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.