Published on January 9th, 2015 in: Best Of Lists, Books, Comedy, Gaming, Horror, Movies, TV |
Climate change. Isis. The police. A growing feeling of insignificance. These are the monsters we live with every day of our increasingly fragile lives, and in 2014 it affected our art in a very pervasive way. If it can be said that pop culture is the dream of our society, an expression of our collective unconscious scribbled onto our paper and video discs and maybe—I don’t know—Netflix’s data centers, then it can also be said that we’re starting to have an increasingly monstrous societal nightmare.
Now, that cultural nightmare, while increasingly scary, is also becoming more beautiful and deftly created every year. With the emergence of horror genre television, the return of weird fiction, and just the general exploration of the more unthinkable aspects of life in all entertainment media, it is becoming clear that those of us who live life connected to the cultural sphere have a very close relationship to the things that would otherwise keep us up at night. It’s also a great time to be a fan of horror.
Here are my picks for most notable monsters that haunted our cultural dreams in 2014.
Notable Monsters: Vampires, a werewolf, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Grey, plague, heartbreak, the entity inside Vanessa Ives, probably a mummy
Primary Fear: We fear the monster inside of us.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Most Exciting New TV Series
Penny Dreadful, which is my bid for most exciting new TV series of the year, is a pulpy gothic literature mashup in which the protagonists are plagued by the monsters within themselves. It’s an internal conflict that for some characters is explicit and obvious (a woman possessed by a demon, a werewolf), while for others it is poetic (Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein), and for a few it’s particularly nuanced (a cholera patient, a father haunted by the death of his son and the abduction of his daughter).
In Penny Dreadful the primary struggle involves a group of allies, each suppressing an inner monster, who wage war on the dark forces invading its fictional Victorian London. The most heroic action that can be taken in the show’s world is to acknowledge that you are a monster and then choose to fight monstrosity. As a viewer, this is an empowering and freeing message.
2014 was filled with myriad reasons to stand up and fight for what’s right, but for certain white, straight, and male demographics, the first step in most of those struggles was understanding one’s role in perpetuating the problem. Penny Dreadful acts as a pulp parable in this regard, showing us heroes that are well intentioned yet plagued by the fact that they contain within them some of the same evil that they are fighting.
What We Do In The Shadows
Notable Monsters: Petyr, Nick, Vladislav, Deacon, Viago (vampire roommates); Anton and his pack of werewolves
Primary Fear: It’s tough being a monster these days.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Movie
The New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, despite having very few human characters, is a variation on the same theme as Penny Dreadful, albeit more optimistic (it is a comedy). Each monster character, from the vampire roommates to the werewolf pack lead by Anton (Rhys Darby’s micromanaging alpha male), is a piece of monster history trying to live and love in modern day Wellington.
I’m including What We Do In The Shadows here not because of its ability to illustrate a major fear, but because of what it says about all the other dark and despairing feelings on this list (also it was my favorite movie of 2014). Shadows avoids taking any sort of moral stance on monsters, electing instead to say, “OK, we get it, we’re monsters. But we still have to pay rent, right?”
The Southern Reach Trilogy
Notable Monsters: Area X
Primary Fear: A world that is indifferent to us.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Novel(s)
Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy of novels were all released this year, causing many readers and critics to declare the return of H.P. Lovecraft-style weird fiction. The books are an excellent experiment in narrative framing, each one changing format to keep the right things hidden to produce a premium sense of the uncanny and sublime. That said, the most remarkable aspect of VanderMeer’s trilogy is its central monster: Area X.
The Southern Reach books deal with an enemy that is difficult to comprehend. Cordoned off somewhere on the East Coast of the United States (I think), Area X is probably best described as a topographical anomaly which is creating a pristine wilderness out of our human world. It just does what it does, and if you are unlucky enough to bear the curiosity that might bring you close to Area X, it’ll do what it does to you, too. Area X would still create its perfect geography without humans, and it probably will continue to once it assimilates us all.
True to weird genre form, all three books do an excellent job of painting a picture of the unknowable. There are no answers in Area X, because answers are human. The Southern Reach trilogy uses horror and Jeff VanderMeer’s confidence to defy a reader’s lust for answers. Like a hurricane, flood, melting ice cap, or rogue asteroid, the terror of Area X is that it doesn’t require our definition to be hostile. The conflict is on a planetary scale, and we’re too small to matter. Area X will just change us and that’s something we have to accept.
Notable Monsters: Lisa (ghost); talking foetus in a sink; yourself
Primary Fear: There is no escape from this nightmare we’ve created for ourselves.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Video Game
The playable teaser for the upcoming video game Silent Hills, known officially as P.T., was the best video game I played all year. It’s legitimately unsettling like no game has felt, potentially ever; it tells a heartbreaking story completely through simple gameplay; and it subverts the survival horror genre in a very upsetting way. That is to say, in P.T. you have no choice but to survive.
P.T. will not let you die. In previous Silent Hill entries, I always had a sense that the characters would be better off dead than be made to face their custom-tailored punishment. Character death always felt like a sort of emotional escape hatch, even if it was only ever just a frustrating illusion (obviously death is not an option in a narrative that has your character come to the end of the game).
In P.T. there is no “game over” screen. If you are murdered by the abused-to-death ghost of your wife Lisa, you wake up trapped in the same hall. All the doors are locked, even the morbid metaphorical doors, so the only choice (other than standing still) is to keep descending those spiral hallways haunted by the sins of your past.
Review With Forrest MacNeil
Notable Monsters: @thereallisaching
Primary Fear: All meaning is created. Nothing matters.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best New Comedy
Review with Forrest MacNeil is the funniest new show of 2014 and a great example of how elements of horror are even invading half-hour comedies. The titular character has taken on the ambitious task of reviewing life itself on an item-by-item basis. After reviewing some of the more difficult parts of life—cocaine addiction, eating 15 pancakes, divorce, eating 30 pancakes—Forrest is confronted with the horror of reviewing the unknown.
A Twitter user named @TheRealLisaChing submitted a request that Forrest review bubble baths, but thanks to a computer glitch the intrepid critic is sent on an odyssey to the end of human meaning.
Forrest is driven temporarily insane on his quest to decipher the meaning of “There All Is Aching” (a broken up version of Lisa’s Twitter handle submitted by the non-existent @bubblebaths). It’s not long before Forrest is being treated to shock therapy, ingesting boatloads of prescription medication, and plotting an asylum escape plan with fellow inmate Emo Philips.
The positive way to look at There All Is Aching is how Forrest reviews it, before the reveal that he should have been soaking in warm, bubbly water instead of being electrically and chemically lobotomized: There All is Aching is a symbol of the struggle of our need to find meaning in randomness. When the glitch is revealed to him, though, it’s clear that no matter what we tell ourselves after experiencing the horrible chaos of the universe and surviving, it can only ever add up to, at most, a three-star experience.
Notable Monsters: Hannibal Lecter
Primary Fear: We are weak and don’t know what to do.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best. Just The Best.
So, if the world is terrible randomness and absurdly horrific, what are we to do? If you’re Abigail Hobbs in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, you do what Dr. Lecter tells you.
The second season of Hannibal is the best piece of 2014’s media I consumed all year. It’s beautiful to behold, intricately written, and does perfect justice to the modern king of monsters, Hannibal Lecter. Beauty and craftsmanship aside, the show’s second season strikes such a heartbreaking chord with its bloody climax that you feel terrifyingly weak as a human.
The entire series is a nightmare love story, and Hannibal Lecter, though not necessarily the main character, is the dark sun around which all the action orbits. He is both the prime mover and the perceived object of every main character. Whether they want revenge, like Will Graham; justice like Jack Crawford; fulfillment like Alana Bloom; or some kind of perverse vindication like Mason Verger, they all need Hannibal to tell them how to get it as the high-functioning psychopath dangles their greatest desire just out of reach.
Lecter is an anti-god, not motivated by the sadistic, but out of active curiosity and pride. Hannibal is an effective representation of our need for some sort of higher being and the fear that the one we put our faith in might be more interested in our mutilation, humiliation, and wine pairing than our actual well being.
We are all living scary lives, and the monsters we love to watch help us know our fears. Hannibal Lecter is an example of how those fears can be at once beautiful and paralyzing.
Peter Counter is a freelance pop culture and technology writer. He writes about TV and video games for Dork Shelf.