Last Sunday, 66-year old Jose Sandoval Opazo, an electrician employed by Carnival Cruise Lines, was crushed to death by an elevator aboard the cruise ship Carnival Ecstasy. Witnesses described “a sheet of blood” and a “waterfall of blood” running out of the elevator. We know this because those same witnesses took extensive cell phone videos of the accident. Think about that for a moment. When witnessing this gruesome accident, these tourist’s first reaction was not to stare in shock, or scream, or hide their eyes, or safeguard their children, or run away, or try to help. Their reaction was to whip out their cell phones and do this.
Two nights ago, as New Year’s Eve celebrants did their thing around the world, a young man collapsed onto a London street. The Daily Mail reports that he “drew concern from his friends” in their write-up. How concerned does that third friend sitting on the curb look? So concerned that he whips out his cell phone to type a text message, instead of using it to dial 911.
Our culture is bombarded every day by atrocity. ISIS has a multi-million dollar media production team that are churning out videos of them slaughtering people — beheadings, stonings, firing squads, throwing them off buildings, having them drawn and quartered, dragging them behind cars. The footage of this barbarity is as slick and well-produced as Disney’s new Star Wars movie, and is churned out to the Internet for people to watch on their cell phones.
But it doesn’t stop there. Traffic accidents, riots, robberies, fights, sexual assaults — in case after case after case we learn that a bystander, instead of displaying any normal human reaction (fight or flight) is instead simply whipping out their cell phone and capturing the moment — a moment which is then viewed a million times on other people’s cell phones. Perhaps this is a subconscious way of removing themselves from the danger or separating themselves from the trauma. Perhaps the phone acts as another witness, a safe space from which to view what’s happening around them.
Or maybe we’re just becoming desensitized as a culture.
Yes, pictures of atrocities always existed before, but they weren’t readily available, nor did the average person seek them out. The Allies hid the photographic evidence of the Nazi’s worst crimes to protect public sensibilities (and also because they feared their people would rightfully demand greater, swifter action). Rape porn (not the pretend fantasy stuff but actual rape committed on film) has existed since film was invented, but it’s not something you found by typing a simple Google search. Yes, Romans could watch people beat the shit out of each other until one of the opponents was dead in the Colosseum, but now we can watch the same thing filmed live from any city street on any Saturday night. And don’t get me started on the parents I see out with their children — all staring at their cell phones instead of talking to their kids.
What purpose, then, does horror fiction serve in this
brave desensitized new world? From the time of cave paintings and The Epic of Gilgamesh, up through Melmoth the Wanderer and The Lottery to The Stand and A Head Full of Ghosts, horror fiction has served as a safe space — a way for artists to reflect and examine humanity’s fears. A way to examine what’s out there in the darkness, and to examine the darkness lurking inside all of us, as well.
If that darkness is now dispelled by the light from a touch screen, or worse, if that darkness is simply the heart and core of an entire generation of human beings, what happens next?
In talking about my new novel THE COMPLEX (hardcovers available here, paperback and digital later this year), S.J. Bagley of Thinking Horror said, “You’ve managed to fully integrate the emotional core of the work (particularly the sense of dis-belonging, willful exclusion, parental anxiety, and deep sense of close proximity social anxiety) with the plot happenings… This may be the best novel I’ve read from you.” Filmmaker Mike Lombardo said, “The narrative perspective is removed — cold, like a camera lens, which makes it that much more powerful.”
Now, I don’t claim that THE COMPLEX was an examination of this new, seemingly desensitized culture we’re living in. Or, at the very least, it’s not what I consciously set out to write about. And yet, it’s there in the subtext, unknown to me, the artist, but readily apparent to readers. It’s also there in Paul Tremblay’s A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS and Bryan Smith’s SLOWLY WE ROT, if you look for it.
I predict we’ll see more of this in horror fiction for 2016. I can see the future…
…when I look up from my phone.