Slayers of Boogey Men, pt.1
An essay that seemed to be in line with our themes of conquering fear... and wishing we were cool enough to have earned an eye-patch fighting tigers
A while back I received an amazing compliment. A good buddy of mine sent me a scan of a business card that some guy found in a box of his (presumably deceased) father's affects. It read:
B.R. Newell TMCS (SSS) Ret
Singer of Sentimental Ballads, Last of the Big Spenders
World Traveler, Soldier of Fortune
Privateer, Grenadier, Raconteur
Have Bag Will Travel
Revolutions, Gunrunning, Bootlegging, Civil Wars, Smuggling, Orgies
If you know me as well as my buddy Steve does, you'd know that I got giddy just looking at this and was tickled that it made him think of me. And this guy's son scanned it and it got passed around because I'm far from alone in my love for this guy... not necessarily B.R. Newell, but the Man that would carry this business card.
Bullshit or not, it's a wonderful illustration of our love for a certain person; That person who can lead us into adventure, into The Verboten; whether that's as grand as fighting Turks off the coast of Tunisia, or simply sweeping us away to a nice dinner at a restaurant we'd never gone into. Our lives, hearts and narratives are littered with stories of the time we did the unexpected and people talk about the people that did it with a certain respect that is something separate from good or bad, though nearly always positive.
And then I started wondering what was it about these people... what was that quality that there is probably some term for in every language but our own?
Not long after I had that card sent to me, I found myself in a separate conversation talking about risqué-type goings-ons and a friend made the comment: "Damn, I'd suggest a party, but shit might get weird." And I retorted with, "Isn't shit getting weird the best reason to suggest a party?" And some people agreed.
This made me think that this was a dangerous situation. Not because it was actually dangerous but because it's the kind of situation that one man could lead everyone in to; that epic character who could hold his cool, wink at you with a cocked grin and a cigar or a lollipop as he pulled down some dusty eye protection from hair that had been pulled in ways that would look foolish on anyone else but on him looked simply right. And while the simple social danger of being the first one naked in the hot tub doesn't require you to be someone who has faced down tigers or sailed with Somali pirates, that guy is the one who says "Fuck it. Let's go to Vegas!" She's the gal that makes going home with two people seem totally normal. They're the person that says, "That's a bullshit idea" in a meeting and after everyone freezes, the boss shakes his head and agrees. Who is that person?
I often come across this kind of idea; it's a little something in your mind but you don't really know what it is... but there's something there. So the first thing I do is start collecting things-- anything that I feel is related and start looking for some kind of thread to pull on to unravel this straight jacket that has no obvious seam.
Luckily this one was a pretty easy one for "Data gathering". Our collected narratives are chocked full of stories of these characters that take on an epic nature. You see the first and strongest thread when you look at the narratives of mythology and literature and their modern day equivalent: movies. In this archetypical story there is the protagonist of the story, the hero, who is the proxy for the audience, and then there is the greater-than character. The protagonist either follows or is swept up with the greater-than character and ultimately gains his power in some way. At that point either the protagonist (Hero) parts ways with the greater-than character or the greater-than character is revealed to be not greater-than or somehow ill-equipped to deal with default world that the Hero must return to. I believe that Joseph Campbell would call them "Guides".
A few examples: Mary Poppins for the kids, Han Solo or Obi Wan for Luke Skywalker, Ferris Bueller for Cameron, Willy Wonka for Charlie, Capt. Jack Sparrow for Will Turner, Gandolf for Frodo Baggins, Huckleberry Finn for Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan for Wendy, and Tyler Durden.
While the Hero is oblivious, scared, or at least out of their element, the Guide always seems to know that things are going to be fine or they at least know what's going on.
Then there are the first person characters who charge into the Verboten and then come back to tell us about it. We'll call these the Raconteurs. For example: Hunter S. Thompson or Dos Equies' The Most Interesting Man in the World. It's a similar relationship, in that the Guides take our proxy selves on a real adventure and the Raconteurs take our real selves on a proxy adventure.
Let's look at our examples...
First, in all of these examples the Verboten isn't strange to the Guide or Raconteur-- or at least if it is strange, "Strange" is not abnormal. For them the Verboten, whatever it may be: the jungle, the rock'n'roll world, the war, the big city, is normal. For the Hero/audience/reader, the Verboten is unknown and dangerous... and probably dangerous just because it's unknown.
Next, the Guide seems to have a license to be weird. It's accepted that they are not of our world and that what we find different about them is fine because in their own context they aren't weird. That kind of weird is a weakness.
The Raconteur can turn on and off the strange. In fact the thing we love about a Raconteur is that they can put on the strange as they head out and take it off and leave it in the entry way when they come back in with these great stories of peril, danger, insanity, and all of the other things we couldn't handle in our own house. We vicariously live through them and like the Guides, they too can be wildly strange but are forgiven because they are from wherever the story was that we weren't.
There are other characters that aren't superior and respectful like The Guide or the Raconteur, but are just crazy, fun and we love them for this same magical reason. Example: The Jackass guys or the cast of Animal House. It may be a stretch, but I'll enter this file of evidence under another archetypical label from Joseph Campbell: "The Trickster".
Why is the Trickster like the Guide or the Raconteur? Well they all have a confident disregard for our default world norms.
The confident break from the norm seems to be the point. Breaking from the norm is venturing into the Verboten, which is usually scary but the Guide/Raconteur/Trickster is confident which tells us that we don't need to be afraid. They give us the strange and the new without the threat of the monsters in the unknown... or at least no monsters that can reach us.
In other essays I've discussed our natural fear of the unknown. In a natural state, with predators and the possibility of not being able to get what you need for survival, it is a bad move to stray from where you are: alive. A fear of the unknown is healthy and worked into the mechanics of our psyche at the very low, instinct levels of our minds.
In fact, I'd be willing to say that this is where under-bed and closet monsters come from. At some point kids get afraid of monsters that lurk in the dark unknown places they are near. These monsters are not spawned from any actual experiences (like sights or sounds) and rarely have specific articulatable characteristics. The Boogey Man simply is. I bet this is the point in our brain development where our abstracting minds are coming on-line and the natural wiring to avoid the unknown is crackling to life.
As we get older the monsters take on specific forms, some reasonable and realistic, some not so reasonable or realistic. But either way they are the things we avoid. They are harm and we stay out of its way.
But the Guide, the Raconteur and the Trickster don't stay out of harm's way. They dance out into the unknown... and they come back! They went out into the Verboten were countless dangers lurk that we know nothing about, the monsters in our grown-up closets, and they won. Like a billowing cloud of fog that comes rampaging down only to split and wrap around you when it hits or a giant bubble that pops as soon as it comes in contact with anything more solid than it. The monsters disappear when the person with no regard, the Guide, the Raconteur and the Trickster, stand in front of their charge.
You could argue that the Raconteurs and Guides we love are not fighting phantoms. Their Boogey Men are known dangers, whether these are actual physical monsters or social exile and embarrassment or just a bad experience. But it's not the case. That's the point. They did it and they didn't die.
I once saw a performer called The Human Tesla Coil (I believe that was his name). He had a big metal outfit and stood on the platform of a giant static electricity generator and would throw his arms around to create arcs of electricity that looked like 1 story lightening bolts and carried at least as much juice as any household outlet. This is the kind of electricity that hurts you badly. But it didn't hurt him. He knew what not to do to keep from dying and he wasn't going to do it. The threat that I saw when I watched The Human Tesla Coil was never going to happen and thus was not actually a danger even though what it was based on, giant, lethally high-voltage arcs of electricity, was very real.
There are sharks out there that are big enough to eat a person and do. But standing, dry, in the Long Beach aquarium looking at them on the other side of an inch thick sheet of acrylic, there is no danger of being eaten.
And while things like being the first one naked in a hot tub or leading the charge to Vegas may not be physically dangerous like hand-thrown arcs of lightening or 500 pound sea predators or even the bear that might be in the dark cave our ancestors faced, it's still dangerous in a certain scope. It's socially dangerous with the threat of embarrassment or hurt feelings. It's morally or personally dangerous if we end up doing something that we regret just because that's not how we see ourselves. And it's simply unknown and the unknown is dangerous and a threat.
But the Guide can shine light in the dark. The Raconteur has been there. They can show us that there are no monsters and that we will come out the other side unscathed. Their confidence proves it.
And we do know at different higher levels of our consciousness that these fears are not real. We can logic out that there is no threat. But our brains are only partially logical (some of us more than others, some of us less). Partially our actions and understanding of the world around us is dictated by the lower consciousness, the automated systems that made us avoid places where bears were before we were either old enough or developed enough to have an idea of what a bear was and where it normally makes its den. We couldn't learn those lessons from making the mistakes. And thus was born danger without a face. Threats that are real even though there is no evidence of them and no first-hand experience and even parts of you that are saying they aren't real-- oh no, they are very real, just ask any 4 year old with a poorly latched closet door.
But the Guide and the Raconteur and even in his own flailing way, the Trickster, has tamed that. He has either been freed from the doubt about what is out there with his experience and knowledge, or he has tamed that unconscious beast, doubt; both of these are admirable.
So in the end it's not the specifics or the résumé that make those people amazing. It's not that they've faced down tigers, sailed with Somali pirates or earned that eye-patch. It's that they have the amazing confidence to break up all those phantom dangers that we still feed and can't seem to shake. We still have havens of the unknown, even after we've figured out that the only thing in the blackened closets and impenetrable under-beds is stuff we need to throw out. But whether through a divine wisdom, long trips away from our boring little worlds or simply being too stupid to know better, these people can do what we want to do and on some levels know we can do very easily: slay the Boogey Man with nothing more then a bit of confidence.