Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror and Conservatism

Even if you’ve never heard of Arch Oboler, you may know the plot of one of his many radio plays if you’re familiar with Bill Cosby’s stand-up comedy. Cosby made the Lights Out episode “Chicken Heart” famous to generations who had never really listened to fiction on radio. I understand that as a consequence some people believe that Cosby made up the story. Either way, many of those who know about it now remember “Chicken Heart” as an example of how something absurd can be frightening to children or exciting to those who experience it in suitable surroundings. Few seem to remember it as twenty-minute rebuke of pacifism framed as a science fiction horror story.

It is not for nothing that the subject of the experiment that drives Oboler’s story was a chicken heart and not, for instance, the kidney of a bear or the stomach of a lion. The story’s protagonist is a scientist filling the role of the unheeded prophet, insisting that the chicken heart, which grows with every pulse and consumes everything around it, must be destroyed with firepower and brute force. But everyone who is in a position to combat the thing insists upon searching for a more delicate solution, refusing to declare war upon the thing until it is too large and too powerful to be stopped.

This sort of conservative metaphor is typical of Arch Oboler’s horror plays. Also typically, they were the some of the best examples of horror on radio. His story titled “Neanderthal Man” conveys the same ideas as “Chicken Heart,” but with an even broader focus and more didactic presentation. Three characters slip into a time that predates civilization and find themselves confronted by an ancestor of human beings. The two men argue about how to deal with the threat. One has a gun and wants to shoot the Neanderthal dead at the first opportunity, while the other abhors guns and wants to try to communicate with it and reason with it. The latter is killed by the pre-human creature, and as he lies dying he acknowledges that it was foolish to think that one could reason with an uncivilized enemy.

Lights Out has another episode, titled “The Dream,” which stars Boris Karloff as a man who is compelled to kill by a vision of a spectral woman, who continues to haunt him throughout his arrest, trial, and conviction, prompting him to insist that he die as a consequence of his crime. The entire episode is clearly devoted to arguing in favor of a broad application of the death penalty. The theme is not just conservative, but boldly conservative, with Karloff’s character making it very clear that his death is necessary not because it will dissuade other murders, or give peace to his soul, but just because the social convention ought to be that if you take a life, you ought to give your own. And between Karloff’s exquisite voice acting and Oboler’s excellent horror sensibilities, it is a frightening tale just on its surface.

“Revolt of the Worms” is a marvelously effective horror story, and I read it as a self-righteous defense of the bourgeoisie. The metaphor is less obvious than some of his others, but it seems to be on some level an attempt to instill fear in the wealthy, educated, or successful about the possibility of being attacked and overrun by those who have been empowered by the efforts of that higher class. The stories theme is one that I am especially likely to take issue with. It is also one of my very favorite radio horror stories.

Also among my favorites is “The Thing on the Fourbile Board,” an episode of Quiet, Please, which was written and directed by Wyllis Cooper, who actually created Lights Out before passing it off to Oboler. “The Thing on the Fourbile Board” is generally a favorite horror tale for anyone who is familiar with old time radio. Spoiler alert in case anyone is interested in listening to it: It tells the story of an invisible creature uncovered from deep in the earth by an oil drilling operation. The character that we initially see as the protagonist tells the story in retrospect, culminating in a climactic confrontation with the creature, wherein he dumps paint on it to make it visible. Advancing to the present, we learn that he took pity on the monster, and actually married it, resolving to take care of it by feeding it a steady supply of human victims.

What’s interesting about the creature in this story is that it is a neat little package of sexual transgressions. It has the face of a little girl, but the body of a spider, and when the narrator introduces it to the audience he says that she likes to be called Mike. By being married to and presumably sleeping with it, the narrator is dipping a finger into the trifecta of bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality. Add to that the fact that the first evidence of the creature is a severed finger bearing a ring and the perceived transgressions seemingly expand to include adultery or divorce. No doubt there is also meaning in the fact that the creature is ordinarily invisible, and that we are initially led to trust the narrator. The implication is clearly that these discomforting elements of society and the human psyche were buried and invisible unless brought into focus, but that they were there, and that your own neighbor might be a practitioner of bestiality, a pedophile, and adulterer, or – no doubt frightening in 1948 – a homosexual. So as I see it, put simply, one of the best horror stories ever written for radio is about the conservative values of mistrust and a blanket terror of social taboos.

I am an extraordinarily analytical consumer of fiction. Even when it comes to horror, I want the story to mean something, even though I recognize that that may not be typical of horror. So I give a close reading to the story and its themes whenever I can, to such an extent that most others would quickly grow bored and frustrated with me. In my necessarily solitary viewing I have tended to get the impression that the horror stories that are not only the most fun to analyze are quite conservative in their message, and that the same are often the most frightening.

Of course, that correlation is only natural. What is typically most frightening to us is the unfamiliar, and the outcome of current social change is always unfamiliar, as well as being the usual enemy of conservative thinking. So thoughtful horror tends to uphold existing taboos, painting social mores as either that which is being threatened or that which will defend the protagonists against the veiled evil that is stalking them. For my generation, there is no more obvious example of this than the rules of slasher films. By and large, nothing is more dangerous to the killer’s potential victims than being a sexually active adolescent. Drug use will also tend to get you in trouble.

Yet thinking much farther back than that, many familiar horror archetypes used in classic films and reused through the decades represent the dangers of failing to respect existing social boundaries. The once-commonplace mad scientist tended to be someone who brought about destruction and his own violent downfall because he tampered in areas that were seen as God’s domain. There is also no shortage of stories in which the thing that begins the horror is a transgression against traditional religion by way of experimenting with the occult.

Vampires are avowedly godless creatures, as well as being sexually provocative and often tempting women to adultery. As the archetype developed it came to more frequently represent homosexuality at the same time that homosexuality in American culture was becoming more visible while still being far from mainstream acceptance. The Lost Boys remains perhaps the most famous example of vampirism/wizardry as gay/AIDS metaphor, if you watch it closely.

From the same era, the film Fright Night contains several scenes that transparently depict the vampire as a sexual predator. He pursues an underage boy and girl to a nightclub in one scene and engages in a sexual dance with the girl, hypnotizing her with his eyes so that she goes to him of her own accord before breaking away and falling to her knees while crying in what could just as well be a show of shame as fear. Later he similarly draws in a young adolescent boy, softly reassuring him that he’ll be happy as a vampire before embracing him beneath the cover of his cape and calling to mind the often repeated image of the vampire bite as sexual penetration. The victim then becomes transformed into someone who dresses differently and takes pleasure in destruction and crime.

The monster in Fright Night is thus a man who corrupts the youth, which would not necessarily be conservative were it not for certain other indicators. The first thing that arouses suspicion about the antagonist is that when he moves into the neighborhood, he is unmarried and lives with another man. Pederasty aside, the aspects of homosexuality and sexual promiscuity in the character are evidently not incidental, but part of what is supposed to make him psychologically threatening. Also of note is the fact that one of the protagonists is a much older, solitary man who develops a bizarrely close relationship with the main protagonist, another young, male teenager. This suggests to me the flawed message that an older, desexualized, presumably more conservative male character is implicitly more trustworthy than the one who is viscerally alluring.

Werewolves, of course, are a way of presenting the more broadly-conceived threat of unrestrained impulses. This also does not specifically need to be conservative, although the more conservative person will be more likely to utilize that archetype, by virtue of attaching a greater sense of value to sexual and social stability, to civilization as directly opposed to nature, and to property rights.

That latter consideration calls to mind the observation that certain films do not utilize archetypes that have any inherent socio-political meaning, but still deliver a conservative message. The Changeling, for instance, is an exceptionally well-executed haunted house film, and ultimately turns out to be one long statement about the importance of inheritance rights.

The original Saw I take to be liberal film, on some level. The killer’s motivation is to see that his victims glimpse the starkest possible reality of their own vices, which somewhat plays into my earlier essay about the role of horror and the possible link between liberalism and appreciation of the genre. However, Jigsaw evidently isn’t interested in getting those who play his games to recognize unpleasant truths out in the rest of society; he only makes them confront their own flaws. That makes it seem like he’s horrifically advancing the old conservative talking point of “personal responsibility,” demanding that these people overcome their shortcomings by sheer force of will.

Of course, one can never assume that a writer agrees with the views of his characters, so it could just as well be that Jigsaw is meant to represent the horror of overzealous commitment to enforcing the personal responsibility of others. However, the scene featuring the woman who survived one of his earlier games suggests otherwise, in that she herself insists that Jigsaw helped her to overcome her drug addiction. Though nobody in their right mind would approve of his methods, it may be that the audience is meant to come away from the film thinking highly of the idea behind them, which is evidently that social supports don’t work and that those who can’t fix their problems on their own deserve to be consumed by them.

Of course, a sense of justification pervades an awful lot of horror. The audience is frequently offered the suggestion that the victims somehow deserve their fate. Though the awfulness of their deaths is beyond the pale, it is often suggested that the protagonists have done something wrong and that the events of the film constitute a trial by fire for them. This plays into what may be at once the subtlest and most significant conservative horror trope: a sense of cosmic leveling.

This too is natural. It’s hard to write or expect an audience to relate to something that’s so bleak as to deliver a gruesome death to an educated, down-on-her luck, virginal charity volunteer. We want to believe that there’s at least something that causes another person’s death or pain to make a little bit of sense. Nobody wants bad things to happen to good people for no reason, but in my estimation one difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals lament that that such things do happen, and conservatives steadfastly believe that they don’t. From a certain staunchly conservative point of view, if you’re poor, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough; if you’re sad, it’s probably because you don’t go to church; if you get hacked up by the campus psycho killer, it’s probably because you had sex out of wedlock.

In this sense, even horror films with didactic liberal messages, like Cannibal Holocaust, have a conservative philosophical bent, insofar as they identify completely internal causes for many of the terrors that people are forced to face. I would expect a more distinctly liberal horror film to allow terrible things to happen to its characters without excessively rationalizing them. I have great respect for films that are bold enough to allow bad things to happen to good people, because that it what happens in reality. Indeed, that is the worst of what happens in reality, and representing and bringing people face-to-face with that should be the highest aspiration of horror.

Still, I absolutely love some horror stories that have distinctly conservative themes. In addition to just being scary or generally well-structured, they often put on display the kernel of truth that lies behind some conservative thinking. And that in itself can be quite scary.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Defense of William Castle

I’ve had to spend an unusual amount of time with my mother lately. Yesterday, when we were driving together back towards my home, my mind frequently returning to the thought that it’s almost Halloween, I asked her if she remembered any particularly noteworthy horror films from her generation that I might have missed.

I have no idea what it will be like to try to remember childhood when I’m fifty-six years old. She sort of struggled to drag some old memories to the surface and did a bit of free association. She mentioned The Pit and the Pendulum, and got to wondering about the entire arc of Vincent Price’s career. I mentioned that lately when I think of Vincent Price one of the first films that comes to mind is The Tingler. Mentioning the title evidently opened up a flood of memories for her, and though she didn’t give much detail she seemed to vividly recall having watched the film in her youth.

The Tingler came out in 1959, so either my mother is manufacturing the memory, or she saw it in some sort of re-release, or else her older sister took a four-year old child to an interactive horror movie, but my mother claims to have seen The Tingler in a theater complete with the William Castle promotional gimmick.

If true, I am delighted to know that my mother got to have that experience, which must have been exquisite fun – at least for people older than four. I recall, perhaps a year ago, tormenting myself by reading the events list in the New Yorker and seeing that an East Village cinema was going to be having a showing of The Tingler which restored the gimmick, installing joy buzzers in selected seats and, presumably, planting professional screamers in the audience. Oh God how things like that make me desperate to be in New York again. I would have loved to be part of such a wildly interactive cinematic experience. No one promotes or executes anything with such originality.

Am I the only one who genuinely admires William Castle? He seems to be widely laughed at by people who are knowledgeable about the history of film, horror or otherwise. From everything I’ve seen, his promotional gimmicks are remembered as little more than cheap stunts aimed at practically tricking the audience into buying a ticket. But to say the least, I don’t understand why his cheap stunts don’t stand up in most people’s minds against modern studios’ cheap stunts of peddling the same garbage to their customers over and over again.

I don’t think that William Castle had any illusions that he was the next Orson Welles. He wasn’t out to create cinematic masterworks; he directed horror films. And his aim in so doing was seemingly to offer the audience a unique thrill and an hour or so of escapist excitement. Towards that end he was marvelously original, and frankly I wish the popular cinema had taken its cues from him going forward.

Castle directed several 3-D western films for Columbia Pictures in the fifties when 3-D was all the rage. He must have been impressed with the notion of having the film interact with the audience, because he adopted his own various takes on the idea in his horror films later on. The studios had made bank on a fad, and as far as I know only Castle had the personal conviction to take the underlying impulse and adapt it in fresh and creative ways.

Considering the recent surge of new 3-D movies, and my sense that it belies the creativity of film studios and suggests a myopic devotion to fads and groupthink, I believe the film industry would benefit greatly from a new William Castle. As a horror fan, I, for one, would much rather go to see a film and see a hearse parked in front of the theater, as was part of Castle’s first effort, than go there knowing that some of the images are going to pop out of the screen at me. Neither may be particularly scary, but the more original alternative at least aspires to establish an atmosphere that reaches past the space between the screen and my eyes, and gives me a reason to believe that I’ll remember not just the content of the film but the actual experience of going to see it.

In an era of cheap, ubiquitous DVDs, studios ought to be interested in advertising new reasons why people should be interested in going to see a movie in theaters. And in an era of increasingly diminished interpersonal relations, a few gimmicks might accomplish that aim and have a positive social effect as well. When I imagine what a thoughtful promotional gimmick might look like today, I think that it would have the potential to make an original film into the sort of shared experience of fandom that is usually reserved for huge franchises like Star Wars. When I was between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I went to midnight showings of each of the Star Wars prequels. What was especially exciting about that was not so much the films themselves (obviously), but the tail gate party in the parking lot, the sense of community, the unusual awareness that everyone was going into that theater to expand upon an experience that had already begun for each of us.

If a modern horror film had a physical skeleton swinging over the audience, or allowed different members of the audience to see different things on screen depending on which glasses they were wearing, or let the viewers choose how the film ends while still watching it, as were all William Castle gimmicks, those in attendance would be aware of their relationship with audience as well as with the movie, and that might give them a reason to not wait for the movie to come out on Netflix.

William Castle single-handedly made movies more than just pictures on (and sometimes leaping off) a screen. Why do we make fun of that? Why did we decide that it was an idea not worth revisiting for forty-six years and counting?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Presidential Charity is Misplaced

Back in 2009, some young man at a town hall meeting with president Obama earned his fifteen minutes of fame by standing up and expressing his frustration at the depleted job market he had faced after graduating college. I don’t remember what the president’s response on the spot, in front of the cameras was, but his ultimate response, and the one that caught the media’s attention and was remembered in the following days was that he got personally involved in that individual’s struggle and had his staff find the young man a job. At the time, the comedian Marc Maron was part of a web series that was being broadcast from the husk that then remained of Air America Media. The day after this story he joked that President Obama was going to fix the economy, and that he was going to do it one person at a time.

In promoting a new book by one of its reporters, Eli Saslow, the Washington Post recently reported that President Obama has written personal checks to some of the American citizens who have written to him detailing the problems they were facing. No doubt many will read this and take heart at the implication that the president is in touch with the common person, and that he genuinely cares about the struggles of his constituents, to the extent that he is willing to engage in a little bit of self-sacrifice to help them out.

I do not find this story inspiring. In fact, I think that such person-to-person humanitarianism from the president sends a terrible message. It is very specifically not the job of the government to help people on an individual basis. Perhaps the principal reason for government’s very existence is the notion that we can collectively solve those problems which we cannot solve individually. There’s a division between the two that needs to be recognized and respected, and I think that just about anything that cuts against it justifies and worsens the weakness of our government.

I assume and I hope that people who write to the president do so because they feel the need to weigh in on an issue of broad social significance. No doubt there are crackpots and self-important individuals who write to describe problems that are perfectly unique to them, but with ten letters selected for President Obama to personally read each day, I would hope that only the ones that frame the personal narrative in terms of why it’s significant to an issue that’s important to the country at large would make the final cut.

If I’m right in all of this, then the authors of these letters are generally trying to prompt the president to take action that will help those who are in their position, and not strictly them as individuals. Even if that’s not the case, that damn well should be exactly the lens through which the president views each letter. If one impacts him, he should set it down upon his desk and ask a simple question: “What can I, as the president, do to help Americans in the situation this letter describes?” When he is seated in the Oval Office, the question should never be, “What can I do to personally help the author of this letter?” That isn’t the president’s role, and it shouldn’t be.

I don’t want to think that any of my president’s energies are going into improving the lots of singular constituents when those constituents are individuals among massive collectives of people facing the same or worse difficulties. It would be heart wrenching to turn away from the individual, and it may even be wrong, but only if one believes that there are situations in which no course of action is the right one. Turning away from the individual is sadly necessary when your every purpose is to pursue and execute what is best for the good of an entire country. If the authors of letters to the president wanted someone to address their personal struggles directly, it would have been better of them to write to charitable organizations, or old acquaintances, or reality television producers. Writing the president for personal help risks a conflict of interest with the entire country, in that the interests of the collective society may sometime abut against the interests of the individual with that collective. The president’s focus belongs on one side of this and it should be exclusive.

This may sound callous, and some may get the impression that I am asserting that the president should be somehow disallowed from acting on the impulse of personal conscience and offering resources that he can afford to give to a place where they are needed. But I am certainly not claiming that the president should avoid charity in his capacity as leader of the nation. What I am suggesting is that if a letter deeply affects the president and fills him with a sense of urgency about getting involved, he ought to take any money that he would have offered to the individuals involved an instead give it to some sort of organization with the task of helping people facing the associated difficulties.

Solving individual problems is actually insufficiently ambitious for the president. There are other individuals and organizations that do or could have that as their particular function, and for such people solving the problem of one would be a sublime accomplishment. For the president, solving one person’s problem and failing to address the root cause of it is abject failure. Part of the symbolism of cutting a check to a specific individual is that the president is effectively acknowledging that he doesn’t have the tools at his disposal to fix the problem on a broader basis. If I were to ever receive a reply letter from the president, I would much prefer to read a note that says “Sit tight, the country is about to get better,” than to receive a check with a memo that says, “Momentary, personal fix.”

I remember actually being quite angry when that young man got a job by way of the good fortune of having Obama visit his town and being handed the microphone during the Q & A. My first impulse was to wonder about what the president was going to do now for the thousands of other college graduates, me among them, who couldn’t find work. Despite the human interest story of this one solitary man’s struggles being over, the fact was that the situation that created those struggles hadn’t changed a whit. And that being the case, on a certain level of analysis, the effect of helping that one man to find a job was that that job wasn’t available to someone else who needed one, and perhaps just as desperately.

I wonder, though, whether the president and his staff felt accomplished and satisfied when they helped that one individual. I suppose you have to hold onto those things when you have the world’s problems weighing on you personally every day. But there can be no justification for taking the optimistic view that comes of a narrow focus and thereby losing an appropriate sense of urgency about what needs to be done on a legislative level. The unfortunate truth is that when we’re all waiting for the social change that will take this overarching conditions away, doing individual good is sometimes a matter of just shuffling the misery around.

If that’s what you and I have to do, then so be it. We make the best of a bad situation. But the president, and especially this president, should be far better than that. There are a precious few people in the country who actually have the power to fix the conditions that keep the rest of us sharing that misery. If I am to have any faith in them whatsoever, I need to believe that they are not playing favorites among us and that escape from those conditions is not award by lottery to people who’ve had their letters read by the highest office in the land, while the rest of us wait for change forever.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blood and Guts on AMC

It is quite amazing to recognize the cultural changes that one misses in absence of television. As much potential detriment as there is in the medium, there is no denying that it keeps a person terrifically connected to the world around them. The pattern of my life thus far seems to indicate longer and longer periods of time effectively divorced from that window into pop culture, the current one being something like three years and counting. I know that if I ever have cable hooked up again it will be like witnessing the creation of a new and alien world.

I visited with my mother last night. Doing so gives me an opportunity to have a fleeting glimpse of that creation, so I scrolled through the program guide while she was in another room. The funny thing about being online but unhooked from the more structured media is that you get very incomplete, selective exposure to certain examples of what is on television and in theaters. You see the things that are being marketed to internet audiences in particular, that are just being marketed heavily, or that are tailored to your search results and browsing history. I’m not sure why I was aware of AMC’s The Walking Dead, but it had come to my attention from time to time. I’m not sure whether the marketing was why I decided to flick it on when I saw that AMC was running a marathon in advance of the second season premiere.

I am an extraordinary fan of the Romero Dead films, and I appreciate the zombie apocalypse genre in general, although that is apparently extremely commonplace in my generation. So I was curious to see what the series was like, especially since I thought it odd that the idea of a television series in that genre had been conceived, green lit, and widely promoted. It might seem tactless to use my fifty-six year-old mother’s television to investigate that curiosity, and that certainly was on my mind as I tuned the cable box to AMC, but I really just wanted to catch a glimpse of the show until my mother and I shared a meal and found something more suitable to keep in the background as we talked. Imagine my surprise, then, when after I returned the remote control to her we spent three and a half hours watching The Walking Dead together.

So the resolution of my curiosity was that the show is quite good. Most significantly, I was impressed that a television show inspired by the popularity of the zombie apocalypse story wasn’t simply all zombies all the time. Considering that the show has started a second season, I am pleased to know that the audience for it is sufficiently interested in the human drama that takes place within the setting. That in concert with the action and violence keeps the show genuinely engaging, and at least broad enough in appeal to draw in my fifty-six year-old mother. Nevertheless, I’m sure that most of the committed viewers are tuning in for the fast-paced bits and the bloodshed, and boy are they getting what they came for.

And that brings me to the subject of what I found surprising about reconnecting in this way to a landscape of television media with which I had lost most contact. I was acutely shocked by the amount of graphic gore was depicted right on screen. When did they start allowing buckets of blood and human entrails on basic cable? The television programing that I remember from my childhood and adolescence was subject to pretty rigorous censorship boards. Did they all disband in the mid-2000s, and I just missed the press release?

I’m not exactly complaining. I was never shocked by gore, although I don’t see any appeal when it’s used for no further purpose. And obviously I’m not paranoid enough to think that the sight of fake blood will make children who are watching the wrong channel before bed turn into animal-mangling sociopaths. Still, the element of society that does believe such things had been strong for quite some time. Isn’t there tremendous backlash from them against such uninhibited violence on American television screens?

I think the censorship of the effects of violence is silly at best, and perhaps even counter-productive to the cause of improving society’s sensibilities, but America has always been bizarrely Puritan. Without having been able to adeptly track the changes over the past several years, this seems to me like a pretty dramatic cultural shift. I own several seasons of Tales from the Crypt, which was originally broadcast on HBO, and I am having a hard time thinking of anything from that series that came close to the amount of blood that I saw when, for instance, two characters cut open the abdomen of a zombie they’d just killed on The Walking Dead. By the new standards that I’m suddenly coming aware of, even the edgy, uncensored premium channels were coddling us in the 90s and the earlier 2000s.

All I want to know is when did that stop, and how did I miss this significant breaking point in the American media’s tolerance for graphic public displays of blood and carnage? It seems powerfully abrupt to me since I’m looking at still pictures rather than movies, but such a thing could never have been especially subtle, right?

Friday, October 14, 2011

October Horror Post #2

I've let almost two weeks lapse since making the first in what was supposed to be a series of posts throughout the month related to the topic of horror. I really need to start getting into the Halloween spirit now.

I am continuing my way through 2008’s Fear Itself television series, and most recently watched the episode “Skin and Bones,” which is by far the best of those that I have now watched. It’s strength rested largely on the makeup effects, as applied to creating an antagonist that was frightful in initially subtle ways. The story is a familiar one, and apparently an increasingly popular one. It is essentially the same as the charmingly bizarre 1999 film, Ravenous, though “Skin and Bones” is executed in a quite different way.

I believe that a part of the latter’s appeal may be attributable to the earnestness of its director, Larry Fessenden. Each episode of Fear Itself has a special feature consisting of interviews with that episode’s director and actors. While several directors thus far have had something interesting to say about horror, its role, and its appeal, Fessenden’s initial commentary is far and away the most striking to me. He says:

“I love horror because it really is just part of my psyche. I think it’s the way my brain in wired. When I walk down the street and I see a fence post, I imagine someone impaled on it. I see life through this filter of real despair and have always had an awareness of death and of the fragility of life. I really think horror is a psychological genre, and people who are drawn to it, I think, have some sort of existential experience with life.”

That notion of imagining horror in mundane contexts is powerfully familiar to me, but I had never really connected it to an affinity for horror as a genre of film or literature. I have, however, considered how it may relate to my strong sense of empathy, my philosophical and spiritual tendencies towards stoicism and asceticism, and my experiential curiosity.

The wiring of my brain may be a bit different from that of Fessenden’s. I don’t have a particularly common tendency to imagine horrible outcomes from a third-person perspective. Rather, there are situations in which I cannot suppress thoughts about the terrible things that could happen to me, and what that would be like. It’s usually associated with the perils of the modern world, though the sight of wild animals may prompt me to imagine, and almost fantasize about being mauled or maimed by them. If I see a hydraulic lift, I immediately and vividly imagine having an arm trapped in it as it lowers. Many such things primarily impress me with the damage they can do, and their practical use is only an afterthought.

Often, my psychological focus almost rises to the level of impulse. I visited my former employer recently, and he showed me a bowl cutter that he had recently gotten running. It is an extremely old item and has no safety catch, so the blades can be turned when the lid is raised and they are completely exposed. He gleefully demonstrated its operation, and I stared at the whirring blades and felt as though I was willfully denying the impulse to reach out towards them. I actually have a certain sense of fear when I use dangerous hardware, because I worry that I might injure myself intentionally should my conscious mind forget to safeguard me against my id, or whatever it is that acts against the basic instinct for self-preservation.

I’m not sure why my mind works this way. I know I am not alone in it, given Fessenden’s comments and given the fact that my ex-girlfriend, for one, attested to the same tendencies. But I’m equally certain that it is not common enough to be called ordinary. But maybe those who do have such vividly dark imaginations have other things in common as well. Maybe an appreciation of the artistic depiction of such unsavory fantasies is one of them.

Something that actually frustrates me about modern horror fandom is that audiences seem to have a distinct lack of empathy. So much of the most popular horror is better identified as “torture porn,” and the people who love it seem to be indulging in pure, base voyeurism. I worry that a lot of theater-goers are more prone to put themselves in the position of the perpetrator or horror, rather than the victim. I may be misjudging them, though. It may be that they still find the things on screen to be genuinely disturbing, but that that registers and is expressed differently.

Ultimately, I can only speak for myself, and what I’d say to defend my interest in material that is shocking or just psychologically or thematically dark is that I want to be disturbed by what I’m seeing. I want to vicariously put myself in the place of someone who is fleeing for his life, suffering torments, going insane, and so on. The fact is that horrible things really do happen every day. And I hate the feeling of being insulated from them, of being trapped in my personal fantasy world of relative comfort and pleasure.

When the real world as I experience it is such a fantasy, I compensate by seeking out the fantasies that stretch to the opposite extreme and depict extraordinary fear and hardship. In one case that may be watching a scary movie, and in another it may be simply imagining what it would be like if my hand got caught in the meat grinder. And in other cases, it might be having a long conversation with a person suffering from multiple personality disorder, or pausing to give a little money to a homeless person, or volunteering, or fasting. There is real horror in the world, and I believe that by keeping myself distant from it, I would be keeping myself distant from a vast segment of reality, as well as from an awareness of the suffering that maybe, someday I will be able to alleviate.

That last consideration raises what could be an interesting question: I wonder if anybody has every analyzed the political leanings of movie-going audiences. It seems like there could be some basis for believing that people who are more interested in observing horror, or reading about it, might also be more inclined to be politically liberal. A basic difference between liberalism and conservatism, as I see it, is that liberalism focuses on the improvements that are still needed in the world, while conservatism sees only the improvements that are already behind us, and disregards the possibility of negative consequences or ongoing mistakes. Put more simply, liberalism is acutely aware of the horror in the world, and conservatism denies it. It would make sense if people who have a psychological impulse to observe or imagine personal horrors also have a social interest in collective horrors.

Although, that would make more sense if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the horror that I consider to be the best has such decidedly conservative themes. And I think that may make a good topic for my next post on the general subject of horror.

Monday, October 10, 2011

OWS and My Place on the Sidelines

I need to turn this blog back to a stricter focus on the concept of breaking points, and I need to see that my voice curves around the theme. Primarily, that means being less shy about my righteous indignation. The best of my opinions tend to come of situations wherein I have roughly equivalent ire for both sides of an issue. So it is with the Occupy Wall Street protests. In being essentially asked to choose between the two camps, I feel I’m expected to align myself either with a population of self-righteous assholes who hold to the counter-intuitive view than anyone under the age of thirty-five who has a college degree shouldn’t be taken seriously or with a massive cluster fuck of activists who have no organizational skills or sense of proportion. If absolutely compelled to take a side with one or the other, of course I’ll take the cluster fuck, but as with so many of these things, I really wish there was another option. That is, I wish there was another position to take aside from on either team or on the sidelines.

The majority of the criticism I have been seeing levied against the Occupy Wall Street movement has been predictably cynical and obnoxious. It generally follows the line of reasoning advanced on the national political stage by Hermann Cain: that many thousands of disaffected, disenfranchised people protesting in lower Manhattan and across the country are unfairly targeting their anger at financial institutions and the status quo when they should be blaming themselves for problems such as poverty and joblessness. I encountered one passive-aggressive commentator who identified the movement as being “pro-sloth” and expecting compensation for laziness.

I am increasingly finding myself drawn toward the uncomfortable belief that some people simply cannot be reasoned with. More than that, I may find myself trending towards the worse assumption that people in general can’t be reasoned with when they are being challenged to understand the motivations of ideological opponents. Why is it that otherwise intelligent people take up the most simplistic, intellectually deficient explanations when people they disagree with become highly visible? Hermann Cain aside, I don’t imagine that most conservative observers of the Occupy Wall Street protests are stupid, and yet they are prone to the most foolishly arrogant characterizations of an entire movement. It appears to me that instead of putting forth the effort to observe the participants closely, such people compensate for the discomfort of not understanding them in the slightest by claiming that they understand them perfectly, and that their movement is so simple a thing to understand that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.

That, of course, is bullshit. And yet at the same time there are good reasons not to take it seriously. Much of the media has focused attention on the obvious flaw in the movement that is its lack of a coherent narrative. That is a profoundly serious problem, and though it should be sufficient grounds for criticism on its own, a secondary consequence of that fact is that it makes the movement easier to criticize on irrational, irrelevant, hyperbolic grounds. The fact is that the movement’s opponents will undercut its significance without a second though no matter what, but a lot more is gained if the fight is over the actual message, and not over the personal character of all of the disorganized individuals jostling to express a message that is unique to them and their friends.

I did enough protesting in college that I know that this is just exactly what liberal activism in the twenty-first century looks like. I think it was because I already had a decent mind for branding that it pissed me off when I was twenty and within it as it does now, when I’m twenty-six and watching from the outside. I attended rallies that I thought were in opposition to the continued occupation of Iraq, but as I wandered the crowd I found that they were apparently also about Israel and abortion and gay rights and socialism and drug policy and 9-11 conspiracy theory. And every secondary cause that was represented at every such rally distracted attention from the one thing that everyone had supposedly come together for. It is impossible to take a movement seriously if it is little more than a breeding ground for diverse, disconnected ideas that just happen to originate from the same side of the political spectrum.

Since I’ve already entertained one or two uncomfortable notions in this post, here’s another: Liberalism, precisely by virtue of being liberal, is a weak political cause. We are receptive to other views, and despite the fiery passion of very many liberal activists, most of the ostensibly liberal elements of the political establishment are deferent and eager to compromise. And why shouldn’t they be if their constituency can’t commit to one clear, unequivocal demand without cluttering their advocacy with a chorus of secondary considerations? Why, if the firebrands on the ground are willing to give voice to any ideas that are broadly termed liberal, shouldn’t those in power, who must necessarily be more moderate, be willing to give voice to any ideas that are broadly termed rational?

Unity is one thing at which conservatism, ideological monstrosity that it often is, beats liberalism hands-down. It’s a vulgar kind of unity – the kind that’s achieved by excluding certain opinions, sometimes the most reasonable ones – but it certainly is effective. Down on Wall Street, there’s a protest going on about a million different things, even according to its own participants, but those who are ideologically invested in disregarding it can all agree, even though it’s insanely idiotic to do so, that the noise is coming from a bunch of entitled slackers who would simply rather shout than work. Unfortunately, I anticipate the unified party gaining more ground in this contest.

Don’t get me wrong, if I could so much as afford a bus ticket I would be down there with the Wall Street protesters without a moment’s hesitation. But I know that I would be as angry at the crowd as I would be at the invisible enemy I’d be there to combat. It would be like college all over again, except the cause is far greater, so the lost opportunity is much worse. I’m sort of glad that I’m too poor to protest about how poor I am. I don’t want to be in that ambivalent position again. I’m sure that history would repeat itself exactly and one moment I’d be fantasizing about using his own black handkerchief to suffocate one of the anarchists who crashed a reasonable protest, and then the next I’d want to tear the furs off of the old lady berating us for our indigent, youthful naiveté, hold them up in front of her face and try to convince her that she’s a caricature of herself. Within a crowd of thousands, I would be as lonely as ever, pining as I have done before for a group that does not exist, which would disavow itself of poisonous or plainly irrelevant ideas, and yet engage its opponents intelligently and with self-respect.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm Done with Google

I’ve mostly stopped using Google. I use Google mail as my primary account, and it would be difficult to immediately change my essential contact information, so I will likely continue to use that service for the foreseeable future. But I try not to use it for web searches anymore, relying instead on Bing. And I certainly no longer read Google news.

This has been a long time coming. It was bothersome when I found that Google was saving my search information. I don’t typically search for the same things over and over again, so I don’t need to see old results every time I begin a search with the same letters. It just makes things look cluttered to me, and it’s very much against my tastes. I don’t want an all-purpose search engine to reflect my personal use of it. I want it to be a blank slate each time I access it – demonstrating equal accessibility for everyone who uses it, regardless of IP address.

I found it creepy when on top of storing personal information, search results ended up being specific to me. I don’t like the fact that Google plainly knows exactly where I am every time I am searching for something. When I type a word like, say, “cemetery,” or “restaurant” I don’t want the search results to be a list of cemeteries or restaurants that are in my area unless I’ve specified that. It feels like an invasion of privacy, and it’s not only that the system is acknowledging the source of my IP every time I access it. I know that that information has always been available, but it was more acceptable when it was in the background and I didn’t get the impression that I was actively being identified every time I sought information.

But more than that, sometimes when I type in a noun that describes a place or establishment, I really am just looking for general information. It’s presumptuous of Google to tailor the results to my location, and perhaps to my search history, when that information may actually be completely irrelevant to what I want to know. There was a time when the internet was a place I could go to find information that I was looking for, and not to be told by a third party what information I’m supposed to be looking for.

That same trend was what irritated me about Google News badges. Rather than continuing to allow what is objectively important to take center stage, that new feature sought to begin customizing each individual’s news according to a series of indicators that, while he may have demonstrated, he did not acknowledge or consent to. Much like my prior search results, I don’t need to retain a roster of news stories that I’ve read in the past. My interests change, and they change in dynamic ways. What I was reading last week or last month should have no bearing on what news is made most accessible to me now.

One of the major influences on how my interests change is according to what is happening. I want to know what’s on the cover of the New York Times and the Washington Post not because it fits with my preferences, but because there are people whose jobs are to identify current events that are of importance to the society in which we all collectively live. I trust them to tell me what matters to a greater extent than I trust myself, especially if I have no idea what has happened in the past twelve hours and all I have in order to filter my news is the history of my own base desires. That’s essentially the direction in which Google News badges were moving us. If that’s considered a good way to disseminate news to the population, the vast majority of Americans are going to end up knowing in detail the results of voting on American Idol but have no idea who the Republican frontrunner is. You may think you have better priorities, but I’m sure that important things do sometimes happen that fall under categories that you don’t typically read about.

But that was just a trend that Google was experimenting with. I could deal with that. I figured that opting out of the news badges service would keep my news objective. Then one day I signed in to my Gmail account, clicked over to news, and momentarily wondered why the hell the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres were national top stories. That was the breaking point that drove me away from Google altogether. Despite my best efforts to ignore their push for invasiveness, they continued to try to corrupt the information that was presented to me. And the source of that corruption, apparently, was me. Or rather, it was me as understood by a series of algorithms striving to represent me as a self-replicating digital entity. That is distinctly different from me as a human being, which is incidentally the me that wants to decide for my goddamn self what news to read and what general information applies to my professional and personal lives on any given day.

So I won’t be using Google as a search engine or a news aggregator anymore. I’ll wait until they start ranking my e-mail messages against my will and sending targeted advertisements directly to my inbox before I drop them as a mail client, as well. I know that Bing will probably trend in that direction, too. For now, I’m pleased to know that they prominently display the option to turn off all search history, although I do have to click it again every day. Even that is heartening, though, as it suggests that they aren’t saving my preferences based on IP address.

I earnestly hope that that behavior keeps up and they prove me wrong in my assumption that ultimately every large company in the information technology business trends towards hideous invasions of privacy and assertions of content control. If Bing or any other reliable search engine or news aggregator were to actually build their brand on the basis of their being the guys who let the customer make his own decisions, I would stick with them for the long haul.

For now, all I can say is that I’m done with Google, and that I’ll move on from each next option either until someone rediscovers the concept of boundaries or until I become the weird guy who spends all of his time in the library, has a subscription to the last remaining newspaper, and uses an old laptop as a writing table.

If you’ve got nine minutes, watch this TED Talk on the same topic:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Andy Rooney

Now that he’s retired, how do I become Andy Rooney? Can this be sort of like the possible Tibetan solution to the absence of the Panchen Lama, wherein a person who is still alive personally identifies his own living reincarnation? With his lifetime in broadcasting and thirty-three years of low-key ranting on 60 Minutes, I think Rooney’s presence is too ingrained in American media for it to be lost to something as trivial as a man’s retirement. I think Andy Rooney should be like the news media’s version of James Bond or Batman, in that a new individual should just periodically take on the personality. And I think I’m just the man to start the trend.

I imagine that a lot of people don't believe that the role being vacated by Andy Rooney could be filled by anyone who’s less than eighty years old. I would like to prove those people wrong by going on the air and showing myself to be the most curmudgeonly twenty-six year-old they ever will see. I find it inspiring to know that a man was able to make a high-profile career or picking apart the minutiae of daily life and modern society. I want there to be another Andy Rooney because I want to know that there is still a place for that kind of analysis and criticism.

That kind of overthinking about things that most people pay no attention to is exactly the kind of thing I do day after day, and I almost never make any money off of it. On Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, Tom Bodett joked that the producers of 60 Minutes might have just always had a camera filming Rooney’s office and searched the footage each week for the content that they wanted to use. I’ll wear a wire, and when someone picks up the sound of me taking umbrage with modern technology, lost social mores, current trends, or what have you, they can alert me with a remote buzzer that they want the content to fill the last minute of a television program, and I’ll turn it into an essay.

It’s a silly thing to be famous for, and Andy Rooney was the butt of many jokes, but I genuinely appreciate the impulse to look with a critical eye on the sort of things that most people take for granted. I think that within a society that tends to charge forward into rapid changes without thought of loss or consequence, we needed voices like his to hold up a mirror to ordinary things so that people can have a closer look at them even if it is just as they are running by at full speed. I am very much trying to apply that model to my own life. I am always trying to make people around me understand that all these little things are not just what they are, that there is something to be learned from everything. It is a personal characteristic that makes it sort of difficult to relate to people in a straightforward way, and I’m sure it makes me the butt of jokes.

I’d be as different from him as the latest James Bond is from the first, but the core concept would be the same. I’d be more focused in my presentation, maybe a bit more ideological, and more prone to calling others to action. But still, I’m confident that I could enter into the public spotlight with work that, by its bizarre de-trivializing of trivial subjects, would call to mind some of Rooney’s early television essays, which included topics like doors, bridges, hotels, women, and chairs. So if anyone wants to put me in touch with CBS, maybe I could find my calling in life.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Happy October!

It’s October, and thus my favorite holiday season. I put up my Halloween decorations today, and I’d already made sure to move exclusively horror to the top of my Netflix queue. (Yes, I’m keeping Netflix for now.) I intend to make at least a few posts over the course of the month analyzing horror and horror fandom. I had watched something from the genre the other night when it occurred to me that there is a lot I still don’t understand about the topic.

I’ve never thought that horror was just about a voyeuristic impulse to watch people die and to revel in things that are supposed to disturb. I usually tend to feel that the best horror is that which twists the fabric of reality. I am sort of haughty in my appreciation of horror film, radio, and literature, despite the fact that horror is presumably viewed as the genre that broadly requires the least amount of sophistication from its fans. Perhaps my pretension is actually exacerbated by that fact, and by my efforts to place myself in contrast to the riff-raff. I appreciate horror because it prompts the audience to confront things that it finds uncomfortable. Most times, I would say that this particular taste in film that I have stands in contrast to most of my other tastes and behavior. But when I think about it as I am now, I realize that it fits with who I am as perfectly as anything could. It is one of my most dearly held beliefs, perhaps part of my creed, that people should be willing to face up to unpleasant things that that could otherwise turn away from. I enjoy frightening material because you look at despite your impulse to recoil, and that’s training that people could do well to undertake.

But in writing like this, I give the impression that I have a complete account in mind of what the role of horror in society is, and certainly of what appeal and effect it has with me. Yet I realize that I understand these things still less than I thought I understood them. Of course, I believe that what I’ve said above is true. I’ll have more to say about it in coming days, and much to say about other ideas I’ve already considered on the broad topic of horror and perceptions of it. Still, the visceral way in which I respond to the genre sometimes defies my understanding.

After watching a horror film the other night, I took my recycling out to the curb and joyfully absorbed the assault of autumn air. It felt like Halloween-time outside. The sensation of autumn is in some respects very much death-like. And it is one of my favorite sensations in the world. That is a difficult thing to make sense of, even more so than the question of what’s enjoyable about being frightened and watching people in peril, or dying, or at the edge of sanity. Between the feeling of clammy cold in the air outside and the lingering images of ghosts and bloodshed in mind from my evening viewing, there was a bizarre sense of peace about me, and trying to make sense of it afterwards, all I could think was that it might be rather like the peace of death after a terrified struggle against it.

The point is that despite all my tendencies to analyze and critique, I wonder whether people like me who enjoy horror are drawn to it in some part because of a raw psychological desire to stare down our own mortality and find the counter-intuitive pleasure buried in the constant, overwhelming presence of death. There is, after all, and insight into life that is to be gained only by staring straight past it sometimes.