Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Marilyn Manson's Celebrity Ghost Story is Badly Told B.S.

I seriously doubt Marilyn Manson’s Celebrity Ghost Story.
Over the Halloween weekend, I had the chance to catch Marilyn Manson’s segment on Celebrity Ghost Stories. I wasn’t very impressed. In fact, I think it’s a load of crap. Marilyn Manson’s account was problematic for me because while it was doubtlessly a great story, the narrative structure and his behavior while relating the story are not consistent with the story structure and story-telling behavior of other people I’ve studied, or even of the other celebrities who related their ghost stories on that program. Manson’s chief aim, as I will discuss, was to entertain himself by pulling the wool over the eyes of his gullible fans.

In the labyrinthine shadows of folklore studies lurks the uncertain and uncomfortable realm of memorates/revenants. These are the terms German folklorist Carl Von Sydow gave to describe experience narratives concerning a brush with the paranormal. Memorates are personal, first-hand accounts. Revenants develop when memorates that have been told to a second party are then related by that second party to a third party (folklorist Linda Degh has speculated that this is how the narratives we recognize as folk legend come into being). Please understand that one does not need to believe in the paranormal to appreciate memorates. I study the narrative as a true and honest account of someone’s subjective personal experience. This is to say that I can study the narrative structure of people’s accounts of their personal responses to disturbing events without having to believe that they really experienced a paranormal event. What matters is that the narrator believed she or he experienced such a thing and that they feel strongly enough about the experience to narrate it for others. The narrative structure predicated upon this need is fascinating and unique to this particular genre of story, which is the main reason I study it.

With rare exception, all of the stories related on Celebrity Ghost Stories are memorates. The exceptions involve stories such as Manson’s, which are absolutely fabricated.

It’s true that memorates entail a succession of strange, and often ever-worsening, incidents, which criteria is met by Manson’s tale. Memorates usually conclude with either the teller fleeing the haunted locale, or (less common) sticking around and making amends with the spirit(s), and Manson’s story meets this criteria as well. But even the best storytellers will derail strong narrative structure while relating a memorate, because it is a subjective personal experience that they have had to really process to understand. Memorates generally involve some narrative telescoping. By “telescoping,” I mean that as the teller relates parts of the story, they will intermittently pull back to reflect upon the feelings, and fears, and rationalizations they experienced during the event before continuing on with the story’s events. Personal digression is a hallmark of the memorate and it is notably absent from Manson’s account—it lacked telescoping. He told it straight through with little reflection on his own feelings at the time, and no attempts towards rationalization of the events during the telling of them. Unfortunately, because Manson never experienced the events related in his narrative, the structure of his narrative reflects his lack of honesty in relating this personal experience.

Manson’s primary interest in telling this story is to create an interesting tale that others will believe, because convincing others that his tale is true provides entertainment for Manson. Check out the plot points of Manson’s tale: Point A- beaten and then befriended by a cool guy bully; Point B- cool guy bully invites you over for the weekend; Point C- cool guy bully drags you into his Satanic lair, where he forces you to read the Necromonicon (note irony that cool guy bully is a closet Satanist) and makes you PROMISE not to tell his brother about it; Point D- the bully’s activities are thwarted by the arrival of his brother, a fact he does not take lightly and fortunately he has an alternate venue in mind—a cellar located under the remains of a house; Point E- Bully drags you to the alternate venue and makes you recite the Necronomicon by Bic light; Point F- It seems you successfully aroused some big evil, a fact that freaks both you and the cool guy bully out and both of you clear out of the basement and high-tail it back home (where the Satanic sacrifice blood barn of evil death is, btw). Point G- After staying the night with Satan’s lapdog the two set out to retrieve the Necronomicon, which was conveniently left behind in the mad rush to escape the cellar of doom; Point H- the mysterious house foundation and cellar are gone, replaced by an empty field. As we can see, Manson’s narrative is too tight. He didn’t make the digressions anyone relating a genuine memorate makes, but he does have a double-whammy twist ending for both the narrative and the story related within it, which is a characteristic that memorates generally lack.

Manson makes up for this lack of narrative reflection during the telling by over-rationalization at the end of it. The alleged event ends with the twist that the Satanic cellar has disappeared, and the tale-as-told ends with Manson ascribing his monstrous aspects to the evil he unleashed as a teenager. What links the two is the causal relationship he constructs between his powerlessness in finding and destroying the book and his resultant powerlessness at redeeming himself from the monstrousness he has embraced. Not only has he come to terms with what happened, he has blamed this experience for creating the darkness in his own heart. Significantly, this darkness is the major component of Manson’s public persona. The twist ending catapults Manson past his utter lack of reflection and into an over-rationalization of how the event impacted his life. Memorate tellers usually relate some sort of closure in their tales either with the actual events, or through the narration of them, or both. They may also remark how the experience impacted them for the rest of their lives. But they all stop short of ascribing gigantic chunks of psychosocial development to the experience. And they usually don’t highlight the experience as formative of the personality aspect they are most well-known for.

The interrelationship of plot elements, the lack of reflection, and the convenient pattern of causality are all too neatly interwoven for this to be a bona fide memorate. Yet these are not the only aspects of Manson’s narrative that call its veracity into question. Manson’s devil is found primarily in the details. There are a few carefully related and specific details that he meant to add veracity to the story but which when examined betray the falseness of the story.

The first example came when Manson mentions the blood-soaked hay, littering the Satanic death hayloft in the barn. Curiously, he never mentions any smell. Of the five senses, smell is the most closely related to memory. If Manson was telling a real story, the stench of rotting death and the flies and maggots attracted to the carcasses would have impressed upon his memory far more than the sight of bloody hay. Which raises another point regarding plot plausibility: as the barn was doubtless reeking of the stench of death, how could the bully’s brother have been so clueless about the Satanic shenanigans in the hayloft that the bully needed to warn Manson not to tell the brother anything? Why is it that, upon seeing the carcasses and the Satanic altar, Manson didn’t fear he would end up another sacrifice on the bully’s Satanic altar? Had he felt that fear, it should have come forth in a reflective moment during the narration. That this didn’t happen suggests that the events in question probably didn’t take place. Another question undermining the story’s plausibility is that if the bully was so concerned about his brother discovering the Satanic sacrifices, why not just keep the Satanic altar and sacrificed critter corpses in the cellar in the woods, thus ensuring the brother remain clueless about it all? The bloody hay detail was included to verify the existence of the sacrificial hayloft, and thus make the story more plausible. Yet because Manson’s primary sensory memory was visual instead of aromatic—when there should have been such more overwhelming scent details to remember—his verifying detail becomes a strong indicator that his tale is false.

I very much liked the detail that Manson remembers burning his thumb on the hot metal of the Bic lighter while using it to try to read the Necronomicon. Out of this entire story, this is the one detail that really rings somewhat true. The only criticism I can give is that it is virtually impossible to keep a lighter flame going while turning the pages of a book. Which brings me to the most outlandish detail of this entire tale: The book Manson was forced to read from was the Necronomicon. Really.

Traditionally, the Necronomicon is the name of an evil grimoire, or spell-book, that periodically recurs in horror author H. P. Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft’s disciples Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth also feature recurrent mentions of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. He approved of this because such mentions made it seem as if the Necronomicon was a real book, but in fact it never existed before H.P. Lovecraft invented it. Even then it was an obscure reference in many of stories but was never published by Lovecraft as a work in its own right. In 1977, German publisher Schlangekraft, Inc published a leather-bound edition of the Necronomicon. The grimoire is comprised of spells, rituals, and demonology—largely based on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology—allegedly related by the “Mad Arab” to “Simon,” the grimoire’s alleged author. This detail of conjuring evil from the Necronomicon is so suited to the story being told that it seems to be TOO perfect. This is the perfect book to mention if one is inventing a harrowing tale of compulsory participation in ritual sacrifice, which is precisely what Manson did.

Manson mentions the book but makes no attempt to explain what it is or otherwise contextualize it. He seems to assume that the audience will already know what it is. Given the cultural predilections of Manson’s fan base, it is almost certain that they would know something about the Necronomicon and believe that it is an extant demonic text. But it is unlikely that the majority of CGS audience members would have had any clue what the Necronomicon is. Manson has always been a savvy self-promoter and it is doubtful he would have made this omission if he had been concerned with having the wider audience base understand and believe his story. The Necronomicon reference suggests that although he was telling his tale to a wider audience, he was specifically addressing the narrative to his fans. Conveniently, Manson’s fans are also the least likely among CGS-watchers to question the veracity of his narrative.

Manson addressed his tale to his audience, and as a master entertainer he knows not only what his fans want to hear, but also what they don’t. They would not be interested in the psychological digressions from the narrative’s plot, because they would be too impatient to get to, and linger on, demonic details. He also knows that his fans expect a punchy ending, and he gave them one. The double-whammy twist of the vanishing cellar with the Necronomicon trapped inside, and his assertion that this event made him the twisted creature he is today, makes his tale less of a memorate and more like the plot of a comic book hero’s “origin story.” The convoluted plot events and the tragically dark ending are exactly what his fans expect from their prefered comic books, music, films, and other amusements. These generic conventions are is so ingrained that Manson’s fans wouldn’t recognize or appreciate an honest memorate if they were told one. It would fail to meet their expectations and they would be disappointed, quite possibly to the point of thinking the story false. All of which makes Manson’s story ring true for them. The details about the bloody hay and the Bic lighter are also the sort of things that his fans would find realistic and believable but which in retrospect only serve as red flags to ethnographers like me. Manson lied about experiencing any such events as those he relates, but he does offer an entertaining tale plausible enough to his fan base that they believe him. For Manson, that is pure entertainment.