Monster Puppets & Taxidermy: An Introduction

Los_Angeles_County_Museum_of_Natural_History_-_bird_display_cases

I’ve always loved writing. I’ve always loved movies. Getting a bachelors degree (well, two bachelor’s degrees) burned me out a bit on both. Sure, I always kept watching them, and I always was writing. But watching a movie in analysis-mode and then formatting an MLA-styled critical response is pretty exhausting. Especially the third time you’ve done it in a month. I loved my work at the university (cultural + feminist theory, with a focus on queer readings and genre films like horror), and the writing was often pretty fun. But looking back on my work the past 5 years, my head swims a little at the jargon. Did I really write this? in 2014? I ask myself, trying to parse a string of words that I’m sure mean something. Others I think back on fondly, noticing how another year or two of reading colored my perception beyond what’s written there. I watch my past self process the Frankfurt School, or a first-time reading of Gender Trouble.

I remember that first time I waded through Judith Butler’s disorganized, repetitive jumble, handing in a 3-page essay on how gender performativity might relate to trans identity. My professor told me she hadn’t read anything like it before, and had never even considered the implications. To this day I don’t know if she was trying to flatter me or if she was just sheltered as a tenured, respected feminist professional. People have been arguing about Gender Trouble and trans genders since the book came out. When I attended my undergraduate symposium, presenting on barriers to gender-confirmative healthcare for those with mental illness, a woman in the crowd raised her hand and asked me: “Yeah, I read Whipping Girl, and I still don’t really get the trans thing. Can you give me a recommendation that might help me understand?” I took class after class on “queer theory,” only to be presented again and again with Foucault, Leo Bersani, Gayle Rubin and the like.

For a while I felt like the only person who cared about what I did, even as I researched by senior thesis. This was of course totally untrue. I was sheltered, and I was attending an institution built on exclusion. By the time I left the university, faculty had done considerable work towards the interdepartmental awareness and collaboration that the gender studies program was missing, and I hope that continues. Cultural studies, on the other hand, was a department mostly bent over the knee of Enlightenment philosophy. I took a B in my final Cultural Studies class (Queer Aesthetics, Queer Critique), because I just cannot will myself to give a shit about feminist Lacanian theory or “antifuturity.” I became increasingly aware of when I was being spoon-fed some unquestioned bullshit. I’m not a fan of secret language, or theories built on prejudiced assumptions. If I voiced that, professors usually assumed I didn’t correctly understand the material, it’s metaphorical after all. I understood the metaphors just fine. They’re bad.

In a lot of ways, graduating has been a breath of fresh air. My last final project was a zine I threw together in about 48 hours, looking at Freudian theory, white supremacy, colonialism, transgender embodiment, the lavender scare, sexual psychopathy, freakshows, xenomorph rule 34 (tastefully curated and censored), and finally settling in on an analysis of one of my favorite horror films. It ended up as a bit of self-reflection and a summary of where my mind’s at considering horror. What is it, exactly, that drives me to love shitty horror movies? What am I getting out of it? What pushed me there? How did I end up the kind of person with an image saved to my hard drive of an Alien-themed butt plug?

When I was a kid, I loved dinosaurs. Like, alienated the babysitter by correcting her on how to pronounce all the names. Played endlessly with the plastic models. Drew them, read about them, begged constantly to go see them at the Smithsonian. I loved the taxidermy too; the big elephant in the main hall. I loved visiting my family in Wisconsin, going to the public museum and seeing the Milwaukee model dioramas. They looked like they could come alive. They had some sort of magic that sculptures, drawings and photographs didn’t. Their whole existence was locked in those closet-sized terrariums. An ecosystem of foam rocks, dead bugs, and wax plants frozen in time. Given long enough, you could memorize every detail of the scene. Everything was perfect and under control. And when I entered the T-Rex room, it nearly blew my head right off.

Of course, as a kid growing up in the 90’s who loved dinosaurs, I also loved Jurassic Park. I was enthralled at the special effects, and quickly learned all I could about the animatronics and puppets they used. I keep finding myself drawn to these effects years later, from a childhood trip to Orlando, to a visit with my brother to see “living dinosaurs” installed temporarily at the zoo. It doesn’t matter how blatantly fake these robots are, or how badly they stink of oil and rubber. They do their job exquisitely. The hydraulic T-Rex of Wall Drug fame is just as exciting as a hyper-realistic set piece like Jurassic Park‘s. It’s a different species, specialized for a different niche. When you’re a kid, it’s hard to tell the difference. I still find myself endeared to the jerry-rigged robotics that dot tourist traps and museum floors. They’re charming.

In my teens, I loved watching movies with friends. We’d special order some weird thing we heard about online from the county library system, walk to pick it up, grab some soda and pizza snacks, and settle in for a 7-hour marathon. Netflix only enabled us further, allowing us browse what seemed like an endless parade of Weird Stuff. Evil Dead and Army of Darkness quickly became favorites. We gravitated to the schlocky and corny, the weirder the better. That’s when I saw The Reanimator, countless B-movies from the 50’s and 60’s, Cabin Fever, Toho’s kaiju. With the amount of exposure I had to nature documentaries, dinosaur media, and my mother’s pathology work, I wasn’t at all squeamish when things got gory. The real gory gross-outs delighted us. Here were things we’d seen nowhere else.

There’s two reasons to watch a horror movie: special effects and camp. You do it for the humor, the over-the-top acting, the life-and-death drama, ironic enjoyment, sincere enjoyment, the gore, blood, monsters and spectacle. Horror, like a dinosaur, is something improbable, gratuitous and awesome. And horror film, like a diorama, is an enclosure for that improbability. Even when a movie causes you to hurry up your basement stairs, for fear some withered hand may snatch your ankle, you can take comfort that the incomprehensible evil is trapped in those puppets, makeup and film. Horror allows us to exercise control. We articulate our fears, living and unliving. We pose them, bring them to reality, and trap them in a 2-hour film. We taxonomize our ghosts like stuffed birds. We arrange them carefully, and let them collect dust. And yet we keep coming back to the same display, we keep taking pleasure long after their death. And too, in part, from their death–how clever that this dead thing looks real! That my anxiety has a shape I can see!

Soon, on my own and more privately, I discovered body horror, and the broader category of psychological horror. I immersed myself in Silent Hill, Jacob’s Ladder, The Shining, Cronenberg and more. These media mirrored my other interests in the genre. They were more concerned with building an atmosphere, a self-contained world, that getting cheap jump-scares. And when they did invest in horrifying, can’t-look cringe, they did so with high stakes. It always meant something more, something that kept me fascinated. They all presented this dark type of magical realism, where the abstract takes shape and walks amongst the living.

Cool as hell, thought my young crazy self, being shuttled from one medication to another. Exorcising an offending demon seems much more direct than three-weeks-wait-and-see with SSRIs. Not to mention, as young adult struggling with sexuality, gender, and an unsupportive childhood, I had a lot of demons I couldn’t name. If they popped out of the woodwork and murdered me, at least I’d understand something. There’d be some purpose to the arbitrary suffering I was experiencing.

When I learned a little bit more about gender, about sexuality, and about how the symbolism in stories works, it snapped into place. There was a reason so much of the horror genre is overtly sexual. And there was a reason I was drawn to the horror movies that were less so, or that focused on sex gross, excessive, monstrous way. Heterosexuality is ultimately the norm, or tied to the norm, that monsters violate. The aforementioned Cronenberg was an early adulthood fixation for me, though in hindsight the violent misogyny outweighs a lot of my fondness. I’ve yet been able to re-watch Videodrome in its entirety. And even in more toned-down movies, I found myself liking the ones with weird bodies the most: alien creatures, like dinosaurs, which simultaneously defy and spark the imagination. Or a regular person becoming monstrous. Things like werewolves, possessions, assimilation, The Thing. An escape from having to be straight, having to be whatever gender, having to perform, having to deal with the baggage of not fitting in. The nuclear option, sure. But also, again, cool as hell.

Half a decade later, I see that #TheBabadook was trending on twitter. Why? Netflix previously had the film accidentally sorted into the LGBTQ movie category. Social media users jumped aboard, claiming “the B is for Babadook,” “the Babadook is gay.” Admittedly, I didn’t know the initial context when I first encountered the joke. It seemed natural to me that the Babadook was gay. Most of horror is about sex, most horror monsters are “improper citizens,” with weird bodies and sexual proclivities. Duh, monsters are gay. The Thing is gay. The xenomorphs from Alien are all definitely gay. The Blob is gay blob, doubly so for its cold war assimilation anxiety narrative.

The Babadook, like many contemporary horror movies increasingly produced by marginalized people, deals frankly with issues of mental health and intimacy, anxieties shared by queer folks of all types. It makes sense. Plus, the statement itself’s got that perfect edge of camp and humor. I’m gay, my brain is irreparably fucked, I’m dealing with it, and I love monsters. What could say that more perfectly than this shirt that I’m totally going to buy as soon as I can? Not to stretch the metaphor past its breaking point, but the influx of new horror writers, conscious of the prejudices of the genre, are doing exciting work right now. Like natural history museums around the country, horror film is interrogating itself, and certain filmmakers are directly responding to that past.

I love film, I love video games, I love dioramas, I love installation art. I love miniature worlds I can see, I can step through. I love when those worlds reflect my own struggles and my own desires, even in a twisted way. Or when they hint at something a little more, when they do their job so well it leaves you wondering. I love books that do this same work. A lot of the queerness in horror comes from a similar place as Dungeons & Dragons and science fiction. Those pulp novels with their similar function as a genre: catharsis and metaphor, filtered through trope and convention. I used to spend ages in my Dad’s basement, the shelves stacked up high with military sci-fi, yellowed pages and fantastical covers. I didn’t read any. I was too afraid I’d come across something nebulously “bad” and be punished, as they were my father’s books, and I thought he would know the contents of each one. Later on I read some, but few managed to capture my interest. Most were all about decidedly unweird space marines. No fun at all.

So I guess, that’s how I became this sort of person. Weird kids like weird stuff. There’s a host of other factors too, as with anything. Interests change and grow throughout time, and sometimes the reason you like things is subtle. Sometimes the connection takes some time to process. Sometimes you never learn how to process, and do all of your processing at once in a five-year period while you juggle fluctuating health, safety and workload. Sometimes most of that processing happens in the last year and you’re left all at once in not-my-beautiful-house with not-my-beautiful-wife. And it’s weird processing that.

But movies help.

 

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