Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio put forward a $30 million, 10-year plan to close down the city’s infamous prison facility at Rikers Island, a decision motivated in part by the tragic story of young Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 years old when he was pulled off the street and arrested on acharge of stealing a backpack. He was never tried or convicted on any charge, but he spent three years at Rikers because he couldn’t afford to post bond and his court appearances were repeatedly delayed. The experience was profoundly brutalizing, and two years after his release, Browder took his own life. Browder’s story is a national shame that should hasten Rikers’ demise, but it is also emblematic of the institution’s past even before it was a prison.
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No response could ever do justice to the cosmology of suffering symbolized by that one set of chains. But much of the outcry over Trump’s laconic reaction derived from the fact that these were handcuffs designed for a child’s hands. The implication was that these small manacles elicited an exceptional form of atrocity, beggaring belief at the United States’s past cruelty in a way that adult-sized manacles would not.
The impulse to show Trump the child’s shackles, and the attention paid to his reaction to them, reveals how profoundly the prospect of child slaves robs us of the capacity to respond appropriately.
On Monday, as a hurricane moved inexorably towards the US, an otherworldly wind blew across places where young people congregate. From small-town middle schools to vast state universities, students were convinced that they saw clowns. Schools have been closed. The police have been run ragged, the apparitions always one step ahead of them, seemingly able to melt away as soon as an authority looks in their direction.
This is far from the first time that apparitions haunting young people have sent adults chasing horrors they couldn’t themselves see. In 1692, what came to be known as the Salem witch trials began with little girls pointing to empty space and insisting that evil spirits stood there. The events at Salem were especially shocking because of how powerfully and how quickly rigid power structures were turned upside down. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts was not a place where children’s experiences were privileged. Puritans were firm believers that young people needed to be forced, against their naturally sinful natures, into a Godly submission. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who was fascinated by the Salem witch scare, was fond of reminding children that they were obligated to obey the fathers that God had placed in charge. In one sermon, Mather warned the young members of his congregation that rebelling against one father figure was tantamount to throwing off the yoke of divine authority. “Can you dream,” he asked the children looking up at him, “that God will allow any Contempt of Political Parents, of Ecclesiastical, or of Scholastical?” In case the young upstarts were unsure of the answer, Mather was happy to provide a terrifying visual of the fate awaiting doubting children: “The Eye that mocks at his Father and despises to obey his Mother,” Mather intoned, “the Ravens of the Valley shall pick it out, and the young Eagles shall eat it.”
Mather’s terrifying sermon tapped into a larger horror story his contemporaries told themselves about a younger generation that seemed destined to wreck the world their parents had created. Puritans didn’t call the young people “millennials,” but many of the complaints leveled against teenagers and young adults would not be terribly out of place in a 2016 think-piece: these seventeenth-century upstarts didn’t respect authority, they had neither the faith nor the work ethic necesary to fulfill the promise of their parents.
There was a need, the elders agreed, to make the colony great again.
So when young girls and adolescents, some of them low-status servants and orphans, insisted that they saw threats invisible to powerful adults, they offered a powerful challenge to the belief that grown-up men knew best. The adults’ nostalgia for the allegedly better days of their own youth was revealed as its own delusion. As they progressed, the witch trials demonstrated that the most commanding adults in the community were powerless to stop, or even to truly recognize, the horrors that their children could see plain as day.
The clowns currently haunting schools and colleges are different embodiments of a nostalgia for a supposedly more innocent past. They conjure up a time when circuses came to town, and children–now insistent on an endlessly replenished steam of new memes and snapchat updates–could be amused by something as simple as a red nose and a painted-on smile.
Pennywise, the monster lurking in Stephen King’s It, and the godfather of the modern creepy clown fixation, first makes his appearance in a scene that could be taken out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Set in the 1950’s, the novel opens with an achingly innocent six-year old boy who takes his homemade toy boat out to play. When the river’s current takes the boat down a storm drain, little Georgie finds himself facing a clown who smilingly offers him balloons, an enticement that proves deadly. A nearby adult, running to Georgie’s aid, is powerless to keep the child from being ripped limb from limb.
The clowns children are seeing everywhere from South Carolina to Maine don’t seem to share Pennywise’s thirst for blood. In truth, it’s unclear what precise threat these clowns pose. In many of the images posted online, the clowns are almost always standing silently off in the distance, not doing much of anything. The fear they create emerges solely from their appearance, their very visibility rendered terrifying to young people in a world where the police, and school attendants, and their parents, tell them there is nothing to see.
“Clowning,” Eric Lott has written, “is an uncanny kind of activity, scariest when it is most cheerful.” The clown’s smile, his forced and immovable whimsy, is precisely what renders him grotesque. Sigmund Freud tells us that the uncanny works by making the familiar strange. The uncanny also scares us by reminding us of how strange, and terrifying, the familiar landscape of family, of home, of nation truly are. When we are faced with the uncanny, the face we want to believe represents reality morphs into a grinning evil twin, his face mirroring a truth we’d do anything to avoid seeing.
These elusive, uncanny clowns—lurking adults whose unreadable faces beckon gullible children into horrible traps—reflect a reality that Americans wish wasn’t quite so familiar. After all, many of the alleged grown-ups in our national room seem incapable of seeing what’s right in front of them: they are unable to discern which threats are real and which are imaginary. Both the insidiously quiet creep of climate change, and the alleged onslaught of monstrously rapacious Mexican immigrants are realities for roughly half of the population, and mere ghost stories for the other. With tragic regularity, the news features stories where average, every-day people doing every-day things–sitting and reading a book, waiting to pick up his child from school, or dealing with a broken-down car—somehow appeared so monstrous to authorities they felt necessary to respond with a deadly force appropriate for the most dire of threats.
This latest political scandal–in which we watched Donald Trump behave in ways that should surprise no one who wasn’t pretending they couldn’t see what has long been in front of them–is just the most recent manfestation of this hallucinatory campaign season. National ghosts–our repressed violence and hatred–walk the streets openly. And yet we act surprised when we find ourselves looking at them head on.
Both the Salem witch scare of 1692 and the great clown scare of 2016 began as visions in the eyes of scared children. But both now and then, we dismiss these stories at our peril. A child’s desire to render their worst fears in a recognizable form, and to ask powerful grown-ups to scare the monsters away, is not a just a strange aberration in an already surreal year. Rather, the clown scare is an uncanny telling of the terrifying story that’s unfolding for all of us at a moment in which none of us can believe what we’re seeing.
The horror stories about Ebola seem to be proliferating as quickly as the disease itself. International newspapers and even governmental edicts speak of zombies. Here in the US, Twitter is ablaze with conspiracies tying Ebola to infiltrating immigrants. On the airwaves, Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh accuse President Obama of deliberately sacrificing US interests to atone for colonialism and slavery. Aghast at these paranoid fairy tales, many commentators don’t understand why we can’t just concentrate on the facts at hand.
But the facts underlying this epidemic—that poverty and conflict provide the perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease—are, in truth, the result of centuries-old fictions. Once we look at the history those fictions engendered, the medical data offers a tragic ending to an old story promising that somehow slaveholding nations could offshore their ghosts. That Liberia and Sierra Leone—the two nations in which Western countries sought to bury the sins of their slaveholding pasts—now conjure stories of zombies bent on avenging colonial wrongs should surprise no one.
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There are no robots in the world of Game of Thrones, but the Unsullied—an army of slave boys trained into finely honed killing machines–come as close to cyborgs as one can get with medieval tech.
For Daenerys Targaryen, who desires the highest throne in the world, but who is horrified by the rape, pillage and murder that accompanies conquest, the Unsullied offer a tempting option. She can have her war and a clean conscience. “There’s a beast in every man,” warns her advisor Ser Jorah, “and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.” As enuchs who have been subjected to the strictest discipline, the Unsullied, Ser Jorah tells us, “are not men. They do not rape. They do not put cities to the sword unless they are ordered to do so. The only men they’ll kill are the ones you want dead.” The Unsullied, in other words, offer the medieval version of surgical strikes.
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When Peter Russo’s young son bumps into Majority Whip Frank Underwood, causing the statesman to spill his coffee, Frank lets his usually impenetrable mask drop. Until then, we’ve watched Underwood orchestrate his facial expression to manipulate the feelings of others. But at this one unguarded moment, he is furiously, murderously angry, and it shows. “I’m not going to lie,” he later spits at the camera. “I despise children.”
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In Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel, Geek Love, two freak show performers debate the merits of reading horror stories. “Don’t you get scared reading those at night?,” the sister asks her older brother, Arty. Arty, who makes his living by showcasing his limbless body, reads the horror novel as an instruction manual for any person with disabilities who wants to get ahead in the world.
‘These [stories] are written by norms to scare norms,” Arty tells his sister. “And do you know what the monsters and demon spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares.”
Instead of lamenting the fearful stories his body conjures, Arty delights in the power their reactions can give him. As he sees it, those who fear him—the “norms” who see his body as an emblem of weakness, decay, or monstrosity—are trapped in their own stories. The person inhabiting the “monster’s” body, on the other hand, has the advantage of knowing the truth is far more complicated.
Nick Santonastasso, a twenty-first century teenager, has created considerable buzz by wholeheartedly inhabiting the monster that his body evokes. An avid fan of the Walking Dead television series, Nick sets up pranks that transport the relentless, decaying zombies off of the television screen and into the spaces of everyday suburban life. He stages zombie attacks at boring, everyday locales like supermarkets, all the while filming his victims’ frightened reactions at the horror crawling towards them.
Nick is able to evoke the zombie’s onslaught so effectively because his body fits the profile of the many of the monsters who appear on The Walking Dead. To be specific, Nick has one limb instead of the typical four.
Since the recent zombie craze began, fans and critics have had a field day determining what zombies are really symbolizing. There’s an argument to be made that zombies reflect the anxieties of whites fearful of a race war. Others have seen the shuffling hordes of the undead as metaphors for our mindless, voracious consumerism, or even the relentless onslaught of Internet trolls. That’s the thing about monsters: they provide a canvas, and you’ll see what you want to see. Or, I should say, you’ll see what you’re afraid to see.
But there is one zombie attribute that requires no metaphorical reading. Their bodies are, quite literally, falling part. Zombies are the product of illness and disability, and reflect the terrifying lack of control that these conditions allegedly bring.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Americans see the story of disability solely as a horror story. Our very favorite narrative about disability is an inspiring one: we are always ready to applaud the story disability activists have called the tale of the supercrip. The supercrip is a person with disabilities who cheerfully, bravely, resolutely overcomes the obstacles posed by his or her body. We thrill to tales of people with disabilities running marathons, climbing mountains, and breaking records. We love these stories because they reassure us that no matter what physical difficulties might arise, we can still bend the body to our will. We—our minds, our desires—are still in charge.
The zombies of the The Walking Dead are about as far as one get from the supercrip and the triumph of mind over matter they represent. The show is populated by unwieldy, voracious bodies that refuse to be controlled by brains (well, they are controlled by the desire to eat brains, but that’s not the same thing). The very first episode depicts a weak, disoriented protagonist who wakes up in a hospital gown to find a world destroyed by an infection that defied all human ingenuity. In the bleak world of world of The Walking Dead, physical weakness is an ever-present threat. Pregnancy, old age, infancy, or just a bad case of the flu are all it takes to cross into the terrible realm of the zombies.
The zombies are themselves rife with sickness and accompanying disability. It’s striking how often the “Walkers” are incapable of walking at all. One of the first zombies Rick kills is missing her legs. More recently,the villainous Governor narrowly escapes a building filled with zombified nursing home patients, whose disabilities prevent them from being effective predators.
It’s in this world that Nick Santonastasso has placed himself, as he gleefully depicts the mindless bodies our culture so loves to fear. In short, he’s made a name for himself by embodying the most monstrous version of disability haunting our national psyche. It is a bit of a gamble. Nick willingly plays into the shock that comes from the similarities between his supermarket antics and iconic horror-show images of disabled bodies.The scariest scene in the Tod Browning’s cult classic film Freaks features disabled freak show performers crawling through the mud to attack able-bodied characters. By rendering his extraordinary body a monstrous one, Nick evokes, for at least some viewers, the painful memories of the freak show.
The reality of the American freak show doesn’t do much to support the idea–shared by the fictional Arty and the real-life Nick–that people with disabilities can play the monster while escaping the monster’s fate. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, freak show managers and audiences exploited people like Julia Pastrana, a hirsute woman whose husband/manager charged onlookers to watch her give birth. Even after death, her body was a valuable commodity to her husband, who had her body—and that of her dead newborn—embalmed and put on display for the entertainment of onlookers. The fate of Pastrana, Sara Baartman and others reveal how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the stares of an audience that sees your body as a validation of their own disabling stories.
But I think it’s precisely this tension between “good” and “bad” stories about disability that makes Nick Santonastasso’s pranks so smart, and so powerful. Santonastasso’s initiative and skill evokes the admiration normally reserved for the supercrip, even as he plays a role that exploits our fear of the bodily havoc associated with illness and disability. In so doing, he demonstrates that the angelic and demonic portrayals of disability—the hero that rules the body and the monster who destroys it—are two sides of the same coin. In a culture that so often looks to the bodies of disabled people to reaffirm our need to feel in control of uncontrollable forces, Nick makes the “norms” watch themselves. The freak show often portrayed people with disabilities who were exploited by the fearful, fascinated stares of others. Nick, with the aid of a camera and the internet, has turned the gaze back on the audience—on the “norm” who reveals his/her fear, and can do little but grin sheepishly at how silly it is to be afraid of monsters.