When I was a little kid, my grandmother used to tell me ghost stories from the American South. Being a Dixie girl, she knew all about such horrific figures as “the Head-Chopper,” “the Boggart” and “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” (who was my favorite at the time). I absolutely loved these gruesome stories, which in my opinion were the predecessors of Southern Gothic literature and of the old 1950s E.C. Comics (i.e., the ones that published Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear). Most of these tales are what I call “judgment” stories; they’re morality tales in which chaos is visited upon the wicked. Raw Head and Bloody Bones, for instance, was originally an enchanted hog who could talk and who lived with a kindly old witch in the woods. He never bothered anybody until a bad man came along and slaughtered him. Then ol’ Raw Head came back from the grave and avenged himself against his killer, and now he prowls the countryside at night, eating naughty people who misbehave and disobey their elders.
The idea of Raw Head and Bloody Bones coming after the naughty never bothered me that much; it seemed clear enough that if you wanted to avoid a run-in with the creature, all you had to do was be a good person and respect your elders. The aspect of the story that truly horrified me – the only tragic part, in my opinion – was the part about the happy talking hog being separated from the witch and killed. It seemed to me that the witch and the hog never did anything to hurt anyone and that Raw Head was completely justified in being pissed and eating wrongdoers wherever he went. If anything, the judgment aspect of the story made me feel relief: it informed me that there is justice in this world, that the wicked will always pay for their misdeeds, and that innocent people are always avenged. This is pretty much how most Southern ghost stories seem to work; an innocent character suffers some grievous wrong that usually results in his or her tragic death, and the wrongdoers who cause the tragedy must face some terrible supernatural consequences.
In 1987, someone in the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group (an independent film company that was known for releasing such cult horror films as 1986’s Trick or Treat and 1987’s Evil Dead II) came up with the idea of making a film that would be based on Southern ghost stories like “Raw Head and Bloody Bones.” I’m not exactly sure who deserves the credit for this idea, for while the story DEG eventually pitched was allegedly based on a poem by someone named Ed Justin, neither the poem nor its author has ever been cited in any pre-existing source. In any case, the boys and girls at DEG pitched their story idea to that special effects wizard of all special effects wizards, Stan Winston (who had previously designed and created the bizarre creatures in 1986’s Aliens and 1984’s The Terminator). DEG wanted Winston to provide the creature effects for their upcoming film, and Winston agreed on only one condition: he wanted to direct the film himself.
The original VHS cover art for Pumpkinhead
While it was universally panned after its initial theatrical release in 1988, Winston’s finished film – Pumpkinhead – is a modest little masterpiece. It begins somewhere out in an American backwoods community during the 1950s. The Harley family – which consists of Pa, Ma and little Ed Harley – are locking down their house, and Pa’s getting his shotgun ready. Then a terrified man comes along and starts banging on their front door. He begs them to let him inside – screaming that he never did anything to “hurt that girl” – but Pa Harley refuses, insisting that he can’t afford to let his family get involved in whatever’s happening. Then the wild-eyed fugitive sees something coming after him, and he runs off into a cornfield. His pursuer catches up with him and snaps his leg with its hand (as if the man’s leg were just a twig). Then little Ed Harley catches a glimpse of the prowler through his window, and while you can only see the monstrous figure for about one second, that one shot is more than enough to send chills down your spine.
Fast-forward about 30 years (give or take some change) and we see that Ed Harley’s grown up to be played by veteran character actor Lance Henriksen (who’s best known for playing the android Bishop in Aliens and the criminal profiler Frank Black in the Millennium TV series). Ed is now a widower who lives with his son Billy and their little dog Gypsy out in the woods. The death of his wife, Lynn, appears to have made Ed and Billy become very co-dependent on each other. They do everything together; Billy even helps his old man run the humble feed and produce store that they own. In many ways, this is my favorite part of the entire film; the scenes with Ed telling stories to Billy and of Billy helping his dad at the store are genuinely touching and they remind me of all the times that I spent with my grandfather before he passed away. Even today, after seeing this film at least 500 times, I always find myself wishing that nothing terrible would happen and that the entire film could just be about Ed and Billy making the most of the impoverished circumstances under which they live. I think I’d have been perfectly fine with that.
So Ed and Billy Harley open their feed and produce store for an honest day’s work, and they’re soon visited by Old Man Wallace and his fifty hillbilly grandchildren. Next thing anyone knows, two carloads of city folk come screaming into town, and one of the city slickers – a fella named Joel – pulls out his dirt bike and goes for a ride in the hills. Joel’s also been drinking, and while he’s showing off to his friends, he accidentally runs over little Billy. After that, Joel forces his friends to leave the scene with him (without calling the police, a hospital or anyone to help the boy) and he holds them all hostage at a cabin in the woods. When Ed realizes what’s happened, it’s far too late for Billy to be taken to a hospital; the poor kid’s on the verge of death, and all Ed can do is make him as comfortable as possible while he passes. Once Billy gives up the ghost, a grief-stricken Ed goes on the warpath. Remembering the chilling events that he witnessed as a child at the start of the film, he goes deep into the woods and searches for a crazy old witch named Haggis.
Haggis is the archetypical Halloween witch, a direct descendant of Baba Yaga if there ever was one. She’s so ancient, she looks like a mummified corpse – and I have a feeling she probably enjoys cooking and eating children. She also has a powerful connection to the Underworld, and she knows how to conjure up a particular demon that scares Old Man Wallace and his fellow mountain people to death. This demon is the thing that was chasing the fugitive at the beginning of the film. As Haggis helpfully explains, “For each of man’s evils, a special demon exists. You’re lookin’ at Vengeance – cruel, devious, pure as venom.” The deal is that Haggis will call up this unholy beast to punish people who commit terrible wrongs, but whoever hires her to do this will forfeit any chance of ever having a happy afterlife. Ed Harley doesn’t even stop to consider this; his hatred for Joel and the other city kids is so blinding that he can only think of giving them their just desserts. He pays the old woman, she has him dig up the demon’s earthly vessel from her back yard, and she brings the monster to life and sends it after its unsuspecting prey.
Meanwhile, Joel’s friends are trying to talk him into giving himself up to the cops. Then the demon starts killing them one-by-one, starting with the innocent ones (and saving Joel for last). It does this in some excruciatingly painful ways, and Ed Harley discovers that he’s forced to see through the creature’s eyes while it “plays” with its food. Only then does Ed realize that most of the city kids are actually innocent (and that sending the demon after them was overkill). While the killing continues, Ed goes back to Haggis’ house and tries to convince the witch to call the demon off. She just laughs at him with that toothy jack-o’lantern grin of hers and says the spell has to “run its course.” She couldn’t call the demon off even if she wanted to, and she clearly doesn’t. So Ed grabs himself a shotgun and tries to save the remaining city kids from the hellish monstrosity that he’s unleashed upon them. At the same time, Joel has a change of heart and tries to make up for what he’s done by defending his friends…and that’s when things get really intense.
Throughout history, “civilized” people have often believed that people who live in the wilderness are monstrous. This goes all the way back to ancient Egypt at least. While the urban Egyptians enjoyed all the benefits of law, institutionalized religion, economic stability and national security from foreign threats, those who lived in the deserts continued to exist as nomadic hunter-gatherers. We don’t know very much about these people because their traditions were probably handed down orally, but their urban counterparts identified them with Seth-Typhon and with all manner of unsavory things (including barbarism, lawlessness and fringe cultism). We do know that Seth was much more popular among desert tribes, and it seems plausible that these people engaged in a form of tribal democracy (not unlike modern Bedouins), which would have made them “anarchists” by Pharaonic standards. In any case, the urban belief that people who live in the wilderness are savage, degenerate outlaws has carried over even into modern times. Here in the United States, city people continue to think that country people are primitive, frightening and even dangerous. As discussed in books like Jerry Wayne Williamson’s Hillbillyland and Scott Von Doviak’s Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema, these ideas have led to a number of popular films about city slickers entering the country and getting nailed by degenerate hillbillies for doing so (e.g., 1971’s Deliverance and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).
Lance Henriksen and Matthew Hurley as “Ed” and “Billy Harley”
Pumpkinhead is similar to these other films because it plays on some of the very same ideas. It takes place in a wilderness where law and order don’t seem to exist. There are no characters with any legal or political power to be seen anywhere in the film; no police officers, no judges, nothing. There doesn’t even seem to be a hospital or clinic in close range. (If there were, why wouldn’t Ed Harley have taken his injured son to a doctor?) Furthermore, the area lacks any spiritual authority figure that “civilized” people would recognize; the only church in town has been left unfinished, and it resembles the fossilized corpse of some long-extinct dinosaur. The closest things to “local authority figures” are (1) Haggis and (2) Old Man Wallace, but neither of them provides the sort of leadership one might expect to find in a “civilized” environment. At first glance, they appear to be nothing more than a crazy old hillbilly and a malevolent devil worshiper, respectively.
Yet Pumpkinhead also stands apart from movies like Deliverance and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre because its hillbilly characters aren’t monsters. Old Man Wallace, for instance, is actually the smartest character in the entire film. He eyes the city kids suspiciously when he first sees them, and we assume he’s just a small-minded “good ol’ boy” who doesn’t like outsiders. It turns out very quickly, however – when Joel accidentally kills Billy – that his instincts are correct. Later, when Ed Harley comes to his house for advice on finding Haggis, Wallace warns him that Haggis can’t do anything good for him or Billy. All she can do is take Harley’s soul straight to hell, and Wallace very clearly doesn’t want this to happen. He implores Harley to go home and bury his boy, and the way he says this is both empathetic and gruff, suggesting that perhaps Wallace himself has had to bury one or more of his own descendants in the past. (Considering the sanitary conditions under which the Wallace Clan lives, this seems quite likely.) At the very same time, Wallace seems to fatalistically understand that Harley is already damned, that there’s nothing to be done for it, and that the demon “Pumpkinhead” will walk the Earth once more. All he can do is refuse to help Harley find Haggis and keep his family indoors until the chaos is over.
Haggis is far less benign than Mr. Wallace; she evidently rejects “the Golden Rule” in favor of Lex Talonis (i.e., “An eye for an eye”). Yet she’s the only person to whom her neighbors can turn when terrible wrongs are committed against them, even though the price she charges for this service is really quite steep. It may seem morally reprehensible from a “civilized” perspective, but consider the end results: (1) those who commit the atrocities in the first place are prevented from committing any further harm upon others, and (2) those who seek violent retribution are also neutralized at the same time. (To her credit, the witch warns Ed Harley that there’s a “powerful price” for the vindication he seeks, but he continues to seek it anyway.) In effect, Haggis “culls” overly destructive people from her “herd,” and she fights chaos with chaos to restore order (which is a quintessentially Typhonian act). Plus, no one ever tries to “get rid” of her, not even Old Man Wallace. He may not like the witch or what she does, but he reacts to her in much the same way that we would react to a natural disaster. (One doesn’t “lynch” a tornado; one just seeks shelter from it.)
So the mountain folk aren’t the caricatures we usually see in this kind of film. Nor do they live in chaos; there’s a natural order to the way they live. The city people are the ones who bring chaos into their midst, with most of it being caused by Joel. Though he comes from an environment that’s conceivably more “civilized,” Joel makes the mistake of thinking he can do whatever he likes in the wilderness. When he accidentally hurts Billy, he compounds this mistake by trying to get away with it. He’s even willing to endanger his friends and take them hostage in the process. Such behavior is contemptible even by the mountain folk’s standards, and we can’t help but sympathize with Ed Harley when he seeks revenge. But at the same time, Harley and Joel actually mirror each other in many ways. Both men are extremely reckless (e.g., Joel drives drunk and Harley throws his soul away for revenge), both accidentally harm innocent people, and both later try to make up for their transgressions (despite the fact that it’s already too late). In sending “Pumpkinhead” after Joel, Harley is really sending the demon after himself (both figuratively and, as it turns out, literally). He and Joel represent that self-destructive impulse in all people that can even turn saints into monsters. In other words, they are the agents of
Apophis in this story (and like most agents of Apophis in real life, they don’t even realize what they are until it’s too late).
If there’s any message to be gained from Pumpkinhead, I think it’s about the evils of viewing oneself as “superior” to others. Joel doesn’t even bat an eyelash at abandoning Billy’s crumpled body because he thinks the mountain folk are all subhuman animals; for him, running over one of their children is no different than hitting a deer on a country road. By the same token, Ed Harley doesn’t hesitate to send the demon after Joel and his friends because he thinks they are all subhuman (despite the fact that some of them fully intend to help Billy, but are prevented from doing so by Joel). It’s both Joel’s and Harley’s objectification of human life that fuels the demon, empowering it to destroy everyone it encounters. This reiterates one of the most important pieces of wisdom I ever gained from the ancient Egyptians, a doctrine known as “the Secret of the Two Partners.” According to this doctrine, Horus and Seth-Typhon only appear to be “enemies” at a very superficial level; at a higher and more esoteric level, They’re actually two sides of the same coin. This goes not only for Them, but for the people and the various aspects of life They represent. There’s just as much dignity to be found in the wilderness of Seth as there is in the kingdom of Horus, and when the people in these realms objectify each other,
Apophis is the result.
Florence Schauffler as “Haggis”
I first heard about Pumpkinhead when I was in the sixth grade, but I didn’t actually see it until I was a freshman in high school. I had already been walking with the Red Lord for just over four months by then, and it immediately reminded me of my grandmother’s ghost stories. My grandmother isn’t a Pagan by any means; she’s a conservative Anabaptist who very clearly thinks that Jesus is “the only way,” and she probably wouldn’t understand anything about my own spiritual experiences. Nevertheless, I feel that hearing her ghost stories as a child was part of what prepared me for meeting Seth-Typhon as a teenager, and seeing Pumpkinhead only reinforced this idea. While it has been followed by three sequels (as of this date), neither one of these later films is as relevant, entertaining, or just plain special as the original. If you’re looking for a decent horror flick that’s thoughtful and lovingly made, you could do a whole lot worse than this one.