Mob Scenes: “Tender as Teeth”

In my last post of 2018, The Best of the Best of the Best Horror of the Year, I cited Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski’s “Tender as Teeth” as one of the top selections for the anthology series over the last decade. This unique piece of post-apocalyptic fiction takes as its jumping off point the end of a zombie plague (which wasn’t your typical uprising, anyway: “The dead didn’t crawl out of their graves. Society didn’t crumble entirely. The infection didn’t spread as easily as it did in the movies.”). A “survivor” here is not just a human who managed to fend off the dental cases, but also someone like the protagonist Justine, who was injected with a medical Cure after a six-months’ existence as a feral carnivore.

Justine’s problems are far from solved, however. Ongoing digestive issues and “death breath” are the least of her woes. She is not only traumatized, uncomfortable living in her own skin, but also tormented by others who view her with disgust and express venomous hatred toward her. Justine struggles with the infamy of her cannibalistic binge (since her lowest moment went viral: a well-timed photo caught her macabre banqueting on a baby). Now the outraged masses won’t let her forget her” amnesiac murder”; she realizes there’s “an entire planet filled with people who actively wanted her dead.”

“Tender of Teeth” actually features two related mob scenes. In the first, the photographer Carson (who snapped the notorious image of “Zombie Chick”) is attacked by the pack of protesters picketing outside Justine’s apartment. The group’s focus is soon diverted by Justine’s appearance in the window; the new offensive involves “Cursing at her. Gesturing at her. Spitting. Picking up tiny chunks of broken sidewalk and hurling them at her.” In the following scene, the zealots attempt to ambush Justine and Carson on a desert road outside Las Vegas. Even as an attitude of we-just-want-to-talk reasonableness is affected, the accosters come across as not just disingenuous, but as delusional lunatics (whose gun-toting points to a potential firing-squad fate for Justine). In neither scene does this group come off well. Justine thinks of “her personal Raincoat Brigade” as “the biggest bunch of vultures this desert has ever produced.” Arriving at Justine’s apartment, Carson notes that the persistent protesters looked “tired, haggard, and vacant eyed. Ironically enough, they kind of looked like you-know-whats.”

Just as with their handling of the zombie apocalypse, Crawford and Swierczynksi are not content to fall back on cliches when presenting mob violence. As he’s jumped by the hatemongers outside Justine’s place, Carson considers:

In the movies there’s always an explanation. Your antagonists go to great pains to tell you exactly why you’re going to receive a brutal beating before the beating actually happens. Not in reality. When a mob attacks you, and blood’s filling your mouth, and someone’s kicking you in the back and you can feel your internal organs convulsing…there there are no explanations.

The authors also endeavor to demonstrate that “angry mob” might not be the most accurate label for the antagonistic assembly in the story. Fear appears to be the ultimate emotion driving the irrational “Disbelief in the Cure” movement, “a groundswell of people who brought out these pseudo-scientists claiming that the Cure was only temporary, that at any moment, thousands of people could revert to flesh-eating monsters again.” Tellingly, Justine’s concerns are with the murderous hands of a “frightened mob.”

A clever and original tale (that would make for an incredible film adaptation), “Tender as Teeth” takes a healthy bite out of misguided, self-deputizing pursuers of mob justice.

Mob Scene–Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh


The 1992 film Candyman made a couple of key revisions when adapting Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden.” First, it relocated the action from (the fictional) Spector Street Estate in England to Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s most notorious housing project. It also furnished a backstory for the titular killer: no mere urban legend, Candyman was actually a black artist named Daniel Robitaille, who ended up lynched by a miscegenation-hating mob after impregnating a white woman. In Candyman, Professor Purcell conveys this exposition (the transcript of his speech can be read here) to protagonist Helen Lyle over the dinner table. The graphic picture Purcell paints is framed as a strictly verbal account, but in the film’s 1995 sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Daniel’s torture/murder is fully dramatized onscreen.

This mob scene begins in horrific fashion, with the gruesome sawing off of the subdued Daniel’s right hand. But the sudden swarming of a black cloud of bees (and just as quick retreat of this quasi-Biblical plague of insects) is a nonsensical bit marked by silly CGI. The drama also gets melo-, thanks to the hammy histrionics of Daniel’s protesting lover Caroline. Perhaps most dissatisfying of all, the scene is too on-the-nose in its explanation of the origins of the Candyman legend. A child present at the spectacle of violence tastes a drop of honey splattered on his cheek as Daniel is smeared with honeycomb, and proceeds to christen Daniel with the hybrid moniker “Candyman.” A parasol-carrying woman picks up on this lead, and laughingly chants “sweets to the sweet” (we’ve come a long way from the allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Barker’s story). Finally, Caroline’s vengeful father feels a strange need to stick a handheld mirror in the ravaged Daniel’s face; the mirror conveniently capture’s Daniel’s soul as he dies uttering “Candyman.”

Yes, the execution here leaves a lot to be desired, but this mob scene undeniably succeeds in establishing the modern-day bogey as a formerly human victim. The erstwhile Daniel Robitaille is transformed into a sympathetic figure, an innocent man (in life) whose romance with Caroline precipitated a tragic death. Candyman–who provides a voiceover to the flashback–was forced to become “the reflection of [the racist rabble’s] hatred, their evil.” His mortal demise is much more pitiable than that of another horror icon, the child murderer Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, who suffers a boiler-room immolation by a mob of outraged, vigilante-justice-seeking parents.

Recently, a remake of the original Candyman was announced, with Jordan Peele at the helm. If the forthcoming film chooses to give a similar backstory to the legend, it might be worth the price of admission just to see what sort of mob scene the Get Out director envisions.

Mob Scene: Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Director Frank De Felitta’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) is not only one of the all-time-great made-for-TV horror films; it is also a leading example of a Halloween-related movie whose plot centers on an angry mob scene. A quartet of overzealous rednecks–led by the malevolent mailman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning–veer off into vigilantism following the sheriff’s call for a posse of volunteers. With rifles in hand and bloodhounds on leash, Otis’s splinter group tracks down the mentally-challenged gentle giant Bubba Ritter, who has been mistakenly accused of murdering his young playmate Marylee (turns out, her non-mortal wounds were inflicted by a neighbor’s dog). This is not the first time the foursome has harassed Bubba, but it will be the last, as the innocent man suffers a firing-squad-style execution after his hiding as a scarecrow in an open field proves an inadequate disguise.

The scapegoating and hasty persecution of a perceived Other is a basic enough premise. What makes Dark Night of the Scarecrow so noteworthy is its transplanting of a Universal monster movie into a rural Southern setting. The “death” of Marylee hearkens back to the creature’s accidental drowning of the girl Maria in Frankenstein, an act that sets the local villagers off on a torch-and-pitchfork-wielding warpath. The creature and Maria had been tossing flowers in a lake; in Scarecrow, Bubba and Marylee are first seen picking flowers in a field. Bubba’s carrying of Marylee in his arms following the mauling also recalls the image of the creature in Frankenstein sweeping the unfortunate Maria up into its arms (and the subsequent image of Maria’s father toting her lifeless body).

Dark Night of the Scarecrow forms an intriguing variant on the slasher film, complete with inventive death scenes (involving a wood chipper, a grain silo, and a plow in a pumpkin patch) and crafted ambiguity regarding the identity of the killer (e.g., Bubba’s grieving mother? Bubba himself, returned as a revenant hellbent on vengeance?). The film ostensibly inaugurates the killer-scarecrow subgenre of horror. It also sports a creepy autumnal atmosphere that has not dissipated after nearly four decades, and makes the film a worthy inclusion on annual Halloween season watch lists.


Mob Scene: The Outsider

Note: the following contains plot spoilers. If you have yet to read King’s most recent novel, you are advised to go rectify that mistake before proceeding.


The Outsider unfolds with the public arrest of Terry Maitland, a typical Stephen King everyman who finds himself charged with an unspeakable crime: the savage rape and murder of an eleven-year-old boy. Eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence alike link Maitland to the horrid deed, but the fact that the accused also has a rock-solid alibi sends this seemingly open-and-shut criminal case veering towards the uncanny.

As the section of the novel titled “The Arraignment” opens, Maitland is about to be transported from the county jail to the county courthouse. Upon leaving, he is subjected to the lewd catcalls of fellow prisoners, the shouted questions of reporters that sound “more like invective than interrogation,” and the ill-will of outraged spectators sporting signs blazoned with “EXECUTE THE CHILD KILLER” and “MAITLAND YOU WILL BURN IN HELL.” An ominous mood is instantly set, but this treatment will seem like a welcome wagon compared to what awaits Maitland at the courthouse.

There a jostling, surging crowd of reporters, cameramen, and angered onlookers have congregated. Spectators hurl vile accusations at Maitland’s wife, and literally spit in his face. Maitland is serenaded with cries of “NEEDLE! NEEDLE! NEEDLE!“, an eager prescription of lethal injection by a crowd “chanting like fans at a football game.” What’s worse, Detective Ralph Anderson observes, is that these aren’t just anonymous protesters, but Maitland’s neighbors: “People whose kids he taught, people whose kids he coached, people he had to his house for end-of-season barbecues. All of them rooting for him to die.” A wary Anderson realizes that the local citizens “looked ready to string Terry Maitland up from the nearest lamppost.”  A few paragraphs later, a book is thrown at Marcy Maitland; King identifies the volume as “Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.” With its call for vigilance, the title alone is significant, and the astute reader will note that this is the (posthumously-published) sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s American Gothic masterpiece featuring the awful lynching of an innocent man. So those cries of “Die, Maitland, die!” might be about to prove eerily prophetic.

Unruly to begin with, “the crowd teetered on the edge of mob-ism” as Maitland is ushered towards the entrance of the courthouse. What follows, though, is not a mass lynching, but the act of a single vigilante who takes justice in his own gun-wielding hand. Horrified, Anderson watches the spectators acting “like hyenas. Everyone stood out in bright relief, and everyone was a grotesque.” Anderson’s catalog of these grotesques includes a figure toting a newspaper sack, who, it turns out, is interested in delivering more than the local rag. Ollie Peterson, the teenage brother of murder victim Frank Peterson, pulls out his weapon and unceremoniously assassinates Maitland. The killing (less than halfway through the novel) is one of the most shocking in King’s works, since readers had to assume that this likable character caught in the grip of a terrible predicament would play a central role throughout.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for Maitland’s arraignment turning into a bloody circus, starting with an inept sheriff who makes an oxymoron of crowd control. Anderson blames himself for not insisting that Maitland not be brought in through the back entrance; the detective also wonders if the district attorney foresaw and secretly hoped for such a public spectacle, “because of the wide news coverage it would surely garner.” King’s strongest censure, however, is of mob mentality, of the hastily judgmental masses prone to guilty-and-won’t-be-proven-innocent irrationality. These bloodthirsty folk are also marked by a morbid fascination: the scene closes not just with the sound of approaching sirens but the “excited babble of people who were returning now that the shooting was over. Wanting to see the body. Wanting to photograph it and put it on their Facebook pages.” And as if all this didn’t make for enough natural horror, another turn of the screw is given later in the novel, as readers learn that events have been manipulated all along by a grief-feasting monster that relishes such violent chaos.

The King canon is filled with fiery mob scenes, but none more devastatingly effective than the author’s latest foray into this grim territory.


Mob Scene: “The Lottery”

American Literature’s most famous mob scene has turned 70.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published (to no shortage of public outcry) in The New Yorker back in 1948. In the story, the inhabitants of a seemingly-idyllic village (based on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson resided at the time) gather every June 27th for the titular ritual. The lottery (technically a double drawing, selecting first a local family and then a specific member of that household) is well-woven into the civic fabric; the administering official, Mr. Summers, similarly presides over “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” But while all this sounds wholesome enough, there is a nervous tension running through the crowd, and the subsequent freak-out by Tess Hutchinson after she draws the slip of paper marked with a black spot (shades of Billy Bones in Treasure Island) has nothing to do with excitement over sudden enrichment. With a devious twist, Jackson reveals that this lottery delivers an unfortunate reward: this isn’t some Win-for-Life drawing, but rather Lose-Your-Life. The townspeople proceed to set upon the protesting Tess (whose first name and surname allude to fictional and historical female sufferers of persecution, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Anne Hutchinson) and begin the stunning act of stoning her to death.

This story of designated scapegoating–of communal cohesion through arbitrary Othering–paints a bloody underbelly onto modern society, calling the very notion of “civilization” into question. Jackson’s slice of American Gothic also exposes the fragility of the family bond: having drawn the black spot, the cowardly Tess promptly tries to serve up her own children as the recipients of the impending handout.

There are distinct religious overtones to “The Lottery,” as the public stoning of a branded deviant proves a most Old-Testament form of punishment. Disconcerting hints of paganism are also offered: these latter-day Druids of the New World appear to engage in murderous sacrifice (on a date close to the summer solstice) in the belief that it will ensure a bountiful harvest. As Old Man Warner memorably recites, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

Jackson depicts the quintessential mob, here wielding stones instead of torches and pitchforks, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the story’s characters angry villagers. They execute their grim business with a chilling cold-bloodedness. It is this blind allegiance to custom, the casual and callous nature of such resort to violence, that haunts the reader long after the initial shock of the ending wears off, and causes the dark themes of Jackson’s story to resonate to this day.

Mob Scene: The Night of the Hunter

The classic 1955 crime/horror film The Night of the Hunter not only evinces a German expressionist style throughout but in its climactic mob scene also evokes a German (or at least generically European) village setting from a Universal monster movie. After the widow-seducing, serial-killing con man and thief “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is finally arrested, Icey and Walt Spoon (a couple that previously seemed plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting) bring disorder to the court during Powell’s trial via cries of “Lynch him!” and “Bluebeard!” Looking suddenly scraggly-haired and haggish, Evelyn Varden’s Icey channels Una O’Connor as the vociferous angry-villager Minnie in the Frankenstein movies. She comes across, though, as more of a pathetic than comedic figure; Icey apparently has had a few on the rocks when she drunkenly disturbs the dinner of the “poor orphans” following the trial. The children (who’ve spent a good portion of the film being chased by Powell) are forced to flee the restaurant as a torch-, tool-, and furniture-wielding lynch mob takes to the streets.

The turn by first-time filmmaker Charles Laughton (who co-starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein-director James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and who was married to The Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) back to Universal horror is unsurprising here yet also curious. The iconography proves somewhat disorienting, as The Night of the Hunter‘s West Virginia locale promptly transforms into a back lot rendition of a European village. This mob scene is also disconcerting in its recasting of the film’s hitherto-wholesome supporting characters: as the Spoons stir up a bloodthirsty rabble, they are reduced to a level of dubious morality that marks them as ultimately not all that different from Mitchum’s criminal minister. With all these vigilante-justice-seekers afoot, the film’s title could easily–and troublingly–be pluralized.

Mob Scene: Daniel Woodrell’s “Returning the River”

In a span of less than ten pages, Daniel Woodrell’s short story “Returning the River” (published in the author’s 2011 collection The Outlaw Album) establishes a family saga worthy of a Faulkner epic. Just as impressively, Woodrell also manages to give an original twist to the traditional mob scene.

Playing the angry villager here is Harky Dewlin, who uses a torch “made of a baseball bat and a wadded sheet” soaked in kerosene to raze the house of an outsider. Interestingly, though, the arsonist barely knows the victim–“a man named Gordon Mather Adams, a retired schoolteacher of some sort.” It’s his domicile alone (“a shiny new log cottage”) that has been deemed offensive, and gradually Woodrell reveals why. The oft-imprisoned Harky offers a “spectacular act of penance” for his own wayward life, and sends a gift to his father by burning down the house that blocks the sickly man’s view of the natural scene. Harky returns the river to his dying father’s line of sight as the man spends his final days languishing in an upstairs bedroom.

The father–who pathetically chases Harky from the blazing crime scene–doesn’t appear enamored by the incendiary gesture, but Harky’s act of mob-like violence does expand into a family affair. His mother not only refuses to call in the fire department afterward, but revels in the observed immolation: “Mother had been angry since the foundation [of the neighbor’s obstructing house] had been poured, the first nail driven, and clapped her hands with gusto as the hot ruin spread.” Also, Harky has deliberately waited to act until his younger brother, the story’s narrator, is home for the holidays and thus can bear witness to the torching (placing the narrator in the role of almost-accomplice). The story ends with the siblings running off together, but their escape into the nearby woods as the police prepare to give chase isn’t the desperate flight of fugitives but a happy excursion across the ancestral lands their family lost possession of long ago.

Succinct yet resonant, Woodrell’s masterful tale shows that a mob scene can center on something other than simple vigilante justice, and spring from motives more complex than mere wrathfulness.

Mob Scene: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

A few nights ago, a huge throng gathered and made merry in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1831 short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” though, a scene of nocturnal celebration is nowhere near as amiable.

The story shows structural similarities with Hawthorne’s more widely-known piece, “Young Goodman Brown”: night-time wandering, ominous encounters, the ultimate disillusionment of the protagonist. Here, a young man named Robin travels from his remote rural home to the heart of a New England colony, to seek a position with his titular kinsman. But the townspeople repeatedly answer his inquiries as to Molineux’s whereabouts with anger and derision. Among these is a devilish fellow whose “forehead bulged out into a double prominence,” and who is later seen sporting a red-and-black-painted face. Apparently, hell is other people, especially those who have united in enmity.

In the story’s climax, Robin encounters a mad pageant–a riotously-dressed mob wielding torches and playing “fearful wind-instruments.” The fantastic scene makes it seem “as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets.” Eventually, Robin discovers that his unfortunate relation has been tarred and feathered and is being parade around in public shame. The colonists no doubt enjoy this torture and ridicule of a governmental figure loyal to the British crown, but as a reader it is hard to ignore the horror of the situation. Robin observes that the elderly Molineux’s “eyes were red and wild, and the foam hung white upon his quivering lip. His whole frame was agitated by a quick, and continual tremor.”

Hawthorne’s story illustrates how popular dissent can easily descend into mob violence, how America’s political independence has its roots in the American Gothic. Once more shining a light on the darker elements of the country’s early history, Hawthorne reminds us that tar and feathers precede the Stars and Stripes.

Mob Scene: Hex

In a recent post, I covered various instances of mob scenes in literature, film and television. That entire list, however, is outnumbered by the number of examples of angry-villager activity found in Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s extraordinary novel Hex.

Heuvelt’s story originates in an act of awful Othering–the persecution of an accused witch. In 1664, Katherine van Wyler is forced (upon threat at having her daughter killed) to murder the son she is believed to have resurrected from the dead. Katherine is then forced to hang herself, but her ignominious death will make life miserable for people for centuries thereafter. The witch continues to haunt the town of Black Spring with her posthumous presence, teleporting all over the place–sometimes right into residents’ bedrooms, where she might loom unnervingly for days. An early attempt (by a group of church elders) to curtail Katherine’s menace by wrapping her body in chains and sewing her eyes and mouth shut hasn’t done much improve Black Spring’s cursed condition. Any resident who lingers outside town borders for too long plummets into the blackest pit of despair and is plagued by a mounting desire to commit suicide. Within Black Spring, the townspeople dare not try to attack Katherine, who emits a “freak energy when she’s under great physical or emotional distress” that causes innocent citizens in the vicinity to drop dead. Worse still, the people of Black Spring have to work unceasingly to conceal Katherine’s existence from the world at large, for fear of an influx of curious Outsiders and an incautious snipping of the witch’s stitches. The dread is that if Katherine’s evil eye is free to wander, and if her lips are able to articulate spells, the entire populace will die. This unrelenting fear causes Black Spring to shackle itself with iron laws:

The only thing that made the situation in Black Spring manageable–survivable, as some claimed–was that Black Spring was an indoctrinated commune. The townsfolk lived according to strict rules because they believed in those rules and adopted them without question. Children took in the commandments of the Emergency Decree with their mothers’ milk: Thou shalt not associate with the witch. Thou shalt not say a word about her to people on the outside. Thou shalt comply with the visitor regulation. And the mortal sin: Thou shalt, never, under any circumstances, open the witch’s eyes. These were rules prompted by fear, and Steve knew that fear invariably led to violence. He’d seen plenty of blank, pale little faces with black-and-blue patches and swollen lips on the playground of Black Rock Elementary in earlier years, faces of children who had spilled the beans with friends or cousins from out of town and had been beaten until they were fully reprogrammed according to their parents’ example.

The perennial pressure of dealing with a “paranormal time bomb” has doubtless taken a toll on the town, and their are plenty of early indications of Black Spring’s civic instability and penchant for harsh intolerance. Back in 1932, when a group of laid-off tree-farm workers threatened to blow the whistle about Katherine unless they were awarded new employment, the “town took a vote to set an example for other blackmailers. They were publicly flogged and killed by firing squared in the town square.” The town’s annual Halloween celebration includes a Wicker Woman burning and mock tests in which a declared young “witch” is “chased around by a group of pitchfork brandishing actors form Black Spring dressed in seventeenth century rags.” More seriously, when Arthur Roth (a mentally unstable resident who was imprisoned for talking about exposing Katherine) ends up beaten to death, Black Spring votes to get rid of the dead body by burying it anonymously. One citizen, Pete VanderMeer,  vehemently opposes the idea: “Come on, people, we’re not barbarians, are we? If we go down that road, we’re one step away from a lynch mob.”

That step appears even closer to being taken in a subsequent town meeting, in which a group of Black Spring teens who threw stones at Katherine are charged with brazen violation of the Emergency Decree. Outraged citizens in attendance act “like a rioting street mob,” shouting out impetuous suggestions such as “Let’s throw stones at ’em till they’re dead!” The teens are spared that fate, but hardly get off easy, being sentenced to lashes by a cat-o’-nine-tails in a public ceremony in the town square. “The impulse to point the finger, to assign a scapegoat,” which has marked the town from the very beginning here gives rise to a sadistic scene born of “collective madness.”

From here, the novel spirals toward a literally-riotous climax, as an orgy of irrational violence erupts after the witch’s eyes are unsealed. Armed with “kitchen knives, hammers, baseball bats, and guns” the fear-stricken citizens of Black Spring proceed to raise hell and raze buildings. I won’t go into further (spoiling) detail here, but will just mention that one of the book’s main characters is subjected to a spectacularly gruesome lynching.

This English-language translation/revision of Heuvelt’s novel, which transplants the setting from a small Dutch village to a town in New York’s Hudson Valley, proves an exemplary work of American Gothic fiction. The book boldly rewrites American history, positing that West Point was actually established to help keep the supernatural situation in nearby Black Spring under cover. Heuvelt also conflates historical eras, censuring Black Spring’s “puritanical soul” as the town is “catapulted back into the seventeenth century.” Hex makes for one horrific read, not just because of its spooky witch figure, but because of its demonstration of how quickly modern civilization can revert to savagery.

Mob Scenes

No, I’m not talking about Walmart on Black Friday. “Mob Scenes” (a feature on my old Macabre Republic blog that I plan to revive here) highlights literary, cinematic, and televisual instances of angry villagers on the rampage. Though first popularized as the torch- and pitchfork-wielding European folk of Universal horror films, an other-hunting mob certainly exemplifies the American Gothic (as civility and community give way to intolerance and bloodthirsty violence).

I’ll be posting a brand new Mob Scene shortly. In the meantime, here are some scenes from years past on the Macabre Republic blog:

Mob Scene: Paranorman

The Oscar-nominated Paranorman has plenty to recommend it: vivid animation, endearing characters, satiric wit, sophisticated plot twists. Perhaps best of all for lovers of American Gothic, the film features an extended angry-villager sequence.

Paranorman‘s pyrotechnic climax kicks off when a group of zombies shamble into the midtown section of Blithe Hollow, and a redneck resident promptly responds by pulling out a shotgun and shouting, “Kill ’em in the head!” Mayhem and riotous violence ensue, but the dark behavior does not overshadow the scene’s comedic elements. There are sight gags galore, such as a hand mixer and a bowling bowl being wielded as weapons (along with the more traditional torches and pitchforks), and a young girl’s flaming teddy bear tossed forth into the town hall like a Molotov cocktail. A plunger-toting drama teacher climbs atop a car and histrionically proclaims “Cry ‘havoc’ and let loose the dogs of war,” and then (when her audience fails to understand her) bluntly translates, “Let’s rip ’em apart!” More subtle touches include a laundromat sign that reads “Hung and Dried,” and the Frankensteinian-shaped head of musclebound Mitch (who apppropriately bemoans the townspeople’s desire to “burn and murder stuff”). For all its rampant humor, the scene also has serious import, driving home the film’s anti-bullying message: the zombies are ultimately misunderstood creatures, more victims than monsters, and protagonist Norman lectures the crowd about their intolerance of difference.

2012 was a big year for cinematic mob scenes, and none were more effective–or more fun to watch–than the one orchestrated in Paranorman.


Mob Scene: “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe”

David J. Schow’s 2003 short story “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” (collected in Havoc Swims Jaded) is a sterling, Serling-esque satire of American values. The story highlights the illusory nature of the idyllic small town, and censures the “superstitious paranoia and hidebound, inbred fear” that reduces townspeople to a monster-hating/-hunting mob. For all its serious subtext, though, the narrative is driven by tongue-in-cheek humor. It is also wonderfully self-aware of the conventions of angry-villager scenes in (Universal) monster movies. At one point the titular grotesque (who makes for an unusual, but quite useful, viewpoint character) is approached for an interview by a doctoral student whose thesis concerns “the weird crowd behavior of group insanity in small, isolated towns and villages.” In the course of the discussion, the scholar, Steve, deconstructs the familiar filmic event:

I mean, you’ve seen some of those movies, right?” said the Steve-creature. “Who really makes out, every time the besotted Burgomeister decides, you know, to blow up another dam? Local contractors, funeral directors, hardware stores, the makers of pitchfork and rope, gun dealers and distributors of ammunition, hell… monsters are great for their economy. They all get shit-faced at the inn until their fizzed enough to see monsters, then they start grabbing for the dynamite. And who do you think gets first crack at developing the destroyed real estate? I mean, where’s the real problem, here?”

Schow’s story (which offers terrifically descriptive prose as well as pointed satire) climaxes with a plot twist that puts the drunken unreason and violent intolerance of the lynch-happy locals on full display. From start to finish, “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” forms arguably the greatest work of angry-mob fiction ever written.


Mob Scene: Frankenweenie

Not since Mel Brooks has a director so cleverly referenced the climactic mob scene in the 1931 film Frankenstein. “He’s killed the little girl!” Bob’s Mom exclaims when Sparky, the titular revivified canine, appears carrying Elsa’s pony-tailed wig (part of her Dutch Day costume) in his jaws. Such hasty blaming recalls the denouncement of Frankenstein’s Monster as a murderer when the drowned body of the peasant girl is found. The parallels between the Tim Burton and James Whale films are extended when Mayor Burgemeister in Frankenweenie promptly urges his torch-sporting constituents: “After him! Kill the monster!”

Then the chase is on, with Sparky actually leading the mob to the windmill where Elsa is located (menaced inside by the mutated Mr. Whiskers). The oblivious Burgemeister, confronting Sparky and demanding to know where his niece Elsa is, accidentally ignites the windmill with his lofted torch (the burning windmill seems to be another Burton motif–cf. Sleepy Hollow). Frankenweenie‘s satiric twists grow more evident as the mob (in contrast to the unruly bunch in Frankenstein, who deliberately raze the windmill) is reduced to a group of stupefied bystanders, passive observers of the chaotic scene.

Burton’s oeuvre is filled with angry villager scenes, but this 2012 instance represents the macabre maestro’s best-orchestrated Frankenstein riff to date.


Mob Scene: “Going to Meet the Man”

In a Universal monster movie, with old Una O’Connor hamming it up, a gathering of angry villagers could function as a bit of comic relief. But there’s zero humor to be found when the mob-scene setting shifts to an American town in the South during the Civil Rights Era.

The title story of James Baldwin’s 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man features a grisly flashback scene in which a group of whites attend the lynching of a captured black man. His execution is treated like some public holiday, as the caravan of cars traveling to the site carry baskets of food: “It was like a Fourth of July picnic.” Viewpoint character Jesse (eight years old at the time of the lynching) recalls his mother fussing to get dressed up as if for church, and his father nonchalantly sitting him upon his shoulders to provide better view of the proceedings.

What Jesse sees is a naked man chained to a tree limb and dangled above a bonfire. The captive’s wretched screams only stoke the crowd’s bloodlust: “The cry of all the people rose to answer the dying man’s cry. He wanted death to come quickly. They wanted to make death wait: and it was they who held death, now, on a leash which they lengthened little by little.” After the victim is unmanned by a “long, bright knife,” the frenzied crowd pounces, “tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing.” The vicious persecution concludes with a dousing of kerosene that reduces the man to “a black charred object on the black, charred ground.”

Presenting this harrowing event through the eyes of a child, Baldwin dramatizes a dark rite of passage and demonstrates a warping psychosexual effect. Jesse (who considers the hanging body “the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then”) grows up to be a virulently racist sheriff whose libido is a fueled by a confused mix of violent aggression and secret desire.

“Going to Meet the Man” is a deliberately discomforting read, but Baldwin’s searing indictment of Deep South depravity makes for one of the most forceful and unforgettable stories in all of American literature.


Mob Scene: American Horror Story

The season of the witch (21 more days ’til Halloween, Halloween…) usually brews up some frightful television programming, but no show promises to deliver as much delicious wickedness this year as American Horror Story: Coven. “Bitchcraft,” last night’s debut episode of the third iteration of the FX horror series, offered a spellbinding cast (Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett), heaps of witty dialogue, and more than a dash of grue. The episode also featured not one, but two mob scenes. In the first, the bloodthirsty, torch-lofting Puritans of Salem boisterously cheer on their magistrate with cries of “Hang her! Drown her! Burn her!” as they gather around the scaffold upon which Mercy Osborne awaits execution. This black-and-white flashback is matched by the scene where a modern-day Louisiana girl is persecuted (because of her unusual talents as a healer) by a group of religious zealots; Misty Day certainly suffers a dismal fate–dragged, bound, doused with gasoline, and then set ablaze.

The parallel angry-mob scenes serve as a grim reminder that the American capacity for irrational violence has not waned in the three centuries since the Salem Witch Trials. Such ignominious ganging-up on the perceived Other could easily be witnessed again on AHS: Coven this season. Because as the schoolmistress Delia forewarns her sorcerous wards: “We are under siege, ladies. Our lives, our very existence is always at risk. Know this or face extinction.” Unfortunately, prejudice’s torch-bearers are legion, and for those marked as witches, a flash mob signals a terribly incendiary event.