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So, I have this inappropriate habit of answering honestly when asked a question. I’ve failed personality tests this way – multiple times. And it’s not because I’m a terrible person (it’s because I’m an awful person ahahahaha – classic gags never retire), it’s just that I give these questions thought and merit. Maybe too much thought and merit.

During one uncomfortable icebreaker at a work function, my questions were: my name (easy, it was given to me a while ago), my job (easy, it was earned), and my favorite animal. I should have said dog. Dogs are great.

So cute!

I did not say dog. I said Protoceratops. But that requires an explanation, which then goes into the book by Adrienne Mayor that posits that it was the fossilized Protoceratops bones and nest/egg fragments, found by ancient Scythian nomads, that were the inspiration to the myth of the griffin. You see, the Protoceratops had a beak-like mouth, much like an eagle. The ridge was very delicate, so if it were to break apart from the head and fall near the back…

And there were about thirty people that realized too late that they had asked a mundane question that I was going to answer: honestly, painfully, specifically, and disgustingly.

So, what am I leading to?

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Because Haunted MTL asked me a question…

Oh, dang. Here we go. 

Oh, no, Parzz1val….thank *you* very much…

As part of the contributor’s profile, Parzz (and boss) asked a “simple” question: What is your monster of choice?

So, first of all – what is a monster?

Okay, no, we’re not going that far into it. I could, but I would never see life again and I would miss parts of it.

No, instead, we’re going to do something a little different. And it all has to do with identity.

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Since November, I’ve been a contributor to Haunted MTL, kicking around the tufts of cult classics, newer shrugs, and beautiful hidden gems. But this month, Imma get real, kids, because this is a weird month for me. You see as I am a gender-fluid –nonono, it’s cool, come back. I barely identify as Apache helicopter or whatever Millennials, Boomers, and Zoomers are making fun of these days.

Obviously I identify as a sharkicopter – duh.

But with who I am, “monster of choice” is not an easy “tea or coffee” pick for me. Since I’m the type to write an overly-complicated essays about surfing Nazis and HIV zombies, you can see I take my horror seriously.

Dead seriously

So, let’s explore the monsters who are the “others” of gender for this Women’s Day as I narrow down to my monster/villain of choice. Join me, won’t you?  

I should just say “dog”, right?

Brain Roll Juice

Gender and horror itself are interesting elements fused together more closely than most would think. There are masculine horror icons and traits – serial, insane, sadistic, carnal. Just as there are feminine – sorrowful, vengeful, jealous, and…well, a more complex insane, shall we say?

Masculine; we have the bloodthirsty hookman, lumbering Jason, sadistic Freddy, carnal Candyman, serial Jason. Their motives are not complex. They are killers, and they kill. On the other hand (more often seen in legends) feminine icons are more personal and complex. They are La Llorona, Bloody Mary, Kuchisake-onna, banshees, and the hag/witch (Baba Yaga, the Bell Witch, and the like). 

In movies, the roles can be pretty stringent – usually if a female villain/monster is introduced, she is the mate of the male – the supporting role. This is most apparent in the older films like Bride of Frankenstein, but even can be seen in films like Basketcase 2-3. They’re usually cis-gender and adhere to gender norms in one form or another. 

Even in legend, monsters are generally gendered via society’s gentle nudge. Bigfoot = hairy dude. Sea creature = scaly dude. Zombie = rotting dude. Vampire = fanged dude. Loch Ness Monster = dino lady. New Jersey Devil = a devil dude into some weirdass cakes.

You get my point.

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However, there are characters that fall into a more grey area, regardless of sex (very loosely: gender is how you feel, sex being the dangle or non-dangle parts). These are a few of my favorites, 7 to be precise, all taken from movies. Take note – there are some spoilers to old movies. 

The List

#7 – The Blob

Ew, gross. Imma just poke it with this stick.

“You can’t say ‘the blob’. it’s…like…just a blob. It’s not anything!” Glorious Spouse, 2020

Au contraire, mon petit fermier (my French may be rusty). But, yeah, I can count the blob. Why not? Just because of its absence of sex and gender doesn’t mean that I can’t identify and add it to the list, honey-pie.

In fact, the concept of the blob, as a growing, expanding, overwhelming alien creature, is a perfect metaphor for that cool gender-fluid anxiety that sometimes hangs around. Out of control, amorphous, and just seen by other people as “icky” and untouchable. It’s gross. People don’t want to explore it, they want to avoid it, and the more you avoid it, the larger it gets. The more suffocating it becomes because it’s a weird, gross problem that just gets in the way.  

Ew, it tastes like special snowflakes!!!

And like the end of the movie, it never really goes away. It can be quiet sometimes. It can lie dormant. But it’s never really gone, and it’s never really dead.

#6 The Cenobites

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Their new album is going to be LIT

I might get push-back on this one (well, maybe all of them, who knows). The cenobites have clearly defined sexes, yes, but when gender is concerned, they are fluid because gender just doesn’t matter. Some call them angels, others call them demons, but no one says that they adhere to social norms, especially not typical, standard American. 

Pinhead himself is small, lithe, and femininely sleek in his costume, the only imposing parts of him are his voice and presence. The female cenobite is not portrayed as a mate, but just another vessel of their main mission – the experience. Their whole fixation is on pain/pleasure in the experience of eternity, not hierarchy or power (I’m just focusing on the first movie).

#5 Kenny from “Terror Train”

I really dig this killer on a few different levels. I mean, haven’t we all wanted, at some point in our lives, wanted to kiss Jamie Lee Curtis and then turn into a human tornado?

And I know that Kenny might get flack as a character for a few different reasons – he has problems with mental illness, he has gender identity issues, he has murdering issues. However, he is a fascinating character as all identities.

Kenny is not just male but also female, “they” are a duality as much as Jamie Lee Curtis is the duality as “the last girl”. In fact, to call her a last girl leaves something to be desired because it’s not through circumstance that she survives, but her duality of masculine and feminine traits that keep her alive and unbroken.They are both unconventional, but Kenny fails to actualize where Jamie Lee accepts. Hence, human tornado. 

Those sequins are going to do such shrapnel damage…

Anywho, there are times that I wish I could fade into different personas as quickly as Kenny, and blend in with whatever crowd that happens to be there. Especially as Snake Man.

#4 Pumpkinhead

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Pumpkinhead is an interesting creature, as it is an interesting movie. It also made me feel feelings (how dare it). I’ll probably get into my P-Head love later (phrasing), but as I mentioned, this creature is interesting. Its role is very fascinating. In my intro I mentioned a few iconic horror figures – male and female. Masculine motivations tend to be gluttonous, wanton bloodlust and power over others. Mostly, stabby-stabby, kill-kill. Even Freddy, although he likes to play with his victims, it’s all a power thing.

Female figures can be stabby-stabs, but more often than not have more complex motivations for murder and mayhem. They are seeking revenge, or haunted by their bloody past. Much like this, Pumpkinhead appears as a manifestation of vengeance. And, maybe this is a stretch, as it is not even spurred its own revenge, but just a supporting figure (a tool) of someone else’s revenge, it is taking a more feminine role. Just like I mentioned many females in horror (and “normal”) movies are there only for the fact of supporting the male’s actualization and his character development. Pumpkinhead is the same. Well, apart from being a mate…

P-head is different from most villains, even “summoned” characters such as Betelgeuse. It gains no pleasure or pain from doing its work, it has only one task and has no say or agency. It has absolutely no power, nor does it seek it. It’s kind of sad, actually. It’s basically a murderous Meeseeks, but with even less agency and dignity.

This poor, sad sap…

#3 Angela from “Sleepaway Camp”

The multiple faces of Angela

This one has gotten some slack over the years and I can’t speak to all sides, nor should I, I can only speak to how I feel about this character and what Angela means to me. Let’s get over the reveal, okay? Go watch it if you haven’t.

The only face everyone remembers

So, Angela the Killer is relatable because “she” is forced into both worlds, while belonging to neither. I also want to point out that “she” has been called trans by some, but I’m not sure if that’s even inherently correct as this was not by choice. Angela is attempting to navigate as what she/he/it believes is required of her/him/it, enduring some of the most negative aspects of being “female” (sexual harassment, bullying, predatory behavior).

The murders are a result of the culmination of the abuses Angela faces and the confusion of never being accepted as she/he/it truly is. Every time Angela begins to open up, she/he/it is again met with societal expectations and norms that she/he/it can’t adhere to, and the ultimately crushing disappointment when others can’t accept that.

Look, it’s not me, it’s you…

I’m not saying that killing everyone was the right move…I’m just saying that I think I get it.

#2 Jaws

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Jaws…Jaws is many things, all in one. It is a force of nature, a shark with a badass scar, a mother seeking revenge, a…voodoo spirit seeking revenge…Jaws itself is a strange a beautiful enigma…and also really good-bad sequels featuring beautiful Lea Thompson and not-giving-a-flip Michael Caine.

But I want to concentrate on Jaws #1. The original. One of the reasons that I love the movie (a million times more than the book) is that it’s an examination of male identity – from father/authority figure, scientist/intellectual, to…well, Quint. 

But Jaws, itself, is more of a force of nature, an impending doom, than an example of masculinity. It tests their strengths. It prods their weaknesses. It is more monster than man, with only primitive motivation of survival, and perhaps, the hunt.

You could make a claim that Jaws also encompasses a more aloof masculinity, but, again in my own opinion, it is a primordial being of hunger and chaos – sex and gender are too complex for what it represents. Almost like a primeval Leviathan, rising from the bowels of the ocean to cast down the modern man.

Jesus!!! Two mouths!???

Too bad for it that Roy Scheider was a legend, with Richard Dreyfuss on the sidelines, ready with high-fives.

And the Monster of Choice is:

Glorious

#1 T-Rex from “Jurassic Park”

Here we are. Surprised? Don’t be.

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Apart from being one of my favorite films (and a friendship deal-breaker if you don’t like), it has the best female villains.

They just happen to be dinosaurs…

And are also not entirely female

It’s true. At one point, Dr. Grant finds egg shells and realizes that the dinosaurs are changing their own sex to reproduce (“life will find a way”). While this is a bit of a throw-away line to go into the greater “playing God” theme, it’s a very cool and powerful moment for the creatures themselves. In nature there are animals that can change sexes, “gender roles” and other social dynamics. It’s pointing to the fact that it’s natural. We evolve. We change as a species. It’s okay. To be stagnant is to be the death of our lineage, we must adapt. In the movie, it was the sex of the dinosaurs. For humanity, maybe it will be something akin to gender.

But just as a movie concept, and going back to monsters, that makes the T-Rex incredibly powerful. Not only did she successfully fight for her freedom from forced confinement and exploitation, she can change herself. She can become he, and vice-versa. She has that agency and choice to, which is something lacking by others on the list. She can physically alter her body and hormones by her own will, for the continuation of her lineage and legacy.

By the end, she establishes her boundaries, reclaims her own body, and asserts her own path. And if that isn’t one of the most powerful characters in cinema history, boy, I sure don’t know who is.

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When not ravaging through the wilds of Detroit with Jellybeans the Cat, J.M. Brannyk (a.k.a. Boxhuman) reviews mostly supernatural and slasher films from the 70's-90's and is dubiously HauntedMTL's Voice of Reason. Aside from writing, Brannyk dips into the podcasts, and is the composer of many of HauntedMTL's podcast themes.

Movies n TV

Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.

Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.

Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.

The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.

Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.

When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.

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What worked

I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.

Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.

On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.

But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.

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We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.

And the same can be said for Isabella.

Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.

Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.

What didn’t work

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If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.

Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.

Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.

So, how was the first episode?

The story

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We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.

We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.

The teens end up not being thrilled either.

Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.

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All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.

What worked

For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.

It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.

That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.

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More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.

This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.

What didn’t work

All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”

Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.

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It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.

But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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[USR 4.2]

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