As far as the horror genre goes, the arrow of subgenres in the past few decades has bent away from the grotesque and gory and toward the psychologically twisted. In more recent horror films like It Follows and Hereditary, for example, the physical horror that occurs belies an understanding of human nature on the part of the director; ironically, the same understanding is not conferred upon the subjects. In Hereditary, the gruesome beheading of one of the main characters—while shocking in its own right—portends an even more sinister plotline which sees the complete rejection of humanity of another main character.

In 2021, videographer and visual artist Alex Kister uploaded a series of videos, dubbed  the Mandela Catalogue, to YouTube. The first few videos in the series build the fictional Mandela County, WI, and the series of events chronicled in it; for Vol. 1 of the Catalogue, these are the cases of Mark Heathcliff and Cesar Torres and the eventual loss of their own respective humanities, in both literal and figurative senses.

The Mandela Catalogue is a collection of media relating to “Alternates,” malevolent beings of indeterminate origin that present as doppelgängers or slightly-altered versions of oneself. Presented largely through a “found footage” format, the viewer is brought into the story when the fictional “Department of Temporal Phenomena” releases public service announcements concerning what to do in the case of an alternate encounter.

Alternates, though, do not simply take on the appearance of their victim; their goal is to replace the human population entirely through their subterfuge. And, though it is never explicitly stated, the method of this disposal is psychologically gruesome. Instead of possessing their victims’ bodies like a ghost or killing them in slasher-flick fashion, Alternates instead force their prey to commit suicide, replacing them with near-perfect accuracy and continuing on as though they were the real thing.

Betrayal is a theme in the Mandela Catalogue. To digress a tiny bit, this is, in a way, the reason for even calling it “Mandela;” the fake Wisconsin county is named after the “Mandela effect,” which was in turn named after South African President and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, who was famously erroneously thought to be dead by a large portion of the population. Healthline writes that the simplest definition of instances of the Mandela effect is “collective false memories.”

The point is, the Catalogue is likely named after the Mandela effect because it is, in essence, the large-scale betrayal of ourselves by our own minds. Sure, the mass-misconception of certain minutia by a bunch of people pales in comparison to the mass-replacement of all of humanity by a race of malign shapeshifters, but the idea of our own psyche causing our species’ downfall is categorically chilling.

In the same vein, worth noting are the names of the two men; Mark and Cesar likely allude to the historical Roman triumvirs Mark Antony and Augustus Caesar, men who at first were allied with each other who later betrayed each other in an attempt to rule all of Rome, as opposed to splitting it in half.

Twisted biblical allusions also abound; notably, in Vol. 1, the use of an old Beginner’s Bible cartoon about Noah and the Ark is used (in addition to upping the creepy-factor) to imply that the Archangel Gabriel, who delivered the news of Jesus’ birth, is himself an alternate, leading to an existential dilemma—to wax philosophical—if the prophets we know can’t be trusted, what good is our faith?

This troubling thread is followed throughout the pieces; the biblical allusions, if touched upon in Vol. 1, are steered into headlong in Vol. 2. Much like the former, the latter focuses on the case of two young men, this time named Adam and Jonah, referring to the biblical “first man” and the prophet who was supposedly swallowed by a great fish after attempting to escape God.

This is no accident; on the surface, the Mandela Catalogue is about the existential threat posed by the alternates, but on a more profound level, the series is about the breakdown of our own sense of identity. In Vol. 2, set in 2009, follows Adam and Jonah, who operate some sort of paranormal investigation racket, as they are called upon to investigate some nondescript paranormal entity haunting a woman and her “cat.”

Of course, the entity living with this woman is, in fact, an Alternate. When she is gone, Adam and Jonah are lured to the house where they encounter their fate up-close.

The worldbuilding in Kister’s project is great relative to anything; the fact that horror worldbuilding of this high quality exists in the format of a YouTube anthology is a testament to the accessibility and ultimately the scope of the project itself. He even uses the medium to generate a surplus of this fear through worldbuilding; in the closed captions for the videos, certain words and phrases appear as creepy Easter eggs. In one instance, I found a caption that simply read “2 Corinthians 11:14.” 

The corresponding Bible verse reads, “And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an Angel of Light.”

Kister’s artistic direction is also highly consistent with the found-footage horror subgenre—think The Blair Witch Project. Clearly influenced by such projects, he created a cohesive story out of dozens of disparate components; a story which manages to petrify without one single jump-scare. Instead, our security is completely torn down as we watch these young Midwestern men lose themselves to something we can’t even identify.

One downfall of the Catalogue which is admittedly probably not Kister’s doing is the voice acting; since none of the four central characters actually act on-screen—they’re only shown in pictures—all the actual acting takes place over the phone or on recordings. It’s quite an interesting effect; as the distance between the audience and the characters grows, the fear we feel becomes a sort of piteous feeling. Unfortunately, without exception, the voicework is pretty cheesy. It doesn’t necessarily break the grip of the story on your attention, but there’s something monotone and “put-on” about all four men’s voices, which does indeed detract a bit from the seriousness of the situations in which the characters find themselves.

We look for scary things on purpose, because they are simulacra of experiences that we would never want to undergo in reality. Even if the fear you feel watching a horror movie is “fake”—as in, you’re in no immediate danger from anything happening on the screen—the point is that it’s manufactured, intended to make you feel that danger in a controlled setting. Our organic dread of insecurity can be exploited by the most adept horror directors, especially in the context of a world that feels like it’s crumbling and with a medium accessible to virtually anyone. The best types of horror often play off of our rational fears, like illness, death, and the loss of self that connects the many different vignettes making up the Mandela Catalogue.

March 30, 2022

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