“Ghost Dance”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #45

Swamp Thing #45 “Ghost Dance”

Cover date: February 1986. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stan Woch and Alfredo Alcala. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

This haunted house story takes its inspiration from the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California. Built at the instigation by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the heir to the Winchester Rifle company, the house was worked on continuously, night and day, for 38 years until her death, leading to the creation of 160 rooms. This was her attempt to appease the ghosts of the victims of the rifles. Fellow comic book creator Jim Wheelock loaned Stephen Bissette a book containing this story, which provided the basis for the story in this issue.

The first page opens with a hammer and nail, itself a simple but effective symbol of construction that plays into the gun imagery in the book: “the sound of the hammers must never stop” relates both to the construction of the building itself and alludes to the hammer on a rifle that strikes when it is fired. Both images repeat themselves throughout the book and serve to add a rhythmic, structural motif to the issue. The shoot-out in the Séance room, which contains thirteen fireplaces, starkly illustrates the destructive powers of guns and marks this issue out from the start as being very much against guns by tapping into cowboy iconography and subverting itself to its horrific extreme, as seen later in the issue when the shoot-out continues between mutilated and barely recognisable corpses. This link between the use of guns and the romantic notion of the cowboy is also underscored by the cover picture, in which Swamp Thing stands off against a gun toting corpse, recalling the shootouts beloved of cowboy fiction and history.

The arrival of two couples who want to explore the house is a familiar trope used in horror fiction, and is fitting in this context. David and Linda, and Rod and Judy, arrive at the Cambridge House (the fictional incarnation of the Winchester House in the source account), and we are treated to a full page, aerial view of part of the house, one very much influenced by Will Eisner’s incorporation of titles into the scene: both ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Ghost House’ are integrated into the house and its surroundings. An almost subliminal reference to the National Rifle Association (NRA) is included in the form of a car bumper sticker (page 2, panel 5), so it’s clear that Rod (the driver) is probably a rifle enthusiast, while David knows the history of Amy Cambridge (the cypher for Sarah Winchester) and its spiritual implications, which sets up a thematic opposition in this issue.

The group enter the house to explore it. References to Stephen King’s The Shining are made, and to the actors Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, who starred in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, which help to provide a modern context for the horror that will soon ensue. The confusing and abnormal architecture of the house leads to the characters becoming separated early on: David is confronted with a brick door behind a wall; Rod is unwittingly seduced by a corpse; Linda discovers the corpse ‘shoot-out’ and faints when she recoils and encounters a group of blindfolded ghosts; Judy is the victim of a stampeding herd that inexplicably crash through a wardrobe.

David, who is in tune with the spiritual aspect of life, is not surprised when Swamp Thing arrives, merely saying to him “you came”. At this point he decides that Swamp Thing is a wood elemental, a fairly accurate assumption, but then breaks down at the trauma induced by the ghosts he has seen: suicides in the bathroom, dead girls with blood in their hair, and Indians. Swamp Thing deals with this situation almost instinctively by overpowering the sound of the hammers with the sound of his own pounding fists. This acts as a signal for the ghosts to retreat to the thirteen fireplaces in the séance room and they are then dispersed through forty-seven chimneys.

Swamp Thing carries out Linda, and David soon arrives at her side. Relieved she is alive, he is stunned when Linda reveals that she and Rod have been having an affair – she is upset that he did not make it out alive. A shocked David can only remain meek and submissive and barely reacts to her: his shocked face and meek reply of “Yes, Linda. I’m coming” at Linda’s irritable question of whether he is joining her, shows that he will remain subservient to her, at least for now.

John Constantine only arrives towards the end of the issue, and introduces Swamp Thing to Benjamin Cox and Frank North. Constantine is gathering together his forces for ‘the end of the universe’, a battle in which Swamp Thing will play a vital part. The ‘American Gothic’ storyline continues to build towards a dramatic climax in this run of issues.

This issue ends on a sinister note, with the submissive David buying a shotgun. It’s implied that he will be taking revenge for his wife’s affair – “to have a little talk with Linda” – and that he has succumbed to the lure of power that a gun can represent – “He felt strangely complete, strangely reassured by the thought, part of a huge, secret fraternity”. It would have been easier to depict David as being possessed by a ghost at this point, allowing no moral compromise or shift in the character. However, by not choosing this option, and depicting David buying the gun and thinking these thoughts of his own free will, the creative team have produced a brave and courageous ending, in that they acknowledge the seductive power that guns can have for anyone, even people you would not normally associate them with, like David.

The issue proved to be a controversial one for some pro-gun readers, in that it takes a very anti-gun stance. Yet the very fact that such important issues and specific opinions were being incorporated into a comic book is a hallmark of this run and a continued indication of how Swamp Thing was helping the medium to mature. In addition, decades after it was first published, this pro-gun control story still provides much food for thought on this controversial topic and remains relevant to any society in which this is an issue.

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Andrew writes about comics for Sequart, where he is currently serialising a book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing. He blogs about comics and other aspects of popular culture here. He holds a BA Hons in English, History and Media Studies, an MA in English Literary Culture (1880-1920), and postgraduate qualifications in teaching and librarianship. He currently works for Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, UK, as an academic study skills tutor and sessional lecturer, where he is also undertaking PhD research into intertextuality in the work of Alan Moore.

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