A chamber of horrors in a Spanish castle

Released 12 August 1961, The Pit and the Pendulum was the second of seven American International Pictures horror films loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe works. This one, of course, is based on Poe’s 1842 story of the same name, which had been adapted a number of times prior, with varying degrees of accuracy.

Here, the pendulum only appears in the final reel and third act, though the film’s first two acts were intended to feel like they could’ve come from a real Poe story. Given that the story is all of two pages long, every film based on or inspired by it necessarily had to employ many creative liberties to fill in the many blanks and create a feature-length story.

In 1546, Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) pays a visit to the Medina castle in Spain after hearing of the tragic, sudden death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). At first, doorman Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) refuses to let him inside, but Francis is finally allowed entrance when Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) sees him and recognizes him. (I suppose an authentic Spanish name like Catalina sounded too foreign for 1961 audiences.)

When Francis asks to see Elizabeth’s widower Nicholas, Catherine says her brother is resting, and hasn’t been well since Elizabeth passed. Francis then asks to see the grave, and Catherine says she was entombed, in the family custom. On the way to the tomb, Catherine lets the bomb drop that Elizabeth died three months ago. Francis is stunned he wasn’t notified earlier.

Nicholas (Vincent Price) turns up In the cellar, coming out of a room with a bizarre noise. He claims Elizabeth died after a long sickness of the blood, but is evasive about the details. This doesn’t satisfy Francis, who vows to stay till he learns the whole truth.

During dinner, family physician Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) admits she truly died of a fright- and shock-induced heart attack brought on by the castle’s creepy atmosphere. Francis demands to see proof, and Nicholas obliges by showing him a torture chamber in the cellar. It was built by his Inquisitor father Sebastian, whose painting hangs in the guest room.

Nicholas recounts their happy life together, which was derailed when Elizabeth became obsessed by the torture chamber and fell into a bad mental state. He was making plans to leave the castle and begin a new life elsewhere when a horrific scream came from the cellar. When Nicholas ran to the scene, Elizabeth fainted into his arms and whispered “Sebastian” with her dying breath.

Francis still refuses to believe Nicholas is on the level, but Catherine tries to convince him by telling the story of how Nicholas trespassed into the torture chamber as a boy. He wasn’t supposed to be there ever, but his curiosity trumped his fear of discipline. Nicholas hid when his parents and paternal uncle Bartolome came in.

At first it seemed his father (also Price) was giving a macabre, unnaturally cheerful tour of these torture instruments, but then the true reason for the visit came out. Sebastian turned on Bartolome and began beating him, calling him an adulterer. After torturing his brother to death, he accused his wife of adultery and tortured her to death too.

Ever since that day, Nicholas has been haunted by what lurks in the cellar.

That night, mysterious harpsichord music plays, and Nicholas is convinced it was Elizabeth. He knows her playing, even without seeing who did it. A ring belonging to Elizabeth also turns up on top of the instrument.

After Nicholas returns to bed, Dr. Leon reveals the secret that Nicholas believes Elizabeth was entombed alive. Contrary to the official story, his mother wasn’t tortured to death, but entombed alive after her torture. Ever since, Nicholas has been terrified by the idea of premature burial, so much so it drives him to convulsions of horror. Nicholas also believes Elizabeth walks the corridors and calls his name.

Dr. Leon believes someone found this out and is using the information to drive Nicholas insane, possibly a servant. This theory is given credence when Elizabeth’s room is found ransacked in the morning, while maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) was cleaning. Maria claims Elizabeth spoke to her.

Francis has another theory, that this is all an elaborate ruse by Nicholas. Worried he might unconsciously be doing all these things due to his fear Elizabeth may have been entombed alive, Nicholas demands an exhumation.

But the macabre discovery waiting inside the tomb doesn’t solve this haunting mystery. Instead, it unleashes a parade of even more horrors.

The Torch Passes (Tahoma)

Since I didn’t get around to writing an original post for Monday, let’s finally move out a 2013 post that languished in my drafts folder after I decided not to use it as part of that year’s A to Z.

Font: Tahoma

Year created: 1994

Chapter: “The Torch Passes”

Book: Cinnimin

Written: 23 July 1996-10 April 1997

Handwritten

This is Part XVI (16) in my current table of contents for my magnum opus, set from 11 December 1960-1 April 1963. Not including Parts I put on hiatus because of writer’s block or focusing on other projects, this is the one that took me the longest at a single stretch to write. Seriously, I could’ve carried a pregnancy to full term in the time it took me to write this! Even the notebook is depressing, without any covers. This was not a happy time in my life, the summer of ’96 and my junior year of high school.

But I do like it because so much happens here, many things setting the seeds for future storylines. Some new characters are also introduced, foremost among them the immigrant Laurel-Esterházy family from Blackpool, England and Győr, Hungary. Ophelia Laurel will eventually marry Cinni’s son Serop, and several other people in the family (the second generation as well) will marry into Cinni’s family and other important town families. Even some of the ones who don’t [marry into these families] become important characters, like Kathi and poor ill-fated Lauren, who’s going to die of AIDS at the stroke of the new millennium.

Some really stupid storylines met their well-deserved death here, like Cinni’s loopy Stalinist phase (don’t even ask), Cinni’s association with the weird Russian immigrant Bouncer at The Club, and young Anastasia reading banned Soviet books in secret. New ones, more germane to a real family/town saga, began taking shape. And, of course, the torch began passing from Cinni’s generation to her children and her friends’ children.

Some highlights:

“Henry, may I borrow these velvet handcuffs?” Julieanna asked as she casually walked into the bathroom, savoring their horrified looks at being caught in the act.

[Kit] burned an extremely important paper Rob was working on for his spastic boss once she got back home. Then she finished off an entire cheesecake his secretary had made him for a Christmas gift.

“Well, I was cold, and baby was shivering, so I decided to start a fire. I saw those papers in the box of logs, so I thought they were a rough draft which you wanted disposed of, Robert!”

Luke was crying. “I look like Hitler from the waist down! Thanks a lot, you pagan Commie!”

[After Helouise has walked in on her before JFK’s inauguration and refuses to leave] “Close the door! My excretionary life ain’t nonea your business!” Sam started crying.

“Close the door! I’m sorta involved in a private matter!”

“What did you do, drink nonstop before you got in here? You’re still making!”

“You just spent seventeen minutes making onto a photo of President Kennedy!” Helouise was appalled. “Give me that bag, freak!”

Sam was so scared she started urinating again. Helouise was seething.

Julieanna gave the finger to every person attempting to slow her down and bumped several cars off the road before she finally drove through the wall of the emergency room and knocked a man on an oxygen tank into the wall.

[After her soap actor husband Kevin has said the reason he hasn’t slept with her in six years is because of a “bit too real” car accident on the show] “Oh, the hell I did mind! I have wanted a second child for three or four years now!” Julieanna started crying.

[After Kit springs a surprise visit on him in Amsterdam, all four of her small children and her lover in tow] “Why don’t you ever do things like normal people?” Gary demanded, at the desk now. “There are psychologists in England too!”

“This is crazy Kit Green, her lover, and her four kids,” Gary whispered. “She came from England to see me, then drove around Amsterdam for three hours looking for my office!”

[During the Most Popular Girl competition for the new generation, which Cinni has rigged so Anastasia will win and Bélgica will lose by a landslide] “I wonder why Bélgica ain’t practiced more,” Cinnimin said calmly. “She’s doin’ ghastly!”

“Poor sportsmanship,” Lucinda announced. “A fourth negative ten! Tens for all the others. Shall we disqualify Bélgica?”

“Lookit these judges!” Bélgica was crying again. “Your mom, your aunt, onea your stepsisters, your cousin, and onea your stepsisters-in-law!”

[Kit and Sam have found themselves roommates after having babies on the same day] Kit pressed a button, making Sam’s bed shoot up and down. Adolfa slipped to the floor and screamed, while Sam’s water spilled onto her pillows. She was fuming.

Sam was humiliated by the laughter of everyone in the room. Tears of rage in her eyes, she ran to the bathroom, slipped on amniotic fluid, and broke her leg. Needless to say, she spent quite a few months abed.

WeWriWa—Why Emeline prefers George

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Since today is George Harrison’s 19th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m sharing something from Chapter 17 of Little Ragdoll, “Letters to and from Lucine and Emeline.” In autumn 1964, youngest Troy sisters Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine write to their closest older sisters, who left home young to escape their toxic parents. Eighteen-year-old Lucine is now at Hunter College, and 16-year-old Emeline is attending an uptown boarding school on full scholarship.

Near the end of her letter, Emeline explains why George is her favorite Beatle.

To answer Ernestine’s question, yes, I do like The Beatles (and I can’t believe she’s old enough to have celebrity crushes!). Maybe I’m a little too old for them, but it’s not like I’m one of those screaming young girls who’s only thinking about how cute they are and can’t hear them singing or playing their instruments. Liking somebody’s music has nothing to do with how cute they are, though it does help if someone is good-looking in addition to talented.

My favorite is George. I guess it’s because he’s the baby of the group, and it makes me think of my own dear little sisters and how the baby of a family needs special mothering, love, and protection. Is it a good or a bad thing I feel such a strong mothering instinct at only sixteen? Besides, I know how it feels to be pegged ‘the quiet one.’ That label sticks, and people sometimes don’t expect much of you since they think you’re not talkative. But boy, will I prove to anyone who thinks I’m just another quiet, bookish girl that still waters can run deep when I go into the world and make something of myself!

Writing about the dark side of suburban history

Suburbia, esp. in the post-WWII era, has a reputation as white and bourgeois. There’s also a persistent idea that many people moving from cities to suburbs after the war were motivated by racist fears.

The first point is, demographically and historically, overwhelmingly true, but the result of many complicated factors all coming together in the worst way.

The second point has a kernel of truth, but is a lot more complicated to unpack.

People desperately needed more living space after WWII, and since the U.S. was largely rural outside of major urban centers and resort towns, there was lots of room to create suburbs. Initially, they were within short driving distance of the anchoring city, but gradually got farther and farther away.

Many also developed into their own true cities and towns. Though residents didn’t stop driving into the nearest big city for work, the suburb itself had everything else they needed—stores, parks, schools, post offices, fire and police departments, movie theatres, bakeries, you name it.

During the Second Great Migration of 1940–70, five million African–Americans left the Jim Crow South for better job, educational, and living opportunities. During the first Great Migration of 1910–30, they mostly only moved to the North and Midwest, but now they resettled in every region.

And here’s where the plot thickens.

Yes, there’s no denying society as a whole was much more casually, openly racist in that era. Yes, a not insignificant number of white people moved to suburbia in part or entirely because of racist fears.

However, the original wave of people moving to suburbia truly were motivated by wanting more living space. They just happened to be leaving urban centers at the same time as many African–Americans were moving in, just as many big names of the silent era just happened to reach the end of their shelf life or independently decided to retire in the early years of the sound era, when a whole new crop of stars were coming in.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation.

Many African–American vets were excited about the spacious houses in new communities like Levittown, but the GI Bill’s famous benefits were by and large denied thanks to racist legal loopholes and exclusionary housing covenants.

Other times, there was no attempt at legal pretense. Racist mobs used intimidation and physical violence. Shamefully, some of these vets were lynched.

When the original GI Bill ended in July 1956, the wealth gap between the races was even more pronounced. That famous postwar prosperity was denied to the majority of African–American vets, as was the chance to get a free college education.

When you haven’t much money and are denied a mortgage, your housing options are limited. But there were thriving African–American neighborhoods waiting for these migrants (probably the best-known being Harlem), and respectably proletarian homes being left behind by people moving to suburbia.

Since the powers that be saw the world through a bourgeois lens, they often viewed such neighborhoods as automatic slums, even when the residents were anything but poor and had worked hard to rehabilitate their homes.

“Slum clearance” destroyed entire neighborhoods, social networks, schools, thousands of businesses, beautiful old buildings, and historic districts with deep roots. In their place arose monotonous high-rise apartments, roads, and low-income housing projects.

These public housing projects drove many deeper into poverty, while others went from proletarian to poor. There was no chance for upward mobility, since residents had to fall below a certain income. If their fortune improved, they had to move.

The vibrant sidewalk culture of the old neighborhood was gone, and most successful small businesses never came back. There was no place to set up shop, and many customers were displaced far afield.

The powers that be never once considered the human impact of their “reform” projects. They thought only in the abstract about solving alleged “problems,” approached it through a bourgeois worldview, and were incredulous when people with a proletarian mindset didn’t react how they were “supposed” to.

Many vibrant proletarian African–American neighborhoods were also destroyed to build highways for suburban commuters. These highways had a deleterious effect on the Jewish community as well.

Though many restrictive covenants prohibited Jewish home ownership or living in certain areas, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was for African–Americans. Thus, synagogues were no longer in walking distance for most people. It was either violate Shabbos by driving or stay at home and lose perhaps one’s only meaningful Jewish connection.

The Conservative Movement allowed driving on Shabbos for the sole purpose of attending shul, which sadly opened a door to more and more violations of Shabbos and a more secular, assimilated lifestyle.

And meanwhile, people with money continued leaving for suburbia in droves, thus draining cities of valuable tax revenue. Schools, public transport, and other infrastructure began deteriorating. All the money went to suburbs, causing quality of life in cities to take a huge nosedive.

Poverty often begets crime and drug use, and then it becomes a vicious cycle. In the old days, communities informally policed themselves, but that quickly became a laughable relic of the past. Many real cops didn’t bother with such run-down areas, thus creating even more unchecked crime.

The only people left in cities by the 1970s were trapped by poverty, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely enjoyed urban life enough to hold down the fort while no one else would.

The situation was further aggravated by redlining and blockbusting. Redlining denies money and public services to neighborhoods deemed “too risky an investment” on account of lower income, older homes (often rented instead of owned), and, more often than not, skin color.

Blockbusting preys on racist “there goes the neighborhood” fears to convince white residents to move out, often with elaborate staging, and quickly sell their homes at a loss. As soon as they’re gone, realtors then sell the properties at much higher prices to African–Americans.

And thus the vicious cycle of poverty and despair begins.

Suburban sprawl has also destroyed a lot of nature, ripping down longstanding forests and lush fields, and draining ponds and creeks, to build more cookie-cutter houses.

Writing about the postwar exodus to suburbia

While the dark side of the postwar exodus to suburbia is well-known now, very few people had any reason to see it as anything but wonderful and a dream come true at the time. After all, those in charge of urban renewal and suburban expansion were motivated by noble intentions, wanting to help people.

Like so many other things in life, the serious, inherent problems only became apparent in hindsight, after they’d snowballed and led to many once-great cities’ absolute nadirs several decades later.

There was a severe housing shortage after WWII, with roots in the Depression. People were desperate for bigger homes, particularly as they started families, and wanted to get out of cramped apartments and in-laws’ houses.

The G.I. Bill guaranteed low-interest home loans to veterans, with the best deals on brand-new houses. Many of these guys had never owned their own houses before. The appeal was undeniable.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, many vets also were able to attend college and thus move into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. The cost of living was much better in this era, and more and more people bought cars.

If you own a car, you’re not beholden to public transport and living in the same city as your job. And with your college education, you have improved career prospects with a higher salary.

Many of the early suburban tract houses were rather small by modern standards, under 1,000 feet, but that was positively spacious to guys who’d spent the last few years living in foxholes and huts, and families crammed into too-small apartments.

Their cookie-cutter sameness didn’t bother that many people, who just wanted their own houses regardless of the details. That sameness made them easy and quick to construct, move-in ready, even equipped with kitchen appliances and TVs.

After the war, everyone was eager to resume normal life, and for many, that included accepting a conformist culture where people blended in. Then as now, going along with the crowd was far easier than going against it.

People who chose to remain in cities were viewed as the strange ones, not the ones moving en masse to picture-perfect new suburbs.

Almost exclusively, these new suburbs were settled by couples in their twenties with very young children. It was easy for them to leave a city and start all over again. They didn’t have established careers, homes they’d lived in for years, children in school. Suburbia represented a perfect fresh start at the perfect time in their lives.

Everyone in the neighborhood was therefore a built-in friend, often from the same original city. The kids were roughly the same age and could grow up together, and the adults were from the same generation.

Another huge draw of suburbia was the guaranteed green space. People coming from densely-populated places had never had their own yards, or at most had had rather small, shared yards.

Yes, there are always parks, but as more and more cities went downhill thanks to disastrous urban planning decisions, the parks went downhill as well. Many people avoided them out of fear. And unfortunately, not all cities have a good distribution of green spaces.

Prior to suburban sprawl destroying many precious natural resources, there was also the appeal of living near a real woods and/or body of water, even right across from your own backyard. Cramped urban apartment, spacious detached house in the middle of nature?

As urban decay got worse, so did schools. Even private schools suffered when much of their former base relocated to suburbia. They either had to close or relocate themselves. Though there was still the issue of too-large class sizes in many places (owing to how many kids were being born in this era), there were at least better teachers and school systems.

This wasn’t a one-time move over a few years just after the war ended. People continued hightailing it to suburbia all through the Fifties and into the Sixties, particularly as most cities got worse and worse. Rising crime rates and devastating urban decay made many people afraid.

Some people saw or smelled smoke just a short distance away not long after moving to suburbia, leaving just ahead of the riots which tore many cities apart. Those who hadn’t already left, and had the means to do so, fled in the wake of these riots.

“A Ride on the 6,” 1983, Copyright Alfred Gonzalez

The only people left in cities after the riots were too poor to leave, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely loved city life and wanted to be there more than in a suburb.

Sadly, the great life promised by suburbia wasn’t available to everyone, as we shall see in the next post.