Subsequent to my last post about Hannibal I had a good long look at my book and DVD collection and had several harried and sleepless nights, because I’ve come to some worrying conclusions.
I love monsters.
They’re all there, right out in the open: American Psycho, The Silence of The Lambs, Red Dragon, Dexter Seasons 1-6, de Sade’s The Misfortunes of Virtue, Glamorama, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Cosmopolis, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Psycho, Hannibal Rising, Johnny The Homicidal Maniac, Watchmen, Death Note, My Friend Dahmer, The Talented Mr Ripley. Stacks of the damn things. And more I’m still reading or watching: Hannibal, Bates Motel, etcetera. Books and comics and movies devoted to depicting people at their most repulsive.
Of course I’m exaggerating – this wasn’t a sudden realization, I’ve always been attracted to the ghoulish – but it does pose some worrying questions. Am I sick? More importantly, given the plethora of media about monsters, is humanity sick? It’s something I’ve been turning over in my mind.
Monsters like Hannibal Lecter or Dexter Morgan exhibit a dread fascination to those of us who like our imaginations tickled. The imagination, lest we forget, is the largest erogenous zone in the human body. Monsters, like their supernatural equivalent the vampire, offer a thrill that is both repugnant and erotic, a word I know will be misconstrued. When I say “erotic”, I don’t mean in a sexual sense, but more in the sense that playing an A Minor on a piano can evoke a tingle along the spine, or a dry paintbrush brushed along the fingertips can induce sensual shivering. There is nothing sexual about murder. But it does stimulate a part of the brain we often pretend doesn’t exist – the animal self. A few days ago I quoted Thomas Huxley when he said that, “man is an intelligence enslaved to his organs”. I still hold that to be true. We are, once you abstract consciousness, an animal. I once read that all invertebrates carry a snake inside them: the spine. It is the part of us that shuns pain and seeks pleasure. It is the part of us that gloats at murder and mayhem. For five million years the near-human ancestors we share carried with them a wave of destruction unlike any the world had seen before. We suspect that Homo Sapiens drove the mammoths to extinction by the expedient method of driving them off cliffs onto sharp rocks. Some anthropologists believe that, once the mammoths had run out, Homo Sapiens turned to their nearest neighbors, the Neanderthals, and ate them. If this is true we carry a heritage of murderers and cannibals. As Desmond Morris observed throughout his landmark work The Naked Ape, our primate ancestry informs our every waking moment. Apes are known for casual violence.
If you disagree with anything I’ve said so far, ask yourself this: how much of our cultural outlets (paintings, music, books, television programs and films) delights in death and destruction? The answer is there in front of you. If you really need the point hammered home, read three or four newspaper articles and ring each one that reports violence and death. Are these stories truly instructive? No. Watch fifteen minutes of Fox News (particularly on a day when a young American has gunned down his classmates). Don’t the news anchors seem to positively gloat as the relay the latest gory details? For whose benefit is that information carried? I’ll tell you. The world and his wife, who read their papers over bacon and eggs, or avidly watch the news while spooning down cereal, like to tut and grumble over “the state of the world” while, deep down, their darkest fantasies are stroked. Newspapers and news channels revel in death in a far more insidious way than fictional accounts of fictional murderers.
If it seems like I’m proselytizing I apologize. I have a generally low opinion of mankind, not for its brutality, but for its hypocrisy. There are those who say that man is a naturally good animal, and these people merely have an incomplete knowledge of human history. We are a species that, left to its own devices, glories in horrors too diverse to list. My point, to clarify, is that we revel in horror. In order to remain good people it seems we need to revel in unreal horror. There is nothing wrong with imagined murder. There is everything wrong with the real thing. It’s often said that violent video games promote violence. This is a facetious argument, because it assumes people only do what they’ve seen. The statistics do not support this accusation: in every modern society that has had access to violent books, movies and video games for the past three decades, violent crime and murder have dropped continuously. These imaginative expressions act as outlets for the very real violence that lurks at our core. By contrast, repressive regimes where expression is limited experience continuous waves of violence and mayhem. While this doesn’t constitute a de facto argument, for me it is confirmed by the fact that the greatest atrocities occur in countries where religions promote the idea that man is fundamentally good, and that the most extreme forms of torture and execution were practiced in Christian countries. As the author James M Gilles once said, “no-one ever made more trouble than ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild'”. But that’s a conversation we can’t have: to determine a scholarly link between Christianity and violence smacks of religious intolerance and is, therefore, taboo.
The greatest appeal of fictional monsters is that they skirt the truth rather than portray it. There is nothing truly realistic about characters like Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman. The real serial killers of this world are unsophisticated, perverse, and pathologically insane. Less importantly, they are unappealing, with the apparent exception of Ted Bundy, who received marriage proposals from demented lonely women up until the day of his execution. The fictional version of these monsters is altogether preferable, not only because they are fictional but because they are unrealistic. They are heightened. They take on forms greater than themselves. They become avatars of the monsters we fear in ourselves. More importantly, they form a vicarious outlet for the monsters in ourselves, and this is true of most media genres. Much of what we see in media is for the purpose of vicarious thrills: for those who like numbing conversation between tedious human beings, there’s reality television like Keeping Up With The Kardashians or Made In Chelsea. For those too bloated by beer to be athletes, there are televised sports games which positively seethe with homo-erotic overtures. For those of us in touch with our animal selves, there are murder serials, Bates Motel, Hannibal, Dexter ad nauseum. The vicarious thrills of simulated murder doe not make us less sane; on the contrary, they make us more sane. As Freud discovered, the bedrock of a neurosis is repression. Those who repress their desires are afflicted with neuroses, and neuroses form the healthy fertilizer of psychopathologies. Trust implicitly people who accept the darkness in life without embracing it. It is those people who deny themselves or practice self-deception who are to be feared: when push comes to shove, they will crack first.
Above all: avoid people who tell you how good everything is. They are probably serial killers.