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See No Evil

Karen Hall
MICHAEL HELMS

Sinister scribe: 'Dark Debts' author Karen Hall offers her take on the celluloid scare-fest 'The Frighteners.'

Karen Hall doesn't scare easily

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in a quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he talks with the unconventional, L.A.-based horror novelist Karen Hall (Dark Debts) about the clamorous, tacky new schlock-comedy The Frighteners.

WELL, I WENT and saw it," confirms novelist Karen Hall, her gentle Georgian twang morphing smoothly into a soft, bemused chuckle over the phone. "If I had to choose between seeing this movie again and going through labor again--it would be a very tough choice."

I see.

The Frighteners, from New Zealand director Peter Hall (Heavenly Creatures), concerns a burned-out ghostbusting con man (Michael J. Fox) who really can see spirits. When the Grim Reaper--or is it the Devil?--comes to town and starts ripping people's hearts out, Fox is accused of the murders and so teams up with some deceased compadres to battle the Evil One, along with a nutcase FBI agent and the ghost of a serial killer, rising from his urn of ashes to continue the slaughter he was executed for. To call it all "campy" is being too generous; it's got some loony energy, but on the whole, it's a sad waste of good special effects.

"I actually read one review that gave it an A-minus," Hall laughs. "I find this truly terrifying."

Karen Hall doesn't scare easily. A respected television writer and producer, she has just published what might be the most frightening novel of the year. Dark Debts (Random House, 1996), her first novel, is a captivating, extremely intelligent, well-crafted tale of a sexy Jesuit priest whose esoteric beliefs in evil are shattered when he comes face to face with the Devil, in the form of a demon that is systematically possessing and destroying each member of an entire family. Not your typical exorcism gorefest, Dark Debts is deeply, probingly spiritual: a page-turning, philosophical brainteaser that examines the nature of evil and the nature of faith, and dares to ask the question, "Just what the hell was God thinking about when he set things up this way?"

"Evil is something that I've been thinking about all my life," says Hall, who comes from a fundamentalist Christian background. "I've read everything I can get my hands on. I've thought about it constantly. If God exists, then it doesn't make sense for evil to exist, unless it's OK with God, and if it's OK with God, then I just don't get it.

"The Frighteners actually helped me understand a little bit about why I want to do what I want to do. See, to me, evil doesn't work as a concept unless there is something more on the other side of it than just an aversion to evil.

"And this movie didn't have any kind of dignity or humanity about creation that was glorious, so that it didn't matter if anyone was destroyed. That's why the movie was offensive to me.

"Good and evil are not some chicken-and-egg thing," she goes on. "I think you have to understand good, at least a little, before evil makes any sense, before it is frightening. That's why, in the book, there's the dream sequence with the Guy in the Flannel Shirt (Jesus), whom I put in there even though a voice in my head was going, 'People are going to read this and go screaming in the other direction!' But it seemed right to me. If I had this personification of evil, I wanted a personification of good. Putting him in a flannel shirt was just common sense. Jesus didn't come down here in some halo. He was hanging out with hookers and outcasts and guys who smelled like fish. He'd be somebody who'd just roll up his sleeves and get in there."

She recalls the final segment of the film, where Fox is desperately battling his way through an abandoned hospital, trying to take the killer's ashes to the consecrated ground of the chapel.

"I thought, 'Now this is interesting. What are they going to do when they get there? Are they going to talk to God?' 'Cause up to that point there was no mention of anything good enough to balance out the all the evil." Her hopes for a spiritual catharsis were dashed, however--the crazy FBI agent shows up just in time to trigger more messy FX. They never even make it to the chapel.

"Evil is hip in Hollywood," Hall muses. "And I don't know why." She laughs again, saying, "I am now going to obsess about this for the rest of the day. Good is always shown onscreen as being either unattainable perfection or just kind of wimpy. But I believe in a real earthy kind of goodness. I think goodness can contain flawed humanity."

It is clear why Hall was uncomfortable with the black-and-white fundamentalism of her youth.

"I've spent a lot of time ranting at fundamentalists," she says. "It's one of my causes in life. To me they represent everything that Christianity was never meant to be. They're like a photo-negative of Jesus.

"I have one insane Jesuit friend, and he says, 'You know you've created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.'"

She laughs. "I just have a hard time believing in a God who is less compassionate than I am."

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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