'Lachrymae, Chapter II: The Widow's Web'
An Online Journal by Richard Stanley
(Originally appeared in R. S.' MySpace, September 29th, 2007.)
Now summer is gone and the first chill of autumn is stealing into River City's hearts and homes, the clouds drawing in across the dank rooftops, bellies pregnant with ten million raindrops, ten million tiny sparks, ten million tears...
In Africa the rain never stopped and a state of emergency has been declared in half a dozen equatorial nations where the flooding continues, crops rotting in the fields and those other two horsemen, famine and pestilence, already abroad in Uganda, Rwanda and places south. I wish I could offer a ray of hope but I've seen the satellite pics and heard what NASA and the major environmental organizations have to say and it ain't sweet. Nothing we do now can save western civilization and the world we know. That chance is already lost to us, quietly frittered away by our leaders and no matter what measures are put in place nothing can halt the rapid dissolution of the polar icecaps or hold back the coming storm, not even the Rain Queen Modjadji herself. The Magna Mater, Dr.Lovelock's so-called 'GAIA', the Goddess, whatever you wish to call her, is angry with her subjects and a pissed off Mother Earth is not to be trifled with. The Goddess has another face, a face that kills instead of nurtures and whose kiss blasts like the kiss of lightning.
The Widow's Web
The dark side of the Goddess has been known by many names in countless cultures and our frail species has fashioned many masks by which our ancestor's hoped to personalize the abstractions that incarnated themselves in their wounded hearts. The writer Thomas de Quincey christened them 'The Three Mothers' or 'Our Ladies of Sorrow'.
To see the faces of these three sisters too clearly is to court madness and annihilation but I have known them thoroughly and have walked in all their kingdoms.
The eldest of the Three is named Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears. Her eyes are sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy by turns, oftentimes rising to the clouds, oftentimes challenging the heavens. She goes abroad upon the winds when she hears the sobbing of litanies or the thundering of organs and beholds the mustering of the summer clouds. This sister, the eldest, carries a key which is more than papal at her girdle, which opens the doors of every cottage and every palace, stealing into the hearts of sleepless men, sleepless women, sleepless children from Ganges to Nile, from Nile to Mississippi. Because she is the first born of her house and has the widest empire let us honour her with the title of 'Madonna'!
In the previous instalment, I related as truthfully as possible how I had become aware of this infernal trinity through my fanboy devotion to all things 'gothic', in particular the work of Italian horror movie maestro Dario Argento and how I was lead seemingly by chance to the basilica of the Black Madonna, La Moreneta, the Virgin of Montserrat. I say 'as truthfully as possible', because there are some threads of the story I cannot share with you in order to respect the wishes and safeguard the privacy of those involved. As with the Moreau affair, the full truth cannot be told 'til all concerned are beyond knowing. These events took place nearly two decades ago and while farfetched, they pale in comparison to more recent developments. Were I to say more without proof of my claims you would doubtless dismiss me as a madman. Suffice to say I have been abroad, covering a lot of ground, some familiar territory, some of it less so.
Part of my journey was conducted by horse and I had occasion to think of another madman and laughing stock who sought to restore honour to chivalry, which had crumbled in his country. Don Quixote read so many books on chevaliers that he became deranged and exhuming a dusty suit of armour from his attic, he patched it up with bits of cardboard and set off on an adventure in the garb of another age, riding across Spain on his nag, Rosinante. You can't be a chevalier without a cheval and the more time I spent off road and in the saddle, the more obvious it became that it was the automobile that killed the great age of chivalry as much as the Holy Roman Church. Not content with heretics and badgers the good ol' horseless carriage now seems set to kill us all thanks to the miracle of global warming. But I digress...
Since my last posting I revisited many of the sites concerned in this sinister saga and caught up with some of its principal protagonists, including director Nacho Cerda, who sends his regards. He was surprised and amused when I drew his attention to the previous instalment and having swiftly grasped the medium's potential he is now hellbent on setting up a MySpace page of his own. Nacho is riding high on the international success of Los Abandonados and at present still debating whether or not to accept the poisoned Grail of the proverbial 'big Hollywood project.'
The Two Nachos - Saint Ignatius and Signor Cerda - separated at birth?
It is to him that I dedicate this second instalment of my unburdening and it is no coincidence it begins with the story of his namesake, another chevalier who rode the same slippery, downhill trail as myself in the summer of 1522...
Chapter 1: Gratia Lachrymarum [top]
Once upon a time a young nobleman named Ignatio set out across Spain on his horse. On the way he met a 'Moor', a baptised Arab, and lured him into a discussion on the Virgin Mary. The Moor believed in the Immaculate Conception but contested that her virginity could have survived intact after the birth of Christ. Ignatio took this as an insult to his faith and in typically violent terms sought immediate justice.
At that time, being the early 16th century, the chevaliers of Spain lead an idle life around their sovereign and had lost the bravery and dignity of their ancestors. While demonstrating an excessive humility to their king and his favourites, they were rude and arrogant towards those they considered their inferiors, especially foreigners and people of a darker complexion. Ignatio had the outward appearance of a knight, hardy and provoking, dressed in a leather doublet, armed with both sword and pistol, his dark, receding hair curling from beneath the broad felt brim of his travel-stained hat, but his inward character was displayed by the murderous look in his eyes and is perhaps best described by an official document of the time, a claim brought by the Corrigidor of Guipozcoa in 1515 at the Episcopal tribunal of Pamplona in which the magistrate described the young nobleman as "treacherous, violent and vindictive..."
Accordingly the Moor was on his guard and beat off Ignatio's unprovoked attack before high tailing it, his Persian stallion easily outrunning the psychotic chevalier's long-suffering Spanish pony. As he watched the dark man's dust cloud dwindle across the flatlands, Ignatio asked himself if it was his duty or not to pursue his slanderer and kill him or at least die trying. In his soul and conscience he could not resolve this dilemma so following an old superstitious tradition of chivalry he decided to rely on a 'sign', on this occasion the judgment of his horse. He freed the bridle and allowed his steed to choose it's own path.
Before long he caught sight of a strange, jagged mountain range on the horizon and felt himself borne helplessly towards it. As he drew nearer to the gleaming white cliffs the young chevalier noticed what looked like a monastery built on a plateau high above the clouds and tying up his faithful steed he started up the winding stone steps towards the basilica. And so it was that the nobleman, Ignatius of Loyola, came to the mountain of Montserrat and the temple of La Moreneta, the black Madonna.
He spent the night meditating in the presence of the mysterious icon and and later claimed to have been visited by "a blinding, celestial light" and a series of bizarre visions. "Something white resembling three keys of a clavichord or an organ" appeared to him and he immediately thought it was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. Then the three shapes merged into the glowing body of a single luminous being and the young chevalier began to weep uncontrollably as he realized the error of his ways and all the harm he had caused to others during his worldly life. Later this miracle came to be known as the 'gratia lacrymarum' or the 'Grace of Tears', that marked the quest knight's spiritual metamorphosis.
Then his luminous visitor took another form, becoming a huge, coiling rainbow-hued serpent which, in spite of its beauty, terrified him. Noticing that the nearer the supernatural creature came to the cross the less its beauty shone, Ignatio concluded it was not God concealed within this hallucinatory image but the Devil.
Laying down his weapons at the feet of our Lady, the chevalier swore himself to Her service as a 'knight of God' or a defender of the 'celestial kingdom.' In the fullness of time he would become renowned as the founder of the 'Society of Jesus', the black-garbed warrior monks we call the 'Jesuits', most commonly remembered perhaps by the uninitiated as the protagonists of The Exorcist and other works by author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty, himself a former member of the order.
Ignatius came down from the mountain to set off on his conquest of the 'kingdom of the sky', sojourning for a while in a humid grotto at the foot of a cliff near Manresa, where he sought to cleanse himself by inflicting the most severe exercises of penitence on his suffering flesh. He would spend seven or eight hours every morning kneeling in prayer and would sometimes fast and go without sleep for days on end. He would flagellate himself heavily and it was not uncommon that he would wound his chest with a stone.
One day he went so far he fell seriously ill and was carried unconscious into the house of one of his benefactors. The doctors gave him up for lost and some of the pious women began to beg the lady of the house to cede pieces of his clothing to them as relics. To satisfy their desires she opened the cupboard containing Ignatio's belongings, only to recoil in shock. Suspended within were neatly arranged the worst instruments of torture and mortification; penitence belts in plaited steel threads, heavy chains, nails disposed in the form of a cross and an undergarment bristling with iron tips...
This seemingly medieval penchant for self-harm is reflected today in the barbed 'celice' worn by devout followers of Opus Dei, the order founded by another tortured soul who found solace of a sorts at Montserrat, Jose Maria Escriva, who, like Saint Ignatius, was posthumously canonized with unseemly haste. Yet there is more to this morbid sexual fetish than uninitiated eyes might readily discern. A method to its madness...
These are the "Spiritual exercises" of the Jesuit order as laid down by it's founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola:
"He who practises them must, with the help of all his senses, undergo the experiences of Heaven and Hell, from sweet beatitude to devouring woe so that the difference between Good and Evil might imprint themselves forever on his soul. So that Evil is made tangible the spiritual exercises serve as a terrifying enactment of Hell. It must be represented in all its horror, full of the legions of the groaning damned..."
Saint Ignatius codified this strange 'enactment' into a series of precise points:
"The first key consists of looking with the imagination of the eyes at the length, width and depth of Hell and the immense fires of the abyss and the souls imprisoned in their burning bodies.
The second key consists of listening with the imagination of the ears to the lamentations, cries, vociferations and blasphemies which slander our lord and his saints.
The third key consists of breathing with the imagination of smell, the smoke, the sulphur, the mire and rot of Hell.
The fourth key consists of tasting with the imagination of taste, all things bitter, tears, sourness and the maggot of conscience.
The fifth key consists of touching with the imagination of touch the flames that burn the soul..."
Then, and only then, is the candidate ready for Level Two.
There are many paths to enlightenment, as varied as the chemical elements that make up our material world and not all of them as dismal as the one chosen by Ignatius, but it is a path nonetheless, a hard way perhaps, but the only one available to "those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved... by conspiracies from without and conspiracies from within... in whom the heart trembles and the brain rocks", for those who have come without knowing it into the domain of Our Lady of Darkness...
Chapter 2: Mission Improbable [top]
I cannot for obvious reasons name my companions, save to say there were three of us who scaled the holy mountain that night, bolstered by fool's courage. Our actions weren't strictly speaking 'legal', but then a good magician always knows when to bend the rules. There were too many things wrong with the story, nagging details that refused to add up and like one of the doomed protagonists of Dario's 'giallos', I felt compelled to return to the scene, to keep pulling on those loose ends until I found where they lead to.
The mountain turned out to be harder to find than I thought and we we already behind schedule by the time we pulled into the abandoned lot outside the cable station. Whispering like schoolboys we started up the winding path, following the funicular railway towards the mysterious enclave on the summit identified on the map as the 'Pla de les Tarantules' - The 'Plain of the Tarantulas' or 'Tarantula Square'. The origins of the name was as much of a mystery to me then as the icon herself and the riddle of her ebon skin. Whatever it was had nothing to do with Christianity. What she represented was older than Christ or the Torah, older than recorded history...
In the beginning, according to the Egyptians, there was only the void and the eye in the void, the awareness some call Set. The deity whose image I had purchased unwittingly in New York might have begun her journey as Au-Set - the seat of consciousness, the throne of her male counterpart Au Sar, the eye in the throne. As a woman conceives and begats life so she symbolized the living embodiment of that primal awareness. The Greeks venerated Au-Set, the 'consciousness embodied', as Isis, and her counterpart Au-Sar as Osiris - also called Neb T-Chetta, lord of eternity. Her two daughters were Bast, the cat-faced one, and Neb Tet, the Lady of the Temple. The ancient Europeans knew her as Kubaba, Cybele, Sybil, Diana of the Nine Fires or as Arduina. It is tempting to see 'La Moreneta', the Black Madonna of Montserrat, as another one of those masks - Our Lady of Darkness unveiled as Notre-Dame De Lumiere.
Could this be another intertextual clue? Green men of Lemuria please take note!
Sadly I would need to write Her name in hieroglyphs for this to make ready sense, but finding a keyboard for the task defeats me. Suffice to say, she was a radiant being and one of the nine original members of the grateful dead. They were not so much gods, these holy nine, but radiant aspects of the one God, for the Egyptian faith is in essence a heliocentric monotheism based around Ra, the sun god, who is the father of the other bright ones. Archeologists have tried to argue that the holy nine are descended from a quasi-mythological memory of a hierarchical dynastic race, who conquered the primitive ancestors of the ancient Egyptians, exerting a civilizing influence over them.
The Moors knew Her homeland by another name - al Khem - the 'Black Land'. It is thought by some to be an allusion to the rich, black, fertile soil of the Nile valley and by others (Malcolm X and Louis Farakhan among 'em!), as direct proof that the Egyptian civilization represented the finest flowering of African art and culture. The science of Egypt, 'alchemy', came by association to be regarded as the 'dark' or 'black art' and those who rationalized it, understood it as 'chemistry', just as the work of the Arab philosopher Geber was thought to be 'gibberish' to uninitiated eyes, whilst only a select few recognized it as the secret language of 'algebra'.
The Arabic language is constructed so that many different meanings can be derived from tri-lateral root words and their variations. The writer and Eastern esoteric scholar Idries Shah Sayed insists that for 'black', we should read 'wise'. This confusion apparently arises from a play on two roots, FHM and FHHM, pronounced 'fecham' and 'facham', meaning 'black' and 'wise', respectively. The FHM root can also mean 'knowledge' or 'understanding', depending on context and pronunciation. Thus the so-called 'black art' is also the 'wise art', just as the 'art of darkness', gothic art, the art 'got' or 'cot' is really the 'art of light'.
All of which sounds reassuring in theory, but the night was dark and the going hard and as we climbed higher up that winding trail we fell silent.
The narrowing path looped back beneath the cableway before disappearing into the shadows of an old railway tunnel, left disused since the introduction of the cable service in 1957. And the way was dark and I couldn't see my hand in front of my face and we were tempted to turn back, but then I dug out my zippo and followed the disused tracks into the gloom. We tried to joke about it, but the way was dark and our jokes fell flat and all the while I think we were quietly hoping those spiders would turn out to be just a metaphor after all...
There have been only a few times in my waking experience I have felt as if I had been transposed into something written by H.P. Lovecraft. This was one of them.
As we came to the end of the line and climbed out of the railway cutting we all came to a halt at once, unable to quite get our heads around what we were seeing.
"My God," breathed one of my companions.
The mountain looked different from this angle and the unexpected change in altitude and perspective accounted for some of the initial disorientation. The basilica on the plateau far below seemed as insignificant as a sandcastle and despite the hour I could see a light still blazing in the window of the library attached to the Benedictine abbey, some scholar working late on his translation, I supposed. The clouds had parted, the night was chill and the wild white cliffs rose and rose, dwarfing the buildings and the icon they contained, the lights of Barcelona strewn out like an ineffectual handful of glitter dust along the far horizon. According to the guidebook, the jagged rock formations are the result of a freak sedimentary deposit but seeing the face of those stone giants by starlight the same thought hit all of us at once.
"They sure look like Gods," I muttered.
"Don't be too sure, dude. Maybe they are."
A statue of Dominic de Guzman (later Saint Dominic), the scourge of the Albigensians and founder of the black order who administered the system of terror known as the 'Spanish Inquisition', stood to the left of the disused railway station, ushering us upwards towards the 'Place of the Tarantula', past a winding calvary known as the path of Saint Michael, composed of fifteen evenly spaced groups of life-sized statues vividly illustrating the sufferings of Christ.
And I thought of Ignatius's 'Rainbow Serpent' and that old saw from the Book of Revelations:
"And there was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not, nor was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which decieveth the world was cast out into the earth and his angels were cast out with him..." 20:2
Thankfully it was too dark to see the expressions on those stone faces. Otherwise we might have turned back for although the way was dark, the light we glimpsed up ahead was all the more intimidating. A faint guttering light, what might have been the flicker of votive candles, fell from the windows of a 17th century hermitage attached to a tiny domed chapel that seemed to have been organically extruded from the living rock. Later I was to learn the chapel contained a replica of the icon enshrined in the basilica below but on that first night the apprehension we felt on seeing the glimmer from within prevented us from getting closer. Not that we were particularly superstitious, mind you, but we had careers to keep on track and none of us wanted to run foul of some elderly Catalonian prelate caught in the act of ritual sacrifice or whatever the hell it was they did up here at three in the morning. Instead my attention was caught by a shadow at the base of the rock wall, a deeper patch of darkness that failed to dissipate as I approached.
Realizing I was standing at the mouth of a cave, I recalled how the icon had been discovered by shepherd children after seeing a great light fall from the sky just after dusk on a summery Saturday evening the year of our Lord 880 AD and I started to wonder if this wasn't the actual grotto in which She had been found. Not for the first time that night I wished we had been together enough to bring a flashlight.
Clambering over the low metal railing I reached for my zippo...
It was a few degrees warmer inside the cave and there was a faint, sweet, half-familiar smell in the air. Like incense or stale icing sugar...
"How far does it go ?"
"I dunno. Goes in a way..."
I took another step into the gloom as my actor friend climbed over the fence to join me. I raised the flame a little higher glimpsing what looked like markings on the wall, water damage or some kind of graffiti. Amongst them at least one shape that seemed disturbingly familiar.
"Looks like writing... damn..."
The zippo slipped from my fingers, too hot to hold and for a moment we scuffled in the dark to try and locate it.
"This place is weird, dude."
"I thought I saw something. On the wall.."
The only light came from the display on my malfunctioning eighties wristwatch, casting a dim green glow across the cave floor. At just after 3.21 my fingers closed on the still warm metal of my fallen lighter and I began to turn, spinning the flint. At 3.22 the flame caught and a single loud gunshot echoed flatly off the face of the cliff followed by the sound of a dog barking in the valley far below.
"The f***k !?!"
"Sounded like it came from the monastery..."
The third member of our posse, a young Spaniard, was circling nervously on the path, staring down at the lighted window .
"The hell happened?"
"Maybe someone was cleaning their gun and it went off by mistake."
"Why would anyone be cleaning their gun in the Benedictine library reading room at three in the f*****g morning?!"
I glanced back, taking a last look at the grotto.
"It makes a difference?"
"Tell it to the judge. Could be crucial. I dunno..."
There were definitely words scrawled on the rock, thick black lettering and what looked like geometric markings.
"Maybe it was suicide. Maybe one of the monks just couldn't take it any more and shot himself..."
"Why would they do that?"
"Stress. Working too late. Bad vibes. Perhaps they started seeing things like Saint Ignatius..."
I paused, focusing on what I had glimpsed for only a split second before. This time I held the flame steady.
"There it is."
Chapter 3: Kiss of the Tarantula [top]
Who knows where it began? A single walking man in a battered felt hat wending his way across Europe bearing a strange, long-necked guitar? A troupe of strolling players from the Africa or the east with painted faces and bare breasts, whose songs 'contained the names of devils never before heard of', and whose dark eyes glowed as they danced to curious serpentine rhythms in the glow of the bonfire...
Or did it start with the kiss of the Tarantula ?
The origins of the Tarantula Cult are lost in the toxic fug of time. To penetrate those anterior mists and scry a little closer to the bone you've got to ask yourself which came first - not so much the arachnid or the egg as the spider or the dance? Was the tarantella named after the eight-legged beastie because of its jerky, frantic motions or was the tarantula named because of the movement of the dancers ? The two are intertwined, seemingly inseparable, held together by a kiss...
"People, asleep or awake, would suddenly jump up, feeling an acute pain like the sting of a bee. Some saw the spider, others did not, but they knew that it must be the tarantula. They ran out of the house into the street, to the market place dancing in great excitement. Soon they were joined by others who like them had just been bitten, or by people who had been stung in previous years, for the disease was never quite cured. The poison remained in the body and was reactivated every year by the heat of summer...
...Music and dancing were the only effective remedies, and people were known to have died within an hour or in a few days because music was not available." (Sigerist 1943, 218-219)
Symptoms included headache, giddiness, breathlessness, fainting, trembling, twitching, appetite loss, general soreness, and delusions. Sometimes it was claimed that a sore or swelling was caused by a tarantula bite, but such assertions were difficult to verify because the bite resembled those of insects. The dance symptoms resemble typical modern episodes of epidemic hysteria, in addition to expected reactions from exhaustive physical activity and excessive alcohol consumption. The 'dancing frenzy' that has come to be known as 'tarantism' was reported almost exclusively during the hot summer months of July and August.
One of the oldest surviving treatises on 'tarantism', Fernando Ponzetti's Sertum Papale De Venensis (1362), suggests that the victims of shade-dwelling spiders were hostages to the music of the tarantula's bite, to its 'cantum tempore'. His contemporary, William de Marra, scoffs at Ponzetti's ignorance in believing that the tarantula actually sang as it bit down with those venefic fangs, yet despite his skepticism even he was forced to admit the tarantella held all classes of Apulian society inexplicably in thrall, from peasant to noblewoman. None were exempt from its insidious power.
While early medical observers theorized that a venomous species of tarantula, found in the Italian state of Apulia, was capable of producing sporadic 'tarantism' symptoms, tests on spiders in the region have failed to substantiate these suspicions (Gloyne 1950, 35). Latrodectus tarantula is a nonaggressive, slow-moving spider common in Apulia that can produce psychoactive effects in people it bites. In severe cases, it may temporarily mimic many tarantism symptoms, including twitching and shaking of limbs, weakness, nausea, and muscular pain (Lewis 1991, 514).
Ironically, Lycosa tarantula was typically blamed for tarantism symptoms, as it is larger, more aggressive, ferocious in appearance and has a painful bite. Yet neither spider can account for the predominantly symbolic and psychogenic character of tarantism attacks. Latrodectus tarantula is also found in other countries where tarantism does not occur (Russell 1979, 416), including the United States (Lewis 1991, 517).
There is no evidence that a venomous species of tarantula, native only to Apulia, may have existed during this period and later died out. As Sigerist (1943, 221) remarks: "The same tarantula shipped to other parts of the country seemed to lose most of its venom, and what remained acted differently." It is also doubtful that some insect or other agent was responsible for causing "attacks", as most participants did not even claim to have been bitten, and would only participate in tarantism episodes at designated times.
Clearly most cases were unrelated to spider bites. Other psychological aspects include the only reliable cure: dancing to certain types of music. "Victims" would typically perform one of numerous versions of the tarantella, a rapid tempo score characterized by brief, repetitive phrases, which escalate in intensity. Such performances also allowed "victims" to exhibit social behavior that is prohibited at any other time. Dancing persisted intermittently for hours and days, sometimes lasting weeks. Participants would eventually proclaim themselves "cured" for the remainder of the summer, only to relapse in subsequent summers. Many "victims" believed they had been infected from those who had been bitten, or from simply brushing against a spider. All that was needed to "reactivate" the venom was to hear certain strains of music.
A variation of tarantism spread throughout much of Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, where it was known as the dancing mania or St. Vitus's dance, on account that participants often ended their processions in the vicinity of chapels and shrines dedicated to this saint. Like its Italian counterpart, outbreaks seized groups of people who engaged in frenzied dancing that lasted intermittently for days or weeks. These activities were typically accompanied by symptoms similar to tarantism, including screaming, hallucinations, convulsive movements, chest pains, hyperventilation, crude sexual gestures and outright intercourse. Instead of spider bites as the cause, participants usually claimed that they were possessed by demons who had induced an uncontrollable urge to dance. Like tarantism, however, music was typically played during episodes and was considered to be an effective remedy.
Detailed accounts of many episodes appear in a classic book by German physician Justus Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages (1844). He considered the origin of these "epidemics" as due to "morbid sympathy", since they often coincided with periods of severe disease, such as widespread pessimism and despair after the Black Death (Hecker 1844, 87). This epic disease plague, which by some estimates killed half of the population of Europe, subsided about twenty years prior to 1374, the year that most scholars identify with the onset of the dance mania.
Benjamin Gordon, in Medieval and Renaissance Medicine (1959, 562) describes the onset of the dance mania:
"From Italy it spread to... Prussia, and one morning, without warning, the streets were filled... They danced together, ceaselessly, for hours or days, and in wild delirium, the dancers collapsed and fell to the ground exhausted, groaning and sighing as if in the agonies of death. When recuperated, they swathed themselves tightly with cloth around their waists and resumed their convulsive movements. They contorted their bodies, writhing, screaming and jumping in a mad frenzy. One by one they fell from exhaustion...
...Many later claimed that they had seen the walls of heaven split open and that Jesus and the Virgin Mary had appeared before them."
Chapter 4: The Walls of Heaven [top]
Mora (1963, 436-438) writes that tarantism and dance manias used rituals as psychotherapeutic attempts to cope with either individual or societal maladjustments which fostered mental disturbances. Henry Swinburne, who traveled to the 'country of the tarantula' in the 1770's, was one of the first and only foreign observers to hint at the true character of the phenomenon. He concluded that the tarantella was probably a form of pagan bacchanalia, a flight from the toils of agrarian life, that now operated 'under cover' of the Spider and devotion to St. Paul (Melechi, A. University of York, 2005). Sigerist held a similar view. An abnormal psychology text written by Robert Carson of Duke University and his colleagues (1998, 37) cites Sigerist to support the view that St. Vitus's dance and tarantism were similar to ancient Greek orgiastic rites which had been outlawed by Christian authorities, but were secretly practiced anyway. While still only a wild hypothesis, that anonymous text in the Benedictine library hinted at the existence of a pagan shrine on the mountain of Montserrat in southern Catalonia consecrated to Venus.
The name of the route we took from the upper station, St. Michael's path (Rifa, M. Montserrat Official Guidetext, 1998) would tend to confirm this, suggesting aggressive Christianization. I was starting to seriously doubt the icon had simply been abandoned on the mountain by that 'fleeing gothic bishop' - conveniently fingered in the church's official account. She had been here all along, since before the Christian faith existed and despite the Roman Church's every attempt to bring her under the yoke of their patriarchal dogma, she was still here in the heart of a web spun over countless generations, at the heart of her holy mountain reigning in undisputed dominion over an invisible empire.
Quite possibly the original icon rested in the locked chapel before us and the one on display in the basilica was the replica rather than it being the other way round as some would have it. Equally plausibly the sepulchral chamber, in which we now stood, might have the original site of her worship, rather than the somewhat shallower (barely an overhang!) grotto indicated by the guidebooks, indicating Her kinship with Kybele / Kubaba / Magna Mater / Meter Orie (mountain mother), the goddess of caves and caverns, who was worshipped on mountaintops and deep within the lightless hollows of the living earth long before there were words or language to tell of it.
As with Baptists touched by the Holy Ghost, the devout Mexican Catholics in the presence of the Virgin of Guadelope, or the Haitian Voodooists at Saut d'Eau during the feast of the Virgin of Mount Carmel, it is not hard to imagine the primal state of ecstasy that might have gripped Her followers in the proximity of the original icon, in the 'Pla de les Tarantules' - 'the place of the dancers'...
Modern historians assume that these "secret gatherings... probably led to considerable guilt and conflict", which triggered collective hysterical disorders. Dance frenzies appeared most often during periods of crop failures, drought and social upheaval, leading Rosen (1968) to conclude that this stress triggered the hysteria, prompting desperate attempts at divine intervention through ritualized dancing, and often producing trance and possession states. Many symptoms associated with tarantism are consistent with sleep deprivation, excessive alcohol consumption, emotional excitement and prolonged physical activity. A German chronicle reports that during a dance frenzy at Strasbourg in 1418, "many of them went without food for days and nights" (Rust 1969, 20).
Viewed with the eyes of faith, however, it is a different matter. I put it to you, my brothers, that these episodes were not 'spontaneous', but highly structured and involved unfamiliar quasi-Lovecraftian sects engaging in strange customs and religious practises, that were defined as behavioral abnormality only by those who were incapable or unwilling to see any sense or value in their actions. 'Gibberish' as opposed to 'algebra', you could say.
The ringleaders of this merry mayhem did not reside in the principalities in which the epidemics occurred, but hailed from other territories, traveling through various Christian and Muslim communities as they sought out shrines and graveyards to perform in.
The largest and best documented dance plague, that of 1374 involving throngs of "dancers" in Germany and Holland, was precipitated by "pilgrims", who traveled, according to Beka's chronicle, "from Bohemia, but also from Hungary, Poland, Carinthia, Austria, and Germany. Great hosts from the Netherlands and France joined them" (Backman 1952, 331).
Radulphus de Rivo's chronicle Decani Tongrensis states that "in their songs they uttered the names of devils never before heard of... this strange sect." Petrus de Herenthal writes in Vita Gregorii XI: "There came to Aachen... a curious sect." The Chronicon Belgicum Magnum describes the participants as "a sect of dancers". The chronicle of C. Browerus (Abtiquitatum et Annalium Trevirensium) states: "They indulged in disgraceful immodesty, for many women, during this shameless dance and mock-bridal singing, bared their bosoms, while others of their own accord offered their virtue" (290).
The chronicles would seem to indicate on closer reading that these 'hysterical disorders' or 'outbreaks' were in fact highly structured displays of worship, that occasionally attracted locals. Radulpho states, "persons of both sexes, possessed by devils and half naked, set wreathes on their heads, and began their dances"; Johannes de Beka's Canonicus Ultrajectinus et Heda, Wilhelmus, Praepositus Arnhemensis: De Episcopis Ultraiectinis, Recogniti, states that in 1385, "there spread along the Rhine... a strange plague... whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds... danced and sang, both inside and outside of churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground".
Far from being a random unprovoked eruption of repressed sexual energy, the epidemic seems to have been deliberately spread by the cult's strolling players, the original Pandaemonium Carnival in all its motley glory. This is evident in a first-hand account recorded on September 11, 1374, by Jean d'Outremeuse in his chronicle La Geste de Liege, who states that "there came from the north to Liege... a company of persons who all danced continually. They were linked with brightly coloured clothes, and they jumped and leaped and fiercely clapped their hands."
Whether this 'white Voodoo' hailed from Africa, the East, or if its roots sprang from the shamanic ur-religion of our cro-magnon ancestors is impossible to tell with any clarity from the available texts and perhaps impossible to ever truly know. That its characteristics are seemingly identical in many respects with the secret traditions of the Haitian Bizango and Makanda societies is beyond question. The Voodoo societies trace their roots back to Guinea, Benin and places south, but also incorporate aspects of western esoteric mysticism such as the pentagram and the Masonic notion of the 'Great Architect'. The standard textbook definition of Voodoo (which simply means 'faith' in local parliance, a broad church by any standards) as essentially an Afro-Caribbean tradition brought over by the slave trade and over written with the images of Christian saints as a result of their forced Christianization doesn't even begin to cover all the bases.
Medical historian Jean Russell states that taranti would typically commence dancing at sunrise, stop during midday to sleep and sweat, then bathe before the resumption of dancing until evening, when they would again sleep and sweat, consume a light meal, then sleep until sunrise. A pattern immediately familiar to anyone who has witnessed the great annual Voodoo festivals of Souvenance, Saut d'Eau, Plain du Nord or Soukri, in which this ritual is usually repeated over four or five days, and sometimes for weeks on end, requiring a degree of organization and crowd control that would put Glastonbury to shame. German magistrates contracted musicians to play for participants and even serve as dancing companions. The latter were intended to reduce injuries and mischief during the procession to the St. Vitus chapel (Hecker 1970 , 4). Hecker states that the dancing mania was a "half-heathen, half-Christian festival", which incorporated into the festival of St. John's day as early as the fourth century, "the kindling of the 'Nodfyr,' which was forbidden by St. Boniface".
This ritual involved the leaping through smoke or flames, which was believed to protect participants from various diseases over the ensuing year. A central feature of the dance frenzy was leaping or jumping continuously for up to several hours through what they claimed were invisible fires, until collapsing in exhaustion.
This has echoes not only of Zoroasterism but of the original pagan folk traditions of Central Asia, suppressed by Islam but still practiced in parts of Afghanistan and Northern Iran to celebrate 'Noruz', the Muslim New Year. Coins and sweets are given out so that one might start the year with a sweet taste in one's mouth and participants make wishes by secretly tying knots in blades of grass before jumping over a bonfire while chanting what roughly translates as: "I give you my yellow and take your red" (ie: I get rid of all the crap in my life and take on the energy of the fire). Sometimes a fish, herbs or an egg are placed on the fire as an offering , the painted egg possibly the pagan origin of our modern Easter egg.
Not only were episodes scripted and directed by the ring leaders, but as the dance processions were swollen by spectators so the festivals began to take on the typical characteristics of any great rock event, a chaotic, swirling life of its own, the crowd including children searching for parents who were among the dancers, and vice versa (Haggard 1934, 187). Some onlookers were threatened with harm for refusing to dance (Backman 1952, 147). While many took part out of loneliness and carnal pleasure, others were curious or sought exhilaration (Rust 1969, 22). Hecker remarks that "numerous beggars, stimulated by vice and misery, availed themselves of this new complaint to gain a temporary livelihood", while gangs of vagabonds imitated the dance, roving "from place to place seeking maintenance and adventures". Essentially stealing your cameras and credit cards from the tents while you were out thrashing to Gogol Bordello or was it Iggy and the Stooges (*see 'Twilight of the Brits')?
Ergot poisoning (pronounced "er-get") has been blamed by the more mechanically minded (brother Nikolai among 'em) for the hallucinations and convulsions that accompanied the dance mania. Nicknamed St. Anthony's Fire, ergotism coincided with floods and wet growing seasons, which fostered the growth of the fungus claviceps purpura, which thrives in damp conditions and forms on cultivated grains, especially rye.
Essentially homegrown LSD, but please don't try this at home - laboratories exist for a purpose! Like supercooling really helps if you don't want your arms and legs to drop off from self-induced gangrene.
Convulsive ergotism can cause funky behavior and perhaps even premature enlightment, but chronic ergotism more commonly results in the loss of fingers and toes from gangrene, a feature not associated with dance manias (Donaldson et al. 1997, 203). Neither did outbreaks coincide with floods or wet growing or harvest periods. Quite the opposite. Tarantism was thought to occur only during July and August and was triggered by real or imaginary spider bites, hearing music, or seeing others dance and involved structured annual rituals.
Also, while rye was a key crop in central and northern Europe, it was uncommon in Spain and Italy. Quite possibly a few participants were hysterics, epileptics, mentally disturbed, or even delusional from ergot, as some holdouts stubbornly insist, but the large percentage of the populations affected, and the circumstances and timing of outbreaks, suggests otherwise. Episodes were pandemic, meaning that they occurred across a wide area and affected a very high proportion of the population (Lidz 1963, 822; Millon and Millon 1974, 22). Besides if the 'Tarantula Cult' drew the emotionally disturbed, the unstable and those suffering from poisoning or other physiological disorders, it was because they sought the strange piping music as the cure rather than the cause of their symptoms. "As there is scarce a disease to which the body is subject but what they think proceeds from the bite of the tarantula, this method of cure is practiced and with so much success that it seems miraculous and is esteemed the effect of the music" (Turnbull, H. Report to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, 1771).
'Miraculous' events of this order were as much of an affront to Enlightment philosophy as is evidence that would tend to support the defacto existence of magic and alchemy to clinical psychiatry and medicine today. In fact, modern psychiatrists and orthodox social historians routinely classify 'tarantism' as a form of hysteria due to its 'psychological' character and often erroneously claim those affected were mostly female (Sigerist 1943, 218; Rosen 1968, 204). This typically sublimated Freudian patriarchal cognicentricity in the guise of so-called 'rational thought' informs our view of the 'medieval' period and its attendant phenomena, best illustrated by the seemingly endless series of 'nunsploitation' movies kicked off by the breakthrough success of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971).
Based on Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, Russell's modish misreading of the possession phenomenon wraps its misogyny in the crushed velvet cloak of pop psychology. Male supremacy is reasserted through the notion that all the witchy 'freaking out' (if not all 'religion' in toto) is a symptom of female sexual hysteria, that could probably be put right by healthy recourse to a bit of the ol' in-out in-out with a 'real man' like Ollie Reed.
The slew of imitations that followed in its wake include such 'gems' as Walerian Boroczyk's Behind Convent Walls (1977), Joe D'Amato's The Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973) and Bruno Mattei's The Other Hell (1980), originally titled L'Altro Inferno or The Other Inferno, in a gloriously misguided attempt to pass itself off as a semi-sequel to Argento's own Suspiria sequel (sadly Bruno passed over while this blog was still in the pipeline. Lest we forget...).
Listing the titles of these potboilers alone would require more patience than I have, let alone sitting down to review them, but of The Devils' spawn one title stands out as a workable compendium of the sub-genre's pathological underpinnings: Flavia the Heretic (Gianfranco Mingozzi, 1974), aka Flavia - High Priestess of Violence!, aka Flavia The Muslim Nun, aka The Rebel Nun.
Set in 15th century Italy, the pic concerns a suitably 'frustrated' nun played by Florinda Bolkan (star of Don't Torture a Duckling! and Lizard in a Woman's Skin) incarcerated in a Byzantine monastery decorated with images of Saint Michael. She finds temptation not in the form of Ollie but in the unlikely Jewish scribe come handyman, Abraham, played by hunky Claudio Cassinelli (The Scorpion with Two Tails), leading to the usual series of visions and her defection to the Muslim cause. Along the way a naked nun emerges from the carcass of a dead cow, people get impaled and Flavia is eventually tied to a tree and skinned alive for her sins by the resurgent Christians thus restoring patriarchal order to the community. The demented pot pouri of elements includes the arrival of a black Madonna by boat as a cover for a Muslim sneak attack on unsuspecting Europeans and the appearance of the only 'Tarantula Cult' ever to have been named as such on screen.
And what of the real life Tarantula Cult? What are we to make of it on the basis of the available evidence?
An examination of a representative sample of medieval chronicles would tend to indicate the so-called 'medieval dancing epidemics' were in fact the work of a heretical or openly pagan sect, that briefly gained a mass following as its adherents made pilgrimages through Europe during years of turmoil. The symptoms (visions, fainting, tremors) are predictable for any large population engaged in prolonged dancing, emotional worship, and fasting. Their actions have been "mistranslated" by contemporary scholars evaluating the participants' behavior at a remove from its original cultural and temporal context and either unwilling or unable to deal with the possibility of the 'supernatural' existing in the first place, let alone playing an active or causative role in human affairs...
Chapter 5: That Which is Not Dead... [top]
And there it was, the bold outline of an arachnid daubed on the interior wall, eight legs splayed invitingly. It was impossible to tell in the half-light how old it was, but at a glance it looked old enough.
"Well I'm glad it turned out to be just a symbol after all."
"What I'm trying to say is it's not like we were ever going to run into real spiders up here. Tarantulas aren't indigenous to Southern Spain anyhow! There's nothing dangerous up here... 'cept maybe a few stressed out Catholics..."
I fell silent, which was a good thing because we all heard the sound of movement on the path at once and froze. Cowering back against the rock wall we watched in trippy disbelief as two panting attack dogs hurried by, paws crunching lightly over the gravel, working as a tightly co-ordinated team, their sleek silhouettes moving almost in unison.
"Nothin' dangerous, huh?"
"I mean it could be worse. At least we're downwind..."
We waited until we hoped the dogs were out of earshot before starting the other way down the trail. There were more lights coming on below us now and a moment later we heard the big wheel in the upper station lurch into motion. Ducking for cover behind the statue of Saint Dominic we watched the cablecar glide slowly towards us, the hiss of radios and the faint babble of Spanish rising out of the dark.
"Oh man, we're f****d ! We are so f*****g f*****d !"
"It's okay ! Just be cool. I mean what can they do ?"
The car was close enough now to make out it's occupants, two uniformed figures in flat military caps carrying what looked like flashlights or nightsticks or probably both.
"That depends, amigo, on who 'they' are..."
I was a year out of Afghanistan and had been in tighter scrapes, besides we outnumbered them but there was no way of telling in the half-light if the newcomers were packing or not. We didn't even know if we were breaking the law to begin with. Technically we were probably trespassing but there were no signs to say we were on private property so in the end we did the only thing that made sense. We gave ourselves up and pretended to be three stupid know-nothing gringos who had gotten lost in the dark, which we were, so our performance carried a certain conviction.
There was the usual unpleasantness at first, but once the goons with the flashlights realized we weren't just idiots but celebrity idiots, 'they' lightened up. Up close it became evident the newcomers weren't cops or run of the mill security guards. Their uniforms were too formal for that and bore odd flashes and badges - two silver keys crossed like bones with a crown set above them in place of a skull, a motif that I was to see again a few years later under somewhat different circumstances. As we waited for our captors to escort us to the lower station we gladhanded out the Marlboro reds, mustering with the aid of our local companion enough Spanish to break the ice. I never did find out what happened in the library but we did learn one thing.
The mountain was private property after all but it wasn't owned by any corporate entity, or even the Spanish state. In fact we weren't even under Spanish jurisdiction... The older of the two kept bitching about how they weren't paid nearly enough for their long hours and loyal service. His brother apparently worked for the civilian fuzz down the pike in Manresa and was not only better off but because he was paid by the local council his cheques arrived on time whereas our man here had to wait for weeks on end for the Vatican's legal affairs people to clear the necessary cashflow.
I commiserated, nodding silently as I tried to work out what the hell the Pope had to do with this and why the Holy See felt it necessary to patrol the privately administered enclave with attack dogs and two-way radios in the first place? I was starting to pull the pieces together in my head but I knew the real answers lay in Rome and on the strength of tonight's performance the prospect of having to break into the Vatican didn't appeal. Instead I decided to box smart and bide my time. I had friends in Rome but I was going to make sure I did my homework first and shore up my paranoid hypothesis with a few hard facts before putting it to 'il maestro'.
Chapter 6: The Other Side of the Mountain [top]
"So the Pope's in on it, huh? Part of this... what did you call it?"
Elizabeth narrowed her pale green eyes, digging in her sticks and drawing herself to a halt at the verge of the frozen lake. She wasn't much older than me, kind of cute too in a Liv Tyler-ish sort of way, but most of all she was a journalist with time on her hands and credit to burn at TF1. It was the winter of 1990. American forces were standing by off the coast of Kuwait and I was in Switzerland on official business. Hardware was playing in competition at Avoriaz but most of all I was hoping to see Dario, who had promised to come if we could only find some decent smoke to make his trip worthwhile. As we were approximately three thousand meters up a goddam mountain in what were fast approaching whiteout conditions, this was proving to be a tall order.
"And I suppose the Spanish government are in on it too, right?"
"They'd have to be to cede authority to Rome. Franco had a real hard-on for the Black Mother and this Escriva guy..."
"Josemaria Escriva. Founded an order called 'Opus Dei' after experiencing some kind of epithany on the mountaintop..."
"Dei. 'The Work of God' - they're supposed to be dedicated to encouraging lay Catholics to lead a more holy life but they're seriously secretive, mega-rich and have wormed their way right into the police force, army and government, certainly in Spain. Worse still 'they' have an agenda..."
"C'mon, you're making this up! If you want to pitch Dario, at least come up with something commercial. Something a little less 'out there', y'know?"
"But it's true! The whole worlds drifting to the right like we're sleepwalking or something, and these guys are a rear guard action helping tidy us along, a sort of Catholic Taliban..."
"The hard right in Afghanistan. They're supposed to be Muslims but they're backed by Saudi and American money, probably as a check on the power of the warlords but..."
I couldn't see Elizabeth's eyes any more but I could tell from her body language she wasn't buying it. Conspiracy theories don't always go over big with the opposite sex. Like Dario Argento movies.
"Anyway, they're big in Spain. Opus Dei, I mean. Not the Taliban..."
"And you don't think this whole thing is just your way of dealing with what happened to you out there, y'know, in the war? You're too arrogant to get religion, so instead you create a conspiracy to rationalize the chaos, to impose order on otherwise painfully random but essentially meaningless events?"
"Well... yeah. It had occurred ."
"Well you should listen to yourself sometimes."
"That's why I need proof. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. That's why I need to speak to Dario..."
"And you smoke too much...both of you..."
The light was draining from the day , visibility fading, the details of the landscape fading into opalescent nothingness. Far out on the ice a shadowy figure lurched unsteadily through the haze, a reeling outline that stumbled forward, slipped, then stumbled again.
"Okay. But I still don't see how I ended up in Montserrat after buying that statue or why the Catholic church is venerating a pagan goddess in the first place! And they're fixing on canonizing this Escriva dude any day now. Just like Saint Ignatius and Saint Dominic and their hearts were'nt exactly overflowing with what you'd call Christian charity. And that process, that whole routine of making someone into a Saint normally takes lifetimes. It requires proof of at least three miracles and that kinda 'extraordinary evidence' is pretty hard to come by, let me tell you!"
"Do you think we should help him?"
"That guy over there..."
I followed her eyeline, watching the bedraggled figure right itself, a freezing wind whirling down off the piste, beating against him as he tried to make headway.
"He looks sick..."
"Probably drunk. Or dying. Who cares? We're on a mission, remember! Unless we get back to Dario in the next half hour, there's no way il maestro's getting on that plane, no way in hell..."
The stranger took a half step, then his legs folded and he pitched face first into the snow.
"Oh my God..."
"He'll be fine..."
"It's Michael Cimino!"
The man, who single-handedly brought down United Artists, had been flown in to replace Brian de Palma as head of the jury after de Palma was recalled to LA, following the disastrous reception of The Bonfire of Vanities (1990). Nobody seemed happy about this, least of all Cimino, who had a sort of 'drowning, not waving' look in his eyes as he struggled to regain his footing.
"He made The Deer Hunter!"
"We can't just leave him!"
"And Dario co-wrote Once Upon a Time in the West! Where are your priorities!"
"What about Thunderbolt and Lightfoot! I mean, we have to at least get him back to his hotel..."
"Oh God, okay ..."
"C'mon... Get the other arm..."
So I never did see Dario or give him the statue that waited on the windowsill back at the lodge, watching the snow silently pile against the double glazing.
I had breakfast with Alejandro Jodorowsky the morning the Gulf War broke out. Alejandro was on the jury and avoided contact until after the awards had been announced, but I persevered. In the light of Dario's non-appearance, I was hoping the director of The Holy Mountain might be able to put things in their proper perspective. The storm and the impending Apocalypse, however, had put Jodo' in an unusually bad mood. Worse still, the voting hadn't gone his way. For him, Clive Barker's Nightbreed had been the film of the festival and 'the first gay fantasy movie'.
Instead the vote had been split between Tales from the Darkside and Hardware, which had received a big, jagged chunk of glass called the 'Prix science Fiction', the only major award of its run, the 24/7 CNN news making it seem more topical than it should have been in any sane or sensible world, but possibly pulling Mr. Cimino out of that snowdrift hadn't hurt - not that I was feeling particularly pleased about the decision.
Jacob's Ladder plainly stood head and shoulders above the rest of the competition despite a weak third act but was inexplicably ignored by the panel, possibly because they refused to accept that Adrian Lyne had made a decent movie. My judgement was probably a little skewed as I was only a year out of the war myself and couldn't help identifying with the protagonist.
Jodo' was galled by the decision, having reacted with antipathy to Hardware, which he found 'philosophically vacuous' and 'weakly derivative' of American action cinema, a genre he despised. I politely buttered my toast as he dismissed my work in a sentence before launching into a diatribe about the lack of respect shown by the critical community for gay cinema. About halfway through his monologue the Gulf War broke out and any further attempts at conventional conversation were abandoned as all eyes turned to the bank of monitors arranged behind us for the morning press conference. Sometimes in life the esoteric just has to take a back seat. It doesn't do mornings well, I know that much. Besides this wasn't any ol' morning.
Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos, had been let out of her bottle and things were really starting to slip out there. The future had taken root in the past and the rolling news was starting to look more and more like one of my bad dreams. So I sat there watching the same nightvision footage of heavy ordinance starbursting over Kuwait City as everyone else and then reached for a Lucky.
"Why do you smoke?"
I glanced up to find Jodo' fixing me with a withering basilisk gaze.
"You can never hope to be an artist unless you stop smoking. Art is resistance also!"
"Fuck art. That's why I smoke."
Pushing back my chair I said goodbye to the holy mountain and walked.
Chapter 7: Dying Light [top]
Sometimes the esoteric has to take a back seat. Sometimes the underground stream ducks out of sight so seamlessly you might forget it was there but it never dries up. It flows on beneath the soles of our shoes and out of sight behind the peeling wallpaper. It fills our dreams and those interstitial spaces between worlds that never quite connect with waking life.
My second feature, Dust Devil, had been put into production in the rush of euphoria that followed Hardware's initial boxoffice, but, by the time we reached post-production the writing was already on the wall for British independent cinema. Palace Pictures was experiencing grave cashflow problems that exerted a heavy toll on the production, and although Nik Powell and Steve Woolley continued to choose their projects wisely with The Player (1992), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Howard's End (1991) awaiting release, they found themselves hard hit by the recession and forced against the wall by the new corporate culture that was steadily taking control of the industry. When Polygram reneged on a deal to buy the group outright Palace were left with little choice but to file for administration, winding up the company in May 1992 and leaving debts outstanding all over Soho. Polygram promptly took over their back catalogue, including Dust Devil, which remained trapped in the distribution pipeline.
I never saw my fee for the production and was forced to pour my remaining funds into it's completion, bringing myself and the Shadow Theatre to the verge of bankruptcy, trying to finish the cut while fleeing the bailiffs from one safe house to another. By the winter of '92, I was on the street and after a grim night in a bus shelter in South London, Jane Giles, the Scala's new programmer, allowed me to take refuge in a room above the ticket office.
The Scala had developed some major problems of its own by then. The building's lease had expired and the unscrupulous landlord was doing his best to force out the cinema and the freaks that ran it. The expanding video market had eaten into the Scala's attendance, reducing the audience to a trickle, none of which was helped by the programming growing a little stale given the absence of new product or the necessary revenue to procure prints from abroad. The all-day-all-nighters had simply dried up as people preferred to abuse themselves in the privacy of their own homes and the auditorium had fallen into increasing disrepair. As King's Cross slid into decline the surrounding streets began to grow so crime-ridden few people wanted to risk getting beaten up just to catch a few scratchy old Italian horror flicks that everyone had seen a million times before.
At first we believed the advent of home video would bring about a revolution in mass communication, an age of wider public access and unprecedented freedom but in the end it was a flickering CCTV image that really brought the house down. The ultimate British horror film turned out to be a simple thing. One static wide angle and just one location - a shopping centre on the outskirts of Liverpool - and a cast of three, their backs turned towards camera: two children leading a toddler by the hand like friendly older brothers, the crowd flowing by oblivious, extras in an unwitting drama.
It was February 1994 and two-year old James Bulger had been abducted by two older boys from outside a butcher's store in Bootle. The rest of this simple, awful story is too well known to need re-telling but the key point, in this context, is that, once the two boys, who were charged with killing Jamie, were in custody, it was only a matter of time before talk turned to their viewing habits, a move encouraged by the police releasing to the press a list of video titles which their parents had recently rented. Although there was no discernable connection between the titles in question and the facts of the Bulger case itself, the reality that an emotionally disturbed ten-year old might have gained access to a string of violent '18' certificate horror movies in the first place gave the average punter, and in the end, the Conservative government an easy way out, a convenient explanation for an otherwise unthinkable crime. The abuse that at least one of the young killers had suffered at the hands of his own family was tacitly ignored while child psychiatrists pontificated endlessly on chat shows about the effects of 'violent media ' on fragile young minds.
The tabloids had a field day, reviving the popular myth of the 'video nasties' ('snuff' movies apparently available over the counter freely to kids somewhere in the phantom zone), their front pages sporting images of hysterical ad hoc neighbourhood watch committees rounding up horror titles and ceremonially burning the tapes on communal bonfires. It was like the Beatles versus Jesus thing all over again, only on VHS with tits and blood. A classic example of shooting the messenger. No-one could give Jamie back his life or begin to solve the social problems that had created the conditions of his murder. The last thing they wanted to do was examine their own hearts or the possibility that children could be capable of such a thing in the first place so instead the horror genre provided a simple, larger than life outside evil that could be safely tackled in public to show the leadership had the situation in hand and were taking the necessary measures to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
Liberal democrat M.P. David Alton skilfully rode the wave of opinion, using the Bulger case to lobby for tighter state controls over the mass media, threatening to introduce a measure which would have effectively banished most horror titles and perhaps all titles unsuitable for children from the shelves of British shops.
Under the circumstances I did the only thing I could. Putting on my surviving suit I infiltrated a sub-parliamentary committee hastily convened to debate the bill. I was the only filmmaker and, apart from a drowsy-looking Martin Amis, the only 'creative' person to appear before the committee.
At one point a number of box cover illustrations were passed around as an example of the sort of filth that the Alton bill was designed to put a lid on. Il Maestro's oeuvre was ably represented by Deep Red, Tenebrae and Inferno along with a host of other by now familiar titles including good ol' Flavia the Heretic, which had recently been re-released by Nigel Wingrove's Redemption Films. In fact, some of the other titles in the catalog tut-tutted over by the assembled politicos and social scientists included silent movies such as F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1921), Benjamin Christensen's Häxän (1921) and Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1931), which had fallen into public domain and been routinely tarted up by Nigel with S&M-orientated covers for the mail order market. I couldn't help remarking on the fact that a handful were old enough to have run into trouble once before: in Nazi Germany, where another set of 'idealists' tried to rid society of decadent art, a campaign that scarcely resulted in a kinder or gentler society. Of course I realize I should have kept my mouth shut but I was young then and new to politics.
"Well I happen to be Jewish..." spluttered one of the care workers, "and you have no right invoking the spectre of the holocaust at this table!"
I made a hasty, half-assed apology, but the damage had been done. Although anxious not to be portrayed by the right wing press as 'soft on crime', the Conservative government nonetheless recognized that tighter controls on film and video would inevitably impact on the lower end of an industry already hard hit by the recession and struggling to maintain a share of a marketplace dominated by American product. You need the low budget exploitation sector to maintain the ecology that makes the high end product, the E.M. Forster and Hugh Grant movies possible, so I put my case as succinctly as possible, appealing to the consumer/capitalist bottom line and avoiding any further reference to the thornier issue of so-called 'artistic' freedom.
When I was done Lady Howe of the Broadcasting Standards Commission (wife of Sir Geoffrey, whose ill-advised visit to Islamabad in the wake of the Rushdie affair had nearly gotten me killed back in 1990. * see 'KINGDOM COME !") looked me in the eye and summed my whole life up in a single rhetorical question.
"Are you a mother, Mr. Stanley?"
I wasn't. So she went into her 'well, I happen to be a mother' routine and after that it was all downhill. She'd said it all before but she said it again anyway and I'd heard it all before so I didn't bother listening. That's what politics is about in the old country.
Stanley Kubrick - with Eyes Wide Shut?
The last nail in the coffin was driven home by the Scala's projectionist, when he grassed on a long-standing practise of illegally screening Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (1971) as a 'surprise film' filling out a triple with Lindsay Anderson's If (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973). The bill drew a loyal core of local skins and wannabee droogs, who sometimes brought their staffies and bulls with 'em, but if the Scala came to rely on their unsteady revenue it was against the iron will of Kubrick himself, who had personally withdrawn the film from distribution in the U K. The projectionist earned a fat tip from the great auteur and guaranteed sheltered employment at an MGM preview theatre in return for testifying against the Scala's management in the subsequent legal action doggedly pursued by the reclusive genius, and just over a year after the death of its parent company, the cinema finally went dark.
King Kong (1933) was the last print to run through the gate at the ape house. Those of us still there were either drunk or weeping or both. But then I always cry when I see the big guy go through his jerky motions, progressing once more to Calvary atop the Empire State, confused, outflanked and outnumbered by the swooping, droning avatars of an uncaring new age. The beast took the fall as usual and Carl Denham proclaimed his eulogy, but I was already in the foyer stealing the posters, not wanting to see the lights go up.
The underground stream resurfaces in the next installment in which I am re-united with the Argento clan, learn what's lurking in the catacombs and find out just why the Black Mother is black after all! And it ain't anything to do with Malcolm X, Egypt, candle smoke or Arabic root words. All will be revealed in our rousing pre-Hallow'een finale!
Continued in part III
Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. On the subject of which I'd like to to acknowledge some of my sources...
- Bartholomew, R. E.. T dancing mania. Feminism & Psychology 8(2):173-183.
- Carson, R.C., J.N. Butcher, and S. Mineka. 1998. Abnormal Psychology and Modern life (tenth edition, 1998 update). New York: HarperCollins.
- Chibnal S. 2002 . British Horror Cinema. De Montfort university Leicester, Routlege NY
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