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The Origins Of 'Thirteen Ghosts': The Spirits Of The Black Zodiac

Updated March 9, 2021 515.6k views12 items

Thirteen Ghosts, the 2001 remake of William Castle's 1960 film, packs a lot of big ideas into its 90-minute runtime, not the least of which is the "Black Zodiac," which provides the origin of its titular ghosts.

In the 1960 original, 13 Ghosts, Dr. Plato Zorba perishes and leaves a large house to his struggling nephew, Cyrus. Unfortunately for Cyrus and his family, the house also contains the uncle's collection of a dozen ghosts - including a lion tamer and his lion, an Italian chef, a flaming skeleton, and others - all waiting for the arrival of a 13th ghost that will free them. The film's claim to fame was its use of colored filters to make the ghosts "invisible" unless viewed through special "ghost viewers" that were handed out to members of the audience.

The remake follows the same basic plot - an eccentric uncle wills a house full of ghosts that can only be seen through special glasses to his nephew's impoverished family - but with an entirely new roster of ghosts. Their presence is also much more integral to the plot. Whereas the ghosts in the original are mostly a MacGuffin (the plot actually revolves around a human villain looking for a fortune hidden in the house), the ghosts in the 2001 version are what powers the uncle's infernal machine.

Thirteen Ghosts also features a character named Cyrus (played by F. Murray Abraham), but this time he's the sinister uncle and his bizarre house is actually a gateway to hell. "Designed by the devil and powered by the dead," Basileus's Machine is said to have been conceived by a 15th-century astrologer while he was possessed by a demon. The plans for the machine are in a book called The Arcanum, which also describes the ghosts needed to power it. The house itself is an enormous ghost trap, complete with transparent walls etched with spells and made of "ectobar glass." (Behind the scenes, the set was designed and fabricated by production designer Sean Hargreaves, who has also worked as an illustrator on many of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Why does Cyrus want to crank up this machine? Apparently, because it's the only way to gain access to the Ocularis Infernum, an "eye in hell that sees everything," including the past and the future. "If knowledge is power, then the man who controls the Ocularis would be the most powerful man on Earth," Cyrus says. 

According to The Arcanum, there are 13 ghosts necessary to access the Ocularis Infernum: 12 needed to power it, and a 13th to shut it down if necessary (though that last part proves to be a lie). These ghosts align with the "Black Zodiac," which was created for the movie. (Though that doesn't mean the film doesn't have significance along traditional zodiac lines.) Besides maybe the elaborate puzzle box of the house itself, these ghosts are the most memorable part of this oddball film. They are brought to (un)life thanks to the special effects work of Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero, and each one matches one of the entries in this mythical "Black Zodiac."

  • The Firstborn Son

    In The Arcanum, the Firstborn Son (rendered in Latin as Primus Filius) is depicted as a young boy with a split in his head. In a featurette describing the origins of the 13 ghosts that accompanies the DVD, the voice of F. Murray Abraham as Cyrus Kriticos describes Billy Michaels, the boy who became the Firstborn Son ghost, as "simply a stubborn brat" whose "obsession with the world of cowboys and Indians took precedent over all else."

    According to the featurette, Billy was done in when he was playing "cowboys and Indians" with a neighbor boy who found a real bow and arrow. The featurette claims that Billy perished while dressed as a cowboy, though in the film he is also wearing a Native American headband, with an arrow sticking out of his forehead.

    "His rebellious attitude and refusal to accept defeat was a perfect fit for my... circle of angry spirits," Kriticos concludes.

  • The Torso

    The Arcanum depicts the Torso (Truncus, or simply "trunk") as a long-haired human figure with no lower body, walking around on its hands. In the film, the Torso's head is also separated from its body, and both the torso and the head are wrapped in plastic.

    According to Kriticos in the featurette that accompanies the DVD, the Torso was once Jimmy "The Gambler" Gambino. Jimmy made a bet with Larry "The Finger" Vatelo and lost, so Vatelo made "several small examples" of Jimmy when he couldn't pay his debt, then wrapped the pieces in cellophane and dumped them into the ocean.

  • The Bound Woman

    The third ghost referred to in the Black Zodiac is the Bound Woman, and the illustration in The Arcanum shows a dour-looking woman in an Elizabethan ruff. Kriticos chooses Susan LeGrow to fill this role, a woman he describes as "born with a silver spoon in her mouth." In the featurette describing the ghosts, Kriticos adds, "Her parents were the wealthiest people in town, which made Susan the most popular girl in school."

    However, Susan flirted, toyed with, and rejected men at her whim, leaving "a long trail of broken hearts" until star quarterback Chet Walters found her with another man on the night of the senior prom. Chet clubbed her lover, and Susan disappeared. Two weeks later, she was found "beneath the football field's 50-yard line."

    While Kriticos acknowledges that the "jealous monster" Chet would have made a "nice complement" to his cabal of sinister ghosts, the Bound Woman was what Basileus's Machine required, and Susan's ghost fit the bill. In the film, her ghost appears dangling from a rope, although the illustration in The Arcanum depicts that fate for another ghost, the Angry Princess.

  • The Withered Lover

    To fulfill the role of the Withered Lover, Kriticos selected his own niece by marriage, Jean Kriticos. Jean perished in a fire, which separated her from her husband - Kriticos's nephew, Arthur - and their two children. The fire also left half of her body badly burned, making her the ideal choice for the Withered Lover.

    In the featurette where he explains the origins of each ghost, Kriticos says that Jean had "just the magnitude of suffering I required." The featurette describes a fire on Christmas night, in which Arthur, in his haste to save his children, inadvertently left his wife to perish in the blaze. However, the film, which shows Jean in a hospital gown with a rolling IV stand, makes it clear she met her end not in the house itself, but later, in St. Luke's Hospital.

    In The Arcanum, the Withered Lover (Amator Marcidus) is one of the only ghosts to be depicted beneficently, seemingly floating in a long dress with vines in the background - possible echoes of Jean's hospital gown and IV tubes?