Something to Do with Death

By manipulating mankind’s fear of death, organized religion clearly emerges as the most ruthless and totalitarian authority institution in the history of the world.

Our fascination with horror narratives is one of the greatest mysteries in popular culture. If you think about it, horror films are characterized by their grotesque scenes of death, disease, torture, deformity, and monstrosity. The best entries in the genre are those flicks that make us feel uncomfortable and squirm in our seats. The basic criterion of success is simple: the more frightening, the better. In spite of their nightmarish content, we can’t get enough of them. Clearly, horror is one of the most profitable and enduring genres in the history of motion pictures.

Over the past 40 years, many academics and philosophers have debated about what lies beneath our morbid attraction for the horror genre. Some of the approaches considered so far include psychological, cultural, sociological, political, and philosophical frameworks. And still, the reason for the enormous popularity of horror films remains elusive and hard to pin down.

A few related questions worth considering: Why are we afraid of the imagery and iconography that characterizes the horror genre? For example, why are we frightened when we watch The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979), Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978), or The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)? Are we equally afraid of demons, vampires, zombies, and ghosts? And if so, why are we afraid of these entities, even though they are completely fictional constructions? Is there a more fundamental reason that makes these movies so terrifying?

If you think about it, these are difficult questions. Just consider how The Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, Dawn of the Dead, and The Shining are so different from each other. These films greatly differ in terms of aesthetic sensibilities, budgets, histrionics, visuals, special effects, gore content, narrative structure, characters, and subtextual political ideologies. And then again, these four horror classics continue to provide viewers with a terrifying viewing experience.

According to the legendary horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind”. Interestingly enough, modern science supports Lovecraft’s view. The physiological response associated with fear appears to be a genetic mechanism produced by natural selection in an evolutionary process -- fear is just part of our intrinsic human nature.

The rationale behind this idea is quite simple. Early hominids, or members of any other animal species for that matter, had a greater chance to survive and reproduce if they were able to quickly recognize a dangerous situation. The identification of peril took shape in the form of a physiological response that corresponds to the emotion of fear. As such, engraved into our genetic code are the ancestral fears that were associated with deadly hazards. Even in our cozy urban environments we continue to be conditioned to be afraid of fire, snakes, creepy insects, and large animals with big claws and teeth.

The emotion of fear is quite well understood as a neurobiological process. The physiological enabler of fear is known to be the amygdala, a group of neurons which are part of the limbic system. A characteristic feature of nearly all complex vertebrate organisms, the amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobes of the brain. Recent studies reported in the scientific literature have confirmed that the emotion of fear is accompanied by strong activity in the amygdala.

But if fear is an emotion that is very well understood in terms of neurophysiology, biochemistry, natural selection, and evolution, then, why are we so afraid of completely fictional entities such as demons, zombies, vampires, or ghosts? Clearly, these entities created by the human imagination could never have posed a danger to early humans. And then again, being terrified by these creatures appears to be a universal emotion nowadays.

It should be clear that our fear of supernatural entities has to be an allegory for real dangers confronted by our primitive ancestors. These allegories have long been constructed within the realms of the arts, myths, and religions. That is, horror films and religions have been crafted as safe venues to negotiate and articulate our anxieties, fears, and obsessions. In particular, we can observe that these cultural products are strikingly similar in their preoccupation to understand the meaning of death and what awaits us in the afterworld.

From an evolutionary perspective, as consciousness emerged as the result of complex neurological process, early humans began to appreciate death as the potential outcome of a dangerous situation. Arguably, our natural instinct to relate danger with fear became deeply entangled with the knowledge of the possibility of dying. As a consequence, our genetically imprinted fears for real, threatening circumstances were associated with the philosophical conceptions of life and death, and we became afraid of dying.

Indeed, humans appear to be the only species in the natural history of the world that are able to understand death as the consequence of an insurmountable threat. No other earthly creature but Man is known to be self-aware and afraid of its inevitable death. Since ancient times, regardless of the cultural and social climate, mankind has been preoccupied and even terrified about all types of matters that surround death: bodily disintegration, the survival of the soul, the conscious experience of dying, premature burials, posthumous indignities, or of merely being forgotten after death.

If you think about it, nearly all horror films deal with fears associated with the processes of biological death and the hope for a spiritual afterlife. In regard to the films mentioned above, for instance, the theological horrors found in The Exorcist resonate with our fears concerning a hellish afterlife with eternal pain and suffering; the vampires in Salem’s Lot represent the terrifying prospect of a corrupt reunion with our dear departed ones; the zombies in Dawn of the Dead are allegories to our fears for improper burial rituals and the ultimate fate of our earthly remains; and the ghosts in The Shining suggests an uncertain fate for our minds and souls after we die.

Even horror films without supernatural creatures deal with our fear of death. Films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005) are terrifying because we are confronted with the prospect of an untimely, painful, and tortuous death. On their part, movies in the vein of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), they resonate with our primordial fear of threatening animals that may harm us. Finally, flicks such as The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) are metaphors for our fears of death and bodily disintegration due to terminal illness and advanced aging.

In this regard we observe a telling cyclic duality. In as much as horror films reflect our fear of death, our actual conception and consumption of death, real or imaginary, is constantly changing through the influence of the media. As a consequence, several presentations and representations of death that were considered morbid a few years ago today are regarded as mainstream.

Consider for example, how we watch gruesome scenes featuring anatomically correct corpses in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2009) during prime time on national television. Had these very same scenes been in a horror movie 20 years ago, they would have been enough to motivate the Motion Picture Association of America to impose a severe X rating. By the same token, let us recall that James Whale's Frankenstein was threatened with censorship upon its original release in 1931 because of its depiction of cadavers and body parts, while today it is considered a pretty “safe” film.

It’s important to note that modern cultural products such as natural history museums, religions, and horror films, give us conflicting signals about our understanding and appreciation of death and the afterlife. Indeed, natural history museums showcase fossils, stuffed animals, and organs in formaldehyde to present the viewer with the idea of mortality as a natural and unavoidable biological process.

The theory of evolution conveys the idea that death is a necessary component in the biological processes that led to the extraordinary biodiversity we know today. In other words, the wonderful natural world that surrounds us is due to organisms dying, thereby creating room for new ones.

Modern science, of course, does not support the possibility of life after death. Those who claim near death experiences as proof of an afterlife completely ignore the complex biochemical dynamics of the brain under stressful conditions. Consciousness and propositional knowledge have definite roots in physiological processes that occur in the cerebral cortex. Therefore, the concept of an ethereal conscious experience without an underlying physical mechanism is completely unimaginable.

On the other hand, nearly all religious ceremonies and beliefs delve into the promise of an afterlife. The power of organized religion as a force of social control lies in its clever use of a moral dichotomy to establish our fate once we die. If we follow religious dogma without hesitation and without questioning its flawed logical foundations, then we are promised a glamorous heaven of eternal happiness. And if not, then we will be eternally punished in Hell. By manipulating mankind’s fear of death, organized religion clearly emerges as the most ruthless and totalitarian authority institution in the history of the world.

In this regard, it is perhaps ironic that religion has been the source of thousands of paintings featuring macabre iconography. But then again, this should not be that big of a surprise. After all, a core element of the ideological foundations of spiritual beliefs is the eternal fight between the forces of good and evil, and the damnation of mankind in the afterworld.

The harsh reality is that everybody dies and there is no evidence of an afterlife. And recognizing that this is true is the ultimate existential horror. Horror films are scary because they showcase the reality of our inevitable deaths and our complete misunderstanding and denial as to what is supposed to happen afterwards. We can appreciate that horror films function as symbolic safety barriers that help us confront the certainty of biological death as an unavoidable physiological process against the unsubstantiated theological belief of a spiritual afterlife.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

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Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

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