Two hotly anticipated horror movies opened this weekend: “Evil Dead Rise,” the latest continuation of Sam Raimi’s beloved splatterfest, and “Beau Is Afraid,” a Freudian fantasia of morbid humor, gore and psychosexual anxiety from Ari Aster. Both center on one of the genre’s most reliable tropes: mothers who either turn into monsters or have been banshees from hell from the very beginning.
The Scary Mom is a well-worn conceit that cuts to the very heart of the horror genre’s core audience of teenagers and young adults: How better to nudge along healthy separation than to redefine the woman who has protected and cared for you all your life to a malignant force in need of elimination?
But, as we’ve seen all too graphically in recent days, the most frightening real-life characters aren’t all-powerful women. They’re guys with guns — or, really, any modern American citizen who feels that their personal space is being attacked — who are apparently scared out of their wits, or at least perilously on edge.
On Tuesday, cheerleaders Payton Washington and Heather Roth were shot and wounded in a Texas parking lot after Washington got into a vehicle she says she thought belonged to a friend. Realizing her mistake — the car was occupied by Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25 — she retreated to another car, then was allegedly approached and shot by Rodriguez before she could deliver an intended apology.
Also on Tuesday, in Gastonia, N.C., 24-year-old Robert Louis Singletary shot several neighbors, including a 6-year-old girl, after a basketball strayed into his yard, according to local police.
In Kansas City on April 13, 84-year-old Andrew Lester shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl after the teenager reportedly came to his front door by mistake, looking for his younger brother. Lester answered the door with a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol in his hand and shot Yarl in the face, then in the arm. He later told police that he thought Yarl was attempting to break in.
A few days later in Upstate New York, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed by 65-year-old Kevin Monahan, who police said fired on the car Gillis was in, which was driving away after turning into his driveway in error.
Jittery men can be dangerous even when the hair trigger is metaphorical: Last October, 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson was going tree-to-tree hoping to eradicate invasive lantern flies in her New Jersey hometown when her next-door neighbor called the police. Gordon Lawshe, then 71, described a “little Black woman” whose presence outside his house alarmed him. “I don’t know what the hell she’s doing,” Lawshe told the police dispatcher. “Scares me though.”
What, exactly, has driven these men to such hysterical extremes? As has been widely reported, the outbursts follow a period of surging gun sales, weakening gun laws and impunity-granting provisions like “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine.”
But, as my Post colleague Paul Waldman pointed out on Thursday, the most important common denominator is fear: an irrational, metastasizing sense of mistrust, hostility and imminent threat that has migrated into almost every aspect of American life, from media and politics to gun marketing.
The core of firearm advertising, Waldman notes, is “to convince potential buyers that sooner or later (probably sooner), they will be the victims of violent crime. The only question is whether they’ll be able to kill their attackers before they’re killed first.” As Alex Horton, Monique Woo and Tucker Harris observed in The Post’s revelatory series about the rise of the AR-15 automatic rifle, gun marketers don’t just rely on fear of the Other; they exploit deep-seated insecurities about masculinity itself — such as the text for a Bushmaster ad that read, “Consider your man card reissued.”
Then there’s the conservative echo chamber and its gravitational center, Fox News. Since Joe Biden’s election, my colleague Philip Bump reported earlier this week, mentions of “crime” have markedly increased, despite the fact that they haven’t correlated to actual data about crime. Still, Bump noted, Fox News “is nonetheless feeding off of and feeding a narrative about surging rates of crime, usually as a way of casting aspersions on urban areas run by Democrats,” adding that the network’s coverage “has disproportionately involved clips of isolated criminal activity to generate a sense of unconstrained violence in urban areas — despite evidence that the increase in crime since the pandemic also occurred in rural areas.”
I had a chance to witness this propaganda and its effects firsthand when an elderly relative — whose preferred TV channel was Fox News and who routinely fell asleep to hyperbolically pitched talk radio — would occasionally become convinced that “they” were just outside his serenely tucked-away townhouse. Admittedly, his distorted thinking was a product of slowly developing dementia and disturbed sleep. But it was just as surely reinforced by the messages he was bombarded with literally day and night, about a country under siege from criminally violent Black Lives Matter activists; migrant caravans storming the southern border; the Democratic Party’s plot to replace “legacy Americans” with “Third World” interlopers.
I thought of him, and the hunting rifle stored in his front closet for as long as I could remember, when I read about Andrew Lester. I thought about him again when I read about this week’s $787.5 million settlement of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News. In documents and testimony gathered during discovery, it became clear that Fox hosts and commentators routinely and knowingly lied to their viewers, insisting — inaccurately — that Dominion was part of a conspiracy to steal the 2020 presidential election. Fox declined to apologize to the network’s famously loyal audience, although in a statement released on Tuesday the company did “acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”
That statement is probably as much as we can expect by way of accountability when it comes to Fox News, whose business model centers on keeping its mostly older, mostly White, mostly male audience in near-constant state of hostile, self-righteous arousal. I can’t be alone in wishing that an entire generation of adult children could sue the network for stealing the rational, compassionate people who raised us and turning them into fearful, paranoid fantasists. (Forget Beau and the Deadites: The movie we’ve been living in is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”)
Observers have made much of the size of Fox’s settlement, which some suggest amounts to a tacit admission of wrongdoing. But the network, and the larger media ecosystem in which it exists, isn’t likely to change its ways anytime soon, especially if ratings and advertising dollars keep rolling in. Nor will the fearmongering gun industry, or fearmongering politicians. There’s entertaining — and even healthy — catharsis to be found in bloodcurdling tales of zombies, vampires and vaguely supernatural Others. But we ignore at our peril the increasingly obvious fact that the most dangerous real-life bad guy is far more likely to be scared, armed and inside the house.