More Needles in the Camel's Eye

The identification between the Qilin and the giraffe is supported by some attributes of the Qilin, including its vegetarian and quiet nature. Its reputed ability to “walk on grass without disturbing it” may be related to the giraffe’s long, thin legs. Also the Qilin is described as having antlers like a deer and scales like a dragon or fish; since the giraffe has horn-like “ossicones" on its head and a tessellated coat pattern that looks like scales it is easy to draw an analogy between the two creatures. The identification of Qilin with giraffes has had lasting influence: even today, the same word is used for the mythical animal and the giraffe in both Korean and Japanese.”
Wikipedia Trawling for “Research” Vol. 2


Here is a new list I worked up for Comics Alliance, featuring even some Christmas figures I don’t think I’ve mentioned here.

Throughout Europe, there are stories of supernatural creatures that take residence within a farmer’s home. Some of them provide helpful service, tidying the house or tending to the livestock; others may end up being harmful; still others may be both, depending on their mood or how they feel they are being treated by their cohabitants (food is the usual payment.) The idea of the house spirit or deity has been around for quite a while, a fixture of both the Romans and the Egyptians among others, but what strikes me about this particular array of entities is how closely they are tied to the salt-of-the-earth types – the serfs, the workers, the subsistence farmers. Through these folktales, there has been a long established connection between the supernatural and the lower classes – they were the ones telling the tales, of course, and so these creatures will often reflect their view of life.

Or should I say death? It’s no secret that for most of history, those at the bottom of the social ladder have had a notoriously truncated lifespan compared to the nobles and rich. The early parts of the 20th century barely improved upon the conditions of serfdom and then the early days of industrialization – and so the line between life and death have long been much blurrier to a large segment of the human race. A farmer would know this better than anyone – the living of the entire family often dependent on the uncontrollable sways of nature, one bad crop or sweeping disease among the cattle could spell years of agony. Death is all around them, in one form or another – and so why wouldn’t the commonly observed avatar of death be a “Reaper”, a being wielding a common farming tool? Ushering in the souls of the dead is just as much a job as bringing in the wheat, the connection between work and death solidified.

It isn’t necessarily right to say that the working poor do not fear death as much as others – they are simply more aware of it. Although the ghost story has long been compromised by the Victorian/Gothic focus on well-to-dos with labyrinth homes and twisted histories, there always seems to be something very working class about them – who else would feel the need to remain in this realm after death, often repeating the same tasks as in life, working towards some unfinished goal? There is also an ancestry aspect of these phantoms that has more power in a working family – you will often have to work with what your ancestors gave you, whether its a family farm or simply a particular lifestyle, defined by the education or finances you had access to. Recognition of one’s family history is incredibly common and spiritually important to many cultures – the spirit of one’s forefathers, will be around to watch over you, both figuratively and (in stories) literally.

But, going back to those house spirits – there is not simply the recognition of the life/death divide there, connecting the mundane with the supernatural, but also a recognition of the forces that shape their lives. As mentioned, to the farmer (or any person who works outdoors, really), nature could be your closest friend or your greatest enemy – and so, too, will the personifications of those forces, crafted with old and new religious traditions, act similarly. A good year? The spirits are obviously on your side. No rain? The barn burned down? Well, the spirits are fickle. It’s not even a matter of appeasing them all of the time – like the wind, they work to their own ends. Relative matters of fortune and poverty are entirely at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Such ideas would go on well into the 20th century – by the second World War, the soldiers faced with sometimes deadly machinery malfunctions would blame it on gremlins – and would also know that similar things would be happening on the other side as well. Misfortune has no biases.

Although the unbelievable vastness and power of the supernatural is at the forefront of these stories, there is also a sense that by integrating these kinds of beings into their lives, they are almost brought down to earth, so to speak. The paranormal becomes normal, the strange mundane – ghosts and demons and other entities become like the weather, or pests, or any other regularly occurring part of the reality of the working poor. It’s all there to make sense of what is real – forced to confront the uncontrollable forces of nature and death on the daily basis, with firsthand knowledge of how close to them both you are and always will be, the people make due, and make them part of everyday existence. The face of death becomes as common to you as the reaper in the field – and so that is what it becomes.

To be human is to hate your own physical existence – every inch of flesh and tissue and bone, every little protuberance and functional bit. This goes beyond even Puritanical values – it seems that as part of our development as self-aware organisms, we have come to despise what we are, the mind hates the body. We may have figured out how most of our bodily functions work – there remains a few biological mysteries within us, but they are few and seemingly within our grasp – but the entire idea of this semi self-sufficient system that is greasy and gross, but also who we are, remains a sticking point for some, with the rest of that nasty business (disease, rot, parasites, etc.) there in the wings to make it all the worse. Gore isn’t just a reminder of pain of death, it’s a reminder that we are sacks of blood and viscera, something we are not confronted with regularly.

Is this why so much fantasy and horror fiction is focused on changing or destroying the body? Tales have long told of people changing into animals – werewolves are just the tip of the iceberg - could that be because our body dysmorphia means we would rather be anything other than ourselves, (sort of a “grass is always greener” deal as all animals are all sacks of meat as well)? Of course, there is just as much fiction about animals turning into humans, too – rabbits, coyotes, foxes, snakes, spiders, horses, the lot – maybe they were considered to envy what we had, our ingenuity and society (as the song goes, “I wanna be like you”), just as we envied their forms, often seeming far more streamlined for useful purposes. In either case, we seem to have a desire to get out of our own skin, and project a similar desire onto the other members of the animal kingdom – we are all in this together, a desire to control our physicality, and possibly to escape it altogether.

When we imagine the machine-beings as taking over, do we see them as advantaged because their sleek combination of metal, wire, and electricity, is a perfection of our own form, no longer hindered by the cells and juices? That could be the twinned fear/desire of the cyborg – the man made metal – replacing our own faulty parts with specialized steel ones, finally finding an escape from ourselves outside the spiritual one pushed for so long (and even more so the idea of uploading one’s entire “identity” to some digital device), or even the animal transformation. It also ties into some of the biggest part of our body hatred – fear of ageing and mortality – which both the classical religions and the technology-obsessed Futurists claim solutions for. Of course, the reality is that those metallic designs are far closer to our own body scheme than many realize – it’s just different kinds of machines, right? Metal rusts and falls apart, too. Maybe all these are the reasons those obnoxious Transformers movies seem to go out of their way to make the robots as drippy and gross as possible – it’s a kind of subversion of our idea of the “perfection” of technology.

Then there’s the undead, the fear of death made into a “living” being. More so now than before, when zombies were still connected to magic and spiritualism of the Vodou religion, the emphasis in the look of the zombie is on exposing as much of the internal workings as possible – torn limbs, open wounds, exposed organs – making them the ultimate visual shorthand for what we despise about ourselves: blood, organs, disease, rot, and animal instinct. No wonder we want to blow their heads off so badly. It is not difficult to read a bit of macho apocalyptic fantasizing into the whole zombie invasion story, but it could just as easily be a weird bit of self-loathing fantasy as well – the chance to conquer our own shambling, disgusting bodies.

The most straightforward representation of all this is, obviously, found in the “body horror” subgenre – which contains trace elements of all the others: animal transformation, cybernetics, broaching life and death, the works (David Cronenberg has managed to make movies that include all those things and more.) What body horror does is collect and codify our of our tensions and fears about our physicality, both real and exaggerated – the kinds of things that we have been basing our horror stories on for many years. One of the go-to ways to craft a menacing creature’s appearance is to take something of ours and make it bigger, more noticeable, more to the forefront. It is then not just the metaphorical danger posed by the thing that frightens us, but that it reminds us of ourselves, of all the things we are and have.