Richard Stanley’s time in exile was a great deal more productive than most’s, as evidenced in parts 1 and 2 of our exclusive conversation with him. But where was it all taking him, and to what end? Today’s installment finds Stanley’s research making a hard turn into the paranormal, through an all-too-human rite of passage, and finally into his present - a partnership with SpectreVision that has resulted in his first feature film in decades, The Color Out Of Space. It opens today; get your tickets here.
3: HOLY MOUNTAIN
Daniel Noah: What happened next?
Richard Stanley: I compiled all of everything I knew about the Otto Rahn case into a rambling, 105-minute documentary called The Secret Glory, which I thought was the end of it. We had started to reach a point when anyone who'd been alive at that time was surely dead. Case closed.
Then, in 2007, I was working on a screenplay for a Spanish film, and I was commuting from Barcelona to London. I'm on the flight from London. As the plane starts to come down over the Pyrenees, I look down over the valley of the Ariège, and I spot the tiny white dot of the Castle of Montségur. I felt a strong call to go back and see what the castle was like. I made it back for the next full moon, which was an eclipse.
I saw an apparition in the castle, which jarred me. I’d heard reports of apparitions in the past from different people I'd interviewed, and the notion of time overlapping and figures from the 12th or 13th century being able to somehow access our time period. The creepy part of it was that I was able to find accounts from the late 1920s describing essentially the exact same apparition in the exact same place. That, along with the fact that I wasn't alone at the time. There was another witness on hand to reassure me that I wasn't just experiencing an acid flashback or a temporary lapse of sanity. When I experienced this kind of overlap of two time periods in the castle, it made me feel that I’d misunderstood the Otto Rahn story. It made me realize that there was a supernatural component to the events that I'd been investigating. I think that it was the castle's way of keeping me hooked. It opened the door a crack. After that, I became a lot more involved in the Montségur story and Grail quest.
DN: Involved in what way?
RS: I gave up my flat in London, and I basically shut down my life and moved to Montségur full time in order to be close to the place, and to spend as much time as possible on the mountain and explore the immediate vicinity. If there was some way of finding proof of the other world, of consciousness surviving death or transcending time, it felt like it would be time well spent. The film industry, particularly in England, was in a state of recession at the time, and no one I knew was getting projects greenlit. There didn't seem to be anything else going on in the world that held my attention in quite the same way.
So for ten years, I lived on the side of the mountain, and I ended up becoming pretty much the only English-speaking tour guide in the area, taking different groups of people up the mountain in summertime and showing people the way to the caves.
DN: Between the 13th century and today, what has the role of Montségur been in the world?
RS: Since the time of the Cathars, the area fell to complete obscurity. It was cursed by subsequent papacies. It turns out that the Pope has a kind of voodoo he can do where he can actually put a curse on things as well as bless things. Montségur was anathematized, and the villagers were punished by being forced to drag a cross through the streets every year on the 16th of March, up to the place where the heretics were burned, and to repeat the words of the prayer of the Veni Creator Spiritus, which was a ritual that went on for close to seven centuries. They stopped in the mid 1920s when it was considered to be too medieval and irrelevant.
Within about five years of them stopping the ritual, Nazis started moving into the village. Otto Rahn was there by 1929, and various attempts were made to rediscover the lost occult science of the culture that had been there before. The castle plays a weird role in a number of secret traditions and in the dogma of various contemporary secret societies. For instance, the OTO, the Order Templar Orientalis that Crowley found and headed for so long, has as its centerpiece this Gnostic mass, which Crowley borrowed from the Gnostic Catholic church, which is in fact a rite that was just supposedly channeled from the ascended Cathar masters. So there are a number of different secret societies and formations in present day occultism that in one way or another trace their roots back to the castle, which functions as a sort of Mount Sinai for a lot of belief systems.
DN: The mountain seems to have an almost supernatural power as a beacon that attracts spiritual seekers from around the world. Like the Cathars who took refuge and eventually died there, many of these people are in various states of distress. You saved a life on the mountain top, did you not?
RS: Yeah. I went up there to observe the position of the rising sun on the winter solstice. Thanks to the miracle of global warming, it was an unusually clear and cloudless winter solstice. I thought, now is my chance to see if that rising sun really does align with the embrasures in the north-facing tower. There are a series of embrasures, slits in the walls of the tower room in the keep of Montségur. These embrasures are very acutely aligned to the seasonal positions of the sun and the moon, so much so that at dawn on the summer solstice on June 21, the east-facing embrasures capture the light of the rising sun and channel it into these intense red rays that draw rectangular bars on the walls of the keep. I wanted to observe whether there was a comparable effect on the midwinter solstice. There’s also a correlation with the positions of the moon, which raises questions about the castle’s architecture, and the identities of the castle’s designers. Conventional archeologists have not investigated these alignments. As these things aren't brought over into conventional science or archeology, they remain magical mythology. It seemed important to clearly photograph the seasonal alignments within the tower.
I hurried up the mountain just before dawn. I went up onto the front battlement of the castle to have a smoke. When I got up, I found there was a naked Serbian witch standing on the far end of the battlement, preparing to jump. She told me that she'd walked all the way up from Crete to the castle to commune with her Lord Lucifer. The night before, she said, her Lord Lucifer had appeared to her in the castle, and told her that if she wanted to prove her faith to him, she needed to jump from the battlement at sunrise on the winter solstice.
This was obviously not something I wanted to encourage. I got her talking, and I told her that I'd been sleeping in my house down in the village just half an hour earlier, and that her Lord Lucifer had stepped into my room and had told me to get out of bed to go up the mountain and tell her that the time was not yet, that she had proven her allegiance and that she needed to remain on earth and continue to do her work. At first, she didn’t believe me. Then she started to feel that maybe, just maybe, her Lord might speak through me. She finally warmed to the idea of not jumping.
DN: Tell me about what happened in 2015.
RS: In the winter of 2015, I was living alone on at the base of Montségur. We had a lot of snow. It was a period of time where I had finally started enjoying the isolation. I was as close to the heart of silence as I'll ever be. It had just been me and my cat up there for some weeks. I remember a particularly beautiful morning on Easter. The light on the mountain was so strong, I was sitting there crying, thinking very much about Parzival and the Grail. And then on this Easter morning, word came to me that steel gate on the cave at Fontenay had been opened, and that it was possible to gain access to the cave.
I grabbed a camera and hurried over. I'd been wanting to get deeper into the cave for a very long time. I got to Fontenay. Going into the middle of that, I found that Kundry, the Serbian witch who had come up to Montségur wanting to jump from the battlement the year before, had in fact been living rough at Fontenay for most of the winter, and she had taken it upon herself to unseal the cave. Working alone in the darkness, Kundry, who didn’t give a fuck about anything, had single-handedly sawed through the hinges on the metal gate. The gate had fallen on her. She had actually been trapped under the gate for a while, like the witch Gagool being trapped under the rock in the treasure room in King Solomon's Mines. She had struggled out of it. She was extremely irate, in a really foul mood by the time I arrived. I remember she sort of snarled at me as I walked up to the cave and said, “You fucking Monstégurians. You should have done this years ago.” We were able to finally penetrate the caves.
DN: Were you able to recover any additional meteorite fragments?
RS: Not a lot. I have a small pile of debris now, less and less over the years because I keep giving specimens to people in the hopes that I can get them analyzed, and people are forever losing them.
DN: Let’s talk about another important narrative that was unfolding over this time. When was your mother first diagnosed with cancer?
RS: My mum was diagnosed around the year 2001. The 9/11 year. She caught a form of lymphoma, which was, I believe, related to an allergy to an epoxy resin that she used in mold making for the marionettes and the figurines that she was building. This affected her lymph nodes. The first she knew about it was that her eyes got sore. There were cancerous tumors behind her eyeballs that were literally pushing her eyeballs forward, so she was sleeping with her eyes open, which was pretty damned odd. She hit the panic button somewhere in the beginning of 2001. Basically, she got in touch and said she was dying of cancer. I flew out to be with her.
The myth has it that the lapsus ex caelis, the stones from the sky, are meant to possess some kind of healing virtues. I thought I would push the envelope a little. There'd been a few times in the past when I used the stones, initially on some burns, and in a previous circumstance in a pagan festivity on top of Colton Hill on May Day in Scotland. One of my friend’s girlfriends had been hit in the head with a bottle that someone had thrown. He went running off through the crowd to fetch a paramedic. It was dawn, and I whipped out the stones and put meteor blood on the big bruise on her head, and it seemed to have some kind of effect.
With my back against the wall, I put meteor blood in my mom's eyes. She claimed to have some kind of dream or vision that there were angels surrounding her bed healing her. And she went into remission. I effectively got her back for another ten years. But unfortunately, in a Pet Sematary kind of way, we never got her fully back. I got back a version of Penny. Some parts of her personality seemed chemically switched off, which was kind of eerie. Her creative faculties were no longer present. She could no longer draw, and she no longer enjoyed listening to classical music.
I brought her out to Montségur for a while. It certainly wasn't easy. Her sense of balance got worse and worse, and Montségur is a very jagged place to be wandering around. She ended up in a care home in Ireland.
My mum was a pretty strong lady, and it was a full decade before it would finally reach a point where I felt that we had to essentially help her die. She had lost her various faculties. Her eyesight had started to go. Her hearing had started to go. She had a very hard time understanding anything that was said to her. Her psychology had started to get pretty weird, and she would become, at times, pretty vindictive. I remember when she was still staying with me, I woke up one night and found her standing over my bed with a carving knife, insisting that she was late for an airplane. I had to talk her down and take the knife away. It was reaching the point where she was actively scary to be around.
She could no longer eat food, and I would have had to put in a feeding tube and a hydrator in order to keep her alive. I realized that the amount of enjoyment that she was in any way getting out of life was diminishing rapidly to zero. So I made the decision to basically stop feeding her, and I also ceased any further treatments with the meteor blood. I was going to have to reverse the process and let her go.
I was informed by the nurses at the hospice that it would take about two to four days once I stopped feeding or hydrating her. However, in my mother's case, it took seven days and seven nights. She was way tougher than the nurses realized.
It was a pretty freaky process. She seemed to physically shrink. As the days went by, the ambiance in the hospice became more and more frightening. You hear all kinds of terrible things when you stay for twenty-four hours on the ward. They put a good face on things for the visiting hours but when you're there all night, you hear the people screaming in the other rooms. The sense of darkness and approaching death was super intense. I found myself shifting my chair closer and closer to my mum's bed.
Throughout that time, I was keeping her company mostly by reading to her. I doubt she was able to understand but it was the only way of being there for her, holding her hand. I regressed backwards through much of the material she had read me as a child. Of course, amongst that was H.P. Lovecraft and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Finally, after seven nights, the end came at dawn. I had to go into town and find an undertaker and buy a coffin. When I picked her up out of the bed, her body was extremely light, as if it was made of Styrofoam. She no longer seemed to even be human. I put her in the box and asked the undertaker to screw down the lid. That was the last time I saw her.
The local tenant farmers where she had lived had been scared of her for years. She was viewed as the local witch for having trafficked with the fairy folk. By the time she was all done dying, they had taken revenge on her and destroyed her cottage and all of its contents. Going back to the cottage and seeing the utter devastation that had taken place – the shattered statues and porcelain and the dead animals, and the way that all the bookcases had been torn down and the books ripped apart – was immensely difficult for me. Very hard to see things like a first edition of Peter Pan or 19th century editions of Milton's Paradise Lost and the Doré Bible trampled into the mud. I had a huge fight with the tenant farmers responsible. I rescued as much as I could put in the back of the car and went back to Montségur.
The whole event messed up my mind pretty considerably. I went and sat on the mountain for a while. I read two entire books to the ghosts in the castle. I read them A Canticle for Leibowitz and Roadside Picnic. I’m not sure if the ghosts could hear me any more than my mum. It was a way of working through the situation and trying to figure out whether it made sense trying to preserve books, statues and documents from some other period, or whether the farmers were closer to the point by simply burning and decimating the place and insisting that all traces of the past should be rightfully annihilated.
It’s still a difficult period of my life to get through. I suspect, in hindsight, it's probably the single worst thing that ever happened to me. It wasn't so much the death of my mum, but the sight of seeing so much of her life's work destroyed subsequently, and the sheer lunatic self-righteousness of the good Catholic farmers who felt they were doing morally the right thing in destroying her belongings.
DN: Sounds very similar to the Siege on Montségur.
RS: Yeah. That's why I went and read to them.
DN: Let's move on to another important character in this story, Urani. Can you tell me about how you met him and who he was to you?
RS: Urani was a little butch shaman figure who lived here in the high valleys of the Pyrenees. He lived as a hermit for more than 30 years in a little cottage at the base of the Rennes-le-Château. He was something of a self-styled sorcerer and geomancer, as close to a modern Cathar as you can find.
He believed that there was a dimensional portal hidden in the area, kind of a gateway to Hell. To try and warn people of the existence of this portal, Urani hung what looked like fetish dolls made from Barbie doll legs and old VHS box covers on the trees and fences surrounding the area, Fulci titles like The Beyond or Zombie Flesh Eaters. It drew my attention. I was wondering why the hell someone was hanging Lucio Fulci movies from the trees. On closer inspection, I could also see that Urani had modified them with little Voodoo veves and symbols that he had drawn in silver paint on the box covers. In one place, I found a stone shrine that had been built to a VHS box cover of Fulci’s Beatrice Chancy, which recalls Beatrice who guides Dante through Hell. I correctly interpreted the symbolism and befriended him, and he became a close ally during my time on the mountain, acting as an invaluable guide when it came to getting to know this neck of the woods very closely.
DN: You told me once that the various medieval castles on the various mountain tops in the Pyrenees tend to attract people who consider themselves the protectors of those places, and that many of them are, as you say, ferals. But you yourself became one of these figures. You're not a member of the feral community, but you found yourself living in a cottage on Montségur, serving a similar purpose. So you and Urani had that in common and in a way.
RS: Urani’s link to Rennes-le-Château was partly because, in the late 1980s, he had broken a mirror in the Tour Magdala on top of the plateau. Urani believed that this mirror was a gateway by whence the devil was entering the world. So he shattered the Devil's Mirror. I think because he broke the mirror, he was somehow doomed to remain trapped there forever as a guardian of the Gates of Hell. This wasn't exactly the same motivation that I had with Montségur but I guess there were similar sentiments. I simply vowed to defend the castle, and to keep as close to it as I could just so that I could continue to observe what was going on there.
There were a lot of weird twists and turns. Living in this world, on the side of the mountain, it was very much like living in that television show, Lost. People who are your friends in one season become your archenemies in the next season, and your archenemies become your allies in the next season. In the course of the time that I was on the mountain, a lot happened. I don't doubt the mountain needed defending.
DN: Defending against what?
RS: Montségur, because it has some spiritual symbolism or value, attracts, every so often, onslaughts from the material world. In the past they've had problems. Obviously, with the crusaders in the mass burnings of 1244. Then the Nazis were there in the form of a panzer division hundreds of years later in 1945.
In the time that I was living on the mountain, there were an additional series of incursions from the outside world. In 2012, there was an outbreak of mass hysteria here in the Pyrenees. It's long been believed by the feral community that there's extraterrestrials or some kind of ultra-dimensional beings living underneath Mount Bugarach. This idea was first put into the minds of the public back in the 90s by a far-out old geezer name John de Riegnies, who lived up in the last house on the left at the top of the river. He made old analog tape recordings of what he believed were aliens moving about under the floorboards of his house. He then played these analog recordings on French television, which popularized the idea that there were somehow subterranean aliens underneath the mountain. This idea came to its head in 2012 when the entire area was sealed off by the French military to try to stop the thousands of UFO cultists descending on the area. Their draconian policing tactics only cemented the belief that there was something to cover up to begin with.
We then had an aggressive takeover by a California-based guru who almost took control of the town, a lady who wanted to create a radio station and a television post-production facility there, who believed that Montségur hid the true gospel of Mary Magdalene, which she believed was a secret book of the Cathars, and that it was their purpose to reveal the truth to the world. This series of events, which took up about three years of my time up there on the mountain, was very much like the season on Lost where the Dharma Group are in charge of the island. They were all Californian, very rich, all kind of namaste. I became their archenemy very quick.
After about six months, we were fiercely at loggerheads. They became more cult-like in their behavior, all started wearing similar clothes and dying their hair identical shades of red. It all got very ugly. One of the principals in that group, the guru’s husband, died a sudden and inexplicable death, which caused the rest of the group to turn on each other, believing that they were using black magick or that some maligned force had been used to kill the husband. So the Magdalenians fell apart violently and acrimoniously after about three years.
Right after that, the mountain suddenly came under the control of the Community of Communes, and a plan was launched to turn the mountain into a theme park. So right after the Dharma Group, we had Jurassic Park, which instantly polarized the entire area. The theme park initiative provoked another series of battles, and this fed into the move to try to get the area listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the theme park initiative ultimately failed.
DN: Let’s get back to Color Out of Space. I know you’d been dreaming of interpreting the story since you were 13 years old. How did you come to finally write the script?
RS: Urani was a huge fan of Italian horror movies, particularly giallos, and a particular fan of Fulci’s The Beyond, which involves an ancient grimoire called the Book of Ebon, which was in fact the creation of Clark Ashton Smith, one of Lovecraft's disciples. This Seal of Ebon actually exists out here on an old 13th century archway. The idea occurred to us that maybe we should do a short movie homaging Fulci. I managed to get Catriona MacColl, the star of The Beyond, on the telephone. We hatched the idea of bringing her out to Rennes-le-Château to the site of the Gates of Hell, and getting Urani to art direct the short.
We had a glow-in-the-dark Ouija board we had purchased at Toys “R” Us, and the Ouija board largely dictated the script for what would become The Mother of Toads. I heard that David Gregory from Severin Films was putting together an anthology movie called Theater Bizarre and was looking for material. He was on his way to Cannes, so I went down and headed him off at Montpellier Railway Station and threw him the 20-page script. He then put up the money to shoot the thing.
In the film, the witch, played by Catriona, is seen to be in possession of a copy of the Necronomicon from the Lovecraft stories. And the thought occurred that maybe I should try to adapt one Lovecraft’s stories directly rather than simply homaging it. So Color Out of Space had its roots in 2012, which was the year the Mayan calendar ran out. But I was disheartened to realize that the folks who originally promised to put up the money were no longer in a position to do so. Sensing how disheartened I was, David Gregory stepped in to make it up.
DN: David then also got the idea to make a documentary about what happened to you on the Island of Dr. Moreau, and that became a movie called Lost Soul, which was released in 2014 and kind of brought you back onto the world stage. You toured with the film, and it got people thinking about you again, because you had been missing from the landscape for a long time. And that led to our meeting.
At that time, I had been very vocal in the film community about SpectreVision’s desire to find a proper H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. And I remember David telling me that you had adapted The Colour Out of Space, and that no one would go near it because it was too hardcore. I said, “That sounds like exactly the kind of thing that we want to do!” He sent us the script, and we loved it. You came to L.A. and we had that now infamous first meeting in which you told me about your Grail Quest and produced meteor blood before my eyes.
As is often the case with these things, it took a few years for us to find the money. During that time, you were still living in Montségur. Tell me about Urani’s contribution to getting us over the hump on the project.
RS: Urani is pretty much the only person I've ever come across to venerate Lovecraft's “old gods,” his fictional deities. I learned fairly early on that Urani celebrated Yog-Sothoth Day once a year. I was amazed that anyone on the planet venerated Yog-Sothoth, the deity that’s implicated by the Whateley family in Dunwich Horror. Urani had a battered, French language translation of the Colin Wilson hoax version of the Necronomicon that he'd been working from but no one had told him that it was a hoax. I didn't want to discourage him in these beliefs, so went along with it. We introduced the tradition of making elder god pinatas and getting the local kids to smash them.
Then one year, on Yog-Sothoth Day, Urani undertook a ritual wherein he asked for Color Out of Space to find funding and get itself into production. He intervened with Lovecraft’s fictional deities on or behalf. Partway through, there was a sudden, freak summer storm that violently rained on us all. Then we pretty much forgot about it.
Shortly thereafter, Urani passed away. After he died, the stone cottage that he had lived in for the previous 30 years fell into the hands of his estranged sister from Bordeaux whom he hadn’t seen in decades. His sister and the other family members came out. They took one look at the cottage and this mass of occult material, and they took the decision to simply incinerate all of it. So, once again, Urani’s life-work, like my mom's work, was destroyed, vaporized. I went up to the ruins to poke through the ashes and managed to retrieve about 10 pages of Urani’s principal grimoire, one of the books he used in his conjurings, which had been miraculously preserved in the midst of the ashes.
DN: It was around the same time that you lost your home on the mountain.
RS: Yeah, it was a bad month. I got evicted from my home in Montségur. It was thanks to a run-in with the multinational mining consortium, the Imerys Group, who managed to obtain mineral rights to Mount Tabor, the massive mountain that overlooks Montségur,o known as the Mountain of the Transfiguration, because it's where Esclarmonde de Foix is meant to have been transfigured into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyway, Imerys Group managed to gain rights to the mountain. They had discovered vast deposits of a newly identified mineral element known as Imerys Talc, a form of talcum powder. It's a white stone that was sacred to the ancients because, like soapstone, they could carve it easily, and for some reason it's vital in skin rejuvenation as a non-carcinogenic alternative to talc, which has become a thing since the Johnson & Johnson cases.
I found out about this when I saw there were lights moving on the Holy Mountain. Then I noticed that there was heavy earth working equipment cutting an access road round into the top end of the valley. I went at once to the Mayor’s office and said, “what the fuck, what's going on? Isn’t that a listed UNESCO world heritage site?” Our regional mayor and principal local politician unpacked the story about the Imerys Group, and showed me on a map the areas in which the mining consortium was hoping to expand its activities. I stormed back to my house, and at four o'clock in the afternoon on that same day, my landlord called and told me that I had to vacate the premises.
This is when things were darkest. I was down on my luck. The autonomous zone that we succeeded in establishing had obviously collapsed. With Urani gone, it felt like all the fun had gone out of it anyway.
DN: And then the money for Color Out of Space came together for a shoot in Sintra, Portugal, putting an end to a 26-year drought in feature filmmaking. But you didn’t believe it.
RS: I didn’t believe that it was happening. Right to the end I was still wondering, is this going to work or not? So many projects had come and gone over the last 20 years. A couple of times, I'd had cast attached and been super close to actually getting things shot when they’d gone rapidly into turnaround.
DN: So how did you finally get to Sintra, and when did you realize that it was real?
RS: I was still staying with Pascal, the town drunk at the far end of the village. Josh Waller and one of the Portuguese producers literally drove up to the South of France and banged on my door. It was early in the morning. They'd driven in through some spectacularly dangerous scenery, through Galamus Gorge in the middle of the night. I made them a coffee. They told me to get in the car, and we went south.
It was only when I got onto the location in Sintra that I began to see the possibilities. And I started to ask myself whether Urani’s life hadn't been the price that the old ones had demanded for bringing this strange and highly unlikely production into manifestation.
I brought my mum's death scarf as a sort of lucky talisman. It was the scarf she was wearing when she died, and I had pilfered it from around her neck before I put her in the box. I wore the scarf for much of the shoot so that she could be there in some form. I had told her we were trying to make Color Out of Space before she passed but she didn't believe it. She said, “It will all come to nothing.”
I hope she would have liked the movie. By exposing me to Lovecraft, she broadened my horizons. Lovecraft expanded my universe. He enlarged my mind and opened my eyes.
Daniel Noah is a partner and Head of Development for SpectreVision, the award-winning indie genre company behind such titles as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Mandy. He is co-host of the acclaimed podcast, “Visitations with Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah."