Things That Go Bump in the Mind

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

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

Wicked Witch of The West:  “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Dorothy:  “I’m not a witch at all.  I’m from Kansas.”  -- The Wizard of Oz

            Just for the fun of it, let’s look at some of the rhetorical presumptions embedded in these two lines of dialogue from the classic 1939 movie.

1) This memorable scene from the film never happened in the original novel and is actually a major departure from the way Frank L. Baum describes Dorothy’s first few minutes in Oz.  In the original story, Dorothy never met up with the Wicked Witch of the West until late in the story when she finally arrived (via flying monkey) at the evil witch’ s castle.  The screenwriters must have felt that the structure of a movie musical demanded an early confrontation between Dorothy (the protagonist) and The Wicked Witch (the antagonist), and they wanted to establish a clear motive for the animosity the witch has for the little girl. Thus, the movie-version of Dorothy is quickly confronted by the evil, green-skinned witch who wanted to know who killed her sister (The Wicked Witch of the East) and who stole her magical shoes (in the original story, the shoes were silver, not ruby red).  Apparently, just being generally prejudiced against pretty, fair-complected, corn-fed farm girls was not enough of an incentive in the imaginations of the screenwriters for the witch to hate her; Dorothy had taken the magical shoes, and that made it personal. 

Although we are not typically inclined to side with folks who are so upfront about their villainous natures (after all, even the Witch referred to herself as “wicked”), I think the Wicked Witch had a legitimate claim to the shoes.  I think Judge Judy would have come down hard on Dorothy for keeping them, let alone parading around in them in front of the victim’s recently deceased sister. (Judge Judy: “Look at me, young lady, when I’m talking to you.  Do you have any idea how wrong it is to steal from dead people?  Ah, ah, don’t interrupt me; I’m talking now, and I’m the judge.  Verdict for the plaintiff; Give that woman her sister’s shoes and never let me see you back here again.  What you did, little girl, was despicable.  Do you hear me? Despicable.  Now leave my courtroom and go get a job.)

The only legal argument I can devise for Dorothy’s ownership might be if she claimed the shoes were some type of “spoils of war,” but that seems to be a pretty flimsy excuse for not handing over the shoes to their rightful owner when the Wicked Witch asked for them.  According to the Kansas maiden’s own account, she had no control over the house crashing and crunching it’s singular victim.  Thus, if the shoes were some form of bounty for killing the witch, then she would have needed a stronger argument than merely being nearby when an “act of God” (as our insurance companies like to refer to natural disasters) dispatched the shoes pervious owner.  While it may be true, the shoes could be agued as a gift to Dorothy by the Munchkins – who may have had some legitimate expectations for reparations for the years of involuntary servitude they spent servicing the evil witch – she wasn’t justified in keeping them afterwards.  In the book, the Munchkins snag the shoes off the rapidly decomposing corpse of the evil witch, but in the film, the shoes just show up on Dorothy’s feet as the previous owner’s feet curl up and disappear.

The film version of Dorothy might have argued that she needed the magical slippers to protect herself from the Wicked Witch, but had she given over the shoes when she was first asked for them, perhaps she wouldn’t have needed protection.  Maybe, the surviving Wicked Witch would have been so happy to get her rightful property that she may have taken one look at the angry mob of munchkins (not to mention the “good witch” who was standing passively at the scene) and decided to leave with her windfall.  Since Dorothy had no idea how to operate the magic shoes, the argument that she needed them for her own defense seems rather implausible.  In the original Baum version, by the way, Dorothy did not need the magic shoes for protection because the “Good Witch” who arrived on the scene to witness first hand the destruction of her own personal rival had kissed the girl on the forehead as a blessing of protection.  According to Baum’s original story, the “Good Witch” in Munchkinland was not Glinda, but another “good witch”; Glinda did not show up in the original novel until after Dorothy had melted the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water.

2) When, in the film, the Wicked Witch asked Dorothy if she were a good witch or a bad witch, the information she was probably seeking was to whether or not Dorothy affiliated herself with the “side of good” or the “side of evil.”  After all, the custom in Oz seemed to proclaim one’s moral proclivities in a title (“Wicked Witch of the East,” “Glinda the Good,” and  “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”).  However, since the Wicked Witch believed at that point in the movie that Dorothy had just intentionally dropped a house on her sister as a unique, but visually impressive, form of assassination, the question of Dorothy’s cosmic alignment with “good” and “evil” seems gratuitous.  You might expect that willfully dropping a farmhouse on someone for the express purpose of exterminating another person pretty much sets the standard for determining that person’s “goodness” or “badness.”  However, the social norms of Oz seem more reliant upon titles than behavior in reckoning moral allegiances.  Apparently, if you are “good,” you can drop a house on someone who is “bad” (or in this particular case “wicked”) and retain one’s virtue because according to Ozian logic, it’s okay for the good to kill the bad because killing the bad is a good thing.  This form of logic is not exclusive to Oz, by the way.

By posing the question, then, the Wicked Witch, unfamiliar with the moral ambiguity of Kansas farmgirls in referring to themselves, expected to hear that Dorothy considered herself either a “good witch” or a “bad witch.”  Had Dorothy answered that she was a “bad witch” then perhaps the Wicked Witch would have expected some professional courtesy in dealing with the stolen shoes transaction (“Look,” she may have said to Dorothy if she had affirmed that she was indeed a bad witch, “I don’t want to call the union in here on this, but clearly those shoes belong to me according the Evil Witch’s Code of Malignant Noninterference.”)  On the other hand, had the Wicked Witch suspected that Dorothy was a “good witch” and was merely asking as confirmation, then the Wicked Witch would have known that she couldn’t expect to be treated fairly in this transaction. (“I’m telling ya, “ she may have later said drunkenly to a flying monkey, “Those ‘good witches’ think they can do anything they want because of their stinking reputations.  I should have known I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of getting those shoes back as soon I saw the blue and white gingham she had on.)

3) An alternative explanation for the question, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch,” however, could have been that the Wicked Witch was not asking to confirm her suspicions as to which moral team Dorothy was playing for, but rather instead asking Dorothy if she were will willing to share her own estimation of her abilities as a sorceress. The Wicked Witch may have been wanting to know to what degree Dorothy could control her magic powers.  The question, then, “are you a good witch” could have been asking Dorothy to rank or evaluate her magical abilities.  This information, too, would have been pertinent to the subsequent negotiations for the return of the magic slippers.  “Oh, you say you’re a good witch, do you?  Then what do you need my dead sister’s shoes for?  If you’re as good as you say you are, then you won’t mind giving me back those shoes” or (if the answer had come in the negative) “You don’t need those shoes, kid; if you’re not very good at it yet, you’re only going to end up hurting yourself with enchantments you don’t understand.  How about I trade you for something you could use like a training wand or whoopee cushion? ”

 If the question “Are you a good witch or a bad witch” were a question of Dorothy’s ability, then rhetorically, we might say the Wicked Witch’s question is epistemological because it deals with the degree to which Dorothy is knowledgeable about witchcraft (epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of knowledge) .  If the question is one of moral allegiance, I would suggest that the question is doxastic since it refers to the common social beliefs in Oz that people are either ontologically “good” or “evil,” a presumption based not on behavior but on their socially-constructed assumptions that witches are either “good-natured” or “predisposed to evil” regardless of how they behave.  Doxa is the rhetorical term for the traditional assumptions that communities accept without questioning their rationale, and ontology is the branch of philosophy that considers the nature of reality beyond human interpretation.

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”  Tell them you are not a witch at all.  Tell them, you are from Kansas.  Wichita, Kansas.   Keep thinking rhetorically, and I’ll be back next week.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Unicorn Theory and Dudding's Conundrum

     This fall the political bombast between candidates has grown loud, aggressive, and personal. Candidates are no longer satisfied with slinging mud on their rivals in campaign ads; they are using televised debates to call each other “liar” to their faces. As a rhetorical theorist, the first thing I would like to point out this week is that there is an important difference between a) scoring political points with an audience because one has belittled an opponent with a personal attack and b) scoring political points with an audience because one has offered a substantive claim to dispute what the other has said.
Rhetoricians use the word “fallacy” to refer to any bad argument that scores points with uncritical audience members. Merely calling someone a name doesn't prove anything, and we refer to the “fallacy of name calling” by its latin name “ad hominem.” While personal attacks may offer the impression that candidates are willing to stand up to others for what they believe in, they also demonstrate that candidates are willing to employ irrational and unethical methods to achieve whatever political results they hope to gain.
     It is certainly difficult to maintain a civil and reasonable discourse when someone is standing on a platform a few feet away and making personal attacks rather than asking for the reasoning behind policies. This type of testosterone-fueled political bullying is nothing new of course. Back in 1912, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt were both vying for the nomination to be the Republican candidate in that year’s presidential election, and the dispute between the two former friends grew heated and personal. At one point, in a live debate in a Chicago convention hall, the increasing animosity between the two led both candidates to resort to gutter-level, no-class, gob-in-the- spittoon name-calling. Crossing the line from political discourse into personal attack, Roosevelt called Taft a “puzzlewit.” Taft responded by calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler.” A puzzlewit, by the way, is person who is puzzled by life, which is to say, a stupid person. A honeyfugler is basically a swindling liar who gets what he wants by duping people into believing his frauds. So there you go; it's a hundred years later and the voters are still trying to decide whether to vote for the puzzlewit or the honeyfugler. Personally, I will vote for an honest puzzlewit over an astute honeyfugler every time, but you have to make up your own mind when you draw the curtain to the voting booth.
     Ad hominem is almost always the first attack of bullies. When their victims respond to their name calling, bullies use their victims' response as justification for whatever violence (threatened or concrete) they introduce afterwards. As a child, I was often the victim of bullying, and that is why as an adult I am so passionate about the ideals of rhetoric. Authentic rhetoric respects the agency of others and expects relevant truth to be in and of itself persuasive; authentic rhetorical debate is antithetical to violence. Authentic rhetoric maintains that honest persuasion must be free of coercion. If there is a single principle that informs my thinking as a rhetorical theorist it is this: While a threat may provide us with a good motivation to act, a threat never offers a good reason to believe.
     When I was a kid on the playground in elementary school, bullies used to knock down smaller children (such as myself), sit on the their chests, and smack them in the face until their victims said something to satisfy the bullies' need to have their dominance acknowledged. “Say 'I'm great' if you want me to let you up,” the bullies would say while smacking me in the face. “Okay, you're great,” I would tell them, “Now get off of me.” This is without question the single most important lesson I learned in elementary school: Just because a bully can force you to say he's great while he's smacking you in the face, it doesn't mean the bully is really a great person. Decades later, as an adult, I can now vocalize what I only understood then: Coercion does not offer any reason for belief. Violence can only offer a motivation to act; violence cannot offer a reason to believe.
     Imagine you are attacked by a mugger who points a gun at you and says, “Give me your money or I will shoot you.” The threat of being shot offers a legitimate motivation to give the mugger your money (because obviously your money is not worth much if you are too dead to spend it). Now imagine the same mugger with the gun saying this instead, “Believe that I deserve the money in your wallet more than you do or I will shoot you.” Clearly, just because he can shoot you, the mugger has not offered you any relevant reason to believe he deserves your money. Even if the mugger says, “I need you to say that I deserve your money more than you do or I will shoot you,” the mugger has merely given you a good motive to say what he wants to hear, but he has not given you a relevant reason to believe he deserves your money. The threat of physical violence can compel people to act, but clearly, a threat of physical violence is only relevant to the belief in the threat. If the mugger says, “See this gun? Then believe me when I tell you that I will shoot you if you do not give me your money.” In this instance, the threat of being shot is relevant to the belief in getting shot, but notice how absurd it is to believe the mugger if he decides to start tacking things on to his threat, “Believe that I will shoot you and that I'm also a decent human being.” The gun not only does not support his additional claim that he is a decent person, but it entirely negates it.
     The idea that people should not base their beliefs upon threats (or rewards for that matter) is what I call “Unicorn Theory.” It simply goes like this: if you neighbor claims he saw a unicorn, you wouldn't believe him merely because he threatened to shoot you if said you disbelieved him. While the threat of being shot is a good motive to tell your neighbor you believe in his unicorn, it is not a relevant reason to believe he actually saw a unicorn. If he offers you a suitcase of money to say you believe in his unicorn, he has again given you a good motive to say you believe in his unicorn, but a good motive to say something is simply not the same as a good reason to believe something.
     This leads me to another of my rhetorical theories that I will now present to you, the reader, in the form of a puzzle. I call this “Dudding's Conundrum.” If you have an answer for my puzzle, I would love to hear it. I could not be more sincere in saying that this mystery has been my life's challenge; it is my own personal “Holy Grail.” Thinking about this is where my brain goes when it has nothing else to think about. I don't know if this puzzle has an answer (or at least an answer that I can comprehend) but if you think you have an answer, I will make a genuine effort to consider what you have to say. 
      So here goes: I am an agnostic. Now the word agnostic is used in a lot different ways by many different people so what I mean by agnostic is that I think God is unknowable or, at least, incomprehensible. I'm not sure what I know about God, but what I know about me is that my brain does not function in a way that makes religion comprehensible. I am a religious dyslexic. What apparently makes sense to other people about God simply does not make sense to me. In light of that, Dudding's Conundrum is this: “Would a moral and rational God authorize agents to speak on His behalf and then allow them to use immoral or irrational arguments?”
     Here's my argument as an analogy. (Do whatever you can to pull it part, but remember, you'll score no points by merely calling me names.) Suppose you are working as a cashier at a cash register, and part of your job is to make sure all the transactions you handle in the course of a day are legitimate. Now imagine that someone has come in and wants to make a large purchase using a corporate credit card. For whatever reason, you begin to wonder if the person holding the card is really authorized to use it. “Are you authorized to use this card?” you might ask the purchaser.
     “There's unlimited funds tied to that card,” the purchaser responds.
     “Yes,” you say, “I ran the card and there is no limit on the funds available, but how is that relevant to your authorization to use the card?”
     “Look,” the cardholder says, “you make commissions on your sales, right? Then wouldn't it be to your advantage to just believe I can use the card? This sale would mean a huge windfall to you.”
     “Yes, if it's a legitimate transaction then I stand to gain a lot here, but a financial bribe is not a good reason to believe that you have authority to use the card.”
     “What if I offered to buy you anything you want in this store with this card if you are just willing to accept that I am an authorized user?”
     “Then, I would say that the bribe makes it much less likely that you are an authorized user of the corporate card. I can't imagine that this corporation would authorize users who offer bribes. Bribes are unethical.”
     “What if I said I was going to use the funds on this card to hire some thugs to beat you up in the parking lot after you get off work?”
     “I would say that the threat of violence also makes your claim to be a legitimate authorized user more dubious because I can't imagine an ethical company giving authorization to people to use their credit if they are the type of people to issue irrelevant threats.”
     So, what has this to do with religion? Everything. The basic argument of "revealed religion" is that God has authorized spokesmen (call them prophets) to speak on His behalf, and they all use the threats of hell or the bribe of heaven as an induce to believe they are indeed God's agent on earth. Hence, Dudding's Conundrum: “Would a moral and rational God authorize agents to speak on His behalf and allow them to use immoral or irrational arguments?”
     I sincerely look forward to rational responses to this post. Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Charles Fort, Werewolves, and The Question of Unibrows

“I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's, and his hair was perfect.” – Warren Zevon
"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. " – Groucho Marx

     Between 1919 and 1932, Charles Fort almost single-handedly created the literary genre of “paranormal investigation.” For nearly three decades, Fort sat in public libraries (mostly in New York and London) for hours each day, methodically scribbling notes of weirdness he came across in newspapers and magazines. After collecting and categorizing thousands and thousands of notes, Fort would compile the weirdness he found into books that detailed such odd accounts as frogs raining from the skies, animals talking to strangers, and humans bursting spontaneously into flames. All four of his nonfiction/paranormal books (The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents ) are still available in print and can be had (for free) as online ebooks.
     Fort is important to the field of paranormal investigation for many reasons, but his two chief contributions to people who are interested in “anomalous phenomena” is that first, by categorizing strange events people subsequently had names for particular types of these events and began looking for them (spontaneous human combustion is a good example), and second, Fort's research demonstrated that a lot of freakish things happen in this world that pass with very little commentary from the mainstream media.
     Although I admire Fort's tenacity as a researcher, I do not recommend him as a writer. His prose is wickedly difficult to comprehend. As the originator of the “how credulous do you have to be to believe this stuff really happened” genera of nonfiction, Fort's writing style is as unconventional as the subjects he covers. To be frank, Fort's writing style is nearly opaque; he writes as though he assumes his readers can see through his idiosyncratic diction and can distinguish the difference between sarcasm and cynicism. Whenever I read Fort, I fluctuate between thinking he is arrogantly indifferent to his readers' inability to comprehend his writing style and thinking Fort is merely oblivious to how incomprehensible his writing actually is. It is as though before writing a book, Fort decides to take all the arguments he wants to make and disguise them as riddles in a metaphorical verbal funhouse. In his books, Fort likes to give instances of a particular type of paranormal phenomena (take odd coincidences as an example) and then forty pages later refer back to one of these cases when he is discussing an entirely different set of freakish occurrences (e.g. poltergeists) as though the connection between the two odd instances is so manifestly transparent that he would be wasting our time by pointing out what he thinks the connection is. Reading the books of Charles Fort is not unlike trying to decipher the arguments of a drunken relative who clearly understands what he is upset about even when you do not.
     If he were alive today (he died in 1932), Fort would most likely deny being the founder of the literary school of writing that focuses on weird stuff that supposedly happened somewhere. This is because as a writer, Fort did not like to admit that he believed in anything. Beyond ordinary agnosticism (i.e. claiming the truth to some things as “unknowable”) or atheism (i.e. claiming a complete “disbelief “ in the supernatural) Fort presents himself as an apatheistic, a hybrid form of agnosticism and atheism that basically asserts a fundamental lack of interest in explaining what one does or doesn't believe. A year or two before Fort's death, a dedicated group of fans of his work decided to found “The Fortean Society” as a means of promoting Fort's writings and furthering other similar paranormal research. Although the newly-established “Society” boasted such literary heavy-weights as Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, Dorthy Parker, and H. L. Mencken, Fort himself had to be tricked into attending the inaugural meeting and quickly declined membership. “I wouldn't join it, any more than I'd be an Elk,” Fort said about the group. Fort was such an apatheistic that he did not even want to be associated with a club that was named after him.
     As an example of how abstruse Fort's writing can be, here is an excerpt from his book Wild Talents on the topic of werewolves: “Relatively to the principles of modern science, werewolves can not be. But I know of no such principle that is other than tautology or approximation. It is myth-stuff. Then, if relatively to a group of phantoms, werewolves can not be, there are at least negative grounds for thinking that they are quite likely. Relatively to the principles, or lack of principles, of ultra-modern science, there isn't anything that can't be, even though also it is not clear how anything can be. So my acceptance, or pseudo-conclusion, is that werewolves are quite likely-unlikely.”(897) From reading this passage, can you tell whether Fort thought the idea of werewolves should or should not be taken seriously? Neither can I.
     Speaking of werewolves, stories of humans transforming into wolves dates back at least as far as ancient Greece. In one Greek myth, a king by the name of Lycaon was transformed into the prototype of a werewolf as a punishment of Zeus. Lycaon had tried to trick Zeus into eating a dinner in which the main course was Lycaon's son, Nyctimus. Lycaon, by the way, was not the first to try to get Zeus to eat one of his children; another human king named Tantalus ended up being tormented in the fires of Tartarus for doing the same thing. We get the English word lycanthrope from the Greek lukos meaning “wolf” and the Greek anthrĊpos meaning “human being.” Is it mere phonetic coincidence that lycanthropy sounds so much like Lycaon? Such coincidences bothered Charles Fort enough for him to seek out such connections in everyday life, but subsequently he would go out of his way to tell readers that everything is connected so don't put to much stock into believing anything.
     Today clinical lycanthropy is considered a rare psychiatric disorder in which a deluded patient believes he or she can (or has) transformed into an animal. Modern treatment includes psychotropic drugs, but in the Middle Ages, the prescribed treatment for this disorder was tying the patient to a stake and setting him on fire or crushed him under heavy rocks. Although the medieval cure for lycanthropy achieved a 100% effectiveness rating in resolving the patient's psychosis, its efficacy relied entirely upon the treatments' lethality. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed one sign of a pre-lycanthropic person was a distinctive unibrow; so, apparently, one way to ward off the next bout of werewolf fever was to spend a little extra time with some tweezers in the bathroom.
     Rhetorically, Fort's research into werewolves and other paranormal topics serves as a shinning example of paradoxical intention. On one hand, Fort went to all the trouble of meticulously documenting the sources of his material by citing the names and dates of the newspapers and magazines from which he gleaned his bizarre material. On the other hand, Fort used this material to lambast the (then) contemporary scientific notions of how the world works – without bothering to express any of his own opinions on the material's veracity. One gets the feeling reading Fort, that if you were to ask him if he believed in any of odd stories he found, he would only laugh at the question and leave you wondering what he meant by the laughter.
     This rhetorical choice, to use “evidence” (weirdness reported in newspapers and magazines) to support a “theory” (scientists are victims of their own prejudices) without commenting on the dependability of the source material is a strange as Fort's choice of subject matter. Typically, when people try to argue for or against established scientific theories, they go out of their way to show the trustworthiness of their counter-examples. Not only does Fort avoid doing this, but he seems, in his unwillingness to comment upon it's truthfulness, to mistrust in the material himself. Fort also avoids offering alternative explanations; it is as though Fort is telling readers “anyone who believes in the current scientific paradigms are just as foolish as anyone who would believe in their freakish alternatives.”
     If there's a rhetorical lesson we can learn here from Charles Fort and (perhaps my brief foray into werewolf lore), it is, perhaps, it is not a bad practice to consider people's motives in reflecting upon the subjects they choose to write about (you can start with me if you want to; why is Dudding writing about this stuff?). Furthermore, by thinking critically, we can question the truth of what we read and hear (and this is especially important if we hear it from someone who has too much hair stretching across their forehead). Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (and Floating Severed Heads)

     Have you ever been out in the woods late at night and seemingly out of nowhere, you feel a sudden gust of fear sweeping up your spine? What is it about the dark and being outside that can give us such an urgent and imposing sense of the creeps? When this happens to me, my rational brain kicks in with it's self-assuring logic: “Calm down, there's nothing in the dark that's not there in the daylight.” “Stop being a baby,” my inner voice says, but nothing the brain argues ever diminishes the urgency of the fright. The Ancient Greeks attributed these late night, outdoor attacks of the heebie-jeebies to the arrival of the God of the Woods who had come sneaking up to see who was trespassing in his domain; our contemporary English language still pays its respect to this deity, the satyr known as Pan, by referring to his terror as “panic.”
     When we are in the grip of panic, our nervous system's response of pounding heart, sweating brow, and gasping breath has nothing to do with the realness of the threat; in other words, the body doesn't care if the brain says the source is a false alarm (“Stop freaking out! There's nothing there!”). Once the fear has taken over, the body hits the mute button on the voice of reason. In these moments, it is as if the “hardware” of our brain is not responding to the “software” of our mind. No matter what messages the consciousness gives itself, the physical engines of the brain keep secreting the hormones that holds the nervous system on red alert. Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of The Power of Intention among other motivational books, offers the word “fear” as an acronym for “Fantasy Experienced As Real.” The problem, of course, is when we experience the fantasy as real, our bodies do not distinguish between a real threat and an imaginary one. Once we have crossed the line where our emotional responses take over for our rational ones, we simply have to ride that affective roller coaster until the ride comes to an end and we can feel our minds in control again.
     So why do we do it? October is the month when Hollywood cranks out its best horror films, and commercial “haunted houses” open their doors to people who are willing to pay good money to have the bejeezus scared out of them. There must be something fun about getting our bodies to crank up the “fight or flight” response, but what is it? Aristotle suggested that perhaps putting ourselves through emotional episodes of pity, fear, or sadness provided catharsis, a poetic rehearsal of these emotions that allows us to purge these tensions we store within us. Perhaps our most beloved modern horror writer, Stephen King, explains that inviting a little insanity into our lives keeps us from being overwhelmed by it. King writes, “The potential lyncher is in almost all of us (excluding saints, past and present; but then, most saints have been crazy in their own ways), and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass.” This is how we keep our internal monsters under control; we put them on a leash and let them drag us around just long enough to convince ourselves that we have a handle on the situations that vex us.
     As a Boy Scout in elementary school, I remember going to campouts on weekends in the fall and listening to ghost stories around the fire. As an adult reminiscing roughly forty years later, I know now that ghosts do not haunt houses nearly as much as their stories haunt our imaginations. One particular story that supplied a gross of nightmares (that is to say 144 of them, right?) before I hit junior high was the story of “Headless Henderson.”
     Henderson, we were told around the fire (just twenty minutes or so before we were told we needed to go to bed), was a Boy Scout from another troop somewhere who was awkward and unpopular (which I assume allowed all of us listening to the story to immediately identify with him because who doesn't feel awkward and unpopular when you're ten?). Henderson, so the story went, was constantly screwing up and was the butt of many a practical joke (although many of the scouts in his troop felt sympathy for the poor guy, no one was really willing to befriend him). One night at an annual massive Jamboree (a multi-troop meet up and campout), Henderson decided to screw up his courage and make one final fleeting attempt at popularity. For weeks prior to the Jamboree, Henderson practiced a magic act that he could perform at the talent show held on the last night of the campout. Henderson begged and begged his parents to attend because for once in his miserable life, he wanted his folks to see him do something that would be accepted by his peers. The parents in the story, of course, could not commit to being there, but told him they would try to make it to his big performance. The night of the talent show there was a terrible storm and Henderson kept waiting for his parents to show up, but they never did. He repeatedly asked to be pushed back on the show's agenda so that in case his folks did show up late because of the weather, they could see his performance. Finally, all the other acts were over, and Henderson could wait no more. He had to go on to do his act. Henderson walked out, and although at first there were some rude comments from the audience, Henderson proceeded to perform his magic act and his fellow troopers were stunned. Henderson wasn't just good; he was great. His last magic trick was so awesome, the entire audience jumped to its feet in a loud, boisterous applause. The scouts from his own troop began chanting “Henderson, Henderson,” and soon the entire audience was chanting along. Henderson finally had his moment of approbation.
     Just as he was taking in the enormity of being accepted by his peers, Henderson noticed a glowing, white sphere floating over the back of the audience coming up over the treeline. “What is it?” he wondered as he noticed it for the first time. “Could it be the full moon? Had it been there all along?” The white glowing orb seemed to be growing larger or coming closer. Soon everyone in the audience was aware of it as the white glowing mass as it floated over their heads, and the chanting and cheering transformed into sudden silence. It wasn't the moon. It was the ghostly head of Henderson's mother who had died in a tragic car wreck on the way to see her son's performance. When the ghostly head of Henderson's mom reached the stage, and the boy saw the phantom of his mother's severed head, he fell to the floor into a psychotic seizure from which he was never to recover. When the highway patrol discovered the mangled remains of Henderson's parents' car, they discovered his mom's body, but NOBODY EVER FOUND HER HEAD. It was rumored, they told us around the camp fire, that Henderson's mother's head still appeared from time to time at scout camps looking for revenge from any Boy Scouts who had ever said anything unkind to another Boy Scout (which we, of course, understood to be every single last one of us).
     After hearing that story, there was no such thing as a flashlight bright enough to stave off the phantom of that floating mother's head in our imaginations. The next day when the sun was out, we could attest that we were not really scared by the story, after all what could a floating, ghostly head actually do to a guy, nibble off an ear? But, in the darkness, lying in our sleeping bags, nobody got up to use the bathroom no matter how many hot chocolates we had ingested before going to bed.
     The point to all of this, rhetorically, is that everyone (children and adults) can all be made to modify behavior out of fear regardless of whether or not the fear begins in a realistic threat. This is an important consideration to keep in mind when we are debating with others over a course of action to take. While our experience of a threat may be real, the reasons to respond to a threat may not be as rational as our psychological motivations may be. In other words, as I have stated here before, a threat may offer a good motive to do something, without being a good reason to believe something.
     October offers the best time of year to discuss ghosts and monsters so keep coming back for more spooky talk next week. Keep thinking rhetorically.