Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Monster Among Us

"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he doesn't become a monster."--Friedrich Nietzsche

Monsters have always both repelled and fascinated me. When I was very small I was what my Pop dubbed a "chicken poop", easily frightened by scary images on TV or in books. I remember being terrified while watching Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein when the Monster threw a nurse out of a laboratory window. Sure, it was just Abbot and Costello, and the bit was just put in for some good Universal Monster grue; but in my imagination I filled in the Nurse's horrible death: the lacerating explosion through the glass, the terrifying plummet through dark misty night air, the bone breaking impact on cold stones, the tumble into icy sea water, all the time through the searing pain, the knowledge that death was imminent. I doubt even the actress portraying the nurse worked her way through the "method" as much as my five year old mind did in that instant.

There was always a ready supply of monsters and spooks on TV but my childhood was also haunted by various "native" monsters as well. Our parents, wanting to keep nosy kids from rooting through various packed mementos in a closet, invented a "hoopher" that lived among the boxes, guarding their contents with scratchy claws and needle teeth. I remember my Pop, to add a little realism to his monster myth, showed us all a bloody cut he had received somehow, and chalked it up to the work of the "hoopher", guarding his horde. The terror that the "hoopher" evoked grew to such a fever pitch that our parents must have decided that the monster had gotten away from its original intent, and was having a decidedly unhealthy impact on over imaginative children. Pop staged the "death" of the "hoopher", and took his tiny body out to the trash pile and burned it. I have no idea what was actually burned but I can remember seeing some lifeless limp thing in Pop's hands as the creature went to his funeral pyre. The aura of fear lingered in the closet for some time after. And then we tore into their stuff!

There was also the man who took kids who would not take their naps away to the dump in a burlap bag, there to barbecue his naughty prize on a pile of burning trash. Now, these native monsters may seem like prime examples of psychological child abuse to our 2009 minds, and undoubtedly they were, but they were also in a very long tradition of various bogey men designed by parents from time immemorial to get children to do things that they would otherwise be loathe to do.

As time went on, my "chicken poop" side turned to morbid fandom. I read every classic horror story, bought and consumed Famous Monsters of Filmland, and watched every horror movie that I could. I became a true student of the macabre. I wrote scary stories, and planned horror novels and movies with my friends. As a student of the horror genre, it was interesting to watch how the emphasis changed with the times.
The monster was always the star of the show, and usually the movie or book was named for it. But in the old days, the story was always told from the perspective of the victims and/or those who fought them. The monster was the other, and as such had to be cut out like a cancerous tumor, for the sake of society, and any concerns about how the monster became a monster or saving its soul, were a very low concern, if a concern at all. The monster was always dispatched with at the end, even if it was destined to be reborn in a sequel, the audience was never left with an open ending to haunt their dreams upon leaving the cinema.
After America "lost its innocence" in the post-JFK assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, the focus started to change. The evil wasn't necessarily an 'other' anymore, it could emanate from your child, ala The Exorcist and The Omen, or the rustic family off the highway ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The endings were much less cut and dry; things did not always end nicely, the monster more often than not won the day.
When Halloween launched the era of 'splatter' horror , the monster almost took over the role of the hero, the victims were cardboard cut outs set up for the monster to dispatch with in more and more creative ways. There wasn't even the expectation of a "sewn up" ending anymore. Now, the cynical observer might just say that these monsters could not be finally destroyed because it would be tantamount to killing off Mickey Mouse; the end of a lucrative franchise. That may be true to an extent, but I believe there is also a deeper, more sociological reason. I believe the trend reflects the maturing realization that evil can not be truly destroyed; it can be beaten back but never removed entirely. The evil is not necessarily out there anymore, it may even lurk inside of us. This certainly is behind the new 'torture horror' trend in the genre, where the bad guy is definitely the only interesting thing in the tales. This existed to a degree in some classic horror, but much more as subtext.(Frankenstein's true monster was not the creature he brought to life, but the blasphemous drive inside him to attempt to be God-like.)
The place where you should always truly look for a 'moral' is in the actions of those who attempt to take on evil. How do they go about it? Do they stick to their principles, or become more like the evil itself in order to take it down? This is where horror movies can really be insightful. The horrors that we face in our personal lives (financial, medical, marital, career woes) can make us stronger, wiser people for taking them on; or they can make us victims ourselves; or even worse, we can become twisted and evil in an attempt to be victorious. This also works on the level of our roles as citizens. Does the government that represents you truly reflect your intentions in the way it takes on the horrors that it must? (war, economic collapse, the erosion of freedoms)
Anyone who passes judgement too quickly and superciliously on horror as a genre is losing sight of the fact that it is primarily a modern morality play, our modern equivalent of The Harrowing of Hell or The Divine Comedy. They may not always say what we want them to say about us, or we may not always agree with what they do say, but they hold up the mirror, and it is up to us to look and ponder.
And to an old chicken poop like me, it is both thrilling and illuminating to do so...

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I just finished reading David McCullough's 1776, and I am sad. I am sad because the scope of the book was limited to just the events of the eponymous year, and even though I know how things turn out, I am sure left wanting to continue my trek with His Excellency General George Washington and his rag tag Continental Army. This book was written as a companion piece to McCullough's Pulitzer prize winning John Adams, which I have not read yet. I watched the excellent HBO mini-series starring Paul Giamatti , which I recommend highly, and thought I'd read 1776 as a warm-up to tackling Adams. So my sadness is tempered with the joy of expectation for my next read, but, if the mini-series is faithful to the book, many of the great historical occurrences may just be glancingly presented in relation to the effect on Adams' life. But I trust McCullough to do it right enough.

I don't need to spend much time singing McCullough's praises, he is a much read and honored writer of history. 1776 is the first book of his that I have read, however, and I was completely engrossed throughout the chronicle. The portrait of Washington in this book , though preserving some of the enigma that all great historical figures seem to present, made me consider the man, not the icon. For the first time the fragility of the birth of our nation , the uncertainty, the danger, the true ballsyness of rebelling against the Greatest Power On Earth was brought home to me.

It occurred to me how this great tale has been somewhat shrouded in the gauziness of myth.We all learned the basics, the Boston Tea Party, crazy old King George III, and the almost miraculous coming together of the Founding Fathers to Declare Independence, and shoot at Redcoats from behind trees until they gave up. But the real nitty gritty, desperate, brave, freezing, green, conflicted and uncertain struggle is not as well portrayed. I was trying to think of other movies concerning the American Revolution, and the only one that came to mind was Revolution, an Al Pacino starrer that I believe came out in the 80s and was, if memory serves, a stinker. There was also The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, but this one, while dealing with some historical characters and events, was a fictionalized account. And of course, the musical 1776.

And this begs the question: why hasn't the story , the real story, ever been told in all the glory and horror that it deserves?

My theory is that the heart of the average member of the Powers That Be is much more in line with the priggish ruling Tories, and the average Founding Father with his patriotic and libertarian zeal would be considered a religious whack-job militia man.

If you want to see the Civil War portrayed, you can take your pick of any number of films, some of them very fine. I think that apart from being closer to our own time, the central theme of slavery is a more fun "teaching moment" for filmmakers to engage in. There may have been a time when the assumption that the details of the story are too familiar from repeated exposure in school, but that was before society crumbled.

In any case, there are always books, and 1776 is a great place to start. Maybe McCullough will finish the job and grace us all with a complete history of the Revolution someday. Then maybe we'll get our movie!