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Notes from ConDor – How Cthulu Became Cuddly

All beauty comes from harmony and contrast, goes the line from the film Vatel (2000). So, too, horror and humor have a similar relationship. By contrasting opposing moods – opposing tones – each hits harder. The laughs are more heartfelt, and the fear twists deeper into your guts. The same goes for reverence and satire, ostracism and belonging, and finally, the Cthulu mythos and plushy toys.

There was a discussion at ConDor this year about how Cthulu became cuddly. H.P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Call of Cthulu” was originally published in Weird Tales in 1928. The monstrous creature was one figure in over a hundred works by Lovecraft, whose stories (an absolute simplest terms) delve into mysterious and terrifying forces that shape civilization – and humanity’s reaction to either flee or worship those forces. Lovecraft is a brightly-burning star in horror’s lineage, and his popularity has spread, attaching to the goths of the 80s and remaining popular in both geek and steampunk culture of today. Lovecraft’s stories, and Cthulu in particular, have become iconic for reclaiming power as an outsider, celebrating one’s own strangeness, and laughing in the face of evil.

For some, it’s a way to both experience religious community and make fun of those communities. Cthulu is a charged repository for “unknown” fears.  As geeks, we want to justify our sense of being an outsider. But this, in and of itself, is an inherited chip on our shoulders. Geek culture was strange and misunderstood before it became the massive, accessible, sexy (profitable) subculture it is today. Nascent religions experience similar punishment – when beliefs and community membership were grounds for everything from ostracism to violence. Humans respond to If you’re an Other, you’re guaranteed to trigger a fight or flight response. Geek culture, like the religion it teases, It is a safe means of rebellion now. It has been stripped of its ‘outsider’ status in all but name.  The horrors of the deep, with their twisting pseudopods, now adorn H&M necklaces and home décor.

The octopus’s popularity followed the same path into trendiness carved by punk’s spikes and studded-leather look. Rebellion sells. Counterculture sells. Malificent and Wicked were hardly the first tales to re-frame evil. The city of Dunwitch, associated with Mordred of the Arthurian legend, had an alternate myth that cast Mordred as the hero. Whether it was by accident or design, Cthulu has experienced a rebranding. Arkham Horror the board game and santa-hat Cthulu are about fun and silliness, not horror. Godzilla experienced a similar transformation, going from a terrifying force of nature, to a friend of children everywhere, and then to a giant monster again. This is how we tame our fear: transforming the face of evil into an inside joke.

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Santa Cthulu, from ToyVault.com

What really makes horror horrible is the wall that stands between us and the abused. In a slasher movie, for example, the violence is being perpetrated for your benefit — your amusement. This is happening because you need to be entertained. For horror fans, we either feel obligated to be horrified by others’ blasé attitude toward violence, or we can relax and laugh from irony and cynicism. Making Cthulu cute is part of this catharsis. By making fun of the terrifying it’s easier to cope with, and through Cthulu you can have Hitler-grade level of irony without having to explain why you made a Hitler doll. The Mayan saying, the sun in the sky is not the sun, means that the sun we see isn’t the sun god. We’re not actually dealing with Cthulu, (or Hitler, if you have a Hitler doll), but rather the fear, darkness, and absence of humanity that these images represent.

Just as we see the beauty in objects by setting them in harmony or contrast with their environment, we’re better able to cope with evil by setting it against comedy. The different beats — fear, horror, fear, horror – allow both experiences to come to the fore in all their glory. Cthulu represents both evil and community – a fascination with darkness, and a way to poke fun at it. In the end, Cthulu is as warm and cuddly as we are to ourselves – and that perception could change at any moment.

From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.
― H.P. Lovecraft

Blood is really warm,
it’s like drinking hot chocolate
but with more screaming
.”
― Ryan Mecum

Moses saves, Jesus forgives, and Cthulu thinks you’d make a nice sandwich.” ― Tracy Nolan

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The Best Stories Give Us Questions, Not Answers

I just watched Stephen Fry’s “Wagner & Me.” Over the course of the story, Fry tries to reconcile his love of Wagner’s music with the fact that Hitler felt much the same way. Fry mentioned that one of the things that made Hitler’s rallies so spectacular was that they incorporated staging on an operatic scale; as well as the massive emotional resonance of ultimate good fighting ultimate evil. In short, Hitler attempted to bring a story to life. It brought to mind other examples of how human beings try to take stories in their literal form and bring them into reality — and what happens when we’re handed the answers.

Stories  come to life most successfully as allegories and metaphors for reality. They capture a small slice of our world, neatly arranged and displayed for our pleasure.

Longer stories, such as biographies or historical fiction, still lose a good chunk of their details and accuracy when translated into books and movies. The infinite complexity and interconnectivity of life never resolves in an emotionally satisfying way.

When we accomplish a lifelong dream, we expect the curtains to roll when it’s over. They don’t. We go on. That makes for a crappy ‘ending.’

To achieve that emotional catharsis at the end of a story, the writer has to be reductionist. The idea of evil is reductionist. Life would be much easier if all that stood between us and Happily Ever After were one evil person or persons to be destroyed.

What makes stories resonant and compelling, what makes them linger in our hearts long after the telling’s done — are big uncomplicated seemingly universal ideas. Evil, love, goodness, honor, and joy are all things we want to share in and experience; but translating those ideas to reality in that form demands a high price. It’s romantic to hear someone would die or kill for you… but less so when you suddenly have a corpse on your hands.

Stories that can change the world are the ones that make us think about what we’ve just read/seen/heard. They make us consider what it would be like to be in that situation. They ask what life would be like with access to certain technologies. They ask what life would be like under different types of governments. They ask us how we can be braver, or more honest. They ask us not to kill dragons, but what does it mean to be a hero. The best stories don’t give us answers. They give us questions.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
― Plutarch

If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.
— George S. Patton Jr.

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