Hot Coffee, Mojave Desert, 1937 by Edward Weston
I lost my house keys at Blockbuster Video.
I developed a habit of going to Blockbuster from 2006 to about 2009 or 2010; I’d say I went about every weekend. One of the clerks noticed this, possibly because he noted my pattern of rental—horror films, which I will get to momentarily—and pounced as any decent pitchman would. “You’re here enough times,” he told me more or less, “that this could benefit you.” He was talking about a customer “loyalty” program that would confer “rewards” the more I used it. I signed up for it and was given a small plastic card to monitor my status. At some point in my membership, the keys to which the card was chained got separated from me. Blockbuster was the last time I remember seeing them.
My membership card was attached alongside a small, shiny whiskey bottle keychain I’d been given at a work event around that time. So my house keys had a distinct look that could easily be described and retrieved had I lost them there and had they been found. (And, sure, probably not a lot of people are dumb enough to lose their fucking keys at a video store.) But I put off calling for whatever reason. Then Blockbuster went out of business, so I’d never know, and then the door of my house was replaced, so it didn’t matter.
I was never known for my accurate sense of cultural timing. Sometimes I was very early, most times I was very late; but in this rare instance the planets aligned just right. The future that played out in the late-‘00s was very different from the future that plays out in the late-‘10s. It was a very Philip K. Dick kind of future, and literary Philip K. Dick not cinematic Philip K. Dick, where cumbersome devices served limited practical ends but many psychic ends. A community based around corporate loyalty and incentive is something Dick might have appreciated. Few save the most stringent coupon hawks could say with any exactitude what rewards if any they reaped from their loyalty memberships, but doubtless all felt less alone or adrift while doing so.
“Adrift” was one thing you could feel in the midst of the late-‘00s. For much of that time, adrift was probably the worst it got. There was something very static about the late-‘00s. But it wasn’t the dissonant, roaring static of finding a signal, it was more the ambient, crackling static heard in-between voices. Not that a voice could be heard. People in the late-‘00s were speaking to nothing, from a frequency that was nowhere.
Nowhere is something that is at once widely disparaged and hard to describe before you’re there. Though once there, you know it when you see it, and it is disparaged even harder. I hesitate, however, to call nowhere a place, or even an absence of place. Think of nowhere as a state—a state of exhaustion—or maybe a void. No one goes out in search of nowhere. No one knows where nowhere is, and if someone claims to know where nowhere is, they’ve wildly misconstrued the concept and are possibly in need of help. Nowhere is somewhere you just end up for lack of anywhere else. Choices bring you there; so does shit luck, at least in most cases. Sometimes, though, nowhere has a way of finding you.
For me it was a bit of both. I graduated from college into nowhere, yet nowhere seemed to be waiting to take me and the rest of us in. Not that I was conscious that it was “nowhere,” it seemed more like “anticlimax.” The concept of a future, let alone a promising future, seemed to dissolve into a kind of mist. Everything was at a standstill; no one was interested in going forward and those who were didn’t know how. It was a low-key, “let’s just ride this out” era, a “the surged worked” era, an “I’m voting for John Edwards” era. Almost nothing was good. I strain to remember what Pitchfork considered cool then. Return to Cookie Mountain sticks out but that’s as good as it gets. What I remember seeing on HBO at the time—Hung, Bored to Death, True Blood—deserves to be there. Idiocracy was good, but it took me years to meet more than one other person who cared.
What I remember most clearly are those rentals. In the late-‘00s there was a sort of mini-boom of horror, riding the coattails of a few surprise successes of the earlier half of the decade: Hostel, Saw, Wolf Creek, The Descent, several Asian horror remakes ranking from brilliant (The Ring) to offensive (Pulse), and a bunch of hyperviolent French films I will never see. Below was not a hit, but I like it just fine. This boom was guided by a self-consciously cut-rate sensibility, geared toward a bored, half-sophisticated audience (again, good timing) with no time or interest in planting themselves in a theater; it was a kind of glorified direct-to-video. Eli Roth held the most aesthetic sway at the time with his fusion of Quentin Tarantino and Herschell Gordon Lewis. The resulting knock-offs include the suffocatingly earnest and grossly wrongheaded high school revenge film The Final, the Michael Fassbender-starring Deliverance but with chavs Eden Lake, and the Josh Duhamel-and-Olivia Wilde-starring Deliverance but with Brazilian organ traffickers Turistas. This is to say nothing of the slew of half-assed and dour paranormal films like Fragile and The Abandoned trying, quixotically, to replicate the aura of Guillermo del Toro’s cult hit The Devil’s Backbone. Then Paranormal Activity came out and reordered everyone’s priorities for the next, like, four or five years.
It was a period defined by low stakes and lower expectations. Finding bright spots was something of a roulette game. The feminist (and vaguely sex negative) horror comedy Teeth stands out, achieving all of the satire that Roth could never reach and with half the violence. Lake Mungo takes the found footage/mockumentary gimmick and weaves a methodical mystery with a meditation on loss; its scares are spare but lasting. From Within is a solid idea executed well enough, with a fine, albeit brief, Jared Harris performance. The minimalist home invasion film The Strangers was probably the biggest hit of the era with any staying power. But even these decent-to-good films got pulled back under the morass out of which they came. For something that’s nothing, nowhere has an irresistible gravitational force.
This paints a narrow picture, to be sure. Horror movie marathoning was not the only thing that happened in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere can have a vast reach. I made frequent trips to Brooklyn, walking along block after block of empty warehouses in Williamsburg to get to a “loft” where troves of hipsters of the “Dos and Don’ts”-era-of-Vice variety partied to terrible music and promoted their projects to each other. It left me with the (extremely generous) impression that this once-coveted marketing demographic was energetic and ambitious but insular and distracted. I saw Radiohead but had to endure a gauntlet of Animal Collective and Kings of Leon. (It was for free, so I can’t complain, it was just very much of its time.) I amassed an extensive library of advanced review copies of CDs for “fresh” talent that I’ve mostly forgotten. I worked for several places where I really didn’t fit in, getting paid in “exposure.” I grew a beard. I interviewed Moby.
Looking back on it, I had a lot of energy in the middle of nowhere. It makes sense, of course, as nowhere is where I tend to thrive. With little or nothing provided from without, the responsibility to provide comes from within. As such, you have the burden and the blessing to make a lot of mistakes in nowhere trying to get just about anywhere. This is how it is with most culture and most lives. Nowhere feels like a holding pattern going in endless circles but in truth it is a slow buildup and, almost without noticing and in spite of itself, nowhere is nowhere to be seen.
The horror fever broke in 2009 when Ti West released his debut The House of the Devil. It‘s a low-budget slow-burning film with a 1980s setting and the graphic, visual, and sonic aesthetics to match. It balances a careful narrative buildup with a tense atmosphere—the perfect product of having to spend most of your film in one place and very little special effects to throw around. It got an especially unnerving performance from Tom Noonan, not to mention a breakout performance from a then not-at-all famous Greta Gerwig whose 15-minute or so screen time has its own energy. It would be wrong to say that before this moment no one was trying, but the elements were all so-ordered as to make the greatest case for incentive to keep trying. So the dam broke. Drag Me to Hell came out the same year, Insidious came out in 2010, Cabin in the Woods and Kill List in 2011, Sinister in 2012, The Conjuring in 2013, then the indies took over from 2014 onward.
There is so much content as of right now that the rut of 2006-2009 and the Blockbuster Video rental records that went with it can be safely forgotten along with my old house keys. But I don’t forget. In fact, I find myself rewatching them from time to time, even the bad ones. They conjure a certain mood. Not fright, obviously, or anxiety or unease. This is an escape of a different kind.
I’ve said elsewhere that nostalgia is triumphalism running behind schedule. You can’t really romanticize a void, but you can appreciate the room you had to move around in so empty a space and the many ways you tried to fill it. A moment where everything is good, as we have now, creates its own problems. The static goes from a crackle back to a roar, and one void becomes several bubbles crowding you it. Putting on The Final or Teeth, or God forbid an episode of Masters of Horror, constitutes therapy more than entertainment proper. It’s a futile attempt to capture a feeling that doesn’t seem like mine to have anymore.
But the cultural wheel is ever turning. Bubbles can’t blow forever. I couldn’t tell you which pops first: the podcast bubble, the YouTube bubble, the feminist bubble, the “new punk” bubble, the true crime bubble, the self-help bubble, the “friend group” bubble, the anxiety bubble, etc. The popping of the horror bubble is making good progress, though. Hulu’s Into the Dark film series has familiar echoes of the 2006-2009 dead zone. Halloween was remade (or rebooted?) for, I want to say, a third time. The Haunting of Hill House series showed how you could easily go from not trying at all to trying too hard. How this does or does not resonate to the rest of the culture, I have no idea, but if it’s any indication there’s a new void tearing its way toward us.
And I welcome it, even if there’s likely nothing for me in it. If young people were to ask me for life advice, and God help them if they ever see the need to, it would be two-tiered. First: don’t join any brand loyalty programs. Second: go nowhere, fast.