Giving Life To The Walking Dead

A crew of young filmmakers is looking at Icelandic ghost stories through a different lens
19.11.2013
Words by Alex Baumhardt
In order to raise the dead, wait until midnight on a Friday or Saturday, preferably on the 18th, 19th, 28th or 29th of the month. The night before, write “Our Father” backwards on paper with a water-rail’s quill, using blood drawn from your left arm. Carve magical characters on a stick, place those sticks on a grave and roll them back and forth while chanting “Our Father” backwards from the paper along with some other, scarcely known, incantations. Little by little, the grave will begin to stir and strange sights will begin to appear. If this works, then “News From Other Worlds,” a book of essays on Nordic Folklore is in fact a true account of 18th century Icelanders raising the dead.

This is the type of material that spawned the forthcoming film "Walkers," by Icelandic/French/Spanish-Colombian youth filmmakers Collectif Panic. What began as a conversation between filmmakers Esther Þorvaldsdóttir and a friend over cultural fanaticism with zombies (zombie walks, zombie movies, zombie pub crawls) brought them down a rabbit hole of Icelandic folktales.

“We realised the walking corpses in Icelandic ghost stories are much more interesting than zombies,” Esther says. “They have personality.”

They chose to film four Icelandic walking dead stories that span from the early 1600s to the 1900s: “Jóka from Höfðabrekka,” “The Hairy Man,” “The Ghost of Brennivín” and “Krita of Hesteyri.” Each of these stories expounds upon some greater unsavoury human characteristic or vice like anger, jealousy, ignorance, alcoholism and murder. They all involve the dead reincarnating to play pranks or seek revenge.

Esther and researcher Anna Hrólfsdóttir culled through online databases and libraries and discovered variations of these four tales that Esther and cohort Gunnhildur Katrínardóttir adapted for the film. Prior to this research, many of the ghost stories they’d grown up with came from word-of-mouth tales or in classes on Icelandic folklore. “We grow up learning those stories as part of our folk history,” Esther says.

Icelanders’ spirited beliefs

Stereotypes of the Icelandic belief in ghosts are not unfounded. In a 2006 survey conducted by University of Iceland professor of Folkloristics Terry Gunnell, 41% of 985 Icelanders said it was possible that ghosts existed, 13% said they definitely exist and only 7% said no way.

“If you ask an Icelander if they believe in ghosts, they’ll probably say ‘oh no, no.’ Esther says. “But if you ask them to explain some strange phenomenon, they’ll probably say, ‘oh yes, that’s a ghost.’”

An actual belief in ghosts was not essential for the Collectif Panic crew. At their first meetings they all agreed that no one would say whether or not they believed. “We just decided that we wouldn’t know who did and who didn’t believe in ghosts,” she says, “we just weren’t going to talk about it.”

While Esther is still reluctant to outwardly proclaim a belief in ghosts, she can understand how ghostly beliefs stew in Iceland.

Traditionally, the bodies of those who died during the Icelandic wintertime were kept inside the house for some time. “You can see how having a dead body in your house could stir up a bit of paranoia,” she says.

Pranked by the walking dead?

Collectif Panic shot at the sites of the stories’ origins over the month of June 2013. During this time they experienced a number of strange people and inexplicable happenings.

When Esther went to pick up the film equipment before shooting the Jóka story, her car began to shake so badly that she was forced to pull over and visit a mechanic. He performed a full diagnostic check and found nothing wrong with the car.

Furthermore, when the crew took off to film the Jóka story, all three of the cars they were using broke down. Esther took her car to another mechanic who, again, could not find anything wrong with the vehicle. As soon as the crew was done filming Jóka, all of her car issues stopped.

At one of the shooting locations, Esther showed up early to reserve a house for the crew to stay at. The owner handed her the keys and reminded her that she would be sharing the house with many guests. “He told me there were loads of ghosts in the house,” she says, “I became aware of every noise, every creak in the floor.”

Today, however, most of the spooky stuff is out of the way for the group. Collectif Panic is in the final stages of production and are crowd funding the remainder of “Walkers,” the initial funding having come from the European Commission Youth in Action Programme and the cultural advocacy organisation Menningarráð Suðurlands. Donors will have first hand at a copy of the film that is set to be released, in English, this spring 2014.



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