is.

You don’t have to know someone’s name, you don’t have to know their address, you don’t have to know their job, but we are able to safely and comfortably walk into a Starbucks without immediately backing into a corner at the sight of a dozen hairless primates because society has provided us with enough information to know (or believe) that none of the people are actively or passively hostile towards you.

However, what happens at the point at which someone doesn’t make any sense? Let’s examine this.

If we have a socio-linguistically mediated epistemological structure which provides us with the information about others, and this information ensures as that particular individuals will not be hostile, what happens when this epistemological structure is violated?

What happens if you go into a Starbucks, and someone pulls out a gun?

What happens, I think, is much deeper than most might suppose.

On a rational, material level, very little has actually changed. The only change in the material environment around us is that a small, mechanical object has been introduced to the physical contents of Starbucks.

However, from a deeper cognitive and psychological level, the change is nearly infinitely drastic.

You are no longer standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee to be made. This idea, this perception of reality, is not the material reality, it is a cognitive, phenomenological reality. The idea of Starbucks, the idea of what you are doing in Starbucks, the idea of what others are doing in Starbucks, and the idea of how these things are situated within our understanding of reality are all socio-linguistically mediated knowledge-structures we base our decisions on.

Suddenly, by the introduction of a gun into the environment, these socio-linguistic knowledge-structures have disintegrated. The reality of standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee no longer exists—that reality is gone—and a new reality of being in a place where a stranger has a gun has taken its place.

In addition, the person who was also waiting at Starbucks for a cup of coffee also vanishes, and they become an entirely different person. They may not even be a person anymore—at least as far as your psyche is concerned. The benign stranger at Starbucks (another mediated knowledge-structure) has suddenly vanished, and is replaced with an object whose intentions, motivations, knowledge and experiences you suddenly don’t understand.

That person transforms into some other thing that is no longer a person as you understood them to be.

That person, on a psychological or phenomenological level, literally transforms their being from a defined, articulated, mutually understood citizen of a country into a living, thinking, acting black box.

And here, now, I hope you can begin to see how this connects back to The Thing.

At the moment at which one of the dogs or humans is transforming into its alien form, what precisely is happening from the perspective of one of the non-aliens?

What subjectively and psychologically is happening?

We’ll take the scene at which Palmer is revealed to be one of the Things.

The poke his blood with the hot metal, and the blood reacts as a living organism.

Suddenly, we now know Palmer is a Thing, and at this precise moment, Palmer “physically” begins to transform.

He begins convulsing unnaturally; his eyes bleed and bulge; his head grotesquely deforms; his entire body transforms into a pseudo-human horror; his head splits open into a giant, monstrous mouth and attacks Windows; and MacReady finally burns the creature alive then kills it with dynamite as it tries to escape outside.

What is happening is Palmer begins with a defined, articulated, orderly form. What Palmer is—Palmer’s being as a perceived object—is understood. Then, at the moment Palmer is revealed to be a Thing, Palmer transforms into something that is not understood.

What is happening when the humans or dogs are turning into the chaotic monstrosities we refer to as “the Thing”? All of our fundamental and assumed knowledge about their being suddenly vanishes. They transform from something that has a rigid, defined form and a concrete definition-of, into something that cannot be easily described, except as something grotesque, volatile and chaotic.

Now, viewing this as a phenomenological event (rather than an actual, physical event), it is not that the people and animals are physically turning into these chaotic alien-creatures, it is that we are witnessing the psychological transformation of these beings from the perspective of the human-observers. The moment a dog or human transforms into a “Thing” is the moment where a defined, ordered, articulated being transforms into something that we cannot understand.

The perceived physical transformation is therefore actually a projected psychological transformation of the other being.

So here, if we view the entire film in this light, with the transformations as symbolic, phenomenological transformations, what is happening is quite peculiar.

What if, instead of viewing the movie as a sci-fi horror film where they’re being attacked by these assimilating aliens, we view this as a movie where everyone is subjected to a mass hysteria where they begin to “hallucinate” that their fellow outpost members are turning into monsters?

What if the members of the outpost are going insane, and begin projecting these monstrous psychological transformations onto each other?

Throughout the beginning of the movie, we see many of the characters at odds with each other, just over mundane things. With the introduction of the Thing into their midst, they suddenly become paranoid, suspicious of one another, and delusional. They perform purity tests on one another (like the blood tests), and enact a sort of martial law where the typical legalities and civilities are out the window.

How much of this is caused by the actual introduction of the Thing into their population, and how much of this is caused by a mass hysteria?

To bring this back to our prior quasi-fictional anecdotes:

At the moment the lesbian woman reveals herself to be a lesbian in the fundamentalist Muslim-dominated society, she is no longer an accepted, understood human within that society; she transforms into a being that must be ritually annihilated.

At the moment the benign coffee-drinker at Starbucks pulls a gun out from their pocket, they are no longer a benign stranger in a socially mediated/understood setting; they have transformed into a chaotic, undefined being who is armed with a mechanism that can quickly and effectively end lives.

To bring this back to our prior analysis of Thing-as-Subject, we (“we” as all of us as individuals) are at all times both Thing-as-Subject and Subject-Observing-OtherThing-as-Object.

And now, to wrap this analysis up, we will examine what this perpetual duality means.

Conclusion: Bring the Pieces Back Together

There are two obvious but conflicting moral or ethical statements to the analysis:

Communication between two beings—and so an understanding between two beings—must be established in order for there to be peaceful co-existence.

That which cannot be communicated with or understood may have to be annihilated if it cannot otherwise be survived.

While with the 1982 The Thing, the ethical question of communication and survival may remain ambiguous, in the original 1951 version of the film, The Thing From Another World, this ethical question is actually confronted, but is answered in a much less ambiguous way.

One of the characters attempts to communicate with the alien, but is killed for his efforts, and the remaining characters then annihilated the alien in order to survive it.

While I can applaud the original film for confronting this question more outrightly (itself adapted from the 1938 novella, Who Goes There? (of which I know little about)), and perhaps the 1982 The Thing ought to have brought this ethical issue more to the surface, the 1982 film nonetheless captures the true, phenomenological or subjective reality of this moral issue more accurately (though opaquely).

The problem is we never can know what to do.

The problem is not that we should create a society where there are no Starbucks shooters, or a society where we don’t murder lesbians in the streets (though both are admirable goals).

The problem is that it is impossible to create a society that does not possess analogues to these anecdotal societies.

The true “point” to the 1982 The Thing is not a moral answer to this combined problem of every individual being at once a Subject-Who-Perceives and Object-Being-Perceived.

The true point here is a pragmatic and amoral one, and the point is this:

We cannot know what is truly going on in the minds of anyone else. We cannot truly know what is happening in others’ minds, what they are motivated by and what actions they may take for or against us. We cannot truly know who (and, so, what) another person is.

And, so, psychologically, people we cannot understand transform into grotesque monsters before our eyes, even if physically they are exactly the same.

What The Thing proposes to us is not a moral proposition, but an amoral Truth about the reality of subjective experience and the phenomenology of human relationships.

All humans—all organisms and, more broadly, all objects with a personal subjectivity—are simultaneously:

  • Subject Perceiving Other-Object

And

  • Object Perceived by Other-Subject

Now, this is more applicable in situations where the aforementioned social-structures have been violated, but the problem here, as I tried to illuminate, is in part that we can never know when these violations will be made, or what the nature of this violation is.

So, I said previously these were not intended to be made into political/moral value statements, but, fuck you, I’m a lying black-box-bastard, live with it.

What is the most pressing moral/ethical/political and even epistemological (knowledge-based) issue today in America? (And, likely, throughout the world right now)

Our ability to communicate with one another has all but been corrupted to an impossibly unreconcilable state.

Our politics (in America, and, from what I know, in many places across Western society) has become so polarized that to say you support Trump is to self-declare yourself as a Fascist, and to say you support Biden is to self-declare yourself as an Anarchist.

Of course, except in the marginally extreme, neither of these cases are true. 99% of Trump-supporters are not Fascists, and 98% of Biden-supporters are not Anarchists (I’m kidding, fellow-Liberals, I really mean 97%).

However, those 99% who’ve fallen into the “Trump Camp” cannot convince those in the “Biden Camp” that they are not Fascist Bigots intent on inciting the Fourth Reich; and those 95% (I kid) who’ve fallen into the “Biden Camp” cannot convince those in the “Trump Camp” that they are not psychotic Anarchists seeking a Communist Revolution.

So, what has happened?

Both sides of our political divide have decided they can no longer convince the other side that they are not vicious monsters, so they’ve taken to treating the other side as vicious monsters.

What has happened to both sides of our current political “war”?

The Right and the Left currently perceive themselves as the humans, and they perceive the others as the “Things”.

We have a strange and potentially catastrophic situation right now where both the Right and the Left are simultaneously Subject-Perceiving-Object-as-Thing and Object-as-Thing-Perceived-by-Subject.

So, what do we do?

Obviously, we must come to understand that the shooter at Starbucks may actually be a Muslim Lesbian. I mean this jokingly, and I mean this seriously.

Imagine the moment you realize someone you know supports the candidate you currently oppose. How quickly does that person transform into something grotesque and horrific?

If you support Trump and you discover someone you know supports Biden, how immediate is the effect on you? How immediately do you either go quiet and politely smile and nod before walking away, or attack them on the spot, engulfing them in the fiery Truth of your words?

How immediately do you, a Biden-supporter, see your friends transform into a Fascistic Existential threat to equality and compassion the moment you see them don a MAGA hat?

How it feels telling your friends you support Constitutional Rights and Mixed Social Economics.

At this moment, you may even be wondering whose side I am on, so you can know whether or not to condemn my words as profanity or praise them as sacred wisdom. “He poked fun at Liberals, but then he called himself a Liberal, but then ambiguously quasi-supported/quasi-criticized both sides, so what the hell is he?” Fuck you, that’s what side I am on.

The ending of this upcoming election may precisely reflect the ending of The Thing. The architecture we live in that protect us and trap us with the Thing—the structures of society/the outpost of Antartica—are destroyed in fire. We are left in the wreckage, only remaining alive by the dying light of burning buildings. And we face each other as the last survivors of a great cataclysm, wondering if the Thing across from us is a friend or foe.

We must communicate with each other.

We must learn to trust each other again, whether or not we agree on the other’s opinions.

We must learn to understand each other again, to open up our own black boxes, despite the ensuing vulnerability, so that others may open up their own black boxes.

And while we may find that our friends turn into Things and Things turn into friends, maybe, just maybe, if we can stop, think and speak to each other, we’ll come out of this alive.

Covid Month #6: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the Winter tied to this fucking couch.”

I Know the Pieces Fit: An Analysis of the 1982 The Thing (Part 1)

Written by Alexander Greco

September 16, 2020

Cold silence has

A tendency to

Atrophy any

Sense of compassion

Tool / Maynard James Keenan

This article is the first of two on the 1982 The Thing. This article will introduce the movie and the two halves of the analysis, then present the first half of the two-part analysis. The second article will present the second part of the analysis, then conclude by examining both and comparing them to current social events.

The contents of the first article will focus on a theoretical analysis of the film revolving around the key element of Information Control, while the second article will delve into more philosophical and psycho-social territories.

Introduction

The 1982 remake of The Thing has gone down in history as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, with good reason. It’s a tremendous movie, it was made in the golden age of classic special effects, right in between the developing stages of earlier films and the rocky slide into 90’s and 00’s effects and CGI.

The setting was great, the characters were memorable and unique, the pacing and storytelling was masterful, and the underlying Cosmic Horror themes and tones of the movie were pitch perfect.

However, while The Thing has gained enormous notoriety since its initial box office flop, I still think it’s a vastly misunderstood movie, and even a vastly underappreciated movie. The source of this misunderstanding and underappreciation comes from the most overlooked element of the film: Control of Information.

The key to understanding The Thing, what made The Thing so horrifying and why the The Thing has been misunderstood is how the film’s director and screenwriter, John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, controlled what information the viewer does and doesn’t know:

– The absolute knowns, or facts

– The assumptions

– The absolute unknowns, or known unknowns

– The unknown unknowns, or things we don’t even know that we don’t know

Control of Information is important in any form of narrative, but it is key in genres like sci-fi, horror and mystery, where so much of the meaning or emotion is derived cognitively rather than aesthetically.

For Future Reference, Left to Right: Norris, Bennings, Childs, Copper, Fuchs, Garry

With The Thing, nearly the entirety of the film’s true horror is derived from what we know and don’t know as opposed to what we are perceiving physically or aesthetically. So much of the horror is derived from Carpenter and Lancaster’s Control of Information: What we know; what we don’t know; what we’re lead to believe; what we assume; what assumptions we’re forced to question; and what information is left to the imagination.

The entire film is centered on an alien who can assimilate other organisms and disguise itself as any organism it has assimilated. So, throughout the movie, right to the final scene, we are constantly questioning who is an alien, who isn’t an alien, how the alien can be discovered, how the alien can be defeated, and what might happen if the alien isn’t defeated.

While The Thing is a master-class on Control of Information, with its ability to penetrate and terrorize your consciousness with doubt, isolation, paranoia and these constant questions, one question is never actually asked—one question is kept hidden by such overt terror, or the answer seems so obvious we never think to ask it—and this may be the question that is most crucial to understanding the film:

“I just want a home…”

What does the alien want?

This is one piece of information is secreted away, hidden and kept beneath all the other layers of the story to such a greater extent than anything else in the movie.

And so, the Control of Information—and, as sub-sets, both the ignorance of individuals and the inability to communicate or perceive information cohesively or coherently—may actually be the deepest and most important theme of the movie.

The instinctual assumption of both the characters and the movie-viewers is that the alien wants to assimilate other organisms for its own gain, and to eventually take over the world by assimilating all other lifeforms. However, this may only be a projection of motivation onto the organism, as this motivation is never explicitly confirmed by the end of the movie. The grotesque, violent horror of The Thing is so great that we never stop to question this motivation. We simply take it as a given.

However, we know so little about the monster in The Thing that it seems foolish to assume anything about it:

– We don’t know where it’s from

– We don’t know why it came to Earth

– We don’t know what it was doing before it came to Earth

– We don’t know how it’s able to assimilate organisms (we don’t know very well, at least)

– We don’t know what it is, that’s part of the point of the film: it’s just a thing that came from space

This of course connects to Cosmic Horror and the Lovecraftian Cosmic Nihilism, but I won’t delve too much into this. Feel free to read my articles if you want to read more about Cosmic Horror/Nihilism.

The short of it is we are small, limited creatures living on a small, blue dot in an imperceivably vast reality. We are far more blind and ignorant that we are perceiving and knowing, and the knowledge that we don’t know is so tremendously more massive than the knowledge we do know.

We don’t know where the alien is from or why it’s on Earth. We don’t know what the alien is or what it is capable of. We don’t know what it wants, what it’s goals are or what it it’s like to be the alien.

What is interesting, is that we do know the motivations of those who have remained humans: survival.

The motivations we do know (of the humans) are the will to live. The motivations we don’t know (of the aliens) are assumed to be violence, domination and usurpation.

But, we don’t know what the alien’s motivations actually are.

What are the motivations of, what is going on in the mind of, and what is it like to be The Thing? As an important inversion of this, why are the Thing’s motivations, and the Thing itself, perceived the way it is?

These will be the focus of the analysis.

Summary and Structure of Information

This summary will, of course, have spoilers in it, so be warned.

However, the summary will be centered on how information is controlled throughout the film, so, though much of the film is luckily centered on this as well, it will likely leave out decent swaths of the film’s content.

If you haven’t watched The Thing, it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. If you have watched The Thing, this will all be old news, so feel free to skip to the meat of the analysis.

After one of the most memorable and iconic opening title scenes in sci-fi history (up there with the 1979 Alien), the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter, chasing a husky dog across the icy wastes of Antarctica.

The Norwegians are shooting at the dog, and at one point throw dynamite at it. The husky arrives at the American Outpost, Outpost 31, where the majority of the film takes place.

The Norwegians follow the sled dog and soon arrive at the outpost as well. One of them accidentally blows themselves and their helicopter up, while the other pursues the dog on foot with their rifle.

While trying to kill the dog, the Norwegian shoots one of the Americans, then begins yelling something at the Americans in Norwegian, brandishing the gun at them. However, no one can understand the Norwegian, and they shoot the man dead, then take the dog inside their outpost.

Immediately, we are introduced to both the key tool of the film, Control of Information, and a key theme of the film, Communication.

The sad irony of this opening scene is that the dog (spoilers) is actually the alien that will later terrorize the outpost for the remainder of the film. The Norwegians know this, and their actions to kill the dog may have (spoilers) saved the lives of everyone at the outpost, but the Americans cannot understand the Norwegians, and so kill them.

However, we as the viewers cannot know this, just as the characters cannot know this, and so we are left with the same blind assumptions as the Americans (if that ain’t a metaphor).

The dog is allowed to wander around the outpost, doing god-knows-what behind the scenes, while we still assume it is only a dog, until it is put into a kennel with the other dogs.

After MacReady and Copper have investigated the Norwegian base, the dog finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: the Thing.

The dog’s body begins to change, with tentacles and other appendages growing from it, and its face eventually splits open to reveal a monstrous “mouth”. It begins attacking and assimilating the other dogs (meaning it absorbs their bodies into its own and begins copying the cells of the dog). But then, the alien is killed by the Americans, though the question remains open as to whether or not other members of the outpost have been assimilated.

There are two important threads to follow through the beginning of the movie:

The Salt is strong with this one.

One: we see the relationships of the characters as tense, often with a lot of conflict between them that erupts over minor things. One example is Blair asking Windows if he’s been able to reach anyone over the radio, with Windows blowing up and saying it’s impossible to reach anyone at this time. (This, along with other moments, builds on the them of communication, and comes into play more in the second half of the analysis.)

Two: our knowledge of the alien/Thing is developed, though only to a certain degree (we never fully/explicitly learn much about the Thing). Primarily, we learn of its ability to assimilate other organisms, and of the possibility that it could eventually assimilate the entirety of organisms on the planet, if it were to make it to any other continent (if it was motivated to do so).

And, of course, much of the rest of the first two thirds of the film is devoted to determining who has been assimilated or not.

Blair suspects Clark, who was in charge of looking out for the dogs, and was alone with the dogs when the Thing began assimilating them.

Bennings becomes partially assimilated, and attempts to escape, but is discovered and killed before it could fully assimilate.

Blair goes crazy, suspecting anyone and everyone could be an assimilated alien, and is locked up in a building outside of the main structure.

A supply of blood samples that could’ve have been used to test who has been assimilated is destroyed, implicating the small number of people with access to the blood as being assimilated (and subtly implying the alien may have assimilated the DNA of all members at the outpost).

Fuchs goes outside to find a piece of clothing with MacReady’s name on it (this happening shortly after MacReady himself mentioning the alien seems to tear apart people’s clothing while assimilating them).

Fuchs is then found dead outside, apparently burning himself alive to keep himself from committing suicide.

Mac and Nauls go out to check on Blair. However, a storm hits, so the two are late coming back. The rest of the outpost decides to close off all entrances.

While closing off one of the last entrances, Norris sees Nauls coming back alone through the blizzard. Nauls is let back inside and says he found a scrap of clothing with Mac’s name on it (the same one Fuchs previously found).

Mac then returns to the base, but the outpost members refuse to let him inside. Palmer and Norris are both quick to decide Mac ought to be killed, since he has likely been assimilated.

Mac breaks into the outpost, brandishing a flare and a stick of dynamite, letting everyone know he’ll blow himself and the others up if the try to stop him. However, Norris then collapse and stops breathing. He is brought to the infirmary where Copper tries to revive him, but Norris’s stomach splits open into a giant mouth and kills Copper (thus revealing Norris to have been assimilated all along).

After the Norris iteration of the Thing has been killed, Mac forces everyone to do a blood test to see if they have been assimilated. The assumption is that the cells of the Thing act autonomously, and so will attempt to survive if harmed. Mac uses a hot piece of metal to poke the blood, and eventually Palmer is revealed to be a Thing.

Palmer transforms and attacks the other outpost members, killing Windows before Mac can kill the Thing.

Here, we finally arrive at the wind-up to the climax.

The team discovers Blair has gone missing and has built a spacecraft beneath the structure he was put in, and so Blair is the last remaining Thing (that they know of).

While getting ready to blow up “Blair’s” spaceship, Nauls sees Childs run off into the blizzard. Immediately after this, the power for the entire outpost goes out. They assume this is Blair shutting down the power so that everyone else will die and Blair will be frozen until a search party comes and recovers everyone’s body (effectively reviving Blair/the Thing once its body thaws).

Mac, Nauls and Garry decide to blow up and burn down the outpost, effectively committing suicide, but ensuring the Thing does not survive as well.

While preparing the explosives and incendiaries, Blair picks off Garry then Nauls, then attacks Mac. Mac kills the transformed Blair-Thing and blows up the outpost. Mac escapes outside and is sitting in the cold as the outpost burns down.

Childs finally returns and sits down with Mac, telling him he ran off into the blizzard because he thought he saw Blair, then got lost and couldn’t find his way back. Neither can tell whether the other is a human or a Thing. The film ends ambiguously with the two of them sitting outside, “[waiting to] see what happens” as the outpost burns down and the Antarctic cold sets in.

That’s The Thing. Got it? Good.

The Poetry of Squaring Off: Analyses of the Thing as Subject and Object

And so, I will jump as quickly as I can into this.

This analysis has two halves: One, examining the Thing as a Literal Subject capable of perceiving, rationalizing and critical strategizing; and Two, examining the Thing as a Phenomenological Object being observed by humans.

The Thing as Literal Subject must be understood first in order to transition into an understanding of its inverse, the Thing as Phenomenological Object.

What do I mean by these terms?

Thing as Literal Subject is exactly that: we assume the Thing has sentience, and we build a possible model of its phenomenological reality from what we can assume in the film, then examine this reality.

This will fall more into a “film theory” than a proper “analysis”, though it is pivotal to understanding to the second half of the analysis.

Thing as Phenomenological Object: we examine not what the Thing is perceived as by the humans, but we examine why there is a Thing being observed by the humans.

This will contain more of my typical approach to analysis, though more focused on one specific aspect of the film rather than the broader narrative analysis I typically write.

Analysis Part 1: Thing as Literal Subject

What is the immediate conflict that arises in The Thing?

The Norwegians and the dog.

The Norwegians are chasing the dog through the Antarctic wastes, trying to kill it—knowing fully what the dog is and what it is capable of—but the last standing Norwegian is killed because the Americans can’t communicate with the Norwegian, can’t understand why the Norwegian is doing what he is doing, and don’t know what the Norwegian knows or perceives.

Of course, the brutal irony is that the Norwegian could have saved the entire American outpost from catastrophic destruction and death, and this as I mentioned implicates the deepest themes of the film: ignorance and communication.

It’s like the Mark Zuckerberg of dogs.

What is the dog/alien thinking at the start of the film?

What is going on in the alien’s mind at this point?

Well, first, let’s construct a potential reality for the alien as a conscious subject. This might be technically impossible, considering there’s so much about the alien we don’t know (and that’s part of the point of the film), but, if we start from one basic assumption or premise, we can work our way to something that I think is most likely to be true.

The one basic assumption is: the alien wishes to survive.

Why assume this?

Because, as far as we know, all life forms share this instinct. Instinct might not even be the right word, it may go even deeper than instinct, as it’s difficult to say single-celled organisms possess “instincts”. The will to live seems to be a mechanism that is embedded so deeply in the fabric of “living” that it may be at the core of existence for life or even proto-life.

The will to live, or something like it—and, as tangents of this, the will to maintain life through various motivations and functions, including replication—had to have been present even in the earliest stages of life as the theorized “first replicators”.

So, assuming the alien wishes to survive, let’s reconstruct what its experience would be like before the start of the movie and at the start of the movie.

God damn, I love MacReady’s hat.

The alien crash-lands on Earth, and we know the alien piloting the ship is the same alien capable of assimilation (rather than the pilot of the ship becoming assimilated pre-crash) because Blair as the assimilated alien version of Blair has begun constructing a new spaceship by the end of the film.

The alien is frozen in Antarctica, and is then unfrozen by the Norwegians. We don’t know the full scope of what happened with the Norwegians, but we do know something went fucky-wucky, and the Norwegians and the alien decided they couldn’t work out their differences.

Now, another assumption here is that the alien likely treats assimilation as something relatively natural and commonplace. We are capable of natural acts like eating, speaking and procreating, and the alien’s act of assimilation is likely as natural to it as any of these acts. So, while assimilation is remarkably violent and grotesque to humans, it may not be so violent and grotesque to the alien.

However, assuming the alien’s act of assimilation was at least a part of what led the Norwegians to hunt down and try to kill the last remaining alien, and knowing the alien is intelligent enough to build a spacecraft and pilot it across the cosmos, then the alien is probably smart enough to have realized the humans do not appreciate the alien’s act of assimilation. That said, the alien may not fully understand why the humans do not like this, just as we would be confused if we went to another planet, and the natural inhabitants did not enjoy us trying to breathe air, eat food, have sex or speak words.

So, the last of the Norwegians attempt to hunt down and kill the last of the aliens, resulting in the brutal irony of The Thing’s opening scene.

Throughout the rest of the film, once the alien is discovered in the iconic dog scene, the plot turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse/Clue/who-dunnit plot where the humans are trying to survive and the alien(s) are trying to survive.

So, what is the rest of the film after the opening scene like from the perspective of the alien?

Each scene must be looked at as the alien’s attempt at survival, rather than the pre-supposed attempt at world domination. Why?

Well, other than the base instincts the alien likely has, there is one telling scene: the Thing-as-Blair attempting to build a spacecraft.

Why would the alien build a spacecraft rather than find some other mode of transportation or find some other mode of survival? Obviously, because it is trying to leave the planet Earth and return to its own civilization, or return to whatever it was doing beforehand.

It could be argued that the Thing would use the craft it created to travel to some other part of the planet and begin its worldwide domination there, but why? Why would it want to?

It has already seen the humans to be incredibly hostile towards it, and it landed there accidentally rather than on purpose, and, if we assume the alien’s core motivation is to survive, why risk trying to interact with other Earth-organisms that are likely to be just as hostile? On top of this, all it knows of Earth so far is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, unless it is smart enough or has learned enough to know what the rest of Earth is like (which may be unlikely, since it crash landed thousands of years ago, pre-civilization).

So, in these circumstances, why would the alien behave as we see it behave?

With the dog scene, this is possibly the most unclear, but, if it was assimilating the dogs as an act of survival, than perhaps it was doing so to create “allies”, or to spread itself out among a wider array of individual organisms and so increase its likelihood of survival. Perhaps it was an attempt at communication, though we don’t know enough about assimilation to know if this is a form of communication, and we do know enough to know it is used for functions other than communication.

The rest of the movie after this, however, is much more clear.

The dogs are now all under suspicion, and are killed because of their potential contact with the alien. And, while all the other humans are now under suspicion, they cannot be killed so recklessly. So, the alien begins assimilating humans to blend in and survive.

Another reason for assimilating humans is that this may be the only mode of communication the alien currently possesses. If you are trying to survive, one of the best places to start is to ask the hostile population, “Please! Don’t kill me!”

But, knowing the humans are hostile towards it, it may have decided not to communicate in the given circumstances—especially since no communication from the humans has been attempted.

So, the alien is in a circumstance where it is being hunted down. It may wish to communicate to the humans, which would be a reason to assimilate the other humans, but communication may also result in its own death.

Let’s say, as an example, you are a lesbian woman in a non-Western country that is predominated by a Muslim population (just to be arbitrarily controversial): while one mode of survival may be to yell out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am a homosexual, one of the things you wish to kill, but, please, I mean you no harm! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”

What are the odds this woman won’t be killed?

The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the population around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find understanding allies in others, or until such a time that you can escape to a less hostile population.

Let’s say the alien as an assimilated human were to shout out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am the alien that has assimilated other organisms, but, please, I mean you no harm! I only wish to survive! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”

What are the odds the alien won’t be killed?

The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the humans around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find a human willing to communicatee with you, or until such a time that the alien can escape Earth and go back home, or at least go somewhere it won’t be hunted down.

These assumptions and this understanding of the alien as a conscious and at least somewhat intelligent/rational creature can explain its actions throughout the rest of the film:

  • Attempting to escape as the half-assimilated Bennings
  • The alien as the fully assimilated Palmer and Norris being so quick to want MacReady killed, knowing MacReady is not an alien and that MacReady is the biggest threat to their existence
  • The alien as the “deceased” Norris attacking Copper before attempting to escape
  • The alien as Palmer attacking the others once it is discovered
  • The alien as Blair constructing the spaceship
  • The alien as Blair attacking the remaining humans once its spaceship is destroyed and the other humans are attempting to kill it

There is of course the ambiguity at the end of the film, with the final scene of Childs and MacReady in the wreckage of the destroyed outpost. While I could go into this and the various theories of whether or not one or both of them are the alien, and then what this would mean for our analysis, it is not so important, and I will let you decide.

So, here we have a construction of what the subjective reality and the motivations of the Thing most likely are.

There is a single hole in this argument: why didn’t the Thing-as-Blair simply run into the cold and be frozen, which would allow it to survive until a rescue party came and recovered their bodies, which would result in the Thing surviving until it was thawed out enough. But, this “hole” can have several counter-arguments to explain it, the least of which being: fuck it, it’s just a movie, and what a shitty ending that would have been.

Plus, if Childs or MacReady are an alien, then the alien being frozen and revived will likely happen anyway.

The Thing is trying to survive on an alien planet. It has woken up in an incredibly hostile environment, Antarctica, and it finds itself being assaulted on all sides by incredibly hostile lifeforms which do not seek to communicate with it.

The grand conflict here is on two levels a conflict of survival (the deeper, though maybe less interesting conflict), and the conflict of epistemology: the conflict of what is known and what is unknown.

The Thing cannot communicate with the humans unless it assimilates them. If it assimilates a human, then that assimilated human will be killed, so broadcasting that you are the alien disguised as a human will likely result in death.

I will return to this in the conclusion, but I think you get the idea here.

This essentially wraps up this part of the analysis. There’s no grand conclusion here, but it’s intended to roll right into the next analysis (where you will find a grand conclusion).

What a hat, man.

Silence Pt. 2

Written by Alexander Greco

June 8, 2019

On our way through the suburbs, we started talking about normal things. I think we wanted to temporarily ease our minds about everything going on, so we started talking about kids, husbands, wives, children, jobs and politics. Paul was recently divorced and worked as a software designer. John worked as an EMT and Mary was a professor at a community college. I learned that the older man’s name was Abe, short for Abraham, but that he liked Ahab better than either. Ahab had been an engineer working for several companies over the last three decades. The other woman’s name was Catherine, and she worked as an HR representative for the Wal-Marts throughout the region.

I had begun telling them about my job as a contributor to a magazine, when we heard a gunshot. It wasn’t too close—I’d guess about five or six blocks away—but it stopped us in our tracks as soon as we heard it. There were other people out and about, most of them looked as confused as we were, and they all stopped and turned as well when the gunshot went off. All was quiet for a couple seconds. No cars. No sirens. No talking. I had never been in a city this quiet before in my life.

People began looking at each other. I heard some murmuring. John began to ask, “What do you think that—“

Bang, bang… Bang.

Silence.

Quite a few people began walking the other way. Although there were no more gunshots, the nearby threat of them struck fear in everyone. It certainly struck fear in me. I asked, “Should we go back?”

“No,” said Paul, “the police station is only a couple blocks away, we should be fine.”

“But what about those gunshots?” Mary asked.

“We’ll be alright, that was pretty far away.”

Everyone else seemed to quietly accept this, or at least they didn’t vocalize any argument so, we kept on walking. We turned around the corner at the end of the block. Diagonal from us, at the corner of the next intersection, was the police station. There was a crowd of people gathered around it. I guess everyone had the same idea as us—to find the nearest authority and try to figure out what was going on. This also meant that everyone else around here was having the same problems as us.

When we came up to the crowd—it was maybe only twenty, thirty people—we asked the first few that were closest to us what was going on. They said they didn’t know. “One of the officers came out a while ago saying they’d try to get some answers,” said a man in the crowd, “they’re not letting anyone in right now or anything.”

“Is anyone else’s phone working?” I asked.

“No,” said a woman, “nothing’s working.”

“No cars? No radios? Nothing?”

“Nothing,” the woman repeated.

“Nothing” didn’t make sense to me for a second. How could nothing be working? What did that mean? That… That couldn’t be right. Everything was working just yesterday. “So,” Ahab began to ask, “what are the police doing? What’s anyone doing?”

The woman was about to answer, when some yelling and jostling within the crowd caught all of our attention. We looked to see two people shoving each other, knocking each other into everyone around them. . The people who were smart and quick enough began moving out of the crowd, but others began joining in. It all began happening too fast. Someone began throwing punches. Someone got thrown to the ground.

Luckily we were already on the edge of the crowd, so we started backing away easily, but then someone in the brawl got shoved out toward us and careened right into Ahab, knocking him to the ground. We pulled the man off of Ahab, and the man got up and began running away down the street. Ahab had hit his head on the asphalt and was bleeding. He was still conscious, but he looked like he could barely tell where he was at.

John and Paul dragged him a few yards away to the sidewalk behind us—away from the brawl. “Abe!” John said. “Abe! Can you hear me, can you—”

Bang, bang.

Two gunshots exploded through the air. We all looked up to see the crowd of people breaking up. “Go home!” someone was yelling, “Go home and stay home! Do not leave your houses unless you absolutely have to! Go home before we start arresting people!”

The crowd dispersed enough that we could see a police officer standing in front of the station. John stood up from Ahab’s side. “Officer!” he yelled, “Officer, over here! Please help us!”

The officer heard Paul and looked over at us. For a second, he looked like he was going to ignore us and go back inside, but then he seemed to realize what was going on. He jogged across the street to us and stopped in front of Ahab, who was groaning and looking worse with every second. “What happened?” asked the police officer.

“Someone fell out of the crowd and knocked him over,” Paul answered.

“I’m an EMT,” said John, “I can help him, I just need some first aid supplies. Do you have anything?”

The officer looked between us all, as if sizing us up. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if he would help us at all, then he said, “Yea, we’ve got plenty. Come on, we’ll bring him in.”

John and Paul helped Ahab to his feet. However, Ahab could barely walk on his own, so John and Paul essentially carried him across the street, with Ahab’s feet moving in time. At the station, the officer held the door open for us, and we all filed in. “We’re bringing in someone who got wounded,” the officer called inside, “help them find medical supplies.”

The two men carried Ahab inside, and we were led in by the Police Officer. Inside the building, it was dark. There was light coming in through the windows, and they had lit several candles here and there, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that this station—this bastion of law, order and authority—had no electricity in it. The presence of the police officers set my mind at ease somewhat, but they were all bustling around in a frustrated way that unnerved just as much as it comforted me.

“Does anyone know what’s going on?” I asked the officer as he led us inside.

He shook his head as he ushered us quickly through the station, arms over us protectively. This was something else I found both comforting and unnerving. I was glad to feel protected this way by the officer, but it unnerved me that it was at all necessary. “No one knows what happened. At first we thought it was the power grid, but that was a pretty dumb idea.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Cars don’t need a power grid. Cell-phones rely on the grid for signal, but not to turn on. Batteries aren’t working. Nothing electrical is working.” The officer led us into a sort of waiting room with chairs we could sit on. “Someone said something about a solar flare, but no one knows enough about silence here to do much more than bullshit.”

“About silence?”

“Science, I’m sorry, science.”

“So… So what’s going on?” I asked. We were sitting down now.

“I told you, we don’t know—“

“I mean what’s going on aroung the city? What are you guys doing? What’s… What’s the plan? How are you guys going to start fixing it all?”

The officer shrugged. His body language said he had work to do, but he’d indulge me another couple answers. “We got in touch with some electricians and an engineer. They’re checking the lines and the electrical stations around here. The plan right now is to try keeping the city from collapsing onto istelf.”

“How did you get in touch with them if you have no electronics? Or, if none of its working? And what do you mean, ‘collapsing in on itself’?”

“We rode bikes. We’ve been riding bikes all over the city, there’s nothing else we can do right now. And people are starting to go crazy out there. You’re lucky we let you in, this is probably the safest place in the entire city to be.”

“People are going crazy?” I asked.

The officer nodded, then spoke, “I have to go. You two stay here. I won’t be too far if you need anything. You and your friends can stay here at the station for a while.”

The officer left the three of us there in the waiting room, baffled and alone with each other. We sat down together, but didn’t say much. I couldn’t stop thinking that the rest of the city might be falling apart outside. Everything we relied on had all of a sudden collapsed around us. I felt I might start going crazy too. I looked at Catherine and Mary. They looked like they were feeling the same way.

The three of us sat in silence for a little bit, but soon, Mary began talking to us. I was anxious enough that I immediately focused all my attention on a trivial conversation about our lives.. Yesterday, I might have only halfway listened to her, while the other half of my mind kept wandering back to thoughts of a glowing screen. Today, I couldn’t have been more grateful for the contact. I hadn’t known Mary very well before, we had a few, short conversations every few weeks or so, and that was it, but I found that I liked her pretty well, given the circumstances. The same with Catherine. I hadn’t known her at all before this, but I found that I liked her quite a bit.

Mary and Catherine seemed to like me too, and they seemed to like each other. Oddly enough, for three people who had never talked much or at all in real life, we got along pretty well. Maybe we were substituting each other for texts and comments, but it was working. We were slowly but surely filling the holes in our rapidly beating hearts, and forgetting that the world might be coming undone.

A few hours passed by in conversation and a few awkward silences in between. We would have short bursts or long storms of conversation, but nothing more than a half an hour of talk. It was as if none of knew how to keep a conversation going. We managed to pick the conversation back up at least, without too much hesitation in between. Still, the day dragged on and on. The conversations slowed, and grew duller and more fragmented.

Sometime later—past noon, I guessed—Paul and John came back with Ahab. Ahab’s head was wrapped up, and John told us he had a concussion. Ahab could walk on his own now, but it was slow and uncertain. He came into the waiting room and sat down next to Mary. John said they were going to go to a nearby hospital and see if they could get some painkillers for Ahab.

“I want to go with you,” I said, almost without hesitating.

“What?” Paul asked.

“No,” said John, “you should stay here at the station. We talked with the officer who brought us to the medical supplies, and he said there’s already a lot of chaos brewing in the city.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, feigning bravery. The truth was, I had to get out. I had to do something—anything. “How far away is the hospital?”

“It’s about five blocks away,” said Paul.

“No, you shouldn’t go,” said John.

“Who are you to tell me to stay?” I asked. “I’m an adult. If I want to go, I can go.”

“Let her come with us,” said Paul, “it’d probably be safer.”

John didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he relented. “Fine, you can come with us. But,” he said, looking at Mary and Catherine, “I need you two here with Ahab to make sure he’s alright. If anything happens, get one of the officers. They should know at least a little bit about emergency medical care.”

“Alright,” said Catherine, nodding. Mary nodded as well, but didn’t say anything.

Then, Paul, John and I left. We found the officer who let us into the building and told him what we were going to do. He told us that was fine, and that he’d let us back in once we returned. Paul thanked him profusely. Then the three of us were out the building and walking down the street. There wasn’t anyone outside. I assumed that everyone realized this was something of a state of emergency.

We walked past the station and down to the next four-way intersection. Here, we took a right. About halfway down this street, there was an abandoned Pawn shop that had been broken into. This troubled me, but I only thought of it as odd at first. Someone just being opportunistic and looting for whatever random things they could find in there? Rings? Guitars? TVs? Maybe some DVDs or power tools? Then I remembered all the guns, knives, and even swords and other weapons I’d seen in pawn shops. I got even more worried.

We passed up the pawn shop, and, almost instinctively, I reached for my pocket. My hand was in my pocket when I caught myself, and I pulled my hand away. I began to wonder how ingrained my cellphone use was in my brain. Were there withdrawal symptoms? I had heard of people being truly addicted to their phones and tablets. I used my pretty often—I wouldn’t have called myself addicted, however—and I was already missing it.

After about twenty minutes of walking, we took a left, and the hospital was down at the end of the street. Outside, there were dozens of people. Most of them were sitting around, smoking or talking. Some of them looked like doctors. Others looked like patients. Others were just normal-looking people. It was a strange sight.

When we approached the hospital, we saw that the doors were open, and people were rushing about inside—almost as frantically as the police officers. A doctor smoking a cigarette looked up at us as we approached. He looked exhausted, miserable, and not in the least bit excited to see us. “Are you guys out of power here too?” John asked the doctor.

The doctor nodded and took a drag on the cigarette.

“How’ve you guys handled it?” John asked.

The doctor shook his head slowly. “We haven’t. We can’t. There’s no way to handle it.”

It slowly dawned on me what it meant to lose power at a hospital.

“What happened?” John asked.

The doctor took one last drag on the cigarette, then put it out on the metal bench he was sitting on. “We lost power at midnight. We lost over a dozen patients in the first hour. We lost almost thirty by sunrise. Forty-two in total.”

“Forty-two?” John asked, aghast.

The doctor nodded. “And it’s only a matter of time before we lose more. We’ll probably lose someone else in the next half-hour. There’s no life-support, no heart monitors, no computers, nothing. If we had enough people, we could keep tabs on everyone at once—at least check heart rate and blood pressure, and distribute some sort of life-support manually, but there’s not enough people. There’s no way. We can’t reach out to anyone, we can’t transport anyone somewhere else, we can’t do anything except give pills and wrap people in bandages.”

“Holy shit,” John whispered.

The doctor stood up. “I have to go back in,” he said, “what are you three here for?”

“We’re looking for some pain meds. Our friend had a concussion, his head’s gonna be killing him soon.”

The doctor shook his head. “We can’t give anything out right now.” Then he pointed down the street. We all looked to see a Walgreens a block away. “That’s your best bet. It never opened, but the doors weren’t locked, you can force them open. We’ve been sending people there all day.”

John nodded. “Okay, thanks.”

The doctor nodded and turned around to head back into the hospital. “Don’t bring your friend here,” he said without looking back at us.

We walked down the block to the Walgreens. As we approached, we saw that the sliding doors were already open. A man emerged from inside with a white bottle in their hands. He looked at us for a moment, and no one really knew what to do. The man nodded cautiously, then turned and walked off down a street to our left. We entered the Walgreens, and found that it was completely silent inside.

It didn’t take long to make it to the back of the store, where all the pharmaceuticals were. “Should we really be doing this?” I asked. “Isn’t this wrong?”

“We have to do something,” said John, “Abraham’s head is going to be killing him soon, and all that stress is just going to make his condition even worse. We need something to take the edge off, maybe a light sedative if he can’t sleep”

John skipped the aisles of over-the-counter bottles and went straight to the walled-in area where the pharmacists kept the real drugs. We found that the door had already been busted. “John,” I said, “we shouldn’t go in there.”

“Why not?” asked John.

“It’s wrong, and it’s probably very illegal. Let’s just get some ibuprofen or something and go- something harmless and over-the-counter.”

“I know what he needs,” said John, entering the pharmacist’s room, “and this is an emergency—the doctor said it was okay.” Then, John disappeared into the room, and we could only briefly see him moving around through the windows in the room.

It shocked me how quickly John reverted to stealing prescription medicine—it hadn’t even been a full day since this all started. It shocked me how quickly things had slid into chaos, and how quickly everyone seemed to be going crazy. It’s like people had begun to forget who they were yesterday, and that we were all civilized twenty-four hours ago. I looked at Paul, and he looked just as worried. When John emerged carrying several bottles, I asked him what he had gotten, as I thought he only needed two things.

“Well, I got a couple types of painkillers, I got some Xanax, some Ambien, and plenty of anti-biotics. I figured we could use what we needed for Abraham, keep a bottle of anti-biotics for ourselves, take some Xanax, and give the rest to the police. They’re letting us stay there, and I’m sure they might need some of all these. We could just say the hospital gave us—”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, “Some Xanax and… and keep the anti-biotics for our—“

“Angela,” John interrupted, “we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know how long it’s going to last. We don’t know what might happen. We can’t abide by normal rules right now, and I’m sure anyone would agree with that. This isn’t the same city we lived in yesterday. Things aren’t normal, and we can’t pretend like they’re normal until they are normal again.” John began walking to the entrance of the Walgreens. He walked past Paul and I without looking at us. “Then we can pretend everything is normal.”

He was right. I looked at Paul. He was about to say something, I could tell- something to comfort me. But I could also tell that Paul believed John, and I knew that I had begun to believe John. I shook my head. “He’s right,” I said.

Paul nodded. We both turned and followed John out of the Walgreens. We made it back to the police station without any trouble. We gave Ahab a small cocktail of pharmaceuticals, then everyone but me took a Xanax. When John offered me one, I thanked him and put it in my pocket. I didn’t feel right taking something that was stolen. Then John brought the Xanax, a bottle of painkillers and two bottles of anti-biotics to the police. He kept a bottle of anti-biotics, painkillers, and Ambien for us.

The officer he handed them to seemed uncertain at first. Then John said that they were from the hospital, and that he thought the officers might need some. He also said it was a way of repaying them for their help. The officer seemed to like that. The entire time, the two of them were playing their respective roles—the EMT, the good-guy and the civilian, and the man of authority, the upholder of law and the mediator of justice—but, in the end, they were just two people bullshitting their way through survival.

John came back, saying that the officers would let us stay the night since it was getting late and they didn’t want us having to walk back home in the dark. So, we all ended up going to sleep here in the dark. John, Paul, Mary, Catherine and Ahab all fell asleep pretty quickly—I saw John pull two more footballs from his pocket and disperse them to Mary and Catherine, and they fell asleep minutes later.

I, however, had much difficulty falling asleep, however, and stayed awake for several hours. I frequently thought about the emails that must have been piling up—unless the entire world had shut off, and there was no one on the planet who could send me emails—and I thought about how nice it would have been to check my phone. I distracted myself from these thoughts, and all my other worries, by watching the officers. It was my only form of entertainment. Eventually, around midnight, I began to drift of to sleep. My eyes shut on their own, and I was lulled into a comfortable sleep.

A Brief History of Fear

Written by Tara East

Re-Published June, 03, 2019

The following paper analyzes how the theme of fear has changed in Australian Literature over time. The Australian settlers responsible for our early gothic fictions gave external form to their internal fears through their descriptions of the landscape as eerie, dangerous and monstrous. While some contemporary works, such as Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, revisit the nation’s classic literary themes of racism and “who belongs?”, others, such as Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty, fall into the emerging trend of domestic suburban thrillers. Both these works will be analysed through a psychoanalytic, post-colonial and feminist lens to determine how contemporary fiction has changed the face of fear.

Fear has played a major role in the history of Australian literature in response to the establishment of British colonies and what that meant to Aboriginal culture and way of life; beginning with the gothic tales published in the late nineteenth century. The colonial writers of these early Australian novels wove unnerving tales about the anxiety of not belonging in a foreign land. At the same time, the unknown landscape also inspired their fearful descriptions. In The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, author Marcus Clarke provides a ghostly description of the Australian landscape.

The Australian mountain forests are funeral, secret, scorn. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair . . . In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums scrips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes bursts out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that, when night comes, from out the bottomless depth of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and, in form like monstrous sea calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy (Gelder 2007)  

Gerry Turcolte, lecturer at the University of Wollongong, provides further insight into the Gothic narratives place in the history of Australian literature.

Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of Britain. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world. It is perhaps for this reason that the Gothic as a mode has been a consistent presence in Australia since European settlement (Turcotte 1998).

Early Australians saw the land as a fearsome place.

Literary monsters are timely as they embody social and cultural present-day fears. Before the White Australia Policy was dismantled, books such as Charles Chauvel’s Uncivilised were popular. The story is a fairy tale about an indigenous tribe making a lost white child its leader and includes what would later become the archetype of the “evil witch doctor” (Breyley 2009), a reference that also appears in Bingham and other Golden Boomerang books. This continued into adult novels such as Ion Idriess’ Lasseter’s Last Ride which featured a black witch doctor:

With skinny claw the witch-doctor pulled out a dried lizard . . . His lips moved sibilantly and Lasseter could have sworn that the lizard hissed in reply . . . Over each article he pored . . . as if it possessed some power of evil (Breyley, 2009).

Shared global fears in the twenty-first century, at least for Western countries, largely concern terrorist attacks. This is reflected in Janette Turner’s Hospital, A.L. McCann’s Subtopia and Linda Jaivin’s The Infernal Optimist; three narratives about the destructive nature of terrorist and their desire to wreak havoc (Carr, 2016).

Post-colonial Fear

The self/white heteromasculinity and two subtly different types of Other, Indigenous people and ethnic groups (those who are understood as offering a threat of social, political or military invasion). Other authors are more concerned with the horrific actions carried out by members of our own community, such is the premise of Craig Silvey’s novel, Jasper Jones. Fear maintains an active presence in the work following the opening catalyst: the grisly discovery of a young girl’s body, hung from a tree by a local watering hole. Though this incident is frightening enough, the sensation of fear continues well beyond this scene. The protagonist, Charlie Bucktin, is consumed by fear. Some of Charlie’s worries are spurred from actual experiences, others are the conjuring of his own mind. He is instantly suspicious when Jasper Jones knocks on his window that fateful night and enters his life. Later, Charlie is terrified of the idea of Jasper leaving town and abandoning him. After disposing of the young girl’s body, Charlie is afraid of getting caught, of not getting caught; afraid that there is a murderer in his town, and that maybe that person is Jasper. And to top it all off, he has an irrational fear of bugs.

Racism, prejudice and the underlining fear of the Other are explored through the outsider characters of Jasper and Jeffery. Jasper is the child of a white father and an aboriginal mother. Jasper experiences an unstable childhood following the death of his mother. His rebellious, alluring and aloof personality quickly establish him as a convenient scapegoat and he is blamed for every unseemly activity that occurs in the town. It is because of this prejudice that Jasper compels Charlie to dispose of Laura’s body. Jasper is convinced that if they don’t, then he will be arrested for Laura’s murder; a reasonable conclusion given that the victim is a white teenage girl (believed to be a virgin) from one of the town’s wealthiest families. Similarly, Jeffery Lu and his Vietnamese family are the continuous victims of racial prejudice as many of the local residences have sent their sons off to fight in the Vietnam War. Charlie witnesses the town’s prejudice first hand during a town meeting. Following the announcement that the police have no new leads on Laura’s disappearance, Charlie notices the gossip and speculations around the potential culprit.

“Then someone mentioned Jasper Jones. The same way they did when the post office burned to the ground. With titled eyebrows and suspicion. … And I understood then that maybe we really did do the wrong thing for the right reasons” (Silvey 2009).

Australia, like America, continues to struggle with its colonial past and issues of “who belongs?”

Before Charlie turns to leave the hall, he hears Jeffery’s mother, Mrs. Lu, cry out. After filling her teacup up from the communal urn, a woman named Sue Findlay, slaps the cup from Mrs. Lu’s hand, scalding her badly, and precedes to jab the air and recite racist remarks. It isn’t until Sue reaches out to pull on Mrs. Lu’s hair that the town Reverend intervenes.

This racial tension continues throughout the novel. At one point, Jasper is arrested – without evidence – beaten up by the town sergeant, locked up for a weekend and enticed to confess to Laura’s murder. It is during this illegal detaining that Jasper meets Laura’s father, who also beats him, and discovers that Pete is the president of the shire. Here, Silvey illustrates that racism was not only common in Australia in the 1960s, but celebrated. As the narrative continues, the Lu family continue to experience violent attacks and abuse. Jeffery is mocked by his schoolmates, and Mr. Lu is brutally beaten on his front lawn after a town father discovers that his son has died in action while fighting in Vietnam.

Fear and racism have remained popular themes in Australian literature because of our settler history and our present-day multiculturalism and social egalitarianism. As Cornel West argues in the case of America, “To engage in a serious discussion of race…we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society — flaws rooted in historic in equalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes” (Huggan 2017). Graham Huggan states that Australia, like America, also suffers from this same “violence and ideological extremism” (Huggan 2017). Racism is fear; fear of the other. It could be argued that the racism that exists within Australia, and that is reflected within its literature, may not be the result of the nation itself but the product of far reaching roots that go beyond the nation’s history and borders. The root behind the racism within Australian literature boils down to one question, “who has the right to belong?” (Huggan 2017)

Feminism and Fear

Until we reach a political, social and cultural utopia, themes regarding racism and “who belongs” will continue to dominate contemporary Australian fiction. In alignment with Poe’s earlier sentiments about fear being a luxury in a time of comfort, the new subgenre of the domestic/suburban thriller has emerged. Fear is no longer generated through external evils that exist outside the home: monsters, supernatural entities or psychopaths. Instead, publishers and readers are interested in experiencing sophisticated, modern, and internalised fear by exposing the evil that exists in our homes, our spouses and ourselves. Evening Standard Journalist Rosamun Urwin describes this new genre as chick lit with “no happy ending, no wedding dress or pram, just plot twists and tortured souls. These are thrillers thrown into the domestic sphere, tales of intimate betrayal and mistrust” (Whitehouse 2014). International best-sellers Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn, USA) and How To Be A Good Wife (Emma Chapman, UK) have helped craft this new sub-genre and Australian author Liane Moriarty’s suburban thriller, The Husband’s Secret, hit number one on the New York Times, and her novel, Big Little Lies, has been turned into a US television drama. Truly Madly Guilty is Moriarty most recent work, hitting number one on the Australian bestseller list while her two-previous works were still in the top ten.

The target audience of these novels is straight, married women. What makes these books marketable and profitable is their ability to tap into the audiences’ collective fear that men are a threat to women’s safety. Though men are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than women, women assume that they are more vulnerable to attacks than men. Criminologists dub this the fear-victimization paradox (Yodanic 2004) The belief that women are more vulnerable to sexual attack than men assists in the divide between the public sphere and the private. The private sphere, physical structures built by men, are safe. The public sphere, which is dominated by men, is unsafe. The perceived threat of inescapable attack when entering the public sphere keeps women fearful, and therefore, easier to control. Women are not doomed to become victims and not all men are violent, but by manipulating the knowledge that some women have become victims, then women are collectively easier to control and suppress.

Women are the target audience of Suburban Thrillers as these novels personify their deepest fears.

Suburban thrillers take advantage of this basic fear by having female characters experience multiple forms of domestic violence or abuse. In the case of Lianne Moriarty’s work, Truly Madly Guilty, all the female leads are the victims of their male counterparts. Erika becomes a foster parent because her husband Oliver wants to be a father (though she doesn’t want to be a mother), Clementine is blamed by her husband Sam for the near death of their child (though both parents were present at the time of the accident) and Tiffany is encouraged by her husband Vid to strip during a neighbourly barbeque (despite her reservations to do so). Moriarty plays directly into her audience’s basic fear of men taking control of women.

Although Jasper Jones is set in the 1960s, the suppression experiences by its female character remain uncomfortably relatable. Initially, Jasper idolises Eliza through his comparison to her and Audrey Hepburn; both are prim, proper and perfect. A simplification that causes him to underestimate her. As the truth behind Laura’s death is revealed, Jasper learns of the tragic circumstances that lead to her demise. Both Wishart sisters were abused by their father, a wealthy and prominent man in the community. Pete Wishart, a closet alcoholic, sexually and physically abused his oldest daughter Laura, and physically abused his youngest Eliza. In an effort to save Eliza from their father, Laura submits to his abuse. Eventually, Laura decides to commit suicide, seeing no other means of escaping her powerful father. Eliza eventually gets her revenge, by setting a fire in her home and injuring her father. Similarly, Charlie’s mother Ruth feels suppressed by the circumstance of her own life. Now middle-aged, she feels that both her youth and dreams have withered as she raised her son in the small town of Corrigan, isolated from her own family in the city. Her outlook is further embittered through her passionless marriage to Charlie’s father, Wesley; a relationship that is not improved by Wesley’s decision to disappear into his study every night after dinner. In the end, Ruth is only able to liberate herself by abandoning Charlie and Wesley, knowing that her husband would never be willing to sacrifice his comfort and preference for small town living in order to follow her into a new life in the city.

Literary Devices and Supporting Themes

If a novel is truly terrifying – or at least unsettling – why do readers continue to read? Some may argue that a likeable character is enough to keep readers’ attention, but award-winning author Patrick deWitt disagrees: “Some of my favourite books have despicable protagonists but I find them fascinating […] I hope some [readers] might be willing to push a bit deeper and look to spend time with characters who aren’t entirely likeable” (Bethune 2015. In alignment with deWitt’s statement, Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty focuses on three largely unlikeable couples, their children and one rude neighbour. Though unlikeable, Moriarty has made the characters interesting through their dynamic interactions with one another, complex personal and interpersonal histories and through her withholding of information. Given the sizeable cast, Moriarty initially allows her characters to fall into stereotypical roles, making it easier for the reader to differentiate them. First, there is the outrageous and wealthy couple Vid and Tiffany, OCD control freak and germophobes Oliver and Erika and the artsy new-age parents Clementine and Sam. As the book progresses the characters deepen and change and justification for certain behaviours are revealed. For instance, Erika and Oliver’s controlled demeanour is the result of their respective parents’ mental illnesses. Previously endearing characteristics, such as Sam and Clementine’s playful marriage are later revealed as a forced re-enactment of how ‘happy families’ behave in the movies. In reality, their marriage has become sexless and is on the verge of collapse. However, despite each character’s flawed nature, they are capable of selfless acts. For example; Erika accepts Vid’s invitation to the barbeque, even though she doesn’t want to go, and Clementine agrees to donate her eggs to Erika for IVF treatments, even though she finds the idea repulsive. Readers are willing to invest in these characters because they can relate to the (admittedly bloated) suburban problems.

Truly Madly Guilty challenges the stereotype that all women are maternal/motherly.

In order to convince a reader to stay with a novel that explores fearful themes, one needs more than a cast of interesting characters. The use of literary devices such as voice, POV and pacing double as tools to engage readers, heighten tension and build fear. Truly Madly Guilty uses a rotating, past tense, third person limited POV, while Jasper Jones uses first person, present tense. While Moriarty maintains a consistent tone throughout, the voice within each chapter changes to reflect that POV character’s unique perspective. Though the horrifying events of the barbeque are not revealed until halfway through Truly Madly Guilty, Moriarty successful keeps her readers hooked by making them care about her complex characters and by delicately insinuating the reasons behind particular behaviours and conversations. Despite the close third person POV, Moriarty subtly alludes to deep seeded secrets and regrets while holding back on the details. Though she shows that the characters’ feel appalled by the behaviour of their shadow selves, she conceals the particularities of their situation until the end of the novel.

Fear is maximised in Truly Madly Guilty through the manipulation of its pace. As the timeline, sequence of events, or character motivations become clear, Moriarty peels back another layer to reveal a new unexpected truth: Erika is a kleptomaniac, having stolen items from Clementine’s home for years and storing them in a concealed chest in her bedroom cupboard. The book moves quickly throughout, despite the fact that the traumatising event hinted at in chapter one is not revealed until page 291. Moriarty leads us to this pivotal moment with five short sharp chapters, increasing the pace and instilling a sense of fear: something is coming. A red herring appears, but when the much-foreshadowed event is revealed the plot twists again.

One of the book’s central mysteries is Erika’s memory loss. Fear is propelled through these gaps as other characters step in to reveal what they witnessed on the night of the barbeque. So much information is brought forth that the reader is led to believe that they have the full picture. It is only when Erika regains her memory within the last ten pages that the plot twists one final time. Truly Madly Guilty generates terror in its readers through its characters exploration of their shadow selves, but also through Moriarty’s withholding of information, consistent allusion to character secrets, and the tension created by the combination of these two elements.

Misdirection and mystery are central to the plots of Jasper Jones and Truly Madly Guilty.

The subject matter and style of Jasper Jones is very different from Truly Madly Guilty, yet it uses similar techniques. Employing a mystery novel structure, Silvey carefully exposes the truth behind Laura’s death while simultaneous unravelling the complicated and rich subplots of 1960s racism, marital discord (domestic servitude), first loves, sexual abuse and child abuse. The question of Laura’s death is what drives the narrative, however, it is the compounding emotional terror of the subplots that keeps readers engaged. Readers identify, or at least empathise, with Ruth’s domestic suffocation, Jeffery’s alienation, Jasper’s abandonment and the abuses suffered by the Wishart sisters. Though the emotional tenor is what keeps readers engaged, Silvey also employs classic mystery novel techniques like red herrings – did Jasper kill Laura, did she kill herself, did Mad Jack Lionel do it? – and the gradual exposure of secondary characters’ motivations and backstories to keep the central plot moving forward.

Jasper Jones combines horrific events both real and rumoured. Mad Jack Lionel, as the name suggests, is cast as the town’s mad man supposedly responsible for the murder of a young girl, her car slowly rusting away in Jack’s backyard. Fear is struck into the hearts of Corrigan’s youth as teenagers dare each other to dash across Jack’s property to steal a peach from the tree in the backyard. Even when Charlie learns that Mad Jack Lionel isn’t mad, that the rusting car in the backyard belonged to Jasper’s deceased mother and that Jack is, in fact, Jasper’s Grandfather, he stills feels uncertain after accepting Warwick Trent’s dare.

“I’m so far inside [the yard] that I can’t hear them, or even feel their presence anymore. And even though I know I’m under no threat, it’s still an eerie and intimidating pilgrimage. I start to tread lighter as I get closer … I wonder if he’s watching me … I breathe deep.” (Silvey 2009)

Then there are the real horrors: Mr. Wishart’s repeated assaults on his daughters, a town blaming a teenage boy for all its mischievous activities and the brutal hate crime against the Lu family. Through the manipulation of pace and careful control of information Silvey is able to turn commonplace events into terrifying experiences. Both Jasper Jones and Truly Madly Guilty start with enticing, violent incidents: the death of a young girl and the near drowning of a small child. However, these events are not the plot, but a mere catalyst to get the ball rolling. The true plot is the snowballing effect generated from the terrifying incident and how that crime has caused some characters to expose their shadow selves or become aware of the shadow selves in their families, friends and perceived enemies. Following Laura’s death, Charlie’s eyes are opened to the racism that exists in his small town of Corrigan and the abuse the women in his life have suffered. Following the near drowning of a child, Erika’s kleptomania is revealed, Clementine confesses that she is only friends with Erika out of obligation, Oliver’s need for control increases, Sam and Clementine’s marriage grows colder and the neighbour who warns Erika of the near drowning, Harry, immediately falls down the stairs and dies.

While Jasper Jones is a contemporary take on the classic Australian tropes of racism and belonging, Truly Madly Guilty falls neatly into the trendy category of domestic suburban thrillers. And yet, both give form to fear not as an external Other but in the shape of neighbours, family, friends and ourselves. While early horror novels gave form to fears – social and cultural – by way of supernatural creatures and monsters, contemporary literature leans towards a more sophisticated representation. Now, terror is explored through the exposure of a character’s shadow self. Now, we are the monster.

Works Cited:

Bethune, B (2015) ‘The Interview’, Business Source Ultimate, issue. 128 pp. 23, available from: <https://usq.summon.serialssolutions.com/2.0.0/link?t=1527742826133>

Breyley, G (2009), ‘Fearing the Protector, fearing the protected: Indigenous and “National” fears in Twentieth-century Australia’, vol. 23, issue 1, available from: <http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.usc.edu.au:2048/docview/211256754?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo&gt;

Gelder, K and Weaver, R (2007), ‘The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction’, Melbourne University Print, Melbourne.

Huggan, G (2017), ‘Australian Literature: Postcolonialism, Racism, Transnationalism’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, available from: https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/lib/usq/reader.action?docID=415105&query=

Moriarty, L 2016 Truly Madly Guilty, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney. 

Silvey, C (2009), ‘Jasper Jones’, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Turcotte, G (1998) ‘Australian Gothic’, in Mary Mulvey-Roberts (ed.) The Handbook to Gothic Literature, pp. 10-19, Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Whitehouse, L (2014), ‘Rise of the marriage thriller’, The Guardian, available from: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/jan/15/rise-marriage-thriller-couples-secrets-gillian-flynn&gt;

Yodanic, C (2004) ‘Gender Inequality, Violence Against Women, and Fear: A Cross-National Test of the Feminist Theory of Violence Against Women, Journal of Interpersonal Violence’, Sage Publications, no. 19, vol.6, pp. 655-675, available from: http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/0886260504263868

Silence Pt. 1

Written by Alexander Greco

May 31, 2019

Three minutes. I told myself to keep my mind silent for three minutes, and then I could stop meditating for the day. Just three minutes of silence. Then, I quieted my mind. I listened to my breathing. I felt my body sitting against the ground beneath me. I listened to the groans of all my subtle aches and pains. I let my emotions drift through my mind, and noticed how anxious and frustrated I was. Then I imagined it all dissolving, and that I was alone with my consciousness.

I was alone. And I was quiet. And I was at peace.

And I remembered deciding to start meditation after the editor-and-chief of our small-time newspaper emailed me. It was something along the lines of, “Angela, I’m sending this as a warning in advance. You’ve done great here for the last few years, but you’re starting to fall apart a little. What’s going on? You’ve had three weeks of poor decision after poor decision. I don’t want to call you in–I don’t want this to become a ‘thing’—but I’ll have to if this keeps up.”

How do you respond to that? How do you deal with that? What do you do after that? I guess you get better, somehow—obviously—but what do you do to get better? I didn’t even know I’d been making “poor decision after poor decision”, no one had told me! And…

And I have to let go of that for right now.

Return to quiet.

Return to peace.

Return to being alone, and imagining myself dissolving.

I imagined that I was sitting with the silence, as a sort of friend and companion. I breathed in all my worries, where they filtered through my lungs like tarry particulates…

Then breathed out all the worries, retaining only peace and goodness…

Then breathed in all the worries…

Then breathed out.

Then breathed in.

Then breathed out.

Then a stray thought entered my mind.

Something trivial—something about a YouTube video I‘d watched the other day.

Well, I guess it was more the memory of the video popping up in my head, not so much the thought of the video. I could hear the two girls in the video talking in my head, then laughing. I think it was about Yoga?

Yoga would be good today—Yoga and meditation. And museli and dates—Ah! What a day that’d be… …but the carbs. Oh, the carbs! What if I slowly gain more and more weight eating more and more carbs? But museli and dates, those have good carbs, right? Fiber and whole grains, and good sugar. Is there such a thing as good sugar? As good carbs?

It doesn’t matter. We’ll think about it later.

Breathe in… my lungs expand with a windy whooshing sound…

Quiet the mind.

Breathe out… with a groaning relief of pressure.

Silence.

Breathe in…

…the worries, the anxieties, the troubles…

…breathe out…

…retaining peace and goodness…

…Breathe in.

Gently bring yourself back to a state of calm and quiet.

Gently.

Quietly.

In.

And out.

In…

Out…

And silence…

My dog. I forgot to feed my dog this morning.

Shit, that’s an important one. I need to do that this morning before for work. I should do that sooner than later, before I forget. I almost started standing up to go feed my dog, but then I remembered, and sat back down. In and out. In and out.

In and out.

I had listened to a podcast once, with the host and his guest talking for almost half an hour on how hard it is to get into meditation. They said for a while it’d be tough, but then you get to some sort of breakthrough, or you notice it getting easier, or you work out your own routine or technique or whatever—something personalized that works just for you. I wonder what’s not working for me? Because I keep getting distracted. I’d been sitting still for seventeen minutes, and I probably couldn’t keep my mind silent for more than thirty seconds. Seventeen minutes after I started meditating, I realized I’d wasted seventeen minutes, gained nothing, and had three minutes left to be “productive”.

I began meditation because I’d been having a slew of issues. I guess the tipping point was work, but really it was everything—it was a life riddled with problems like worms in an overripe apple.  It was not being able to sit still at work. It was not being able to focus while I wrote. It was acting anxiously around co-workers. It was making impulse-buys at the grocery store. It was getting on my phone at all hours of the day. It was—

Dingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingdingding—Tngk.

It was my wind-up alarm going off. Three minutes was over. That was that.

I sighed… Then… I sort of gave up for the day and stood up.

Before I leave, I’ll grab some food, maybe start listening to a podcast, and—oh! My dog! I still need to feed my dog. I hope he still has food left—he should, I bought some not too long ago (right? Didn’t I?). But I need to go to the grocery store anyway, I was almost out of milk, so I could grab some more then. Ooh, and after work today, maybe I could…

I opened the refrigerator.

The light didn’t come on, no Freon-infused air came out, and there was no sound of internal humming.

After a moment of hesitation, I closed the door. I walked around to the back of the refrigerator, and it was still plugged in. Huh.

I turned and looked at the microwave. There was no time on the microwave. There was no time on the oven either. Something had happened to the power, I suppose, but I wasn’t too worried. I figured I’d go check the breakers downstairs. My cellphone was laying on the kitchen counter, and I grabbed it before I began walking to my basement.

Along the way, I thought I’d check the time, maybe see if I got any Facebook notifications, see if anyone I subscribed to on YouTube posted something neat. But, my phone wouldn’t turn on. Strange. I thought I charged it overnight. It should be radiating with life right now. Maybe it was just turned off?

I held down the power button down. And I held it down. And I held it down. And I stopped at the doors to my basement. My phone wasn’t turning on. My heart dropped, but I consoled myself—I can just…

I can’t charge it. My power is gone. And I can’t go into the basement now, my only flashlight is on my phone.

Dread rolled through my body. I tried to calm myself down, tell myself how silly I was, but it didn’t help. I even felt like I might start panicking. What the fuck do I do now? My car! My car has a USB port. I’ll just turn my car on, plug my phone in, let it charge long enough that I can use the flashlight and check the breakers, then call someone and head to work. I walked back through my house, into my living room, grabbed a USB charging cable, my keys, and walked out the front door to my car.

When I pressed the button to unlock my car, nothing happened. I pressed it again, now coming to next to the car, and nothing happened. I put my key into the door lock and turned it. The door unlocked. I sat down in my car, put the key in the ignition, and turned the key. Nothing. Nothing happened. My heart skipped a beat. I told myself that nothing bad was happening, that this situation would sort of magically fix itself

I turned my key again. The situation wasn’t magically fixed.

I kept turning my key and turning my key, but the car refused to turn on. Finally, I reached down and pulled the little lever to pop the hood, then got out of the car and walked around to look under the hood. I knew next to nothing about cars, but upon first inspection everything seemed fine. I checked the battery terminals, and they seemed to be on pretty tight. I looked around at all the various parts, but I didn’t know what to look for. It seemed fine. That’s the best that I could say.

Dazed and panicking, I closed the hood. I tried not to worry. I tried not to begin stressing. I tried not to freak out and have an anxiety attack. I told myself it was silly to do a thing like that—I’m an adult, a modern adult, and I don’t have anything to worry about—but I couldn’t console myself. Then, from the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw them all. I looked up.

My house is at the very end of a cul-de-sac in a nice, suburban neighborhood. My street—my cul-de-sac—is pretty long. There’s quite a few houses on it, with quite a bit of distance between all of them. From where I live, I can see all the houses on my street without having to turn my head. From where I stood now, I saw people from at least half of the houses standing on their front yards, their driveways, and on the street.

It might be an overstatement to say my jaw dropped, but it was ajar when I regained any sort of self-awareness. The sight of all these people frightened me. From where I was, they all looked as dazed as I was. I almost didn’t want to approach them, as if doing so might be an admission some dark, unknown truth pressing against me at that moment. Terror—actual terror—crept through me. Something was going on, and I didn’t know what—andmy car wouldn’t turn on, and I had no power in my home, and my phone was dead.

Then, a thought occurred to me. Maybe they know what’s going on. Maybe they’ve got it figured it out. Surely they’ll have the answer, and, besides, we’re all adults. We’re all grown-ups here. We can help each other out. We’ll be alright.

Among the people around the cul-de-sac, I saw a small cluster of five people, and I recognized three of them. One of them, a guy named Paul, I knew rather well. Then there was a couple, John and Mary—whom I had talked to a few times—and I recognized the other two people- an older man and middle-aged woman who both lived alone -but I didn’t know their names. I began walking over to them. I was still anxious, but I knew there were other people dealing with all this—other people who probably knew what was going on (whatever was going on).

Paul noticed me when I was about twenty yards away and began waving at me. I waved back, then the rest of the group turned around and looked at me. Their faces told me they shared my worries. When I was within twenty feet of them, Paul called out, “Do you know what’s going on?”

I slowed for a moment and almost stopped, then picked the pace up again to reach them. I shook my head as I approached, then stopped about six feet away from their small knot. “No,” I said, “I was hoping you all might know about… Whatever… Whatever seems to be happening.”

We all looked at each other for a few seconds, and, in the silence of that moment, everything felt incredibly real and deceitfully fake at the same time. I broke the silence, trying to get on the same page as everyone. “Is the power out at all of your houses?”

They all nodded.

“What about your cars?”

They nodded again.

“And your phones?”

Reluctantly, almost painfully—almost tragically—they all nodded.

Wheels in my head began to spin. “So, none of you know what’s going on at all?”

They all shook their heads.

“None you can go anywhere unless you go on foot?”

They shook their heads. “Or bike,” Paul added.

“And you can’t get in contact… With anyone?”

Once again, they shook their heads.

Panic began to creep into my nerves again. I felt cold and hot, and confused, and angry and scared, and lost—like I didn’t know where I was anymore. “What… What the fuck?” I said, “Why? Wha… What’s… What the hell?”

Reality seemed to fall out from beneath me. How could these other adults not know what was going on? We were all well-educated grown-ups living in a nice, suburban neighborhood—how could we not know what was going on?”

Paul spoke up, “We were talking about walking into the city, seeing if we could find some cops or something. Do you want to come with us?”

“I have to go to work,” I said.

“How?” asked Paul.

I hadn’t thought about this. I panicked even more, thinking that I might miss work. “I don’t know,” I said.

“So, come with us,” said Paul, gently and cheerfully. I think he could tell I was stressing out. I think they could all tell.

“But, I mean… I have to go to work.”

“I think they’ll understand­,” said John, “especially if this is happening in the rest of the city.”

“Come with us,” Paul spoke with a smile. “We’ll figure this out.”

I thought for a moment, then slowly nodded.

“Yea,” I said, “sure.”

We talked for a little while—talked about where we might go, how we’ll get there, who we might see, what might be going on—and then eventually set out for the city. This was good. We were all adults, working together. We had a plan; we were going somewhere with the purpose of… Of figuring out what was going on and finding… Finding someone, anyone, who might know how to fix any of this… So that… So that I could go to work, then go home, then watch YouTube videos about Yoga, then set the alarm on my phone for 5 AM, and then go to sleep We were good.

Pillars of Flesh

Jason stared at the corkboard above his desk. One of the flashcards he’d pinned to it was tilted so it leaned down on the right and up on the left. He held the cared against the corkboard, pulled the pin out, then inserted the pin a smidge further to the left. When he let go of the card, the right side swung down even further, and the left side tilted up even higher.

That’s not how that’s supposed to work, he thought to himself.

He repeated the process, holding the card against the corkboard, pulling the pin out and putting the pin back in even further to the left. The right side dropped even further, and the left side moved even higher. Jason stared at the flashcard. What first seemed like an easily-corrected oddity to him now seemed utterly wrong.

Jason sat there staring at the board, almost terrified to try fixing it again, but, eventually he mustered up the resolve. He held down the card, pulled the pin out, then pushed it into the top-left corner of the card. When the right end swung straight down, Jason jumped out of his chair and backed away from the desk.

Something was wrong. Not the normal, fixable sort of wrong. It was as if some rule that governed reality had been broken.

Jason scanned the room. Something about the windows seemed strange. Jason’s bed appeared to be standing on solid ground, but it might fall to the ceiling at any moment. Then Jason turned to look at his bookshelf.

When Jason looked at his bookshelf, a wave of horror overtook him. He couldn’t read any of the titles on the book bindings. They were all just shapes and lines—squiggles and sharp angles that should have been in English, but they could’ve been in any language now. They were titles he should have known, titles he should have been able to remember without reading them, but he couldn’t tell what any of the books were.

There was a knock on the door. Jason whipped around, almost yelping at the sudden sound, but then he was relieved. It was probably one of his parents, and they’d be able to help him. Jason walked to the door and opened it.

Jason looked where a face should be, but there wasn’t a face. Jason didn’t know what was there. He only saw an arrangement of shapes and colors—curves and colors and shapes and patterns—and Jason couldn’t understand what he was looking at.

Then the arrangement of shapes and colors began making sounds, but it was all nonsense. As far as Jason could tell, all the sounds he heard were disjointed scrapes, hums, clicks and hisses—some absurdist symphony of strange mutterings.

Jason’s mind reeled trying to make sense of what was happening. Something Jason couldn’t begin understanding was at his door, making noise at him. Panicked confusion galloped through Jason’s head. He slammed the door, locked it and stepped away from it. The thing on the other side started making even louder noises. Their pitch warped and churned into a tumbling of dissonant emotions.

Jason ran across the room to his desk. He opened one of the drawers and pulled out small, foam ear-plugs he used when he studied, twisted them, and pushed them into his ears. They expanded, filled his ears, and soon Jason couldn’t hear the sounds coming from the other side of the door. Jason then went to his bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him. He sat down on the floor and tried to calm himself down. What’s going on? he wondered. What’s happening?

Nothing made sense. Nothing, not a single thing around him. He looked around his bathroom, and only knew what the cabinets, the shower, the toilet and the sink were after he stared at them and pieced together what the shapes and colors meant. That thing is square and brown, with a small, white sphere on one side. It must be a cabinet. And that thing there is… That thing is…

Jason was now looking at the mirror, only the mirror wasn’t a mirror. It was a whole different dimension of the room he was sitting in that had exploded into the wall. It took Jason minutes to understand what he was looking at. Once he finally understood that it was a mirror—though only logically, he had no intuitive grasp of what he saw—he stood up and looked at it.

In the mirror, Jason saw another arrangement of colors and forms—like the one he’d seen on the other side of the door—except this one moved when he moved, blinked when he blinked, stared where he stared. It’s me, he thought. I know I’m looking at my own reflection, but… I can’t see myself. Then, Jason noticed a fork of red streaming down the arrangement. He moved a hand to his face—which also moved in the mirror—and touched the red.

Jason looked down. It took a moment to realize the segmented pink-white-red-tan pillars of flesh emerging from the warped square of similar, wrinkle-carved flesh was his own hand. He noticed there was red on these pillars of flesh now. What was it doing there? It came from his face, hadn’t it? Why was there red streaming down his face?

Forest in My Attic

By Alexander Greco

April 5, 2019

Hours after I planned to begin, hours after the sun had risen above the horizon, I lowered the stairs to my attic. At the top of the staircase, I stopped half inside the attic, half inside everything else.

The Sun beamed through the left-hand window. Outside I could see the forest surrounding my Father’s house. Dust covered everything up here, most of which hadn’t been touched in years. It was a mess up here, a chaotic city of boxes piled against dressers, cardboard towers leaning against bookshelves. Dust covered the city like the snow of an ashen winter. Some parts of the attic clearly hadn’t been explored in years, where some objects were almost invisible beneath a couple decades of dust.

For a moment, I stood still and stared around the attic. For a moment, the attic seemed to stare right back at me.

I had no idea where to begin, or what I might find. Everything in the attic was an accumulation of my Father’s forty-year stay in the house. I had moved in when things first started going downhill, about five years ago. His life slowly came to an end two years ago. Only now did I finally force myself start cleaning the house out, deciding what to keep and what to throw out.

I looked around the attic once more, mentally preparing myself for hours of digging through old memories. I sighed, then stepped forward.

My first steps across the floor were slow and cautious. One wrong step, and who knew what might come tumbling down. One moment of incaution, and-

Shhhf.

Something had moved.

I looked around. There was nothing.

Probably a rat, I figured, or a mouse. And god knows how many spiders, cockroaches and cluster flies there up here.

No… No, no, no, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to deal with

I turned almost went back down the stairs. I’ll call an exterminator, then maybe I’ll hire someone to haul all this stuff downstairs.

But then I stopped, and looked around one more time.

Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have looked away. Maybe I should have kept going, closed the ladder, and never looked back, but I didn’t. I looked around, and I started catching sight of things I’d completely forgotten about. Stacks of books my Father owned, old furniture, and ancient relics from childhood.

Old memories began wrapping themselves around me, and I tried pushing them away. Just leave, call the exterminator, and come back to this another day.

Then my eye caught a lone box on the floor, only a yard from the ladder.

 “PHOTOGRAPHS” was written in sharpie on the side.

I studied it for a moment. Then took a short step to where it lay on the ground, and knelt down to it. I studied it like it was some curious yet potentially dangerous specimen I’d found in the jungle. I almost stood up to leave, but I wanted to know, “What memories are in this box?”

I picked it up, and the bottom fell out a few feet into the air. Half a dozen 6”x8” albums crashed to the floor. I jumped back, and cursed, “Fuck,” at the sudden calamity.

Then everything settled into a new, stable chaos. The box was empty, and the albums were still.

Again, I almost left. I almost called it a day, right then and there.

But maybe, I thought to myself, I should at least pick these albums up. I set the box down, and knelt at the pile of photo-albums, beginning to re-stack them. At the bottom of the pile, one of the albums had completely opened. I glanced briefly inside. They were pictures of my friends and me, pictures from high school.

I’m not old, I’d say—early-thirties—but people I saw in those pictures were so much younger than the people we’ve become. I honestly don’t know who a lot of these people became.

I flipped through the pages, and wondered how much Joey has changed, or Mike, Kris or Drew—how much they’ve all changed; everyone I knew. Who did they all become? Who are they now? What are their lives like?

Then I saw a picture of Mary, the last we ever took. The one after we’d both graduated from college, after we hadn’t talked in months. We took that picture, ate dinner, hugged and said goodbye, then never talked again.

And then all my memories of her pulled themselves out from the old closets of my mind, like ocean Leviathans being reeled in on 30-pound poles. All the peaks, and all the ravines. All the steps forward, and all the stumbles down. All the nights out, and all the days lost.

Everything we did together, all the thoughts we shared, constructed itself like an architecture of memories. Words we’d spoken that built bridges between us, and dreams we painted onto a shared canvas.

What secrets did we share in our dreams? What cities did we walk through that will never have a map? What people did we meet that will never have a name?

Something moved again.

I looked up.

No.

Mary was standing in the attic. She was looking at me. Looking into my eyes.

I blinked, and she was gone.

No… No, this is impossible—I must have just imagined it—this is impossible.

She had been standing there only a moment ago, but now she’s gone. She had been standing there, standing by my… By my father’s…

My father’s old hunting bag.

No. I stood up. I didn’t want to deal with this, I didn’t have to deal with this. I’m going crazy just being up here. I need an exterminator. I need to hire someone to do all this for me.

I flew down the attic stairs. I didn’t even bother closing the attic up, I just kept walking through the second story, down to the first floor, and out the front door.  The moment I was outside, walking out into the trees surrounding the house, I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. I kept walking, and walking, and walking away from the house. I didn’t want to think about what I saw, I just wanted to fall into the trees.

These woods had been my father’s woods—a whole square mile of it my father bought in the 70’s. It was on the outskirts of the suburbs, and in the suburbs, the city at the center of us all kept encroaching on us, so these woods were like a last bastion of something old and natural. They’d been my father’s woods. I guess they’re mine now.

I kept walking, and walking, and walking away, but I was still in my father’s forest—my forest.

 Autumn had crept into the world, slowly and subtly until its presence was undeniable. The forest was a small world of silent giants carrying a canopy of green, yellow, red and orange on their shoulders. Beneath the giant’s feet were roots dug into soil, roots cracking stones beneath the earth. Worms, beetles and mice burrowed beneath the grass. Deer eat the grass, wolves eat the deer, vultures eat the wolves, and time eats the vultures.

I kept smoking cigarettes. Each one, I put out on the sole of my shoe, then put in my pocket. I wouldn’t dare leave them in the forest. I wouldn’t dare drop them on the ground. Not even the vultures would eat them.

My father was somewhere in that world now, buried in rock and roots, rivers and grass. Buried somewhere where the world dies, only to feed the dying giants above.

I never made it anywhere near the edge of the forest, I never made it to the deeper trails and through the deeper glades. Eventually I stopped, and sat down on a tangle of knotted roots. I lit one last cigarette—I’d gone through three already—and stared into the forest. I tried not to think about the attic, or my father, or going back to the house. I tried only to stare.

But then I turned back toward the house. What had I just seen?

Was that real?

There wasn’t any answer—not from the woods, not from the grass, not from the dirt, not from my head. The grass churned with the air, the birds chirped, and the air danced across my skin, But there was no answer.

I stood up, and turned toward the house—well out of view through the trees.

It doesn’t matter. No, it wasn’t real. It was your imagination, that’s it.

I have to go back soon. I have to… I don’t know, I have to do something. I’ll call pest control, that’s what I’ll do.

When the house came into view, something seemed odd, but I couldn’t tell what it was at first. The front door was open. I didn’t remember leaving it open. Closer now, and I could see colors across the windows.

Ribbon? Tape? What was it?

And… And there were colors coming out the front door? I started jogging up to the front of the house.

Yarn trailed out from the front door, across the wooden patio, and onto the grass and dead leaves. Yarn of all different colors, and string, twine, strips of silk—what the hell happened? It didn’t make sense—nothing made sense for a moment. Then I saw something run by the windows of the second floor, then through the front door I saw something run across the living room.

Kids. A bunch of dumbass kids tearing up the house. That was my rationalization. I don’t know what they were doing, I don’t know how, but I didn’t care. I would get them out of the house, and I would clean their mess up. I forced myself to be mad, forced myself to be furious, and walked inside.

And the moment I stepped inside, I wasn’t furious anymore. It wasn’t kids. It couldn’t be. The yarn, the ribbon, the string and the twine were everywhere.

All across the walls, coming down from the ceilings, wrapping across the floor, and tied in chaotic nets through the air. Like fauvist cobwebs, ribbon, string and silk covered the walls, and like a surrealist’s spider-webs, all the string and silk and ribbon wove in and out of each other through the air, forming an insane cloud of color between the walls.

Thud thud, thud thud thud

Something ran across the floor above me. There were voices, people talking.

I looked across the ribbon-strewn ceiling, then around the rooms of the walls, and then to all the doors and hallways littered with yarn.

My heart thumped in my chest, and I could feel my palms getting sweaty. What the hell had happened? What was this? Who was upstairs?

I turned to the staircase. It was almost completely clogged with webs of twine and silk. I studied it nervously for a few moments.

THUD THUD THUD THUD.

I whipped my head up to look at the ceiling. Someone had run across the floor upstairs.

I looked back at the staircase. I had to do something… I had to find out what the hell happened, and who the hell was upstairs.

Slowly, calmly, I approached the staircase—evading hanging webs and bridges of string as I did. I stopped a foot away from the bottom of the stairs. There was so much hanging between the walls—I could avoid getting touched by most of it, but I’d have to come into contact with most of it. I don’t know why it made me so nervous, but I hesitated there for a moment before plunging in.

There was a moment where I wondered if this was real or not—like the moment before you dive into cold water, and wonder if you’re actually diving into cold water.

But as they brushed across my skin, the ribbon and silk and yarn all felt real. This schizophrenic tunnel of craft-supplies felt real—felt tangible, physical, material. There was a part of me that had been wondering whether this was   Along the way up the staircase, I began to notice photographs dangling from the webs. Photographs, then newspapers clippings, and then lines of text cut from books, cities cut from maps and definitions cut from dictionaries.

They were all hanging from the string and yarn, like they were apart of some arts-and-crafts mobile, or the creation of some conspiracy theorist. What the hell was this? What had been made in my father’s house? What was this filling the halls and filling the staircase? What happened?

Someone—a child—I think -ran across the top of the staircase. They flitted into existence one moment, then ran into oblivion the next, but I could still hear their footsteps pounding away at the floor. No…

Had children done this? Was this the work of small kids? With many careful steps and uncertain maneuvers, I made it to the top of the staircase. Immediately, I noticed small movements that seem to fill the second-floor hallway. Crawling all across the yarn webs were mice, bugs and spiders… And they were all carrying objects with them.

I saw small mice carrying little nick-knacks with them—pens, miniature figurines, keys—bugs rolling marbles and dice across silk bridges, and spiders preying on toy soldiers caught in a twine web. They all maneuvered through the webs, around and across photographs, and between pillars of newspaper clippings.

For a few moments, I tried to digest what I was looking at. I tried to digest the sight of all the bugs crawling across the silk bridges and yarn spirals, with all the little objects they carried on their backs and in their mouths, and all the mice running through the air like naked tight-rope walkers. But several moments later, it still didn’t make sense. Several minutes later, I still couldn’t understand what I was looking at. It seemed so obvious though, it seemed like everything was right their, like all the pieces of the puzzle had already been put together, and it was just the image the puzzle formed that didn’t make sense. My eyes travelled to the end of the hallway. The staircase to the attic was still open. Mary was standing at the base of the staircase. She was staring at me.

No. No, she couldn’t be real, that couldn’t be right. That person standing there, that can’t be a real person, that can’t be…

“Mary?” I called out.

Mary didn’t move. She kept staring.

I put my hand out, almost as if to wave at her. “Mary,” I spoke, “is that you?”

Mary stood and stared a moment longer, then turned and walked up the stairs into the attic. “Wait!” I called out, “What’s going on? Where are you going?” But she wouldn’t stop.

She disappeared into the attic.

I hesitated only another moment, then plunged into the hallway.

As quickly as I could without tearing the webs of yarn and string down, I made my way down the hallway, toward attic. The webs got thicker the further I went. Only a yard or so from the stairs, the webs were so thick that there was no maneuvering around them anymore. I had to push through thick mats and nots of fabric, ridden with crawling creatures. Mice investigated the back of my neck before scurrying back to the webs. Cockroaches and water beetles crawled across my arms and hands. One spider stepped like a manic dancer across my face before I swatted it away, and god knows how many other spiders had found their home on me.

Finally, my hands found the staircase to the attic, and I swung my feet onto the bottom steps. As I climbed the staircase, the webs only got thicker and thicker toward the top. I was immersed in the fabrics—my entire body—and all across my body was a crawling, scampering, skittering sensation—my scalp, my ears, my lips, my nose, across my chest, inside my pants, and down to my ankles—but I couldn’t see the things crawling across me, and I couldn’t do anything to stop them.

The webs suffocated all light, and the clutter and fabric grew so dense it was like digging my way up from the bottom of a landfill.

Then suddenly my body burst through a membrane of fabric and photographs. I was gasping for air, as if I’d just emerged from underwater, and I pulled my body through the writhing fabric into the attic.

Laying on the ground, I looked around the attic. Networks of yarn wove through the air in complex patterns and structures. Photographs and newspaper clippings dangled from the material like cosmopolitan leaves. The entire attic was a thicket of chaotic material, with a clearing at the center—surrounding the entrance of the stairs—but otherwise there was nowhere to go in here.

Mary was nowhere to be seen.

There was no path to the windows. The only other way out was back down the crawling hole next to me.

There was no path to anything in here.

I sat up and looked around. No path. Nothing. No where to go. No path.

Then my eyes caught sight of something.

No. That wasn’t true. There was one path.

It led to my Father’s old duffel bag. It was my father’s duffel bag he used when he went hunting in the midwest. He would carry the few changes of clothes he brought into the wilderness, his compass, a map, knives, and other small things he brought with him. I crawled across the floor of the attic, hand over hand through to the duffel bag.

It smelled like oiled leather. Gun powder from spent bullet casings. The earthy aroma of dried leaves.

It reminded me of him.

I never went hunting with him. I was afraid of guns. But I can’t count the number of times I wish I’d gone with him.

My thoughts travelled back to when he’d be gone. My mother let me rifle through his things in their room. There was his bed and his closet, his flannel and his coon-skin hat. In a dream I had when I was a small child, I crawled across his floor at night and into this same duffel bag. I wormed my way through the contents until I came out into a forested mountainside. In the dream, my father was there, waiting.

Next to his duffel bag, I saw a pile of old drawings I had made when I was a child.

There was an old picture of mine where the moon was keeping me safe as I slept. When I was a child, I used to think the moon followed me overhead. The moon was alive and thinking. No longer. There’s a picture of a half-man, half-deer person. I’d shown it to my father, and told him he’d meet the deer person one day in the woods.

So many ideas I had, so many creative and beautiful thoughts. Elves in the woods, dancing in whispering glades. Towering monsters that stalked forests in twilight hours. Aliens lost from space, trying to survive on our planet. So many small ideas from when I was child. From long before my father’s disease had taken hold, long before he had passed on.

Something moved behind me.

I turned around. Standing in the center of the room, in the clearing of strings and yarn, stood my father.

It was as if he had never died. As if he was still here with me. No. He was there with me. He looked at me with watery blue eyes and smiled. Every wrinkle cracked across his face with stark detail, and every line was so beautifully human.

“Dad?” I asked.

He only smiled.

Standing up, I took a step toward him into the attic, and stepped into the forested mountainside.

I was in the attic still, I knew I was, but… I was in the forest with him.

My father beckoned me over to him, and I walked with him through the forest. We walked together through this dream, and then we began walking through all my other dreams. He knew the way through all the moonlit cities, where shadowy creatures flew across the sky, and knew the paths up spiraling architecture—bent and contorted as they pierced into the starry heavens.

We went into the castles from various nightmares and spoke happily with the ghosts and the vampires, like long lost friends. Old, hidden caverns and buried temples were rediscovered. We admired these galleries of secrecy like children in a museum.

There were beaches we walked across. Waves crashed against our ankles, and soon we were walking into the ocean. Fish of all colors swam by. We stepped through the streets of coral reefs where eels snaked across winding alleyways and dark tunnels.

A coral reef bloomed around us into walls of buildings, with windows from old shipwrecks, and statues from drowned civilizations. The city in the ocean became every city in the world, and the people of the city became every person I’d ever met. I looked around, and it was still my attic, but the attic was so vast now, so infinite. Time was nothing, and for brief seconds we visited infinity together. The cities we visited, the people I met, the dreams I had, and all the memories forgotten; all were right there, right in front of me.

All of it was right there, right before my eyes.

All the thoughts I had never shared, all the ideas that fell apart and were lost in my head. All the people I hated, all the people I loved, and all the people I passed by without a second thought. We were all standing in my attic, we were all walking through our memories of each other, we were all talking in this forest with my father. There in the attic, I could hear every word and every sentence we’d ever spoken—every movement of the eye, every posture we ever held, every movement we ever witnessed.

All of you. I could see all of you

There in the attic, I could see all of you, and you’re all pulling on me with fistfuls of yarn.

And you were all me. You were all pulling these strings in my head, and you made me all I would ever be. Every word you’d ever said is all I am. Every memory of you is all I am. Everything that you are is all I am. All I could ever be is all of you, because all we are is pieces of each other.

I saw all of you, and I saw the truth. I saw myself, and I knew what I was looking at. I saw all of us, and I knew exactly where I was.

Then it all began to slip. Fall away. In my dreams, I was alone. The vampires slept in coffins I couldn’t open, and the ocean cities were abandoned. In my memories, we never spoke again, and I never found out if any of us had quit smoking. In my childhood, I deciphered all the rational truths, and the moon couldn’t keep me safe anymore. In our forest, you all turned your backs to me. In my attic, you all walked back into the pictures in the boxes.

I ran after all of you, yelling for you to stop. Bookshelves of all our stories fell down around me. The bedrooms of friends I sat in collapsed brick by brick. Kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms of family—blood or no blood—crumbled with age.

I scrambled through all the wreckage, chasing after you all. Secrets glittered in the debris like small gems, but I couldn’t stop to pick them all up. My lost thoughts peered from ruined classrooms I couldn’t go back to. Wherever I looked, I couldn’t find my old memories, or those old feelings I’d felt.

“Come back!” I yelled, pulling on all the strings.

But you all turned away, and now I can’t picture your faces in my head.

“Wait, come on! Where are you going?” but you wouldn’t answer.

You all disappeared somewhere, and I can’t see the lines on the map telling me where.

“Come on, Please! Please! Come back!” I screamed, reaching out for them.

But I couldn’t believe that the moon watched over me anymore, try as I might.

“No, tell me again! Just tell me one more time!” I called out to all my old thoughts.

I couldn’t believe that there were fairies in the forests, dragons in the mountains.

“What did I lose? What was in my head? No, no, what was it? What was it?”

And, despite all my effort, I couldn’t remember the truths I’d known as a child.

In my attic, you all left me to the dusty relics and lifeless debris. In my attic, you all disappeared into the walls, filed down the creaking, wooden stairs, and climbed out the windows. All the webs of strings pulled themselves back into the cracks in the floorboards. I wanted to stop them, I wanted to pull them back, I wanted to dig at the wooden floorboards until my fingers bled, and find wherever these strings led to.

I didn’t know who I was looking at anymore, and it didn’t make any sense. I didn’t see the truth, and I didn’t know the answer. I looked around for everyone, but everyone was gone. I looked around, hoping I was still in a forest of people at the bottom of the ocean, but no. I was here. I was in this attic. I was alone.

It was evening now. Yellows and oranges were streaming in through the right side of the attic. “Damn,” I said to no one, “damn it all.”

I looked out the window, and imagined going outside for a cigarette. “Damn. Damn, damn, damn this place.”

Something moved.

I turned.

Mary stood there in the attic. Staring at me.

I stared back.

Not even meaning to, I blinked. She was gone.

All of it. All that I had seen. All that I knew now, all the places my father had taken me, and all the people I had met. It was almost too much.

I looked around the attic—completely normal again, with no strings or lengths of yarn or ribbon—and imagined myself clearing this room out.

I didn’t know where to begin.