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!