Spooky Season hits a little different in 2020. Even if we have cognitively reckoned with the overwhelming reality of the pandemic, the election, America’s history of racist violence, and climate change. Even if we have a strategy for how to manage this, the dread and uncertainty still seep in during quiet moments. Our bodies know. This year, the spectre of death isn’t a kitschy front-yard decoration — it’s real and omnipresent. After six straight months in my Brooklyn basement apartment with little reprieve, my wife and I headed upstate to a cabin in the woods for the month of October. The pastoral setting of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and bonfires reminds me of the natural domesticity of the first third of 2018’s living heavy metal poster Mandy, complete with the spectre of future incursion by both the mundane evil of fragile egos and demonic forces. Instead of hunkering down and trying to block the world out, I’m meditating on the alchemical marriage of Mandy and Red Miller and how we balance or even transmute our internal chaos amidst inherently traumatizing times.
My first memory of Halloween takes place just a few years after Mandy is set, one of the last years of my own pastoral and rapturous respite in a northern New Jersey home with a yard that abutted a small stream and undeveloped forest. In a year’s time we would move to a new town, where I wouldn’t really end up adjusting or making new friends, leading eventually to my status as an “at-risk youth” in a number of ways. It wasn’t my worst or most invasive trauma, but it was my earliest encounter with a sudden rupture that I could not make sense of, which would set the tone for how I encountered turbulent transitions for years to come. But in that first town, which had its own apple orchards and pumpkin patches, I didn’t yet know isolation or chaos. I knew laying down in the yard and letting hundreds of golden oak leaves blow off their branches in the October breeze, blanketing my body in a way that I almost felt merged with the earth. Every year, a week before trick-or-treating, the town sponsored an annual Fright Night, where the older kids decorated a haunted path in the park adjacent to the elementary school. At dusk, I remember walking through the stretched cotton cobwebs where pre-teens in skeleton and ghost costumes would jump out from behind boulders, trees and wagons. It was truly a scare, but one that felt like something of an initiation. Afterwards we were rewarded with powdered donuts and dixie cups of cider. There was something comforting about it, the ritual of a safe encounter with the existential threat of mortality, supported by community. One day I could don the skeleton costume, and decorate the path for my younger sister. Except I didn’t, because we moved to a new town, where more realistic threats emerged.
Mandy the movie, a rock-operatic composition in three movements, is known as a phantasmagoric vehicle for Nicholas Cage’s epic vengeance freakout, but again my own love of this movie is more about those scenes before he sets off in his disintegration into mythic rage. There is one scene in particular that surfaces for me as a memory: the couple sit in a row boat in the middle of the frame, dwarfed by the expansive water, the rocky outcroppings, and Shadow Mountains beyond. The lake cradles and buffers their languid intimacy as the camera pans out. In another scene, Mandy makes her way into the forest with slow strides, almost as if she is evading something. She is in communion with the enormity of nature in a trance out of Picnic at Hanging Rock (another film where women move languorously through natural settings in ways both contemplative and wild). She comes across a dead fawn. Is it an omen? A memento mori? Either way, it triggers something in her. Really feeling the reality of death can heighten the vividness of the present moment. I was borderline euphoric with gratitude in April, at the height of the pandemic in Brooklyn, becoming newly aware of the birds in my yard and their conversations. That vividness is echoed in the swaths of rich color that saturate Mandy and Red’s domestic sanctuary. Their cabin made of windows is not built to shelter them against the natural world but to let it in, as washes of ambient sound and light warm the couple. But these scenes of the bond they share, their embeddedness in the environment, and the tranquility of the life they’ve built is hedged against the knowledge that it can not last, and this impermanence is perhaps part of why it feels so affecting to begin with. The causes and conditions align villainously to disrupt their balance. It’s a new dawn: Reagan, Jesus freaks and other tides of dominator culture are coming.
We tell stories to ourselves to make sense of overwhelming circumstances. In fact, some theories of trauma cite the ability to create a coherent story of what has happened to us during a traumatic event as a big part of whether the event becomes internalized as PTSD. We tell stories to process. When a memory of childhood trauma is surfaced when she discovered the decomposing fawn in the woods, Mandy tells the story of her father instructing her to kill baby starlings to Red, who listens compassionately. Having an engaged witness to our pain, someone who can withstand it without trying to fix us, is a balm when struggling with the flashbacks trauma tends to create. Red receives her story because he too seems to have known powerlessness. The animated interludes that reference Mandy’s illustrated fantasias and her love of cosmic pulp novels hint that a part of her power is in her self-awareness as a character in a story, a story which she does have some agency in shaping. After what we can assume by her scar to be difficult times, she has chosen solitude, domesticity, creativity. She can’t change what she has been through but she can have a role in the coherence of her story. Her love of heavy metal, stories of otherworldly and demonic forces, point to the roiling world within, which she now has the tools to transmute through striking and painstaking visual art. She does this rather than repudiate these foreboding inner worlds. She is in charge of how they are expressed, able to consciously shape fantastical settings rather than feel subject to them.
I know fellow lovers of action and horror cinema who think director Panos Cosmatos didn’t go far enough in subverting the genre: too often in movies women are flattened and function as merely a driver of or justification for a man’s urges. I can understand this view but I also have to reckon with one of the most exhilarating scenes I have ever witnessed. While for many the catharsis in the film might come from Red Miller crushing the predator Jeremiah’s head in his hands with orgasmic glee, I’m not talking about that moment. Or the chainsaw fight. I’m talking about when Mandy tilts her head back and laughs hysterically at narcissistic guru Jeremiah Sands after he has prepared her to be converted into his not so merry band of subjects. It was exhilarating because many women, often through life experience but sometimes also through the counsel of others, know what a risk it can be to reject the advances of such a man. We learn to dissemble, to let them down easy, lest we permeate their fantasy world and drive them to rage. But Mandy doesn’t give a shit and there is something absolutely thrilling about this. We know what this will mean for her, but what are the other options? To be inducted by rape into the cult and ferried off by 70s sex-pest van into the night as another one of Sands’ playthings? Or were people hoping that it would be Mandy who would be the one to wield the battle axe? I just feel like I’ve seen that movie, and instead something much deeper and stranger happens. The laugh is dangerous from the perspective of self-protection, an expression of the reckless self-sovereignty of someone who knows what is at stake. Mandy is not just the unformed projection of Red driving the action through her demise, she is the world in which the rest of the movie takes place, dispersed into the air and the scenery. Bonded couples often co-regulate to the point of functioning almost as a symbiotic organism, and the sudden wrenching apart of this union creates an explosive grief. Red can’t reincorporate her love and is flung into the hyper-reality of cannibal bikers, burning churches, and an encounter with his own animal nature in the form of an uncaged tiger. He fights to regain control after traumatic rupture through revenge, the time-worn method of seeking balance when community-sanctioned justice is not on the table. And what’s surprising is how completely permeated this last part of the film is with sorrow and yearning. This isn’t empty destruction, it’s the abjection of deep grief, one that is reverberating through the culture right now.
Though the Halloween of present day seems largely reduced to a consumer holiday, this might be the year to reclaim its more archetypal position as a sort of pressure valve for existential dread. With its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, Halloween was once expressly a time of transition from the harvest season to the austerity of winter. This time was considered something of a portal between worlds, a moment when the souls of those who had died during the previous year could pass on to their final destination. It was both an ending and a beginning as part of the cycle of eternity. There’s something cyclical and eternal about the 80s aesthetic of Mandy, which is both very specific and feels like it could be right now. Our current culture flattens the markers of time as signals of subculture. Are you an axe-wielding metal lumberjack or an acid-soaked demon biker? Or do you tend towards the horror-folk nomadic religious cult side of things? When we don’t have shared forms for collective mourning, grief begins to distort time. Our yearning for the past can drive us to MAGA madness, or it can teach us to begin once again to acknowledge and grieve our losses, lest they fail to cross over.
There is a dense and complicated theory about our nervous system, evolution, threat detection, and how our bodies and minds connect to metabolize stress and trauma. It’s called polyvagal theory. I won’t go too deeply into it except to say that it explains why calm can be foreboding to people whose nervous systems were calibrated to chaos in their formative years. The tranquility of the first third of Mandy exists in relationship to the adrenaline soaked disintegration into a melee of blood and acid of what follows. The nervous system of the traumatized person, one whose coping mechanisms have been overwhelmed by something beyond their control, can come to crave what others consider overstimulating, to find it soothing because it is what has come to be expected. In the years following our move, I began listening to industrial music and doom metal with the speakers turned down into the springs of my mattress to shake myself into a sense of OK-ness. To fall asleep, I often needed to play a horror movie in the background. In the course of my animal body, evolved over millenia, finding regulation and healing, I needed to match my inner state with outer chaos. My threat-detection system had gone haywire, and I grasped unknowingly for balance in the ways available to me. Through a decade of intense Tibetan meditation, I have learned to tolerate quiet and the sensations of my body. But the storm-tossed dance of finding footing is ongoing, and a movie like Mandy feels like a new way to calibrate, like the distorted reverberation of an axe-shaped tuning fork.
Every time I’m about to quit therapy, because I’m just so tired of circling back on the same distant events that seem to be leaking a toxic miasma like a ruptured oil tanker sunk to the bottom of the ocean, I tend to have a breakthrough. This month, as it began to get darker just a little earlier and the leaves began to turn, I struck on trauma gold and, after months of maintaining my self-willed cool facade, I started shaking and crying and yelled at the camera on my laptop, I Just Can’t Live In A World Where There Is No Accountability. It was in reference to, well, everything. Maybe specifically living in a world where horrible things are happening by a messy and intractable combination of malice and neglect. Malice, of the Jeremiah Sands variety feels almost more manageable, because my inner Red can fantasize about annihilating the perpetrators. The terrible things that can happen when people just aren’t paying enough attention to their actions, when some people and their pain is simply considered unimportant, that’s the existential terror of having to ask if you even really exist. When I feel something, like my inner numbness moved to empathy for Red’s anguish as Mandy’s burnt skull disintegrates into ashes, it’s like blood coming back into a frozen limb that went cold in order to survive the long winter of the past twenty some-odd years. I can’t return to the orchards of my childhood, and I can’t change what happened. But my animal body is seeking balance. It wants to heal. Maybe this is a tall order as the world that feels like it is cascading into collapse. This Halloween, I’m going to see if I can honor this Autumnal time of transition’s original purpose and name the staggering losses of the previous year, lest they seep out and haunt.