I dare say most of us have something we’re hiding. For many of us it’s something relatively mundane and harmless, but that may still cause us some embarrassment if exposed. For some it could be something for which you’re largely blameless, but that you’re still willing to lie about to keep it a secret. And for others, still, it could be a crime you’ve masterminded. In any case, it is rational to fear having certain truths revealed at your expense, as shown in the instant horror classic His House, and Bree Newsome’s short horror film gem, Wake.
Brownell, Kelly D, and Kenneth E Warner. “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” The Milbank Quarterly, Blackwell Publishing Inc, Mar. 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879177/.
Meeting a Survivor from S. Korea’s Biggest Maritime Disaster: Sewol Ferry Tragedy. Korea Now, 15 Jan. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT9m08FxYVg.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Indistinct” by Mocha Music, licensed through Shutterstock
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” Valery Legasov’s forceful statement before a powerful panel of men who might be willing to let the world die to maintain a lie is not as heartening or inspirational as one would hope it to be. Throughout the terrifying television series Chernobyl it becomes apparent that the eventual “cost of lies,” as Legasov puts it later, is not always paid by the liars. In fact, throughout history, debts to the truth are more often paid for with the lives of people who refused to lie, or who otherwise had nothing to do with the deception.
It turns out, if you have sufficient money, power, influence, or some combination thereof, your falsehoods can come go relatively consequence-free, so long as they don’t threaten people who possess even more of those assets. Or as long your lie isn’t devoid of even an implausible path of deniability.
The tragic disaster of the 2014 MV Sewol ferry capsizing was preceded and facilitated by corruption and incompetence. These issues cropped up again during and after the horrific events that took 304 lives, most of them high school students who were lied to about the situation; told to stay in their cabins by crew members who knew the sinking was imminent and inevitable. In the aftermath, attempts to deflect blame, deny responsibility, save face or otherwise deceive grieving families, and the South Korean public at large, were staggering both in brazenness and futility. Lies told about numbers of survivors and rescue operations–to name just two of the most egregious lies–were so easily and inevitably disproven it’s almost impossible to believe that the liars themselves thought they would be effective. It’s as if they thought their words could warp reality, or they were abnormally averse to the truth.
This was very, very far from the first instance of powerful people being so committed to obvious deception that it would be incomprehensible if not for the wealth of history that shows it can be effective. I actually have felt compelled to return to this script to add the most infamous, latest example of someone trying this, that of course being the Russian military’s invasion of the Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin and his constituents have insisted on not calling an invasion an invasion, not calling a war a war, claiming they’re operating in the interest of staving off mass civilian casualties while actually causing mass civilian casualties, I could go on. Meanwhile, here in the states, certain politicians and pundits have in one breath praised Putin, then in the next breath–when it became apparently, finally, that publicly aligning yourself with the warmonger was a bad thing–castigated Putin as if expecting no one to remember they had ever fawned over him. And it won’t be nearly as ludicrous as it should be if they turn out to be right.
Dictators have often referred to themselves as diplomatically elected popular leaders. Totalitarian governments have frequently worked the words Democratic, or Republic, or both into the names of their nations. On the corporate front, long after it was undeniable that smoking was a potentially severe health hazard, the tobacco industry engaged in “decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives,” that quote taken from a health policy article written by Kelly Brownell and Kenneth Warner.
Infamous financial fraudsters from the Enron executives to Bernie Madoff to many more managed to get away with their crimes for far longer than they should have because people who could have stopped them sooner ignored obvious signs that something was amiss, in some cases because it was to their benefit to look the other away.
And although the global temperature is measurably warmer, winters are observably altered and the ice caps are visibly shrinking, those with an economic and political interest to do so have been denying the possibility of climate change–much less evidence of its immediate presence–for as long as the threat of it has been known.
But bold lies met with a surprising amount of credulity aren’t the sole domain of governments, corporations, and other prominent interested parties. Individuals have entangled themselves in webs of lies and managed to maneuver within them freely, at least for a time. This is often done at the expense of emotionally compromised people who have undergone a tragedy that seems to have left them desperate to believe in an improbable positive outcome. Serial impersonator and French conman Frederic Bourdin, the subject of the 2012 film The Imposter tried to make a brief career of pretending to be various children, including, most notoriously Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio boy who went missing in the summer of 1994. Bourdin claimed to be the missing Nicholas, and despite not resembling the boy in glaring ways–including having a different eye color and different natural hair color–he was briefly accepted by the family. In the film he theorizes that the family did this out of self-interest to conceal their own dark secret, but it’s a theory concocted by a known serial liar preying on the family of a missing child, one who would attempt similar duplicities multiple times afterward, so I’m disinclined to buy into it.
Bourdin had his predecessors aplenty, however. Many people claimed to be either of the two youngest members of the assassinated Romanov family; Anastasia or Alexei. At least a few of those impostors, however, are known to have suffered from degrees of mental illness that may call into question whether they sincerely believed they were who they claimed to be. The same could not be said of Thomas Castro, aka Arthur Orton, the man who turned up pretending to be the missing Roger Tichborne.
The missing adult son of the wealthy Tichborne family, Roger almost certainly died at sea in a shipwreck in 1854. But since the ship was never found, no bodies ever recovered, his mother held on to the hope that her son had miraculously survived. In came Orton, professing to be Roger and winning over many believers, including Roger’s mother, for a time, despite, as with Bourdin, having clear physical discrepancies with the person being impersonated, and despite him getting several facts wrong about Roger’s life when asked. Even after it was all but indisputably settled and proven in court that he could not be Roger Tichborne, Orton still had people willing to send him money as a show of support to his false claim.
In each of these cases, the surprising success of the lie just digs the deceiver in deeper, raises the potential consequences for their actions and compounds the stress they have placed upon themselves. The fear of being found out as a fraudster or falsifier is explored in several works of fiction. Recently, while not a story that examines literal impersonation, the film Uncut Gems was lauded for its anxiety-capturing portrayal of a man juggling several lies simultaneously, issuing empty reassurances to multiple people in his life while trying to keep them from intersecting in any way that will reveal the truth, and while pretending to be a number of things that he is not. Howard Ratner is a philanderer pretending to be a family man. A degenerate gambling addict pretending to be a gambling savant. A reckless and somewhat clueless charlatan pretending to be a clever businessman. The pressure of his incessant lying is evident, but also seems like a drug he can’t kick, even as it threatens to tear his life completely apart, or simply end it.
In many works of fiction, even the most unprincipled antihero or villainous protagonist who devotes themselves to a grift or a grander scheme is made far savvier than Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers made Howard Ratner. This is part of what helps Uncut Gems maintain a relatable tension for so many people. It’s not just that it strives for verisimilitude with its constantly overlapping and loud conversations. It’s not that the scenario is that much more down to earth than what you find in other, comparable works: most of us can’t come close to relating to the experience of loaning a smuggled, expensive opal to a sports legend while holding onto said legend’s ring for collateral, then pawning the ring for money to feed your gambling addiction, then seeing things go from risky to much worse due to the intervention of your criminal creditor brother-in-law who’s tired of waiting for you to pay him back. I’d wager most of us don’t know anyone who’s been through anything like that. From a character standpoint, however, many of us have known someone who’s at least temporarily been a Howard Ratner type. Or we’ve had moments where we were Howard Ratner ourselves.
Most of us, if our lies start piling up or become too large to remain easily hidden, are not masters of evasion and misdirection who have some luck on their side, like Iago in Othello, or Thomas Ripley. We’re not even like the lesser known Robert Miller, the character played by Richard Gere in Arbitrage, a good film with some similarities to Uncut Gems, except its lead character begins the film in a far more favorable position to keep his lies going, and even though his assorted self-inflicted troubles make him anxious, he never quite reaches the edge of a breakdown and desperation that Howard does, certainly never finds himself being held by his legs out of the window of his own shop by a wannabe mobster’s muscle men.
More of us, if we’ve ever told a lie or two or uttered a few half-truths that are coming back to bite us, have at least metaphorically found ourselves in Howard’s position. At the mercy of other forces, our best hope to disentangle ourselves being a longshot ploy that’s still a gamble, and that might still fail to save us even if it’s successful.
Giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, however, one key difference between Howard and so many others living in fear of the repercussions of their duplicity is that many feel compelled to deceive by adverse circumstances. They’re not lying to feed their compulsion to see if they can best the odds; Howard’s ultimately stated motivation. Some people cheat or circumvent systems seemingly designed to bilk or disadvantage them, at best. They seek alternative, perhaps extralegal means to acquire necessary but overpriced prescriptions, for instance. Other people lie to those nearest to them for the sake of self-preservation; an abused spouse secretly saving money over time to better prepare themselves for when they leave, for example.
The two leads in one of my favorite horror films, the 2020 film His House, are carrying a dark secret and a world of guilt, all tied to a brief, terrible lie that led to even worse consequences. I’ll have to spoil the movie to discuss this, so be prepared for that after the break. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough. I fell in love with it on first viewing, this story of a refugee experience, and the horrible choices you’re forced to make–the lies you may be forced to live–when your world is ripped apart by war.
Bol and Rial are a couple. Refugees from South Sudan trying to prove they can assimilate and meet the conditions necessary to become members of English society. They endure prejudice even from some who look like them, who tell them to go back to where they came from. But where they’ve come from, violent actors have made it so that people trying to live ordinary lives are thrust into extraordinary peril and hardships.
As I mentioned before the break, I’ll have to discuss critical plot points that aren’t divulged until late in the film as they’re the parts that relate to this episode. As a whole though, I have to stress how great the movie is. It’s terrifying in both supernatural and very grounded ways, it’s superbly acted, superbly directed; I gushed about the movie on my blog when I first saw it and haven’t had any change of heart about it upon multiple rewatches. So while I usually just let my “spoiler warnings” remain implied by the nature of the podcast and the announcement of the title of whatever work I’ll be talking about, in this case I’m happy to make it more plainly known as I’m also coupling it with my most enthusiastic recommendation. Watch this film.
Throughout His House it becomes increasingly apparent that Bol and Rial are fleeing something directly related to the crisis afflicting their home in South Sudan, and something that manages to be somewhat more than that as well. The violence and all that they left behind cannot be escaped. Not just because of the trauma of what others did to them, but that of what they are responsible for. Early in the film it is established that their daughter did not survive their journey in search of refuge. But things are not as they seem.
We flash back to an attack–a massacre on civilians–during which Bol and Rial try to board a bus taking people to safety. The bus, however, is already full, and the woman trying to close the door on them is at the point where she is only letting in those who have children. And there is Bol, his wife behind him, and next to him a little girl quietly asking for her mother. She looks lost, likely shellshocked. For all Bol knows, the girl’s mother is already dead and she’ll now be left behind with no one left to speak for her. The sound of gunfire is getting closer. Gunmen in Jeeps are driving toward them. He can save this girl by getting her on the bus. But that isn’t the only reason he picks the girl up, claiming her as his own without explicitly saying it.
After he and Rial are on the bus, the girl’s mother spots her through a window while calling her name. Nyagak. Even if Bol wanted to undo what he’s done, it’s too late. The shooters are too close, the bus is moving. There’s no time to let Nyagak off or her mother on. But it’s clear enough that Bol does not want to change his choice, and Rial does not speak up either, though she appears even less comfortable with what is happening. Still, all either of them could reasonably wish for in the moment, as Nyagak’s mother calls for her child while futilely chasing the bus taking her daughter away for good, is that they were never put in such an awful position.
It gets worse, though. What is haunting Bol and Rial, psychologically and literally, is not the guilt of absconding with this young girl, but of failing to save her life when their small, overcrowded refugee boat sinks in the English Channel. They are struggling with the fear of being found inadequate by their case worker, who checks on them to see how well they meet the criteria necessary for them to stay, and not be deported back into a warzone. But what they grow afraid of is an eventual confrontation with the truth of what they did. One massive, terrible lie told without being directly stated, the only good that could have come of it having drowned in the sea.
As I said, they are not just tormented mentally by this, but in a much more physical sense. One of the things I love about the movie, it doesn’t eschew its supernatural setup in the end to say that it was all just in their heads, a product of guilt. That can certainly work at times, but I tend to prefer stories that enthusiastically see their setups through. An apeth–a “night witch”–has haunted them since they have moved in to their current residence. Rial is sure of this, but Bol maintains his denial at first. Rial’s guilt stems from failing to prevent her husband from taking Nyagak, but Bol is the one who picked her up. Rial participated in the lie, but Bol originated it. And he’s the one trying harder to forget what was done. In one of my favorite scenes, the night witch takes him back to the turbulent waters and gives Bol a vision of Nyagak rising above the surface, glaring at the man who took her from her mother only to let her die in the sea. When he tries to cover his eyes, the apeth gives him extra arms to pin his hands behind him. When he tries to turn his head it gives him new hands that hold his head in place. And as he looks at Nyagak at last, he repeats, “Pictures can’t hurt me. Pictures can’t hurt me.”
He earlier tells this to the night witch, that it is merely casting illusions that can do him no real harm, but it takes on a different meaning when he’s confronted with a visualization of his great sin. Bol wants to believe that’s all that Nyagak’s phantom in the water represents. Not something he lived through or deserves to be held accountable for. Nothing of the sort. More like a memory confined to a static image, something you can put away in storage and never look at again, if that’s what you wanted. It’s a lie he has to tell to himself, that he needs to believe is true enough, because he’s in no danger of being found out by anyone else. Rial knows what he did; it’s not on the radar at all for his case worker, and everyone else around them is a stranger. He’s afraid of his own mind fully unpacking the ramifications of his life-saving lie, and unleashing a wave of remorse he won’t survive. He’s not afraid anyone else might uncover his past; he’s afraid to face himself.
The apeth wants his flesh and blood, his life, as payment for what he has stolen, and it even offers to return Nyagak to Rial in exchange for Bol. Of course, sacrificing him would be, in a way, divorcing herself from any culpability when, again, she was there, she could have tried to stop him. But as I mentioned in Episode 14, the average person only has so much control over a decision made at gunpoint, and as wrong as what Bol and Rial did was, one might find enough grace to grade their sin on a bit of a curve.
In the end, instead of sacrificing Bol’s life to the apeth, they sacrifice Bol’s desire to live as forgetfully guiltless as possible. Rial helps him realize in the end that Nyagak’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of all the others they left behind, the ones they would have been if not for Bol making the split decision to take Nyagak up in his arms, must live with them forever. His house is their house.
While Rial was eventually far more active in Bol’s redemption, she was far more of a passive participant in his initial, spontaneous act of deception. Other lies may demand a little more forethought, preparation, and cooperation. The thing about involving someone else in a premeditated lie, however, is that you have to trust them to be honest with you, and you can probably see already the problem inherent with that considering your partner’s requisite capacity for dishonesty. And they might be thinking the same of you. Unless they’re in a position of significantly greater power, which is very likely the case when you’re making proverbial or literal deals with a devil.
Wake is a short film made by Bree Newsome in 2010. A classically Faustian horror story, its inciting incident involves a woman, Charmaine, watching her elderly father Ezra suffer a heart attack on the front porch of their home. Were she merely content to watch, maybe all that happens next would still occur. Maybe the nitroglycerin pills he reaches for won’t stave off this heart attack and he will die anyway. They are hardly a foolproof method for relieving heart attacks, and the one he’s suffering might be too severe for a pill to stave off. Charmaine doesn’t wait to find out if that’s the case. She snatches the pillbox from her father’s hand and lets him die.
Based on the town gossip we’re privy to at the funeral, Ezra was the domineering sort who sought to keep his daughter “sheltered” from the world, to the extent that she is now, “past the old maid point.” Looking at her, that wouldn’t be my conclusion, but standards of the time and location have to be accounted for. Charmaine lives in a rural North Carolina, in what appears to be the pre-Depression era. Depending on the specific circumstances even today it might be difficult for a young woman to escape an overbearing parent’s control for assorted reasons, but it was certainly that much harder to do in the time and place of this story’s setting. There are other options besides murdering her father to seize the house and inheritance, along with greater control of her life, but she likely has no money and no skills to do anything on her own, by her father’s design. Killing him in the way she does, arousing no suspicion, at least ensures she has a place to still call home.
Charmaine wants more, however, and much like she wasn’t willing to take a wait and see approach and hope for the “best” regarding her father’s heart attack, she isn’t going to wait and see if a suitable suitor is going to walk into her life and take interest in her. She’s going to make that happen.
Out in the woods she performs all the necessary root-work to conjure a demon and make her request, bringing what appears to be her ideal man not only into existence, but directly into her bedroom. He’s well-dressed, as handsome as the night is dark, and introduces himself as “whoever you wish me to be.” She makes him a well-to-do doctor from the city of Wilmington, and he makes the intended impression on the ladies from church when they come to pay a visit. His infernal origins, however, have made him more–and worse–than she could have imagined. Information the devil in the woods knew well, but withheld.
Charmaine’s honeymoon night goes awry in a manner unspecified, but when she returns to the woods to tell the demon to take her new husband back, she says that he is not a man, but a monster, and she clearly doesn’t mean it in a figurative sense. Her deception and misplaced trust has brought her a world of horror, and when she returns to her co-conspirator in the woods and asks it to take the man back, she is met with a threat and the instruction that if she wants to now be rid of the man, she’ll have to do it herself. The implication being of course that Charmaine isn’t unfamiliar with murder: if she can do it to her own father, the least she can do is attempt it with this thing that isn’t even human.
Killing her father, and the falsehood she had to promote to hide her action, proved to just be the first in a series of deceptions that only dig her deeper into a pit. By the end of the film she is left literally carrying possibly her grimmest secret yet, a physical burden that, based on how it was conceived, can only bring more pain and horror into her life and possibly into her afterlife.
And all of this stems from a decision that may have been opportunistic, but nonetheless premeditated. The fact that she was unhappy under her father’s strict rule was probably easy for her friends and neighbors to observe, or at least speculate about. That she had a murderous will and desire, however, doesn’t even cross their minds as they talk about her. I can only imagine the amount of energy it takes to maintain an innocent façade all while thinking of how easy it would be to kill the person you want dead. Just snatch an old man’s pills the next time he clutches at his chest. It’s that simple as long as you build up the nerve to do it.
I imagine that had to be chewing at her mind day in and day out, along with all of the rites necessary to conjure her perfect man. We don’t see her researching this in the aftermath of Ezra’s death, because she knew it all beforehand. In fact, part of the conjuration requires a little bit of dirt from her father’s grave, something she pockets during his burial. This had been on her mind for quite some time, and with such a plan in place, as she’s contemplating it and waiting for the moment to present itself, and mustering the will to see it all through, one thing that clearly slipped her mind is, “What if I’m also being plotted against?”
Paranoia comes in different flavors, as does just about anything human beings are susceptible to. Sometimes, those with devious plots and something to hide are so concerned with any flaws in their designs, or with being found out, that they’re not nearly concerned enough about any collaborators doing unto them what they are doing unto others. Whether it was the demon in the woods, the conjured man, or something greater and eviler–that’s a word, I promise–than either of them, something seized an opportunity to make Charmaine a vessel while she was distracted by getting what she wanted.
The devils she interacts with are aware of what she’s done, but let her think they’re as clueless as anyone else. The demon asks her how her father died, and its tone betrays that it knows the answer. Charmaine feels the need to lie to it anyway, a lie she repeats verbatim to the “nicest, most Christian woman in town.” It’s like she thinks the demon is as easy to fool as her trusting, God-fearing neighbor. But the demon, like the man, obviously knows better. After waking from a nightmare of her father’s death, Charmaine finds her husband awake and fully dressed–seemingly incapable of sleep–and reading aloud from the Bible about how God sees all. Even this is a bit of a misdirection. The immediate danger posed to Charmaine is not a God angry with her sin, but the devil dwelling with her. The thing she partnered with, married to, had long dreamed of, and that could not have lived without her. The individual that introduced himself with a lie, claiming to be whatever she wanted him to be, and leading her to believe he would be as honest with her as she could be with herself.