Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Staying up with the Monsters of Midnight

      When I was a kid growing up in the 1960's, my parents (like most of the parents of the time, I suspect) had a non-negotiable bedtime policy. While I was in elementary school, if I got out of bed after nine o'clock on a school night, I had better be in need of medical attention requiring an emergency room visit or I suspected my parents would supply cause for such a need. Friday and Saturday nights were different, however. As long as we (and by “we” I mean some combination of brothers, cousins, or the ever-changing rotation of neighborhood friends who could get permission to sleep over) were not loud enough to wake the dead, we had permission to stay up late and watch the wonderfully terrible movies that were shown on late night television in those days.

     We had only three TV channels (and by “we” I mean everyone in the country in those pre-cable years), and the local station managers seemed to know full well their only audience after the news went off at 11:30 on Friday and Saturday nights were pre-adolescents who had a ravenous appetite for monster movies. It was almost like a nation-wide psychological experiment with school-age children: get youngsters to stay up late on weekends to watch movies that would have been only marginally scary in the light of day, but which somehow turned into major traumatic episodes once the parents were asleep – for the sole purpose of finding out if there actually is anything scarier on earth than waking up mom and dad. The question of which is scarier, the prospect of blood-sucking aliens or sleep-deprived parents, is not hypothetical to anyone of my generation; while atomically-mutated vampires could potential take one's soul, parents could make you go to bed. On Monday mornings, anyone on the playground who could not share details of the previous weekend's monsterfest risked being outed as someone who couldn't handle his Chiller Theater, and that, my friend, left you in the Elementary School Circle of Shame a meager one degree above bed-wetters and booger-eaters.

     Back in those days, it took anywhere from five to ten years for a movie to trickle into a late-night, weekend thriller spot. Horror movies of that era (of the late 1950's and early 60's) did not bludgeon their viewers with gore. Our parents went to sleep knowing we would not see anything inappropriate because they actually edited movies for TV in those days. We did not need to see ultra-realistic depictions of decapitations, mutilations, or cannibalizations to be frightened out of our wits; we knew full well the scariest moment in the evening was when, after the movie was over and the TV was off, we would have to turn the lights off and make a run for it to the bedroom. We did not have to see what was waiting for us in the dark; we had already imagined it.

     It is probably difficult today for younger people to relate to our fascination with these monster movies and horror films. But in those pre-Star Wars days, kids often spent their paper-route money on issues of a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland, and I knew more than a few kids in my neighborhood who used their birthday money to assemble, glue, and paint plastic models of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolfman, and The Mummy (all of which featured parts that “glow in the dark!”).

     Without realizing it at the time, I know now that those late night thrillers offered people of my generation an alternative education about how adults think and behave. Through these movies, we got to see (alone and on our own time) that adults not only screwed up from time to time (especially when it came to allowing all manner of animals from insects, to frogs, to even rabbits to mutate into humongous killing machines in the wake of accidental exposure to radiation following the testing of nuclear weapons), but that few adults knew how to survive in the face of supernatural danger they did not understand (“I can't believe he's actually going to go down into that basement,” we would say to each other; we were kids and we knew not to go into basement even if there was only a one in a million chance there was a dangerous monster down there). Sometimes those films taught us rather strange notions of a causal link between attractiveness and evil; I remember one film in which the only way to tell the good creature from the bad creature was the bad creature had crooked teeth (apparently in the theaters, the creatures had been different colors, but on my parent's black and white television, they were identical shades of gray).

     Undoubtedly one of the messages that somehow got passed on to us in movie after movie was the idea that while science was cool and could produce mind-boggling results, there is always a line you really do not want to cross if you are a scientist because too much science will drive a person insane. Suppose you're a scientist and you have just figured out how to make a ray that will turn you into a crazy 60-foot bald guy with one eye, what are you going to do? If you are like every scientist I ever saw on those Saturday nights in my childhood, you are going to wait until all of your coworkers (who, by the way, have warned you not to try out that ray) have punched out for the night, and then you are going to fire the ray up and turn it on yourself. So what if you have a beautiful, B-movie girlfriend at home who can barely contain her ample breasts in the tight sweaters she wears? This is science, man, and you owe it to the rest of humanity to find out what is going to happen when you turn the ray on yourself. Besides there just happens to be an army base a few miles down the road and those guys need some target practice with their useless surface to air missiles. (Don't worry, just because you are impervious to heavy artillery, does not mean you won't be stopped by a virus or a concentrated poison your girlfriend will trick you into drinking.)

     As an adult all these years later, I am still both fascinated and horrified at the prospect of scientific breakthroughs. When I compare the handheld calculators that first became widely available during my freshmen year of high school to the portable computer that is my current iPhone, it is easy to get seduced into thinking that eventually scientists who are much smarter than I am are going to get around to solving the real horrors the human race actually face (such as feeding an overpopulated world or surviving the ongoing catastrophes of rapid environmental change). But, as much as I want to believe there are going to be solutions, I cannot escape the lessons of my early childhood which taught me to believe that with every innovation there are also going to be new problems, and sometimes those new problems can be more dangerous and more deadly than anything we have already faced.

     As I mentioned last week in discussing the relationship between genius and genies, science is terrific at dealing with physical realities it can measure and manipulate. But when it comes to making decisions about the appropriate ethical, moral, or political usage of their results, science is always going to come up with rays, and there's always going to be someone who will want to stand in front of them just to see what's going to happen next. Rhetorically, one of the common methods of persuasion is the “ethos” argument which relies upon the credibility of authority to convince others rather than through logic (“logos”) or passion (“pathos”). The lesson here is to consider if an authority's ability to convince is based in expertise or power because neither may be a good reason to believe someone if (a) the expertise being called upon is not within the domain of their experience (such as a scientist who is arguing politics) or (b) if the power to compel a behavior is not relevant to the argument for a belief (a threat, for instance, offers a great motive to do something but gives a terrible reason to believe something). I've run out of room for my weekly post so I'll go more into the depth of this aspect of rhetorical theory next week. (And for the people of my generation, that's “same bat-channel, same bat-time.”)

1 comment:

  1. As IRB training reminds us, there is always the potential that scientists will feed children radioactive milk. I don't wish to dismiss the fact that we must hold people accountable for the technology and "scientific advances" that are developed.

    Richard Ohmann, in "Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capitalism," writes a little bit about the dangerous notion of "symptomatic technology" (Raymond Williams's words) or "neutral technology." This posits that the growth ray in your example is neither positive nor negative, but merely used as a tool to do good or evil by it's user. The problem is that technologies are not created in a vacuum...they don't spring out of the head of Zeus fully formed, but are constructed over time through a series of conscious decisions by various folks in society and the creation of technology itself is not neutral. For example, the idea of nuclear can use your atomic bombs for good! The development of them was systematically not neutral. We could also look at the development of something like the Internet from ARPAnet.

    All that said...Science is an effective threat in monster movies because it is the flip side of the coin of the supernatural, as you kind of established in your last post regarding Einstein. So, you either have ghosts and ghouls or mad scientists and surgeons.


Your comments or criticisms are welcome and encouraged as long as they are civil and relevant to topic of this blog (anything that is about rhetoric, reality, or the paranormal is relevant). Comments using profanity will be deleted.