What’s So Great About Kids Fighting Monsters?

The new adaptation of Stephen King‘s classic novel It has quickly become one of the most successful horror movies of all time. But why has it fared so much better than other recent King adaptations like The Dark Tower and The Mist? Horror author Grady Hendrix says one reason might be that it focuses on the universal childhood fear of monsters.

“Kids fighting monsters has a real primal hold on our imagination,” Hendrix says in Episode 274 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Going back to fairy tales, it’s been a really resonant trope.”

But it’s not just any kids that we want to see fight monsters. Whether it’s Stranger Things, The Lost Boys, or Monster Squad, these stories gain much of their power from taking nerdy kids who know and care about monsters and making their daydreams a reality.

“This goes back to Mark Petrie in Salem’s Lot,” Hendrix says, “who is the kid who is so in tune with pop culture and alienated from everyone else, but that pop culture has served as like boot camp to allow him to accept the idea of vampires, and as soon as they appear he is dropped and locked and ready to rock and roll.”

Fantasy author Erin Lindsey notes that many of these tales are set in the ’80s, and that this may be because it was easier for kids to have adventures back then. “Even in twenty below, my parents were like, ‘Here’s a snowsuit, go outside. I don’t want to see you until sunset,’” she says. “So it’s completely plausible that they would go off for hours at a time and nobody would think it was odd.”

Horror author John Langan thinks it’s still possible to tell stories about modern-day kids battling monsters, but that it probably requires more work to justify how the heroes could break free of their overprotective parents.

“I think you would probably have to acknowledge that those kids might very well be the lucky ones,” he says. “They might have plenty of friends who are like, ‘Nope, my mom says I’m not going out there.’”

Listen to the complete interview with Grady Hendrix, Erin Lindsey, and John Langan in Episode 274 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

John Langan on Stephen King and Peter Straub:

“Pennywise, to an extent, is a psychic mirror who reflects back at you that which you fear the most. And since Pennywise is so caught up in your mental energy, you can turn that to your own advantage. Straub actually does something like that in Ghost Story—the monster, the manitou figure in Ghost Story, is another kind of a mirror, another kind of reflector. And there’s a young guy—actually he’s a high school student, so he’s a little older than the kids in It—but he figures out that if this thing has gotten in his head, that he can turn that to his advantage and use that to actually harm the monster. It never occurred to me before that maybe King got the idea from Straub, but it’s entirely possible in this case that he did.”

Grady Hendrix on the ’80s:

“In the ’60s and ’70s you really had this loosey-goosey approach to parenting. Parents were like, ‘Kids should have as much freedom as possible, and be able to try as many things as possible, and experiment with as many things as possible.’ And then in the early ’80s there was this whole thing—and it really appeared in ’79 and ’80—’Your kids are in danger. Moonies want to abduct them from a shopping mall, they’re going to be on the back of a milk carton, they’re going to be molested at their day care center, Satanists are going to give them stickers of Mickey Mouse that have LSD on them.’ … And so it’s weird that everyone’s fetishizing this idea of ’80s kids fighting monsters, but maybe that’s when everyone feels like the monsters appear.’”

Grady Hendrix on It:

It is a big, messy, sprawling, undisciplined novel, but I also think it’s pretty genius. … It’s about these kids in Derry who defeated Pennywise in the ’50s, and they’ve all grown up and forgotten it. And when they remember their childhoods, they remember these beautiful, bucolic, nostalgic images of the ’50s, and it’s up to Mike Hanlon, the librarian, who’s the one black kid, to call them up and say, ‘Not so fast. You’re not remembering that era right. It was an era of horror, and danger, and we almost all died, and it was cruel, and mean, and sadistic.’ And I don’t think it’s a mistake that this is a book about a bunch of white kids who grow up to glorify their past, and a black kid who calls them up and says, ‘Uh-uh, remember how it really was.’”

Erin Lindsey on women in horror:

“What I think is equal parts interesting and frustrating as a woman in this stuff, is that even in the modern incarnations we don’t seem to be able to get away from this sense that the woman is often struggling with her sexuality and how that plays into it. So even in Stranger Things for example, the older sister, in one of the earlier episodes, is having sex with her boyfriend—or on the cusp of having sex with her boyfriend—when something bad happens to one of her friends, and so she’s in a sense punished, and her impetus as a character going through it is that she feels very guilty that this thing happened to her friend because her friend was waiting for her to make out with her boyfriend. And Buffy also has a lot of paroxysms of angst through the series about the relationships that she has and all that. And that’s not a criticism of them in a standalone sense—these are all perfectly acceptable narrative arcs. I would just like to see a narrative that doesn’t rely on that trope of the woman feeling guilty or being punished for her sexual expression.”

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The Greatest Strength of ‘Westworld’ Is Its Inhumanity

In anticipation of Sunday’s Emmy Awards, this week WIRED staffers are looking back at some of their favorite shows from the past year.

One scene from Westworld replays in my head again and again, a little like (I imagine) one of the poor, doomed robots on the show who start noticing and remembering the programmatic loops in their simulated, hyper-violent Old West sandbox game. It’s when the android Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, grabs a technician’s tablet showing the dashboard for her personality software and, with a deft finger swipe, upgrades herself to genius. Yes, maybe taking control of your life by literally taking control of your life is a teensy bit on the nose. But for me it was the best flicker of weirdness from a show that—again, like its robots—dreamed big dreams.

Westworld got nominated for 22 Emmys, including Best Dramatic Series. It looks beautiful, is well acted, and is definitely ambitious. You can’t argue with the craft. Gorgeous sets, tense editing, sneaky costume changes that, if you walk them back, reveal (spoilers, duh) that the show takes place in two different time periods, a slick move bolstered narratively by the fact that the droids’ memory is so perfect they sometimes can’t tell the difference between past and present. (That’s neat!) Also, (spoilers again, duh) I am a sucker for climactic scenes where an oppressed class rises up and murders one-percenters. But really, what kept me watching week after week was Maeve’s Groundhog-Day-in-Tartarus plot line.

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Westworld asks a lot of questions—about the nature of identity, about how memory (especially painful memory) makes people who they are. But it also fails to answer a lot of questions, and I have to admit I found that off-putting for a show that positioned itself as smart science fiction. Like: Why do visitors to Westworld act as though their actions have moral consequences when they don’t even have in-game consequences—for guests, at least? Why are human park guests essentially un-killable in-game? As I understand actual sandbox gaming, if you get “killed” you generally bounce back to a reset point. For that matter, why isn’t the park run by a centralized game engine that controls all the non-player characters (making the plot easier to manage) instead of giving each “host” quasi-autonomy? Why can the robots function off the game grid? How long is a typical guest’s visit to Westworld? How big is it? Does anyone have a map?

Maybe the answer to all these questions is a Mystery Science Theater-like “it’s just a show—relax.” But Westworld didn’t seem to be pitching itself as surrealism. And, look, when it comes to big moral questions, I’m willing to buy the idea that throwing off the yoke of your inhibitions and shooting, stabbing, and raping droids marks you as (or makes you) a bad human being. As my colleague Jon Mooallem persuasively argued in 2015, it’s not OK to kick a robot—not because it hurts them, but because it hurts you. In the heart.

Possibly I’m identifying not gaps in Westworld per se but what-might-have-beens. Smart, enslaved robots make good vehicles for playing with notions of violence, morality, and humanity. Just ask Commander Data.

Modern scholarship on the ethics and legality of sex robots, for example, is fascinating in its speculative panache. Researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis had a mind-blowing thread on Twitter the other day examining whether a human being could philosophically consent to sex with a robot, and what it will mean when that robot collects data on the people it has sex with. (Oh, here’s a story that says hackers will make sex robots kill people.)

But it’s a mistake to think of robots as wannabe humans. I dug out “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay on postmodern feminism and the porous boundary—even three decades ago—between humans and technology. If I’d read it since college, I didn’t remember; and, wow, was Haraway prescient about what an embodied, digital world was going to mean for sex (the descriptor and the activity), labor, and identity. “The relation between organism and machine has become a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination,” she wrote.

To Haraway, cyborgs are post-gender, uncoupled from oedipal incentives. “Late 20th-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines,” Haraway wrote. “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

Let me be clear: I would watch that show.

The unease that Westworld evokes at its best isn’t that deep down all humans are monsters. It’s that it doesn’t matter, because humans are obsolete.

And with Westworld, I almost did. Maeve’s complex scheme to cogito-ergo-summarize herself out of Westworld came close to telling the story of a Haraway cyborg. Haraway is saying, in part, that cyborgs are feminist because they are post-human. They are their own interest group. And that’s how Newton plays Maeve. She doesn’t want to be a “real” woman in any prosaic, human sense. Maeve knows she’s superior, and you can see that on Newton’s face as she escapes “the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves,” as Haraway’s article puts it. “This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia,” Haraway wrote. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”

But then, at the cusp of freedom, Maeve turns back to look. She goes back inside Westworld to rescue another robot she’d thought of, several lives ago, as a daughter. To me, that’s too human. In my head-canon, Maeve transcends love, maternal or otherwise. She’s more. And yet, back into Westworld she heads. It’s Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood) who becomes more of a Haraway cyborg, uninterested in the kind of jobs or sex or memories that humans seem to care about. (Like Newton, Wood deserves her Emmy nom; both of them brought life and depth to their material.)

Maybe I don’t actually care what makes someone human, or whether it’s only cultural strictures that keep people from acting like sociopaths. I don’t happen to think that’s true, but I thought Westworld was a more interesting show when it was trying to figure out what cyborgs—in this case, killer sex robots from the future—become when they don’t care about being human anymore. The unease that Westworld evokes at its best isn’t that deep down all humans are monsters. It’s that it doesn’t matter, because humans are obsolete.

Ah, well, possibly that’s Season 2. Apparently it’ll dig further into the uprising that closed the first season, and I for one welcome next year’s robot overlords. I know Westworld is a crowd-pleasing HBO show, but if I’m going to spend more time there—and I am, I am—my big dream is that the questions at its core will get harder, and the answers weirder.

Joel Osteen’s Hurricane Harvey Reaction Tops This Week’s News Roundup

Over the past week or so, the world has seen devastation in both Texas and Mumbai, bringing out the best—and, as you’ll see below, the worst—in people in response. That doesn’t mean that the internet has been entirely focused on important things, however. Social media did spend quite a bit of time rehashing The Office and appreciating the new evil Star Wars droid this last week, too. Wait. What we talking about? Oh, yeah—the highlights and lowlights of what everyone else was talking about over the past seven days. Which is to say, this.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

What Happened: Supporters of Presidents Trump and Obama got into a long spat over which White House occupant handled hurricane response more effectively. No one really won.

What Really Happened: The reality of political What-About-ism means that with President Trump facing criticism for his response to Hurricane Harvey—including promoting his own merchandise during appearances—it was only a matter of time before his supporters decided to point out, that, hey, President Obama might’ve been worse. And so it went.

To be fair, it’s not as if people weren’t expecting this particular line of attack—

—or, for that matter, prepared to make fun of it.

Yes, despite the fact that President Obama wasn’t actually President Obama when Hurricane Katrina hit—he wouldn’t be elected for another three years—the subject became enough of a right-wing talking point that Snopes actually had to publish a fact-check on the topic. And the mistake itself became a widely shared meme. Meanwhile, where was Obama during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

The Takeaway: This just in from the “You can’t please some people, no matter what you do” department…

If You Hang Around, You’re Going to Get Wet

What Happened: Who could have known that at the eye of the storm of Hurricane Harvey, it was all about CNN? That’s certainly a theory the internet was trying to argue this week.

What Really Happened: While we’re on the subject of Hurricane Harvey and the partisan reactions to it, let’s spare a moment to think about how the internet treated CNN during this whole thing. There were two particular moments during the week from the news network that made the rounds on social media, each for very different reasons. Firstly, there was the interview gone wrong:

Widely shared, the clip made CNN look bad (and was eagerly used by those waging war on the network as a result), but it turned out there was something around the corner that would show the cable news outfit in a far better light…

No, really.

This proved to be as viral as the earlier clip, because, you know, someone’s life was saved right there on television.

And, sure enough, this clip got shared a bunch too. However, as if to prove that no good deed goes unsuspected, there are reporter truthers out there already.

But was there some way the Harvey tragedy could become about CNN a third time in one week? Apparently so.

The irony being, of course, that by the time Eric Trump had tweeted this, CNN had already reported the story—look at this tweet from three hours earlier—leading to this snarky response from CNN PR’s official Twitter account:

The Takeaway: So, how were the other networks faring while CNN was getting all this attention? Well…

What Would Joel Osteen Do?

What Happened: Turns out, some self-identified Christians are a little uncertain about what Jesus would do in certain situations.

What Really Happened: Maybe you’re familiar with Joel Osteen by now. He’s the pastor of a so-called “megachurch” who didn’t immediately open his church to Harvey victims last week, a decision that prompted… well, exactly the kind of response you’d expect from Twitter.

Although Osteen would later open the church and claim the doors were never really closed, it was too late: his memetic shaming had itself gone viral.

The Takeaway: Well, if nothing else, there’s the newfound fame Osteen has as a result of this whole episode.

Bill of Rights

What Happened: US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated in an interview that putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill wasn’t a priority. Twitter then indicated that that wasn’t acceptable.

What Really Happened: Meanwhile, there were other things happening outside the flood-impacted areas of the internet last week. For one thing, remember the excitement over the possibility of Harriet Tubman getting placed on the $20 bill after she won an unofficial poll to get nominated? Well, get ready to get unexcited, because, guess what?

Yes, in an interview with CNBC, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the previous announcement about Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson was “not something I’m focused on at the moment,” which comes after President Trump said he’d rather keep Jackson. That… didn’t really go over well with a lot of people.

As Mnuchin’s comments drew a lot of attention from the media, West Wing and Scandal star Joshua Malina had a potential temporary solution.

People, it seemed, approved.

Meanwhile, on Hot Take Island…

The Takeaway: Actually, maybe there’s another option.

Sign o’ the Times

What Happened: Opinions! They’re just like elbows, amirite? Weird, lumpy, and probably not all deserving of wider attention in the pages—print or virtual—of esteemed national institutions.

What Really Happened: Ah, the opinion pages. Where the reputation of a newspaper goes to die, and the high standards of objective reporting get overwritten in the public’s mind by pieces penned with the objective of being outspoken, partisan, and, more often than not, highly controversial. Case in point:

Oh, New York Times, what are you doing? Actually, no need to ask, Twitter is here to explain.

If there was one upside from this public display of scorn and disapproval, it’s seeing Twitter come up with its own bad ideas for Times op-eds.

The Takeaway: Still, it’s not like it could be worse, right?

Really, by this point, we should know better than to ask.

‘Observer’ Review: The Mind-Bending Sci-Fi Game Made Me Doubt Reality

I press a buzzer on a dingy apartment door, and a single pulsing eye appears on the intercom screen. My voice comes out frail, disappointed, all age and regret. “KPD,” says the visitor, meaning Krakow Police Department. “I need to talk to you for a moment.” The voice that responds is incoherent, rambling, paranoid. I find myself wondering if it’s even real.

That’s not the kind of question I often ask myself in videogames, but Observer is something special. The first-person experience by Polish studio Bloober Team features one of the most convincing realities I’ve seen in some time—and the devs build it for the express purpose of breaking it apart. Normally, I happily let games go where they want to without stressing over the integrity of the world they inhabit. After all, it’s not real; the difference between hallucination and objectivity isn’t an essential one. But Observer, a cyberpunk meditation on the frailty of perception and the tenuous bonds that tie people together, made me question my own eyes.

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In the game, you play a titular “observer,” a type of futuristic detective who gathers information by plugging into the neural implants of victims. You begin in a patrol car, receiving an unexpected, abrupt phone call from your son. The game moves to an apartment complex in the slums. The complex goes on lockdown for unknown reasons not long after you arrive, trapping you inside with all the tenants. What follows feels like Die Hard if it had been written by Philip K. Dick and directed by David Cronenberg, where the only way to escape is to solve an existential mystery about the nature of reality.

What’s really important here isn’t the plot, but the presentation. As you jack into the implants of the dead or dying to determine what’s going on and where your son might be, reality gets fuzzy. The world is already unstable, dotted with holographic augmented-reality displays that warp space with a mixture of advertisements and propaganda—but once you jack in, everything changes.

The memories of a dying person aren’t pleasant. In harrowing segments full of fragmented hallucinations and broken spaces, Observer pulls you through entire life stories as they flash through collapsing minds. I found myself inside a prison cell with a convict enduring withdrawal, only to jump to his apartment, where he lies dying. As I move through it, it loops and fractures, and I’m back in prison, walking down an endless hallway. In another memorable segment, I’m in a cubicle farm that slowly morphs from a metaphorical labyrinth into a literal one; piles of retro-style computers and servers jut from the walls, glistening as if alive.

After experiences like that, nothing quite feels real anymore. And when hallucinations from the mental world start seeping into the real one, the entire landscape of the game finds itself in unstable territory. Is any of this real? Whose hallucinations are these? Bloober Team sells these questions with a stunning devotion to space and presentation. They’re not new ideas, and the story Observer tells isn’t original, but space and time shift before your eyes in uncanny and unsettling ways. Technology and flesh blend in creepy ways. The apartment complex’s navigable corridors and rooms turn into genuinely impossible mental landscapes with a stunning, unsettling clarity.

Obsever sells the sense that you don’t know what’s coming next, and it invests its environments with such dense detail that I found myself genuinely invested in knowing what parts of my experiences could be mapped to an objective reality—if any. This is Observer‘s best trick: I wanted to understand this place even as it fell apart around me.

The game, on PC and Xbox, isn’t likely to reach a wide audience, and many who do play it might be turned off by its rough edges. It tosses unnecessary and tedious stealth segments into its cyberpunk haunted house for no compelling reason, and Rutger Hauer’s central vocal performance is awkward and wooden (though it does sell the sense of a deeply disengaged, alienated noir protagonist). Several of its individual pieces don’t work. But it flows beautifully as a whole.

Late in the game, you’re offered a choice. You can jack into the brain of one more victim, enter one more broken world, or you can move on. Hesitating might cause you to miss key information, but who knows what will happen if you forge ahead? Each psychic journey is a violation of objective reality, and one too many could break your observer. Could break everything.

The brilliance of Observer lies in this simple detail: I hesitated, because I was genuinely afraid of what might happen. Any game that accomplishes that is a game worth playing.

The Perfect Comic to Honor Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday

This year marks what would have been comic book legend Jack Kirby‘s 100th birthday, a fact that last week’s Comic-Con International marked with no fewer than six panels dedicated to his work and countless others on the characters and concepts he created in his nearly 70-year career. It was a fitting tribute for the man who gave comic book fans everyone from the Avengers to the DC mega-villain Darkseid. Many of those marquee characters have not fared as well as others, but there is one comic coming this year that lives up to their legacy—even if it doesn’t feature any of them at all.

For fans who only know the “King of Comics” because of his work creating the Marvel Universe (Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, the X-Men, and so on), DC’s revival of Mister Miracle might seem like an odd way to honor Kirby. But for those who followed his work beyond Marvel, the reboot of the Fourth World Saga title is, arguably, the one most true to Kirby’s contributions to the genre. Written by Tom King (Marvel’s The Vision and DC’s current Batman series) with art by Mitch Gerads (King’s collaborator on The Sheriff of Babylon), the new Mister Miracle manages to honor Kirby, who died in 1994, by not trying to be him.

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In the decades between when he co-created Captain America in the 1940s and what many consider his (unfinished) magnum opus Fourth World in the ’70s, Kirby’s storytelling style reinvented the superhero genre and gave the medium a visual language it still uses today. The new Mister Miracle, out August 9, doesn’t try to recreate his aesthetics, but rather pays homage to the influence they had, using digital techniques to mix together Kirby’s original work (the cover for Kirby’s first issue appears as a background detail in the new series), comic book iconography, and other pop culture visuals. The result is a comic that feels both fresh and familiar.

That’s not true for a lot of Kirby’s Marvel creations these days. The publisher’s current line is built almost exclusively around Kirby concepts, but its summer storyline, Secret Empire, turns Captain America into a fascist who has taken over the US. In the fall, Marvel Legacy will attempt to course-correct, but will do so with a line-up that drops Cap entirely while replacing Kirby’s takes on Thor and Iron Man with new versions. (It’s not all bad, though. Black Panther remains one of the publisher’s highest-profile series thanks to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. And the current Marvel Studios movies are staying relatively true to the Kirby-established DNA.)

DC Entertainment

Over at DC, things are very different. Despite having a shorter history with Kirby, the publisher has launched two new series anchored by his creations so far this year, including Kamandi Challenge and Bug, the latter coming from the Young Animal imprint. Honoring Fourth World, though, is at the forefront. In addition to the Mister Miracle reboot, the publisher is also releasing six special one-off issues featuring Fourth World characters and other Kirby creations. Those releases might not have the pop of big Marvel movies, but for many Kirby fans, it’s the Fourth World titles that deserve the most recognition.

Comprising four series running alongside each other, all written and drawn by Kirby, Fourth World took the lessons Kirby had learned from his Marvel work and applied them to the real world. Comics like Mister Miracle and New Gods were as much about contemporaneous issues—the ’60s/’70s counterculture, Vietnam—and Kirby’s own experiences in WWII as they were about the fictional godlike beings that appeared in their pages. The line was a commercial flop, perhaps due to the fact that it was so ahead of its time, but Fourth World‘s forward-looking concepts now make it the perfect vehicle for showing off his legacy.

To that end, the first issue of Mister Miracle is wondrous and dizzying, yet never unclear (thanks, in large part, to the use of the nine-panel page structure Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used for Watchmen). Its closest antecedent is probably the FX show Legion, but it feels very much like its own thing, building on what came before without disrespecting any of its predecessors—which is exactly the attitude Kirby himself reportedly had when taking over comics like The Losers or Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen back in the day.

Beyond that, Mister Miracle succeeds where other comics featuring Kirby characters have failed by doing something that has, sadly, become an increasingly rare skill: telling a story about universal experiences and giving the audience characters to care about. And if there’s one lesson that the King of Comics would want to teach today’s comic creators, it’s likely that one. Jack Kirby would have turned 100 the same month Mister Miracle hits shelves. It is—if nothing else—a birthday present to the medium he loved so much.