It’s been… my god, has it been a year? Close to? Perhaps even a bit over? It’s been roughly a year since the last ICHF. My god. Regardless, ICHF is back, with a new website and a slightly higher standard of quality. To celebrate this momentous occasion, let’s get the ball rolling with one of the most popular icons of the horror genre, the protagonist of the famous Evil Dead series, and one of the few heroes from a horror story that managed to outshine his monstrous foes: Ashley J. Williams.
(And, uh, apologies to Bruce Campbell for my terrible caricaturing skills. I honestly considered using a movie still instead, but consistency is important, so here we are.)
Ash is an interesting case as far as horror protagonists go. In The Evil Dead he’s not much different than you standard monster fodder –a college kid who goes off to a cabin in the woods to get high and have sex with his girlfriend, only to stumble into some spooky business. Ash manages to survive everything thrown at him, albeit often by the skin of his teeth, and survives all the way to the movie’s ambiguous ending. Fairly standard stuff, especially since the then young Bruce Campbell wasn’t the most experienced of actors.
Then, six years, a larger budget, and a lot more acting, directing, and writing experience later, we got Evil Dead 2, and that is where Ash went from “generic victim guy” to “memorable character.” Picking up where the first movie left off, Evil Dead 2 follows Ash as he deals with the fact that he’s now stranded in the middle of nowhere with a forest full of demonic spirits trying to break his mind, spirit, and body in as many twisted ways as they can manage. Normally this is where a hero would rise to the occasion, but calling Ash a hero is a bit misleading.
Ash is really an anti-hero, and a very specific type of anti-hero at that. Nowadays that phrase has the connotation of a hero who uses brutal methods to stop villainy – you know, characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, or Batman in the hands of a terrible writer. However, the phrase used to mean something a bit different. Classical anti-heroes were protagonists who faced the kind of ridiculous challenges and conflicts that would be thrown at normal humans, but lacked the ability to conquer those challenges. While generally a story would have a hydra fighting a demi-god like Heracles, an anti-hero story would instead have the hydra fight someone akin to Rick Moranis. In other words, a classical anti-hero is basically “a hero that’s terrible at their job,” and that is Ash to a T.
In one corner, we have a nigh unstoppable horde of demonic spirits that can possess basically anything you can think of – people, corpses, body parts, trees, stuffed deer heads, a desk lamp, literally anything – whose only easily exploited weaknesses is their own whimsical sadism. This would be a challenge for the hardiest of souls, and Ash is far from that. Intelligence is not his forte – in fact many of the movie series’ darkest turns are caused by Ash’s short attention span, terrible memory, and general inability to put two and two together. Bravery escapes him, as Ash spends half his time trying to find a way to bail instead of dealing with the demons, even on the many occasions when he’d be leaving others to die. He’s not exactly a great leader of men, either. Ash is rude, arrogant, and utterly tactless when dealing with others, and can be more than a little sleazy towards the women around him. All of these traits are treated as horrible flaws, and the conflict of these movies often escalates specifically because of his many, many failings.
So how the hell does Ash survive? Well, he has a few virtues. When backed into a corner, Ash is able to be cunning and creative. The most distinct visual of the series is the image of Ash with a chainsaw strapped to the stump of his right arm, which is the kind of demented yet clever thinking that allows Ash to get out of the many, many horrible situations he stumbles into. Ash is also able to cultivate the talents of those around him in a pinch, protecting allies as they read the magic spells to banish the demons and gathering valuable supplies for those with the intelligence needed to use them. Perhaps his most noteworthy virtue is his loyalty to the (increasingly few) people he cares about. While Ash will gladly abandon total strangers to a grisly fate if it means he can survive, he will occasionally muster the courage to face danger himself if someone he truly loves is in peril.
Of course, the real reason Ash survives is that it’s part of the gag. While the Evil Dead series is firmly in the horror genre, it owes a great deal of its creative inspiration to the Three Stooges. And, much like those old comedy routines, it runs on a very basic premise: “What happens when someone completely inept tries to do a complex job?” In The Evil Dead’s case, that premise is specifically, “What if the task of saving the world from the forces of hell was placed on the shoulders of the most inept possible person on the planet?” Like any good joke, the setup requires Ash to be terrible at his task. The escalation requires him to basically make things worse in his attempt to solve the problem – as often and as horribly as possible. The punchline, of course, has to also be an unexpected resolution, and in this case that resolution is that Ash will somehow manage to win… albeit barely and with a ridiculously unnecessary amount of collateral damage. Ash lives so the joke may go on, and also so it can stay funny.
A perhaps unintended result of this is that we sympathize with Ash a bit, even though we still laugh at his many missteps. He’s an underdog facing odds that are ridiculously stacked against him, and there’s a very basic emotional drive to sympathize with that. It’s led to some mischaracterization, of course – a lot of fans of the Evil Dead series don’t seem to realize that Ash’s behavior is generally not something to be idolized. Still, for some of us – myself included – we can’t help but seeing a little bit of ourselves in Ash. I mean, who hasn’t felt like they were a complete fuckup bumbling into one disaster after another, making everything worse with every action and surviving through either blind luck or the cruel desire of the universe to wring more misery out of you?
Right? We all feel that sometimes? Right?
Anyway, it’s the sympathetic nature of Ash’s classical anti-hero status that made me choose the more recent (and thus not quite as famous or “iconic”) portrayal of the character in the recent TV series, Ash vs. The Evil Dead. While many remember Ash as an awesome, masculine badass that he never truly was, Ash vs. The Evil Dead reinforces and builds on his actual characterization as a well-meaning fuckup who struggles to save the world from his own faults (as well as demons). It takes all the themes, gore, and humor of the movies and adds a bit more heart to it, and I highly recommend checking it out whether you’re new to the Evil Dead series or a lifelong fan. It’s really worth it.