The Werewolf in Summer

464px-Werwolf

It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.

Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.

When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.


Random Faces

A friend recently sent me an issue of the Annals of Improbable Research that featured an instance of pareidolia on the back cover. Pareidolia, or the brain’s tendency to read patterns in random input – especially faces or human forms, has been a subject addressed on this blog before. Nevertheless, the phenomenon has continued to find wider exposure on the internet, and its implications continue to grow. The Cheezburger folks who brought us LOL Cats now have a site dedicated to pareidolia entitled “Happy Chair is Happy.” The question is not so much why we see faces everywhere, but what do we do about it.

Photo credit: C. Vittore, K. Tribble and D. Savala, Ann. Improbable Research

Perhaps the most prevalent uses of pareidolia in natural phenomena (human-made objects are often funny or uncanny, but the faces may be there by intentional design) revolve around the supernatural. Would-be ghost hunters find what looks like a face in a window or shadowy corner and interpret it as a disembodied spirit. Religious believers of various faiths find the faces of their founders or leaders in natural noise. A tract I saw as a child told the heart-wrenching story of a woman who’d given up hope. She randomly took a photograph of her garden and when she developed it (this was back when film was actually still in use), she found the face of Jesus in among the leaves. Her angst alleviated, she went on to face life with a fresh sense of possibilities.

We often see what is not really there. On a visit to my niece last year, while waiting in the car outside her dorm, I saw a shadow on the wall that looked exactly like the recently deceased Michael Jackson. The shadow was cast by security lights through a bush, but the face was unmistakable. To test my observation, I asked my niece – who knew nothing of the fleeting rock star on the side of her building – if she could see it. Immediately it became obvious to her. An epiphany of Michael Jackson may be a religious event, or at least a supernatural one, to some. In reality it was a temporary arrangement of leaves aligned just right to catch a security light to form a public icon. Putting faith in pareidolia is a very haphazard source of security. However, if it helps someone deal with the stresses and strains of life, what harm is there in seeing Jesus (or Michael Jackson) where he really isn’t present?


Michael Jackson, Isaac Newton, and the Alphabet

Here is my second podcast, complete with musings about Michael Jackson and the alphabet, neither of which I’m an expert on! I find the linguistic aspects less interesting than the big picture of how this whole wonderful enterprise of writing got started.