Nerdish Musings, Uncategorized

How to Be a Better Nerd: A Hobbit’s Guide

It’s 2016, and nerds are ruling the future. Gone are the days of the four-eyed social outcast reading comic books in secret. Now we have all the best-paying jobs, we drive million-dollar industries, we control Hollywood and we’re responsible for the weapon of mass manipulation that is social media. And as a member of the nerd community, I worry that all the power and success may go to our heads. We might be in danger of thinking that our nerdiness makes us special, and therefore nothing we do in the name of nerdiness should ever be called into question. We may forget that our undying love for Star Wars doesn’t give us the right to insult the parentage of everyone who thought Jar-Jar Binks was an okay character.

Let’s face it: as awesome as nerd culture usually is, there are wrong ways to participate in it. There are terrible nerds out there who use their hobbies as an excuse to become bullies or anti-social couch potatoes. Most of us aren’t like that, but it’s a trap I’ve repeatedly come close to falling into. So, to help myself avoid becoming that guy, I turned to the godfather of all nerds for advice.

Here he is, smoking the pipe of wisdom.

J.R.R. Tolkien more or less invented us. Cosplay, LARPing, conventions, Dungeons & Dragons, and the very concept of high fantasy can all trace their origins back to him. And, while I doubt he could have foreseen back in the ’50s that I would be blogging about him in the year 2016 after binge-watching the extended editions of all three movies based on his most famous book, I do think his writing shows remarkable insight into the kind of culture he would eventually create. If you look closely at The Lord of the Rings, you will find that there are lots of nerds in Middle Earth–both good and bad ones.

For our first example, let’s look at Gollum.

Pictured: me, after that Extended Trilogy marathon.

Gollum’s life is a sad story, as Gandalf tells us. He started out as a normal, hobbit-like creature who enjoyed fishing, digging holes, and telling riddles. Then he found the One Ring. By the time Bilbo meets him in The Hobbit, the Ring is all Gollum thinks about. He hasn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years, he has no friends, and he can barely even remember what the living world is like, all because of the Ring. Worse, he actually knows the Ring is responsible for all his misery, but he can’t let go of it. He’s an addict. He has no control over his own life, because his obsession owns him.

In other words, Gollum is the stereotypical nerd. No social life, no outdoor activity, no personal hygiene–only Star Trek. Or Star Wars. Or video games. Or what-have-you. And sadly, this stereotype exists, albeit in milder form. Haven’t you ever felt a bit like a pale, shrivelled tunnel creature while emerging from the basement after a long Netflix binge? I know I have.

And it goes deeper. How did Gollum get the way he is? After all, not everyone who encounters the Ring immediately commits murder over it, or allows it to drive them away from all their friends. The Ring always corrupts its bearer eventually,  but it takes much longer with some than with Gollum. Well, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien proposes a reason why the Ring attracted Gollum more than it did, say, Frodo. It’s because, long before he found it, Gollum (or Smeagol, at that point) was already obsessed with secret knowledge.

He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his eyes and head were downward.

The first thing Smeagol does with the Ring, once he has it, is use its invisibility powers to find out secrets about his neighbors. That’s part of why he enters that cave in the first place–to find secrets hidden under the earth. Smeagol starts out wanting to know everything about everything. He wants to become superior to his neighbors by knowing more obscure, hidden secrets than they do. The Ring gives him his chance, but ultimately the things he learns turn out to be worthless. Again, painfully familiar. All too often, my relationship with the Internet bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Gollum’s relationship with the Ring. I enjoy the power and knowledge it gives me, but prolonged exposure just shrivels me up and cuts me off from the world.

Now let’s look at an example of a good nerd. There are several to choose from, but I picked Bilbo Baggins.

Again, the pipe of wisdom.

Like Gollum, Bilbo is a curious hobbit who’s not too fond of company. He loves poetry and stories of adventure, not to mention his eager study of maps and languages, but he’s such a stay-at-home fellow that it takes a posse of dwarf royalty and a very powerful wizard to convince him to go on a real adventure. Again, just like every nerd ever. When Bilbo encounters the Ring (and steals it from Gollum), he uses it to help him on his adventure and, later, to avoid unwelcome visitors. But he never kills for it, and in the end he’s able to give it up willingly–one of only two Ringbearers ever to do so. What makes Bilbo so much more resistant to its evil than Gollum?

I think it’s partly because, unlike Gollum, Bilbo never had a great desire to be better than other people. He doesn’t need to know more secrets of the Elves than anyone else in the world. He likes translating their poetry, but he doesn’t really care if anybody else reads it. And Dwarvish armour and weapons are neat, but he donates them to museums when he’s tired of them hanging on his mantelpiece. Bilbo just doesn’t have a huge desire for power and prestige, which is why the Ring has a harder time corrupting him.

The other reason for Bilbo’s triumph is that, even though he’s a bit of a shut-in, at no point does he develop hatred for other people. He’s polite to the dwarves, even as they’re showing up unannounced and eating all his food. Although he doesn’t really fit into hobbit society after his adventure, the only hobbits he ever admits to disliking are the Sackville-Bagginses–and even they get farewell presents when he leaves the Shire. And, most importantly, he shows mercy to Gollum when he had every reason to kill him. Bilbo may not be the most sociable of hobbits,  but he doesn’t push people away. He may not go to a lot of parties, but if you knock on his door, you can be sure he’ll have a plate of seedcake and a story about dragons for you.

Bilbo is the very best kind of nerd: one who likes what he likes for its own sake, and couldn’t care less whether other people think he’s cool or crazy for it. He has true friends whom he values more than “hoarded gold” or any of his hobbies. And he never expects those hobbies to make him superior to others in any way.

So I’m making it my New Year’s resolution to be more like Bilbo and less like Gollum. Fewer solitary all-nighters spent hunched over a screen, more face-to-face discussions about the deeper cultural meanings behind the Avengers movies. Less arrogance, more good-natured fun. And I resolve to go outside more than once every 500 years.

Namarie,
Aldy

 

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Star Wars, Uncategorized

A New Hope Awakens

It’s been well over a week since Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and I figure you’ve all seen it by now, so it’s pretty safe to air my spoilerous opinions on it. But out of respect for the truly remarkable commitment by the entire Internet to avoid spoiling the movie (seriously, if we humans could work together like that on issues that really matter, the world would be a happier place), I will write a spoiler-free review first.

And it isn’t too hard to do. Story-wise, not much is new in the latest Star Wars installment. Once I got over the whole “oh-my-gosh-I’m-seeing-an-actual-new-Star-Wars-movie-with-no-JarJar-aaaaahhhhh!!!!” stage, which lasted me the first third of the film, I realised I was basically watching A New Hope, 2015-style. You’ve got the young hero living in poverty on a desert planet, who gets caught up in a galactic conflict courtesy of a beeping droid. You’ve got the masked, black-cloaked villain with a planet-destroying superweapon, and an evil army that, apart from being called “The First Order” and having even more Nazi imagery than its predecessor, is no different from the OT’s Empire. Even Han Solo, Chewie and Leia are back in the game, although this time Han is playing the hero’s elderly mentor (and still getting in fights, ’cause that’s what he does best).

The real breaths of fresh air in the new movie come from the characters it introduces. The Force Awakens begins about thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, after Luke Skywalker’s attempt to set up a new Jedi Order and Republic have gone awry, and Luke himself has disappeared. Rey, the movie’s new protagonist, has only heard about Luke’s exploits as distant rumours, but she ends up becoming an important part of the new “Resistance’s” race to find him (yes, re-labelling the “Rebellion” was a weird move, but not too distracting). Helping her along the way is a runaway stormtrooper, newly christened Finn, an adorable beach ball droid named BB-8, and, of course, Han and Chewie.

Rey is an absolute delight. She’s like a female Luke, but without the whinging and WITH a British accent. And she joins an ever-growing number of recent action heroines who are treated as well-rounded characters and not overly sexualised. Also: yay for more female Star Wars cosplay options! The other new people are just as good. I’ve said before that I love the idea of a reformed stormtrooper actually getting some character development, and Finn delivers. He ties with Rey as the most likeable member of the cast, and he manages to do pretty well in battles with Force-wielding folk, considering he has no special powers himself. As for the villain of the movie, he may be a Darth Vader ripoff, but that’s intentional. He’s portrayed (very well, by Adam Driver) as a young, angsty Vader fanboy with waaayyy too much power on his hands. And although he’s a bit conflicted about his allegiance to the Dark Side, he actually outdoes Vader in terms of sheer evilness. In spite of having a rather handsome actor and a cool costume, he probably won’t get too many fangirls.

Overall, the movie met my expectations. I expected it to be, by far, the best Star Wars installment to be released in my lifetime, and it absolutely is. I also expected that it wouldn’t quite measure up to the originals, and it didn’t, if only because so much of its plot was derived from them.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.

All right. I have to talk about this. HAN DIES?????? 😦 😦 😦

I was worried ol’ J.J. might kill off one of the Big Three of the Original Trilogy. After all, the actors are all getting up in years, and not even the brilliant Harrison Ford can do action movies forever. But I was kinda hoping it wouldn’t happen, at least not to my beloved Han. He has always been my favourite character, and the first two-thirds of this movie only served to remind me why I love him so much. Even in his sixties, he’s still cool as ever, and now he’s a bit of a wise mentor to boot, a role that sits surprisingly well on him.

And, man–his death scene messed me up. I was just staring open-mouthed at the screen for a good fifteen minutes after it happened. That’s my childhood that just got stabbed in front of me! And Chewie’s rampage, and Leia’s face, and, and….it was just a really hard thing for a Star Wars fan to watch, all right?

 This was my face.

But it was well done. If Han Solo had to die, at least he died trying to heal his family and help his son turn back to the Light Side. It was a heroic death, but one perfectly suited to Han. Shows how far he’s come since he was only in the hero business for the money. And it was beautifully filmed, and it cemented Kylo Ren as the new face of evil in the Star Wars galaxy. After that, his fight with Rey and Finn suddenly had so much more at stake, and it was so much more satisfying when Rey won. As hard as it was to witness, it did make the movie better.

And now we’re left to ponder the questions raised by TFA: what is Rey’s true lineage? What has Luke been up to all this time? Does Leia use the Force to hold up her hair, or has she found other uses for that power? Only time, and the 2017 instalment, will tell. In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say Disney hasn’t ruined Star Wars.

Namarie,
Aldy

 

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Uncategorized

Purple is not the Doctor’s colour

There’s a new Marvel show on Netflix! Guess how I’ve been spending my weekends this month?

 

 

I was super excited for Jessica Jones, the latest “grown-up” entry in the MCU, for two reasons: One, it’s a companion show to Daredevil, and I LOVE Daredevil. Two, David Tennant is in it, and if David Tennant appears in a show, I watch it. End of story.

But now that I’ve finished the series, my feelings are…mixed.

Before I tell you all why, let me explain what the show’s about–just in case you haven’t seen any of the numerous trailers that have been blowing up the Internet. Jessica Jones is a girl with super strength and limited flight powers whose superhero career was cut short when she ran into Kilgrave, a man who can make people do whatever he wants, just by speaking. The show begins about a year after she managed to escape his control. Traumatized by her experiences, she makes a living as a private investigator and spends her free time on drinking and casual hook-ups–until she finds out Kilgrave is back. The rest of the season focuses on her quest to take him down before he becomes even more powerful.

There are a lot of things to like about Jessica Jones. Its narrative style resembles old-fashioned detective noir, which is all kinds of cool. The acting is fantastic, the writing is solid, and it’s nice to see a female superhero finally (FINALLY!) getting her own solo entry in the Marvel Universe. Also, the theme song is awesome. But I still don’t feel like I can whole-heartedly recommend it.

I knew going in that it was going to be dark. It’s related to Daredevil, after all. But Daredevil didn’t quite prepare me for Jessica Jones. It’s even more violent and gory, and it deals heavily with themes like rape, abuse, abortion, and suicide. On the “kid-friendly” scale, it’s about as far from The Avengers as you can get (which makes it kinda weird when the characters casually mention the existence of the Avengers, but I digress).

In fact, it was a little too much for me. Not so much because of the violence, or the gratuitous sex scenes (which I found distasteful but was able to skip), but because I didn’t like any of the characters very much. As dark as Daredevil got, the main characters at least were all genuinely good people trying to help others, even if they made mistakes sometimes. Even some of the villains were sympathetic. But not so here. Jessica is a bitter, angry alcoholic who has no qualms about beating people to a pulp if they cross her, and who, despite knowing exactly how it feels to be used by someone for their own selfish ends, spends a lot of time using others for hers. Although most of her issues are completely understandable considering her past, it’s still a bit difficult to root for a ‘hero’ who is more interested in getting revenge than actually saving people. And she’s the most heroic character on the show.

But of course you do root for her, because Krysten Ritter’s acting manages to make her sympathetic, and also because the guy she’s fighting is ten times worse. Kilgrave is, by far, the most evil villain the MCU has ever produced–partly because he represents the very real villainy of rape and domestic abuse. And what’s worse, for Whovians like me anyway, is that David Tennant’s performance in the role has a LOT of the Doctor in it. He uses the same accent and speech mannerisms, has similar dress sense (except with more purple), and even does the whole cute-smile-while-leaning-over-a-cubicle-wall thing at one point. Do you know how disturbing it is to watch my favourite Doctor be a psychopathic serial murderer and rapist? Really friggin’ disturbing.

Allons-y…to another time zone.

 

Jessica Jones is your show if you want great acting and a well-written exploration of the effects of trauma and PTSD, and don’t mind a heaping helping of self-centred jerk characters and lots of over-the-top gore along with it. Personally, I think I’ll stick to Daredevil, and hold out hope that Claire Temple might get her own show one day.

 

Namarie,
Aldy

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Halloween, The X-Files

Scully Is Our Queen

Special Agent Dana Katherine Scully is quite possibly the best woman who has ever graced the small screen. I seriously want to be her when I grow up. And not just because she’s smart, professional, good at rolling her eyes, and capable of holding her own against serial killers, rogue agents, and monsters.

Consider Scully’s life for a moment. Over the course of six seasons (a little less than six years in her timeline), she loses her dad, her sister, her dog, and her good reputation. She almost loses her partner/true love several times. She’s been abducted and experimented on, almost died from cancer, had a cloned baby daughter who also died right in front of her, and spent some time as an alien egg in the depths of Antarctica. And that’s not even counting her almost-weekly confrontations with superhuman freaks that can can squeeze through air vents or control people with their voices. Her faith in science, in God, and in her mission at the FBI is constantly being put to the test. The fact that she’s a woman working in a very masculine and often rather sexist environment is just the icing on the cake.

Like, this. This is a normal day.

If most of us had to go through even half that stuff, we’d probably be reduced to helpless, quivering balls of neuroses. At least, I know I would be. But not Scully. She deals with these things on her own time and then shows up to work the next morning, makeup intact. That’s the thing I love about her. She shows up. If someone she cares about needs help, or if innocent people are in danger, she’ll be there with a lab coat and a gun, ready to do what’s necessary. It doesn’t matter what she’s going through personally, how dangerous the rescue might be, or how much she disapproves of what the person (*cough*Mulder*cough*) did to wind up in trouble, she’ll get them out of it. She might be sarcastic about it, but she’ll get it done. And not because she doesn’t have feelings or can’t be hurt by the crap life throws at her (quite the contrary), but just because she cares about others more than herself.

She also has a wonderfully deadpan sense of humour, and she’s the supreme mistress of the eyebrow lift. This woman is my hero.

So, guess who I was for Halloween?

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This was one of the easier costumes I’ve ever done. I already have a few articles of business attire lying around, so all I had to buy was a more Scully-esque blazer, a toy gun, and a can of temporary red hair dye. I made my own FBI badge using this handy-dandy link and a picture of Scully I printed out. It helped that I already had a laminated name tag pouch from a conference. The hair was the only difficult part – I had to use a bunch of curlers to give my hair that lifted bob look – and I still don’t think I completely nailed it. But the important thing is, I was well-armed against trick-or-treaters. And I now have a fake FBI badge, which is pretty sweet.

Everything about Scully is awesome (except her dress sense in the early seasons – that was a bit appalling). I only wish I could be her for more than one day out of the year.

Namarie,
Aldy

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Halloween

Spooky Screen

Doesn’t this cool autumn weather just make you want to curl up in a blanket and binge-watch scary Netflix shows? It does me! The Walking Dead is an obvious choice for Halloween viewing, of course, but even shows that don’t fall squarely into the “horror” category occasionally surprise you with a truly creepy episode. This is especially true for those that follow the monster-of-the-week format I love so dearly.

Here are some scary highlights from my favourite shows:

Doctor Who

“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” – The two-parter that introduced the phrase “gas mask zombies” into Whovian vocabulary and made “Are you my mummy?” the scariest sentence in the world. Also, Steven Moffat’s first episode and one of the best stories involving the Ninth Doctor.
“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” – The Doctor and Rose land on a planet orbiting a black hole and meet the Devil. The result: the only Doctor Who episode I’ve felt uncomfortable showing my 9-year-old sister. Not that the actual Beast is all that scary, but there’s something really unsettling about the Ood.
“Blink” – Again, Moffat. This time, he decided to make statues the scariest thing in the world. To this day, angel statues make me uneasy. This is easily one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, so you really can’t miss it, whether you’re looking for a fright or just a clever work of art.
“Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” – And for a third time, Moffat. Everyone’s afraid of the dark sometimes, and these episodes give us a reason to be. They also give us a planet-sized library, our first meeting with River Song, and lots of emotional trauma.
“Midnight” – No slimy alien monsters, just the Doctor stuck in a bus with a bunch of panicky people, one of whom keeps repeating what everyone else says. It’s terrifying. And again, one of the greatest episodes ever.
“Night Terrors” – Giant, living dolls and an apartment complex straight from my nightmares. Only Rory Williams could get through this one unfazed.

Supernatural

Even though it is marketed as a horror show (and has a higher body count than The Walking Dead)Supernatural usually isn’t all that scary. But it does have its moments.


“Asylum” – It’s an abandoned insane asylum with creepy twitching ghosts everywhere, one of whom makes people bleed and go crazy. This sort of thing is why I don’t go to haunted houses.
“Something Wicked” – Monsters that target children are always extra scary. Especially when they’re portrayed explicitly like paedophiles. Especially when their actual “monster” form has long, tree-branch-y fingernails that scrape against your window right as you’re falling asleep…I mean, who didn’t have that nightmare as a kid?
“Everybody Loves a Clown” – No. We don’t.
“The Kids Are Alright” – No. They’re not.
“No Rest for the Wicked” – This episode is upsetting on a number of levels, since it’s a season finale that ends with one of our heroes dead (for the first time) and in Hell. But the scariest thing about it isn’t the hellhounds or the final shot of Dean. It’s FREAKING LILITH. Talk about a creepy child. “I don’t think I like you anymore.” *shudder*
“Family Remains” – Who would have thought finding out your new house isn’t haunted would make it scarier? No ghosts in this one, just a really messed-up sibling duo…much like a certain X-Files episode…
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester” – Okay, so this one isn’t especially scary, but it’s the Halloween episode. And it is chock full of ghosts, zombies, demons, and witches.

The X-Files

I mean, one of the main characters is nicknamed “Spooky.” Of COURSE it’s got scary moments.


“Squeeze/Tooms” – These episodes will replace your fear of mice getting in the house via the air vents with fear of a liver-eating serial killer getting inside the same way.
“Irresistible” – And yet, Eugene Victor Tooms is outdone by a (probably) completely normal serial killer. He has a thing for hair and fingernails…and Scully…
“The Calusari” – You know how little kids don’t usually get killed on TV-14 rated shows? That rule doesn’t apply to The X-Files. Not that one of the kids in this episode wasn’t a killer himself, and also probably possessed by Satan. This is not a good one to watch alone in the dark.
“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” – It’s a funny episode, but also pretty creepy and morbid, especially whenever we get a glimpse of Clyde’s death visions.
“Home” – As I’ve mentioned before, this got a “mature content” warning slapped on it when it first aired, for understandable reasons. It will also ruin your childhood if you grew up watching The Andy Griffith Show. But it’s a fantastic episode nevertheless.
“Sanguinarium” – This one isn’t exactly scary so much as it is just really, really gross. Botched plastic surgery + witchcraft does not equal happy times.
“Chinga” – It’s about an evil talking doll. It was co-written by Stephen King. Need I say more?
Even the myth arc episodes get in on the fun, with the “black oil” virus and aliens hatching from people’s torsos and whatnot. “Tunguska/Terma” and “Patient X/The Red and the Black” deserve special mention, partly for black oil-related gruesomeness and partly because Alex Krycek is Justin Bieber’s demon form.

The Twilight Zone

All of The Twilight Zone. Every single episode. If the actual plot doesn’t give you the creeps, the ’60s special effects, combined with that theme song and Rod Serling’s grin, will. They should broadcast marathons of this show around Halloween, not Fourth of July.

Well, that seems like a pretty comprehensive list to me. Please comment below if I missed anything. Meanwhile, happy binge-watching!

Namarie,
Aldy

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Halloween

Spooky Film

As I was deciding what to put in this post, I realized that I really don’t watch that many scary movies. Not sure why – I already have a really long list of spooky TV ready for the next post, and I left out several of my favourite scary books in the last one. I guess when it comes to movies, I tend to go more for the action and sci-fi stuff.

But I’ve got a few to mention. And if you haven’t seen these, then you should really be ashamed of yourself for having less scary movie experience than the non-scary-movie-watching Aldy.

1. Aliens

I know it’s not considered “horror” as much as its predecessor is, but it’s still pretty darn scary. The tension just constantly builds and builds, through quiet drama scenes and crazy full-blown action scenes alike, right up until the end. Because that’s how it works when you’re trapped on a dead planet where acid-dripping aliens could burst out of inconvenient places at any moment. But it’s not just the masterly pacing or the awesome battle scenes that endear this movie to me. There’s just something about a woman who’s survived a lot of trauma bonding with an equally traumatized little girl, and then suiting up in power armour to battle a gigantic alien queen for said little girl’s safety, that really pulls me into a story. Ripley is still pretty much the character to beat as far as sci-fi heroines go.

2. The Sixth Sense

Like many people of my generation, I watched this movie already knowing the Big Twist. (And I didn’t even have to read it on the Internet! Thanks, random kid in history class.) But this is one Shyamalan movie that isn’t ruined by its ending. In fact, once you know it, it’s a lot of fun to pick out all the subtle moments of foreshadowing that came before. It’s also fun to watch Bruce Willis with hair, Haley Joel Osment delivering one of the better child actor performances I’ve ever seen, some symbol-saturated cinematography, and a lovely take on ghosts that has influenced many a supernatural tale ever since. Once again, the characters are what make this movie great: I can sympathise with little Cole’s struggle to overcome his fears, and with the psychiatrist’s desire to atone for his previous failure. And the fact that I care about them just makes the mind-blowing, tear-jerking ending that much sweeter.

3. Psycho

Also, can I just say BRAVO for the completely misleading and spoiler-free poster. Why don’t we make posters like that anymore?

And yet, sometimes likable characters aren’t everything. Here’s a movie with no decent human beings in it at all. It starts out with a woman stealing money from her employer and hitting the road like a petty criminal…and it ends with some utterly forgettable people arresting a far, far worse criminal. Yet it’s easy to see why it’s such a classic. I think the magic lies, again, in the slowly building dramatic tension Hitchcock did so very well – and in Anthony Perkins’ incredible performance as the titular “psycho”. Rarely do you see an insane serial killer portrayed with so much genuine sweetness and vulnerability. Even though he’s really the most messed-up character in the movie – one of the most famously messed-up in any movie – you do end up sympathising with him quite a lot. But that smile at the end is still the stuff of nightmares.

So, now that I’ve come to the realisation that I need to find more good scary movies…any suggestions?

Namarie,
Aldy

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