In the Desert of Set > Sermons > Occult Cinema > Dehumanizing the Other in Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead

G.B. Marian's In the Desert of Set

Dehumanizing the Other in Stan Winston's Pumpkinhead

When I was a kid, my grandmother told me ghost stories from the American South. Being a Dixie girl, she knew all about such monsters as “the Head-Chopper,” “the Boggart,” and “Raw Head and Bloody Bones.” I loved these gruesome stories, which in my opinion were the predecessors of the 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 stories are 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 anyone at all until this total jerkola 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 children who misbehave and disobey their elders.

The idea of Raw Head and Bloody Bones coming after the naughty never really scared me that much; if you wanted to avoid a run-in with the creature, all you had to do was be a good person. The aspect of the story that truly horrified me—the only tragic part of the tale, in my opinion—is the part when the happy talking hog gets killed. It seemed to me that the witch and the hog never did anything to hurt anyone, and that Raw Head was well within his rights to seek revenge. If anything, stories like this made me feel relief as a child, for they reinforced the idea that evildoers will always get what’s coming to them eventually, even if they seem to get away with their wicked deeds for a while.

In 1987, the DeLaurentiis Entertaiment Group (DEG, an independent company known for releasing such films as 1986’s Trick or Treat and 1987’s Evil Dead II) decided to make a movie based on Raw Head and other similar tales. I’m not sure who deserves the credit for this idea, for while the story DEG 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, DEG pitched their idea to that special effects wizard of all special effects wizards, Stan Winston (who had previously designed the creature effects in 1984’s The Terminator and 1986’s Aliens). DEG wanted Winston to provide the effects for their upcoming film, and Winston agreed on only one condition: he wanted to direct the movie himself.

While it was mostly panned after its initial theatrical release in 1988, Winston’s finished film—Pumpkinhead, a.k.a. Vengeance: The Demon—is a modest little masterpiece. It begins somewhere in an American backwoods community during the 1950s. The Harleys 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 to be let inside, screaming that he “never did anything to hurt that girl”; but Pa Harley refuses, insisting he can’t let his family get involved in whatever is happening. The visitor sees something coming after him and runs off into a cornfield, where he is brutally killed. Little Ed Harley glimpses the man’s death through his bedroom window while trying to sleep, and what he sees will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Fast-forward about 30 years and we see that Ed Harley has grown up to be played by veteran character actor Lance Henriksen (who played the android Bishop in Aliens and the criminal profiler Frank Black in Millennium). Ed is now a widower who lives with his son Billy and their little dog Gypsy out in the woods. Since the offscreen death of Ed’s wife, Lynn, these guys have done everything together; Billy even helps Ed run his humble feed and produce store. This is actually my favorite part of the entire movie, for the scenes with Ed and Billy working together, laughing, and telling stories are genuinely touching. They remind me of all the times I ever spent with my grandfather before he passed away. Even today, after seeing this film at least 500 times, I always find myself wishing nothing terrible would happen, so that Ed and Billy can just go right along being the happy father and son team that they are.

Anyway, Ed and Billy open their store for an honest day’s work, and they are soon visited by Old Man Wallace (played by George “Buck” Flower) and his fifty hillbilly grandchildren. Then two carloads of loud and obnoxious city folk come screaming into town. One of the city slickers—a guy 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. Before you can say “Hit and Run,” 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. By the time Ed realizes what’s happened, it’s far too late for Billy; all Ed can do is make the boy as comfortable as possible as he dies. Once Billy gives up the ghost, a grief-stricken Ed goes on the warpath. Remembering the chilling events he witnessed as a child at the start of the film, he marches deep into the woods and searches for a crazy old witch named Haggis.

Haggis is possibly the most impressive witch I’ve ever seen in any horror movie; she’s a direct descendant of Baba Yaga if there ever was one! She knows how to conjure up a particular demon that scares Old Man Wallace and his fellow mountain people to death. As she helpfully explains, “For each of man’s evils, a special demon exists. You’re lookin’ at Vengeance—cruel, devious, pure as venom!” Now here’s how it works: Haggis will call up this unholy beast to avenge anyone in the community who has been seriously wronged and who asks for her help; but those who directly benefit from her services will forfeit any chance of ever having a pleasant afterlife. Ed Harley doesn’t even stop to consider this; his hatred for Joel and the other city kids is so blinding, he can only think of giving them their just desserts. He pays the old woman, and she has him dig up the demon’s earthly vessel from the pumpkin patch in her back yard. Then she brings the monster to life and sends it stalking after its unsuspecting prey...

Back at the cabin where the city slickers are, Joel’s friends are trying hard to talk him into giving himself up to the authorities. That’s when the demon starts killing them all one-by-one, starting with the innocent ones and saving Joel himself for last. Meanwhile, Ed Harley is forced to watch through the creature’s eyes while it plays with its food. Only then does Ed realize most of the city kids are actually innocent, and that sending Pumpkinhead after them was overkill. As the violence escalates, Ed goes back to Haggis’ house and tries to convince the old witch to call her demon off. She just cackles at him with that toothy jack-o’lantern grin of hers and says the spell must “run its course.” She couldn’t call the demon off even if she wanted to, and she very clearly doesn’t. So Ed grabs himself a shotgun and tries to rescue the remaining city kids from the hellish beast he has unleashed upon them. At about the same time, Joel has a change of heart and tries to make up for what he did to Billy Harley by defending his friends.

People who live in the country are often considered “backwards” or perhaps even “sub-human.” This goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, at least. While the urban Egyptians enjoyed all the benefits of law, institutionalized religion, and national security, those who lived in the deserts continued to be nomadic hunter-gatherers. They were considered barbarians, criminals, or even demon worshipers. Set was much more popular among this population than He was among the urbanites, and whenever it became fashionable to demonize Him, desert people were demonized too. This tendency continues to manifest today, inspiring the cinematic trope where city people “intrude” upon the country and are then “punished” by bloodthirsty, inbred locals (e.g., 1971’s Deliverance and 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Pumpkinhead is similar to these other films because it plays on some of the very same tropes. 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. There doesn’t even seem to be a hospital in close range. (If there were, why wouldn’t Ed Harley have taken his injured son to a doctor?) The community also lacks any spiritual authority figure that “civilized” people would recognize as such; the only church in town has been left unfinished, and it resembles the fossilized skeleton of some long-dead dinosaur. The closest people we have to “clergy” around here are (1) Haggis and (2) Old Man Wallace, but neither provides the sort of leadership you’d expect to see in any mainstream church. At first glance, they seem to be nothing more than a malevolent devil worshiper and a crazed old hillbilly, respectively.

But Pumpkinhead also stands apart from films like Deliverance or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because its hillbilly characters really aren’t monsters at all. 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, leading us to assume he’s just a “good ol’ boy” who doesn’t like outsiders. But it turns out very quickly that Wallace’s instincts about the kids are correct. Later, when Ed Harley begs him for the location of Haggis’ cabin, Wallace warns the bereaved father that Haggis will only make things worse. Despite his good intentions, Wallace is sharp enough to see that Harley has already made up his mind, 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 own family safe indoors until the storm passes.

Haggis is far less benign than Old Man Wallace, but she is the only person to whom her neighbors can turn when terrible wrongs are committed against them. And while the price she charges for her services might seem morally reprehensible, it keeps her neighbors in line more effectively than any legal ordinance would. Consider the fact that Haggis not only neutralizes the people in her community who commit terrible atrocities; she also neutralizes the people who seek violent retribution against those offenders. You might say she “culls” overly destructive individuals from her “herd,” using chaos to fight chaos and maintain the social order. Then there’s the fact that no one ever tries to “get rid” of Haggis, not even Old Man Wallace. He might not like the witch or what she does, but he reacts to her the same way the rest of us would react to a natural disaster. (One doesn’t “lynch” a tornado; one simply gets out of its way!)

So the mountain folk in Pumpkinhead are not the typical caricatures we usually see in this kind of film. It’s actually the city folk who stir up all the trouble here, with most of it being caused by Joel. Though he comes from a place that is 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 his error 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 people’s standards, and we can’t help but sympathize with Ed Harley as he seeks revenge. But at the same time, Harley and Joel actually mirror each other in many ways. Both men are extremely reckless (with Joel driving drunk and Harley throwing his soul away for revenge); both accidentally harm innocent people; and both eventually try to atone for their transgressions. In sending the Pumpkinhead demon after Joel, Harley is effectively sending the demon after himself (both figuratively and, as it turns out, literally). He and Joel are the true agents of Apep in this story, with neither of them realizing they are serving the Serpent until it is much too late.

If there is any message to be gained from viewing Pumpkinhead, I think it’s the message that viewing oneself as “superior” to others is evil and can only lead to bad things. Joel doesn’t even bat an eyelash at abandoning Billy’s crumpled body, for he thinks the mountain people are all subhuman animals; for him, killing the kid is no different than hitting a deer on a country road. In the same way, Ed Harley doesn’t hesitate to send the demon after Joel and his friends, for he thinks they are all subhuman (despite the fact that some of the kids fully intended to help Billy, but were prevented from doing so by Joel). Both men objectify other human beings, and it is this objectification that fuels the demon, empowering it to destroy everyone it encounters. This reiterates one of the most important esoteric doctrines I ever inherited from the ancient Egyptians, a concept known as “the Secret of the Two Partners.” According to this doctrine, Horus and Set only appear to be “enemies” at a very superficial level; at a higher level, They are two sides of the same coin. This goes not only for Them, but for the people and aspects of life They represent as well. There is just as much dignity and beauty to be found in Set’s wilderness as there is to be found in Horus’ kingdom, and when the people within these two realms objectify each other, Apep is always the result.