Monday, September 24, 2007

The Monster's not under your bed...he's in the White House

Ned Lamont told me I should blog more. So I'm gonna try. I'll talk more about that later, but there's gonna be some new stuff here soon, different that what my few readers are used to. For now, enjoy this rumination on the horror genre:

As October rolls around, I see more and more Halloween shops breaking out
the traditional skulls and capes to take advantage of the season. I enjoy
walking around those shops, playing with the theater masks and laughing at
the dog costumes on sale. I'm also a sucker for plastic toy weapons like
swords and spears, and often can't resist the temptation to take one out of
the bin and try it out in a spot where there aren't too many shoppers.

However, being a movie buff, I also wonder what sort of horror movies are
going to debut this month. So far, Saw IV is set to open right before
Halloween, the latest in a persistent strain of torture-themed films that
often top the box office but also have steadily received derision and scorn
from critics and pundits.

Some of this criticism is a bit disingenuous. After all, many of these
pundits lavished praise on The Passion of the Christ, even though I think
that gorefest could easily be re-released as "Saw 0: In the Beginning."
Still, I too am often put off by the torture films. Even in an aesthetic
sense, they often fail to do justice to their genre. Audiences squirm at the
gore, but there's nothing to really linger in your memory as you try to go
to sleep that night. Being revolted is not the same thing as being scared.

Still, it's a mistake to simply dismiss them as unworthy of some
examination. My own interest in horror movies over the years stems from
their ability to show what people are really afraid of, or were afraid of at
the time of their release. This applies to horror-themed literature as well.
Consider Dracula and other vampires. Conceived at a time when European
empires still held a great deal of power, Dracula was a foreign creature who
was able to make others in his image, a creature who could, if left
unchecked, turn an entire nation into vampires. In short, the colonizers
would become colonized. Vampire stories of that era showcase nations
insecure as to how long they would hold their grip on other parts of the

Over in Japan, Godzilla, a monster created by atomic experimentation, was
the brainchild of a nation still traumatized after being struck with two
A-bombs. The clash of culture that defines the 1960s (often emblemized by
Time Magazine's infamous "Is God Dead?" cover) gave rise to a series of
films dealing with the unholy and the Satanic. Rosemary's Baby, The
Exorcist, The Omen.
If people really were turning away from God, who knows
what evil might be able to take hold of society? These fears did not take
long to find their way onto the silver screen. In the 1980s, fear of AIDS
and other STDs spreading among youth created the "slasher" genre, in which
teen promiscuity brought down cosmic retribution from the likes of Freddy
Krueger and Jason.

So what can be deduce from the popularity of the Saw and Hostel films?
Unfortunately, it means torture is very much on America's mind. The grimy
settings of these films are eerily reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib photos, the
first major incident that revealed the dark underside of our current foreign
policy. The damage the Bush administration has done to the civil liberties
of Americans in the six years since 9/11 is substantial. They push for
torture, they have shut down habeas corpus, and they push for warrantless
wiretapping (and don't even try to convince me that following the laws would
somehow allow terrorists to communicate undetected. The existing FISA court
rules allow intelligence personnel to tap someone's line for up to 72 hours
before they need to get the warrant, allowing for any sort of emergency
situation to be taken care of without having to deal with paperwork right
away. I could write a whole other column about how that issue is always
purposefully misrepresented).

Thanks to all this, there's nothing to stop the Bush White House from
declaring you an "enemy combatant," throwing you into a black van, and
flying you off to some secret torture chamber in Eastern Europe. No warrant
needed, no access to a lawyer, and no means to challenge your own
imprisonment. That's scary. A lot scarier than Saw.