Thursday, October 31, 2013

Believe It Or Not: The Credibility of Horror

 “Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”

From H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Yesterday was the anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles’ infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds.  In the fall of 1938, the day before Halloween, CBS radio interrupted its regular programming with a ‘special news bulletin’.  In the spirit of trick or treat, reports came in from a Chicago astronomer and a journalist at the scene of one of the Martian landings—near Trenton, New Jersey!  There were audio special effects (people screaming) and dramatic radio silence.  Trust in the veracity of the broadcast was supported by the source of the information—“Intercontinental Radio News”. 

There had been a disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast, but listeners that tuned in late to the show did not hear it.  Thousands of people were upset by what they took to be accurate reporting, and scores required treatment for shock and hysteria.  (The event is commemorated in two articles in The New York Times last weekend; PBS also aired a documentary this week.)  The story of the broadcast and its impact on a credulous public is considered by some to be a cautionary tale of the power of media:  thousands were more or less instantly persuaded that earth had been invaded by Martians with death rays, and that the world as we knew it had ended.

The horror and significance of this media Halloween prank are still with us.  Steven Schlozman’s article in the The New York Times Magazine (“The Harvard Doctor Who Accidentally Unleashed a Zombie Invasion”, 10/27/13) reminisces about a similar event that occurred just two years ago.  Schlozman, who is both a physician and a fiction writer, was being interviewed on a popular overnight radio talk show called “Coast to Coast AM”, (

Coast to Coast AM specializes in reports, discussion and debate of such topics as conspiracy theories, extraterrestrials, cryptozoology, and supernatural phenomena.  Recently featured items include “Annabelle:  The True Story of A Demonic Doll”, “I Was Healed by a Ghost...and There’s a Photo to Prove It”, and perhaps most concerning, “Nuclear Missile Sites & UFOs—Sgt. Klancnik Speaks on the Record.”

Schlozman was interviewed between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.—just think for a moment about who might likely be listening at that time of day.  He and his interviewer were discussing Schlozman’s novel The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks From the Apocalypse, and like Orson Welles 75 years before, played it straight, as if the fiction were reliable fact.  Credibility was enhanced by reference to recently discovered documents, (a favorite device of H.P. Lovecraft), and the coining of a scientific acronym:  A.N.S.D., or “Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency” syndrome.

In an earlier post there was discussion of how the trappings of scientific objectivity can make pronouncements seem more authoritative and commanding, (see “Isn’t Horror Better Than Science Fiction?” September 2013).  It should also be noted that technical or otherwise unfamiliar multisyllabic words can be used effectively to inspire trust or fear.  For the naïve or recently literate, what is difficult or incomprehensible to read or listen to is probably true.

Sure enough, Dr. Schlozman was soon contacted by anxious listeners wanting his recommendations for anti-A.N.S.D. medications and optimal security measures in zombified neighborhoods.  One listener suggested that his broadcast violated the Hippocratic Oath, and some of his peers were critical as well.   

Schlozman notes that listeners’ skepticism was not activated by the fact that the discussion of a zombie apocalypse was occurring on a late night radio show known for outrageous, minimally substantiated news reports, or that said discussion was punctuated by advertisements for lawn fertilizers and automobile insurance.  More ominously, his coining of a fictional disease causing zombification led to the creation of internet web sites devoted to the dissemination of additional information about the condition.

This seems a special application of Samual Taylor Coleridge’s great insight about literature.  The creators of such media events as OrsonWelles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds or Schlozman’s interview on Coast to Coast AM directed their efforts in such a way as to “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” 

However, this ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ did not lead to greater appreciation and enjoyment of a creative work so much as confusion of fiction with fact.  Where else are we likely to see this ‘willing suspension of disbelief’?

Schlozman goes on to describe aspects of the internet that can enhance and accelerate social hysteria.  The gerrymandering of our media habits creates conditions where information consumers will self-select sites that confirm their fears, suspicions and understandings of the world.  Often the more unsubstantiated a claim may be, the more likely it will be believed, at least by those prepared to accept it as fact.  The radio audience for The War of the Worlds heard that broadcast on the eve of World War II, and so had already undergone psychological and emotional priming to believe in the possibility of a catastrophic war. 

Unlike radio broadcasts circa 1938, the internet allows instantaneous dissemination of information that most likely will not be complete, accurate or balanced.  Television in America has been balkanized into several cable networks, each with their own world view and competitive need to achieve higher viewership ratings.  Currently, there are numerous emotional issues that aggravate and divide us: health care reform, immigration, involvement in the Middle East, the education of our children, tolerance for differences among people, and others.  

One can imagine a ‘perfect storm’ of media inventiveness, combined with  narrow, self-selected information sources, confirmation of our worst fears and beliefs about ‘the other’—and instantaneous, unreflective transmission of fiction masquerading as fact.  Fiction in Halloween costume, as it were.  What believable horrors await us in the future?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Insects Rule My World

“It is equally probable that there will be another glacial era, upsetting all food and living arrangements, and that the human race will virtually perish. Because many species of insects have, next to man, the most highly developed social instincts, they would appear to be the logical successors…Remove the competition of man and the higher forms of animal life in the food market, and there is a possibility that the present minute insect life might develop to gigantic proportions…”

From “Will Monster Insects Rule the World?” by Jay Earle Miller, in Modern Mechanics, December, 1930)  

What if humanity lost its ability to dominate the world and was ruled instead by gigantic flying insects with superior intelligence?  Variations of this theme have shown up in countless stories and films.  Here are some of my favorite movies about bugs striving for world hegemony:  

Them (1954)—the classic about giant marauding ants attacking Los Angeles.
The Deadly Mantis (1957)—the giant insect lands on top of the Washington Monument.
Monster from Green Hell (1957)—silly and tedious film about two giant wasps in Africa.
Beginning of the End (1957)—giant grasshoppers crawl up fake pictures of buildings.  Not scary.
The Deadly Bees (1966)—underrated British ‘who-done-it’ with weaponized bees.  Creepy villain.
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)—‘one night stands’ are last night stands after a weird bee experiment.
Phase IV (1974)—an ant ‘hive mind’ rapidly evolves and makes plans for the rest of us—disturbing film.
Bug (1975)—incendiary beetles set things on fire.
Empire of the Ants (1977)—giant ants enslave humans to work on a sugar plantation.  Ridiculous.
The Swarm (1978)—Africanized ‘killer bees’ from Latin America threaten Texas.
Starship Troopers (1997)—earth battles outer space bug aliens.  “The only good bug is a dead bug.”
Mimic (1997)— a well intentioned invention goes awry in an economically depressed urban setting.
They Nest (2000)—where they nest gives this one a high Primal Yuck Factor rating.
Eight Legged Freaks (2002)—hilarious send up of the genre.
District 9 (2009)—thoughtful metaphor about apartheid in South Africa.

This list is not exhaustive, and excludes all the speculative fiction that preceded these adaptations.  Insects as a horror or science fiction device are quite malleable in terms of their use as metaphors for various social anxieties.  They can stand in for such horrors as political dictatorship, contagious disease, unknown extraterrestrials, natural disasters, illegal immigration, subversion, and war, among other fears.  The possibilities of bug horror were already thoroughly explored by writers who published in magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories in the early 20th century.

One such author was Frank Belknap Long, Jr., who became a protégé of H.P. Lovecraft and was a member of Lovecraft’s circle of authors in New York City.  Long was a close friend of Lovecraft’s, for whom the latter was somewhat of a mentor.  Both had been members of the United Amateur Press Association in the early 1920s, where one of Long’s very first stories caught Lovecraft’s attention.  The two later met each other in person when Lovecraft visited New York in the spring of 1922.  Long frequently visited while Lovecraft lived in New York from 1924 to 1926, and they later corresponded with each other extensively.   

Long sold his first story in 1923 to Weird Tales, when he was just 22 years old.  He went on to become a regular contributor to both Weird Tales and Astounding Science Fiction.  Long remained active as a free lance writer of both fiction and nonfiction for about seven decades and wrote numerous novels and short story collections.  He died in 1994.

Long’s The Last Men (1934) was published in Astounding Stories.  The author envisions a world millennia in the future, where insects are now the dominant species.  They achieved this superiority after a series of glacial ice ages reduced the human population:  “…the last pitiful cold-weakened remnants of his race had succumbed to the superior sense-endowments of the swarming masters…”  Since that time, the human race has been preserved and bred in floating, gender segregated “homoriums”.  The insect overlords use gland injections, a special diet, and moonlight powered health-prism rays to accelerate human maturation—it only takes about 12 months.

It is not clear why the insect overlords of The Last Men would preserve humans or take care of them.  It is not apparently for food—which would make some sense.  Slavery is offered as their typical assignment, but Long does not elaborate on what their essential duties might be for a vastly superior race of beings.  Perhaps it is for amusement.  Some of the insect masters enjoy the hobby of collecting the “dangerously beautiful” humans from the nurseries, anesthetizing and embalming them, and displaying them under glass.  Long has fun with reversing the butterfly collector role.  Maljoc, the human narrator “knew that his own ancestors had once pierced the ancestors of the swarming masters with cruel blades of steel and had set them in decorative rows…”

At the beginning of the story, Maljoc has just reached maturity, and is excited at the prospect of having a mate.  It is his primary concern, so much so that he sings—as a male cricket or locust might sing—in excitement.  His attitude toward the ‘swarming masters’ is worshipful and obedient.  He is depicted as child-like and primitive, and his first encounter with females of his species may remind some of typical insect biology and mating habits.  And this is the most disturbing part of the story.  Long has imagined what the long term impact on human society might be if it were subservient to another, completely different life form.  Would we not attempt to emulate the masters on whom we were completely dependent?  Maljoc falls in love with a woman who is ‘dangerously beautiful’, with dire consequences.  But it allows him to recapture “for an imperishable instant the lost glory of his race…”

It is possible that Long may have gotten the inspiration for this story in the article quoted above from Popular Mechanics—the issue came out just a few years before The Last Men was published. The full article is available at