From cannibal movies to Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement’s dark heart of terror
by Marshall Bowden
There is a sub-genre of horror movies known as cannibal movies which had a run of popularity from 1972 until around 1988. These were exploitation films, part of the ‘mondo’ movement of documentaries that arrived in the early 1970s. The cannibal genre is comprised of films primarily by Italian directors. They are filled with scenes of graphic violence directed at human actors and animals, who are frequently dispatched (for real) in ways that are neither quick nor humane. Rugerro Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, perhaps the best known film of the genre, was investigated as a ‘snuff’ film initially. When no evidence to support this claim could be found it was banned in the UK and several other countries on the basis of its depiction of real acts of animal cruelty, which Deodato has since said that he regrets filming.
While these films were repugnant in other ways as well (racist portrayal of indigenous peoples, depictions of rape, lack of ethics on the part of groups that come in contact with primitive people), they tend to have some interesting ideas at their core. These involve a lack of respect for indigenous peoples and their lives by scientists, religious missionaries, film crews who all purport to be studying or documenting the existence of extremely primitive people. In Cannibal Holocaust, the documentary film crew that is missing is seen, via the footage they have shot, to have enraged the indigenous people by engaging in gratuitous torture, rape, and murder of some of the tribes. Their behavior is the story of every imperial land grab executed with bloodless regularity against those who are seen as ‘other,’ whose primitive existence somehow requires us to defend our own existences by subjugating the other. Who, these films sometimes seem to be asking, are the real savages? And if they routinely erred on the side of sickening and ethically crappy film-making, these directors knew they had an audience, and they held the mirror up to them as well. If this film is so exploitative and so sickening, then why are you watching?
Some of these same themes are present in the work of vastly more talented writers and filmmakers, but the answers they tend to stir up get pretty murky pretty fast. Probably the most famous story of this type is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its sister film Apocalypse Now. For Conrad, as for many Europeans, the darkness at the heart of the African continent is dread, the fear that the call of the primordial is so vast, so deep and unrelenting that it can eventually shatter the civilized veneer of any man or woman. Staring down this black hole, one is slowly worn down until they succumb, often willingly, to the primitive rhythms of the planet and to whatever lies at its core. Mr. Kurtz sees ‘the horror’ that is there but he is unable to break its hypnotic hold on his mind and his spirit. Nothing raises our sense of fear and foreboding more than an encounter with our primitive selves.
In this space sits the work of Dominick Fernow working as Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. In the words of his own publicity:
Rainforest spiritual enslavement is the ambient techno project of Dominick Fernow. focusing on slow paced bass studies and synthetic dub textures, surrounded by collaged and looped field recording environments, it shrouds sound over image to target the sector of brain where fear supersedes rationality
Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement (RSE) projects were released, starting in 2011, on cassette by Fernow’s Hospital Productions label in incredibly small quantities–59, 63, 49 copies–sold directly to his cassette culture customers. This is precisely the kind of project aimed at a small but devoted community for which cassette tapes are the perfect medium. Whoever was signing up for Fernow’s RSE illbient, dub-addled anti-meditations that float, like pestilential leaves, on streams of rain and running water everywhere heard on field recordings, was definitely into the experience itself. Sometimes there are sounds that seem natural, but one is left doubting. Perhaps it was created by machinery–or demons.
RSE is about arousing that sense of dread and doom, like a sinister AMSR (actually, for people with a condition called misophonia, AMSR is a source of agitation or worse), and it uses a peculiar mechanism to aid in the interpretation of its sound paintings: they are a record of spiritual activity surrounding Papua, New Guinea, in particular the hunting and frequent murder of witches in the highlands of the country, where there has been only sporadic contact with the industrialized and techno-heavy modern world. As the country rapidly industrializes, it creates new problems, and the groups living in the highlands see it as simply more ways that witches are working to destroy them.
When witches are located they are often murdered without trial, despite the government ban on witch hunts and officially designating any deaths that result as murders. The result is dread and fear: fear of being accused of being a witch and fear of becoming the victim of a witch. One track, “In New Guinea Police Don’t Have the Petrol Money to Search for the Witch Murderers” is literally true, which is a fairly frightening state of affairs.
Papua, New Guinea also has a long association with cannibalism which continued until recently, though outlawed. The Korowai, a group of around 4,000 isolated tribesmen, are believed to be the last society on the planet to have systematically practiced cannibalism. According to Paul Rafaele, who ventured into Korowai territory and wrote about it for Smithsonian in 2006:
Cannibalism was practiced among prehistoric human beings, and it lingered into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, notably in Fiji. But today the Korowai are among the very few tribes believed to eat human flesh. They live about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea, which is where Michael Rockefeller, a son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while collecting artifacts from another Papuan tribe; his body was never found. Most Korowai still live with little knowledge of the world beyond their homelands and frequently feud with one another. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call khakhua.
By far the most frightening recording in the early RSE canon is the one entitled Black Magic Cannot Cross Water from 2012:
A man investigating the disappearance of a number of missionaries, some of them musicians, in Papua New Guinea in the ‘80s discovered a box of cassettes at a market in Port Moresby. He was told these were the only remains of the group, who often sojourned into the wilderness for weeks on end before returning to tinker on machines in a rented shack. The tapes began to circulate among a small circle of enthusiasts. Rumors swirled that these recordings— containing long-form, dread-heavy compositions for minimal synthesizer and field recordings— reflect those lost Christ-bringers’ descent into heresy, with their hearts and minds being consumed by jungle spirits.
That is the conceit of this particular tape, the story that it tells, but it is also the overall arc of the series. The two lengthy tracks on this tape consist primarily of the sound of water (in “Homes Built Over the Sea” it sounds like a body of water that a boat is floating on, while in ‘Refuges From Black Magic” it is the ceaseless beating of rain on a tin roof) with various electronically and acoustically produced sounds. “Homes Built Over the Sea” sounds a lot like drifting in a boat in total darkness heading towards a series of sounds that might be ceremonial and deadly. “Refuges From Black Magic” is calmer, quieter, but no less disturbing in the impression it creates.
What comprises the ‘lost Christ-bringers’ descent into heresy? Is it a realization of the ever preset void that pulls them into the primitive world where spirits freeze a bulldozer so that it cannot destroy a mountain, where the bodies of killed witches are buried in toilet pits or dumped in the river? Are they possessed? Are they victimizers or victims? None of these questions, nor myriad others that may float through the mind of the listener, are answered or answerable.
It is always possible that our musician missionaries became as destructive and inhumane as Ruggero’s missing film crew and were dispatched by the Korowai. In cannibal movies the cannibalism is not really the point. It’s used primarily as shorthand that we are dealing with primitive people who it will be impossible to reason with. The point is always the violence that is committed, in varying degrees, by both indigenous people and the representatives of ‘civilized’ society who force their way into a world they do not understand.
In Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement project we can have an immersive experience but we are still tourists. Fernow draws attention to the state of affairs in Papua New Guinea, and in other parts of the world where the last primitive groups exist. The wholesale murder that is happening frequently because of belief in witchcraft, sorcery, and spirits is horrible, but so are the shootings, stabbings, acts of terrorism, and other daily atrocities that are taken for granted in the industrialized world. Sometimes the work of RSE is all too similar to that produced by Throbbing Gristle and other industrial noise groups.
As RSE has evolved and released more of their work on vinyl as well as cassette, they have added more techno elements to their work, but it still has the same vibe. You can hear a collection of all of their early work on the box set Water Witches, which you can purchase digitally (cassette version is sold out) from Bandcamp.