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The Icons of Terror


Okay, with all the buzz about Comic-Con this week in San Diego, (I'm packing & heading down as soon as soon as I write this), it's gotten me to thinking about comic art, pop art, pop iconography and icons in the very general sense of the term.

Icons are art. And in primitive societies, icons are often the first art. Images stripped down to their basics to communicate one point.  On cave walls, they're stick figure men with spears chasing stick figures of boars. At the San Diego Convention Center they're the simplified male and female figures on the restroom doors, the Starbucks logo, Superman's ‘S', Spider-man's spider, Green Lantern's lantern... You get the gist.

What kind of icons am I interested in? Well... scary ones. But what icons are scary nowadays? I suppose the radiation symbol is, so is the biohazard symbol... kind of. The poison symbol with the skull and crossbones is more a novelty now than anything that would induce you to fearfully turn away.

Here's a gruesome exercise I'd like you to take with me. Ready? Here we go.

Imagine this:

You're in a field. It's hot, dry, dusty. The summer sun burns away at you with cancerous intent. Your friend is with you. And you have a baby kitten. Your friend holds the kitten down to a piece of sun-heated plywood while you extend the kitten's paw all the way to its side. You take out a 16 penny nail and a hammer and you drive the nail through the screeching, panicking kitten's front paw, impaling the limb to the plywood.  Without much thought, you take out a second nail and nail the kitten's other front paw out to the other side as your friend grapples violently with the baby cat, now in a state of utter agony and despair, and wriggling and biting so violently that the other nail is almost torn from it's blood soaked first paw. Almost, but not quite. And now the third and final nail. For this one you grab both rear feet of the kitten as it kicks and bucks and yowls, and you nail them, together, to the wood.

Now that the animal is incapacitated,  you prop the plywood up against a post in the burning sun, find yourself a nice spot in the shade with your friend, and enjoy watching the animal die, slowly, in pain, in terror, and in confusion, over the next 24 hours or so.

Pretty fucking awful isn't it? Now I'm not a proponent of animal cruelty, or abuse of any form to any creature great or small. And I'm also the kind of person who would gladly kick a person whom I saw kick an animal. But I wanted to make a point. I had to pick a defenseless animal because if I'd told you the same story about a human being, you'd just say "Oh yeah, like the crucifixion with Jesus Christ. Been there. Done that."

Think about that. If I described the same thing happening to a person, it would be LESS effective.


Because of iconography, that's why. The religious cross is one of the most well known icons of the western world. It's everywhere. And this ubiquitous symbol has become so prevalent that we forget what the thing even is. What is the cross? It's an instrument of torture and death. If Christ had been hung, Christians would all be wearing little gold nooses on chains. Churches would be built in the shape of a loop and not a cross. The stained glass windows of the world's great cathedrals would have circles of twisted rope up there over the dais at the head of the church. If he'd been beheaded, it would be guillotine's that would be everywhere. If he'd been stuck in an iron maiden, then THAT would be the object of our fetishism.

The point is, this icon was once one of terror and hideous awfulness. Religious meaning aside, the cross symbolized pretty much the worst thing the Romans could do to you. It was scary. It was terrifying. It was an icon of terror. And when the followers of Christ started wearing these little mini torture devices, and painting them everywhere, they changed the meaning of the icon.

And it's been so diluted and delineated over the centuries that it's now a curio to some and a testament to faith to others. But at its roots, it's a terrifying icon of a torture and death-dealing machine.

Likewise,  another symbol that's completely lost it's original oomph is the skull. Nowadays they're cool, funny, even Halloween-y and childish... Poor Skull, how the mighty have fallen. But I imagine at one time, early man would be walking through the woods, see a skull painted on a tree and turn his ass right the fuck around and go the other way. Why? Because whoever took the time to paint a skull on a tree, or worse, nail a REAL skull to a post, was not fucking around. The message was crystal clear.  Come any further, and you die.

One of the reasons I thought of icons this week, other than Comic-Con and the prolific use of symbols there, was that my friend Spider blogged about the film The Road a few weeks back here on FEARnet. After I read his blog I rented the film and he was right. It's not strictly horror, but the film DID horrify me. And without throwing out any spoilers, the film reminded me that skulls CAN be frightening, given the proper context... rent it, you'll see what I mean.

So as you go about your week,  watch all the icons that are shoved in your face in modern life. And if you doubt their power, think again. And if you question their meaning or origin... good, because a surprising many of them have roots... in terror...

Gaudium Per Atrox.


(7 Deadly Starbucks logo via