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Boogie Men
Our Extreme Attraction to Fear

by DK Holland

Forced to watch all the early horror movies over and over by our dear older (nine-years-old) sister, my younger sister (three-years-old) and I (six-years-old) were terrified. Nonetheless our eyes were glued to the tube (beginning in 1953) each and every Saturday night till the wee hours, watching classics like Dracula's Daughter, Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Curse—while our parents were downstairs throwing a seemingly endless cocktail party.

Pretty soon my baby sister decided that Dracula was trying to bite her tiny neck as she lay in bed. After two years of sleepless torture, it occurred to her (at age five) to ask for a crucifix for over her bed (pleasing our Catholic mother no end). Only when Jesus Christ looked down on her from his cross was she finally able to rest peacefully. I, on the other hand believed that Frankenstein lived in the bottom of our pond and was coming to drag me off down there to live with him. My father, in a rare moment of good parenting, convinced my terrified tearful self (in front of all his cocktail-party guests) that this was simply not realistic. I marched right back upstairs and leapt into bed (since various monsters lived beneath). Our older sister shrugged off her siblings’ distress; when asked about her memory of movie night, she summed up her experience as, “Titillating in a scary but safe kind of way.”

Austrian/American child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim2 famously studied the fantasy lives of children and believed that it was normal for youngsters to act out tearing their baby brother limb from limb, breathing fire or tossing the family cat in boiling oil. Within a healthy and safe fantasy life, a child grows out of this stage, the better for having gone through it.

My sisters and I, however, remained addicted to terror well into our teens when, in the late 1960s, the hollow-cheeked Zacherley, the “Cool Ghoul” hosted Chiller Theatre on channel nine. Zacherley would pull his dead wife “dear” out of her coffin, kept right at his side to say “hi” to us.

No surprise that my younger sister and I recently became Lisbeth Salander groupies. Salander, a punked-out, asocial Swedish computer hacker has become a phenomenon. For those few people who don’t know, she is the fictional heroine of Stieg Larsson’s three books, originally called Men Who Hate Women, and renamed the Millennium Trilogy. Larsson’s first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, introduces Lisbeth, a super-smart woman and an irreparably damaged victim of child abuse. The multi-pierced, tattooed Salander is flat-chested and skinny, almost anemic: Her strength comes from her cunning which is complemented by her photographic memory and math genius. There is nothing hilarious about Salander or her story. There are no jokes. She never even smiles; she is not at all lovable yet she is loved by almost all. We root for her, crave to hear more about her through all three books and movies. If she could come to my house for dinner, I would be honored.

When Random House decided to translate these novels from Swedish to American English (not, by the way, well-written to begin with), they labored over the covers gambling that these volumes would quickly fly off the shelves. Yet the cover designs they chose were essentially type treatments, not fore-boding or at all “dark” (an odd decision considering the classification for this brand of literature is Nordic Noir). The covers were actually kind of cheery looking. But yes, they guessed right—they have sold millions and millions.

What’s appealing about Lisbeth Salander is that, with everything about her that is unappealing, and with all the outlandish hurdles she faces—including being shot in the brain by her sadistic misogynistic father then buried half-dead by her brutal half-brother (who is also a freak of nature)—she survives. And (spoiler alert) she survives well. She gets even (including nailing her brother’s feet to the floor). She becomes a millionaire, gets a boob job (in the book, curiously not in the movie) and buys a huge, expensive flat in the most posh part of Stockholm (furnished sparsely with IKEA products). Her story goes straight to our worst fears, that we are unlovable and our best hopes, that despite that fact, we will be validated. It is, as they say, a real page-turner.

As we become adults, we play ever more sophisticated “movies” in our heads about everything, from the most mundane to the most earthshaking events. This is healthy—it prepares us for the future—but isn’t it our conscious choice to give our “movies” negative or positive “frames,” plots or even endings? The language and images we chose to embrace are our frames. That’s what informs our internal and external worldviews.

The attraction to the Millennium Trilogy is that it is a super-real horror fantasy with a highly unlikely happy ending. “Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man...”3 Sorry John Lennon, it’s just too unrealistic to imagine a land of love and plenty when we are surrounded by greed and devastation. Plus, look what happened to you! Positive future? You were murdered. We (particularly Americans) still crave—demand—happy endings to make the brutality of reality bearable.

We have two different types of memory: explicit (declarative) which can be consciously recalled and implicit (semantic or procedural) like how to ride a bike. The creative process is more often than not implicit, which is why it’s hard to remember how a design, photograph, painting or illustration came about, and there might be no way to reconstruct the process. To ask the Brothers Grimm, Hermann, Geisel or Larsson to analyze why they wrote what they did may not only be impossible (they are all dead), but also fruitless because any answer would be merely a rationalization. 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.