More Than Just Fear

candyman

 

“Candyman’s not as scary as Freddie,” Alexis said, leaning on her desk.

“He’s much scarier,” said Gene. “Freddy’s not scary.”

“Freddie kills anyone. With Candyman you have to say his name three times in front of a mirror. Who’s gonna do that?”

“Well, yeah, but with Freddie you have to say ‘Kruger Kruger Kruger.’ So it’s the same.”

I watched the conversation with abstract anthropological interest. Or at least, that’s how I describe it now. As nerdy as I was, even I didn’t see myself as a pop-culture anthropologist among my peer group in sixth grade. But I did find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their passions, even those I didn’t share.

This conversation further cemented something for me: I hated horror movies. After all, they were all about making you feel scared. That was their entire purpose. Who would want that? Fear is terrible. I spent enough time frightened of dark and impossible things as it was. Adults wax about they miss innocent joy and belief in the fantastical children possess. But they forget about the fear.

Children spend so much of their time afraid, because they Believe. How can they not? We only know that the world is round, that certain mushrooms can kill us, that there used to be a thing called the Roman Empire where they spoke a language no one speaks anymore except the Pope and some Catholic school teachers, because someone you trusted told us, and we believed them. To a children, the world is full of dark, hungry things. They are just as real as Santa Claus, life after death, and the Boston Tea Party. Things that are never seen or touched, but that, in the right moments, cannot be doubted.

I just watched Candyman for the first time the other day, more than twenty years after Gene and Alexis made me never want to watch it. It sprang to my mind because I saw Tony Todd, the actor who plays Candyman, in two separate episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Playing two separate characters, although in their defense one of them was a Klingon. To many people I’ve known, Todd is and always will be Candyman, no matter what other roles he plays. Seeing the actor made me realize I’ve never seen the movie, and that was a gap in my knowledge. Because now, as an adult, I love horror movies.

I love them in a way I never could as a child. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that I came to realize that my middle school classmates had a very unsophisticated view of the purpose of horror. They were after what might be called “popcorn horror.” Popcorn horror is all about the fear. It’s about the thrill of being scared, decontextualized from any exploration of themes or interesting narrative or character work.

A friend of mine, writer and filmmaker Evan Alexander Baker, summed it up perfectly with the following quote:

As a lifelong horror fan, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT prioritize being “scared out of my wits.” I watch horror movies because I want to be confronted with interesting, resonant images and ideas relating to the abject and the uncanny.

I am not there for a “thrill ride.”

Are there some genuinely scary horror movies that are also masterpieces of the genre? Absolutely. Are they masterpieces of the genre BECAUSE they are scary? Nope; they’re scary as a byproduct of their ideas and imagery.

When filmmakers set out, first and foremost, to be “scary,” they produce hollow technical exercises.

It took me years to appreciate that it’s not horror that I don’t like. It’s cheap horror. A lot of people gauge horror on the “scare” scale–like it’s a love-tester with “love” replaced with “fear”– and there’s nothing wrong with that. Popcorn horror has its place, for the people who like that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.

I still don’t exactly enjoy being scared, but I love being unsettled. I love engaging in the vast landscape of imagination that exists in the places of the human mind that make us uncomfortable. My favorite kind of horror is the type that makes me doubt my view of reality and the world.

I love it for the same reason that I love really fantastical fantasy like China Meiville or AD&D Planescape setting, or conceptually experimental science fiction like the works of Philip K. Dick or John C. Wright. I love them because they are mind-expanding. At its best, horror is even better at this than any other genre, because it is unafraid to stretch your worldview until it breaks. Until it bleeds. It expands the mind in a way that is both intellectual and viscerally primal. Cartesian radical doubt for the senses.

The other reason I love horror as an adult, when I could not as a child, is because I can take it. I no longer Believe. Not the way that I did. I still get scared walking into the basement in the dead of night, but it’s not the paralyzing dread it was as a child. I can grit my teeth and make myself do it, because this basket of clothing isn’t going to wash itself. Hopefully. When something is frightening enough, it is real. As a child, you might understand intellectually that the shadow on cast by the door doesn’t contain a smiling beast with teeth for eyes. But emotionally, you know it is there. In your brain you feel it as strongly and completely as if you had seen it walked across the living room floor.

Adults have this kind of fear, too. You can see it when a parent loses track of their child in a crowded grocery story. They might go into complete panic until they find them. The odds that the child has been abducted in those three minutes are very small, but the fear is so real it feels like a certainty.
As we grow older, we learn what the world contains and what it does’ t. We come to rely on these patterns. They’re comfortable. The world becomes a safer place because we’ve seen its shadows enough times that our belief that they are harmless is stronger than the monsters. I can watch horror movies now, even though they still frighten me, because that fear is no longer the threat that it once was. It won’t slip under my skin and whisper in my blood for years, the way it did when I was small.

But it still frightens me, because I still Believe. Not as much as I did, but it’s still there. I dread the person I’ll become if I ever lose that entirely. I don’t think humanity will ever fully understand the world, and so there are places for the things that live in the cracks and lap at the wounds of our nightmares. I did not find Candyman to be that frightening, but I’m not going to say the name out loud. Because I just don’t know. And even now, as I write these words, I’m happier than I like to admit that there are no mirrors in this room.

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Everyone is Stupid (even you)

This is a bit harsh, and a bit preachy and self-indulgent. You can rightly accuse me of all of these things. My only defense is that I already knew about it.

Let’s face it: People are stupid. Everyone knows this, even the stupid people themselves. It’s such a cliché even saying it out loud is embarrassing. The trick is that we all think everyone else is stupid. We, and maybe those that agree with us, are the only ones that have it all figured out. But the fact is that everyone is stupid. The human brain is basically a piece of shit. Oh, sure, humans have done amazing things with our crappy hardware, but not without a ridiculous amount of stumbling in the dark and breaking toes in the process. It took the better part of 100,000 years for our neolithic ancestors –who were genetically identical to us as species – to create a technology that even the least advanced people living in the world today would find laughably primitive.

Humans are prone to superstition and magical thinking. We leap to conclusions with little no to evidence. We do things for irrational, emotion-driven reasons and then fight bitterly to justify what we did as reasonable. We suck at math. We suck at communication. Our observational apparatuses ignore almost all of the stimuli around us and do a shitty job of interpreting the few they actually pick up. We rarely cite sources when we make sweeping generalization, and an embarrassingly small number of us even care.

If you are like most people – and I’d bet my parietal lobe that you are – you are thinking right now that you don’t exhibit these flaws as strongly as most people. You are wrong. Oh, sure, you might be part of the tiny intellectual elite who takes this kind of thing into account. But I can assure you just about everyone reading this believes themselves to be in that special minority. That fact alone is reason for doubt.

But just as that bird house for your mom can be built with the crappy public school wood shop equipment, impressive feats of intellectual prowess can be achieved by that bundle of neuroses and jury-rigged cognitive functionality that is the human brain. This is obvious, and I’d be even dumber than I am claiming everyone is if I didn’t admit it. The key to doing it is also obvious, and it’s the same thing it requires to build that bird house even though the circular saw sparks and there is never a fresh piece of sandpaper. Socrates figured it out over 4,000 years ago, and I’d bet my occipital lobe he wasn’t the first. The key is this: know that your tools suck, and how to work around them.

Science is the most powerful device human kind has ever discovered, as evidenced by the computer you are using to read this article. The underpinnings of science are built around the fact that the universe is complicated and the human brain is a piece of crap. Don’t trust your ideas without testing them. Don’t trust your tests without repeating them over and over and over. Don’t trust your conclusions about your tests until you’ve done other tests that lead to the same conclusions, in case your first tests sucked in a way you didn’t see because you are an idiot. Don’t trust those conclusions until other people have repeated your tests and others that gave supporting results, just in case your method was stupid because your stupid brain stupidly did something stupid it was too stupid to even realize.

The biggest problem in the world isn’t that everyone is an idiot. This has always been true, and as a species we’ve done pretty fucking well so far with school cafeteria tater-tots for brains. What humans have created with neural structures that evolved for finding edible bugs and producing kids that don’t die as fast as other people’s kids is bloody staggering. No, the biggest problem in the fact that people are unwilling to admit that they are idiots.

One of the major steps of growing up is the moment when you realize that adults don’t know what the hell is going on. They know more about the world, of course, but the amount they don’t know on just about any subject of any complexity is always going to outweigh what they actually do know. Of course it is. The world is complicated, and its potential depth of knowledge is deep. This is easy enough to accept. What is less easy to accept is the natural conclusion of the thought: You are almost completely ignorant about everything. Sure, you might be an expert on pulmonary surgery, and I won’t call you ignorant about that particular subject. But even a micro-specialization like that can only be understood to the extent that humans understand it at all. Until people stop dying from surgery, I’d say we still have a long way to go.

On any subject, be it political, scientific, economic, or social, the among you do not know outweighs the amount you know by a vast margin. All of your opinions are founded an hilariously incomplete information. The people who disagree with you don’t necessarily do so because you are smarter than them. They might know something you don’t know, and you might not be aware of it. How could you be?

The fact is that everyone else does know things you don’t know. You know that idiot neighbor you have? The one who lives on Cheetos, quotes Jerry Springer like it is Shakespeare, and digs holes for a living? There is something he knows about and understands much better than you do. You might have a higher IQ than he does, be much better educated, and be able to wipe the floor with him in Trivial Pursuit. But there is absolutely some particular field where if you went up against him you would embarrass yourself. This is an absolute guarantee. If you have never observed this in another person, then you are too stubborn or you have not been paying attention.

Okay, so everyone is an idiot. What’s the solution? Am I suggesting that no one have an opinion about anything? That no one fight political battles, or try to get their ideas taken seriously? Of course I am not. What I propose is much simpler. You just need to admit that you are an idiot, and your knowledge on everything is incomplete. You need to accept that even when other people are demonstrably wrong, they may have some reason for believing what they believe that you don’t know about. If you go around scoffing about how most people are idiots, while tacitly exempting yourself from stupidity, knock it the fuck off. You are part of the problem. We’re not going to solve this whole human condition thing until we all accept the massive limitations of our own intelligence. Empathy, the next vital part of the equation, is likely to follow.

At least, I think it is. I certainly hope it is. I might be wrong.

Also, don’t feel too bad if you didn’t realize that Socrates lived more like 2,500 years ago, not 4,000. If you accepted it without questioning, then you should feel bad. But don’t worry about it. We all do it. Every single one of us.

Blade Runner is the Most Overrated Movie of All Time

Blade Runner 1982

(Thirty Seven), day Two

If you have not read the title, move your eyes up a few inches and do so. Now that you have done so, I will say it again, because it bears repeating. Blade Runner is the most over rated move ever made. Even more so than Brazil. Even more so than Gladiator. I said it, and if you don’t agree with me then you are just plain wrong.

I have said this, or versions of it, many times in my life. I have said it so many times that I have almost, sort of come to believe it, even though I have always known that I was wrong. Sometimes we make assertions and then defend them virulently enough and often enough that they become part of our identity. Among my friends, if Blade Runner comes up everyone shoots me a glance. They know that I am thinking “Blade Runner sucks, and everyone who thinks it doesn’t suck sucks for thinking it doesn’t suck when it does suck!”

Sure, I could explain to them that my thoughts on the subject are more complicated, but then I would no longer be the controversial anti-Blade Runner guy. It might even get to the point that some of my friends might be able to interact with Blade Runner in some way, large or small, without thinking of me. I am just not comfortable with that. If they knew the full truth, I would probably have to do something like run around downtown Seattle wearing only a Blade Runner shirt, just to maintain the association.

My relationship with the film is a long one. It is longer, in fact, than my relationship with any person other than family. It took years to realize that I did not like the movie, and then twenty minutes after that realization to tell everyone I ever met about it. I have defended by opinion no less than thirty thousand times, by last count, and I will continue to do so, even after this article is written, and the lie is exposed.

The first time I saw it was at my friend Darren’s house in seventh grade, during a sleepover. As an adult, it seems weird to use the word sleepover to describe something seventh grade boys do. But that is the word we used, and that it what it was. Once we grew bored of playing video games, we decided to watch a movie. He pulled out Blade Runner. It was really awesome, he said. It was about Replicants. I didn’t know what a Replicant was, but it sounded cool.

We only got ten minutes in before Darren’s mom announced that it was dinner time. We had vegetable lasagna. I didn’t like vegetable lasagna, but I ate it anyway and enjoyed it. I was a picky eater as a kid in a very dumb way.

After dinner we went back to watching Blade Runner. I was confused, because we picked up where we left off and I did not quite understand what was happening. Perhaps because of this, I found it profoundly boring. I fell asleep before the end.

Twice more by the end of high school I tried to watch the movie and fell asleep. It was due to circumstances, not necessarily the movie itself, but it did not help that I found the movie very boring. Even some people that like it admit that the pace is perhaps a little too slow. Finally, during my senior year, I saw the movie all the way through. I did not care for it.

By the time I got to college, my opinion was that I did not like the movie. I had a vague feeling that I had never given it a proper chance. I told people that I didn’t like it. If you have ever told anyone that you do not like Blade Runner – and I hope that you have – the response is always the same.

“Have you seen the special edition?”

I did not know if I had seen the special edition. It turns out, there are many special editions. I think that Ridley Scott’s annual birthday celebration involves cutting a new special edition of Blade Runner. Supposedly all of them are better than the original. The salient point, I am told, is whether or not there is voice over. Voice over is bad.

Eventually someone in college screened a version of what was presumably the definitive edition available at the time. I was excited. By this point I had read so much and heard so much about how important Blade Runner was to science fiction cinema. The idea that the original was crap and the special edition was a masterpiece had been so thoroughly hammered into my skill, that I felt I had never really seen the movie. This required ignoring the fact that it was the theatrical release that was so influential, and if it was no good and everyone hated it then that did not make a whole lot of sense. The point is that I went into the special edition with more than an open mind. I expect to like it. I expected to see for the first time what I had missed all the other times. This was going to be an experience, and I was pumped.

I hated it.

I recognized that the visual design did not have the impact it once did because I saw it almost two decades after release. That did not help the underdeveloped story. Or the flat characterization. Or the wading-through-maple-syrup pacing found in every scene of the film including the action scenes. The themes raised were interesting, but it felt to me like the movie threw its themes in the air and then filmed them falling in slow motion, rather than weaving them into the story in an engaging or sophisticated way.

These opinions were calcified into my own personal dogma by two things. The first was that I read the book, and loved it. To this day, it is one of my favorite Phil Dick novels. I find it superior to the movie in every way, save for the fact that Replicant is a much cooler word than Android. One one level, this is not fair. Blade Runner is not so much an adaptation of the book as it is a film inspired by the book. It is extremely different, and this is to its credit. Phil Dick novels do not play well in other media. The best way to adapt a Phil Dick novel into a movie is to read the book five times, do a bunch of acid, then write the screenplay naked on top of a snow covered mountain. In this, I think Blade Runner was a success. It definitely feels like that’s how the script was written.

The other thing that set my opinion on Blade Runner in stone was arguing about it. I spent all of college arguing about it, with one person over and over, and with other guest debate partners from time to time. By the end of college, my opinion had transformed from “Blade Runner just doesn’t do it for me,” to “Blade Runner is the most overrated movie of all time.” I met a girl who agreed with me. We’re married, now.

I have argued with many people in many different situations about how overrated Blade Runner is. Whenever I enter into a new social group or a new person enters mine, I get a giddy little thrill when Blade Runner first comes up. It is my chance to show that I disagree with things that are more or less the consensus in the SF fandom community. There are not a lot of works that are universally loved. There are only a few people who hate Star Wars, and only a few people who hate Blade Runner. This is less true now than it used to be, with the internet having elevated disagreeing with popular things to an art form on part with the musical styling of the late John Denver.

If that joke didn’t work for you, allow me to explain that John Denver was last generation’s Nickelback. If it didn’t work for you because you just didn’t think it was funny, then I am going to assume it is because you are incensed by inflammatory opinion of Blade Runner. I would advise you to stop reading now. Things are about to get

Much.

More.

Reasonable?

Eventually, hating Blade Runner became part of my identity. This is a thing that can happen, and it can be liberating or it can be dangerous. On one level, it is great to have personality elements to hang on to, and that your friends all know about. I have…a lot of those, I suppose. On the other hand, it is important not to be enslaved to your own identity. That is a complicated issue, and past the scope of this article. This article is about dissing Blade Runner.

Until it isn’t. The terrible thing about all of this, the thing that really kills me, is that I know that I am wrong. Of course I am wrong. There is no way I could possibly not be wrong. It is, in a very specific way, a definitional impossibility.

When I say that Blade Runner is overrated, what do I mean by that? It is a statement about two things that are related but not identical: quality and value. The quality has to do with the technical aspects. How well was it filmed? How well constructed were the sets, and how well implemented were the special effects? Were there any major plot holes? Were the characters consistent, and well portrayed by the actors? The value, on the other hand, involves the emergent elements. How awesome were the action scenes? How intriguing were the ideas? How emotionally stirring were the character relationships?

It is, of course, impossible to pull quality and value completely apart from each other. They are to some extent interdependent. Badly acted movies with huge plot holes rarely deliver powerful emotional experiences. That being said, quality and value are still different. It is highly possible to have a technically well done movie that just is not very interesting. Or a movie with huge technical problems that nonetheless is fantastic and moving and well loved.

More to the point, it is much easier to critique quality than it is to critique value. You might make the legitimate point that Avengers had some messy plot elements, some leaps of logic, and some continuity errors. However, if you say that it wasn’t awesome, then you are no longer giving a critique, but rather an opinion. Avengers is widely regarded as having been awesome. If it did not work for you, then it is because it didn’t work for you, not because it didn’t deliver. There are myriad reasons why it may not have worked for you. Maybe you were predisposed not to like it. Maybe the combination of elements is one that hits home for a lot of people but not for you. Maybe you only like things that are dark and gritty, and this was too silly. It doesn’t matter. The fact is that when most people think something is awesome, then it is. That is the only meaningful metric for awesomeness that we have. Since it is subjective, then quantity of subjects is the deciding factor.

When you say a movie is overrated, what you are really saying is that either the quality, or the value, or more likely both, are more highly regarded by a wide spectrum of the audience than they should be. For a movie that is overwhelmingly loved and highly regarded, and Blade Runner falls squarely in that category, it is a tricky thing to say.

You might have a legitimate case that any given film is overrated with regards to quality. If a lot of industry insiders and professional critics disagree with you, you had better have the technical knowledge to back it up. If you think that Lawrence of Arabia is overrated with regards to cinematography and editing, you are battling against the weight of so many professionals who believe it is one of the best shot and cut movies ever. If you think the screenplay for Casablanca is overrated in terms of characterization and narrative, you better have serious credentials. Otherwise you are just some guy who thinks your opinion is more valid than people with vastly more knowledge and experience than him just because your opinion comes out of your mouth. In other words, you are probably wrong.

It is much harder to have a legitimate case that the value of a movie is overrated. Value is just about how “good” something is, and that is determined solely by the reactions and opinions of those who experience it.

When it comes to the overall worth of a film, or any piece of art, there are only a few different metrics that make any kind of sense. It has to be some combination of critical acclaim and widespread audience love and appreciation. You could fool around with the exact ratios and methods of calculation, but the result is the same. You can say that a film is overrated, but that is a meaningless statement if asserted objectively. What you really mean is, “I don’t like that film as much as most people.” That is a fine thing to say, but it is very much not what people mean when they say something is overrated. They mean that everyone who disagrees with them are wrong, and they are right, even though this is, essentially, a definitional impossibility.

I believe that, when it comes to Blade Runner, everyone else ascribes more value to it than the film deserves. People seem to think it is a masterwork of science fiction, and I think they are fooling themselves.

I am wrong.

I can quibble about how well drawn the characters are, whether or not its themes are well communicated, whether or not the action scenes are as exciting as running out of dryer sheets. I might have legitimate points about each of those. I might also be misrepresenting how much fun I have buying dryer sheets. But if I say that Blade Runner is not a great movie, then I am using a definition of great movie that is neither useful nor widely accepted. I am saying “I don’t like it,” and trying to legitimize my opinion by granting it an objectivity it cannot possibly have. It is impossible to even imagine a situation in which all of these things are true:

1. There is movie everyone one loves and says is great.
2. One man thinks they are wrong and it is terrible.
3. The dissenter is right.

That is an impossible scenario. Even if, two generations later, everyone now decides they hate that movie, all that would indicate is that the standards have changed.

I cannot say that Blade Runner is overrated without being both obstinate and cognitively dissonant. I hate both of those things, and I usually try to purge them from my being whenever I can. On the other hand, abandoning my asserted stance on Blade Runner would be like ending a relationship that has nurtured me and provided me with good times for nearly my entire life.

Clearly, I have some serious thinking to do.