The evil two books and one video do

A visit to the dark side (and back) courtesy of "The Blair Witch Project," Andy Kaufman and Lynda Barry.


Cintra Wilson
November 24, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

The hinky feeling described in folklore as "somebody walking over your grave" is the exact opposite of a phenomenon I share with my father, which could be loosely described as "Encouraging Messages From Your Future Self" -- i.e., at any rotten time of life, you can sometimes hear a distant voice saying, essentially, "Buck up! Everything is going to be OK! Hang in there!" -- and it's Future You talking, hollering back at your rotten present self from a better, happier, more peaceful future up ahead inside the tunnel of the continuum of You. This is a voice that informs hope, urges levity and recommends morality. A suggestion of light at the end of the tunnel, farther than you can see, which suggests that you, in turn, lighten up.

I'm unforgivably late on this topic, but
"The Blair Witch Project" scared the living shit out of me, for days and days. I did a small test-group study. It turns out that the people who saw "Blair Witch" on video (like me), as opposed to the big screen, got the full weight of the escalating dread and horror. I suppose it is harder to feel a totally isolated sense of terrible creep-out when there are a hundred other people near you in the dark -- around the campfire, as it were -- enjoying the collective thrill of feeling adrenally spooky together.

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When you are home, however, and the dark room is quiet except for the radiator whining like a baby in pain, there is no arresting point for the abusive, mental-dam-busting concept of the Omnipotent Terrorizer, and it floods your brain caverns unchecked. I became nauseous with anxiety (as opposed to nauseous because of the hand-held camera motion), but -- most disturbing of all -- I couldn't stop watching the Godforsaken thing. As excruciating as the experience was, it was too compelling. (Why does an audience love to be tormented? Why do we lust after fear? What filthy instinct is that?)

If you're a person prone to worst-case-scenario fantasies of rank metaphysical hoodoo to begin with, it is triply disturbing when someone of great creative skill is able to unlock your own overactive ability to scare yourself - it can give you a pervasive, if temporary, sense of all life being innately creepy. "The Blair Witch Project" knew that the biggest motivator for fear is the Unknown Thing in the Dark, which is what most other movies do exactly wrong: They show you the big-budget computer-animated latex beast, which looks fake and silly and not at all as banal as real evil -- too many bells and whistles, too much silly imagination and techno-wank - and dissipate all of the fear the movie has generated by exposing the Thing. The most formidable Bogey Man never shows itself, except in abnormal phenomena -- the birds behaving weirdly, the chairs assembling themselves into a pyramid -- evidence that the unseen Thing exists, and doesn't like you.

Late at night, for days after the movie was safely back on the video shelves (I actually wanted to park the video outside the house when I was done with it, for fear of its infectious evil power), I resorted to sprinting back to my bed from the bathroom in the middle of the night, fleeing from invisible goblins in my hallway -- such was the power of the film's sinister suggestion. I was miserable.

Then, later that week, when I was auditioning for a demolition derby film in Tribeca, I saw "Mike" -- the "Mike" from "The Blair Witch Project." The last and most vomitously terrifying shot in the film: Mike, standing there, with his back turned. He was dressed virtually the same way that he was in the woods; big plaid woolly anorak, hat. There he was, Mike, warm, happy, still unshaven, sitting on a leather couch next to an expensive potted plant, reading Xeroxed scenes from a new screenplay. Our eyes met for a second.

"I' m so glad you're alive!" I whispered hoarsely to him. He laughed. "Do you get that all the time?" I asked, thumping my chest to indicate palpitations, "people being totally relieved to see you?"

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"Ha ha ha, yeah!" he said. You could tell he was psyched to be a part of such a huge phenomenon. Future Mike, sitting before me, now Present Mike. It's OK, said his presence in the present. Really. Life is not so creepy. I sent a message of Future OK-ness back to my "Blair Witch" terrorized-self of recent past. Hang in there.

OK, so "The Blair Witch Project" may be a great ghost story, with all of the crackling, poisonous glory that a ghost story can manufacture. But I'm really worried about Lynda Barry. It always makes me wonder when people with the power of creation, the artistic Prometheuses as it were, delve at length into the deadly, kinky and evil. It means that they have voluntarily stowed their heads in the Dark Compartment for a very long period of time - long enough to create a whole project.

I just read the novel "Cruddy," because whatever Lynda Barry does is golden; she cooks with the genius sauce; there are four-panel episodes of "Ernie Pook's Comeek" that I think should be hanging in the Smithsonian. I first noticed that Barry had been listening to the scarier muses when there started to be more bad sex and insanity in the comic strip; but she would always balance it out with some ripping flight of the funniest thing you've ever seen, a week later.

This spring another one of her cartoon books, "The Freddy Stories," came out, and I was dismayed to see that she'd left out a lot of the tickly hilarious Freddie material in favor of the horrific, mentally ill, fear-driven stuff. "Cruddy," the newest Barry offering, has no rays of sunshine, no redemption. It reads like an extended cry for help -- basically, everyone dies, in terrible ways. It rolls from squalor into deep squalor into deadly squalor into Bloodbath Hell, and the suicide at the end is supposed to be the beautiful, happy ending (which is revealed at the very beginning).

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Barry has assigned herself a task on the first page, i.e., make this suicide OK. Make the readers believe the suicide is indeed a "happy" ending. But she doesn't. How could she? How can we, the Gentle Readers, root for an abused teenage girl to kill herself? It made me want to send Barry a big box of peanut-butter cups and some potted begonias and a Jack Russell terrier and a family-sized bottle of Paxil, because I think she's horribly depressed and wants to die. Buck up, Lynda. Oh, dear Ms. Barry, hang in there. You are so beloved.

What do you say when the artists you most cherish start exclusively embracing the dark and weirdly horrible? It is just as difficult as when you find out that an artist whose work you love is himself dark and weirdly horrible.

The Bob Zmuda biography of Andy Kaufman, for example, exposes Kaufman, someone whose retarded charisma and New Wave comedy stylings were particularly dear to me, as a completely psychotic asshole. Kaufman was better left an enigma -- why, besides base prurient interest, should we know what a grotesque, divisive sex addict he was? Why expose that he only wrestled women to satisfy a weird hard-on for grappling unknown chicks? Why do we want to know that Zmuda had to tape Kaufman's hard-on down when he wrestled on TV?

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The most interesting and entertaining thing about the whole Kaufman biography is Zmuda's descriptions of demented screenwriter "Mr. X.," the most incredible sociopath in recent literature and lore, an unapologetically vile and boundaryless human being who was totally committed to fucking people in the head in the most expensive, venal, elaborate and unsocialized ways possible. What becomes icky and shocking about Kaufman is how he idolized Mr. X. and wanted to be Mr. X -- morally backward and enslaved to the aim of traumatizing people for fun. Kaufman, from all reports, habitually got under people's skin in the ugliest and most manipulative ways available and used people's appreciation for him against them, all in service to a pursuit of "fun" that was really only fun for Andy Kaufman (and maybe Bob Zmuda).

Kaufman's beloved guerrilla-theater "pranks" suggest nothing more than contempt for his unsuspecting audience, a loathing that a less pathologically self-indulgent and borderline personality type might have focused more on himself, rather than out at the rest of mankind. We are left with nothing but a feeling of what a sad, gross creep Kaufman was -- getting to know him better is more depressing than illuminating.

Andy Kaufman, dead at 35, had no Future Self; Lynda Barry seems to have a Future Self that beats her up in her dreams, and the sick genius bastards who made "The Blair Witch Project" are living their Future Selves now, drinking in limousines, laughing with professional athletes; sharing fine couches with the glitterati, having sacrificed their former bright-eyed, ragged, ambitious, hopeful, anonymous wannabe-filmmaker selves in the Maryland woods last year.

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Today I want to step out in fresh socks, into the sharp winter sunshine (say that 10 times fast). I want to buy some cheap Christmas cashmere and walk on the New York sidewalk with something sweet and hot in a paper cup with a sip lid and smell curls of incense smoke and the buttery steam of nuts roasting and psychically will myself backward and inform the tortured, wallowing pasts of myself that everything is going to be OK, OK, everything is going to be OK.


Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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