The troublesome and shallow aesthetics of decay


Over the past five years, there’s been an influx of horror movies filmed in the living ruins of Detroit. And why wouldn’t directors want to film there? While audiences aren’t exactly tired of crumbling castles and Victorian mansions looming on the hill, those horror staples aren’t as fresh – or, I guess, fetid – as they once were. The new terror trend feels less upper-crust European and more working-class American. Its ghost is not so much a dead person as a dead capitalist promise – that of a prosperous, happy life. Truly scary!

Except for one problem. Too often, these horror movies adopt the aesthetics of urban decay without giving thought to the politics. Urban decay as spooky eye candy rather than critique of a cannibalistic socioeconomic system. And, come on, what’s a horror movie without a serious examination of cannibalism, individual or systemic?

This topic interests me not only as a horror fanatic but also as a lifelong urban decay enthusiast. Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by condemned and abandoned buildings, streets cracked and overtaken by nature, infrastructure frozen in a decade distant from the present. And, for the longest time, I never considered decay political. Like those Detroit-based horror movies, my fascination was all aesthetic. Never did it occur to me that people once inhabited – or currently inhabit – these spaces.

My privilege limited my imagination. Having never eaten fewer than three meals a day or endured a winter outside a well-heated house, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live in such decrepit places. So, I assumed that no one did. These places were movie sets that just never got taken down. And boy, were they good for a spooky Friday night visit with friends!

Only in the past year have I really thought about the people who inhabit these places. Forgotten, ignored, oppressed, impoverished, made aesthetic. But even typing those words feels strange to me, as if – rather than bringing me closer to understanding – they laughably emphasize how much I will never understand. There will always be that distance between me and people who have lived among decay. There will always be that thrill up my spine when I see a house with cellophane stapled over broken windows and a porch sagging with rot. My perpetual reaction – aesthetics first, politics second.

Such is the film industry’s collusion with capitalism. Turning images that could motivate viewers to action into ones that separate viewers from humanity through titillation. Ignoring reality in favor of detached escapism. That’s the real horror. And it’s one I intend on fighting within myself.


Searching for Bigfoot and finding joy


Image credit: Lincoln Journal Star

When I was a kid, my family would visit the library once every couple weeks, and more often than not, I left with at least one cryptozoology book in tow. Books about Bigfoot and Nessie and Thunderbird (the kind with a seventeen-foot wingspan, not seventeen-inch rims of course). As long as it existed somewhere between the mythological and the plausible, I ate it up. My motto at the time – borrowing from The X-Files – could have been, “I want to believe.” I wanted to believe that a plesiosaur-like creature could be lurking deep under Lake Champlain, appearing only to those with the grainiest of video recorders. Hell, I still want to believe that’s the case.

I have changed so much between elementary school and now. But, at the same time, not really. I still love me a good cryptid. And this past week, just like the Lake Champlain monster, my interest in these beasts bubbled back up to the surface.

It happened when the local newspaper published an article about the Nebraska Bigfoot Conference. I initially thought it was a joke, given that Nebraska isn’t particularly known for its cryptids unless you count our giant shaved owl of a governor (joke credit to John Oliver). In fact, it was because of this absence that – as a college sophomore – I invented and wrote a story about a new Nebraskan cryptid, a fifty-foot sea serpent named Boat Tipper that lived in Johnson Lake. It was an attempt to inscribe my state with a little mythology. Something to spice up the middle-of-nowhere vibe. Who can blame me?

In any case, the Nebraska Bigfoot Conference seemed like an attempt at the same. All we had before was corn, but now we also have strange, lumbering apes. Hello, tourism!

Or, more importantly – hello, magic! Magic is essential to good living, and unfortunately, our cynical world often stamps it out. Preserving magic – even if we don’t actually believe in it – is a way of preserving wonder and joy and imagination. We don’t give ourselves over to these feelings nearly enough.

So earlier this week, when someone sincerely told me she’d seen a “dino bird” in Texas as a child, I had to make an effort not to get cynical and smug. Yeah, right! was my first thought. And my second was, Well, how about I just enjoy the story? So I did.

This woman and her sisters had been riding horses through the woods when the dino bird descended looking massive and prehistoric. The horses skittered and huffed, terrified. And each sister, still to this day, maintains that it happened. They even saw the creature a few more times after that, further solidifying its place in reality.

As I listened, it was hard to shake my skepticism, but it was easy to give myself up to a good story. If nothing else, it made me wonder at the strangeness of the Deep South and the bizarre manifestations of nature that exist there. Could the dino bird have been a huge mutant vulture or an exceptionally ugly condor? Of course, it could have also just been made up. But did that really matter?

If it were a lie, it did not harm me. In fact, it made me smile. It stirred my imagination. It made me fall further in love with lore. And that is a lie worth spreading.

Escapism: A Dangerous Necessity

20170122_153819.jpgGiven the current political climate, sometimes burying my head in the sand feels like breathing fresh air.

That’s how I felt yesterday when, instead of seeing I Am Not Your Negro – a documentary about the author James Baldwin and his vision of race in America – I saw John Wick: Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves’ newest piece of fun action schlock.

But as I biked to the theater, a thought occurred to me: “I have English and Film degrees, and a commitment to social justice. So why am I choosing Reeves over Baldwin?”

The answer, of course, is that escapism feels good. It also goes hand-in-hand with privilege, given that my life as a middle-class white cis man isn’t under attack. For those without my same privileges, escapism may not be an option. After all, how can you justify escaping into cinematic violence when you are the target of actual violence?

Critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would argue that pop culture like John Wick exists to keep society passive. As long as we’re entertained, we won’t stir up trouble, right?

But spending time with pop culture can also be an act of self-care, necessary for activists who want to keep fighting the good fight without getting burnt out. As feminist Audre Lorde once wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Now, I don’t know that stylized action movies about international assassin networks fall under Lorde’s definition of revolutionary self-care, but they do provide a two-hour breather from the real world and, in doing so, restore one’s energy for activism. They stave off the exhaustion of carrying the whole smoldering world on one’s shoulders.

Avoiding activist burnout is hard, but it’s absolutely vital. And escapist pop culture can be one way to accomplish that.

However,  a full retreat into escapist pop culture is good for no one. It can be rejuvenating when consumed responsibly. But, in excess, it shuts out one’s ability to engage with and change the real world. (The Guardian published a great article warning about this phenomenon). Taken to the extreme, self-care can become exactly what Adorno and Horkheimer feared – a weapon for pacifying the masses.

The question becomes, where do we draw the line between escapist restoration and escapist disengagement? I don’t have an answer, but I know that finding this balance will be necessary over the next four years.

The horror of self-insert characters

16586895_10211822351418421_9136590931063419973_oThere’s a reason PCs are called “player characters,” and it’s not what you might think. As much as we hate to admit it, “player” and “character” are inseparable. You’re always, to some extent, playing a self-insert. Some are just more blatant than others.

The question is, which traits of the PC come from the player and which traits are the character’s own? And, of greater concern, do we always know who these traits belong to? If you’re anything like me, you tend pass off the darker traits as just your character’s – “yup, that’s totally them. Not me at all.” …but is it really?

The best PC I ever played was a druid halfling named Wellon. He spent his time wandering through the woods (self-insert!), sticking it to the man (self-insert!), and leaving a trail of innocents dead in his wake (…..). Up until that last bit, I fully acknowledged that Wellon was just me repackaged into a three-foot-tall spellcaster with an afro. A little more rugged maybe, and a lot more pugnacious. But otherwise generally me.

But when the corpses began to pile up around Wellon, I – or Wellon? Both of us? – began to get defensive.

“It wasn’t my fault – I mean, Wellon’s fault! We didn’t do anything.”

“Exactly,” the DM replied, “and that’s why everyone in the village died.”

“But can’t they save themselves? It’s not our problem! We’re not even from their town.”

Yikes. Our excuses got increasingly thin. Not to mention emotional. And this was real-life emotion, not in-character acting.

At two AM on one of those argumentative nights, I left the DM’s house feeling unnerved. Was it Wellon who couldn’t take responsibility for the carnage, or was it me? Was I – the player – a willing bystander to the world’s tragedies?

“Poverty…war…genocide… It’s sad and all, but totally not my problem. Someone else should’ve stepped in!”

The thought that I could so easily detach from the consequences of my own inaction scared me. That I could push the responsibility for justice onto others? Foolish and callous. Self-preservation was one thing, but this was about as far from heroism as I could get.

So, was it me, Wellon, or both of us who bore this shame? Maybe it didn’t matter. After all, these tragedies (how many? I lost count) occurred in a fictional game; a trial run before engaging with the real world. To use a pop culture analogy, it was like that episode of The Office in which Pam admits to holding the phone line for a moment before transferring Michael’s calls. Michael thinks he’s already been transferred and says something stupid. Then, when Pam tells him he hasn’t been transferred yet, he gets a second chance at his greeting and nails it. Perhaps RPGs work the same way, allowing us to make mistakes at the table and then avoid them in the real world.

It all boils down to the unacknowledged power RPGs have to inspire self reflection. Who am I really? Who do I want to be? And what hidden darkness travels with me when I leave the table?