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Monsters are real.
I had kind of a rough autumn in 1986. The day before school started (my first year of high school), my stepfather was drunk and in a bad mood. Most of the time when he got like that, I was the focus of his negative attention. For some reason that day he decided to go after my little brother. And I lost it.
I confronted him directly, and for the first time I really fought back. It was bad, and ended with him throwing me into a closet door before stomping off to his room to pass out. My brother - who had witnessed the whole thing - waited on the porch until 2am for my mother to come home. She wasn’t around much those days.
When she finally made it home, my brother told her about what had happened and gave her an ultimatum. Either she took us and left, he said, or my stepdad would kill us. And he wasn’t waiting for that. If we don’t all leave he said, Jeff and I are. My mom told him to go inside and pack a bag, and had me do the same. We left while my step dad was still passed out and drove an hour to my grandmother’s house. My mom explained what happened to my grandmother over coffee. I never saw my stepfather again after that.
A couple of hours later, my mom dropped me off for my first day of high school. It was a unique 24 hours, and one hell of a way to start a high school journey that would take me to 4 schools in 3 states.
A few weeks later, I got a new book. It was It by Stephen King. The book features a group of kids fighting a malevolent evil personified by Pennywise the Clown, and it scared the hell out of me. It scared me because Stephen King is a truly uniquely gifted writer and the story was both relatable and horrifying. The book also scared me because around that time I remember seeing a series of news stories about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who had some appeal decision or something happening. Gacy had preyed on young men, some as young as me at the time, and had dressed up frequently as a clown. Between Pennywise and Gacy, I developed a deep fear of clowns. One that persists to this day.
Because monsters are real.
Horror stories appeal to us because they are vicariously frightening. Terror places us completely and relentlessly in the moment. Horror stories allow us to be completely in a terrible moment, but without actual danger. Close the book, turn off the movie, and the danger ends. It is experience without consequence, a decadent chocolate cake that has no calories.
Only, monsters are real.
Part of what makes horror stories terrifying is that they come from a dark place in the human heart, a place that is all too real. Pennywise is a fictional clown. John Wayne Gacy was very much real. I loved movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. But the fear that I carried every day that my stepfather would reappear in our lives was very very real.
Monster stories are frequently metaphors. The monsters are monsters in their own right. And they are monsters of a different sort as well. They are metaphors for the monsters that are very human, very present, and very real.
For this week’s 5 things, in honor of Halloween, I will be looking at 5 Monsters; thinking about what they mean in themselves and what they mean in the greater sense. One thing that 2020 has reminded us is that monsters are, in fact, very real. There are people who behave with malevolence. There are dark places in the human heart. And there are nameless, faceless entities in the world (like viruses) that want to destroy us.
And, maybe, by seeing them and calling them what they are we can take away some of their power to scare us. We can make the world a little less scary by seeing the monsters for what they are, by shining a light in the scary corners of a dark basement.
And by remembering that monsters are real.
The acknowledged first work of modern horror was written by Mary Shelley in 1818. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was inspired by a trip that Mary took with her husband Percy and their dear friend Lord Byron through the German countryside. Throughout their trip there were stories told of ghosts and ghouls and, yes, monsters. Many of these German folk tales had been recorded and published a few years earlier by a pair of German academics (who also happened to be brothers), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. During a night spent at a castle the Shelleys and Byron decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest ghost story.
Mary won, and the next year Frankenstein was released.
The Frankenstein of Shelley’s story is not the lumbering monster conjured by Bela Lugosi. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is kind and gentle, and intelligent. In fact, the “monster” is able to gather and process prodigious amounts of information quickly. In some ways, what scares the people around him (especially the doctor who created him) is just how exceptionally bright the creation is. There is a tension in Shelley’s work, belied by its full title, centered around exactly what the doctor has unleashed and who exactly is in charge.
We have seen this story play out in movies like The Matrix and Terminator, where machines created by man become sentient and then turn on their creator and threaten humanity. The idea that something that humans create could turn around and be the thing that destroys us has been around a long, long time.
Monsters are real.
We as humans fear what we create because so much of what we create is purpose built for destruction. We create weapons and machines of war. We literally build the means of our own destruction.
Our monster is even deeper. It is the very act of creation itself - the constant human need to “improve” the world and make it bend ever further to our will that causes us to fall farther and farther out of step with the world that sustains us. It is the very act of creation that we sow the seeds of our own destruction. For our economy to thrive, we colonize and enslave. For our civilization to progress, we take more and more natural resources. To protect our comforts, we destroy the world.
And one of our deepest fears is that one day our creation will turn on us. That we will fall victim to the very thing that we have created. That is our Frankenstein.
It has had many names. Frankenstein. Sky-net. The Matrix. But it is all one monster.
And monsters are real.
I have written before about my “career” at Blockbuster Video. During my time at the blue and yellow hellmouth, one of the big movies that was released on video was the film Wolf starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfieffer.
Wolf is one of those movies that should be really good. It was written by Jim Harrison (a prolific author and poet whose work includes the exceptional Legends of the Fall, whose screenplay he also helped write) and Wesley Strick (who most recently has worked as the lead writer and executive producer on the Amazon show Man in the High Castle). Additional script work was done by Elaine May who has been nominated for two Oscars and should have been nominated for at least two more. In addition to the leads (one a legitimate movie star and the other an ACTUAL screen legend), the cast included such players as James Spader, Christopher Plummer and Richard Jenkins. The movie was directed by Hollywood icon Mike Nichols. Even the score was done by movie music maestro Ennio Morricone. Wolf is a movie that had everything going for it.
And it is a hot mess of a film. And not in a fun way. It is just... not good.
Okay. That may be a bit unfair. It was ... okay. But a film with that list of talent up there should not be just okay. Especially when it is a modern retelling of one of the most enduring monsters of the human imagination - the werewolf.
There are werewolf stories dating back to early Indo-European mythology. The idea of a man who transformed into a wolf, and then back again, was referred to in classical antiquity, and by the time of the early Christian Church was something of an obsession of the early church fathers, who tied werewolves to witchcraft. No less a luminary than St. Augustine referred to men being turned into wolves by witches as if it were as common as leaves falling from trees.
By the Middle Ages, werewolf legends were common throughout Europe, and soon traveled the world via European colonization, where the stories combined with indigenous legends which then informed and enhanced the European folk tales. While the legends varied, there were some aspects that stayed the same.
There was a man (and the tales were almost exclusively about men, there were few stories about female werewolves) who experienced a transformation into a wolf. Frequently this was the result of being bit by a wolf. In the more explicitly Christianized versions of the story the transformation was the result of witchcraft (because the early church never missed a single opportunity to demonize, diminish and punish women). While in this wolf-like state, the man would do... wolf shit. Chase animals. Eat flesh. Indulge beastly appetites (and yeah, there was almost always some kind of sexual subtext). Then they would transform back into a normal man, sometimes having awareness of what they had been and how it had happened, but frequently not.
Monsters are real.
One of the things that we all struggle with is how much of ourselves to share with those around us. On the one hand, we can see the power, relief and joy that can come from being open and honest about who we are. The last 4 1/2 years of my life have been dedicated to being as open and honest as I can possibly be with everyone I meet about.... well, everything. Hell, I told the whole world on Facebook about how I broke my dick. Like I literally suffered a penile contusion. And told people about it. Including many of you (everyone else, you will have to wait for a different 5 things for that story).
There are things that I don’t share. There are thoughts and ideas that float through my head that I don’t give voice to, or may give voice to some of the people in my life. There are things I tell Barb that I would never tell anyone else. And things I share with my fellow recovering addicts that I would never tell even Barb.
We all do this to a greater or lesser extent. And it is one of the reasons that we are able to cooperate with people toward common goals. Sometimes it is best not to share every thought that enters your mind because - wait for it - not every idea you have is good. Not every thought is useful. Not every feeling is productive.
Werewolves don’t have to worry about everyone else. They are empowered to do what they want. That is why they are such a seductive archetype. We all wish that we could do or say the things that we are really thinking sometimes.
And monsters are real.
What would it look like if you did exactly what you wanted when you wanted to? What would it be like to say whatever was on your mind no matter how hurtful or inaccurate? I would imagine it would look a lot like Donald Trump. And how’s that working out?
Sure, there is some catharsis that can come from saying or doing exactly what we want. And in the end it isn’t the thing that creates a world that will sustain and fulfill us. Sometimes the more we center our own thoughts and feelings, the less joy we become capable of experiencing.
Doing whatever you want and blaming it on the animal inside sounds good on paper. Like a Mike Nichols movie written by Jim Harrison and starring Jack Nicholson. But when you actually start rolling the film.... all you have is a hot mess and a lot of wasted potential.
I majored in sociology in college. I earned enough credits in English to say that I double majored, but an English major at our college only took 9 upper level classes so it left plenty of room for other studies. And while I liked my English classes for the most part, I loved my sociology classes, and the two professors who taught them.
I loved the classes because the professors were not afraid to ask big questions, and demand rigorous answers. We talked about pretty much everything that humans do, from the way we organize ourselves to what we eat to how we educate children. We talked about human nature, and its cultural and political expressions. Much of the way I think about the world, and how I explore the world, I learned in those classes.
One of the things I remember talking about was cultural universals, the things that all cultures share. There are a few things that all cultures - regardless of time or place - seem to embrace. Some are practices that solve a common problem in a similar way. For instance, all groups have a need to keep food from spoiling, and to keep it as disease free as possible. One cultural universal is cooking - all cultures use fire (or some derivative thereof) to prepare food in a way that makes it safer and more stable.
Some cultural universals are a little more esoteric. There is a cultural universal around honoring or remembering the dead, for example. Now, different cultures handle this in radically different ways, but they all have some way of honoring, remembering, or commemorating the dead.
My favorite cultural universal is a monster.
Vampires - broadly defined as a creature that exists outside of the living and subsists by consuming the life force of beings who are still alive (usually their blood) - are found in cultures across the globe and throughout history. In most places and at most times vampires are animals. The Ewe people of Ghana fear the adze, a blood drinking firefly who hunts children. In Mexico and Puerto Rico there is a creature called the chupacabra who often feeds on the blood of goats. The vampire of the modern western imagination grew out of Balkan folktales, told by Western European authors in the 1800s, where they became famous and none more famous than Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
There is in almost every culture a story of an undead creature that lives by feeding on the life force of the living. While these beings are sometimes seen as good, most often they are malevolent forces. Good, bad, or downright evil, the one thing that vampires share is that they are everywhere and that all cultures seem to harbor the same shared fear.
We all fear those who would drain us of life. And vampires are often stand-ins for the big things that drain life from us. Climate change. Systemic racism. Injustice and inequality. All vampires that plague the living.
Because monsters are real.
And sometimes those monsters attack us not just in big ways. They attack us in small and relentless ways. They just kind of peck at us. Until we go mad.
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live characters of the last few years is Cicely Strong’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At A Party”:
OMG. I have talked to her. So so so many hers. I have talked to them at PTA meetings. At the grocery store. At the playground. And yes, at parties and bars. Talking to people like that leaves me feeling deflated, drained of energy. I am an extrovert generally. I love people. I love conversation. But some people just leave me feeling... exhausted.
We all have those people in our lives. And here is an uncomfortable truth for you. Sometimes we are those people. After 23 years of parenting I can identify the exact point in the lecture when my kids may be looking at me and nodding, but when they have ceased listening and are no longer processing anything I am actually saying. I know the exact moment when my loving correction has bored them. With Justin, I have approximately 9 seconds.
There are people who drain us of our energy - our life force. And there are times we do it to others. Part of human interaction, it seems, is dealing with times when interacting with each other causes us to lose hope, shift focus, and feel deflated.
We are surrounded by energy vampires. And sometimes we are energy vampires. This is one of the vagaries of humanity.
Because, monsters are real. And even in the smallest ways, they can make life harder.
I find the country of Haiti fascinating. It is the only country ever established as the result of a successful slave revolt. Almost all of the country’s early leaders were former slaves. It is a living embodiment of anti-colonialism, and anti-racism. And it has paid for it too. No one - country or industry - would deal with Haiti except in the most exploitative of terms. The country was occupied by the US during the years between the world wars to bring “stability” to the nation. The US did not care (then or now) about Haiti’s stability. Only its continued acquiescence to US industry, which found willing co-conspirators in the Duvaliers, a family that makes the grifting of the Trump / Kushners seem bush league in comparison.
As fascinating as the history of Haiti is, its culture is equally as interesting and contentious. A former French colony, it is (like many Caribbean nations) a mash-up of many cultures and influences. The island is the home to a rich tradition of music and dance and incredible food. It is the birthplace of an exhaustive list of diverse and deeply gifted writers, and has as rich a literary history as any nation in the western world.
Haiti has developed its own unique religious history as well. Haitian Vodou is, like the country itself, a mash-up. Vodou is a combination of the Roman Catholicism imported by the early French Colonialists, and traditional practices and beliefs from Africa, particularly West Africa, the region where many of the slaves brought to the island came from. Vodou brought with it a whole set of unique ideas and practices. And it brought a monster too. The zombie.
The zombie has a unique place in Haitian folklore. In fact, the word zombie itself is a westernized derivative of the Haitian word zonbi. In the Haitian tradition, zombies are created by a priest or priestess of vodou that has the ability to separate the soul from the body. These soulless creatures (zonbi) then serve the priest or priestess that created them.
While the zombie was a central figure in Haitian Vodou, the legend would move beyond the island and explode into western cultural consciousness in the late 20th century. In 1954, Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend which inspired a young movie maker named George C. Romero whose 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead launched the zombie as a figure of modern terror.
The contemporary zombie has some differences from the zonbi of Haitian Vodou. The Haitian zonbi was a body without a soul, which had been taken by a Vodou practitioner. They were capable of thought, did not seek to infect others, and lived in much the same way of the people around them. In fact one of the things that made the zonbi so frightening to Haitians was the idea that the soulless lived among them, controlled by their creators.
Modern zombies are different. They are soulless and decrepit of body. They are mindless and unable to do anything other than seek food, most often the brains of the living. And the last few years these mindless vectors of infection and destruction have had a moment. The Walking Dead, World War Z, 28 Days Later, and Zombieland have all been huge hits, and seen spin offs and sequels. There is something about zombies that seems particularly resonant where we are now.
Monsters are real.
Zombies are people who are no longer people. They have been relieved of what animates them. They are alive, but not in a meaningful sense. They have no self-awareness. No capacity for community, other than to attack others. They have no ability to control themselves or their choices. They are without choice or agency.
We fear zombies in the same way we fear most monsters. We fear them because we see how monstrous we are, and how much we share in common with the things we fear.
In so many ways we are zombies. Or at the very least have zombie tendencies. Look at the people you are with the next time you find yourself in a line. Like the line to vote hopefully. You will see people with faces down, focused on their phones, barely paying attention to the people around them. We all focus our attention on the latest Trump tweet, or Facebook drama, or reality tv show or whatever the fuck it is the Kardashians do.
And look, some of that is healthy. It is okay to seek an escape from the world, especially when so much of the world is so deeply flawed. And. It disconnects us from one another, and from our best selves. We are escaping from the very things that can get us through the fear and the anxiety - our connection with each other.
We willingly give up control of ourselves. We become willing zombies by paying attention to things that we know don’t help us. It is a struggle we all deal with. It is something that we are all afraid of - that we will become zombies.
Because monsters are real.
A couple of mornings ago, there was thick fog in our neighborhood. Justin was pretty amazed. I think that it was the first time he had really seen fog like that. He kept asking me if we were in the middle of a cloud. Ummm, good question. Kind of?
Fog is nerve wracking. Especially when you are driving. Not being able to see what is coming, not being able to adjust or compensate, can make what is a normally high risk activity even more dangerous. Fog is disorienting. It’s scary.
That is part of the reason that there has become a whole subgenre of horror stories dedicated to fog, mist, domes, and similar phenomena. The storylines are all similar. Life is normal. Then some unusual thing descends on their community. It is sometimes natural (like a fog or a mist), sometimes it is something unnatural (like a dome or a blob). Sometimes it is human - think the foreign military invasion in Red Dawn. Sometimes it is something alien - lots of movies that feature alien invasion follow this same script.
Regardless of the provenance of the “fog”, the impact is the same. People are separated from the rest of the world. Often there is a disruption of communication with the outside. The people remaining have to learn to work together, and they have to figure out what this... thing... is that has come and disrupted every normal expectation.
The defining feature of the “fog” is that no one understands its true nature. Is it just an abnormal expression of a completely normal phenomena? Or is it something more sinister? Do the alien pods suspended above the earth come in peace? Or do they want to control and colonize? Invariably, a hero (or group of heroes) will arise to investigate the true nature of the “mist” and determine what it means. They will fight against it if necessary. And they leave the comfort of the known and head out into the mist. Or the alien ship. Or whatever.
Most of these movies have happy and hopeful endings. We all love happy endings. A small handful don’t. One of the most notable of these is Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of the Stephen King short story The Mist. If you haven’t seen it, you should totally watch it for Halloween. I loved the movie when it first came out, and it has only grown in my estimation over time, mainly because it adheres to what actual people would probably do in a situation like that. The depictions of the townspeople and their divergent reactions is a perfect microcosm of the 21st Century American experience. If anything, 2020 has shown us that Darabont doesn’t push us far enough.
Because monsters are real.
At their best, movies about the mist, or the blob, or alien invasion, show us not just the threat, but how we collectively respond. And the stories are honest about the fact that we tend to not handle these situations well.
We have collectively failed the biggest challenges of the last few years. An incompetent demagogue with authoritarian tendencies is in the White House. His incompetence has killed a quarter of a million of us, and sickened millions more. In some cases quite directly. He is literally a super spreader. And when the disease came, instead of facing it with collective resolve and coming together to fight the danger, we turned on one another, we turned on science, we turned on reality and common sense. And it has cost us so much.
In the movies there is always a hero who rides into town to save the day. He (and it is almost always a he) gets us to put aside our differences and come together to fight the enemy. And he leads the charge. He heads into the mist, climbs aboard the alien mothership and saves us all.
He ain’t comin’ y’all.
Joe Biden may win on Tuesday (and I pray he does). But Joe won’t save us. Or Bernie. Or Kamala. Or Liz. Or anyone else. Our problems are bigger than one person. They are bigger than one administration.
ALL of us are responsible. ALL of us must work together to find a solution. And it will require working together. And that won’t be easy. Hard things are hard.
And we don’t have a choice. We can try to hide from the mist. The mist will still come. We can ignore the mist. The mist will still come. We can follow the people who tell us that the mist is “fake news.” The mist will still come.
The only thing that defeats the mist, that sends the aliens home, that helps us all survive is collective action. Working together to change the world. One small corner at a time.
Monsters are real. And they are scary.
And they are not the final answer. They are not the end of the story.
This may not be Hollywood. It may not be neat or tidy. The hero won’t be a square jawed white guy. Heroes will be queer, disabled, and poor. They will be black, indigenous, immigrants. Heroes will speak in the language of compassion and love, not in words of division and hate.
We are bigger than even the worst of the mist. We are bigger than even the horror of 2020. We will survive. We will thrive.
We will win. We must.
Monsters are real.
So are we.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.