Sunday, October 30, 2005

What Fear Was

It's possible to spend too much time in the company of the dead — even the fictive dead. I feel caught in some kind of festival of the dead that seems to exist in the world as a whole these days, but probably exists nowhere but in my own little mind and the immediate space around it.

Exhibit A: These past weeks I've noticed, not all at once but gradually, that there are more programs on TV devoted to the otherworldly (ghosts, UFO's, haunted places, fucking sea serpents) than ever before. I know it's the run-up to Halloween, but this year the horror-themed programming has gone well beyond the standard annual showing of Dracula and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I'm talking a subtle slew of ha'nts, creeps and monsters running up and down the cable grid. One new show's entitled simply Supernatural; another, consisting of reenactments of real-life ghost and poltergeist encounters, is called A Haunting. Medium and Ghost Whisperer are star vehicles for, respectively, Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Love-Hewitt. Even the old Night Stalker has been revived, though sadly without the old Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin. There's World's Most Haunted Places, and something called Most Haunted Live! My favorite title is Possessed Possessions, in which people display their ghostly knick-knacks, heirlooms, and collectibles. Kind of Poltergeist meets Antiques Road Show.

Remember ten years ago, when The X-Files was a TV novelty? Or ten years before that, when Unsolved Mysteries was pretty much the tube's only outlet for true spooks?

We haven't seen most of these new entries, but we did watch an interesting reality show a few weeks ago about an East Coast Roto-Rooter man who moonlights as a ghost-hunter. With his crew of tech-brats and intrepid investigators, he creeps around famous spooky places like the Queen Mary, the Lizzie Borden house in Falls River, Massachusetts, and Shawshank Prison in Ohio, wiring them for sound and video. Roto-Rooter Man struck, it seemed to me, just the right attitude that of a sensible skeptic who wants to see the unbelievable, but refuses to see it where it ain't. None of the spook-traps into which they descended yielded anything beyond vague whispering sounds and one pretty good hoax involving the bedspread in a Queen Mary stateroom. Don't remember the name of the show or what channel it was on, and I haven't found it again in running through the schedules. Maybe it was a one-timer. Maybe it was ghosts. Boo.

Exhibit B: The New York Times today has an article about the infiltration, or perhaps the return, of Goth style into mainstream fashion. "A traditional outcast look suits scary times," runs the tag to Ruth La Ferla's story: "Books, movies, stage productions, photographs and, perhaps most emphatically, fashion are all evoking those familiar Gothic obsessions: death, decay, destructive passions and the specter of nature run amok. They've surfaced at times before, of course. But rarely since the mid-19th century, when it became a crowd pleaser, has the Gothic aesthetic gained such a throttlehold on the collective imagination." Rag designers, clothing buyers, and an English professor from upstate New York are brought in to consult on the phenomenon, and the professor says "We're somehow trying to deal with calamity and death ... Revisiting Gothic themes might be one way to embrace those things and try to come to terms with them."

Might be. Maybe it's just another manifestation of our recurring popular infatuation with entertaining forms of death and diabolism, like Bridey Murphy in the '50s and exorcism in the '70s. I don't know, but I think something is going on. All I know for sure is by early next year we'll be on to other things and most of these ghost shows will have dried up and gone the way of all flesh.

Exhibit C: It's my wife's birthday today and I got her the first four albums by Goth-rock originators The Cure, remasters of which have been issued with bonus discs full of demos and live material. She's been a huge fan of theirs since adolescence and we spent part of the day doing our doings with the Pornography bonus disc as accompaniment. Grim, often groaning, dark, dank, and desperately depressed music. One of The Cure's best and most typical songs is called "A Forest." Its lyrics go like this:

Come closer and see
See into the trees
Find the girl
While you can
Come closer and see
See into the dark
Just follow your eyes
Just follow your eyes

I hear her voice
Calling my name
The sound is deep
In the dark
I hear her voice
And start to run
Into the trees
Into the trees

Suddenly I stop
But I know it's too late
I'm lost in a forest
All alone
The girl was never there
It's always the same
I'm running towards nothing
Again and again and again

Exhibit D: While listening to The Cure, I was trying to get into a book I've tried to read many times before and failed at, that being Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection by Emlyn Williams also author of Night Must Fall, the great creep-out murder play of the 1930s, and The Corn is Green, about his boyhood in the coalmines of Wales and the teacher who nurtured his brain and aspirations. (I acted in that play in high school, by the way. Played the Squire. Thought you'd enjoy knowing that.)

Beyond Belief, published in 1968, is the story of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the most infamous and hated British killers of the 1960s. Brady and Hindley were lovers who kidnapped, tortured and murdered a series of children on the outskirts of Manchester in 1963-65, burying their bodies on the Yorkshire moors. They were caught when they killed their last victim, a 17-year-old boy, in front of Hindley's brother-in-law, who managed to escape and alert the police. Brady and Hindley were convicted of everything possible and locked up for eternity. Hindley died of lung cancer in 2000, and Brady has gone on periodic hunger strikes in the hope of killing himself, thus robbing his jailers of the chance to watch him rot. At present he goes on living, though often with a tube down his throat.

The Williams book is sporadically brilliant and often banal. In both modes it gets deeper into wormy, depraved states of mind than most other murder books I've read, and I've read quite a few. But that's only a comparative judgment and doesn't get behind the larger question. The nature of the crimes is so disturbing that I wonder again why I am so interested in depravity. In his prologue, Williams says something to the effect that, just as no physical aberration should be beyond the interest of science, no psychological illness, however horrible its results, should be ignored by the student of humanity. Maybe that ought to be answer enough. Though it still doesn't explain the frosting of pleasure one gets from that illness, from those horrible results. Really, it doesn't explain anything; it only justifies.

There's no dearth of horribleness in this horrible case. But the most awful detail, for me, is this. Brady and Hindley tape-recorded the torture session they performed on one of their young female victims, 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey. As the girl screamed and begged, Christmas music played in the background: the Ray Conniff Singers' version of "The Little Drummer Boy," from the album We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Emlyn Williams describes the experience of hearing the tape played back in open court as the murderers were tried.

Exhibit E: I was reminded of all these things Beyond Belief, screaming children, voices in forests just last night, while rereading The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier. Along with the soundtrack CD, the website, the video game, the stick-man necklace, the baseball cap, and the oven mitts, this book was released as a tie-in to the enormously successful horror movie of 1999. Unlike the usual tie-in, this one was actually worth the money. It's an imaginative, absorbing, and frightening extension of the movie, just as the website was a meticulous and chilling prelude, just as the Curse of the Blair Witch documentary was a spot-on simulacrum of the Discovery Channel and History Channel docs that creep around real-life mysteries.

The Dossier takes the movie in directions, and to extents, you'd never guess. Among the things you learn:

The unique knowledge of the case held back by Sheriff Cravens, whose stubborness on certain points belies his insistence that the student filmmakers' disappearance and found footage are parts of an elaborate hoax;

The encounter that Heather's grandfather, Randy, had with the Blair Witch as a boy;

The "energy" that Heather has been sending out to Elly Kedward for two years, long before she and her two-man crew ever ventured into the Black Hills Forest.

Exhibit F: Midway through the Dossier is the transcript of a faux-interview between a faux-investigator and a faux-scholar of regional American folk tales. I get the idea you don't believe in the Blair Witch, the investigator says. "No," the scholar answers. "Not in some woman who lives in the forest and eats children."

Doink! It was one of those moments you literally hear a sound in your head — the sound of something hitting the floor in some other part of your memory mansion, some dusty and distant antechamber that's gone untouched and unopened for years.

That room contained the Brothers Grimm and their marvelous, horrifying little fables. Like most of us, I read and heard sanitized versions as a child. The fables as the brothers began collecting them in 1812 actually began as folk tales not intended for children, and are far more graphic and frightening than was thought fitting for American youth in the 20th century, even we progeny of Dr. Spock's enlightened counsel. But thanks to our postmodern fascination with the muck beneath the rose garden, there are a number of unexpurgated Grimm collections available. I put down the Blair Witch book, went to the shelf, and pulled down mine.

"Some woman who lives in the forest and eats children." That's Hansel and Gretel. The Blair Witch is their witch. No blazing insight there. But among the other tales was one called The House in the Forest. Now there was a connection I hadn't thought of. (A house in a forest, if you don't know, is where the movie's climax occurs and where the whole legend leads — specifically to the basement of the house, where several children were murdered.) So I refreshed myself on the Grimm story, which is a characteristically, though uniquely, grisly narrative of three sisters and their serial experiences in the house of the title. I won't tell the story. Enough to say that it involves an old man, some talking animals, a cellar, and a climax which — after Freud, modernism, and the householding of words like "incest" and "child abuse" — we cannot help but read as a deeply horrific allegory of violence upon children.

And finally, Exhibit G: I read the Blair Witch Dossier because last week, drawn no doubt by the shift of season into cold wind and autumnal beauty, I'd watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It's something of a major project with me to re-view that picture. I have to get myself up for the experience; the simple reason being that whenever I do watch it, its creepiness creeps outward in every direction to touch, seemingly, virtually everything else I do or think of for the following week — or however long it takes the spell to dissipate. If you wonder what I mean by that, reread this post and retrace the long path we've followed to rearrive at Exhibit G, G for genesis — the starting point of the morbidity that's pervaded my thoughts this past week.

It was a weird night last night. Weirder than most by far. I went to bed thinking of Brady and Hindley recording the screams of their victim; the children's screams that terrorize the students in The Blair Witch Project, as they run through the forest toward a voice that isn't there; the screams that we may only imagine issued from the cellar of the house in the Grimm story.

As I said at the start of this post (back before the sun went down), you can spend too much time in the company of the dead — even the fictive dead. The morbid threatens to colonize your mind. Everything that enters it, even music, even sunlight, is put in the service of dark thought. As intellectually exhilarating as it can be to chase centuries-broad connections between folk narratives and documented horrors, between Brothers Grimm and Brady and Hindley and Blair Witch myth, there is such a thing as too much darkness. Too much darkness and your soul might moss over.

While perusing the Grimm book and reminding myself of the stories I knew so well as a child, I spotted this title: A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was. I'm not familiar with this story, and haven't brought myself to read it yet.