The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)
In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.
When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.
Posted in Consciousness, Current Events, Literature, Monsters, Posts
Tagged aboriginal culture, Australia, Christine Judith Nicholls, Dreamtime, indigenous religion, Monsters, Richard Lea, The Guardian
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. To my way of thinking, if I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I try to change it at that point, rather than waiting. Needless to say, then, I’m up to my old habits of reading about horror movies. Actually, Darryl Jones’ Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film goes a bit broader than just the cinema. As the subtitle indicates, this charming book also addresses narrative fiction as well and the result is quite engaging. Divided thematically, Jones considers the various types of horror without delving into pretentious theorists to give him academic credibility. Here is a true fan who’s capable to sharing the excitement of the genre. Along the way, accompanying the usual observation that horror and religion share considerable conceptual space, he makes the point that in movies horror is one genre that makes use of academics as characters of authority. Sure, there are others, but in this realm to be educated is a benefit, whether the plan is to take over the world or to stop some evil force from doing the same.
I’ve been watching movies that can be broadly classified as horror since I was young. And I had admired—emulated to some extent—the professors and scientists I saw in those presentations. When a monster was on the loose, you went to find an expert to learn what to do. At the risk of contradicting myself, theorists have been suggesting that one of the problems with post-truth is the death of expertise. Anyone can be an expert these days. The question, “Why should I listen to you?” is on every self-appointed smarty’s lips. Earning a doctorate, the horror world tells us, gives you access to some kinds of knowledge that others don’t have. Problem is, zombies don’t respect such learning. They only want brains to consume.
It never seemed to me that watching horror was a means of learning. As a kid escapism is part of everyday life—taking things seriously is for adults. Growing up, however, I kept my love of scary movies in reserve. Little did I realize that it was a form of training. Now university-affiliated academics are finally able to begin admitting that they find monsters compelling. More than that, they actually learn something from them. Although not a resolution, I see myself reading further books about horror movies this year. It may be a naive hope, but it would be wonderful if they were all as insightful as this one has been.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Higher Education, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Darryl Jones, Higher Education, horror movies, Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film, Monsters
Horror films are something you either “get” or you don’t. I have no empirical evidence for that, but then again, “getting” is hardly a precise verb. In my recent desire to find some explanation for my own fascination with the genre, I turned to James B. Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. This is a smart book. Twitchell, an English professor, knows to include Gothic novels in his accounting for this strange addiction. He has several insightful things to say about the differences between terror and horror. He gives a fairly complete analysis of the “big three”—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and werewolves/wolf men/Jekyll and Hydes. Still, at the end, I have to wonder if he really “gets” the monsters he explores. Part of this is his early admission that he didn’t grow up with monsters, but that he was introduced to them academically. Another part of it is his sometimes dismissive style when talking about movies that meant a great deal to us monster boomers when they came out. Either you get it or you don’t.
Still, I recommend this book for those who want to make sense of some of the hidden dynamics of classic monsters. That the analysis is sexual should come as no surprise. Twitchell finds evidence for a sublimated incest in many of his creatures, but the true fan knows there is more to them than that. The monster does indeed cross boundaries—that’s what monsters do, after all—but that’s only scratching the surface with their claws. Of course, the book suffers from having been written perhaps a little too early. Although there is protest to the contrary, horror films have grown up considerably since the 1980s. Not all of them, of course. The same thing could be said of the kids I knew in high school.
Having a single theory to approach a phenomenon is respectable. So respectable that it’s called Occam’s Razor and everyone is expected to shave with it. I’ve never liked shaving. The more I reflect on reality, the more it seems to me that answers are more complex than single causation. Sometimes the simplest answer isn’t the most parsimonious. Sometimes there is far more going on than meets the cyclops’ eye. In my experience, limited though it may be, the horror movie has unexplored dimensions. One of them is the coping ability that they offer when evens such as 11/9 occur. There’s no simple way to understand monsters, but if we see them around enough, we might just be able to survive them.