Archive for Sundry Musings

Trouble Where Arthouse Meets Megaplex

Recent articles have lauded the movie The Witch for flying from the festival circuit to grace the mainstream’s megaplexes with its arthouse horror presence. I’m a snob about snobbery: while some arthouse fare is brilliant, a lot of it is pretentious crap. Please don’t misunderstand me. A lot of films in general are crap. I just prefer crap to be unpretentious. Otherwise, arthouse films have as much of a chance at being brilliant as other kinds of films, and that’s what irks me about critics getting in a twist over The Witch because it’s an arthouse film errantly appearing at a theater near you. The unstated assumption is that because of its origins, it has a better chance of being brilliant, and what’s more, there’s something unusual about brilliance being near you.

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largeThis blog isn’t about The Witch, so before I go on: The Witch is good, not particularly pretentious and only a little artsy. Not in my top five similarly-themed films (maybe Suspiria, Antichrist, Haxan, Inferno, Rosemary’s Baby); perhaps top ten.

So then, I’m talking about that familiar opposition between arthouse and mainstream, an opposition that usually valorizes the arthouse as good for you and therefore good. Also, there’s a sense that arthouse is not your house, at least if “you” are of the masses. Art opposes product, mass production and mass consumption, things for and by the masses. Art is, in a word, elite, and therefore it stinks of elitism. Art is art in part because it excludes masses.

But wait! Here’s the problem. Art comes from an art-ist. It comes from an individual, whereas mass production comes from a production company, a corporation. By opposing product, art also opposes the economy of scale that makes masses faceless.

I am not interested in theorizing art or artists here, but I am interested in a difficulty I feel, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling, when I try to take a stand against arthouse snobs. “Arthouse” seems anti-democratic because it’s exclusive, but it seems democratic because it’s humanizing.

First, I’ve got to say that people who think indie/arthouse/festival-born films are automatically better than big-production studio pedigrees likely have not been to many film festivals. Imagine that actor you hate—you know the one—who seems to have a new movie out every time you turn around. Now imagine you’ve gone into one of that actor’s movies, except it’s not that actor, it’s someone just as annoying who reminds you of him, and no one else in the movie can act, either, and the sets are really fake, and the camera is off-center. And you’ve just noticed that one of the other leads is in the theater sitting next to you. And your seat is really uncomfortable. And the sound is a little tinny. No, not all, not even most indie/arthouse/festival movies are like that. But some of them are.

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However, then you go next door, and you see this film directed by this woman you’ve never heard of starring this other guy who’s totally awesome with this girl who’s clearly going to be a star, and you think you should be going to film festivals every weekend. You settle in and have your brain massaged for about two hours, and when you’re done you feel edified and refreshed, the intellectual version of someone in a soft drink commercial, colored by your emotion of choice: fear, longing, joy, passion, sadness, rage. Your average indie/arthouse/festival experience doesn’t offer very many chances of getting off like that, but it might offer a few.

Sometimes the goods get you, but sometimes you do get the goods. Spitting on the arthouse snobs may reject one form of elitism, but too-copious spitting risks rejecting artists who do good work, artists who can’t help that ultimately, their work, too, has become a differently-branded form of product that carries its own advantages and disadvantages in different markets. Tempting as rough shaming may be, we must work to educate the ignorant snobs who think the origin of a thing (or a person) necessarily relates to its quality. Yes, some firmness of hand may at times keep them from forcing terrible films and the like down our throats. Otherwise, they can help to promote good ones, such as The Witch (and the others on my list of witch-y favorites) and study hard to learn that the claim to be acclaimed need not be self-fulfilling.

Christmas Dystopia: The Real Season of Fear

‘Tis the season to be afraid.

No, I’m not confusing the Holiday Season—fuck it, I mean the Christmas Season—with Halloween. I mean the real season of horror, the one when the days are shortest, when Winter is not only Coming but finally Gets Here. The one when if, at least in some parts of the world, you’re kept out of the inn, you might freeze to death… if the creatures of the long night don’t rip you and your newborn to pieces first.

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Winter is here: Jasen Dixon of Ohio anticipates the Resurrection as a symbol of changing seasons with a zombie nativity scene.

If you pay attention to, well, people who know things, you know that the Jesus Christ of the Bible wasn’t born in late December but likely in April, but the Catholic Church decided many moons ago that timing His birthday around big pagan party time, already existing Solstice celebrations, would lubricate conversion. Christmas goes hand in hand with Easter: the coming and going of the cold months, the hard months—the birth, death, and resurrection of the Savior—fit neatly together, becoming a package of holidays to celebrate light at the beginning and end of the year’s greatest darkness (at least in the globe’s northern hemisphere).

My point is that historically, Christmas Day itself is a symbol of light deliberately placed in the middle of great darkness, and as such it calls attention to the dark mire it would illuminate. And for many of us in the Christmas Belt, an accessory that holds up much of the world’s economy around this time of year, it does. I paraphrase a line from the Christmas horror film—one of many—Gremlins (1984), which made a deep impression on me as a child: commenting that “the suicide rate’s always the highest around the holidays,” a character remarks of some unhappy people, “While everybody else opens up presents, they’re opening up their wrists.”

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I suppose seasonal affective disorders (the SADs!) could explain a lot of the suicides, as well as the popularity of my genre around this time—more about that in a moment—but I think not, and I don’t think many of you readers would let me go with such a facile explanation, either, because if you’re a grown-up who finds the idea of a strange man invading your house via chimney more terrifying than otherwise, you know that this time of “magic” has a lot to do with the Dark Side of the Force.

Let us consider, then, five reasons beyond seasonal affect why this season is one of darkness and doom. Afterwards, I’ll close with something less depressing, but first, I’ll note that all five of these reasons are major themes of everyone’s favorite Christmas horror story—not the one about putting an eye out, which is horrific enough—but Charles Dickens’s story about ghosts that gleefully torture an old man, “A Christmas Carol:” dickenschristmascarol

  1. Money. This year, like every year recently, I tuned into news on Black Friday and heard both stories: first, retailers were disappointed by people not spending enough, and second, retailers were beset by outrageous violence committed by people too desperate to spend. ‘Tis the season to spend on yourself, on others, and there’s never enough. You never get enough or give enough, and in the process of being inadequate, you do damage to yourself and others. You feel your inadequacy and the damage you do, and do you feel good about giving and receiving? Of course not. You feel like the shit of the capitalist world.
  2. Charity. Santas and others ring bells outside grocery stores and everywhere else, trying to guilt people into giving to strangers while they’re trying to stretch their budgets far enough to accommodate everyone on their lists. Let’s face it, the world is falling apart. It needs people to be charitable, and we all know, as Bernie Sanders keeps reminding us, that most of the wealth is going into the pockets of 1/10 of 1% of the population and just disappearing there, so the rest of us are supposed to sustain the exploding population with the scraps, but we… can’t… do it. So, defeated, most of us don’t even try very hard, or at all. And we just feel shitty about it, because shitty feelings are really all we have to spare.
  3. Love. Speaking of things we all want but don’t get enough of, what but pictures of beautiful people enjoying each other’s fond company as they revel in gifts can remind us better of what we don’t have? More poignant than the missing presents is the missing people, and for every person who’s happy in love, you can find two who have lost each other, or who have each other but have lost whatever brought them together, or who never found one another to begin with. As the nights get longer, people get lonelier, and the illusion that everyone is celebrating togetherness underscores loneliness like nothing else can.
  4. Age and Death. People have more to lose than romance. Christmas magic, if it worked for you at all, probably worked for that short span of years when your brain was underdeveloped and you could actually believe in flying mammals with glowing noses. Your childhood is gone. What did you lose with it? Who used to be with you on these holidays who isn’t now? For many of us, this is a season of remembering, and remembering ain’t always a happy act.
  5. Family. Those who don’t have family, mourn, and those who do—well, those who do aren’t necessarily happy, either, because with all the other crap happening, families are seldom at their best when they finally all gather ’round that tree or sacrificed feast animal or whatever it is that brings them all to one place to judge one another and seethe. For many, Christmas is the time to peel away scabs or simply reopen old wounds. Have some more nog and let loose on those weaknesses only you know about, push those buttons only you can—you’re family.

Now that I’ve argued that pretty much everything good is bad, you might think I’m advocating for the Gremlins-described suicide solution or at the very least for cancelling Christmas, but far from it. Although it’s not my favorite holiday, I like Christmas and have, in fact, already told you why: it is the light placed here to remind us of all this darkness, and as a sort of memento mori, Christmas deserves acknowledgment for what it is, a fuzzy center in a hole of suck.

OtrantoThanks to Charles Dickens, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, and everything from the original Dec. 24, 1764 Gothic novel Castle of Otranto to the present-day Krampus, our popular culture has served up a large vein within the horror genre to slice into as a means of exploring the suckhole of Christmas, not as a religious holiday but as a cultural phenomenon that combines the best and worst of humanity in a colorful package with a bow on top. These fictions of fear can displace all the terrors of our lives’ vacancies onto monsters we can see and maybe even fight and destroy. We can’t easily solve the problem of who’s not with us by the tree this year, but we sure can imagine using simple sunlight to beat back the tide of gremlins, and hey, maybe all it takes to make charity work is to show the most monstrous of the 1% a few well-timed ghosts.

KrampusThe fantasies are simple on the surface, yes, but so are the illusions of childhood, and come Christmas time, don’t we all deserve a little bit of simple? The problems with which they help us to cope are about as hard as problems come, so maybe some simple is what we need to crawl out of the suckhole, at least for a day.

Horror as Banishment

An annoying question that intellectuals ignorant about the horror genre often think they’re terribly clever for asking: what is horror, anyway?

An annoying corollary: why would anyone read or write such stuff?

The dismissive, tautological answers, “scary stuff” and “because we like it,” are almost as annoying as the questions. My nerd-hat answer, which I write about at length in Gothic Realities, is that a work is Gothic horror if its primary object of representation is fear or the fearful. In other words, a book, movie, video game, or whatever is horror if it’s about scary stuff. It doesn’t have to be scary, but it has to be about stuff people generally consider to be scary. My nerd-hat answer is still that it’s scary stuff; I just add qualifications. My definition allows for the meaning of horror to change with shifting perceptions of what’s scary (as well as what is “real”).

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This answer doesn’t do shit for the question why, though, and that’s because when I’m wearing my nerd hat, I feel pretty powerless to address causality, as inductive reasoning from empirical data—or drawing conclusions based on observations—rules purist (purest?) nerd logic. Inductive reasoning can allow you to see relationships between and among things, but you can’t infer causality from correlation (correlation does not equal causality is a mantra in some circles). Some people still claim lack of scientific “proof” for cigarettes causing cancer and humans causing global warming because proving causality is itself almost impossible, according to strictest nerd logic. I am therefore going to abandon said logic and enter a flawed a priori sketch mode that is scientifically and philosophically unjustifiable.

With apologies to Aristotle.

 

Claim: Horror in fiction is the banishment of horror from reality.

 

Conditions

 

  • According to Jean-Paul Sartre, being precedes essence. However, fictional essence—a fixed text’s reason for being—precedes its being.
  • Fiction inverts the real.
  • The reason for fiction being precedes its being.
  • FIRST PRINCIPLE: Why horror fiction is must precede what horror fiction is.

SartreEssaysinExistentialism

  • Progress is the triumph of life.
  • Modernity as Enlightenment can thrive through medicine as an opponent of disease, diplomacy as an opponent of war, technologies as opponents of scarcity, and other strategic deployments of knowledge for progress.
  • Despite other deployments of power-knowledge, including some associated with the marginalization and relative invisibility of death, progress would also displace death from mainstream home and street-side spectacles to the hospital room or consensual equivalents.
  • SECOND PRINCIPLE: Horror has receded and must recede from reality.

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  • Horror in reality is unpleasant for non-psychopathic percipients.
  • Horror in fiction to some degree is pleasant for many, if not most, percipients and is a feature of many, if not most, “great” works of art and literature, including non-fiction, holy texts, etc.
  • To explain the pleasure of horrific violence in art, classical theory of tragedy, which encompassed virtually all the darker arts, postulated that people experience catharsis, or a release of powerful negative emotions, when they experience violent art.
  • A preponderance of research has shown that catharsis does not occur, as people exhibit similar or greater degrees of negative emotion after experiencing violent art.
  • THIRD PRINCIPLE: Catharsis fails.

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  • As a horror writer, I write down my nightmares. So did Mary Shelley. So did Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft. And so on.
  • Readers identify with horror fiction. They see themselves in it. They don’t experience a release of feelings: if anything, they feel more.
  • A reader or a writer transfers her- or him-self into the fiction. Feelings are not released; they are moved through the process into the fiction.
  • The process is an individual movement from a mundane real to a horrific fiction.
  • The movement is controlled, the fiction fixed: the process is safe, keeping horror receded from reality, advancing life and the individual.
  • FOURTH PRINCIPLE: Horror fiction is an individual rite.

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  • Despite the enormous mainstream success of some horror fictions, cultural authorities often pretend horror’s readers and writers are victims of a pathology.
  • Pathologizing the commonplace pleasure in horror fiction reveals the disconnection of the governing authority from the governed, reflecting on the pathology of the authoritarian perspective.
  • Horror fiction becomes the place to which horrors are banished and in which larger cultural horrors still deserving banishment see themselves reflected.
  • Collectively, cultures use horror for their most revolutionary critiques.
  • FIFTH PRINCIPLE: Horror fiction is a cultural ritual.

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Living in Fiction, Class Warfare, and Such

This morning I wrote in an email that I have no interest in memoir.

Poe called it the imp of the perverse; Foucault’s inversion was the perverse implantation. Perhaps my correspondent saw the imp coming before I did. Perhaps he sent it.

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At age eighteen, I entered a fictional world.

No, not fiction-writing. I recall starting a novel in the second grade. It was a choose-your-own adventure about two boys who got kidnapped, taken away on a plane, which then crashed on an island. Quite exciting. Never finished. Part of my brain has always been in la-la land.

Mundane: going off to college. That’s the transition I’m talking about.

Gwinnett County, GA to Harvard University - Google Maps

Surreal: driving from Georgia to Massachusetts with both my parents, who reminisced almost incessantly despite having been divorced for most of the life I remembered.

Unreal: destination, Harvard.Granted, as American tales go, a lower-middle-class Southern kid getting into Harvard is hardly a movie of the week. I do not include my story as such among the unrealities, the fictional phenomena, I am pondering.

  JohnHarvard3LiesJohnHarvardNaughty
I assume the gentlemen in the second photo willingly published it, one of the top hits on the Google search “John Harvard statue,” and are of legal age, and thus I use it as an example here. Click photos for sources.

 

The prime unreality I wish to consider is/are the places where I was educated. While I got around to places that together ain’t too shabby in any company, nevertheless, in some company, questions about where one was educated generally produce answers like mine—the Ivies—or their kin, Stanford, Berkeley, one of the former Seven Sisters, or for color one of the liberal arts elites like a Swarthmore or an Oberlin, etc. In other company, like my own family and the circles in which I grew up, the subject of such places tends to produce (1) starry eyes and/or (2) suspicious eyes.

The defining difference between these kinds of company is certainly not average IQ; it’s average income.

The starry eyes? At age eighteen, I went to a place that on my home-world exists only in movies and TV shows.

The suspicious eyes? At age eighteen, I crossed class boundaries, relocating behind enemy lines. I am become snob, transgressor of values. I defected.

And nowadays, as the wealthy in this country continue to manipulate media and legislation as well as the economy to continue widening the income gap and have the gall to accuse anyone pointing out their tactics of “class warfare,” class defection is serious business. I saw The Purge: Anarchy. And as Michael K. Williams says best, “Time to bleed, rich bitches.” Seriously.

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But first, let’s fixate on the stars. My personal experience of college is in fact such a cliché in fiction that I hesitated to set parts of Descending Lines at Harvard, but I couldn’t help it—that’s where it unfolded in my imagination because that’s where I knew such eccentric people might do such things in such ways (if the supernatural were possible). I lived in that setting. And yet whether it’s faked in schlock like With Honors or real as in Love Story or pretty convincing as in The Social Network, etc., now my primary contact with a world I’m happy to revisit but wouldn’t choose to inhabit is, once again, fiction.

I quote Candyman: “It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

candyman_and_helen_lyleHarvard is an American legend. Its power is, like Candyman’s, supernatural not in the ways it actually exists but in the ways it does not have to exist.

Not having to exist, however, is not the same as not bearing responsibility for being. Both The Purge and Candyman show that one can suspend the laws of both government and physics and still be trapped by harsher laws of transcendent justice. The bleeding times.

The suspicious eyes.

My own eyes become suspicious, bringing me to a secondary unreality. Did I really go to Harvard at all?

Yes, I attended classes there. I have a diploma. I have memories of living in Harvard Yard, then down by the Charles River for three years in Winthrop House. But I was a “floater.” I never had a “blocking group.” I had plenty of extra-curriculars, but I never “comped” anything that you’ve heard of, like The Advocate or The Crimson or The Hasty Pudding or the Lampoon because as far as I could see, all of those organizations valued socioeconomic class over intellectual merit. I knew, and knew about, people in all those organizations. And I paid attention to their family backgrounds, mostly very different from mine.

winthrop-insideIn college, I was naïve enough—because they got me in—to think intellectual voracity and achievement mattered most. Only later did I realize that, professionally speaking, C students from the Ivy League are far more likely to become Presidents.

At age eighteen, I entered a fictional world.

Suspicious?

10 Film Villains Who Scare Me

You’d think that after Scream people wouldn’t ask me what my favorite scary movie is, but they do. I have no real answer, but I like to play with lists of answers. “Favorite” is a bit too general, though, so today I want to challenge myself not just with favorite horrors, of which I have many, but with scary horrors, of which, nowadays, I have few. Can I come up with 10 horror movie villains that actually, as Buffy would say, give me the wiggins?

Before the official list begins, an important note:

1Cooper

This is God,” says Freddy Krueger, and, alas, this man is disqualified. As an adult, I cannot possibly pass any objective judgment on Freddy’s scariness. To know why, see the intro to my book Gothic Realities.

Now, on with the show.

10.George W. Bush, from Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

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Okay, a stunt to get your attention… or is it? The film does masterfully villainize a then-sitting president. It heightened my existing fears.

 

9. Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th PART TWO (1981)

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Jason was initially just a kinda big guy wearing a bag on his head that had one hole cut for an eye. He stalked after people quickly, hacking with whatever was handy. And his cheesy immortality wasn’t yet clear. He was just a scary, crazy dude intent on killing you if you crossed his path.

 

8. The mobs, from M (1931)

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Yep, I think the people who come after the child murderer are scarier than the child murderer (although Peter Lorre’s performance is creepy as hell).

 

7. Pyramid Head, from Silent Hill (2006)

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I chose Pyramid Head because he’s the most iconic, but really, all the beasties in the Silent Hill franchise that I’ve seen–both films and bits of several games–are genuinely nightmarish in a rare way.

 

6. Ju-On, from Ju-On (2002)

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Not the scariest Japanese horror film by a long shot, but the curse may be the scariest villain both because of its inevitable operations and because of the tragic way it plays out IN THE JAPANESE VERSION ONLY. The American version makes no sense.

 

5.Vukmir, from A Serbian Film (2010)

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The incarnation of the need to add the word “mass” to the exploitation and consumption of everything.

 

4. Mademoiselle, from Martyrs (2008)

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Like Vukmir, a limit-seeker, but civilized… and asking bigger questions. How far she’ll go to get answers, how much she cares about those answers, is what makes her scary. Am I capable of wanting to know that much?

 

3. Klaus, from In a Glass Cage (1987)

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Nazis asked questions, too. And raped, tortured, and murdered people. Old people. Middle-aged people. Children. Klaus preferred children. And now he’s a victim’s victim. The potential to feel sorry for him makes him even scarier.

 

2. Hill House, from The Haunting (1963)

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It preys on loneliness and the need to belong, a person’s most intimate vulnerabilities. It makes people doubt you. It makes you doubt yourself. You feel stupid. You hate yourself at times like that. You know that feeling. That’s how it gets you.

 

1. Sharks, from Open Water (2003)

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Horror doesn’t have to stem from elaborate themes and psychological sophistication. The movie doesn’t even have to be particularly good. I had a rare, tight-muscle-and-skin, fast-breathing, elevated-heart-rate experience seeing Open Water in the theater. Its simplicity allows the fear:

  1. Trapped in the water. As our bodies are built to survive only short times in water and then only in certain circumstances, this situation is not one we are programmed to seek.
  2. Predators nearby. We make kids laugh by threatening to gobble them up. But the threat of kids getting eaten is central in fairy tales for a reason. Fighting to keep beasts from eating us, if not fighting cannibalism, is part of our evolutionary memory. Again, we are programmed for wariness in such a situation.
  3. Sharks. Stephen Colbert makes a similar point about bears. Some have said cats have an attitude toward dogs similar to my own feeling about sharks. I’m not wary of sharks. Sure, I’ll pet a little one at an aquarium or something, but the very idea of meeting a big one in the ocean–it’s just not an option. I’m not wary. I’m REPELLED. Open Water ain’t makin’ my top ten favorites list, but sharks… are… scary. Period.