Wonders of the Invisible World: Salem Witches, Scary Clowns, and Donald Trump

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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.”

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Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

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. The as 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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Ctclownsightings–@instagram.com

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 Crawling Dead: Disability and the Zombie’s Revenge

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.  

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Nick Santonastasso as a zombie on the attack

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.

The Walking Dead (Season 2)
The Walking Dead (Season 2)

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.

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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.

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Lori and Hershel from The Walking Dead, neither of whom could walk very fast.

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.

This zombie featured in The Walking Dead pilot episode, and remains one of the most memorable of the "walkers."
This zombie was featured in The Walking Dead’s pilot episode, and remains one of the most memorable of the “walkers.”

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. 

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Cleopatra, the villain/victim of Tod Browning’s Freaks

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.  

23 & Me, American Horror Story and our Undead Racial History

23 and Me found themselves in trouble recently because they promised to give clients powerful insight into their genetic history. The great popularity of this test, and others like them, suggests how very desperate many Americans are to uncover their ancestral past. More important, we want to know how that past might wreak havoc with our present. Knowing we’ve inherited a gene, a predisposition, we want to feel empowered to take action. We may not be able to erase the past, but we can take away its power. We can prevent it from dominating our current lives.

Except–according to the FDA and this season’s American Horror Story–we can’t.

Any good tale of terror features the past making a mess in the present. Ghosts, zombies, vampires–they’re all different manifestations of the dead refusing to go away. And if there’s one emerging theme in this wild, gleefully chaotic season of American Horror Story, it’s that the dead refuse to stay dead at all. This past week’s episode, ‘The Dead,’ featured two hot love scenes—one a ménage a trois—in which only two out of the five participants hadn’t already died at least once. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past is never dead. It’s walking down the street, rising from the grave, inhabiting modern houses and seducing the living.

The women of the Coven are there because some ancestral information coiled in their DNA has marked them as a member of the club.  And magic is only one of the forms of inheritance that causes problems for the characters casting their lots in the New Orleans of American Horror Story. The bodies of the women themselves—and the story those bodies seem to compel them to play out—are moved by an inheritance that seem to scare Americans more than anything else: the legacies of race and slavery.  That is a history we’d definitely prefer to keep buried. Although the show makes some gestures towards postracial harmony, it also plays into racialized fears of the vengeful ghosts of history. In the logic of American Horror Story–a logic shared by those who would suggest that our genetic code provides a blueprint for future lives–the past utterly determines the present.

Many of the reactions to the powerful and wrenching film 12 Years a Slave expressed both fear and anger at how the movie digs up the past through its sustained and unflinching look at slavery’s atrocities upon mind and body. The critics calling the film torture porn argue that the movie serves a function akin to AMH‘s Queenie’s witchly gift of pain distribution. A “human voodoo doll,” the Coven’s Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) makes others feel pain only by hurting herself.  The inheritor of a long history of racism, Queenie’s power seems to have evolved from fictional characters like Uncle Tom. It was only after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prolonged 1852 description of Tom’s fatal beating that many white readers were moved to oppose slavery’s horrors. In true sentimental tradition, Queenie’s power relies on the logic of the slave narrative, in which the victim’s subjugated flesh forces onlookers to feel sympathetic pain.

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The Coven where Queenie resides promotes itself as a sort of liberal post-racial space, telling a fairly comforting story about the role of the past in modern American life. Fiona, The Coven’s “Supreme,” gleefully taunts the unreconstructed racist Mme LaLaurie when she discovers that—horror of horrors!—a black man has been elected president.  Declaring that there’s nothing she hates worse than a racist, Fiona assigns the former mistress to be Queenie’s personal slave. As far as Fiona—and arguably many in the audience are concerned–justice has been served. At first, the former slaveowner and the African American woman seem to find some form of interracial understanding as Queenie saves Mme LaLaurie’s life, comforts her, and takes her out for fast food. It should come as no surprise to any viewer of Hollywood’s past record on race that such progress emerges from Queenie’s—not LaLaurie’s—sacrifices and compassion. As Spike Lee has lamented, the film industry never seems to tire of black people using their powers for the benefit of needy white characters. Here was a story American film audiences knew well, one that provided a happy ending for the inheritors of a difficult past. This was a place where racist ghosts were tamed and the descendants of slaves were able to forgive.

If Queenie’s self-immolating power and her presence in the coven offers a possible narrative of racial reconciliation, Marie Laveau (played brilliantly by Angela Basset) provides a fierce counterpoint. An immortal voodoo queen, Laveau has personally witnessed racial atrocities running the gamut from Madame LaLaurie’s sadistic treatment of slaves to 20th  century murders of black children trying to attend school. She embodies the unappeasable rage of a history that will not die.  It’s no accident that one of her most fearsome powers involve raising the dead from their graves. I’m not the first to note that the idea of a zombie apocalypse sometimes serves as code for right-wing fears of a future race war. When Marie Laveau’s zombie army attacks a house full of white girls, she fulfills these fearful visions. The ravages of the past live among us, and they are hungry. Our inheritance is violence, AMH tells us, and there’s no medicine for it.

If recent comment threads are indication, Mme Leveau’s rage, and Queenie’s decision to ally herself with her against the Coven are as perplexing to many viewers as they are frightening. They can’t understand why Queenie, after seeming to accept her part as the black character in a buddy movie, suddenly opts for revenge over rapprochement. She turns the former slave mistress over to the Voodoo Queen, and the episode ends with Mme LaLaurie—looking helpless and betrayed in a baggy t-shirt—imprisoned in a torture dungeon much like the one she used to preside over. As other writers have noted, Kathy Bates’s formidable talent renders LaLaurie more sympathetic than she has a right to be. Even so, the show makes it hard to cheer for a middle-aged lady facing an eternity of magical torture. She may well deserve her punishment, but it seems unlikely that centuries of future cruelty are going to help lay past demons to rest.

 

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In many ways, the racial double-vision of American Horror Story evokes the same dilemma faced by anxious 23 & Me customers. The flip-side of the illusory belief that either genes or race determine future outcomes is the fantasy that we might somehow be able to game the system. AMH tells Americans a scary story in which there’s no way to effectively manage the past, or to avoid the unhappy future that inheritance has mapped out for us. It’s a fear shared by liberals and conservatives alike, although that fear takes strikingly different forms. For viewers, both black and white, who wish that American culture would progress past the story of slavery, this show treads in a frightening landscape indeed. As the recent controversy over Ani DiFranco’s misguided decision to hold a workshop at a slave plantation testifies, there are many places whose ghosts remain, painfully, among us. These witches predict a haunted future in which we’ll never really be able to anticipate the places the past might take us. The good and the bad lies waiting for us in our cells, in our politics, in how we move through this world and the next. Both the vengeful Marie Laveau (a magical version of Django) and the self-congratulatory post-racial Fiona Goode are two edges of a very sharp sword. Each of their stories suggest that there’s a way–either by vengeance or by tolerance–to nullify the damage that American ancestors have contributed to our collective DNA. If we just hit on the right technology, we can put the dead to rest.

Sorry, the terrifyingly energetic corpses of American Horror Story insist, we’re not getting out of this that easy.