Friday, October 13, 2017

The Haunted City: on Horror Fiction

I have always loved horror.  When I was a wee lad, my favorite television show was Fantastic Features, which presented horror movies each Friday and Saturday night.  The host wore a vampire costume with cape and medal included.  He announced himself this way: “I am Sivad, your Monster of Ceremonies!”  You can see the lead clip at the link above. 
I mentioned my theory of genres in a previous post.  I repeat it here. 
I have a theory about genres.  Each is centered on some essential idea, usually attached to certain special signs.  Westerns, for example, are essentially about the frontier: the grey land between civilization and the utter lawlessness of the uncivilized territories, coupled with the signs of horses, hats, and handguns.  The samurai movie genre is very similar, if you trade swords for guns and modify the architecture.  Horror is about the idea that evil can be a real force in the world, like gravity or electricity.  Science fiction rests on the idea of a constantly expanding scientific view of the Kosmos and the surprises that such a view might hold.
Horror fiction is very popular.  Scan the Apple Movie Trailers site and you will always see a few horror offerings, even when Halloween is not approaching.  But it is approaching, as so my mind turns toward the October side of life.  It is a good time to think about the dead.  Summer is sinking as fast as the sun in the west, and much of what makes life rich is sinking with it.  Death, I read somewhere, is always behind us; but sometimes it turns off its lights.  In October, its lights are one and glowing with an orange titled just a bit to the side of crimson. 
Horror, as I say above, is about the idea that evil is a real force in the world.  It is frequently personified, as in all the vampires and devils that populate the genre.  Occasionally, it gets biologized.  In a very good film, The Creeping Flesh, starring two horror superstars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, evil is a microorganism with a nucleus and tentacles.  That same idea animates almost all zombie films, including a recent superb offering: The Girl with All the Gifts
The above are examples of the cross-pollinization of horror and science fiction.  A lot of science fiction falls into this category overlap.  Consider “Who Goes There?”, the novella that was filmed as The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s brilliant remake, The Thing.  In the novella, a scientist and a military officer are looking at the frozen corpse of the monster.  The scientist can see only a hopeful possibility.  Perhaps the scary look on its face is only scary to us.  Maybe on its world that was a look of compassion.  The soldier is not fooled.  He recognizes it as malevolent, and unfortunately, he is right. 
More often, horror depends on premodern notions of good and evil.  In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, the vampire and his henchman worship the Devil.  “I bring you spoiled flesh…”  Even then, modernity presses in.  In Salem’s Lot as in almost all horror rooted in ancient mythology, evil is very vivid and personal.  The vampire has a name and speaks.  Good is perhaps more powerful, but it is anonymous and silent.  When the hero finally faces the vampire, he pours holy water over his axe.  The water glows with eerie green light but we are told that it is older than any mythology we still have. 
Why do we like this sort of thing?  I have an idea.  It’s the same reason I like English beer.  It’s bitter.  Our response to bitter is an evolved psychological mechanism.  It alerts us to a possible poison in what we are tempted to eat, just as the smell of spoiled meat alerts us to the same.  Pregnant women are especially sensitive to both, so much so that they sometimes faint after exposure to the latter. 
And yet, most of us can adjust to the taste of bitter, if we consume it without ill effects.  This is another of our great gifts: the ability to adapt to new items on the smorgasbord.  Genuine fear is hardly pleasant; however, fear in small doses, in a context where we feel safe, stimulates us.  More exactly, it engages us.  We sit around the fire and listen the story.  By scaring us, the evil binds us together.  All of us are threatened.  We get behind the hero as we listen and so invested, we enjoy his triumph. 
That is an interpretation of our horror genre as an adaptation.  A lot of our pleasures are not adaptations but by-products of such adaptations.  The hero does not always triumph.  We enjoy tragedy as much as triumph.  That is a consequence of our extraordinary capacity for adaptation to new environments.  We can put together our emotional responses and assemble tales and tastes that have no adaptive value; they merely please us. 
We are fond of stories that end well and of stories that end badly.  The latter may teach us something and that may be one reason we tell them.  It is not why we enjoy them.  We enjoy them because they speak to parts of our souls that add up to the beautiful.  This is what makes it possible for us to appreciate being human.  Horror fiction composes its tapestries from such materials as I have described.  It is occasionally edifying.  It is always entertaining. 
Horror fiction may be edifying in so far as it teaches us to stand together against evil.  It is also edifying in so far as it teaches us that evil is real.  Most of the bad things that people do they do for reasons that all of us can easily understand.  The thief wants money.  The jilted husband wants revenge.  It is easy to dismiss such things as just human nature.  Someone firing down on a crowd, someone neither insane nor motivated by a murderous ideology or religion, that is something else. 

Evil is real.  It is best to remember that.  Happy Halloween.  

Friday, October 6, 2017

Guns & Poses

I do not like guns.  Frankly, I am afraid of them.  Neither, however, am I offended by them.  I have many friends who are hunters and I wish them luck; though, in the case of two of my colleagues, when I know they are at large with rifles I am tempted to stay home and clean up the basement.  In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I once accepted money from the National Rifle Association to travel to New Orleans for a small conference on gun laws. 
As a political scientist, I find the gun control vs. gun rights controversy very interesting for two reasons.  One is the simple policy question.  What kind of policies, if any, would make a significant dent in the rate of gun fatalities in the United States?  The other is the controversy itself.  What moves each side to defend its positions (or go on offense) so tenaciously? 
As to the first question, I am very doubtful that there are any such policies.  The argument for gun control (as opposed to the emotional case for it) rests on the large fact that gun violence is much more common in the United States than in similar nations.  Measured by gun deaths per 100,000 in population, Australia, Austria, and Sweden have rates of 0.2.  The U.S. has a rate of 3.6.  These are 2010 numbers.  Assuming that these numbers are correct, the US rate is 18 times the rate of the other countries. 
It is not unreasonable to view this as a public health problem, analogous to, say, the supposed opioid epidemic.  Here is where my skepticism is aroused.  It is also true that deaths in traffic accidents are much higher in the U.S. than in similar nations.  The rate per 100,000 here is 10.6.  In Sweden, the rate is 2.8.  In Austria and Australia, it is 5.4.  Is this a public health problem?  To be sure.  That doesn’t mean that we have any idea what to do about it.  If we did, wouldn’t we be doing it?  There is no National Reckless Driving Association, with its claws in the Republican Party, preventing reform. 
Interestingly, but probably not revealingly, the number of Americans who died last year by gun fire is about the same as the number who died on the roads: 33,000.  Of the gun fatalities, two-thirds were suicides.  That is certainly a health care problem.  Do we know what policies would bring the numbers down?  No, and it’s not because the National Suicide Association is lobbying Congress.  We just don’t know how to fix the problem. 
If we can’t solve the highway fatality health crisis and we can’t solve the suicide crisis problem, what makes us think that we can solve the gun violence problem?  The answer is obvious.  We can’t or don’t want to take away automobiles and we can’t take away all the means of suicide but we can take away guns. 
Except that we can’t.  There are about as many guns in circulation as there are people in the United States.  Confiscation of those guns is both politically impossible (here you can blame the NRA but also the voters in South Dakota) and practically impossible.  The same neighborhoods that are awash with guns, frequently barking, are also awash with heroin and meth.  Do you really believe it would be easier to get the one than the other? 
I am not saying that we should not attempt any reform.  I am saying that no reform anyone is proposing will make a significant difference.  I wish it were otherwise.  It is not. 
The answer to the second question posed above is that human beings are political animals and politics is always about friends and enemies.  Those who are in favor of gun control do not like guns.  Those who are in favor of gun rights do like guns, for the most part.  What really puts the powder in each of their shells is that they do not like each other.  This leads each side to read any event or information in whatever way gratifies themselves and annoys their opponents. 
Gun control, like abortion and gay marriage, is a cultural marker.  If you are in favor of all three, then you are on one side.  If you oppose all three or any one of the three, you are outside the fold.  A friend and colleague of mine responded to such reflections above in this way:
The tax code, licensing, and insurance requirements provide all the tools necessary. Just look at the effects of pricing on tobacco use, which (God help us) I assume you're not going to make some libertarian argument that people have the 'right' to kill themselves (ignoring second-hand smoke). All that's needed is licensing fees proportional to fire-power (just like automobiles, where in sane states, high-performance vehicles cost more to plate), rigorous training requirements, insurance rates commensurate with the risks, safer guns (owner ID grips, etc.) taxes on guns commensurate to offset the costs inflicted on society, stricter control of getting a gun so that perpetrators of domestic violence, people convicted on a felony, and people who are nuts. It's what we do with drivers' licenses, pilot's licenses, and many other things. Why is this a problem?
None of this is unreasonable and much of it I could endorse.  None of it would have prevented Stephen Paddock from getting all the guns he needed. 

Spinoza was right.  At least about this.  Most of us most of the time and all of us some of the time are governed by passion.  We read atypical events as though they meant something important, which they don’t.  When something like this happens, each side always knows what it means.  That is interesting, at least to a political scientist.