Thoroughly Modern Monster: On the Origin of Zombies (or, Hollywood Invented All of Our Monsters)
Today we will wrap up our “Thoroughly Modern Monster” mini-series (you can find the previous installments here, here, and here) with a monster that’s gained a significant (shuffling and moaning) following: the zombie. Zombies are big right now, and I won’t bore you by naming all the zombie movies, tv shows, comics, books, and video games that have come out recently. They (along with vampires) have been the hot monster a la mode for some time now.
But where did zombies come from? Folks, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you’ve read my other monster history posts you may have noticed a pattern: there are some legends that have almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the monster, then someone makes a movie or writes a book about them where the monster is similar to the original in name only, and the movie monster gives us the modern conception. It happened with werewolves in early Hollywood. It happened to vampires in popular 19th century literature (and was then cemented in the public consciousness forever by, yes, early Hollywood). So the question that might be on our mind is “Are modern zombies also based almost entirely off of 1920s Hollywood monster movies?” To which I can confidently answer, no.
They’re based almost entirely off of 1960s Hollywood. With a dash of 30s Hollywood sprinkled on top, for flavor.
“But Mark,” you might object (I can tell you’re the contrary type) “don’t zombies come from voodoo or something? I’m sure I heard that once from a made for TV documentary/book of fun monster facts/back of a cereal box.” To which I can only reply with a sincere “Kinda.” The word zombie does come from Haitian voodoo. And Haitian voodoo does have legends (mostly small and unimportant legends, compared to the rest of the religion) about certain dark voodoo magics that can bring dead bodies to life to serve their masters. But these zombies have nothing to do with modern zombies. Just for starters, voodoo zombies:
-Aren’t rotting corpses
-Don’t feed on human flesh
-Can’t turn other people into zombies
-Can perform complicated tasks
-Arguably aren’t even dead! Not in the way modern zombies are anyway! If you cut one of their heads off it wouldn’t still be moving around, snapping at you!
Voodoo zombies are just creepy slaves. It’s like “Hey, you know how we are all taken from Africa and made into slaves to work the fields till we die? Can you imagine if someone dug up our dead bodies and made them keep working forever? That would suck!” That’s the basic idea behind Haitian voodoo zombies. They aren’t like modern zombies at all.
The modern zombie can be traced back to one film: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. Now there are a few obvious differences between Romero’s zombies and the modern conception, namely that the zombies were created by radiation from Venus (it makes sense in context) instead of a virus, but almost everything else is the same. Romero’s zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, they shuffle and moan and stagger about, they hunger for human flesh, and if they kill you then you become one too. It is here, from this movie, that all future modern zombie media takes its source. This is the Ur-Zombie, and it’s only 46 years old.
So why do we call them zombies if they don’t have anything to do with Haitian zombies? Well Romero never actually calls the monsters in his movie zombies. At no point in the film is that name used, and Romero wasn’t thinking about Haitian zombies when he was developing the plot (instead drawing influence from the book I am Legend). It was only after the movie came out that fans started calling the monsters from the movie “zombies,” and the name stuck.
Remember when I said that 1930s Hollywood was also involved somehow? That’s because in the 20s and 30s Hollywood made several horror movies about zombies. And I mean real zombies this time, good and proper Haitian zombies with none of this “brains” business. Movies like White Zombie featured innocent whites being menaced by frightening black people and their voodoo magic. These zombies behave as they should: working hard in a sugar plantation, staring blankly into space, and doing whatever their master commands. It was movies like these that put the word “zombie” in the national consciousness, and why fans of Night of the Living Dead even thought to use the term in regards to Romero’s shuffling horrors.
So, as we can see, modern zombies are terribly, terribly young. But in some ways they are also terribly old. Romero said in interviews later that the idea for his monsters came when he asked himself the question: “what if the dead stopped staying dead?” This idea isn’t new; it harkens back to an ancient fear that seems essential to the make-up of humanity as a whole: the fear of dead bodies. People have been telling stories about revenants for as long as we’ve existed. Dead bodies are frightening, unnatural things.
The only thing that would make them scarier…is if they got up.
Thoroughly Modern Monster: The Modern Vampire
As I mentioned two weeks ago, there is a fairly solid dividing line in history that separates the werewolves we have today (those that change under the full moon, can only be killed by silver, take a half-man half-wolf form, and spread their curse through bites) and the werewolves of the past (change whenever they want, can be killed in the normal ways, take the form of a wolf, become a werewolf through magic ceremonies, etc). That dividing line was the wolfman horror movies of early Hollywood. Before Hollywood we have the old kind of werewolf, after Hollywood we have the modern beast, and the differences between the two are so great that you can argue that they share nothing except the name. Vampires have an extremely similar story, only their dividing line comes in 1819 with the publishing of the short novel The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Polidori’s book is the first place where we see a high society, handsome, rich, and suave vampire who masquerades as a human and sucks the blood of beautiful maidens all over Europe. The book, and a popular play based off of it, sparked a vampire craze in Europe that we could emphasize with today. Just as our current vampire craze has spawned off numerous book series, tv shows, and movies about vampires Polidori’s book inspired numerous plays and novels that expanded on his original vampire, the dashing and dangerous Lord Ruthven. Most of us think of writing from previous centuries of consisting solely of stuffy old “classics” or great works of literature that are far more serious and sophisticated than the commercial trash that is printed today. The truth is that previous centuries had just as much commercial fluff and sensational pop works as we do today. One such work from the 1840s was Varney the Vampire, a serialized story telling the tale of a vampire from week to week. Varney was roughly equivalent to what we might consider comic books today, as it consisted of short stories that emphasized action, horror, and suspense.
Being a work of popular fiction that was written by multiple authors over its run, Varney wasn’t particularly consistent in regards to its vampire lore. The creation of Varney himself is muddled, with several competing origin stories that appear throughout the series. In one account we learn that Varney became a vampire when he betrayed a friend and then killed his own son in a fit of rage, which harkens back to the old vampire legends about great sinners rising from their graves to feed on the living. Another edition has Varney being created by a scientist using electricity a la Frankenstein. Varney often had conflicting abilities and motivations, but from that mess of a work many of the modern vampire tropes were born. Varney has two fangs, leaves two puncture marks on the necks of his victims, has super strength, can hypnotize people, and can turn others into vampires. Perhaps most notably Varney is the first sympathetic vampire in the world; we see the stories through his point of view, and he regularly regrets what he has become. He even attempts to cure his “condition” and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. This is an incredible breakthrough; before this point all vampires, even the Polidori’s, were viewed as either mindless monsters or incomprehensible creatures of pure evil. Varney turns all that upside down by asking what it would like to be a vampire and still retain your human mind, your human memories, and your human outlook.
In other words, Varney brought angst to the vampire mythos. So, The Vampyre made vampires suave and sophisticated, and Varney added angst. That leaves one primarily modern character trait of vampires to go: sexuality. In 1871 a slightly more sophisticated vampire serial appears, titled Carmilla. This story itself is pretty long and suspenseful and full of foreshadowing and all that, but for our purposes it can be easily summarized: a young woman becomes friends with another young woman and then later they discover that one of the young women is a vampire and along the way it’s highly implied that she’s a lesbian as well. This story is notable on two points: introducing the idea of vampires who are hundreds of years old but appear to be children (because they died young) and vampires as sexual creatures. The vampires of the old legends, being revenants, are certainly nothing you could easily think about sexually, and though the vampire in The Vampyre woos women it is only for the purpose of devouring their blood. This is the first story where we get the strong impression that vampires carnal desires could extend to more than just hemoglobin. This 19th century vampire progression finally culminates in what we now consider the crown jewel of vampire lore: Bran Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Dracula gives us the first appearance of arch-vampire Count Dracula himself, and pulls together all the scattered vampire tropes the past century had been throwing out there. Dracula is a suave and sophisticated aristocrat, who not only hungers from blood but also possesses several vampire wives, bringing female vampires and sexuality back into play. True, there is little angst seen from Dracula over being a vampire, but there is certainly a lot of angst among the main characters after Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire of her own. Here we are also supplied with the now traditional modes of hunting vampires: garlic, staking through the heart, holy water, the whole nine yards.
However, Dracula was not a commercial success in its own time. Stoker died in poverty, and arguably Varney or Carmilla were both far more popular during their respective runs. Why then is Dracula the most famous vampire book ever written? Why does its ideas and themes still run through the vampire mythos to this day? Why is Count Dracula more famous than Carmilla, or Varney, or even Lord Ruthven? The answer, as with werewolves, is movies. In 1922 the German film Nosferatu was released to the public. The movie itself was pretty much a take for take adaptation of Dracula but with names changed to avoid having to pay the Stoker estate. Now, the film is important on its own (as we shall see) but it is also responsible for inventing one of the most enduring features of the modern vampire mythos: the vampires vulnerability to sunlight. Before Nosferatu vampires had little trouble walking about during the day. Lord Ruthven wasn’t bothered by it, Carmilla merely disliked it, and all sunlight did to Count Dracula was weaken him slightly. However Nosferatu, deviating from the book, shows the vampire being defeated by the dawn of the sun, whose light causes him to burst into smoke. This weakness to sunlight would by picked up by the vampire stories to come, until we reach the modern day where you can find nerds everywhere complaining about how the sun doesn’t hurt Twilight vampires.
The film was a massive success, and Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. She won her case, and every copy of the film (except for one that survived to the modern day) was destroyed. However the film was so popular that it was soon followed by a stage version which toured Europe and spread vampire fever. (Fun fact: the stage play is where the Count Dracula started wearing that ridiculous black cape with the super high collar. The purpose of the collar was so that the actor playing Dracula could turn his back to the audience and seem to disappear against a black backdrop, creating a spooky effect. Somehow, the silly cape stuck with the character.)
Eventually the play toured the US where it caught the attention of Hollywood. Young producer Carl Laemmle Jr., after seeing Nosferatu’s initial success legally bought the movie rights from the Stoker estate. In 1931 the famous Universal movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was released to huge commercial success. Since that film was released the book Dracula has never gone out of print, and the legacy of Count Dracula was set in stone, along with the all the other “modern” vampires he had come to represent.
Thoroughly Modern Monster: The Primal Vampire
Today we’re going to look at vampires. Vampires are pretty popular right now. Just about anybody could tell you what a vampire is these days, even if they’re not a huge nerd or horror fan. Pale, beautiful, suave, mysterious, superpowered creatures of the night who are hurt by sunlight and drink the blood of the living. But as we saw with werewolves last week, monsters can change a lot over time. How old are vampires as we know them?
Like werewolves, the answer is complicated because it depends on what you define as a vampire. If you define a vampire as an undead monster who drinks human blood than vampires have been around since ancient times, and across most cultures. This is a fact you might find between the pages of a YA vampire series, or on a fun Halloween facts page, or even in the dialogue of a TV series. But are vampires really so old, and really spread over so many cultures? No. No, they really aren’t.
To be sure multiple ancient cultures across the globe have stories of blood drinking undead, but these monsters have almost nothing to do with vampires. They are far better defined as revenants. A revenant is a corpse that has left it’s place of burial and roams around performing various kinds of mischief, from slaughtering livestock and spreading plague, to drinking blood and devouring flesh. Revenants take many forms and have many names, but they all share the same basic idea: someone dies and for some reason or another their corpse does not remain at rest.
And when I say corpse, I really mean corpse. Revenants are shambling, bloated, rotting, stinking things. They are not sexy. They are not sauve. They have far more in common with modern zombies than modern vampires.
Now we have scattered stories of various revenants from ancient times up through the Middle Ages. However between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment periods we start to see a more specific type of revenant legend develop. In southeast Europe during this time period is where the vampire legend is actually born. It is during this time period that we begin to see vampire panics, vampire trials, and widespread anti-vampire burial practices (which we’ll get to later). But again, these vampires are far different from the ones we know today. Arguably they are far scarier as well.
It can be hard for modern readers, with their heads full of True Blood and Interview with a Vampire to really understand what these primal vampires were like. Let me try to explain with a short story:
It’s 1672. You are a Bulgarian peasant, living in a small village up in the hills. You know everybody in town and everybody knows you. One day your brother dies. Perhaps he got sick, or maybe it was an accident of some kind, but however it happened he’s dead and it’s time to consign his remains to the earth. The funeral procession brings his coffin up to the church graveyard on top of a hill overlooking the village, where he is given his last rites and buried beneath the earth.
You’re sad, of course. This is a real tragedy, and you’ll miss your brother terribly. However you have to get back to working the land, and you try to put the bad memories behind you. However, in the weeks after the burial, bad things start happening. A local farmer loses some of his sheep: one is found mutilated in the woods. Probably wolves. Then a local boy gets sick. He starts to waste away, turning weak and pale. Soon he can no longer get out of bed. Eventually he dies. They say it was consumption. Soon more people are getting sick. A few more animals have been lost. People are starting to talk. You try to ignore it. Then, one dark, cloudy night, you hear a scream outside your door. It’s one of your goats, and it’s crying bloody murder. You run outside and check the pen, but the goat is gone. The other animals are terrified. You try to calm them down, when suddenly you see him. Your farm is near the old woods, far from town. There isn’t anyone around for over a mile, but there in the trees is a figure is crouched over. It’s hard to see in the dark, but the figure is stooping over something, holding it to it’s mouth. As you watch it suddenly turns to look at you, slowly. It’s too far away to see clearly, but your blood goes cold in your veins. The figure drops it’s load, and begins to lumber over to you. It staggers as it walks, but it’s picking up speed. You quickly run back inside and bolt the door on your little shack. You peer through the crack around the doorframe, and watch as the figure comes closer. It’s a human alright, but not like any you’ve seen before. His body is bloated and his skin blotched with purple like fresh bruises. His clothes are tattered, barely hanging on to his swollen body. The air is filled with the smell of death, clogging your nostrils and almost sending you into a coughing fit. As it comes closer you see that blood is dripping from its mouth and nose, sending red rivulets over a doughy and mottled face. You put all your weight against the door as the creature comes up to it, pounding with its fists.
Suddenly your heart stops as you hear it speak, speak with a distorted and pleading voice. But even through the distortion you recognize it.
“Let me come in, brother. I’m so cold brother. Please. Please let me in.”
And that, my friends, is an old fashioned vampire. A corpse bloated and purple with blood and decay, the corpse of someone you likely knew and perhaps loved, walking about and devouring the living There are a few other noticeable differences between this “classic” vampire and the modern conception. For example, early vampires could come out in daylight just fine and were not hurt by the sun; it was merely that they were more active at night. Also there was no clear idea of how one became a vampire. Some people thought that vampires formed when evil spirits took control of recently killed corpses. This would lead some people to include holy objects such as crosses or communion wafers with the deceased in order to drive such evil spirits away. It’s also the origin of the idea that vampires will be repelled by crucifixes and harmed by holy water.
Another theory was that vampires were great sinners in life who had committed some terrible crime (perhaps killing a loved one, or cannibalism) and that whatever heinous acts they had committed would cause them to become a monster. Others didn’t know why vampires became vampires, but still believed that they could happen and that you had to be prepared. Though a variety of objects and plants (such as garlic and hawthorn, or crucibles and scattered rice) could help protect you from a vampire the creature would continue to terrorize the area until someone hunted it down and did something about it.
That’s why they can still find corpses from this period that have stakes driven through their hearts. However we’re liable to misunderstand this too. The purpose of the stakes wasn’t to kill the vampire: after all, how can you kill a corpse? How can you kill what is already dead? No, the purpose of the stake was to literally pin the creature to its grave, preventing it from physically rising to feast on the living. And stakes are just one of many ways to accomplish that goal. Corpses of suspected vampires had their heads chopped off, their leg tendons severed, their arms and legs bound in iron chains, or any other way they could think of to prevent them from escaping their coffins.
That’s the way it worked: if people started getting sick and dying, or animals disappeared, and people began to suspect a vampire, they would soon form a posse and start digging up recent burials. They would look for a corpse that didn’t seem to be decaying properly, or one that was swollen or showed signs of blood around the mouth. They would then take that corpse and do whatever they could to contain it, hoping to God that it wouldn’t “wake up” while they were doing the deed. Many villages had individuals who were given the particular responsibility of finding and binding vampires: some of these “vampire hunters” even persisted into the 1900s.
Actual belief in vampires peaked between the 17th and 18th centuries, before falling out of fashion during the enlightenment. After that something happened that would transform the vampire legend entirely. But that’s a story for next week. In the meantime, if you bemoan the newest vampire flick featuring hunky bloodsuckers that look like they came out of the pages of a fashion magazine; take heart, and remember a time when vampires were truly something to be feared! Something horrible, gross, unsettling, and terrible.
Next week we’ll find out how all that changed.
Thoroughly Modern Monster: A History of Werewolves
Given the magnificent Blood Moon that graced our skies early this morning, a post on werewolves seems appropriate. However, their history may surprise you. Werewolves are not as old as you might think, and the kind we’re familiar with today with bestial, half-human forms, who change at the full moon and can only be hurt by silver, is a thoroughly modern invention.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In ancient times there were some stories about men becoming wolves, but these fell almost entirely into two categories: curses and witchcraft. Ancient legends abound of men and women who were turned into wolves as a punishment by the gods for some slight or another. Other cultures have stories of witches and sorcerers who, among their many magic abilities, could take the form of an animal. However this is far from the werewolf as we understand it today. After all, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books could turn himself into a wolf (well, a big dog) by magic yet we would not consider him a werewolf but merely a wizard with magic powers. And modern werewolves are not impious pagans who were cursed to take the form of a wolf because they cheesed off a deity, especially since the legends indicate that such punishments were permanent transformations, not temporary or reoccurring. With that in mind it’s safe to say that these ancient legends are only tangentially related to werewolves as we think of them.
The Middle Ages Of course after the pagans came the Catholics. What did Medieval peasants think about werewolves? You might think that here is where the werewolf legend began, among those superstitious, ignorant, and unscientific Medievals. However the truth is that your average Medieval peasant didn’t believe in werewolves. Heck, they didn’t even believe in witches! It was the official position of the Medieval Catholic church that witches, sorcerers, warlocks, and other supernatural types were pure pagan superstition. To be sure you could still find some of the old legends of witchcraft related wolf transformations, but only in the pagan pockets of northern and eastern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Lithuania where Christianity had yet to arrive in force. Stories of men transforming into wolves were for ignorant pagans: good Christians knew better than to believe such rot. “Now Mark,” you may be asking, “How can this be? After all, weren’t the Medievals notorious for burning witches at the stake? It’s in Monty Python and everything!” Well that brings us to the next stage of the history of werewolves, and were things really get started…
The Age of Superstition (Better known as the Renaissance)
Though we typically think of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that ended with the re-arrival of reason and logic with the onset of the Renaissance, the fact is that the Renaissance could be easily be renamed “The Age of Superstition.” The period between the 15th and early 18th centuries was characterized by a mania involving all things occult, magical, or supernatural. It was during this period that the famous witch burnings of Europe occurred, as well as the majority of the notable witch trials (including America’s most famous one in Salem). It was no coincidence the interest in Alchemy and Astrology had its height during this period as well. No longer were magic circles, curses, hexes, and animal transformations dismissed as superstition. Books were published about how to identify witches, and with them treatises on the nature of werewolves. It is during this period that we begin to see the beginnings of werewolves as we know them today. Many during this period seriously believed that some men could transform themselves into the form of a wolf, and would set themselves upon their fellow men, ripping and devouring. There were actual werewolf trials were individuals were convicted of being werewolves, but most of these convictions came down alongside general convictions of witchcraft. That’s because these werewolves were still not the ones we know today. While modern werewolves acquire their curse by being bit by another werewolf, the lycanthropy of this period had to be sought out. People supposedly had to actively try to become a werewolf, and there were a variety of possible methods: rubbing the body with magic ointments, making a belt or coat out of a wolves skin and putting it on, drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint, or making a pact with demons in exchange for power. Of course there were stories of people who became werewolves against their will, but not from being bitten. Instead it was said that if a child was too harshly abused by their parents they might run away to the woods and become wild werewolves, or that those who died in mortal sin might rise from their graves in the form of a wolf: a strange cross between a werewolf and a vampire, though we’ll get to the history of the latter another time. Werewolves were different from modern ones in a few other key aspects: for one, they all became wolves instead of half-wolf half men monstrosities like we see today, it was said you could tell a werewolf from a regular wolf because a werewolf had no tail, and some believed that if you cut a werewolf in his human form you would find fur poking out of the wound, as if the person’s skin was merely a covering for the wolf that lived within. However belief in werewolves began to die down by the onset of the 1700s, along with belief in witches, sorcerers, alchemy, and the rest of the baggage of the “Age of Superstition.” The Enlightenment was coming, and there would be little room for such silly beliefs in the years to come, though a few scattered werewolf trials continued in rural parts of Eastern Europe for some time. From there werewolves would be forgotten until the mid-19th century where they, like vampires, would start to feature vaguely in Victorian horror literature. Which brings us to the werewolf’s final chapter:
The Modern Period to Today
Most of what we know about modern werewolves comes from 20th century horror movies. Turns into a wolf under the full moon? Hollywood. Werewolves are half-man half-wolf creatures that walk on two legs? Made up so that makeup and special effects would be cheaper. Werewolves can only be killed by silver? Not seen in any account of werewolves before the 20th century. The curse being spread by bite? There may be some legends that had elements of this, but it didn’t become the primary method until quite recently.
The funny thing about all this is that most of us might assume that the werewolf is a very old monster, going back to ancient legends like the vampire. But we find that it isn’t so. For hundreds of years the werewolf was simply a particular kind of witchcraft, not a proper monster in its own right at all. In many ways the werewolf is a thoroughly modern monster, a horror that was invented in the last hundred years or so.
Still, the full moon can give you a bit of a chill when the night is right; and when the forest rings with the sound of howling, who am I to say that werewolves are too young to be real monsters?
Happy blood moon.
Ghoulish, Gruesome, Goosebumps
In honor of the spookiest month of the year, I thought I’d do a few posts on all things creepy and crawly. Let’s take a break from serious subjects and have some horror filled fun, starting with R. L. Stine’s famous horror series Goosebumps.
When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to read Goosebumps. At least not until I was like, 10 or 11 or so I suppose. My older brother was allowed to read them, but I had to wait and that drove me crazy. I’d watch my brother read through a stack of books with the most fantastically creepy covers and I’d seethe with envy. If you ever read Goosebumps you know what I mean about the covers. Sometimes the covers were better than the story underneath! They had brightly colored monsters, haunted masks, BBQing skeletons, giant hamsters, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, vampires, everything a kid could want! I’d see them sitting all in a row at the local library and look at each cover one by one. I may not have been allowed to read them, but who could stop me from looking? My parents didn’t want me reading them because they didn’t want me to have nightmares. My dad in particular was very protective of us when it came to anything scary and supernatural. Still, I can remember “borrowing” a Goosebumps book from my brother, crawling under my bed, and reading it by flashlight. When I was finally allowed to read them openly I devoured them. I read just about every Goosebumps that our local library had.
The first one I ever read, or at least the first that left any deep impression on me, was Goosebumps #2 Stay out of the Basement. I can still remember the story clearly: a scientist orders his two kids to stay out of the basement where he keeps his laboratory. He starts acting strangely, and when the kids finally do go down they discover…that he’s been slowly turning himself into a human/plant hybrid monster! I can’t quite remember what happened after that, but man did that book give me chills. The thought of human becoming something so inhuman as a plant was creepy enough, but that it was their own father took the cake. I didn’t know what I would do if my own father turned himself into a monster. And look at that cover (featured below)! I knew when I saw that cover that I was in for something great.
As I look back on Goosebumps I have a lot of good memories. The Haunted Mask, Don’t go to Sleep, Monster Blood, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Say Cheese and Die, Why I’m Afraid of Bees, How I Learned to Fly; these were some of my favorites. To be sure they were cheesy, silly, and as the series wore on (and the publishers goaded R. L. Stine to write them faster and faster) the quality did suffer. But I was too young to think that they were written badly. For me they were an outlet for my own love and fear of all things creepy, spooky, and monstrous. A safe outlet too, for no matter how badly the stories ended (and few ended happily for the protagonist) I knew that I was safe. This was fantasy, not reality; a parallel universe of exaggerated colors and shapes that I could peek in through the cover of a worn paperback.
Just for fun, here’s my favorite Goosebumps cover: the story was pretty mediocre, but that giant tongue still gets me every time!
2 Years and 10 Views per Day: The Inexplicability of Failure
In my last post I asked for feedback on how I could improve the blog. I’m not sure kind of advice I was expecting to receive. I guess I wanted someone to say something along the lines of “Well Mark, your blog is failing because you don’t write enough fiction/apologetics/writing related posts! That’s all we care about!” Or “Well Mark, don’t you see that the key is to write X? Write X and the people will come running to your door!” Or even “Geez Mark, didn’t you know about the magic success switch built in to WordPress? You must have had yours turned off all this time! Just flip the switch and the views will start coming.” Instead I got what I should have expected: some very nice readers (you are officially my favorites!) told me that they like my writing in general. Some people like the fiction more, others like the history posts, but nobody said they particularly disliked anything. Which sucks, because the more I think about it the more I realize that I didn’t want to know what I was doing right. I want to know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve been blogging for two freaking years and I’m daily views that are orders of magnitude less than two month old blogs that look like they were written by a constipated Shar-Pei. What in the world am I doing wrong here? I found myself Googling random strings of words like “blog failure” or “failed blogs” or “why oh why does nobody like me waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” (that last one was particularly unhelpful).
I just have this frustrated feeling that everyone else knows something I don’t.
That feeling has followed me my whole life, really. Whenever I get frustrated with something that other people succeed at I can’t help but feel that I’m missing some vital piece of information. I’m smart, I work hard, and yet they’re having greater success than me; surely this means that they are hoarding some kind of secret information! Surely everyone else got some kind of secret manual on how to actually build muscle when you exercise, or play an instrument, or tie a square not, or hammer a nail without it bending, or get a headshot every time in an FPS, while here I am trying to figure it out on my own like a chump.
Of course reality is never that simple. Sometimes my own failures really are due to a lack of vital knowledge, but typically they have more to do with a lack of experience on my part, a difference in work effort, or pure dumb luck. There’s no “magic key” that I’m missing in most cases, no matter how much I feel like there is.
Still, it’s bothersome. I’ve been pouring over the numerous “How to run a successful blog” style of blogs and I’ve come away with nothing new. If anything those blogs are only more discouraging. Not only do they lack any advice of substance that I haven’t already heard, they also make little insinuating comments about how a blog with around a 1,000 views a day may take “a few more months” before it can grow to something decent. Nowhere is there any advice, it seems, for individuals who are such complete failures that their blog has 10 views a day after more than two years of regular posting.
I tried googling “10 views per day” specifically and that was the worse one yet. I found forum post full of people saying things like “Wow, I got 150 views today and I’ve only been blogging for two weeks!” or “It may take a few months for you to break 500 views a day, but if you’re consistent you’ll make it.” Then I click on over to my own stats page which reminds me, yet again, that my best day ever had a wooping 101 views…from 11 unique visitors. Apparently one or two of them decided to archive binge. And then I fall into dark frustration again, sure that somewhere I’m missing something that everyone else just naturally gets…
Now to address the obvious, insanitybytes22 and suckmywake both suggested that I need to promote myself more. Maybe this is the “key” I’m missing, but I must say that I doubt it. For one thing, I’m not even sure what promoting myself looks like. Posting links to my blog on Facebook? I did that for about the first year before stopping. Why did I stop? Because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. My first year of blogging had the most abysmal view count I’ve ever had, and none of the very, very few of my Facebook friends who actually clicked on the links became a regular reader. I was surprised to discover that my own brothers didn’t realize that I was still writing the blog. To be sure, giving the “post links on Facebook” thing another try is certainly worth a shot, and I will do so in the coming months, but I doubt it will make much of a difference.
Twitter is out as a self-promotion tool because I don’t do Twitter, and if I started an account today the only people who would follow it are people who are already reading the blog. There is literally no other reason for anyone to follow me, and honestly I’m not the Twitter type. My thoughts typically come in the shape of sprawling bog posts, not short, pithy tweets.
I suppose that leaves posting links to my blog in the comments of other people’s blogs, but that has always struck me as incredibly tacky. I hate it when people post links to their own blog in comment sections, so I’m extremely reluctant to do that myself. Still, I suppose I must try. It’s easy to say that I need more self-promotion, but I really don’t know what that properly means. I’d like to think that my work will speak for itself. Ah well. I’ll just have to try one thing at a time: and get back to posting on subjects that are actually interesting, rather than my own blog woes! Really, I feel like such a whiner even complaining about this. Still, the blog can’t live without content and we’ve certianly been short on that for the past couple months. I’m sure someone else out there can relate to feeling like you’re missing the manual for success.
Followers! The Blog is Changing and I Need Your Help!
I didn’t start this blog to become famous.
Which is a good thing because this blog has brought me nowhere near fame. 2014 has been my best year yet for average view per day, and that average is 10. 10 is nothing. 10 is pathetic. After more than two years of hard work and 185 posts 10 is a sorry number to show for it. So it’s a good thing that I didn’t start this blog to get lots of traffic. I started it to become a better writer, and I think I’ve done alright on that front.
Lately I’ve been finding it hard to post. There have been dry spells before on the blog, but this is different. I’ve lacked almost all motivation to write blog posts. I only wrote my last post because a news article got me riled up and I decided that I might as well channel my frustration into something productive. But that’s no way to run a blog, unless you’re the type who gets riled up about everything. I enjoy writing, and I want to keep the blog up, but I just can’t find the motivation to write. And you know why?
It’s because practice isn’t enough anymore.
I’ve spent two and a quarter years practicing. I’m ready to actually do something with my writing, and the blog ain’t cutting it. I’ve been writing sci-fi short stories on the side, but I’ve yet to have a single one get published. I’ve tried writing posts that are really near and dear to my heart, but hardly anyone reads them. I’ve had idea after idea for e-books or web comics or graphic novels and none of them have made it off the ground. Practicing is not good enough! I want to actually create something people want to read! I want to touch people! I want to make them laugh, or cry, I want them to understand what’s really important! I want to show that I am a creator!
With that in mind, I need to make some changes.
I’ve been writing with one person in mind: myself. Because of this my blog is a bit of a mess as far as theme goes. It started out heavily weighted towards story and writing related posts with the occasional religious/apologetic post, and today has swung in the opposite direction with primarily apologetic related posts and the occasional post on writing. I’ve written about everything from Norwegian folk tales to objective morality to the biology of Horny Toads. That was fine when all I cared about was getting practice, but if I want to have a successful blog then I’m going to have to start writing with other people in mind.
So I’m going to need your help. If you enjoy my blog, please comment and tell me why. Let me know what kind of posts you would be interested in reading from me. What subjects do you most enjoy me covering? Would you like to see more writing posts? Humorous posts? Apologetics? Pro-life? History? And on the other side, what kind of posts do I write that you just don’t care about? Which ones do you think suck? Really, I want to know, so feel free to lay into me with both barrels.
Over the next few weeks The Page Nebula is going to go through some massive changes. But the first step comes from you: what do you want to read?
Pro-life: It’s Not About Contraception!
It seems that many individuals who are pro-choice have no idea why pro-lifers are pro-life. At least that’s the only explanation I can find for this article, where the author assumes that the “Religious Right” will be against a new form of male birth control. They even point out that Hobby Lobby’s health insurance still covers vasectomies and then assume that they’ve made some kind of point, as if they’ve caught Hobby Lobby in some kind of hypocrisy. That doesn’t make any sense at all: unless, of course, the person writing the article has no idea why Hobby Lobby refuses to offer certain contraceptives. Asking why Hobby Lobby opposes certain kinds of women’s birth control but doesn’t oppose vasectomies is like asking why someone who is opposed to drowning puppies isn’t opposed to neutering dogs.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe you, like the author of this article, doesn’t understand why Hobby Lobby made their lawsuit in the first place. Maybe you too work under the mistaken idea that everyone who is pro-life is pro-life because they oppose contraception. Maybe you think that pro-lifers just want there to be more kids in the world, and thus oppose anything that keeps people from having kids. If you’re under this assumption I simply want to let you know that you are mistaken. While some pro-lifers do oppose contraception (notably Catholics) opposition to contraception has nothing to do with being pro-life. Being pro-life is about being against abortion. I’m pro-life and I’m highly in favor of effective and cheap contraception. Fewer unexpected pregnancies means fewer abortions. I can assure whoever wrote that article that Hobby Lobby would likely be extremely enthusiastic about this new form of male birth control because it will prevent pregnancy without causing an abortion. That’s why they only refused to pay for four out of twenty different forms of contraception. Did you ever wonder why Hobby Lobby singled out those specific four kinds of contraception? It’s because they come with the possible risk of preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg: in other words, a kind of abortion. Now you can argue that preventing the implantation of an egg is not the same as aborting a fetus, or you could make the even stronger argument that those particular contraceptives do not actually prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, but the fact remains that Hobby Lobby chose to single out those contraceptives because they believe they can cause abortions. You can’t say is that they are opposed to contraception: they are perfectly fine with 16 other forms of contraceptive. What they are opposed to is abortion.
I think a lot of people don’t understand the pro-life position, and many pro-lifers assume that the pro-choicers do which leads to miscommunication like this. So that we can better understand each other, let me lay out the pro-life position at its most basic level. Those who are pro-life believe four things:
- All human beings have a right to life.
- This right (alternatively, identifying human beings) is not based on anything (intelligence, level of development, ability to feel pain, race, gender, etc) other than the fact that the individual in question is a human.
- Zygotes and fetuses are human.
- Thus, human induced abortion violates a human beings right to life and is thus not morally permissible.
There are qualifiers to those three beliefs: some, for instance would add that a human’s right to life can be taken away through due process of the law (that is, a legal execution is not morally wrong). Still, this is the basic logical underpinning of the pro-life position. Male birth control does not end the life of a human and would thus be completely acceptable, even encouraged, by pro-lifers just as a person opposed to euthanizing puppies would likely be enthusiastic in insuring that dogs are spayed and neutered.
Now most pro-choice individuals disagree with one of the four points above. The vast, vast majority do not disagree with point 1 (All human beings have a right to life), but rather disagree with point 2. They believe that a human does not have rights until it can be considered a person, and that zygotes and fetuses are not developed enough to be considered persons and thus have no rights. From this point of view a fetus is human, but not a human being. A few disagree with point 3, but in doing so they go against what science has to show us. Zygotes and fetuses are not some kind of half-human half something else: they are human. They have the human genome, they are examples of the human species, and no scientist in their right mind would say that zygotes and fetuses belong to some other, non-human, species until the moment of their birth. The zygote is the first stage of human development, and is just as human as an old man on his death-bed. This being understood, the weight of the disagreement between pro-life and pro-choice falls on point number 2.
To put all of it even more simply, pro-lifers think that abortion means killing a human being. If a controceptive doesn’t result in an abortion then there is no conflict there.
It is sad that there are many who don’t understand why individuals hold the position they hold on abortion. Pro-choice individuals writing about how pro-lifers will be opposed to male contraception because they want to control people’s bodies is like pro-life individuals writing that pro-choicers are opposed to marriage because they just want to have wild and consequence free sex. Both statements show a huge amount of ignorance about what the other side actually believes. I think that we can all agree that we would have a better world if everyone actually examined the arguments of those who are politically opposed to them instead of relying on hearsay and caricature.
A White Washington Boy’s Inability to Understand Ferguson
There’s a lot I don’t understand about race in America.
I was doing a little light reading about this whole Fergusen situation. I really don’t know all that much about what’s going on. I haven’t studied it in detail. I don’t really know how to think about any of it anyway. One article in particular left me flummoxed. In it the author talked about how white people are offended by black bodies, by black people doing things that white people don’t like, and how the white church refuses face the challenges that black people face. It got me thinking, but mostly it got me confused. This race stuff is so foreign to me. I don’t know how to process it correctly.
I think the main reason I have trouble with race stuff is that fact that I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I lived my whole life up until college in the state of Washington, then went to school in Oregon for four years, and I currently live in Anchorage, Alaska. Many people in the Pacific Northwest would tell you that we aren’t racist up here. Racists, after all, live in the South and are ignorant and intolerant bigots and we’re about as far north as you can get without being Canadian and we’re more enlightened and tolerant than just about any folks you’ll meet. Of course this sentiment is wrong. The Pacific Northwest has its own problem with race (involving Asians mostly) but we’re especially off our game when it comes to African Americans.
The simple fact is we don’t have any idea what black people are about.
In the state of Washington only 4% of the population is black, compared to the national average of 13%. The few blacks we have are mostly concentrated in urban areas. In Lewis County, where I grew up, blacks made up only .8% of the population. Oregon is worse than Washington with only 2%, and Alaska comes in at 3.9%. I can count on my hands the number of black people in my life that I was close enough to learn their name. There were 2 black people at my high school and 2 at my university (and that wasn’t because I went to a “white school” while all the black people went to a “black school: my school district was the only one available for about a dozen little towns in Southeast Pierce county. If you lived between Ashford and the Ohop Valley, that’s where you went). So when people like myself hear news about race riots or teenagers getting shot or any other racial controversy we feel very far removed from it. We don’t know what to think. We don’t know any black people. I mean we’re not racist, right? I mean, sure, I’ll lock my car windows when I see a black teenager walking around, but that doesn’t make me racist. It’s not that we don’t like black people we just find them…different. Strange. Unusual. And what is unknown is often frightening. Ask around and we’ll tell you we’re not racist like those Southerners. We didn’t have anything to do with slavery. Don’t remind us that Oregon made it illegal for black people to live in the state during the 1800s. That was the past. Besides, how many black people are up here anyway? We’ll cop to having a bad history with the Japanese, and the Chinese, and the Filipinos, but what do black people have to do with any of it?
The article I read laid out a series of challenges to white Christians. They are as follows:
“Choose a new church home and sit under the teaching of a black preacher for two years.
Choose a new neighborhood where your fate is intimately tied to the fate of people of color.
Go back to school and take a history class from a black professor where your academic success lies in his/her hands.
Choose to be mentored by a person of color every week. You do what they say, when they say it. No excuses.
Choose to go places where you see the stories behind the statistics, where someone can connect history to the present for you.
Send your kids to a black or brown school.”
And all I could think was that those things are physically impossible for me. Growing up I couldn’t tell you where to find a black church. I still can’t. I don’t know of any “black” neighborhoods. I can tell you that in Lewis County you probably couldn’t rustle up enough black people to fill a bingo hall, much less a single neighborhood. I don’t know any black people, anywhere, especially not well enough for them to mentor me. And a black school? To be honest, though it seems silly when I say this, I thought having all black or all white schools was illegal after Brown v. Board. I guess when you don’t have any black neighborhoods it’s hard to understand the concept of a black school.
So, do you want to know what I think about Fergusen? I think that if the police officer was breaking the law or acted improperly in shooting Michael Brown then he should be convicted and punished. That’s it. I can’t suss out any of this racial stuff. I guess that’s a flaw on my part.
Embracing the Pedophile: What Secular Society Might Learn from Conservative Christianity
This article is worth a read. In fact, I’d read it first, though if you don’t have the time you can just go on reading this post. This post stands on its own.
Sexual attraction is something that I haven’t felt the need to talk about on this blog. It’s an awkward, contentious subject. One that’s seen a lot of upheaval in recent years. Particularly around homosexuality.
I was about 11 or 12 or so when I first heard the word “gay.” I didn’t really understand what it meant. My parents were talking about something with my older brother, and they sounded upset. Not at him, understand, but a kind of general “what is this world coming to” kind of upset. I still don’t know what prompted the discussion. I came in at the end of it. All I know is that it was at that point that I learned about the concept of homosexuality.
Well, that’s not quite accurate. It was more like I was collecting puzzle pieces, snippets of conversation here or there, odd references in books, bits of tv, and that being told what homosexuality was the final piece that put all the others into context. A lot of things are like that when you’re growing up. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. You just wander around absorbing everything and trying to sort it out on the fly as best you can.
I’m a Christian, and my family is Christian, so we definitely viewed homosexuality in a negative light. But the strange thing is how it seems that Christian reaction to homosexuality has changed over the years. In the beginning we were told that homosexuality is a choice, an idea I accepted without questioning because, hey, I didn’t know anything about it. Sure, sounds good to me. I just rolled with that idea until I ran into opposition in the form of a comic strip of all things. Doonesbury had a strip where people were calling into a radio station. One of the callers talked about the idea that homosexuality is a choice, and basically asked the obvious question: considering the prejudice, ostracization , and social ramifications of being openly homosexual, why would anyone choose that life? I had never thought about that before, and it gave me pause. Why would someone choose to be gay? What would inspire someone to choose their own gender over the opposite?
A year or so later I went to a local film festival with a friend of mine. One of the features was a documentary about…something. You know, I honestly can’t remember. What I do remember is that they interviewed several homosexual individuals and asked them about what it was like growing up. They all claimed that they developed same sex attraction around puberty and that they had no choice about it. That gave me even more pause. Why shouldn’t I believe them? It was their life, after all. I was picking up more pieces, and trying to make them fit together.
As time went on I tried to fit all the pieces I was gathering into a whole. I didn’t believe that homosexuality is genetic, a claim I still find suspicious to this day. But I eventually had to concede that the orientation was involuntary. The evidence kept mounting up, not in the form of any scientific study but in the testimony of those close to the subject. It seems to me that many conservative Christians have followed this same route. We still believe homosexual acts are sinful, but many of us acknowledge that the attraction itself is not a choice. We have to: we know too many homosexuals know, actually know and talk to them instead of hearing about them on TV.
All the pieces I collected came together again when I was reading something online. It was written by someone who very much did not come from my point of view. He was pro LGBT though not homosexual himself, and he wrote about how he didn’t understand what people meant when they said that homosexuality was a choice. He wrote on how he didn’t believe love was ever a choice, as far as attraction was concerned. We fall in love with the people we fall in love with. The only way it made sense to say that homosexuality was a choice, he wrote, was if you meant that choosing to pursue those you fall in love with is a choice. With that sentence things clicked for me once more. You could be homosexual without pursing the completion of those desires. You couldn’t choose the objects of your desire: but you can choose whether to pursue those objects, whether to feed that desire. So homosexuality isn’t a choice, and it is. Like everything in life, it’s complicated.
As a Christian I believe that following some desires is a sin, and will lead to harm towards yourself and others. We may feel the desire to cheat on our wife, commit suicide, sleep around, abandon our children, or pursue wealth and fame at the expense of others. But is homosexuality like that? As a Christian I believe that it is because I put a high value on orthodoxy. Christianity has held that homosexuality is a sin for almost 2,000 years; I won’t put that aside lightly. Still, just as my own thoughts on homosexuality have evolved over time I feel that the views of many American Christians have changed as well. We’re starting to get it now, get that we must separate the person from the act and must understand that some people, for reasons we do not understand and that are outside of their control, are burdened with a particular kind of temptation that they will likely carry for life. This dramatic change in how we understand homosexuality is perhaps best illustrated by Exodus International, an organization that was founded with the purpose of helping homosexuals become straight. They closed their doors a few years ago, stating in a long and detailed final address that they had been wrong about homosexuality, that it is not always and is possibly never possible to change your sexual orientation, and that they wished to apologize for the harm they had done over the years. That’s the kind of statement most would expect out of a liberal branch of Christianity, but Exodus was a conservative organization. We didn’t want to believe that there were people who were “born homosexual” but if we spent any time talking to homosexuals it quickly became impossible to keep that stance. These people didn’t want it. Many of them still don’t. Doesn’t change the fact that they’re stuck with those desires, probably for life.
So, overall, our culture has changed dramatically in our understanding of homosexuality. Young homosexuals are able to actually discuss what they’re going through and to “come out.” Churches are slowly learning how to show homosexuals grace and understanding, especially the ones in their own church bodies who have been terrified to reveal themselves. We’re learning together, growing our understanding and finding new ways to move forward in how we treat homosexuality. So it seems like America is at a very open and understanding point in time when it comes to sexual orientation.
That’s why it can be strange to realize that there is a not insignificant portion of the population who still cannot come out without facing intense societal pressure, often resulting in legal action. Stranger still is that this opposition is just as strong among secular and liberal Americans as it is among conservative and religious Americans. These individuals are almost universally reviled for their desires. The number of these individuals who are willing to come forward and be open about their sexuality can almost be counted on one hand. And if you clicked on the link at the beginning of this post (or read the title) you already know who I’m talking about: pedophiles.
Christians believe that when homosexuals follow their sexual desires and act on them they are committing sin. Many secular individuals think that there is nothing wrong with following such desires, and that the idea that there is anything wrong with it is a kind of bigotry. But almost everyone, everywhere, believes that when a pedophile acts on their sexual desires they are committing an abominable act. Their actions are condemned by both the left and the right. They have no community they can escape to when if their friends and family reject them after coming out. Most pedophiles are afraid to even talk to a therapist about their desires, and for good reason: most states have mandatory reporting laws that require therapists to report any suspected child abuse to the state. Most therapists are not equipped to help a pedophile who wants to control his or her desires, and most pedophiles are rightly afraid that coming out to a therapist may lead to them being put on a watch list or sent to jail. The media depicts pedophiles and monsters, creeps, abominations, and so most young pedophiles begin to think the same things of themselves. How then can they come out to someone? How can they reach out and seek help in controlling their desires? Who can they turn to? Who would understand that they are more than their sexual desires?
Strangely enough it seems that the secular world has to learn the hard and confusing lessons that conservative Christians have had to learn, and are still trying to learn, as homosexuality become more widely accepted. They will have to learn how to love and help the individual while forbidding them from following their sexual desires. Many people accepted homosexuality from the start because they didn’t believe there was anything wrong in homosexual sex. Christians believed that there was something wrong with it, so it took us decades to accept that homosexuality was not a choice, not something that someone could easily control. But everyone accepts that adults sleeping with children is wrong. The secular individual will have to learn the same lesson about pedophiles that the Christians have had to learn about homosexuals: that just because someone desires to do what is wrong doesn’t mean that they are a monster.
Perhaps the Christians will be able to accept pedophiles before the atheists and agnostics can. It doesn’t seem too likely to me now, but I want to hope. Someone needs to open their arms to the pedophile. They have nowhere to turn, and if they can’t get help, if they can’t learn to understand and master and accept the burden of their desires…well, can we be surprised when they eventually give in to them?