Monday, February 1, 2016

The Devil You Know

I had both kids for the afternoon. Anna is 13 going on 30; Dylan is 15. I’m their favorite Gramma, at least that’s what they tell me. That’s good enough for me. I’m hoping they tell their real grandmothers the same thing.

They are just the age I wanted to teach, when I thought I was going to teach. My life took a different turn and at the point where I was on the Devil’s horns of my Career Decision That Would Set The Course For My Whole Life, I went for the bucks as a legal secretary instead of teaching. 

But still. The temptation that I might set fire to young minds, especially those at the age when the watchwords are, “I’m bored!” Those words are like a red flag in front of the bull for me. A million thoughts run through my head when I hear them. Bored??? Think of the Library of Alexandria! Sorry, I didn’t mean to spit on you. But, there’s got to be something out there my darlings will find “not boring.”

“We want to watch horror movies!” was the cry from the chorus.

Good, I thought. I want to watch horror movies too. I want a good one, one that’s scary, not gory. Hack ‘em ups are nothing but kids with ketchup packets poised under their sneakers waiting for their all-too-suspecting victims, the viewers, for the chance at the Big Splash. Gore is not horror; it’s revulsion. They’re different, ok?

“OK,” I agreed, “and let’s find a good one. There are so many stupid ones and ones that are just ooky. I want something that’s scary, good and scary.”

A friend of mine had recently read an old blog entry and had said they liked what I said about things that were really scary. It wasn’t the people dressed up in silly suits. It was…

“Hey, you know what’s really scary?”

Well, that’s a question that can start a bunch of freaky stories. The kids’ eyes got big.

“OK, so you’ve seen Poltergeist, right? There’s a lot of scary stuff in there, or stuff that’s supposed to be scary. Like the ghosts from the graveyard or voices from the television. But the scariest scene in Poltergeist for me was the steak.”

Steak? Their eyes were question marks.

“Well, yeah, the steak. When the steak crawled across the counter, that moment was the scariest thing for me. What’s scary is when everything seems perfectly normal. And then something does something it isn’t supposed to do. Like a steak crawling across a kitchen counter by itself. That’s…that’s not OK. That’s not right. That’s the world taking a very weird tilt. It makes you question the entire basis of reality.”

Anna nodded, thoughtful.

“So, Dylan, don’t you have favorite monsters? People LOVE Dracula, Frankenstein, Godzilla. But, dude. That steak….”

The Shining, The Shining!” Dylan insisted as we scrolled through Netflix offerings.

“OK,” I agreed. “Stephen King knows what’s scary. At some point, if you want a scary story, I recommend Ghost Story, a great little revenge story, or Pan’s Labyrinth, a lesson on choosing the devil you know.” I think of the Devil card in the Tarot, how it shows myriad horrors and in our modern interpretation so often means addiction and loss of freedom that we might have avoided. Think cultural context.

I planted a seed. I could tell. So we watched The Shining and as we did, we talked about the movie just a bit, then after it was over, quite a bit more.

“She’s kinda dumb,” Anna pointed out about Wendy Torrance.

“She is, isn’t she? And isn’t that one of the scariest things you could think of, especially if you were 6 year old Danny Torrance? That the person who was supposed to be always on your side, a Super Hero who can fix anything, answer any question, make everything better, your mom is nearly useless when you really need her?”

Jack Torrance is typing in the high-ceilinged lobby. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We’ve watched him succumb to darkness slowly, and we’ve known it was coming. But suddenly, he swears at Wendy who has meekly interrupted him.

“There!” I pounce, startling the kids. “No, seriously, this is the first use of the F word you’ve heard in the movie, which is at least one reason it is rated R, right? This isn’t just cussing. This is creative use of cussing. It’s verbal violence that signals that things are rapidly going to go bad from here. This is a creative device, not just to imitate what you hear on the schoolyard from your foul-mouthed schoolmates. The use of this is meant to shock you, to focus your attention that things are not going to get better after this.”

“Huh,” they both mutter in unison. Creative cussing was not something they had thought of. The idea that the writer, the director, all the people involved in telling the story do all these things purposefully to affect the audience, them starts to creep into their awareness, a lot like a steak crawling across the counter. I can tell Anna likes the idea of control of the audience. She’s more likely to be the creative artist, affecting the crowd to her making. Dylan would do the special effects engineering.

When it’s over, I say, OK, let’s talk about the movie. Did you know that the actor Danny Lloyd thought of making his finger move when his “imaginary” friend Tony talked? That he never saw any of the scary parts during filming so he wouldn’t be really afraid? Having him have a nearly blank face was important because he should have looked more scared and didn’t. And that made the movie even scarier for us.

One of things about scary movies is that often we know what to be afraid of when the characters in the movie don’t. So we’re yelling, Danny, don’t go in room 237!! If Mr. Hallorann said not to go in there, and he knows about the Shining, don’t go in there. He does of course and he comes out scratched and drooling.

“Let’s look at the things in that movie that are the things that scare us. Stephen King is really good at honing in on what scares you. He makes the characters as real as possible to you, so that when the scary thing happens, it’s happening to you, too. So what’s scary in The Shining? Daddy turns into the monster, which maybe wasn’t much of a stretch from perhaps sleazy writer. Mommy is nearly helpless, so you don’t get rescued. You sense things other people don’t, making you feel even more alone. The Overlook is so remote and huge and increasingly your connection to the outside world gets farther and farther away by the snow, the telephone going out, the rooms being so many and so huge, people being in different rooms, the radio being disconnected and the snowcat being disabled. 

"Locked doors can’t protect you from a madman with an axe, the lady in the bathtub is the Thing Under the Bed, and the little girls, their father and Lloyd the bartender are seductive drawing you father into the Monster which is The Overlook itself. It’s dark. It’s cold. You get agoraphobia and claustrophobia in one movie! And the monster can kill strong people with Special Powers, like Mr. Hallorann who was supposed to rescue you. The window Mommy pushes you out of in the bathroom is too small for her to come through. You’re on your own against things that are too big and too awful. Any questions about what’s scary here? The blood coming out of the elevator ends up being just show, the ‘ick factor’.”

I’m in full Professor mode. At least they are still listening.

Now, think of the other kinds of scary movies. All the Alien and "Big Bug" movies are talking about fear of things that are completely different from you, xenophobia, “you aren’t from around here” and specifically things that may consider you food if they consider you at all, a theme so prevalent in H. P. Lovecraft's work. And look how monsters have changed from the 1950’s when we were all afraid of what a nuclear attack and radiation could do. From that fear we have Godzilla, supersized anything, The Fly, even heroes like SpiderMan, all born from the fear that our advances in science may have impacts we didn’t think about at the time. Drink me, Alice.

Fear of ignorance is another common theme, where people in their blind hatred become the real monsters destroying someone gentle who appears different. Fear of the dark or limited senses is a big theme. Parental monsters are a common theme, as in Snow White. How about inanimate objects becoming “alive” and hating you like Christine, the Terminator series? And there’s a whole religious horror category, the devil out to get you just because it's his job and he enjoys it.

Why do we enjoy these things? By watching them, we somehow hold dominion over them, conquer them and thereby little by little conquer our fears, shrinking them with the ray gun of our confidence, with the desensitization of familiarity. We get the thrill of adrenalin too and that thrill can be fun. Because what’s life without a little adventure?

Just don’t send in the clowns or cockroaches for me, OK? And keep an eye on that steak.

Best wishes.

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