....LMB: "Horror Thing"....

October 30, 2004

As a child, I was not allowed to watch scary movies. In fact, I was rarely allowed to see anything rated higher than PG, unless my parents had seen it already and found it acceptable (and "acceptable" meant "no sex or nudity"). Unfortunately for me, they didn't see movies that often, leaving my choices pretty limited. But, as kids do, I found a way around this, and got my dose of R-rated violence at a friend's house. And luckily for society, my substantial intake of horrifically anti-social media has resulted in nothing more violent than a brief stint on the high school wrestling team my freshman year.

Somewhere along the line, I developed a taste for horror movies. Not those lame-ass slasher films of the 80s, or horror that focused on cheap startle-scares, but movies that had scary concepts, or managed to build and maintain tension or anxiety or foreboding. In a way, I've taken good horror to be a window into that broad concept "what do humans find scary?" It fascinates the hell out of me.

I think the first horror movie that I ever saw that was actually scary was one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The concept itself is really pretty terrifying: sleep = death. You're at your most vulnerable when you're asleep, and that's when this killer can get you. And you can't have someone watch over your sleeping body to protect you from attack, because this killer gets inside your head. Not just inside your head, but inside the elastic reality of your dreams, a reality where most people have no control. So you're under attack at your most vulnerable and your most powerless. On top of that, the killer usually takes a familiar or pleasant dream scenario, and turns it into one of your worst fears. And of course, at your most vulnerable, most powerless, and most terrified, the killer will mock and taunt you.

The Elm Street movies then had one final element common to many horror films: adult neglect. The kids were always in danger, the kids always knew what was going on and asked for help, but the grown-ups never listened. And the kids paid the price.

And finally, the Elm Street movies did an excellent job of creating icons for the villain, that could all suggest his presence and invoke fear without even showing him on-screen. His distinctive hat, sweater, glove, claw marks, the Nightmare House, and the Freddy nursery rhyme were all ways to imply that Freddy was afoot, and save the real scare of showing his face for later.

After that, probably the next enjoyable horror I found were the first two Hellraiser movies. These had great concepts and great creepy visuals, but were generally lacking otherwise. The idea was that there exist a group of human-like creatures called cenobites, who know all the secrets of pleasure and pain. If you solve a special puzzlebox, they will teach you torture and please you until you die, and keep your soul. The first movie's tagline was "Angels to some. Demons to others." I thought that was a great concept. These creatures aren't good or evil, they just provide a service when asked. That service results in pain and death, which we perceive as evil, but the cenobites were just fulfilling a contract, dispassionately and methodically.

The cenobites' forms matched their function, punk rock and S&M taken to the next level: nails in the skull, wounds held open by piercings, eyelids sewn shut, skin pulled tight by wires and hooks. Gruesome and memorable. Sadly, the series went to shit pretty quickly after that (although Hellraiser 4 did have some pretty cool new cenobites), as they forgot their initial concept and the cenobites just became averge everday Monsters Who Kill People. I think they're up to Hellraiser 8 by now.

After Hellraiser, I saw Evil Dead 2, and shortly after that, Dead Alive. These combined horror, slapstick humor, and absolutely stunning amounts of gore, and showed that horror could be a lot of fun-- if you could stomach the viscera. Evil Dead 2 (essentially a twisted, bizarre remake of Evil Dead 1) features cult icon Bruce Campbell as an arrogant everyman faced by mysterious forces and zombie monsters, demonic posession, and his own crumbling sanity. The special effects are often bad, but that just adds to the fun. To me, the film feels as though the producer was hanging around for the first few days of shooting, but after he left, the crew got in a circle and said "okay, now let's fuck it up!" Hilarous. The sequel to Evil Dead 2 was the (more well-known) Army of Darkness, which is good for maybe the first hour, before descending into lameness.

Dead Alive is actually a good movie. It's the story of an shy young New Zealand man from the 1950s trying to find love and happiness while dealing with his overbearing, posessive mother. Set against the background of a killer zombie attack. This movie is a laugh riot, if you can stand the gore. How much gore? It's probably the goriest movie ever made. Let's just say that by the end, the heros are almost unrecognizable under their covering of pink goo.

Amusingly, the directors of these two low budget shockers went on to become some of Hollywood's elite. Evil Dead's Sam Raimi directed the acclaimed sleeper A Simple Plan, and went on to direct both of the Spiderman movies. And Dead Alive's Peter Jackson directed the amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let that be a lesson to all you would-be directors out there: get yourself a cheesy horror script a a couple barrels of fake blood.

Sadly, apart from the recent wave of Japanese horror, there haven't been many good horror movies in years. Which is why I turned to video games for my horror fix.

I know that many folks write video games off as mindless shoot-em-ups, or think that we're still in the era of Pac-Man. But they have evolved into movie-like productions, with realistic graphics, professional voice actors, plots, settings and musical scores. Sadly, all this still usually results in an interactive version of your standard action movie, but I have hope. I have played several games with amazing stories and characters, games with themes and messages, even a couple that approached real literary merit. But most of the time, I have to take a game for what it is, and just enjoy the good parts.

In a way, horror video games are a better way for me to do my analysis of fear than movies: video games are much longer (usually 8-40 hours of gameplay, vs. the usual 90+ minutes for a film), and you control where the main character(s) go and what they do. In addition, I think that video games have taken greater strides in maniuplating visuals and sound to put fear into the player.

The video game horror revolution began with Resident Evil. You play as a member of some kind of elite police squad, trapped in a spooky house, fighting zombies and other monsters. Over time, you learn that the monsters and zombies are the work of genetic tampering by scientists at the evil Umbrella Corporation.

The game really isn’t that great. It favors cheap scares, falling back on clichés and illogic when need be. The one legitimate scare comes early in the game, before any monster attacks. You walk into a room, hearing some odd noises. You round a corner and see a man laying on the ground, with another man hunched over him. After a moment, you realize that the first man is dead, and the second is simply eating his body. The second man’s head whips around, chalk-white except for the blood-wet mouth, and turns to get you. Resident Evil is also known for some of the worst dialogue and voice-acting in the business (my favorite comes at the beginning, when one cop gives the other a lockpick before they split up to search the house. "Here, take this lockpick. It may come in handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you."). The game has become quite the franchise, with probably 5 or 6 sequels and a couple of movies to carry it along.

But the horror game that blew me away was Silent Hill. SH took horror in a different direction. Instead of the cheap scares and stock monsters, SH was about keeping you unsettled and disturbed at all times.

In SH, you play Harry Mason, a widowed writer taking his young daughter on a vacation to the sleepy resort town of Silent Hill. He loses control of his car and crashes, and when he comes to, his daughter is gone. The town is bereft of people, and covered in a dense fog. As he searches for his little girl, he also finds the town populated by strange, eerie monsters, and the city’s streets are inexplicably torn by cataclysm and shrouded in fog. And at times, he finds himself shifting into the Other Silent Hill. This alternate reality is sort of like if you took a spooky, abandoned resort town, and crossed it with a Marilyn Manson video. Blood, rust, chains, filth, and all manner of occult trappings.

One key element of gameplay was that your character carried a broken radio. For unexplained reasons, when monsters approached in the darkness, your radio would start to crackle with static. Since your view was often limited (darkness, with only a clip-on pocket flashlight to see) This meant that you always had to have your ears straining, to give you as much warning as possible of coming danger. Before SH, I would often play video games with my stereo turned on, playing any old music. After SH, game designers began to work very hard on making sound an integral part of the game. No more music 'n games for Jake.

But SH didn’t always throw it in your face. To me the most disturbing moment was when I found a backyard basketball court in the non-Hellraiser version of town. There was a puddle of red on the ground near the basket (you get desensitized to the amount of random blood around the town), but there seemed to be something in the middle of it. I pressed the "examine" button, and a text description popped up: "A dog’s head." I looked up, and there was a splotch of red on the backboard. I put it all together. My god! Someone cut off a dog’s head and shot a basket with it! This shit is fucked up!

Plenty of story, too. As one would imagine, the town of Silent Hill has a history plagued with cults, torture, murder and secrets. Silent Hill went on to become a franchise, with each game usually having only tenuous connections to the others.

For a while, Resident Evil and Silent Hill were really the only significant horror games out there, but that's changing. The most promising new series are the Japanese folklore-based Fatal Frame series, where you must use a mystic camera to capture the souls of angry spirits, and The Suffering, which focused on sanity, morality, and the hellish conditions of prison.

So what are people afraid of? I think more than anything, people are afraid of what's out there. Whatever's just beyond the edge of their vision, whatever's just around this corner, whatever's just beyond their mind's comprehension. It's out there, and if it comes near us, it could do terrible, terrible things to us. What kinds of things? If you've done the scaring right, everyone will be too afraid to ask.

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Lying Media Bastards is both a radio show and website. The show airs Mondays 2-4pm PST on KillRadio.org, and couples excellent music with angry news commentary. And the website, well, you're looking at it.

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Media News

November 16, 2004

Tales of Media Woe

Senate May Ram Copyright Bill- one of the most depressing stories of the day that didn't involve death or bombs. It's the music and movie industries' wet dream. It criminalizes peer-to-peer software makers, allows the government to file civil lawsuits on behalf of these media industries, and eliminates fair use. Fair use is the idea that I can use a snippet of a copyrighted work for educational, political, or satirical purposes, without getting permission from the copyright-holder first.

And most tellingly, the bill legalizes technology that would automatically skip over "obejctionable content" (i.e. sex and violence) in a DVD, but bans devices that would automatically skip over commericals. This is a blatant, blatant, blatant gift to the movie industry. Fuck the movie industry, fuck the music industry, fuck the Senate.

Music industry aims to send in radio cops- the recording industry says that you're not allowed to record songs off the radio, be it real radio or internet radio. And now they're working on preventing you from recording songs off internet radio through a mixture of law and technological repression (although I imagine their techno-fixes will get hacked pretty quickly).

The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few- blogger Jeff Jarvis discovers that the recent $1.2 million FCC fine against a sex scene in Fox's "Married By America" TV show was not levied because hundreds of people wrote the FCC and complained. It was not because 159 people wrote in and complained (which is the FCC's current rationale). No, thanks to Jarvis' FOIA request, we find that only 23 people (of the show's several million viewers) wrote in and complained. On top of that, he finds that 21 of those letters were just copy-and-paste email jobs that some people attached their names to. Jarvis then spins this a bit by saying that "only 3" people actually wrote letters to the FCC, which is misleading but technically true. So somewhere between 3 and 23 angry people can determine what you can't see on television. Good to know.

Reuters Union Considers Striking Over Layoffs- will a strike by such a major newswire service impact the rest of the world's media?

Pentagon Starts Work On War Internet- the US military is talking about the creation of a global, wireless, satellite-aided computer network for use in battle. I think I saw a movie about this once...

Conservative host returns to the air after week suspension for using racial slur- Houston radio talk show host (and somtime Rush Limbaugh substitute) Mark Belling referred to Mexican-Americans as "wetbacks" on his show. He was suspended for a couple of weeks, and then submitted a written apology for the racial slur to a local newspaper. But he seems to be using the slur and its surrounding controversy to boost his conservative cred with his listeners.

Stay Tuned for Nudes- Cleveland TV news anchor Sharon Reed aired a story about artist Spencer Tunick, who uses large numbers of naked volunteers in his installations and photographs. The news report will be unique in that it will not blur or black-out the usual naughty bits. The story will air late at night, when it's allegedly okay with the FCC if you broadcast "indecent" material. The author of this article doesn't seem to notice that Reed first claims that this report is a publicity stunt, but then claims it's a protest against FCC repression. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I'm not that much of a sucker.

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Mission: Mongolia

Jake's first attempt at homemade Mongolican barbecue:


What went right: correctly guessing several key seasonings- lemon, ginger, soy, garlic, chili.

What went wrong: still missing some ingredients, and possibly had one wrong, rice vinegar. Way too much lemon and chili.

Result: not entirely edible.

Plan for future: try to get people at Great Khan's restaurant to tell me what's in the damn sauce.

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