Sunday, December 5, 2010

Things that go "bump" in the night.

Dear Dale,

Not long ago, my roommate made an overnight foray into the Chicago suburbs, leaving me by my lonesome in our gratuitously spacious four-bedroom-for-two-people apartment.  After an exhilarating three-hour game of one-person Hot Lava and a failed attempt to eat all of the pecans in my fridge, I tucked myself beneath my cozy covers and settled in for a good night’s sleep.  However, as I lay there in my Boston Red Sox pajama pants (or silk negligee, depending on how you want to visualize the story – totally your call, Dale), I was startled by the almost certain sounds of another human moving about the greater interior of my apartment.

Now I hate to spoil the ending to this gripping saga for you, Dale, but there was nobody out there.  What I heard was most likely the cataclysmic creaking and banging sung out by an apartment-wide chorus of aging radiators (which do, at times, take on the sonic qualities of a flailing and stumbling criminal vagrant; and at other times, Kraftwerk).  But that’s not important.  What was important was my sequence of reactions to such a disturbance. 

You see, Dale, the first thought that popped into my head after, “oh shit! There’s a’somebody in my house,” (I think in English with a broken Italian accent) was that this intruder was none other than a thief of some sort, hell-bent on cleaning us out of our most treasured belongings.  This was fine by me.  For starters, my apartment does not hold a great deal of valuable items (unless you count a 600 lb, 20 inch television or the DVD box-set of Smallville), but even if it did, I don’t imagine I would have felt particularly concerned.  Somehow, even as I assumed our priciest dishware was being stockpiled into a pillowcase, I was completely at ease with the situation.  Sure, there might have been some ill-intending ruffian prowling about my three-flat, and sure, for all I knew he planned on barging through my door with a filleting knife and leaving me writhing in a pool of my own blood as a finale to his possessions-lifting: but none of that was enough to draw me out of bed or even deprive me of any sleep.  I rolled over and pretended that I hadn’t heard a thing.

It was my next thought that kept me awake for a good two and a half hours: what if it was a ghost?  Now I didn’t mean a friendly ghost like Casper or Nearly-Headless Nick or Joe Biden.  I meant a seething, hell-sent, out for blood and guts, 2006 Keifer Sutherland-vehicle-Mirrors ghost.  The sort that would show up levitating above my bed, looking like a translucent Andy Serkis character, chase me around my apartment for a few minutes, then whip out his filleting knife (my morbid fantasies might have been influenced by the fact that I had eaten halibut for dinner) and leave me writhing in a pool of my own blood.  It was this thought that widened my eyes and set me stirring in restless terror as the hours ticked away on my oddly-ticking digital clock.  Now petrified to open the door, lest I come upon my ghastly assailant, I yanked the covers over my head (the best known protection from any undead spirit) and waited until at last my tremblings gave way to overpowering exhaustion and sleep overcame me.

Now I know what you’re thinking, Dale.  What sort of mature (kind of), rational (in my mind), twenty-three year old adult (hey, I became a man at my Bar Mitzvah) pours greater concern into the threat of a supernatural antagonist than that of a legitimate home invasion?  A troubled one?  One who read way too much RL Stein as a kid?  Perhaps.  But I find I am not alone in my peculiarities.

A friend of mine was remarking to me the other day how, when walking home late at night next to a cemetery in a notoriously rough section of Chicago, he found himself far more afraid of what lurked within the graveyard gates than the potential glock-wielding gangster kicking it around the corner.  Having traipsed that very stretch myself at ungodly hours, I understood exactly what he was describing.  I have, in fact, wondered whether, in the situation of a street-thug (for the sake of eschewing racial proclivities let’s make him Canadian) accosting me with some sort of bladed weaponry, would I have the courage to flee to within the boneyard borders, even knowing how easily I could lose my foe amidst the tombstones?  Or would I be so panicked of a possible zombie attack that I would try my luck against old Hockey-Beer-Face and all of his fillet-knifing psychosis?  Strangely enough, I think I’d pick the latter.  (I’ll admit though that this is what my neutral mind would select.  I can’t vouch for what would actually happen when the adrenaline of the situation kicked in and the hypothetical me saw death coming for him with bloodshot eyes and a Guy Lafleur jersey.  Something tells me I would say ‘screw the zombies, it’s a’grave-dashing time.’)

The question that arises for me is why I and others my age (and I do notice this mainly with those born late-eighties and beyond) would exhibit such relative fearlessness in the face of rational dangers and yet utter trepidation when it comes to the ranks of the make-believe.  And like most problems with my generation, the cause is simple: pop culture. 

I realize it’s no great stretch to blame us Gen Y-ers’ overactive imaginations of morbidity on the prevalence of horror movies and shock culture that accompanied our formative years, but I am willing to go even further.  Over the past two decades, I would argue the emergence of CG and high-quality special effects along with more life-like filming capabilities (color, HD, Blu-Ray, etc) have made supernatural horror movie villains seem more realistic and more likely to exist outside their cinematic confines (i.e. in the real world).  Factor in an endless promotional media circus of previews, reviews and clips, and it appears that just about everyone in my age-bracket was subjected to (at very least) a nonstop barrage of brief glimpses of real-looking ghosts and ghoulies attacking and haunting an assortment of hapless victims just like us.  This created an entire subset of young adults who have maintained a subconscious (or even conscious) conviction that sinister unworldly spirits do, in fact, exist in real life and are more than likely to mean us harm.

Look Dale, I would never profess myself as any sort of horror movie aficionado, and I’m sure that denizens of prior generations would contend that the best-made and most fright-inducing contributions to the genre came from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, but I’m not arguing cinematic quality or even in-theatre terror quotient.   My concern is solely in the realist portrayal of horror’s non-real elements and the effect it might have on the viewer’s ability to differentiate what they see on the silver screen from what they experience during the walk home from the Cineplex.  This is an area in which the past fifteen years of movie-making have the preceding hundred beaten hands-down.

Go back and take a look at the creature from the Black Lagoon or the Living Dead in their eponymous night.  While I’m sure there were some cool cats who hightailed out of the drive-in in their T-Birds, wondering if they’d come face to face with a vine-addled swamp-thing or stage-painted revenant en route to grabbing an orange phosphate or hitting the ol’ pool hall in their letterman’s jacket (this was what the ‘50s and ‘60s were like, yes?), they just don’t look all that convincing.  Even Robert Englund in all his stretchy-armed Kruegerian glory seems at best about as terrifying as Joan Rivers these days.  (Side note – I actually saw Miss Rivers on the street near Time Square and thought William Atherton had disengaged the Ghostbusters’ Ectoplasmic-Containment Unit again.  Yowza.)  On the flip side, the ghastly hands that emerge from the back of a showering Sarah Michelle Geller’s scalp in the 2004 Grudge remake seemed so authentic in their imagining that I couldn’t bring myself to condition for three months after their viewing (in the battle between split-ends and seething succubae, Herbal Essences can be damned).

Here’s the thing about The Grudge, though: I’ve never seen the movie.  Not once.   All I saw was the preview: over and over and over again. (Based on its release date, this was most likely while watching the 2004 MLB postseason on Fox.  By the way, do you remember what happened in that particular postseason, Dale?  The Boston Red Sox came back from being three games down to beat the New York Yankees and then won the World Series.  Pretty awesome, right?  Anyways, I digress.)  So while I didn’t get to see the gratuitous overacting or the middling attempt to transpose a Japanese film with deeply rooted Shinto themes into a stock American fright-fest, I did find myself privy to nine viewings a night of visual proof that demonic beings can migrate out the parietal sector of the human skull.  This was enough to engrain a ludicrous fear of the rationally impossible into the depths of my teenage mind: just as it was for the minds of dozens of friends.  In fact, by the time the Bush-Kerry election rolled around, the follicle health of Concord Academy High School had likely hit an all-time low.

And this is just one of dozens of examples from my formative years.  Others include the ghastly animated cherubim statues in The Haunting, the miniature Courtney Love crawling out of the television in The Ring, or the prospect of Chris Kattan finding actual acting work in The House on Haunted Hill.  In a mainstream culture saturated with cinematic promotion, and with my generation hopelessly glued to any 32-inch box with flashing pictures, these supernatural horrors were force-fed straight into our collective subconscious, which struggled to differentiate what was real from what was not.  Though I’m no expert in the psychological field of priming, this overexposure to life-like presentations of horror-make-believe no doubt allowed their trepidations to manifest in the back of our minds and generate a bizarre belief that the bumps we heard in the dead of night were in fact the reanimated and vengeful corpse of the drifter who’d been strangled in our basement fifty years prior.

This is why I cannot go into one of those haunted-house theme parks on Halloween.  This is why my sister, an avid snorkeler, refuses to do so above ship wrecks.  This is why I have adult friends who will not watch full horror movies at all: they’ve already been so exposed to their waking terrors, they’re afraid of what impact total immersion might have on their psyches.  As cinema moves into a three-dimensional world and other realism-enhancing techniques, I’m sure this phenomenon will only get worse.  Fifty years from now our country might require a standing army of mommies and daddies to do battle with the vicious brigades of boogiemen that lurk around each corner (and of course, John McCain will still be around demanding that the federal funding increase for new ‘checking under the bed and in the closet’ measures).

At the end of the day (and beginning of night) though, what’s to be done?  Do we make sure to watch the special features on every horror DVD so we can see how the blue screen animation and CG can turn a few clicks of a mouse into an old lady unhinging her jaw and digging into the neck of a young coed?  Do we train our subconscious by pausing Netflix every time something scary comes on and watching a Werner Herzog documentary?  Do we peel ourselves away from the television set and actually live and engage with each other in a real and tangible world?  (Ha ha, just kidding on that last one.  Besides, House is on in like ten minutes, and this is the one where he solves a medical mystery in a curmudgeonly fashion.)

In an episode of the early nineties Nickelodeon cartoon, Doug, entitled “Doug’s Nightmare on Jumbo Street,” the title character is troubled by visions of a horror movie villain that he wasn’t even able to brave keeping his eyes open to see.  When at last he returns to the theatre and heroically rewatches the monster’s big reveal, he is humored to find that the creature in question is a costumed buffoon, complete with the zipper showing on his back.  Doug is able to head home, laughing off his ludicrous fantasies as just that.  But what happens if there is no zipper?  What if the horrors we know to be unreal seem just as real as the rest of our lives?  When the technology of filmmaking moves faster than our rational minds are we trapped in a world where anything is possible, no matter how impossible we know it to be?  And what is there for us to do except to yank the covers over our heads and pray that we make it through the night?

Sweet dreams, Dale.