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In “The Spanish Moss Murders by Al Friedman and David Chase, it is nearly July 4th. In Chicago, however, there is little reason to celebrate, as a series of mysterious murders plague the city. Each of the victims, from a lovely sleep research center assistant to the celebrated chef at the ritzy Chez Voltaire, is found with a crushed torso and covered in a leafy substance: Spanish Moss.
Kolchak (Darren McGavin) investigates and determines that the brutal crimes stem from Louisiana legend, from the old Cajun myth of “Pere Malfait,” a local boogeyman and “Bad Father.”
Kolchak immerses himself in the details of the old legend, including the fashioning of a weapon to stop the beast: a spear made from authentic bayou gumwood.
He then faces off against Pere Malfait in the dark sewers.
Although the monster of the week (again) doesn’t bear close inspection in 2018, “The Spanish Moss Murders” has nonetheless always been one of my favorite installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975).
In part this is because the photography of the monster is quite powerful at points. The suit isn't great, but there are moments in the climactic sewer fight that nonetheless prove powerful.
Also, I enjoy the nature of the monster itself. This swamp being -- from what I can determine, anyway -- was created just for the TV series, and therefore is not actually a local legend. That’s disappointing. However, what I find tantalizing about the monster this week is that Pere Melfait is manifested from the dreams (or nightmares) of a man who has been in a constant state of REM sleep. In other words, the monster is matter, made from a troubled mind.
There are many legends of regional swamp monsters (see: The Legend of Boggy Creek), so even the fact that Pere Malfait is not a real legend, doesn’t prove terribly troublesome in terms of the episode’s effectiveness. The key idea here is that a man, afraid of his nighttime bogeyman, actually creates that boogeyman in the flesh. He creates what he fears. This is an idea that has had significant currency in horror movies and TV films in the last several decades. From Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), to Augustus Cole in The X-Files episode “Sleepless,” to the very premise of the (short-lived) horror series Sleepwalkers, all such stories, including this one, tie the “realm” of REM sleep to the manifestation of consensus reality monsters.
The resolution to the mystery here is gathering information. And since Kolchak is a journalist, this is perfect. When Kolchak learns the myth of Pere Malfait, he also learns how to destroy the beast. If the beast is manifested from a story, then it can also be killed by the resolution of that story; by the method used in that story. In some sense, tales like the one depicted seem to be about our ability to impose both chaos and order over our reality. We can generate in the flesh monsters that terrify us, but we can also using the same mind, find ways to overcome that terror. I am reminded of Rod Serling’s definition of The Twilight Zone. It includes “the pit of man’s fears” and “the summit of his knowledge.” Both those places are housed in the conscious, and unconscious mind.
Perhaps this episode works so well, too, because of the “bedtime” story aspect. Bedtime stories are frequently terrifying, and the idea of a bedtime story made real captures our sense of irrational, childhood fears. When we go sleep, even as adults, we are vulnerable, susceptible to things that, in waking consciousness, have no real power over us.
This episode is also particularly well-cast, with Severn Darden playing the fussy, unimaginative sleep scientist who doesn’t realize what terrors his work has wrought, and Keenan Wynn as the police authority of the week. Wynn’s detective, Captain Siska, is particularly funny in this episode as -- in perfect 70’s fashion -- he has been to “Group Therapy” to control his anger. He even says to Kolchak, “I’m okay, you’re okay.”
But after a few hours of contending with Kolchak’s wild theories and aggressive investigation, the poor captain relapses into outright, out-of-control rage. You can’t really blame him.
Next week: “The Energy Eater.”