“You Think When You Die You Go to Heaven. You Come to US!”: Phantasm, Death, and Deindustrialization in Modern America

Speculative fiction remains one of my favorite descriptive terms for genre fiction. Attributed to sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein (author of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land), the term reminds us that the very best genre fiction does more than just entertain and thrill. Fictional genres such as science fiction and fantasy give us concepts and ideas that help us to better understand today, the past, and ourselves. Long imagined as pure entertainment, speculative fiction transcends its supposedly base origins and blossoms into a real literature. According to editor of several genre-centric websites such as Green Tentacles (http://www.greententacles.com/), NE Lilly, speculative fiction dominates American popular culture today.[1] Especially since the phenomenal international success of franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in film, and fantasy series on the small screen such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, speculative fiction has become ever more embraced, celebrated, and mainstreamed. Following science fiction and superhero films, horror might be the most popular speculative fiction genre. Each year, numerous small production companies produce a number of horror films on a rather low budget for an enthusiastic audience of die-hard horror fans. In recent years, franchises such as The Purge, and films like It Follows and Get Out have made serious waves into the realm of more “serious” films, in part because—like the very best speculative fiction—they deal with important social issues of the day.

But socially conscious messages are hardly novel in horror films. Don Coscarelli’s recently ended film series Phantasm delved into some interesting questions at the heart of the modern economy. With films spread out over nearly 40 years, Phantasm became a mediation on the American funeral industry, a parable of the steady de-industrialization of the American heartland, and more recently commentary on the ongoing global refugee crisis. Like any good work of speculative fiction, the series gave us some serious ideas to reflect on, going into the unknowable future—even while retaining its low-budget, schlocky charms.

According to Coscarelli, his primary motivation in writing Phantasm was to explore the American funeral industry, hinting its alienating nature.[2] How we care for our dead today often makes death a somewhat alien process for most people—we send the bodies away and they appear again at a funeral home, often looking too alive for us to process the reality. For profit funeral corporations dominate the marketplace for burying or cremating our loved ones. In other words, like many other aspects of American life, death has been commodified. Recent history shows us why many worry over the commodification of funerary practices. In 2002, at the Tri-State Crematorium in Walker County, Georgia over 300 bodies were discovered by authorities after several anonymous complaints. Loved ones received containers of concrete dust rather than the remains of their loved ones. The explanation given by Ray Brent Marsh for his actions—that he suffered from deep anxiety brought on by mercury poisoning—did little to assuage the sense of anger felt by the families.[3]

Other instances of overcharging for services have been uncovered in recent years. Some attribute this trend to large corporations taking over locally run and operated funeral homes, embedded in their communities, often through local religious institutions. Corporations buying out local funeral home break this connection.[4] Even death itself tends to be a process that happens away from home, in a hospital or hospice care facility.[5] It’s hard to see such shifts in American funerary traditions as anything more than an outcropping of the commodification of everyday life. Many, especially children, can become phobic about something that’s a natural part of life when it no longer is treated as such—death becomes something to avoid as opposed to something that helps define life.

Phantasm‘s narrative arc highlights the emergence of that phobia. As we’ll see, death becomes a form of corporatized destruction in the Phantasm world. The Tall Man’s unnatural intervention into the natural order of death represents a metaphor for the disconnect between death and modern American funerary practices that takes the work out of the hands of the bereaved. The Tall Man, played to malevolent perfection by the late Angus Scrimm, represents a frightening parody of a funeral director and (it turns out, SPOILER ALERT!!!) an alien from another dimension. His incongruous behavior and bearing frighten the main characters, Mike, Jody, and Reg, mourning a lost friend—who it turns out was murdered by the Tall Man. Over the course of the film, they witness the Tall Man performing impossible feats, such as effortlessly tossing coffins into the back of hearses. They move to his turf, including an endless mausoleum haunted by his silver spheres and mysterious dwarves clad in brown robes. Eventually they uncover the strange colored blood of the dwarves and the Tall Man himself. Many of these revelations are aimed at illustrating the alienating aspects of modern American funerary practices. A stranger—one who we don’t know if we can trust—has taken over the process of preparing the dead for their trip across the River Styx. The dead no longer belong to us, but to a stranger. As a culture, Americans for the most part no longer sit with our dearly departed, clean their bodies in preparation for their final journeys, or put them in the ground ourselves or with the help of a trusted community member. The field of funeral director and undertaker evolved in the late nineteenth century, but even then, the process proved more transparent and closer to the family and its faith. The waves of consolidation and buy outs in the funeral industry only further distanced Americans from death.[6] Putting strangers in charge of our loved ones carries consequences, according to the Phantasm universe.

Death and the processes around it have become something alien and unknowable, in both reality and in the Phantasm universe. The Tall Man embodies that estrangement, exemplified by the odd things he does to the bodies he steals. He injects them with a day-glow substance (representing the use of modern embalming fluid) which reanimates them into unrecognizable figures, warping loved ones into monsters. In the second film, which had the highest budget of all five films, shows the reanimation of the grandfather of one of the main characters. The grandfather killed his grieving wife and kidnapped his granddaughter on orders from the Tall Man. The embalming process provides the film’s resolution—the heroes add acid to the embalming fluid and inject the Tall Man with it (though of course he immediately comes back). It hints at the strangeness of embalming bodies, a practice now common in US funeral rites (sometimes, even in the case of the body being cremated, but still being viewed prior to that). Additionally, the work performed by the Tall Man warps the dead in all of the films. The films fundamentally question the work of modern undertaking, wondering if many of the key practices are necessary for us to mourn those we love. Coscarelli’s ruminations on modern mourning represents but one engagement with the funeral industry. In recent years Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and delightfully uber-gothy death activist, has advocated for a healthier general engagement with death in American culture through her “Order of the Good Death” organization.[7] Perhaps Coscarelli was onto something.

Deindustrialization plays another key role in the Phantasm universe. As main characters Reg and Mike chase the Tall Man across Oregon and down into California over the course of five films, each small American town reveals trash-strewn main streets with bordered up store fronts. The second through fourth film all involve at least one such scene. The final film showed the end point of corporate ravaging and deindustrialization—a violent and ruined world where people barely hold onto their sense of civilized humanity. Oregon itself has seen widespread changes to their economy, which hit small towns in the more rural parts of the state especially hard in the past few decades.

The character’s interests and self-presentations attest to their working class status. Reg works as an ice cream vendor in the early films, plays guitar, and hits on pretty much any woman he meets. In the first film Mike is a teenager being raised by his older brother, Jody, in a modest house left to them by their recently deceased parents. Although neither seem to work, both engage in what could be considered stereotypical working class interests, such as tinkering on a shared muscle car (the iconic Plymouth Baracuda). Jody spends at least some time at a local bar, in one instance, picking up the Lady in Lavender (the Tall Man in another guise). Reg and Jody play music together in one scene, sitting on the front porch, knocking back a couple of beers. They are all three primary victims of the wave of deindustrialization that infects their hometown first (and later others across Oregon). Even the few women that show up pretty much only serve to highlight how helpless the men are in the face of the wave of destruction wrought by the Tall Man, mirroring how working class men who have had little recourse in the face of deindustrialization. The only thing that awaits Mike and Reg at the end of the day is death.

But one more theme presents itself in the final film: the plight of refugees, something reaching a new level of crisis worldwide. According to the UN over 65 million people can be considered refugees—the highest number since the end of the Second World War.[8] Tens of millions of people are currently being uprooted and scattered far from their homes. Sometimes, they end up in their home countries or in a neighboring country (and often subject to locals’ animosity). But sometimes they land far away from their homes, fleeing to Europe, Canada, or the United States. Since the election of President Trump, allowing in refugees into the United States has become controversial, with refugees from hotspots being prime targets for Trump’s repeated attempts to refugees from coming into the country (Syria and Sudan are both on the list). In a recent article on Alternet, Vijay Prashad noted that by 2100, refugees will be the largest country in the world. Right now, refugees would form the 21st largest “country” in the world.[9] Ignoring the refugee crisis will not make it go away, nor will shutting our borders to those who have been driven from their homes through no fault of their own.

The question becomes how do we familiarize Americans with the reality of the crisis. Popular culture offers one possibility for doing so. Although the characters traveled across time and space in the earlier installments of the series, in the final film “home” now exists in a constant state of siege. Reg (now the central character) shifts between realities and is unsure which is true—but neither are desirable. In one reality, Reg suffers from early on-set dementia and lives in a care facility (a nod to the aging of the baby boomers). The Tall Man exists as a figment of his overactive, disintegrating imagination. Mike comes for visits and engages with Reg in his more lucid moments. The glimpses of that other reality that they lived for the past few decades are understood to only exist in his imagination, a means of him dealing with the revolt of his body. The ambiguity goes right up to the end of the film, as Mike and Jody sit next to Reg as he dies—the reality that Reg actually lives in is never made clear to the viewer.

The other reality—the Tall Man reality—puts all of humanity on a constant war footing. The washed out, wasted red landscape imagined by the final film makes refugees of all the characters in the universe. Industrialization and then its retreat wreaked havoc on the environment and people’s lives, forcing them into motion. The final scene—the three men driving off in the now iconic Plymouth Barracuda in search of safety—mirrors the same search undertaken by many people around the world today. They are battle-scarred, but hopeful that heading north to colder climes will help them carve out a more humane space. Their path bears similarities to the path of many refugees today—people fleeing hot war zones headed towards cooler locations. Many refugees aimed for Canada and the Nordic countries. By making the white male protagonists refugees in a hopeless struggle against a foe they can’t hope to defeat, perhaps the hope is that people not set in motion by forces beyond their control will come to understand and identify with those seeking safety. Interestingly, Libya acts as a key conduit for the African wave of refugee migration. Smugglers, operate with impunity in the chaos unleashed since the death of dictator Mummar Gaddafi. It’s unclear if Coscarelli, born in Libya but raised in southern California, intended to make the connection between his characters and the current refugee crisis, but it’s hard not to read it that way.

Although one could argue that the ending of the final Phantasm film was ambiguous, we are unlikely to see more films in the franchise bringing up further clarity. The cast, crew, and fan based mourned the passing of Angus Scrimm just last year.[10] Scrimm’s performance as the Tall Man became much more than just another villain or projection of fear. Much like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, or Doug Bradley (from the Hell Raiser films) he elevated the character to something more alien and profound. Although many of the core cast returned to star in most of the films, only Scrimm and Reggie Bannister were a constant presence in all five films. A return to the Phantasm universe without one or both those men would likely only alienate the core fanbase for the film. But Phantasm represents a popular culture engagement with serious issues faced by the fanbase, representing the power of speculative fiction to make us ruminate seriously on issues found in our modern world.

Mindy Clegg is a visiting lecturer at Georgia State University and a contributor to publications such as The Journal of American Culture, Pop Matters, and Bookslut.

References

[1]    http://www.greententacles.com/articles/5/26

[2]    Gina McIntyre, “Happy Birthday, Tall Man: Phantasm Turns 30,” Hero Complex: Pop Culture Unmasked, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2009, http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/phantasm/.

[3]    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/20/us/georgia-crematory-manager-pleads-guilty-and-gives-apology.html

[4]    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/11/26/amid-complaints-protestsnationslargestfuneralcompanykeepsgrowing.html

[5]    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/many-people-die-hospitals-instead-home/ and http://radioboston.legacy.wbur.org/2011/03/24/die-at-home

[6]    An interesting case study of Cleveland Ohio charts the evolution of how Americans care for our dead: https://case.edu/ech/articles/f/funeral-homes-and-funeral-practices/

[7]    http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/

[8]    http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/06/20/533634405/five-surprising-facts-about-the-refugee-crisis

[9]    http://www.alternet.org/world/refugees-largest-country

[10]  http://variety.com/2016/film/news/angus-scrimm-dead-dies-phantasm-1201676202/#!

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