Featured August 7, 2018 Horror
From the editor:An obsessive fan of a cult-status horror film tracks down the star decades later, and learns more than he expected. A disturbing tale about a disturbing tale, and an exploration into the complicated relationship between artist, story, and fan, “Final Girl Theory” will keep you thinking long after it’s over. In addition to collections of short stories and a forthcoming novella, A.C. Wise also contributes nonfiction columns to Apex and Book Smugglers, drawing particular attention to women and non-binary writers.
Final Girl Theory
By A.C. Wise
Everyone knows the opening sequence of Kaleidoscope. Even if they’ve never seen any other part of the movie (and they have, even if they won’t admit it), they know the opening scene. No matter what anyone tells you, it is the most famous two and a half minutes ever put on film.
The camera is focused on a man’s hand. He’s holding a small shard of green glass, no bigger than his fingernail. He tilts it, catching the light, which darts like a crazed firefly. Then, so very carefully and with loving slowness, he presses the glass into something soft and white.
The camera is so tight the viewer can’t see what he’s pushing the glass into (but they suspect). Can you imagine that moment of realization for someone who doesn’t know? Watch the opening sequence with a Kaleidoscope virgin sometime, you’ll understand. The man pushes the glass into the soft white, and moves his hand away. A bead of bright red blood appears.
As the blood threads away from the glass, the sound kicks in. Only then do most people notice its absence before and discover how unsettling silence can be. The first sound is a breath. Or is it? Kaleidophiles (yes, they really call themselves that) have worn out old copies of the film playing that split-second transition from silence to sound over and over again. They’ve stripped their throats raw arguing. Does someone catch their breath, and if so, who?
There are varying theories, the two most popular being the man with the glass and the director. The third, of course, is that the man with the glass and the director are the same person.
Breath or no breath, the viewer slowly becomes aware they are listening to the sound of muffled sobs. At that moment of realization, as if prompted by it thus making the viewer complicit right from the start, the camera swings up wildly. We see a woman’s wide, rolling eyes, circled with too much make-up. The camera jerk-pans down to her mouth; it’s stuffed with a dirty rag.
The soundtrack comes up full force – blaring terrible horns and dissonant chords. The notes jangle one against the next. It isn’t music, it’s instruments screaming. It’s sound felt in your back teeth and at the base of your spine.
The camera zooms out, showing the woman spread-eagle and naked, tied to a massive wheel. Her skin is filled with hundreds of pieces of colored glass - red, blue, yellow, green. Her tormentor steps back; the viewer never sees his face. He rips the gag out, and spins the wheel. Thousands of firefly glints dazzle the camera.
The woman screams. The screen dissolves in a mass of spinning color, and the opening credits roll.
You know what the worst part is? The opening sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the film. It is what it is; it exists purely for its own sake.
But let’s go back to the scream. It’s important. It starts out high-pitched, classic scream queen, and devolves into something ragged, wet, and bubbling. If there was any nagging doubt left about what kind of movie Kaleidoscope really is, it’s gone. But it’s too late. Remember, the viewer is complicit; they agreed to everything that follows in that split second between silence and sound, between sob and catch of breath. They can’t turn back - not that anyone really tries.
Here’s another thing about Kaleidoscope - no one ever watches it just once; don’t let them tell you otherwise.
The opening is followed by eighty-five minutes of color-soaked, blood-drenched, action. (Except - if you’re paying attention - you know that’s a lie.)
The movie is a cult classic. It’s shown on football fields, on giant, impromptu screens made of sheets strung between goalposts. It flickers in midnight double feature theaters, lurid colors washing over men and women hunched and sweating in the dark, feet stuck to crackling floors, breathing air reeking of stale popcorn. It plays in the background, miniaturized on ghostly television screens, while burn-outs fuck at 3a.m., lit by candles meant to disguise the scent of beer and pot.
Here’s the real secret: Kaleidoscope isn’t a movie, it’s an infection, whispered from mouth to mouth in the dark.
Hardcore fans have every line memorized (not that there are many). They know the plot back and forth (though there isn’t one of those, either). You see, that’s the beauty of Kaleidoscope, its terrible genius. It is the most famous eighty-seven and a half minutes ever committed to film (don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise), but it doesn’t exist. If you were to creep through the film, frame by frame (and people have) you would know this is true.
Kaleidoscope exists in people’s minds. It exists in the brief, flickering space between frames. The real movie screen is the inside of their eyelids, the back of their skulls when they close their eyes and try to sleep. When the film rolls, there is action and blood, sex and drugs, and not a little touch of madness, but there are shadows, too. There are things seen from the corner of the eye, and that’s where the true movie lies. There, and in the rumors.
Jackson Mortar has heard them all. Crew members died or went missing during the shoot (or there was no crew); a movie house burned to the ground during the first screening (the doors were locked from the inside); fans have been arrested trying to recreate the movie’s most famous scenes (the very best never get caught); and, of course, the most persistent rumor of all: everything in the movie - the sex, the drugs, the violence, and yes, even the flickering shadows - is one hundred percent real.
“You know that scene in the graveyard, with Carrie, when Lance is leading the voodoo ceremony to bring Lucy back from the dead?” Kevin leans across the table, half-eaten burger forgotten in his hand.
Jackson nods. He traces the maze on the kiddie menu, and refuses to look up. Kevin is a fresh convert. Like moths to flame, somehow they always know - when it comes to Kaleidoscope, Jackson Mortar is the man. Jackson supposes that makes him part of the mythology, in a way, and he should be proud. But his stomach flips, growling around a knot of cold fries. He pushes the remains of his meal away, rescuing his soda from Kevin’s enthusiastic hand-talking.
“And you know how Carrie is writhing on the tomb, and the big snake is crawling all over her body, between her tits and between her legs, like it’s doing her, and she’s moaning and Lance is pouring blood all over her?” Kevin grins, painful-wide; Jackson can hear it, even without looking up.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Do you think it’s real?”
Jackson finally raises his head. Sweat beads Kevin’s upper lip; his burger is disintegrating in his hand. A trace of fear ghosts behind the bravado in his eyes.
“Maybe.” Jackson keeps his tone as neutral.
The glimpse of fear gives him hope for Kevin, but Kevin’s smile does him in. Maybe the kid sees more than the sex and drugs and blood, but that’s all he wants to see. Kevin has seen Kaleidoscope, and wishes the movie was otherwise. That, Jackson cannot abide.
“Listen, I gotta get going.” Jackson stands. “I got work to do.”
“Oh, okay. Sure.” Kevin’s expression falls. Another flicker of unease skitters across his face.
Guilt needles Jackson – he can’t leave the kid alone like this – but Kevin pastes it over with another goofy, sloppy grin. “Maybe we can catch a midnight screening together sometime?”
Jackson’s pity dissolves; he shrugs into his worn, black trench coat, “Yeah, sure. Sometime.”
Jackson squeezes out of the booth. Kevin turns back to his cold hamburger. Jackson wonders how the kid stays so skinny. As he pushes through the restaurant door, out into the near-blinding sun, Jackson tries to remember to hate Kevin for the right reasons, not just because he’s young and thin.
Jackson steps off the curb, and freezes. Across the street, on the other side of the world and close enough to touch, Carrie Linden walks through a slant of sunlight. She glances behind her, peering over the top of bug-large sunglasses, which almost swallow her face. She hunches into her collar, pulls open the pharmacy door, and darts inside.
A car horn blares. Jackson leaps back, the spell broken. His heart pounds. No one has seen any of the actors from Kaleidoscope since the movie was filmed. There are no interviews, no ‘Where Are They Now?’ specials on late night TV. It plays into the mystique, as though Kaleidoscope might truly be a mass hallucination thrown up on the silver screen. No one real has ever been associated with the film. The credits list the director as B. Z. Bubb and the writer as Lou Cypher.
It’s been nearly forty years since Kaleidoscope was filmed, five years before Jackson was born (but long before he was really born). But Jackson knows it’s her; he would know Carrie Linden anywhere.
Jackson has been in love with Carrie Linden his whole life. (Yes, he considers the first time he saw Kaleidoscope as the moment he was born.)
When Carrie Linden first appeared on the screen, Jackson forgot how to breathe. The scene is burned into his retinas; it, more than anything else, is his private, skull-thrown midnight show. He sees it on thin, blood-lined lids every time he closes his eyes.
Jackson refrains from telling anyone this unless he knows they’ll really understand (and fellow Kaleidophiles always do). The problem - the reason he can’t say anything to converts and virgins – is that the first part of Carrie Linden to appear on screen is her ass.
It’s during the party scene. She walks across the camera from left to right. Long hair hangs down her back, dirty blonde, wavy, split ends brushing the curve of her buttocks. She wears ropes of glittering beads, but the viewer doesn’t know that yet. They are the same beads used to whip Elizabeth in the very next scene, horribly disfiguring her face, but the viewer doesn’t know that yet, either.
What the viewer knows is this: Carrie Linden walks across the screen from left to right. She climbs onto the lap of a man at least twice her age. She fucks him as he lifts tiny scoops of cocaine up to her nose, balancing them delicately on the end of an over-long fingernail.
The first time the viewer sees Carrie’s face, she is sprawled naked on the couch. The camera pans up from her toes, pausing at her chest. Her breathing is erratic, shallow, then deep, then panicked-fast - a jackrabbit lives under her skin. Her head lolls to one side, her eyes are blissfully (or nightmare-chokedly) closed. A trickle of blood runs from her nose.
While Carrie sleeps, but hopefully doesn’t dream, Elizabeth is whipped with Carrie’s beads. Elizabeth screams. She’s on her knees, and sometimes it looks as though she’s stretching her hands out toward Carrie. Some viewers (Kaleidophiles, all) have made the comparison to various religious paintings. Elizabeth’s face is a sheet of blood. When she collapses, her torturer steps over her, and drops the bloody beads around Carrie’s neck. Almost as an after thought he sticks his hand between Carrie’s legs before wandering away. She doesn’t react at all.
Jackson stares at the pharmacy door for so long that the woman he knows is Carrie Linden has time to conclude her business and slip out again, still darting glances over her shoulder as she hurries away. Once she’s disappeared around the corner, Jackson dashes across the street, ignoring traffic. He yanks open the pharmacy door, and runs panting to the back counter. Luckily, Justin is working. Justin is a Kaleidoscope fan, too. (Aren’t we all?)
“Hey, buddy. Here to get your prescription filled?” Justin winks.
Jackson ignores him, trying to catch his breath. “The woman who just left, did you see her?”
“Yeah. Dark hair and glasses? Not bad for an older broad.” Justin’s grin reminds Jackson of Kevin. He wants to reach across the counter and throttle Justin, who is skinny too, but old enough to know better. He’s older than Jackson (not counting Kaleidoscope years, of course).
“Percocet,” Justin says as an afterthought. He has no compunctions about confidentiality. If he didn’t know the owner too well, he’d have been fired a long time ago.
“Can you get me her address?” Jackson asks. His mind whirls (like colors dissolving behind a credit roll while a woman screams).
“Sure.” Justin shrugs. No questions asked - that’s what Jackson likes about him. Justin consults his computer and chicken scrawls an address on the back of an old receipt.
“Thanks, man. I owe you!” Jackson snatches the paper, spins, and sprints for the door.
“Hey, who is she?” Justin calls after him.
“Carrie Linden!” Jackson slams through the door, answering only because he knows Justin won’t believe him.
The name written over the address Justin gave him is Karen Finch. The address isn’t five blocks from the pharmacy. Jackson runs the whole way, heaving his bulk, dripping sweat, legs burning, breath wheezing. It’s worth a heart attack, worth the return of his childhood asthma, worth anything.
The street he arrives on is tree-lined and shadow-dappled. Cars border both sides of the road, dogs bark in backyards, and two houses over a group of children run in shrieking circles on an emerald lawn.
Jackson approaches number forty-seven. He’s shaking. His mouth is dry in a way that has nothing to do with his mad, panting run. His heart pounds, louder than the dying echoes of his fist knocking against Carrie Linden’s door. What is he doing? He should leave. But Kaleidoscope isn’t that kind of movie. It isn’t a movie at all. It’s an infection, deep in Jackson’s blood.
The door opens; Jackson stares.
Light frames the woman in a soft-focus glow, falling through a window at the far end of the hall. Her hair is dyed dark, but showing threads of gray (or maybe they’re dirty blonde). The ends are split and frayed. She isn’t wearing sunglasses, but shadows circle her eyes, seeming just as large. She is thin - not in a pretty way; her cheekbones knife against her skin. But she is Carrie Linden, and Jackson forgets how to breathe.
The second most famous scene in Kaleidoscope is the carnival scene. It’s the one most viewers (not Kaleidophiles, mind you) rewind to watch over and over again. It’s spawned numerous chat groups, websites, message boards, and one doctoral thesis, which languishes untouched in a drawer.
The scene goes like this: the characters go to a carnival – Carrie, Lance, Mary, and Josh, even Elizabeth, even though her face is horribly scarred (but not Lucy, because she’s dead). The carnival is abandoned, but all the lights are on and all the rides are running. The night flickers with halogen-sick lights, illuminating painted rides and gaudy-bright games. The whole scene drifts, strange and unreal.
The gang rides the funhouse ride. But it’s not just a funhouse, it’s a haunted house, a hall of mirrors, and tunnel of love all rolled into one. The cars crank along the track, but jerk to a stop in the first room, as if the ride is broken. They wander through the ride on foot. And this is where the movie gets weird.
It fragments. Time stops. (Do any two viewers see the same scene?) The camera follows scarred Elizabeth; it follows meathead Lance. It follows Carrie Linden. Voices whisper, words play backwards, things slide, half-glimpsed, across the corners of the film, at the very edges, spilling off the celluloid and into the dark. (Is it any wonder the movie house burned down?)
The funhouse is filled with painted flats and cheesy rubber monsters loaded on springs. But there are also angles that shouldn’t exist, reflections where there should be none.
There are odd, jerky cuts in the film itself, loops, backward stutters, and doubled scenes, as if bits of films are being run through a projector at the same time. It’s impossible.
Everyone is separated, utterly alone. The strange twists of the mirrored corridors keep them apart, even when they are only inches away. And here debates rage, because something happens, but no one is quite sure what.
Maybe Carrie Linden steps through a mirror into the room where Elizabeth is raking bloody nails against the glass, trying to escape. Some viewers claim that it isn’t really Carrie, because she stepped through a mirror. (Inside the funhouse, is anyone who they used to be?) What follows is brutal. With eerie, cold precision Carrie tortures Elizabeth. Accounts vary. Is blood actually drawn, or is the pain more subtle, more insidious than that? (What did you see? What do you think you saw?)
What makes the violence even more shocking is that up until this point in the film, Carrie has been utterly passive. (Is it possible to watch her push a sliver of mirrored glass through Elizabeth’s cheek and not feel it in your own?) Elizabeth’s face fills with terror, but oddly, she doesn’t seem to notice Carrie at all. Her gaze darts to the mirrors. Her panicked glances skitter into the shadows.
She look straight at the camera, and tears roll silently from her eyes.
Four people leave the funhouse at the end of the scene - Carrie, Josh, Elizabeth and Lance. (Do they?) Mary is never seen again. Her absence is never explained. It’s that kind of film.
The crux of the movie hangs here. Kaleidophiles know if they could just unravel this scene, they’d understand everything. (Do they really want to?) When she leaves the funhouse, what is Carrie holding in her hand? Was there really a reflection in the mirror behind Elizabeth’s head? When Carrie leans down and puts her mouth against Elizabeth’s ear, what does she whisper?
“Can I help you?” The woman’s voice snaps Jackson back to himself. His skin flushes hot; panic constricts his throat.
The woman flickers and doubles. Carrie Linden (or Karen Finch) is here and now, but she is there and then too. Jackson shudders.
Something passes through the woman’s eyes, a kind of recognition. It’s as though all these years Jackson has been watching her, she’s been looking right back at him.
“You’re Carrie Linden,” he says. His voice is thick and far away.
Her expression turns hard. Jackson sees the cold impulse to violence; for a moment, she wants to hurt him. Instead, she steps aside, her voice tight. “You’d better come inside.”
Jackson squeezes past her, close enough to touch. He catches her scent – patchouli, stale cigarettes, and even staler coffee. Her posture radiates hatred; her bones are blades, aching towards his skin. When they are face to face, Jackson glimpses the truth in her eyes - she’s been expecting this moment. Carrie Linden has been running her whole life, knowing sooner or later someone will catch her.
She shuts the door - a final sound. Jackson’s heart skips, jitters erratically, worse than when he ran all the way here. Carrie gestures to a room opening up to the left.
“Sit. I’ll make coffee.”
She leaves him, disappearing down the narrow hall. Jackson lowers himself onto a futon covered with a tattered blanket. Upended apple crates flank it at either end. A coffee table sits between the futon and a nest-shaped chair. The walls are painted blood-rust red; they are utterly bare.
Carrie returns with mismatched mugs and hands him one. It’s spider-webbed with near-invisible cracks, the white ceramic stained beige around the rim. The side of the mug bears an incongruous rainbow, arching away from a fluffy white cloud. Jackson sips, and almost chokes. The coffee is scalding black; she doesn’t offer him milk or sugar.
Carrie Linden sits in the nest chair, tucking bare feet beneath her. She wears a chunky sweater coat. It looks hand-knit, and it nearly swallows her. She meets Jackson’s gaze, so he can’t possibly look away.
“Well, what do you want to know?” Her voice snaps, dry-stick brittle and hard.
Jackson can’t speak for his heart lodged in his throat. There’s a magic to watching Kaleidoscope (unless you watch it alone). The people on screen dying and fucking and screaming and weeping, they’re just shadows. It’s okay to watch; it’s safe. None of it is real.
Motes of dust fall through the light around Carrie Linden – tiny, erratic fireflies. The curtains are mostly drawn, but the sun knifes through, leaving the room blood hot.
“All of it,” Carries says, when Jackson can’t find the words.
“What?” He gapes, mouth wide.
“That’s what you’re wondering, isn’t it? That’s what they all want to know. The answer is - all of it. All of it was real.”
Jackson flinches as though he’s been punched in the gut. (In a way, he has.) Should he feel guiltier about the cracked light in her eyes, or the fact that his stomach dropped when she said “that’s what they all want to know”? He isn’t her first.
Carrie Linden’s hands wrap around her mug, showing blue veins and fragile bones. Steam rises, curling around her face. When she raises the mug to sip, her sleeve slides back defiantly and unapologetically revealing scars.
“Well?” Carrie’s gaze follows the line of Jackson’s sight. “Why did you come, then?”
She bores into him with piercing-bright eyes, and Jackson realizes – even sitting directly across from her - he can’t tell what color they are. They are every color and no color at once, as if her body is just a shell housing the infinite possibilities living inside.
“I wanted to talk about the movie. I thought maybe…” Jackson glances desperately around the bare-walled room - nowhere to run. In his head, he’s rehearsed this moment a thousand times. He’s always known exactly what he’ll say to Carrie Linden when he finally meets her, but now it’s all gone wrong.
I’m sorry, he wants to say, I shouldn’t have come, but the words stick in his throat. His eyes sting. He’s failed. In the end, he’s no better than Justin, or Kevin. He’s not a Kaleidophile, he hasn’t transcended the sex and gore - he’s just another wanna-be.
Unable to look Carrie in the eye, Jackson fumbles a postcard out of his coat pocket. The edges are frayed and velvet-soft through years of wear. It’s the original movie poster for Kaleidoscope, wrought in miniature. Jackson found it at a garage sale last year, and he’s been carrying it around ever since. He passes it to Carrie with shaking hands.
As Carrie looks down to study the card, Jackson finally looks up. Like the movie, Jackson knows the card by heart, but now he sees it through Carrie’s eyes; he’s never loathed himself more. His eyes burn with the lurid color, the jumbled images piled together and bleeding into one.
The backdrop is a carnival, but it’s also a graveyard, or maybe an empty field backed with distant trees. A woman studded with fragments of glass lies spread-eagle on a great wheel. Between her legs, Carrie lies on an altar, covered in writhing snakes. Behind Carrie, Elizabeth’s blood-sheeted face hangs like a crimson moon. From the black of her wide open eyes, shadowy figures seep out and stain the other images. They hide behind and inside everything, doubling and ghosting and blurring. The card isn’t one thing, it’s everything.
“I’m sorry.” Jackson finally manages the words aloud.
Slowly, Carrie reaches for a pen lying atop of a half-finished crossword puzzle. Her hand moves, more like a spasm than anything voluntary. The nib scratches across the card’s back, slicing skin and bone and soul. She lets the card fall onto the table between them, infinitely kind and infinitely cruel. Jackson thinks the tears welling in his eyes are the only things that save him.
“It’s okay,” she says. Her voice is not quite forgiving. For a moment, Jackson has the mad notion she might fold him in her bony arms and soothe him like a child, as though he’s the one that needs, or deserves, comforting.
Instead, Carrie leans forward and opens a drawer in the coffee table, fishing out a pack of cigarettes. Something rattles and slithers against the wood as the drawer slides closed. Jackson catches a glimpse, and catches his breath. Even after forty years he imagines the beads still sticky and warm, still slicked with Elizabeth’s blood.
Carrie lights her cigarette, and watches the patterns the smoke makes in the air, in shadows on the wall. They don’t quite match.
“I’m the final girl,” she says. The softness of her voice makes Jackson jump. He doesn’t think she’s even speaking to him anymore. She might as well be alone. (She’s always been alone.)
“What?” Jackson says, even though he knows exactly what she’s talking about. His voice quavers.
“It’s fucking bullshit, you know that?” Her voice is just as soft as before if the words are harsher. “I wasn’t a helpless fantasy at the beginning; I wasn’t an empowered hero at the end. I was just me the whole time. I was just human.”
She stands, crushing her cigarette against the cupped palm of her hand without flinching. “You can stay if you want. Or you can go. I don’t really care.”
And just like that she’s gone. Jackson is alone with Carrie Linden’s blood-red walls and her battered couch, with her beads hidden in the coffee table drawer, and her autograph on a worn-soft postcard. When she walked onto the screen, Carrie Linden stopped Jackson’s heart; walking out of the room, she stops it again.
He sees Carrie Linden doubled, trebled – bony-thin hips hidden beneath a bulky sweater; the curve of her naked ass, teased by long blonde hair as she saunters across the screen; a hunted, haunted woman, glancing behind her as she darts into the drug store.
Jackson has sunk so low, he can’t go any lower. (At least that’s what he tells himself as he leaves to make it okay.)
At home, Jackson hides the postcard and Carrie Linden’s beads at the bottom of his drawer. He covers them with socks and underwear, wadded t-shirts smelling of his sweat and late night popcorn, ripe with fear and desire.
It doesn’t matter how rare the postcard is, never mind that it’s signed by Carrie Linden; he’ll never show it to anyone, or even take it out of the drawer. The beads are another matter.
Everyone knows the opening sequence of Kaleidoscope, but it’s the closing sequence that plays in most people’s minds, projected against the ivory curve of their dreaming skulls, etched onto the thinness of their eyelids. It bathes the late-night stupors of lone losers curled on their couches with the blankets pulled up to their chins against the flickering dark. It haunts midnight movie screens in rooms smelling of sticky-sweet spills and stale salt. It looms large on sheets stretched between goal posts, while orgies wind down on the battered turf below.
It is the third most famous scene in cinema history. (Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
Carrie is running. Everybody else is dead – Lance and Lucy, Elizabeth and Josh and Mary, and all the other brief phantoms who never even had names. She is covered in blood. Some of it is hers. She is naked.
Ahead of her is a screen of trees. More than once, Carrie stumbles and falls. When she does, the camera shows the soles of her feet, slick and red. But she keeps getting back up, again and again. The camera judders as it follows her. It draws close, but never quite catches up.
Carrie glances back over her shoulder, eyes staring wide at something the camera never turns to let the viewer see. (Imagination isn’t always the worst thing.) Carrie’s expression (hunted and haunted) says it all.
There is no soundtrack, no psychedelic colors. The only sound is Carrie’s feet slapping over sharp stones and broken bottles and her breath hitching in her throat. She’s running for the grass and the impossibly distant trees.
The credits roll.
The screen goes dark.
But Carrie is still there, between the frames, bleeding off the edges, flickering in the shadows. She’ll always be right there, forever, running.
This story originally appeared in ChiZine.