Sunday, May 29, 2011

Do You Have A Zombie Plan? Part VI

As promised in the last post, we will now begin exploring how zombie movies can use the uncanny to explore our fears of other people.

Early one morning this past Fall, when my wife was pregnant, a criminal kicked in my elderly neighbor’s door and entered her house.  Luckily, a dog chased him away, but the psychological damage was done both to my neighbor and me as a husband and expectant father.  In the wee hours of the next morning, you could see crazy ol’ David Browder sitting out on the porch, looking like the Unabomber, and keeping watch.

Zombies can represent a mass realization of this suspicion of other people.  The uncanny aspect here is that zombies have human form, but are quite ugly and virulent (being living dead and all).  This is a visual and physical integration with what we suspect is so.  We are frightened by people who mindlessly (and often maliciously) consume at our expense.

The real fear, however, is stoked by more intimate and everyday relationships.  In the first episode of The Walking Dead, we are introduced to a man who survives the initial zombie uprising and his son.  We learn that his wife (and the little boy’s mother) did not survive.  In fact, she has become a zombie and there is a poignant scene when she walks up to the porch of their house.  The little boy is crying and the father is trying to both console him and keep him quiet.  Heartbreaking stuff.

How far away from this, though, is our fear that our friends and loved ones will either turn into something we don’t recognize or turn out to be something we don’t expect?  I was told of a single mother who had a troubled teenaged daughter.  She went to a particular church, obviously looking for some good news and comfort.  It turns out that the members of the church asked her to leave because her daughter might be a bad influence on their children.  What a betrayal.

How true to life is this scene when considering how many people have watched helplessly as their spouse careens off the edge into substance abuse and addiction?  Or slowly succumbs to a progressively debilitating mental illness?  Or just plain growing captivation by resentment and bitterness over unfulfilled expectations and hopes?  How many children have learned as adults that one or both parents were unfaithful and the emotional foundation of their childhood was a lie?  This deeply unsettling genre helps us, I think; draw these great fears (and, often, realities) to the surface.

The next installment will discuss the zombie genre’s ability to draw out deep fears we have about ourselves.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Twelve

This is a disturbing song called "Fiddle About" from the Tommy album.  It is about sexual abuse; a subject one never wants to be swept under the rug.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Do You Have A Zombie Plan? Part V

Sigmund Freud once wrote an interesting little ditty called "The Uncanny".  In it, he set up an inner conversation between what he called Heimlich and Unheimlich.  Heimlich, says Freud, is what one would call the "homely" or how one feels as one returns to the "old home fires" of the psyche.  The equivalent of the Norman Rockwell painting in your life or the old Christmas fire with green and red textures, scarves, top hats, and grateful youngsters with Red Rider BB guns.  That feeling of warmth, comfort, and security.

Unheimlich, on the other hand, has the appearance of the Heimlich but it evokes a reaction of fear, disgust, and revolt.  Unheimlich is the "uncanny".  The homely, yet unhomely.  The Terminator is uncanny because, on the whole, he appears to be a normal human being but is really a killer robot. The half-buried Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes is uncanny and renders the entire movie uncanny.  It is the symbol of a wonderful national idea in a state of ruin.  Ventriloquist dummies are uncanny.  The Twilight Zone episode "The After Hours" with department store mannequins coming to life is uncanny.  These are all designed to use the form of what comforts us to put us ill at ease.

And being ill at ease is often a very good thing indeed.  Is repentance not being ill at ease?

Zombies are uncanny in that they resemble (with varying success depending on the age and condition of the zombie) human beings but are not.  For instance, in Night of the Living Dead, the Barbra character arrives at a graveyard with her brother to pay respects to someone.  Toward the end, she is killed by the zombie her brother became.  The zombie looks exactly like her brother but is something altogether different.  Now, this is horror (and how!) and it is not very pleasant to ponder.  But it begs the question: From what does our fear originate?  What is being processed here in our state of unease?

Romans 3:10-18 states:
10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Without being flippant, this sounds an awful lot like a zombie.  It's not something we want to hear and it is certainly said by more than a few people that this passage is overstating the paralysis of the human condition.  Christianity disagrees with this more worldly assessment.  Maybe the uncanny nature of the zombie movie can stir up some fearful, sublimated part of us that can grapple with our paralysis and bondage in a more integrated manner.  Perhaps it can help give Romans 3:10-18 a new hearing.

In the next two installments we will pursue this and see how the uncanny nature of the zombie taps deep fears about our neighbor and ourselves.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Eleven

"Acid Queen" is a great song that is made even more bizarre by watching the "Acid Queen" part of the film Tommy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Do You Have A Zombie Plan? Part IV

According to the Zombie Research Society (ZRS), May is National Zombie Awareness Month.  One might wonder why such an important observance is not in October, the month of Halloween.  That's easy.  In October, everyone has zombies on the mind.  It is always meet and right, however, to be aware of zombies while one is distracted by things such as the blooming trappings of Spring.  It might even be advisable to poke the azalea bush with a stick before taking a closer look.  As the ZRS warns, "What you don't know can eat you."

Another thing that we might not know is that zombie movies carry just as many mirrors into the psyche as their stars carry Solanum infection.  In 1932, the movie White Zombie (a quite good movie starring Bela Lugosi and the sultry Madge Bellamy which uses the same sets Dracula and Frankenstein did a year earlier) was an artistic questioning of the U.S. occupation of Haiti at the time.  Depression was on the land and American confidence was doing a double-take.  So, why were we in Haiti?

Night of the Living Dead, the first modern zombie movie, inadvertently touched a racial bruise in American society.  Others tapped fears of the fallout of nuclear war, terrorism, commercialization, and epidemic.  Fear is the operative word here and, as long as human beings have been self-aware, it has always found its presence powerfully felt.  Genesis 3.8-10: And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

In the ZRS blog entry "Why Zombies are So Damn Scary", Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”  It then goes on to say, "Zombies are the anticipation of a gruesome end met at the hands of an as-yet unseen ghoul, who even now may be clambering towards your door.  What’s more terrifying than that?"

We feel naked in this world as we contemplate the as-yet unseen ghoul.  The one we feel helpless to master.  It can be the epidemic we discussed but what about when it lies within ourselves or our spouse?  What about when it's much more up-close and personal than an abstract and general fear?  What if it's a well-known ghoul that you've spent you entire life trying to bury with no permanent success?  

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we'll take the time to draw human bondage, the fear thereof, and the great hope we profess, out of the zombie movie genre.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Not Go with What Is?

The following is an excerpt from a recent David Ignatius column that can be read in full here:

... We have been living for eight years with the paradox of "conservative optimists" running our nation's foreign policy. That's what sticks in the mind in this last week of the Bush presidency. This administration has fused a dark, conservative view about the need for military power with a rosy conception about the perfectibility of humankind. The result has been a kind of armed do-gooderism -- and a foreign policy that has frightened and angered the rest of the world.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama, the moment has arrived for what I want to call the "progressive pessimists." This new worldview would marry the liberal desire to make life better with a realist's appreciation of the limits of political and military power. This is a gloomier progressivism than President Kennedy's 1961 admonition to "pay any price, bear any burden." We've tried that.

... Bush's great mistakes have been those of an optimist who believed in social engineering on a global scale. He rolled into Iraq convinced that this traditional tribal society could be remade in a Western image of progress. When he talked of democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, there was a sense of inevitability -- that democracy and freedom are immutable historical forces rather than the product of frail and imperfect human decisions.

Ever since I grasped the idea of the implications of the Gospel, filtered down to me from Jesus Christ, St. Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, the English Reformers, FitzSimons Allison, and Paul Zahl, I have been unable to view life apart from my newly found "spectacles". I have forgotten who to attest the following statement to, but I find that I cannot find many (if any) exceptions to it: "The only empirically verifiable aspect to Christianity is the bondage of the will." Empirically verifiable being that which can be presently tested from a present population of many, many instances that occur in real time right now.

The great tragedy in modern Christianity and American thought these days is high anthropology, or a high expectation of what both Christian and non-Christian people are capable of. It can be seen everywhere from the ultra-liberal secularism of Manhattan to the ultra-conservative religion of the Bible Belt. It would be wonderful if this conception of human nature were true but it simply is not, however one might slice the cake.

President Bush (who I like, by the way, which is quite an unpopular place to find oneself) seems to have melded his Methodist (high) anthropology with an optimistic, Hegelian view of the progressive march of history (maybe one who has more understanding of Hegel can either correct my argument or confirm it). This can be seen as introducing an antithesis (democracy) to a thesis (Islamic and totalitarian demagoguery) in order to create a synthesis (whatever might work out from that volatile soup... hopefully, something edifying). This seemingly relies on a free will which rationally chooses that which is good and right.

This same way of thinking was applied to economic regulatory policy. The idea from the Bush Administration in this regard (colored greatly by Alan Greenspan, who was, and presumably still is, a staunch adherent to the thought of Ayn Rand) was that less regulation from the government would enable the free market to regulate itself. This school of thought presumes that the individual units of the economy (human beings) would rationally act in an ethical manner because that would be the way to increase opportunities for gain (see Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness).

The problem with the foreign policy and economic ideas outlined above is that humans beings do not have free will and they are not rational. In fact, their wills are bound to themselves and they are quite irrational.

Now, would I propose more government regulation? As if the individual units of regulation (human beings) are capable of objective, rational, competent actions? That would be as naïve as the alternative. Would I propose non-intervention in foreign crises like Rwanda, WWII, or the Balkans? Not likely. All I would propose for all policies that have to do with human beings (which is all) is the presupposition of the bound will. That is all. And yet, at least for our policies, that is everything.