Yesterday I finished reading Johannes Cabal: Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. It was an entertaining read about a necromancer, a haunted carnival, and a deal with the devil with a wry wit and some interesting characters and concepts – I recommend it if you’re in the mood for some tongue-in-cheek horror/adventure.
As the chief setting of the book is a carnival of the damned, however, it got me thinking about certain things a broad swathe of our society finds frightening that I don’t quite understand. Carnivals are among them, generally – I always had fun at carnivals, was never all that creeped out by carnival folk, and the only thing that scared me was the haunted houses, and that only because I was a kid and, having never gone in one, my vivid imagination made them seem MUCH worse than they actually are. In practice they’re relatively boring, honestly, but maybe that’s just adult me talking, and I’m not easily scared anymore.
Of course, I’m not talking about children being scared of things in this article – kids, particularly imaginative ones, are scared of all kinds of things. It’s actually not such a bad evolutionary trait for children to have, either. No, in this article I’m talking about grown adults and their pet fears that I find perplexing and confusing. So, to start:
Why are people scared of clowns again? I mean, they’re just people in face paint. Face paint and funny clothes. Brightly colored face paint and funny clothes. Meant to entertain children.
I mean, I guess the makeup makes them look a little corpse-y, but is that it? I’ve heard that people feel like they ‘can’t trust them’, but, then again, I don’t feel like I can trust a lot of people. That doesn’t mean they’re axe-murdering cannibals that populate my nightmares.
I saw an interview with the Insane Clown Posse once, and they were ‘asked ‘why clowns?’ The answer was ‘we’re fucking terrifying, that’s why.’ I wanted to explain to the gentleman that the thing that made him terrifying wasn’t his face paint, it was that he genuinely seemed to be the kind of guy who might commit a felony. Even without the facepaint, I wouldn’t be keen to spend time with him.
I totally understand that clowns are odd and a bit overly jolly to make me want to hang out with them. I get why kids might not like them (but kids also are afraid of bizarre stuff like cracks in the sidewalk and the letter ‘T’), but there’s just no reasonable explanation for a grown person to scream in terror at the sight of a clown. Of course, reasonable is the operative word, there. Fear isn’t reasonable by definition.
Okay, fine – maybe grown men in makeup are unnerving. How, then, do you explain the terror some people experience from dolls. You know the ones – the dead stare, the weird prerecorded voice, the neat, staid clothing.
Here the problem is, ultimately, that they’re tiny and inanimate. Even if they are animate (e.g. Chucky), they’re still up to your knee. Possessed by the devil or not, just pick it up and lob it into the nearest woodchipper or trash compactor – there, crisis averted. This is another instance of things made to look adorable or attractive somehow becoming terrifying. I don’t understand this. I mean, sure, again, a little weird, a little creepy, but not really scary. Anything that can be overpowered by one hand and destroyed by a pair of scissors isn’t on my list of fears.
So lets move on down the list until we get to ‘creepy children.’ This one blows my mind. Really.
I like kids. I have a kid (soon to be two). I’m a teacher and, in my career, I’ve taught small children. They aren’t scary. Ever. Ever ever. I can’t even conceive of an instance where a child under the age of 10 could ever be at all creepy. They could say anything they want and my response would be somewhere between ‘ain’t that adorable’ and ‘that’s inappropriate, young lady.’ Can kids make you angry? Hell yes. Can they make you sad? Certainly. Can they be weird? 100%. Scary? No. Not to psychoanalyze in abstentia, but part of me feels like people freaked out by children aren’t so much afraid of the kids as much as the presence of those kids somehow reminds them that they are growing up and older and becoming adults, which in turn frightens them. I’m probably 100% wrong on that one, but that’s just the first thing that comes to mind.
Here, I’ve got a creepy kid story for you. Let’s make this a litmus test, maybe, for whether you ever find children scary: A coworker of my wife has a little girl of about three. Said little girl was informed by her parents that the reason her grandmother was so tiny is that, as people age, they get smaller. The little girl looked straight at her mother and said this:
Yeah, and when you get old you get tiny, too. You gonna be this big. I gonna keep you in a cage.
The mother responded with ‘oh, don’t be silly.’ The girl’s response, dead serious:
No, I keep you in a cage. I lock you inside. You stay there.
Did you chuckle, or did you suddenly get a chill down your spine? If it’s the latter, may I remind you that it’s a toddler. She isn’t a threat to you. Honest.
I could add to this list – throw on zombies and the Borg and spiders and other things I don’t really find all that frightening – but you get the point. Of course, stuff I’m scared of might not scare you, so we’re probably even. Fear, as I said above, isn’t rational, and so explaining it or understanding it in another is very difficult. This psychological distance, however, is ripe for storytelling and adds a great deal to the experience of being human.
And I’m sure the psychiatrists of the world don’t mind, either.
Before we go any further, let me alert you to Adele singing the theme song to the new Bond flick.
If you don’t think that’s awesome, it’s probably best for all of us if you leave the room.
For as long as I can remember, the word ‘cool’ has been defined by a single, solitary figure: James Bond. Even before I was fully cognizant of that character’s influence over my development, it was still there. Bond was the lone, heroic, confident, unflappable individual that summed up what my idea of ‘cool’ was. I was pretending to be characters like him even before I can remember seeing a movie about him.
This, of course, leads one to an inevitable Chicken and the Egg problem: which came first for me, Bond or my idea of cool? To put on my psychology hat for a second (psychologists, please understand that my studies in psych are rather limited – just enough to get me into trouble, as per usual), the answer to this question depends on whether or not you buy into Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious. In brief, it’s the idea that all of us share a kind of unconscious pool of psychic information that, while we aren’t consciously aware of it, is somehow inherited or passed along by our ancestors and joins us with the rest of humanity.
If you buy Jung’s theory (and lots of people do), then Bond is very much plumbing ‘the Hero’ Jungian Archetype from the depths of our collective psyche. He is the guy who’s iron willpower, courage, and inimitable skill enables him to prove his worth and improve the world. Anyone who is predisposed to admiring the ‘hero’ or similar ideas would be drawn to Bond, since he is the concentration of those traits.
That’s not all there is to him, though. Bond isn’t cool because he defeats bad guys and outwits villains – every hero does that, and not all heroes are cool. Bond has something else going on, too. He’s both sophisticated and down-to-earth, both military and civilian, both educated and street-smart. He’s able to seamlessly adapt to any social situation and comes off well in any contest. In a world full of social stratification, cliques, and labels that limit one’s confidence, Bond cuts through them all. He is cool in all possible situations, even when out of his depth, in trouble, or suffering. He forces guys to compliment him while they are torturing him. His enemies admire his skill even while trying to destroy him. His boss loves him even as he is breaking very, very important and sacred rules of engagement. Bond is, essentially, the essence of freedom – able to go where he wishes, do what he wishes, and come out of it spotless and making out with a gorgeous woman on a life raft. Few other heroes can do this with the same level of panache.
I find it interesting, sometimes, the extent to which Bond can get away with doing and saying things that other characters couldn’t. When Pierce Brosnan manages to fall faster than a falling plane in Goldeneye, we immediately know (or should know) that he is violating the laws of physics as demonstrated by Galileo. More than any other hero, though, Bond can get away with this without too many of us rolling our eyes. Why? Well, our subconscious requires him to succeed so that we may invest our own egos in his behavior. We are just so willing to be impressed by a character we have defined, at essence, as impressive that we must forgive the story it’s slights against reality so we can escape with him. This is what I have come to call the Coolness:Reality Ratio. The cooler the character is (i.e. the more he fills in some insecurity or gap in our own emotional or psychological needs and/or weaknesses), the more he can get away with before we call BS on the whole affair. Now, I don’t have a specific numbering system set in place, but it can be safely assumed that James Bond, more than any other character I can think of, has a ratio that’s off the charts.
It is telling, then, that one of the novels I’m trying to sell (The Oldest Trick, set in Alandar) is my attempt at creating a Bond-like character in the person of Tyvian Reldamar, criminal mastermind and smuggler forced to reform his ways by a conscience-reinforcing magic ring. I’m trying, somehow, to catch a bit of that lightning that pulses through Bond’s blood and bottle it up in a fantasy setting. I hope I’ve been successful, but only time will truly tell. In the meantime, I’m going to be humming the tune to “Skyfall” while concocting additional adventures for my own Bond-esque hero to negotiate with skill, wit, and panache.
Have you ever seen the old sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet? If not, see it. It’s a pretty brilliant film, very Star Trek in its feel, though a good many years preceding Star Trek. It also has Leslie Nielsen, but he isn’t behaving like an idiot, which is novel in and of itself if you grew up watching Zucker Brothers films. It’s a kind of sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which should give you snooty folks an excuse to take a look.
Anyway, I’m going to be talking about the movie here and digging into it, so if you want to watch it you really should before I ruin the whole thing for you. So, off you go.
Seen it yet? I’ll wait.
Okay, here we go: the central foe facing Nielsen and the gang is, essentially, the subconscious thoughts and primitive urges of the Prospero character (Morbius), primarily since Nielsen falls in love with the Miranda character (Altaria), and things go downhill. You see, Dr. Morbius was working with the ancient artifacts of a long-gone civilization (natch) called the Krell who disappeared in a single night. How, you ask? Well, they created the technology to make anything they thought of into something real, but forgot a pretty key fact: their primitive subconscious. Creatures from the Id.
This idea touches on something truly elemental in literature, which is carried out through every story of love gone wrong or rage gone unchained from Oedipus all the way to the Hulk. The id – that little monster inside of us that wants to get out and raise hell, consequences be damned. Science Fiction and Fantasy lit, in particular, is fairly obsessed with the problematic existence of the id. Think about all the demons and aliens and monsters out there who are, ultimately, just distilled representations of our emotions running off the rails. The Warhammer universe (both fantasy and 40K) has the Warp, which is *exactly* that – the reflection of living things emotional and pent-up primitive urges made real.
We specfic folks are usually disturbed by the id. We see it as unhealthy, uncontrolled, and dangerous. It makes us stupid. It’s for that reason, after all, that the Bene Gesserit of Dune administer the gom jabbar. That’s why we love Vulcans. That’s why the elves are prettier than the dwarves and why Hudson gets killed in Aliens and Hicks doesn’t. We know (or think) that losing our cool, letting the beast off the chain, is a Bad Idea.
Simultaneously, and unavoidably, we have a deep-seeded love of the kind of pathos whipped up when Banner goes Hulk or the Punisher exacts vengeance. We like Klingons, too, you know, for all their id-laden passions and poor impulse control. They, though, aren’t the lead characters. We don’t want to be them, precisely, so much as revel in their release and quickly get things back under wraps. If Bruce Banner is the Hulk all the time, the character loses something that we miss (or maybe not – were the ‘all Hulk, all the time’ comics popular? I remember finding them lame).
The trick, though, seems to be getting those passions under control. I borrow from Nietzsche here when he says, in “Morality as Anti-Nature”:
All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag us down with the weight of their stupidity – and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they spiritualize themselves…destroying passions and cravings, merely as a preventative measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity – today this strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity. We no longer admire dentists who “pluck out” teeth so that they will not hurt any more.
What this means is that, ultimately, you can’t get rid of the id without destroying yourself, without killing that part of you that makes you alive and makes you human. The Vulcans, ultimately, are the tragic ones in a sense, or at least just as foolish and troubled as the Klingons. Yes, they have all the science and the knowledge and the logic, but what good is it to them? Science is a ‘how’, not a ‘why’. The passions (and, by extension, their disciplines, known as literature, art, music, and the like) are needed to give us purpose and drive and imagination. The Creatures from the Id can be demons and monsters, yes, but they can also be angles and muses, guiding us to that distant light that logic and ego, for all their clarity, cannot yet see.
I had a nightmare last night. Not a real, sit-up-in-bed-and-can’t-sleep-anymore type nightmare–I rarely have those anymore, and if I do they aren’t anything like this. It was, instead, one of those dreams that simulates a horror movie. I was staying in a hospital with two other people–an ex-student and a friend (but I can’t remember whom). It was night; we were alone. There was somebody stalking us.
At first we thought it a prank, but then we were wrong. The person we thought it was, well, they never really existed. This was something different…something wrong. It was coming for us, and it was going to get us, one by one. I found myself walking through a darkened surgical ward, hearing it whisper my name, and then it burst from a cabinet, black and smoky, glowing eyes.
I led with my knuckles. The dream ended with me digging my thumbs into its stupid eyes, swearing a blue streak.
My reaction to fear is, I think, sort of different than most. I feel fear, sure, but my instinct is almost always ‘attack’ rather than ‘run’. That pounding of the heart, the chills in my bones, the tremble in my hands–all of that gets focused into a sort of berzerk sort of rage that I direct at the object of my terror. I can control it, sure, but if you jump out from behind a bush as a joke, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll slug you as hard as I can. Horror movies frustrate the hell out of me, primarily because all the people do the exact opposite thing that I’d do. They go all limp and start squealing or running or whatever–I gave that up a long time ago. If I see Freddy Kreuger, I’m going to go for his jugular and hope that glove of his doesn’t finish me off first. I’m not going to give him the time to deliver his pithy one-liner.
Fear is a terrific motivator. Not only can it change me–relatively peaceful, easy-going guy–into a norse berzerker, but it reduces otherwise intelligent people to drooling idiots, organized people into flighty bubble heads, and stupid people into superheroes. Panic is enormously powerful.
In Frontier: 2280, I’ve included a weapon called a ‘panic bomb’. I stole the idea from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: it’s a weapon that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb, acts like a bomb, but isn’t actually a bomb. You toss it in a room and it starts hissing and beeping and a little LED counter starts down from 10; it might even announce that it is a bomb in a loud, scary voice. The idea of the weapon is a way to flush people out of cover without actually exposing them to anything harmful or, conversely, cause confusion and panic in the defenders. If you don’t think such a weapon would work, you’ve never been in a crowd of people who were frightened of something before. Us berzerkers start smashing things to stop the danger, the panicky ones start running amok, the squealers start yelling their heads off, causing more panic–things get ugly, and fast. All the rationality and higher thought that we, as a species, are so proud of goes straight out the window, and we become little better than stampeding cattle.
I’ve talked before about how the zombie apocalypse trope underwhelms me. I don’t see zombies as wiping out a huge number of people, all things considered. You know what would, though? The panic associated with the possibility of zombies attacking people and the dead rising from the grave. Can you imagine the looting? The violence? The chaos? All perpetrated, by the way, by humans against other humans. All those anti-zombie fanatics who actually have spent time thinking about ‘what they would do if the zombies come’ are going to be running amok, chainsaws in hand, trying to ‘survive’ when, in the end, they’ll mostly be hurting other people or getting hurt themselves. That’s the power of panic, you see–more potent and faster spreading than any disease you can name, and probably the cause of more deaths.
There’s a reason, after all, that it’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater without cause, and it isn’t just for the hell of it. People have died because of that, trampled beneath the sticky soles of a thousand other panicky movie goers who, for the love of God Almighty, do NOT want to burn alive.