Saturday, October 28, 2006





The Danse Macabre

(Day 10 of Countdown)

The 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein I first saw one midnight in 1969 makes choices that run against the grain of Shelley’s novel, most notably in the accident which leads to a criminal brain being placed in the monster’s body. That famous moment, parodied with the “Abby Normal” brain in Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, suggests that the monster is inherently evil, leaving open the possibility that a better choice of brain might have led to a very different result.

But one thing director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff agreed upon was the fundamental innocence of the monster, and this is resonant in the film. Like many other children before me, I loved the monster while being respectfully afraid of him at the same time. The first two murders he commits—of the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, who tortures him for fun and of Dr. Waldman, who tries to euthanize him—are justifiable acts of self defense. The most disturbing scene--when he tosses the little girl who befriends him into a lake, drowning her—is clearly an accident. Children forgave the monster for that murder because they understood his confusion.


Though the film’s Dr. Frankenstein does not intentionally abandon his creation, at first. He does, however, neglectfully leave it in the abusive care of Fritz. He also leaves the monster to Dr. Waldman to put him to sleep, thus abdicating responsibility for what he has done.


And the fundamental idea that the creator and his creation are mirror images of one another is reinforced time and time again in the film. Explaining some of his motivation to go to such extremes of discovery, Dr. Frankenstein at one point comments, “My father never believes in anyone.” Later in the film, the creator and his creation face off twice—once on a barren mountainside, again staring at each other through the gears of a windmill. In both scenes, alternating close-ups of the creator’s face and that of his creation suggest that they are in some way one, bound together by destiny. It is easy to imagine Mary Shelley would have been pleased with these moments. At the end of what many feel is the superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, it is the monster who even has to take responsibility for bringing the horror to an end.


Like other viewers, as a child I understood that the monster was a kind of tragic hero, shaped by his environment and circumstance (particularly that torch-bearing mob). This too gets at Shelley’s purpose because such great tragedies as Paradise Lost and King Lear inspired her novel as much as the tales of the supernatural shared at Lake Geneva. And that tragic-hero quality lies at the heart of the majority of the Universal monsters. Dr. Jekyll, the Frankenstein monster, and The Wolfman’s Larry Talbot were all noble in their suffering. Even Count Dracula, who shows no more remorse for his impulses than the average carnivore tossed a steak, dreams of a day when he will find eternal rest. Gloria Holden, as Dracula’s daughter in the film of the same name, and John Carradine, particularly in House of Dracula, seem to genuinely want to bring their curses to an end. Certainly such lofty ambitions are not necessary for a good horror movie, but they are a hallmark of the movies that first ignited the censors.


Those who make horror recognize this double-bind of attraction and repulsion. One scene in particular finds its way from the poem “Christabel” that inspired Mary Shelley and echoes again and again in horror stories of the 20th Century. It is the image of a passionate embrace that culminates in horror. In “Christabel,” a man’s daughter (facing a father who will soon reject her—no wonder Mary picked up on it) recalls her midnight embrace with a female vampire, a memory that devolves into a realization that the breast she’d drawn to her own was cold and dead. In Frankenstein, the moment comes climactically, contributing to Victor’s tragic decision to flee from any responsibility for the monster.


Upon bringing his creature to life, he immediately suffers what might best be understood as a post-orgasmic fit of remorse—“now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” That night he dreams of his love Elizabeth. He pulls her to him and kisses her, but “as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel.” Many times, this scene has been restaged since, maybe most vividly in that moment in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining when Jack Nicholson’s character attempts adultery, only to see the decomposing flesh of the beautiful woman in his arms reflected in the bathroom mirror behind her.


In Danse Macabre, when Stephen King describes the cornerstones of modern horror, he talks of three different kinds of monsters. One (signified by Dracula) represents the evil from outside that invades our lives. The second (signified by Mr. Hyde or the werewolf) stands for the evil within us. But King describes the Frankenstein monster as “the thing with no name." All three suggest different aspects of alienation—the vampire externalizing our dark desires, the werewolf internalizing them. But the Frankenstein monster itself is a question mark (ironically, the way Karloff’s performance is credited in the opening titles of the film). The horror, as much as anywhere else, lies in our reaction to this thing. What was The Shining’s Jack Torrance (Nicholson) thinking when he decided to make love to this thing that shouldn’t be? He was sent up to this hotel room because the occupant just finished trying to kill his son. A quickie should never have been in the cards.


One of the things that is so useful about discussing Frankenstein at length is the way it mixes in each of the other horrors we have to explore. Frankenstein is inspired by a ghost and the monster becomes the ghost that haunts the doctor. The question of the line between sanity and insanity is richly complicated by the many degrees of sanity shown by both the “mad” scientist and his creation. The way in which the doctor becomes overwhelmed by his own creation suggests something of insignificance; just because we can do something doesn’t mean we have the qualities necessary to do the thing right. But King rightly argues that Shelley’s chief influence on the horror that comes after her depends upon “splitting of the reader into two people of opposing minds: the reader who wants to stone the mutation and the reader who feels the stones and cries out at the injustice of it.” The horror of alienation, of being driven apart, particularly from that which one once loved, depends upon both an attraction and a repulsion.


Just as the doctor’s passion has awakened something he hates, the monster’s longing for human contact has turned him into something filled with hate. Certainly Shelley’s monster captures her own disappointment at being raised in such a way that she not only didn’t fit into society but she was also shunned by the generation that inspired her. Even still, the story also asks us to empathize with the cowardly father. With this two-way mirror approach to the horror, we gain a certain objective stance on our subjective reactions. The things that alienate us from one another are understandable. We can and do sympathize with both the action and the reaction. What Frankenstein leaves us with is a larger question than we anticipated. What do we do with this understanding of what drives us apart?

Friday, October 27, 2006











Mary’s Monster

(Day 9 of Countdown)

“My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal.”
--Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Miranda Seymour’s definitive biography, Mary Shelley, makes it easy to see Frankenstein’s author as a child, lingering about the adults on candlelit evenings as her father and his friends speculate about the nature of existence. Listening more attentively than the adults in the room might hope, she hears a shocking account from family friend and surgeon Anthony Carlisle about the effect of electricity on the corpse of a criminal.

The man’s jaw “began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye actually opened….the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion, and it appeared to all the bystanders that the wretched man was on the point of being restored to life.” Fear stopped the experiment, but 13 years later, Mary Godwin would convey that same horror in Frankenstein—“I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

I can also see young Mary hiding under a parlor sofa to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The lone survivor on his ship, the Mariner cries out how horrible “is the curse in a dead man's eye!” Mary’s most famous book handed that vision of life in death to director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff, who translated it beautifully in the unforgettable scene when the monster is first brought from darkness into the light. Despite the innumerable liberties Whale and company took with Shelley’s book, they understood the pathos of the monster, the tragedy contained in the horror.

Of course, Mary Shelley’s work was filled with ambitions well beyond the will and the abilities of the early talkies at Universal Studios or even the great director James Whale. She strove to convey her horror of racism and the slave trade in the way the monster is vilified by the difference in his appearance as well as her disgust with the death penalty (in Justine's wrongful murder by the state), and the corruption of the monster illustrated her beliefs that society shapes the individual, particularly through neglect. On another level, her nightmarish novel embodied her own story of alienation.

After all, Mary Shelley was an alienated daughter of the Enlightenment. Almost unbelievably, her parents met at a dinner party hosted by Common Sense author Thomas Paine. Mary Wollstonecraft was a provocative freethinker who has been called the architect of modern feminism for her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. William Godwin wrote the 1793 volume An Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice, an argument for an egalitarian society and against such oppressive institutions as marriage, organized religion and centralized government.

Ideas were one thing, the realities of social censure were another, and Godwin married Wollstonecraft in part to cover the illegitimacy of her child (from a prior relationship), Fanny. Though she was fiery and he was more remote, the two seemed to love each other very much, and when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died just days after her second daughter, Mary’s, birth, William Godwin was heartbroken.

Little Mary Godwin grew up in an atheist home, consistent with her father and mother’s beliefs, but she grew up in a haunted house nonetheless. Her beautiful mother’s portrait, visibly pregnant with Mary, was a prominent feature in her home, even after her father’s second marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont (which brought Mary two new step siblings, Clara and Charles). Mary learned to write her letters through a daily exercise at her mother’s churchyard tombstone.

Mary and her stepmother never got along, and she longed for the understanding of her dead mother, whose work she read over and over, along with that of her father. At the age of 16, when she met and fell in love with the poet Percy Shelley, one of the things that bound the two together was their affection for her parents’ work. Shelley pledged a portion of his inheritance to aid the economically trouble Godwins. They made love for the first time in the churchyard near her mother’s grave, as Seymour writes, “as if Mary Wollstonecraft were presiding over their union.”

But Mary’s father was no longer the freethinker whose work she and her lover studied. When he found out about her affair with the married Shelley, he forbade their continued relationship. In the spirit of her anti-authoritarian parents, Mary, along with her sister Clara, ran away to Switzerland with Shelley. By the time the trio ran low enough on money that they were having to walk from Paris to Geneva, Mary must have begun to feel the dark turn her life was about to take.

Over the next three years, she was virtually disowned by her father, and she and Shelley were perceived as pariahs throughout most of English society. Intellectually, she believed in free love, but Mary’s journal writings and letters reveal that she was understandably tortured as a teenage girl at times near destitute and virtually all alone in the world with her lover and his infidelities.

Furthering her despair, Mary’s first child died in its cradle. Seymour suggests that she felt guilt for both the death of her mother and, what might have redeemed her, her child. Though the book Frankenstein was conceived in a relatively happy period after the birth of her second child, William, the sufferings deepened yet again when her half sister Fanny committed suicide because she felt like a burden to both her parents and her sister. It makes perfect sense that the most powerful horrors of the novel she would write at the end of this period were feelings of alienation, guilt, disgust and loneliness.

Mary Shelley’s intense identification with her monster can’t be escaped. Just as clearly as elements of her lover and her father are embodied in the scientist who abandoned his creation, Mary has much in common with the monster itself, rejected for no better reason than for being the successful product of the scientist’s dreams. Her parents taught her to flout convention and to follow her heart and intellect. In the end, she found herself like that nameless creature who winds up orphaned and adrift on an arctic ice floe. The durability of the novel suggests just how universal such alienation is.

Thursday, October 26, 2006






Overwhelmed


(Day 8 of Countdown)


“People say, ‘How can you put this stuff out there in the world? Well, it’s already out there….You’re so scared, you want to scream.”

--Eli Roth, director of Hostel

Virtually all of the giant monster movies have overt metaphorical concerns. In the case of King Kong, it is of course man’s (and on a certain level, capitalism’s) lack of respect for the mysteries of nature. With the giant movie monsters of the ‘50s, nowhere more perfectly captured than in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it is the consequence of the atomic bomb. Some of my childhood favorites were those stories of giant scorpions, ants, and tarantulas set loose by radiation. But the fear evoked by those movies has little to do with the cause. That’s only the moral.

The horror, by which I mean the central focus of the art, is that the monster in those stories may not even comprehend the devastation it causes, but whether it does or not, it simply doesn’t care. The truly scary thing about the giant monster is its reminder of our insignificance. The gothic in architecture is that quality of the high ceilings and towering spires that serves to remind us of our insignificance in the face of God. The horror of the giant monster tells us we are not only insignificant in the face of the divine, but we are pitifully vulnerable and unimportant in the face of the natural world.

When the two forces are combined, the effect can be doubly devastating. The first Godzilla movie’s most frightening moments are those parts of the story early on before the big rubber suit is even seen. One scene only implies the presence of Godzilla through a storm devastating a seaside village. In other scenes the monster simply causes the ocean to rise up, and then a ship disappears. Those scenes say that nature might have a malevolent will, and that sense of insignificance in the face of such awesome forces has some of the fire and brimstone resonance of a classic like Jonathan Edwards’ early American and highly influential sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”

It’s worth noting here that these core emotions have fueled the most influential pop culture of the past several decades. Of all of the reasons that Stephen Spielberg has been the most popular film director for the last three, I think the most fundamental is the dark side of that sense of wonder associated with his movies. It is that moment when we know just what Roy Scheider means when he says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” It is those storm clouds that herald the coming aliens in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds.

This is essentially the same incomprehensibly large and intangible horror that takes on a human face in Schindler’s List. One reason Worlds feels like a return to form for Spielberg is the way it concentrates this feeling of insignificance and helplessness. Focusing only on Tom Cruise’s perspective on worldwide devastation (that mankind is ultimately powerless to solve) boils Spielberg’s modern gothic down to its essence. It says a lot about the power of the gothic (the fear contained in the church whisper if you will) that the other most popular storyteller of this same era, Stephen King, also made his mark delivering that ancient disquiet in the wake of the Baby Boom’s cultural explosion.

The ghost story reminds us of the past and the inevitability of loss. The tale of madness makes us doubt our own faculties for dealing with reality. The tale of the giant monster trumps them all on one level, saying, “So what? You really don’t matter that much in the big picture!”

But what may be most important about the giant monster tale connects it to other forms of horror—the way it voices our need for one another. I have fond memories of those crackling radios on stormy nights, as well as contemplating that giant ape wreaking havoc in the dark night of Gotham City [see previous blog], my 6 year old self under covers next to my mother in that haunted house she’d fashioned for me.

The loss of and need for community are perhaps most crucial to the giant monster tale. These monsters generally can’t be defeated simply through some individual act of confrontation. Running away really is the only answer for the individual being chased through the streets of New York or Tokyo, and one of the great archetypal images from these movies are those ongoing shots of crowds simply running for their lives.

What generally defeats the giant monster is the collective effort of a team of individuals. It took four bi-planes and the lives of a few pilots to bring King Kong down off the Empire State Building. In The Blob, juvenile delinquents found common cause with the adults to refrigerate the monster. Godzilla took mind-boggling coordination of scientific theory and the engineers and technicians necessary to engineer a bomb that would sap the ocean surrounding the monster of its oxygen.

And the original Japanese version of Godzilla, Gojira, called for a more comprehensive social response to ensure a future free of such threats. The horror of insignificance reminds us that our only real hope for survival lies with faith in one another.

"There is only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil, and that's us. Any questions?"

--Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
_________________________________________________________________

To get a glimpse of what can happen when we work together, check out this new video by the California Nurse's Association--

http://www.cleanmoneyelections.org/

Wednesday, October 25, 2006





Frailty

Day 7 of Countdown

“She was aware of how small they were, she and her daemon, in comparison with the majesty and vastness of the universe; and of how little they knew, in comparison with the profound mysteries above them.” --Philip Pulman, The Golden Compass

A black house stood to the side of a long, nearly deserted road that led from my home to a drive-in theater. To adults, the place no doubt seemed nothing special, just an abandoned tract house with what might have been tar-papered walls, but while the ghosts of my home were tamed by warm lighting and family, this was the place they ran free. The first crayon pictures I drew peopled this house with ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein monster lit only by a full moon, a moon I always drew with two black clouds across its face. The first stories I pecked out—just a few lines each--on my mother’s typewriter were always set at that black house, and it was that black house I thought of on spring afternoons when the sky turned dark and green and the threat of a tornado hung over the games I played with Paul and Devlin Hancock next door and Nancy Bates from across the street.

The way that “haunted house” and tornado weather go together in my memory says something about how our fears link up and intermingle.

“It’s a twister, a twister!” Ray Bolger called out to Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz, and my favorite part of that yearly television event was watching that long, gray monster snake around the horizon, leisurely working its way toward Dorothy’s farm. My grandparents in Kansas had a storm cellar like the one in the movie, and my Southern grandmother, Nana, had the best tornado stories I’d ever heard.

Nana would tell me of the tornado that passed just behind her house when she was a child, sounding like a freight train barreling through the woods laying its own tracks. She told me about the night half of Shreveport, Louisiana went to see the premiere of Gone with the Wind only to find their neighborhoods destroyed after the movie was over. The newspaper headline the next day merely needed to shout the movie title to tell the whole story.

And she told me of that day in second grade, at a little one room schoolhouse in East Texas where her family had moved to work a rice plantation. The teacher said, “There’s a storm blowing up. You children run along home.”

My grandmother and the younger of her two older brothers, Lewis, had set off across the fields for a mile long journey to their home. With a speech impediment made worse by the doctor’s solution, cutting tissue from under his tongue, Lewis was easy prey for bullies, and my grandmother saw herself as his protector. Nana was always the protector, just as she would later be for me and my brother.

I asked for this story more times than I can count, so I see it vividly. I imagine them trudging across that big field in the greening light. I feel the panic that must have shot through that little girl’s limbs, knowing this mysterious and deadly force as tall as a mountain could find them before they got home.

Just as they were reaching railroad tracks at the edge of the field, my grandmother and Lewis heard a booming voice ask, “What are you children doing out here?”

My grandmother looked up to see a giant of a man, a black man who she assumed was a field laborer, staring down at her. (When telling this story, without rising from the couch, Nana would lean forward and reach, acting the scene that followed.) The man picked Nana and her brother up and lay them in the ditch by the side of the railroad tracks. He stood over them with his back to the tracks. They didn’t have long to wait. Almost immediately, they heard the horrible sound of that freight train that wasn’t a freight train roar just a few feet away.

When she told that story, it always ended there, and she always gave the impression that she’d never seen that man before and never saw him again. But I think of that tale as uniquely central to the woman my grandmother was—a woman tossed fiercely by the world’s horrors but who—with her plum jelly, toasted cheese sandwiches, ghost stories and I-Spy games--always offered a refuge of unconditional love and security in our own turbulent lives.

When I think of the liberal dreams that died in the 60s, I also think of my grandmother, who--despite her tendency to pronounce Negro as “nigra,” and despite the way she held up her head with the regal heir of a descendent of southern aristocracy—believed in the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. She hated bullies of all stripes, and she instinctively watched out for others. “Children can be so cruel,” I heard her say more times than perhaps anything else. In a white supremacist world of bullies, a solitary Black man watched out for her and her little brother with the funny way of talking. I'm sure Nana's stories had much to do with why I connected so early with To Kill A Mockingbird, so much so that the scenes with Boo Radley and the children became a part of my childhood play with the neighbors.

To Kill A Mockingbird certainly wasn’t a horror movie in any conventional sense, but it was one of the scariest movies this 6 year old had seen, and I loved it for that. The same could be said for other movies I discovered that year, movies that undid something at the back of my skull even if they might seem to others to be going for laughs (The Fearless Vampire Killers) or anything but made for children (2001: A Space Odyssey). The bumbling vampire killers only made their supernatural foes seem more lethal and evil, and Hal 9000s’ seemingly gentle nature only made his madness more terrifying.

But to get back to ghost stories and tornado stories (my grandmother’s repertoire) I need to get to a movie made in 1933 by RKO studios that I also saw when I was 6 years old, a movie without a ghost or tornado in it, but that's not the point.

It was Halloween night, my favorite night all year long (or at least a close rival to Christmas Eve), and all but ruined because I was sick. I often was, but I was especially sick--at heart that night as much as anything--because my mother wouldn’t let me go trick or treating with what must have been worse than my usual cough.

But she did something wonderful for me that night. She decorated the den near the front door with jack-o-lanterns and black and orange crepe paper and spider webs complete with spiders, turning the room where I would spend the night watching TV into my own haunted house. And we watched what felt like the best movie I’d ever seen that night, King Kong.

I still feel how awe-inspiring that massive, ancient wall on Skull Island seemed then, lit only by torch fire and holding back some great beast in the jungle beyond--that feeling you only get once with Kong and maybe not ever unless you're 6 and clueless about it. I felt Fay Wray’s terror at hearing Kong’s footsteps, followed by the crashing of trees and brush, underscored by the loping (almost sadistic) Max Steinberg horns, and finally the face and torso of the thing itself. That scene comes a half hour into the film, but it was the most satisfying crescendo I had ever experienced.

Still, another scene haunted me more. It’s a small scene. After Kong has broken free in Manhattan come several shots of him rampaging through the city. He derails an elevated train, and he miraculously finds his way to the window outside Fay Wray’s hotel room. Those are frightening scenes, but the one that got me was a cut away to a police station. Several people are huddled around the dispatcher’s radio listening to the whereabouts of the giant on the loose in the darkness of the city. Now that scared me!

It was the idea of this great beast wandering in the darkness. And I think I know why. It is the same feeling a kid in Oklahoma gets listening to the storm reports of twisters over crackly AM radio on a windy, lightning and thunder torn night. It is a feeling of helplessness and mystery. Out there in the darkness somewhere is something worse than the average monster out to get you. Out there in the darkness is a monster that doesn’t care about you, or anything or anyone. If you get in its way, you’re just a random, inconsequential victim, and that may be the scariest thought of all.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006





What Me Worry?

(Day 6 of Countdown)

The insanity of the real world brings to light the central irony of horror. Supposedly, the sane person functions well in society. But if that society is bull goose looney, what does sanity mean?
Consider the case of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cold War audiences assumed the threat robbing the personalities of townsfolk must have been representative of communism, but the director thought he was making a satire of American consumer culture. In fact, the American critique Siegel intended is the way the movie holds up best, capturing our fear of the other in the process. The misreading of Siegel's movie says that much more about American society in its tendency toward denial, outright blindness and projection. It's amazing how horror illuminates our sickness even as it appeals to it. For such reasons, serious people make horror for serious reasons.

We will soon get around to the way the politics of Mary Wolstonecraft and William Godwin found their way into their daughter’s novel Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi, who became synonymous with Dracula, was a political exile from Hungary for his labor organizing there. Another Hungarian immigrant, Francis Faragoh, who scripted the 1931 Frankenstein, was infamous in Hollywood circles for his organizing on the Left. Boris Karloff helped build the Screen Actor’s Guild because of the exploitation he’d experienced as an actor. Curt Siodmak, who wrote The Wolf Man, saw his film as a way to metaphorically deal with the Nazi threat he’d fled in Germany (right down to his creation of the 5-pointed star which appears on the palms of the werewolf’s intended victims).

In the ‘50s, television playwright Rod Serling turned to fantasy and horror in response to censorship. Twice, Serling wrote scripts for the theatrical showcase Playhouse 90 inspired by the Emmet Till case (the brutal lynching of a 14-year-old black Chicago youth in Mississippi that helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement). No doubt anticipating a fight even the first time out, Serling changed the specifics to the extreme—Till’s corollary was an elderly Jew--but the fact that the story ended with an acquittal of the murderer made the point too obvious for the sponsors.

Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, tells what happened:

“U.S. Steel demanded changes in the script. The town was moved from an unspecified area to New England. The murdered Jew was changed to an unnamed foreigner. Bottles of Coca-Cola were removed from the set and the word ‘lynch’ stricken from the script (both having been determined ‘too Southern’ in their connotation). Characters were made to say ‘This is a strange little town’ or ‘This is a perverse town,’ so that no one would identify with it….When it was finally aired in April of 1956, ‘Noon on Doomsday’ was so watered down as to be meaningless.”

When Serling tried to approach the story again with a teleplay called “The Town Has Turned to Dust,” the results were equally neutered. In 1957, when he wrote a play about the United States Senate, Serling recalled, “To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.”

As a result, later that year, he explained to an incredulous (and apparently gullible) Mike Wallace that he’d given up “serious” writing in favor of a little sci-fi show called The Twilight Zone. From 1959 until 1964, Rod Serling became a household name tackling every issue imaginable from the horrors of racism to fascism to nuclear annihilation in the relatively safe space created by his fantastic Zone.

During this same period, film’s “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock not only delivered some of the edgiest material on television in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but his movies took a turn toward outright horror with Psycho and The Birds. In Psycho, the murderer is the archetypically good boy who dotes on his mother. In The Birds, nature itself seems to have gone, perhaps justifiably, unsane. Both movies have, at least at first, female protagonists who are socially isolated, who are morally complex and questionably sane themselves and represent the growing alienation of women in society. Of course, both movies question the sanity of the society itself. In Psycho, it’s a world where people live caged lives pretending to be free, while The Birds emphasizes the instability of the social veneer, at one point the protagonist being called a witch who has caused nature to run amuck.

The falsely accused, or the wrong man theme, may be the most common theme in all of Hitchcock’s work. The idea that the social order is maintained with all the rationality of the lynch mob forms a foundation for many of the most famous Hitchcock films, including the 39 Steps, Spellbound, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest and Frenzy. At the same time, the agents of ordered society, the police, are almost always portrayed as bumbling, even dangerous, fools. This theme in Hitchcock’s work is often attributed to the director’s childhood---when, to make an impression, his parents left him in jail for a night. It made an impression all right—that parents and police alike are nuts, and sometimes dangerous ones at that.

At the same time, most of Hitchcock’s films show ordered society as a place wherein people really have very little control over their lives—at best, they spend their time negotiating their way in and out of traps. Most of the above films carry that theme as well as Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Marnie.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Hitchcock’s films almost always emphasize the similarities between the monster and its victim, the villain and the protagonist, the insane and the sane. Movies that focus on this kind of doubling include Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Vertigo as well as virtually every film listed above. Arguably the 20th Century’s greatest craftsman of suspense was one of our greatest social critics. Hitchcock’s modern world is an irrational, unjust and thoroughly treacherous place.

At the end of the millennium, as America’s cultural markets became so specialized and divided that very little pop culture reached the broad audiences the Big Three networks once did, one of the exceptions to the rule was the long-running sci-fi/horror series the X-Files. Inspired by one of creator Chris Carter’s favorite childhood series, the Watergate era’s The Night Stalker (which pitted a rogue newspaper reporter against various cover-ups of things that go bump in the night), The X-Files overcame the problem of suspension of disbelief the earlier series had. While it was improbable that a newspaper reporter would find a monster every week, it was perfectly logical that an FBI team might be assigned to study the unexplained and that somewhere in America that unexplained might bare some real fangs on a regular basis.

The X-Files was most famous for its long and convoluted conspiracy thread, which traded in the same anxiety about those in power who had been the real antagonists in The Night Stalker. At a time when the majority of Americans had grown disillusioned with both political parties and opted out of voting all together, at a time when O.J. Simpson could be found innocent of murder primarily because of distrust of the police, the X-Files tapped into those feelings of distrust and helplessness. The only trustworthy FBI agents were the rogues with the motto “Trust No One.”

But the show may have been at its best when it veered away from the government conspiracies and focused on various monsters of the week. In those episodes, a gothic image of America emerged—a place where an endless series of skeletons burst out of closets in every dark corner of the country. Concepts of normalcy were regularly upended. In one episode an Arkansas cult is feared responsible for a series of murders while the true culprit is the town’s chicken processing plant. In another, Satan worshipping teens are accused of ritualistic violence when in fact the PTA is responsible. In one of the show’s most horrifying, funny and controversial episodes, "Home," small-town sheriff Andy Taylor and his deputy Barney are murdered by monsters created by generations of inbreeding that reach back to the Civil War. Just as the quality of the X-Files began to wane, Joss Whedon’s series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer would manage to find a way to address virtually every issue facing millennial youth with healthy doses of such humor and horror.

In the wake of 9/11/2001 and in the midst of the War on Terror, shows like Lost, Jericho, Invasion and even revamped sci fi like Battlestar Galactica all tackle today’s fear and paranoia by complicating rather than simplifying the complexities of the issues facing frightened, embattled societies. And more politically simplistic, movies like Saw, Wolf Creek and Hostel force us to experience wrongful imprisonment, sadism and torture in a political climate that makes excuses for such evils. Time and time again, the insanity that erupts from the poisoned earth of horror reveals the fault lines of our identity.

Monday, October 23, 2006


The Fear Behind the Fear

(Day 5 of Countdown)

"How, then, am I mad? Hearken!
And observe how healthily—
how calmly
I can
tell you
the whole story."

--Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart"

The threat of insanity stalks the ghost story. Henry James's classic A Turn of the Screw is archetypal in that it makes equal sense either as a tale of the supernatural or as a description of madness. More broadly, the fear that one's perception may be fundamentally flawed actually serves as a root archetype underlying all of our monsters. Put simply, the scariest thing may be that "I saw it with my own eyes" means nothing at all.

The Romantic writers obsessed over the dangers of false perception. Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous short story, "Young Goodman Brown," finds its richness in this fear. At the beginning of this tale, like a crime story, the young protagonist leaves his wife alone to engage in one evil errand—just one little thing he has to do before he can live the upright life he desires with his wife. The details of this errand are never revealed because they do not matter to Hawthorne. What matters is that Brown has taken that universal step of rationalizing that the ends will justify the means.

When he journeys into the forest, he encounters a devil who informs him that he is hardly an exception in his sin; his ancestors all made this same journey before him. In the woods, Brown meets his Sunday School teacher and all of his fellow townspeople, and the climax comes when he realizes that even his wife, Faith, has journeyed to the woods for the same reason.

For the rest of his life, Goodman Brown is tortured by the fact that everyone he once admired is tainted by evil. He shuns his townspeople and even his wife, and he dies miserable and lonely.

But, for our purposes, the key moment comes when the narrator suggests that the event in the woods may have only been a dream.

If the event was a dream, then Goodman Brown wasted his life in reaction to a delusion. If the event was real, he condemned his fellow man for the same sin that tempted him. Either way, his perception of the event in the woods is responsible for the tragic outcome. He has failed to find a constructive way to deal with it, and his life and death mean nothing to himself or those he might have loved.

Edgar Allan Poe's work returns to this treacherous vulnerability of perception time and time again. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" a man kills another because of the way the victim looks at him. In "A Cask of Amontillado," the narrator's cold-blooded revenge is based on something his victim said (never explained) that hurt his feelings, which seems like nothing next to the narrator's plot to bury his enemy alive. Tellingly, when the victim slips into madness while his killer walls him into the cellar, his maniacal laughter is echoed by the laughter of his killer. Madness consumes the scene.

In "Fall of the House of Usher," a seemingly sane narrator grows less trustworthy while spending time with an isolated, nervous friend. By the end of the story, he shares his friend's belief that the man's dead sister has returned from the grave and flees the home that, for no natural reason, topples to the ground.

In "The Masque of the Red Death," Poe describes a prince's party to escape the threat of a plague, "The Red Death." Every aspect of this story—from the bizarre d├ęcor that the prince finds appropriate to the behavior of the nervous guests to the eventual confrontation with a mysterious specter—suggests some mad hallucination.

Poe's most famous work, his poem "The Raven," captures the madness of grief, a favorite theme from an author who lost every woman he ever loved to sickness. After all, the poem's conflict revolves around a grieving man talking to a bird late at night. And his vision of the bird piercing his heart with its beak can only be the deadly conclusion to a flight of fancy (not that any of us who have grieved heavily don't know exactly how lethal such visions can feel or, most disturbingly, how welcome they can be). The fact that Edgar Allan Poe's name is virtually synonymous with the concept of horror says a lot about what we most fear.

Another horror of perception that we will tackle at length later, a profound feeling of insignificance, also dwells in this house of insanity. One of the most vivid examples is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic "The Yellow Wallpaper." This story revolves around a Victorian wife's secret journal, a journal she has been forbidden to write. Her husband and brother, convinced of her frailty, are keeping her confined in an upstairs room of a home in the country (which the family has purchased with hopes of bringing her out of her hysteria). The narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom and the parallel universe, including a woman like herself, confined there. It does not take a familiarity with Gillman's radical political writings to recognize here the insignificance of the narrowly-circumscribed role of the bourgeois wife described by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State or the hysteria described by Betty Frieden half a century later in The Feminine Mystique.

Incubus, succubus and vampire themes often touch on similar territory, as repressed sexual fantasies morph into deadly night visitors—as in the 1982 movie The Entity, in which a sexy single mother of three seems to have dreamed up a phantom abusive boyfriend. Such movies also play with the child's fear of helplessness in a home where the rock has come unmoored.

Flipping the gender on "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Entity, Bill Paxton's movie Frailty deals with the madness that stems from a single father's need to be a hero. What’s scary is that his son is faced with whether it is wrong to doubt Dad though every fiber of what he knows to be right and wrong says Pop’s gone rabid.

Madness is the single most common theme in modern horror, whether we are talking about The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, Halloween, Identity, In the Mouth of Madness, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the Others. In most cases, the sanity of the protagonists is questioned. In Carrie , the insanity of the protagonist pales compared to both the insanity of her Bible-slapping mother and the insanity of the society of high school. In the most acclaimed recent take on the zombie picture, 28 Days Later , the insanity of the neo-Nazis who are fighting the zombies is weighed against the zombies themselves, and the protagonists decide to take their chances with the zombies. Similarly, George Romero’s Land of the Dead makes clear what his epic series has always been about--the madness of what passes for civilization.

Since madness serves as an explanation for anything irrational, all horror may be seen as an exploration of madness. In his exploration of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King recalls the day his Uncle Clayt convinced him that dowsing for water really worked:

"I will say that Uncle Clayt had lulled me into that same state that I have tried again and again to lull readers of my stories into—that state of believing where the ossified shield of 'rationality' has been temporarily laid aside, the suspension of disbelief is at hand, and the sense of wonder is again within reach."

King makes the point that children get to that place much easier than adults because kids do not expect to have control over their world. Giving up control to the storyteller is easy for a child, but uncomfortable for the adult. For this reason, he suggests that a child actually deals with fears better than an adult:

"…if you put a little kid of six in the front row at a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre along with an adult who was temporarily unable to distinguish between make believe and 'real things' (as Danny Torrance, the little boy in The Shining puts it)—if, for instance, you had given the adult a hit of Yellow Sunshine LSD about two hours before the movie started—my guess is that the kid would have maybe a week's worth of bad dreams. The adult might spend a year or so in a rubber room, writing home with Crayolas."

King does two things at once in this passage. One is that he suggests that engaging in horror is a perfectly decent activity for kids. He also implies that surrender of control to such irrational forces may exercise useful mental muscles for adult and child alike.

Counterintuitive as it may be, who is to say that the fantasy fan isn't better prepared to deal with the horrors of the real world than the person who only deals with the realm of reason? What does the purely rational person do with the fall of the World Trade Center, the War on Terror or the phenomenon surrounding the Passion of the Christ? What does the person with no horror muscle tone do with clergy who molest children, fathers who murder their pregnant wives or children who go on shooting rampages (much less 30-something men who kill Amish school girls)? Craziest of all, how does the rational person explain people with full bellies preaching their value system to those who can't feed their children?

The answer, of course, is not simple. Some people retreat into a world of fantasy to escape the real world. While some who deal in reason can use the rational mind with the precision of a scalpel to restore a sense of priority and focus to the most outrageous realities. (Both abound in fiction, Poe's rationalist prototype of Sherlock Holmes, Monsieur Dupin, at one end of the spectrum, while, at the other, the X-Files' Fox Mulder uses similar analytical skills to embrace the paranormal.)

The important point here is that dealing with the real world demands some capacity for dealing with the irrational. It's a crazy place. In fact, one of the comforts of fantasy is that the most outlandish fiction will almost certainly make more sense than the world of the reader. The writer guarantees some order that no one's guaranteeing you when you walk out the door each day.

Sunday, October 22, 2006
















Lost Worlds

(Day 4 of Countdown)

For the first 8 years of my life, I lived in a little red brick house with white trim and a white picket fence (on which roses sometimes grew) in a neighborhood that was built shortly after World War II. I lived with married parents, a father who worked and a mother who didn’t and an older brother who was athletic enough to get his picture in our small-town newspaper playing every major sport. My brother and I each had separate bedrooms, and we had a good sized backyard with a swing set. In the front yard was a silver maple I used to climb to what seemed its very top branches, and I could look out through those limbs at an entire neighborhood of homes that looked just like my own.

My father worked downtown. Inside his office building, the ultimate monument to all this security stood way above my head, supported by marble walls that projected their own self-importance and the importance of those who clicked bold strides through their freshly buffed hallways. The monument was my early childhood’s Mount Rushmore, a series of four-times-larger-than-life black and white photographs that paneled the upper reaches of the front lobby.

The photographs were awe-inspiring and serious. One showed an early 20th Century oil well gushing the black gold that made Bartlesville, Oklahoma what it was. One showed a greasy-helmeted refinery worker (which always reminded me of my grandfather’s lifelong job in a co-op refinery) soberly tackling a mind-boggling array of pipes as wide as tree trunks and valves big enough to be semi steering wheels. One picture showed white lab-coated scientists, holding up beakers and peering seriously at the mysterious liquids they held. One, fuzzier in my memory because it mixes with images from my father’s workplace, showed white collar workers monitoring computer banks with a galaxy of blinking lights reaching as high as those walls that towered in front of me.

On those odd occasions when my father would take me with him to work, generally after hours, I gawked at these pictures, feeling the appropriate sense of disquiet. I would stare at these majestic icons as he spoke to a security guard at a large wooden desk higher than my head.

That workplace provided my home, the place I felt most secure in the world, which I suppose makes me an average, if not somewhat lucky, child.

I was insecure outside of that home. I dreaded school. I had a sullen teacher who rapped students on their hands with a ruler throughout the day.

I was a timid kid, sickly and shy. Tougher boys called each other by their last names and challenged each other to fights and feats of bravery like climbing the walls that separated our walkways from the playground. I certainly did my best to hang, and I was “Alexander” on that playground, and I remember the sting of gravel and goatheads in my hands from those falls and how my knees were permanently torn out of my jeans from my falls (more than once, an infected rash worked its way up and down my legs). But I was not a natural on the playground. I don’t know how many other kids hated leaving the house in the morning the way that I did.... I'd guess a lot really.

My first sacred stop upon coming home was in the kitchen. Some of my best memories of that house took place in that kitchen, carving pumpkins at Halloween; the living room TV turned so we could see it, watching Ed Sullivan or Red Skelton or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. while eating a frozen pizza with my brother and my grandmother. We had a brown glass cookie jar there that I learned to open without a sound.

One day in particular, I would guess I’d just swiped a handful more than I was supposed to out of that jar. My mother would have been doing housework in the back bedrooms somewhere while I sat eating from a plastic bowl at the kitchen table. For whatever reason, I was alone in the kitchen.

As I sat in that sunlit room, at that blond wood table looking at the yellow-flowered wallpaper that surrounded me, something big happened.

A drop of water appeared on the placemat beside me. As the afternoon sun shone through the window over the kitchen sink, I felt an odd shock. This wasn’t right.

Then another drop fell, and another. It was the beginning of a rain shower in the house.

I looked up to see a stream of water working its way down the copper light fixture over the kitchen table and starting to pour freely onto the table.

This part is like one of those dreams where you try to cry out for help, but there is no sound. A sunny kitchen now seemed sickly yellow. My stomach turned; my heart stuttered.

The water began to gush, and my mother cried out. She yanked me away from the table, and the horror of the moment set in. Sunny day, a flood in the house….water from a light bulb! This ranked up there with the stories my Southern grandmother told me of ball lightning and apparitions rocking on porch swings at sunset.

After I was whisked across the street to my friend Nancy’s, I learned that a water line broke, which apparently ran through our attic. It would seem like hours before I returned to my home that night. I know that I never felt as comfortable sitting at that table again.

I now see this memory, the horror of it, had everything to do with realizing how little I knew about the world around me, what an illusion it all was. After all, most of my early memories were those of constants, a sense that things had always been the way they were and that they would stay that way. I don’t believe in very many of those now, but children don’t even know they have a choice of what to believe, and my parents seemed certain of the world they navigated so casually and offered me with great confidence.

Of course, they even struggle to believe in that world today.

That water main break was just the first vivid tremor of a number of lessons in humility that made me realize how small my first world had been.

At 10, when my parents divorced, my mother struggled to go back to school, and my father and I lived in a little apartment in a more urban area of my hometown. My mother no longer lived in the same society she and my father shared, and I soon saw how fragile our first world really was.

When my mother began dating a black man, her best friend throughout my early childhood (my best friend’s mother) wrote her a letter saying that she no longer understood my mother and no longer knew how to be her friend. My mother was alone except for a small new group of friends, all people in transition.

Later, my father remarried and built a new house in a suburban neighborhood, and my movement between homes was a movement from air conditioning to floor fans, from a showroom living room to a house with little room for the half a dozen people who lived there at any given time.

In the 80s, with the downsizing and merging of oil companies, both my father and my father-in-law would be pushed out of their seemingly secure white collar jobs. When I began writing this book, after a divorce and many financial problems, I lived on just a few dollars a day in a little duplex in one of the poorer areas of my city.

Growing older has been one lesson after another in the fragile limits of my childhood, a world that looked like the American dream, and a world that was stripped from so many of us. For me, there is an upside to this commonplace story. I was born into a cocoon, and it took the next thirty years for me to break free of it.

Breaking free of that cocoon meant re-examining the world as I had received it. At each stage, I relearned that lesson from the flood at the kitchen table. The world around me was never as secure as it appeared to be, and it carried potential dangers if it was not understood. Over and over again, I've had to learn to question the web of illusions that define my reality.

Of course, the significance of that raining kitchen came to me long after the event itself, but what stuck with me about it was the way it made me feel that I could not trust my own eyes. Memories of my grandmother’s stories of ball lightning and ghostly apparitions flooded that moment, but the helplessness, the terror I felt had everything to do with the feeling that reality had just gone out the window, where the sun was still shining, taunting me.

In retrospect, I had other times that I wondered about my own sanity. Other times, particularly when I felt embarrassed and alone, the taunting voices of my subconscious seemed to ring out in my head like they might take over. Around the same time, I was diagnosed with asthma. I quickly picked up on the fact that most people assumed asthma was some kind of psychosomatic disease, the stereotype of the asthmatic kid in movies and on TV being that nervous kid who reached for his inhaler whenever he had a panic attack. I've never quit wondering about this stereotype--the grain of truth in it, the mortal danger of it and its relevance or irrelevance.

30 years later, I would develop a tingling sensation on the left side of my body that I assumed to be some kind of a neurological problem but which my doctor initially treated as a case of anxiety. Each time, I had the same gut level fear. If these things I was experiencing weren’t real, then I couldn’t tell the difference in what was real and what wasn’t, and that was the most terrifying possibility of all.

The solution in each case was, on some level, as simple as understanding the concept of a water main break. Even if the answers weren’t as readily available, simply knowing that mysteries were challenges to understand the world better helped me face my fears and cope with problems that came later.

In today’s world, an American society that has rags to riches myths to keep everyone motivated to strive for a better life, the fact that more and more of us find ourselves slipping down the economic ladder no matter what we do has driven members of my own family into all kinds of self-destructive behavior. What monsters, Marx and music have given me are the tools to face my fear of the unknown, explore it and begin to come to grips with the often maddening contradictions of reality. Through this process, I’m repeatedly heartened that our society as a whole can face these contradictions and build a much more sane and just future. But we have a lot of work to do—uncomfortable, unsettling and uncertain work.

___________________________________________________________________

Take 'Em As They Come's great friend David Cantwell has just wrapped up a week of essays in honor of Chuck Berry's 80th birthday (October 18th) at www.Livinginstereo.com.
It was the inspiration for this two week countdown to Halloween. Each day has been well worth reading, as Cantwell's website always is. Please check it out.