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Our Extreme Attraction to Fear
by DK Holland
THE HORROR! THE HORROR!
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.
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
IS FEAR A GOOD MOTIVATOR?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS?
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