Valar Morghulis and What Makes Good Storytelling

Warning: Massive Game of Thrones spoilers here. Don’t read unless you’re all caught up!  So my first premise here is that I haven’t read the books. I’ve got to get that out of the way. I’m a novelist myself. I’m a big reader, but fantasy isn’t really my genre, and I don’t have a lot of time to tackle Martin’s Westeros tomes. But I’m also a huge television fan, and from everything I’ve heard, I’m very happy to be on the show-train as my first experience. Sometimes film does it better, sometimes just differently.

(Edit: I also want to clarify that many folks who have responded to my opinion present the argument that the big problem here that I worry over is all good because it’s “the way it was in the books!” And so I’m referring to D&D and Martin as “Martin and Co.” because, though it’s “canon”, the story can still go down a problematic route, no matter whether it’s a show decision or a book decision. I’m not taking issue with the show. I’m taking issue with the story)

Anyway though, I love the narrative. I love the way it’s honed very directly. It’s good tight storytelling. But that’s what I want to talk about today: storytelling. Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.34.41 PM A week ago, I watched Jon Snow die before the credits rolled on the season five finale of Game of Thrones. GoT is a show fraught with controversy and the occasional misstep, but I love it. I think it’s rich and meaningful and smart. But the death of Jon Snow gave me some serious pause. If I were to look deeper, I’d probably realize I went through all the grief stages in about a week or something.

My first reaction was denial. Nope, I thought, he’s coming back. Right? He has to. He can’t be dead. I mean, nope. Just no. Then I read an interview with Kit Harrington that filled me with dread. Both Kit and the creators insist Snow is dead. Dead is dead.

In the week that has followed, a million posts have come to light calling for the resurrection of Jon Snow and the various clues that point toward it. From Lady Melissandre to the White Walkers to.. well, this whole article, really. But I want to approach this from a different angle.

Freaking out on Twitter, I announced that this was the first Game of Thrones death that (if it stands and there is no resurrection) makes me wonder if Thrones has finally lost the plot in favor of meaningless shocks. All the deaths before this, even the most shocking ones, were trimming the fat and honing the story. When you hone the story, you’re focusing in on the heart of the work: what’s moving toward the big end-game. It wasn’t Ned. It wasn’t Robb. It wasn’t Robert or Joffrey or Tywin. When I posted this, I was met with agreement, but also some jaded Thrones viewers who were now used to losing anyone and everyone on the show (“All GoT is about is Martin just killing off our favorites”), and some jaded Thrones readers who’d been chewing on this information for a year now (“…maybe Jon wasn’t as important as we thought”).

They defended it that, you know, one of the big Themes of GoT has been that people die. It’s a sort of a reality-based, dark world, where the hero doesn’t ride in on a white horse and save the day. There are few heroes, and many, many deaths. Just like real life, people don’t always reach their dreams, they don’t always fulfill the expectations people have for their lives. They make mistakes, and mistakes big enough to lead to coups.

Lucky-Number-Slevin-clip

For the Watch!

And that’s a valid point. The deconstructionist in me wants to love it. The fantasy genre is filled with hero-stories about saving the day. It’s a defining characteristic of the genre, even. While there’s always exceptions to the rule, how cool that Martin and co. are subverting this tradition in such a shocking, public, and moving way? Build someone up, strip them down, remind them that life is a bitch.

Good theme. A cool way of illustrating it.. but… it still doesn’t sit right with me.

And that’s when I started to look at the value of art and storytelling. Here, we have this story, the Song of Ice and Fire. Fan theories have abounded, but in the same way as a writer, I feel around in the dark until I feel that one plot point that makes me say “holy shit, that’s it. That feels right. That looks right. That fits right. That’s what’s supposed to happen!” The R+L=J theory had that effect on me. It fit the story too perfectly. It gave weight and a central nature to the story. As half Stark (Winter) and half Targaryen (Fire), Jon Snow was literally the embodiment of the Song of Ice and Fire. The series is about winter meeting dragons, coming together in an epic clash amidst which people are both desperately trying to survive or take the Throne (or take their revenge, I suppose). So we’ve got these light and dark themes constantly shifting, constantly graying, amidst a very polarized backdrop. Maybe I’m biased because I love watching the themes of a story interplay and shift, but this theme, so intricately connected to the plot (I mean, it’s in the name), this is the story of Ice and Fire. It’s not the story of real world shocks. And Jon Snow, as the literal embodiment of this theme, I’d decided, was the main character. It’s a song about him as much as it’s a song about Whites and Dragons. It’s an intermixing of those themes in the characters and their decisions, which is crucial to this story because it’s so character driven at its heart.

And so we have two directions stemming from the end of season/book five. Jon Snow is dead, or Jon Snow will come back. If he’s dead… great? I guess that’s the priority theme. Pulling the rug out from under people. Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.35.05 PM But there’s something about storytelling that I balk at here. And that’s that I live in the real world. I know people die when it’s least expected/preferred. I know nobody really grows up to be the hero. I know that real life is flat and bland and only as romantic as we restructure our perspective on it. And yeah, there’s Literature that’s all about these themes. It’s all about taking whatever your angle is (depressing or otherwise) on the Real World and putting that into a painful artistic fiction. And I know that that’s sort of the defining characteristic of the Literature genre so upheld by academics over “genre” fiction. But that’s not really what I think Thrones is about. This show has always been about the conclusion. Whether happy or sad or triumphant or a letdown, it’s telling one complete story that has a beginning, middle, and (hopefully epic) end.

The Real World doesn’t have an End — capital E — Where we all look around at eachother and nod with satisfaction and go sit in a room for the rest of eternity because We’ve Done It. We’ve ended. That’s death, and as we’ve already established, death in the real world is random and painful and rarely tied up with a bow.

And so I worry that if the Real World is Martin and co.’s theme here, the ending that’s been such a direction for this entire series won’t really be an ending. In fact, if the Real World really is a theme, well, let’s Simpsons and Soap Opera this shit up, let’s let Thrones run for thirty seasons, because life will always go on past each end.

But I take a step back. I have to question myself. I’ve trusted Martin and co. this far, why not trust them some more? Frankly: I do. I’m gonna still hit season six with excitement and curiosity, but a wariness now.

Another step back: it’s Martin’s story. He’s not under any obligation to write it how I want — how I think it should go. The same way he’s not my bitch, I’m also not entitled to a Great Story That I Like. I’m only entitled to the story that he is writing.

But, as a reader, I am entitled to an opinion about whether or not it’s any good. That’s where the buck stops with writers, is that readers get the final say. As a writer myself, I’ve accepted that. I might think my first novel is the best thing I’ll ever write, and it may never get more than the 15 amazon reviews it’s got. I accept that. That’s what sharing your art is. So, I’ve got to say, if Jon Snow is dead (like, dead dead), I’m not sure that was the best move. Maybe it works out. Maybe it’s brilliant and satisfying…

Just a totally misleading photo so you can share this  post without being burned alive for spoilers.

Just a totally misleading photo so you can share this post without being murdered for spoilers.

But, in the wake of all the resurrection brainstorms from people, we’ve got two options really: resurrection by White Walkers, or resurrection by Lady Melissandre. Which is to say, resurrection by fire or ice. And holy shit, how brilliant! Suddenly I’ve come around to this death plot point because THEMES! Kill the boy, let the man be born! Jon is already Ice and Fire, but holy shit, if he’s resurrected by one of the two (or both?), he’s even further the LITERAL manifestation of these themes. How does that carry out? Is he some leader of the Whites? Is he corrupted by them or the Lord of Light? (shoot, even corruption is better than death. Though I’d miss good-hearted Jon Snow, this is a show about grays between good and evil, and it’s Jon’s story… just let him have a story). All of these questions, as they directly pertain to fire and/or ice are a seriously richly thematic sandbox to work with. And it’s a sandbox that is furthering the plot in a possibly BIG way toward the final showdown between the ice and fire that we’re all so excited about in season 7! (or eight I guess, but please no more than that, HBO!) And having a character embody those themes rather than just having characters caught up in those themes… well that’s good writing.

But the alternative? The real world sucks. Just go and enjoy Dani and Tyrion while you’ve got a chance. Maybe Arya and Bran will do something cool. Maybe they won’t. The world’s a crummy place, after all.

That’s our big overarching narrative theme? That’s depressing (and this coming from a guy who LOVES depressing — seriously, The Road, amazing piece of literature).

But I want a good meaty story. Unhappy ending? Sure. Kill Dany and Jon and Tyrion as they reach the throne. Put a White Walker on it. Or zombie Joffrey. I don’t care. Just get our people where they need to go, or better yet, crop your story to the right people’s stories. Tell those stories. Don’t blue ball us at the expense of great theme. Play with those themes in big, character-driven ways, as you have to this point. Bring it together and then end it how you like. But… I mean, actually bring it together.

Jon killed at the end of season five as the Walkers descend, by his own grouchy Night’s Watch, and poof. That’s that? Our Theme Personified made a misstep and now he’s done? Somebody else takes up the mantle of White Walker Herald and things just go on? Just, no…

We need our big crazy titular themes. We need our heroic face of Winter.

Our Winter needs Snow.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, the short story collection Into a Sky Below, Forever, and the forthcoming Amarricages. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team, and now lectures across America and leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. He’s also a portrait photographer and conceputal artist based in Northern Colorado. Follow him on Twitter: @KarlPfeiffer

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

First Forays into Fashion

So back in January, a hairstylist friend asked if I’d mind helping her organize a photoshoot with her for her entry into the North American Hairstylist Awards (NAHA) for 2015. I hadn’t yet done any fashion photography. Growing up the way I did, the fashion world was an alien one to me. All I knew of it was strange outfits and frighteningly thin models on runways. But the world of fashion photography, I quickly found, is a very compelling one. It’s a place where artists play with extremes in look and theme and style. And the photography often matches the extremes in look. At its heart, too, are damn good portraits. My work as a photographer plays in very similar sandboxes. While I love a striking portrait, I also love to play in the surreal, the places of extremes, where the world starts to break down. Where I can introduce some horror elements, sometimes a much more dreary mood, sometimes in places mildly disturbing, which don’t generally work in the traditional photoshoot for families and seniors! And so I happily signed up for the job, hoping to get my feet wet and learn a thing or two about this fashion world.

We shot with five models in five days, Jesi often spending an entire afternoon in her studio, working on the hair and makeup. I’d rendezvous with the team in the evening and drive up the mountain to an empty semi-industrial once-garage that a family member of Jesi’s was about to flip for a 4-wheeling company. I used my 6D and 50mm lens, along with my speedlite, a diffusion umbrella, and an LED continuous light. I love the results. The bright varieties of color, changing from shot to shot, are one of the more popping elements, and they developed purely in post-processing, the way that photos often will come alive with a life of their own, totally unplanned, in ways that surprise me. Depending on the project, I like to leave room for this to bubble up. Sometimes, you have a specific mood, a specific color grading, theme, and style that you need to capture both in camera and as the team imagined. But shoots that allow room for creativity, for play, for the photos to go an unexpected direction… that’s fun. It was a great shoot, and I’m already working ideas for upcoming shoots.

We didn’t hit the finals this year, which was okay. I think it was a necessary learning experience for everyone involved. But a killer one. I’m very thrilled with the final portraits, and I know it wouldn’t have been possible – at all – without everyone else involved behind and in front of the lens.

I’m always looking for more work, and I’m very excited about future forays into this fashion world. If you need any photos done, or would like to work with me on a portrait session in the future. You know where to find me, www.KarlPfeiffer.com.

And of course, I want to thank Jesi for having me out on the shoot! If you’re in the Loveland, Colorado area, and you want to visit her, check out their website here: www.generationsalonandspa.com/

Hitch-NAHA-2-For-Web-WM Hitch-NAHA-3-For-Web-WM Hitch-NAHA-4-For-Web-WM Hitch-NAHA-5-For-Web-WM Hitch-NAHA-1-For-Web-WM

5-Side by Side No Flare

Tagged , , , , , ,

Kids and Dreams and Superheroes

When I was about seven years old, my world revolved around one thing; Batman. To this day, I can’t tell you what it is that spoke to me so early on about my hero, but I was obsessed. I wanted to be Batman when I grew up. I crawled around my basement playing with action figures and jumping off boxes in a black cape. I lived in Maryland, and once in a while, winter would dump blizzard-amounts of snow on my neighborhood. On one such occasion, as the neighborhood came together, shoveling each others’ driveways in a big group, I decided it was the perfect night to don my cape and cowl and look out over my own microcosmic gotham. In my mind, I was atop a building, cape billowing in the wind, scowling. In reality, I was standing on a four foot snow mound, glaring at my obviously bemused neighbors. And, I have photo evidence.

At 26, Karl is still single.

Striking fear into the heart of criminals everywhere.

I’m older now, and while my love for Batman is still strong as ever. I’ve come around to the realization that society, lack of billionaire resources, and a crippling fear of heights have terminated my childhood career aspirations. I’ve moved on to other things. Photography, writing.

Enter my good friend Mandy. She has two kids, Joseph and Emily. Joseph is seven, and he adores Captain America. In a way that reminded me of when I was his age running around in my mask. Mandy posts statuses on Facebook to the tune of “Told the kids to get ready to go to the grocery store. Joseph comes downstairs in his Captain America mask and his shield on his arm.”

This is Joseph.

This is Joseph.

I read these posts and I think, I know this kid. Because I was this kid.

And so my thinking percolated for a while. Then in January, a recent fascination with movie posters and television key art mixed with another Captain America sighting in my news feed, and an idea formed. What if I put my photography and Photoshop skills to use, and enlist Joseph for a photoshoot in which we specifically match Marvel’s Captain America posters from the ground up, but featuring Joseph?

What a dream come true, right? Many kids imagine being their comic book heroes, but it’s rare that they have an opportunity to step into the role in such an immersive way. Without going into details, Joseph and his family have had a tough time of it the past few years, dealing with stuff that no kid should have to deal with. The heavy stuff of the adult world seeping down to a kid not yet in elementary school. And the fear that stays for years after. Yet, as his mom tells me, it’s his love for Captain America that helps him get through the hard days, identifying with a character once weak, who became heroic, noble, and strong against huge obstacles.

And so I knew I had to make it happen.

I got Mandy and Joseph on board (they loved the idea), and brought them to my studio for the shoot last week. We worked for a bit over an hour, making sure the lights were consistent to the posters, and that Joseph could emulate the poses. Then, in the following week, I got down to business in Photoshop.

I’ve been serious about photography for a year and a half now, and there was no way I was just going to cut out Joseph’s face and paste it onto the posters already done by amazing photo artists like Michael Muller. I wanted to give him something completely original. As many photos from my own computer as possible, a handful of stock photos when absolutely necessary, and a matching color scheme, lighting, and dodging and burning (not only because I’m learning a lot yet by imitation, but) because I wanted these to be that much more immersive for Joseph, to have him inside a world he was already familiar with.

These are the original posters I was specifically intending to mimic:

Posters 4 Side by Side

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.07.39 PM

And here are the final products with Joseph:

Dark-Text-Poster-2Dark-Textless-PosterDark-Textless-Wide-2Action-1-Poster-Textless Profile-1-Textless-PosterProfile-1-Textless-Wide Profile-2-Textless-PosterUltron-Poster-MinimumAction-2-Portrait-TextlessFront-Portrait-Poster-TextlessProfile-3-Textless-Poster

It was when I got an email response from Joseph’s mom telling me of his reaction, that he said, “That’s actually me. That’s the real me,” that I knew I’d hit something special. Joseph was over the moon. His mom was over the moon. And my inner Bruce Wayne, still dressed up in cape and cowl on that skyscraper in snowy Gotham, was for a time totally satisfied. Karl and Captain-1Gear Geek info: Canon 6D, Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, 430EXII Speedlite, one two foot ring light, a constant LED light, an umbrella modifier, three light stands, and my trusty Photoshop CC. And a couple times, an open window.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy on Syfy, went on to work briefly with the Ghost Hunters International Team, and now leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide and the collection Into a Sky Below, Forever. He’s also a conceptual and portrait photographer in Colorado, and he loves key art and great television. You can find more at www.KarlPfeiffer.com or on Twitter, @KarlPfeiffer.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dear HBO: Keep GoT to 7 seasons.

game-of-thrones-s4-banner

Last night, the first episode of Game of Thrones, Season 5, premiered in London. Chatter about the end-date for Game of Thrones, mixed with premiere reviews discussing the way season 5 feels like it’s moving the wheels toward an endgame has me wanting a soapbox.

Now, it’ll be very, very interesting to see what this show does in terms of telling a complete story. I think much of we’ve seen from the broadcast renaissance is reaching its pinnacle in Game of Thrones, specifically in terms of narrative and storytelling.

TV in the 80s, 90s, and much of the early aughts has been transitioning from procedural, episodic, killer/monster-of-the-week plots to overarching, narrative-heavy, serial dramas. That’s a transition. Network executives love to cash in on a prize show for as long as possible. In the days of the procedural, this was easy enough, because the more minor overarching story arcs could be manipulated and dragged out for ten seasons or more. Look at CSI (and the various spinoffs, since it’s the same show), Law and Order, NCIS, etc.

The X-Files was one of the earlier shows to try on a bigger narrative thread, and it was the first to be met with criticism for lasting far too long beyond its run. The creator’s plan for the show was a five season arc with three movies to wrap up the story. Instead we got five seasons, a movie, a renewal, four more tired seasons, a tired movie, and perpetual chatter of a third movie and possibly a reboot (both of which I think are needed, as despite the #9SeasonsAnd2Movies run, the story is yet unfinished.

But the X-Files didn’t teach network execs much Supernatural, for instance, went for five perfectly good seasons, blending monster-of-the-week procedural with a BIG story arc that became the show’s driving powerhouse for its final two seasons… Well, I say final, because after they wrapped the end of the world apocalypse plot, the creator left, his original five-season-arc being told… and CW renewed the show because fifth season was so successful. And then they renewed it again. And again. And now we’re in season, what? Eleven? Though the fanbase is strong, I’m sorry to say the story has been told.

Lost was a crucial transition to present-day TV as we know it. Lost set the perfect balance of episodic problems in the midst of a huge overarching narrative that continued to promise and promise (all on JJ Abrams now-exhausted Mystery Box theory) that the writers knew where the show was going. Though the show went maybe a season too long, and despite now hearing too many suggestions that the writers never had a plan past season 2, Lost set an end date (and one long before some whimpering season 12 finish) and the network went for it (even on a powerhouse network show like Lost) and it was a HUGE success. Sure, not everyone liked it. Sure, a lot of people completely misunderstood the end. But the show was a success. ABC treated the finale as a network event, and the finale saw ratings better than it had seen in two seasons.

It paved the way for creator control over when to end a show in a landscape of serial television that’s now cropping up everywhere, from cable to network. Breaking Bad is one of the perfect examples of such a show, which may have meandered for a season or two before finding its groove, but once the writers saw their story arc clearly, it was full steam ahead to either an epic finale, or, well, Meth-Selling, the soap-opera.

And now we have Game of Thrones. The series whose end is mentioned in just about every article written about it. Largely due to whether or not the show will surpass the book series before it’s completed by Mr. Martin. But Game of Thrones is a show that’s been based on a book series that will be finished at some point, and it’s always been a show that asks “Who Will Win?” Fans are foaming at the mouth to know who will take the iron throne before we Cut to Black.

Right now, it’s a show that’s been telling a tight story. Political intrigue, betrayal, amassing armies on a (semi) realistic scale that takes time to do. But it’s too easily a show that could get lost within itself. With no promise of the end that’s so needed, we just watch old enemies form alliances, and then new friends betray each other, over and over, until the numbers have dwindled so far that the network finally cuts the life support. And Game of Thrones has never been a show that’s wanted to do that.

So when Weiss and Benioff start talking about how they see seven seasons (and maybe a movie) to wrap up their show, I’m over here fist-pumping like a champ! Let’s do it. Let’s wreck shit. Let’s see who winds up on that throne and what it’s all going toward.

Certainly everyone brings their own perspectives to a post like this. Many fans just love spending time every week with their characters, like friends on the screen, and every episode is going to provide the needed escapes week to week.

But what I lobby for is good, powerful, tight storytelling. A story with a beginning, a middle, and a fucking crescendo of an end. Kill everybody, I don’t care. Just follow through on the promises the show has made through its run, rather than stringing what once was a good story with big promises into a soap opera of old situations between different characters.

And then there’s the network execs, who say, “Well, gosh, I love this show! The fans love this show! And as a fan I don’t want it to end! I’d love to see ten seasons or more of such a great work of art!”

Which leads me to two retorts, the first being that dragging a good story on for too long (like a bad joke or a, well, bad story that a friend may be subjecting you to) stops it being a great work of art. And the second being that it’s a bit scary to start reading between the lines of the HBO executives comments, who, even in text online, appear to be saying one thing with a forced smile while making murderous hand gestures. Says HBO President of Programming Michael Lombardo, “We’ll have an honest conversation that explores all possible avenues. If they weren’t comfortable going beyond seven seasons, I trust them implicitly and trust that’s the right decision—as horrifying as that is to me. What I’m not going to do is have a show continue past where the creators believe where they feel they’ve finished with the story.”

So, sure, on paper, he respects the creators knowing when a show is going to end! But when a person who has “President” in their title at the network your show airs on uses the word “horrifying” to describe ending the show at seven seasons, and suggests having an “honest conversation to explore all possible avenues,” that hair on the back of your neck has gotta be standing up at this point.

I can only hope it’s seven or eight seasons. I can hope that Weiss and Benioff stand their ground and pull this thing together in a spectacle of awesome. And I just really, really, do not want to see this thing go for ten to twelve seasons.

Nobody wants to see a rusty iron throne by the time some old, bored, actor/actress gets there.

10612835_10152775328667734_3498652474584725138_n

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide and the book, Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team and now travels the world lecturing about approaches to paranormal research. He’s also a portrait photographer based out of Colorado. 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Looking Forward, Looking Back, and Deepest Thanks

2014 ended with a kind of headspinning, chaotic, happy-nightmarish sprint into 2015. I hit December in a funk. 2014 had been a good year. Not a great year, but it was one of those foundational kind of years that has to happen before stuff can take off. It’s a reminder that no empire is built overnight, and that instant virality is a product of hard, hard work (unless you’re that kid from Target, thanks for that, 2014). I got a tiny, cold, but full-of-character apartment last January. After living with my parents to pursue creative pursuits at the expense of money or adulthood, landing my own apartment was, last winter, my only real dream. Fuck finding a good girl, fuck getting back into an awesome, well-paying job or investing in new gear, I just wanted a place to call mine. It was a hasty move. I didn’t have the money for it, but some people were buying my photos, (no one was buying my books), and I’d gotten on at the perfect time with a couple high school buddies to run the back end of their media business. Embracing photography as fast and hard as I could, I also started off on a surreal self-portrait photo-a-day project, which lasted a few months before ideas and motivation and time began to die off.

And, you know, it was good. Even in June when I realized I’d somehow gotten bedbugs. Even as winter fell and my landlord didn’t turn on the radiator while outside, Colorado suffered in -6 degree weather.

2-For-Web

And things were going well. But as with stagnation, I hit a wall in October when a bunch of projects fell through. And then in November the lingering funk hit me on and off and I found myself in bed for what felt like days on end, trying to convince myself to get something done. Eventually I started writing a new book (because being in the middle of one novel wasn’t pressure and headache enough) and the writing flowed until December hit. It was supposed to be a quiet month, but then jury duty, illness, hard drive crashes, the holidays, and a few projects hit, and suddenly I was playing catchup between running to shoot after shoot. Which I love. I might be stressed and jittery and drinking coffee all day and substituting meals with cigarettes, but it’s the frantic swings from one thing to the next that keeps me feeling like I’m finally producing. It’s not me and an uphill fight against myself, it’s frantic demands to make deadlines and make cool shit for someone who’s not just me.

And the outlook for 2015 is the craziest year yet. Most of what prompted this was figuring out how to cram it into two or three tweets, but I was clicking around on Facebook and read a post by Amanda Fucking Palmer about how much she and Karl’s idol Neil Gaiman are such peas in a pod and I had this weird and sudden rush. It wasn’t nostalgia, but it was something similar. In that same forgotten way of lost friends from grade school, I was reminded of Karl From Three Years ago. Set to graduate college (which he hated at the time, but is far more lukewarm about the experience now), dreaming of finding virality with some breakout novel, traveling about and writing in cool places and trying new things and making it all awesome. Then none of that happened and I picked up photography and the writing continues to smoke from my giant burnout after publishing Into a Sky Below, in fall of 2013. And now, everything looks different. The memory though came from realizing how much it still looks the same, and how I’d been so damn stressed for the last year that I didn’t really notice it. I’ve been living in it and sprinting toward it for a month and it still hasn’t sunken in yet. But 2015 is shaping up to be the year. It’ll have pitfalls, probably big ones, but holy hell. There will be travel and there will be huge projects, and more and more work and fun and great art, and hopefully some books as well.

* * *

Which segues me to the information I came here to share:

So, I’ve released a special edition hard cover of Hallowtide. It’s pretty niche and relatively pricey (print costs and two shippings have it run up a bit at $40). It takes a week or two to get to me, and another week for me to flip to you. But it’s beautiful and sleek and fat and features a bit of writing yet unseen and I’m more proud of it than anything else I’ve made in my life.

Link to that glorious bastard of a book here: http://www.karlpfeiffer.com/#!hallowtide/ccou

I’m happy to send you one, but orders will be on hold right now until mid-February.

That’s because I’m going to Germany for a month. My brother lives there and wanted to bring me out before he moved back to the states, and next thing I knew, plane tickets were bought, and now I’ll be leaving in a week! There will be traveling and beer and photos taken, but also a lot of projects that are being backlogged here at the turn of the year. While right now I’m writing a blog and trying not to think about missing my deadlines, I’m realizing that’s everything I wanted. Stressed, running around with sixteen projects, hopping internationally, making cool art…

I come back mid-February, where I’ll have two weeks to reset before flying to Florida for the third Ghost Hunter Cruise. We’re heading down to the Caribbean for a week, checking out some amazing haunted places and spending time with excellent people. It’ll be the third cruise featuring myself, GHI’s Barry Fitzgerald, and psychic medium Sarah Lemos, who is incredible and managed to bring about many, many tears last September, if that’s motivating enough for you to join, we would absolutely love to have you:

Info about the Ghost Cruise here: http://www.ghosthuntercruise.com/

I’ll have a couple weeks before I jump to house-sitting for my aunt and uncle in Greeley (if you know Colorado… it’s not our most exotic city). But then April has the annual Ghost Hunters event at my weekend home, the Stanley Hotel, this year from Amy Bruni’s events boutique, Strange Escapes. As usual, there will be mind-bending lectures and ghost hunting with celebrity types. I’ll be speaking again and, depending on how crazy I get, miiiiight be releasing a new book. I’ll also hopefully be working on a very awesome secret project with a very awesome friend that you guys will, if all goes well, be hearing about later in 2015.

Info about the Stanley Event here: http://www.strange-escapes.com/portfolio-item/stanley-hotel-april-10th-13th-2015/

Then I’ll hopefully be moving into a new apartment (if the gods have my favor), and I’ll have a few months of relative quiet, depending on how many weddings and portraits I get asked to do. In between that, I’ll be working on a feature-length documentary project with a very close friend, Connor, who works with me up at the Stanley Hotel. It’s going to be about the world of transplants. It’ll be a very intense project but one I’m excited to do. And, of course, I’ll be resuming my position as assistant director of the night program at the nerd camp I grew up with, which doubles as the best place in the world. If you have children in 5th through 10th grade who are gifted and may struggle with fitting in or finding people like themselves, you should 1000% check it out.

UNC Summer Enrichment Program: http://www.unco.edu/cebs/sep/

September brings with it the next ghost cruise. We’re gunning for Alaska, but may wind up in southern California. There’ll be further announcements in that direction if you follow the cruise’s Facebook page. 

October will be bringing with it an even more awesome but yet-mostly-unannounced Ghost Hunter Cruise event, where I’ll be joining my compatriots once again in a country known for its leprechauns during the time of year I love most. I’m thrilled beyond all reason to go along on that trip, and I’ll be posting more about it if you’re interested in joining, as it’s closer to being more officially announced.

And then I’ll be home and the snow will begin falling again and I’ll be right back where I am now, probably exhausted, probably stressed, and very likely with a whole buttload of new memories and surprising experiences that I had no idea would be coming along the pipeline at the time I’m writing this.

But. Now I have photos to edit and articles to write and bags to pack.

As always, it’s the support from you all year long that helps keep me moving, helps me keep trying to better myself and my work, and makes me feel like it’s not just me, in a locked room, beating my head against the wall — no matter how much it often feels that way. You guys save me from that becoming all-consuming, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

A happiest of New Years to all you out there, from this bearded fool to you all.

New-Lens-1

10 Years Later: Revisiting the Village

It’s always around this time of year that I break out my Halloween movies. Nightmare Before Christmas. Trick r’ Treat. Sleepy Hollow. And, of course, The Village, which has in past years grown to be one of my fall staples. And it was in watching it just tonight that I wanted to type up a blog defending this movie, and encouraging any readers to revisit it if it’s been a while now.

the-village-original

The Twist

Now, first off, I want to dive into this blog by talking about why so many people didn’t or don’t like this movie. What it seems to repeatedly return to is, well, it’s a Shyamalan movie, and his time was coming to a wane. Shyamalan, after breaking out with the Sixth Sense, and following with Unbreakable, Signs, and later the Village, he quickly established himself to be a really talented director with a knack for twist endings… twist endings that start to weigh on people. And it’s the Shyamalan gimmicky twist that seems to be what bothered many reviewers, especially after quickly perusing Rotten Tomatoes.

Why do people hate twists? Well, they’re gimmicky, and they’re an easy way to startle audiences. Want an emotional reaction in a thriller movie? Pull the rug out from under them at the end. The problem with this is fairly obvious. The twist often is easy (IT WAS ALL A DREAM!), but it worse, it undermines the work the movie had done leading up to it. If the whole movie was a dream, all the conflict and drama and themes are often left discarded completely.

By the fourth twist-ending movie from a director whose name actually started to mean something with his breakout first movie, the meaninglessness was quickly attached to his name. And it didn’t help that after the Village, starting with Lady In The Water, Shyamalan’s talent seemed to utterly dissolve. This only fueled the belief that if there was a twist, it was simply a gimmick: that Shyamalan had been fooling us all along.

But, here, I want to look at the twist itself, and try to get away from writing the movie off because it had a twist, and because Shyamalan has quickly become a gimmicky household name associated with no skill and cheap tricks. Because he certainly didn’t start out that way. And here, with the Village, he actually had something good going.

The twist of the Village is that the quaint, sleepy, early 19th century town that the movie focused on was not actually located in that period of time, but was actually hidden away in a nature reserve of modern time, unbeknownst to the residents. And the scary monsters stalking the woods? A farce put on by the town elders to maintain their secrets and maintain their town’s innocence and ignorance about the darker ways of the world.

A bit ridiculous? Sure. Could something like that ever happen? Sure, probably not. But we’re in thriller genre. Movies are often about the unrealistic. But that’s not a bad thing. No, a big part of the ridiculous conclusion here is because it was presented as a twist, and people rolled their eyes at the gag, at the man behind the curtain, and left disappointed, failing to consider it as much beyond a twist.

But this is where I encourage viewers to watch the movie a second time. Because the pitfall of the twist movie is that it makes the movie worthless. But with the Village, the twist added a new layer to the story, and it was a layer that had been there all along. Shymalan wasn’t fucking with us for a gimmick, he was telling a story that changed levels throughout. Indeed, the very first lines spoken on-screen were about whether the elders had made the right decision to settle there. Though you don’t know it, the dialogue that had been happening the entire movie was always about the twist. You just didn’t know. Each time the elders discussed the “Ones We Don’t Speak Of”, it’s loaded. It’s ambiguous and layered with a deeper meaning. This is a facet of the good twist movie: it adds new value and multiple layers to a story already told. And a great twist movie doesn’t stop with the two layers of meaning, but it makes you think further about the very premise.

On the first layer: Monsters are attacking the town, what do we do?

On the second layer: We’re pretending to attack the town, what do we do next?

On the third layer: How far do we take this farce and is it even moral and right to do so?

But to write the movie off as bullshit because of the twist is to miss those deeper conversations that were actually happening the whole time.

Did I once think the movie was better when I liked only half the movie: the half when it treated the monsters as real? Yes. But to leave it at that: a movie about a town dealing with a monster problem… it’s simple. It has potential. But it’s simple. How many times has the good little town/group of friends/strangers battle the evil invading force, though? How many times does that plot turn into most of the people dying, with Evil being defeated (or at least, leaving just enough left over to come back for a sequel)?

Here, Shyamalan took the story to a new level, examining the nature of innocence, of lies for a greater good, of the way those lies, which were in good faith, can turn right back to the very evil they were attempting to avoid. In a very post-9/11 movie, this was an examination of governmental lies, order, intention, backfired intention, conspiracy, innocence, and endurance. Especially reflecting on the Village as a post-9/11 movie, there’s something that really comes alive here.

The alternative though, the one without the twist… it’s probably just another random, meaningless thriller with some monsters.

The Frights

The other problem the Village quickly runs into, on the heels of it being a Shyamalan film, is that it’s a thriller. It deals with scary elements. And, as I’ve discussed in many a review before, scares are hard on critics. People go to scary movies to get scared. Everyone is scared by something different. And so, movies or television shows judged on their scare merit alone are apt to have a very divided audience.

I, personally, thought these monsters were very effective. Shyamalan’s monster imagery was great. Hooded, red-cloaked beasts with strange quills coming from their backs, slowly stalking a sleepy town, lit by torch-light amongst the spindly tree branches? I’m in. And, to boot, Shyamalan shot it very effectively, showing just enough to make the monsters frightening, but not so much that we saw too much and lost our suspension of disbelief.

Now, that effect was lost toward the end, when Adrian Brody Monster did his sprint toward Bryce Dallas Howard. A little too tribal-looking. A little too much shown. But first, that thing was fucking creepy before the sprint, when it stood, hunched, while we waited to see what it would do. When too much was shown, we were only moments from learning that it wasn’t as it seemed anyway.

And certainly, while looking at the scares, I have to consider my earlier viewpoints, yes, maybe having a second twist was bothersome — how many times does Shyamalan have to twist it for us? It seems more gimmicky when it’s real — nope, not real — real — just kidding, not. And look, now it’s the modern day!

But when you’ve moved past the first screening, and you go along with the story rather than watching for twists, it actually works.

It works because Shyamalan is actually a really good writer (or used to be). Here, he wrote a movie that took its time, with each scene and shot being both gorgeous and deliberate. His use of parallelism was what tied this movie together so nicely.

The Filming

Examples: The scene in which Ivy and Noah had a footrace: simple, fun, you got to know these two’s relationship. It was paralleled at the end as Noah-Monster, mentally challenged and playing a prank, tried to lure Ivy into another footrace.

The elegant, creepy, torch-lit scene in which Jesse Eisenberg stood with his back to the forest to test his bravery against his imagination? Paralleled by Ivy later standing with her back to the monster, testing her own bravery as to when to move, finally killing Noah-Monster. Indeed, Ivy and Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) even discussed how Lucius held the record, and how Ivy longed to be like a boy, to be able to test it herself. Well she got her chance.

And how powerful, the way Shyamalan framed this little town against the eerie woods. His return to very specific and intentional use of color. Was Red being the “bad color” ridiculous? Perhaps, but, like the Sixth Sense (and, I’d say, not so much like the Sixth Sense that it was discredited), there was symbolism there. The symbolism of blood. The way the community tried so hard to avoid it. The use of yellows to balance out the red, creating such a lovely autumnal feel. The way he filmed Ivy, often out of focus and close up, to put the viewer in her experience of her blindness, especially in the suspense scenes when it mattered as much for her as it did us.

These are very intentional decisions that work for movies. They’re designed to keep a movie tight, effective, meaningful, and deliberate, and they’re sadly too often left out of most Hollywood releases today.

But it’s not just the film-work, but the writing and acting combined with that. Lucius, the shy, awkward, but somehow bold and fearless faux-main character. Perfectly played by the awkward-but-noble Joaquin Phoenix, and in a way that was different enough from Signs that both roles worked, despite their similarities. But how much more moving were those two moments in which he took Ivy by the hand in times of danger? I’ll admit it, they were powerful enough to make me shed some fluid from my eye holes. Maybe it’s a taste thing, but I found it spot on. That’s good directing. When an actor can come out of nowhere, grab his costar’s hand, and at least one audience member cries? That’s successful filmmaking.

But how smart as well, ten years before the feminist dialogue has really taken off online, we see Shyamalan twist his story to strip down his shy-but-fearless male hero, substituting a blind woman to brave the woods. While she might’ve had insider info, she was still terrified (Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance was fantastic). Did the two young men keep up? Sure didn’t.

In a time when movies feel the need to spoonfeed us old cliche’s in the first ten minutes so that we can get to know characters with the least possible amount of engagement in order to get to the action, here we have Shyamalan both taking his time to illustrate these characters, this town, this place of innocence, and following the well-shared advice to show and not tell.

Look at the way Ivy tells Lucius how she knew he liked her because he wouldn’t touch her? His confirmation was silence. Shyamalan’s confirmation was when Lucius shared the same information with his mother a scene or two later, confirming to us that Ivy had shared a truth about him, in that he’s now sharing it to his mother. There are no tired tropes here to establish the relationship. This was one that took its time and hit its beats in a subtle way. Maybe too subtle for some reviewers, who found character depth to be fairly flat.

And last, but not least, the score. James Newton Howard knocks it out of the park. One of the most gorgeous film scores I’ve ever heard. It carries through the movie like a breeze in a creepy forest.

Conclusion

So what do we have here? Ignoring the Shyamalan legacy, and treating this movie on its own, ten years later, through my eyes, we have a gorgeously filmed movie. It’s eerie. It’s autumnal. It’s smart and takes its time. The scares are subtle and goooood (my substitute for “frightening”, since I know this movie too well to recognize if its scary anymore). The twist has a good reason. And the themes are intriguing enough to chew on.

That’s a damn good movie, in my opinion.

Maybe there are parts of this you would like to nitpick, or feel differently about, and that’s fine. Each has their own tastes. But, knowing the twist, I encourage you to watch the film as what it is: a movie about a town that’s faking a monster problem to ensure the innocence of its citizens. That’s an interesting premise. And it’s one that holds up, especially on the second, third, or fourth viewing.

Move beyond the gimmick, and watch it enough to let it all settle over you at once, and I hope you’ll find the depth and value in it. Then we can all go back to wondering just what the hell happened that every movie after The Village sucked so much.

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and  worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now lectures about approaches to ghost hunting across the nation, leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, and works as a portrait photographer. You can find more at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ed and Ryan Wedding

Wedding-Title-CardBeautiful wedding with Ed and Ryan from back in July. I’ve been doing photos for a year now, but this was my first wedding. And I have to say I have way too many favorites. From the prep to the sheer joy that carried Ed and Ryan through the day, I couldn’t be happier with the experience. Eide-Wedding-For-Web-100 Wedding-2-For-WebEide-Wedding-For-Web-316 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-254 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-177 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-424 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-307 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-163 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-137 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-131 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-167 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-185 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-189 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-562 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-50 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-76 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-78 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-97 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-118 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-120 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-123 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-412
Eide-Wedding-For-Web-547
Eide-Wedding-For-Web-434 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-236

Tagged , , , , , ,

AHS: Freak Show – Monsters Among Us Review

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 11.21.55 AM

After months of speculation, fan-made promos, teasers, and hauntingly beautiful official promos, we’re finally met with the premiere of the fourth season of the anthology juggernaut, American Horror Story, this year in the Freak Show.

If it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of this show. But because of that, I hold it to a very high standard. First season was excellent. Smart, well-filmed, challenging, and stylized. Second season started to lose me in the near-mess of horror tropes thrown at the audience. But it regained my trust in the final few episodes, which, while to some fell a too-rapid shift in tone, for me it brought together the themes the season played upon in an elegant and subtle way. The aliens were stand ins for divinity and the achievements of science, the asylum stood as a sad pinnacle of religious corruption and our lack of progress at the time. Together, binaries were fuzed and meshed and reversed and the entire season came off a huge artistic success.

Then, of course, season three hit. True to form for third-season-ruts (see: Supernatural), Ryan Murphy and co. decided to lighten the show’s tone after Coven, which I was fine with. The shots were still beautiful. The eeriness blended well with the synth-heavy musical score, given a fresh, modern feel on the witches genre. It worked. Until it didn’t. The first episode gave us a taste of what could have been to come: female empowerment, reversal of race issues, sexuality (as always), the struggle against mortality. It was trimmed down from Asylum, sleek… and then it just stopped. Halfway through, the season became witches being bitches, and the race dialogue was lost in throwing away our black characters because the plot ran out. It tried to pull an Asylum and save it in the final episode, but the big themes were pushed aside. Literally, too little, too late.

Now, I know, some were fans, and some were not. Indeed, that’s my first point going into this review of Freak Show today. Horror is a tricky genre because everyone approaches horror with different tastes and expectations. What scares one person won’t phase another. Some want to simply be scared and entertained. Some want to be intellectually challenged.

So before going into Freak Show, I want to set my expectations of the show. After seeing how smart a show it could be from the moment I hit first season, and the moment Asylum floored me, I knew this show was brilliant. The very premise, even, that in the horror genre, yes there are frightening monsters, but the most frightening issues are the societal ones. Boom. That’s it. There’s our one-sentence show pitch.

But along the way, AHS picked up some brilliant cinematography and editing. The show is a breath of fresh air compared to much of television in its uniqueness of style. The acting was great, with Jessica Lange perennially stealing the show. And the scares, well, like I said, everyone has different triggers. But compared against most of TV? It’s happily in the horror genre.

SO: Freak Show.

If my rambling prologue there wasn’t indication enough, the first episode is usually strong. The show has history with getting rough as it gets going. So the first episode review should only be taken as far as you can throw it.

That said, I mostly totally dug it.

The cinematography was still gorgeous. I love the wide angle shots that have become staples. And the twilight carnival shots with the lights… well that hits me right in the feel goods. That’s my sandbox right there.

The acting, of course, is always exciting to see how the actors mold to new characters, and it was done well. Good to see Jessica Lange staying steady as the manipulative matriarch with some well-buried brokenness.

Twisty the Clown was trending all Wednesday night on Twitter, and I can see why. web_ins_gallery_detail_series_dsktp_ahs_01

He’s probably the scariest clown I’ve ever seen. I’m not scared of clowns, myself, so perhaps some folks would disagree, but he’s creepy as hell. Perhaps overdone? But dirty, dark, gritty, murderous, and with secrets yet to be revealed, I like it.

I thought it was a curious decision, but one that I wound up liking, to reveal Twisty first in daylight. It seems to me that this speaks to the team’s confidence in their creation sustaining scares no matter what the time of day. It worked for me. The creepy Louisiana (okay, “Florida”) wilderness tied to a violent illustration of just how dark humanity can be was very reminiscent of HBO’s True Detective, which I was very okay with. In the end, yes, the folks who don’t like clowns aren’t gonna like Twisty, and he’s dark enough that he could literally scare some away, but I’ve never gotten the impression AHS cares too much.

The real heart of the show though is the themes. And AHS has seemed to strip this season down to, literally, just freaks. What makes someone a freak. What physical deformity means socially. How freaky are human beings in general. What’s the appropriate response to social marginalism.

Of course, some won’t have it. Some will. And likely there’s gray space in between where the show is actually operating. I watched headlines before the premiere about what a terrible show it is to exploit the disabled as horrific. I just read a Buzzfeed article about how AHS isn’t as progressive as we think. And it goes on.

For the ones who won’t have it: AHS, as I said above, is about reversing many illustrations of what’s monstrous. There’s always extremes (usually the big bad murderer) for the scares, but the heart is in reframing what should be scary. If it fails, a la Coven, and winds up reinforcing these social issues, then yeah, it should be held to that. But I think the intentions are here, it’s a matter of the skills of the writers, and so far, given the pilot episode, we have a lot to work with. The deformities are played upon, but that’s of course the AHS style. It’s always right in your face.

Ariane Lange’s Buzzfeed piece was accurate. If AHS is as progressive as we think/want, it needs to do more than normalize the inner human of the disabled, and instead examine them as abnormal, but abnormal because of society’s treatment and their experiences due to that treatment and to the disability.

To which I say, A) give it a chance. we still have 12 episodes yet to see if Murphy and co. will move beyond the “they’re just people too” theme. But also… B) I think it’s already going beyond that. If we want to examine the true ways that “freaks” are abnormal, which is to say, who they’ve become because of marginalization and efforts in a world that doesn’t provide for them, then this is an excellent space for it. Right off the bat, we have two murders by the “freaks” (three more if you count Twisty), and an instant questioning of where those murders fall on the morality line. I think that by reframing “freaks” as “normal” so quickly that we can jump right into looking at the moral nuances that their situation provides, AHS is already being relatively progressive. I very much don’t expect to find the conclusion of the season being that freaks are freaks and normal people are normal.

We’re not in AHS’s sandbox until we’re questioning everyone and watching the plot unravel because American culture is really, really good at being freakish and horrific. That will again and again be the attempt of the theme of this show.

Now, of course I’m worried that there’s not going to be enough to chew on to stretch this out for a season. Already in episode one we’ve had emphasis on society’s sad treatment of the “freaks”, we’ve had illustrations of their experiences and humanity, and we’ve got the classic AHS plays on what’s freaky, what’s justified freaky, what’s extreme freaky, what’s human, and how much of the horror is in our nature.

All those things I want to see twisted and reversed and changed and explored further, but I worry it’ll be tired by January.

But also, I hope. I hope that with all that time, Murphy and Co. will address those issues that Lange points out, and progress a good, dark, Asylum-level dark (but smart) story.

That’s one that time will tell. But there’s more than enough here at the start to keep me on board and happy… even if they always start that way.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team. He’s the author of Hallowtide, and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He contributes to the TAPS Paramagazine, leads the weekend ghost hunts and the Stanley Hotel, and shoots conceptual and portrait photography in Colorado. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

AHS:FreakShow – Cinemagraphs

First time playing around with Cinemagraphs. Lots of great tutorials online. I couldn’t help myself, so I decided to adapt some of the AHS: Freakshow promo clips into some promo gifs. Check ’em out and spread them around!

While I’ve played many hands of making my own fan promos, these of course are all property of FX. But I hope they find them as cool as I do.AHS-Hands

AHS-Sword-Swallower

AHS-Twist

AHS-WarpedAHS-PeekAHS-Rotate

Tagged , , , , ,

Future Seasons of American Horror Story

I wrote a post very similar to this one after the end of Season Two and, while I kept that post updated, it’s beginning to fall a bit out of date, and so I wanted to revisit the post with some new ideas and sexier photoshop work.

So, a bit of a recap, shall we? American Horror Story is a show defined by iconic marketing imagery, a frantic-yet-elegant cinematic style, an ensemble cast that’s always excellent, pitch perfect thematic studies, and interwoven anthology plots.

* * *

In season one, we visited the Murder House. The setting was a haunted house in California, and it allowed the writers and directors to study such American Horrors that the supernatural horrors are only caught up within: the real horrors — the way people react to and perpetuate social issues. Adultery. Abortion. Gay rights. The 21st Century family. School shootings. Depression. Teenage romance. Bullying. The themes that circle the home.

AHS S1

* * *

With second season, we had a big switch, moving into the Asylum. Though first season was dark, it was so in a sexy, elegant, nature. The scares crawled around inside your head a bit. But with season two, Murphy and Co. turned it up to eleven. The sexiness was out the window. The show was a period piece for the 60’s, a time that’s beginning to seem almost pre-historic to us. The setting and time period allowed the writers to explore the big issues of the time (many that are unfortunately still very prevalent), and what made the season brilliant by the final episodes was the way the writers spring-boarded from social issues to philosophical issues. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, the role of the Church in the world and within institutions, the treatment of the mentally ill, the ways science can twist and corrupt, and the ways science can redeem. We got some supernatural scares, but not so much of the ghostly, super-powered variety. We saw aliens as a brilliant stand-in for God, we saw possession unrecognized in a place of god, and of course we saw our seasonal historical murderer.

AHS S2

* * *

And then season three happened. Drawing mixed reviews from critics, season three moved us down south, with Coven. Coven aimed to iron out some of the kinks with Asylum: to give the audience a breath of fresh air from the deep darkness of the Asylum, to shave off some of the abundant themes and plotlines that slowed the second season in the middle of its run. They went after feminism and racism in the south, tracking the split of two witch clans and the battle between them as it was reignited. The first episode was a powerhouse, but the show stumbled along after that, missing the opportunities to sneak in genuine frights, and, sadly, instead of deconstructing many of these themes, wound up reinforcing them by season’s end.

AHS S3

* * *

And now, in the late summer of 2014, we move into the fourth season, where we’ll step right up to the Freak Show. I’m utterly pumped for this season (and utterly disappointed in myself that I never thought of the carnival/freakshow idea in my earlier blog post: thanks commenters!) Where Murphy first confessed he was going for a lighter tone and a funny feel the way of Coven, he realized as he got into the plot that this season was, in fact, darker than Asylum. And, I hope, more on track with its thematic study of the nitty gritty. The promos are already exceptional. The clown is going to be scary as shit. And for the first time in more than half a century, we’re really going to get a piece of film/television that digs around in a very much overlooked piece of American history: the sideshow carnival. Looks for more civil rights type issues, post-WWII racial scares, and another season where the monsters are never the monsters.

AHS S4

(And of course, the alternate title card used with the actual-footage teasers)

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 11.21.55 AM

* * *

So where do we go from here?

Ryan Murphy has on multiple occasions mentioned that the season following Freak Show was going to be followed by something very much out of left field. While I’ve got a few good ideas, I don’t think any of them are quite as out-of-left-field worthy for the fifth season as Empty Space. Space has a myriad of setting-style titles, so it could be tough for fans to guess this subtitle. But space is a rich American horror soil, and very much do-able for Murphy and Co. I have regular debates with my good buddy CJ about the possibilities of such a season. He argues that aliens shouldn’t make an appearance to throw viewers, whereas I think they can. Granted, AHS has already done aliens in Season Two, but they were brief and very much an image-centric stand-in. They could easily do some creatures heretofore unseen. But with the potential for deep space survival, fear of unknown planets, rebellious robots, rebellious other ships, and with a wealth of horror-movies to nod to and reference, I think we can count on seeing Empty Space in the near future for AHS, hopefully as near as Season Five.

AHS-S5

* * *

Almost equally as obvious and overdue as space in the AHS franchise as my vote for Season Six? I’ve subtitled it the Woodlands. (Part of me fought with debate over calling it “Sticks” — a play on the folk phrase for the backwoods mixed with the River Styx from Greek mythology, a thematic allusion very much up Murphy’s alley). The Woodlands locale is rich for AHS. It’s the setting of many in the classic staple of American Horror: the Slasher film. We set this at a cabin or lakeside retreat, and let havoc play out. We’d get the classic slasher killer (likely somebody historical), but there’s room here to play with more modern manifestations from the woods, like Slenderman or cryptid beasties. Murphy has spoken in recent interviews about the nature of death on television, and how it’s different than in movies. Because of the way a 13-episode television run connects you with characters for six times longer than the average movie, you become far more attached, and so those deaths are more meaningful. While in many ways this can be a deterrent for a slasher season, I think it’s territory to play with those losses as the horror that they are.

Thematically we’ve got play by looking no further than Lars von Trier’s disturbing film, Antichrist. Von Trier, in interviews, pointed out that one of his main thematic goals with the film was to explore the dichotomy between the woods currently illustrated in Romantic tones, as a place of peace and finding one’s self, as a Walden, but whereas historically, the woods are a terrible, terrible place of darkness. That’s where you go to fight for your life, where the food chain spins endlessly, and human wit is tested against animal ability.

So I say, let’s do that. Let’s pit the humans against the wild. (And don’t even get me started on what a gorgeous season that would be to watch, cinematically).

AHS-S7-3

* * *

THE season I’ve been waiting to see from Murphy. This show had better not run dry by the time we make our detour into Lovecraft Country (perhaps a better subtitle, but it’s clunky). Innsmouth of course is the setting of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a small community of inbred and hybrid creatures living on the coastal shores of Massachusetts. Lovecraft has been one of the most defining characters in modern horror, introducing us to Cosmic Horror and a strange philosophical place of Nihilism and mysticism. This topic is hot right now after being constantly hinted at in HBO’s first season of True Detective, so I think it’s time for something more overt to hit the airwaves. Certainly themes are easy enough to play out. Let’s look at science and religion, cults and isolation, the power of nature, sprinkle in some Storm of the Century and tales of epic sea monsters for flashbacks, and we’ve got one of the tightest, darkest, rainiest, and creepiest American Horror Stories yet. Perhaps the topic will dry up by Season Seven, but I doubt it. Lovecraft never leaves us.

AHS-S6-2

* * *

Okay, fine, Maize isn’t a setting, but it was the best I had, and I loved the play on Maize meaning corn, as well as the wordplay of Maze. Look no farther than the Shining for the maze/minotaur trope in classic horror. Mash it up with Children of the Corn and we’ve got something special. Now, though Murphy says he has as many as 13 different settings in mind, I’m worried themes come less varied than settings, especially if he continues to pack them in the way he did in season 2. Eight seasons is already a bit long, but I think these are the quintessential settings that absolutely have to be covered, and the Maize season would be the quintessential finale, wrapping us up for season Nine. The Native American connection brings the end back to America’s beginning. Dig around in America’s roots, explore the monsters in the soil,  Native American legends, the horror stories from before the genocide, then toss in some Dark Romanticism and Sleepy Hollow, maybe pepper in some Celtic Halloween roots to stir the melting pot, and we’ve got an incredible finale to an incredible show.

AHS-S8

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,822 other followers