Irrational Fear: Harry and the Hendersons vs. the SyFy Channel

So much of the way we experience life comes from the choices we make.  These choices are not just our day to day actions, like whether to get the open-faced tuna melt masquerading as a sandwich, or the Po’Boy for lunch.  We also make less conscious choices in the way we percieve and relate to the world around us. It’s not always as simple as just deciding to see things differently, but you can choose to view the glass as being half full as opposed to half empty, to use the most well worn example.  It’s a matter of forcing yourself to count the positives and focus on those instead of the negatives. The angle from which you choose to observe life will determine most of the way you feel about it, and the same is true for our fears- we can face them confidently and positively or we can shrink away from them in terror.

As it is true with everything else, so it also goes with Bigfoot.

Yeti, Sasquatch, Skunk Ape, Abominable Snowman (thank the British press for that one). The creature has as many names as there are languages on the planet.  It’s presence in the human psyche has never been adequately explained by psychologists, but the fact is that every society past and present has had myths and legends dealing with large creatures who are slightly less than human but also some product of the natural world.  It might be a superstition with roots all the way back to when Neanderthals and early humans were still competitors, but no one really knows for sure.  Suffice to say, fear of the unknown is a powerful enough pull on the human mind that the belief persists well into this supposed age of science and reason.

Irrational fear, patiently waiting to use the phone.

Could Bigfoot actually be out there?  To be diplomatic, it’s extremely, extremely unlikely, but it’s not a complete impossibility . It’s also utterly irrelevant to the question of why people see it or believe in it’s existence.  Sure, there are those who perpetrate hoaxes for attention or for money.  There will always be hucksters and con artists in any field, so why would cryptozoology or psychology be any different? I only mention it because hoaxes are always the first tool of evidence used against those who believe in cryptids, but examples of fraud are not necessary to disbelieve in their existence, nor do they invalidate the beliefs of those who sincerely think they’ve seen a creature they do not understand or recognize.

I remember that as a kid, the rumor that there was Something In The Woods was always present.  It was passed down from generation to generation on the playground the way all the enduring games, songs and legends of childhood are, and it held up for me, like everyone else I knew, from the time I first wandered out to play with other kids all the way up until the reality of girls and junior high washed away any time for the lingering superstitions of youth.

Goodbye to BigFoots/Hello to Big Butts, if you will.

Now as a rational adult, I no longer believe there’s anything mythical or unknowable in the woods, but I recognize that there are certainly people out there who do, and that their beliefs are genuinely held, even if most of them can probably be explained by some unconfronted or deep-seated fear in the mind of the believer.  In other cases, Moonshine seems to be the most likely culprit.

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Fear of the Other is something different from Fear of the Unknown but both are present at some level in everyone, and they are often exploited by politicians, religions, nations, and virtually every other group that ever gets together to wave flags.  They are also there for film makers, although much less consequentially.  It’s obvious that any movie that deals with Bigfoot is going to have to confront both of those fears in one way or another.  And so if you’re making a movie, you have a choice: You can make one that rationally and positively deals with these very human fears, or you can make one that’s panicky and irrational towards them.

Yes, SyFy Channel, I’m talking about you.

If you’re the type of person who wants to see a darkness, The SyFy Channel’s got you covered with Devil On the Mountain. (Actually, SyFy has you covered many, many times over, most recently with the simply titled “Bigfoot“, starring Danny Bonaduce and Barry Williams as a DJ and a Conservationist who team up to fight a killer Yeti. It sounds wonderfully schlocky when you distill it down to a sentence, but the SyFy Channel of course features nothing but the most joyless camp since Crystal Lake. This is all a roundabout way of saying I haven’t seen it and am not going out of my way to catch it anytime soon.)

Devil On the Montain was originally titled Sasquatch Mountain, until someone at the network decided that if the movie itself didn’t have a single ounce of mystique or intrigue, then by God, neither should the title. It’s exactly as awful and ridiculous as every other SyFy movie you’ve ever seen, maybe even more so. Where a movie like Harry and the Hendersons, which we’ll get to in a minute, tells us not to fear the unknown other, Devil On the Mountain is so utterly terrified of it that it’s narrative takes kidnappers, their victims and the police trying to catch them and unites all 3 against the ‘real’ danger. To call the dialogue wooden would be to insult the trees that were chopped down and pulped up to serve as the paper it’s compost pile of a script was written on, and to call it a waste of money is a slap in the face to every rich asshole that ever lit a cigar with a hundred dollar bill.  It tells it’s ridiculous tale without a single sympathetic or relatable character, and it is one of the longest and most arduous 90 minutes I’ve ever spent.

Not pictured: Me weeping for my lost 90 minutes of life.

For the rational thinking viewer who wants to catch a glimpse of Bigfoot, you really don’t have many choices aside from the 80’s staple Harry and the Hendersons.  John Lithgow and his family hit a Bigfoot with their totally rad station wagon, think he’s dead, strap him to the roof and bring him home, where they quickly find out- whoa, holy crap, no he’s not dead!  It’s at this point the movie could just put Harry and the family in a jar and shake it to see if they’ll fight like a couple of spiders, but they succeed in facing their fears and empathizing with the Bigfoot, who soon becomes almost another member of the family.  They also succeeed in not letting Bigfoot get shot by a snotty French hunter, and also in hooking him up with a little bro time with the ever charming Don Ameche before it’s all said and done.

French Hunter and Don Ameche- fears faced, conflicts resolved.

Look, it’s no Citizen Kane, but it’s a warm-hearted, decent drama with some laughs sprinkled in that treats all of it’s subjects maturely, and at the very least succeeds in warning us of the danger and pointlessness of irrational fear of the unknown.  I suppose it also warns us unintentionally of the dangers of people who wear fingerless gloves, but the 80’s were a more adventurous time for hand fashion, and that’s probably a story for another time anyways.

Unfortunately Harry and the Hendersons is in the clear minority, as most Sasquatch related movies, even those few that aren’t produced with the SyFy Channel’s special blend of television and feces, aren’t quite ready to handle the subject in any kind of even handed manner.

So, as always, the choice is ours. Will we deal rationally with things we don’t know or understand? If we face life’s experiences with an open mind and willingness to look for the positives, then we’ll probably turn out richer and wiser for it, like John Lithgow and Don Ameche, or even the fingerless glove clad French Hunter. On the other hand, if we choose to succumb to our fears of others and the unknown, we’re probably going to wind up like Lance Henriksen- participating in some stupid pointless bullshit that we hate and going through the motions just for this week’s paycheck, because nothing we’re doing makes any god damn kind of sense.

Seven Stories and The Hero: Ernest the Everyman

There is an old truism that there are only a very few basic plots for stories which are spun again and again in slightly different ways.  The exact number and form of these basic plots has been debated and hypothesized many times, but the underlying idea is that all stories are just simple metaphors for the trials that all human beings must face in life.  The best known of these theories, outlined in it’s most recent form by British essayist and evolution/climate change skeptic Christopher Booker, identifies seven: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Journey & Return, The Comedy, The Tragedy, The Rebirth, and Rags to Riches.

Side note: The Quest is not to be confused with The Quest, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.  The Quest is actually much closer to The (unintended) Comedy.

Unfortunately not one of the 7 Stories.

Now, if you’re like me, the first thought that popped into your head when you read that list was, “Hey, science hater, it should be 8 stories.  You forgot Ernest movies, you pompous bastard.”

But as I sat down at the keyboard ready to fire off a letter telling Mr. Booker where he could cram this and the rest of his theories, it suddenly struck me that for once he hadn’t missed the mark completely.  I believe there is probably only one story, the Ernest P. Worrell story, but that story does indeed manifest itself in the 7 ways that Big Papa Booker outlined.

1. Overcoming the Monster: Ernest Goes to Camp

2. The Quest: Ernest Goes to Africa

3. Journey & Return: Ernest Goes to Jail

4. Comedy: Ernest Saves Christmas

5. Tragedy: Ernest Scared Stupid

6. Rebirth: Ernest Rides Again

7. Rags to Riches: Slam Dunk Ernest

Now of course, some Ernest tales ring closer to the heart and universal truths than others.  If you’ve ever seen Ernest Goes to Africa, you probably reject the idea that going on The Quest is a worthwhile adventure.  Sometimes you’re better off just staying home because what happens on the journey is going to be pretty boring and not make a bit of god damn sense.

On the other hand, if you ever need to Overcome The Monster (and of course we all do at some point), well holy shit, you could never find better inspiration than Ernest Goes to Camp.  In the course of a mere 92 minutes of run time, Ernest goes from being a bumbling and clueless maintenance man who’s terrified to get a simple shot from a nurse and who breaks more stuff than he fixes, to training a group of deviant orphan children into a well drilled domestic terrorist unit who bring utter devastation to the men and machinery of a billion dollar mining corporation, all using improvised weapons and ancient Indian magic, which renders Ernest himself impervious to bullets.

According to people who do not hate science, it would take 1000 George Lucases on 1000 typewriters forever to come up with a single story as sound as Ernest Goes to Camp.  Because Ernest is the everyman, what Joseph Campbell would call the Hero with A Thousand Faces, and his simple journey to Overcome his Monster belongs to all of humanity.

George Lucas #s 1-17, shown hard at work on Star Wars Episode II.

When he takes his beating and sings softly in the rain of his shame, it is a beating we all take with him.  When the turtle bites him on the nose, it is the big green weight dragging all our faces down.  When he blows up and then punches the crap out of human giant Lyle Alzado, he is striking a symbolic blow for all of us against the mining company foremen we all face in our own private lives.  And when he stands down Mr. Krader’s hunting rifle with a sneer and a chuckle, he is showing us that there is no fear too great, no monster in the world that cannot be overcome, if we look to the courage and inspiration within, and the recruitable groups of violence-ready children without.

Ready to take the Hero’s Journey?  Here’s Ernest Goes to Camp in it’s entirety.

Distance on Wikipedia: The Philosophical Orbits of Hulk Hogan and Alf

At some point, it’s happened to pretty much all of us: You go to Wikipedia trying to settle an argument and find out what level of Thetanhood Tom Cruise is on these days, and 3 hours later you’re scrolling down the list of Cryptids and thinking “Hmmm, Montauk Monster. Sounds interesting.” It’s this incredible system of interlinking that can make Wikipedia so addictive, and it’s so easy to take trains of thought down utterly random tracks that I was a little surprised to learn that there’s a very consistent pattern in the chaos. If you follow that pattern, the Montauk Monster, and almost every other page for that matter, leads you sooner or later, to Philosophy.

The Montauk Monster, in all it’s philosophical glory.

The method is simple.  You go to any Wikipedia page and click the first non-italicized, non-parenthetical link, then repeat on the next page, and in most cases you’ll wind up at Philosophy in between 1 and 30 steps. Lists and extremely specific articles can take longer- the longest known chain to Philosophy is 1845 steps from a List of state leaders in 2011. Occasionally, a list will lead to a loop or a blank page that never brings you to philosophy, but the method works for 95% of all Wiki pages it’s been tested on. The pattern was first revealed in 2008, when someone posted a page about it on Wikipedia itself. Last year, creativeandcritical.net built a script for quickly testing links and storing statistics. And then today, somebody on one of Wired’s twitter feeds mentioned the phenomenon, and after a little investigation and experimentation with the script, I was hooked.

And, since every investigation needs a starting point, I chose to start with the high water mark of the 1980’s, and maybe when it’s all said and done, American Culture as a whole.  I myself wouldn’t say that for sure yet, but if you believe, as an awful lot of people seem to, that the country’s heading in the wrong direction, well, then this is what you’re fighting to preserve:

Did you know Andre the Giant is only 18 short steps away from Philosophy? The trail starts at French People, leads through Power and Authority, and then finally winds up where they almost all do, at Philosophy.  Well, it seems like 18 short steps until you learn that Hulk Hogan is only 16 steps away, but he is a REAL AMERICAN afterall, and it seems fitting that he would walk a slightly shorter path to glory than the man he once hoisted upon his shoulders and then threw down to usher in the era of Gordon Gekko (11 steps), Ibuprofen (10 steps) and Alf (16 steps). It also seems fitting in some way that the Hulkster, “Terry” Hogan, rests in the same distant orbit of Philosophy as Alf.  And this doesn’t even address Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who’s path from announcing that clip to Minnesota Governor (13 years), is ever so slightly shorter than his Wikipedia path to Philosophy (14 steps).

Sometimes there’s an appropriateness to the paths themselves.  On Alf’s own personal journey to the ways of philosophy, he passes through the pages of both Art and Human Behavior, which seems like an ironic statement on 80’s pop culture if ever there was one.  Last time I saw Mariah Carey she was, sure enough, both Singing and an Organism.  Those are also two Facts you can Experience at one of her shows.  But not everyone’s path to philosophical stardom runs as smoothly as Mimi’s 14 steps, though of course she hasn’t cured as many fevers as Ibuprofen or slept with Catherine Zeta-Jones as many times as the man who played Gordon Gekko has.

Sometimes the path detours in unexpected ways- if you wanted to riff on failure and loss with Steve Bartman, Alex S. Gozalez and the Chicago Cubs, think again, all three follow the same path where you wind up bouncing from Baseball to Grass and Flowering Plants before you finally loop around to the Philosophy finish line.  That finish line for all three is 20 links later, which in the unkindest cut of all, is the same number of steps away as the World Series.  Hmmm.  Maybe the system DOES work every time.

If you want to play around with the script yourself, the link is http://creativeandcritical.net/xkcdwiki/