Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Scary movies and debates

By Aussiegirl

Anybody else suffering from election fatigue? Of course we have no right to complain, given the stakes and the fact that our Commander in Chief can't get tired nor can our brave troops in harm's way, doing the tough work of waging this war on terror.

But on the other hand, that isn't the same thing as surviving all this pre-election media generated hype. The dog and pony shows that these debates have become. These ridiculous Hollywood productions, which are little more than high-stakes reality shows with more at stake than surviving on a desert isle with other cut throat contestants, or eating worms or having snakes slither all over you.

No, this is far, far worse and more serious. So I feel more than a bit churlish and childish to say I've had enough for a while and I need to take a break. I need a weekend (oops, it's not the weekend) of old horror movies, so I can peer through my fingers at something more spine-tinglingly (now there's a word for you) innocuous and enjoyable than a mind-numbing charade engineered by the Rudolph-nosed Jim Lehrer and the pommaded and rouged and lipsticked Kerry, lecturing our brave President on all the things he's gotten wrong.

So -- to escape -- or not to escape -- that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous media, or to take arms against a sea of hype and distortion and by opposing end them. Or, perchance to escape into fantasy. A wonderful world where every scary situation has a happy ending, and we can leave the theater or our living rooms and rejoin a comforting and secure world having vicariously experienced the pleasure of terror.

But there's the rub. The terror. And now it's real. And its potential is real. It's not an eerily creaking door, or footsteps in the dark, or a satisfying monster consumed and destroyed by some clever last minute discovery. But still, I try to escape. If only for a few moments.

What were those wonderful old movies, the ones I remember from my childhood, either in the movie theater or more likely, on our black and white telly -- fun ghost and monster stories on a late summer night when you didn't have to get up for school in the morning, and your parents called from their bedroom -- "Get to bed." But you just had to see it to the end.

So let us take a momentary diversion into the merely entertaining forms of terror, the comforting kind.

One of my all time favorites is a movie with Dana Andrews called "Curse of the Demon". It is based on a famous story, "Casting the Runes", by M. R. James, a highly respected bibliographer, archeologist and classical scholar, who also wrote some wonderful ghost stories in his spare time. Like the "Uninvited", it creates almost unbearable suspense and that sense of hair standing up on the back of your neck through sheer atmosphere and mood -- the fear of something "other", not seen, but felt, an unmistakeable sense of creeping and menacing evil in an otherwise perfectly innocuous setting. Marvelous and highly recommended viewing if you can find a copy somewhere.

And surely one of the greatest ghost stories ever told is the marvelous was-she-or-wasn't-she-haunted production of Henry James' classic "The Turn of the Screw". I much prefer the 1961 black-and-white version with Deborah Kerr (called "The Innocents") to the later versions. What's interesting to me is how beautifully and subtly James has allowed every episode and occurrence to be open to two possible interpretations. Either the governess is a repressed, hysterical neurotic, or she truly is haunted and the child possessed. As a child I was absolutely convinced that the ghost story was real and that the young boy was haunted. I couldn't understand how no one would believe her, and I found the scene of the ghost appearing on the island across the lake to be almost unbearably terrifying and creepy. On viewing as an adult I found I saw it the other way.

In fact the entire movie is a brilliant study in suspense and understatement, scaring us and creating a sense of fear, foreboding, danger and evil with very few resorts to actual visuals. Suggestions more powerfully invoke our imagination because they call forth those childhood fears in the night, the crawling sensation up the spine, as some intangible fear seizes possession of us. The seen is always less fearful than the unseen. Imagined horror is so much more powerful than anything a special-effects studio can muster. Our imaginations and emotions summon up the atavistic fears of primitive man cowering in the night as unknown and unseen dangers lurked and gathered in the shadows.

That's why modern movies with gore galore, explosions, monsters and special effects do little more than provide us with the emotional equivalent of a roller-coaster ride -- thrilling while we are watching and forgettable as soon as they are over -- while the eerie intimations of a ghost story well told can haunt us for days to come.

Sort of like the first debate, come to think of it!


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