Monday, November 3, 2008

Lessons from Horror

Oh, a sad little blog this is these days. My thoughts I mostly save and spill out for the edification of my college students... and the blog gets less than full attention. Well, once again I will renew my onslaught on the myriad worms that eat away at each day, and find time to spill here. Where the ground is as stony as a man's heart.

This last month was my own personal version of fright month with my students. We watch a film in class at the end of every week, and this October had four Fridays (not including the first Friday of the month, because that fell during a national Chinese holiday) including the last: All Hallows Eve. I'm a firm believer that the horror genre is overlooked for its insight into human minds, hearts, and morals. Fitting with one of the tasks I assigned to my students (find the 'moral of the story'), horror stories are perhaps the most moralistic of all stories, beginning with the sort of frightening yarns woven by mothers and fathers throughout time in order to get their children to behave: 'You stop that right now, or the boogieman, with his threadbare eyes and unzipped mouth, will find you... and gobble you up!'.

For good measure, I began with a film that scared my students (and myself) shitless: Dead Silence. A long dead witch-like woman who tears out the tongues on those who scream and turns them into ventriloquist dolls... yeah, this one stayed in some nightmares for some time after. The film also, since it made such an impression, provided my class with some common ground, as if we had all faced this supernatural threat together: the subject of Mary Shaw continues to crop up in all sorts of conversations we have in class. One girl told me that after watching this film, she saw everyone around her--in class, in line at the restaurants, in the dorms--as a human doll, carved up and hollowed out... manipulated by hidden strings.

The next week I ratcheted down the tension with a detour into funny horror: Shaun of the Dead. We discussed the fact that indeed many of my game-addled, sleep-deprived students have a quick similarity to zombies (but could probably do with more of a hunger for brains, given their lack of academic motivation). They loved the fact that Shaun still plays video games with his zombiefied best mate at the end of the film. Games beat all other pastimes or concerns, in the end, eh?

The third week, I decided to introduce my students to that master of horror, the venerable Stephen King, with his oldest (and arguably one of his most famous) stories: Carrie. It helps that I actually have a girl in my class named Carrie. She probably didn't appreciate the comparison, however, given that Carrie is batshit crazy by the end of the movie, however. I think this story, like many Stephen King stories, makes a good (and frightening) point, that really horror is never more than a step or two away from our normal lives. A numblingly mundane activity, such as high school girls practicing cruelty on one of their number, is only a mind-power away from tragedy. As your mother always told you, 'If you kids don't stop that now, someone's going to get hurt'. Watching this movie three quick times in succession also gave me an appreciation for some of the artistic choices of the filmmaker. While my students were ga-ga over the unashamed nudity in the opening credits, I most enjoyed the scenes with Carrie's mother. Early in the movie, she is framed beneath a heavy, wooden arch, and she crouches there like some fundamentalist hag... full of menace for her piteous daughter. Later, when her daughter comes home from her tragic prom, the mother is there waiting behind a doorway... few of my students even noticed, but those who did were quite scared by what they saw. The funky, crazed crucifix-con-Jesus was another nice touch.

Finally, for this last Friday, Halloween, I saved one of the scariest Stephen King stories of all time (in my humble opinion). Pet Sematary is a story about Eden, I think. A story about the childlike innocence that we all possess. A story about the unintended consequences of resurrection, particularly when it takes place in a high and lonely Micmac indian burial ground haunted by a wendigo. A story once again about something that any of us--if we were in the doomed protagonist's shoes--would probably carry to conclusion. One reason why Romeo and Juliet strikes a chord with all of us (when Hamlet might not always do), is because the underlying stupidity of tragedy, of that tragedy, is one which any of our love-addled minds might succumb to. Pet Sematary is the same: at heart this tragedy is about the extremely stupid decisions we make when the loss of love is the question of the day. Lewis, all my students agree, was a completely stupid guy. He just doesn't learn! He buries the family cat up in that haunted soil, and the cat comes back with a stench beneath his fur and a new meanness of spirit. Then, when his son gets hit by a truck coming hell-for-leather down the road in front of their yard... well, I think we all see where this is headed. The little boy comes back, but he's not quite bought and paid for yet, and his towheaded curls cover a mind that has been warped and rotted by whatever terrible grinning things haunt the highlands. When, predictably, Lewis's wife dies, what do you think he does? That edenic power of life and death is a rather addictive one... even if it carries with it a nasty kick.

I think all of us who have loved and lost pets would agree that given the chance, we might well bring those beloved creatures back... and nevermind the consequences. So damn, but we're scared when we see what the consequences could be! Because at heart we're all guilty of the desire to play god if given half a chance.

'The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Lewis--like the soil up in the old Micmac burying ground. A man grows what he can, and he tends to it'. -- Judd Crandall, Pet Sematary

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