Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tall Tales and Reboots

It’s no secret that most men lie about their height. 5’11” (180 cm) – yes, really – but not a hair over, I frequently find myself looking slightly downward when talking to men claiming to be 6’ (183cm). “Six Feet” just has a nice ring to it (unless a cemetery is in view), especially since so many women unabashedly state a preference for men over 6 feet. Then there is the double meaning of the very word “stature.” So, guys tend to round up in order to be included in the 6 foot club – or as close to it as they think might be credible without a measuring tape.

The club in reality is a relatively small one, at least in the US. According to the CDC ( only 15% of adult American males are over 6’0". That’s true both of the general population and of the 20-29 age group – which is to say the overall percentage isn’t skewed by short seniors. In fact, after 200 years of steady increase, the average height of Americans started dropping a couple decades ago; this probably is due to changing immigration patterns. The tallest cadre of males is the 40-49 age group at 176.8cm (5’10”); the age 20-29 group is 176.3 (a sliver under 5’10”) – not a big drop, but a measurable one. Female height peaked in the 30-39 age group at 163.4cm (a bit over 5’5”); 20-29 year-olds average 163.1 (5’5”). For the entire adult US population, the average male height is 5’9” (176cm) and the female 5’4” (162cm).

The variance of my height from the average – for my ethnic group and age, it is negligible – is small enough that I’m rarely conscious of height, whether my own or someone else’s. I never worry about getting close to the stage at a concert in order to be able to see anything; on the other hand, I’m never surprised when my vision is blocked by some tall dude, so that I have to shift my position. Rarely is a woman taller than I (fewer than 5% of women exceed 174cm, and only 1% 180cm). Seldom do I have to duck because of low ceilings or doors. In short, there usually isn’t much reason to think about height one way or the other. It just isn’t an issue.

It comes to mind today only because a (shorter) acquaintance this morning grumpily commented out of the blue, “You like wearing those lifts in your shoes, don’t you?” He was referring to my cowboy boots, which I have an unfortunate habit of wearing some 30% of the time. (Hey, this is Western New Jersey.)

“They’re not lifts, they’re boots,” I said. “It’s the normal heel. They’re that way for stirrups.”

“Yeah, right,” he harrumphed.

It was likely he had experienced some height-related indignity earlier in the morning, so I let the matter drop and changed the subject.

The truth is, he has reason to be grumpy. Short men really do have to try harder at pretty much everything in order to get to the same place as their taller colleagues. Average annual wages rise about $1000 for every extra inch of height of the wage-earner. It’s hard to believe that competence has any correlation with inches, so wage differences have the look of pure bias. A Fortune 500 survey of male CEOs showed that they averaged 6’0” (183cm). Only 3% of CEOs were under 5’7”, even though this is 30% of the male population. Only 3 of the 44 American presidents have been under 5 feet 7 inches; the current occupant of the office is 6’1”. Stephen Landsburg in Slate notes wryly that the five tallest were “Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt—suggesting, incidentally, that height predicts not just electoral success but a propensity to subvert the Constitution… This statistical anomaly works in the other direction as well; the shortest of American presidents was James Madison, who largely wrote the Constitution.” Then, once again, there is that female preference for tall men. Men with children are, on average, 1.2 inches (3cm) taller than childless men of the same age.

Taller women also have advantages in the workplace and in life, but they are not as pronounced as for men. They are there, though. (Leslie Rasmussen in The Huffington Post writes about the trials of being under 5 feet [152cm] in an amusing article: The advantages are not of a Darwinian sort, however. A British study shows that short women are more likely to marry and have children. One reason may be that the pool of taller men is simply larger for them. Whatever their stated preferences about relative height, few men-seeking-women in practice consider it a deal-breaker either way.

So, now I’m conscious of the heightist implications of my footwear. Apparently (at least in the Northeast), they suggest an intent to “cheat.” Perhaps I should wear sneakers more often. Aw, hell. I like the boots, I’ll wear ‘em.

Well, I don’t wear the hat

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Charlie Sheen’s Swan Dive

Roman Ford Coppola, son of Francis, has his father’s eye for gorgeous screen images and superb camerawork – even when working with props and locations that by themselves are simple and mundane. He doesn’t have Francis’ knack for giving stories an epic feel – not just big-themed films like Apocalypse Now (in which you might expect it) but also lightweight pics such as Peggy Sue Got Married. Nor does he have sister Sofia’s talent for being sentimental without being maudlin, e.g. Somewhere (2010). What he does, more than either, is convey an existential sense of life’s absurdity. His scripts are infused with sardonic humor and quirky irony that aren’t to everyone’s taste. Roman has had critical successes, especially when co-writing with Wes Anderson, e.g. The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom, but it doesn’t surprise me when his attitude turns off viewers.

Nevertheless, the negative response to A Glimpse inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, which Roman both wrote and directed, was extreme. On Rotten Tomatoes it receives an abysmal 16% score despite a solid cast: Charlie Sheen, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Aubrey Plaza, et al. Could it really be as bad as all that? I had to see for myself. The short answer is no, it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all. However, I can see why most viewers, including professional critics, don’t like it – really don’t like it. It’s that attitude again, plus the whole thrust of the plot, which is not about love succeeding, but about love failing. Audiences prefer the success stories. They sometimes respond to the other kind, but not when delivered with breezy, offbeat, unsentimental, and sometimes snarky humor. In a way, this is the Anti Silver Linings Playbook. Roman tells us that maybe there is no shot at a silver lining. Folks in our time increasingly may believe this about real life (see April blog Every Silver Lining Has a Dark Cloud), but they don’t want to see it on screen.

The movie is set in the 1970s. I don’t know why, though it is the decade when romantic expectations shifted. Charlie Sheen plays Charles Swan, a successful commercial artist who designs book and album covers. He is also a middle-age bachelor who hasn’t grown up. His stunning girlfriend Ivana, played by Katheryn Winnick, dumps him over an issue that isn’t very important in itself, but which is a “last straw.” In fact, she has lots of good reasons to leave the wandering-eyed Charlie, and there also is reason to believe Ivana has strayed. After she leaves, Charlie obsesses on her in a humanly contradictory fashion: he loves her, he hates her, he is glad to be free of her, and he desperately wants her back. He has a wild artist’s imagination, and we see his fantasies; they include song-and-dance numbers and a literal battle of the sexes with a cowboys-and-Indians motif. (This daydream device is not original – it was used to good effect in The Seven Year Itch [1955], for example – but Coppola does a good job with it.) Charles suffers what he thinks is a heart attack (an unsubtle metaphor) but isn’t. He then goes on a crazy drunken spree involving friends, work, and family, ending in an encounter with Ivana that is revealing but, at bottom, depressing. All the while, we can’t help being aware of parallels to these events in Charlie Sheen’s own life.

I won’t recommend this film since there evidently is an 84% chance the viewer won’t like it. I rather did, though. The film was not intended to be deep. Nevertheless, it really does reflect our time, especially in romantic matters. That is to say, it is airy, glitzy, self-indulgent, shallow, unpleasant, and rudely funny, but also, if you look too close, tragic. Perhaps the message is, don’t look too close. 

Start and Double-Click for Full Screen

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Brawlers Punish

In a bruising interleague bout last night, the Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade and the Boardwalk Brawlers of Shore Points Roller Derby faced off on the Punishers’ home rink in Morristown NJ.

Star jammer #157 Maggie Kyllanfall was back on the track this bout for the Punishers, and #57 Heinz Catchup skated her last bout for the team. In a re-run of last year’s match in the same venue, the two teams traded leads in the early part of the first half. The biggest difference was in the blocking, in which both were more aggressive.  #1337 FR3AK N’Rabbit, #13, #17 Outbreak Meggo, #802 Strawberry Moose Cakes, and #3 Shannanigan jammed most frequently for the Brawlers. Brawler nudges into the lead were interrupted by Punisher power jams (when the opposing jammer is in the penalty box) by #394 Voldeloxx and #8 Lil MO Peep, who racked up points for the Morristown team. Heinz, even when not the lead jammer, was especially good at restraining the Brawler point total by catching up to (and engaging) the Brawler jammer, thereby pressuring her to call off the jam. In the final minutes of the first half, however, the Punishers ran into trouble when FR3AK N’Rabbit impressively made five passes through the pack in a power jam. Shannanigan followed up with a second round of grand slams (5 point passes) for the Brawlers. The first half ended with the score 92-40 in favor of the Brawlers.

The second half saw strong blocking by both teams. Both continued to score points, but the Punishers chipped away at the Brawlers lead, partly by exploiting power jams, but mostly bit by bit. AK-47 ASSault Shaker and Voldeloxx slugged through for a few points at a time. Heinz was repeatedly knocked-about seriously in one jam but still managed to score points. #0110 Whoabot delivered serious hits on the Brawler side while Raven Rage and Criss Catastrophe often team up for a double hit for the Punishers. A trade-off of power jams followed, with Maggie Kyllanfall making a multi-pass. With 8 minutes remaining in the bout, the Punishers had closed the Brawlers’ lead to 159-123.

The power jam trade-offs continued, but the numbers favored the Brawlers. FR3AK N’Rabbit, at one point facing only two Punisher blockers (the others were in the penalty box), was outstanding at exploiting power jams. The Brawlers regained their momentum and expanded their lead once more.

Final score was 233-127 in favor of the Brawlers. MVPs were Heinz Catchup for the Corporal Punishers and FR3AK N’Rabbit for the Boardwalk Brawlers.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tune in, Turn on, Drop Dead

We all have the proverbial skeletons in the closet. Yes, all. Among our hidden bones may be transgressions that are objectively serious, or they may consist entirely of events that merely are subjectively humiliating. Maybe, for example, you keep mum about a youthful Quick-E-Mart heist in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1993. (This one is unlikely.) Perhaps you keep secret some particularly skanky past erotic fling for fear that no one ever would touch you again if it were general knowledge. (This one is pretty common, actually.) Maybe you cast a particularly embarrassing vote in some election. (This one is nearly universal.) Maybe you were a schoolyard bully. Maybe you cheated on [fill-in-the-blank]. Whatever. The point is, we all have them. When we tell our life stories, whether in social gatherings or in more formal biographies, we are pretty sure to tell an edited version that keeps the closet door firmly shut and the contents unrattled. We can learn a lot about a person by discovering what is omitted from his or her tales. The skeletons themselves matter less (once again, we are all flawed) than their storage in the closet, for what one person hides another proudly displays in the trophy room.

What brings this to mind is the film biography Timothy Leary is Dead, a title that references both a Moody Blues lyric and (with less intended irony than one might imagine) Friedrich Nietzsche. The film aired this month because, I suppose, Leary died in May of 1996. When Timothy Leary was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 1995 and learned he had only a few months remaining to him, he commissioned this film, which consists largely of interviews with him and his associates. I should mention that the gruesome deathbed scene at the end, in which Leary’s head is detached and placed in cryogenic storage, is faked – Tim’s last little joke. In fact, Leary was cremated (head and all) and his ashes were launched into space. Otherwise, this is a broadly accurate and interesting bio-pic, and is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in the impact of psychedelia on the social history of the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, I can’t help noticing a glaring omission. The generally pacifistic Leary went through a phase in the early 1970s of advocating violent revolution. This gets glossed over in the film. To his credit, Timothy Leary seems to have regarded this episode as an embarrassing skeleton best relegated to the closet. Nevertheless, it is worth peering inside, if only to learn how even a mild good-natured fellow such as Leary can hear the whispers from the dark if they arrive at an opportune moment.

Timothy Leary (1920-1996) was a respected psychologist in the 1950s who became interested in the use of psychedelics for mind expansion. Until 1963 at Harvard University he explored the potential of LSD, which was legal prior to 1966. In 1963 he left Harvard and continued his research at Millbrook, an estate in upstate New York, where he became a counterculture hero and guru. He advocated the substance as a way of raising consciousness. At this point he was decidedly apolitical in any direct fashion: “Don’t vote. Don’t politic. Don’t petition. You can’t do anything about America politically.” If enough individuals expanded their minds, however, he believed social change would follow of its own accord. Ultimately, raising one’s consciousness was a personal event. At the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967, he told the crowd, “The only way out is in. Tune in, turn on, drop out.” This is now, and was then, not only his most famous but his most misunderstood remark. He was not urging people to give up on life, sit around, and drop acid. He meant (and explained whenever asked) that the way to personal freedom was through inner space. Tune into yourself, expand your mind, drop out of the robot-like life-courses so many of us unthinkingly follow, and instead create your own destiny tuned to your own vision of reality.

Leary seemed to be everywhere in the 60s and 70s, and he developed the oddest connections. Millbrook was raided by G. Gordon Liddy, who later would conduct the Watergate break-in. (In the 80s the two went on speaking tours together.) Leary hung out with Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey. He was married briefly to Nena von Schlebrugge who later would be Uma Thurmon’s mother. He choppered to the Altamont concert with Mick Jagger. At a Congressional hearing he was grilled by an openly hostile Ted Kennedy, while Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America.” (At least he brought those two together on something.) He briefly occupied a prison cell next to Charles Manson, with whom he chatted.

By 1969 Leary (though it was hard to tell how ironic he was trying to be) ignored his own political advice and announced he would run for Governor of California against Ronald Reagan. His party was called FERVOR, for Free Enterprise, Reward, Virtue and Order. It advocated extreme free enterprise, the elimination of taxes, schools run for profit, legalization of drugs, and utopian hippie ideals. There is another word for this platform though it is not one he used at the time: libertarian. John Lennon wrote a campaign song for him.

Don’t come alone, come together
It’s the only way to come.
Don’t go away, come along, join the party
Everybody has to come sometime! Come now!

If this has a familiar ring, it’s because the song later was reworked into the “Come Together” number on the Abbey Road album.

Legal troubles interrupted Leary’s campaign and led to a radical change in his philosophy. In 1970 he was convicted in California on trumped-up drug charges; he had been in possession of marijuana, true enough, but the amount was so minute that it ordinarily would earn a wrist slap. The judge gave him ten years. Meanwhile the feds were building a smuggling case against him that threatened another possible twenty years. For a man his age, he was looking at life in prison. In order to determine to what prison to send Leary, court officials gave him a personality test. Leary must have laughed: he himself had authored the test in the 1950s. Naturally, he answered the questions so that he would be sent to the lowest security prison in San Luis Obispo

Enter the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground (aka Weatherman) was a homegrown self-styled insurrectionary group, an offshoot of the SDS, with Leninist rhetoric: "The goal is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” In the 60s and 70s the group was responsible for a series of robberies and bombings, including the bombings of the Capitol, the Pentagon and NYC Police Headquarters. A townhouse in Greenwich Village in 1970 also was destroyed when a bomb detonated accidentally, killing three members of the group. Numerous members of the group, including Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, were indicted, but due to FBI misconduct, charges on most eventually were dropped. In 1970 members of the Weather Underground assisted Leary’s jail break; they provided the getaway van and helped get him out of the country with an assumed identity and forged documents. The prison experience and the prospect of life behind bars had radicalized Timothy Leary completely. Leary released a Going Away Manifesto supporting Weatherman and calling for violent uprising: “The conflict we sought to avoid is upon us…There is no choice left but to defend life against the genocidal machine.”

Leary flew to Algeria, then governed by the Marxist FLN. Algeria hosted an embassy of the Black Panther Party, regarding it as the legitimate US government. The ambassador and Minister of Information for the Black Panthers was Eldridge Cleaver, who had gone to Algeria to avoid legal consequences from a shootout with Oakland police. On behest of the Weathermen, Leary tried to coordinate statements and activities with Cleaver.

In case there was any doubt about his change of heart, Leary spoke to journalist (and screenwriter) Donn Pearce: “Every policeman is an armed, fascist, bloody murderer. If he is not he should take off his uniform and quit. No one can be friendly with a pig, any more than you can be friendly with a Nazi. It is war. It is ‘our nation’ against the US government… In the very same way and for the same reason, the Weathermen might blow up Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with 5000 pigs inside. I would not urge or tell anyone to off a pig. But I would support, defend, and glorify such an action on the part of someone else.”

Despite the new rhetoric, Leary hob-knobbed with the rich and famous when he could, while continuing his hedonistic and pro-psychedelic lifestyle.

The Panthers eventually had enough of Leary, and also of the Weathermen. Cleaver: “What I’m saying here applies to the Jerry Rubins, the Stew Alperts, and the Abbie Hoffmans, and the whole silly psychedelic drug culture, quasi-political movement of which they are a part… we are through tolerating this madness; and we want everyone to know that the serious work of uprooting and destroying the empire of Babylon with its vicious fascism and imperialism, this has to be dealt with in the only way it can be dealt with, by sober stone-cold revolutionaries…Your God is dead and your High Priest is crazy.”

Leary was unconcerned. By now, well-to-do admirers in Switzerland were making his life easier. On an ill-considered trip to Afghanistan, however, Timothy Leary was arrested and extradited to the US. There he turned state’s evidence in exchange for reduced sentences. Governor Jerry Brown of California ordered his release in 1976.

Leary thereafter abandoned the Marxist Revolution and dropped the porcine element from his references to police. He once again became a pacifist. In 1988 he held a fundraiser for Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party candidate for President of the United States.

As it happens, Eldridge Cleaver abandoned Marxism, too. Disillusioned by his experiences in Cuba and Algeria, he returned to the US, voted for Ronald Reagan, became a Mormon, and ran for the US Senate in 1986 as a conservative Republican. Cleaver died in 1998.

So, Leary returned to his roots, but he packed away a pretty big-boned skeleton in his closet when he did. How did he transform back and forth so readily? Perhaps he explained it best at his trial for the 1970 escape after his return to the US: “I’m not Timothy Leary most of the time. I get into this uniform and turn a key and use the Timothy Leary identity to move through space and time as is necessary for the accomplishment of my mission and my survival…” He created his own reality as suited him, as he always had advocated. In this sense, he was consistent.

 Poster from Leary's Gubernatorial Campaign

Friday, May 10, 2013

College Kids Never Vacation Where There Is Cell Service

The other night while sleepless at 2 a.m. (it happens sometimes), I slid Tucker and Dale vs. Evil into the DVD player. The film has a solid 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes despite an unimpressive box office when it was released in 2011: it grossed $52,843 on opening weekend and never did crack $250,000 in the US market. (Worldwide box office was 4.7 million.) It deserved better.

Think the horror movie plot of "preppy college kids attacked and killed one-by-one by hillbilly cannibals" has been done to death? Yes, me too: Offspring, Hatchet, The Devils Rejects, The Cottage, Wrong Turn (I –V), etc., etc. So, it seems, did Eli Craig (writer/director) and Morgan Jurgenson (writer), the makers of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. After giving us an obligatorily gory opening shot, their movie flashes back three days and presents us with a classic horror set-up: exceptionally attractive preppy college lads and lasses are driving into deep backwoods hill country for a vacation. At a gas station they cross paths with two creepy rustics who own a ramshackle cabin near the lake where the kids are going. In fact, the men are just a couple of completely harmless good ol' boys on a fishing weekend. Their only real fault is unsophisticated social awkwardness, but the college kids have seen so many teen slasher movies with redneck villains that they are frightened by the encounter. Later, when the two men rescue one of the girls who has had a swimming accident, the remaining kids misinterpret what they see. Believing the worst, the kids create havoc with their overreaction. The script is clever, dark, and very funny.

The film recalls to mind a book that received some critical attention about fifteen years ago: The Redneck Manifesto by Jim Goad. In a polemic definitely not for the easily offended, Goad argues (rudely and scabrously) that the various clashes based on race, culture, gender, orientation, and so on, that so dominate American political discourse, divert our attention from the divide that really matters: class. He says that members of the working class, regardless of color, have more in common with each other than with the white-collar elite (of whatever hue); stirring up differences among them on social issues muddies the more fundamental similarity. He says that habitual condescension toward the redneck, whom it remains strangely PC to disparage, is particularly effective at blinding us to classism. He asserts that this division of the working class is not an accident, but a deliberate strategy of the business and government elite. The summary at notes that Goad “is certain that the trailer park holds more honest people than the House of Representatives, and he knows from personal experience that truck drivers are more trustworthy than lawyers.” I can’t argue with this assessment. The summary then calls the book “a literary laxative for a constipated public.” I’m not quite sure what to make of that imagery, but it sounds like something that demands good plumbing.

Goad is worth a read, though I think that a class perspective, while useful, also can blind us to seeing people as individuals if overemphasized this way – losing sight of the trees for the forest is always as much a risk as the reverse. With some gentleness and humor (in a horror movie, no less), Tucker and Dale makes the point that failing to treat people as individuals is not only destructive but self-destructive. Of course, some caution when dealing with strangers (and not just strangers) is warranted regardless of their social group, since some individuals are dangerous, as recent events in the news make clear. We ought to remember that 6% of American adults are convicted felons. But that does mean 94% are not, and in a pinch, when you ask any stranger for help anywhere, you are most likely to get it.

As for the political implications, if we accept Goad’s ratings of honesty and trustworthiness, we might be better off if we replaced our current 535 Representatives and Senators with truck drivers selected by lottery. I doubt it would do any harm.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Other Derby

Orb, ridden by Joel Rosario, won the Kentucky Derby yesterday. Despite a fondness for things equestrian, I didn’t watch it. I attended instead the roller derby double header in Morristown, NJ.

In a throwback to older days of derby, men and women skated. First up were the men’s teams New York Shock Exchange (NYSE) from NYC and Capital District Trauma Authority from Albany. Morristown being in the NYC metro area, NYSE played as the home team. One of the NYSE members, Starsky, also is a coach for the local women’s league NJRD. I don’t normally follow men’s derby (there are lots of male contact sports), but, as a novelty, the bout was fun to watch.

NYSE completely dominated the first half, with the score standing at 180-31 at the half-time whistle. The District pushed back in the second half, with 818 Roarshock and Massacre HATE both jamming strongly; both repeatedly bypassed NYSE blocks by jumping the inside curve. It wasn’t enough. NYSE built on its lead. Starsky had a good night, and 125th Malcolm Sex put 35 points on the board in a single power jam. NYSE won with a final score of 379-100.

The women were next up: the Morristown-based NJRD All Stars vs. Philly Block Party. As the two teams practiced on the rink between the bouts, it was immediately clear that NJRD was going to have its hands full against the powerful Philadelphia team.

NJRD began the bout strongly, taking an early lead. NJRD blocking was fierce and well-strategized, often creating a pack formation that prevented Philly blockers from engaging the jammer. Shannanigunz, Maulin Rouge, and Miss USAHole all jammed aggressively. Philly resistance was stiff, however, with Grim Reber and Herrman Monster delivering hard hits. 87 Goldie took back the lead for Philly in a power jam. The two teams see-sawed through the first half, with the lead changing hands five times. Philly nudged ahead shortly before halftime, with the score favoring Philly 119-101, very much an “anybody can win” point spread.

The intensity turned up in the second half -- to the point of keeping the EMTs busy with skaters down on the track. Viva la Chaos took a particularly hard hit late in the bout. Philly’s power showed itself. Blocking by Philly stiffened – credit to Maulin Rouge, though, for getting back on her feet and the track when encountering it. Goldie and 821 Sounds Like Magic both showed boundless endurance as Philly jammers, never seeming to tire or slow. Philly soon opened up a 100 point lead. NJRD redoubled its effort, and, assisted by a multi-pass power jam by Miss USAHole cut the lead in half. Ultimately, NJRD could not overcome Philly’s persistent energy. Philly reopened the lead, with 821 providing many of the points. The match ended finished with a 290-166 victory for Philadelphia.

Philly scored a solid win, but there was no doubt they had been in a bout. As for the future – well, that’s what rematches are for.

Kids from Philly

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Living with Fame

Fans of horror, comics, and science fiction (there is much crossover among the genres) are a dedicated bunch. Fortunately, they have no shortage of conventions to attend (often in costume) around the country and around the world: Worldcon, Fangoria, the various Comicons (San Diego is still the largest), and so on. The one closest to me is Chiller Theater (, held twice per year in Parsippany, NJ, most recently this past weekend.

The organizations running these conventions typically earn money from entrance fees and from selling table space to vendors. The odd mix of DVDs, dolls, posters, costumes, tee shirts, vintage comics, and sundry items on sale by the vendors are probably enough to draw a fair number of visitors by themselves, but the celebrities who show up to hobnob with the crowd are (in current terms) the killer app. At Chiller Theater there are usually 100, more or less, with various degrees of name recognition. Sometimes the stretch for a sci-fi/horror connection is a long one (the Monkees?), but most have something in their careers (e.g., from this year’s guest list, Mariel Hemingway was in Superman IV and Karen Allen was in Starman) to serve as an excuse. So, almost anyone can show up.

The use of the term “celebrity” as an identity (much as one might say a lawyer or a tailor), rather than just as an attribute (i.e. celebrity as something one might have in the way one might have wealth), dates to the 18th century, but the idea is older. The term got a boost from the spread of modern media in the form of newspapers and magazines. Celebrity culture grew throughout the 19th century when readers loved being shocked by reports on the likes of Lord Byron (who famously sired several illegitimate children including one with a half-sister) or of actress Sarah Bernhardt (who traveled with a pet python and alligator). By the turn of the century the “society pages” of the papers were rife with tales of the excesses of upper class offspring and of lurid celebrity scandals such as the murder of architect Stanford White over the young model Evelyn Nesbitt. These people became household names. The rise of film and recorded music, however, increasingly focused public attention on entertainers who became familiar faces and voices. By the 1920s, the major stars had acquired such celebrity status that 100,000 fans showed up at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino in 1926, and rioted. The guest lists at Chiller Theater have yet to include anyone of sufficient fame to inspire a fan riot, but they do attract autograph-seekers.

Nowadays, popular culture very largely is celebrity culture. On the TV listings are almost as many shows about entertainment as there are providing the thing itself. The mainstays of their offerings are celebrity gossip. Talk shows abound on which celebrities chat about nothing in particular. The rise of “Reality TV” has created some very unlikely entrants to their ranks.

Social scientists have taken note, and churn out an endless parade of books on the subject; the authors ponder why so many of us want to be celebrities and why so many of the rest of us want to meet them. It’s a good question. After all, most celebs are not any more interesting as people than many non-famous folks we commonly meet in everyday life – people who may be more attractive, more insightful, or wittier (or all three) than the celebs. And why does fame per se attract us more than achievement? The men and women who designed my GMC pick-up (for instance) arguably have influenced my life as much as Three Days Grace (whose album is presently in the truck’s CD player) yet I have no particular desire to meet the truck’s designers. Why the difference?

One of the more curious answers (not mutually exclusive with others) comes from Terror Management Theory. Researchers in the field tell us that thoughts of our own mortality make us value fame as a way of cheating death. (Lyrics to the theme song for the TV show Fame: “I’m gonna live forever.”) This seems intuitively correct, but, less intuitively, they propose that thoughts of death make those of us who are not famous value more highly those who are. By rubbing elbows with the famous (the immortals), some of their mojo rubs off on us – or so we feel on a subconscious level. This expectation isn’t very logical, but humans only rarely are that. Social psychologist Nathan Heflick tells us, “In several studies, people were more positive towards celebrities and fame when they were first reminded of death. This suggests that people cope with the awareness they will die by loving themselves some fame and celebrity.”

There is an abundance of death references at a Chiller Theater Convention. There even was someone costumed in a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe. (At least I assume it was a costume.) I wasn’t consciously dodging the fellow by exchanging pleasantries with familiar faces from the large and small screen (in fact, I smiled and nodded at him), but perhaps on some level I was employing sympathetic magic against him. Well, I’m still here, so it appears to have worked.

Terror Management? Aubrey Plaza (her movie Safety Not Guaranteed reviewed in my February blog, The View from the Couch) says she plans to live forever