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...


AlanDP said...

I agree with your assessment that evil can never be entirely destroyed, at least not in our current reality, but I don't think the movie producers were being that symbolic. I think their motives for always bringing back the monster is plain and simple greed, coupled with a lack of imagination.

My parents never did the bogeyman thing with me, in fact, they went to great lengths to convince that monsters aren't real. Unfortunately, I knew better, because when I was very young I could see shadows moving in the darkness where there should have been nothing to make a shadow move.

Your post also reminded me of a movie I saw when I was maybe 4 years old, and which gave me nightmares for several days. I had forgotten the name of it, but still had vague memories of it and how badly it had scared me. One night back in the mid-90s or so my wife and I were watching a show about old horror b-movies hosted by Elvira, and suddenly on the screen there appeared the monster of my nightmares. It turns out the movie was called "Curse of the Wasp Woman." A shock went right up my spine and I think the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I leaped up and shouted, "THAT'S IT!!!" Then I had to explain the whole story to her. It was strange, seeing the thing that had terrified me so badly some 25 years before now seemed so comical.

Brer said...

It's amazing how empathic we are when we are very small. I remember when I was a kid how sad I felt when someone else was sad, or how I would feel physically sick if someone else was sick. I wonder if it's because as children we still haven't completely put up the barriers between ourselves and the rest of the universe...a necessary survival skill, I suppose, but I can't help but feel it is one of those "dirty devices of the world." Your talking about the fate of the nurse reminded me.

Anonymous said...

I adore you, Beckler. This post is so spot on. And, of course, as your greatest fan and acolyte, I went right along that horror ride with you. It is this kind of clarity that encourages me to believe that you could create the next level of monster movie. Perhaps some metaphorical beast created in an horribly dark ritual of religious extremists. Hmm.