Princesses of Goth – Tyler Willis / ScarfingScarves

If you’re into frills, gossip, drama and unholily expensive cupcake dresses, you definitely need some ScarfingScarves in your life. Her weekly YouTube format Last Week Lolita News started out as a frilly parody of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but quickly turned into its own equivalent of said show for the EGL community.

Now you may ask: I get Elvira. I get Christine McConnell. I even get your take on Dracula adaptations, but doing a piece on Felicia Day was a bit of a stretch for a blog called “The Cauldron of Dark Pixels”. You should be reviewing spooky stuff, where’s the spooks in here? Well, folks, this blog isn’t just about these things. It’s also about people who walk the path of the (cue ominous music) strange and unusual, acting as role models for people who may be themselves (cue thunder and lightning) strange and unusual.

Alright, I’ll stop with the Lydia Deetz quote now, I swear.

Tyler started out with giving lessons on goth etiquette before moving on to a much frillier, pinker, yet equally drama-filled subculture: The EGL community.

Saltiest cupcake on the internet, talking sense into fans of alternative fashion since 2016.

A Crash Course in EGL

For everyone not familiar with the EGL community, or J-fashion in general, Here’s a VERY BRIEF and VERY SIMPLE overview on what the Elegant Gothic Lolita community is. The misconceptions around the fashion derive from the unfortunate name given to the style by Mana, who coined the term Elegant Gothic Lolita to give a name to his dark twist on a fashion that had existed in Japan since the 70’s. Combining a princessy style made up from layers and layers of frills with a dash of “haunted doll” meets Victorian mourning attire gave rise to the first style openly recognized as lolita – gothic lolita. A subculture had been born, revolving around elegance, femininity, opulence and distinctively non-sexualized clothing. Lolita conquered the streets of Tokyo as a style that allowed girls to express their longing for simplicity and dressing up for themselves instead for the gaze of men. From there, the fashion branched out into a diverse range of substyles:

  • Sweet lolita, formerly THE most popular substyle in the fashion, being all pastels, cake and unicorn prints – the absolute epitomy of a candy-covered fairytale princess. In recent years, it has been pushed off the throne by
  • Classic lolita, a more demure and elegant, ladylike substyle focusing on elegant cuts, rose prints and more or less historically accurate accessories. The most “Victorian” and least extreme of the substyles.
  • and the eponymous gothic lolita, featuring everything from the gothic to the macabre, from poofy velvet gowns to nun-inspired dresses, but always leaning towards the darker side of things.

These three make up the main substyles of the fashion, branching out into more obscure styles (whose existence, aside from mere concepts is still up for debate within the community itself – such as punk, guro, ero and others.)

Tea, salt and misconceptions

One thing needs to be clarified about the fashion: aside from being a source of comfort for the one wearing it, it is, first and foremost, about elegance, detail and most importantly, quality.

I’ve worn full-time gothic and classic lolita in college, then had to tone it down afterwards. I’ve owned most of my dream dresses (most of which being velvet, which made summer into a challenge), parted with many of them and am now in a process of rebuilding my wardrobe into something more versatile and practical, as I’m turning 30 this year. Most lolitas are in their early to mid-20’s and come from educated middle-class homes. I’ve had my fair share of bad coordinates, being verbally abused on the street for sticking out like the dramatic ginger cupcake I was, and owning dream dresses that gathered dust in my wardrobe because I was to afraid to possibly ruin them at meetups.

My experiences with the communities I met have been pleasant and positive, and I can attest to none of the internal drama going down in online communities such as Rufflechat (is CGL still a thing? I’m a little behind on those things, and still miss the good old LiveJournal days of lovingly-photographed wardrobe posts, sizing discussions and dress reviews). Tyler’s content is a way for me to stay up to date with what’s going on in the community, and while I’m not a Sweet Lolita per se, but enjoy Tyler’s unbridled love for her Angelic Pretty dresses nonetheless.

Fashion vs. Fetishization

And one part that has always been a problem (and will probably continue being so until we all live in COVID-19 bunkers thinking of the good old days when Lacemarket was still up and running) is the misrepresentation and fetishization of the fashion, which she furiously and saltily condemns with pretty much every single video, so that even the thickest buffoon out there might realize that the fashion isn’t related to age-play – or worse.

I’ve had creeps join meetups when the ruffly gang met up to have a refined cup of tea and macaroons in a cute cafe, obviously thinking that since we dressed up in frilly, unrevealing clothes, our meetup was a sort of self-service buffet for lonely guys.

Tyler covers these topics and misconceptions with a fervently anger-driven bouts of analysis, in mind-bending sentences full of puns and more salt than you could hurl a cup of tea at. The salty queen of ruffles offers advice to newbies, dedicates long Q&A sessions on educating people on the fashion and is, in short, a delight to watch, switching from angry to kind and gentle whenever she is not covering social media drama. Watching Tyler has a cathartic sort of effect on her viewers, and the frilly goodness that is her channel, along with her obvious love for the fashion, makes the salt not just palatable, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Even if you’re not into alternative fashion, Last Week Lolita News is a format that lets you at the craziness of the digital world without losing your mind over it – Tyler’s already doing that for you. And for that, I’ll happily tune in next week, when she answers the tough questions like:

Why are we still reading this?

And when will this madness end?

Grande Dames of Goth #2 – Christine McConnell, Femme Fatale of Pastel Spooks

Like pastels? Good. Like creepy? Even better. Like elaborately-crafted confectionary? Then this lady is someone to look out for.

Or, chances are you’re a member of the lolita community looking for inspiration for your next tea party.

Christine pulls off styles from the Victorian and burtonesque to the candy-floss dresses that inspired the Rockabilly chic, playing at the dainty 50’s housewife image with a creepy, menacing twist.

She is the epitome of a low-key-scary, crafty woman with a glamorous, goth twist to her creations. The point of her videos – as of her Netflix series – is more to inspire people to get creative than to give step-by-step instructions on, for example, how to make a Haunted Gingerbread House. These semi-tutorials start out simple, then quickly take a turn towards the crafting equivalent of participating in the Olympics without any sort of prior training – leaving the audience to essentially go “Wait, what?” while on screen, another combination of cardboard and spiced dough has magically turned into a miniature witchy dream resort. The seemingly effortless perfectionism in which everything Christine creates is presented easily fills one with envy – and awe, and like with any good brew, you keep coming back just to marvel at the beauty of coffin-shaped shelves, spookily repurposed upholstery and cute gothic aprons with embroidery so elaborate that merely looking at them will make your fingers bleed. Then, there’s the downright spine-tingling creations, such as a lifelike cake edition of the H.R. Giger Alien and tea party treats straight out of Alice: Madness Returns.

Yes, that alien head is a cake. And no, that is not Sigourney Weaver, but one can barely spot the difference in badassery.

The audience is awe-struck – and still clueless

No, Christine, I still don’t know how to make my gingerbread castle NOT look like the Cabin In The Woods.

Christine puts a homely, sugary-sweet spin on the goth theme – only edging the subject with all the pastels and pinks and off-white lace – until you take a slightly closer look. She stylizes and mashes the goth aesthetic with the detailed sugariness of a 50’s French patisserie, and, much like other goth icons, the Instagram-famous model herself is very much part of the exhibit. Just look at the promotional photos at her website, which feature images that sometimes read like a pastel counterpart to Elvira – without the sharp-tongued sass.

Enjoy with a cup of rose tea – and a grain of salt

We’ll float, too.

Christine is no actress – there is no goofy mischievous “oh la-la” witchery á la Elvira or mystic charme akin to Morticia Addams emanating from her – she really goes through the notions of focusing on the presentation of the craft itself, and shines in the calm and focus she radiates throughout.

What works well in her YouTube videos kinda falls flat in the Netflix equivalent, where she has to interact with plush puppet characters and an overarching witch comedy plot that feels very much stilted due to her over-professional demeanor that just isn’t quite cut out for delivering comedic lines. If you can look past the performance itself, here are some fun ideas in it, and the creations remain as stunning as always – but overall, From the Mind of Christine McConnell is a weird mix of cooking show, scripted reality and sitcom-esque comedy, and therefore best enjoyed with a grain of salt and a honey-sweetened cup of rose tea on a dark, rainy afternoon. To hide the suspiciously bitter taste lurking beneath…

Games from the Crypt: Dire Grove – the Queen of Hidden Object Games

Hidden Object Games (or HOGs, as we’ll call them) do come with an arguably bad reputation – as cheaply-made, mass-produced, kitsch-y casual games for an audience of old ladies over 65. Not to say they cannot be badass gamers, as the internet’s most famous Gaming Grandma Shirley Curry can confirm.

And nowadays, with market leader Big Fish swamping its webpage with badly-animated and oversaturated games, the point and click-adventure genre seems to have had its day, but is not being left to die with dignity as there is still quick money to make from the booming business of casual games.

One Game to measure them all by

Among reviews of these games, even the ones that fare better with critics, one sentence keeps popping up, usually something along those lines: “It’s decent enough, but it’s not the next Dire Grove.” Which is a game that came out in late 2009. Let that sink in for a moment – it says a lot about the state of the genre.

What did this apparently legendary game do that people still keep comparing other HOGs to it in 2020?

Well, for starters, Dire Grove was one of the very first Hidden Object Games that, in its combination of mechanics, story and atmosphere, managed to do pretty much everything right. The atmosphere is simultaneously gripping and cozy, the puzzles are, more or less, well balanced and overall, the game feels like an old-fashioned, slow-burn murder mystery with elements of (somewhat cheesy, but well-enough-executed) documentary horror. The whole thing has a classiness to it that just makes you dive into it with the sort of suspended disbelief good fiction will take you to.

Here’s the trailer for the Collector’s Edition, in all its cheesy glory:

Dire Grove came out during what we will call the Golden Age of Hidden Object games. The Big Fish publishing company, with lots of trial and error and via juggling an array of mechanics, had crafted the Mystery Case Files series, the first HOG franchise with an overarching plotline, recurring characters and villains and an actual story to tell. The main character, a figure simply named Master Detective, takes their orders directly from her Majesty the Queen of England to roam the UK and investigate cases of vanished villagers and such, and, in the case of Dire Grove, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a bunch of college students at the (fictional) Celtic heritage site ravaged by an unusually strong snow storm.

Snowy Blair Witch

Well, there’s definitely something off about this place. What vintage car owner leaves their prized possession out in the snow like this?

At first, we as Master Detective find the students’ abandoned car, an equally abandoned hotel and a couple of camcoder tapes strewn around the place. Now you explore the lonely site while snowflakes drift across intricately-painted set pieces and hidden object scenes, with the detective giving sassy commentary at every corner. The camcoder tapes, filmed with actual actors in a “Snowy Blair Witch” style, reveals the story of ambitious college graduate Alison Sterling and her quest to prove the local legend about the Banshee of Dire Grove causing the winter that has the nation in its grip.

Snow, peace, quiet. Maybe a little too quiet. At least you’re not gonna encounter annoying NPCs in this game.

The tapes are the only time you meet the students (or, any other human being at atll) in the game, before you find each of them half-frozen and under some sort of icy spell, mumbling incantations. The game has no need for padding out via clue-dropping and awkwardly-characterized NPCs.

The story of the Banshee goes like this: A hunter, a fisherman, a farmer and a blacksmith sacrifice a young woman to appease the Celtic deities and to end an unusually harsh winter, trapping her in a cave where she freezes to death. The ice lady’s spirit, naturally pissed off about said treatment, has taken control of the students to re-enact the legend, find and open the cave via the pieces of an artefact that will set her free to exert her vengeance and turn the world to ice.

How not to prevent bad harvests, Fig. 1

Point & Click Penny Dreadfuls

Sound cheesy? Well, if you’ve played many HOGs, you know that this is about as sophisticated as their storylines get, and Dire Grove goes to greath lengths to provide an experience that feels as realistic as possible. It is chock full with little details that make it so much more endearing to play than the cookie-cutter games that came after it, padding the narrative with brochures to leaf through, book entries to read and letters to decipher that make the game feel well thought out. And yes – there is a lot of reading involved in this game, including the lovingly-crafted and illustrated detective’s diary that updates alongside your progress, entertaining you with the detective’s private thoughts on the case and little hints on where to go next, while dead leaves and snowflakes cling to the paper.

In terms of visuals, Dire Grove is understatedly elegant, using a muted colour palette, knowing best not to rely on overly-flashy colours and ridiculous story twists that feel like reading very bad episodes of John Sinclair. Hidden Object Games, for the most part, are just that – penny dreadfuls in point & click format, reliying on the same tropes, spooks and imagery. Dire Grove, like so few of its kind, is an actual gaming experience.

That said, there are a few hidden gems out there that also deliver on the “gamified gothic novel” premise, and are actually fun to play, delivering solid world-building and a gripping enough atmosphere to keep you playing for a while:

  • The disturbing, doll-populated haunted house nightmare that was Return to Ravenhearst (featuring some imagery including doll childbirth that will haunt you in your dreams for a long time to come)
  • spooky carnival murder mystery Fate’s Carnival
  • and, now for something from a different franchise for a change, Nightmares from the Deep – which is essentially Pirates of the Carribbean 2 – Dead Man’s Chest in HOG format. Arrrr!
  • Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull: A Louisiana-based spinoff of the main series, featuring enough swamps and tropical soundscapes to give you mosquito bites. This one is on the same narrative level as Dire Grove, but far less well-known. Also comes with some Voodoo-based lore.
  • Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake: Play this one if you’re into cheesy ghost hunter shows (Ghost Adventures and the like, as this contains direct references to it). Not quite as challenging or complex as Dire Grove, but delivers well enough on the premise to be worthwile. Maybe catch it while it’s on sale, though – it’s a wee bit shorter than the other entries on this list.

Death by sequel or Snowy Princess Mononoke

Of course, greatness can not go through extended periods of time without someone trying to rehash it for a quick buck – which is how we got the flat-falling, stereotype-laden sequel Dire Grove, Sacred Grove. Which does come with the aforementioned masses of forgettable NPCs with awkward, automated animations, over-complicated riddles trying to make up for the lack of story content, and over-colourful environments drowning in blue, purple and random folklore kitsch mashed together (mainly Native American things, and as you may remember, we’re still in a village somewhere in the UK). Sacred Grove takes the familiar quiet environment of Dire Grove and stuffs it with a tribe of eco-warrior druids at war with the local villagers. I’m pretty sure you can imagine where this is going. It makes you wish for the quietness of the times when the village was still deserted and you were free to explore it without a bunch of cross-eyed Adobe Animate puppets constantly leering at you from one side of the screen.

What is this, Snowy Princess Mononoke?

Maybe it’s time for the Banshee to return and get rid of all the chattering NPCs infesting the place so that Dire Grove may finally have some peace and quiet again. Because that’s what HOGs are meant to be – casual, chill games to relax and unwind with.

Peace out, folks.

Grande Dames of Goth #1 – Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Cheap? Who are you callin’ cheap? What’s that perfume you’re wearing, Catch of the Day?

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)

If you’ve ever been into anything Halloween-related, then chances are you’ve stumbled across the inevitable “Who is better? Morticia Addams, Lily Munster or Elvira?” posts you can find all over the internet. Well, don’t be alarmed – this isn’t gonna be one of those.

As the title of this post suggests, we’ll be focusing on Cassandra Peterson’s dazzling, over-the-top and smashingly iconic late-night horror hostess character Elvira.

“Unpleasant dreams!”

Not just skin-deep

It would be way too easy to write off the character of Elvira as a “sex sells” cash grab. What differentiates the character from other over-fetishized goth chicks is that Elvira is refreshingly self-ironic, and, to put it simply, genuinely fun. Rather than being just eye-candy to fill in the gaps between reruns of old and obscure horror movies, she is a comedy icon with a distinct voice, style and enough screen presence to make even the most ludicrous B-Horror flicks bearable to watch.

Her titular role in the first (and arguably best) of two movies explored Elvira’s natural clash against a suburbian world, and, while still heavily featuring her by no doubts impressive decoupage, did a wonderful thing with her: Portray her as a thouroughly sympathetic misfit who never loses her optimism. Despite all of her associated fanservice, she became a symbol for simply not giving a f*** about what the world thought of her – while always banding up with the ones who are outcasts as well: the bunch of awkward kids who help her fix up her house grow more confident by learning from Elvira’s ability to improvise and, despite her dark getup, focus on the bright side of things. The Mistress of the Dark has a contagious sort of warmth under all the wicked sass she emits that it makes her likeable beyond the looks and the lines.

Partying hard – for over 35 years!

Reframing the Misfit Label

Also, Elvira has real problems most kids growing into their goth phase probably can relate to: She does not see herself as all that different from everybody else, but her inability to “tone it down” and fit in at the straight-laced TV agency she works for finds her quitting her job after being molested by her boss. Moving into the spooky old house on the hill she has just conveniently inherited, the suburbians are immediately suspicious of her – the men leering at her, the women despising her, making her a target for the conservative town council who later accuses her of witchcraft and, yes, will try to burn her at the stake by the end of the film. This is a horror parody, after all.

Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? Also yes, even though the cleavage gets in the way of things now and then.

Instead of sulking about her outcast state, she turns the refurbishment of her new home into a community project for local kids, revives the arts and culture by – a throwback to her origin – hosting and commenting B-horror movie nights at the abandoned local cinema, fixes quarrels between neighbours – but still sticks out like a bejewelled crow in a henhouse. Her wandering from shop to shop enquiring for a job in her floaty black gown, toupé hairstlye and heavy make-up, a ritual dagger casually sheathed in her belt, hits home for everyone looking a bit alternative trying to get a “serious” job. Not everything in the film is being played for laughs, and makes you think about both the perks and challenges of being a misfit – with a positive outlook:

Elvira never settles for being a victim of gossip and ill tidings. Instead, she teaches resilience, turning being different into an opportunity for unbound potential and to practice self-love and self-confidence, without glossing over the obstacles it brings not to fit in anywhere. Also, she doesn’t settle for ith all her optimism, she does get pissed off at certain people who cross her, and enacts her just revenge, never missing an opportunity to teach her adversaries a lesson about true superficiality and hypocrisy. That she gets to do all that while delivering more than tongue-in-cheek one-liners, wearing a high-split, low-cut dress ultimately works – Elvira is all about sass and confidence, without crossing the line to being portrayed as stupid or bitchy. If anything, she is fearless, daring and always one step ahead of everyone else, which adds to her outcast state. That combination of outspokenness, wit and charisma keeps her from falling into the “only good for her sex appeal” trope that may come to mind if people only knew her from the (admittedly spooky-gorgeous) pin-up posters featuring her. Her appearance isn’t an obstacle to her being taken seriously, it’s a weapon she expertly knows how to wield, but isn’t too high on to not make jokes about it:

Vincent Talbot: I must apologize for my behavior in the office, it’s just that your appearance was a bit of a shock to me.

Elvira: It’s OK. My appearance is kind of a shock to everybody.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Spooky, silly, has a point

Needless to say, Elvira eventually finds out that she is descended from a line of witches – explaining both her unchangeable apperance as well as her ability to use magic (and, apparently, break iron chains with the power of her almighty breasts. Wonder Woman and She-Ra’ve got nothing on her).

While everything that features her may be silly, and over-the-top (then, try imagining her in something like Underworld), it always addresses being comfortable with oneself and standing up for the weird and outcast.

While I am not normally a fan of sitcoms (I’ve been too thouroughly traumatized by their horrible German dubs and crude humour as a kid to get as much as a chuckle out of them), but the only produced and never-aired pilot episode of The Elvira Show (1993) is crackingly funny and full of endearing characters. Had it not been dead in the water, it might have easily won the same cult following fellow witchy sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996) was able to garner. While being easily-digestible comedy, it doesn’t miss out on a chance for Elvira to, on being once again arrested for witchcraft, deliver the following motivational speech:

Preach, Gothmother.

Also, back when text adventures were still en vogue, they even made a text adventure game about Elvira. I haven’t played it myself, but, for the time, the graphics and menus looked pretty damn solid.

Check out that UI design!

If I ever get around to playing it, this game will get its very own entry in my “Games from the Crypt” series.

But now for the tough questions:

Why is Elvira? Will be discussed in Part 2, because this post has been going on too long and there’s just that many GIFs I can throw at you without needing to add age verification to this blog.

Lasting Obsessions: 20 Years of Revisiting Phantom Manor

When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls – whenever candlelights flicker where the air is deathly still, that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight. Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion.

Vincent Price as the “Ghost Host”

Did I just write down those lines from memory?

Yes.

Do I have a hyperfixiation with everything that says Haunted House in big decaying letters?

Totally. And it all started in Spring 2000 – exactly 20 years ago, when my mum took me to Disneyland Paris. Which, back in the day, was still called Eurodisney. To put into perspective how long ago that was, the Small World ride still consisted of dolls representing ethnically-diverse kids instead of the ever-present Disney charactes Goofy & Co. and the Pirates of the Caribbean experience didn’t feature a scarily accurate animatronic rendition of Johnny Depp.

We went to Disneyland for one weekend. Got bitten by plush snakes in the Rainforest Cafe, ate Turkish honey at the miryads of candy shops. Did the Frontierland ride, seeing Phantom Manor lurking in the distance, beckoning to be explored.

Exit Light, Enter Night

I had been into gothic things before – raised on watching both the Canadian and German TV series of The Little Vampire, I would always dress up as witches and vampires for Halloween and our German dress-up festivity Fasching (or Karneval, as it’s called beyond the south).

Legend has it that my favourite movie at five years old was The Nightmare Before Christmas. My mother, who travelled often since she worked as reporter, took me to see the H.R. Giger museum in Greyerz when I was eight (which was definitely too scary, and I’ve subsequently never watched any installment of the ALIEN franchise).

For someone who wanted me to grow up normally, she sure fuelled my obsession with the macabre and decaying wherever possible. In retrospective, it is no wonder I turned out goth in my years of teenage angst and beyond.

But when I entered Phantom Manor, stood in the foyer, saw the changing projections in the foyer mirrors, entered the stretching portrait room and was released into my first and only ride in a Doombuggy, I was hooked. The lights, the sounds, the spooky, misty atmosphere, the singing of the bride, Madame Leota bellowing from her crystal ball, the three-dimensional ghosts swirling around in the ballroom while chandeliers flew through the air, the music – it hit a part in my brain that said this is it. This exact aesthetic of fallen opulence and decay will forever be my jam.

I have been chasing that high ever since.

Here’s what the ride looked like in those days:

My kid self can confirm that the colours in this are pretty accurate. Careful: may induce motion sickness.

Couldn’t see a thing? Here’s is what the ride looked like last year and in 4K after its refurbishment:

This is a how the ride looked last year – if anyone can dig up a vintage edition from around 2000 – hit me up!

Lasting Impressions

Three years later, when most kids would have moved on to other pursuits involving boys and makeup, I had finished writing my first actual book – basically a fanfiction about a house strongly resembling Phantom Manor and its inhabitants, that even got printed in the local newspaper as a weekly column around Halloween.

By the time the ingenuinely-titled Ghost Mansion got published (I was 12 when I wrote the thing, cut me some slack), I had been diagnosed with a learning disorder, my home had crumbled after my parents had had a breakup, and I, bookish, quiet, bad at sports, was relentlessly bullied for being much more interested in gothic novels and dictionaries than in giving handjobs. My Phantom Manor-inspired mind palace was one of my last resorts of peace in a world that felt more and more hostile. Then I discovered that I could use that imagery to make myself feel better – wrapping myself in clothes that mirrored an aesthetic I associated with safety helped in regaining myself some confidence.

I took to wearing black velvet and chiffon dresses – in other words, Goth fashion. These clothes became my armour of safety that I could use to endure school long to eventually move on into higher education. My goal: to study animation. Somehting strange happened as soon as I did that: the bullying stopped. I had embraced my weirdness and carved myself an identity, which made me, as one of the actually popular glam girls of my school put it at the time, seem “ballsy as hell” . Granted, I was still a weirdo, but arguably one that was somewhat well-respected by most.

Becoming Oneself, and Sticking with it

I finished school as best of class in English and German (while still doing ridiculously bad at Maths – learning disorder all the way, some things really can’t be changed by even the brightest of glow-ups) and eventually went on to study animation as planned. I have recently been awarded a jury’s choice nomination for my aesthetically familiar project Carmilla – The Animation – and like many others in the Arts, I’m currently unemployed and will be scraping by on support lecturer jobs for a while. But it is the only way my atypically-wired brain can operate. It needs the dark and fantastical just as it needs sunshine.

Keep your interests, kids. They are trying to tell you something about yourself, and even though my life may never be simple nor easy, it taught me to follow through on the things I really wanted: to create worlds of dark and cozy.

And that keeps me going, which is why I am thankful that my mother fostered my weirdness by – among other things – taking me to Phantom Manor.

I wasn’t able to obtain a rendition of the musicbox theme that didn’t sound as if it had been recorded in a bucket, so I took a MIDI file I had downloaded sometime around 2002, that has survived the time on a very persistent harddrive, combined it with a little bit of DAW magic and remastered it. The result can be listened to below:

Hurry baaaaack… for Part 2 – in which we dive into the actual history of Phantom Manor and The Haunted Mansion – and the things that spawned from them.

Games from the Crypt: The Darkside Detective

Twin Lakes. 198X. A pixelated small town with its fair share of mysterious incidents. In this town, one fearless detective takes it upon himself to vanquish the horrors of the nether realms that threaten his well-deserved coffee break. By his side: an an in equal parts fear- and clueless garda police officer who is basically an endearingly stupid flat-earther loves conspiracy theories more than common sense.

(cue spooky synthwave music and titles)

Roll Trailer:

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much what playing The Darkside Detective is like: A perfect blend of 80’s horror and mystery tropes, pixel art and humorous references. If you’ve seen pretty much any episode of the Irish television classic Father Ted (starring the legendary, late Dermot Morgan as Ted and Ardal O’Hanlon as his intellectually challenged novice Dougal), the often whacky dialogue chains between Detective Francis McQueen and his aptly-named policeman sidekick Dooley are a lot like the ones from Father Ted. Which, you know, might be an intentional nod since the dev team of Spooky Doorway, the studio behind The Darkside Detective just so happens to be Irish.

“When your dev team is Irish” starter kit

In the very first episode, we open a portal to the Upside Down the Darkside, a parallel ghost realm to the real world, in which everybody is just as normal as in the upper world, albeit a tad greener, glowy-er, see-through, and probably (un)dead.

Upon finding the magic item that makes you see ghosts, the ones moving the pieces on the chessboard are revealed to be the ghosts of (then) recently-departed Terry Pratchett and his colleague Douglas Adams. Meanwhile, in the horror section, the spirits of E. A. Poe and H. P. Lovecraft are having a heated debate about which of the two could write more horrifying, blood-curdling stories. You, as Detective McQueen, settle their argument once and for all – by delivering them a copy of Twilight, upon which the two agree that this abomination is the most horrifying thing any of them have ever read.

I think Edgar might be onto something there, Howie…

The puzzles are fun and, for the most part, not too difficult or frustrating (you get to play everything from tic-tac-toe to Space Invaders). They don’t come with an option to skip them, though, so you’ll actually use your braincells if you want to make progress in some areas. The rest is searching for clues and stuff and mashing together stuff you find lying around until you accidentally make something useful (your options are limited, though – this isn’t one of those Big Fish-combine-shovel-with-rubber-duckie-to get musical instrument games).

Gameplay is dialogue-based and follows the classic mechanics of a point & click adventure with RPG and puzzle elements. The game is split up into five episodes, all of which follow a very loosely-connected base storyline, and each parodize different installments of horror: from Stranger Things and Twin Peaks to Friday the 13th and Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, we get to visit and explore haunted libraries, a monster lake, cabins in the woods, abandoned Christmas shopping malls and a zombie-infested churchyard.

And lastly, there is the Christmas special, “Buy Hard”. In which Francis McQueen’s garda police car is ultimately used to replace Santa’s sleigh, and takes off to deliver a load of presents.

THIS. GAME. IS. NICENESS. It’s simple, it’s funny, it’s endearing and gives you all the spooky, cozy vibes you need for a lonely evening. Meanwhile, it is brimming with atmosphere and cool ideas, and at its core, a solid, chill, well-executed adventure game.

Also, it’s on the Switch.

Including Boo and Luigi, of course. Leave the ghost hunting to the pros, they said…

So skip this one, even if you’re not into scares, though. While revolving around horror tropes, the game has no actual horror or frightening imagery in it and is much more funny and at best mildly spooky rather than scary. Its strong suit are the shiny, colourful pixel environments, the ridiculous dialogue trees that nothing and no one in this world takes themselves too seriously. Plus points if you’re a fan of chill, spooky, Vangelis-esque synths. Also, Nigel is cutest lake monster.

The full game can be downloaded at Steam for little money.

The dev team is currently working on the successfully crowd-funded second season 2. The demo is already playable and can be downloaded on their Kickstarter page.

If you’re still not convinced to give it a go already, go ahead and at least watch the trailer for season 2, which is scheduled to release around late summer this year:

You will liiiikeeeee ittttt…

No go on and support the folks at Spooky Doorway by at least downloading their games, folks, while I go play the demo and figure out whether the Citizen of Twin Lake backing prize is still worth signing my name in the Book of the Devil saving up for.

Bechdel Things: Viking Girls vs. Hermine Granger

The Date That Never Was

I could never wrap my head around the fuss my dorm mates at college made of this show called Supernatural.

The only real exposure I’ve had had to the show beforehand was during a very lukewarm four-day date. I had travelled no less than four-hundred kilometers to meet them, it was Hamburg in the middle of winter and we were stuck in their tiny apartment due to them argualy being on the brink of a cold. All we did during those four days was watch all available episodes of Sherlock and the first half of the first season of Supernatural.

And like many of the women in those first episodes of the show, it felt like I was mainly there to be one thing: Eye-candy. Which I did not feel like being.

I had just come out of a horrible project that had me work three people’s shifts, crunching through nights and nights worth of rendering issues for months. Which resulted in me having one of two nervous breakdowns I had in college. I was disillusioned, sleep-deprived and up for anything but having to play sweet. Compared to the light, summery picture in my bio, the other person must have felt almost cheated when I actually showed up, sleepless, limping and in non-cute travelling clothes. The person proceeded to ghost me the very minute my ride back home had picked me up.

That visit did one thing – it got Supernatural on my radar, even though I wasn’t entirely on board with it yet.

Cozy Road Movie Vibes

When I finally picked up the show again in 2017 – thanks to a flatmate who kept enthusiastically harping on about how great it would get later on – I did so with a large portion of skepticism.

Nonetheless, I needed something to put on in the background while I was busy writing my Master thesis and just had gotten Netflix. So, one evening, I decided to give Supernatural another go. And like I remembered, it was still cheesy, it was still corny, it was filled with tropes and monsters I had seen a hundred times before. But the more I watched, the more I came to like the mixture of suspense, horror, banter and the familiar, cozy road-movie vibe evoked by the “home on wheels” that was the infamous Impala Chevy. It was like a soothing drug for my once-again sleep-deprived brain.

Then, after the fervent high of the season 5 finale, followed by the absolute letdown that was season 6, the Leviathan arc realized it was time for a change to breathe new life into a series that had seemingly gone past before its best-before date. The show had established most of its female cast as either dead, demons, werewolves, vampires, sirens, double-crossing human bitches, groupies, short-lived one-night stands with slit throats by the next morning or the scantily-clad extras in heels and thongs inhabiting the many “nightclub infiltration” storylines.

Something needed to change, so Robert Singer and his team took a closer look at the actual main demographic watching the show – not the dads and young men the show had clearly originally been intended for. The show had become a hit series primarily for young women and teen girls – who liked the spooks and revelled in the bond between the two lead characters and their later angel sidekick.

Something Different this Way Comes

The writers were ready to embrace that viewership, and proceeded to absolutely roll with it. Episode 200 (aptly titled “Fan Fiction”) took the time to acknowledge and celebrate the Supernatural fandom itself, by having a girls’ school re-enact the brothers’ adventures as a musical (all of course whilst there being an actual monster loose on campus for the main characters to hunt down so Dean doesn’t get to spend the whole episode philosophing about the terms Destiel and subtext).

And they gave us Charlie Bradbury, arguably one of the most popular side characters on the show – a ginger, brilliant, lesbian hacker who collects figurines, leads a LARP group, has social anxiety issues. She is one of the few people the Leviathans can’t and won’t just replace with one of their own because she is just too unique and “difficult to pull off” to be replaced. Chances are that if you were an outcast, nerdy girl with odd hobbies, you heavily rooted for Charlie, who was not only effortlessly likeable, but relatable. She was anything but another underwritten, overstyled stereotype to pad out screentime, but felt like an actual person – not despite, but because of her complex character traits and the bravery she displayed while being visibly afraid at the same time.

This is where all those LARP sessions finally come in handy.

The lesson she taught us was: Being yourself in a world of conformity is endlessly frightening, but worth it by all means, no matter how scared you are. And for that lesson, we have no one other to thank than her actress Felicia Day, who co-wrote Charlie’s character and is best known for authoring what was essentially the dinosaur mother of all webseries, The Guild (2008). The lady herself is deserving of her own post, and I will get to writing something on her in due time.

But back to Supernatural. Charlie Bradbury instantly became a recurring special guest on the show, as the cool younger sister the brothers needed. Meanwhile, Mary Winchester was still seasons away from being retconned as the actual original demon hunter of the family, the delightfully fun and morally ambiguous witch Rowena McLeod would take another four seasons to make her first appearance, not to speak of the concept of the Wayward Sisters and the main arc of Chuck/God having an ignored, forgotten and rightfully pissed-off sister. Even Death got recast as a woman – one of colour at that, and the introduction of fellow deaf huntress Eileen Brady scored so many points with viewers that the writers decided to bring her back from being turned into a ghost via a one-time resurrection spell (which turned out to be just a whim from God/Chuck, but hey, it would be less fun if that would work on everyone).

But all those things took a long time to change – most of them more than ten seasons.

But they did, radically so, and with a bunch of setbacks afterwards – but this series, with its more-than-often downright imcompetent writing of female characters, managed in a single episode what eight parts of Harry Potter movies were unable to achieve – pass the freaking Bechdel test.

I know it has been done to death by now, but in case you havent’t heard of it yet, the parameters of the Bechdel test are simple: To pass it, two women in a film script need to have a conversation with each other that is not directly related to the men in their lives. Really, it’s not that hard. Heck, even the two Viking fightresses in Kung Fury (2015) manage to display enough solidarity to one another to pass with flying colours – while having almost no dialogue throughout their entire screenime. Upon having beaten up some Nazis, they heartily lock hands and congratulate each other by proudly smiling at one another. That’s literally how little it takes – a wordless moment of solidarity. Two women congratulating each other on a job well done. It’s surprising, and saddening, to see that that sort of interaction is still very rare in many pieces of what we consider mainstream media.

United, but by no means friendly: The nerd and the witch.

Viking Girls make a team – Hermine does not

Notwithstanding newer shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018) or classics like good ol’ Sailor Moon (1992) – old and Crystal (2015) alike, even though the latter, despite its obvious budget strains, fares a lot better on the not-bringing-in-Tuxedo Mask to decide every battle the Senshi would have been able to handle pretty much fine by themselves in the manga (while, admittedly, still objectifying its female characters by a great deal – it’s a mixed-audience show not without its problems. But much like Felicia, Sailor Moon is a topic for another post).

Hell yeah – we just beat up Kung Fu Hitler and his zombie goons!

In all her supposed brilliance and genius, Hermine Granger does not shine once for herself, but only in helping out her male friends and in giving up everything she loves for the “greater good”. The entire Harry Potter franchise gleefully avoids its female characters growing with one another’s help since every interaction ultimately needs to be about getting the “chosen one” and his group from A to C within three hours of screentime. That the girl’s personal growth is stilted, her brilliance objectively wasted on paving the way for a male hero for whom she eventually sacrifices her own family sends an underlying message to girls: know your place and accept that you are not the ones to shine, no matter how hard you work, how good you are at something or how much you sacrifice for others – especially that last bit is just part of your natural duties. While she never gets to have a relaxed cup of tea with Madam McGonnagal or a scene of teaching a Griffindor first-year a spell or two (at least in the movies, and it’s been a while since I’ve read the books) – at least Hermine ends up being Minister of Magic, which is still only mentioned in passing, and perhaps not quite as interesting as Harry being an auror who gets to fight Dementors for a living, rather than managing the integrity of an entire magic society.

The Reverse Bro Code

While there may be more and more exceptions as outlined above, this sort of narrative is still being spoonfed to young girls and is mirrored in how they are treated at work: don’t ask for too high a salary in negotiations or you will be regarded as greedy and full of yourself. That goes hand in hand with being taught to view other women as competition, not friends – basically, to enact the opposite of the “Bro Code” that keeps men well-connected amongst one another and well-equipped to get into favorable positions. Women’s harsh judgement of one another has been born of being judged harshly themselves.

And that is mirrored in their social behavior. Many won’t go to the spa, to the club, to concerts, or to festivals by themselves – for fear of being singled out, catcalled, or worse, when everybody else has brought their respective attachés with them (which, by the way, includes rainbow couples with strangely “traditional” relationship dynamics – one party dictates, the other complies, even if unhappily so. It all seems to be better than being alone with oneself). Upon seeing my style of cooking, I’ve had to listen to a liaised friends’ tirades of “My boyfriend would be furious if he saw you handle a spatula like that”. The same girl berated and beat herself up after a doing only semi-well on a test – not because she feared for overall results, but because she did not score the grade her boyfriend had wanted her to bring home, as if her doing well was a trophy for him to put on a shelf. To me, that is neither love nor care. It’s power play disguising itself as care, making somebody else’s efforts about stroking one’s own ego. Of course, that sort of dynamic words vice-versa as well, and men suffer just as much from the unhealthy standards put against them.

Regaining SELF-RESPECT – and Perspective

Needless to say, I’ve found myself in similarly-unbalanced power dynamics, being on the receiving end of someone else’s mercy with nothing to give and little means to get out of my dependency. Instead, I let myself be stockholmed into learned helplessness by sentences such as: “There’s no other place for you to go” and “no way you should be living by yourself”, with every syllable telling me unmistakingly that their benevolence was the only thing keeping me fed and housed. I chose not to confront the issue directly, and ended up not daring as much as breathe too loudly anymore, yet alone laugh, smile, sing, or make jokes. My powerless state of homelessness and unemployment made me slide into a negative feedback loop where I felt more and more worthless, which in turn began to affect my negotiation and rethorical skills. If I wasn’t able to regard my abilities as a valuable asset to anybody, how would I make companies do the same?

I put a full stop on the situation, moved out without bells and whistles and began to remember that my intrinsic value wasn’t determined by how easy to deal with I made myself or just how little space, basic human interaction or even food I could survive on (yes, starving yourself to save money and avoiding the kitchen not to be told off for dirtying it in the slightest is a thing).

Re-establishing my boundaries and accepting the uncertainties in my life, as well as the unavoidability of episodes of loneliness helped me regain some of my sense of self.

Speaking of which, my mind is at relative peace about all the things it cannot control right now, and I have more time and energy which I can dedicate to experiment, improvise, create, re-focus – and maybe finally watch Supernatural’s final season all the way through.