Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Why We Need What We Fear, Part 2
(Day 13 of Countdown, Halloween)
For all of the wonders of science, and the inescapable fact that we owe virtually every convenience of our modern lives to scientific endeavor, we fear the future. After all, science has given us a means to annihilation at the very basis of matter—the atom. We first saw the horrific potential of this invisible speck of science in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but later saw more insidious dangers with the threatened meltdown of Three Mile Island and the disaster that played itself out at Chernobyl. The threats of genetically engineered disease and military strains of anthrax captured the science fiction imagination even before those menacing envelopes of white powder that appeared after September 11, 2001. Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are legion in both our reality and our imagination.
Similarly, we also fear our scientific efforts to improve society. In a world that has not only witnessed the horrors of Nazi eugenics experiments and genocide but also the syphilis experiments secretly conducted on blacks in the United States, it is easy to see why. Big Brother is alive and well in a country that has passed the Patriot Act, which allows for heightened surveillance and arrest of those suspected of being political enemies of the United States. The average American’s behavior is photographed and recorded innumerable times each day. We would be crazy to not be afraid of the abuse of such technology.
Countless science fiction stories feature technology gone mad—as with the robotic futures of The Terminator and The Matrix movies as well as the biological terrors of The Stand and Cabin Fever. We also fear the effects such technological advances are having on our psyches. The angry truck drivers of Duel and Joy Ride embody our fears of, and our own feelings of, road rage. The mindless mallwalkers in both versions of Dawn of the Dead embody our consumerist complacency. It says something that Invasion of the Bodysnatchers has often been interpreted as a metaphor for Stalinist repression of the individual while director Don Siegel has said he was thinking more about the uniformity of the American consumer society. The fact that the 1956 story has been remade in 1978, 1993 and 2006 (as The Visiting) says something about how Siegel’s conception of the idea holds up. Movies like The Stepford Wives, They Live and even the Matrix trilogy offer different takes on the same fear of loss of individuality. We fear an unsane future, whether it be in the violence loving society or its inhuman antidote in A Clockwork Orange.
Along with our fear of insanity, science fiction offers some variation on all of our fears. The Frankenstein monster becomes HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the replicants of Blade Runner. Vampires take over the Earth in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and The Omega Man. Our inner wolf is unleashed in the insanity of the rageaholic zombies of 28 Days Later. Not all sci fi but kindred, the new gothic heroines of Resident Evil, Underworld and Buffy the Vampire Slayer face all of these monsters and the infinite variety of madness, helplessness and alienation that causes them and is caused by them.
The future is the place where horror and science fiction become all but indistinguishable, but there are important common denominators in the vision. Science fiction horror is, in the main, a world of repressive order (dystopia) or a world of chaos. The great fear that connects these two visions lies in a distrust of human nature. We don’t trust our own ability to deal with what's coming our way.
What we expect and most fear about the future is a time of reckoning. We are afraid of that moment when we must face our fears and deal with them. On a crucial level, we are afraid of that moment when we can no longer take refuge in our child-like innocence, but we absolutely must take responsibility for setting things right. This fear binds horror and science fiction with yet another sibling, fantasy.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, all of the elements of the horror reckoning exist in a world born out of mythology and our childhood imaginations. As with most horror, the fate of the world of the story lies in the hands of a very small number of people, the fellowship of the ring, several members of which hold nothing anything like real power in their mythic universe. But they do have a grasp on key secrets. And when they understand what needs to be done, they are bound together to achieve that goal. From the Ring Wraiths to the Balrog to the armies of Samoran and Sauron, monsters abound and threaten their quest, but the key to the future lies in the hands of the least of them, a little, unambitious, man-like creature called a hobbit. Though the hobbit would rather do anything than take the world on his shoulders, he alone might slip past the radar of the evil threatening the land, and so he sacrifices himself to do what he needs to do.
Three elements here abound as archetypes of the horror reckoning. The collective that understands what needs to be done appears again and again. The most common and essential element here is the Gandalf-like keeper of arcane knowledge, who becomes Van Helsing in the many Dracula stories, the gypsy queen of The Wolf Man, and even Father Merrin of The Exorcist. These seemingly foolhardy bands of individuals--armed with beliefs typically tossed aside or scorned by social progress--have lost the greatest illusion of comfort that gets many of us through the day. They know no Lone Ranger on a white horse is going to ride in and save the day. If they don’t do it, no one will, and that certainty is at least as horrifying as the threat of any individual monster alone.
And then there is always that one member of the group whose role is slightly more important than that of all of the others. That individual—Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, Jonathan Harker in Dracula, Father Karrass in The Exorcist, Buffy, the would be cheerleader—must ultimately face key elements of the horror alone. That character is the protagonist of the archetypal horror story, which means that is the character we are asked to identify with most closely. In other words, we read horror and many other genres of fiction tied together by this impulse, in part, to vicariously experience what any sane person fears—what it’s like to know the fate of your world lies in your own hands and what it takes to rise to that occasion.
Our fears are justified in virtually all horror mythology. The protagonist often dies—if not in the course of the final battle, then as a consequence after the fact. But what each of these characters has decided is the most important part of the ethos. His or her greatest fears, and even the protagonist’s individual survival, are less important than the call of the moment, the larger responsibility. In the film version of The Exorcist, Father Karrass cries “Take me,” and carries Ragan’s demon out of the window to the street below. As with many horror resolutions, the monster may not even be destroyed, but it has been derailed from its present task, and other lives are saved by the martyrdom of the protagonist. Reaching back to its gothic roots, the crucifixion of the horror protagonist may be the most common Christian element.
Some of the more self aware versions of these myths recognize the need to liberate such concepts of death and resurrection from traditional Christianity. In the epic television show, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, the young heroine must not only sacrifice her own life (more than once), but she and the fellowship she left behind (playfully called the Scoobies) must wrestle with their toughest challenges after her resurrection. Her teacher, Giles, must learn to be a student; her eternally boyish friend Xander, must learn to be a man; and her most powerful friend, the witch Willow, must learn to take control of forces that once overwhelmed her. Buffy herself must even give up her unique role as savior to unleash the power in the world’s potential slayers.
In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, every member of the fellowship (in this case called a ka-tet) must face his or her own death, in effect destroying even the ka-tet itself. Even King, the writer as a character, must reckon with what might have happened if he didn't survive being run over by a van on June 19th, 1999. In this epic’s particularly bleak outcome, the only slim chance that the future might be saved lies in the act of storytelling itself.
Both Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and the Dark Tower series complicate the tale of resurrection in what seem to be Godless universes. In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, God becomes the heart of the problem. As with these other stories, the disempowered have to assert their influence on the world around them. Two all but unwanted children from different worlds, Lyra and Will, serve as the protagonists, and both must pass into the land of the dead in order to achieve a just reckoning. Once Lyra and Will understand that the evils of their world can be traced to the power of a morally bankrupt divinity, they realize their God, the Authority, must be overthrown and replaced with a Republic of Heaven. Similarly, Buffy, in the end, realizes she has the power to throw out the rule book for slayers.
While most traditional horror and fantasy calls upon some form of divine intervention to set the world right, virtually all of it asserts that (culturally, socially and politically) insignificant, often misfit, characters play a crucial role in the world’s redemption. What all three of these recent series ask is how we respond if whatever divinity exists has failed us. Then we are faced with our greatest fear—the future is up to us. It doesn’t get much scarier than that.
Monday, October 30, 2006
Why We Need What We Fear, Part 1
(Day 12 of Countdown to Halloween)
“And you began to live longer and have more time, and space out the deaths, and put away fear, and at last have only special days in each year when you thought of night and dawn and spring and autumn and being born and being dead.”
Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
I remember being by the side of my bed, staring at the quilt that my mother made, when I first understood that I was going to die. I don’t remember the situation, the details of how I asked my mother or how she tried to cushion my understanding, but I remember the fact of having asked and having been told that all of us would die one day, and it was later, in my room and I was down on my knees on my floor, looking at the bed.
I was very young, maybe no more than 5 or 6, but the new questions rushing through my brain trumped all the answers I’d ever received, particularly from people who’d also handed me the wonderful magic of Santa Claus and a tooth fairy. Why was I so lucky and why was I so cursed?
I suppose I'm lucky that I always felt lucky to have been born. And I know I was very lucky to have two loving, nurturing parents and an equally gentle and kind older brother to make me feel secure in those early years.
But I am also in some ways grateful that family broke apart by the time I was 10 because I may have had an even harder time with change than I do. More vividly than that old quilt, I can see my parents holding hands, my mother sitting beside me on the couch and my father sitting on the ottoman in front of me telling me that they weren’t going to be living together anymore. People think it’s odd when I tell them this, but my parents took me out to see the movie The Sting right after that announcement, and that’s a bittersweet, precious memory. Something had died, and I was in shock, but I was also with my parents, and I could tell I was going to live. There was even a flutter of excitement that with this death came new possibilities.
Those endorphins didn’t mean I was out of the woods. Though I have warm memories of those next few years, living one-to-one with both of my parents and getting to know them better as individuals (and feeling what everyone wants to feel in their junior high years—grown up), I still yearned for things to go back the way they had been.
I felt closer to my parents than before, but adulthood did not seem like a happy place. The forces that drove my parents to separate rather than adapt and deal with each other seemed as obscure to my parents as they were to me. And other adults didn’t seem happy either. My harried teachers in their odd polyester outfits, the ashen-faced and rumpled white collar workers who I sold newspapers to after work, my friends’ parents who generally seemed cold and severe (at one extreme, or overly emotional and a little bit scary at another), all of these adults told me something went wrong when we grew up. I associated the smells of coffee and beer with that thing that went wrong. Coffee, in particular, smelled like a disease.
Okay, this is a heckuva leap, but I think it's worth it. It seems to me that these childhood perceptions parallel Western Civilization’s dominant conception of evil, particularly vivid in Christianity. The King James Bible’s Gospel According to John states, “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What follows is the fall of Man, the Word made flesh and sacrificed to redeem Man and a struggle between Good and Evil that results in the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelations, a happy ending to a story of continuous moral decline.
This generalized perception that the past is somehow closer to a divine order and the future is a continual movement toward decadence is pervasive in our society. One constant assumption I have to talk about with my students semester after semester is the perception they have had drilled into them that their parents’ generation was somehow more wholesome than they are. Though it’s fairly easy to show that the rates of violent crime, drug use and sexual promiscuity were higher when I was a child in the seventies, my younger students tend to equate their parents’ childhood (roughly the same era as mine) with some kind of Ozzie & Harriet or Brady Bunch neverland.
This nostalgia overlooks a lot of nasty reality, such as the racial segregation that was barely beginning to lose hold in my youth (and stays alive in so many ways today). This nostalgia also makes it easy to equate any advances in scientific understanding or technology as corrupting to the human spirit. We may not really want to live in the past, but an unexamined assumption that underpins most discussions is that the past is better, and the future is something to dread.
Turn chronology into a plain old X axis, and superimpose over that a horizontal concept of Heaven and Earth, and it’s pretty plain that these ideas reflect the concept of a God-centered universe. In the third century, the Neo-Platonists who worked to merge Greek philosophy with Christianity crafted this image of God at the core of the universe and the material world at its furthest reaches, so that our physical world was that world most tainted by evil. Though St. Augustine modified this by saying that distance from God was a matter of free will and not a polarity between matter and spirit, most religious thought casts redemption as some kind of rising above the physical plane. This no doubt has something to do with why both liberal and conservative philosophies tend to have Puritanical ideas about mankind’s more animal natures—our sexuality and our aggressiveness in particular.
So far from the God end of the axis, no wonder sexuality lies at the base of so many moral arguments. No wonder Jesus’s virginity (not to mention his miraculous fertilization) still fuels popular debate. Sexuality ties together both concepts of the linear movement away from God—chronologically, our growth out of childhood and, conceptually, the development of our drive for sensual pleasure, Earthly pleasure. Complicating things even more, we tend to describe spiritual illumination in very similar terms as those we use to describe sexual ecstasy, which all of the above paradigms suggest must be tainted by evil. What a mess!
These paradigms not only suggest why the bump and grind rhythms of popular music are assumed to be evil, but they help to explain why the horror genre seems so laced with a fear of growing up. The concepts coverge in slasher movies--where sexually active characters die first. But it’s a more subtle impulse that I find interesting.
At its base is the fact that I feel like a kid watching a horror movie, and the fear tends to be a precious reminder of childhood. A kid at the center of the action is also archetypical of horror stories as varied as A Turn of the Screw, The Exorcist and Salem’s Lot, which certainly helped me bridge the gap between children’s books and adult novels as a preteen.
I think it was my own ambivalence over a loss of innocence that drew me to Ray Bradbury’s stories and novels. Whether he was dealing with the potential loss of a friend to illness in The Halloween Tree or the magical properties of Dandelion Wine or the threatening world of the exotic carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes, part of what I could hear in that voice was an echo of my own pain over a loss of innocence and a capacity for wonder. Many attack Bradbury’s often purple prose, but as a fan I can testify that it is the child’s ear in that poetry that gives Bradbury’s writing its essential magic.
In Stephen King’s most Bradbury-esque novel, It, a similar poetry runs through descriptions of the geography of childhood—junkyards and railyards and abandoned buildings—as well as the concrete threats of bullies and the mystical reveries of first crushes. The It that threatens the story’s children is that thing that robs them of their childhood, that robs them of their innocence. It is this movement away from the sense of possibility, the wonder and the hope, we associate with childhood that is the greatest horror of all.
At the same time, and this is the sort of thing King doesn’t get nearly enough credit for, It complicates this nostalgia by making plain that the horror predates the child and it is an inextricable counterpoint to the wonder of childhood. Puberty plays an essential role in defeating the monster, and the protagonists never really win the war until well into their adulthood, by invoking their child selves as adults.
But King’s complex take on the question aside, it’s easy to see why we fear the future (with or without a particular philosophy or theology to back us up)—to catalogue all of the various takes on horror in the future tense is to list (only sometimes metaphorically) the many ways we are screwing up our world. And, not incidentally, the reason kids notice adults hitting that caffeine in the morning and alcohol at night just to make it through another day.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
(Day 11 of Countdown)
Kids who love horror recognize these complexities even if they can’t articulate them. They are drawn to monsters even though they know the contact will make them shudder. And they can smell the truth in a passage like the one in Robert McCammon’s novel, Boy’s Life, when he goes home after a particularly ugly run in with bullies and tapes his Famous Monsters of Filmland pictures all over his bedroom. McCammon writes:
“I was never afraid of my monsters. I controlled them. I slept with them in the dark, and they never stepped beyond their boundaries. My monsters had never asked to be born with bolts in their necks, scaly wings, blood hunger in their veins, or deformed faces from which the beautiful girls shrank back in horror. My monsters were not evil; they were simply trying to survive in a tough old world. They reminded me of myself and my friends: ungainly, unlovely, beaten but not conquered. They were the outsiders searching for a place to belong in a cataclysm of villager’s torches, amulets, crucifixes, silver bullets, radiation bombs, air force jets, and flamethrowers. They were imperfect, and heroic in their suffering.”
The fact that we grow up in haunted homes in a scary world has everything to do with a child’s attraction to fear. Nowhere did my attraction to fear speak more clearly than in the poster I bought that very same trip to Atlanta that my six year old self bought War’s “Spill the Wine” (see "Something to Be" blog, 2006 08 27). The face of death itself hung on my wall, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, staring blankly from under his heavy lids, fingers splayed at his sides, daring me to take him in. His portrait chilled me, but it also held me close. I could not articulate the effect such pictures had on me then, and I don't want to falsify the answers now. Let’s just say they enchanted me with the beauty of mystery and horror.
This enchantment led me to strike a deal with my parents that I would go to bed early on Saturday nights if they would get me up at midnight to watch Mazeppa Pompazoidi’s Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting. Hosted by Tulsa comedian Gailard Sartain (as a screw loose sorcerer named Mazeppa) and a handful of sidekicks (including Gary Busey, aka Teddy Jack Eddy), this shock theater package introduced me to the classic monsters of Universal Studios in a package of anarchic comedy that combined elements of Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs and the 3 Stooges. For a six year old at the close of the 1960s, this was the beginning of my counter cultural education.
And it was empowering. From those nights in 1969 on, I watched and read about monsters all of the time. I too had a stack of Famous Monsters of Filmland in my room and monster pictures on my wall. I made the Aurora model kits of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde, the mysterious tattered skeleton called the Forgotten Prisoner, King Kong and Godzilla. I drew monsters and I wrote about monsters, writing my first unfinished novels about a lizard man (The Lacertilian Experiment) and a giant squid (The Kraken) in fourth grade.
After my parents divorced and I was a latchkey kid in a new neighborhood with an old school, I was lucky to find a fellow monster lover in the only kid who dressed like me, Scot Billingsley. Scot and I made horror movies with my mother’s wind-up, Standard 8 (Green Stamps-trade) camera. Each roll of film was less than 3 minutes long, so these movies were little more than special effects reels, but we learned a good deal about horror make-up and how to make stage blood that was better than the stuff you could buy at the store (if only because we could make large quantities to splash around at a time).
We also made some pocket change every Halloween with elaborate spook houses put on in the Billingsleys' old garage out back of their house. We planned those spook houses for months in advance and even coaxed half the kids in the neighborhood into volunteering their services.
Honestly, I do not think I would be a writer today, much less a teacher of writing, if I hadn’t been turned on by the art of horror. And there's the heart of it. If Mary Shelley hadn’t written so powerfully about her feelings of alienation, I don’t know how I would have found these means to connect.