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Boogie Men
Our Extreme Attraction to Fear

by DK Holland

Before the populous read the written word, before there was even an alphabet, humans memorized. That was how we stored information, however inaccurately. So visual language had quite a head start on written language because it provided people with a fixed image to grasp onto, to store. Abstract words are harder to connect with or remember.

Without employing any memory tricks, try to hold these five images in your head: 747 airplane broken in half; 40 foot tsunami wave; sawed-off shotgun; bloody severed finger; money laundering. Now try remembering these five letters: XBJQW.

Which stuck? Was it the five powerful visual images, even though it represented seventeen words? Or the five letters, which are totally meaningless? Is the folder in your brain marked “Disasters” filled to overflowing at this point with images like these? What about your folder marked “Miracles”?

We laugh at tragedy as a way to heal. But on 9/11/2001 8:46.40 AM Eastern Standard Time, the world stopped laughing. Even opening monologues on late night television, normally acidic and ruthless in their wit, couldn’t touch the subject of the attacks on the United States that quickly became known simply as 9/11. We were emotionally stymied. It was the end of the world as we knew it. And suddenly the boogie man Osama Bin Laden and threats from the exotic Middle East in general were on everyone’s mind. The world watched in horror as the United States invaded Afghanistan a month later. New Yorkers took 9/11 very personally. “Those people over there think they’re tribal? Since when did New York City take second place to anyone? We’re the most tribal place on earth!,” illustrator Rick Meyerowitz ranted to illustrator Maira Kalman as they drove through The Bronx, the northern most borough of New York City just two months after 9/11. Kalman quipped, “You mean we’re in Bronxistan?”

These two very funny, smart visual thinkers immediately started writing down all the hilarious names that came to them. Kalman says, “We made fun of all those people. Who are these tribes?” And then she realized, “We should take this idea to The New Yorker.” Meyerowitz replied, “Sure but only if we do it as a map.”

And so it was to be. Kalman and Meyerowitz sketched away and Meyerowitz made a final painting within a day.4 New Yorkistan hit the stands on December 3 as the dark cloud of doom seemed to lift just three months after the attack. New Yorkistan, which pokes more fun at New Yorkers than it does Pashtuns and Tajiks, has since become a cultural icon. The map shows the Moolahs living around Wall Street, the Fattushis in Brooklyn Heights and a province called Veryverybad is in Queens. Trumpistan is on the Upper Westside. Irate and Irant share a border somewhere near the Rockaways. The best way to pay the toll to get to New Jersey, by the way, is to use EZ Pashtuns. The borough of Staten Island is simply called Stan.

Kalman says, “We didn’t know that image would be so wonderful for so many people. It became a moment when people could laugh again. If it had come out earlier, many would have been infuriated, and if it came out later, no one would have cared.” As any good stand-up comic will tell you, timing is everything.

Jennifer Pogue wanted me to know “I only sew skin.” Pogue is a retired cosmetic surgeon who also applies her creative skills to the making of hilarious Halloween costumes for her young daughter and all of this became the subject of a 2011 three-minute TED talk. “Gruesome and adorable” was one description of her presentation that alternated between extreme close-ups, say, of photos of the fresh stitches on a facial reconstruction juxtaposed by a smiley tween standing on a suburban street disguised as a bowl of spaghetti. Or a really close shot of a newly-sewn radical mastectomy followed by a shot of a happy-go-lucky girl cleverly dressed as five Rockettes.

Why did Pogue, a regular at the TED conference, propose this talk (chosen from 300 attendees’ submissions from other TED regulars)? Pogue admits, “It’s difficult even for me to watch movies of surgeries I’ve performed.” She adds, “People who attend TED are deeply empathetic. And they are used to extreme challenges. We’re shown lots of pictures of people suffering in Africa. Reconstructive surgery may be brutal-looking, but it can also be creative and have a very positive outcome.”

I sat in the back of the auditorium and, along with many near me, groaned and averted my eyes, shocked by the close shots of raw flesh that filled the wide screen, my eyes darted back not to miss the cuteness of the next costume as Pogue cheerfully narrated. The audience response was one of the most intense I’ve ever seen at TED. As Pogue got further into her talk, inappropriate nervous laughter broke out. I could not process Pogue’s narration, the visuals were so overwhelming.

I can’t remember one thing she said: The left and right hemispheres of my brain were in spasm desperately trying to reconcile the rapidly alternating opposing emotions: fear and love.

NBC reporter Richard Engel was on-camera in the desert battlefield during the recent revolution in Libya when a rag tag rebel came over to show him his gun. Engel shocked, exclaimed to the man, “But this is a toy gun.” A moment later, mortar fire forced the rebels and the NBC crew to flee into trenches. But the rebel scrambled out of the hole, risking his very life to retrieve his toy gun: like the feather Dumbo clutched in his trunk, this gun was a symbol of irrational courage to this poor man, and of the rebellion itself, and perhaps of something even larger. Hope. CA

Editor’s note: If we can so easily create negative frames, why not positive ones? These possibilities will be explored in the next Design Issues column.

1    The Tiger Lillies brought Shockheaded Peter to off-Broadway in 2005.
2    The Uses of Enchantment, 1975, Bruno Bettleheim.
3    John Lennon, “Imagine.”
4 Nystan.html 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.