Warning: this post contains climactic spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "White Bear." The new season of Black Mirror came to Netflix last week, and I've been working through it in the small, bite-sized chunks that I need in order to keep it from breaking my brain. I didn't start watching Black Mirror until last winter--I heard about the Christmas special's brilliant concept that you could actually block irritating acquaintances from your life the way you block them from your Facebook feed, and I had to watch it--but now I'm hooked on its brilliant, satirical, technophobic brand of horror.
As I was reading over some commentaries on previous episodes to prepare myself for the new season, though, I noticed a theme developing: the question of whether this show, so dark that it regularly crosses the line into misanthropy, is too
bleak. This question seems to come out particularly around the episode "White Bear" and, to a lesser extent, "National Anthem." Both episodes involve seemingly the entire human race participating in heinously voyeuristic behavior, with nary a dissenter in sight. It's unrealistic, some viewers complain in review comboxes and the Fridge Logic section of TV Tropes
. It's grimdark for grimdarkness' sake. Someone, somewhere, would refuse to put up with this.
I have a pretty rosy view of human nature, and I actually agree that someone would refuse to put up with this--in real life. In a show like Black Mirror,
though, including those people would be a disastrous choice.
Before I go any farther, I need to reiterate my spoiler warning. These viewers' complaints revolve specifically around the climax
of "White Bear," which involves a gut punch of a plot twist. If you have any interest at all in the show, go watch "White Bear" before you read this. It's an anthology show; it won't matter that you haven't seen any other episodes.
OK, have we lost everyone concerned about spoilers? Great. Let's continue.
"White Bear" starts off straightforwardly enough, with amnesiac Victoria (I'm screening Twilight Zone
episodes for my six-year-old, and I don't know where horror anthologies would be without amnesia) awakening in the middle of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. A strange symbol has turned most of the people in the world into zombies incapable of doing anything but standing around and snapping pictures with their cell phones; the tiny contingent remaining are either taking advantage of the chaos to wreak as much havoc as possible or struggling to survive. Victoria, getting occasional flashes of memory about a man who must be her partner and a little girl who must be her daughter, is led through a harrowing ordeal with another survivor to reach a place called "White Bear" where they'll be able to undo the damage the symbol has caused.
It's a bog-standard apocalypse with some heavy-handed commentary about those narcissistic jackasses who take selfies while the world burns, right? Except it isn't. When they finally reach White Bear, Victoria is greeted by a jeering studio audience. Baxter, a man who previously tied her up and threatened to torture her with a drill, informs her that she and her fiancé weren't actually that little girl's parents; they kidnapped the girl, and her fiancé tortured her to death while Victoria filmed the entire thing. The name "White Bear" comes from the little girl's white teddy bear, which the media immediately jumped on as a symbol of her purity and innocence. Victoria's fiancé killed himself before sentencing, but Victoria was sentenced to suffer the same fate they inflicted on the little girl: every night she would have her memory wiped to make her confused and helpless, and every day she would be subjected to horrible torment while people smiled and took pictures. In the most chilling detail of all, while everyone who has an actual speaking role in this spectacle is an employee of the justice system, the milling crowd of cellphone wielders is made up of tourists who have come for a fun day of participating in Victoria's personal hell. After all, the coldblooded murdering bitch deserves it, right?
Over the end credits, we see scenes of Victoria's sentence from the other characters' point of view. After an establishing shot of a sign that says "White Bear Justice Park," we're greeted by Baxter telling a room full of tourists the rules of the park: no talking, keep your distance, and above all, enjoy yourself! Among the tourists are a few families with smiling children, ready for a fun day of cruel and unusual punishment.
It's an absolutely terrifying episode, both because it so masterfully changes from a grab-bag of horror movie clichés to something fresh and awful and because it forces us to examine our own voyeuristic and bloodthirsty tendencies. Whether because we'd secretly love to see criminals given this kind of treatment, or because we get a huge kick out of watching people suffer on reality TV, or because we enjoy getting our licks in on the social media witch hunt du jour, we've all smiled and whipped out our cell phones while some real-life Victoria suffers.
I've run into viewers critiquing it, though, not on the grounds that it's heavy-handed or predictable or what have you (everyone's mileage varies on issues like that), but on the grounds that it isn't realistic. C'mon, this clearly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture bill. Amnesty International has to be going berserk over this stuff. When we see the external shot of White Bear Justice Park, where are the protesters? There has
to be someone protesting something this awful!
The easy answer to this is "just sit back and remember the MST3K mantra
," but the problem with this argument actually runs deeper than the idea of refusing to suspend your disbelief. The entire point of dark satires like Black Mirror
is to force us to examine how we're reflected by the show's world. Would we be there in the justice park? If we're quick to say "no," why don't we take a long, hard look at some times we've put that answer to the lie? The only characters we have to identify ourselves with are the ones who are participating in the mob. We're forced to look at that mob and see ourselves.
If, on the other hand, we saw a protester at White Bear Justice Park, we'd have an out.
We wouldn't have to look at the people smiling into their cell phones and see our own faces there; we could let out a sigh of relief, point, and say, "That's me. That's totally
me. Yeah, everybody else would be taking family vacations to White Bear Justice Park, but you know I'm so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd, so I'd be protesting. I'm awesome like that." The show would no longer be the titular mirror, reflecting our ugliness back at us, but just another hammer to bash all the people we don't like while we sit back and marinate in our own smug self-righteousness.
No thanks. As I said, I do have a pretty rosy view of human nature. Black Mirror
reflects a much bleaker world than the one we actually live in. But it isn't the job of satirical horror to reflect the parts of the world that make us feel good about it--or that make us feel good about how much better we are than other people. Sometimes we all need something that inspires us and builds us up--but other times, we need to wonder which side of the cellphone camera we're on.
The movie Lights Out
opened two weekends ago, and my opinions on it have been something of a roller coaster. The trailers and the positive advanced buzz had me champing at the bit for a good horror movie; then the AV Club review came along and completely killed my interest in the movie. If you're OK being spoiled, you can go here
for the AV Club's somewhat spoilery review and here
for the Spoiler Space, which completely dissects the ableist implications of the ending. If you want to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the monster is a metaphor for depression, and the movie inadvertently affirms all the worst things that depressed people think about themselves.
Or, for those who are OK with spoilers but don't want to read the whole AV Club article (skip to the next paragraph to remain spoiler-free!): . . . the depressed woman whose friends and family are being attacked by the depression monster realizes that the monster will leave them alone if she's gone, so she kills herself. And according to some reviewers, this is played, not as a horrifying The Monster Wins ending, but as a victory. That's right, fellow depressed folks: our loved ones would be better off if we just killed ourselves.
In fairness to the people involved with Lights Out,
director David Sandberg has made it clear in interviews
that this wasn't the message he intended to send. Sandberg himself struggles with depression, and his original ending was far more nuanced. Test audiences hated it, though, so he changed it to the current ending and hoped that no one would read in the horrifically ableist implications. He's deliberately going to try to amend those problems in the sequel, and I hope that he succeeds--there have been some terrific horror movies, novels, and short stories dealing with the fact that depression can be as terrifying a monster as any ghost or vampire. Rather than spend this entire post griping about an unintentionally offensive movie I've never seen, I want to celebrate the media that have done it right.
The movie to which I've seen Lights Out
compared multiple times, and the hands-down best treatment of depression I've ever seen in horror, is The Babadook.
If you like horror even a little bit and haven't seen this movie, go see it; it's on Netflix. If you don't like horror, keep miles away from this one, because it's a nightmare factory. A widowed mother, Amelia, discovers that her emotionally disturbed son, Samuel, is "imagining" himself being stalked by a horrible monster called the Babadook. (Yeah, it's a horror movie, so I'm not even going to pretend that "imagining" doesn't get scare quotes.) He acts out so much because of his fear of the Babadook that he doesn't sleep, and neither does Amelia; what's more, none of the other moms in the neighborhood want weird little Samuel anywhere near their kids, so Amelia is getting increasingly isolated.
And then, the Babadook starts visiting her, too. And things get very interesting.
One huge advantage of The Babadook
is that the symbol is fluid. I read the Babadook as a symbol of clinical depression, because that's my personal Babadook. A far more common reading is that it symbolizes Amelia's grief for the loss of her husband and Samuel's grief for that of his father. I've seen it described as a symbol for the stresses of single motherhood, too, which is also a valid read. It means that the scenes of the Babadook terrorizing the family, while still setting up a direct pipeline into a depressed person's fears, are hard to spin out into negative generalizations about people who suffer from mental illness.
And then there's the ending. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want it spoiled. (If you want to go in completely unspoiled, be aware that I'm going to discuss the general tone of the ending, as well as whether or not the monster wins, throughout this post. The next paragraph is the only place where I'll go into specifics, however.)
Near the end of the movie, the Babadook actually possesses Amelia and tries to use her to kill Samuel, then herself. However, Samuel's love for her allows her to shake free of its possession. She drives it away--with an incredibly cathartic "If you ever come near my son again, I'll fucking kill you"--and it locks itself in the basement . . . where it stays. Forever. When we next see Amelia and Samuel, it's Samuel's birthday, and all seems idyllic, but Amelia has to go to the basement to feed the Babadook. It threatens her, but she calms it down and leaves it a bowl of earthworms to eat. When she goes back to Samuel, she says simply, "It was quiet today." The Babadook will never leave her, not completely, and it may escape someday again. But she knows it's there and is taking pains to keep it locked away . . . and if it does escape, she beat it before and may be able to beat it again.
For such a terrifying movie, the ending is downright empowering. It doesn't put an unrealistically happy face on depression, but depression doesn't win this round, either.
It's possible to do a good story where depression wins, but it has to be handled delicately, and Lisey's Story
by Stephen King knocks it out of the park. I wish Lisey's Story
were better known; I suspect it's not one of his more popular novels because it's more dark fantasy than horror, but it's one of his best, with dreamy lyrical language, a stunningly well-crafted Russian nesting doll of flashbacks, and an ending that doesn't involve explosions. When the novel opens, Lisey's husband, writer Scott Landon, has been dead for two years. As we travel through the aforementioned nesting doll of flashbacks, we learn that mental illness ran in Scott's family . . . and in proper Stephen King style, it tended to express itself in supernatural ways. The most relevant of those ways for the "depression monster" theme is the "long boy," a snakelike creature that stalked Scott for his entire life, appearing in reflections out of the corner of his eye, chewing obscenely at its food at the edges of his hearing, and trying to terrorize him to the point where he would finally give in and allow it to devour him.
The long boy, like the Babadook, works in part because it's a flexible metaphor. Lisey is depressed over her husband's death, but isn't stalked by the long boy. When we get flashbacks to other members of Scott's family, they have some pretty serious issues with mental health, but those issues don't include depression. When it comes to Scott himself, however, depression and the long boy are close to one and the same. He's a cutter. He has bouts of deep and almost unbreakable melancholy, though he tries to put on a smile that only Lisey can see is false. At one point, he even suggests that Lisey call the long boy to finish him off so she can be rid of him--not as a form of self-pity or emotional manipulation, but because he genuinely thinks it would be best for her. (The parallels to Lights Out
all but write themselves.) In a particularly haunting passage, Lisey is brooding over Scott's death and thinks that "if darkness had loved Scott, why then that was true love, wasn't it, for he had loved it as well; had danced with it across the ballroom of years until it had finally danced him away." The only things that keep the long boy at bay are Scott's writing and his wife. When their marriage is going smoothly and he's writing well, the reflections in the mirror and the horrible chewing sounds are at a minimum.
We do learn that the long boy was directly responsible for Scott's death--in the end, depression won. This is, however, an unambiguous tragedy, and the entire novel is about Lisey working through the emotional wreckage it left behind. The story still manages to end on a bittersweet note by having the long boy's triumph take place in the past, leaving room for a happier ending in the present, but that triumph makes it a sadder story than The Babadook.
So much for stories that end on a hopeful note. How about full-bore downer endings? Ray Bradbury's short story "The Small Assassin" shows us a woman killed by the object of her depression and plays it for horror. A new mother, Alice, survives an incredibly difficult and dangerous labor that ends with a C-section. Her son is healthy . . . but she looks at him and doesn't feel love. Her health is fragile after childbirth, but every time she's on the brink of getting the restful, healing sleep she needs, the baby cries loudly and wakes her up, transforming her into more and more of a physical and mental wreck. Her child must be a monster, she decides, who's doing this deliberately because he wants her dead. She begs her husband never, ever to leave her alone with that horrible baby, because who knows what will happen?
If you've ever had issues with postpartum depression, this probably sounds familiar. "The Small Assassin" is far more a pulp story about an evil baby than a psychological exploration of PPD (complete with unintentionally goofy scenes of a newborn crawling around setting up instruments of murder), but it still takes the fears and insecurities of depressed mothers and makes them viciously true. The evil baby does kill Alice, and it's a horrifying The Monster Wins ending done right.
There are other terrific depression monsters--the Dementors are a good example of monsters that are unambiguously defeated, without any of the uncertainty or loss that we see with the Babadook and the long boy--who are handled deftly enough for depressed readers and viewers to cringe in recognition rather than in disgust. These three are my personal favorites, although in the case of The Babadook,
I know that part of it is that I'm a sucker for happy-for-now endings when the issues involved are this messy. Happy-for-now is generally the best ending those of us with depression can hope for, but when the alternative is "The Small Assassin" or Lights Out,
that ending is pretty damn good.
You know what's really annoying in spec fic stories? That protagonist who just refuses to see that something supernatural is going on. We're 120 pages into the novel, and everyone except the main character knows why people are showing symptoms of anemia with unusual injuries on their necks or that maybe there was something to Grandpa's crazy stories about fairies after all. A really skilled writer can turn this into horrifying dramatic irony as we sit at the edge of our seats, wondering if the protagonist is going to figure out what's going on before it's too late. More often than not, though, we end up just wanting to reach through the book, smack the protagonist upside the head, and scream, "GET ON WITH IT!"
At the same time, though, it's understandable that the protagonist of a spec fic story doesn't know that he or she is the protagonist of a spec fic story. In real life, most of us would giggle nervously and make a few jokes if there were an outbreak of Neck-Rupture Anemia in the neighborhood, but we probably wouldn't put up the crosses and garlic, and we certainly wouldn't go out hunting with stakes and mallets. How can we set up a mystery like this for our protagonist--"is it really a vampire, or am I crazy?"--that doesn't make the reader irritably point to the word "horror" on the back cover?
When you set up a problem like this, you're putting your character at a narrative fork in the road. The trouble is that in mediocre stories, one of the paths leads to an interesting, twisty ramble through an exotic forest and the other leads to a dead end. There needs to be a compelling alternative for what'll happen if Neck-Rupture Anemia really is just a disease or if Grandpa's fairy tales really were just an old man spinning yarns; that way, the reader will see that both paths actually go somewhere. How to go about doing this?
The first time I noticed a well-executed narrative fork in the road was the movie The History of Violence.
(I haven't read the graphic novel, but I've heard that it's completely different.) If you haven't seen it, you should; I won't spoil it here beyond laying out the basic premise. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a restaurant owner and father of two in Indiana. When a pair of thugs try to rob his restaurant, most of the staff and customers freeze in terror, but Tom quickly kills them and is hailed as a local hero. It seems like a happy ending . . . until a mobster from Philadelphia rolls in, claiming that he saw Tom on the news and recognized him as his old mob buddy Joey Cusack. Tom and his wife vehemently deny this, but the mobster continues to stalk and threaten the Stall family, claiming he won't leave them alone until Tom (Joey?) returns to Philadelphia with him.
I spent the first half of this movie on the edge of my seat--because I had no idea what movie I was watching.
Was this the story of a Joey Cusack, a repentant mobster who
had escaped the criminal world and tried to make a new life, only to learn that violence and the past would always find him? Or was it the story of Tom Stall, an innocent man mistaken for a murderer, who commits a single, justifiable violent act and finds that it will lead to more violence and bloodshed, possibly transforming him into the killer he coincidentally resembles?
I would watch the heck out of other of those movies. Both are compelling stories--the fork in the road leads to two paths that each like a terrific hike, although in different ways. What's more, both are consistent with the tone and theme of the movie so far, which is clearly established as a dark film that studies both the allure and the destructive effects of violence. It isn't like we've been walking along a dark and eerie trail, and our two choices are either a similarly spooky path or a delightful sunlit ramble. I want to give David Cronenberg and Josh Olson a standing ovation for this one.
The 2015 UK horror movie The Hallow
has a similarly well-done narrative fork in the road. I won't spoil the ending, but I can't talk about it without getting into some third-act plot developments. It's on Netflix streaming and is quite decent; if you want to go in completely unspoiled, either watch it and come back in two hours or skip to the next paragraph. A couple and their baby are being terrorized by old-school evil fairies, and like any self-respecting old-school evil fairies, they have a history of stealing children and replacing them with changelings. The husband, Adam, is convinced that they've stolen and replaced baby Finn, and we know they had the opportunity to do so . . . but Adam got hit by a glamour earlier in the movie. His wife is positive that the baby is their own and that Adam is being influenced by the glamour. Are the fairies manipulating this poor sap into killing his real child, or into giving the real child to them in the mistaken belief that he's returning a changeling? Or is the glamour allowing him to see fae things for what they really are, turning him into a tragic Cassandra-like figure who can't make his wife see that she's clutching a viper to her bosom while abandoning their real child? Again, those are both spectacular stories, and they're both a solid tonal and thematic match for what we've seen before.
Either of these movies could have been one of those eye-rolling affairs where everyone knows what's coming except the characters. If the Philadelphia mobster hadn't been a direct threat to Tom Stall's family who could have lured him into more and more acts of justifiable violence, it would have been clear that Tom was Joey Cusack--otherwise, there's no story. If the mobster mistook him for something innocuous, like an honest citizen who'd seen his crimes and been placed in witness protection, it would have been clear that he was Tom Stall--there'd be no compelling reason for him not to come clean to his family about his identity, and again, no story. There are a hundred ways The Hallow
could have been a snoozefest as well--I won't get into details so we don't have another spoileriffic paragraph, but let's just say that it would have been a disaster to have that same setup at the beginning of the movie instead of in act three. I can't see any way that they could have maintained the mystery that long., and eventually it would have been clear which character was careening toward a dead end.
So if you have a situation where there may or may not be supernatural going on, or any other situation where the viewpoint character may or may not be right about the story's basic premise, it's critical to make sure that the story would be compelling and thematically consistent no matter what. Neck-Rupture Anemia that may be an illness or a vampire attack is boring; a series of deaths that could be caused by a vampire or a serial killer is cliche, but at least dramatically interesting. Fairies that may be real or may be an old man's ramblings are boring; fairies who may be real or may be his delusional interpretation of a sinister, fully human conspiracy are more interesting. (You could also get a really poignant story out of a narrator who's young enough to believe in fairies, pulling your reader back and forth over whether this is going to be a "hooray, Grandpa's fairies are real" story or an "and this is how I learned there are no such things as fairies" story, but this is where tone and theme are so important. A story like this is going to need a general tone of wistfulness and a hint of magic throughout, or it'll be clear that it either isn't going in the darker direction.)
Do you have any stories where you were at the edge of your seat, not knowing what story you were reading and watching? What about thoughts you've had for how to make these "it's obviously a vampire" stories more compelling?
When I hear "epistolary," I think of college English lit classes. It's a dry, jargony term that we don't throw around much outside of that context, particularly since there aren't a whole lot of modern examples. The Screwtape Letters notwithstanding, the genre saw its heyday in the 18th century and has steadily been petering out since then. Gothic horror writers loved it, and any genre that counts Dracula as an exemplar is fine in my book, but really, you can only suspend so much disbelief at the idea of someone scribbling down intricate details with perfectly recaptured dialogue during tense moments. (I've heard that Henry Fielding's Shamela skewered the heck out of this all the way back in 1741.)
We have a few modern epistolary novels, sure. Some handle the format adroitly (Max Brooks' World War Z is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius); some hit the same stumbling blocks that caused epistolaries to fall out of favor in the first place (John Marks' Fangland has an awful lot of emails giving excruciating details of events that the recipient saw firsthand, including a reporter giving us her own physical description in her notes); some are having so much fun reveling in their gimmickry that you really can't tell whether they handle the basics well or not (Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is delightful, but "gimmickry" is an accurate description). I'd absolutely love to see more novels in this genre, particularly as we return to more text-based forms of communication--a well-executed novel made up of blog posts, emails, and text messages could be incredibly cool, although there are probably a thousand poorly-executed ones languishing in slush piles.
But we're actually embarking on a new golden age for the epistolary; it's just using a different medium and a rebranded name. It's found footage. Instead of stringing together imaginary letters, journals, newspaper clippings, and diary entries, film editors are stringing together imaginary camera footage. Instead of the breathless final journals of a man hunted by an implacable THING, we get the harrowing video clips of a man stalked by the Slender Man.
It's not hard to see why found footage has exploded. It has all the advantages of the epistolary novel or short story--the extra layer of realism, the chance to play with a specific sense of rules and limitations--with few of the disadvantages. In an epistolary novel, part of you is rolling your eyes that Lucy Westenra pulled off this massive diary entry in the very moment that Dracula was coming for her for the last time, or that Dr. Frankenstein would quote lengthy conversations with the monster verbatim instead of saying "And then he asked me to make him a bride." With found footage, no one in the midst of the action is stopping to write it down or trying to remember details later; it all unfolds in real time in front of the camera. What's more, you generally know that the author of the letters and journals in an epistolary is going to survive--otherwise, who would write the journals? With found footage, you have no such assurances. The major limitation they share is the tendency toward "as you know, Bob" conversation, which is probably why the documentary format is so popular. No one cares if you exposit in a documentary
There are two things I'd like to see from both found footage and the handful of epistolary texts that are still kicking around. One, frankly, is quality. There's a lot of crappy found footage out there. There's also a lot of very good found footage out there. However, I don't think we've had a stone-cold classic film that does for found footage what Frankenstein and Dracula did for novels. I have no doubt that there's someone out there who can make an absolutely breathtaking found footage movie, but it hasn't happened yet. For contemporary epistolary novels, we do have one that I can think of--World War Z--but I'd love to see more. There's a lot of text floating around out there. There are stories unfolding every day in emails, in comboxes, in insane text message conversations. Let's play with them.
The other is more work that engages with technology. Documentaries are fun, but in an age of webcams we can do more interesting things. Unfriended was a spectacularly underrated movie; we can have an argument about whether the plot is just one more movie about a bunch of unpleasant teenagers getting killed in nasty ways, but the way it handled the Internet as Greek chorus was stellar. I've heard that The Lizzie Bennett Diaries does wonderful things with the idea of vlog epistolaries, but I'll admit I haven't seen it yet. The same goes for epistolary texts. There will always be journals, diaries, and mailed correspondence, and there have been some terrific contemporary works dealing with them, but I'd love to see more novels that specifically use the Internet. That's where text is happening nowadays.
Am I forgetting your favorite found footage movie or epistolary story? Is there something that you'd like to put forward as the found footage Dracula? Do you have burning thoughts about the epistolary or found footage genre? Let's have a dorky English major discussion!