When Things Go Bad

Christopher Fowler
It's an entertainment genre barely recognised, but once you look around you'll see it everywhere; stories of an object that, once owned, brings bad luck and often death in its wake. The things of desire make for great morality tales. Stephen King has produced his fair share of cursed objects, especially in 'Needful Things', which delivers a twisted version of caveat emptor as townsfolk get their comeuppance for wanting too much. But so did Ray Bradbury in 'Something Wicked This Way Comes', the objects of desire being a little less tangible. 'The Amulet' in Michael McDowell's novel brings a rising and increasingly gory body count, but refreshingly, the jewellery in question arrives in answer to an existing dilemma; it seems to kill off the enemies of the heroine and her vegetative husband. The compendium film 'Dead of Night' brings us one of at least four cursed mirror stories I can think of. Usually the image shows a monstrously dark future for the protagonist. Evil dolls became an entire sub-genre after an evil clown attacked a little girl in 'Poltergeist', with the first 'Chucky' film being the best of the bunch. The Annabelle films (Eight altogether in 'The Conjuring' universe) continue the trend even now, to diminishing effect. One of the most inventive 'Deadly Things' tales is 'In Fabric', a British film starring the ever-excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste, which takes the term 'killer red dress' literally. Although she should have sensed something was wrong from the Suspiria-like department store where she bought the dress. Equally offbeat is 'Bad Hair', in which deadly hair extensions carry a legacy of death, gorily plaguing a young black woman. Amazingly it's not the only killer hair story (I've written one). In Fabric stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Shelia who falls prey
to a killer deal on a killer dress. MR James had spooky fun with a sheet which forms a human figure, but the sheet is incidental to the manifestation. Dangerous suits, furniture and cars offer warnings that a love of material goods can literally end your life.
Marghanita Lanski added a psychological dimension when she wrote the eerie, disturbing 'The Victorian Chaise Longue', in which an enervated wife becomes imprisoned by her solicitous husband and family on her day bed.
The book is about a heightening emotional state that readers easily connect with.
Perhaps the ultimate example is Brian Moore's dreamlike 'The Great Victorian Collection', in which a man imagines an entire art fair of antique belongings that soon come to own him. Joan Samsom's 'The Auctioneer' reverses the idea, as the title character strips away a family's possessions. The mobile phone and the computer have paved the way for thousands of anti-tech moral tales which always seem to feature someone smashing said device. In the 1950s television was perceived as the threat, an enemy in the living room that would steal away our sense of values. Are we doomed to own things that kill us?
Is the simple act of wanting more a reason for punishment? Or are material goods merely the conduit for latent sins? After all, the Red Shoes killed their ballet star owner simply for wanting to achieve perfection.
And therein lies the answer. Perfection cannot be achieved. A glamorous lifestyle is something to aim for, not achieve. Life is not perfect and you can't have it all. When those who try for more fail, we feel schadenfreude. And so the genre takes on a conservative agenda; stay in your place, don't want things which are not for you. Or perhaps it's just fun to be haunted by inanimate objects.


Nick (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 09:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Some years ago, I visited a small framing boutique as I have a family document from 1853 that I wanted kept in a safer manner than folded in an envelope in a drawer. The said emporium was bedecked with not just a wide range of frames around the walls, but also with numerous mirrors stood on the floor and propped against the walls. Entirely reasonably, there were several signs requesting that customers "please keep children away from the mirrors". I've always wondered, though, what if they knew a more supernatural reason for putting those signs up...?

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 13:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...Perfection cannot be achieved..." Perhaps there is a more frightening message, more pagan, atavistic. Namely, that everything carries "being," and therefore can/will hurt you. Especially things carrying being from the past. E.g. old portraits, articles and hair worn by the now dead, jewels from foreign exotic heathen countries. There's also a prohibition about things that are gateways to other worlds, such as eyeglasses, mirrors. The latter were/are thrown into rivers as propitiation to the gods.

Electronic and digital devices play on fears that our being will be taken over by things/other creatures from space/Russian/China/Jeff Bezos...anyway something foreign. We'll lose control.

Red Dress symbolism is probably another category of fear; more fears of the female who must be punished. And "Bad Hair" is a political film.

Paul C (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 14:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The most chilling tale of an object I've read lately is 'The Man in the Picture' by Susan Hill which is about an old painting of a Venetian masked ball which......I'll stop there. An absolute masterpiece of the supernatural - much better than her celebrated 'Woman in Black'.

Andrew Holme (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 15:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The apex of evil doll films has to be the segment in 'Trilogy of Terror' when after being pursued, and caught by the evil voodoo doll, Karen Black is transformed into said vicious figurine. Wasn't this a made for TV movie? I remember being bloody terrified by it.

Peter T (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 16:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cigarettes and high fat burgers contain demons.

Perfection is like happiness and most other ideal states: better to think in terms of pursuit rather achievement.

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 19:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Afred Hitchcock old TV series covered many of these themes including the voodoo doll.

Rob (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 19:47

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The wonderful, but poorly named "From Beyond The Grave" with Peter Cushing as the shopkeeper with all manner of nasties in his emporium. Great ( Amicus?) anthology with a haunted mirror story that really stayed with me from a teenager today. The Donald Pleasance & daughter segment is also very unsettling. Not often shown - but I think the best of the anthologies of that time.

Joel (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 20:46

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"Perfection cannot be achieved" - how I wish that could be understood by politicians, large corporations and those with outsize egos. Many years ago in my working life, I was severely told that "Perfect is the enemy of good".

Achieving 'good' in most things tends to follow the (untrue) Pareto formula, of taking 20% of effort to achieve 80% of target but the next 20% of ultimate objective consumes the other 80% of effort. The law of diminishing returns sets in inexorably and quickly, but is invisible to those whose high status (sometimes self-granted) means they have little to do with reality, just counting incoming Pounds (etc) or votes.

Something simple and sustainable wins most long-term cases. The John Lewis chain of stores is a great place to visit, but the price of their standards means my footfall there is 99% viewing and 1% purchase. The other end of that scale has no comment as it's defamatory beyond affordable ability to defend in court...

snowy (not verified) Tue, 18/08/2020 - 22:47

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"In the 1950s television was perceived as the threat, an enemy in the living room that would steal away our sense of values."

Hidden away in the Ealing backlist is a film called 'Meet Mr. Lucifer', played by Stanley Holloway, also appearing are: Kay Kendall, Gordon Jackson, Joan Sims, Ian Carmichael, Irene Handl, Bill Fraser and Dandy Nichols. It is the story of a cursed object passing through the lives of a succession of owners, the object is a Televison set.

[Long bit about the context of the time, social climate and lots of other stuff omitted].

It is a very strange little film, based on a play by Arnold Ridley, part portmanteau, like <i>'Dead of Night'</i>, part social satire which wouldn't fully flourish until the Boulting Bros. got into their full stride with <i>'I'm All Right Jack'</i> some years later.

[It was a strange film to make, [lots of reasons] at a strange time, [TV was becoming a useful customer instead of an inconvenient rival], and didn't follow the usual production pattern.

Probably only of real interest to Ealing completists, Film academics, Sociologists and those desperate for something to form the basis of a Media Studies dissertation. [It can be found on Ealing Rarities Vol. 9 from Network DVDs].

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 19/08/2020 - 00:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mirrors are strange things and always have been. The Greeks warned against becoming in love with your own image and we are always startled by meeting ourselves suddenly in a mirrored hall. Your image is reversed in a mirror so you don't see yourself as others do. Mirrors may or may not tell the truth. Some people cover the mirrors when there is a death in the house. They are spooky things, something that is acknowledged in the phrase "looking glass".
It is easy to think of them as enchanted or cursed.

kevin (not verified) Wed, 19/08/2020 - 00:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Amazingly it's not the only killer hair story (I've written one)."

What's the title? Is it available anywhere?

Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 19/08/2020 - 00:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Rob - 'From Beyond The Grave' was an Amicus 'portmanteau' movie, and is my favourite of all of them. The mirror one is deliciously nasty, but my favourite segment is 'The Door'. An elegant trap, that might have worked many times, before Ian Ogilvy buys it. I first saw this movie when I was about 12 or so, and this segment stuck in my mind. Uncomfortably so. There's a phantom room behind the door, but when in the room, it's owner, Sir Michael Sinclair, can be heard approaching it along a passageway. It's therefore very possible that his whole benighted house exists beyond the door. The view, through the windows, shows a blue-tinged murky limbo. What the rest of the house, and any inhabitants therein, look like, after Sir Michael's dabbling with necromancy, doesn't bear thinking about, frankly. Surprised nobody has ever written a prequel tie-in, to this. It's superbly creepy.

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Wed, 19/08/2020 - 14:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Another Amicus portmanteau film is the House that Dripped Blood, terrible title but well worth seeing for an extraordinary performance by Peter Cushing as a retired stockbroker who becomes fixated by a waxwork of Salome.

Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 19/08/2020 - 22:01

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'The House That Dripped Blood' features a pre Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. Oddly, his costume in the movie, is near identical to the dandyish costume his portrayal of The Doctor's Third incarnation wears.
Similarly, the costume Tom Baker wears in the very odd 'The Mutations'.

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Thu, 20/08/2020 - 08:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The frilly shirted look, yes Ian. A lot of interesting sartorial choices throughout that film. Great to see a mischievous Ingrid Pitt vamping it up beside Jon Pertwee , too.

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 20/08/2020 - 17:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My late father was fond of a fancy shirt. He had a frilly one, which I 'acquired'. I only wore it once, and felt a complete berk in so doing. Dad also had, and loved wearing, a lemon-yellow suit. Many years later, my younger brother would wear it in an 'ironic' fashion, to DJ in various local nightclubs.

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 21/08/2020 - 01:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ian, did your dad wear the frilly shirt with the yellow suit?

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 21/08/2020 - 05:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen - No, they were several years apart. A shirt with an aviation grade collar; a good headwind, and the wearer might take flight - think 'Ron Burgundy' from the movie 'Anchorman'.
Dad also had a couple of lovely satin smoking jackets, one dark green, the other maroon. God knows where he got them from, but they were beautiful. I saved them when I cleared out his stuff after he died. The green one was a bit small, but the maroon one fitted perfectly. Alas! when my brother moved back in, he went through the wardrobe, and both jackets went to a charity shop. I was at work and could do nothing. : (

Jan (not verified) Fri, 21/08/2020 - 07:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That's a pity really Ian if you'd got hold of a pair of them fancy slippers with the curly toes and worn them with the maroon satin smoking jacket it could have looked a treat!

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 21/08/2020 - 17:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not sure about the slippers, Jan, but those jackets were both beautifully tailored. They would not have been cheap in the 1970's. I'm at a loss to think where he might have possibly worn them. He did know a lot of people who lived in big houses and country piles - he took pleasure in winding mum up on trips in the car, by taking short cuts through country estates, as though nothing was amiss, as he was a friend of Lord so-and-so, or he'd been drinking with the Duke of such-and-such. Mum told me once that she came in from the shops one Saturday afternoon, to find Dad, and man she didn't recognise, watching TV and eating bacon sandwiches, and drinking tea (see? Men can multi-task). After a while, the man left, thanking dad and mum profusely for their hospitality. Mum, of course, asked:
"Who was that?", to which Dad replied:
"Oh, that was the Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk - I did a bit of work on his car, and we got chatting..."
My Dad knew these people because he supplied them all with fuel oil, and Dad's area agent knew EVERYONE. If they were a friend of Mr Hancock of Leiston, then they were worth knowing. Dad and Mr Hancock (who had a tin leg, which fascinated my young brother) were great friends until the day Mr Hancock died. Through him, Dad knew a great many influential people. Maybe the smoking jacket was donned after dinner in a large mansion somewhere? Who knows?

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 07:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Your dad definitely had a theatrical flair Ian. He reminds me of the dad in Big Fish.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 11:41

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Dawn - I think that Dad would have been very happy to be a full-time eccentric. He was a very tough man, of his time, who didn't suffet fools gladly. Saying that, he was a lot of fun, and fond of the absurd. He knew, if we went on holiday, where there would be something odd, weird, or slightly frightening that we'd enjoy looking at. He's been gone a long time, now, and I still miss him terribly.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 23/08/2020 - 03:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We can be grateful if memories of family can live the way yours do, Ian.
I have finally acquired a copy of Ten Second Staircase. I have no idea why I didn't get it at the time but it is interesting to read Mr. Fowler at that time since the writing style hasn't yet settled. Anyway, at one point Bryant mentions that his mother used to cover the mirrors during thunder storms and "lay the cutlery flat." Not sure about that bit unless she usually put the small spoons in a glass on the table and took them out during the storm. I tend to over focus when mirrors come up because I really feel they are a little dangerous.

Ian Luck (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 20:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The TV show 'Warehouse 13' featured Alice's Looking Glass - which contained an evil version of Alice. Anyone unfortunate enough to touch the glass (it was kept with the glass facing a wall), could be dragged into it, which would free the evil Alice.
Warehouse 13 was a fun show - the titular warehouse was where harmful objects were stored (fairly) safely. These objects could be anything, even items thought only to exist in fiction, or things owned by historical figures that have been imbued with powers, or inventions that should not exist. But do. Well worth watching, if you haven't seen it. It was rather overshadowed by the equally cool 'Fringe'.