The Fascination of Fear

Halloween.  We’ve all had our experiences with it.  Jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating and scary films, that sort of thing.  A celebration of the transition from summer to fall, a chance to look our fears in the face and, hopefully, realize they’re not as awful as we thought.

I like knowing how and why things start, so here are some of the things I know about historic Halloweens.

It originated from a variety of sources–the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced saw-hin), the Christian All Saints’ Day, the old tradition of the poor to go to houses of the rich in fall, asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead.  Now Dia de los Muertos, which happens the day after Halloween, is associated with the holiday as well.  Most of the holidays that combine to make Halloween were initially meant to remember and honor the dead.

This Halloween I’ll be remembering my great-grandfather, who passed away this week.  It doesn’t feel so much like he’s gone as that he’s not here at the moment, if that makes sense.

Something about this time of year just makes us think of death, which isn’t surprising.  Things start to die in fall, leaves turn color and fall off trees, and, my personal favorite, mosquitoes freeze and die and stop biting us for a few months.

It’s a time to bring in the harvest and prepare for winter.

But that doesn’t explain our fascination with the things that frighten us.  It doesn’t explain the way people seek out frightening situations like horror films and haunted houses.  Do they like being afraid?  I don’t.

But, like I said in my Discworld post, focusing on only one side of the emotional spectrum isn’t healthy.  We need the catharsis of experiencing fear, if only to maintain our balance.  Fear is a part of life, and death is too, and ignoring them won’t make them go away.  So instead we’ve built a celebration for them.

All that said, I much prefer to be the scare-er than the scare-ee.  That’s why I’m dressing as a certain Marvel hero/assassin this weekend and doing my level best to terrify the kids at my school’s haunted house and the church trunk-or-treat–nicely, of course.

Stay safe and have fun.  Happy Halloween.

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How to make me hate a villain

Villains come in all shapes and sizes.  They might be ancient forces of evil, or people who abuse their power, or simply insane, but there is one villainous trait that without fail makes me hate a character.

For me to really, truly, hate a villain, they have to treat people not as people, but as tools or toys or weapons, and more importantly, they have to know they are doing it and not care.

In the Harry Potter books, it’s stated once that Voldemort can’t actually see anyone else as human.  It’s implied that he is incapable of love because he was conceived under the influence of a love potion.  He’s emotionally stunted.  And he does some pretty despicable things.  Still, I don’t hate him nearly as much as Professor Umbridge, who delighted in torturing Harry during his detentions and enjoyed sending muggleborns to Azkaban during Voldemort’s reign, not because she hated them particularly, but because she simply liked the power.  She knew what she was doing.  She understood how much pain she caused.  She just didn’t care.  She fueled her patronus with the pleasure she got from doing those things.

That’s one of the milder ones I hate.  There are others who are much worse.

Sadeas of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is one.  He deliberately wastes slave lives on the battlefield, despite knowing how human those slaves are and how desperately they fight to stay alive.  He continues a foolish war and tries to overthrow the government he helped to build in a misguided attempt to regain the sense of conquest he felt as a young man, working against people he once loved in the process.

Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another one, particularly its members Zola and Pierce.  Brainwashing like what they did to Bucky Barnes really needs to not be a thing.  They dehumanized him, calling him simply “the asset”, and turned him into a weapon against the people he would have protected if he had been the one calling the shots.

And then there’s Loki, who hijacks Hawkeye’s mind, gouges out a guy’s eye with a massive grin on his face, and stabs Coulson just to annoy Thor, all in the course of a cosmic temper tantrum.

It’s characters like that who give me the deepest sense of horror, because they reflect the very darkest aspects of human nature.  Hopefully none of us do those terrible things, but one of my great fears is the potential we have to become like that.  How many of us have forgotten to treat people with different political ideologies from ourselves like actual, thinking, people?  Far more than would like to admit it, I think.

But there’s one good purpose villains such as these serve in our fiction.  They show us the worst aspects of our characters, and remind us to steer clear of paths that would make us like them.  So while I really, really hate these villains, I do try to understand them to a degree, and develop bad guys and gals in my own fiction who follow a similar pattern.

Music

Music has always been a major part of my life–one of my earliest memories is playing inside my dad’s guitar case while he played his guitar.  I’ve been in church and school choirs and enjoyed them massively.  The guitar I remember my dad playing is now the one I play.  It was obvious to me from a very early age that music was powerful and could affect people, but that said, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve started to actually pay attention to which music and musicians I really like and why.

Sometimes it’s love songs, but not usually.  Sometimes it’s classical music, but again, not usually.  Sometimes it’s pop music.  I enjoy hymns, too.  Lately there’s been a lot of indie rock that caught my attention, but I don’t know if that will be a permanent favorite or not.  It’s not really the genre that matters to me.  It’s the feeling behind the music.

Music changes mood, usually to match the feeling that the musician is trying to express.  They might be expressing joy or sorrow or agitation or any number of potential emotions.  When they’re trying to express an emotion they don’t actually feel, the song rings false to me.  But when it’s something they do feel, I feel it too.  So my favorite musicians are the ones who put a lot of themselves into their songs.

I like many of Ed Sheeran’s songs.  I adore the PianoGuys and Lindsey Stirling.  David Archuleta, Pentatonix, Mindy Gledhill, Coldplay, Imagine Dragons.  That last group especially helped me get through a hard time.

What does this have to do with the writing and drawing I usually talk about?

Nothing.  And everything.

In my current drawing class, we normally use our professor’s Pandora account to play songs in one genre or another that we enjoy.  When music is playing, sometimes our minds think visually better, and for me at least, the right music pulls me right into the mood I’m trying to get into for a project, whether it’s art or writing.  When I’m not sure what I’m trying to do, playing a song frees up my mind from the come up with something now tension I start feeling and lets me just brainstorm.

Today I couldn’t think of what I wanted to draw for this blog post.  I turned on a bit of music and it helped me come up with something that looks a bit like the initial work for an album cover, as you can see.

Maybe music doesn’t end wars, directly at least, or feed the poor, but it can change and save lives, as can any other form of creative expression.  Music helps us to understand to a degree someone else’s joy or sorrow, and when we understand someone else’s feelings, we become more compassionate people.  It can lift someone out of despair, let them know they’re not alone.  It can calm us, it can solidify our relationship with God, it can be something we simply dance to, but whatever music is to us as individuals, it matters.

Resting on Elephants: The Discworld

The world is a flat disk, resting on the backs of four elephants, who stand on the Great A’tuin, a very, very big turtle.  Don’t ask what the turtle stands on; it’s like asking what sound the color yellow makes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t hear enough about Terry Pratchett to seek out his books until after his death.  In recent months, however, I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through as many Discworld books as I can get my hands on, and this is why.

The Discworld is utterly absurd, runs on the strangest kinds of laws, and yet is clearly and undeniably a reflection of our own Earth, and its inhabitants are, in a way, us.  From the incompetent wizard Rincewind, who thinks the world ought to run on something other than magic, to the persistent salesman Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (and all his various incarnations), to the Night Watch’s cynical Captain Vimes, to the powerful Lord Vetinari, all the characters are hilarious and yet somehow absolutely accurate to human nature.

Everything is mocked and parodied in the Discworld books.  Shopping malls, government, the postal system, the afterlife, Shakespeare, religion, gender roles, romance, time, science, computers, Hollywood, and anything else Pratchett could think of.  And it’s generally all intelligent and clean humor, which are both rarities these days.  We truly lost a treasure when he died.

The thing about humor is, it’s generally looked down on in literature.  We’re supposed to read about things that bring to light the absolute suffering of human existence or some such thing.  But to just read those books, the ones about sadness and loss and trauma, is to ignore an entire side of the emotional spectrum.  There are already so many things to be sad about in the world.  It’s better to seek out the good, the humor, the things that remind us that life can be wonderful as well as terrible.  That’s what Pratchett did with Discworld.

Maybe at some point I’ll try to write like him.  Maybe not.  Either way, I am going to read the Discworld books until there aren’t any more to read, and then I’m going to reread them all.

Some Thoughts

Here, have a sketchbook page.  I’ve been saving it for a week when things were busy, like this one.

This has been a very long week.

The good news is that I’ve been officially accepted as a “pre-Illustration” major at the university I’ve wanted to attend since I was a kid.  I’ll have to go through a semester before I get to be an “Illustration” major, but I’ll get there.

Now there’s the exciting process of making sure all my credits transfer and deciding where to live, which I’m managing to work through.

Before I go to university, though, I have to get through this semester, and right now that means midterms.

But at the moment I’m not working on my last midterm, I’m writing a blog, so here are a few thoughts that are bouncing around my mind this week:

W.  Why do we call it double-U?  It’s shaped more like two Vs.  And while all the other letters have concise, one-syllable names that use the sounds they make, there isn’t a “w” sound anywhere in W’s name.  Double-U is a mouthful.  Do we have some specific prejudice against this letter?  Why?

I’m not one for buying a whole bunch of stuff, so why is my room so full of random objects?

Somehow I managed to not hear about Inktober until ten days into October, and since I didn’t have plans to fit it into my schedule I’ll have to just try doing it next year.  Sorry.  But if you’re looking for Halloween-related art, there’s a great webcomic I found about a ghost girl named Erma that’s a mix of funny and scary.  You can check it out at http://brandontheoutcast.tumblr.com

A few of my old sketchbooks fell off the shelf I keep them on so I looked through them.  I was terrible.  There were a few occasional gems, but most of the time I was terrible.  Especially my first year in high school.  I’m wondering what triggered the change to my pretty decent art I’m making now.  Did I just get older?  Was it the encouragement from my awesome teachers?  Was it me deciding to make art a career?  Did I just start to actually look at the world and at other art people were making?  I’m not sure.

The thing about change is that normally it’s gradual so we don’t notice it’s happening.  It’s only as we look back that we realize how different the past and the present are.

There’s got to be Hope.

I tried to read The Name of the Wind once, but I couldn’t.  Not because it was too hard a read, it wasn’t.  Not because I didn’t have enough time, I did.  There was just one flaw in the book that ruined it for me.

From the moment the protagonist begins to tell his story, I knew that he was going to lose everything that mattered to him.

All my respect to Mr. Rothfuss, but I have a hard enough time some days keeping hope that wrestling through that book wasn’t worth it.  Which is sad, because it had a cool world and characters.

I don’t know whether this need to have hope in stories is a me thing, a modern thing, or a human thing.  There’s been a proliferation of apocalyptic stories and tragedies the past couple centuries, but there’s always something more that happens after all that bad is done.  Horatio lives to set the kingdom in order after Hamlet dies.  Armageddon is averted, or if it isn’t, there are survivors to continue the human race and teach their kids to do better this time.  Someone magnificent dies, but their loved ones are able to move on and hope that they are happy in their new place.

This isn’t true for all the stories.  In some of the oldest forms of the myth of Ragnarok, everything actually dies.  That’s it.  Surt sets fire to everything and the gods die and that’s the end.  But even Ragnarok has a happy ending now–a new world rises from the ashes of the old, and the survivors of the flames move on to continue the cycle of life and death.

Science tells us that eventually the universe will die, but how many of us believe that enough to be upset about it?  Even with that idea of the universe dying, science fiction is full of stories in which a new universe comes from the old.

Our stories can be full of disasters in every flavor there is, but there has to be hope in them somewhere.

Otherwise, what’s the point?  Why bother breathing or getting up in the morning if that can’t change the fact that terrible things are going to happen?

Well, because of the good things.  Because there’s more to life than dying, because there is joy and wonder and hope and magic to be found if we look for it.  Because most of us believe that who we are continues to exist after death and that someday the bad things will turn out sort of okay.

End of the World

In my mythology class we’re currently studying myths of destruction.  My favorite that we’ve read is Ragnarok, where the gods go to war and everything burns until the cycle of life and death is restarted.  Stories like that show the things that were important or terrifying to the people who told them.

We still tell those stories, too, but in different ways.  The concept is still relevant to us.  Maybe it’s because we sometimes wonder if the end of the world is really as far away as we hope it is.  In our books and films, the world ends because of zombies or aliens or natural disasters or the technology we create turning on us, and I don’t think our real fear is so much those things as that we’ll bring on ourselves our own destruction–and then there’s the question of what happens afterwards.

There was another shooting early this morning, at Northern Arizona University.  One dead, three wounded, and with the memory of the Oregon shooting still fresh in everyone’s minds.  I don’t know what the answer to fix problems like that is.  No one does, really.  Whether we need more armed guards at school campuses or better ways to find and treat mental illnesses or just be better at teaching our young ones the value of human life, we have to try something.  I’m not sure more gun laws will help, though–Having guns at school is illegal generally, and it hasn’t helped.  Many mind-altering substances are illegal and still get used.  Drunk driving is illegal and it still kills people.  And even if we could get the firearms gone, there would still be knives and crowbars and homemade bombs to defend against.  We just can’t stop all the ways we have of hurting one another.

I’m not saying all the attacks on schools lately are a sign of the apocalypse.  But this morning’s shooting was an end for at least one person.

Whether you believe in heaven or reincarnation or that the things that make you you are gone forever when your body dies, death is still a scary thing to all of us.   The last thing most people want is for it to come early, and it’s the same on larger scales of nations and cultures and planets.

I don’t have an answer.  I don’t know how to stop our culture from heading in the violent direction it’s been going in.  I don’t know how to stop all the pain and sadness and violence the world is experiencing.  I’ve got nothing.

Maybe I have something.

We can’t stop everyone else, but individually we can stop ourselves, from harming others, from blinding ourselves to problems.  Individually, we can remember that people are people.  Whatever their religion, race, or whatever other differences they might have, they are people and they are human and their lives have value, and we have no right to invalidate that.  We have to realize that however we might disagree with one another, we all have reasons for believing and behaving as we do, and as long as we don’t hurt one another with those beliefs, we can try to understand them.

Hopefully, we’ll understand quickly enough.