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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Monster Cereals: Eating What Scares Us

If ever there was anything dependable about the nature of humanity--other than the fact that we will always find reasons to divide ourselves--it's that we will do anything we can to mentally protect ourselves from that which we fear. And because the ultimate fear for the human race has always been death--the great unknown certainty from which none of us can escape--it's fascinating to see just what lengths we will go to bury that certainty deep down in our psyche. Horror in particular is not much more than a vast exercise of this very kind.

After all, how else to explain why the people most obsessed with all things mortal and macabre take the keenest interest in horror? Simply put, it's a catharsis; a way of coping in a fun and deflected way with something many of us have trouble dealing with, but are nonetheless fascinated by. So when my brethren in the League of Tana Tea Drinkers proposed a blog roundtable discussion on the phenomenon of "cute monsters" in horror, the whole thing was a no-brainer for me.

The question is, why do we infantilize creatures of horror the way we do in our modern culture? Why do we tend to make them "cute"? For my money, one of the most profound and telling examples of this is the beloved series of monster cereals from General Mills: Most famously Frankenberry and Count Chocula, but also their occasional friends Boo Berry, and yes, even Yummy Mummy. Here we have creatures that once inspired genuine terror in the hearts of men (and women)--turned into tasty, sugary treats for children (young and old) to eat while watching cartoons on a Saturday morning.

Think about it for a moment. Let's deconstruct, shall we? Once we peel back the layers of cuteness, what do we have? A cereal made in the likeness of a murderous, mindless being stitched together from corpses, and another in the likeness of a demonic vampire who drains the blood of the living. A cereal based on the immortal soul of a human being who has passed on, and another on the mummified and resurrected corpse of an ancient Egyptian pharoah. Granted, that's certainly reading a lot into it, but at the very base of it, isn't it true?

In the case of three of those monsters, the origins in popular culture can be traced to the classic Universal horror films of the early 1930s. Were it not for those films, there would certainly be no General Mills monster cereals. Yet those films were intended as straight-up horror, to chill the blood and inspire terror in the masses. And even before the days of motion pictures, the legends those films were based on stretch back even further into time--the novels of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker; and further still, the dark folklore of ancient and medieval Europe, in which creatures such as vampires were wretched, repulsive enemies of humanity.

And yet fast forward a few centuries, and we're sitting on the couch munching on their little faces, soaked in multi-colored milky goodness. The ad campaigns surrounding the cereals have turned the monsters in cartoon characters, voiced in the likeness of famous horror actors of the past like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre (again, individuals whose job was to inspire abject fear, now transformed into juvenile comedy).

Clearly, the bite of the classic monsters (pardon the pun) is dulled by portrayals such as this. I'm not saying they still don't have the power to terrify us--personally, I find Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy to still be frightening and powerful horror films. Nevertheless, it can't be denied that creatures which were once taken far more seriously have now become safe, tame, and consumable by children.

Why has this happened? Familiarity is part of it, to be sure. After all these years of being seared into our consciousness, Drac, Frank and the gang are more like old friends than entities out to destroy us. There's also the type of thinking alluded to earlier: Specifically, our willingness to take something which frightens us and defang it (quite litereally) so we can more easily process it psychologically.

Since death is at the very heart of horror, it's no suprise that most monsters are linked very closely to it. When we break it down, every single one of the General Mills cereal monsters is technically a dead person. Quite jarring to analyze it that way, but also quite true. They are based on beings which do nothing if not remind us of our own mortality. This is the basic source of the horror they all inspire; whether ghost, mummy, vampire, or flesh golem.

And so we do what we always do--we protect ourselves from what we fear, in this case using one of the most tried-and-true methods. We take away its power by turning it into something which is a parody of itself, a harmless representation suitable for small children--so far removed from its origins that one really has to do some mental gymnastics to make the connection.

But the connection remains--twisted, warped and mangled far from its original meaning--yet still there. We've transformed the monstrous into something more manageable, but it's still present, if only we look hard enough. So the next time you're loafing on your recliner, a heaping bowl of Frankenberry and pink milk sitting on your belly as you take in ESPN Sportscenter, think long and hard about the gruesome, undead, homicidal atrocities that inspired your delicious, cavity-inducing breakfast.

Bon appetit!


WriterME said...

The question, for me, is: have we really de-fanged these monsters? Will generations of children who grew up with Count Chocula never be scared by a vampire again?

You might be interested in reading the article on the tension between horror and humour, by Noel Carroll: http://www.jstor.org/pss/432309

Using numerous examples, Carroll states that the framing of the monster decides whether or not it is perceived as threatening (and thus scary), drawing on examples such as the appearance of Bela Lugosi in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Interestingly, Carroll also draws attention to the opposite, namely the creatures of comedy becoming a menace (most notably, clowns).

Perhaps this 'warping' of the monster into something fun and familiar will make the opposite even more uncanny. Anyone up for writing a story on the Yummy Mummy coming back from the dead? ;)

Alice Sweet said...

I don't know much about the de-fanging of the monsters or the psychology of whether or not kids will be less afraid of them because they float in milk.

But I do know they are a damn good way to start my day!


Ricki said...

Fantastic post. It's hilarious what people do to make themselves feel in control of the things they fear.

Krista said...

I'm somewhat inclined to say that they no longer "scare" us (or are no longer marketed to scare us) because the things they represent other than death, (Dracula=repressed sexuality in the Victorian era, Frankenstein=new science, etc,) are no longer relevant to our society, but they certainly are. It makes me wonder if, fifty years from now, kids will be eating cereal with Jason, Freddy, and Micheal's faces on the marshmallows...

jervaise brooke hamster said...

If i was Bill Gates i`d offer my entire $100 billion dollar fortune to anyone who could bring Heather O`Rourke back to life.

B-Sol said...

Writer, fascinating insight. I don't think we've totally defanged these monsters, meaning they can be resurrected in their original form if need be. However, we've sanitized to the point where this now requires effort and a certain amount of audience cooperation.
Ricki, I think it will never cease to amaze me how much the human psyche is governed by fear.
Krista, I've actually pondered the very same thing, and I think that something like that could very well happen. After all, Freddy, Jason and Michael are the classic movie monsters of our own age. I could really see them taking on that role for a future generation.

Strange Kid said...

Freddy Kruger cereal?! Now that would be ironically cool. Couldn't be much more bizarre than the commercialism that followed the film back in its heyday... I mean, a pull-string Freddy doll? Really?

Max the drunken severed head said...

Drowning monsters in milk REALLY kills them. Silver? Stakes? Dissection? Bah.

I take it back. There are probably a few scares left in Frankenstein, Dracula, and ghosts. They just won't be at the height of their powers and they can't wear the faces they did when first they frightened us. No suave Continental look, no flat head, no winding sheets.

But when those elements are completely forgotten, then perhaps they will re-appear...

My contribution to this LOTTD round table is here:

CaptainCruella said...

Great read as always B..perhaps you'd like me to get you in touch with the actual family who founded General Mills? See what their take is...you know my life is like 3 degrees of separation--i know someone who knows someone...

B-Sol said...

An interview with the actual folks who unleashed Frankenberry and Count Chocula on our culture?? I think you know what my answer will be! :-)

Gene Phillips said...

One interesting aspect to me is that many of the most ghoulish monsters may have "cute" or at least funny aspects about them to palliate their full horror. IMO the recent remake of NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST missed the boat with its thundering over-seriousness.

I liked your essay enough to quote in the 2nd part of a 2-part essay.


carol said...

nice, thoughtful piece. thanks!

Cosmicdiadrone said...

Watching the way my kids are attracted to monsters, but always on a level that THEY judged acceptable, I'd say that that there is probably a lot of empowerement in eating Frankenberry.
My daughter often saw Frankenstein-like monsters in cartoons, and she knows, for having glimpsed at it once, that there is a book in my bookshelf with a picture of Boris Karlof as the Monster on its cover, but she never dared look at it (It has now moved to a higher less-accessible shelf, but that's another story). When she saw a Frankenberry illustrations, she was immediately attracted to it. It's horror at a level she can cope with... better yet, she cant eat! She can defy horror, and even be victorious over horror by swallowing it whole.... of course, it also tastes really sugary.
On another branch of the dicsussion, we've had Aliens action figure aimed at kids for quite a whilem. They are not cute as is, but they sure come without any of the terrifying elements of the motion pictures. Therefore,I can easily see Freddie and Jason becoming mainstream popular icons à-la-Dracula and Frankenstein... if there right owners wish it so. I mean, I've seen a 8 years old Freddie Kruger at last year's Halloween. I bet he had not seen the movies. And they had a Scream mask at my youngest daughter's daycare center. So, definitely YES to a Whole Wheats Jason!
One of the big plus, the Frankenstein monster and Dracula have over the likes of the 70ies and up horror beings is that they had already been in the public domain for quite a while when they started their movie career though.

B-Sol said...

Thanks for the praise, Carol--and for quoting my piece, Gene!
Qosmiq, your comment was quite thought-provoking, and I think we are on the same page with a lot of this. I look forward to Freddy-O's with milk in the future...

zmbdog said...

You forgot Fruit Brute!

I think a lot of it has to do with EC Comics and the juvenile horror craze of the 50s. Those kids grew up and saw no reason classic monsters couldn't be "sugar coated" (no pun intended) for kiddie consumption. (again, no pun...whatever)

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