Friday, April 05, 2013

old at heart, a rambling reflection on how I came to enjoy a little horror now and then

For a variety of reasons I grew up being what I would now describe as old at heart.  I wouldn't say an old soul or the apparently common meaning for that term of being "wise beyond your years".  People told me that from time to time and I took it as a complement but it wasn't entirely true.  Wenatchee The Hatchet is pretty much about as smart or dumb as anyone most of the time. 

No, "old at heart" was a way of describing how even in my teens I found it easy to relate to people in their 30s or 40s.  I had a number of mentors in my teens and liked that period of my life even though other family members would say that particular time in life was pretty exasperating.  Every stage of life has its exasperations and perhaps that right there is a sign of what I mean by "old at heart".  There aren't many stages of life once I got past puberty where I haven't thought consistently about the sheer inevitability of death and how death destroys everything we work and strive toward. 

Maybe other kids around the age of 12 read Revelation and Ecclesaistes besides Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Around the age of 11 I was objecting to the grossly moral simplification of Transformers.  Yes, Wenatchee The Hatchet actually objected to the crude simplification of good and evil in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons.  The way life played out the kind of black and white moral assurances other kids were still enjoying felt stale and unconvincing to me.  I only eventually watched the animated Transformers movie just to watch Optimus Prime die because I found the character implausible overall.  So perhaps we could say I wasn't just "old at heart" but often gloomy and pessimistic in my outlook on people as moral agents and societies as things shaping people. 

By my teens I gained a loathing of Transcendalist ideals and got more into Melville, Hawthorne, Kafka, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and eventually Dostoevsky.  There was a summer in my early twenties where my big summer reading fun time list was The Brothers Karamazov, Heart of Darkness and the Metamorphosis.  I read Conrad in one sleepless night in a garage that was my bedroom and I was transfixed by the bleakness of the author's tale and the author's own eliptical complicity in the evil that Marlowe could both describe and participate in.  I guess I've been drawn to stories in which even heroes discover darkness in themselves.  There are few things that inspire me to snort more than tales of triumph of the human spirit and the victory of the so-called underdog.

We all die and no matter how high we may ascend we will all fall dead in the end.  You don't have to wonder what your destiny is going to be in this life, you're going to die and with you everything you built, at some point.  If you have children they will die, too, one day and if you're very unfortunate they'll pass before you do.  And yet as Koholeth wrote, it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion even if death ultimately reduces us all to thoughtless dust (we'll have more to write about Ecclesiastes in the future).

Cheery, yes.

Twenty years ago, particularly as a conservative evangelical Protestant (and I'm not saying I'm not one now, actually) horror movies would have been completely off limits for me.  Movies depicting evil and death and monstrosity were bad.  That monstrosities were perpetrated by figures in biblical texts had not quite dawned on me in my earlier teens because I had just gotten to prophetic literature and sorta cracked upon bits of the Torah, but the narrative literature was still before me.  I'd read Job and loved it, though, and in my teens I began to consider suffering because, well, it kinda happens, you know.

Over decades I have come to have a limited, qualified appreciation for horror.  I had a couple of friends in college who introduced me to some horror and seeing as the remake of the old Sam Raimi horror-comedy classic is upon us it was Sam Raimi who was the gateway film-maker to appreciating that horror could play with ideas.  Of course by now a lot of people know Raimi to have directed two pretty decent Spiderman movies and a disappointing third.  In a commentary on the original Evil Dead Bruce Campbell noted simply that everyone and everything dies in the first film.  You could say that pretty well sums up horror, recognizing that everything dies, no matter how young and beautiful.  That may be the most salient reason that most horror movies involve the dismemberment, evisceration and death of the young, the beautiful, the careless, the self-assured and the sexy.  There may not be a mountain of horror movies that deal with the anxieties and fears of the aged and the dying, though on that particular topic that's exactly what I admired about Bubba Ho-Tepp, that two old guys in a retirement home did battle with supernatural evil in a setting where basically nobody younger than them really cared about them. 

For a horror film to work it must appeal to fears we really have and for a horror film to work well it may need to appeal to a fear or a cruelty or a despair or a resignation that we realize we are susceptible to, something we wish we could hide from. 

Let's consider the book of Judges, which is arguably one giant narrative of escalating atrocity and horror.  In literary terms it seems to run toward the motiff that there was no king then and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.  And yet when the kingship is established it is just a few mere generations before it systematizes atrocities and horrors that in earlier epochs simply burbled up from the will of the people.  There is a sense in which to understand what we call salvation we have to have some grasp of horror, not merely of what we are saved from but what we are capable of in our lesser moments.  You see one of the recurring tropes in the horror genre is that inconsequential decisions can often take on catastrophic and irreversible consequences.  It could be as mundane and simple as reading something out loud from a book, for instance. 

If you've read the story about Eglon and the hilt of a sword then you may have an idea that Raimi's innovation of "splatstick" is, in its way, not a truly new idea.  This may be a truly grisly admission but one of my relatives jokingly suggested that there should be a suite of musical interludes called "The Levite's Concubine: 12 miniatures for piano".  I burst out laughing when I heard that title.  It's worth of Erik Satie in a way, though it would be better if it sounded more like Webern or Schoenberg or Berg. 

Believe it or not I think there may be a coherent point in this digression.  Raimi's development of splatstick hybridized slapstick elements with splatter film.  When this combination is finely and decliately balanced into a bloodbath that is both sickening and amusing we are not far from moments in the book of Judges, in which we can be simultaneously appalled and grimly amused at how we can surprise ourselves as humans with our capacity for cruelty and self-delusion, how our pragmatism can be brutally idealistic in its motives and how our idealism can be strangely utilitarian. 

I could write more about the process of coming to actually appreciate some of the horror genre when the me who was around twenty years ago would have been alarmed.  The short-cut explanation is that because I was old at heart, some part of me was already open to the possibility that death is inevitable and that no matter how beautiful we may be (or merely think we are) death will come for us, too.  If horror is something you can only ever describe as a feeling you have about other people then you may not be able to appreciate the genre because in a sense a horror story can often be a process of self-examination. 

Many of the great atrocities of the human race were perpetrated by people who found ways to rationalize evil and to find some mundane justification for it.  There is a sense in which there are two broad types of humor, deprecation of others and deprecation of self.  Humor is where we find ways to laugh at weakness, egotism and frailty (an interesting horror film, by the way, if you caught the title reference).  Horror is where we may look at and hear the same things and recoil in, well, you know.  But what is different?  It can sometimes simply be little more than the difference between seeing what we see others say and do and having a flickering moment of recognition in which we can see and hear ourselves able, maybe, to do the same kinds of things.  Or we may finally find ourselves confronting anxieties and resentments that, were we to follow them to some unbridled, unrestrained conclusion, might lead us to do and say horrible things. 

But that's enough of a ramble on that set of issues for now.

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