We are so used to the two worlds. One is the world we inhabit every day, where we wake up, brush our teeth, forget someone’s birthday, try to stretch a paycheck. The other world is the one we create through the sum total of our collective fantasies, where Superman flies, Harry earns his wand, and E.T. is the best friend a kid could ever want. Each of these two worlds operates by very specific rules, and there is an imperative, understood by all but the youngest children, to keep them separate.
I remember many years ago watching E.T. for the first time, and thinking about how unsympathetic was Peter Coyote’s character - the man with the keys, representing the shadowy forces of the government, who wants only to kill the alien and dissect it. We the audience felt so superior to that guy - we knew better, for E.T. was our friend.
But that’s because it was all happening in that other world. Suppose an E.T. had landed for real, in this world. We would suddenly need to deal with the possibility that the Alien, the unknown intruder, could do us harm. Wouldn’t we all be siding with that guy with the keys? Different world, different rules.
Last night I saw Persepolis, a sad and beautiful animated tale told from the point of view of a girl who was forced to witness the Iran she knew, an entire culture and way of life, be destroyed before her eyes, crushed out of existence by the twin pressures of war and revolution.
And I found myself thinking that perhaps one of the most disturbing things about war, in addition to the sudden loss of precious lives, real people gone in an instant, is the way it defies our reason by forcing the two worlds together. The unbelievable actually happens, walks right through your front door and sits down at your kitchen table. To me the truly moving thing about Persepolis is the way the main character gradually faces down that catastrophic rupture, seeks out and eventually finds a reality she can hold onto, regains her sanity and her life, despite all that she and her country have been through.
Maybe it’s not coincidence that fear of this collision between the ordinary and the fantastic has become a mainstay of modern horror stories. It used to be that horror stories took place in forbiddingly gothic settings, a blackened heath or an ancient crypt, the old abandoned house at the end of the lane with creaky doors and a certain dark cellar.
But in the last half century the horror story has relocated to the most prosaic of settings. Hence The Birds, Rosemary’s Baby, almost anything by Stephen King, Ringu. That creature from rotting nightmares, come to feed upon our deepest fears, now shows up in the middle of morning breakfast, toast and orange juice on the table, sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window, to the sound of the neighbor’s lawn mower ringing in our ears.
Maybe this trend, the popularity of post-gothic horror, has indeed been a response to modern warfare, to the way the bright shining future promised by science and enlightenment has a disturbing tendency to turn on its masters. Not just the atomic bomb, but so many of modernity’s bastard children. The way the Nazis looked so crisp in their designer uniforms, their methods clean and antiseptic, their engineering impeccable. The horror emerging from the ordinary.
One of the many horrifying aspects of the attack in New York in September of 2001 was that it had that quality whereby the ordinary - our comfortably familiar modern world - collides with the unbelievable. A horror story - something we would expect to see in a matinee with popcorn and the extra large coke - had crossed over, was really happening. And the horror wasn’t built from vampires and mummies, but from jetliners and skyscrapers, people at work in their business suits, an autumn morning in the most up to the minute and cosmopolitan of cities.
Suddenly that thick layer of protection, the safe distance of stories, the thing that lets us love E.T. because he is not real, or Harry Potter because we’re not really Muggles and there’s no such thing as Valdemort, was gone in a moment.
And so our nation went mad.
But not so much those of us who were actually there, who live here in New York. Yes, we grieved, we were psychologically wounded, we walked around for months like somebody had smacked each of us upside the head with a two by four. But at the same time we could smell that peculiar acrid odor hanging in the air every day for months, wafting up from downtown. Most of us knew somebody who had been lost, and there was nothing sensational or jingoistic about coming to grips with those deaths.
For us it seemed less like a monster out of some horror movie blundering off the screen than it must have seemed to the rest of the country. There were just so many small telling details, so much that tied it all back to real life, this street, that coffee shop. It was grim, but it was real.
My aunt was working across the street from the towers that morning. Two years later, after she’d had time to process the events of that day, she told us how she had heard the thud of the bodies as they fell around her. That was personal horror, the actual reality that has nothing to do with fantasy at all, the part they don’t talk about on TV.
New Yorkers could understand why “Ground Zero” became a tourist destination, but we had no interest in going there, taking pictures, trying to be part of it. It just made us sad, and mostly we wanted to stay out of the way of the people working to clear the debris.
And maybe that’s why, when the nation’s anger turned into a war against an oddly chosen enemy, when talk was rife with “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, we didn’t follow along. We didn’t need to try to save E.T. or kill Valdemort or find a war in order to restore our sanity. We didn’t need to rebuild a wall between the ordinary and the unbelievable.
It was, in fact, all too believable.