Media has always been a little scary. It started way before Trump’s constant attack on the “unfair” or “fake” news, before the internet, even before the word media connoted some form of published communication. It probably started with grimoires, arcane texts full of spells and esoterica, prized by magicians and alchemists, decried by the medieval Catholic church.
But this, you understand, was before horror was a genre. Horror as we know it didn’t exist until some folks in the 18th and 19th century had sufficient privilege and leisure to amuse themselves, and then us, by writing ghastly stories. Before that, horror was merely the way things are.
With horror, the grimoire undergoes a sea-change. Where before they were assumed to be real and to have actual utility, it enters the realm of the purely symbolic. The best example (although purists might say that “A King in Yellow” is even better) is probably H.P. Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon”, a kind of insane (anti)religious text written by the “mad Arab Alhazred”. Its contents were so shocking that they would drive the reader out of their mind. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft, the “Necronomicon” told the story of how the Great Old Ones and others, inscrutable extra-terrestrial creatures that resemble a pantheon of Gods, shall inherit the earth.
But while Lovecraft’s mythos has grown promiscuous tendrils of its own, the specific influence of the “Necronomicon” is in what I call the “evil text”. Here I am using text in the pretentious academic sense, so that films, videos, records, songs, and video games all apply. The “evil text” breaks the rules of media. We’re supposed to read a book and be effected by it, but a book is not supposed to alter our reality. But the “evil text” does. It reaches out and does bad things to you and those around you, simply by being read or watched or listened to; but you’re safe if you don’t look. It’s your own curiosity, or worse, your voyeurism, that gets you.
The “evil text”, as a horror symbol, seems to represent the fear that some knowledge isn’t good, closely related to the symbol of the apple in the garden.
I’m writing this a few hours after seeing Rings, the third in the American iteration of the Ringu series. I’m ashamed to say that I have never seen the Japanese original, or any of the sequels, or read the book they’re based on. This is not a review of Rings, although if you want one I’ll indulge you now: it sucked.
But I do love the original movie. It affects me in the same queasy way that a good piece of creepypasta does. Especially at the time, it struck a nerve with me because it came out during the twilight of the VHS tape, and I was the kind of kid who spent too much time hanging around pawn shops wasting what money I had on cheap movies. Many times, I didn’t know what the movie was, but I bought it in the hope that it’d have some gore, or nudity, or some other desired forbiddance. Always, there was some anxiety involved. Millennials may not understand this (or they may understand it better than me), but before the internet connected every thought and desire to every possibly immediate satisfaction, there was some mystery and danger to seeking out new forms of media. I remember being vaguely anxious that I would see something that would really fuck me up somehow.
If you look at it that way, the “evil text” might be a species of wish-fulfillment kissed by death-drive. The “Necronomicon” is the ultimate horror book, a story so scary it scares you to death. The Ring is the same thing for short form visuals, like really creepy a You-tube video. Stay Alive, a 2006 horror movie you probably forgot before you even watched it (starring Frankie Muniz, no less), contains a video game as “evil text”. Speaking of Creepypasta, the classic post about “Candy Cove” is a children’s TV show as evil media. And here’s a deeper cut: “Cigarette Burns”, the Masters of Horror episode directed by John Carpenter, is about a movie so shocking you lose your mind and etc., etc., etc. See also Brainscan, Videodrome, Strange Days (sort of), The Pulse, and many more that I'm sure I'm forgetting but that you may remember. In every case, the calculus is the same. They tell us that maybe the price for your entertainment isn’t just time and money, but your life, and maybe your soul.
But the strangest iteration of the “evil text” is when the snake swallows its own tale and reenters pop culture as a modern grimoire, a song or book or film which may just forfeit your soul. As in the middle ages, the fear is still being propagated by certain religious groups. Consider for instance the Harry Potter novels, which riveted many (confession, I’ve never read them), but for others produced a tidy yet vocal hysteria over its supposedly demonic content.
The Satanic panic of the 80s went hand in hand with fears of heavy metal albums containing secret messages from the Devil. In fact, such rumors were not limited just to heavy metal. Even bands as middle-of-the-road as The Eagles were implicated; “Hotel California” is supposed to contain the phrase “Yes, the devil organized his own religion”. Other pronouncements were less mundane and more impressionistic, like a line supposedly recorded, in reverse, into Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”: “There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan”.
Of course, millions of people have listened to “Hotel California”, most of them over and over and against their will, and not lost their minds. There have, however, been examples of teens supposedly driven to suicide by the alleged Satanic messages. In 1985, two young men walked to a playground and shot themselves in the face with a .12 gauge shotgun. One died immediately, but the other survived for a few years before succumbing to complications arising from his injuries. Jack Vance, the survivor, and his family sued Judas Priest, alleging that they were entranced by secret messages urging them to kill themselves. He said “We had been programmed. I knew I was going to do it. I was afraid. I didn’t want to die. It’s just as if I had no choice”.
Maybe the next time you reach for the ominous that book bound in human flesh, or watch a VHS tape marked only “WATCH ME!!!”, or God forbid, click that link, you should take pause. Take a deep breath and determine the stakes. How likely are they to be some quantity of your flowing blood? The cohesion of your fleshy bits? Your immortal soul? How much are you willing to put up, for that knowledge and diversion?
Then, and only then, should you choose, pick it up.