Feb 10, 2010

The shape of fear

Hitchcock said he wanted to make us too afraid to go to the bathroom. There's a very American tradition of this kind of fear in art -- the American gothic, the American horror story, the story where the "thing," the site of our fear, isn't strange or unheard of but common, mundane, normal, and absolutely terrifying. It is a tradition that follows from Poe, and has pretty good representations in genre fiction and literary fiction and, for that matter, in consumer reports and recalls and panics that make everyone throw out their spinach. Obviously, Hitchcock is one of the masters, even though he's British.

Another Brit who makes American movies, Guy Richie has a bathroom-death scene in Sherlock Holmes that starts out like something that might make us afraid of the tub -- the bathtub seems to not just be the place of the crime, not just the weapon, but also the bubbling, boiling killer -- but then the very tall bad guy walks in, apparently to take credit for the killing and leave a clue for Holmes, and also to take the audience's horror away from the tub and focus it on the strange, obviously-evil, evil-personified "thing," who of course is really a pretty standard movie villain and isn't a site for our fear at all.

Richie's response to the too-intense horror of the inanimate object, this way of looking away, is poorer, artistically, but seems to be the shift that happens all the time, culturally. People who fear fluoride in the water don't fear the water but some conspiracy. People who fear computers and the dominance of technology in their lives shift the fear to Y2K, or the powers behind facebook. People who fear credit cards shift that fear to credit card companies or connect it to other, larger end times theories. Focusing on the object is so painful it can be artistically perfect, but it's not what we do.

But then, neither Hitchcock nor Ritchie get us anywhere near the inside of the fear that has nightmares of Obama as a secret outsider set on destroying our country. Or the fear that inspired letters to Chicago politicians in '66 saying Martin Luther King Jr. was "a dark-skinned Hitler." Or the fear of Communist take-over, populists and demagogues and no-knowing uprisings, the bomb, urban riots, immigration, AIDs, or any of the mass fears we've been taken by in the last 100 years.

These are real fears, continuing fears, and these are the kinds of fears that seem to shape the culture, as opposed to the anxieties and plot-devices that make, respectively, artistic and popular movies.

What art do we have, though, that shows us this kind of public fear, mass fear that feeds itself and conspiracies and politicians who shape the direction of panic. This is, isn't it, the kind of fear that defines a nation and changes the future? So where's the art that describes and gives shape or even just shows this kind of fear?