My online friend Rafael Melo has just published a new interview with me at his blog Cloudy Sky. Topics include my reasons for writing about horror and religion and such, my creative process, the centrality of depression and dread in my life as a writer, my favorite music and movies, the deep meaning of angels and demons, the current state of higher education, and more.
Here’s an excerpt where I get personal about my childhood anti-education in the realm of horror cinema:
RAFAEL: What are your main influences for writing about the horror genre?
MATT: My major horror influences include Lovecraft, Ligotti, Ted Klein, and a host of other writers in the weird fiction tradition and the wider tradition of supernatural horror in general. When I was young I read a lot of Poe’s and Bradbury’s horror stories, and this proved significant. So did a horror record that a friend played for me at his house one late summer afternoon. It featured some spooky sound effects plus a few readings of classic horror stories, including a deliriously unhinged performance of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” I can still hear the narrator’s voice as he goes for broke in an over-the-top reading of the final line: “Here! Here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!” That flat-out marked me, man.
Although I don’t usually name him in this regard, I suppose I ought to mention Stephen King, too, since I imbibed a large number of his books in my youth , along with the movies adapted from them, and this was influential. My parents didn’t let me watch scary stuff when I was young, so when the movie versions of Carrie and The Shining and the television miniseries of Salem’s Lot came out in the 1970s, I saw the ads but didn’t get to see the movies themselves, and my mind generated all kinds of vague expectations of the colossally frightening things that must be in them. The same thing happened with non-Stephen King movies, too, including Hell Night, Silent Scream, and several more. Whenever I accidentally caught the television advertisements, I was so frightened that I couldn’t stop seeing them in my mind’s eye for hours afterward. Quite seriously, these commercials filled me with a sense of terror and dread. But at the same time, I found them hypnotically fascinating.
I’ve realized in recent years that my parents did me a wonderful creative favor, albeit inadvertently, by forbidding me to watch such things, because this worked in tandem with a native bent in my personality to inculcate a deep and tantalizing sense of some elusive horror that’s loose in the world, and that can never really be seen or known directly, but that would absolutely fry you if you saw it face to face.
. . . When Lovecraft invokes the idea of unspeakable horrors and sanity-blasting cosmic gods and monsters, and when he says the fundamental supernatural horrific response is basically coeval with the ancient category of consciousness that we call “religious experience,” I hear him developing an eccentric version of negative/apophatic theology and helping to clarify the very thing that drives me personally.
FULL INTERVIEW: Matt Cardin — Life and Mind of a Teeming Brain
FYI, Rafael also runs the antinatalist blog The Last Page and has long been an active presence in the online community devoted to discussing antinatalism, including in the works of Thomas Ligotti. If you can read Portuguese, you can look up and read his book of antinatalist philosophy, A Última Filosofia: An Essay about Antinatalism.
Charles Fort wrote, “I cannot say that truth is stranger than fiction, because I have never had acquaintance with either. . . . There is the hyphenated state of truth-fiction.”
Robert Anton Wilson wrote, “The main thing I learned in my experiments is that reality is always plural and mutable. . . . Alan Watts may have said it best of all: ‘The universe is a giant Rorschach ink-blot.'”
And then there’s this, which significantly departs from Fort’s and RAW’s basic point about what the latter called “guerilla ontology,” but which, I think, may overlap with it enough to induce a valuable state of philosophical schizophrenia:
In the post-war Cold-War era, Godzilla could be a symbol of the threat of nuclear holocaust, which was a constantly simmering terror, never quite on-hand but never far away. Now, Godzilla can represent the fear and disgust we feel with ourselves over the disintegration of the Earth — this sense that at any time, a super monster could rise up from inside our planet.
Among its blockbuster counterparts, Godzilla takes the wanton, almost fetishistic destruction of superhero movies — Zack Snyder’s last Superman, which ruined New York for no particular reason, resulting in a real-life equivalent of nearly 1.5 million casualties and $2 trillion in damage — and creates a real-life parallel. Director Gareth Edwards used the word “god” to refer to Godzilla — strangely enough, the name is just an Anglicization of “Gojira” — and it makes sense: Gods are only extensions of humanity, serving to help us understand the parts of the world that we cannot otherwise. Where our superheroes are normally meant as fables, pop lessons in anthropology and sociology, a creature like Godzilla allows us to confront how humans deal with the non-human. In the same way that David Cronenberg literally fused the human and the technological in his films during the ’80s and ’90s — an era when we were beginning to understand what it meant to become cyborgs — Godzilla splices the natural and the engineered in 2014, when we are beginning to understand that there’s no turning back from what we did to the Earth.
Beyond its content, though, Godzilla’s form also embodies the weird place that Hollywood is in. Godzilla isn’t a sequel, and it isn’t a remake, but it also isn’t an original idea, which, in this climate, is the kind of nine-digit production budget you can only muster if you’re Christopher Nolan or the Wachowskis, someone with previous commercial-blockbuster success. Instead, it’s an attempt to resurrect a great and fallen franchise, which makes it feel original.
Image by BagoGames via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of you are probably (surely) aware that H. R. Giger died last week. The obituary in The New York Times — which is just one entry in the outpouring of recognitions and appreciations that have flooded the media — opens with a concise and excellent summation of Giger’s master themes and cultural significance:
A thread running through Mr. Giger’s work was the uneasy meshing of machines and biology, in a highly idiosyncratic blend of science fiction and surrealism. From books to movies to record albums to magazine illustrations to a back-scratcher inspired by ‘Alien,’ his designs challenged norms. He kept a notepad next to his bed so he could sketch the terrors that rocked his uneasy sleep — nightmarish forms that could as easily have lumbered from prehistory as arrived from Mars.
The same piece also contains a worthy quote from none other than Timothy Leary, who knew the man personally: “Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.”
Someone else who knew the man personally is Teeming Brain columnist Jason V. Brock. Here, Jason offers a tribute and farewell in which he describes the time he met Giger and shares his reflections on the artist’s legacy and importance.
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H. R. Giger and Jason V Brock
In 2006 my wife Sunni and I met the late visionary artist H. R. Giger at his home in Zürich, Switzerland.*
We were there to interview him for our forthcoming documentary Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic, and he, along with his lovely wife Carmen, entertained us for several hours. His house was a fascinating place, as one would imagine, and he was in a fine mood, laughing and discussing his artwork, as well as inquiring about a mutual friend, filmmaker Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien, director of Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected), who was still alive at the time. There was more to that fantastic encounter, including a fine meal, bottles of wine, the telling of amusing anecdotes, etc., but much of it is of a private nature; it is something that Sunni and I will always cherish and hold dear in our hearts. What I can share, however, is that Giger was very pleased that I had brought along a recent picture I had taken of Dan. He kept looking at the image in astonishment and muttering, “Mein Gott. ” I could sense that he was traveling back in time and reliving those moments so many years ago on the closed set of what would become the classic horror/sci-fi film Alien. Read the rest of this entry
A couple of years ago when I watched the movie God Bless America, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite (whom I once had the pleasure of seeing live when he was doing standup comedy), it didn’t turn out to be as good in its entirety as I had hoped. The trailer (see below) had been awesome, and the advance buzz about the movie had been highly encouraging, since it made it sound as if Goldthwaite had borrowed cues from both Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and the likes of Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture to make a movie that would channel the rage, horror, and sadness many of us have felt as we’ve watched America transform itself into a cruel, decadent, and degenerate “society of the spectacle,” to borrow Guy Debord’s useful and accurate term.
The finished film didn’t quite live up to the buzz or the trailer, since the pacing was off and the third act, including the climactic scene, felt particularly off-kilter. Nevertheless, it contains several scenes and sequences that fulfill the promise of the buildup, and none is better than the one below, where protagonist Frank, played by Joel Murray (yes, Bill’s brother), goes to the office one morning and delivers an immortal rant that, in my estimation, ranks up there with Howard Beale’s prophetic condemnations of America’s mass mediated lunacy in Network. And just as Beale was basically a mouthpiece for screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky’s personal views, so is Frank a mouthpiece for Goldthwaite’s.
Fair warning: Use with care. This clip contains NSFW language and some (intentionally) shocking violence. It also contains a compressed diagnosis of America’s (and the whole first world’s) cultural disease here in the early twenty-first century that’s incisive enough to start a revolution.
“Nobody talks about anything anymore. They just regurgitate everything they see on TV or hear on the radio or watch on the Web. When was the last time you had a real conversation with someone without somebody texting or looking at a screen or a monitor over your head? You know, a conversation about something that wasn’t celebrities, gossip, sports, or pop politics. Something important or something personal. . . . This is the ‘Oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth. Nobody has any shame any more. And we’re supposed to celebrate it! I saw a woman throw a used tampon at another woman last night on network television, a network that bills itself as ‘today’s woman’s channel.’ Kids beat each other blind and post it on YouTube. I mean, do you remember when eating rats and maggots on Survivor was shocking? It all seems so quaint now. I’m sure the girls from Two Girls, One Cup are going to have their own dating show on VH1 any day now. I mean, why have a civilization any more if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”
Well, that’s a relief. After years of fanning the flames of religious doomsday fears, television preacher John Hagee, long one of the most prominent banner carriers for fundamentalist Protestant bluster and bombast, has decided to enter the apocalypse sweepstakes for real by giving a specific timetable for — well, something non-specific. But he says it will be “a world-shaking event,” and he says it will happen between now and October 2015.
Hagee is not, of course, alone in this. The blood moon phenomenon has set off an apocalyptic debate among many Christians. And suddenly I’m gripped by memories of myself, at age 17, watching the apocalyptic religious horror flick The Seventh Sign and finding it so cool as a Jewish kid sits translating a famous end-times passage from the biblical Book of Joel — specifically, Joel 2:31, which states that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the LORD” — when he looks out his window and sees the large full moon suddenly overtaken by a wave of crimson that turns it a deep bloody color. Demi Moore, what have you wrought?
But all joking aside, I think it’s important to recognize that the type of apocalyptic religious theorizing advanced by Hagee pointedly ignores certain aspects of the very sacred text that he and his ilk claim to take as absolute, infallible, and unchangeable holy writ. Consider, for example, the fact that the biblical/canonical Jesus’s right-hand man, the apostle Peter, states explicitly in Acts 2 that the Joel prophecy, including the part about the moon turning to blood, is already fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at the Day of Pentecost. Obviously, such a claim represents a distinctly different understanding and interpretation of apocalyptic matters than the model of a literal timetable advanced by the Hagees of the world. Likewise for Jesus’s statement in Luke 17:20-21, where he directly tells the pharisees, who have asked when the kingdom will arrive, that it is not the type of thing that will come by looking for external signs, because God’s kingdom is already within or among them. Call me naive, but I doubt we’ll hear Pastor Hagee addressing the clash between his claims and this subtler view as he continues to spout and tout his literalistic apocalyptic views over the next 18 months.
“The Flood” by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1634/35)
Via Art and the Bible, Fair Use
I recently saw the Noah movie, and I’m pleased to report that I really liked it. The angle taken by writer-director Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel struck me as deeply engrossing and just right for our collective cultural moment. I was pretty well swept away by their deliberate re-visioning of the basic Bible story as an epic tale of antediluvian human civilization and planetary apocalypse, all revolving around the deep mystery of “the Creator” (the only term used throughout the film to refer to the deity) and His inscrutable nature and terrifying intentions for a world that has been thoroughly corrupted and perverted from its original purpose by humans.
One of the more fascinating changes was Aronofsky’s and Handel’s decision to incorporate an explicitly shamanic theme into the story, largely centered on the person of Methuselah. In the Bible, the Genesis genealogy does present Methuselah as Noah’s grandfather, but he is nowhere mentioned in the flood story itself. The film, by contrast, makes him an important supporting character, and it portrays him as a wise and mysterious old shaman-like figure who gives Noah a psychoactive brew to help him gain a clear vision of what the Creator has been calling him to do in a series of horrifying apocalyptic dreams. As described by Drew McWeeny of HitFix, upon drinking the brew
Noah is propelled into a vision of the Garden and the snake and Adam and Eve’s fall and Cain and Abel’s violence, and he sees the flood, and he sees the Ark, and he knows, with one complete revelation, what he is supposed to do. Methuselah isn’t remotely surprised. He knew that this particular brew would give Noah a direct pipeline to the voice of God, and Aronofsky uses a very real-world visual vocabulary to show a direct communion with the supernatural.
It’s a fascinating way to imagine what a prehistoric, pre-flood religion or spirituality in the general context of this particular tale and tradition might have looked like. It also strikes me as true in spirit to the history and probable prehistory of real-world religion. In the world of the Noah film, religion is experiential, not propositional or intellectual, and it involves a direct sense of communication with the invisible deity, along with an agonized struggle to interpret and understand the meanings of dreams and visions with the help of wise old mediator figures and psychoactive substances.
Methuselah is played by Anthony Hopkins, who does a marvelous job in the role. He also does a marvelous job in a recent interview with McWeeny for HitFix, where in addition to discussing the filmmakers’ decision to include Methuselah in the story he discusses the shamanic matters under question and the explicitly philosophical side of the screenplay as he compares its portrayal of Methuselah to the real-world philosophical figures of Socrates, Plato, and Diogenes. Then he ends with a brief comment on the way Aronofsky managed to create a film that presents “a landscape of . . . darkness and horror,” where the main character is “in tune with some inner signal” as “the ground of all being” speaks within him. It all adds up to a rare moment of true depth in a show-biz industry interview.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the first film I remember seeing that actually terrified me. I was so young — I saw it when I was still just a highly impressionable child — and the concept driving the film was utterly, perfectly terrifying:
What if your loved ones were replaced by emotionless duplicates? Worse, what if you were replaced by an emotionless duplicate?
Everything the same, everything slightly different. Existential dread in a teatime SF film.
The heroes: Kevin McCarthy’s square-jawed doctor and Dana Wynter’s plucky divorcee look like they can handle themselves. Still, they are strangely vulnerable.
The cure: medicine and psychiatry will save the day. Or could it be that excessive rationality is actually part of the problem?
Minimal special effects: the fanciest come when the pods split open to reveal their duplicates.
Screenplay by Daniel “Out of the Past” Mainwaring. Directed by Don “The Verdict” Siegel. McCarthy’s voiceover is classic noir, as is the framing device where he tells his story to disbelieving authority figures. The only difference is that, instead of the police, he is talking to doctors. And the whole thing plays out in bleak black and white.
And oh God, the ending! It seems tame now, but my innocent young mind couldn’t cope with the stark ambiguity. I was terrified that pod people had actually taken over the earth and that they were such perfect duplicates that nobody had even noticed. My friend tried to ease my paranoia by talking me through it logically: if pod people had taken over the world we would know we were pod people, and as we didn’t, we couldn’t be.
I eyed him suspiciously: “But that’s exactly what you’d say to me if you were a pod person!”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers wasn’t the first film I remember seeing that actually terrified me. I was a little older — I saw it when I was an adult — but even so, the concept driving the film remained utterly, perfectly terrifying:
Everyone you know — all your friends, all your rivals — is replaced by an emotionless duplicate. Would your love survive? Would your hate?
Everything different, everything eerily similar. Existential dread in a late night shocker.
The victims: Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams appearout of their depth; ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Still, they have hidden strengths.
The problem: pop psychology and New Age pseudoscience will condemn the day. Or could it be that credulity is actually part of the solution?
Minimal special effects: the fanciest come when a pod duplication goes horrifyingly wrong.
Screenplay by W.D. “Peeper” Richter. Cameo by Don “Dirty Harry” Siegel. Sutherland’s cynical everyman is classic neo-noir, as is his struggle to unravel the conspiracy theory. The only difference is that, instead of dealing with corrupt police and politicians, he is dealing with alien invaders. And the whole thing plays out in bleached, soulless color.
And oh God, the ending! It was bleak beyond belief, yet my jaded adult mind was able cope with the horror. That inhuman screech, overlapping a terrified scream as the last human emotion echoed around the world. My friend had trouble understanding the ending, so I talked him through it: a pod person pretending to be human was indistinguishable from a human pretending to be a pod person, until that final moment of revelation.
I eyed him suspiciously: “Should I be worried that you’re called Stuart, too?”