The Big Question is a semi-regular outing where multiple Daily Grindhouse contributors and friends offer their answers to some burning question. The results…may surprise you.
This week’s Big Question comes from Nathan Smith and it is…
What is your favorite spooky legend told in a film?
There are many storytelling devices that horror filmmakers have at their fingertips to spook audiences without spilling a drop of blood. One common trope is having the characters sitting around dispensing legends. Sometimes it’s by a campfire, sometimes it’s about the central villain, sometimes it’s just a random aside—but it can be a real chilling sequence that haunts viewers. The story of Cropsey from THE BURNING, the origins of the titular DR. GIGGLES, Victor Crowley’s miserable beginnings in HATCHET, the Machete Phil gag in CLUB DREAD, and more all set a creepy tone that either clues audiences in about the terror they are about to face…or merely makes everyone a little more freaked out. So what’s your favorite and why?
Alex Lanz – PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
Though technically not a horror film, I have not met a person that wasn’t terrified of at least one scene from Tim Burton’s masterful PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. From the menacing Francis to the operating room full of clowns, this movie has its frights. When I was approached to pick a ghost story, the return of Large Marge immediately came to mind. BIG ADVENTURE sets Pee-wee on a road trip to the Alamo where he must brave the highways to reunite with his beloved bike. On a dark night with heavy fog and not a star in the sky, Large Marge and her monstrous Ford LTL9000 answered the call to help him on his journey. Actress Alice Nunn immediately sets the tone with her intimidating demeanor and no-bullshit entrance.
This was the exact moment that my brother and I simultaneously shat our dungarees. To pull it all together, the score from Danny Elfman brings you in as if you are sitting right there with Marge. Can you just imagine being in the mixing room with those two during this scene? Pee-Wee now heads into the Wheel Inn to let everybody in the diner know who sent him. Those same 3 notes playing over and over on the piano. “But that means the Large Marge I was riding with was…” the words catch in our childlike hero’s throat, proving that though Burton and credited screenwriters (Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol) not only had chuckles in mind when cobbling together this childhood classic, they wanted to spook as well.
Nathan Smith – FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART 2 (1981)
The reason why I love the ghost story with which head counselor Paul (John Furey) regales his trainees is that it effectively catches the audience up to speed on the events of the first film—which would’ve been way more effective than the watery flashbacks we get during the overlong cold open. But it also serves a deeper purpose, to shift gears towards the franchise’s new star. No longer is this Pamela Voorhees’ show. It’s her son’s time to shine. In this hushed story, Paul mythologizes Jason in such a way that he makes him the object of fear we’ll come to know over the course of the long and storied franchise. It otherwise serves as a way to give Jason a lived-in-history—which is that he’s been surviving in these woods for a lot longer than the movie has shown us. It gives him a territorial, animalistic vibe that the sequels failed to play up, at least until JASON LIVES.
Campfire tales and ghostly legends are almost always built into the makeup of slasher movies in one way or another, so it’s surprising that almost all of the FRIDAY films ignore this element. But, proving its usefulness, Packanack Paul’s ghost story comes back in a big way via the opening montage to FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER in which his fireside ruminating is intercut with some of Mr. Voorhees’ biggest scares and splatters and effectively serve as a “here’s where we are” on the thought-to-be-ending series, which is a testament to the sharp-witted writing of Ron Kurz and the judicious cuts of editor Joel Goodman.
Jeremy Lowe — CANDYMAN (1992)
As far as horror movies that tell of urban legends go, it’s not hard to pick the best out of the bunch. The early ’90s brought us the amazing and thought-provoking CANDYMAN, based on the story The Forbidden written by master of horror Clive Barker. Nobody gave a fuck about the projects, let alone horror audiences. Thanks to CANDYMAN, every horror nerd knows that Cabrini Green was the most notorious housing project in Chicago. Not only did CANDYMAN bring attention to the living conditions of housing projects, but it also introduced us to Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), one of the most sympathetic characters in horror movies since James Whale brought Frankenstein’s monster to life in 1931.
The audience feels compassion for the murderous titular soul and we hope he is returned to his love, who is reincarnated in college grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). This is the first time I can remember an interracial love affair in a mainstream horror film. Yes, CANDYMAN is filled with top notch gore and brutal kills, but it’s also a story of love, revenge, and class struggle. CANDYMAN is a revolutionary tale that remains a milestone in the history of genre films.
Samantha Schorsch — THE RUSALKA (2019)
Polish culture exists in tandem with folklore and nautical legends such as sirens or mermaids. 2019’s THE RUSALKA (aka THE SIREN) appears to be about a woman doomed to live as a murderous mermaid, claiming the lives of the men in her immediate vicinity, only to learn her curse is due to her own drowning at the hands of her former lover. Perry Blackshear’s story of aquatic terror becomes a heartbreaking treatise on the monstrosity of trauma, indicting the people who try to silence it by pretending the victims are the purposeful aggressors.
Mermaids are commonly shown in horror films as man-eating monsters with horrific screeching voices and ugly faces (including, to a degree, in THE LIGHTHOUSE) but the movies almost always ignore that sirens have been historically depicted as defenders and victims. For example, the patron creature of Warsaw is a siren with a sword and shield. With gender politics gaining increasing prominence and relevance in film, I hope to see more mermaid stories showing them for the abused and ignored women they were—and the powerful vengeful spirits they deserve to be.
Kevin Maher — MEATBALLS (1979)
I didn’t go to summer camp, the closest thing I had was watching MEATBALLS on cable. The first time I ever heard the lovers’ lane story about the escaped lunatic with a hook on his hand was in this movie. Bill Murray does a terrific job telling the story under the weird moon. And the filmmakers are smart to include good reaction shots from the skepitcal but scared campers. Were this film to be made today there’s a whole lot they’d change about it (consent, boundaries, less objectification)—but I also imagine there’d be an un-necessary callback to the campfire legend. Or maybe the hook-handed lunatic would show up one night at camp. I don’t want to see that. Unless the guy has a hook on his foot.
Jay Alary — ALLIGATOR (1980)
In elementary school, my friends told various urban tales, but none scared me as much as the story of a tiny alligator flushed down a toilet, growing into a gargantuan sewer dweller with an appetite for human flesh. Seeing Lewis Teague’s ALLIGATOR (1980) on TV during its network premiere was thrilling, as JAWS was (and still is) my favorite film, and it’s one of the better knockoffs—I thought a giant alligator lurked under the streets of Saskatoon! Seeing the film as an adult, I admire it greatly: John Sayles beefs up an admittedly schlocky premise, imbuing it with strong characterization, claustrophobic chills, and plenty of humor. The late, great Robert Forster stars as a Chicago cop chasing down the titular creature with a zoologist (Robin Riker), while worrying that he’s going bald (it’s a running joke that works well on repeat viewings).
The cast is fantastic, particularly Henry Silva as a Quint-like big-game hunter and Sydney Lassick as a seedy pet-store owner who’s contributed to the alligator problem, and they clearly enjoy reveling in the reptilian ruckus that transpires on-screen. Director Teague keeps the pace moving swiftly and, like Spielberg, keeps the alligator in the watery sewer shadows until the climax, when it literally eats the rich at a fancy wedding party! It’s the ultimate cinematic urban tale I hope to pass along to my niece and nephew in the near future (I cling to my Lionsgate DVD until a boutique label releases it on Blu-ray).
Jon Abrams — THE FOG (1980)
First thing I thought of was PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. Sorry! Not a horror movie. That said, the “Large Marge” scene is phenomenally effective, maybe because it’s a horror scene dropped right into a movie that otherwise isn’t one. I also really really want to write about the opening scene of A SERIOUS MAN (2009), because it’s as close to a horror scene as the Coens ever directed, but I also really think that scene is there to fuck around with us as much as to spook us, so I’ll set that aside.
My most authentic answer to this question, regarding horror anyway, is from THE FOG, which is so pure. It’s just an old guy on the beach telling some kids a scary story by the campfire. It’s also the plot of the movie, so it’s not perfunctory business and may not serve this question as asked. But I love it so much. It’s such a bold way to open any horror movie, let alone the follow-up to the most successful independent horror film of all time. John Houseman as Mr. Machen (blatant nod to horror author Arthur Machen) is so sincere in his telling of the tale. John Carpenter’s score is perfect. Dean Cundey’s lighting is perfect. It’s not a complicated scene, but it makes THE FOG part of a tradition of scary stories that precedes cinema itself, just an elder passing down to the youth a good reason to be afraid of the dark and the deep.
Rob Dean — JAWS (1975)
I’m certain most wouldn’t consider JAWS’ famous “USS Indianopolis” speech by Quint (Robert Shaw) about his experience in World War II as a “ghost story” or even “a campfire tale.” Mostly due to the fact that it’s based on a real incident—but remember that in all of these other examples, the legends being spread are actually true within the world of the films (Madman Marz is out there and Daniel Robitaille was tortured on the ground that would become Cabrini-Green). Even though the outcome and facts are accurate, Quint’s language makes it all much more grim and immediate, casting a spooky shadow across the Orca crew’s mission.
Not only does this monologue provide a dark backstory for the salty sea dog (and why he hates sharks), but it sets up his eventual demise and undoing at the film’s end. It’s a mesmerizing legend with an impressive origin as created by uncredited screenwriter Howard Sackler, re-written by John Milius, and then revised by Shaw himself (you can see Robert Shaw’s son Ian perform the longer version that was whittled down in editing). Right before all hell breaks loose in JAWS (literally moments before the shark “eats the light”), this quiet and chilling moment perfectly injects the cold night at sea with the haunting specters of ravenous sharks and dismembered soldiers.
Matt Wedge — GREMLINS (1984)
I’d love to know when and where the urban legend of a devoted father—dressed like Santa Claus—dies a horrible chimney-related death originated, but I’m sure it was not in GREMLINS. Before I saw Joe Dante’s Christmas-set classic, I had heard more or less the same story that Kate (Phoebe Cates) tells in the movie (a scene that was so divisive upon release of the film that Dante, Cates, and company sent it up in the wonderfully demented GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH). I suppose this familiarity with the story is why I thought the scene was hilarious and I was looked at as some sort of sick puppy for laughing (I wasn’t the only one; in his review Roger Ebert said the story “is in the great tradition of 1950s sick jokes”) at what was mostly intended to be a dark, character-building moment for Kate.
While it is uncertain (even to this day) what the tone of the scene is supposed to be, I can now look back to that moment as an eleven-year-old weirdo getting horrified looks from people who probably assumed I was a budding serial killer and see the beginnings of my understanding that I did not quite fit in with “mainstream” folks. For that reason alone, I have a great affection for the story—as dark and twisted and actually unoriginal as it truly is.
Lizz-Ayn Shaarawi — SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
Loosely based on the Washington Irving story, Tim Burton’s take on the legend changes the original milquetoast schoolteacher Ichabod Crane; instead making him a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Rube Goldberg. Played by Johnny Depp, Ichabod is sent to investigate a series of violent murders in upstate New York. It’s endearing to see him so determined to bring forensic science into policing in spite of his fear of blood, bugs, and almost everything else. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker does an amazing job interweaving the Revolutionary War, Puritanism, and early science into a fascinating and terrifying tale. Though it is Christopher Walken’s shark-toothed Hessian that steals the film as The Headless Horseman. SLEEPY HOLLOW is beautifully shot and full of Burton’s trademark quirk and gothic atmosphere.
However, The Headless Horseman is not an American original as one might think. The legend is based on the Irish myth of the Dullahan, a headless rider (either male or female) on a black horse who carries their own head under their arm. The head is said to have a grin that stretches from one side of the head to the other. Rumor has it, if they speak your name, they’ll draw the soul right from your body. Personally, I prefer Christopher Walken.
Brett Gallman – MADMAN (1982)
First of all, let me be real: literally nothing gets me on a movie’s good side quite like a solid campfire tale. Chances are, if you have a scene—no matter how gratuitous it may be—where a group of people huddle around a fire to hear some creepy, local lore (or even a trite old urban legend), I am going to whole-heartedly embrace it. In fact, I’m probably going to consider it to be the best part of the movie. Give me a good campfire tale and I will love you forever is what I’m saying. Case in point: MADMAN, which understands this so well that it immediately opens by recounting the legend of Madman Marz, a local farmer who went insane and killed his entire family. Legend has it that speaking his name above a whisper will invoke his spirit and return him to the land of the living, where he’ll wreak havoc on the unfortunate souls that cross his path. Nothing about this exactly reinvents the wheel; hell, by 1982 it would have been standard slasher fare, especially in the wake of THE BURNING, which similarly took inspiration from the Cropsey legend.
But that’s exactly why it works: it taps into the primal familiarity that allows good campfire lore to hold sway. There’s a reason films return to this storytelling device, after all: everyone loves the type of scary stories that gave us chills as a kid. Of course, MADMAN injects its macabre tale with its own offbeat sensibilities. I’m not sure how many campfire stories involve hulking (but unusually lithe) hillbillies lurking in the trees, but I’m glad this one does. Furthermore, the delivery is pitch perfect: with a chilling, howling wind swirling about, head counselor Max (Carl Fredericks) regales his audience with the theatrical flair of a seasoned storyteller. Stephen Horelick’s synth-soaked score evocatively lingers over shots of the eerie, moonlit dilapidated Marz farmhouse. The camera reveals just enough of the mad farmer’s gory carnage but is mostly content to allow the atmospherics to wash over the audience.
Max remains playful throughout by drawing us into the tale with a final warning: don’t speak Madman Marz’s name if you plan on keeping your head on your shoulders. Did I mention another counselor accompanies this tale with a theme song for Marz that’s reprised over the end credits? Coincidentally, that’s the second quickest way to endear me to your movie, so MADMAN clearly gets me.
What about you, gentle reader?
What is your favorite spooky legend told in a movie?
Let us know in the comments below!
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Tags: Alligator, campfire tales, Candyman, folklore, Friday the 13th, gremlins, Jason Voorhees, Jaws, Madman (1982), Meatballs, Pee-Wee Herman, Siren, Sleepy Hollow, the fog, Tim Burton, urban legends