Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The Grown Ups With Far Away Eyes
I’ve just walked home from school where my teacher has humiliated me in front of the class for drawing cartoons of Top Cat and Yogi Bear on the back of these wet mimeographed worksheets, after sniffing the purple ink for several minutes, and Jeannine Williams who I have a huge crush on and am terrified to speak to but want to kiss passionately bent over backwards like in the movies, has borrowed my pencil and chewed on the end of it and her tooth marks are now a treasured religious relic in my Lone Ranger pencil box. I will stash this pencil in my underwear drawer with my aging Halloween candy and once in a while take it out and suck on it rapturously.
As I push open the screen door mom is off with my baby brother Dave somewhere, maybe yakking with the Arnolds across the street. I give my baby turtle Patches some dried flies from a little tin, take down some cornflakes and fix up a bowl with some milk and go right to the TV. The TV has a huge gray eye, two knobs, and some gawky rabbit ear antennae on top next to a ceramic panther lamp. In the back are vacuum tubes and capacitors that I have been sternly warned never to touch because my brains will fry and my hair will catch on fire and I will die a horrible grisly agonizing electric chair death, not like in the cartoons where people’s skeletons just light up, and instead of feeling sorry for me everyone will say how stupid I was after having been dutifully warned by my parents but the idiot kid never listens to anybody, what can you do with him, Jesus H Christ? Dad always lets me have the vacuum tubes when they conk out and I zoom around with them making whooshing noises and pretending they’re rocket ships.
I turn the bottom knob until it clicks and give it some volume. I sit down cross legged with my corn flakes and wait. The screen makes a crackly sound and I turn the knob on top –thump-thump-thump- to KCCI out of Ames and wait for the Mel Jass Matinee Movie (“with me your host – Mel Jass!”). And sure enough, there it is.
Like a recurring nightmare there’s this one movie that shows up about once a month.
Planets and stars move by, a spooky choir goes “wooooah ” and a paternalistic baritone voice speaks ominously about planets and higher forms of intelligence. In a nice house a boy exactly my age jumps out of bed to squint through a telescope at “Orion in zenith which won’t happen again for 6 years! Gee whiz, Dad!”
His parents are awakened by his big wind up alarm clock. These are perfect story book parents such as nobody ever had, who sleep in pajamas in twin beds chastely separated by a nightstand. The mother is a Teutonic, perfectly goyische blonde shiksa such as would turn Jewish boys into pillars of salt if they lusted for her, and speaks in cultured, meticulously cadenced tones, addressing her husband as “darling” while smiling. The father is a broad shouldered and generically handsome lovable lug, incapable of irritation or coarse desires. After he goes back to his own bed, definitely not Mom’s (who might have gasped, “Goodness, darling, what’s gotten into you?”) a lightning storm wakes up little David who sees a flying saucer land in a field of sand. He goes after Dad who doesn’t believe him but will take a look in the morning. Dad goes out and promptly disappears in the sand. He comes back, changed. Glowering, glassy eyed and tyrannical. As soon as the kid gets on his nerves he smacks him one across the mouth hard enough to flatten the little brat. And so it goes.
A pair of cops go to investigate the kids desparate phone call. They come back grim eyed and mean. Then Dad escorts Mom to the sand pit and she disappears. Finally the boy sees his playmate Kathy go to the sandpit and disappear. He runs to tell her mom (Kathy’s father is a physicist. We’ll get back to him.) then Kathy shows up with a tell tale scar on the back of her neck, an evil eyed zombie demeanor and a handful of flowers for mom. So the boy is discredited, no one believes him when the house is set on fire and he says Kathy must have done it and then takes off like hell.
Still with me? Hang on.
He scurries off to tell the Chief of Police and is stuck by the bureaucrat at the front desk until the Chief shows up. But the police chief has joined the zombie people too and throws the boy in a cell until they can bring in his parents. A lady psychiatrist named Dr. Blake arrives on the scene and believes his story enough to think they should consult an astronomer – he’ll know.
When the parents arrive at the police station, Mom is much changed. The Stepford Wife milk and cookies veneer is gone, and she’s a fierce, icy eyed bitch severely dressed in black with a plunging neckline like Dracula’s Daughter. One can definitely imagine having sex with this woman, along with a bull whip and hand cuffs.
Dr. Blake says the boy is running a fever and she suspects polio (this is the 1950s) and won’t hand him over. She brings him to an astronomer, Dr. Kelston, who believes him totally and explains about UFOs while whacking a map of the solar system with a briar pipe, and and even knows about an atomic rocket project the Martians are worked up about. Soon they’ve got the Army involved.
Okay, that’s enough.
There’s some high minded silliness with infra red rays and “mu-tants” and a battle and the Martians are defeated and so it goes.
Now if you’ve been patient this long, here’s the pay off. This cheesy sci fi flick gave me terrible nightmares for years as a child. I dreaded it. It made me vomit. Yet as often as it came around, I could never look away. It was an icon of my development as a fiction writer and one of the very few movies which ever sincerely scared the fecal matter out of me, not once but many times.
Let’s get out the tool box, unscrew the back and have a look at how this stuff works when it works so very, very well.
Freud said this amazing thing about the unconscious mind. He said the unconscious does not distinguish between fantasy and reality. That’s what the conscious mind is for. I’ll repeat that, the unconscious mind does not distinguish between fantasy and reality. If a man sees a picture of a naked woman and imagines going at it with her hot and heavy, he gets hard, because the unconscious doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. If a woman reads a romantic, erotic story and gets wet down there, it’s because the unconscious doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. Jung carried this further by saying the unconscious speaks in the language of images, even universal images passed down genetically.
So here’s how it works. I saw this movie when I was a little boy, about the same age as the kid in the movie, so the movie kid is an image my unconscious vividly connects with. In this movie, nice mom and nice dad turn mean and don’t love him anymore. The authority figures in his world don’t believe him and try to chase him down and imprison him. Little Kathy Wilson, his friend turns evil. And did I mention she gets killed?
She collapsed suddenly off stage from a brain hemorrhage, “keeled over as if she’d been pole axed”. The Martians exploded the zombie gadget they drilled into her brain and pulled her plug by remote control. Zap. Now, her father is working in his laboratory doing like, you know, scientist stuff. Taking a test tube and dripping something important into it from an eye dropper and holding it up to the light and scowling thoughtfully and putting it away and moving to the next. A lab coat munchkin comes in and remarks on how sorry they all are about little Kathy. Wouldn’t he like to knock off work early and go home and, like, maybe grieve or something? Without even looking up, Daddy Wilson responds with “No, thank you Brannon. I always work at night. Must go on, you know.” And he goes back to what he’s doing. Aw shit, the Martians got him already! No, it turns out he’s not a zombie, just an asshole. He really doesn’t care, that’s all.
So you have a kid, me, who’s instinctively terrified his mom and dad are going to get divorced someday. He hears the fighting, the shouts, the smashing dishes, the slamming doors, mom crying and sulking and locking the door. Daddy, the lovable lug who takes him fishing and squirts him with the garden house and shows him how to catch fireflies in a jar in the cornfield, sometimes takes down the belt or the hair brush and lets him have it good.
A little girl dies and Daddy goes on working because he doesn’t love her and doesn’t give a shit. Authority figures are out to get you. Grownups don’t believe you. The world is full of mysterious creatures who want to snatch you out of bed and take you away and maybe pop your brain like a balloon, and nobody will even come looking for you because you’re a crappy kid and nobody loves you anyway and they’d probably have a big party if you died. Hello?
The specific elements for me in 1962 and the present have changed, but the underlying night terrors are still the same terrors. What terrors are universal? If you want to write horror fiction you should spend some time on this question. Stephen King said the most frightening novel he’d written, the one he almost stopped writing was Pet Semetary. This was a novel in which a perfectly adorable little boy is killed and comes back as a murderous monster. I would imagine the poor parents of the kid who shot Senator Gabby Gifford, or the parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would find that book very, very hard to read and enjoy.
And this raises another question. What if I, as an artist, were clever enough to convey that fear effectively to you? This isn’t fun fear, sexy vampires and werewolves fear. This is the real stuff, the stuff that can happen to you, the stuff that hurts until it isn’t fun anymore, where you realize in your gut how illusory and fragile your domestic happiness is, and someday that can be your child on the evening news? Should I do that? If I could bring you real horror, the kind that destroys your happiness, would you want to pay money to read that?
What about horror fiction’s slutty cousin, erotic fiction? Male triggers and female triggers?
The individual fetishes may vary widely, even sexual orientation is much more a mark on a spectrum than a fixed compass. But some things are more or less universal. Women are excited and eroticized by fictional male heroes who are strong and protective even supernatural. They like their men confident and sexually dominant, with high wealth and social status. Sexually aggressive bad boys, but with a tender hidden spot of authentic sensitivity that can be elicited only by the magic hoo-hoo of the heroine alone. A woman fantasizes of being sexually irresistible and adored even by several men at once. Even strong independent women want that man who will make them weak in the knees, seduce and dominate them in the bedroom. Men want that woman who is vulnerable, who can be brought to a full surrender, and validate their mighty male potency. If women want the relationship and intimacy, a man can walk through a plate glass window, have great sex two minutes later and then go look for pizza and beer. Men are fine with anonymous sex or a variety of sexually aggressive partners and then moving on. Part of what a prostitute is paid for is her disposability.
Recently I read a discussion on whether there was any such thing as forcing a woman to orgasm, a common feat in erotic stories, usually the ones written by men. I don’t think such a thing is possible, but this is still a universal male fantasy, to render a woman helpless with his sexual prowess so completely that she must cave under the onslaught of his superior potency, and be forced to ecstatic surrender. This is a common element of BDSM fiction. Real life? I’ll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile writers who incorporate these formula elements in their stories do very, very well commercially.
Which brings up one more, slightly squicky element I got from this movie, sitting there in the past with my bowl of cornflakes. There is a scene in the movie when nice Dr. Blake is beaten and captured by the Mu-Tants and they’ve got her strapped down on the table, laying ass up on her tummy, and the big brain drill is descending with its fatal implant that will turn her into a gimlet eyed robot. A beautiful mature woman, her blouse revealingly torn and vulnerable, who in a moment will exist only to slavishly obey her master’s whims. Any whims, darling. Watching wide eyed as the brain drill descended and the choir “woooahh”ed and the woman looked so tranquil as The Very Bad Thing was about to happen, I remember clearly and distinctly being not afraid but - very turned on.
A little kid with a pencil with a girl’s fresh tooth bites, hidden away in his underwear drawer. I’ve always wondered -
What in the world was he thinking right then?