Reviewing VeggieTales as an Atheist; Jonah Part One

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

This is the last of my VeggieTales reviews for the time being. It is the last one I watched before I began to drift away from Christianity; though they have made more episodes, there is so much religious childhood nostalgia for me to unbury. Perhaps when I’ve run out of things from my past, I’ll take a peek at some of the more recent episodes.

Jonah was a big challenge for its producers. Unlike the thirty minute shorts, it was a feature length film, released in big scary secular theaters and everything. It did perform very well; their loyal fans turned out, and critics overall quite liked it as well. And, on rewatch, I found it a great note to end on.

The film takes a story within a story format. We first see Bob the Tomato, Mr. Asparagus and a van full of young veggies driving in the dark. They are all on their way to a concert. Jr. and Laura are sitting together, and Laura is bragging that while everyone else just has regular sit-in-the-audience tickets, she has the super special go-backstage-and-meet-the-singer ticket! Bob is struggling to figure out where they are, while Mr. Asparagus is pretty much just singing and playing guitar. No doubt he thinks “entertaining the kids” is an important job enough, and so he throws himself into it and completely overlooks the subtle hints Bob is dropping about maybe needing a hand with navigating. Also, he keeps hitting Bob in the face with his guitar.

Jonah road trip
I love Bob’s hat.

Hijinks ensue, clotheslines and porcupines get involved, until at last

  • The van has crashed into a stump
  • Not one but two tires are flat
  • Bob has a face full of porcupine quills
  • Laura loses her ticket.

The only place to crash and make some phone calls is a seafood restaurant. Laura is upset, Jr. is angry at her for taunting them, and Bob is even angrier at Dad Asparagus, who in turn feels guilty. All the chaos is overheard by the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything debuted in the objectively best Silly Song With Larry ever. Here’s a link, do yourself a favor and play it. Now, later, while you read the rest; doesn’t matter. Just listen to it. No Jesus stuff at all, I promise. Anyway, they consist of Larry, Pa Grape and Mr. Lunt, wearing pirate costumes and not giving a fuck. In this movie they tell us about the one time they actually did something, and learned a valuable lesson about compassion that Bob and Jr should maybe listen to.

The story opens in the port of Joppa, where Pirate Grape, Pirate Lunt and Pirate Larry are working on their fool-proof get rich quick scheme; eat so many Mr. Twisty’s Twisted Cheese Curls that by the law of large numbers they come across a golden ticket and win the sweepstakes. Shockingly, this plan has resulted in them being seriously broke.

Jonah Pirates
The Pirates, executing their get rich quick scheme.

We also meet the Ninevites. Nineveh was a city in Assyria, and in the Bible it is described as very generically wicked. Of course, Veggie Tales has to take things one step weirder, so the Ninevites are also notorious fish slappers. As in they take a fish, and slap people. In the face. With the fish. Because reasons.

See? See why I love VeggieTales so much?

We are then introduced to the man himself, Jonah, prophet of the Lord. He shows up to the Jews of Joppa and sings a song about being good and obedient. Conveniently for him, the people he is singing to are already being pretty good and mostly obedientish, so that goes well. We are meeting a guy who is solidly in his comfort zone; taking God’s word to people who already agree with it. He’s respected and powerful for doing nothing all that hard. This all gets shaken up when, later that night, Jonah is told to go preach to Nineveh.

He sings about how there must be some kind of mistake, and how much he hates the idea of talking to the bad guys. The refrain of the song is “no, this cannot be, your messages are meant for me (and my brothers).” I love the awkwardness of that addendum. Because it doesn’t fit the rhyme or meter, it suggests that Jonah actually does mean, not “your messages are meant for my people” but “for me.” His ego is tied up in his role as prophet, and Nineveh isn’t just a conflict for him because he sees them as bad. He doesn’t like seeing them as people worthy of a second chance, because that forces him to acknowledge a narrative where he isn’t the center of the story.

The next morning, Jonah wanders through the streets in a daze, while people ask him about the new message, and he freaks out. He claims there isn’t one for today, but the lie itself panics him, and he soon finds himself booking passage with the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. Their great cheese curl failures have made them so desperate they are actually willing to do something.

The Pirates do their best to keep Jonah preoccupied, but he’s in a pretty deep funk, so soon he goes below deck. There he meets Khalil, a brand new character who is positively made of awesome. He’s a blue caterpillar (erm, half caterpillar half worm, this will come up later) who sells Persian rugs and listens to motivational tapes. He’s perpetually cheerful and trusting, and so a perfect foil to Jonah’s morose superciliousness.

Jonah Khalil
Just look at that face!

Jonah, being a tasteless bastard, finds Khalil annoying and takes to calling him Carlyle, and its honestly hard to tell how much that is apathy and how much is “I can’t be bothered to learn your actual name.” He soon tunes the caterpillar out, and falls asleep. His sleep is troubled with nightmares about running away from God, and he wakes up to find the ship has been caught up in a terrible storm.

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything decide that somebody on board has displeased God, and therefore they should figure out who it is. Since God is clearly not the most forthright of beings (I mean, he’s sending natural meterological phenomena to communicate specific disappointment with a specific person) they figure they’ll all play a game of Go Fish, and the loser is clearly the one who caused the storm. This being a Bible story with Bible rules, Jonah loses and confesses to everyone. The Pirates make him walk the plank (with a rubber floaty ducky), and Pirate Grape first prays that God not kill them with this storm, nor hold them responsible for Jonah’s death, because, you know, they totally didn’t start it! I love this for three reasons. First, it’s the only acknowledgement you will ever see in a story like this that God comes across kinda capricious and scary. Second, it’s actually Biblical. I mean, there were lots drawn instead of Go Fish, and no duck floaties, but otherwise it’s exactly how things play out in the Bible. Third, Pirate Larry follows it with “And please keep my ducky safe. Amen.”

Jonah and the ducky
Nope. No words. I have no words.

Of course, the moment Jonah hits the water, the storm clears, and a whale comes up to swallow him. Ya’ll should know this bit.

Oh, and Khalil gets swallowed too, because wacky hijinks. I really can’t do them justice, so just take a good look at that picture of Jonah with the ducky floatie and the shower cap. And, of course, stay tuned for part two.

Three Things a Theme Needs

Ideas in stories fascinate me, and one of the things that interests me most is the lack of consensus on what makes a good theme. I write about this a lot.

I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?

In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.

1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.

2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.

3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe “all” in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.

These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

As I recall, I didn’t care for this episode much as a child. At the time, I mainly attributed that to the absence of Silly Songs of Larry. A valid criticism, younger me. A valid criticism.

Typically my Veggie Tales reviews have a summary of the plot, some stuff about how funny and well done I thought it was, and then I wrap up with my feelings about the message. Was it a good lesson, was it bad, and how well did they express it? In this case, I’m going to turn that around. The moral of Esther is “do the right thing even if you are scared,” and the context is the protagonist protecting her people from an evil vizier. Clearly all that works and I don’t think I need to argue why, but I really can’t say the story was well done or even charmingly funny. So for once, this atheist has nothing to say about religion or morality, but a whole lot to say about good writing.

Esther is one of the two books in the Bible named for women. It takes place in Persia, where Jews are a conquered minority struggling to hold onto their faith and cultural identity. The episode, like the Bible story, starts with the current queen of Persia being banished for refusing to get up in the middle of the night and make the king a sandwich. I mean, she wasn’t making a sandwich in the Bible. She was called to appear before the king and his drunk partying friends and, well, I’m pretty sure she was expected to do some kind of a striptease? It’s one of those cases where the Biblical writers are being wink-wink about customs that we don’t know much about. But there’s a definite suggestion that she was being coerced to do something skanky.

This puts the episode in an awkward position. Esther will end up married to the king (King Ahasuerus, who the veggies simply call “king” for obvious reasons) and if he’s the kind of person who throws a woman out into the night over a “sandwich,” he’s an awful guy. This isn’t a fairy tale marriage that the kids can feel  happy about. The episode deals with this by making the king come across as simple minded and easily swayed, so most of the blame lies with his advisor, Haman. Unfortunately, this solution creates two more problems. One is that they pick the Mr. Nezzer/Mr. Lunt duo to portray the king and Haman. Mr. Nezzer is deep voiced and serious, and we are used to seeing him as sinister. Mr. Lunt, on the other hand, has a high voice, a long pencil-thin moustache and is typically the hapless toady. For those who haven’t seen any of these episodes, imagine the live action version of Aladdin had Aziz Ansari as Jafar and Ben Kingsley as the Sultan. That’s about as off as this felt. I think if Archibald or even Larry had been the king, and an Evil Scallion had been Haman, it would have worked much better.

Mr. Nezzer...
Mr. Nezzer…
...and Mr. Lunt
…and Mr. Lunt

As for the other problem, maybe I should just get along with the review. I think it will become clear.

So, now that the king is wifeless, Haman sets off to find a new bride. He runs across Esther, who is hanging out with her Uncle Mordecai. Her friend recently stole an apple, and Esther is too afraid to confront her, which sets up her character as kind of a wuss. Now, I’m not saying that confrontation wouldn’t be hard, but I think most of us can confront people when we feel strongly about the issue at stake. Because Esther doesn’t find that courage, she comes across as either someone who is fairly cowardly, or who doesn’t really care about the confrontation to begin with. Mordecai is actually pressuring her a lot in this scene, and will do so for every decision she makes in this whole episode, so I think you could make a case for either one.

Haman nabs Esther for a game of Persia’s Next Top Queen, and Mordecai advises her to keep their family connection a secret, because Haman hates him and their entire family. Haman’s motivation for hating them isn’t really explained. In the Biblical version, Haman just hates Jews (anti-Semitism; providing narrative impetus since 550 BCE!). In this episode, however, Esther and Mordecai carefully and awkwardly refer to their “family” not their religion or ethnic group, and nobody says the word “Jew.” I’m not sure why not; the protagonists of Josh and the Big Wall were clearly Jewish.

Esther sings a pretty song about God and wins the queenship, if winning is the right word. She explicitly states that she doesn’t want to be queen and she’s scared. When Mordecai meets her later on a balcony, he rolls his eyes at her anxiety with the statement, “you’ve always had a mind of your own.” That line really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve noticed that toxic, domineering people often respond to normal emotions and healthy boundaries with “you’re just being stubborn.” It makes people feel guilty for having things like the basic capacity to think for themselves, or a vague sense of selfhood. In this case, even if you ignore the sexual consent issues, the king’s last wife got kicked out for refusing to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. That’s a valid reason to be scared.

This is also bad storytelling because if there’s one thing Esther does not come across as, it’s headstrong. That’s another recurring problem in this episode. Mordecai and the narrator constantly inform the audience that Esther is brave, but I don’t think there’s a single scene where she does something based on personal conviction and motivation, rather than being pushed around by outside forces. This characterization comes all the way down to the nonverbal elements of her characterization; she is limp and her voice is mild and quavery.

Just look at that face.
Just look at that face.

The next scene is an assassination attempt by the French Peas. It is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part. It is the best because it is the most funny. There’s a cake and a giant piano and peas with French accents. It’s disappointing because it exists to set up three plot points that will all be paid off very awkwardly. First, it is illegal to approach the king without being invited. Second, Mordecai saves the King’s life. Third, in this version of Persia, criminals get sent to the Island of Perpetual Tickling.

The Grim Tickler
The Grim Tickler

Payoff of the first plot point; Haman tricks the king into signing an order for Mordecai’s family to all be killed Perpetually Tickled, Esther has to approach the King in order to convince him to save her people. She’s terrified, because that’s forbidden. We are supposed to be scared for her because of the dire fate of the French Peas, but the king didn’t react much when they showed up unannounced and was easily tricked to stand under the giant piano of near-death. The king didn’t seem bothered by anything that was going on until it was clear they were trying to kill him. He’s also clearly smitten, and doesn’t seem disturbed by what nearly happened to him. Even as a kid, I couldn’t identify with Esther’s terror. It was too obvious that nothing bad was going to happen to her. Even so, she waits until almost the end of the episode to spit it out.

Payoff of the second plot point; the king rewards Mordecai for saving his life. This makes Haman mad. This would, in most stories, be the point at which Haman decides to get revenge because he is jealous of Mordecai’s new status, but in this episode Haman has already put his murderous tickley plan into action. His increased anger changes nothing in the plot, so the whole thing is fairly pointless.

Payoff of the third plot point: in the end, Esther finally tells the King what’s up and he freaks out because he likes both her and Mordecai. He sends Haman off to be eternally tickled instead. Obviously that was going to be his reaction, and that’s the second problem with his characterization. In the original biblical story, the king was fickle and brutal, which made the story rather family unfriendly, but maintained the suspense. In this story, the question isn’t whether the king will turn on Esther, but whether Esther will whine and hesitate until it’s too late and everyone is dead.

Er, tickled.

On top of all those plot and characterization problems, this episode just didn’t have that Veggie Tales charm. They went for something of a gangster movie pastiche, which didn’t work for two reasons. One is that you can’t parody something when most of the target audience isn’t familiar with it. Do you know any six year olds who are fans of Martin Scorsese? The other is that the design elements this concept brought in were all very dreary and adult; a narrator with a slow, drawling voice, for example, or veggies wearing fedoras, which isn’t any sillier than veggies wearing robes and crowns. The thing about most Veggie Tales is that no matter what I’ve thought of the episode, I’ve felt like the writers were having fun. This didn’t feel fun.

Veggietales’ The Toy That Saved Christmas; An Atheist’s Perspective on the Nativity

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

Christmas is a time of traditions. For some it’s touring the neighborhood lights displays. For some it’s putting on Christmas tunes the day after Thanksgiving. One friend of mine does not consider the season real until they have drunk spiked eggnog while watching Ralphie get his Red Rider BB gun with this thing that tells time. Traditions have many uses. They invoke nostalgia, provide a sense of stability, and often exist as a reminder of some deeper value. That last one is especially true of Christmas. Every other song and TV special is about finding its true meaning, which I suppose means one tradition is going a hunt for the point behind the traditions. Truly, it is the most meta of the holidays.

This episode has George the scallion telling his granddaughter a story about a town that didn’t get Christmas. Not in the Narnia cursed by the White Witch sense, but in the sense that they didn’t understand its true meaning. The little veggies all whine about toys and beg for more, because evil toymaker Mr. Nezzar is indoctrinating them through commercials to think that the whole point of life is to have more stuff than other kids. So, basically a documentary so far.

All that changes when one of Mr. Nezzar’s toys, Buzz-saw Louis, starts to feel that he is missing something.

Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis.
Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis. For kids!

There isn’t really any reason for this. Narrator George speculates that his wiring was a little off. In any case, he breaks free, teams up with Larry, Bob and Jr Asparagus, and they all go looking for someone to tell them the true meaning of Christmas. This person turns out to be Grandpa George, who tells them the Nativity story.

Actually, he just does that thing Linus does in the Peanuts special, where he starts from “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby…” and stops just after the angels show up, which always struck me as odd. Explaining the true meaning of Christmas by quoting those seven verses is like explaining the Hero’s Journey by describing that time Han Solo got frozen in carbonite. Sure, it’s intriguing, but you don’t really come close to grasping the real point without knowing the whole of Empire Strikes Back, and ideally you should have seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi as well.

At least in the Peanuts special, there was room for Charlie Brown to have been familiar with the whole story from another source, and Linus was just reminding him after the guy had a rough time. In this case, Louis has just been manufactured, and as for Larry, Bob and Jr., all it took was a few commercials to completely obliterate any sense of deeper meaning behind the holiday. Clearly they haven’t been living inundated with the whole “original sin – incarnated deity – death and resurrection” mythos.

Despite their ignorance, George just has to follow those verses up with “you see, Christmas isn’t about getting. It’s about giving,” and they have a total change of heart. Even though the verses he quoted don’t say anything about getting OR giving, and you have to be fairly familiar with Christianity to see the connections between those two messages. It should all sound like a chain of non-sequiters to these characters.

Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.
Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.

Of course, they immediately feel an urgent need to get the message out, so they sneak back into Mr. Nezzar’s factory, where they put together their own commercial and broadcast it into everyone’s home. And naturally, all the kids immediately stop whining, families start cuddling and all is well.

If you’ve read my previous VeggieTales posts, you know that every episode featuring Mr. Nezzar has him threaten somebody with death, only to be redeemed at the last minute, at which point everyone acts like he wasn’t just on the verge of being an extremely enthusiastic murderer. This is no exception. Mr. Nezzar is angry that they’ve ruined his moneymaking scheme and prepares to send the protagonists all over a cliff, taunting them with their imminent death, until the villagers surprise him with a Christmas present and the holiday spirit overtakes him. Mr. Nezzar rescues Buzz-saw Louis and friends in an epic sled-chase, and all is better.

For the record, of all the Nezzar redemption arcs this the one I like best, because at least he does something to show his change of heart is genuine, as opposed to just saying he’s totally not a psychopath anymore.

A brief summary like this can’t help but leave out all the jokes that make this episode, as usual, charming. I mean, Mr. Nezzar’s minions are penguins. Penguins!

pennnnguiiiiiiiins
pennnnguiiiiiiiins

But the advantage of a summary is that it lays out the weaknesses of the plot, without anything to disguise it. Characters are farcically impressionable, swayed this way and that by whatever commercial or story they last heard. There isn’t anything meaningful at the heart of this story, for a very simple reason. The Nativity is just like any other Christmas tradition. It is a series of symbols, and needs active interpretation to uncover the point beneath it all.

As in so many things Christian, I don’t actually have a problem with the story of Christ’s birth, just the assumption that anyone who doesn’t make it the center of their holiday is missing the entire point of everything. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it isn’t even the entire point of Christmas; the holiday has roots in virtually every pagan winter solstice celebration from Iceland to Russia. The traditions carry history, but the meaning is something we rediscover and reinvent with every new generation. You can’t find Christmas by narrowing in on one story. You pick what you think it should mean, and you home in on the traditions that bring those to life for you.

Welcome to Night Vale

I have a theory about human nature. When it comes to the strange, confusing or taboo, we have only three possible responses. We can be disgusted, which prompts us to avoid whatever it is. If that avoidance isn’t allowed, our other options are fear and humor. This makes comedy and horror oddly companionable. Though externally they seem extremely different, they have the potential to explore similar topics, and many stories successfully combine them; the Scream franchise, The Cabin in the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Shaun of the Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on. Sometimes the comedy is dominant, sometimes the terror. Where the subject of my final October review falls may be up to the individual.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast (and as of a couple weeks ago, a novel) about a small desert community where Lovecraftian terrors are just part of the everyday backdrop. In Night Vale, time only flows in a linear progression when it feels like it, street cleaners and librarians are everyone’s worst nightmare, city council is some sort of eldritch flesh-eating hive mind, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is really more of a petty trickster than an actual threat. Unless you’ve recently beaten her in a mayoral election, of course. Everyone is used to this and accepts it, running their everyday lives as best as possible around all the weirdness, experiencing the same hopes, fears and heartbreaks as humans everywhere.

The podcast is narrated by Cecil, host of Night Vale Community Radio. He brings us community news, the weather, updates on the struggle against the latest unearthly horror to terrorize the town, and of course traffic. There’s a strong element of unreliable narrator to the show. Is Cecil saying what he thinks, or what the Secret Police insist that he says? Is his information accurate, or biased by his status as a devout mountain unbeliever? Are we, the non-Night Valian audience, simply misunderstanding him because we didn’t realize antiques have tails? Despite Cecil’s fallibility, it’s hard not to trust him; not in the simple sense of believing everything he says, but in the deeper sense. When Cecil talks, you can hear his love for his town. I always get the sense that, in all the chaos, it’s Cecil who really binds Night Vale together. He might not always be factually accurate, but he can hear and diagnose the heartbeat of Night Vale.
The novel is more straightforward. As it’s so recent, this will be a brief and spoiler-free review. It follows two citizens of Night Vale, who are seeking to unravel a puzzle that is less apocalyptic, more personal. I loved it, and I don’t think you need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy it. It’s highly recommended, especially if you like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books. As those were to space opera/fantasy, this is to horror.
Night Vale, to me, isn’t scariest when the space-time fabric rips open and tentacled monsters invade. That is so everyday it is hardly worth mentioning. It’s scariest when there is a small, personal threat; anything to do with Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, makes me hold my breath a little. This is a common element of life in Night Vale. The town can weather any number of injustices and catastrophes, then go back to school and work the next morning. This is also a common aspect of human nature. We acclimate, even to things that sound horrific.

There are upsides to this, and downsides. One of the negatives is that we can accept things that we really shouldn’t, just because that’s the way they are; slavery comes to mind. Another is that, even as we acclimate, wounds can build up under the surface and reveal themselves later, like a soldier gallows-humoring through combat only to develop a bad drinking problem back home. The positive is that, well, without that ability we could never survive in an imperfect world. Sitting around and waiting for life to become safe, or refusing to participate in a world that fails to be perfectly just, both end in sitting alone until you die. Life in Night Vale is about finding a balance between complacency and paralyzing terror. So is life everywhere else.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Stay safe, and have fun.

Babadook and Dark Water

Supernatural horror is a massive subgenre, and many excellent works have been made simply using ghosts and demons as scary monsters. They let us all indulge the little parts of our mind that, in the middle of the night, goes back to our ancestors in caves and wonders “what if there really is something out there?” Then there are those that try using the supernatural as symbols of a real world terror. Not all of those work as well as simple chillers, but when the writers have a good understanding of the issue they are talking about, and a good grasp of the art of subtlety, the results can be wonderful. In fact, they can be used to talk about issues that are hard to portray directly.

Because nobody is more vulnerable than a child, and a few billion years of evolution compel us to protect them, horror loves to involve children. This is the case with two of my favorite films, The Babadook and Dark Water (the Japanese version, not the American remake, yes I’m a snob). Both have single mothers as protagonists, struggling to maintain a normal life for their child while supernatural forces stalk them. Spoilers ahead.

The Babadook

The two children are very different. In The Babadook, Amelia’s six year old Sam has behavioral troubles. He’s obsessed with monsters and weaponry, cycling between begging to play with weapons and read scary stories, and screaming fits of terror. Also, he has tantrums and at least one seizure. His behaviors get him in trouble at school and alienate him from all his peers. For the record, he’s a very accurate portrayal. I’ve worked with more than a couple Sams. Many similar stories would have him as the unsettling demonic child; this movie actually gives him a lot of sympathetic motivations. His father died in a crash the day he was born, and Sam’s fear seems to come from concern for his mother. He fantasizes that he is the protector of the house and concocts elaborate scenarios where he protects Amelia. Combine that with a kid who is often oblivious to how he comes across, and you get a kid who is actually quite likable, yet you don’t envy anyone who has to deal with him. Amelia, unfortunately, has a shortage of help. In addition to the loss of her husband, Sam’s school is not very good, and her sister’s half-hearted attempts to help only make Amelia feel more isolated.

In Dark Water, Yoshimi’s daughter Ikuko is sweet and responsible, especially for a five year old. Yoshimi was extremely neglected as a child, and in fact she is divorcing her husband because she sees him neglecting both her and her child in the same way. He is now doing everything in his power to gain custody of Ikuko, seemingly just to spite Yoshimi. Yoshimi has had a history of anxiety attacks and nervous breakdowns. Her in-story excuse is that she was disturbed by a job proofreading horror novels, but flashbacks make us suspect the underlying cause is lingering wounds from the subtle, toxic abuse of neglect. This makes her connection to Ikuko all the more important. It is both a chance to redeem herself, and the one relationship where she feels the unconditional love that she has always needed.

Dark Water

In both these stories, as in most great horror, the threats start slow and subtle. A creepy book appears in Sam’s bedroom and Amelia can’t remember where it came from. A little red bag keeps returning to Yoshimi and Ikuko’s new apartment, no matter how Yoshimi throws it away. These things serve the usual purpose of slowly raising the tension, but they also serve the particular purpose of illustrating the vulnerability of both women’s situations. In many horror stories, the victims are reluctant to face the eerie events in front of them, but in these, there is a reason for that. The women’s natural reactions of fear are interpreted by those around them as feminine hysteria, possibly indicating that they aren’t suitable caretakers. Rather than losing sympathy by not taking the obvious option, they gain it by showing us how all their options are bad; embrace what’s happening and be seen as crazy, or try to ignore it as the threat encroaches closer and closer.

As the threat grows, the audience starts to realize that the child isn’t the target. It’s the parent. In Yoshimi’s case, she and her daughter are being stalked by a the ghost of another little girl whose parents neglected her. In this case, the neglect was fatal, and now she’s desperate to find the mother she always needed. The ghost is determined to supplant Ikuko. Amelia is even closer to the monster. After she gets rid of the book, a new version appears, just for her. The Babadook says, “the more you ignore me, the stronger I’ll get.” Amelia is disturbed, but we begin putting pieces together as we watch her behavior. She is a loving mother, but the cracks are beginning to show. We are all familiar with the way we can snap and say something we don’t want to say in a stressful situation, and how unpleasant we can be when that stress becomes chronic.

The Babadook and the ghost are both manifestations of a truth we all know unconsciously. When we feel abandoned by those we love, by those who are supposed to look after us, that pain has the potential to turn us into something horrible.

One of the great things we love to tell ourselves is how wonderful families are, how much a source of unconditional love and blood is thicker than water and we will always be connected and so on and so forth. But in truth, there is always a choice. Some families are horrible, not in the quirky dysfunctional sitcom sense, but in the real, pathological, destructive sense. It’s easy to think of those families as people who are half real, who exist in news stories and not in our own neighborhoods. Dark Water and The Babadook, through supernatural symbolism, show us the other side; the destructive power of abandonment, isolation and neglect in families that might look very ordinary. They both do this in a way that is sensitive to their characters, honest about the pain and, at the last minute, oddly hopeful.

Absentia

Absentia is one of my absolute favorite horror films. I don’t measure my enjoyment of horror films quite the way I do others. Normally I look at both my enjoyment the first time around and how it holds up after a few rewatches. With horror, I don’t want to watch it too often. I want to forget the jumps and the twists, so that I’ll still get tense when the lights go out and nothing has gone wrong in almost three minutes. So, instead, I pick favorites based on how much they haunt me. Despite not seeing Absentia for two years before I watched it for this review, I’ve thought of it more than any other horror film I’ve seen. It’s damn good.

Absentia Callie

The title comes from the legal term “in absentia,” meaning that legal proceedings are going on despite the absence of something. In this case, Daniel Riley disappeared seven in years ago, and his wife Tricia is having him declared dead in absentia. She misses him. She loves him. She wants him to stay in the potentially reversible category of missing, not the rather permanent one of dead.

Also, her bills have piled up, her life has been on hold for seven years, and she’s pregnant. It’s time.

Her sister Callie, a recovering drug addict, visits to support her through the process. While she’s there, they both begin seeing things they can’t quite explain, but that seem to center around the concrete tunnel where so many in the neighborhood have disappeared.

I won’t give away the nature of this story’s monster or what it does, because the way this film builds the suspense is too good to spoil. Furthermore, it’s not really necessary to the great idea of Absentia. Unlike some stories, which use the monsters as clear metaphors for something, Absentia uses the confusion of the characters, whose lives are being torn apart by events they can’t begin to explain, to talk about how we deal with that. What do we do when life isn’t even willing to give us the closure of answers?

Absentia Tricia

Callie and Tricia try everything; substance abuse, blame, religion, science, outrage, meditation, and when everything else fails, stories. Pure, fabricated guesses of what might have happened, what might be going on. Absentia shows us all of them, shows us the ultimate futility of them, and does not for a moment blame its characters for resorting to them. It simply invites us to witness, understand, and empathize. Unlike so many horror movies, which flatten and stereotype its protagonists, Absentia makes them so human you will cry.

There is so much love in this movie, and not sappy, idealized love. It has messy, frustrating love directed towards messy, frustrated people. It also isn’t love that is magically strong enough to undo all the evil spells or stop bad things from coming. It’s just there, warm and real. There is a moment with a hug, and then after the hug there are bad things that the hug couldn’t stop. That’s okay. At least it was there when it could be, doing what good it could.

Absentia sisters

When I talk about ideas, I don’t always mean answers. Absentia doesn’t have any answers to what you do when there are no answers. That would defeat the point. It’s about reminding us that sometimes there aren’t any, and appreciating the heartbroken guesses of the people left behind.

Side Effects; A Missed Opportunity

Horror and action are genres that both frequently deal with dangerous situations, and yet it’s fairly rare that they get mixed up. Action is about the point where danger is active, and can be battled out in the open. There are clear boundaries between danger and safety, good and evil. It typically stars someone highly capable of handling the threat. Indiana Jones, Batman and Imperator Furiosa may have the odds stacked against them, but they are still trained and resourceful in exactly the ways the crisis demands. Horror, on the other hand, tends to focus on dangers that are lurking, liminal, or hidden just out of sight, and they involve protagonists who are completely unprepared to deal with the threat when it will finally come out of the dark. Action lets us escape to a world where we can take on our greatest foes; horror tells us what to do when we can’t.

Straddling the line between the two is the thriller, where events are a little too mundane and the emotional palette too varied for true horror, but there is an intensity and level of suspense above that of conventional action. This can be a really fun genre, both to write and watch. The danger lies in the temptation for the author to pull their punches, to pretend they are saying something profound but deliver escapism at the last moment. And just to be clear; I think both brutal honesty and exciting escapism are great. They each have their place and they can also be mixed in interesting ways. But sometimes they are combined create a garish chimera.

Let’s move on to the review, shall we?

Side Effects

Side Effects has an interesting premise that involves topics that are very important right now; medications, the danger of overprescription, the danger of paranoia around overprescription, the way medicines are marketed to the doctors who prescribe them, the frivolous lawsuit problem, so on and so forth. The main characters are Jonathan Banks, a young psychiatrist played by Jude Law, and Emily, his patient played by Rooney Mara. Emily is struggling with depression and suicidal urges. Banks prescribes her an experimental medicine that he is being paid to push, and as a result, she kills her husband in a sleepwalking incident.

The buildup to the events is excellent, because we aren’t allowed any easy answers. It’s easy, from the description above, to blame the doctor, but his characterization meticulously builds up sympathy for him. His first scene has him de-escalating a situation by culturally mediating between an anxious Haitian patient and a cop, potentially saving a life. He doesn’t see his patients as a pure opportunity for profit. He sees complex humans who need someone to understand them. Also, while he’s willing to take a little money from drug companies it isn’t in a blatantly unethical way. He isn’t pushing it on patients who would likely do better on another drug, he isn’t aware of any dangerous side effects and he is even upfront about both it’s experimental status and his relationship with the company. Emily takes the medication because she can’t handle the side effects from other, more common prescriptions and insists she prefers the experimental drug, right up until the death of her husband. The thing about dramatic side effects like this is that there’s always a first person to exhibit them. It’s so easy to think about the person who greedily recommended it in full knowledge of this danger, or without having done basic research. It’s hard to think of the essentially good guy, the innocent woman and the dead man, all connected by nothing more than really terrible luck.

This story threw me into a situation where I wanted a bad guy, and there was none to be seen, which in an odd way was scarier than any evil monster. I didn’t realize this until the movie, but when things have gone suddenly and irreversibly bad, sometimes the only thing left is the idea of justice, of a cosmic balancing of the scales. Even an unbeatable enemy is oddly comforting; there can be the comfort of wallowing in fantasies of some day when some hero will come along and give the bastards what they deserve. But if there’s no villain, nobody to blame or resent, then there is truly no hope for justice. I can’t think of any way to make things worse than that.

Everyone in the story is affected by this absence of a villain, and in sweep the lawyers and the PIs to help everyone find their bad guy. The temptation to find one slowly topples each character. The most effected is the protagonist, who, realizing he is everyone’s favorite choice to take the blame, begins acting hostile towards his former patient, essentially becoming the villain everyone wants him to be.

At this point in the story I was hooked. Unfortunately, this is also where it decided to massively disappoint me. See, it wasn’t about the horror of realizing that your desire to not be the bad guy turned you into the very villain they were looking for. It was about an evil lesbian conspiracy.

I really wish I didn’t  have to write that. But seriously that’s the only way to put it. Honestly, I think the original piece was the brilliant movie that I thought it was two-thirds of the way through, and then in some writer’s meeting a studio executive said, “you know, I just worry that this story is such a downer. And it’s going to be over everyone’s heads. Can’t we give it a sexier ending?”

And somebody said, “what, like evil lesbians?” before they realized that once those two words were spoken, the brainless studio executive would never, ever let the idea go.

I think that’s really awful, because of anti-vaxxers. And lots of other people, but anti-vaxxers are big in the news right now so I’ll go with that. It’s a movement that is so totally displaced from medical science that it’s kind of hard to argue with. If someone quotes that old nonsense about only using ten percent of your brain, you can explain that misconception came from the fact that we typically don’t use more than ten percent of our brain at once, but it’s a different ten percent from moment to moment so yeah, we use our entire brains. There’s enough common ground to get the conversation going. But when the other person really isn’t interested in any studies except the one, thoroughly discredited one that confirms their preconceptions, it’s hard to talk about the issue at all. Which sucks, because we had almost gotten rid of the measles and now it’s back.

What many people miss is that anti-vaxxers hang onto their theory because it gives them a bad guy. A largish minority of children with autism will, at some point in their childhood, experience a bad regression. Some will even spontaneously develop autism. In a country where most children are regularly vaccinated, the law of large numbers dictates that sometimes the vaccine and the regression will happen around the same time, giving grieving and understandably frightened parents a potential scapegoat. Add one misleading study and an internet to hook everybody together, and you’ve got a community united, comforted by a common enemy. Even if that enemy is a boogeyman. Before you go blaming the parents exclusively, remember that for years therapists did the same thing; they claimed that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms” despite no real evidence or even a clear definition of what that meant. They didn’t know what to do, so they blamed the scared parent and/or feminism and went home able to sleep better for it.

My point is, this issue is a part of human nature that we need to talk about. It is relevant to the times, relevant to our safety, and relevant to our ability to handle a crisis compassionately, and to really cooperate rationally on a solution. This movie had a chance to facilitate that conversation on a cultural level, and it blew it.

It’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Typically I write my reviews on movies, not novels, for two reasons. One is that it is less of a commitment of time and effort to rewatch a movie with notepad in hand to make my overthinking extra overthinky. The other is that I’ve heard from several authors that it’s a good idea to leave the bad reviews to the professional reviewers. I often get a lot out of analyzing stories that I think did something poorly, and when I do that I always go for Hollywood. However, for my first idea-rich horror review, I am breaking that trend. There’s no need to reread I Am Not a Serial Killer, because all the relevant details are stuck quite firmly in my mind, and there will certainly be no need to say anything negative.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is the first book in a series by Dan Wells, about a teenager, John Cleaver, who doesn’t want to be a serial killer. Normally that isn’t something teenagers have to deal with, but in his case there are a number of warning signs, from a diagnosis of pre-sociopathy to frequent bloody fantasies to the fact that his name is John Wayne Cleaver. His life is lived by a rigid code designed to protect him from his temptation to kill. When his small town is stalked by monsters, he seems to have been presented by a win-win situation; the opportunity to stalk and kill without being in the wrong. Naturally, this situation gets sticky very, very quickly.

While there is plenty of gore, the book is primarily psychological horror. We like John and we don’t want to see him give in to his dark side. I’m not sure John is a perfectly accurate depiction of a sociopath, though that is less Dan Wells’ fault and more a consequence of the mystery of what sociopathy truly is. John has all the classic marks, except that he has a desire to be better. It’s that tension that makes him both strangely fascinating and extremely relatable. That conflict is fundamental to every moral question. What do we do when what we think is right and what we want to do are at odds?

There are two approaches that John is caught between. One is of setting a clear, firm boundary between himself and who he fears becoming. It’s not enough for him to not kill. He has to not follow people around. He has to say something nice to someone if he has a fantasy about brutally dismembering them. He can’t eat meat. The other is of choosing a release that is supposed to be safe; it’s okay to kill someone if you think they might be dangerous to others, right?

I’m interested in moral questions, and I’ve been all over the political and religious maps. John’s list of rules reminds me of the preferred methods of Christian fundamentalism, and many other conservative worlds, while seeking an acceptable outlet tends to be preferred by liberal and secular worlds. While I’ve settled with a strong preference for the approach of outlets, to be honest there are downsides to both.

Take sex for example. Now, I tend to think sex is needlessly stigmatized, but in the Western world I think it is the area where the average person is most likely to experience a conflict between what they want to do and what they think they should do. The trouble with rigid boundaries is that they can heighten the tension, and thus the intensity of the temptation. They can easily result in a sliding scale. Consider standards of modesty; in a world where chests and thighs must be covered, shoulders and knees become erotic. When the legs and arms are covered, the wrists and ankles become scandalous. Meanwhile, the behavior of the people who have placed these boundaries does not necessarily improve. In the United States, we are used to hearing about the affairs, call girls and rent boys of politicians, typically the most religiously conservative ones. I personally am in favor of peeling back all the restrictions to the bare minimum; physical safety and consent are important, but otherwise why worry. Still, for people who feel the urge to cheat, or who hate condoms, or who are attracted to someone who doesn’t consent, simply saying “here’s a minimally restrictive alternative”doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing. I’ve known people in highly relaxed, poly and kink friendly circles who only seek to play lawyer and see how much they can get away with. Loopholes are sought, definitions pushed and rules bent and sometimes outright broken, and people still get hurt.

The problem, of course, is that no amount of rules can make you do the right thing if you fundamentally don’t love your partners enough to take care of them. Which brings the matter back to John. He experiences both types of problems. He bounces back and forth between rules that only make breaking more appealing, and releases that make him seek even more loopholes. Whichever tactic he takes is destined to fail, unless he can learn true empathy; to care about people for their own sake. That is the question at the heart of the series. Can he learn to connect with others?

This is by far not only one of my favorite horror series, but one of my favorite series of any genre. It is exciting, creepy and fun, but also has one of the most compelling character arcs of anything I have read. If you’re looking for some Halloween reading, and you haven’t read this series yet, go check out I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!