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Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) is another GU story in the form of a horror movie. Amy is a teenager with relatively neglectful parents, who goes to a carnival with a bunch of friends one night. The girls meet an old woman in the bathroom who issues a creepy warning, and things just get worse from there. Amy and her companions basically move through a series of vignettes (somewhat like Alice in Wonderland) where they encounter the freaky characters of the carnival. A fortune teller reveals that she will meet “a tall dark stranger” but this really alludes to the coming adversary, not some future romance.
Amy’s little brother sneaks into the carnival while they are there, and I thought it might be a case of “rescuing a loved one” but her parents come to collect him – however, her brief view of them as they do so could count as a moment of “returning home” while still on the adventure. In any case, the teenagers stay in the scary funhouse past closing time, and witness the murder of one of the carnies by a man in a Frankenstein mask. Turns out the mask is hiding much scarier deformities, and the man is insane – he stalks them and kills them one by one, until only Amy is left and must confront him alone.
Well, I may be running out of examples on my list, but they manage to find me anyway. Sitting down to watch MST3K riffing on a bad old movie, I started noticing a familiar pattern. Turns out Soultaker (1990) fits the archetype pretty well – not surprising, in that you usually find GU stories in the horror section when they’re films.
Teenaged Natalie is abandoned by her friend at a fair and ends up catching a ride with some guys. For some reason, the driver starts acting crazy and the car crashes, their souls flying apart from their bodies (unbeknownst to them, and boy does it take them a long time to figure out they’re not alive anymore). So the “otherworld” she navigates is really their own world, only she no longer belongs in it. They must flee from the Soultaker, a grim reaper sort of spirit (once human) who is after their souls. He is particularly fixated on Natalie, who appears to be the reincarnation of someone he knew in life. With her one remaining companion Zach, she makes the traditional GU return home in the middle of the story, but home is no longer safe. The adversary impersonates her own mother to get closer to her.
Natalie and Zach find out that their bodies will be taken off life support at exactly midnight (for some inexplicable reason) and therefore time is running out. At the hospital, she confronts the Soultaker alone, who offers her some kind of eternal existence with him, but exposes the lies he has told her instead. However, whereas normally that is the climax in a GU story, in this one the Soultaker is still a threat and it is Zach who manages to bring them both back to life, souls intact, thereby defeating the adversary who is summarily punished by his superior (there seems to be a hierarchy in the soul-taking business).
I am very glad I was watching the MST3K version of this because otherwise I’m not sure I could have gotten through it, GU story or not.
The Cell, directed by Tarsem Singh, is at least partially a Girls Underground story if looked at from the right angle, and an interesting one at that.
Catherine is a psychologist who uses special technology to go inside the mind of her young patient who cannot communicate any other way. She is recruited by the FBI to use the same approach on the comatose serial killer Carl Stargher, in order to find out where he has stashed his latest victim. So the otherworld she enters is entirely internal – inside the adversary’s mind. Thus, the whole world is under his control. But while one might see the female victim as the customary person that the GU must rescue, another perspective is that it is Stargher himself, or rather his child self who inhabits his internal world along with a larger-than-life terrifying Adversary version of him (as Catherine says, he sees himself as the “king of a very, very twisted kingdom”).
Catherine temporarily forgets herself in Stargher’s world – not only believing in the reality of the internal landscape but being remade into his evil self’s willing accomplice, similar to how Lily in Legend or Helena in Mirrormask are darkly transformed by their adversaries. The FBI agent on the case must join her in Stargher’s mind to remind her who she is – briefly becoming a companion of sorts. However, once the agent finds a vital clue and rushes off to find the victim, Catherine re-enters Stargher’s world on her own (without even her team to monitor her well-being) and confronts him alone. She defeats the adversary and humanely ends his child-self’s suffering, while the FBI agent simultaneously rescues the kidnapped girl just in the nick of time.
Left in Darkness, directed by Stephen R. Monroe, follows the afterlife journey of Celia, a young woman (whose mother died in childbirth and father abandoned her) who dies after being assaulted at a party on the night of her twenty-first birthday. Celia finds herself in a purgatory-like state, pursued by demonic creatures as she tries to reach the light. (This is one of the GU stories that takes place entirely within a single house, like Flora Segunda, or the first part of The Forbidden Game.)
What makes this one particularly interesting is the ambiguous nature of the companion – or is he her adversary? As the spirit of her grandfather seems to be trying to destroy her, the “guardian angel” of her childhood appears to lead her to safety – but all may not be what it seems.
Heather has been on the run with her adoptive father for years. What she doesn’t know (but discovers along the way) is that she was rescued from an alternate dimension and now the horrifying people there want her back. When her father is taken to Silent Hill, Heather must follow to rescue him. She is accompanied by her companion, a boy named Vincent, who is not what he appears to be. The adversary is the female leader of the Order who wants Heather in Silent Hill.
There is a journey underground, a betrayal by the companion, a confrontation that reveals a fraud regarding the adversary, and a revelation about the protagonist’s true nature, all typical for GU stories. However, other than that, the movie overall was a very poor follow up to the relatively decent original.
The Orphanage, directed by J.A. Bayona, is another horror movie (like In Dreams, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Dark or Silent Hill) which focuses on an adult GU who must save a child. Laura has returned to the orphanage she grew up in, now closed, with her husband and adopted son. Her son begins seeing a strange child in a mask around the building, and soon after disappears.
SPOILERS As the identity of her son’s “imaginary friend” becomes clear, Laura realizes there are in fact many restless spirits haunting the orphanage. She goes underground to find her child, discovers that his death is in part her own fault, and commits suicide – only to be reunited with all the orphans forever.
There is no real adversary in this story – the ghost children are frightening, and there is an older woman involved who temporarily seems to be a threat, but there is no confrontation. Therefore I consider it only an “honorable mention”. But it definitely follows the pattern of this adult-GU sub-archetype in every other way.
I recently returned from a two-week trip to England with my mom. One of the highlights for me was getting to visit the park where they filmed the opening scene of my favorite movie ever (and inspiration for the entire Girls Underground idea), Labyrinth. This was not even my first attempt to find shooting locations for the film – I once dragged my father around Nyack, New York in search of the places in Sarah’s home town, but while the town itself seemed familiar (and indeed, was used in part for the scene where she’s running through the rain), the park I found was not right.
Then, a miracle occurred – while I was planning my trip to England, I stumbled upon this webpage, in which someone actually found the right location, as evidenced by their photo. It was in England, where the bulk of the movie was filmed on sets. Moreover, it was on an estate in a small town about an hour away from London called West Wycombe. A town which, despite its obscurity, I was already planning to visit, because the very same estate (belonging to an eccentric 18th century baron) was home to the Hellfire Caves, where notorious orgies were said to be celebrated in honor of Bacchus and Venus, and the entire property is covered in those pseudo-Greek temples to pagan gods so popular at that time amongst the nobles. (I’ve covered that aspect of my visit on my spiritual blog, here.) I just about fell out of my chair.
After a fascinating walk through the caves, my mother and I began to explore the Dashwood estate. It is quite beautiful – the lake, the buildings, the swans (just like you can see in the movie behind Sarah). Eventually we circled the lake and were just downhill from the grand house itself when I found the distinctive set of bridges I was looking for – I was in the right place. Here it is in the movie:
Thank you to the person who first found this! You made this possible. Glad to know there are other people just as obsessed with Labyrinth.
Often I have found that the least fantastical GU stories are the most grim. Such is the case in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a 1976 film starring an extraordinary Jodi Foster as Rynn, age 13. Rynn is desperately trying to hide the fact that she is living in her house alone, lying about the whereabouts of her absent father (and there is initially no word on where her mother is, either). At the very beginning she is approached by the adversary, on Halloween – a pedophile neighbor who is immediately creepy. He keeps returning periodically, proving his power over her (in one particularly gruesome scene, he kills her pet hamster with a lit cigarette), being generally lecherous. Meanwhile, her landlady is potentially threatening to the solitary existence Rynn is trying to protect, and a friendly policeman may help or could ruin everything.
Rynn’s only confidante is an older boy, Mario, who she quickly grows close to. She reveals the secret of her missing father, and several other secrets besides, and even though the truth paints a somewhat frightening picture of Rynn herself, Mario never wavers, and helps her. But in the final confrontation with the adversary, Mario is ill and Rynn must fend for herself. Fortunately, she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty.
As I’ve mentioned before, the movie Labyrinth was the inspiration for the whole Girls Underground concept. I have been obsessed with this movie since I first saw it at the age of eight. As I’m a collector of body art, I figured it was finally time to get a Labyrinth-themed tattoo. But not just a picture of Bowie or goblins, because all of my tattoos are deeply spiritual in nature and this needed to get at the heart of why I resonate so strongly with this film. In the end, I decided on a quote, one that to me sums up the power of Story (which is what GU is all about, really), and the magic of words.
When Sarah starts telling Toby the bedtime story (her own story, in fact), she is looking into the mirror when she relays the goblins’ mandate to “say your right words” – a crucially important lesson for any Girl Underground, or indeed anyone dabbling in the magic arts (or dealing with fairies, for that matter). I decided to get this phrase tattooed along my arm, but backwards, so that it would only appear readable in a mirror. Sort of a nod to Alice as well – a sentence that only makes sense through the looking glass (and I had it inked on May 4, the day Alice went down the rabbit hole). Here it is:
Awhile back I wrote a post called “If the story were about her,” profiling several works that would be Girls Underground examples if only the girl in question were the protagonist. I left out one of my favorites, however, and aim to remedy that now.
Neil Gaiman certainly is in touch with the GU archetype – his Coraline and Mirrormask are both excellent examples. But before either of those, there was Neverwhere – first as a BBC miniseries, then as a book (one of the few times the film version came before the book; each are special in their own way).
What makes Neverwhere special in regard to the Girls Underground archetype is that it examines the situation from the companion’s point of view. The protagonist, Richard Mayhew, stops to help an injured woman on the street, and soon becomes entangled in her dangerous world of London Below, a world populated with assassins, mythical creatures, and even a real angel. She is trying to solve the murders of her family and simultaneously avoid the same fate. He just wants to get back home where everything makes sense. But by the end of the journey, like the Girl usually is, he finds himself irrevocably changed.
Door, the girl in question, already lives in the otherworld, so there isn’t that usual shift for her, but otherwise she follows the pattern: orphaned, accumulating companions, facing off against an adversary and his minions (although he is not revealed until the end), returning home briefly in the middle of the journey, navigating a labyrinthine path (in fact, there is an actual labyrinth, and a beast within it), betrayal by a companion…
However, we see this all from Richard’s perspective, and that POV adds depth to our understanding of the girl’s journey as well – the lives she changes, and sometimes even ruins, in pursuit of her goal.
As a side note, the TV version is really worth watching, especially because it was done on a low budget and has none of the usual slick Hollywood look to it. It feels more real than any similar stories I’ve seen filmed, using actual (often grimy) London locations for shooting, and bringing otherwise fantastical beings to life in a believable way. The vampire-like Lamia, for instance, looks like a girl you might meet at a goth club – until she sucks the life out of you.