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Boogie Men
Our Extreme Attraction to Fear

by DK Holland

The crawler at the bottom of the CNN television screen warns us of threats: Tsunami headed for Los Angeles...  Chinatown bus crash, no survivors... Eastside rapist strikes again... I feel a bit sick. It’s too much. The images on the screen above provide no relief: Buildings being demolished, animals dying. Amidst widespread pollution, children cry. The green fog of foreboding invades my soul. And I let it. Why can’t I turn off the news?

We’re being force-fed a cocktail mix–our worst fears, with a splash of our greatest hopes. “But wait! Breaking news...they just saved that little girl who fell down the well.”

The left-leaning linguist George Lakoff, during the W years, famously challenged us not to think of an elephant. (You are thinking of an elephant right now, aren’t you? His point exactly.) Lakoff observed that we frame everything. Words suggest a structure for better or worse. An example: “Your argument is shaky.” “It’s not solid.” “It’s falling apart.” “Your theory needs support.” All symbols of structural weakness that frame the issue. I watch the ticker on the bottom of CNN’s television screen for fifteen minutes straight: Kill. Arrest. Suspend. Refuse. Abduct. Murder. Not one positive verb in the bunch. The words we use change who we are.

Besides language, our memories contain hundreds, if not thousands, of universal visual metaphors (think popular films like Inception, Babel, Black Swan, Little Red Riding Hood). Lakoff says that conceptually “More is up, less is down. Happy is up, sad is down.” These are simple symbols we absorb into our mindsets as very young children. Up is generally good, down is not. White is pure, black is soiled. Metaphors, which permeate everything—the written and visual language of the news, advertising, design, still photography, politics and, of course, children’s books—help shape who we are.

True to their name, the Brothers were truly Grimm, reviving old folk tales to serve a function much like the scary sound-bite warnings on the CNN ticker. Avoid animal attacks; don’t get lost in the woods; don’t take candy from strangers. In addition, these fairytales created “frames” of societal prejudice to wash the brains of little ones on their way to Slumberland.

Shockheaded Peter was written by nineteenth-century German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann, as a gift to his young son at Yuletide. It was a story of a hideous-looking newborn forced to live under the floorboards of his family’s living room. The infant Peter had really bad hair and really weird fingers and so he was the shame of his poor parents. But the little tyke didn’t put up with this for long and soon broke out. Mayhem ensued as Shockheaded Peter, a monster at age six months, exacted his revenge to the delight of Herr Hoffman’s little boy (and children of all ages ever since).1 Children often came to gory, mysterious ends in fairytales. Indeed, before advances in medicine children often died for reasons supported by superstition, not explained by science. So before the twentieth century, planned parenthood required mom and dad to invest in a much larger brood anticipating a loss of offspring.

The Nazis praised folk stories, in particular the Grimms, for instilling sound racial instincts in children so they would seek out “acceptable” marriage partners—those with Aryan qualities. These fables were generally accepted and distributed so widely that the Allied Forces warned against them and some tales were banned. Tales we think of as being sweet and innocent were not. For instance, the heroine Cinderella was racially pure, but her stepfamily was alien, and the prince had the instinct to distinguish between good and evil (i.e., pure and alien). We think of this tale as German, but in fact it goes way back; Cinderella’s roots can be found in a fifth-century BC Greek story of an Egyptian slave girl who loses her sandal and ultimately marries the pharaoh who finds her shoe.

Paradoxically, the world centers around every child and so every child feels responsible for all of the world’s ills. All children externalize their greatest fears. But some children are super-sensitive, too absorbent to watch even a sanitized Disney film, believing what they see is real, not made up. Child psychologist Roberta Roper says, “Historically, children have often been thrown into the adult world and have had to negotiate it as best they could. Today, there is no longer a clear separation between child and adult culture. Children have access to more information than they can understand and process. They know about things they cannot comprehend and they make meaning of these things in ways that can frighten and confuse them.”

It’s normal to “become” the hero or heroine in a story when it captures your imagination. This is not something we grow out of, it’s a way to cultivate empathy. But many people go further; they feel for others literally—and this is called Mirror Touch Synesthesia. That is when you see someone being pinched and, in turn, you feel pinched. When someone looks thirsty, you feel thirsty. Descriptors like “loud” shirt, “bitter” wind or “prickly” laugh are also typically synesthetic since they are cross-sensory. Children are delightfully horrified by “Night on Bald Mountain” or the sorcerer apprentice’s lockstep army of mops in Disney’s Fantasia, which, through its metaphor-filled, psychedelic animated stories and rich classical music, is thought to produce a synesthetic-like response in many people. In fact, teens have been known to drop tabs of LSD and turn on Fantasia. Or just forget the tab and let Fantasia provide the hallucinations. It’s titillating to get to the edge of horror, knowing you will snap back to reality, just in time.

Ted Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss by most, was a child-man. With no kids of his own, he famously said, “You have ’em, I’ll entertain ’em.” All Seuss books have delightfully happy endings, but many are filled with ominous alarms, for instance, the visionary narrative of The Lorax (1971), which was prescient in its warning about the rape of the environment. The story ends when the last seed of the truffula tree is handed over by The Lorax to a little boy along with the responsibility to save all of nature from extinction. The Sneetches (1961) was about prejudice in general but specifically a chilling reminder of the plight of Jews in war-torn Europe: In this twisted tale adding a star on your belly was something you would pay good money for to avoid being shunned. While his tales were often warnings of man’s basest instincts, Geisel, a master at goofiness and wordplay, made his lessons gentler on the nerves and the soul. Like drinking Geiseltol, his ethical messages slid over the tongue and eased right into your unconscious. It’s no surprise Dr. Seuss books have been distributed around the world as teaching tools. The Sneetches in particular is used in war-torn areas of the world to encourage racial tolerance. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.