“But you cant [sic] be alive forever, and you always wear out life long before you have exhausted the possibilities of living. And all that must be somewhere; all that could not have been invented and created just to be thrown away. And the earth is shallow; there is not a great deal of it before you come to the rock. And the earth dont [sic] want to just keep things, hoard them; it wants to use them again.” —William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
William Faulkner thought enough of ghost stories to tell them to his children at Rowan Oak throughout his life. His ghosts were salt of the earth. Faulkner believed in reason and fairness, and ghosts were part of that great democracy because the past was a part of it, too. No present without a past; no future without a past.
Horror is, to my mind, best in America. In America we believe in ghosts, and these specters are not monster men made by science, or Old World legends of ghoulish kings. Stateside ghosts reside quietly at the periphery of civilization, without lords or gothic manors to haunt in baronial splendor. These spirits are a part of the far country: the distant valleys, lost coves, and dark hills of the westward-cursed continent. It is possible to chart the whole terrain of this phantasmagorical United States in movies: south from New England in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to the bayous of Strangler of the Swamp and The Beyond; west to the great Halloween sequence in Meet Me in St. Louis and the New Mexico of The Leopard Man; north to California in The Fog and to Washington in Twin Peaks. In between are hundreds of supernatural tales— sad stories, most often, of heartbroken souls. Appalachia is little else, buried alive in tall, hollow hills, full of mournful laments and deep anger.
Stan Winston, one of the best-known makeup technicians in film history, made his directorial debut in 1988 with Pumpkinhead, a cruel, slight, and enjoyable parable about the ruinous nature of revenge, set somewhere at the edge of the woods in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Tennessee, where star Lance Henriksen lives alone with his son. The kid is cute, wears glasses, and Henriksen loves him a lot. Together they run a country store that supplies the locals with feed and highway passers-through with cold drinks. The store is the medium between two worlds: backwoods and the rest of the country. Winston doesn’t waste any time bringing an overall-clad, unwashed group of kids down from the mountain to ask Henriksen about an order for their dad, just as two carloads of antagonistic teenagers arrive from the city to buy beer, race dirt bikes, and argue about the criminal inclinations of a blockhead older brother. The two mobs mingle and even get along; it’s clear, at least, that one of the out-of-town girls inspires a crush in the oldest local boy.
What follows isn’t the Us vs. Them round robin Winston’s setup anticipates, but the death of Henriksen’s son in a negligent but honest accident. Henriksen sees it differently, and retreats into the hills with the body of his child to call down a demon from an ageless witch to extract immortal restitution from the careless teens in torturous episodes of homicidal rage. Few people are spared, no one is brought back, and the closest Pumpkinhead gets to a hero is one love-struck kid with one selfless moment that barely even slows the tide.
Surprisingly enough, it’s the creature itself that Winston never really sells. An ungainly mash-up of countless alien dogs and werewolf mutations before it, Pumpkinhead is a depressingly anonymous makeup job, even as it adopts Henriksen’s face as its own. But what works is its mission: summoned from beyond to avenge its bringer, ruthless in its methods and exact with its numbers. Only another sacrifice can stop it, but if there is a lesson buried in coal miners’ mountains, it’s that everything is cyclical, that sacrifice means nothing, and that everyone you count on will eventually let you down.
Heavier stuff than the folktale suggests, but that is the character of the land. Winston does it justice with a second cemetery in the woods, far past the mountain families’ graveyard. Even in death, there are always secrets, and Pumpkinhead’s blue-filtered, fog-filled burial plots for the damned could very possibly hold them all until Judgment Day. —Nathan Kosub