So, I’ve been watching old horror movies lately—the schlockier the better. Mostly, I have been watching some TCM classic scare fare. Among the best of the worst were The Living Ghost, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, Spider Babies, and the absolutely mah-velous Night of the Lepus.
The Living Ghost is a zombie flick, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is a ‘head-transplant/zombie’ flick. Then there is creepy/crazy Spider Babies, with cannibalistic little girl lunatics, their creepy/crazy brother, the monstrous creepy/crazy uncle who lives in a hole in the creepy/crazy basement—all watched over by the equally mad, creepy/crazy butler played by creepy/crazy Lon Chaney Jr. This film can be described as Alfred Hitchcock meets Ed Wood. But, I have to say, that my favorite was the wonderful Night of the Lepus. Yes. Lepus.
Clearly having lost a bet, this movie’s stars are, shockingly, Academy Award Nominee Stuart Whitman and Academy Award Nominee and Golden Globe Winner Janet Leigh—how the mighty have fallen. And, best of all, Deforest Kelly—Yes. Dr McCoy his very self—Damn it, man! I’m a Star Trek icon, not a third-rate horror film hack! This movie sports enormous, genetically mutated, carnivorous rabbits on a nocturnal rampage through the American mid-west, killing anything that moves, and holing up in an abandoned mine during the day. I have two favorite scenes in this movie that I just have to share. (No spoiler though for those of you who will now certainly want to see this movie immediately.) Number One: The killer rabbits run down gun-fire and manage to attack and kill several armed men. Yet, Janet Leigh manages to hold off an entire troupe of said rabbits with a little red flare. Number Two: A lone police man drives into a drive-in theater (remember those?) and announces the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we need your help. Please roll up your windows, and turn on your headlights. There is an army of killer rabbits headed this way. Please follow the police car at the exit. Thank you. Do. Not. Panic. Do you understand?”
At this, all the lights go on and the good, obedient, white, middle-class, movie-going citizens all honk their horns in unison—ready to do their patriotic American duty. Of course, none of them stop to question the ‘police authority figure’ about the ‘army of killer rabbits headed this way.’ I guess this must happen a lot there. Okay, so I just loved this movie. I laughed and I laughed. I was, naturally, rooting for the rabbits. Get ‘em, Bugs! I must add that a lot of perfectly good ketchup was splattered about. Oh, the Nahuati!! Oh, the Solanum!! Oh, the Tomatoes!! I recall thinking that I should just call the whole thing off.
So…why did I do this to myself?
Last year, I watched an interesting documentary called Scared of My Own Shadow, which discussed how North America has mutated from a society with neighborhood kids playing road hockey and bike-riding to one with deserted playgrounds and “bubble-wrapped” children cloistered safely in the family room in front of video games. The kids don’t go out to the park, meet other kids, and learn to negotiate terms of friendship and the rules of game-playing anymore. Now kids go to the park when their “helicopter” parents can take an afternoon away from the office, or arrange a “play date” with other helicopter parents. This generation is sending kids out into the world who have no understanding of risk-taking, social consequences, the hard-learned knowledge that the world is not always fair, and the truth that not everyone gets an award just for standing around taking up space. And, why has this change happened? One word: FEAR.
In keeping with one component of my big project—“fear” in popular culture—I watched these old movies to see what scared people 50+ years ago. I have found zombies, blobs, mummies, vampires, werewolves, ax-murderers, demoniacs, mad scientists, big bugs, dinosaurs, apes, witches, aliens, and big-ass, man-eating, bunny-rabbits that all the close ups and spilled ketchup in the world could not make scary. Every one of these movies have four things in common: First, the bad guys die and the good guys win. Second, all monsters are evil. Third, white alpha males are the saviors and women/beta males/children are the saved. Fourth, the hero wins by bringing something subversive under patriarchal control.
These four essential aspects of most of the old horror movies speak to the world of their era. As always, popular culture determines what the audience will comprehend as important. Naturally, in a society that still very much believed in “evil” there was the standard “good versus evil” trope. And, in a society that had not yet embraced gender/racial equality, the white patriarchy was still firmly in control.
In modern day movies, we have mostly all of the same monsters but the rules of engagement have changed. The first rule is that the good guys—if there are good guys—don’t always win. No one is safe. Second, not all monsters are necessarily evil. I will argue that “evil” is a state that comes as a result of a choice(s) made by rational sentient persons. Thus, zombies and werewolves, for example, cannot be evil. Third, it is the white alpha male stereotype that is, quite often, the first victim of the particular monster attacking at the particular time. Today, the hero/anti-hero might be an orphaned African-American child, a cannibalistic psychiatrist, a sparkling vampire, a racist red-neck, or—most blasphemously—a woman.
All of this is because what scares audiences in 2015 is as different as their value systems. The bad guys are badder. The ketchup is now chemically created and very authentic-looking “blood.” The color is now high definition. The sound is high tech surround sound. In some theaters, the seats move and vibrate. Movies today are designed to be ridiculously, crazy real.
Today, horror movies scare audiences just as they did 50 years ago, but today, audiences are scared differently. Today, there is much that cannot be controlled and put into its place. Today the audience MUST have the unfathomable wizardry of state of the art special effects, otherwise the movie is no good. Today, there is a detached feeling of loneliness. Helplessness. Therefore, anyone willing to step up with an answer can be the hero—even a one-time monster. “You’re forgiven. Now save us.” There is no pattern anymore—or perhaps it’s a brand new pattern that is not yet fully seen. But that’s because fear is so blinding.
Fifty years ago, people didn’t live with fear that permeated everything. And I’m not talking about the fear that comes from the horror and mayhem seen on the nightly news—although that is certainly part of it. It’s not the Youtube videos of a ninety year old lady being punched out by a young man for the ten dollars in her handbag—although that might also be part of it. It’s more than that. It’s more than the posts of paranoia and rage on social media, or the dubious decisions made by our leaders, or the chants of religious fanatics to whom no ambition is more precious than the utter destruction of Western society’s culture. It’s not just the missing/murdered children, or the sexual predator living on the next block, or the parent-police informing on parents who let their eleven year old kids ride the city bus alone to school.
It might have something to do with the insane level of violence on prime time television that displays everything from pedophilia to gang rape to torture to dismemberment. I remember a time when it was shocking to see someone shot in the head on television during prime time. Today, they show not just the head shot but the glorious spray of blood, skull fragments, and brain matter across a white wall. And this is the major networks during prime time! If you want to see exceptional gore and guts, check out Showcase or AMC some time. Because damn.
Then back to the movies. The graphic over-the-top violence of the movies. And, I’m not talking about just the horror movies, although the horror movies today are resplendently bloody. No, I’m talking about the dramas, the comedies, and even the love stories. Has anyone seen a Quentin Tarantino movie lately? Or a Coen Brothers film? And don’t get me started on 50 Shades of Grey. Don’t. Just don’t. The movies are not merely violent. They also reveal a deep and repulsive delight toward sadism, psychological damage and anguish, and an attraction for the rejection of reason in favor of mindlessness. Meaningless death, pain, degradation, and sorrow. A devaluation of life. The abandonment of the sacred.
As for literature of late. Most of the big series books are violent to some extent: The Twilight Saga, The Harry Potter Series, The Mortal Instruments Series, The Resurgent Series, The Maze Runner Series, The 50 Shades Trilogy, and of course, The Hunger Games Trilogy…to name a few. Among the stories in these books, a fisherman is attacked on his boat and torn apart by hungry vampires; after his parents are tortured and murdered, a young infant is attacked and left for dead by an evil wizard; a young girl must participate in gladiatorial games to the death in order to save her family and community. And these are the books the kids are reading. The 20-30 set are reading a ‘love story’ about a young virginal woman who gives herself willingly to a rich man who enjoys inflicting pain on her body.
Then there’s the video games. Is it just me, or didn’t most games require at least two people to play? Aside from Solitaire, I suppose. And for some games, at least four players was needed. These games required a family room or basement ‘rumpus room’ (remember those?), usually a table of some kind, chairs maybe, a big bowl of chips, lots of fizzy drinks, and music in the background. Games required a lot of conversation. Sometimes whispering and scheming. Lots of laughter, cheering, finger-pointing, and booing.
Of the video games today, the ones that are especially disturbing are those that are ultra-violent, sexually sadistic, phantasmic, and amoral, and are single-player games. I give you the 32 year old guy living in his parents’ basement playing video games night and day because he doesn’t have a job, has never lived on his own, had a lover, or travelled anywhere except maybe to Comic Con… It’s kinda creepy just thinking about it, isn’t it? J Not to be hard on the nerdy guys out there, and I have no problem with them, Star Trek, World of Warcraft, or Comic Con…not really. I have a problem with the aloneness. The lack of personal society, and thus, the lack of accountability and social sensibility.
Even though some video games are rated R, video stores and merchants maintain little control of who they are giving these games to, and this is because the mindset is that “they are just games with animated characters.” This is how a 10 year old boy begins to play games where he is a bank robber who scores extra points for raping the bank teller or beating the prostitute to death with a baseball bat. Yeah. I’m not kidding. If there’s no one looking, and it’s just a game with animated characters, why not beat the scantily clad whore to death if it means topping the last score? What could possibly be at risk there? And still, it is not just this.
I think, it’s all of the above. To my mind, it’s the steady, long-term inundation of fearful ideas, images, sounds, rumors, and theories from every corner. I think it is the normalization of violence that must constantly be challenged—improved upon as it were, like a better, faster roller-coaster. Furthermore, this fear is NOT imaginary. Yet, it’s not like the West has not been here before. After all, there were two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Ted Bundy, the Boston Marathon, Global Warming, Sarah Palin. Closer to home, there was Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, and Robert Pickton. Several floods in Manitoba and Alberta. The murder of women in Montreal, and the murder of unarmed soldiers in Ottawa. Canada too has had its eye blackened and its nose bloodied on more than one occasion. So what is different? Nothing is different, except that fear, like never before, is beginning to take its toll.
It was Franklin D Roosevelt who coined the phrase, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” It was said to his nation in 1933, during the Great Depression, after the ‘war to end all wars’ was done, when the American Dream was losing its truthfulness, and trouble was brewing again in Europe. It seemed like 20 minutes later that the Canadians were re-arming for yet another war. Yet, there was a genuine and certain feeling that if we all banded together, if we all scrimped on the luxuries, if we all prayed hard enough, and loved our country enough, and sacrificed all we had for the cause, then victory would surely be ours. Canada simply couldn’t lose. Canada believed together and united against a common “evil.” There was fear certainly, but not a mindless terror. The fear was obviously over the loss of life and the vague notion of defeat, but Canadian society acted definitively, smartly, assuredly, and with a clear purpose in mind. There was no flailing about like those without direction, who are blind with terror. Therefore, Roosevelt’s words at the time might have sounded profound and cool, but a bit rhetorical. But today, not so much. Today, those words mean something else.
Fearing “fear.” Fear as an inclination. Fear as a pandemic. Fear as a dark entity that gets inside and underneath, and rules decisions. Fear that becomes normalized until it melts into the walls—with eyes that follow and can be felt, but invisible. Fear as the motive and motivator. Fear as a punchline. With fear like that, already instilled, imbued, fused in bone, in stone, what need is there for a new enemy? What is needed now is a survival bunker with automatic weapons and canned water. The zombies are not just out there…they are in here. There is no escape…nowhere to turn. There is no turning back to the God so forsaken. Or the innocence so cast off. Or the unity so greatly prized once. Everything is undone. There is nothing left but numb fear. Save us…anyone. Return our reason and remove our fear and we will follow you…whoever you are. If you solve our problems, we will gladly write your name on our right hands or our foreheads. Fear itself will fear.