The terror of the unmind: Muppets

September 27th, 2011

Yesterday my nephew finally conquered his fear of river folk on ring-crack.

It was a small victory and I used it to illustrate the point I’d made an hour or so earlier when I was desperate for what we here at Mindless HQ call a ‘proper loo’ and had to forcibly eject him from the bathroom explaining that one has to face one’s fears – heights, spiders, being shut out of the bathroom while an adult goes to the toilet – if one is to conquer them. In the end his clinging to my leg and screaming made proper loo impossible and so I resolved to grasp the next opportunity to expand upon my, at that point barely sketched out, argument as firmly round the throat as I currently wanted to grasp my nephew…. Little did I know said opportunity would present itself within the hour when it came Lord of the Rings time.

Towards the end of an eight and a half hour stint of babysitting one gets tired and I’m not ashamed to say that its normally around this time that the laptop goes on for an hour and a bit, and for the past few weeks the child pacifier of choice has been Lord of the Rings. The Nephew has much bigger balls than I did at his age and so far he’s braved cave trolls, balrogs and black riders without so much as a ‘fast forward it’, in fact he thinks all the aforementioned are cool – the cave troll being ‘SO COOL!’ – but even though his performance thus far had been impressive I knew until he’d managed to sit through the beginning of the Two Towers he couldn’t really have been said to be tested. Why? Because river folk on ring-crack.

Gollum is just a haunting in the first film, a half glimpsed series of disembodied eyes, hands and scuttling legs and low growled preciousses, and in the mind of a child this lends him incredible power. Long time readers of this blog probably know all about the characteristics of the haunting by now – high degree of absence generating presence, non locality translating into immanence, etc. – and so does the nephew. He’s learnt the hard way. This was obviously a big part of the The Fellowship of the Ring’s thrill for him, the pant shitting fear that Gollum might be lurking around every corner, that were he to get too complacent, too comfortable, then those scrabbling fingers might suddenly burst forth and drag him, wailing, back to a sunken lair beneath the Misty Mountains – Gollum, hiding behind the trees, the tv screen, the sofa, crouched, poised behind thin air, ready to pounce. So it was with great trepidation and, I could tell, not a little excitement that he agreed to sit through the beginning of the next film where, I knew, my point about facing one’s fears would be proved. Because as we all know Gollum’s not all that scary when you meet him in person. Suddenly the vast hyperdimensional spectre moving through the first film collapses in on itself, reducing to little more than a bug eyed, gangly drug addict – and, even less frightening and utterly inexplicably, one that appears to be afraid of the most ridiculous and annoying character in all the LOTR films, that ever whimpering sharer of loads, bloody Samwise Gamjee. So now, as the nephew himself says, he’s not scared of Gollum, not when he can see him, only when he’s hiding behind floating logs in the background.

Victory! Gaze into the fist of Dredd!!!

Still can’t go to proper loo when it’s just us on our own though.

So anyway this is all the obligatory autobiographical detour material you expect when you run a search for Mindless Ones, but the point is it got me thinking – thinking about rogues that lurk. There are different kinds of rogues, basically. There’s your Darth Vaders slap bang in the centre of the frame, big bads who command the action, and then there’s the guys in the background, the Bounty Hunters. Of course Boba Fett was a special edition, send off your tokens and get a free figure kind of deal, but I’ve never felt his status as the most popular Star Wars character ever could be quite so easily reduced to pre-Empire promotional toy guff. No, none of that stuff would’ve mattered one iota if the famous disintegrator had arrived fully fleshed out with all that crappy prequel backstory in tow. What makes Fett work so well, what makes all the bounty hunters work so well in fact, are the gaps in our knowledge. We all know this, it’s obvious. Films should not be made with fans in mind, continuity porn is bad. We are drawn to the lacunas in the atomic structure of the narrative around the Bosks and the Zuckusses. Providing my own explanation for why Dengar is wrapped in bandages or why there’s a 4 before the Lom is far more exciting and inticing than any a cruddy, or even not so cruddy, Star Wars fanficer can provide. And so it should be. These beings on the edges of our stories, just out of shot, are there to be chased but never caught, or in the end all we’re left with is a stupid gangle creature or Attack of the Clones. So there are some baddies we love to seek around the margins for, to whose pull we willingly acquiese.


Crazy Harry was without a doubt MY Gollum.

To give you some idea of how much he frightened me, as late as my early teens I couldn’t look at a friend’s T Shirt because it had Harry on it and when the internet first went global in the late 90s I actually dared myself to Google search for Harry related images – at that time I would’ve been 21 or 22.

Like the bounty hunters and the infamous Beaky – a Star Wars character who didn’t exist but I made my Mum hunt everywhere for anyway – Harry was a character you searched the margins for. But unlike the bounty hunters this was not because you expected to find him there doing cool stuff. It was because you were afraid.

The Muppets are a funny thing; they’re remembered so fondly by most people, as though everyone just uncomplicatedly loved them, however a part of me thinks this. Just. Cannot. Be true.

It’s hard to unpick what unnerved me so much about the Muppets. I guess the easiest explanation would simply be that puppets, being neither alive or dead, are kind of scary.  Add to that a good dose of insanity and manic energy and you have something potentially nightmarish. But what about fraggles? They were puppets too and they were bonkers, and whoever met anyone remotely unnerved by a fraggle. There’s always someone who was scared of the Count (Shut up, the Sesame Streeters are definitely muppets too), but a fraggle? No, I think it’s more complicated than that. What I think it is is the opposite, these weren’t unbeings, but fully fleshed out, living, breathing denizens of that weird theatre where they all seemed to, err, live (fucked).

Yes, they were alive. And, as we’ve noted above, they were all, to man, demented grotesques. The puppet thing meant whatever exaggerated emotional state they represented was, more than never in doubt, totally overblown and in your face. It didn’t matter what a character like Dr. Teeth was saying, whether he was being funny, sad, feeling the music, he was forever frozen like this:

And this, unless you actually ARE Frank Zappa, is wrong.

Just as Beaker was perpetually terrified, Swedish Chef was a burbling, dangerous idiot, Animal a brute……

And these were the ones in the foreground, the Muppets fit for public consumption, strange and slightly unnerving, yes, but, even as a child you knew, nothing, nothing compared to the mindwarping felt beaked horrors lurking behind the scenes. As a child I just understood, probably because of my fearful mind’s natural tendency to extend everything frightening to its logical, awful conclusion, that whatever lurked at the heart of that theatre would be too terrible to fit in my tiny infant brain.There was the feeling that what we saw, what we were allowed to see, was just the surface of something SIMPLY AWFUL.

And at the cusp of where it all became to monstrous for me to imagine.

Harry was what happened when you didn’t keep your eyes locked on Kermit and Piggy or whoever it was in the centre of the screen, when they wandered too far, into the corners, the musician’s pit, the window of the false front in the background. He was the gatekeeper. Because for me, like my nephew with Gollum, Harry was everywhere. And it still feels like that. I’m still sure he’s crouched behind his detonator ready to spring in literally every scene of the Muppets I watch. It’s interesting for me, now, to unpick the boudary wall that is Crazy Harry actually. Why did he represent the point at which the Muppets crossed over the line between funny fun and  funny, NOT? Well his behaviour’s the most obvious thing, the way he took the insanity to the point of actual murderousness, the fact that he intended to terrify, that it wasn’t just an accident of too much beaking or fnurdy hurding. And then there’s his explosions – the purest articulation of the chaos he, and the Muppets, inevitably represent. All the stuff behind Mum and Dad, where nothing made sense, the Other, Death. Then there was his posture, hunched, a creature made for hiding, crouched in the corner under the table at the far end of the living room in my Nan’s house, where I lived during the peak of Harry’s reign of terror. None of the adults would be able to see him of course, but I would. I was small and made for travelling under tables, this was my world and everything about Harry’s muppet physicality suggested it was his too. His to invade.

But his skin tone captures it best. He’s at the point where the madness reaches such a fever pitch that the show turns itself inside out, kermit green giving way to grey, where wacky fun collapses into its abject – mental illness, unkempt hair, sleep deprived eyes. Where the stage lights finally go down on all that colour. The Darkness when everyone has left the theatre, and the thing waiting for you in it. The lacuna in my knowledge Harry represented, the space on the stage where he wasn’t, wasn’t something to be filled with fantasies and daydreams, it didn’t abhor a vaccum – it was a vacuum. A pure vaccum that couldn’t, wouldn’t be filled. Vast and incomprehensible. It pulled at me, yes, but it was a black hole. He was an event horizon, like the lair beneath the misty mountains from which there is no return. And that was the thing, you resisted its pull, you tried not to look, but in the end couldn’t resist it. And to stare too hard and too long into those theatre boxes and those dark corners around the  stage risked the darkness looking back at you, and then you would be gone.

And after the darkness? Well, were I to come face to face with it I would surely be devoured in a whirling maelstrom of cackling, whooping, clucking, canned laughter, disco coloured feathers, googly eyes and fuzzy teeth.

Anyway, writing this thing has been a funny kind of psychotherapy for me, in that I think in doing so I’ve discovered the root of my very own jungian involute, the signifier that my childhood dreamscape was about to be hijacked by a nightmare – the red curtains. I’ve considered all sorts of things before, not least of which Stanislav Grof’s perinatal matrices and the idea that the curtains were in fact the folds of my mother’s vagina, an indication of a particularly traumatic birth (I was on a ventilator for days), but that they were the curtains hanging from the proscenium arch of the Muppet’s theatre I find a far more persuasive theory. I think those curtains became incredibly charged for me at some point during my early childhood, that they represented a kind of defferal of the terror Harry represented. Because they too were the midway point between me and it. I knew that passing through them, either way, into the audience or onto the stage, I would be entering the realm of muppetry, passing the threshold into bellowing puppet bedlam. They were the signifier of lurking, waiting things, mysterious and terrible. And years later when I saw them again, in Twin Peaks, the same fears were activated, fears which Lynch, as Zom observes in his bastardry post, only confirmed.

Anyway: The Muppets, Crazy Harry… Fucked.

POST SCRIPT: On reflection I’m not sure what to think about those curtains. The thing is my nightmares normally involved a witch, not a male figure, and I would’ve expected that to have been the case if it could all be boiled down to the Muppets. Who knows? Who knows where those fuckers come from. All I know is this: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

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