A very happy New Year to everyone! May the ancient Mayan gods not land on your house!
If, like me, you love horror films, then there are two documentaries available on youtube that discuss, in length, some of the great films and how they came about. Both documentaries focus on the incredible period of the 1980’s when horror was absolutely everywhere and was routinely raking in the money. I’d consider it the second true renaissance of horror. The first being the Universal monster movie era that spanned from approximately 1920 to late 1960 but that saw its best output between 1923 and 1943, starting with the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d also include the Hammer Horror films coming out of England as being part of this first horror renaissance though it came a bit later, in the mid 50’s. Nevertheless, the Hammer Horror series continued on with the themes and monsters of the previous Universal monster series while introducing new elements to their horror. We could go back to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and place the marker of horror renaissance there, after all, they did make remarkable film during the German Expressionist period that were deeply affecting, but for now I’m relegating the selection to movements that were specific to horror. For instance, Metropolis is part of the German Expressionist movement but is not horror.
So, without further ado, I’ll introduce the two players. The first is the documentary Decade of Horror. It’s cut into three parts, 1.3, 2.3, and 3.3. It has interviews with John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London, Joe Dante, director of The Howling and Gremlins, and Stuart Gordon, director of From Beyond and Re-Animator, among others.
The second is a personal favorite of mine that first aired on IFC as part of their Halloween special programming. It is The American Nightmare: The History of Horror’s Golden Age. It includes interviews with John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and others as they discuss their films and horror in general. This is probably one of the best explorations of horror I’ve ever seen and has academics discussing the impact horror has had on them and society and how society impacted the horror that was produced.
Enjoy these great looks into the minds of some very talented people.
Nothing like a good decapitation to start the day out right in a zombie infested post-apocalyptic world. And judging by how zombies have utterly taken over everything in culture, I’d say we’re already in the zombie apocalypse. It seems like every book, videogame, movie, and television set are overrun with the undead. Not to mention sex shops. (Slightly NSFW: Why God? Why?)
Who remembers the Night of the Living Dead and the absurdly fun Return of the Living Dead? Even if you haven’t seen it, you know about it. It’s part of our collective cultural consciousness. You probably also know about Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and all the other dead films George A. Romero has been making. Then there is 28 Days Later, its sequel 28 Weeks Later, and so on. We’ve got the Resident Evil series of games and movies. These are just the most obvious examples of zombie films. Now we have books about how to defend yourself from zombies (Max Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide) and Marvel has decided that it would be fun to see what our favorite superheroes would do if they were zombies. We’ve seen a gradual ramping up of the amount of zombie content in just about everything. You can’t throw a stick without hitting something zombie related. Even our roads are fair game.
So what is going on? Why are there just so many bloody zombies? And rotten zombies? And fast and slow zombies? And every other zombie you could conceive of? We can go the boring route and just say that everyone is just hopping on the bandwagon and booking it to profit town (which probably is partially to blame) but is there more to this? I think there is because people are buying this stuff. If they weren’t, there would be no incentive to create this kind of content. So it may be that the real question is why do we love zombies so much all of a sudden?
There have been many who theorized about why we love the undead and love media in which the undead come back to gnaw on us. Death is the final frontier. After that line has been crossed, there is no undoing what has been done. All wrongs done in life transfer into death. This is probably why there are many cultures that put a stone over the dead. Imagine a wraith returning to get a little payback on someone who’s done them wrong. There are many such myths across the world of the dead coming back such as the draugr of Viking mythology. As bad as that is, imagine a giant skeleton coming for you. This myth comes to us from Japan and is called the odokuro. Everyone is afraid that the dead will make a return world tour at some point and so we devise practices to appease them and dissuade them from coming back to visit. So, the dead come to represent all of our misdeeds and wrongs. They are our bad behavior incarnate. More generally, they are our limitations and weaknesses. Who do you think put those skeletons in the closet? You did. And with zombies, they come out to get you. The zombie can therefore be our deep-seated fear of all that we’ve done or failed to do. They are the mythical wraith come back to exact revenge on the sinful living. This shared fear helps to make zombies so popular. We don’t want the dead to come back, we are afraid of this antagonism between what is alive and what is dead. This also explains why in so much zombie fiction and film, one of the main characters gets infected and turned into a zombie and out other protagonists have to kill him or her. This is also why it is so affecting. Our other protagonists have failed to protect this person and now have to take responsibility for their failure.
But there is a literal fear of death itself. A lot of it goes back to our fear, not specifically of the body, but of all the things that can go wrong with it. This is a fear that has traveled across centuries with us. The dead remind us of our mortality and they also show what happens when the wonderful machinery of the body gets shut down. We are instinctively repulsed by decay, sickness, and death. Sit around a hospital waiting room for a while with broken bones, coughing, sneezing, and all manner of bodily fluids leaking and I don’t think you’ll be having a big dinner later. When we see what can happen to others, I think we tend to wonder if that can that happen to us. Not only that, we wonder, can I catch that from this other person? The zombie is the absolute embodiment of this fear of both contagion and death. When a zombie comes along, oozing bleeding, moaning, zombie lore dictates that the shambling mess is going to try to bite you. If your horoscope that day says that Jupiter and Neptune are at odds and have conspired to send a hoard of undead cannibals after you, you know that once the inevitable happens, you’ll join their ranks. You will be infected. Even the act of infection though is redolent of ancient fears that go back to when we weren’t on the top of the food chain. We can deal with getting shot, stabbed, blown up. Our media is filled with representations of this kind of cruelty. But being eaten is somehow even worse. It isn’t a fast process. You get shot in the right place, you’re gone in a flash. But imagine being eaten alive. Imagine the feeling of jaws clamping onto your flesh and ripping it from you bones. The thought is perversely horrible. And it goes back to when there was a threat that you could get mauled by something much more powerful and deadly than you. Now why would you want to experience this? Probably for the same reason you experience any adrenaline pumping experience: the distinct, visceral feeling of being alive. It’s almost like exercising a muscle. We still want to experience that rush because it gives us access to other parts of ourselves that we don’t normally encounter. I discuss reasons for loving horror in an earlier post though so I won’t dwell on it here. The preceding reasons go into very broad, almost universal fears that predispose us to enjoy this particular sub-genre of film and they do partially explain why we can’t get enough of them but I think there is a more specific reason for our love of this gory genre.
Zombies seem to resurrect when we go through some kind of turmoil. Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, the year before the infamous summer of ’69. The hippy movement was strong and we were embroiled in a very unpopular war. Spring forward to 1985 when the classic Return of the Living Dead came out. At the same time, Reagan was president and we were in the middle of a repressive moral cultural movement. Now, flash forward to September 11, 2001. I don’t think I need to go into what happened. The year after, in 2002, we got the smash hit 28 Days Later. It was a hit. And since then, we’ve been inundated with zombies. We’ve had a remake of Dawn of the Dead by Zack Snyder. We had George A. Romero come out with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. We’ve had the hugely popular Shaun of the Dead. We’ve seen the world get in on the zombie love with Rec from Spain and The Hoard from France. I could keep writing and writing. The point is that zombies have made quite a nice living in the post-9/11 landscape and I have some theories as to why they’ve done so well.
After 9/11, an avalanche of changes hit the world. We were all terrified of the threat of terrorism that could strike everywhere and anywhere. There was no place you could feel secure. We suffered invasive increases in security and domestic spying turned the world into a sick mirroring of Orwell’s 1984. War was killing thousands and driving the country into bankruptcy. Then the housing bubble burst and people were finding themselves homeless and without a job as the economy tanked. Meanwhile, the rich continued to live in peace, secured by their massive stocks of money. For the rest of us, the world was no longer certain. And it wasn’t just us. It was everywhere. Riots shook Greece, Italy, and Britain as they floundered. There was nothing to be trusted. Establishments we thought were secured began to crack and no one came to save us. Sound familiar? It should. This is the plot of every zombie apocalypse story I’ve ever heard. It’s often the case that life imitates art imitates life, creating a feedback loop. Entertainment is also the place where we can exorcise our demons and after this decade, it was time to break out the crowbars and shotguns. Zombie fiction, film, and games allow us to deal with the traumas we’ve suffered. We can see characters trapped in a world that no longer offers any safe place. Danger comes from everywhere and when your time is up, you get to join a legion of the walking wounded. We put the pain and suffering on the screen or on the page and it helps to draw it out of us. And it also allows for the possibility of vicarious revenge on forces that are far beyond us.
The senseless war that dragged on and on, the dead economy, foreclosures and banks still standing colossal. It felt like living in the valley of the giants. Or in this case, watching the dead stalk towards you. It’s something you can’t reason with. It is driven by something you can’t understand and the only thing you can be sure of is that it means to hurt you and those dear to you. This is sort of how many of us felt as our world collapsed around us. The zombie embodies this strange, threatening Other. The zombie, like whatever forces were busy this decade, is unassailable with our present conception of how things ought to be. But with a zombie, unlike burst bubbles and wars waged on dubious premises, you can blow its damn head off. And don’t we all love that moment? You know the one. At some point, things have to get gooey for the zombie. Arms and legs get blown or chopped off. Heads get vaporized. The thrill is even more extreme in games where you get to pull the trigger. Through these representations of zombie violence, we get to take back a little feeling of control. Every crowbar to the skull makes us feel like we’ve gotten back at the things that have stolen our faith in a reasonable world.
In the end, the zombie stands tall and ugly as one of our archetypes of fear. It is iconic to the point of becoming a cliche at this point and, as some are saying, it may be time to retire their rotten hulks to the crypts. But this isn’t the last we’ve heard of them and I can expect that, even if they go away for a while, they’ll be back when we’re at our most frustrated and wounded. Remember, they always come back.
And now for some cookies.
There’s something about a book that is irreplaceable. I am an avid lover of books. When I say that, I mean the medium of books itself, not just the words on the page. I have a deep fondness and appreciation of these wonderful things that have brought so much into our lives. They’ve carried knowledge between eras, they have preserved the accounts of our successes, our failures, and our atrocities, and they have kept us company on many an evening. Books truly are magical. But, all things change. The world isn’t static and technology is always rocketing ahead. Now we have the e-reader, the digital analog to books. As a technology nerd, it’s exciting to see a technology I’d read about years ago finally make it into an actual product but on the other hand, as a life-long bibliophile, this new development sits uneasily with me. Can e-readers replace the book? Should they? (The last question is rhetorical. The correct answer is “no.”) And is the stage large enough for both media to exist?
As I said, there is something unique about books that an e-reader cannot simulate. This goes beyond just the nostalgia factor. The weight and type of paper used in a book lets you know a lot about it before you even see the first word. You already know how long or short it is and how much effort the publisher took in binding it. You may not realize you’re making these judgments but you are. For instance a Harlequin romance vs. Stephen King’s From a Buik 8. There is an obvious difference to size and attention to how the books are bound. Harlequins tend to be fairly light paper, have thin, glossy covers with some raised lettering and are fairly homogeneous. Stephen King’s book has a cover with a porthole that reveals part of a picture underneath so it looks like that image is being reflected in the titular car’s rear view mirror. The publisher designed this presentation with a little extra care. Sure the paper isn’t noticeably thicker, maybe a bit, but the quality of the presentation is already signaling your brain that there is a lot of care and confidence in the book. There is no way to get this kind of information from an e-reader. An e-reader cannot match the physicality of a book and thus some of the info we use for first impression is lost in translation. But that isn’t to say that e-readers don’t have some selling points as well.
First, I need to clarify that I’m only talking about dedicated e-readers and not the various tablet wannabes out there. This is about those products that have reading as their primary function. With these e-readers one word comes to mind: convenience. They are small and portable and can do a variety of handy things such as looking up words with the built-in dictionary. A very useful thing if you’re always looking to build up your vocabulary. The other nice thing about these e-readers is that if you want a book and you have either 3G or wifi connection, you can get it downloaded to the device in a flash. If you voraciously devour stories, this is a great function to have. Instant access to thousands upon thousands of books! However, the rise of the e-reader still concerns me and raises questions.
The history of advancement is essentially a big graveyard. Progess tends to leave a high body count of technologies that go obsolete then go extinct. In recent memory, we have the supplanting of the VHS cassette (which did away with Betamax way back when) by the DVD. The CD nixed the audio cassette and is in turn being nudged out by all digital mp3 formats. Closer to home, the typewriter was outdone by the word processor. And we all know that video killed the radio star. (If you don’t get the reference then you must go back and watch every episode of I Love the 80’s and all of its sequel series RIGHT NOW!) What I fear is that books may suffer a similar fate. Just recently, the chain Borders went down and a little piece of me died. I know that the economy is bad and maybe people don’t have as much disposable income to give for books but I don’t see Hollywood with this problem which makes me think that it is books that are suffering a particular down turn in popularity. Maybe I’m paranoid, but this dive seems to be correlated to the rise of the e-reader. Why buy a physical book when you can download it instantly from almost anywhere? I fear that books may end up in the trash heap of technological history like so many other technologies before it. As the world becomes more and more digital, the appeal of a physical book seems to be waning. An e-reader can do many things. A book is, for all intents and purposes, inert. Now, everything has to be multifunctioned or we lose interest in it. How can a book hope to compete with that? However, many say that books will never die. There will always be a market for book lovers. I can only hope that this is the case and that publishing itself won’t take a hit from an associated issue that the age of the e-reader has created.
Piracy has hit movies and music pretty hard. People pirate pretty much anything and everything and all attempts at stopping such behavior have been abject failures. Books on the other hand, have enjoyed a rather privileged position of being less convertible into directly transferable media. But now, the e-book makes piracy easier than ever since many books are converted into a digital form. This may prove to be a threat to authors and publishers. Being an author was never an extremely lucrative business unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling but now that the threat of mass piracy hangs over your head, coupled with an economic downturn that makes publishers apprehensive of committing money to anything unless they’re sure they’ll recoup their investment and make a profit, being an author is more frightening than ever. If everyone is just copping your books and you don’t see bugger all from it, then what do you do to make ends meet? And it’s all nice to want our authors tortured souls or living in poverty but utterly dedicated to their art and willing to suffer for it, but by failing to support our authors, we discourage them from putting their all into what they produce. We thus lose out on great talents who have to turn their attention to paying the bills and buying food instead of making books. In the end, authors and publishers are people who expect to see some compensation for the work they’ve done. And it may break some people’s hearts to hear that an author wants to be payed, as if the joy of writing isn’t enough to sustain them, but being a writer is a job. Try asking your plumber to do the job pro bono and I bet he’ll leave you with your drain still clogged. And the ironic bit? The writer will probably continue to write because that is what a writer does. A writer can’t help but write. I don’t think we can help it. I’d go so far as to say it’s like a person with obsessive compulsive disorder. If you’re a writer, you must write. But with the threat of piracy, a writer may just do it to entertain him or herself and not bother going through the trouble it takes to get it published.
In the end, the debate between e-readers and books is far from over. I was in Barnes and Noble today and they had row upon row of their Nook e-reader. Maybe this is the new paradigm. Cater to both markets. Maybe, instead of discouraging new writers, e-books and the massive marketplace of the internet will give rise to new talents. Why can’t we have both? While the future is frightening I am hopeful that we may be approaching a new way to distribute and access our writing. As long as there are still good old fashioned books and we continue to foster the talents of our writers, maybe the future of books will have a happy ending.
So, the big question a lot of people ask me is, “Why do you like horror?” That’s a good question. I suppose I could answer with how horror has the peculiar ability to raise my pulse and get my adrenaline flowing. This is partially true. When I watch a scary movie, a definitely get the goosebumps, the elevated heart rate, the shallow and sharp breathing. But, I’ve watched a lot of action movies where I get the exact same thing! So let’s try again. I like action movies so maybe the action movie and horror movie experience are the exact same thing. No, that’s not quite right. I know when I’m in the mood to see some stuff get blowed up real gooood and when I feel like covering my eyes with my hands. It’s a different feeling so then why horror? The other thing people ask me is, “Why in the world would you want to be scared?” Again, I could answer with what I said before about the pulse and the fear and the adrenaline and all that nice cushy neuropsychology stuff. But I think it goes deeper. It’s a qualitative, not a quantitative matter. So why do I watch horror? Why do I want to be scared.
I think partially it goes back to my post about the different types of scary experience. I’d like to reassert that distinction here because it’s important in discerning what it is about the horror genre that I like. For those of you who haven’t read this, there is considered, at least by some, to be a difference between terror and horror. The difference is that terror is slow building, mind-expanding anticipation before the thing pops out at you while horror is the moment where the horrible thing actually confronts you head on. Both provide great fun in my opinion and though they go about it differently, I think both of them are appealing for similar reasons.
First of all, horror is different from a lot of other genres in that it is in a way, sincere in its intentions. For example, in a romantic movie, we want to be like the protagonists who end up with each other in the end. In an action film, we want to be the hero who saves the world and brings the bad guys to justice. In this way, the relationship between the film (or book) and the viewer is like that of the light and the moth. You are drawn into the film and want to inhabit its world. You want to be the person on the screen or page. But since we can’t we live vicariously through these characters. If you’ve watched a horror film, you know you don’t want to be one of these characters because, considering most of the time you have at max two survivors, chances are you’d be dead by the time the credits come up. What horror does is force you into yourself as much as it draws you into the story. Haven’t you ever yelled at the screen as a character does something utterly stupid? In my opinion this happens in horror films more than any other because we are acutely aware of what we would do because we are thinking the entire film. We are testing ourselves to see if we’d survive. In this way, it’s like we get to play along in the adventure. In the action movie we want to be someone else. In the horror movie, we come as we are and take our own insecurities and fears into the melee thus making it a very personal journey.
On the other side of personal is the inherent, “otherness,” that is almost at the heart of horror. I love the novelty of the situations the characters are placed in. Whether it’s vengeful ghost girls like in Ju-on or Ringu, creatures from another world like John Carpenter’s The Thing, hallucinatory vampiric creatures like in Marebito, perversions of the flesh like in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome or the horrible things we have lurking inside us like in American Psycho. Each of these films presents us with something that goes beyond normal experience. I love the first time in a film when the threat becomes known or you get a hint as to what’s wrong in the world of the film. It’s this awareness that the world is about to get crazy in one way or the other that is so much fun. The rules get put on hold and something new, something unexpected walks on the stage. This is one of the things I truly love about horror. We get plunged into a new world, often times a world that borders on the absurd. This is one of the things that sets the experience of horror from another, sometimes very closely related genre, scifi. In scifi, there is an emphasis on some technology and its implications. It would take a whole other post to delineate between horror, scifi, and fantasy and all of the genres tend to intermingle at some point but for now I think it suffices to say that horror, even at its most plausible such as psychological horror, all concerns the idea of a world gone mad. For me, this is fascinating and fun. With the rules gone out the window, the imagination of the creator gets to be unleashed. Even when the killer is human, the rules of reality are bent a little. Can he or she appear anywhere and still somehow have the good luck to be undetected? Is he or she stark raving mad and operating with a different interpretation of the world? Do we get to see this schismatic representation of reality? Are the people dumber than usual so as to provide a reliable source of human pin cushions? Is it a supernatural threat? A monster? Creatures from another dimension? In these cases, the world becomes an enchanted place. Enchanted with a dark kind of magic but it fascinates us and bewitches us with its horrible spell nonetheless.
I suppose it comes back partially to wanting to experience, “the other,” or the “unknown.” How often do we get to experience something remarkable in the out-of-the-ordinary sense, something that challenges our notions of what is possible? I have always been attracted to the odd and the uncanny. I don’t know if some people are born that way or if it’s a result of things I’ve experiences in my life. But for me, there is something wonderful about the strange. And in a weird way, there’s something beautiful about the horrible and frightening as well. Maybe it goes back to the sublime feeling of being in the presence of something larger than oneself and appreciating just how small I am in the cosmic and universal scheme of things. An abandoned building, sitting ominously back from a quiet and pot hole scarred road sparks my imagination because it is a monument to the cyclopean gears of time that are always turning. Or a story about a serial killer reminds me that, in each of us, is a world more dangerous and mysterious than we can imagine. Whether it’s ghoulies or monsters or maniacs, horror reminds me that I don’t know what the universe has up its sleeve next. And it’s that feeling of living in a universe that has the potential to be so bizarre, so unpredictable that excites me so much about horror.
One of the great things about living in this technological age is that we have access to pretty much anything at any time. Go on Amazon or Google and type some random keywords and you’ll come across many different products or articles and webpages. It truly is quite incredible. In fact, there is a game in which you try to think of two words to search in Google that will only get one result. I’ve been successful once but then again, I don’t spend my days doing that. No sir, I’m a productive member of society. But never mind that. Literature is similar in that there are too many genres and subgenres to count and there are always more coming along. What I’m interested here is talking about an incredible new genre I’ve discovered recently and that I’m quite excited about. For those of you with children or still developing clones, you may want to have them leave the room because we’re talking about. BIZARRO FICTION!
So what is bizarro fiction? There are a few sites you can look at that will answer that. To get some answers right from the source, I’d suggest reading a great interview with Rose O’keefe who is head of Eraserhead Publishing, one of the main publishers of this evolving genre. Another description of it and its many conventions can be found at the always insightful tvtropes. But here is what I have picked up about the genre so far and why I think it’s an exciting genre to keep an eye on.
A story that deals with giant monster penises, impregnating Satan’s daughter, or a living suit of cockroaches can’t possibly be considered good fiction, right? It’s just puerile, crass humor, right? Well, how about if instead I described three books as a look at how one’s insecurities can lead to terrible consequences, how love and and feelings of responsibility can bridge the gap between families, cultures, or creatures of different planes of existence, and finally how important companionship is and how it can be found in the oddest of places? They sound a bit better though both descriptions pertain to the same books. Yeah. The books are The Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere, I Knocked-Up Satan’s Daughter, and Angel Dust Apocalypse. It is partially this disconnect between theme and execution that attracts me so much to this genre.
Many in the genre have described bizarro fiction as first and foremost being a genre dedicated to entertaining the reader. With stories like those, I can see that writing philosophy in action. It is also described as being the written equivalent of the cult movie section of the video store. Again, no argument there. Another prominent aspect of this genre is how its style or MO are very punk-like. One can’t read one of these books and not think of the avant-garde nature of punk and its energetic refutation of everything established. This alacrity is wonderfully refreshing as is its willingness to dive into the ultra-violence of a Saturday morning cartoon or the crazy sex antics of a- come to think of it I can’t even begin to equate the sex antics of anything of this world. Nevertheless, everything is on display for entertainment and if you get offended, it’s probably more of a personal malfunction than mean-spiritedness on the part of the writer. After all, if the story didn’t push some, or all of the limits, then it wouldn’t be a bizarro story! Enter at your own risk and buyer beware.
I’ll be sure to keep posting about this genre and maybe get some reviews up in the future of books in this genre.
A Merry Christmas to all! May your solstice have been packed with joy and unspeakable cosmic terrors from beyond the placid shores of this universe!
If I had known about this cute little guy before hand, I would have summoned him from the depths of his dread house, which you can access here. But there is always next year. I’d love to invite the Great Old one into my home where he could wait and dream till it is time to rise once again and cast the Earth into madness and misery.