Burlesque Witches In Storytelling

Witches have a long history in storytelling, but they aren’t always scary. They aren’t always Baba Yaga types, sometimes murderous, sometimes helpful. There’s another variety of crone who is a ribald storyteller. She’s related to the classic witch, but her function in stories is quite different.

She is known as the burlesque witch. For a defintion of burlesque, see here.

What is her name?

From eighteenth century nursery rhymes:

What does she look like?

As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:

  • crone features
  • chapfallen jaw
  • toothless bight of chin and nose in profile
  • a Punch-like proboscis
  • carries a stick
  • wears a conical hat
  • apron and petticoats

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The Ritual Film Study

The Ritual Film Poster

“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.

STORYWORLD

When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?

In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears.

One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact.

The man’s PTSD is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost.

This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological weakness. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas.

STORY STRUCTURE

The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).

CHARACTER WEB

THE FRIENDS

This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for weakness, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.

A group of women in the same situation would likely turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded  this luxury. They have no choice but to press on. Hence, they take a shortcut through the woods.

The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.

Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the surface desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.

THE MONSTER

The Ritual monster silhouette

I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.

Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:

  • We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
  • We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
  • The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
  • Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.

Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)

The Ritual Monster

THE WITCH

The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old woman in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.

Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.

THEMES

This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.

By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.

The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.

 

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats

The Trip cover

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats was first published 1978, which makes it 40 years old. The Snowy Day is the most famous of Keats’ publications, but The Trip was also successful, and subsequently adapted into a play. Although I have not seen the play, I can imagine how a set designer was enchanted by the peep show box element of this picture book. There are instructions in the back for how to make one.

As a Jewish American and son of immigrants, Keats was hugely influential in American children’s literature for including people of colour in his work.

Keats was influential for another, related reason: His love of the urban landscape. Picture books such as A Lion In The Meadow were far more popular in the 1960s and 70s. Pastoral arenas make for a pleasant childhood utopia, after all. It’s almost as if children’s storytellers couldn’t imagine a child being happy in the city. Yet many children do live in the city, and almost as many wouldn’t have it any other way.

For much more on the symbolism of city versus country, see this post.

louie-on-plane-with-kids

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TRIP

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like many fictional children, Louie has just moved to a new neighbourhood. This story is so popular because:

  • Every reader can identify with a character facing some big change. We’ve all had change in our lives. And if not, we all fear change somewhat.
  • In storytelling terms, this is the perfect plot because the child reader is now exploring Louie’s new world alongside Louie. This creates immediate character empathy.
  • It also provides the author/illustrator with a reason for explaining this new setting. Everything is new to the child, and everything is noteworthy.

Louie’s weakness is that he is new, anxious and doesn’t know anybody in his new neighbourhood.

DESIRE

Surface desire: Louie wants to have a bit of fun making a peep show box, because he doesn’t feel sufficiently confident to go outside.

Deeper desire: Louie wants to connect with people.

OPPONENT

In a story like this, in which the child is too scared to really do anything or go anywhere, what does a writer do about the opposition?

Well, it very often comes from the child’s imagination. That’s the very thing keeping them from moving in the first place.

The opponents are the scary creatures Louie makes inside his peep show box.

PLAN

To amuse himself with a peep show box. Though I doubt Louie meant to do this consciously, what he’s doing — in effect — is creating miniature versions of his old friends then disguising them as monsters so that the costume can subsequently come off, revealing scary things to be benign after all.

He flies back to his old neighbourhood in his imagination, as a way to transition himself from his old place to this new place a bit more slowly than has been forced upon him. I was thinking about the symbolism of flight, and how Keats was using that. But I don’t believe flight is the significant symbol here — it’s photography. I wrote about photography in young adult literature here, but the peep show box serves in this picture book in the same way.

Also, part of me thinks this story is about how kids are basically the same wherever you go — the trick or treaters of this new neighbourhood might as well be the same friends he has back home. This is an interesting concept, and it’s probably my own interpretation rather than Keats’ intent, but I do think kids of this age are adaptable. If they’re good at making friends in one environment, they’ll most likely find the same kind of comrades if they’re transplanted.

BATTLE

Louie meets the monsters head on. They chase him down a street. At first he seems to be trapped, but…

SELF-REVELATION

… then he recognises his friends who are dressed up.

The revelation for the reader is that it is Halloween. The revelation for Louie is that things may look scary on the outside are not at all scary when you really look at them closely (or get to know them).

Ergo: He realises that if he gets to know the kids in his new neighbourhood, they won’t be scary to him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Louie goes outside to join the new neighbourhood kids, and we extrapolate that he will make friends with them.