2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Phantasm: The Illusory Nature of the Gothic Genre

Diane Chapman

In its original trailer, the theme of Don Coscarelli’s 1978 film Phantasm is posed in a series of questions: “Phantasm. Is it a nightmare? …is it an illusion? …is it an evil? …is it a fantasy? … Is it alive?” It does not answer its own questions, but sums up by stating, “Whatever it is… if this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” Based in a small town in America and played out through the life of an orphaned thirteen-year-old boy, the story of Phantasm is one about the boundaries between life and death, and the fragility of reality. Michael is desperately attached to his older brother Jody, as they were orphaned by the deaths of their parents before the film’s beginning. When Michael follows his brother to a friend’s funeral he stays after the service and is witness to The Tall Man; the name given to the mortician of Morningside funeral home and cemetery. The boy watches as The Tall Man lifts the coffin of the recently deceased out of the grave alone (a feat that would demand the strength of six men) and carts it away in his hearse. In his further investigations, Michael is chased by hooded dwarves, floating silver balls with drills that can bury deep within their victim’s head and drain away their blood, and of course, The Tall man himself. After proving to Jody and his friend Reggie that something sinister is happening, the three team-up to figure out how to defeat The Tall Man.

Phantasm has always been called a classic of the Horror film genre. But in creating an iconic gothic figure in The Tall Man (a legendary performance by respected stage actor, Angus Scrimm), by presenting the permeability of the boundaries between reality and nightmare, and by reflecting the anxieties of humanity, the filmmaker has made a distinctly Gothic film that keeps its audience in suspense as to the truth. The open-ended question, “what is phantasm?” is the underlying theme which characterizes the film as Gothic through and through.

The mortician of a funeral home and a haunt of cemeteries and nightmares, The Tall Man is a new iconic figure, a manifestation of the unknown and of death. As Misha Kavka explained in her essay “Gothic on screen,”

For instance, the central figure of the gothic, …has traditionally been some form of the undead, the revenant, the corpse, or a patchwork or corpses brought back to life. As the Gothic so chillingly seeks to remind us, the boundary between life and death is not forever fixed; it may not be the one-way passage that we would like rationally to believe. (Kavka 211)

In the same way that Frankenstein’s monster breached scientific borders between life and death and Dracula made a mockery of human mortality, so The Tall Man makes a mockery of human mortality by crossing the borders between life and death in his reaping of graves to make slaves to do his bidding. Both historic Gothic figures’ superhuman abilities left humans inferior by comparison and The Tall Man is an exception only in that he is a modern figure who also defies what is real and makes everyone inferior in his stature and strength.

In the 1818 novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the title character is an obsessive young man, bent on overcoming death due to his own fears of it, instilled in him by his mother’s death, as a precursor to his transition to a world of science. In his seclusion and submersion into the world of the dead, he successfully pieces corpses back together and re-animates the tissue to create a being that crossed the boundary of death, returning to life. Upon completing his creation, Frankenstein finally comprehends the perversion he has given life to, and abandons it in fear. Perhaps since the creature’s existence is itself defiant of human capability to cross that line, it is bestowed with capabilities exceeding that of humans by doing so. However you explain these traits, when Frankenstein confronts the creature again in the story, he is able to recognize its inhuman qualities even at a distance, due to his inhuman maneuverability.

As I said this, I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man. (Shelley 67)

The creature’s strength, speed, and height “seemed to exceed that of man,” as does The Tall Man’s, illustrating the dominant/submissive fears between humanity and that which we fear to be “super” human and therefore able to apply these in their control of us.

In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, we are introduced to another being stronger than its human characters, which surpasses limitations upon humanity. Count Dracula is an ancient vampire who does not eat except to drink the blood of the living, controls animals and thereby seems to be more closely aligned with them, and casts no shadow, since he is the manifestation of what otherwise would be hidden from sight. While preying upon London, he is seen in many different forms. Whether or not the characters who witness this recognize him while disguised, the readers know it is him. Whether he is seen as a bat, flapping his wings at his victims’ window, as mist and moonlight, trickling through cracks and filling a room until he resumes solid form, we know him to be capable of bending physical laws to his impose his will. A victim of Dracula’s feeding quickly succumbs to what appears to be mysterious illness and dies, only to return as an infantile vampire who also preys upon the living and becomes servant to Dracula.

The Tall Man of Phantasm is also able to change the form he takes and does so in order to overcome a victim. Assuming the smaller, seductive figure of a beautiful blonde woman in a lavender dress, he lures men into the cemetery and stabs them. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula--although most The Tall Man’s victims are usually already dead--we see the motif of those we loved transformed by these “superhumans” into something monstrous. The bodies of The Tall Man’s victims are crushed to the size of dwarves, yet still weigh the same and bear some facial resemblance (although their faces are shadowed in hoods) to the humans they were. This suggests that The Tall Man has control over not only his own shape but also the physical world, and uses that control to enforce his will over those around him. This puts humans at a submissive level to The Tall Man, representative of his power to diminish them to living pawns under his control.

 Central to both of these novels’ iconic figures is their embodiment of death’s presence in life. This is also central to modern Gothic villains, such as J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. As humans--or wizards as in the Harry Potter series--our most instinctual fear is of death. And for the thirteen-year-old main characters Michael and Harry, the deaths of their parents begin their story. Death, as part of each character’s infancy, comes from the past and begins existing in the present with the appearance of The Tall Man or the attempts of Lord Voldemort to re-establish his power. Death, for both characters, always holds sway over the future in its inevitable nature. Like death itself, both The Tall Man and Voldemort seem unbeatable.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third installment in the story of an orphan boy who lives a harsh life with his involuntary guardians and relatives, the Dursleys. Until he discovers that he is a wizard, who will attend a school for young wizards called Hogwarts. With this he learns the truth of his parent’s death at the hand of

Lord Voldemort, the darkest wizard that ever lived, which he mysteriously survived.

Voldemort lurks in the realm between “dead” and “alive” throughout much of the Harry Potter series, as we never know if he “died” in the way mortals do. All that is known is that Voldemort’s attack was somehow rebounded upon himself when he tried to kill Harry, and that he fell from power and sight. Even in this he defies even the typical “reality” of death. But his presence is felt throughout each and every year of Harry’s life and he resurfaces in many forms, always beaten back only to return in another way. The Tall Man certainly also begs to be defined as “undead’, as he can be wounded yet regenerates, can be buried, yet always returns once more to enslave the dead. Kavka describes the nature of Gothic to be centered on the ability to return from somewhere humans are incapable of returning from: “What the Gothic insists on … is a speaking from the “beyond” in the form of a figure that arrives from beyond the present, beyond the grave, or beyond the rational, material world” (Kavka 226). While both characters are exemplary of this, Harry Potter eventually learns all about how Voldemort came to be what he is. The Tall Man is never explained as returned in terms of “beyond the grave,” but from “beyond” the present, rational world. In his superhuman abilities, his enslavement of the re-animated dead, and his return from somewhere beyond our rational understanding, The Tall Man emulates the iconic Gothic of Frankenstein, Dracula, or Voldemort but is all the more frightening, as he lacks explanation.

The supernatural is also presented in Phantasm. It suggests a lurking threat in the shadows and spaces of the tangible world. Through its expressionist lighting that heightens angle to illustrate tension and conflict, its deep shadows that suggest what you can’t see that could be there, and its form-fitted Gothic settings of the cemetery and the invaded/haunted home, it creates a familiar world that begins to look unfamiliar. However, the use of tangible tools and power of the mind completely undercut the very tangibility of the world it is manipulating. Magic begins to have sway, from fortune telling and dreams, to tools like dimensional portals. What is really happening is always in question. As Michael becomes more conflicted due to The Tall Man’s attack on his town, the world becomes a less and less certain place until what he thought was real becomes a dream and the dream becomes reality.

What could be a more Gothic setting to open with than that of the shadow-strewn cemetery? And while this is an overused and now stereotypical setting for the Gothic, as it is used in Frankenstein (the tombs and graves of the dead that Frankenstein pillages for material for his experiments) and Dracula (cemetery watches over Lucy’s grave which lead to the discovery that she has become a vampire), it has since retained its disturbing quality. This is because it remains a trigger of humanity’s fear of death. As such, it’s an apt setting for our introduction to The Tall Man, and one obvious to film with shadows, yet throughout the film the use of light and darkness artfully conveys the fluctuating state of reality and the supernatural. Kavka recognized the role of spatial dynamics and the contrast between shadows and light in her essay:

Casting shadows is one way of manipulating space, either by taking something of human dimensions and recasting it in an extended, larger-than-life form that exerts menacing control, or by using shadows to create planes in space, so that the shadow serves as a metaphor for what lurks in another plane. (Kavka 214)

The scenes of the “plane of existence” as Michael knows life and reality to take place in are highlighted by the daylight and open sky suggesting that the world is just as it appears to be, with nothing to hide. But any scenes in which Michael seems to address the boundary of reality and magic, we are immediately brought away from light into the shadows. These shadows are “creat[ing] planes in space” that encroach on the established reality and suggest another.

This is also symbolic of the end of Michaels’ “established reality” of having parents, and the frightening world that is living without them. His fear of losing his family dominates the film, and is a large reason that the film is explicitly Gothic. In one scene, he visits Grandmother, a blind mute woman who tells fortunes via her granddaughter. This is a situation that lends weight to the power of magic outside of The Tall Man’s. In this scene, Michael exhibits a kind of clairvoyance himself--though it being clairvoyance is unknown to the audience at this point--in sensing that Jody is “leaving” and ask Grandmother to tell him if that’s true. Grandmother assures him that if Jody leaves, he’ll take Michael with him. Knowing Michael’s fear is of being left behind, she also warns him about the power of his fear. “Fear is the killer,” he is told.

This is a strong lesson for young main character of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as well. In this third year of Harry’s wizard life, he learns that a great dark wizard named Sirius Black who once served under Lord Voldemort has broken out of Azkaban, the wizard prison that no one has ever broken out of before, and that he is personally out to kill Harry for destroying the Dark Lord’s reign. In order to protect the school from Sirius, the guards of Azkaban (cloaked mystical creatures called “dementors”) are placed around the school grounds. The dementors effect humans by feeding off of their happiness and amplify the emotions of fear and desperation to a incapacitating degree. As Harry is confronted by them accidentally on several occasions, he begins learning how to defend himself. But the only way to fight them is to conjure a strong enough happy memory to use as a shield against this attack. The mind’s power to focus on one memory that’s strong enough to manifest from his wand and defend him is a constant struggle, as Harry continually hears the screams of his dying mother whenever near a dementor.

Michael’s fear is tested similarly by Grandmother, after he reports seeing The Tall man taking the casket. A black box appears from nowhere and he is instructed to place his hand inside. After some convincing, he obeys and almost immediately exclaims in pain, panicking because he’s unable to remove his hand. It isn’t until he is told, “Don’t fear,” and calms himself that he is freed. If this suggests that something as intangible as thought can hold sway in physical reality, the definition of what is real and what isn’t remains suspended. The power of thought working for or against you becomes a strong detail in the film’s ending, which leaves its conclusion just as illusory as a fleeting memory, feeling or dream.

If the power of thought can hold physical sway, then the film’s use (and The Tall Man’s) of physical objects to control the metaphysical/dimensional furthers the “blurring of boundaries between self and other” (Kavka 226), and between natural and supernatural. In a halcyon scene between Jody and Reggie where they bond by playing some music together, the happiness is punctuated by an odd fixed shot of Reggie striking his tuning fork, and an abrupt cut as Reggie silences it. At the time the significance is unknown, but as the film is reaching its climax we recognize a similar “tuning fork.”

The three have infiltrated the mortuary in attempt to destroy The Tall Man and come upon a room whose purpose mystifies them. Where previously the film’s shadows and light have ebbed and flowed, here the room is cast in a brightness exceeding any else in the film. Light floods in from the ceiling and floors, and stacked against the walls are odd barrels of a strange metal that contain bodies about to be shipped off for transformation into servants of the Tall Man. In the center of the room stand two silver cylinder poles, similar to the forks of Reggie’s guitar tuner. When Michael gets near, a force pulls him through the invisible gateway they outline and finds himself falling towards the surface of a rocky terrain below a violently red sky, where a train of dwarves cart the barrels into the horizon. Pulled back by Jody, Michael returns, but from where? Was it another planet, another dimension, or an underworld? This question is never definitively answered. But if shadows have suggested hidden worlds, then the extreme lighting suggests a highlighted, unhidden alternate reality, and these “rods” seem to be the gateway. The Tall Man seems to be able to manipulate both Michael’s world and this alternate reality, which he is set on condemning them to. Also significant is that, as a tool, anyone may use it. The Tall Man is not alone in his ability to flex reality or break it, and this is also significant in the film’s ending.

The conclusion of Phantasm reinstates the entire film as even more definitively Gothic, as it is removed from the laws of reality entirely with its surprise ending. What it instead falls back on is the power of humanity’s (specifically Michael’s) “anxieties from within” (Kavka 213) to shape the world. His anxieties, from the beginning of the movie, are based on loss of family relationships. From the death of his parents to his paranoia that Jody will be “leaving” him, this loss is immediately tied in with his fear of death, the death of his innocence, and of isolation.

Fred Botting suggests in his essay “Aftergothic: consumption, machines, and black holes” that Gothic originated as a means to reflect and encourage a return to family order and paternal authority. But as we have moved into a postmodern culture, “Gothic images and horrors seem less able to restore boundaries by allowing the projection of a missing unifying (and paternal) figure” (Botting 281). Phantasm is no exception, as the story is about an orphan. Like the “ultimate evil” of Harry Potter, Michael’s anxieties take on a morbid version of that paternal order for the main character: “The paternal metaphor is formal and not substantial in its operations: different figures can assume its function (God, father, teacher, priest, etc.) in acts of “imposture” (Botting 282). Voldemort and The Tall Man have extreme influence over Harry and Michael’s lives respectively; since the beginning they seem personally connected and almost to challenge and define each other by this challenge. “Imposing,” as it seems, in crude roles of father or guide.

This challenge is of good versus evil, the innocent versus the villainous; a long established Gothic plot device. As Phantasm climaxes, good triumphs as Michael and Jody lure The Tall Man to an abandoned mine shaft where they bury him, one thousand feet into the earth. But Michael wakes up from the happy ending to learn that Jody died a week ago in a car accident, that this story has only been a nightmare.

The symbolic structure depends on the identification of those positioned within it and is underpinned, not by any positive content, but by a fundamental absence, gap, or lost object providing a locus of projection and subjective fantasy.” (Botting 282-83)

Even as Reggie holds him close and promises to take care of him, that everything will be okay, that the Tall Man doesn’t exist, Michael (and the audience) can’t quite swallow that this is true. However, looking at The Tall Man as a symbol for the inevitability of death in all our lives (the “fundamental absence” Michael is still dealing with) in a dream, does makes sense for a grieving boy of thirteen. The Tall Man’s role as the one unearthing the dead is a representation of the disinterred past. In Jody’s recent death, the death of his parents in fresh again, and adds to the pain of this new loss. Therefore, in Michael’s dream, Jody is alive and they team up to defeat the man who digs up the past (the pain of death in the family) by “re-burying” him. The idea that it was a nightmare from the mind of a grieving child makes logical sense. What is never made explicit sense of is what happens then.

In the final scene, Michael stands alone in his room, looking down at Jody’s picture, coming to grips with his death and Michael’s consequent isolation. As he closes the door, a mirror on the back reveals The Tall Man, waiting for him. “BOY!” he threatens, seconds before the hands of his slaves break through the mirror, shattering Michael’s view of reality once again and pulling him through into the other side. This final collapse of “reality” cements the story as Gothic. It is not only the fact that the entire film is a tug-of-war between the natural and the supernatural. It is that it never answers the question posed by the film’s title. Is it a nightmare? The ending suggests that the Tall Man is a real, though supernatural, being who can break through dimensional barriers in order to harvest humanity. Or is it an illusion? If power of thought and anxieties from within really do hold sway over our realities, couldn’t it all easily be a nightmare within a nightmare?

What is frightening and essentially Gothic about Phantasm is “precisely that we cannot see, which has metaphorical and affective import…. Whatever is dwarfed or shadowed or half-concealed is marked out as being something more than representation can fully encompass… The beyond is thus not strictly a thing but the very permeability of the shadow-thin boundary, and always existing ‘in-between-state’ potentially arousing paranoia.” (Kavka 227) Reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw whose young governess believes the children in her care are being haunted by their previous caretakers, it has an abrupt ending that leaves no room for resolve or clarification. Though the governess can see the ghost, no other adult can and the children will not directly admit to it. Whether or not she had imagined the possession of the children is never made clear. The frightening aspect to both “Turn of the Screw” and Phantasm is that they never deny the unknown, but rather lets the audience see both the real and the unimaginable existing in the same plane to suggest that this co-existence is possible, not that it necessarily is reality. But the possibility is enough to terrify.

“Is it an evil? Is it a fantasy? Is it alive? Whatever it is, if this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” (Phantasm trailer)


Works Cited

Bottin, Fred. “Aftergothic: consumption, machines, and black holes.” Hogle, Jerrold E., cd. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002. 281-283. Print.

Kavka, Misha. “The Gothic on screen.” Hogle, Jerrold E., cd. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002. 210-227. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Stories. New York: New American Library, 1898. Print.

Phantasm. Dir. Don Coscarelli. Prod. D.A. Coscarelli, Co-Prod. Paul Pepperman, 1978. Film.

Rowling, J.K.. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1818. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1897. Print.

> Return to Top