The time I tried to do a seance with Texas A&M's dead dog mascot
Last night I watched the very entertaining found footage horror film HOST, from director Rob Savage. The film, shot during quarantine, follows a group of friends who conduct a seance through Zoom to disastrous results. I didn’t realize that seances were things I could have been using Zoom for. I feel like I just wasted the last four months. What else could I have accomplished via online video chats? Also, it’s slightly sobering to realize that a demonic entity understands how to use Zoom better than I do.
Regardless of my own inadequacies on making the most out of my Zoom account, kudos to Savage and his team for striking on a concept while the moment was hot. HOST will, I’m sure, be seen as a seminal movie for 2020 – using a film to capture this very weird time we have found ourselves in without making COVID-19 a centerpiece of its plot. The fact that the movie looks great and packs in a ton of highly effective scares is just proof that Savage (whose great DAWN OF THE DEAF short film I had the chance to see at a film festival a few years back) is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
I love the format possibilities presented by what filmmaker Timbur Bekmambetov calls Screenlife – a style of filmmaking in which narratives play out on a computer screen. Screenlife may also be the proprietary name of the software that Bekmambetov helped develop to make these movies, so maybe I shouldn’t be using that name to describe the format. Is there a better name to describe the style of film? I’d hate for Bekmambetov to lose his copyright via genericide.
Whatever you call the films, there is a great selection of these movies currently available to watch. Bekmambetov has used ScreenLife for a ton of films he has produced, such as UNFRIENDED, SEARCHING, and his own PROFILE. Another recent example of the format being used is the underrated 2014 family film EARTH TO ECHO, from director Dave Green. This filmmaking style is a great way to add urgency to a film’s plot – things play out at a brisk pace because the movies are, for the most part, told in real-time. HOST is a great example of why this format is so effective for scary films. The pixilation of computer cameras helps obscure the horrors of what audiences think they might be looking at. Is that a ghost or just a trick of the light? That said, HOST is an effective horror film beyond just its format – the story and characters are just plain fun and the concept is a choice one.
Seances, by their very nature, are creepy. Communing with the dead means overstepping one’s place in the metaphysical. Even when things go to plan and people are able to talk with their lost loved ones, they are still breaking the rules of life and death. Films like HEREDITARY and THE CHANGELING are great examples of why it’s a bad idea to try and reach out across the mortal coil. I recommend Mary Roach's amazing book SPOOK as a great resource into the history of seances, including the gross way mediums used to use ectoplasm to sell their skills.
I have my own experience trying to conduct a séance and, let me tell you, it’s a dumb one.
Back in 2005, my friend and I were working at The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper. We were in a game to constantly one-up each other with the stupid stuff we could get away with getting printed in the paper. During our time together, Aaron and I published stories in which we rated all the public bathrooms on campus, we ran op-eds about whether having sex with a cone is considered masturbation and, one time, we tried to publish an interview with a dead dog.
Aaron and I had the idea to conduct a séance with the recently deceased Reveille VI. For those unaware, Texas A&M’s mascot is a border collie named Reveille. The dog is pure-bred – in other words, its genetics are so bottlenecked from inbreeding that it’s dumb as a post. One time, while I was a student on campus, the current Reveille jumped off the roof of a building. Was it trying to commit doggie suicide? Probably not – it was just really, really dumb.
So, thinking it would be funny, Aaron and I took an Ouija board to the grave of Reveille VI – which is also, actually, the grave of every previous dog named Reveille. They are all buried in front of the school’s massive football stadium. May we all enjoy such finaries in our afterlife.
We positioned ourselves in front of the grave with our Ouija board and, when a student would walk by on their way to or from class, we’d invite them over to ask the dead dog a question. We would put our hands together on the Ouija board and, trying our best to make it look like a dead dog’s paw was moving the pointer, we’d spell out “bark, bark, bark” as the answer to any question asked. We had students ask how they were going to do on their finals, whether or not their crushes liked them back and what was going to happen with the Iraq conflict. The answer was always a series of "B-A-R-K" spelled out.
We wrote up the interview and were all set to publish it in the school paper – along with an amazing illustration of a ghost Reveille rising from the grave that the paper’s graphics team had put together – when somebody shut the whole thing down. I don’t remember if it was the faculty advisor, the paper’s editor, or the entirety of our collective colleagues but somebody made the decision that this article was not going to be allowed to run in the paper.
It’s a shame – Reveille VI had some really insightful things to share with the students at Texas A&M. Maybe I can set up a Zoom call with her to get her thoughts on the election.