It’s that time of year again. The air has turned crisp, the leaves have almost all fallen from the trees, and Thanksgiving has to hope that the Halloween hangover and pre-Christmas anticipation don’t push it completely off the cultural calendar. The scarcity of media ammunition in the corner of Turkey Day does not help the cause. There’s a Charlie Brown special, a handful of ’90s Nicktoon episodes, and traditional school activities like hand turkeys. But if Thanksgiving can’t claim too many movies and TV for itself, maybe it can steal a few things often included in adjacent holiday celebrations. for my part I think John Charpentierit is Fog suitable for both Thanksgiving and Halloween.
A stretch, you say? Admittedly, a macabre tale of ghost lepers traveling through a supernatural fog for revenge doesn’t seem like the stuffing, pumpkin pie, and football. It’s not even settled in the fall. But scratch beneath the surface, and Fog has a perfect set of rooms and themes for Thanksgiving.
Sail the blue ocean
What exactly do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? The textbook’s explanation is that in 1620 the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock, and established New England’s first settlement. After barely surviving a harsh winter with the help of native tribes, the settlers held a day of thanksgiving to which their allies were invited. The truth is considerably more complex; on the one hand, the days of thanksgiving preceded this feast by millennia without being fixed on the fourth Thursday of November; but a boat trip and a settlement are real elements of Plymouth and Wampanoag history.
Now look Fog. Its story is that, 100 years before 1980, a small group of men founded a colony, Antonio Bay, in northern California. When a wealthy man, Blake, contracts leprosy and demands to establish a leper colony nearby, the founders of Antonio Bay, including a priest, conspire against him. Pretending to accept his offer, they lure his ship, the Elizabeth Dane, away from the lighthouse on a foggy night and sink it. They then plunder the ruined ship for gold to establish Antonio Bay as a proper town. Blake and his companions swear to return from beyond the grave for revenge the next time such a thick, unearthly fog rolls in from the sea.
Pretty spooky stuff, and nothing you’d include in an elementary school beauty pageant – but there’s a boat trip and a set of rules. And if this trip does not date from the 17th century, it is still a very, very long time ago compared to the year Fog was made.
An all-American horror
Still not convinced? Then consider the setting of Fog. Many classic horror movies – your Draculas, your Frankensteins, your Mummythe sand werewolfs – are set in Britain or mainland Europe, with stints in North Africa or the Middle East, and location is a key part of the stories. Some of the more modern horrors in the slasher or splatter subgenres place less emphasis on location than other elements. This is the case with certain Carpenter films. But Fog is a quintessentially American story (like Halloweenbut – well, this movie is pretty much tied to the party that named it).
The coastal town with a lighthouse and a collection of colorful inhabitants is an age-old setting in American stories. The soft jazz that Adrienne Barbeau plays for its flagship radio station were a budget concession; the rights to the rock songs were beyond Carpenter’s reach, but it marks the film’s soundtrack with a true American genre of music. The immense community pride on display at Antonio Bay for their centennial, and the way members of that community come together to ride through the hellish night, is a staple trait given to Americans in fiction. And let’s not forget that coming together is an important part of the modern Thanksgiving celebration.
What’s more Thanksgiving-y than choosing to forget painful history?
Finally, we come to the thematic node of Fog, and the only thing that makes it a perfect Thanksgiving horror movie. Let’s get back to that more complicated story behind the holidays. It is true that the Pilgrims threw a party to commemorate their survival during a difficult first year in the New World, and the members of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them participated. But the Wampanoag, and all the other tribes and nations of North America, would never have seen themselves as a homogeneous “Indian” group. There were long histories and rivalries between them, as there are with any group of people, and the influx of diseases from European explorers had decimated the New England region. European slavers raided the coasts and the natives who first contacted the Pilgrims were able to communicate with them as they had been abroad as slaves.
Nor did the Wampanoag help out out of altruism. Their leader wanted to use the Pilgrims as allies in his local disputes. The alliance did not go unchallenged by its own people, and after 50 years the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims found themselves at war. The heavily sanitized version of Thanksgiving that has entered classrooms and pop culture dates back in part to the 19th century, when it was useful, among other things, to shine a light on the Indian Wars and exclude immigrants, as well as the nobler goal of encouraging national unity during the civil war.
Fog is not as complicated as the story. But there is an all-American city preparing to celebrate its founding, a founding tainted by black crime. When Father Patrick Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers the ugly truth and brings it to the attention of Mayor Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh), she ignores him and dismisses any impact or introspection she might have on the centenarian. It was so long ago, she reasons, and what is there to do about it?
And she scores a point; there is no change in the past, and at some distance there is no rectification. You cannot expect a city, or a country, to dissolve or cancel a celebration of centuries of history and community to focus exclusively on the sins of their fathers. But sweeping the past under the rug is also not the right way to handle things. When Blake and his ghosts land, sweep the fog across Antonio Bay, and vow to kill six people to match their numbers, it’s only Malone’s surrender of the looted gold that saves the town (but not Malone himself, who becomes the sixth).
As far as I know, there has never been an army of ghosts come to New England to mend old grievances. And the only reason I’m not sitting down to turkey dinner with the family this year is because I’m overseas. But the failure to care about America’s bad past as well as the good has its own chilling ramifications that we’ve all had to deal with in recent years. Fog isn’t an allegory of our history, but its tale of crimes that come back to haunt applies to it, and that makes it the most fitting horror movie for Thanksgiving if you’re still battling a Halloween hangover.