I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. At first, I was going to write a Halloween post about bad horror movies, so I went down a Netflix recommendation rabbit hole. You know, for science. The Netflix algorithms are so interesting, one of those modern machinations that we all agree exist and have chosen to accept but still mostly don’t understand or even care to understand. Somewhere in this particular chain of films I watched Honeymoon (a claustrophobic and disturbing movie about a young couple whose honeymoon in an isolated lake cabin gets derailed by some whacked-out shit – aliens? hillbillies? forest monsters? It’s never really made clear), followed immediately by The Ones Below (about two neighboring couples, both expecting their first children, who end up psychologically tormenting each other when one woman has a miscarriage and blames the other one). I can see vaguely how these movies are related enough to get recommended by each other, besides both being newish and independent and, simply, horror movies in the weeks before Halloween. There’s something primal at work in the way both movies address fear: the stability and trust that one expects going into a marriage being upended by forces outside of one’s control, and the crippling terror of a new mother trying to protect her child while she and everyone around her thinks she may actually be the danger. Those are fundamental relationships, and threatening them has been fertile ground for horror since the beginning of horror. I mean, at its core, Frankenstein is a story about a father failing his son, and Dracula wouldn’t have happened if Mina Harker hadn’t had a husband or a best friend.
So, I have all that shit bouncing around in my head, trying to congeal into a blog post, and I figure I need a little palette cleanser, so I look around and lo! There’s a new season of Black Mirror. Perfect, she thinks, foreshadowingly.
Sure that’s a word, she says, neologizingly.
If you’re unfamiliar with Black Mirror, it’s a British show that was made by the BBC but has since been taken over by Netflix – a change that I was afraid would affect the overall tone or texture of the show, but am super happy to report has not, although I do suspect that that’s why this third season has so many Americans in it. The episodes are separate, there’s no connective story, but there is a fairly uniform just-slightly-futuristic feel and a low hum of dystopianism which comes and goes and ebbs and flows with each episode (more so in this third season than in the previous two, for sure). One gets the sense that these are either cautionary tales or outright commentary on the current state of the world, depending on how dark your view of humanity is. We’re either standing on the cusp of this state of affairs or we’ve already fallen into the pit and there’s no way out (episodes one and five of season three are probably the best examples, if you feel up to testing a philosophical juxtaposition just for funsies).
Black Mirror has been repeatedly compared to The Twilight Zone. One review even called it “The Twilight Zone for the technological age,” apparently forgetting that The Twilight Zone was made in the Atomic Age, during a tech boom unlike any before except, perhaps, industrialization itself. So, on the one hand, it’s an apt comparison, given that both shows play up the overarching fears of a culture somewhat out of its depth in a new paradigm. And perhaps “fear” isn’t exactly the right word here, as neither of these purport to be in the horror genre, per se – maybe “disquiet” or “anxiety” would be more appropriate. Anyway, it’s easy to compare the two because they do a very similar job – making the viewer uneasy, making them look at themselves in a way they may not want to or wouldn’t have thought to. And, of course, being two of very few shows that don’t rely on a cast of characters or a through plot, obviously (I’m not sure how common that was back then, but it’s certainly rare now).
On the other hand, when you dig down a bit and think about fear, those comparisons seem lazy. I think, first of all, that The Twilight Zone played on our political fears much, much more. Because the fucking 60s, right? Commies hiding around every corner, threatening our way of life, their sticky lizard fingers on the triggers of nukes pointed at us, trying to make us hate money and Jesus, forcing their filthy borscht down our good, American throats. The Atomic Age begat the space race because we were trying to beat the bad guy, technology and politics and fear and nationalism all inextricably bound for nearly three generations. Black Mirror ends up feeling more like those horror movies, acting on something more fundamental. Technology as it pertains to our privacy, our relationships, our worldview, even our own bodies, is a much more primal concern to your average schmuck than how it’s used as a weapon between superpowers. And yes, I acknowledge that the other thing is massively important, but for my generation it doesn’t feel nearly as immediate as it did back in the day. I’m not scared of Commies or nukes, but the thought of the NSA makes me a touch queasy, if we’re being honest. There’s an important difference there, but I haven’t quite ferreted out what it is.
So then, I’m thinking about all these different kinds of fear, and I’m trying to get my thoughts in order for Halloween and that obviously doesn’t work out in time. I’m distracted. I’m agitated. I keep thinking that I’m forgetting something, something stupidly obvious, something that ties it all together beautifully and I just can’t put my finger on what it could be.
And then I went to the grocery store. Some people do their best thinking in the shower, some while exercising, some in solitary comfort behind a big desk. Not me. I have my biggest epiphanies while pushing a janky metal cart through the harshly lit aisles of American capitalist overindulgence. Ideally in mid-morning when they’re usually playing 80s pop music. I was buying apples because it was the first morning that felt a little brisk and fallish, which of course made my inner fat kid want pie.
My inner fat kid running the show might explain the grocery store thing. Maybe she’s really the writer, maybe it’s like the Dark Half and she lives in a tumor with teeth in my brain.
Let’s put all that aside for right now. We’ll come back to it.
Anyway, apples. I was thinking about this story I heard about a day on the set of Mad Men when they had to stop production because a sharp-eyed set dresser noticed the apples in a bowl were too big. Apples didn’t get that big in the 60s because they didn’t use chemical fertilizers and GMOs on the same scale we do now. I won’t go off on yet another food tirade here, but I started thinking about all that stuff and all the things that people are scared of (or not scared of but they totally should be) when it comes to food. All the things that are beyond our control up until the point we choose how to spend our money, and even how that control is often taken away. It’s that fundamental thing again, that fear of losing our autonomy – over what we do with our money, put in our bodies, give to our families, our health and, especially lately, the crushing cost of health care.
Just to clarify: if you see me zoned out in a grocery store, staring at an apple, I may be contemplating the ramifications of agricorporate and political fuckery or I may just be wondering how I got there and why I’m holding an apple. Either way, probably best not to startle me.
These dudes came up behind me and startled me. They were restocking the apples from a giant pallet, being loud as hell, I don’t know how I didn’t notice them before. They were an older gentleman and a younger one, both with thick Southern accents, talking loudly about Trump. Specifically, about how they think he’ll make the economy thrive but if “she” gets elected they fear for their jobs. Putting aside the fact that those two things are probably bullshit, and the implied causal relationship between them definitely is, I felt for them, you know? Because their fear of losing their jobs is totally valid (their logic maybe not so much, but that’s not the point at hand). Everyone I know has had that fear for one reason or another, regardless of the political climate. These past few years have been rough, man, and money is one of the most stressful things there is. If an insane Oompa Loompa tells you that he’s going to fix it and take your fear away, you’ll drink that snake oil if you don’t know any better. I get it, I do.
Maybe this moment is what this election comes down to. Me, thinking about the global impact of supporting organic farmers versus those guys, thinking about the immediacy of putting any food on the table at all. Not in an elitist, classist way. Honestly they both probably make quite a bit more money than I do right now. No, what I mean is that it seems very big picture/long term view versus small picture/short term view in this particular presidential race.
For example, take the horrendous video of Trump with his pussy-grabbing remarks. I’ve seen so many articles and videos and memes saying some dumb shit about “the politically correct liberal word police are mad that he said ‘pussy’”. Seriously? Fucking seriously? You think that’s the problem with this situation? I have a very short list of words that I’m offended by and pussy is not one of them. What bothers me about that video is his being so candid about his behavior and his motivations, enthusiastic even, and not seeing what he’s saying as a play-by-play description of sexual assault. Even now, even after, when people have pointed it out to him, he seems clueless. I’m bothered when anyone (male, female, or otherwise) thinks they can treat other people like that. I’m bothered when anyone in a position of power (political, financial, authoritarian, or otherwise) thinks that they can treat the world like that. And the fact that Trump uses his money and influence against people, to screw them over for his own gain? The fact that he thinks just because he’s rich or on tv that people will do whatever he wants or let him do whatever he wants? The fact that he relies on that position and doesn’t really have anything else to work with? Well, that just makes him a big, fat, orange pussy, doesn’t it?
I’m sorry, I shouldn’t call names. That was unnecessary.
Still, I’ve come this far, why backspace now?
And listen, I’m not going to tell anyone who to vote for. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s your right and your responsibility to vote, I don’t care who it’s for. But I will tell you, because we’re talking about fear, that Trump makes me deeply uneasy. Not the man himself, so much. He’s just a clown in a good suit with a big bank account and a shit speech writer. It’s what he engenders in people that’s horrifying – the overt and aggressive bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, the general asshattery that so many of us have worked hard to move away from, as individuals and as communities and as a country. And when he’s out of the election spotlight, one way or the other, the rest of us still have to live together. I must say, I’m nervous about what America will feel like after two years of this idiot telling people that it’s okay to be shitty out loud and to be proud of it, to hate and to take action based on that hate, to throw temper tantrums like a fucking toddler when they don’t get their way and then turn around and demand respect. Those people are loud and they’re angry and they make me not want to walk down the street alone, and then that shit makes me feel bad about myself.
There’s a line in the Tim Minchin song “Not Perfect,” where he refers to the former PM of Australia, who was removed from office in 2007: “…the bloke who runs my country/has built a demagoguery/ and taught us to be fearful and boring.” I think about that line a lot when I think about politics and culture and the state of my fellow humans. Of course I have concerns, and I am prone to worrying, and I’m bothered by or leery of a lot of things. But god damn it, I refuse to be forced to live in fear. I will not succumb to this anxious, rotten miasma of made-up, hateful bullshit. When did we stop standing up straight and looking each other in the eye to say “I am not afraid”? When did we start squealing like big babies and yelling about how much we hate each other instead, as a kneejerk first response to anything? Aren’t we better than that, you guys? Aren’t we tougher than that? If you’ll allow me a moment to pull a pretty gratuitous (but totally predictable) maneuver and quote FDR: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I certainly fucking hope that turns out to be true.