Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Fear

A spider. How "Bourgeois".

When I was a child, our house had a crawlspace in the basement. It was behind a door with a simple lock, built up about three feet off the floor. There was a single bulb, the floor was rough concrete. When I was six I would hide in there, draw pictures of monsters and tack them to the beams. A gallery of monsters.

When I was around seven, my family went to a haunted house. It may have been in Avon Lake or something, like a “Haunted Fire Station” to raise money for charity.

Berea ... is so ... SCARAY ...

It was traumatizing. As is her wont, my mother to this day expresses deep, lasting regret for the decision to take me. “I guess I figured if you were too scared you could cover your eyes,” she says. Of course, hearing what you cannot see if much more terrifiying.

The pictures in the crawlspace came down, and I never went in there again, unless I had company.

Children need fear. They need to learn to enjoy chills and suspense, and to know the difference between what is fantastic and what are real life dangers to be avoided. This is why belief in the supernatural, especially mainstream beliefs such as Christianity and Islam, lead to uncertainty, confusion and life-threatening neuroses.

Your odds are not good.

The 21st century has brought with it an interesting revival in monsters. The work of Tim Burton doesn’t seem odd anymore, to anyone. The bizarre, edgy, creepy-funny Beetlejuice has evolved into the much-hated, yawn-fest Dark Shadows.

The World Famous.

The human skull is (or was) the new smiley face. My daughter has pink pj bottoms featuring skulls wearing a hair bow. Anyone who knows me knows I really enjoy wearing  all the swag my in-laws provide from The Smiling Skull Saloon, but no one would confuse me with some kind of threatening person.

There are now a swath of television programs and movies geared toward children that I would have thought unimaginable ten years ago. Disney recently debuted Gravity Falls, about two kids spending the summer in the great northwest with their grand-uncle who manages a “Mystery House”. Every episode centers around a presumed supernatural threat which turns out to be non-threatening … though still supernatural. For example, the male protagonist fears his sister is dating a zombie. In reality, the boyfriend is not a zombie, but a gang of gnomes disguised as one teenager.

Dude ... check it out ...

Anyway. It’s like a cross between Twin Peaks and The X-Files. We all think it is hilarious. However, the boy (age seven) does get increasing scared by the show, and has often had to cover his face, until the reveal, and then it’s all okay. I like that, some chills, then relief. No nightmares.

Paranorman, however, was not a good choice. It’s a very good movie. But I fret because  to really understand it, to even think it’s funny, you need a wealth of pop culture experience that your average nine year-old just doesn’t have. A lot of the humor makes no sense without a basic familiarity with the works of George Romero and the Salem Witch Trials. The boy didn't get the funny, he just saw zombies, and had to leave partway through.

One recent development in pop culture is the ascendance of the zombie. Dracula long ago became cuddly, thanks to the likes of The Munsters, Sesame Street and Count Chocula, the same for “Frankenstein”.  Good Lord, remember Monster Squad? As what scares us becomes familiar, we must turn to what is truly scary. When I was a child it was the Devil (The Exorcist, The Omen, et al) as an adolescent it was the stalker-killer (Friday, the 13th, Halloween and all the rest.)

Monster Squad (1976)

Supernatural animals like werewolves have never been taken seriously in my lifetime -- An American Werewolf in London, the only exception. Only the once-dead remain truly horrifying. The gentleman-corpse who is the vampire has become one to admire and love, and the Creature, in his own way a zombie, can be sympathized with because he has feelings. The zombie is simply a dead thing that continues to move -- and has only one recognizeable thought, and it is to eat you. They don’t even bother killing you first.

But even the zombie is being made more accessible. Leafing through a children’s costume catalog with the boy, we found zombie versions of superheroes. What is up with that? Why would you want to be that for Halloween? Not just a zombie … Zombie Robin? Uh, okay.

The boy and I had a very interesting conversation recently about why Halloween is associated with scary things. It wasn’t easy to explain, and maybe that confuses the average person. But it helps to know these two things; he has always known about his stillborn older brother, so celebrating the dead -- and the Day of the Dead -- are not bizarre, spooky ritauls, but an annual celebration on par with birthdays and other anniversaries. Also, too, having been raised non-religious, he has no weird conception of what death is. People are born, they live, they die and return to the earth.

Death does not scare him. At least, not yet.


So why is All Hallow’s Eve, and the Day of the Dead, the holidays which inspired Halloween, associated with the supernatural? He still doesn’t get it. It doesn’t keep him from enjoying it.

There is a home near us with a large front yard facing a very busy street which has an annual Halloween display which is pretty creepy. This year, however, in creating their display they decided to include a hanged person. They weren’t finished with it, but apparently someone compained, presumably, that the depiction of someone hanged -- lynched -- was offensive.

How did I know this? Because, in addition to the numerous “gag” tombstones featured in the display, they included this defensive response to whom it may concern:

I found their response more unfortunate than the hanged dummy. My city is racially diverse, with the population of whites and blacks running close to 50/50. Lynching as a symbol of race terrorism existed (past tense?) through the lifetime of many of my neighbors, it’s not something abstract.

Might I also add that if the featured style of execution were something else, say another deeply symbolic form of torturous death, say crucifixion, that might also offend a lot of people.

Part of the problem was that the figure was generic, just a big stuffed head through the noose. If it had been a cartoony witch or something, that might have seemed more in the spirit of the season.

I mean, the display also features someone drawn and quartered. That freaks the girl out more than the hanged person -- which has, at last, been detailed to represent a bonnet-wearing Puritan woman. Putting it into a period well-past, and associating it with the witch trials does make it look more appropriate to the season. But the defensive-message gravestone remains today.


Which brings me back to Paranorman. There really was a witch hanged in this story, a young girl who had magical powers, who was condemned as a witch. The lesson is about acceptance, about tolerance. She was a little girl with special abilities -- she wasn’t evil. However, according to certain religions, which believe in witches, it doesn’t matter if she felt she was good, having these powers means that, will you, nill you, she is a product of Satan. Like the gays. For some, tolerance is not an option.

Not a witch.

But homosexuality is a real part of nature, supernatural "witchcraft" abilities are not. The Salem Witch Trial was something that actually happened, many were imprisoned, twenty were executed. None of them were actually witches. Depicting a hanged "Salem witch" troubles me, too. That's an innocent, hanging there, first terrorized and tortured and then killed. They were lynched, too.

Monsters are fun. Men are scary.


  1. We really enjoyed Paranorman, but I wouldn't recommend it to little kids. I thought the subversion was nicely handled (those Monsters are due on Maple Street any time now.) And it was seriously funny. Lydia has such a love/hate attitude to the macabre. She lurks on the edge of it, but leaves the room when it gets too serious. ("I want to be a femme fatale. But I don't want anything to do with men!") I remember the scariest thing for me for awhile was when the cartoon Spider-Man came swinging towards the screen. Freaked. me. Out.

  2. "Alfred Hitchcock presents Ghost Stories for Young People"