Monday, August 16, 2021

film notes | very bad things

 Last night I indulged in a little trashy TV viewing (well trashier than usual) watching first an expose on the the weird sex NXIVM cult and then, CRUEL SUMMER, a fictional  (but w/ true crime vibes) story built around the kidnapping of a girl in the 90's that may or not have been left to die by the girl who wanted to take over her life. It has a strange braided storyline, that could work if it were a little clearer, but I was still hooked and will continue watching.  I've only recently subscribed to Hulu again, so spent some time filling my queue there with some great true crime and cult documentaries that had me giggling again over this SNL skit as I clicked add.  When we did our LETHAL LADIES programming a couple semesters back, we kept asking the question why women in particular are fascinated with this genre of entertainment--via doc, via podcasts, via true-story movies. All gobbled up voraciously by women like me. 

I would be inclined to think it's just my tendency toward horror, but I've met many women, my mother was one, who don't necessarily like horror, but love true stories of very bad things happening in women's lives.  I have a poem in major characters in minor films about actress Meredith Baxter Burney's tendency to appear in Lifetime-ish movies where , for example, she has an eating disorder or a husband with a secret family. Those networks are, for the value of entertainment, littered with such movies. Sometimes, they are violence driven--stalkers, abuse, killer cheerleader moms. Casey Anthonys and Scott Petersons. My mother loved it all, but drew a line about horror.  Her tendency to also love hospital shows made me wonder if her initial claims against gore in movies was BS, but later she admitted she just didn't like being scared, which was especially ironic considering she watched far scarier true-to-life things than most entirely made up horror movies. But somehow, those were usually talking about something that had already happened--a violence that had been contained. Not that you experience in the world of a film designed to scare you. 

Sometimes I am in the mood for such things--though I will take a scripted horror film, even a mediocre one, over true crime usually. It might also be my childhood love of Unsolved Mysteries and ghost story shows that occasionally find me wading into weirder true crime--the Cecil Hotel documentary earlier this year for example which I devoured in one sitting. I like serial killer documentaries, though more often they just make me angry at the world that creates violent, entitled men like Ted Bundy.  That never really allows any sort of justice for the victims or survivors. Sometimes horror is like this, but the ends are usually more satisfying (well, mostly, I am still really pissed about Promising Young Woman.)

When I was a kid, my cousins, who lived next door were forbidden from horror movies.  Well, forbidden in their own home, but never in ours, where they were playing 24/7 unless we were watching Thundercats or something.  By the time me and my sister had developed a certain callous over our fear, they were still freaked out pretty easy, to the point of avoidance in later life. I always wondered what that was like--to be so afraid that you didn't, as we did, know what you were afraid of.  I knew full well that there could be monsters in the half-open closet.  A clown under the bed. Killers in the woods.  That your dog could get rabies and attack.  That your car could be evil. That these things were probably not real, but you should be ready just in case. I think for many women, it works the same with true crime.  You know that the world is fucked up and scary place for women where really bad things happen.  The more you know, the more you feel you have control.  That you can spot the warning signs better and aren't just bumbling baby-like through the world and into danger. Not to say men do not also love horror and true crime, but it's totally a different itch it scratches than for women. And this is probably why women are more voracious in their consumption. 

I was thinking again about this this morning as I was queuing up bits of DARK COUNTRY for Twitter promo, and how much of the book is about navigating those sorts of violence and the premonitions of such violence. I was a child who was really into horror from a very early age, and as such, unlike my mother, I LOVE being scared on screen, though I think it also gives me the illusion of control and mastery over the real world (probably not the case at all, but it feels better.) The entire last section of the book was inspired by a speaker at a horror convention who talked about middle class fear.  How once people were agrarian and settled in their houses and not starving to death, they developed an appetite for stories about the worst of their fears. It's hard to love horror when you are actually in danger and this may be why a lot of recent black-led horror (ANTEBELLUM, the THEM series.) seems to fall flat with the communities it seeks to give voice to. It's an unsafe, fucked up world for all of us, especially if you are a BIPOC, so it's hard to navigate what scares and what is just milder version of torture porn, however real and unjust. 

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