Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Horror Stories

In literature, in fiction, the formula is a) Build up a reader's familiarity with the scene, set, setting and character of the protagonists and then b) something bad happens.

That's basically it. The consequences of something bad happening determine whether the story becomes comedy or drama, but the something bad is usually bad even when it is good. And the something bad happening is, just like in real life, usually unexpected. Even if the something bad is a planned action, the consequence is unexpected. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be much of a plot. So, the unexpected happening kind of suggests that the most general category of fiction is the horror genre.

Horror because events are unexpected, and our little brains just naturally produce fear as their first reaction. It's just the way things are. You've got the primary conduit of sensory data pointed right at the amygdala, the seat of fear, and then a secondary, slower conduit to the forebrain, to the part that impedes our actions. Which, really, is what free will is all about. Not about the power to do things, but the power to restrain yourself from doing things.

From an evolutionary standpoint, from a fitness standpoint, this makes sense. Don't take chances. See a stick on the ground, the core brain says "Snake!" and you instinctively jump back. Then the forebrain evaluates things, figures out it is a stick, gets all embarrassed, and sends signals to the rest of the brain to calm down.

The horror element is merely dependent upon how much information you get, and how much is left to the imagination. No information at all, and you are unaware of the danger. Doesn't matter if there is a scaly giant lizard in the basement if you have no knowledge of it. Similarly, too much information and you know about it, you understand it, you might even empathize with it, and so you are not scared of it. Ah, but just the right amount of information, just enough so you know enough to be afraid, that is, like so many things, an delicate spell.

I think perhaps this is why psychological horror works best of all. No need for shocking visual images, no need for blood and gore. The suggestion of these things is more than enough. Radio horror stories are perhaps even scarier than TV or movies, because they take place within the theater of the mind.

As a kid, one of the movies that nearly made me shit my pants was a movie called "The Haunting" . Directed by Robert Wise, a masterful manipulator  of dramatic action, it contains perhaps only two or three scenes of visual special effects. All the rest is atmosphere, music, sound effects, and, oh ,what do you know, acting.  Robert Wise wisely lets us scare ourselves into a panic.

Kind of like the political climate. Visions of the future. Either dystopian or utopian. I submit that the utopian version is scarier.

There are three likely paths humanity can take. The first path, the one everyone needlessly worries about, is collapse.  Scarcity, peak oil, the end of civilization, anarchy, war, pestilence, famine, plague, all that good stuff. That's dystopia, a dystopian future. We are intimately familiar with this. This is all known to us. There is nothing to fear here.

The next two paths are utopian. The post-scarcity future. This is a future partially known to us.

Certain people have lived in such an anomalous time, when they lacked for nothing. Well, not entirely. Some labor still had to be performed. Some things earned. But few are aware of such a state of affairs. Generally, the few examples of this have suggested that people are still dissatisfied, are prone to delinquency and hooliganism. It may be, in a future of no lack of need, a future of no toil, that people will not know what to do with themselves. it may resemble the movie "Clockwork Orange" . The State, in finding a way to keep them docile, may resort to creative destruction. A channeling of these natural anarchic destructive forces into a sanctioned and planned vandalism. Again, this is somewhat familiar. Nothing really unknown here, and therefore nothing to fear.

Which leaves the last utopian path. This is a path totally unknown to us. A future where, again, all lack for nothing, but then all desire nothing. All needs are fulfilled. How frustration of desires is eliminated is unknown. Perhaps we are cybernetically or genetically or surgically altered so that the desire itself is suppressed. Perhaps the desire is channeled into harmless activities, virtual reality perhaps. Perhaps the darkest desires of murder, rape, torture are fulfilled in a cybernetic game zone, and we all become torpid creatures living out fantasies. Or perhaps technology advances to the point that there is no death, or at least no permanent death, and we are allowed to actively pursue our most base fantasies upon each other. It could be that we become completely safe from harm, completely immoral, completely sadistic, vile, loathsome immortal creatures. Demons in Paradise.

That would be the scariest thing of all.

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