Donald Trump has a monster movie for you. The Others. It stars the MS-13 street gang (Tagline: “These aren’t people. These are animals.”) It features nasty women, Muslim terrorists, traitorous black athletes, Native American thugs, lying journalists, greedy Asians, disabled freaks, and Mexican immigrants (“Warning! Beware their stare!“). The traditional formula of most monster movies is normalcy threatened by an infernal creature. Normalcy, good. Monster, bad. Twitter is a perfect home for such simplified, binary tales. As is the Internet, which caters to our likes and dislikes and assures us that we are always right and the innocent victim in any conflict. The Internet is a perfect breeding ground for such facile phantasmagorias.
Liberals have a monster movie for you. It’s called The Donald. (Tagline: “He’s a psychopathic sociopath. He’ll make your skin crawl!) Never mind that Trump as President perfectly reflects America’s spiral into narcissism. Never mind that in the land of Kardashian TV and post-war capitalism, where individuals are judged solely by how much wealth and fame they attain, who else but Trump could be our leader? His treason mirrors America’s betrayal of itself. His stupidity parallels a collective cultural dumbing down. His indifference to suffering matches a communal numbness. But thanks to creature features, we can put it all on The Donald, and his weird orange skin and his bizarre tiny hands and his strange strawberry blonde coiffure. Pre-production has already begun on Trump vs. Godzilla.
Hollywood has a monster movie for you. Them! (Tagline: “It will scare the living hell out of you.”) It’s more reality-based than Trump’s chiller-diller, but it’s still a monster movie. The cast ranges from serial predators like Harvey Weinstein to…Aziz Ansari? And even some ghosts, like Marlon Brando, who Jessica Chastain tweeted about being a rapist, facts be damned. In this monster movie, like so many others, communities are pure as long as the werewolf, perhaps Kevin Spacey, is left on the cutting room floor or locked away. And so an industry that makes most of its money by sexualizing gun violence, and effectively making high-end commercials for the NRA, can pat itself on the back and post more pics of Emma Gonzáles. The creature has been banished, all is well.
With fundamentalism, there is always an other. When a rigid, binary, and fundamentalist understanding pervades, it comes in both right-wing and liberal forms. The mystery that connects us is forgotten. We stop seeing deeply and no longer understand metaphor, symbolism, or poetry. There is only self and other. There is only race, gender, age, religion, and nuance be damned. No room for imagination either. Only transgenders can play transgenders. Only a woman can truly understand Ocean’s 8. If you think Sorry To Bother You is juvenile, you’re part of the problem. Step in line with the mob mentality, conform to supposed non-conformity, don’t ask questions or think for yourself, lest you be ostracized. Align yourself with the most persecuted underdog, which seems to be everyone these days, including Trump and his non-elite, non-mainstream supporters. And while we might assume that #MAGA and a lot of these left-wing movements are battling each other, when everyone is involved in fundamentalism, they actually are feeding each other.
The masters of this genre have a movie for you. One of Us, Gooble Gobble, One of Us. It’s more subtle and complex. Tod Browning, Val Lewton and George Romero subverted the simplistic notions of good and bad by making films where the virtuous people weren’t so virtuous after all, and the monsters were actually quite human. In these movies, the separation between ghoul and person gets stolen away, and we’re unable to simply point a finger at evil. We’re unable to completely unravel ourselves from the vampire’s dark cloak. As George Romero said, “I have to leave the world a mess.”
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is in this lineage of nuanced horror. The eeriest thing about her film is that the savage hellion, Mr. Babadook, might actually be born out of the protagonist’s mind. Kent makes sure that we aren’t so sure where good ends and bad begins. But she’s not gas-lighting. She’s only making it more difficult to see the world in black and white. These more refined horror flicks live in the grey zone, where our dualistic iPhone brain runs out of juice, and empathy takes over. If Kevin Spacey were a character in one of these films, we might find out about his childhood with a sexually abusive father. Not to let Spacey off the hook, but to understand the deeper patterns of suffering that, to one level or another, run through all our veins.
Rehumanization is the process of healing the damage done by dehumanization. It’s a process in which we remember how to go past our fearful projections, stereotypes, stories, and labels and see an actual individual in the present. The need to turn someone into The Creature from the Black Lagoon steals not only their humanity, but our own. While fascism champions violent suppression of any opposition, democracy is built on having dialogue with those we might consider adversarial. Democracy depends on humans not demonizing each other.
Victor Frankenstein created a creature in his lab and then fled from it in horror. To some extent, we all have that tendency, to run from the monsters we ourselves have created. But as horror maestro John Carpenter said, “Monsters are us.” The more we pretend we are completely separate from our monsters, the more we become them.
— Noah Buschel
I missed you Noah
This is an incredible essay. Jordan Peele’s “Us” touches on a lot of these ideas. But this essay is clearer. Thanks!
Crazy great writing.