Category Archives: Monsters

Are There Two Kinds of People in the World?

Who are we to call him Monster?

 

It was bad enough to wonder whether I was a man or a Muppet.  Now I spent all weekend worried that I was also the wrong kind of Muppet.

I blame Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that there are two types of Muppets, “chaos Muppets” and “order Muppets,” and that, by extension, “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” 

Lithwick elaborates:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. […] It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

Two things become pretty clear: 1) despite her ironic implications (”This is really just me having fun,” she protests a little too strongly; filing under “Dubious and Far-fetched ideas”), Lithwick takes her binary system pretty seriously; and 2) despite that “It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other,” she clearly prefers chaos Muppets.  So do I.  And, I’ll add, so does everyone.  Chaos Muppets have all the fun, and order Muppets are the straight men, the ones who get flabbergasted and frustrated and freak out while muted trumpets go “Wha wha whaaa” at their expense.

Which is why I found it so disturbing to realize, as I was obsessively vacuuming the living room, that I was clearly an order Muppet.  Even worse was the realization that my wife is also an order Muppet, even as Lithwick takes pains suggest that her classification system is crucial for life partners: “Order Muppets tend to pick Chaos Muppets for their life partners, cookies notwithstanding. Thus, if you’re in a long-term relationship with a Chaos Muppet, there’s a pretty good chance you’re Bert. If you’re married to an Order Muppet, you may well be the Swedish Chef. And by all that is holy, don’t marry your same type if you can help it. That’s where Baby Elmos come from.” No word on what becomes of the children of two order Muppets.

I didn’t feel this way after reading Heather Havrilesky’s “Steve Jobs: Vampire. Bill Gates: Zombie”  in the New York Times Magazine last October, which suggested that “Vampires and zombies seem to reside at the polarities of our culture, telling us (almost) everything we need to know about (almost) everything in between.”  It was clear to me that I was a vampire, and that the piece, like Lithwick’s, wanted us to feel as though the writer is disinterested in the distinction when really vampires come off far cooler.

As Havrilesky puts it,

Vampires are solitary and antisocial and sleep in the ground. Zombies are extroverts, hanging out in big, rowdy clusters, moaning and shrieking, and apparently never sleeping at all.

Why do these sound like people I know? Maybe because these two approaches to being undead mirror two very different approaches to being alive. You’re either a vampire or a zombie, and it’s easy to tell which one.

The vampires are the narcissists, the artists, the experts, the loners: moody bartenders, surgeons, songwriters, lonely sculptors, entrepreneurial workaholics, neurotic novelists, aspiring filmmakers, stock traders, philosophy professors. The zombies are the collaborators, the leaders, the fanatics and obsessives: I.T. guys, policy wonks, comic-book collectors, historians, committee heads, lawyers, teachers, politicians, Frisbee-golf enthusiasts.

“Sexy!”–New York Times

This is all meant to be fun and funny.  But we really are required to place ourselves in mutually exclusive binary categories all the time.  There’s Male/Female, of course, and even if biology or culture weren’t forcing our hand, our English pronouns leave us no gray area. (“Ze” is not a viable option yet.)  There is the dichotomy that still allows for, insists on, legal segregation: smoker and nonsmoker.  There is the dichotomy that no one thinks about but may be the most intrinsically important one of all: to borrow from Sharon Olds’s book of poems, The Dead and the Living.  There was the ancient Greek distinction, between themselves (Greeks) and barbarians (everyone except Greeks). That dichotomy was originally related to language, but like chaos Muppets/order Muppets and vampires/zombies, you know which side you’d rather be on.    

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”

Tuco, though, has his own ideas: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”  They’re the same two groups for both men, but sometimes the ones who carry loaded guns wind up with ropes around their necks as well. You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose recurring motif is “two kinds of people” when its title clearly suggests that there are three.

Yet in many ways, these writers aren’t so different from the psychologists who want to squeeze all of humanity into two boxes, despite that context and mood probably influence our actions more than a temperament derived from multiple choice testing: extraversion or introversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling, judgment or perception.   Nietzsche knew better.  He didn’t think in terms of two types of people, but rather two human impulses, as anthropomorphized by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius.  Clearly, Apollo is an order Muppet and a Vampire, while Dionysius is a chaos Muppet and a Zombie.  But as humans, we are both and neither, instead the product of constantly conflicting beliefs, moods, attachments, and desires.  Putting people into simplistic categories has the potential to explain as well as dangerously simplify the world. As writer Tom Robbins put it, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

So now I know better.  

Time: one hour.

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A (Belated) Merry Krampus

Not Santa

Outside my bedroom window, flickering like a cheap motel sign, sits my neighbor’s neon Santa, silently signing “Ho,” “Ho Ho,” “Ho Ho Ho,” each flash adding another “Ho” like it’s a new idea or something.  The image of Santa—Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas—reigns supreme from November to January, or, in Winona, MN, from late August to January. 

But what about Krampus?  Apparently, Krampus—who, like Santa, goes by many names—was once, more benignly, Santa’s sidekick, “a devil-like figure who drove away evil spirits during the Christian holiday season.”  But more often, he was Santa’s bad cop.  Santa rewarded the good children with presents, while Krampus whipped and punished the bad ones—or, in a calculated bit of symmetry, Santa carried presents in his sack, while Krampus carried an empty sack, not to steal presents a la The Grinch but rather to carry off bad children for his supper. 

I never heard of Krampus until two days ago.  And I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I don’t have a horse in this race anyway.  But I’ve been thinking about Krampus.  (I also had a dream about him, but my stomach hurt when I went to bed, so I suspect it was my unconscious telegraphing the word “cramps.”)   I’m concerned about what seems to be the disappearance of Krampus.  Santa has come to dominate the season with a red, velvet fist, the sole survivor of a symbolic vanishing twin syndrome.  But  Santa’s ascendancy seems directly tied to the overall criticisms of saccharine sanctimony and crass commercialism endemic to the season. 

Now, I’m not advocating an American Krampus renaissance, or a full on Krampus parade as in Graz, Austria, below (warning: scary!)

Too many of the images are startling or sadistic, a few border on pedophilia, and a handful are all three:

Wrong for so many reasons

Clearly, adults should not terrorize their children into petrified obedience.  When I posted a Krampus link on Facebook yesterday, two friends, Abbie and Johannes —not surprisingly, of Eastern European and Austrian origin, respectively—had indeed heard of Krampus, and they felt their childhood shivers return at the sight of him.  But the appropriate comparison for me is to Andrew Delbanco’s book  and idea of “the Death of Satan”: not the need to sow fear, as much as the metaphorical need to embody, rather than rationalize or ironize, the very idea of evil. Delbanco worries that the death of Satan—or, I’ll add, his Christmas collector’s edition, Krampus—is a kind of death of metaphor itself, and that convincing the world that he is gone—whether through secular humanism’s intellectual embarrassment or Christian fundamentalism’s demonizing of others rather than looking inward to find evil—would indeed be Satan’s greatest trick of all.  Ridding the world of Krampus does not purge the world of what he represents.  As that other great Pagan-derived holiday, Halloween, shows, great good can come from receiving, and even identifying with, the bad.

But mostly, I fear that without Krampus, the yang to his yin, the bitter to his sweet, Santa Claus has had to be both the good cop and the bad cop in one:

“He knows when you are sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good…”

Does any verse strike more fear in the hearts of American children?  Do we want Santa to embody Foucault’s Panopticon, the totalitarian, police state?  When one figure embodies both reward and punishment, carrots and sticks, it does not just effect the death of Satan.  It also produces a kind of death of Santa, just a little.   Ho ho ho. 

Time: a cool 35 minutes.  Call me Half-hour Man today.

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Our Zombies, Ourselves

 

 

This is me on zombie

“Peak oil”:  the point at which the world’s oil supplies go into irreversible decline (from Financial Times Lexicon ) 

I’m not expert enough to decide if peak oil is simply a depressing fact or a myth needing to be debunked.   But I will say this: we may have reached the point of Peak Zombie. 

“The Walking Dead” on TV; Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in books; The New York Times dividing the world into figurative zombies and vampires, as though Myers-Briggs can now add a Z/V to its inventory of personality dichotomies. 

At the movies, beyond the Final Destinations and the 28 Days and the multiple reanimated George Romeros, even a movie like Contagion is a quasi-zombie movie sans actual zombies, Pirates of the Caribbean a de facto zombie movie even if the thing you remember is Johnny Depp’s larf an’ teef.  You’ll be relieved to know that there is a Zombie Movie Database, so you can look up, say, Klown Kamp Massacre, to say nothing of the thousands of other zombie websites, including this one, that I used to zombify myself (apparently it’s a transitive verb) for the swell pic above.

Exhilarating, yes, but there’s a dark side: we’re in desperate danger, not from zombies, or in running from zombies, but from running out of zombies. Too many years of drilling already-limited and well-mined material must lead to irreversible decline. 

So why zombies, and why now?  There’s not a single answer. In fact, I believe that zombies have overrun the cultural landscape because all of the explanations have infected and colluded with each other, creating the conditions for the perfect storm of zombies.

Consumerism: This was Romero’s earliest hobbyhorse, with his mall zombies interchangeable with its usual clientele, later perfectly depicted in Shawn’s, of Shawn of the Dead, inability to tell the difference between the zombies and his usual  neighbors (“She’s so drunk!”).  Zombies are like holiday shoppers: thoughtless, impulsive, unselfconscious malcontents driven by the basest instinct to do nothing but seek the next object of consumption.  It’s hard to question one’s own consumption, but easy to pick on zombie’s fixes.  Certainly Zombieland presents the post-apocalyptic world as one in which the survivors can raid any car or house—or just trash a souvenir shop—because, well, there’s no on left, so why not?

Globalization’s literal and metaphorical infectiousness: Look at the recurring zombie motifs: pandemics, undocumented movements of people across quarantines and borders, the possibility of infiltration by the dangerously infected or affected: zombies are a perfect proxy for the fear of insecure boundaries of every kind.  (I wrote about this in much greater detail here.) Compare zombies to Frankenstein’s monster.  As a reanimated corpse, F’s M was a proto-zombie, but badder:  seven feet tall, intelligent, super strong, super agile, impervious to bullets, frost, and fire.  (Go read your Shelley and stop Whale watching if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)  But F’s M wasn’t CONTAGIOUS!  His whole hangup was that he was the only one of his kind. Zombies don’t have that hangup.  They don’t have any hangups.

Technology: Back in the day, zombies were created by magic. But for a few decades they’ve been formed by radioactivity and viruses, especially scientifically engineered viruses and bio-weapons.  And the solutions tend to be old school and low tech: baseball bats, bludgeons, and medieval style-weaponry.  Many movies—and World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide—specifically suggest that hand to head weapons are more effective than guns and projectiles.  How many times have you tried to solve your tech problem by whacking something—and it worked? 

Apocalypse: 2000, 2001, 2012: the end has been near for some time now.  And who better to bring about the end than zombies?  But each version in its own way allows us to rehearse the end one more time, so if or when it ever arrives, we’re better prepared.  Scared of the end of the world?  Anyone who doesn’t know how to respond to the apocalypse has no one but himself to blame at this point.  You’ve had practice. You’ve been warned.

Political and racial polarization: People who don’t think and just merge with the hordes are considered zombies.  Unfortunately, it’s only people who are opposite one’s own political preference that confers the brainless, conformist zombie label.  For conservatives, it’s Obama Zombies; for liberals, it’s Republican Zombie Defense online game (apparently removed).  Anyone who doesn’t agree with you must be a zombie. The Obama Zombie label, though, seems to have been far more used, possibly thanks to its assonance and consonance. But it also has an undertone of racism—the word and concept were Haitian, derived from Africa, which is why the old Bela Legosi movie was White Zombie. Until then, the assumption was that zombies were black—another latent fear of globalization, porous borders, and those different from one’s self.  Max Brooks nods to this origin in World War Z, and Romero has always been interested in the relationships between zombies and race as well.

                                                               

If you add the last five reasons up, you get this:

 Permission for violence: in film after film and game after game, you see an unambiguous, unmitigated invitation to unself-conscious carnage.  There’s no diplomatic solution, no treaties, no peaceful protest possible.  There’s no Occupy Zombieland movement.  There are only blows to the head or else your brains are eaten.  Zombies may be dead, but unlike Frankenstein’s monster, they’re beyond sympathy, and unlike vampires, no one actually wants to be one.  Ever. 

Which leads us to the last factor:

Twilight ruined vampires for a while.  So zombies it is.  So if being a vampire means being all emo and sparkly and not getting to do anything cool and spending the rest of your life in high school and the best part is like climbing trees or playing baseball—crap you can do without being dead—then maybe we don’t want to be vampires anymore anyway.  And part of the allure of the monster is its Otherness, the ways in which it simultaneously both is and isn’t like a person.  But once the vampire becomes the object of conscious and able-to-be-consummated desire, it loses its taboo allure.  But as of right now at least, no teenage girl fantasizes about marrying a zombie.  Zombies, unlike the Cullens, remain Other, but an Other so close to the original as to be terrifying rather than potentially enticing, the Uncanny Valley of Monsters.

Of course I could be wrong.  I would have thought we’d reached Peak Zombie in 2006.   In his book Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti says that all film genres begin with a primitive stage, move into a classical stage, see a revisionist stage, and end in a parodic stage.  It seems clear enough that White Zombie is primitive; Dawn of the Dead is classical; I Am Legend, with Will Smith and Hollywood production values, is revisionist; and Shawn of the Dead is parodic. Yet here we are, with zombies more popular than ever.  

But all that could change.  Or if we have not reached peak zombie, it’s because we have yet to see the Twilight-ization of the zombie genre; striving to see, and love, what remains human in the zombie is still relatively untapped (unless you count the end of Shaun of the Dead).  The one place I’ve seen an attempt to humanize the zombie is the trailer for the video game “Dead Island,” which is more emotionally affective than a trailer for a zombie video game has any right to be [warning: graphic violence]:

Notice how, through its Memento-esque backwards chronology, we see a chilling reminder, one that even a taut, literary thriller like Zone One is afraid to depict: that if we see ourselves in zombies, it is because we are already always potential zombies, and zombies are already us.  Perhaps, then, zombies offer a sustainable, renewable resource, and though the era of the zombie may peak and then ebb, it will not run out after all. 

So sleep well, knowing that zombies may be around for a long time to come.  

Time: 90 minutes!  Gaa. Fourth entry and I’ve already broken my rule.  I did waste 10 minutes looking for, reading, adding, and deleting links about peak oil, though.  Then another 10 minutes to zombify my picture.  It also took me about 10 minutes to remember which video game trailer I wanted.  So it’s sort of an hour.  The funny thing is, this was supposed to be a review of Whitehead’s Zone One. Another time.

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