Black Ribbon Award

THE RIGHT TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY

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Note: This essay is a rewrite of an older one that no longer works and which has been bugging me for a while. Elements and whole passages have been carried over from the original post and expanded upon in a manner that I find more satisfactory. I have declined to link the original piece because I don’t feel like it.

On the few occasions when people saw Anthony and Andrew Johnson, they were always together, whether they were doing lawn work or shopping at the grocery store. They were twins, and they shared a home in the suburbs of Chattanooga, TN. That is the most anyone ever knew about them, for they were the type of people who mostly kept to themselves and whose window blinds were always down.

But people noticed when the house had become especially quiet, and the twins were not seen for longer periods. It was hard to tell what was going on. The grass was still being cut somehow; but mail delivery was discontinued. Soon after, the house went dark. In 2011, relatives sent police to do welfare checks. There was no answer but also no apparent urgency from the police or family members to gain entry into the house. It was not until March of 2014 when the skeletal remains of the Johnson twins were discovered, each seated in their easy chairs, suspected to have died three years earlier at 63-years-old.

The details were scant but sufficiently gothic to gain national coverage. People magazine reported the story as “strange, sad and macabre.” It was later that fall when the medical examiner’s report was made public and gave some clarity to their unusual situation. Andrew Johnson was a diabetic with visual impairment. Anthony took care of him, monitoring his glucose levels and administering his insulin injections. The time between their deaths is not known, but the autopsy report showed that Anthony died of heart disease, leaving behind his twin brother, who then died of diabetes.

By that point, interest in the story of the Johnson twins had faded. Though interest in that type of story remains. There is no lack of similar incidents making it to print or screen. Overlapping with the discovery of the Johnson twins was 44-year-old Pia Farrenkopf, whose mummified body was found in the garage of her foreclosed home in Pontiac, MI, having been dead for five years. This arguably received greater national attention, with Carmen Maria Machado writing about her in The New Yorker.

Both cases tell a similar story. The Johnsons and Farrenkopf lived in near-total isolation, estranged from family, no apparent friends, and minimally acquainted with their neighbors. But any deeper meaning is what you make of it. The Johnsons appear to be a warning to people who disconnect from relatives; though that leaves aside the complexities of who is disconnecting and why. For Machado, Farrenkopf was an extreme cautionary tale of our “institutional doppelgängers” and our dependence on technology. Though Farrenkopf’s life was over, her automatic mortgage and car payments, from a healthy bank account, continued.

This appears at first to be of a piece with recent trends in media consumption. The public taste for the macabre and the unseemly knows no depth. Consumers will explore the contours of murder, conspiracy, sexual violence, robbery, long cons, unexplained disappearances, illicit confessions, scandals of all kinds, dark desires, and beastly impulses at a frequency that verges on constant. Yet the stories of shut-ins do not match up with the trend upon further scrutiny.

The fascination over shut-ins predates the current frenzy over true crime. There has always been room in the public imagination for someone who has disappeared so completely from the public that the public hardly notices. It is the image of voluntary imprisonment: in a rent-controlled apartment or a dilapidated house, surrounded by walls of newspaper and empty takeout containers, walking over cat feces, and sitting in front of a TV that is never off.

Such stories, whether they are somber, well-wrought elegies in The New York Times Magazine or the more sensational fare of television shows like Hoarders, ostensibly present a mystery and stoke voyeuristic curiosity; but mostly they engender fear. This, these articles, shows, and documentaries assert, is what happens when you disengage and disconnect. You lose your energy and self-respect; you will be forgotten. It is less about what has happened to someone like a vaguely known stranger or a distant eccentric cousin, doubtless we all have those and they cannot be helped, and more about what may happen to you if you allow yourself to slip.

Even before the pandemic made shut-ins of all of us, there seemed like an urgency to make this point. We were becoming less dependent upon face-to-face interaction by the day. Some of us were becoming lazy, and others lonely; at least proving Machado’s Farrenkopf-inspired point that technology was cutting our traditional interpersonal relations by subtle increments.

***

All oversized civilizations succumb to decadence. Each form of decay is tailor-made based on the materials we provide it. Our civilization has provided for an especially tragic, retiring decadence. It is, perversely, an innovation. The power of the internet was thought to bring us together; in truth it allowed us to construct our own ghosts in advance. That is a dilemma well worth a jeremiad or two from a better equipped social critic; none so far has appeared. The shut-in exposés prove that much, being not at all compatible with, let alone instructive about, what ails civilization.

It is improper to speak with any completeness or authority for the shut-in or the recluse or to arrive conclusively at their motivations. No recluse is the same, even if they are presented almost identically in their coverage. Conveniently they are never around to speak for themselves. What I have to say is probably no more rarified a venture in speculation than the other attempts it follows. Still, it helps to clarify the error in conflating loneliness and social retreat with the more demanding act of voluntary disappearance. Loneliness, even prolonged loneliness, is a temporary condition, and its abjectness is already pretty apparent to the sufferer. Through self-mastery and therapy, the lonely may be able to cure themselves. Ultimately few if any lonely people are every truly shut-ins, and to say that shut-ins choose to shut in as we would choose a brand of coffee should not be the default conclusion.

Reclusion is a stronger vintage than loneliness. It is denial, often a sweeping and total one, of so many popular ideas of how life is lived that it very nearly approaches a calling infused with moral import. Reclusion is at the same time less clear cut in how it occurs. I prefer for my purposes to look at what it is the recluse denies. What follows, then, is what I consider essential rather than complete.

First are relationships. This is not to declaim unilaterally against platonic or romantic intimacy. The problem lies rather in the relationship as a lifestyle. To get on in the world it is important to have a group and to be seen with it; just as it is important to have a significant other and to be seen with them. Such arrangements confer upon the person a sense of cohesion with the social family. The recluse may not be malcontented by this in spirit, but it is not willingly entered into for some reasons that may be valid. The modern social life is vast and active at the expense of depth. Someone in the midst of it will feel connected and integral but will hardly remember it after the fact. At worst, there is a struggle to distinguish one friend from another, or to parse over the commonality one shares with a loved one only to come up slight or empty. The line between friendship and busywork dissolves in such situations.

Family, or lack thereof, is a recurring theme in shut-in stories, but addressed in the most general terms as to expose the type’s unhelpfulness outright. As each recluse is different so is the family from which they detach or are detached. Without concise data there is no way of understanding the dynamics each family bears upon the recluse. It is rather that we should not take for granted the indissolubility of the familial bond or that dissolution can or should always be mended. To withdraw from an intimate social connection, let alone a family, is not taken lightly by the withdrawer. Doubtless they know what they are losing; they’ve lived with it for long enough, have assessed it carefully, and assigned it a value that departs from the norm. There is no one conclusion for that valuation, and the burden of inquiry should not lean one way while the moral weight attached to it should lean another way.

Second is work. As with relationships, this is not a wholesale criticism of the work ethic. The work ethic suffers greatly in the new society, dominated as it is by the pure pursuit of money—or to use the politically correct understanding, a “career.” Such a pursuit may require one to work 10 jobs over the course of 15 years. One job may have no clear responsibilities while the next job might have numerous and conflicting responsibilities. Yet in each case there is demanded from the employee, whether overtly or subtly, a fealty to the employer and to the employee’s tasks that in all likelihood far exceeds that which was demanded from a vassal by his lord. The employee must go so far as to identify with the work even if the work is menial; not so much because the employer believes that is true—though in a startup-heavy environment that is a distinct possibility—but so as to assure the completion of the work. In the pursuit of accomplishment-driven endorphins, the employee is never hostile to meeting this demand at whatever expense and regardless of how low or high the pay rate.

Whether an abnegation or a demand of one’s energy and skill, this might not strike the recluse as a workable arrangement. They have no one way of earning income. True, some have the advantage of inherited funds that, when apportioned with extreme care, can prove sufficient for a long existence and require minimal supplementation. But others venture out from time to time to do odd jobs around their immediate community. Indeed, despite their self-imposed isolation, the spartan tendency of the recluse makes them more reliable to the community compared to the single striver of the wider world.

Third is civilization. Civilizations are not by their nature reflective. Had they been, no civilization would extend farther than a few square miles. It is left to the recluse to reflect, and the conclusion, as you might expect, departs from the norm.

To use the recluse as a counterexample against civilizational decay would probably be more baffling than offensive. The recluse sees the decay as clearly as the cultural hysterics do. That the hysterics have not found reason in the recluse’s actions is of not great important; it is a lost opportunity if anything.

The recluse gets nowhere without being significantly at odds with the culture into which they are placed. It will have dawned on them that not only is the state of culture vacuous and debased, but totally antagonistic. It is not exactly an evil culture, but it is hard-hearted and lacks empathy. It rejects compassion and tolerance in favor of convenience and uniformity. There are two ways to live comfortably within it: to be infected by its ethos or to be devoured by those who already are. It occurs to the would-be recluse that there is a feeling of disdain from the culture toward them, that that feeling is mutual, and there is no possibility of compromise or closure. How long it takes to see those revelations depends upon the person, though it is almost always seen in that order.

Yet civilization does not take that rejection well. Pretty soon it loses patience with pathos and reverts very quickly to invective. The recluse is no longer a tragic figure, but an abscess: a fat, unkempt, sedentary, burdensome, vaguely humanoid organism. It bitterly shuns the entreaties of the mainstream way of life deep within the bowels of its parents’ basement. It subsists on a diet of Cheetos dust, much of it caked into its facial hair, while leaving the actual Cheetos for the spiders, centipedes, and crickets that make up its social circle.

***

The crisis of civilization: not a reflection, and not quite a point of decay. More accurately a signal, or a rallying cry against an encroaching threat of disintegration, whether real or perceived. If the recluse is in crisis, we cannot know it. How would we if we can’t see them and they won’t let us?

Consider that the recluse is not the one in crisis. Where does the true crisis lie? Habit leads us to a crisis of character or of values. Virtue has been made subservient to an especially domineering vice. We can, and we often do, play an endless game assigning roles in these particular thought-stories with a lot of amusement but illusive conclusion. Maybe these are true. But maybe these are comparably smaller residents under a larger, dome-like crisis: the crisis of perception.

“Dome” is an appropriate point of reference. Civilizations have a dome-like quality themselves. Constrictive but not uncomfortable; containing a co-citizenry of reliable familiarity. They are clutter to you and you are clutter to them. All well and good. Clutter is better than citizenry. It’s steady. It coheres. It is impartial, neither pleasant nor offensive. Gathering in increasing quantities but not overwhelming. It becomes an inseparable part of your world, an extension of who you are. To part with it, to be independent of it, is unthinkable. Clutter, like civilization, never has to justify itself or apologize. And few will miss it, whether in absence or abundance.

ON BEING CHAINSAW’D

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If the test of great art is not only in being able to challenge the imaginative and aesthetic limitations of its consumers but to do so over the course of multiple generations, it can’t be denied that Tobe Hooper’s breakthrough film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has passed both.

Since its conception and release nearly five decades ago, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has dominated over not only its succession of sequels, reboots, and sequels to those reboots, but its copious imitators, even its most credible challengers coming out of Australia. Not even Hooper’s subsequent films have ever matched its staying power and intensity.

This rare esteem is obvious to all who have seen even a little of it. Even, perhaps especially, by those who don’t like the film. It’s a film that commands disgust every bit as much as it commands awe; earning both consistently and in equal measure. From what sources does this power derive?

First from its strength as a sensory rather than a narrative film. It was less important to know why Hooper’s doomed characters were compelled to that part of Texas than to come away from the film with the nearest possible impression of being in that particular part of Texas at that particular time. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most pungent of films, the most restrictive of a viewer’s comfort. Its projection on whatever screen has a way of getting not just in your face, but onto and under your skin. The oppressive heat and sun of rural Texas, the barren end-of-civilization landscape, the rot of old abattoirs, the musk of unhinged hitchhikers, and the scent of unusual meats of uncertain origin, all weigh heavily upon the viewer. And this is all before anything actually happens. Before the chainsaws can rev, the stench and the heat, and other accentuated dreads, are the film’s greatest weapons.

It stinks and yet is beautiful at the same time. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does have a true peer, it is not found in Halloween or in Hostel or in Wolf Creek, but in Badlands, released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both Hooper’s and Malick’s films are minimalistic and meditative at their core. They are fascinated by the overwhelming and uncompromising landscape of the American frontier and the violence it fosters. Though Badlands is epic and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is claustrophobic, both seek to capture something of the American soul.

I don’t know what Badlands has to say about the American soul, as I never saw the end of the film. What The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has to say of it is clear enough on first viewing, but helpfully clarified with the second, third, fourth, and eleventh viewing: that humans have a preference for chainsawing over being chainsawed.

Now if I went only by simple intuition, this theme of the film would stand out a little bit beneath its other traits. But setting that aside and only considering raw experience, which lacks in anything related to chainsaws, the film’s persuasive power on that point is unmistakable and unavoidable. And the force of clarity on which this point hinges in the film is all the more admirable. It wastes no time in putting across how unideal having the chain end of a chainsaw directed into your person looks and feels. If you were not so assured on that point going into the film you are not likely to stay that way coming out of it.

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the undesirability of being chainsawed is actually the crux of an entire worldview. One aversion is followed by a host of subsidiary aversions. Humans are not inclined to being hung upon hooks by the back or neck. They are not partial to being kept in freezers, even if their frames are compatible with its dimensions. They would prefer the contents of their gravesites, or the gravesites of their loved ones, to be kept below rather than above ground. And the notion of their meat and ligaments being used for sustenance or their bones for home décor does not appeal to them. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre entered the American collective consciousness with a particular message. What great fortune that it was receptive to that message.

All this, however, is to overlook another test of great art that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has so far not had to undergo.

Cultural moods are ever shifting, and never in any predictable pattern. Art is seldom truly timeless, and to aim for timelessness first is not an impulse I’d encourage. Those works are boring, without risk, and, ironically, forgotten. Works of art submit themselves wholly and unreservedly to the finicky, anxious temper of the public while only being able to say so much to it. A work of art that speaks from its circumstances and which also withstands a turn against them by subsequent consumers is worthy of endurance in the public imagination.

Though the ebb and flow of mass taste is unknown to us, we can’t take for granted that the views espoused in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will hold in perpetuity. It isn’t impossible that Americans may develop a more positive attitude toward being chainsawed and all the related experiences the film’s protagonists rejected but could not avoid. Such a shift is out of the hands of the film’s admirers and other people who generally agree with its message. And that it may fail this important test is no small source of anxiety. It is to imagine a wholly different film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre draws much of its impact not from its violence but from the happenstance collision of opposed worlds. A world free of chainsaws stumbles into a world that is full of them. Neither were so aware of each other that enmity between them was a forgone conclusion. In fact, there may not have been any, just a reflexive attitude born out of specific conditions locked in place, as if stuck on a loop. But there was so little opportunity or ability for understanding that, tragically, no more pleasant outcome was workable. Under reversed moral precepts, the accidental collision becomes intentional. People come in from all directions to undergo the Leatherface experience. Countless young travelers leaping into his roaring blades.

The effect of that shift would have significant if presently intangible implications on the original vision of the film. We must be realistic, but not fatalistic. We must not drift from the spirit of horror which, despite some trends detouring to the contrary, is the most optimistic of the speculative genres. Through it, all of our most intense impulses our enabled, our darkest instincts are confirmed, secrets practically throw themselves at us. Even meat has a purpose.

LEARNED WELLNESS

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During a Blackout, the participant (let’s call them the “subject”) is forced down a dark hallway, often restrained and blindfolded, where at the end of it they are pinned down by two performers, one of which is holding what looks like a tattoo needle. Here the subject is to receive their brand, that signifies not just that they participated in Blackout but that they are a part of Blackout. After which, they are shoved out of as roughly as they were pulled into the disclosed location where Blackout takes place, sometimes without pants. The brand is actually three small black dots, a somewhat appropriate ellipsis, placed on the face or neck. One post-Blackout subject proudly points to the brand on his forehead. The spare minimalism of the gesture, not slight but pointed and confident, only intensifies its visual impact. That is until the subject admits that the “brand” is applied by Sharpie. That makes sense from a legal liability standpoint, though it was still disappointing to hear. Much about Blackout is.

This process is depicted in The Blackout Experiments, a 2016 documentary that goes behind and directly into the scenes that take place in Blackout. The acts undertaken are many and perhaps not easy for all to stomach: suffocation, visual and aural sensory overload, simulated burial, simulated drowning, simulated murder, manhandling of all varieties, and an inescapable sense of dread right before and well after a Blackout has been completed. Yet one Blackout turns into another, and then into several. Soon it assumes something approaching a lifestyle with group meetings and private invitations to more exclusive, and of course more extreme, experiences. If you, obviously normal well-adjusted person, cannot tell if this is good or bad, you can rest easy knowing that the participants can’t seem to tell either.

Blackout at first is similar to the extreme haunts that dot the national map every October. Like the extreme haunts, Blackout has a complicated admission process. Prospective participants are screened physically and psychologically beforehand. Those selected are required to sign a release form absolving Blackout of responsibility for any injuries sustained during the experience. Then they are sent an email providing only a time and a location. Once they arrive and are pulled behind the door everything is out of their hands. But unlike extreme haunts, Blackout occurs year-round, mainly in Los Angeles but also in New York City. It waives the typical extreme haunt aesthetics of made-up monsters and horror narratives in favor of a stripped-down approach: plastic wrap, duct tape, restraints, wooden boards, and black hoods. The experience is something of a tapestry of brutality: the immersive theater of Sleep No More, the in-your-face performance art of Chris Burden, a little Gestalt therapy here, a little BDSM there, and you start to get the general idea. Blackout does not utilize fear for thrills, as an extreme haunt might, but tries to reach a point that goes beyond fear, and beyond pain, for a deeper purpose.

There are those who like pain for its own sake, which is straightforward and probably understood more widely than is admitted, and those who need pain in order to alleviate pre-existing pain, which is a more complicated matter. Blackout, at least as the documentary presents it, derives its controversy and its intense following by attracting those who are decidedly the latter type. One man has both lingering anxiety from being jumped and robbed by three men and dependencies on following the rules and the validation of others. One woman is a recovering inhalant addict. Another woman has a history of sexual abuse. Another man has obsessive-compulsive disorder. These and a very small core of others, who call themselves “survivors,” have experienced Blackout so often as to develop an obsession around it.

The Blackout Experiments has been poorly received by critics and online commenters. Part of it being from confusion as to whether it is real or fictional. These days anyone can whip up “found footage” with nothing more than fake blood, bad lighting, an eyeless doll, and a GoPro. Certainly some of the stunts depicted during filmed Blackouts tax credulity. There’s something that is at once so awkward and stilted in the setup and so unhinged in conception as to give the impression of being staged at every point. Among the most extreme acts is putting survivors in a room with a half-naked, sobbing woman. Another man comes in and restrains the survivor while giving them a pistol and screaming at them until they shoot the woman. Survivors also live under the belief that Blackout tampers with their daily lives, leaving things in their homes and putting words like “ABANDON” into their phone contacts. The documentary goes to some length to suggest that their paranoia is valid. Survivors even come to believe that even the documentary is another experience concocted by Blackout.

But Blackout is real, and you don’t need to consult Wikipedia to confirm it. You can see it on the survivors’ faces. The documentary does not focus on any Blackout detractors as there is more than enough ambivalence coming from devotees. The pistol stunt, and other instances where subjugation becomes perpetration, leaves survivors visibly disturbed, even betrayed. These are not the typical costumed thrill-seekers who pour into McKamey Manor every Halloween season. At some point, you begin to wonder if this functions like a kind of harem of violence, wherein the producers of Blackout string the survivors along, goading them into more intolerable extremes. Such seems the case when they invite the documentarians to film a newly developed experience, the location of which is “unique.”

Unique indeed: it is the survivors’ own homes. Each one sits in their darkened living room and waits for the performers to arrive, clad in black and wearing balaclavas. They put a hood over the survivor, lay them on the floor, yelling “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” right into their faces. For every inevitable wrong answer, they waterboard them. For the better part of a night, they taunt and threaten the survivor all over their home, largely in their shower, until they lay them on their bed, have them recite the original disclaimer while having them add that they no longer need Blackout because Blackout has cured them of the very condition(s) that brought them there to begin with. Then it’s over. Mixed feelings abound yet again, followed by the quiet acceptance that, yeah, maybe they are.

The twist reveal of “snuff therapy”—or perhaps “learned wellness”—should not have surprised. We are well past the point of complaint for how therapy infects everything or that no one involved in Blackout appears to have anything approaching a therapeutic qualification. It is nonetheless not what I would consider an ideal use of its resources, its imagination, or its energy.

There are appropriate places to register ambiguity over the value of cruelty as an expressive, let alone therapeutic, mode. This place shall not be one for the time being, or maybe ever. Let us imagine a situation in which psychological betterment through cruelty does not take precedence over other forms of betterment through cruelty. At least this once.

An interesting thing about the human spirit is that it doesn’t take much effort to break it. Loneliness breaks the human spirit quite well, as does deprivation, abandonment, isolation, and rejection. All of which have a very passive, low-key style but which may have farther-reaching consequences than anything dreamt up by Blackout’s theater kid vanguard. And that is only the foundation.

Not caring is the skeleton key of evil. Not that horror is much interested in using it. Fair enough. It was always of greater advantage to reach those for whom every day is Halloween as opposed to those for whom one day of Halloween is not enough. Blackout’s therapeutic torture porn merely echoes the dismal tedium of its fictional Bush-era predecessor. Moralistic torture porn is better suited to embrace the less accessed route and profit by it. I have said this all before, though the faults of Blackout inspire me to revive what I said. When I proposed the “empathy room,” I had the deprivation-sourced horror firmly in mind, as provided by the asylum system of old, an oft-exploited but not completely understood phenomenon in the genre:

We cannot, of course, reproduce the effects of mental illness, but we can reproduce the schematics with which abnormal behavior has long been contained. Here one will not find recreations of brutal quackery, but instead the ever-present habits of institutional indifference such as clerical incompetence, negligent quality of life, impossibly disproportionate workloads, treatment as discipline and convenience rather than rehabilitation, extended isolation, and all the psychological effects that flow from them. At any given time patrons will either experience this from the view of the patient or the caretaker, not unlike the Stanford prison experiment but with the institutional rot more or less built in.

Horror has always been a bit solipsistic. It’s always about what’s haunting you, what’s pursuing you, what’s dismembering you. This “experience” focuses instead on the horror of them, whoever they are. Consider the waterboarding incident in the at-home Blackout. It was not in itself objectionable, just ill-used. Volunteering for such an act, even by implication, has a diminished value when others were subjected to it for far longer, to no clear practical end, in the name of millions of faraway people, and without their consent or any guarantee of trust or safety. Maybe the entire extreme haunt industry loses potency when one remembers all the tax dollars that have gone into the building of extreme haunts in less friendly markets but with far more rigorous amenities. Where some people are doing too much, you find others are actually doing too little.

This is to imagine an uncommon mode of horror: one that brings people together in bondage of suffering. This is not so much pushing beyond fear as returning to it and enflaming it. Fear as a shared experience; humanism in a dark state of play. It may moreover invite a nuanced understanding of sadism. Sadism has a spectrum. I haven’t quite figured out the points of the spectrum, but I hardly think it discounts one’s sanity to propose its existence. Sadism may not be a form of caring, but if not-caring spreads far enough and becomes entrenched enough, sadism is a viable next-best-thing. You best get sadism with a waiver.

NOTES ON A DISASTERPIECE

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Independence Day is an admirable film, and admirable in a way that is distinct from the film’s objective quality, which is not great. There are, for example, a few films that are objectively good but which I do not find worth admiring: Barcelona, Tree of Life, Joker. And there are plenty more objectively bad films that are as unworthy of admiration as you’d expect: Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Rise of Skywalker. Independence Day is triumphant amid all these tragic examples. That is to say, it allocates its resources to achieve its singular task with the utmost, some might say ruthless, efficiency.

This is to say that Independence Day is an action blockbuster par excellence. Like all action blockbusters, it brings a latent fear to the surface and allays it within a consumable span of time—in this case a little over two hours. The fear in question being that of dominance by an advanced species. Independence Day is neither the first nor the best film to address this fear. It exists in between classics like 1988’s The Live and 1997’s Starship Troopers who each address the fear head-on. In They Live, Earth is another planet’s third-world country. In Starship Troopers, humanity is another planet’s invader. But They Live’s invader is covert where Independence Day’s is overt; and Starship Troopers is satirical while Independence Day is earnest. Independence Day is not interested in thought experiments. It wants to appease an audience’s desire: death and destruction at an inconceivable scope. And its brutality plays no insignificant part in its success.

A scene that best exemplifies this vision—and which has never left my mind since I first saw the film in theaters when I was 12—happens right before the carnage begins, concluding what feels like an endless buildup. One of the grim, castle-like flying saucers hovers over Los Angeles, positioning its center over the US Bank Tower. Many festive Angelenos converge on its roof having decided that the unambiguously ominous outer space incursion is worth celebrating. They wear alien costumes and carry signs that obviously no one on the ship can or wants to see reading “TAKE ME WITH YOU” or “MAKE YOURSELVES AT HOME.” A glow emerges from the ship. Its center slowly opens up revealing a massive cone-shaped contraption. It powers up with another glorious light display. A beam shoots down, followed by a sharp burst directed dead-center onto the roof. The revelers, the first mass casualties, are gone in an instant, vaporized and ignorant of the wider extermination that followed.

It is curious why the film localized the scene to Los Angeles as if to be a unique quality. Maybe there really are more emotionally stunted people there on average compared to other American cities, but that seems presumptuous. In any case, the message of Independence Day is clear: irony is a death sentence. The scale of the conflict will have wrought deaths in the billions. Mourning literally every single one would drive any surviving memorial sculptor to madness. Some names will have to be omitted. The irony-poster, past and present, can never be remembered sincerely, and the world of Independence Day is post-ironic with a vengeance.

There is something truthful, if not exactly accurate, in the depiction of that world. Independence Day is a post-ironic masterpiece, at once a fantasy and a lucid anxiety dream for the neocolonialist in all of us. All civilizations dream of the power to acquire the goods of their lessers with time to spare and unburdened of such niceties as “asking permission,” even as we fear an advanced invader who has that same power, who cares nothing for us and wants us out of the fucking way. But don’t worry, says the film! The invaders are just a cold monoculture, devoid of both individual autonomy and communal fellow-feeling. They are all strategy and no heart. Very much unlike humanity, and Americans specifically, who have heart and strategy in balanced proportion, the compound by which all meaningful victories—to say nothing of profits—are achieved. At least at the time.

Timing, more than brutality, was the greatest benefit of Independence Day. That much is clear 25 years later, after which its wear-and-tear is more evident. The visuals are derivative, the special effects are lackluster, the cast is wildly overqualified, the patriotic message sounds like it applies to a smaller, less interesting country. Action blockbusters are still made, and at a more rapid pace, but the prime is past. 1996 is not 2021. Confidence in institutions, though sometimes professed otherwise, was not as low as it is now; the probability of internal and external widescale conflict was not as high. You can overcome just about anything only when there is nothing to overcome. You can fill a horizon with whatever you wish only when there is nothing coming over on it.

What is the value of this discourse, though, other than to make plain that mindlessness is not the sin of the action blockbuster? Mindlessness is the default requirement. For to have a mind—that is, to be cognizant of everything there is to fear—is to have nothing. And all we have to fear is feared ironically.

PISSING CONTESTS

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There is in every human person the urge to piss in or upon something that is not technically designed to receive piss. The rhyme or reason for doing so is not often exact. Perhaps the traditional receptacle is unavailable; or it is unworthy of you compared to a pool, a shower, a campfire, the East River, your sister’s boyfriend’s truck, or the flag of Connecticut. Doing so just makes sense in the moment and does harm to almost no one of consequence. And yet the institutions of arbitrary power (your mom) insist on shackling you to popular decorum, or else you get no dessert. Having no resolve to smash the institution, you resign yourself to it for the sake of appearances, all the while remaining vigilant for that choice moment when the institution is negligent, your bladder is at capacity, and there is no urinal in sight. In that fleeting moment the world is yours to piss on.

Commentators, online and nonline alike, doubtless know what I’m talking about. The urge to piss on your high school gym teacher’s grave is not all that different from the urge to engage in “media criticism.” It, too, feels more right than wrong; it makes you happy and is basically harmless. Yet power is always on hand to tell you “No” for your own good. Maybe there’s something to that. When countless of my peers were setting forth pungent streams of “thoughts” about “Slate Star Codex” being “covered” in the “New York Times,” I stayed silent and profited by my silence. I was less successful the previous summer in avoiding the debate around the Harper’s open letter, the circumstances of which, let alone the value of my assessment of them, entirely elude my memory today. Clearly some caginess is warranted when it comes to pissing like a free man, for you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. But perhaps I am conservative in that respect.

And so it is with Michael Brendan Dougherty’s recent National Review column that I find this urge to be so strong that I don’t even care if your mom sees me doing it. Nay, I invite her to watch, she might even learn something.

It looks as if Dougherty wanted everyone to watch, too. It’s not every day that a prominent writer accuses his legacy media employer of being “irrelevant” on the platform that that very employer provided for him. Though truthfully that aspect of the column was the least interesting to me. It lacked the Luther-at-the-Diet-of-Worms righteousness that the headline implied. True, sometimes disappointment can be more hard-hitting than anger, but in this case it is soggy and cumbersome, like a dirt path after a heavy rain. But obviously the piece is not without points worthy of greater exploration; particularly Dougherty’s notion of relevance and offensiveness.

In Dougherty’s assessment, National Review has lost its way. In the past it took “risks” and was “self-confident enough to be disagreeable and willing to offend people.” Today the magazine kowtows to any Establishment that will let it into its tent. Dougherty bemoans the respect liberal writers have for National Review’s embrace of presumably right-thinking ideas. As Dougherty points out, National Review ran a piece calling for conservatives to “compromise” on transgenderism. During the 2016 primaries it dedicated an entire issue to encouraging the conservative movement to reject Donald Trump’s candidacy. It failed spectacularly of course and seems to have never quite regained its footing.

There could be any number of reasons for why National Review has taken the stances that it lately has. Though likely the most significant reason is its own success. A magazine that manages to last even five years is a very lucky one. A magazine that publishes an issue a week for five decades is veritably blessed. But that blessing comes at a cost. A strong criticism of institutionalism is that institutions often become so at the expense of their original mission. Rather than “standing athwart history,” National Review has succumbed to it, and it is almost impossible to revert back to first principles. Dougherty discovered this on his own when, after a deluge of commemorations of Rush Limbaugh following his death, he offered less positive assessment. That assessment was met with considerable blowback, some of it ugly. Yet the fact that National Review was able to host all of this chaotic activity in the last five years is just as indicative of its institutional status as its apparent stasis. An institution is a pillar, but it must be a bendable pillar if it is to be perpetual. In 2021, a pillar like National Review is going to look pretty gnarled.

Though Dougherty gives us an idea of what he means by being “willing to offend” with his own example, the act of giving offense in 2021 is otherwise very elastic. Indeed, consumers across the ideological spectrum often come to media with the expectation that they will go away from it unhappy, and all the richer for being so. Offense now has a market with different models. You have the crafty contrarianism of Slate and the adolescent shock tactics of Vice. Those styles have been abandoned by their originating venues, but they’ve been taken up elsewhere. The Federalist is the new Slate; Red Scare and the Women Posting Their L’s Online Twitter account are the new Vice. The bold polemical truth-telling of the public intellectuals, and of the original National Review, has been handed down to Wesley Yang, Bari Weiss, Freddie deBoer, American Affairs, and others. These models are highly sought after, even though they come with an important defect: they are actually not that offensive.

The market for offense is better viewed as a market for validation. A media environment driven by metrics provided by presumed readers cannot afford to be anything less. Each venue and individual poster must be mindful of their clout constituencies, providing content that is spicy without being flammable. That is why Yang, a writer I don’t follow but who always seems to just appear in my social media periphery, can pump out new takes with little dissimilarity from the previous ones. This is less indicative of any personal limitations than it is of the attention span of the present hivemind. Talented writers are frequently hurling out pieces that are praised to the heavens for their provocative brilliance the instant they’re posted only to be forgotten within a day. Thus a punishing cycle of productivity for the sake of productivity ensues and cannot be stopped. Not even to think about what is actually happening here.

What’s unusual about the negative examples of National Review pieces that Dougherty cited is that I actually remembered them. In fact, they seem to have achieved just the thing Dougherty demanded. They took a risk; they offended. They offended their own readers, to be sure, but that is what you sometimes have to do. When J.J. McCullough wrote his piece on transgenderism, he probably had in mind Rod Dreher’s incessant and righteously inert posts on the same subject. Dreher’s posts are wildly popular among conservative readers, so any pushback, however substantive or slight, would draw ire, which McCullough’s post did. The anti-Trump issue is suitable in the same light. I was actually having drinks with some National Review staffers just after that issue came out. They expressed pride in having done it; it was a principled stance at a crucial turning point in conservatism and American politics. They probably knew the stakes. It would have made less sense if they’d done absolutely nothing and would have been clumsy if they’d jumped on the Trump train instantly. This, anyway, is a far cry from their Donald Rumsfeld erotic fan fiction of the previous decade.

It’s easy for me to think this way as writing for purely offensive intent never sat well with me. I would balk whenever friends complained of a writer, who refused to “go for the jugular,” which is to say, refused to serve as their personal parrot. The problem with internet writing, as it may always have been with daily opinion journalism, is that its readers assume writing is mostly impulse-driven. Writing to me is about judgment. Sometimes I make bad judgment calls, usually that err on the side of caution, failing to say what needs to be said. I know when I’ve failed to do what is assumed to be right, but sometimes the fire I and others are being called into is too hot and I don’t always have the proper protective gear. But I can’t imagine myself working in any other way. In doing so, I think I am writing work that is more memorable and tethered to my own concerns rather than that of a hyperactive crowd. The cost is that it consigns my efforts to a certain fate: irrelevance.

Let me say now that being irrelevant fucking sucks. Especially when social media is very handy in providing continuous confirmation of that fact. People can insist the opposite in private all they want, but the environment as it is cannot help but convince you that your efforts are singularly worthless. You fall into traps any logical person would avoid: the comparison trap, impostor syndrome, metric-huffing. You find interest taken in you is either volatile or on a gradual, irreversible decline. You become a defective model, easily replaced. You become everything you feared and despised and a prime example for future writers of what not to do. It is humiliating, and you let it conquer you by letting it live rent-free in your irreparable junkheap of a brain. Resigning yourself to this status is difficult, as it constitutes giving up, even if it may in the long run be liberating.

Relevance is the possession of an elevated sort of popularity. The crowd has embraced something deserving for once, and the crowd loves it when it is aware that it’s even vaguely correct. But even this could not clear up my ambivalence to popularity in total. A root problem for me is that I always hated being ignored, and still do. It is gratifying when someone, especially someone I respect, throws attention my way. It gives a feeling of accomplishment and belonging, which I don’t disvalue. Yet it was always passing and seemed tangential to more far-seeing concerns and complimented elements of my style it’s not always useful for me to cultivate. Relevance was a sort of detour from a longer, less predictable intellectual adventure, a sort of dingy public rest area in the wilderness. It’s quite lonely in the wilderness, to be sure, but at least in there you can piss anywhere without being forced to notice that there’s piss everywhere.

CASTLES OF FILTH

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When you are in kindergarten you are in a state of relative innocence about the tragic nature of existence and the fallen state of mankind. The world of the kindergartner is smaller, and therefore brighter, more innocent, and free of hostility and fear. It is certainly free of loneliness. Every other kindergartener is your friend and you are glad to be the friend of every other kindergartner. Things like chemistry, taste, and humor do not enter into the equation. Kindergartners have the same simple chemistry, the same dumb taste, and the same crude humor. The trappings of refinement and the discriminating urge are problems for third-graders.

As such it is not unusual to have birthday parties where you and everyone else are invited, because these are the only people you know, and “knowledge” is a fluid concept. I was no different. My life between 1989 and 1991 felt equal to that of a socialite’s. Parties, parties, parties. Almost chainlike in procession. The kinds of parties with hats, noisemakers, balloons, goodie bags, over-rich cake, bowling, ball pits, and, on extremely halting occasions, clowns. It amazes me as an adult how I ever managed to endure these festivities, let alone hold any of my own. But I did, and I cringe to think about it. Not because I was always naturally retiring, rather because I was the opposite.

My birthday is in the beginning of the summer, so we’d celebrate it outdoors in the afternoon heat. The one I’m thinking of took place in the spacious backyard of my childhood home in 1990. I believe almost all of my classmates from my out-of-town school and a handful of neighborhood kids were in attendance. We had a wooden swing set where all the kids crowded around. There were some plastic cups and sand pails strewn about as well that one of the attendees gathered up, filled with water, and carefully placed on one of the planks next to the slide. I had no idea why my classmate was doing this, but without much thought I proceeded to grab a stick and knock over every container, spilling the water in all directions. My mom chastened me and I probably felt some degree of chastisement, but not so much that I could totally suppress similarly disruptive urges at the gift-opening stage of things. No present was spared my harsh analysis. Even if I liked a present I still found grounds to excoriate it and, by extension, the giver, whom I probably made cry. I never had a birthday party ever again.

If the notion that our inner-character stops forming about the age of 15 or 16 is more than something I conjured by casual observation, it may appear that my own inner-character froze in place somewhat earlier than that. Whether that is a mark of real distinction I don’t know, but from that moment on I never deviated from my core energy of malcontentedness. In my heart I was always a shitlord.

I make no claim to being the first shitlord. Shitposting, like punk and heavy metal before it, is a recent term meant to describe something that has been with us since the crystallization of our thought. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the very first truly human thought was a shitpost. That makes it seem not very unique in the character of the species, and maybe it isn’t, but the exacting nature of shitposting makes it something greater than a leisure hobby. Some people take to it more than others. People, that is, with a mission for which shitposting is a most suitable vehicle of delivery. People like me. That seems specious given that shitposting is thought to utilize a narrow stylistic range that is always overtly vulgar and aggressive, by shitlords who are expected to be always forceful, outrageous, and, depending on whom you ask, brave. I’m not known for possessing any of these characteristics, though I will get to matter of style momentarily. First I must address the substance of my shitposting, so far only approached in broad strokes.

As shitposting is as old as our consciousness, many other words can be applied to it as being more or less equal on the surface without corroding its effects: cynicism, nihilism, blackguardism, or anything else found in three or four overlapping thesaurus entries. But I would say that these are dependents orbiting around a more agile and intensive cousin. Cynicism is an affectation; shitposting is a mode of action, which a cynical person may faintly recognize but not want to undertake depending on their temperament and needs. But I’m not being any more precise, so let us go back to six-year-old me. Six-year-old me, I can confirm, had no concept of cynicism or nihilism, he also had no sense of righteousness and no injustice to inveigh against. I’m pretty sure he had the best childhood of all time. And yet here he was in his backyard, looking at his guest gleefully playing with his cups, pails, and water supply. A guest for whom he felt no ill-will so far as he can remember. He did not even care that the guest wasn’t including him in his weird activity. But six-year-old me found his conduct distasteful; his attitude offensive. Here was a vulgar display occurring before his very eyes, on his goddamn birthday. His classmate’s galavanting was taking him and, by extension, everyone else at the party down a sordid path. Six-year-old me didn’t know what that sordid path would lead to, but clearly it was nowhere ideal, so it had to be stopped. Six-year-old me had to disrupt this affront to basic goodness for everyone’s betterment, even if they didn’t know it. It is also possible that six-year-old me was kind of cranky and needed a nap, but I will leave that aside to consider what, in all likelihood, was roiling inside me at a very spiritual level.

Maybe it helps to invert the problem. No one is a shitlord as such, but there are things that move people in such a way that shitposting is the only logical method of redress. I don’t know what those things are for other shitlords. We are not like the serial killers in Hannibal or Mindhunter, forming an infernal network. I am only speaking for what moves me. At age six it seems like mindless happiness was all it took. Yet happiness, mindless or otherwise, is so scarce among adults that that hardly does it for me anymore. Even if my core functionality is unchanged, I must aspire to greater heights to give it the most optimal release. Triumphalism is one. Every time I see triumphalism among a certain group, even if it is a basically friendly group, I can’t help but find it fraudulent, exclusive, and egomaniacal. Where triumphalism thrives, I must do everything in my ability to sow defeat. Certainty is another one, and chases the same energies as triumphalism. The certain carry themselves like Henry Ford with a Model T of an idea. And they’re going to ride that idea right over you unless you find a way to pound some doubt into their skulls. Their skulls are thick, so you need a reliable hammer.

You are confused. “This sounds like bullying, Mr. Morgan.” It’s a fair deduction, given that our own former President, the Platonic ideal of a bully, spent much of his time in office engaging in what passed for many in America as shitposting. But this was a pathetic and opportunistic appropriation compared to the real artistry. Bullies, like the rest of us, are inert creatures. What they are, they will remain. But unlike the rest of us, their humanity is incomplete—or just failed. When they dominate someone, they know they are dominating someone, but they do it instinctually, as an animal would, with a conception of power or consequence that is simplistic at most. It’s appetite all the way down. And a bully is forever feeding. It’s a habit that can be utilized for the designs of others with a flair for manipulation, the only thing that can control bullies. Bullies are capable of real hurt and inspire in their victims feelings of condemnation and retribution. These feelings are genuine but overtaxed relative to the size of the object. Though unchanging at their core, bullies are also shrinking. No one feels it less than their former objects of torment, who simply see it as a matter of distance. The bully, ever hungry but without sustenance, knows the truth and pulls himself into pieces as if tied to four horses at the wrists and ankles. Only the cruelest of us would wish that on anyone.

But that is still not shitposting. The shitlord, unlike a bully, is not a half-person. He knows there is such a thing as wrong, that he is in the wrong 95 percent of the time, and has earned admonishment for being so. He knows the depths of his own appetites. But as my six-year-old self has shown, he will return to the wrong in due course.

The shitlord is distinct moreover from those who might be called the professionally wrong, those culture-warriors who flock to the nearest wrong thing to make a totem of it. These legionnaires for truth are more accurately dealers in validation of their audience’s immobile prejudices. This would be fine in any media environment other than the one we live with, where the cyclical intensity of opinion-giving resembles a vomitorium, only where wine is replaced by the previous pool of vomit. Rewards are conferred to those who take the most pleasure in perpetuating the cycle, as mere tolerance seems to be impossible. Shitposting has no connection to that cycle, having accepted being wrong as an unavoidable condition rather than a strategic point in a game where the clearest winners are dead. Shitposing is the greatest means by which the condition of wrongness is made clear for the majority to whom it is still obscure, whether they want it to be clarified or not. Correction is found in the proliferation of error.

It is curious, though, how someone so rife in elegant essays and so lacking in good tweets and fresh memes can be counted as a shitlord. But this is to confuse effective methods with truthful ones. Those who emphasize the former betray their narrow minds so fixated on best practices, resulting in popularity for the sake of being popular. I work with the tools that are given me by whatever power that gives them. I approach every essay as an opportunity to shitpost, in part or in total. Any essay that doesn’t meet this objective lives on in my mind as a failure, no matter how “good” my mom says it is. I can only assume that history’s great shitposters held themselves to the same standards, whether it was Diogenes, Derrida, or Death Grips.

At the same time, maybe the perplexed are right. Maybe “shitpost” is too base for what I create, which is closer in resemblance to a castle. A castle of the most refined craftsmanship, using the most putrid construction materials. A castle of filth. Unlike your standard shitpost this castle has a staying power, it can be lived in. And it will be some time before the resident notices the framework of bones, tendons, and ligaments giving the dung its fine shape and resilience. But when they seek me to ask from what source these bones were extracted, I will have gone. A shitlord does not take shelter in his own castle. He goes onward and upward to a place beyond the scope and conception of those he corrects: a place of endless birthday parties, in which he is at once the celebrant, the guest, the clown, and the cake.

OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL ANXIETY

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Lent is not a fun time for Christians. Some don’t see much distinction between Lent and Ordinary Time to be sure; but even for the most heterodox among us, the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday are that part of the Christian experience at its least holy and most mortified; whatever can bring the Christian closer to the severity felt by the Apostles and their early congregants, to say nothing of Christ himself. It is less about what the Christian “gives up” in that span of time than it is about what it the Christian gains (or regains) by giving something up. It is, as a youth pastor might put it, a matter of strengthening your spiritual core.

Not that I have been doing anything even close to that. Less than a week into Lent 2021 I’ve gone and fucked it up already. I was negligent in keeping track of when Ash Wednesday fell this year. It was left to my dad to remind me, on Mardis Gras. This has been typical of my faith journey of the past year, which saw it go from erratic and isolate verging on complacent to pretty much unmoored. I am hardly blaming the pandemic for this discovery of my half-dormant spiritual laziness, but spiritual laziness is not something to let a good crisis go to waste. And like a good Catholic, the only way to meet this crisis with dignity is to compound it with guilt and disappointment. It’s very clever, you see; if all you’ve done with your devotion is make damnation more certain, you can, theoretically, make it more bearable with committed prep work. Never do you expect to find respite or clarity. Certainly you never go out and find it yourself.

But then it is in those moments of lowest expectation that those very opportunities for clarity present themselves. Or so I was recently willing to consider.

I started hearing about Rose Glass’s debut film Saint Maud a few months ago. As the latest horror cash cow for A24, it entered my consciousness as these things always do: in a procession of critical praise. With a Rotten Tomatoes score presently in the low 90-percent range, it is being not unexpectedly heralded as the scariest thing on God’s green earth that you simply have to see. Critics insist that it is beautiful and intense, moody and meditative, and with a non-zero presence of serious religious themes. I didn’t discount these plaudits but I was reaching a point in my life where this was starting to get old. A24 couldn’t rule the roost forever. The most recent films I’d seen of theirs—Hereditary and Under the Silver Lake—verged on self-parody. I posted some incredulous tweets about it and put it out of my mind. But then it came back into my life, on the first Friday of Lent, as an “EPIX original” ready to be viewed. Only two things were possible: A24’s promotional department is craftier than I’d given them credit for; or A24’s promotional department was briefly appropriated as a messenger of the divine to nudge me into a Lenten Mindset. There was only one way to find out, and the answer is a complicated matter. Obviously it is or I wouldn’t be writing about it, would I?

The Maud of Saint Maud is a Welsh palliative caregiver living in coastal England. In the events before the film she was a hospital nurse until a fatal accident caused her not only to change careers but to convert to a Christianity that has overtaken every aspect of her life. She is heard in voiceovers praying to God in a chatty, diaristic tone. In one prayer at the beginning of the film she expresses reservations in her new client, Amanda, a non-believing avant-garde choreographer with a penchant for unsubtly uterine wallpaper and who is in the terminal stages of lymphoma. Creatives, she prays, tend to be “self-involved.”

The earnest Maud and the acerbic Amanda seem destined not to get along at all. But it doesn’t take long for Maud’s missionary impulses to kick in, believing that with enough zeal she can hand-deliver this woman’s soul to Heaven. At first it works. Amanda is moved by Maud’s displays of devotion, for at least it makes her an attentive nurse. She respects Maud’s need to say grace before meals and is intrigued rather than moved to condescension by her claims to hear God’s voice in prayer. She gives Maud a book of William Blake’s art with a note calling her “my saviour.” Maud has brief but intense moments of visible ecstasy at these efforts, strange facial contortions that seem only partially of her doing (and will become more important later). But this does not last once Maud oversteps her bounds and meddles into other aspects of Amanda’s life, specifically Amanda’s female lover whom she clumsily tells not to return. This backfires spectacularly when Amanda holds a birthday party with her lover and her other hipster guests and mocks her in front of everyone. Maud strikes her and is fired, sending her down a self-destructive spiral and a crisis of faith. From there things go in an expectedly stranger and darker trajectory, to which I will return.

Saint Maud is not A24’s first religious-themed film, and it helps to be compared against its two predecessors: 2017’s First Reformed and 2015’s The Witch. Like the first two, Saint Maud has been lauded, justly, for its brilliant performances (especially Morfydd Clark as Maud) and visual craftsmanship. It in no way departs from or exceeds the quality we’ve come to expect from this company’s output. More importantly it also does not depart from their depictions of religion, and Christianity specifically. Though The Witch is steeped in deep research of 17th century American Puritanism and First Reformed‘s director was raised as a Calvinist, both take a heavily existentialist view of spirituality, wherein God exists but is antagonistic or perhaps a bit aloof, and where hope of redemption is almost impossible. Yet while The Witch is more religiously literate and First Reformed is more spiritually fraught, Saint Maud is the more intimate and the more visceral of the three.

Maud’s faith has been described as Catholic in the press on Saint Maud I’ve read. I didn’t hear that addressed directly while watching the film but there are enough indicators so as not to require it. She has a patron saint (Mary Magdalene) and goes by what I’m guessing is her confirmation name (her real name is Katie). She partakes in what can be called “Catholic things”: she keeps a shrine in her apartment, takes a wall crucifix with her to Amanda’s house, has rosary beads, kneels on popcorn kernels to pray, and walks with thumbtacks in her shoes. She goes through the film in an unending state of penance, though she is only once seen looking at a church from a distance rather than going into it and her voiceover prayers, though constant and verbose, do not contain anything confessional or doctrinal. This is by no means meant to question the validity of Maud’s faith as she sees it, seeing has how it’s not all that different in substance from a lot of Christians. Nor do I question the motives of Glass in depicting it. I believe she is accomplishing something a bit more complicated, in which faith is a kind of symptom of something rather than a cause.

Maud’s prayerful talkativeness is offset by Glass’s preference for visual narrative. Through this we learn pertinent, if still speculative details. We see the scars on her stomach. We don’t know for certain if they are self-inflicted but we know that extreme self-mortification and -flagellation come naturally to her. We know she accidentally killed a patient while performing CPR and his haunted by it. We know that she is virtually friendless and starved for connection in that awful, awful town she’s stuck in, though there are suggestions that this was not always so. We don’t know much about her past but we know she neither looks well upon it nor can she simply revert back to it. (A very difficult scene at this point intercuts flashbacks of her hospital accident with a one-night stand that ends up as a rape.) We are given much less to go on as to what led her to embrace this ultra-penitent Catholicism as opposed to anything else, but we are also given just enough to dispel our judgment for her doing so.

Yet something doesn’t sit right with her choice. Something at some point of her journey toward God led her astray, or misled her completely. On the surface this is quite ordinary. The excess of zeal we find in recent converts, or even in ourselves, can just as easily be a longing for zeal. You seek something that is capable of eclipsing whatever lesser person you used to be. This isn’t a matter of believing in how the universe is ordered. Methodists believe in things. What you want is a righteous path. You want holiness.

We’ve seen holiness granted enough times, but not all the time, and not usually to people who go out in search of it. Saint Maud is strongest when capturing its protagonist’s clear pursuit of this state, for good or ill, and provides for her the direst consequences and nothing else.

As the film careens into its third act, Maud becomes more untethered from earthly life. She has visions and levitates, she projectile vomits all over her apartment, God talks to her in Welsh, telling her she knows what to do. For Maud everything is falling into proper order. But at any of these points, the viewer is led to conclude that something other than God is in operation. This creates a rift in interpretation. Some viewers will see the demonic as a manifestation of her psychological break. Other viewers will see her psychological break as a receptor for the demonic.

I’ve seen plenty of horror films where fringe cults are vindicated; and I’ve seen plenty more where demons are literal entities. Because this is a prestige horror film, Saint Maud prefers to cultivate ambiguity. Glass portrays the literal and figurative cases with equal intensity. It’s good art, but if it is to be taken as seriously as approving critics insist, that means questioning whether it must be seen. A24 horror is often complained of as being boring, but it also cuts the other way as being far too confrontational toward any viewer’s greatest vulnerabilities, whether of their grief, their traumas, or their belief in Hell. And the latter merits some special attention.

A few weeks before I watched Saint Maud, I started reading the J.M. Cohen translation of St. Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography. This was not out of any pious intent. Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels didn’t do anything for me so I went for what I thought was the next best thing. In addition to being much more readable, it made me wonder how First Reformed would have gone if Ethan Hawke’s anguished pastor had read her instead of Thomas Merton or The Cloud of Unknowing. St. Teresa’s book is full of sickness, of continuous lapses into mortal sin, of mystical and otherworldly visions, and of the struggle to love and honor God in all sincerity. But where Hawke’s character was trying and failing to find an appropriate, non-murderous mode of prayer, St. Teresa seemed ultimately unfazed by existential qualms. Perhaps having the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation, things more immediate and tangible than climate change, hanging over you has a way of fine-tuning your thinking. What effect might that have on our existentialist horror?

Naturally I thought the same for Saint Maud only to be led to the suspicion that maybe Glass had read St. Teresa. Maud endures the same hardships as the Spanish nun, but the manner in which she pursues the holy life indulged everything St. Teresa cautioned against. “When one begins to enjoy the calm and fruit of prayer,” she wrote, one is tempted “to wish everyone to be spiritual too.”

For when … I persuaded others to practice prayer, on the one hand they heard me say so much about the great blessings that come of it and, on the other, they saw how poor I was in virtues although I prayed. Thus I led them into temptations and foolish conduct …

This is the devil’s work; he seems to make use of the virtues in us to sanction, in so far as he can, his own evil purposes. … We all have a zeal for virtue and feel distressed when we see the sins and faults of others. The devil tells us that this distress is caused only by the desire that God may not be offended, and by our concern for his honour. … The greatest harm of all lies in our thinking that this is a virtue, and a sign of perfection and great zeal for God.

Humility is a constant theme in St. Teresa’s writings. We gain virtue when we “consider everyone else better than ourselves.” Saint Maud avoids humility almost with a vengeance, offering in its place self-loathing, pain, solipsism, and anxiety. It may be that for most viewers the latter attributes are perfectly digestible, and offer easier catharsis. For others with a less fluid view of evil, however, this may be simultaneously not enough and asking too much. It is not enough to reestablish the cyclical nature of suffering in this or any life and it is asking too much to deny, once more, a path of faith without redemption, or even love.

Others with a more resolute faith and greater theological literacy, who also love horror as I do, may find deeper nuances that I have overlooked, and I welcome clarification. As to why this confluence of mediums worked on me in this way, and at this time, I have no good answer at the moment. But I guess I have seven weeks to figure that out, and to do so with care. If Saint Maud offers no other wisdom it is to be wary when things not seen speak in your own language.

THE ASSHOLE (A FABLE!)

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Once upon a time, a couple threw a dinner party in which an asshole had showed up. Neither of the hosts remembered ever inviting him and wondered how he even heard about it, especially after every guest categorically denied he was their plus-one. But, in accordance with contemporary etiquette, they decided to let him stay. Maybe he had turned over a new leaf, the hosts thought, and was rather a reformed or apostate asshole.

There was some evidence that validated their hypothesis. The asshole was, at minimum, convivial. He did not do assholish things like eat hors d’oeuvres without a plate or double-dip. Neither did he interrupt a conversation, speak or act lewdly toward other guests. He did not tell deliberately unfunny or sinister jokes, among other such behaviors assholes are wont to do. It was such that the hosts felt secure in bringing a mismatching chair from the kitchen to give the asshole a place at the dining room table.

Here the optimism had reached its limit. For without notice, the asshole turned to the guest to his right and made a comment of such provocation that the guest rose from his seat in confrontation. The asshole did the same to exchange more heated invective. No one could really say what the argument was about. Some thought it was about Wonder Woman 1984 or some horseshit like that. But before the hosts could separate the two, the asshole had grabbed a hold of the edge of the table and overturned it completely. It sent everything—wine glasses, beer bottles, green beans, caramelized Brussels sprouts—flying. The asshole stood statuesque amid the surrounding bewilderment. When one of the hosts asked him in a far less polite tone than he was received what his problem was, he merely laughed and flipped everyone off before leaving.

It turned out that the asshole did turn over a new leaf of a kind. Rather than reject being an asshole he had honed being an asshole. He had become a table-flipper—and he was only getting started.

While the victims at the dinner party were still trying to come to terms with their encounter, the asshole did not waste time with a new target. He’d gone to a Super Bowl party, where a table with plastic utensils, Solo cups, chips, pretzels, mozzarella sticks, hot wings, guac, blue cheese, and deconstructed casserole dishes like French onion mac and cheese and “fully loaded” nachos grande was practically waiting for his disruption. No one recalled an argument taking place. One minute the table was upright, the next it was not. The smearing on the bathroom wall of “JETS! JETS! JETS!” (who were not playing in that year’s Super Bowl) in dripping spicy buffalo sauce was also attributed to the asshole.

It was evident from then on that these were not spontaneous eruptions of rage. The arguments were but faint pretexts to some more nefarious design on the asshole’s part. And no party that couldn’t function without a table was exempt from it. Barbecues, block parties, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, office Christmas parties, weddings, anniversary dinners, kids’ birthday parties at Dave and Buster’s. Even closely guarded surprise parties fell victim to this asshole. In fact some started to wonder if the asshole had gained sympathizers. People who, whether out of personal cowardice or sheer nihilism, egged the asshole on. Dual waves of distrust and apprehension washed over the land. Some people (event planners mostly) worried that no one would want to have parties ever again. At least not until the asshole and his shitty enablers were safely ostracized.

If any of that concerned the asshole he hid it well. He had other things on his mind. Deep down, the asshole wanted his assholishness to about more than just literally flipping tables. There was meaning behind it. Deep meaning. But people didn’t seem to understand it. Some people took him for a purely mercenary saboteur and wanted to hire him out to ruin potentially bad dates or get-togethers. Others simply didn’t appreciate his care and crafting. Once when he attended a woman’s surprise 80th birthday party, he’d considered prefacing his flip by putting shrimp scampi in the octogenarian grandmother’s hair. But he demurred, thinking it would spoil the anarchic precarity he most wanted to cultivate. Sometimes the asshole appended his flips with a diatribe about an abstract concept like “complacency” or “justice,” though they seemed only to confuse people already fairly unsettled and pissed off.

He could still find a vague sort of satisfaction that he was making an impact anyway. One time he had gone to a girl’s backyard birthday party, where his flip sent the Frozen-themed cake down on the celebrants like a rectangular asteroid. He never forgot the moment when the mother of the girl approached him, face striped with running mascara, and embraced him like a long-lost half-sibling, making nonverbal gestures that implied, to him at least, that she’d orgasmed. He could think of this and find more than enough reason to persist. He even thought it was possible to encourage others to take up flipping, at least as long as he could maintain his own purity of intent. A whole league of assholes in his asshole image.

Before pursuing these higher ambitions, the asshole decided to take a hiatus. He did not want to risk overextending himself and wanted to foster a false sense of security for this more intense wave.

When he deemed his hiatus to be of sufficient length, he made an audacious reentry to the home of the original dinner party, which, if carried off successfully, would carry immense symbolic profit.

Things went well. The asshole gained access as easily as the first time and was received no less politely than before. It was actually a little strange. Surely he had not been away for that long. But that concern proved trivial compared to the subsequent discovery. When he went up to the dining room, he noticed that the table he’d originally flipped was not only been replaced but it was already upside down. Yes, the top was on the floor and the legs were facing the ceiling; while everything else—the chairs, the dishes, the silverware—were unchanged. And it was not limited to that one table. Every flat four-legged surface was overturned: the kitchen table, the patio table, the coffee table, end tables in the bedroom—all the same.

The asshole confronted the hosts as politely as he could manage. “What the fuck is with the table?”

The wife of the house returned a warm but halfhearted smile that one might give a tourist asking for directions. “It’s from Ikea,” she said with a proud chirp. “Isn’t it fab?”

“I don’t think people say ‘fab’ anymore, sweetheart,” the husband said, putting his arm around her waist.

“I haven’t been called ‘sweetheart’ since high school!”

They chuckled to each other having virtually forgotten the asshole was standing in front of him. The husband looked over the table with fondness, as if it was a precocious child.

“Pain in the ass to assemble. But a pretty sweet bargain for that quality.”

The asshole felt a sharp flutter in his chest. He’d stored up so much energy he had to flip something, which ended up being a footrest in the den. But he’d so overcalculated his force that he rotated it a full 360 degrees. In any other context that probably would have been cool, and the couple making out in the sofa beside the chair gave him some light applause. But the asshole was not sated. His exit was more abrupt than his first, so much so that he nearly tripped over the curved leg of the coffee table.

“Jesus Christ, does anyone not see how dangerous that is?”

There were faint chuckles and someone turned up the music.

The asshole was beside himself. He’d never been so blindsided. It was a prank, he thought. That’s the only way it makes sense. Someone tipped them off. He could rationalize that this meant he was really getting to them. He kept on rationalizing when the next few house parties had the same setups of overturned tables. His inquiries wrought the same casual answers. “Good quality,” they said. “Fairly priced with easy installment.” “Ideal for a new family or for making new friends.”

The rationalization became harder to maintain when he went out into the public. Restaurants and bars followed suit. Picnic tables in public parks were overturned. Flea markets and garage sales did the same. Pretty soon it had reached office and school desks.

The asshole revised his rationalization. He took credit for this change. He told anyone who would listen that, actually, he had planned for this to happen the entire time. Not that many did and those few who did listen were skeptical. “I heard it was from Denmark or Slovakia or Moldova or wherever.” One person said he could trace it back to Baudrillard and the asshole very nearly knocked his teeth out.

But soon it had spread to a scope that he had to admit was far beyond his reach. Instagram influencers posted their overturned tables with DIY decorative leg cozies with googly eyes and with text like “BE KIND” and some such. n+1 ran essays on “counter-interiors” and “spatial reflexivity.” The front windows of Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids, the Restoration Hardware catalog, and even Architectural Digest further normalized the shift.

The fate of the asshole thereafter remains unclear. Some say he drove off a cliff. Others say he suffocated himself with an issue of Kinfolk. Still others think he just deleted all his social media accounts and rented out a trailer where he sits outside all day flipping a domino table he found on the freeway, laughing in the darkness to the displeasure of everyone around him. Most people don’t really give a shit. He was, after all, an asshole and a new world had emerged with no room for his type.

No table was ever flipped again, and in time no one knew what the hell that meant.

GRUDGE MATCH

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2014 saw two important cultural events: the debut of Serial and the release of The Babadook. Neither are immediately connected: the former being a true crime podcast and a spinoff of This American Life, the latter being a horror film. Yet both played the same role of ushering their respective genres into the platinum era as had occurred with television drama a decade before with each being marked with exalting critical praise and (at least in the case of Serial) significant audience popularity.

Few need reminders of this given how ubiquitous both quickly became in the zeitgeist. The glut of prestige true crime is impossible to keep pace with, dominating every medium available. Every premium cable channel has at least one true crime docuseries a month. Netflix alone can vomit out as many as three or four in a week. They all carry the same style markers descended from Errol Morris: the dreamy recreated events, the static, neutral talking-head testimonies, the solemn, almost pious fealty to truth coexisting with the insatiable appetite for any alternative theory of the facts. It’s a wonder how the trend didn’t self-cannibalize when Morris found himself the subject of a true crime documentary for his work on the Jeffrey MacDonald case. Prestige horror, though not nearly as popular, fell into its own pattern of pristine cinematography and production design, ambient scoring, and glacially paced narrative minimalism.

Another commonality is that even after seven years both trends seem to show no sign of decline. This leads me to suspect that the current media environment so abundant in venues for broadcast has made a dead letter of the pop culture trend as previously understood. We are now a culture of memes, in which a formula is recycled and reëxperienced in phases or mutations. If Serial was the formula, then My Favorite Murder was the next phase followed again by Tiger King and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (the book and the documentary). If prestige horror had appeared in 2004, it would have fizzled out by It Comes at Night or Don’t Breathe; instead it redoubled with The Invitation and Hereditary. One cannot help but appreciate the genius of this moment that found a way to stay true to form while also appearing fresh. Neither trend has been without some form of backlash. Rachel Monroe’s excellent book Savage Appetites examines the unusual, sometimes troubling variations true crime obsession takes on, from Columbine shooter fandom on Tumblr to engaging in “sensory experiences” of violence at crime conventions. No one has, so far as I know, done a similar critique of prestige horror, though one suspects audiences who vociferously dissent from the critics over how nothing happens in these movies do that enough.

Yet the memes are invulnerable to conventional weapons. If a more effective remedy exists it must be as strange and as anomalous as that which it seeks to destroy. Many may search in vain for it if they care that much, but of course such a thing does exist and of course I know what it is.

There’s no doubt that Scott Derrickson had certain ambitions when he directed his 2012 film Sinister. It seemed altogether elevated above his more generic horror entries like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno, or Urban Legend: Final Cut. Like prestige horror he was trying to reinvent a formula, albeit a more classic one, bringing his own idea of a neat narrative framework and an iconic antagonist of the slasher film to be judged against all those that had come before. The results were mixed. Sinister received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 63% and a Metacritic score of 53%, which puts it in the Chernobyl range of “not great, not terrible.” It recouped well above its $3 million budget in theaters justifying a less successful sequel. Despite its efforts it fell short and didn’t really stick in the public memory. I can’t help but agree. The most formulaic aspects—the exposition, the big-reveal ending, some of the jump scares—had an overworked quality that weighed down the genuinely unnerving buildup. (It also deleted the scenes with Angela Bettis, but that is a personal gripe.) Nevertheless, and despite its intentions, it persists in a very low-key fashion; and alas it’s for its most overrated but still kind of valuable trait: its prescience.

Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswald, a true crime author who is seeking to restart his lagging career, not unlike the actor playing him at the time. His solution is to write a book about the unsolved murder of a Pennsylvania family, which he begins researching by moving into the house where it took place, a fact he does not tell his own wife and children. The film opens in chillingly audacious fashion with the murder itself, shot with a Super 8 camera: the family’s heads covered in burlap bags, tied by their necks to a tree in their fog-strewn back yard. An unseen figure saws a branch on the other side of the tree; as it goes down, the family goes up, flailing and squirming as they slowly choke to death. In addition to the killer never being caught or identified, the family’s youngest daughter is missing.

Almost as instantly as Oswald is introduced, his career is under scrutiny by the film. He is met by the antagonistic county sheriff (Fred Thompson playing basically himself) who helpfully informs the viewers by telling Oswald that he “got it right” in his first book that made him famous, but his “bad theory” in a subsequent book “let a killer go free.” Seeking both redemption and renewed fortune, Oswald is willing to make a flagrantly sketchy bet, which begins to pay off in unexpected ways before it doesn’t in all the expected ones.

For all the film’s formulaic qualities, it is also strangely meta. When not being spooked by the spirits Oswald enables with his arrogance, he is a walking self-commentary: obsessed with his craft, his lost fame, and the increasing assurance that he will get it back. He also consumes other media: police files, his laptop, videos of his old interviews, and filmed murders.

Sinister is framed around additional creepily rendered Super 8 films of ritualistic family killings that Oswald just happens to find in the house’s attic. They are a little too perfect for his instincts, opening with voyeuristic footage of the victims living in their mid-20th century suburban idyll before cutting to their violent deaths, each titled according to the method of execution with CSI: Miami one-liners. The family in “BBQ” is burned alive in their car; in “Pool Party” they are drowned while tied to patio furniture; in “Sleepy Time” their throats are cut in their beds; and the family in “Lawn Work” is run over with a lawnmower on a rainy night. (Critics didn’t like “Lawn Work” but for me it’s still the most effective jump scare in the film.) Oswald is visibly disgusted by what he watches, but he’s compelled to keep looking knowing he’s struck oil with what at first appears like the work of an as-yet-undiscovered serial killer.

The truth is more complicated than that, it turns out, as Oswald places himself in confrontation with a being that has needs far beyond our understanding and hardly applied to our advantage. I suppose many viewers can take or leave the angle about the forgotten Babylonian god in Cradle of Filth makeup who eats the souls of children. The more it was explained the less interested I was. Here the vagueness of prestige horror, wherein the child-eating god becomes a random nightmare creature of unclear origin and motive but immense allegorical richness, would have been more satisfying. Though it probably wouldn’t have been able to serve the higher purpose in playing out the film’s central meta theme compared to the hyper-specified antagonist and all that flows from it.

In a genre strewn with guilty pleasures like bodies on a battlefield, horror’s own guilty pleasure is that of the villain mashup. They are probably outnumbered by gratuitous remakes, but the desire to make them is always simmering at a low but detectable hum. The mere suggestion is cause for commotion. Rumors of a Freddy Krueger/Jason Voorhees mashup film circulated for more than a decade before Freddy vs. Jason was released in 2003. This was followed by Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. Most recently was 2016’s Sadako vs. Kayako combining the ghost women of Ringu and Ju-on respectively. These films are almost always panned by critics, but they don’t lose money. And though I never understood their appeal, I can’t see Sinister as anything other than a villain mashup of its own, and a very successful one at that.

Horror mostly combines genres to create hybrids, never to take a genre on. If Sinister is trying to combine with true crime it does a shitty job of it. It takes every opportunity to undermine and toy with its protagonist who thinks he’s on the cusp of something momentous but which only seals his fate the deeper he goes. Sinister enjoys making Oswald flail about in his own grandiosity. “This could be my In Cold Blood!” he rasps to his now understandably very pissed off wife having discovered what he’s gotten her into. The film doesn’t take his ambitions or his paeans to seeking truth and justice very seriously. Only his obsession to know, understand, and see more is serious—because it is debilitating. Critiques of true crime are mostly critiquing unchecked obsession. Horror already had a template for the lethality of curiosity and perhaps if prestige true crime never took off, Sinister would have been just another middlebrow fright fest, a few notches below The Conjuring but certainly above, like, Darkness Falls. But in our present context it is, or deserves to be seen as, a devastating gut check to a culture now teeming with Ellison Oswalds looking for their ripped-from-the-headlines triumph that they will never get though with fewer damnable consequences.

Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense or doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort relative to other priorities; but true crime and horror have a key incompatibility that can only lead to confrontation. It boils down to a difference of view. True crime is always looking down from a pedestal over the pieces it wants to put together at its own whim. (Incidentally, pornography looks the same way.) Horror, on the other hand, is always looking up from an abyss to see its own components swirling about it with their own agenda. It’s actually quite clever to see how Sinister shifts from one view to the other: from the truth-seeker watching the film to the victim being filmed; and all the while using formulaic devices that prestige horror does not often find worth getting out of bed to use. It should probably be thankful though for how conclusively Sinister proves their unified superiority. True crime’s illusion of mastery cannot withstand horror’s certainty of dominance.

NORMAL PEOPLE

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The incident that took place at the US Capitol Building on January 6—a riot, an insurrection, a coup, a happening, whatever you want to call it—was not wanting in iconic moments. There was the instantly famous image of the man we now know as Jacob Chansley standing on the floor of the House of Representatives in red, white, and blue face paint, raccoon skin cap, and horns erroneously identified as being in a “Viking” style. There was the man lounging at Nancy Pelosi’s desk and the man gleefully looting a House lectern. There was the statue of Gerald Ford in the Rotunda decorated in MAGA paraphernalia. There was the bespectacled, not a little bewildered-looking man crouched behind a riot shield while a man to his right waved the Confederate battle flag. And there was the video of a lone Capitol police officer singlehandedly, and with minimal force, preventing a mob from entering the Senate floor.

Those are the ones I could remember off the top of my head. There were countless more images because, as others have speculated, that was largely the point. The storming of the Capitol Building was as futile and stupid as it was shocking and embarrassing. What indeed is more annoying about it: that it happened at all and so easily or that it did not have a larger goal outside of causing chaos? I guess in an era in which “disruption” is a virtue, and of very fluid definition, what more can be expected?

But the most significant detail to come from the incident was not a singular image, but a face in the crowd.

Jennifer Ryan was spotted amidst a swath of people pouring into the front of the seat of federal power. She wore a Trump winter cap and a US flag scarf, her phone continuously in front of her face. Like many others with her she almost compulsively livestreamed her experience, posting video of the riot on Facebook and warning her viewers that this action “is a prelude to the war that’s about to happen” and exclaiming that “we are going to fucking go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter.” Though she now claims that the violence was entirely unintended she and others are facing federal charges for her actions.

“I consider Trump the biggest threat to American democracy since Robert E. Lee,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. But while Robert E. Lee had an organized, and for a time terrifyingly formidable, army to threaten the Union, Trump amassed “very loosely, a gang of self-marginalizing anti-Semites, cosplay brownshirts, and flabby gun nuts, plus others who may be high-functioning in normal life but on January 6 were too stupid to refrain from geotagging their crimes on Facebook.” For Wood and for other commentators like him, the storming of the Capitol was an apocalypse in the strictest sense of the word: an unveiling of a force in American politics that tremored their hearts for the past half-decade. Trump warned at his inauguration that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” To that Wood adds “it turns out his most fervent supporters thought that the best way to resist oblivion is to dominate others’ attention for attention’s own sake.”

This being America, where it is everyone’s God-given right—a right that is sparingly waived at that—to dominate others’ attention for attention’s own sake, that is not sufficient to distinguish the behavior exhibited on January 6. Wood knows this, and so he required a more compelling rhetorical garnish, which he found and promptly served:

At noon tomorrow, our four-year experiment in being governed by the political equivalent of the Insane Clown Posse will finally end. It is ending in Juggalo style (some have called it “Trumpalo”), violently and pointlessly, with a handful of deaths, the smearing of various bodily fluids, and a riot on the way out.

Wood does not specify on the nature of “Juggalo style” beyond it being violent, pointless, and smeared in various bodily fluids. Though it would not have been difficult for him to find incidents appropriate to his description. Most infamous among them occurred during the 2010 Gathering in which Tila Tequila, then famous for being a MySpace celebrity and not for photoshopping herself into pictures of Auschwitz for some dumbfuck reason, was met by a hostile crowd while performing. They made obscene comments and pelted her with rocks, bottles, fireworks, and excrement for which she had to get stitches. After leaving the stage the Juggalos chased her off the festival grounds. The event was widely covered and, as the saying goes, “not a good look.” Insane Clown Posse reflected remorsefully two years later, chastising themselves for their poor research into Tequila who it turns out did not fit the Gathering bill as well as they thought. The Juggalos seemed to not like her at all, and despite their efforts, ICP failed to prevent any harm from coming to her. Though ICP’s Violent J framed it in a bizarre way, claiming that “we couldn’t shield her lameness.” Perhaps. Festival organizers claimed to have warned her about her unpopularity there, and according to accounts Tequila’s performance consisted mostly of antagonizing the crowd and she made her injuries more inevitable the longer she stood on stage. But the claim of “lameness” isn’t very persuasive when even Andrew WK was pelted with urine-filled water bottles during his own Gathering set.

These grotesque displays at the Gathering set up against the “carnivalesque” atmosphere of the Capitol Hill storming would confirm that American politics has gone the way of the Juggalo. But the strength of that comparison is not quite as bearable as appearances suggest.

Appearances are sort of important here, as there was no evidence to suggest that anyone identifying or appearing as a Juggalo was present at the riot on January 6. Juggalos, in fact, had already been to Washington in the summer of 2017 for their own march. It was a source of internet amusement and media attention but was otherwise calm. Whether they had actually considered approaching any government building in the process, let alone forcing their way inside it, is not known, though it is fair to assume that they hadn’t. When the object of your march is to protest your designation by the FBI as a gang, committing violence is maybe not the strongest mode of persuasion. Indeed, far from “forgotten men and women,” Juggalos are an endlessly scrutinized subculture, not only by law enforcement but by documentarians, pop anthropologists, and other would-be professional voyeurs. The need to understand this group almost approaches an impulse, far outpacing our attempts to understand Trumpism. This seems easily dispelled already. Unless Wood’s comparison is not meant to be taken literally, but as a kind of implication.

Wood actually received a good amount of blowback on Twitter for his piece on behalf of the Juggalos, but Wood did not back down, replying to one tweet that “[w]hen you make psychopathic spree-killing the theme of your musical revue, you make yourself hostage to this kind of distortion.” Well there you have it, don’t you? We must now relitigate it all. Not just ICP but horrorcore, not just horrorcore but hip-hop, not just hip-hop but metal, punk, Robert fucking Johnson, and any other godforsaken permutation of our pop cultural landscape. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Tipper Gore R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. It is our solemn duty if all it led to was the rise of Donald Trump and his mentally obliterated sycophants.

That’s probably not quite what Wood intends in his rhetoric, but it’s where his logic leads. The subversion of our democracy can be traced in some manner to the existence of vulgar subcultures, made up of vulgar people from vulgar places, seeking nothing but vulgar acts of self-gratification and indolence in all their manifestations. Us humanitarians can only cower in the face of their tyranny if the proper “mental hygiene,” as Wood puts it, goes unadministered. Fine. Let’s see how that will work out.

Jennifer Ryan stood out to others because of her circumstances. She had come into Washington, DC on a private jet from Texas, where she works as a real estate agent and, apparently, a life coach. She did not conceal any of this as she posted on her social media accounts, and even pitched her services as a realtor in one of her since-deleted videos. She stormed the US Capitol in her capacity as an entrepreneur, just as the man who stole the lectern stole it in his capacity as a stay-at-home parent, and just as Derrick Evans helped lead the charge in his capacity as a West Virginia legislator. Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old woman who was shot and killed during the riot, was an Air Force veteran. They all came upon the Capitol, that is, in their capacity as Americans. If it appeared that the lunatics really had taken over the asylum, it also appeared that the lunatics were neither Juggalos nor Antifa, but your mom.

One of the least appreciated effects of the Trump era was the effect its emergence had on normal people. “Normal” is a complicated word in this country, to be sure, I use it here to denote those who give a specific outward appearance of non-specificity. They do not identify with subcultures beyond, say, attending Phish or Train concerts or being a member of SoulCycle. They have the appearance of stable incomes and households, the appearance of obedience to generally accepted rules, to the civic good, to fellow-feeling, to freedom at home and strength abroad, blah blah blah blah. You know these people. You are related to these people. They’re nice if not kind; polite if not warm. They’ll help you if you ask. They went to decent schools so their kids could go to slightly better schools. They go to some kind of church. Or they don’t; live and let live! If you thought about them at all for more than you had to you probably still wouldn’t go beyond how boring they are. They watch Dancing With the Stars and have a really nice grave plot scoped out just off the highway. Life is good; it says so on the t-shirt.

Normalcy is rooted overall in the appearance of control. Even “going with the flow” is a kind of control, with preordained curves and velocities. Normalcy is sensitive to any kind of hiccup in that appearance. If pushed enough they are given to panic and petulance. This isn’t too off-base, I think, given that we’ve spent a couple of years pointing these very traits out in faceless haircuts we like to call “Karen” and “Becky” and “Matt” who present a special degree of lethalness to any small thing that upsets them. The degrees to which this control was upended for normal people was not evenly distributed. For some it was a vague feeling of dread at increased uncertainty Trump brought with his election, not to mention complicity in his rise. Talk of politics increased in households. But it was agitated rather than impassioned or sophisticated talk; talk of people trying to catch up, to make some kind of sense of what was happening, and to not be lost in the maelstrom.

For the MAGA crowd it was a little more intensive. Some leaders like to soothe passions, but here was Trump saying in so many words that it was okay to panic; in fact, it was right. The intricate reasons for panicking could be various, some long-dormant or obscured. The general feeling, however, of a future disintegrating before their eyes, plans long ago set in place going belly-up, and the feeling of increasing superfluity, however rightly or wrongly perceived, was nearly uniform and converging in a significant way over the past few years. Such a loss of normalcy would make a normal person, or a whole mass of normal people, do brazen things because deep down they believe they can in ways that others cannot and do not.

Throughout Trump’s term, we have heard pleas for a “return to normalcy.” Yet normalcy never really left, only its behavior had changed. Where in happier times it was polite, competent, and reassuring it turned a corner into anger, ignorance, and paranoia. In all cases, however, it remained triumphant and domineering. Wood hopes that the exit of Trump takes with him the Insane Clown carnival he perceives to have come in his wake. “One generation of political Juggalos,” Wood writes in an allusion to Buck v. Bell, “is enough.”

But focusing on the bad behavior of the Juggalos still overlooks an important aspect of the subculture: their independence. Juggalos do not seem very interested in engaging the mainstream when they don’t absolutely have to. They have cultivated a world largely separate from ours. The gesture, more than the content I think, is what really drives our curiosity. It is something that at once cannot have been created by any other country but is not in the sway of the country’s priorities or destiny, which many find hard to identify today anyway. There is power in being able to state unequivocally what one’s “style” is, even if bodily fluids play some sort of role in it, and to set the terms on how others engage with that style. A frayed national psyche, with a whole population in no hurry to do anything other than idly suggest that someone should mend it, will make this power more emulative, not less. It is enough for more than a few burnt-out onlookers to want to let a million Juggalos bloom.