Public Radio Alliance’s new podcast, The Last Movie, drops tomorrow (on a Tuesday). The premise looks promising:
Tanis podcast host Nic Silver and regular contributor MK, explore the possible existence of “The Last Movie,” an infamous underground feature film, reputed to drive you insane. Legend has it that every screening of this film was surrounded by bloodshed and controversy: one reviewer actually described slipping on blood in the aisle, as he ran through dozens of people trying to tear him apart.
Though I’ve had mixed feelings about PRA in the past, I’m hoping The Last Movie will be good. They plan to release all 6 episodes simultaneously this time, which won’t give them any time to react to feedback, so for better or for worse they’ll be committed to their original vision.
I’m hopeful that in a shorter season they’ll avoid the biggest mistakes of The Black Tapes, Tanis, and Rabbits, in which the episodes eventually devolved into endless filler, to the point that the conspiracy became so convoluted that each episode of The Black Tapes felt like it was simply re-explaining who we were talking to — and Tanis would often skip that step, making the experience less-than-stellar.
Anyway, the concept of a movie that produces horrifying effects in its audiences is awesome. How do I know? Because other projects with the premise have come before, and they were awesome. Here are the two best examples I can think of:
Cigarette Burns is probably the inspiration for The Last Movie:
With a torrid past that haunts him, a movie theatre owner is hired to search for the only existing print of a film so notorious that its single screening caused the viewers to become homicidally insane.
Cigarette Burns succeeded because it nailed the investigative nature of such a premise — the journey to discover whether the film was even real or not, the growled warnings by those who claimed to know the answer, the feeling of fulfillment and dread when it as finally discovered.
There are elements of Spookypasta too, in that the in-universe authorship of the film is an explicit element of the plot; who — and how — could make something so horrifying? The reality-status of La Fin Absolue du Monde (the fictional text in Cigarette Burns) is also suitably muddy that the viewer could be excused for wondering whether it was a real film. Cigarette Burns takes itself seriously, and so in turn do we.
This last bit, the wondering if it might be a real film, is an element of Spookypasta that was perfected in my second example, which is literary: Sean Pearce’s “The Madness of Bill Dobbs: A Tale of Snuff Movies and Cannibal Cults.” (Pseudopod’s new transcripts are amazingly helpful, but do yourself a favor and listen to the audio version. You won’t be disappointed.)
“The Madness” is a written account that reads like a piece of journalism, or perhaps a documentary-style essay. The narrator is tracing the history and mythos surrounding a fictional-text (in this case a film) called Eaters.
I’ll selectively quote a few passages from the story that help me describe how this type of literature works:
Eaters is a movie with a mythology around it. Dobbs himself famously went insane shortly after release, and no less than three cast members died during location shooting
Even without the mythos surrounding it, Eaters is a fascinating film
[I’m leaving out some of the examples where it bleeds real historical details with fictional historical details; the effect is the ontological uncertainty that characterizes Spookypasta. When fictional elements are presented with the same ontological status as “true” elements, without specific knowledge of each individual fact (unlikely to be available at the time of consumption), then the status of the true elements bleeds into the elements whose status is uncertain, probabilistically elevating them. The reverse, when the reader/viewer is certain that an element is actually fictional, that fictionality splashes onto the adjacent true elements, undermining the viewer/reader’s certainty in what he thinks he understands to have a positive ontological status in the universe he inhabits (the universe immediately above the text he is reading; IE, his own universe).]
The real reason for the notoriety of Eaters is, of course, the rumour of Dobbs’ inspiration for the film. The rumour, that Dobbs’ had essentially lifted the narrative from a deeply obscure and possibly lost Mondo ‘documentary’ emerged several years after the release of the film. Indeed, Eaters would likely have vanished into obscurity if not for the resurgent interest the rumours caused.
This mythos surrounding the film is important, particularly that the mythos is ascribed to the film’s origins. This gets at the first criterion of Spookypasta.
The rest of Pearce’s story is about the investigation into the history of Eaters, whose inspiration is believed to be another fictional text, The Gods Eat Men! Much of the investigation centers on the question of the nature of TGEM.
- Is it purely a fictional text? (same level of reality as Eaters)
- Is it a snuff film? (one level more “real” than Eaters)
- Is it a documentary? (same level of reality as if it were a snuff film, but with different implications. A snuff film relies on a horrific violation of ontology when the fictionalized murder is actually a real one perpetrated for the camera, violently pulling the reality-level toward the real; the fictional elements remain safely displaced by one level, but the murder is a product of the viewer’s reality. A documentary doesn’t straddle this ontological gap, but instead by its existence insists that the reality depicted has always already been the one the viewer inhabits, which in the case of TGEM is far more horrifying than if it were a snuff film.)
The fictional text in “The Madness,” then, is multilayered, with cascading levels of un-reality that paradoxically have the appearance of being more realistic with each layer.
In a bizarre reality-bending twist, the protagonist of the story attempts to recreate TGEM out of a comparison between notes made by the last known owner of a copy and the fictional text Eaters which, in-universe, was believed to have been based on it TGEM. What is the ontological status of this re-produced production? After all, the attempted re-construction is in fact a new-construction; it is only by a trick of narrative that we entertain the notion that it is a re-construction.
The fact that we’re not quite sure, that we are overwhelmed somewhat as if by a whirlwind, is why “The Madness” works, and it is this spirit that The Last Movie is going to need to capture if it’s going to work.
We’ll find out together tomorrow. If it’s good, then The Last Movie will take its place among the other examples I’ve already listed the next time I write on the topic. And if not, we’ll always have “The Madness” of Cigarette Burns.
Keep it Spooky, folks. After all, tomorrow is Tuesday.