Tag Archives: fear

Wandering Uterus #4: Pregnancy Neurosis

By Ashley

So, here we have the final story in Wandering Uterus, which is a condensed chronicle of the summer after Andreas left and my incredibly neurotic pregnancy scare. I would like to expand this story; my fears of pregnancy and issues with reproduction rights could make up their own graphic novel if I let them. I hope that you’ve all enjoyed my first major foray into comics-making. I hope to work more on this over the summer!

Hit the jump to read all about my neurosis….

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Sometimes my heart pounds like thunder and I don’t know why I don’t explode

Trigger Warning: for mentions of rape and extreme misogyny

This. Just this. I can’t even. There are no fucking words. Last night I cried, I fucking sobbed because my body is not my own. My body is not my right. My body is a fucking political war ground. It terrifies me that I could wake up someday and need a fucking abortion and I would have to jump through countless painful hoops just to obtain one. And then, after all that, people would sit and fucking judge me for taking responsibility for MY life and MY body and MY fucking well-being.

It gets hard, realizing every fucking day that they don’t care about you. They don’t care if you die. They don’t care if you can’t feed your kids. They don’t care if the mental ramifications of pregnancy and child-rearing are so emotionally traumatizing that you’re never the same again. They don’t give a shit about you. You shouldn’t have opened your legs, you fucking slut. Oh, what’s that? You were raped? Oh, you were using contraception carefully but it failed you? Well, maybe the rape victim is okay but the person who willingly had sex, she doesn’t deserve an abortion. She doesn’t fucking deserve it because she’s a slut who needs to be punished with a baby. Responsibility is what we need to teach these silly ladies and the best fucking way to do that is by FORCING pregnancy that they don’t want onto them. We have a hierarchy of worth: you, woman with two children who’s birth control failed her, or you, woman who accidentally forgot a pill or had a condom rip, are not at the top of that hierarchy. Sorry for your fucking luck.

This is what a misogynistic culture looks like. This is what sexism looks like. Do you really fucking think this is about ‘saving babies’ or ‘cherishing life’? If the anti-choicers gave two fucking shits about saving fetuses then they would fucking acknowledge the 70,000 fucking women (and their fetuses) that die every. Fucking. Year. From illegal, unsafe abortions. And do you think this is the only thing? Really? Oh, no. There’s ANOTHER proposed bill that would allow doctors to refuse treatment to women if it would endanger their fetus. It’s called “The Protect Life” act. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so fucking terrifying. And the plans to cut funding for Planned Parenthood (which is terrifying on so many levels; thousands of women depend on Planned Parenthood for routine checkups and access to birth control). Don’t you fucking see it?

They want us to fucking die. They don’t fucking care.

Fetuses are more important than women. You should be punished for having sex. You should be punished for wanting to have bodily autonomy. You should be punished for accidentally losing a pregnancy. Like the woman who was imprisoned for having a miscarriage. The laws that enabled this woman to be imprisoned for a miscarriage are the same kind of fucking “Personhood Laws” that the GOP is pushing for in America. You think it can’t happen here? You’re fucking wrong. And yes, surprise sur-fucking-prise, that bill was passed in fucking Utah, the same fucking state that requires women to look at an ultrasound before an abortion. Because, you know, women are fucking stupid and there’s no way a woman could have sat and thought long and fucking hard about whether or not this was the right decision for her. No, after all that, she has to be forced to look at a fucking ultrasound in the ridiculous hopes that she’ll have some epiphany that it’s A BABY SHE’S KILLING! YOU’RE MURDERING A BABY, SLUT!

And you know what my absolute favorite part of all this is? The overwhelming majority of the people who are making these decisions about women’s bodies, health and lives are cis men. You know, the people who won’t ever fucking have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. They won’t ever have to deal with being forced or shamed into carrying their rapist’s fetus to term (all the while undergoing potentially triggering invasive check ups and procedures). They won’t have to fucking make the choice between being able to feed your already living breathing children or terminating a fetus that isn’t even a fucking person and being called a fucking murderer for it. They don’t have to worry about dying during childbirth (which BTW, death during childbirth happens way more than death during safe, legal abortions) or being denied lifesaving medical treatment because your doctor thinks that the moral decision is to let you fucking die. They don’t have to worry about hemorrhaging and bleeding the fuck out after a botched back-alley procedure that you underwent because you couldn’t afford or didn’t have access to clean, sterile, safe, legal procedures.  These are definitely the people who should be making these decisions about women’s lives, right?

I’m angry (obviously). I’m scared and I feel vulnerable and helpless. I’m so angry that it’s 2011 and we STILL have to carry on this fight. Roe v. Wade was in 19-fucking-73. We’ve been fighting ever fucking since. Our rights to our bodies and health aren’t important enough to be set in stone in our laws. So yeah, I am angry. Really fucking angry. And I refuse to fucking apologize for my anger. I refuse to be nice. Too fucking often we’re told, oh, well you can’t BE angry; you have to nice and calm and willing to explain everything over and over and over and over because if you don’t-if you’re not compliant and willing and sweet about EVERYTHING ALWAYS-well, people just won’t listen to you! Well, you know what? Fuck you. I am fucking unapologetically angry right now. This pro-choice screed isn’t an invitation for open debate; I don’t fucking want to hear your anti-choice rationalization. Women are dying. Women’s health is being threatened and disregarded. So I don’t really give two squirts of piss about your fucking reasons why you think abortion is so morally wrong and should be illegal. If that alienates some of the readers who come by this blog: too fucking bad. To quote Kathleen Hanna:

I’m so sorry that I’m alienating some of you/your whole fucking culture alienates me.

War has been waged on our bodies, our autonomy, our health and our very fucking lives. I’m not here to fucking play nicey-nice about that.

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Addicted to Fear, or Why I Am a Horror Junkie

It’s Halloween. The best holiday of the year. So I’d like to wax autobiographical for a minute here, and talk about my own personal relationship with the horror genre. If you’ve spent any time peeking around Pussy Goes Grrr, you know that Ashley and I are horror junkies. We crave all the neurochemical releases that accompany a good scary movie; few experiences thrill us more than discovering an new, bold horror masterpiece that scares our socks off. But, you may ask, where did this cinematic bloodlust come from? What childhood disease did we acquire that made us seek out things that scare us? If Andreas is so terrified of insects (it’s true!), why the hell would he intentionally watch any iteration of The Fly?

The answers, of course, are long and complex. I don’t even know all of them. Where do any artistic preferences come from? How do you account for any taste? But I would like to talk about a few childhood experiences that probably contributed to my critical idiosyncrasies. You see, a lot of my cinephilia stems from the kind of family I grew up in. When I was in elementary school, a common family activity was indulging in a VHS of some Universal horror, or a 1950s Vincent Price vehicle, or something bad like Plan 9. (My childhood arrived at the tail end of the VHS-and-video-store era, so despite being born in 1990, I still get to be nostalgic for their distinctively analog delights.)

As you can probably tell, my family’s viewing choices hewed to older fare, so I was inculcated into a very specific kind of old-fashioned horror fandom. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and even George Romero didn’t mean much to me until after I started college; instead, as I grew to really appreciate scary movies, it was all about Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and other such pioneers. But before my understanding of film became that sophisticated or auteur-centric, it was all about the images. That’s what I’m really here to address. Iconic horror movie images became displaced in time, space, and authorship. They become universal possessions of the collective unconscious. It’s a beautiful, mysterious process.

So: when I was little, we had all these books about horror movies sitting around. My father had accumulated them over the years, maybe from bookstores or thrift stores or book sales or forever. I still have the cover of John Stanley’s Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide burnt somewhere inside my brain. The books’ titles consisted of every possible permutation of the words “scary,” “horror,” “movie,”  and “guide.” Maybe, on occasion, “flicks” or “encyclopedia” would worm their ways into the titling algorithm. For the most part, they were generic compilations of short reviews, cast listings, and black-and-white stills. These stills were really the selling points: they were one-frame money shots, showing off the most hypnotic, gruesome artistry the movie had to offer.

They were also one of my first exposures to horror’s perverse, forbidden, slightly erotic pleasures. Horror movies showed me deformed faces, exaggerated bodies, and every other conceivable mutilation of the human form – all with a strangely sexualized twist. Even though all of pre-1968 cinema was supposed to be clean and safe for kids’ enjoyment, it actually contained festering, potent traces of sensual yearning and sinful desire. And, in its own illicit way, this unspoken aspect of horror was also very educational. I’m an outspoken advocate for the (usually) secret-but-pervasive sexual side of horror, and it’s partially because as I reflect on my childhood, I realize how profoundly it influenced me as a person.

Here are a few of those images. They’ve all taken on curious, shadowy lives of their own in the mind of pop culture. They’ve all acquired a set of meanings and associations in the years since they were created. And they all have strange and powerful significances to me as an individual.

There is so much I could say about Bela Lugosi in Dracula. It’s the role that defined his career, and the film set the stage for every horror talkie that followed it. It also codified the image of an aristocratic, caped vampire. It has enormous resonance for me – in fact, resonance above and beyond almost all other horror movies. I can’t help it. It’s not because of how well it’s made; that’s a nonissue with Tod Browning films, and there have been far better adaptations of the source novel. (Like, say, both versions of Nosferatu.) Maybe it’s some combination of the dilapidated castle, the Karl Freund camerawork, and Lugosi’s body language that drilled this movie into my brain. Despite his classical training, Lugosi always looked like such an outsider in American movies. Maybe the inherent pathos and tragedy of the Lugosi persona struck me through this movie. I couldn’t say.

This remains, I think, one of the most inexplicably compelling, mystifying, and disgusting images in all of film. Even going beyond Freaks‘ moralizing showmanship, just trying to look at it rationally… all logic fails when applied to this image. It appeals to something deeper than logic. This might be what draws me so forcefully to Tod Browning: even though his films are often nonsensical, amateurish, and tawdry, they nonetheless get to something in the bestial recesses of the human mind. Cleopatra’s incomprehensible, dehumanizing fate is so psychosexually loaded, because a “beautiful” woman has been forcibly and maliciously transformed into a voiceless, ambiguous being. It’s all intensified by the real question: how did the freaks do this?

I saw Janet Leigh’s screaming face years before I ever saw Psycho. Like the image of Freaks, it depicts a woman’s body being mutilated; it’s explicitly sexualized violence. But it’s also laden with intertwining threads of meaning. It’s not just an expression of unadulterated misogyny. (Those who pelt the horror genre with tired accusations of unadulterated misogyny are really underestimating the depth of these films. Although, of course, some horror movies are full of straightforward misogyny.) Consider part of Carol Clover’s argument in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: in a slasher film, the viewer is constantly shifted in identification between the attacker and the victim. It’s not just that we see ourselves in Mrs. Bates as she hacks into Marion, because we also see ourselves in the dying, shrieking Marion. It’s about fear and vulnerability. It’s about gender anxieties and sexual curiosity.

This is just a little hint of why I love horror so much, but the main reason is that I love to be scared. Yes, it’s perverse (in the truest sense of the word) and yes, it’s very counterintuitive. But fear is important and it can be useful. By watching something that scares you, you can learn more about yourself and your relationship to the world around you. I believe that for several reasons – industrial, aesthetic, and otherwise – horror is also sometimes capable of saying more than other genres. In short, I love horror movies. Happy Halloween.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Treehouse of Horror V

So, I’m going to use the quasi-existence of “Aprilween” (i.e., a made-up horror-themed holiday halfway between each Halloween) as an excuse to continue my proposed series of Simpsons analyses. Every time I watch one of the show’s many, many great episodes, I just have an urge to talk about it – to figure out what the writers and animators did to make it so fucking brilliant. There’s so much going on in each 22-minute selection, such a talented collaborative balancing of social satire, emotional realism, and absurd animation. Single minutes of the show at its prime can unload so much comedy and pathos and subtle creative tricks you’re not entirely aware of that it makes your head spin.

And even while still fitting in all of this, the show occasionally took total departures from reality. Every October (or, more likely, early November) they would, and still do, put forward a Treehouse of Horror episode. They were continuity-free triptychs full of gore & violence, but still with the show’s usual abundance of verbal and visual jokes. But they went places (like hell and outer space) that normal episodes generally couldn’t. They allowed the show to disregard all pretenses of realism and dive into apocalyptic nightmares and carefree killing sprees, often within in a parody of a Twilight Zone episode or a classic horror movie. Anyone could die. Any institution could be dismantled. Basically, it was The Simpsons‘ horror-themed equivalent of DC’s non-canon Elseworlds series, or Marvel’s What If.

Plenty of full episodes or individual segments would’ve been worthy of closer inspection. (Although, as with the rest of the series, quality tends to drop off when you move past season 9-10.) “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV, for example, has Homer trapped in his own ironic hell courtesy of an ironically satanic Ned Flanders. The legendary “Homer³” from VI uses then-revolutionary computer-generated imagery to produce an eerie, self-destructing dimension in which Homer gets trapped. (Homer being trapped in bad places was clearly a persistent theme in these episodes.) But beyond any doubt, the greatest of all 20 Halloween specials is Treehouse of Horror V.

Just as the Halloween episodes take place outside the series’ normal continuity, they also dispense with its conventions. V begins not with the familiar clouds over Springfield, but with Marge announcing that Congress has forbidden them from showing it – this cuts to an Outer Limits-style TV hijacking by Bart and Homer, which introduces the episode – and this segues into a morbid parody of the expected opening, which moves through a graveyard and toward the Simpsons’ house. Pattie and Selma are burnt as witches, Moe hangs himself, and Bart guillotines school employees (including a disturbingly happy Principal Skinner), all of which confirm this as a Springfield in which power structures have been overturned in favor of anarchic violence.

Every dark impulse boiling beneath the show’s day-to-day conflicts is let loose in shockingly literal form. The Treehouse of Horror episodes were not just a little ghoulish fun, but also a blood-spurting catharsis for the show’s whole cast. Secret fears or desires could be voiced without needing to worry about them affecting future episodes. This is especially visible in the episode’s first (and best) segment, a pitch-perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining entitled “The Shinning.” (As Groundskeeper Willie says, “You want to get sued?”) Mr. Burns hires the Simpsons as winter caretakers for his lodge, but not before erasing their access to TV and beer, causing Homer to… “something something.” (“Go crazy?”)

In its imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shinning” brings to mind the infamous mirror routine in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. Just as Harpo darts back and forth in a dead-on mockery of Groucho’s mannerisms, so does “The Shinning” invoke all of The Shining‘s most memorable set-pieces, only to deflate their terrifying grandeur and mystery. The gush of blood from the elevator, formerly an enigmatic omen of impending violence, is reduced to a quick joke, as Burns notes, “Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” And the hedge maze is no longer a site of confusion and danger, as Bart merely chainsaws through it. All these nightmare images look ridiculous when viewed through the Simpsons’ all-American ignorance, just like the “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I, which prefers suicide to a life with the insufferably self-absorbed family.

As Ashley and I were discussing earlier, “The Shinning” isn’t just parody for its own sake. It doesn’t even bother with many of The Shining‘s most iconic moments – the occupants of the rooms, Danny on his tricycle, the twin girls – and instead focuses on the analogy of Homer and Jack Torrance as frustrated men within the strictures of the nuclear family. Both become violent under the building’s malevolent influence, but whereas Jack is triggered by drinking, Homer goes crazy when he can’t drink. He’s so dependent on these creature comforts – TV and beer – as escapes from what he would later describe as “the drudgery of work and family” that we can plausibly imagine the Homer we know and love going ax crazy without them. It’s just thrilling how, even in the midst of a hilarious parody, the Simpsons writers are still furthering their vast thesis of Homer as the quintessential American father.

And even while developing Homer’s relationship with TV through parallels to Jack (culminating in the sublime line “Teacher, mother, secret lover…”), this 7-minute segment still finds time for Mr. Burns’ disregard for others’ lives, Marge’s maternal anxiety, Wiggum’s incompetence, the family’s apathy toward Grampa, and Moe’s interminable despair. (Plus a great gag involving assorted movie monsters.) It’s all full of subtle Kubrickian musical and visual cues and intimations of real horror, too. At the very least, it’s very, very high up in the pantheon of Treehouse of Horror segments. At most, it could be 7 of the most effective minutes in American animation. In any case, there’s a lot going on here, and the segment is both a great tribute to the original film, and a great addition to the show’s legacy.

So where to go from there? The next segment, “Time and Punishment,” may not surpass the early peak set by “The Shinning,” but it’s still imaginative and frightening in its own right. It starts out with the Simpson family around the kitchen table on a breathtakingly idyllic morning – when suddenly Lisa screams, “Dad! Your hand is jammed in the toaster!” After some quick effort, he gets it off. Bart screams, “Dad! It’s in there again!” It’s a jarring non sequitur, and a brief exemplar of what horror is all about: the perfect, conflict-free setting, with Homer overstating how happy he is, can turn on a dime into inexplicable, unstoppable chaos. Homer goes downstairs to fix the toaster, only to inadvertently build a time machine. In short, Halloween has let the show throw aside all rules of logic and physics for no good reason. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s beautiful.

Granted, I’m a sucker for a good altered timeline story, and “Time and Punishment” is up there with the best of them. Rather than dwell on any linear connection between time periods by having Homer do or undo a specific action, we instead see him fuck up the past through a variety of means – swatting a mosquito, sneezing, sitting on a fish, killing everything in sight – and have each one yield a seemingly random but progressively weirder outcome. One future, for example, has Flanders as Big Brother, giving us a creepy insight into what the friendliest neighborino would do with unquestioned power. Another appears utopian, until Homer fears the loss of another creature comfort (donut) and tragically flees in horror moments before donuts rain from the sky – an ironic Twilight Zone ending tucked inside a wider story.

And the future where Maggie axes Willie in the back before saying, in James Earl Jones’ voice, “This is indeed a disturbing universe”? Funny, yes, but uncanny and off-putting. It also elucidates on the segment’s earlier hints of madness erupting out of normality. Maggie may have been referring to her own alternative universe, or to the Treehouse universe in general, where these flagrant violations of the show’s basic tenets can run wild. After losing all self-control and smashing all the prehistoric flora and fauna he can, Homer is deposited in one last future. It looks and feels like the one he started in, but in the gruesome reveal, his family eats with forked tongues. He shrugs and sighs, “Eh, close enough.”

The tone of compromise in Homer’s voice feels so strange in this otherwise surreal situation. It’s a sign of exhaustion, a willingness to live with a flawed family, a resignation to the absurd that falls halfway between Charles Schulz and Albert Camus. This isn’t just flat-out comedy with the occasional bloody murder – the writers cross through an astonishing amount of emotional territory. While these first two segments are devoted largely to Homer’s alienation as a working father (OK, at least that’s my reading), the last is one for the kids. It’s probably the weakest of the three, but “Nightmare Cafeteria” has some images of unremitting ghoulishness that can still inspire terror in me.

Its storyline couldn’t be simpler: Springfield Elementary’s detentions are overcrowded. Therefore, Skinner schemes to grind students up and serve them for lunch. Eventually he goes so overboard that the vast majority of the student body are herded like cattle, with the last few students (naturally, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse) strongly aware of what’s in store. It may have a far more traditional narrative and narrower focus than the others, but it also strikes harder at its lone target. From the first moments, the horror of public school begins, as students are crammed into detention rooms so tight that their faces are pressed against the doors.

And this is default from which the episode takes off. Lunch lady Doris’s gripe about “Grade F” meat could easily be a jab at food services in a normal episode, but here it leads into systematic mass murder and cannibalism. Much of the set-up strongly resembles The Simpsons as we know it; this time, it just goes much farther and gets much darker. Skinner and Krabappel’s usual disdain for the students leads them to whole-heartedly embrace this new solution, and we have to wonder: When it’s not Halloween, do they still bear this much hatred? As it is, we immediately believe this over-the-top faculty revenge fantasy. Skinner’s poor excuses, comical in any other setting, become unsettling when applied to Üter’s disappearance (and subsequent transformation into “Üterbraten”).

Marge, meanwhile, offers her children a lesson in self-reliance, simply telling them to “march right back to that school, look them straight in the eye, and say ‘Don’t eat me’!” With Milhouse, they attempt an escape, only for the drooling teachers and staff to corner them with their backs to a giant “Hamilton Beech Student Chopper.” Bart insists, with desperate self-awareness, that something will save them, but no deus ex machina comes. They all fall to their deaths. It’s a child’s bleakest nightmare, when every authority figure has become either useless or predatory, when the place they spend 7 hours each weekday has turned into a death trap. Across the three segments, three major pillars of modern life – family, home, and school – are shown to be insecure from inside or outside threats.

The ending even tops “Nightmare Cafeteria,” by having Bart wake up from his nightmare and be comforted by his family… all of whom are then assailed by fog that turns them inside-out. They dance to “One” from A Chorus Line (a song included earlier in a joke about the Tonys), are joined by an inside-out Groundskeeper Willie (whose repeated axings unify the segments), and sing “Happy Halloween!” as Santa’s Little Helper tears at Bart’s vulnerable organs. The Simpsons, in its lightest episodes, ridiculed the corruption and foolishness of America’s social and moral authorities. Here, at its darkest, it said that the real world was the nightmare – at least on Halloween – and that, as in Kubrick’s films, there is no real fail-safe button for life’s problems.

Whether those problems are addiction-based insanity, an unstable space-time continuum, or hungry school administrators, we may not be able to save ourselves. If possible, as in “Time and Punishment,” we should just cope with them as best we can. The false dream of a solution, as when Marge advises the kids on how not to be eaten, or realizing the lack of one, as when Homer shrugs and goes back to his breakfast, are what provide the episode’s delicious black comedy. Because no part of it really ends satisfactorily. Each segment leaves many unanswered questions, a “…?” hanging uneasily in the air even after the characters have moved on. For me, this gets at what the series, in its most surreal and absurd moments, sees at the bottom of modern existence. It’s “the horror,” as Colonel Kurtz would say.

Normally this vision of horror is sublimated into pure comedy, or into familial melodrama. The desperation each family member feels in their roles is pushed aside, and they continue doing the best they can, (dys)functioning as a single, loving unit within American society. But on Halloween, all these anxieties burst out like xenomorphs, pregnant with fantasies of mutilation and mass murder. These possibilities exist in the unconscious of the show’s normal episodes. Little signs of them are everywhere (and I might write about that sometime). But only in the Treehouse of Horror episodes can they receive their fullest expression, in parodies and nightmares and hypothetical scenarios that are, in the truest sense, horror.

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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The eye on pyramids is keeping track of your every move

Today I was reminded for the umpteenth time that the world is a scary, forbidding, dangerous place. Living in this inhospitable labyrinth, we have to deal with unending hazards of one kind or another. Our lives are being threatened every single day of our lives, sometimes by forces we don’t even know exist. Whether it’s Nyarlothotep possessing our bodies or the United States government making attempts on our lives as in Oliver Stone’s JFK which I watched earlier tonight, unseen forces are moving nonstop and sometimes they happen to come in our direction. I wanted to mention, for some reason, the fact that the other night while shaving I had a brief fantasy about what would happen if I pushed too energetically with the razor – how it could go slicing across my eyeball as in Un Chien Andalou. It’s not like I was considering it. It’s just that the idea came into my head, a danger I hadn’t even been aware of moments before. Who knows what could kill you or cause you immeasurable pain next.

It was, oh, 6-7 years ago and I was at a Christmas party of some family friends. Some other kids and I were playing around upstairs. I saw a door in the wall and decided to open it. The door came unhinged and fell on the big toe (or for the technical term, hallux) of my right foot, which started bleeding through the white sock as I sat there in pain on the carpet. My parents came and found out what had happened, we left eventually, we went back home. The consequences? I had a fucked-up nail on my big toe for years to come. Fast-forward to May 19, 2005. I can easily look it up, because it’s the day I saw Star Wars: Episode III. My toenail, by then, had recovered for the most part (although at some point while at summer camp, another kid had stepped on it, fucking it up and making it bleed all over again). I was opening the back doors of the family car, taking some bricks out for my mom to remodel the downstairs or something. A brick fell out of the car and onto my right foot, again smashing my big toe. I went to the bathroom and lay down, sprawled out on the floor, moaning for a while. Eventually I got up, got it washed off, and I went through the same bullshit all over again. Some time later, my dad had to heat up a bent paperclip end in order to puncture the nail and let blood gush out. 4 years have passed. Here is my toe as of last December.

My right big toe

So why, indeed, am I sharing all this dubiously significant information? My toe’s fine now. It’s a very, very minor part of my life. I guess my whole point is that 1) I find it amusing and 2) danger can come from anywhere at any moment and really inconvenience you for a while. To illustrate this further with a more extreme example: my father once tried to help a woman who had been hit by a drunk driver and died shortly thereafter. It’s a sad story I heard growing up. Someone was killed as a result of mistakes and bad decisions. My father was on hand to witness it, but unable to stop it from happening. Everyone is going to experience pain and eventually death. The least we can do is not to inflict any pain ourselves.

I find myself coming back, over and over, to the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming“:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

They’re well-known words, and I guess I feel like they sum up so well something so basic and true. Things fall apart: it takes more energy to build than it does to destroy. So, whatever. We know this already. What kind of point am I trying to make? My stomach hurts. We consume food every day of our lives. We break down carefully-constructed chemical bonds resulting in chains of molecules containing energy set up so that they taste delicious and are aesthetically appealing as well. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I read something really insightful in the Onion last night, in reaction to apparent dishonesty in American Idol voting: “Come on, corporate America. Just tell me who the real winner is so I can buy his album and listen to it until you give me someone new to like.” There’s a reason I no longer partake in broadcast media – TV and radio – and it’s because, well, the same gang of greedy fuckers is behind most of it. Fucking Clear Channel Communications, fucking Viacom, man. There’s a quote I read once from Woody Allen on the topic of colorizing films. Although I can’t confirm for sure that he said it, it’s a quote I love: “Colorization is a monstrous, disgusting, horrible, sinful, absurd, humiliating, preposterous, and insultin’ mutilation and defacing of genuine works of art, in which computers are used to doctor and tamper with the great originals, thereby creating degraded, cheesy, artificial symbols of one society’s greed.” That’s how I regard a huge chunk of mainstream shit being shoved down the throats of American consumers: artificial symbols of one society’s greed.

So why exactly did I start ranting against Corporate America? I really can’t say. And I admit that my views may tend toward the naïve, recitations of “Down with The Man!”, “Fight the power,” “Eat the rich,” and what have you. But at some level, I really do believe in it. I’m not just all flash and no substance (as if it made a difference). I was thinking, while watching JFK, about all these modernist terrors, all these leftover Cold War fears stirring in my brain about a generally fascist, globalized world where no one and nothing can be trusted. Sure, reading 1984 several times along with every other dystopian novel I can get my hands on hasn’t helped, but then there’s the realities. I read half of André Brink‘s novel A Dry White Season is one sitting once (and never finished it, sadly); it dealt with South African apartheid and the treatment of black prisoners. I vividly remember a scene where the protagonist, a white lawyer, is thinking about how his gardener’s son may be being tortured in prison, having weights hung from his testicles in a dark, cold cell. I found that image pretty terrifying. I saw Costa-Gavras’s film Missing (1982) last term in a Politics in Film course and, well, I guess my point is that I’m practically afraid of Latin America as a whole by now. (OK, I’m kidding, I’d love to travel to the area, but still, not during the ’80s.)

The Eye of Providence

My real point is that, I think, reading and watching all these different sources basically made me terrified of police states. Security is not worth the sacrifice of freedom. I want to know as many of my fucking constitutional rights as I can, don’t like cops in general, and when asked which freedom I could not do without, insisted on the 8th Amendment, which includes “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” That’s fucking important to me. Something else I hate? The idea of government surveillance interfering with my civil liberties. I want to be fucking free to do whatever the fuck I want, say whatever, think whatever, within the privacy of these four fucking walls. All of this is just so very deeply important to me – that outside ideas, even if they’re weird or irrational or hell, even unpatriotic, still continue to be expressed. Oh, and Frank Capra films (like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939], which I mentioned to Ashley as a model for JFK) also helped inspire this sentiment. I side with Thomas Paine who (probably) said, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” God, seriously, the number of movies I’ve seen where bureaucracy ruins lives, or a buck-passing justice system executes the wrong people, or a sprawling government just makes life suck in general. Now you may ask, Wouldn’t it be preferable to base your beliefs on facts and reality rather than what you see in movies? But dammit, you know what? What I see in movies are stories which appeal to psychological drives in different ways, stories which reflect or mediate or interrogate reality, stories which are capable of demonstrating truths we’d never understand otherwise, sometimes through a combination of logic and emotions. What I see in movies has very real, albeit strange connection to reality.

So in the end, this leaves me somewhere between living a normal life, relatively unhindered by these civil liberties violations I so desperately fear, and being afraid, very afraid, especially when too much power is given to too few people. Or when someone announces that in the name of progress, they want to be able to watch me and take pictures of me without my consent or awareness. I’ve learned at least a little bit from the histories of Latin America, most of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Nazi-dominated Europe, and everywhere that’s suffered under the yoke of totalitarianism. I am frightened of the invisible forces governing my life; I want to cut the strings binding me to all these ruling systems and, like my old English teacher used to say, “speak truth to power.”

I am scared. You should be too.

My dad's apartment, on Google Maps

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My fear of heights

It’s one of the basic human emotions, and I’m more or less obsessed with it: FEAR. I’ve said, “Fear rules my life,” or alternatively to quote a Kurosawa film title, “I live in fear,” and while these statements may not be literally true, fear is still a pretty big part of my lifestyle. Hell, it’s a major element of human life in general! You can’t be a human being, for the most part, without being afraid of something. There’s a movie with Jeff Bridges and Isabella Rossellini called Fearless that I may watch some time (solely for Isabella – just to hear her sexy Swedish-Italian voice). Daredevil is sometimes called “The Man Without Fear.” And granted, at a certain point, fear becomes debilitating. Ask anyone with a phobia. Or even though I’ve never been diagnosed with anything, ask me! Or don’t and I’ll tell you anyway.

For example: I am afraid of heights. Seriously afraid of heights. To the point that when I’m in a hotel room a couple stories up, I have to hold tight onto something stable and I still fantasize about the whole structure collapsing and somehow throwing me to my death. I think an overactive imagination is not helpful when it comes to irrational fear. I mean, it’s one thing for your imagination to lead you into elaborate, insane fantasies about people doing irrational, generally vulgar and sexual activities out of the blue. But then there’s the times when you can’t do something because your imagination’s rule of thumb is, “Conditions will work together to throw me to my death.” It’s like Murphy’s law except nothing can go wrong so you have to imagine that it will! I had something like this today, but I can’t remember just what it was. Oh, right! OK, so I was watching a piano being burned as performance art in the middle of campus. And I heard some popping – like normal wood popping as it burns. And my thought process was something like this:

“Oh no. What if one of the strings is under a lot of tension, and it gets burnt off, and it flies over here and slices into my head and kills me?” I actually imagined that happening. And it made me quiver a little. Luckily it was too crowded for me to turn tail and run, but still, I think that’s a bad sign. My fears have gotten alternately better and worse throughout my life, but they still get pretty ridiculous. One recurring theme is the fear that I’ll be skipping along, then dash down some stairs, then slip and go flying and smash my head on something and die. This can also just involve a potentially slippery sidewalk. My visions of what concrete can do to a human head are far gorier than, I suspect, anything concrete actually does do, especially on a daily basis and out of the blue. According to my psyche, if you just trip a little while running on a sidewalk, you go crashing down, and maybe your scalp gets ripped off or your skull crumbles as it tumbles onto the hard ground. These are just the occasional fears that flash in my head. They don’t paralyze me or keep me from walking like normal, but the point is that if a situation could conceivably lead to some kind of painful outcome related to falling or head trauma, I’m fairly likely to imagine it happening.

The other day I was thinking about one image I’ve seen in a few movies: take the scenes in Star Wars set on the Death Star, in these areas where you have to travel along thin catwalks… or else you fall forever to your death.

Why would you build that?

Other movies with similar scenes include Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940). Basically, what I’m talking about is places that, through some satanic miracle of architecture, have vertical depths that go down, down, down, and, well, pretty much just all the way down! The Thief of Baghdad scene, I think, had killer octopi (octopuses? octopodes?) at the bottom for some reason. But if you’ve fallen that far, do you really care what’s lying in wait to eat you? The scenes in Forbidden Planet apparently involved some kind of Krell power plant that took up miles and miles of space underground. That’s a fascinating movie that I used to just love but haven’t revisited for a while. It’s basic premise is interesting enough (and some damn good Shakespearean sci-fi), as it concerns the now-extinct residents of the titular planet, the Krell, who apparently had enormous heads and unimaginable intelligence. The brilliant twist? We never see them; all we see are the toys (and power plants) their civilization left behind. It’s a nice little underlying theme reminiscent of, oh, earlier horror movies, and even (given the mood I’ve been in as of late) Lovecraft – first, how the sins of a long-dead race can even curse visitors from earth. And as for unseen aliens who mastered the secrets of altering matter with their minds, and only indirectly affect human beings? Definitely something Lovecraftian there. Here’s a sample of the Krell structure, which I just read was an influence on Star Wars‘s set design.

Why would you build that, either?

You start to get an idea of how this scared the wits out of younger me, and continues to terrify me. Just the idea of standing somewhere where a little slip to the left or right would mean plummeting forever and then SPLAT – I would, no doubt, be lying on the catwalk immobile hoping to magically get off of it without standing up. For some reason the idea of a bottomless pit scares me less. Maybe because it’s less realistic? Or because there’s nothing to worry about at the bottom?

I’m going to sleep now – I’m tired and sick and have work in 8 1/2 hours. But I hope you enjoyed this peek into my crippling fears. And if you ever see me somewhere up high, clinging like hell to whatever’s closest, you’ll understand. Maybe another day, I’ll delve into my constant fears when it comes to social interactions and being around other people, or maybe the pleasures of fear. It’s a rich topic.

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