PZ Myers is (humorously) “blaming” me for introducing him via Twitter this past week to the angry pseudohistory of the white supremacists who believe that a lost white race of Solutreans were destroyed by Native Americans in a “white genocide” in North America at the end of the last Ice Age. It doesn’t get much more disgusting than that, but I’ve learned that there is always a claim that is worse.
On the opposite, but nowhere near as dangerous, side of the race-based pseudohistory coin, I tried very hard to garner enough enthusiasm to write something at length about Afrocentrist fringe historian Clyde Winters’s new article on Ancient Origins suggesting that there was a universal ancient African culture that colonized the ancient world. But I just can’t do it. The argument this time is the same kind of pointless linguistic fantasy that governed so many nineteenth century arguments. Here, Winters reports on the claims of the late Vomos-Toth Bator, a Hungarian who speculated that the appearance of the word Tamana as a toponym on various continents proves that an ancient African culture sailed around the world and left the name wherever it traveled.
This is illogical for a number of reasons. Not all the instances of “Tamana” are related to each other; some are undoubtedly coincidental. Others may have been adopted later, such as the way the topnym “Alexandria” was originally associated with Alexander the Great, but lent itself to unrelated places like Alexandria, Virginia in later centuries. Even where Tamana toponyms might derive from a common source, we cannot project this back to 10,500 BCE, and certainly not—as Winters would like—on the strength of Zecharia Sitchin’s assignment of Noah’s Flood to that year.
Yes, it’s that same argument again—Noah’s Flood is really end of the Ice Age, and the antediluvian world was really Atlantis. The only differences is that Winters gives the formerly Aryan pseudohistory and Afrocentric cast by placing its members in the Sahara.
Anyway, Winters has been flogging this horse since the twentieth century (I found references in his work going back to at least 2000), and he hasn’t found anything new to add since then. I was even less impressed with Dave Miller’s article on Friday claiming that seemingly natural cracks and scratches on rocks in the Appalachian Mountains are actually petroglyphs from the world’s oldest civilization, lost to history until he recognized its writing.
So, instead, I’d like to talk about a weird piece by Abigail McCoy that ran in Glamour magazine last week. McCoy asked how it is that anyone can enjoy a horror movie. She compared her distaste for horror to her dread of “micropenises,” which probably does as good a job of anything of establishing the tone of her piece. “Why do so many smart women I know claim to like horror movies? Are they just... lying?”
Obviously, I can’t claim to know why women might enjoy horror movies, but I don’t believe men and women are so different that the pleasures of the horror genre are limited by gender. McCoy, 28, says that she has watched only one horror movie, The Ring, and was traumatized by the scene where a girl tries to claw her way out of a well to the point that she was unable to ever watch another, and indeed was so traumatized by one particular scene that she continues to obsess about it when triggered by fingernails fourteen years later.
But I maintain that there is absolutely no value in feeling scared. Why do people want to be scared? What is good about that? Feeling scared is always, always a negative experience, and I don't think it's even the kind with a silver lining. […] Do I insist—to my own detriment—on living unchallenged in a comfortable space that's never threatened by demon children who've spent time in wells? Does detesting horror movies make me narrow-minded? I mean, perhaps. But I feel fine about it.
There is no particular reason to demand that anyone watch something he or she doesn’t like, and I don’t begrudge McCoy her taste, but in reading McCoy’s screed, I see a conflation of ideas that seems a bit problematic, but which seems to reflect the current state of horror. Traditionally, scary movies (which are, to a degree unrecognized by McCoy, distinct from dark fantasy or Gothic melodrama) provide a safe way to experience fright, creating enjoyment from the tension between the emotion provoked by the on-screen experience and the knowledge that one is safe. This has changed over the course of the last three decades, as filmmakers have increasingly asked audiences to identify with the monster or the killer and approach horror movies as an exercise in vicarious blood lust. This gets into the issue of the purpose of a horror film. Once, the predominant purpose was to experience fear, but for much of the 2000s and 2010s, the purpose seemed to be revel in grotesquery and torture. Fortunately, that note of horror has been on the wane again.
McCoy thinks physical enjoyment of fear might be possible but wonders why she does not feel the same frisson as others when confronted with the frightening. Therefore, she asks why one prefers horror to other genres:
I can wrap my head around the whole "thrills minus actual danger" appeal, but can't you just get your rocks off by watching Homeland or something else written by writers whose artistic vision extends beyond scenes cast exclusively in blue-grey light with recently-widowed women being terrorized by things and beings that hopefully don't exist IRL?
Here, she seems to engage in a snobbish suggestion that certain types of artistic pleasure are inherently superior to others. Homeland draws on elements of horror as surely as any other piece of dark fiction. It describes and depicts torture and mutilation and feints toward Gothic themes of madness. But because it pretends to seriousness, its world has an “artistic vision” that horror somehow lacks. More correctly, crime dramas sand off the rougher edges of the horror genre by wrapping them in a sort of Ann Radcliffe style Gothic reduction where everything is easily explicable as the convoluted operation of physical and psychological forces. But isn’t that exactly what McCoy didn’t want? She said that she doubted why anyone would enjoy fear in an environment of safety. But crime dramas, even those disguised as prestige television, are just that: a chance to revel in the excitement and terror of crime from the safety of the other side of screen.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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