Oct 30, 2012

What can Nightbreed teach you about writing?

To the left, the Tribes of the Moon; on the right,
the Tribe of the Sun.
Art by Ralph McQuarrie
"If [the monsters] simply bit and tore and turned to smoke and ripped people up, the audience was never going to come into their world. There had to be an element of Tod Browning's Freaks in which you saw that there was a wit and a sly warmth to these characters."
— Clive Barker

We are all nightbreed, we just don't know it yet. Monsters emerge from the back of your mind and deep down you already know the kind of beast you are.

Nightbreed (1990) is a fantasy horror film directed by Clive Barker, based on his novel Cabal. The story follows a young man tormented by dreams of strange creatures in a place far to the North, where his sins will be forgiven. Boone discusses these nightmares with a psychiatrist, Philip K. Decker*, who doesn't seem to be doing much for him.
*That name sure sounds familiar. Hmm.

The truth is Decker has developed a rather objectionable habit. With unpleasant consequences for a number of families. Worst of all, he would like Boone to take the blame for his actions. Then Boone's spiraling fall to redemption begins. We get to meet weird, unstable folk. We get to hide in dark corners and pounce on the 'naturals.'

What can Nightbreed teach you about writing a Pilgrim's Progress for the things that go bump in the night?

Every letter a secret:
Verbal and visual symbols

Maybe you pick character names out of a hat, but that's wasting a golden opportunity. Names come with a lot of baggage, and the right one can add rich layers of sediment to a narrative.


Let's start with our protagonist, Aaron Boone. The biblical Aaron was a prophet, spokesman for his younger brother Moses (yes, that Moses), who went into exile among the Midianites. It was Aaron who brought the first of three plagues upon Egypt in Exodus 7:19, 8:1 and 12. So does Aaron Boone eventually bring destruction to Midian, where the tribes of the moon had found sanctuary for so long. Yet he becomes their prophet, mandated by the god Baphomet himself.


Another name of significance: Rachel. Vulnerable to sunlight, able to turn into smoke at will, Rachel appears to us bearing signifiers of a triple identity -- witch, wicked woman, native American. Jeremiah 31:15 mentions 'Rachel weeping for her children,' something which does take place in the movie. According to the Judaic interpretation of verse 15, Rachel sheds tears for the suffering of her descendants following the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Do you know the blanket Rastafari term for Western culture? Babylon.

Coincidence? Schmoincidence. Clive Barker knew what he was writing.

Now we come to Lori, Boone's lover. Her name is an informed choice as well. Lori is a variant of Laura, a common female name in Latin Europe which was derived from the bay laurel, the plant Greeks and Romans used to fashion the laurel wreath worn by champions and triumphant generals. Apollo, god of music, wore one such wreath. Although the Nightbreed cut you can get these days omits it, Lori is a singer, and that connects her with Apollo. There was a Saint Laura in Spain, and then Petrarch's famous Laura, the poet's own Beatrice Portinari.

Lori, however, is Beatrice through the looking glass, or a gender-switched Orpheus; whereas Beatrice guided Dante, Lori follows Boone to the underworld and, once there, lets Boone guide her. The difference between Lori and Orpheus is that she succeeds in rescuing the shade of Aaron Boone from the world below -- well, temporarily.

Lori wears a butterfly brooch as she explores the Midianite warrens. Again, this is intended. The butterfly not only represents the soul but also provides us with a beautiful symbol of transformation. When the tentacle-headed Peloquin takes Lori's brooch and pins it on his bare chest, oblivious to the pain, the message is clear enough: I have paid the price, I have crossed the threshold. Are you ready to do the same?

Geometry, Spiders, Nigredo

The film systematically plants visual clues that deepen the metaphors at play. Aaron's doctor, played by David Cronenberg, keeps a three-dimensional Penrose triangle in his office. We see Boone touching it and making it wobble, but it is clear that he doesn't understand the object's true purpose. The triangle is there for the viewer's benefit, not his.

So when Boone sees this...

... he fails to see this, a Penrose triangle.

The Penrose triangle of Perth, Australia. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

It's all a matter of perspective.

One of Baphomet's statues in a sacred underground precinct is suspiciously similar to the Magus card from the Crowley tarot deck. You can compare the two:

Crowley's tarot card
Boone, right, faces Lylesberg on the left. Black statue of Baphomet in the background. Note how similar
the stance and sense of movement.

In life, the king-in-waiting is named Boone; a boon is a gift granted by someone powerful, and he brings the gift of renewal, the promise of a new home for the nightbreed.

But for the gift to be realized the gift-giver must let go of his former self, to emerge from a state of confusion. A state where he takes lies at face value. Aaron Boone starts out as the Fool, zeroth card of the Tarot deck; heading toward the cliff with a dog champing at his heels (Decker playing the dog here). He ascends to face the higher, fully realized self of the Magus within.

The Fool, as depicted in the Rider-Waite
tarot deck.

When the police shoot him down outside Midian, Aaron Boone becomes the Hanged Man. 

Boone as The Hanged Man
From the Marseilles tarot deck

Arthur Edward Waite, English magician and one of Crowley's contemporaries, ascribed several meanings to this card -- sacrifice and surrender, but also acceptance and inner harmony. In his Pictorial Guide to the Tarot, Waite wrote

He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection.

Baphomet is a word of dubious origin. The Knights Templar were accused of worshiping an idol by that name, having adopted it during their sojourn in the Middle East. One Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, German Anglophile of the 18th century and apologist for John Milton against his German detractors, maintained that Baphomet was formed from the Greek words baphe metous, "baptism of wisdom."

Boone is in fact baptized three times and anointed once as Baphomet's destroyer/creator. The first baptism is a hallucinogenic sacrament (earth), which peels away the distinction between normalcy and insanity present at the beginning. The second is a baptism by fire that initiates the process of resurrection; the third by the burning water, the "blood of Baphomet"; and the fourth, anointment as leader by the chthonic god (air).

Baphomet: a wounded, incomplete god who longs for healing and completion

Embraced by Baphomet, whose cranial configuration deliberately evokes the silhouette of a spider, Boone undergoes the alchemical process of decomposition -- he returns to life, but his body is dead. So decomposition, or nigredo, equals sublimation. It is through the death of the body that he finds purpose and truth. This apparent subversion of the meaning behind nigredo may be the reason why Barker's Baphomet, unlike the one drawn by Eliphas Levi, does not point upward.

Eliphas Levi's Baphomet

Levi's androgynos bears two significant words on its arms: solve and coagula. Dissolve (sublimate) and congeal (solidify). Opposite movements. The right arm points up to the white moon of Chesed, the left one down to the black moon of Gevurah. Chesed and Gevurah are two of ten divine emanations arranged in the tree of life. The first stands for kindness/agape and the latter for power or concealment.   
   
The Tree of Life
by Davide Tonato.
Click to enlarge

Love reveals, power hides. The god of Midian represents a spider (black mother/feminine principle) turning into a man. A gigantic man with open arms, ready to welcome the sick, the tired, the hungry and the damned.

The Innards of Villainy

"Whether it's commies, mutants or third-world Y-chromosome freaks, we are there. Sons of the Free."
— Captain Eigerman

Two men shoulder the burden of civilization as a vehicle for corrective violence: Dr. Philip K. Decker and Captain Eigerman.

Decker, the psychiatrist, hates life. And especially reproduction. The psychopath echoes Barker's cenobites and their obsession with bondage, with control. Wearing a mask with buttons for eyes, the mouth a zippered slit -- lopsided, too -- Decker sees no good, hears no good, speaks no good. A doctor who lives by words, yet his true mouth is a blade. Decker only speaks to obfuscate, and finds eloquence in action. "Physician, heal thyself," they say... And that's all he does. Decker performs improvised surgery on people who don't need it. Because of his emptiness. His hunger.

Captain Eigerman, chief of police in Shere Neck, brings to the table a generous helping of cigar-chomping, intolerance and brutality. When the Shere Neck police apprehend Boone, they beat him savagely. But not before Captain Eigerman speechifies about Boone's disgusting freakishness. There's no place for Boone in Eigerman's world.

Learning that there's a community of freaks living under the old cemetery, Eigerman mobilizes his backwoods confederates, the Sons of the Free, for an all-out attack. So two dozen pickup trucks and a blond troop of gun-toting snowbillies materialize at once through the magic of editing. (See, movies tend to skip the boring parts. "Waiting around for others to show up" is not the most dramatic situation, on the page or on screen.)

Whereas the moon tribe features great diversity, the "sons of the free" (No girls allowed! Girls are gross!) all act and look alike. Their freedom represents the barbaric impulse toward genocide. They exercise their liberties by blowing up the cemetery and killing every "freak" who tries to escape, including women and children. One is reminded of the priest outside Jerusalem telling the crusaders to slaughter everyone, for God would know his own.

One of the executives at Morgan Creek told Clive Barker that he should be more careful, because the way he was handling the story, people would end up rooting for the monsters. The thought that someone might watch Nightbreed and relate to Decker or Captain Eigerman, the psychopath and the bully...

Now that thought fills me with dread.


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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