Is there a shortage of monsters and symbols I am unaware of? I ask because if there isn't a shortage, or some sort of government-imposed limitation on which monsters society is allowed to be afraid of and/or make symbolic of whatever it is that needs symbolizing (stupid socialized monstering!), if that isn't the case, then we as a society, and writers/creative types as a breed, are woefully lacking in imagination and creativity.
And, as usual, by we I mean you, or, more particularly, you, and Grahame-What's-His-Name, and Stephen King.
Every week I wait anxiously for my Entertainment Weekly to arrive on Saturday, so that I can see what entertainment my week has in store for me (and avoid the constant Lost spoilers they sprinkle throughout that magazine like jimmies on a cupcake), and I especially look forward to the book reviews, because I like to see what books I might not be able to afford to buy, and what books are selling right now so that I can either (a) congratulate myself for being absolutely correct about what it takes to make a best-seller, or (b) think to myself, how does this book get published when my book can't?
But lately, Entertainment Weekly has been disappointing me, and not just by putting Lost spoilers into every single column, and not just by continuing to pretend that Diablo Cody has talent, and not just by pretending that anyone watches 30 Rock.
No, lately Entertainment Weekly has been disappointing me because it continues to promote and protect the use of roughly two types of monsters in popular culture -- and by continuing to promote and protect those types, Entertainment Weekly encourages others to continue to use those monsters in their own creative works, which Entertainment Weekly will then promote, and which will continue the whole vicious circle.
Let me put it more clearly: All the magazine talks about anymore, it seems (besides Lost and pushing Diablo Cody/30 Rock) are vampires and zombies. If there is something out there in Entertainmentland that has a vampire or a zombie in it, you can bet that Entertainment Weekly will push that thing like...
... I don't know. Like someone who really really wants to push a thing that doesn't need to be pushed and ought not to be pushed.
It's not just Entertainment Weekly that does this; virtually every outlet for information or opinion about entertainment goes nutso over zomb
Oh, man. It just occurred to me that that last one is probably in production right now, so I checked, and it turns out it was made already.
In doing that, in focusing on zombies and vampires to the exclusion of every other type of monster, ever, Big Entertainment feeds the beast -- it creates the perception that zombies, and vampires, are the only thing that people want, which then sends producers and directors and publishers scurrying to find more zombies and vampires, which then get made into books and TV shows and probably kids' pajamas, which then get talked about by Big Entertainment, and so on.
It's a version of the Number One Draft Pick dilemma -- that dilemma being this: When sportscasters and sports media anoint someone as the "Number One" pick, as they did Greg Oden and Reggie Bush and some others, over time, that person becomes, in everyone's mind, a consensus number one pick in that sport's draft, which then forces the person who has the number one pick to either go along with that, and begin talking up the "Consensus Number One pick," feeding the perception that this person is the Number One pick, or, if the person bucks that trend and resists, he or she will be constantly defending his or her views and trying to explain why he or she feels as though he or she knows more than everyone else in the world.
In that way, sports media creates the Number One pick: they tell the teams who they're going to pick, and affect the very thing they're reporting on.
Entertainment Media is no different. Zombies, and vampires, are hot right now... because Entertainment Media says zombies and vampires are hot. So imagine that you're a literary agent, and you're shopping around a book that features a monster, and it's not a zombie or vampire-based monster. Here's how that might go:
Agent (calling publisher): I've got this great new book by a fantastic author to sell you. It's got monsters...
Publisher: (Interrupting): Vampires? We'll take it.
Agent: No, it's not vampires, it's...
Publisher: (interrupting): Zombies. Got you. Let me start writing out the check for a million-dollar advance. How did you say you spell the author's name, again?
Agent: I didn't. I didn't even mention the author.
Publisher: Doesn't matter. Zombies are gold. Not literally, you understand. They're actually rotting flesh. But they're literary gold. I'll have your author on the cover of Entertainment Weekly next week.
Agent: The book isn't about...
Publisher: Isn't about to not get published, am I right? Would your author like to appear on Ellen? And let's talk movie rights. I'm seeing Tom Cruise as a jet pilot hired to firebomb the zombie scourge, only then he gets assigned a zombie co-pilot and learns a valuable lesson about not judging people simply by their background and/or undead status. We can make the zombies symbolic of, say, Afghanistan.
Agent: You don't understand...
Publisher: Nobody does. Say, I've got the head of ABC here in my office. They want to do a TV series about your zombies. They're going to call it Zombie High, with a student who happens to be a zombie enrolling in a prep school and trying out for the glee club, only to face discrimination about his sexuality, and the fact that he's also undead and eats brains at lunch. So I'll add a couple of zeroes onto that advance and you have your author, what's-her-name, knock out a script.
Agent: See, actually, this book is about ...
Publisher: And we can have your guy get together with Stephanie Myers to write a book about a zombie falling in love with a vampire, and the vampire makes the zombie into a vampire. This is genius! You've just invented Zombie Vampires.
Agent: Look, that all sounds absolutely stultifying...
Agent: But my writer's book isn't about zombies, either. It's about this new kind of monster... hello? Hello? My phone went dead. Are you there?
By the way, Zombie Vampires is my thing. I call dibs.
What brings on this latest bout of depression over the state of monsterdom in entertainment circles is the glowing tongue-bath that Entertainment Weekly gave to a comic book, co-written by Stephen King (whose weakest book, ever, was Salem's Lot), about ... vampires. That's right: The guy who came up with killer St. Bernards, a possessed car, that clown thing, and whatever the disease was in The Stand (which I loved), has now started writing about vampires.
That review/pushing of blah, so-so scaredom came shortly after Entertainment Weekly went all nuts over the Abe Lincoln-vs-zombies book that is the latest in a genre of mash-ups for which I really, honestly, cannot see a market. Who are the readers of historical fiction/slasher-monster-mashup books, and can we please stop people from buying books ironically so that paper stops getting wasted on those things?
In the former book, apparently -- I got bored just reading the review -- vampires are a stand-in or symbolic of alienation in America, or maybe teens. I don't know. In the latter, zombies are a stand-in for... I guess... white supremacists. Or maybe socialists. I don't know, either. I have no intention of reading either book and in fact may boycott anything that even remotely resembles vampires or zombies in the future if this continues.
I'm sick of vampires and zombies, as you may now have guessed. I can't believe that in our whole human history, those are the only two monsters we keep going back to as something to fear and/or symbolize things. Nearly 2 billion years (or 2000 years, depending on who's counting) and that's all we've got, vampires and zombies? For crying out loud, "scientists" are ahead of entertainers in the field of "making up things."
I'm not saying that everyone who sits down and thinks up a story involving a monster -- whether that monster is there just to scare someone, or is there to symbolize the Federal Reserve and/or Antioxidants In Food -- has to invent a new monster, although that wouldn't be a bad rule to impose: come up with at least one new monster, or go home. (I'd be free to go on writing, or not "go home," however you want to measure it.)
I'm saying, instead, that we could dig a little deeper -- or wider, whatever-- and use monsters that aren't vampires, or zombies. There are tons of monsters out there that can easily scare people and/or stand in as a representative of corporations, or consumerism, or anti-American sentiment in the Balkan region, whatever your deal is. There are a plethora of monsters who can be in love with your heroine but not want her to love them back, or be hacked apart by the intrepid explorer, or even win in the end, if that's what you're going for. There is a whole cast of generic monsters just waiting to have you, the creative type, breathe life into them and adapt them to the modern world, and the broad array of those monsters available just emphasizes how uncreative the continued use of zombies and vampires is.
As usual, it falls on me to point these out to you, in hopes that my provision of this vital public service will encourage you to adopt these monsters in your own way, and begin promoting them, so that Big Entertainment will then be forced to consider the fact that not everything has to be zombies or vampires, and we'll finally have diversity in the area of things that scare us/symbolize real life things.
So read this list carefully, and then, when you sit down to write or cast or direct The Great American [Whatever It Is You're Writing/Casting/Directing], feel free to use one or more of them in any way you want. Have one of them make out with Kristen Stewart. Have two of them team up to open a small hamburger joint just outside of Barstow. Take all of them and have them compete in the Olympics as a team from Monstervania to make a point about how the Olympic rules don't adapt to modern times... whatever it is you do, just use them, instead of zombies and vampires, because I really don't want to watch Zombie High.
Here are your Seven Best Monsters Society Should Be Fearing/Pretending Are Symbolic Of Stuff.
In the interests of creativity, I've thrown in a few of my own ideas that aren't generic, long-standing monsters, but which I've invented myself. I'm throwing those to the Public Wind, and giving you permission to use those monsters in any way you want... provided that you don't in any way involve even a hint of zombies or vampires in that work.
(And if you do use one, let me know. I'll give you a mention here -- and a nonsarcastic one, I swear!)
1. Mummies. The Mummy has been around forever, at least since 1933, which is when the world started according to the Texas Legislature, but what's that longevity ever gotten it? A couple of fights with Abbott & Costello, and a brief trip to the limelight back when Brendan Fraser wasn't yet curing diseases-of-the-week with Harrison Ford.
Mummies -- which might fare better if their name didn't sound kind of funny -- have a great scare/symbolism potential. Do you know how mummies are made? According to this site, which presents the mummification process in 3rd-grade level style apparently intended for actual children -- mummies have their organs removed from a slit in the side of the body -- all except the heart, which the mummy will need in the afterlife. The brain isn't removed through a slit at all; instead, a big hook through the nose smashes the brain and pulls it out. The body is then filled with fluid, then set aside for 40 days before going through some more processes that I'm too busy to read up on now but which probably involve, at some point, the same powders put in Cheeseburger Pringles, and which definitely involve wrapping the organs in cloth and putting them back.
Hello? Can anyone say Health Care Reform? Talk about scaring people and making symbolic points: What about a movie in which people voluntarily undergo the mummification process, asking for only the finest oils and bottled waters and haute coutoure linens (that's important, right, Susan Saperstein?), only to realize that as part of the process, they didn't get the eternal life and beauty they were promised, but instead became slaves to the corporation/government/Hollywood producer that popularized the process? You could even have the requisite parody scene when, early on in the movie, Dad brings Mom home after the procedure, and Mom's not responding to the kids the same way, and one kid asks what's wrong, and Dad says "Mummy's a mummy now," prompting uncomfortable laughter among the audience, and also a guest appearance by Heidi Montag.
2. Will O' The Wisps: Alternatively called "Ghost Lights" or "What the *#@(@#*$ was that?", Will O' The Wisps have a feature which ought to be coveted by those who can't seem to break away from vampires and zombies, that trait being they can be any thing you want them to be, and can exist in any time you want them to.
That is, the Will O' The Wisp can be Marfa's Ghost Lights, or aliens, or angels or something more exotic and imaginative yet -- they could be, if you wanted them to be, a Higgs Boson, or the next stage of human evolution. They're just light; that's all we know about them, that and that some guys can make them in their microwave oven:
There's your set-up right there, lazy screenwriters: Guy (played by me) decides to try that on his own at home, only when he does it, the little energy thing doesn't disappear, it shrinks down, so that when the guy (me) goes outside to let the NO2 out, he inadvertently lets the Will O' The Wisp out, at which point it begins... I don't know, terrorizing the city, or trying to attend high school, or something. I can't do everything for you.
3. Gargoyles. No area of Monsterville is more ripe for updating, and more susceptible to clumsy symbolism, than Gargoyle Lane. Horror and monster features have already exhausted all the possibilities offered by demons and The Devil (once Winona Ryder has shot the Devil with a handgun, what's left?), and have moved on to making angels alternatively sexy or frightening (beginning with the scary angels of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and moving right into Nicolas Cage, as the creepiest angel ever, seducing Meg Ryan, and now ending up with Fallen (but still sexy, in a safe, young-adult-y way) Angels.
If angels, demons and devils are out, where is a writer (who doesn't want to bother making up her own stuff) to turn for homogenous religious imagery? Gargoyles -- those statues made to defend the churches from evil spirits.
I've already done some of the heavy lifting on updating gargoyles, via my story, Rage, but any creative types out there can see the possibilities for scariness -- the tortured visages! Monsters caught in stone! -- and for symbolism: the church using evil images to ward off evil? Fighting fire with fire? Could that possibly corrupt someone in some church somewhere?
And the possibilities don't end there: What if people are slowly turning to stone, becoming statues themselves, and those statues, once the person becomes stone entirely, continue to morph to present the person's true self -- so that evil ugly people become evil ugly statues, while beautiful kind people become glorious monuments? Or what if all statues were coming to life, and we had to beg the gargoyles for help?
Come on, people, I'm trying here. Work with me.
4. Vicious Circle: This is one of those I promised, throwing in a monster I just now made up, on the spot, for you to use. A vicious circle is one of those.
No, it's not Pac Man come to life -- although that'd be pretty cool, and maybe someone should have virtual creatures come to life in the real world, except that getting all the legal permissions would be really tough to do... unless it's a parody? -- the Vicious Circle is far more than that.
The vicious circle is a line drawing created as a doodle -- but a line drawing that then comes to life in a bizarre sort of way. It appears to flicker on the page, causing the Doodler (played by George Clooney)(fingers crossed!) to momentarily think that he's seeing things. As time goes on, the vicious circle begins doing more than that: it shows up not just on his doodle, but wherever he sees circles: the letter O on a printed page. The stain left by his coffee cup. The smoke ring blown by a guy at a bar. Wherever it turns up, the Vicious Circle begins to act up and talk more and encourage the guy to do things, things he wouldn't ordinarily do, like pilfer money from work or run a red light, or cheat on his wife. And then, when the guy balks, the vicious circle lives up to its name and begins doing stuff for him -- like, say, an extension cord in his garage that falls on the floor into a circle, which then begins crawling up the stairs to strangle the man's kids.
Is George Clooney going crazy? Is this some sort of extra-dimensional being? Does it tap into the hatred of geometry I had for most of my life? You'll get all those answers and more... in The Vicious Circle. To be released this fall. (Fingers crossed!)
And you can cross-match these concepts, you know: Just like Vampire Zombies, monsters can be mix-and-match. I once began (but never finished) a story called Jeremy's Angel, in which Jeremy begins to hear voices talking to him from the tiny spot of light reflected off his watch in sunlight; he thought it was an angel, but it kept telling him to do evil stuff. Nary a zombie or vampire in sight, and yet it was a great, um... three pages.
I really ought to get back to stuff like that instead of all this blogging/not actually working.
5. Computers. You know what's been lost in the decades-of-vampires-and-zombies? Just how scary computers really are, that's what's been lost. It used to be that you couldn't pick up a book or watch a movie or record a TV show on your Beta VCR without being reminded that these new-fangled "com-puters" were going to, ultimately, betray the human race and enslave us or eat us or delete all our emails or fall in love with our sexy next-door neighbors:
But now that we've all got computers, now that there are computers in our cars, computers that may be infected by cosmic rays and going nuts -- and cosmic rays, remember, are what made Doctor Doom all Doom-y -- now that all that's going on...
... we're writing cautionary tales about Abraham Lincoln and the slaves. How did we go from turn-of-this-latest-century movies about how computers turned the entire human race into batteries, to books about Jane Austen slicing up brains? Are you reading this blog via the palatial English estate sitting atop your work desk? I didn't think so.
Computers are where the scares are at -- if done properly, which means no more Trons and no more Sandra Bullock looking at computer screens. To properly scare someone -- and symbolize just how our reliance on computers, and how their ubiquity may be our downfall, you've got to do something like what they did in such classic horror-ish movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Wall-e:
Computers have the potential for devastatingly personal effects on human life -- as shown by the real-life couple who neglected their real-life baby in favor of virtual-reality games -- and a large-scale attack that would rival Godzilla: they ordered the stock market to crash in 1987.
Back in about 1910, or something, Ray Bradbury wrote a brilliant story that appeared in The Illustrated Man, about a guy who had a lifelike robot doppleganger, a robot he'd pull out to take his place whenever the guy wanted time away from his wife. Ultimately, [SPOILER ALERT! ALTHOUGH IT DOESN'T REALLY MATTER BECAUSE I BET YOU WON'T GO READ THE STORY ANYWAY], the robot and the wife fall in love, and the robot puts the man back in the box.
That's brilliant. And scary. Now consider this: Your computer knows more about you than anyone else... what if it decided to use that information for its own good, and to hurt you. If my computer emailed my boss everytime I googled "Naked Jennifer Aniston," -- or emailed Sweetie that -- I'd ...
... well, I'd be in no trouble at all, because of course I've never done that.
And, as an aside, I'm going to take a short break here and go get a software upgrade and memory expander for my computer, and also clean out the keyboard. Just because.
And, as an aside, I'm going to take a short break here and go get a software upgrade and memory expander for my computer, and also clean out the keyboard. Just because.
Also, speaking of...
6. Dopplegangers, why not use them as a monster? A doppleganger in mythology is your own ghostly double, a visage that can be a bad omen or your evil twin -- a barely seen identical copy of you when no reflection should be appearing. A doppleganger in Dungeons & Dragons, though, was even worse: it was a shapeshifter that could appear to be anything, really, including your own best friend, or Naked Jennifer Aniston.
Those images showed up on this post entirely by accident.
Kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only worse, imagine what life would be like if you began seeing glimpses of yourself here and there in the big impersonal city you've just moved to as the star of this movie, and then, after seeing glimpses of yourself, you start to slowly realize that there are other yous out there doing stuff: Your new boss in the big impersonal city where everyone is anonymous (getting this symbolism?) congratulates you on a presentation... when you were stuck in traffic at the time. Your new girlfriend meets... not you for drinks. How many of them are there? What do they want? Why'd they pick you? Why'd you ever move to this big impersonal city in the first place.... aiaiaiaiiargh!
Like your horror Twilight-y and safe, with a mix of romance spun in? I'll give you Dopplegangers: The Young Adult Kind Of Twilight-Y Romance Series. A young man -- let's call him Stewart Christian moves to a new town, where at first he's taunted and teased by the regular kids, and scorned by the hot girl in class... or so he thinks, because the hot girl visits him at night and when he's alone and says she loves him. He can't figure it out until one day he learns about dopplegangers and realizes that he's being visited by Hot Girl's doppleganger...
Man, I'm good. But is it really me writing this, or...
7. Naiads, Dryads, Nymphs, Sprites, Sylphs, and other Sexy Female-y Creatures: Traditionally, in literature, naturistic women who embody the spirits of the things around us -- the Dryads that are the spirits of trees, the Naiads that are the spirits of water, or something like that -- are presented as either sex toys, or sex toys with a hint of slight danger, the danger usually being that men will forego the 'real' women and get trapped into some sort of enchanted life with the natural spirit.
That would be terrible, right? Being forced to be a slave for a sexy woman, and not being able to live in the real world with its traffic jams and talk-radio-hosts and antioxidant-infested food? It would be terrible, because...
... I've got nothing.
But if we, as creative types, are looking for ethereal supernatural creatures to embody some sort of kind-of-threatening but enticing sexuality, why keep going to the vampire well? There's not exactly a shortage of sexifying creatures out there looking to entice mortals into eternal slavery.
Which would be bad, right? Someone's got to convince me of that.
And, if you think about it, why would these creatures be anything but evil or at least opposed to humanity? We think of them as largely being like forest-spirit versions of Playboy bunnies: there to look sexy and maybe dally with a while before ultimately moving on to... real life. But why would they be like that? Why wouldn't they be, say, at war with us?
If vampires are at war with us because they survive on our blood, and if zombies are at war with us because they need our brains to eat, why wouldn't the living embodiments of nature want to be at war with us because we, I don't know, keep paving over their habitats and filling them with sludge?
And why wouldn't there be more spirits than just trees and lakes? Why wouldn't grass have a spirit, and roses? Why couldn't a guy be attacked by millions of tiny little sexy women who are the living embodiment of the spirits of the blades of grass he just mowed that day? Imagine a guy mowing his lawn, then later going to bed, only to wake up from a sound sleep to see, on his chest and his bed and in his room, 150,000 tiny green women, all naked, and all holding their decapitated heads under their arms -- the spirits of the recently-mowed grass come to get vengeance on him.
That'd be cool.
Also, in searching for images for this post, I came across this:
So maybe I didn't invent the idea of a vampire zombie... but I certainly deserve credit, because I didn't call it anything stupid like a vambie. What's up with that?
I'd have gone with Zampire.
I mentioned The Illustrated Man in The Five Best Books Schools Should Have Kids Read (And The Five Crummy, So-Called Classics They'd Replace.)
I decided who The Best Undead Creature was, here.
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