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January 3, 2010

*Spoilers* Paranormal Activity *Spoilers*
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:26 PM *

Paranormal Activity is supposed to be the Scariest Movie Ever.

It was also famously made for just $10,000.

I’m planning to see it on DVD right after supper. Then we’ll discuss it here with SPOILERS.

Did I mention there would be spoilers?

Much like the Cloverfield discussion, I intend this to be a What Do You Do In These Circumstances type of discussion.

Sorry, no SPOILERS yet. I said that I was going to see it after dinner.

Welcome to the Paranormal Activity round-table discussion. Joining us tonight are Sam and Dean Winchester, both experienced demon hunters…

Sam Winchester: Hey
Dean Winchester: Yo!

From the FBI, representing the more traditional law-enforcement point of view, we have Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Dana Scully: I’m sure there’s a rational explanation.
Fox Mulder: We have to keep an open mind about this.

And, for the Church, Peter Crossman, Knight Templar, and Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares.

Peter Crossman: Just one demon? Just one Templar.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Credo in unum Deum, pal.

And I’m your host, Jim Macdonald, for Making Light. I’d like to welcome our guests tonight. I’ll be live-blogging the discussion. Folks who want to ask questions of the panel are invited to do so in the comment thread.

JDM: I’ve been hearing about this film for months. Supposedly, while watching it (as the song about the Battle of Prestonpans goes),

Some wet their cheeks, some filled their breeks, and some for fear did fa’, man

Sam: You’re kidding, right? Our pilot episode was scarier. And I’m just talking about the part before the credits.
Dean: If a total douche like Micah could have a girlfriend that hot …
Scully: What interests me far more is the provenance of this film. What was the chain of custody? I see a credit to the San Diego Police Department. Was this officially released? Where are the missing parts?
Crossman: The fellow, Micah, was a day trader in 2006? That gives him a motive right there.
Mulder: Motive for what? If he’s running some kind of stock fraud that’s a federal matter and we’d have jurisdiction.
Scully: That would be a first.
Mulder: Remember the postman? He was a federal employee, so we had jurisdiction there.
Crossman: No, I mean motive for selling his soul to the devil. I think we can rule out ghosts here.
Scully: It also leaves hoaxes.
Dean: There’s no need for him to sell his soul to the devil. I’m not saying that he didn’t, but look, he sees the market is going to crash. What’s big? Internet porn. He’s setting up a camera in his bedroom, aimed at his hot-chick girlfriend right there in bed.
Sam: You are a total perv.
Dean: Want to bet I can’t find those videos?
Sam: You’d just love to do the research.

JDM: Jennifer Evans (comment #5) brings up an interesting point. If you’re going to hire an expert, and that expert gives you some advice, it would be a good idea to follow that advice. What does the panel have to say?

Mulder: Micah had the typical ‘skeptic’ mindset. He didn’t believe that an expert on the paranormal could possibly know what he was talking about.
Dean: That was a totally smooth move on ol’ Micah’s part. Dr. Exposition says “Whatever you do, don’t use a Ouija board.” His girlfriend says, “I want you to promise you’re not going to buy a Ouija board.” What does he do? He goes and gets a Ouija board.
Sam: It’s what we call “too stupid to live.”

JDM: Which he, in fact, doesn’t. Father Crossman, I believe you’ve used Ouija boards yourself in some of your cases.

Crossman: Please call me Pete. Yes, I’ve used Ouija boards, but I’m a trained professional.
Sister Mary Magdalene: The big objection was that using a Ouija would provide an opening for the demonic presence. This is silly. First, we know that the young lady was oppressed by demons from her youth; it was already there. Second, if you’re looking for openings, she and her young man were ‘living in sin.’ What’s a Ouija board going to do?
Scully: Listen to yourselves. You’re talking about this event as if demonic presence was proven. So far, all we’ve seen is adequately explained by poltergeist activity at most.
Sister Mary Magdalene: There’s a simple test. Run an exorcism. If it’s still around afterwards, it’s a poltergeist.
Sam: Speaking of “too stupid to live,” did Katie notice that her boyfriend was researching demons in a book of Dover clip-art?
Scully: I find it hard to believe that there’s only one demonologist in the state of California. So when their guy is out of town they can’t get anyone.
Mulder: There are four thousand, nine hundred and twenty three, to be exact.
Scully: In California?
Mulder: No, just in the greater San Diego area.

JDM: I see another question from the audience. Xopher, #10. Where did they get the weird ideas about exorcism.

Sister Mary Magdalene: The weird thing is that they don’t try an exorcism at all. That would absolutely be my first step, but they don’t take it. At a minimum, I’d light a candle to the Virgin, but do these people? No.
Crossman: I’d have to concur with that. The very simplest exorcism, one that anyone can do, is say “In the name of Jesus Christ, be gone.” It’s that easy.
Scully: That only works if the person is a believer. There’s nothing in this film to show that either of the main characters believed anything.
Crossman: Regardless of whether the civilians believe, I can tell you, every demon I’ve ever met has been downright devout.

JDM: A question for Special Agent Mulder, or the Winchesters, from Ursula L, #12: Would you care to comment on non-Catholic methods of demon control?

Sam: We’ve found a number of methods that work. The shotgun loaded with rock salt is crude but effective, as is the continuous line of salt across thresholds. There are other weapons: Sam Colt’s revolver, Ruby’s knife—
Crossman: The Spear of Antioch, Arthur’s sword—
Mulder: There’s a demonic entity in Malaysia, the Berbalang, that’s almost exactly identical in its actions and effects as we saw in the San Diego Fetherston/Sloat event. The usual weapon against that entity is the lime-juice coated kris. The kris, itself, is a sacred object, inhabited by a spirit, which can be either good or bad—
Sister Mary Magdalene: I’m noticing an awful lot of phallic imagery in the demon-fighting weapons.
Mulder: Shinto priests have, as two of their main functions, purification and exorcism. The Karen Davis case in Tokyo might have ended very differently if she’d asked for help.
Scully: You mean the Grudge?
Mulder: Yes. The Grudge case. Every human culture that has a belief in evil spirits, and that’s nearly universal, has a way of dealing with them. Buddhists believe that both the spirit and the person are negatively affected by their interactions, and Buddhist exorcism aims at reaching an agreement between the two parties in which they leave each other alone. That’s a win-win situation.
Sam: The psychic, Dr. Exposition, specifically rejected that method. Micah suggested giving the spirit what it wanted, but he said, ‘No, what it wants is Katie.’
Dean: Hell, I want Katie and I’m not even a demon.
Mulder: From which we can tell that Dr. Fredrichs isn’t a Buddhist. The Taoists, now, believe that evil spirits will run away when faced by the good, so what would be required in Fetherston/Sloat would be for them to be good.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Doing the things that are illegal in twenty states, outside of marriage, isn’t very good.
Dean: Neither is the Internet Porn. Micah’s Sexy English Majors Livecam.
Mulder: If you don’t mind. Among Muslims, opinion is divided. Some believe that jinn, unseen creations of Allah, don’t bother humans at all. Others believe that they may, and in that case one needs to strengthen one’s spiritual life to stop the interference. And others believe that possession is possible, in which case an Imam needs to read passages from the Quran to the person until the jinn is persuaded to leave.
Sister Mary Magdalene: The thing in common in all the methods that work—
Dean: Shotguns work, Sister.
Sister Mary Magdalene: —is becoming a better person and reading or hearing sacred texts.

JDM: Special Agent Scully, you mentioned poltergeists in connection with this event. Could you expand on that?

Scully: Well, to begin, poltergeist activity may be perfectly natural, if still poorly understood. In this particular case, the initial manifestations took place around a young girl, and poltergeists usually start in the close proximity with a peri-menstrual female. They manifest through sounds, hence the name: Polter-geist, noisy ghost. They move small objects. And they’re often associated with fire-starting, as in this case. My theory is that they are merely vibrations. Slow vibrations produce sounds. Faster vibrations, fires. Motion of objects, for example furniture, or keys, or what-may-have you. Knocks may seem to have intelligence behind them; they can answer questions. But often those turn out to the be spurious. Hoaxes.
Dean: Girls just wanna have fun.
Scully: Take the Fox sisters—
Mulder: My parents did not name me after the Fox sisters.
Scully: —in the middle of the 19th century in western New York. Notoriously, they were able to crack their toe joints at will, creating the appearance of ‘spirits’ who answered questions with the classic one-for-yes-two-for-no code.
Crossman: However much the early stages of the Fetherston/Sloat event may have looked like poltergeist activity, which is mainly harmless, in this case it led to at least one death.

JDM: Another question from the audience. Teresa, #29, brings up the Blair Witch event. Would anyone on the panel care to address that, in light of the Fetherston/Sloat case?

Sam: Too stupid to live.
Dean: Into the woods with no plan and no backup plan? We have to wing it sometimes, but usually we have at least an idea before we start. Even without supernatural causes I wouldn’t sell those guys life insurance.
Crossman: The Blair Witch solution is pretty obvious. Up to the point of the first disappearance any of us could have pulled all of them out with no casualties. The watercourse solution is good if you don’t have a map and compass. With a map and compass, starting at your assumed location, head toward the nearest road so that you’ll hit it at about ninety degrees, then start hiking.
Scully: The other solution is to shelter in place. They had at least one smoker with them, so they had the means to make fire. Start three widely-spaced smoky fires and wait for rescue.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Hike or stay, regardless, sing hymns until you’re out of the woods.
Crossman: Battle Hymn of the Republic would be good, and everyone knows the words. Also, overnight, set watches. You don’t need the tents. It isn’t raining. All they do is limit your vision and mobility when things get exciting. Two awake, always in sight of each other, one asleep in a blanket-roll on the ground between them, and every two hours one bunks down while the one who was sleeping goes on watch.
Mulder: Tobacco was sacred to the Native Americans in that region. Use it for that purpose.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Tobacco is bad for you. I didn’t see anything that an Act of Contrition, a quick exorcism and a prayer to the Virgin wouldn’t fix.
Crossman: And if it was human agency rather than supernatural agency, a .45 revolver. Bottom line on Blair Witch: Easy problem; obvious solution. Let’s move on.
Sam: Too stupid to live.

JDM: Question from the audience: Teresa #32: Why so many demonologists in San Diego?
I see another hand back there … Dawn Summers. Dawn, do you have an answer to that question?

Dawn: (from the audience) The demonologists live in San Diego to be close to the former Sunnydale Hellmouth.

JDM: Thank you, Ms. Summers. That sounds entirely reasonable. Do you think there’s a connection between the Fetherston/Sloat demon and Sunnydale’s demons?
Dawn: (from the audience) No, ours were corporeal demons. The San Diego demon, not so much.

Mulder: It’s a cover-up.

JDM: What?

Mulder: The tapes have been tampered with.
Scully: Could you explain? While what was causing the events can be debated, we have—
Mulder: We have what we’re meant to see. I’ve located three versions of the final tape. Three different, mutually contradictory, versions.

JDM: Which are?

Mulder: Version one. The one we’ve all seen. Micah is hurled at the camera, then Katie eats him.
Dean: I wouldn’t mind having Katie eat me.
Crossman: That demonstration of superhuman strength is the only thing in the event that suggests demonic activity.
Sister Mary Magdalene: I would have said the burning Ouija board was a clue.
Scully: Just more poltergeist activity.
Mulder: If you please. Version two: No Micah. Instead, Katie walks into the room and cuts her own throat on-screen.
Crossman: If we’re looking at a possession, then the suicide doesn’t count as a mortal sin. Nor would her apparent murder of Micah off-screen count, since a possessed individual doesn’t give consent.
Mulder: The presence of two endings implies more endings. I have seen a third ending, which I consider authentic. In it, Katie apparently kills Micah off-screen, as in the first version, using the knife, as in the second version. She then appears on-screen, and sits against the side of the bed holding the knife. Some time later a San Diego police officer enters the room, and, not knowing that the room is being video-recorded, and seeing her armed, shoots and kills her.

JDM: Why do you consider that one more likely than the others?

Mulder: It’s the only one that makes sense. There are motives.
Scully: You’re sounding like me. When did you ever want your supernatural events to make sense?
Sam: He’s right, though. Supernatural events make sense. It’s just that the sense may not be instantly obvious.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Possessions aren’t usually an attack on the possessed person. Instead, they’re an attack on the faith and morals of some other person. This could have been a move to tempt that police officer to deadly sin.
Dean: Or, Katie found out that Micah lost the house by playing the stock market and was planning to make back the money by selling video of her having wild monkey sex on the internet.
Sam: Dude, we saw him turn off the recorder.
Dean: No. He just stuck a piece of electrician’s tape over the red ‘recording’ light, then deleted that file after he burned it to disk.
Mulder: Consider this: Katie had never mentioned this haunting, a haunting that had supposedly been going on since she was eight years old, in all the years that she’s known Micah, even after they’d moved in together. Not until just before he buys that video recorder. I think it’s possible that she was the one who originally suggested that he buy it and record the events. Katie had an old photograph of herself. She partly-burned it and hid it in the attic herself, and waited for the moment for Micah to find it.
Sam: So Hot Grad Students at Home was her idea?
Mulder: Not necessarily, though she would have known Micah well enough to know what he would do next. Her plan would have been to kill Micah, take the insurance money, and move on. She would be suspected of any murder, so she made sure she was a great suspect, and arranged her alibi in the form of Not Guilty By Reason of Demonic Possession.
Scully: Is that a real plea?

JDM: A question from the audience, Ursula L #80: Special Agent Mulder, could you be a bit more specific on Not Guilty By Reason of Demonic Possession? Has that ever been used in Federal Court?

Mulder: Not in Federal court, no. But murder, the charge we’re talking about here, is a state crime, and would be tried in a California court. The FBI’s interest came from the possibility that the demon crossed state lines in order to possess Ms. Fetherston. Not Guilty by Reason of Demonic Possession is a special case of the Insanity defense. If the defense called a demonologist as an expert to testify that she was possessed and unable to control her actions, escaping criminal responsibility under M’Naghten.
Sister Mary Magdalene: I call shenanigans.

JDM: We can return to Not Guilty By Reason of Possession in a moment. I want to get back to a point that was raised earlier. Special Agent Mulder, you suggested that Ms. Fetherston hadn’t been oppressed since her youth, and this is part of the proof that she was making it all up. Let’s go to the tape:

Micah: I understand where you’re coming from—just remember too, that you didn’t exactly warn me about this kind of stuff before we moved in together, so I think I have a little bit of say in what we do.
Katie: I get that, but honestly what was I supposed to say? On our first date, ‘Hey, I think there’s a demon that I think has been following me.’
Micah: No, but maybe on our fifteenth date, or our thirtieth date, or when we decided to live together… that might’ve been a good thing to bring up.
Crossman: Well, that doesn’t contradict the theory that Katie had made the entire thing up recently. But ‘doesn’t contradict’ is a long way from ‘confirms.’
Sam: Katie claims that her sister could confirm she saw something back when they were both young girls.
Dean: The sister was five at the time. She’d confirm that there were monsters under the bed or in the closet, too.
Sam: I was five when I saw monsters in the closet and Dad gave me a .45….
Sister Mary Magdalene: A .45? That’s way too much pistol for a five-year-old. I would have given you a .32, or a .38 at most.
Dean: With monsters what you want is the stopping power.

JDM: Which, while fascinating, is waaaay off the topic.

Crossman: Whether the sister saw anything or not, Micah never asked her.
Sam: There’s the Ouija board. When the planchette moves by itself then the board bursts into flames. Micah was with Katie when that happened and neither one was present in the room.
Dean: And when Micah sees that, his first move isn’t to call a demonologist, or a priest—
Crossman: Thanks
Dean: —it’s to figure out what the Ouija board spelled out, then Google on it, and go to the web page, where he finds there was this other chick who had the same symptoms as Katie, only she got exorcised, and she died. So he says, ‘No exorcisms.’
Sam: Because he believes everything that’s on the web. Too stupid to live.
Dean: Along with being a major douche.
Crossman: We’ve suspected for a long time that demons put up their own web pages.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Are we saying that there wasn’t any possession at all? Then how do we explain the sounds, the motion, the footprints….
Mulder: Everyone’s forgotten Amber.

JDM: Amber? Refresh my memory.

Mulder: The girl who comes over to string beads one night.
Dean: Katie McHotchick’s hot girlfriend? Maybe Micah Doucheovnick was hoping for some girl/girl action for his home cam.
Mulder: Every time Micah comes over with the recorder, she and Katie tell him to take off, they’re talking about girl things. Suppose that what they were talking about was how to fake a possession.
Crossman: That’s still a double-handful of ‘suppose’ you have there.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Amber’s whereabouts is unknown while the Ouija board thing is happening.
Mulder: Amber suggested the plan to get rid of Micah. Amber provided the Ouija board. Amber put up the website. Amber made the noises and moved the objects while Katie and Micah were together and watching one another.
Sister Mary Magdalene: I still don’t—
Mulder: She has the means, the opportunity, and the motive.
Crossman: Amber is the one who was possessed by demons.
Sister Mary Magdalene: Micah dies in a state of mortal sin after setting up a pornographic website. Katie murders him and dies in a state of mortal sin. And the police officer who unjustly kills her despairs and doubts his faith and morals.

JDM: Is Amber Armstrong in the audience?

Amber Armstrong: (standing at the back of the hall) What if I am? You can’t prove a word of it. They’re both dead, it’s all on tape, and I wasn’t involved.
Sister Mary Magdalene: (Nun Voice) You just march right up here, young lady.

JDM: Everyone, stay calm. Just let her come up and take a microphone.

Amber: Thank you. I just want to say that this is the worst libel I’ve ever heard….
Mulder: Slander. Libel is written.
Amber: Well, whatever. I’m glad you’re giving me a chance to clear my name because … hey, why can’t I move?
Sam: Because you’re standing on a Devil’s Trap. I took the precaution of putting one under the carpet before the panel started.
Amber: You… you! I’ll see you in Hell!
Dean: You already did. Now, what should we do with her?
Sam: If you want to be sure, I can sample her blood.
Dean: I am not going to let you fall off the wagon.
Crossman: I have a better idea. No one ever tried an exorcism in this case, until now. (Pulls a copy of The Roman Ritual from a shoulder holster and flips it open one-handed.) I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure. I command you, moreover, to obey me to the letter, I who am a minister of God despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or the bystanders, or any of their possessions….

(The lights go out. Thunder sounds. A loud wind howls through the room, bringing an odor of brimstone.)

JDM: I think that concludes this episode of Let’s Watch a Horror Movie. Thank you all for coming, and join us back soon … oops! Just as soon as we can clean the pea soup from the carpet. Don’t forget to visit the dealers’ room before you go…. This is Jim Macdonald for Making Light, signing off!

Comments on *Spoilers* Paranormal Activity *Spoilers*:
#1 ::: Dan ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2010, 08:48 PM:

Don't SPOIL your dinner.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

#2 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2010, 09:33 PM:

Good timing! I saw it at the dollar theater on Thursday. I wouldn't call it the scariest movie of all time, but I liked it.

The most obvious lesson of the movie is this: Seek professional help! Call a qualified demonologist to sort out your demons, rather than messing around with it yourself and exacerbating the problem.

#3 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2010, 09:45 PM:

My comment is a meta comment:

Even if Paranormal Activity had $150K pumped into it for marketing after it was made, it was without a doubt the best return on investment in the film industry over the last few years. Or possibly ever.

It proves IMHO that there is no better movie investment than a script. Or would be, if the movie industry was actually an industry, and not a boys' club masquerading as an industry.

#4 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2010, 09:45 PM:

I heard from a film-student friend that it's a POS that's been marketed with a brilliant technique that requires nothing of the movie itself. He also said he and I and whatever friends happen to be available could make a movie better than that in an afternoon, and for much less than 10 grand.

He may have been exaggerating.

#5 ::: Jennifer Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2010, 10:11 PM:

Well, the first thing I'd suggest would be that when you call on a specialist, and that specialist gives you advice, you should, yanno, maybe, like, take their advice.

Also, the more complex the problem is, the more likely you are to need assistance dealing with it. Corollary to this: asking for help won't actually demean your manhood.

I thought the script was well done, the two actors were quite good at their jobs, and the filming was certainly efficacious at inducing motion sickness. My main issue with the plot lies in the character of the boyfriend (idiot know-it-all males annoy me, anyway), and in the final moments of the film. I think it would have been much, much scarier to have the characters disappear down the dark hall, never to be seen again. (Although the sudden reappearance of the boyfriend was deliciously shocking.)

#6 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2010, 11:51 PM:

Scariest movie I've ever seen was "Testament", a mid-80s movie about nuclear war. It's not one of the ones with big explosions and fires and flying body parts; those don't bother me and this one still gives me occasional nightmares. It's just a quiet little Marin County town, and the TV has a flash announcement that something's going on with the Russians and then goes staticky, and nobody can reach the city by phone, and the commuters aren't coming home, and in the days that follow, there's white snowy fallout and the kids start getting sick first.

On the other hand, Night of the Living Dead was pretty cheap to make, and is still pretty much the canonical modern zombie film. And Blair Witch had a low budget for the filming (though it cost them more to get it ready for Sundance and then for distribution), and kicked off a trend of shaky handheld badly lit closeup-shot movies. One of my favorite low-budget films was El Mariachi - not a horror movie, though there's eventually a lot of shooting - made for $7000.

#7 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 02:13 AM:

Peter Watkins' 1965 "documentary" The War Game probably didn't have a much greater budget, and it's the scariest film I've ever seen.

#8 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 04:16 AM:

The best way to deal with ghosts and demons is to not believe in them. Hiring a professional is a great way to get somebody killed.

#9 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 09:43 AM:

Need I say that chaining people to crosses, starving them, and jamming crucifixes up their noses or down their throats are no part of the ritual of exorcism?

#10 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 10:50 AM:

I'd like to ask the panel where they think these filmmakers got the weirdly-wrong exorcism elements.

(I haven't seen this movie. I don't like even good horror movies, and this one...well, I was warned off in time.)

#11 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 12:22 PM:

I have heard it asserted that Deep Throat was the most staggeringly profitable movie of all time (when you compare what it grossed [$600Mil] to what it cost to make [$25,000]). Obviously it won't be showing up in most mainstream statistics, though.

#12 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 12:38 PM:

Does anyone on the panel have anything to say about non-Catholic and non-Christian demon control methods? (FM, of course, and perhaps SW and DW if they aren't Catholic?) These methods have proven effective for considerable parts of the human population.

#13 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 12:52 PM:

These methods have proven effective for considerable parts of the human population.

While that's quite true, generally, we prefer that the human population not be reduced to parts . . .

#14 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 12:54 PM:

I wonder how much direct-to-video production has affected the bottom end of movie-making? You can't shoot a feature film at 3:1 (which is impossibly low) in 16mm on film for $10,000 and get it processed and workprinted. Of course sometimes one has ends of rolls available free, and/or an "in" at the lab, which can help.

The quality video used for modern studio productions is of course not affordable for low-end work, but I'm assuming that HD camcorders are getting used a lot, and can be blown up to look decent in a theater even (I've seen 1080p on a 106" screen I could walk right up to, and it was quite good). Taking out the film and lab expenses makes a really HUGE difference at the low end.

#15 ::: APo ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 08:46 PM:

Approaching this in the "What Do You Do In These Circumstances" mode, there's a lot of passive defense available in the human vs demon lore. There are protections to wear in the form of jewelry and tattoos (I'm looking at you, DW/SW), protections to scribe on walls, spread on floors, plant in the garden - a whole spectrum of demon-proofing that can be easy and fun. Nothing of the sort appears in the movie. I suppose it wouldn't have been much of a movie if the demon had been stopped at the front door by wolfsbane and salt? I have no religion whatsoever, but my garden is full of things you couldn't cross if you were a bad thing from an old book. I can't see why a couple of California youngn's wouldn't at least have some pentacles and dreamcatchers lying around. Too stupid to live, yeah maybe.

#16 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 10:07 PM:

And of course, a comment from our round-table's host on proper modification of a jump bag to be prepared for potential demonic emergencies would be in order... (with commentary from the guests?)

#17 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2010, 11:33 PM:

I have found that blessed salt water and copal incense work pretty well on everything I want to banish except Republicans.

#18 ::: PhilPalmer ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 03:53 AM:

I find a good book on general relativity will exorcise most demons. Of course, in theory the demon can just do the math, but in practice it's easier to construct thought experiments, look for astronomical evidence of concrete phenomena, and so on, and once you've engaged in a rational examination of the material plane you are pretty much fucked as a demon.

#19 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 10:07 AM:

Magent@17: More salt water, at higher velocities (and sometimes higher or lower temperatures) works on everything up to and including neo-cons.

It just may require tsunami-like quantities, or nuclear-reactor-level temperatures, to do the job.

#20 ::: Jae Walker ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 11:56 AM:

#1 - When your expert flees the house, it might be a good idea to follow his/her example. See "Explosives Expert" as in "If you see me running, try to keep up."

#2 - When is it EVER a good idea to use a Ouija board in a haunted house? Even a *suspected* haunted house?

#21 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 12:00 PM:

proper modification of a jump bag to be prepared for potential demonic emergencies

Basically you start with "the contents of Hellboy's overcoat pockets" and add in a pen torch, QuikClot, steri strips, bottled water and Imodium.

(Why Imodium?)

Well, because I don't know about the rest of you, but I think I'd be quite scared if I saw a demon.

#22 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 05:35 PM:

Ajay @ 21:

Don't forget the extra adult diaper, in addition to the one you should be wearing if you even suspected you might be coming in contact with a demon.

Why the nappy?

Along the same line of thought as yours, really - but that way you don't slip in the yellow and/or brown mess when you finally remember that you have working legs and feet. With the spare, you will have a chance to change and clean up after outrunning the danger the first time before the damn thing inevitably finds you. Again.
And you won't leave those embarassing stains in the remnants of your clothes, just the usual blood, gobbets of flesh, etc.

#23 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 08:28 PM:

Watched it last night because of this thread, found it sadly lacking. Terrible pacing (slow to random), long boring lag times between the night scenes (which are the only times one expects to be scared), terrible handling of the progressive escalation of violence.

I appreciate handheld horror - it can work really well, as in Cloverfield, because it places you one a more "real" footing with the people and events in frame. But it's no excuse to fail at storytelling.

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 08:33 PM:

I find the best way to banish demons and other apparitions is to avoid doing lots of unmedicated late-night driving.

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 08:49 PM:

ajay @ 21...

Abe Sapien: "Remind me why I do this again."
Hellboy: "Rotten eggs and the safety of mankind."

#26 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2010, 11:49 PM:

Bill #23 ...found it sadly lacking.

I think this is a movie that, to have maximum effect, absolutely needs to be seen on a big screen with a crowded theater.

#27 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 02:47 AM:

James D. Macdonald @ 26: maybe, though I'm generally very easily frightened when watching my big TV alone at home and usually end most evenings with feet well-tucked underneath me on the couch to protect them from monsters. Gotta be a pretty lame horror movie to leave me with inedible extremities at midnight.

I really must applaud the boyfriend in the movie; most of us would think that having a crucifix to hand during a demon infestation would be a good thing, but not our lad! Throw it on the fire!

Maybe the best defense against demonic harassment would be to be very, very boring. What's the fun of possessing someone who just plunks down in front of the TV twelve hours a day?

#28 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 05:38 AM:


Say we’re thinking of investing in a tin mine in Peru. One of the things we do is fund an archeological survey of the surrounding area to see if there are any Inca ruins or burial sites around. Those things are super villain magnets; they like to comb through them for mystical objects of ancient power or for portals to demonic planes.

Q: And this affects you how?
A: Lots of ways. First, as long as they’re in the neighborhood, they’ll send some henchmen for looting. That’s an extra security cost. If the mine is actually above or very near to the ruins, the villain might try to take over the entire mine as a secret lair. That’s either even more security, or alternately additional lawyers to hammer out the terms of the lease. Finally, in the highly unlikely event the super villain does open a portal to demon planes, we have to deal with that.

Q: More security.
A: No, more lawyers. You can’t stop demons. But you can reach settlements with families of demon-consumed miners.

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 12:35 PM:


Let's say you've volunteered for the film crew of the Blair Witch project. How do you cope with that?

#30 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 12:48 PM:

29: this is one reason why I didn't like that film much - I kept thinking how stupid the characters were.

1) Take a map and compass. More than one. And GPS.
2) If you get utterly lost despite 1), don't just go on wandering aimlessly; find a watercourse, follow it downstream to a bigger watercourse, and so on until you strike either a bridge or a house. People live on watercourses. If you strike a bridge, follow the road downhill.
3) Don't go wandering around at night - too easy to get separated from the rest of your party.

4) If you're genre savvy, then, realising you're in a slasher film and working on the canary principle: take a black guy along. When he gets eaten first, activate your escape plan.
If you can't find one, take an attractive woman along who drinks, smokes pot, uses foul language and/or is into premarital snuggling. If she gets eaten first, activate your escape plan. If she doesn't get eaten, well, there are worse kinds of people to be stuck in the wilderness with.

#31 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 02:45 PM:

Didn't they pass the remains of old automobile tires at one or two points? Build a fire, put one of those on it, and you're pretty much guaranteed to get a visit from a fire crew.

Locating yourself on your map before you walk away from your car is also a good idea.

#32 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 02:55 PM:

Also, I've been wondering: why are there so many demonologists in the San Diego area?

#33 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 04:11 PM:

Teresa asks: ...why are there so many demonologists in the San Diego area?

Ask Stephan Zielinski? Squee!

#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 04:12 PM:

ajay @ 30... If you're genre savvy, then, realising you're in a slasher film and working on the canary principle: take a black guy along. (...) If you can't find one, take an attractive woman along

In space adventures, look for the red shirt...

"I'm not even supposed to be here. I'm just "Crewman Number Six." I'm expendable. I'm the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I've gotta get outta here."
- Guy Gleegman in Galaxy Quest

#35 ::: Jon Hendry ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 04:28 PM:

"Also, I've been wondering: why are there so many demonologists in the San Diego area?"

Minutemen. Ever meet a demon with a green card?

#36 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 05:18 PM:

Jae@20, the time it's good (well, less bad) to use a ouija board in a suspected haunted house is when you'd otherwise be the cheerleader going outside to get the booze from the car or the couple going upstairs or down to the basement to make out. That way you get to be one of the ones inside wondering why Heather hasn't come back.

#37 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 05:59 PM:

The safest bet in a horror movie is to be the geek girl who's smarter than anybody else.

#38 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 06:00 PM:

Serge@34: "Let's get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!"

It's amazing how often that phrase can be used in a given day. By me, at least.

#39 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 06:08 PM:

Bill Stewart@36: Couples only get killed when they are having sex (or five minutes to either side). Making out counts as sexual activity of course. Safest to be companionable and yet sexually unattractive - keep extra packs of cigarettes in secret pockets so everyone wants you around to borrow one, put stage tooth paint on your teeth to look heavily nicotine-stained so no one wants to mack on you (that stuff is durable and really disgusting at close quarters).

#40 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 07:20 PM:

"why are there so many demonologists in the San Diego area?"

"Dude. It's the best climate on the mainland US. What, we should live in Green Bay?"

#41 ::: Wesley Osam ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 08:56 PM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, #29: Let's say you've volunteered for the film crew of the Blair Witch project. How do you cope with that?

That depends on whether the Blair Witch is a human evil or a genuine supernatural evil. It's been long enough since I've seen the movie that I honestly don't recall (and I fast forwarded through the interminable bickering anyway). Were they wandering in circles because something was warping the fabric of space and time, or were they really just idiots with no sense of direction?

If the latter, then they needed the map and compass. Or GPS. (How cheap and common was GPS in 1999? Or 1994? I just checked the plot summary on Wikipedia, and apparently that's when the movie is set. Also, they did have a map, but one of the characters threw it into a creek. Bad idea.)

If the Blair Witch is supernatural, then the usual survival stuff will help but may not be enough. Depending on what fictional universe they're living in, the crew may want to take an Elder Sign, an Electric Pentacle, or Proton Packs. And if they come across a ramshackle cemetery in the middle of the woods it might be a good idea not to disturb any graves.

#42 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 09:30 PM:

Serge, that describes all the women in my social circle. Guess I'll have to stay close to the dog.

#43 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 09:32 PM:

I would think it would be an excellent idea not to disturb any grave, whether the cemetery is ramshackle or not.
(You never know what the resident might be.)

#44 ::: Stephan Zielinski ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 10:23 PM:

With regards to demonologists-- and by extension, demons-- in San Diego: it's not like any of my sources think much of me, so I don't get straight answers, either. Seeking one to "Why San Diego, of all places?", I once spent a week running all over Hell's half ac-- er, performing errands in the Bay Area for various... various... actually, let's just stick with "various." Anyway, after all was said and done, all I got was a dizi riff and a stentorian

Ylupo slu gfus zuf'y yohh
Ylupo slu yohh zuf'y gfus

Har de har har, thanks loads, guys.

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 11:03 PM:

Teresa @ 42... Either that, or make sure to keep a bunch of male nerds around, as nerdiness appears to give a survival advantage only to the female ones.

#46 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 02:54 AM:

Nerdy or not, male or female, from Friday the Thirteenth to Jurassic Park, if you're overweight, you won't get to see the final credits.

#47 ::: Daniel Klein ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 04:53 AM:

Jim @#46: to misappropriate a quote from a recent news item:

"Letting fatties roam the movies is a direct threat to our business model and the very concept for which Hollywood was founded."

#48 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 05:51 AM:

Well, it's hardly surprising that the nicely-marbled get eaten before the bony and gristly, is it?

#49 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 06:00 AM:

Stephan, do I have any hope of cracking that?

#50 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 07:28 AM:

Serge @34 -- In space adventures, look for the red shirt...

Parents, choose wisely.

#51 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 07:43 AM:

Debbie @ 50... There was a scene in David Gerrold's recently completed Star Trek episode "Blood and Fire" where Kirk is worried about sending his nephew out as the red shirt of a beamaway party, at which point McCoy says something along the lines of their not being made to carry a bull's eye anymore.

#52 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 08:52 AM:

Teresa wrote: Stephan, do I have any hope of cracking that?

Give it a go. I found it surprisingly easy for such a short cryptogram.

#53 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 09:53 AM:

One Christmas, my mother in law gave me a box set of Old Trek (which she has never watched) and a red T-shirt. She had no idea why I fell into the giggles.

#54 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 10:15 AM:

I for one would like to see a photo of Abi as a Red Shirt. I'd then add it to Making Light's photo gallery, thus making it the exhibition's 2nd Red Shirt. What? Nobody remembers the photo of Joel Polowin?

#55 ::: Stephan Zielinski ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 10:41 AM:

Teresa wrote: Stephan, do I have any hope of cracking that?

I think the more critical question here is, per the parable of two men trying to outrun an angry bear, can you crack it faster than the women near you?

#56 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 10:57 AM:

Is it a rotary cipher or do I have to do a bit more work?

#57 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:07 PM:

It can be difficult when you're used to working with a bunch of disgustingly competent characters.

The image I have is of the serial killer sneaking down the side of a minibus that has just delivered a sports team from a girls' school, and giving the camera the chance to see the name St. Trinians on the side.

You find you need whole extended families of serial killers.

#58 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:34 PM:

The image I have is of the serial killer sneaking down the side of a minibus that has just delivered a sports team from a girls' school, and giving the camera the chance to see the name St. Trinians on the side.

For that, you need Red Eye (directed by Wes Craven).

Craven did the canonical Nightmare on Elm Street, and the didactic Scream (which featured the genre-savvy character explaining everything to the assembled teens: "Don't say 'I'll be right back,' because you won't be." (In the later movies in the series, he explains what to do if you're in a sequel, and how to tell if you're in yet-another-entry in a series or the third part of a trilogy.))

#59 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:37 PM:

ObPratchett: "I read in the almanac that the mountains up there are full of wolves and gnolls and big horrible things with teeth," Jason Ogg muttered. "And our gran and Mistress Weatherwax are going up there. You will look after them, won't you?"
"Of course," said Magrat reassuringly.
"Only it said in the almanac that some of them were nearly extinct already."

#60 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 02:36 PM:

Oops. That really is easy for a short cryptogram that doesn't contain the magic three-letter word.

#61 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 03:46 PM:

Antonia T. Tiger @57:

The image I have is of the serial killer sneaking down the side of a minibus that has just delivered a sports team from a girls' school, and giving the camera the chance to see the name St. Trinians on the side.
Until this moment, we'd been assuming the girls would be the victims.

#62 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 04:06 PM:

Just as an aside -- the last two books I've read have been "first chapter on the internet, the rest in one night with dead trees" and were Apocalypse Door and Bad Magic. And lookiee here, those responsible for two enjoyable evenings. Those internet teasers are like crack.

#63 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 07:37 PM:

Oh, I'm so glad! I love those books.

#64 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 01:59 AM:

Antonia T. Tiger:

a sports team from a girls' school, and giving the camera the chance to see the name St. Trinians on the side.

I'm not sure which is more disturbing: the thought of the St. Trinians Sport Days cartoons actually happening on screen, or what would happen to a serial killer going up against members of a school where the mildest line in the school song is "Let our motto be broadcast: 'get your blow in first!' She who draws the sword last always comes off worst." (And does anyone but me think the new "Theme" performed by Girls Aloud make the theme from "Ben" a pleasurable experience?)


Take an attractive woman along who drinks, smokes pot, uses foul language and/or is into premarital snuggling. If she gets eaten first, activate your escape plan. If she doesn't get eaten, well, there are worse kinds of people to be stuck in the wilderness with.

That defines all members of St. Trinian's Sixth Form.

Considering that each survived the Fourth Form, which by all existing accounts includes some of the most extensive experience on the planet in inflicting blunt trauma, administering poison, alcohol and drug use, the use of edged weapons and armed and unarmed combat (and leaving out the occasional Black Mass), you might be safer with the killer. No, strike the might.

I've always thought that if the school had survived the unfortunate incident with the fissile yield (I can't remember if that was the Fourth Form or the Fifth Form) that Wednesday Adams might have been considered as a hardship case. The background is certainly there, but she's so darned nice...

#65 ::: Jen Birren ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 10:34 AM:

Bruce @ 64: the St. Trinians Sport Days cartoons actually happening on screen:

The recent St Trinian's film was pretty average, true, but the 1950s ones with Alastair Sim as the headmistress are a delight all of their own, and the hockey match in the first one is pretty much as in the cartoons.

#66 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 10:42 AM:

A little help with the cryptogram? MA BRAINZ BE SLO.

#67 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:15 AM:

Me too on the acronym and the slo branes.

#68 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:16 AM:

Frell me dead. I meant cryptogram.


#69 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:26 AM:

@ 65... Alastair Sim as the headmistress

What a scary idea.

#70 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:39 AM:

Xopher: I've got as far as working out that Y must be either s or t, because those are the commonest letters to follow an apostrophe. Assuming that ZUF'Y is "isn't", and it's a monoalphabetic cipher, that gives "t_s__ __s __s_ isn't t___, t_s__ __s t___ isn't __s_."

So presumably L has to be a vowel (because it comes between t and s) and O is probably a vowel (because I can't think of any consonant that comes between t and a double letter except H, in "thee", and that's unlikely.)


#71 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:40 AM:

By George, I got it. The cryptogram. The key for me was concentrating on "zuf'y yohh" - helped to narrow the possibilities down substantially.

Hope that's not too cryptic.

#72 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:45 AM:

71: Thanks! I don't know if it was your hint that helped, but eight seconds after reading it I cracked it. So it probably was...

#73 ::: DavidS ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 12:25 PM:

I don't know if this hint will help anyone else, but my first steps were (1) ***'* is probably **N'T and (2) what words of the form T**** (with distinct letters) are likely to start a sentence?

#74 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 12:38 PM:

Also, there are only a few letters that are common at the ends of short words.

#75 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 12:39 PM:

Commonly *doubled* at the end of short words. Sheesh, sorry about that.

#76 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 01:10 PM:

FINALLY got it. Rereading the initial comment helped.

That took an embarrassingly long time. I'm really bad at ciphers.

#77 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 06:30 PM:

If you want some practice, Cliff Johnson (of "The Fool's Errand" and "3 in Three") has two cryptograms on his site daily -- simple substitution ciphers. One is quotes from The Devil's Dictionary and the other is general quotes. (The second links to the quote for 8 January, there doesn't seem to be a way to have a link that always goes to today's.)

I find both of those pretty easy, because of certain recurring patterns, but they make a nice couple minutes' diversion.

#78 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2010, 12:21 AM:

The complete St. Trinian's cartoons are apparently available in hardcover.

#79 ::: Mike McHugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2010, 08:32 AM:

Bill@27: Maybe the best defense against demonic harassment would be to be very, very boring.

That's the sign of an expert demonologist, alright.
It's documented in The Yattering And Jack, by Clive Barker.

#80 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2010, 09:53 PM:

Not Guilty By Reason of Possession?

Jim, please pin Mulder down to explain how that one would work in federal court.

#81 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2010, 10:52 PM:

also here.

I nearly killed myself when a bit of carrot went the wrong direction while reading that. (It was the five minutes of coughing that had people worried.)
(memo to self: swallow before reading.)

#82 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2010, 10:30 AM:

Nicely done, Nicely done!

*Round of applause for Jim and our panelists.*

#83 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2010, 12:46 PM:

The conversation continues in the hall:

Sister Mary Magdalene: Small objects weren't where they left them, and they heard mysterious noises at night? What those people needed was a cat.

#84 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2010, 07:26 AM:

I see that I never did describe "not guilty by reason of demonic possession."

That was a real defense, attempted in the case of the 1981 Johnson/Bono murder trial in Danbury, Connecticut.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson stabbed Alan Bono to death. Johnson pleaded not guilty by reason of demonic possession.

So far as Cheyenne's lawyer, Martin Minnella, 33, knows, demonic possession has never been advanced as a defense in the United States—but he cites its use in two British cases in the past 10 years. He claims an arson defendant was acquitted and an accused rapist received a suspended sentence.

The judge, however, disallowed the plea as non-existent in Connecticut. Johnson was convicted.

Searching on the "Demon Murder Trial" will bring up various citations to the events.

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