Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: the Crusader

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By Shawn StJean

It seems as if Universal Studios’ inauguration of their “Dark Universe” franchise, beginning with The Mummy, should have monster-genre fans everywhere uncovering easter-eggs and salivating, in werewolf-fashion, for future installments.  What’s next?  Creature from the Black Lagoon?  Dracula?  Frankenstein?  Given the success of Marvel Studios and its web of interconnected sagas, and the generosity of audiences even toward the far-less compelling DC Comics movie adaptations, this seems a logical gamble in the Hollywood and Pinewood of 2017 and beyond.  More interesting to me, as I combine a sort of hit-and-run mini-review here with a broader, deconstructive cultural analysis, is how the real villains of The Mummy are not the title character and the soulless zombies she creates from humans by draining their life-force (souls) to revivify herself.

The film itself makes a dubious beginning to re-introduce the Dark Universe into the 21st century, relying as it often does on relentlessly flat jokes, and worse, convoluted exposition in favor of any attempt at plot or characterization.  One could call Tom Cruise merely miscast, if his part weren’t so deplorably underwritten: supposedly a profiteering soldier who steals Mideastern relics, he mostly blinks his eyes and shakes his head through the bulk of the narrative, eventually alerting the audience for the dozenth time that the Mummy has a telepathic entry to “inside his head.”  Rather, it’s Russell Crowe, playing Cruise’s antagonist Dr. Henry Jekyll, and his minions, who warrant our serious attention here.

Jekyll, keeping his nefarious Hyde persona barely at bay with regular injections, leads a secret society of monster-hunters with the self-appointed mission to rid the world of evil.  He’s willing to go so far as to facilitate the Mummy’s obsession with her “Chosen,” Cruise, allowing him to be killed with a sacrificial dagger and incarnate the Egyptian god of Death, Set, so that he can then be “obliterated” under controlled conditions, “a sacrifice for the greater good.”  I’ve discussed human sacrifice at length previously in this series, but here it points us back to the deep motivations of Jekyll, our modern-day crusader.  Edward Hyde, grappling with Cruise, points out “It’s Jekyll who wants to kill you,” whereas he wants a partnership with the sergeant.

The archetype of the crusader, not one that springs to mind immediately, nevertheless forms part of the canon of recurring iconic figures in myth.  Self-adorned in the garb and acoutrements of a White Knight, the Crusader’s single-minded pursuit–a holy mission–brings him/her repeatedly into a death-struggle with what s/he imagines to be incarnated evil (but which is only a projection of the knight’s own private sin,)  and may even suffer a savior/God complex, as here.  Think Ahab: the white whale represents, to him, the sum total of all evil–not coincidentally having deprived the Captain of his own leg in a previous encounter.  In order to slay Moby-Dick, Ahab will sacrifice his ship and the lives of his entire crew, yet rationalizes this insane quest just as Jekyll here: keep an eye on the big picture, fellas.

The film has great potential in this regard, but squanders several opportunities to fully realize its themes.  Cruise is called a thief and mercenary on the surface with the soul of a good man attempting to emerge, whereas Crowe is a respectable doctor and leader hiding a soul of evil and “chaos” just beneath his respectable exterior.  His three-piece suit is the shield and cloak and sword-oath of a crusader, 900 years later, working ostensibly in a righteous cause, while committing atrocities along the way.  The capture and subsequent torture of the Mummy should help us realize this, but the film has buried any sympathy we might have had for the title character under its unnecessary agenda of portraying her as wholly evil.  And the contrast between Crowe and Cruise is never made direct enough; the yin and yang never bleed into each other.  Crowe’s Jekyll does indeed have the final words: “it takes a monster to fight a monster,” but it echoes too much like sequel-pimping.  We haven’t been shown the knights of the second Crusade desecrating Mesopotamian and Egyptian crypts, only told.  The crusader-knights turned to zombies, a refreshing turn from the usual T-virus, should help.  The mummy has reanimated their corpses to continue the mission they had in life–mindlessly carrying out someone else’s political agenda.  But the film is neither so subtle as to emphasize this impressionistically, nor so obvious as to have someone shout it out.  And honestly, as for sequels, I’d be happy never to see Cruise’s character again.

A crusader, like any soldier drafted into a foreign war, has to believe in the worth of the cause.  And yet, the deep disillusionment in the face of true horror in and around battlefields transforms the idealistic campaigner into a monster.  The cycle of post-Vietnam movies imported the process to American cinemas.  The best of the protagonists become world-weary and learn to hate the crusade itself; of course, since Universal is hoping to kick off a franchise, Jekyll can experience no such awakening.  We saw it most explicitly in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but it may have been Sean Connery in 1976s British Robin and Marian who expressed it most succinctly:   “I keep thinking of all the death I’ve seen. I’ve hardly lost a battle, and I don’t know what I’ve won. ‘The day is ours, Robin,’ you used to say, and then it was tomorrow. But where did the day go?”  Perhaps only coincidentally premiering during the year of America’s bicentennial and following the final withdraw from Vietnam, the film nevertheless carried the message of counterculture from an empire whose sun had finally set on ocean slicks of blood.

And thus Cruise and his army cronies import the crusade against “insurgents” into modern-day Iraq.  The ruins and crypts and mass  graves and the walking dead are what empires leave behind in their quest of manifest destiny.  See, Egypt hadn’t much taste for expansion–the film stretches noticeably to bury the mummy in the Persian gulf, ancient Mesopotamia, seeming to want us to make the connection to the global political stage of modern day, to function as social criticism against American Empire–yet it can’t resist the weight, or rather lack of it, of its special effects, star power, and declared identity as traditional, if updated “monster movie.”  Essentially, it sells out.

What’s missing from the narrative of The Mummy, failing a major rewrite, is for Cruise to have a genuine epiphany, whether accomplished through his psychic connection or whatever silly device: it’s men exactly like Jekyll, in complicity with men like himself, that create the mummies of the world in the first place.  The civilians, the displaced farmers, the maimed and burned children, the revengers all haunting the wasted landscape.  But this would bring him and Crowe’s character into an irreconcilable conflict.  Instead, Universal seems to want to move them into formation of some half-assed Scooby Gang.

One final note: it’s perhaps a curious feature that the Mummy made her way to London, but watch for that motif as the series progresses: Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein both relied upon the device, which goes back at least as far as Beowulf.  A curse earned abroad must always, whether in the diseased persons of returning soldiers, or in boxes of stolen treasure, or in the more amorphous forms of displaced, refugee souls, make its way home.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Frankenstein and his Creature

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By Shawn Stjean

No modern myth could be so simple in its conception, and yet so rich in its varied cultural implications. Contemporary interpretations range from feminist (a Man usurps the one power he lacks, that of giving birth) to psychoanalytic (the mad doctor has a “God Complex,” (an id [fear] and superego [morality] overwhelmed by an inflated ego), while the creature manifests an Oedipal complex–that is, an irrational id-desire to kill the father.)

After a quick review of two film adaptations, I’d like rather to focus on the two ancient myths Mary Shelley herself drew primarily from, in order to explain the enduring popularity of Frankenstein at the level of Jungian archetypes. After all, the proto-science-fiction story of “Modern Prometheus” (Shelley’s subtitle for her novel) has been remade again and again, perhaps most famously in the recent forms of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise. Human technology run amok is the shorthand theme. Man’s ability to engineer machines that extend his own power, only to turn against and overpower him, make no less resonant a cautionary tale today than in the early 1800s.

In Scott’s Marxist-leaning narrative, barely-distinguishable-from-real replicants, “more human than human,” but crippled by an artificially short 4-year mortality, are used as offworld slave labor. They return to Earth to seek extended life from their designer, only to slay him at his refusal. “I want more life–fucker,” demands Roy Baty, as he gouges out the eyes (soul) of Dr. Tyrell. That last addition may seem gratuitously profane, but it well-epitomizes the deep-seated anger that abandonment causes. Cameron undertakes a less obvious adaptation, but the rebellious supercomputer Skynet incarnates itself in the familiar hulking physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with self-sewn artificial skin, to remind the audience of the roots of the myth. Several sequels and a TV series explored the possibility that the creature could transcend its initial programming/engineering, and evolve. An excellent, open-ended question: can any of us?

Tracking back, then. The Greek titan, Prometheus, gave fire and the arts to the lesser created beings of the gods: Us. The domestication of fire (energy harnessing) –along with writing and drawing (data storage and retrieval) are among our oldest technologies. But the power to create far outstrips the ethical imperative to responsibly control. It is embedded into our competitive human nature, apparently, to explore the morality of a technology last (“shoot first, ask questions later.”) Returning matters a bit closer to the present, when technology advances to the state in which it mimics actual people–created in “God’s” image–then these ethical questions take the guise of metaphorical abandonment. Frankenstein’s creature seeks out his creator to demand his purpose in living. Denied an explanation, he then demands the scientist create a mate for him—that is, love, from one source or other, is a requirement of his existence neglected by the engineer, and, in suffering a second refusal, he vows to wreak vengeance upon the turncoat father.

Philosophically, the application couldn’t be more universal. Each and every one of us occasionally entertains deep doubts about our purpose for being here, or the “meaning of life,” and what is fashionable today to call angst is really anger at the suspicion that there really are no answers for us, that the gods have callously turned their backs. So who is ultimately worse: Dr. Frankenstein, or his creature? The story is a fantasy about actually being able to lash out, affect, and punish the forces in the universe that lie beyond our frustrated comprehension. The climactic moving images of James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation, a iconic windmill engulfed in flames, symbolize the technology, in operation, both in sync with, AND simultaneously at war with, natural forces (the wind, and the fire.) Ambivalence: we love God, the gods, our parents, but we hate them too.

In Shelley’s book, the creature learns to read, and identifies with the biblical character of Adam, who, upon sinning and being cast from Eden, cries out that he didn’t ask to be born. Any parent of an adolescent will smile at the familiarity of that cry–and in fact, we’ve all been there ourselves: spawned into a world not of own making, ill-equipped physically, not even knowing the rules and relying upon other imperfect beings to guide us, often to our disappointment.

So most of the “evil” in this myth is purely Boethian: no one intends to do harm. The scientist intends to render harmless all disease, all submission to our frail physical forms. His revulsion at his own hideous work is involuntary. The creature never intends to drown the little girl in the well, or set fire to the building. But our wills are thwarted by our imperfect natures. Only then, when confronted with the absurdity of our well-meaning choices, do we, by our own free will, embrace despair. By this criteria, is Frankenstein’s “creature” distinguished from a “monster.” A monster has an evil nature, born to kill, morally bankrupt. A creature, neutral or even pure but fatally flawed, becomes perverted when left unguided and uncared-for. Vampires versus zombies.

Countless Frankenstein sequels are also readily enabled by the creature’s natural translation into an eternal wanderer, braving the ice-encrusted arctic, the inhospitable seas, fearsome forests, and potentially every other environment of our planet. This was Cain’s legacy from Adam’s sinful nature, and his doom from God, to journey endlessly, marked against harm yet still mortal, seeking a home and destined never to find it.
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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Zombie Apocalypse Now

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A history of Zombie evolution through the 20th century is beyond my scope here, and I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the genre, post-Romero. The old resurrection of corpses by a lone human agent, whether through Voodoo or arcane science, is sufficiently similar to the Frankenstein myth to enter into a separate analysis, another time.

Zombies as individual threats have, over time, been replaced by zombie hordes and ultimately by the all-inclusive Zombie Apocalypse, so familiar to audiences nowadays that exposition in films can be all but dispensed with, and we can proceed straight to the grisly action. How and why Armageddon happened hardly matters (we can reasonably infer it the result of human perversion,) only when, where, and most importantly, to whom. The phrase “zombie apocalypse” has become a widespread joke, masking deep-seated cultural anxieties about the future, with tentative laughter, while we quietly dig our holes (whether real or symbolic) and fill them with canned goods.

Apocalyptic tales in general are a cultural fantasy of starting over, because the mess we’re in now (economic, moral, political –- pick your poison) is just too deep, and nothing less than a scouring down to a clean bottom, not unlike the flood from which Noah escaped with his chosen few, will set things straight. Here I use the term “Fantasy” as not just the imaginative incarnation of a desire, but also an unconscious fear. We can never, by force of will and cooperation, dig ourselves out of the mire of industrial waste and human sewage we ourselves have created. This societal attitude finds its way symbolically into the story: instead of harnessing the id-energy to just “Run!,” most of the disposable characters simply cry, stumble, give up. Are the “tough” characters any better? On this archetypal level, both the “strong” wish to carry on and start over, and the “weak” act of simply falling down and letting the disaster overtake you, amount to the same abandonment of hope in society, as it now stands. In short, the apocalypse is a dramatization of the embracing of our race, collectively, of that deadliest of all sins: despair.

But what makes the Zombie Apocalypse so special?

The eating of the flesh, but especially the dainty of the brain, is telling. For it’s the left brain, the logic and the reason, that have brought all the crud down upon us by overwhelming the dictates of the right, creative and compassionate, and therefore undervalued, side of the mind. Today, computers replace the arts, infodata replaces knowledge, and destructive weapons replace generative technology. Therefore, in the aftermath of the fall, humans are often reduced to lower and lower forms of tech (trucks, then guns, chainsaws, finally axes and clubs,) and communications fail. For those paying attention to every detail, note the prevalence of images and use of the bare hands. Poetic justice.

Like the decline of civilization itself, the advance of zombies may at times be shambling and slow, but it is inevitable, and ultimately no escape is possible. They have the numbers, and the inexorable force of inertia. The horde is only the virus writ large. To spread, absorb, and move on is its very nature.

Enter our small band of resistors —- white blood cells incarnated –- varying from a single person to perhaps six or eight defined characters. Most will be claimed, one by one, amid the agonizing recognition that once someone gets infected, there’s simply nothing to be done. Unlike an alcoholic or addict who can get into a program and be reclaimed by, in a word, love, these stories tell us that love and trust are not enough, because they’re overpowered by too many other factors, mindless selfishness foremost (sometimes disguised as survival instinct.)

And that’s the point. Although it only explicitly resurfaces occasionally, inspired by the Romero sequel Dawn of the Dead, zombie stories, amid their barren landscapes, do furnish fertile ground for social criticism. They almost always employ an isolated setting and a microcosm of disparate characters, the last representatives of types of people now gone. The plot archetype beneath the collective and individual struggle for survival emerges as what Campbell called the Scapegoat Myth, wherein other human beings are sacrificed impulsively for one’s own personal safety/comfort (as in the all-too-human pushing of someone aside to escape the pursuing horde), or ritualistically, for the supposed good of the community at large, as simply told in the classic Shirley Jackson tale “The Lottery,” or most recently convoluted by Joss Whedon in his Cabin in the Woods (2011). In such tales, Man is revealed as the most monstrous Thing of them all, because alone among created beings does he turn on his own kind – zombies, aliens, pirahna, at least, do not eat each other. But a man will slay his brother, or steal his life savings, or repossess his house, or covet his wife. All in slavish worship of his insatiable hunger.

Afraid of what might happen? Brother, the symbols are telling us it’s already happening.

Digest this refrain from The Hooters’ 1985 song “All You Zombies”:

All you zombies hide your faces

All you people in the street

All you sittin’ in high places

The rain’s gonna fall on you

* * * *

Endings of these stories vary according to the temperaments of the writers, but, almost always, there is little hope for humankind to be gleaned from them. This runs counter to the typical Hollywood paradigm, and may partially explain the resistance of Big Money to embrace the genre. Mainstream films in America like to offer hope. But the perennial willingness to scapegoat others signals, unavoidably, hope’s antithesis: humans, as a species, haven’t evolved enough resistance to the disease of our desires and fears, and don’t deserve to survive.

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Ask yourself, Why is this funny?

 

 

NEW ARTICLE SERIES: Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture

 

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It was inevitable, after over forty years since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead revived (inapt metaphor) and morphed the voodoo-animated monsters of the early 20th century into our beloved, modern brain eaters, and countless “B” movie,”B+” movie, and parody entries into the genre, that Hollywood would throw some serious weight (a.k.a. money) into a blockbuster Zombie movie: World War Z.

TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=HcwTxRuq-uk (thanks to Andrew at the great pop-culture blog http://sparklyprettybriiiight.com/ for the heads-up and link).

So I think the time ripe for me to debut a series of articles I’ve been planning for awhile, to dig deeper into our fascination with certain recurring figures from the collective unconscious. Why can’t we get enough of these creatures, monsters, plot-types, and villains?  I’ll begin my analysis with the two most popular at this cultural moment (you guessed it: zombies, and then vampires, in my second effort.)

Look for the debut article later in the week.

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