During a recent phone conversation with Jeff Kirschner, Canadian movie blogger, podcaster and co-author of the new book Death by Umbrella: The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons, I had an epiphany: Horror fans are smarter than everyone else. OK, maybe not smarter, but more emotionally and psychologically sophisticated. Rather than shielding our eyes from death, we prefer to actively explore all the gruesome possibilities (or impossibilities, as it were). If someone can meet his end by being stabbed in the back with a cooked ear of corn by a shapeshifting cat-monster woman (Stephen King's Sleepwalkers) or boiled to death in a too-hot Jacuzzi by a lumbering maniac (Halloween II), maybe that inevitable heart attack or car accident isn't so bad. Also, let's not kid ourselves — someone at some point in the history of mankind has been killed with an ear of corn.
“In North American culture, we have a weird relationship with death,” Kirschner says. “We don't want to face our mortality even though, as far as I know, no one has cheated death yet. In horror, you see these nubile coeds hacked to bits and you can face mortality. It’s life-affirming in a sense. It’s cathartic, that’s what it is.”
As much as it's a chronicle of the bizarre modes of death that have been used to shock and delight horror movie fans, Death by Umbrella — named for a memorable death in 1987's otherwise not-so-memorable Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 — the book is a celebration of the genre. Kirshner and co-author Christopher Lombardo, who operate the blog Really Awful Movies and host the eponymous podcast, are buffs. Lombardo had the idea for the book after watching Slumber Party Massacre II (also made in 1987), in which the murderer's weapon of choice is a guitar with a power drill protruding from its neck — but Kirschner wasn't sold right away. “Speaking as a purist, an elitist,” Kirschner says, “I wanted to write something that wasn’t gimmicky, something that had substance.” As a younger person, he'd primed himself in the genre by checking out books from the library and reading extensively, which gave him an appreciation for a more scholarly approach to watching and discussing films that a lot of people assume appeal only to the lowest common denominator. (His favorite horror film is The Bride of Frankenstein for its “emotional resonance and pathos.”)
As they talked through the idea, they decided that weird weapons were actually a perfect hook (no pun intended), a way into films they'd want to talk about and analyze anyway. Kirschner and Lombardo sat down, made a list and were able to come up with nearly 60 bizarre horror movie deaths off the tops of their heads. Research brought the list to more than 100, and then — even though they knew some of the films “like the backs of our hands” — they rewatched them all.
The book is divided into seven chapters based on the type of weapon. There are household items (the toilet plunger in Homicycle), kitchen tools and appliances (the blender in You're Next), machinery and electronics (the lawnmower in Dead Alive), sporting goods (basketball to the head in Deadly Friend), art-related items (a porcelain sculpture in A Clockwork Orange), tight spaces (tanning beds in both Demons 2 and Final Destination 3) and alternative sharp implements (mounted deer antlers in Silent Night, Deadly Night). The individual entries, some of which go on for more than a page (others are only a couple of paragraphs), are rich with context and analysis. And although the films' most bizarre scenes are revealed, horror fans still emerge wanting to see the movies they haven't already seen and rewatch the ones they have.
And, gruesome as the book is, it's all in good fun. Kirschner and Lombardo are part of Toronto's tight-knit horror community, which Kirschner says is populated by “some of the nicest people I've ever met.” As nice as humans can be, anyway. On the topic of the appeal of horror movies, Kirschner brought up the following quote by Stephen King:
“For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of [horror movies] … as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath. … It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that. As long as you keep the gators fed.”