James in the twilight

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DECEMBER 23, 2015

What frightened me as a child was the NC-17 category by the MPAA. It was terrifying in the same way as Henry James: Its nefarious nature was guaranteed by its opacity. It wasn’t simply frightening, violent or sexual, like an R-rated film; it was…complicated and elusive. At the time, I was deeply conscious of my inability to perceive whatever lurked behind this mysterious label, and I wanted to prove myself better than my immaturity. All children are bound to commit Lucifer’s sin of over-indulgent pride against their maker. I, too, was hell-bent on fighting the restraints of my make not only to my family, but to my 8-year-old self.

One evening, my father and I were returning from an exhausting white-water rafting trip. We walked through the doors and saw that my mother was already slightly intoxicated and had our neighbor over. My father was happy for this and he joined the party; I demurred to watch television until I fell asleep.

Television, for me, was more than a deterrent of boredom — it was a companion in the night. There had always been something solitary about the dark that chilled me. In a desert like Orange County, you don’t conceive of blizzards, but the fear of my imagination in the twilight froze me in an avalanche. That icy terror kept me awake in the evenings. Any opening in my room was morphed awfully into dark and ghoulish creatures. The covers of my bed suffocated my cries. I was an etherized patient on the surgical table, like T.S. Eliot’s sky. The impending violence from the shapes around me was inescapable. I tried to avoid these paroxysms through television.

The lineup had been dismal that evening. There were mostly crummy reruns, but Adult Swim had its strange Toonami night, where it aired multiple bizarre animes once a week. It was well past 11 p.m. when I stumbled upon a novel program called “Paranoia Agent.” I was intrigued by the animation — so crisp, so clear. Every frame was well-wrought. But the story that night soon proliferated an amoral debauchery. It was about a boy with a golden bat who steals and attacks the boy who originally owned it, a paradoxical scene where the twin boys are glaring at each other. Soon it became apparent that the absurdity was real because the boy with the bat gores his lesser, caving in and crunching his bone cage. The carcass was gushing blood. The boy with the bat was a sociopath, unaware of his bloodied face as he went to murder more in the streets of Tokyo. Was this what NC-17 meant?

Before this, I had been lulled to sleep many a night by the gentle electric ambience of families and laughter and commercials. I remember always setting the sleep timer to its maximum of 90 minutes. This gave me the semblance of something human beside me, to not feel alone in the dark. It’s only a machine, however, so cold and dead that its free will comes from our omnipotence. It lives its Sisyphean torture every day under the rule of our hands. I reigned with an iron fist, ensuring my subordinate to serve without rest. This time, however, I gave it its rest. Suddenly, that thing I had felt to be a genuine companion had grown inhuman and soulless. I slept in quiet paranoia as my fear of the dark was coupled with a fiery imagination. Terror wasn’t as frightening, however, as the moral and philosophical degradation and reconstruction that was occurring within me.

Oscar Wilde says that, contrary to popular opinion, life imitates art and not the converse. That was my viewpoint as a child. Wilde’s ideas, however, instilled dread in me over the thought of what some beloved character did or said that combatted my ideologies. I had idolized Superman, but “Hollywoodland” introduced a drunk, violent and suicidal Ben Affleck playing the TV version of the Man of Steel. Superman shouldn’t be a belligerent, intoxicated beast; he’s a hero. How does a child absorb this paradox? I assumed that the examples set in TV shows resembled some aspect of real life. I thought TV shows would help me learn how to properly behave in society. Shows for kids tend to have general positive societal norms emphasized over negative ones, with an emphasis on the platonic good beating demonic evil. Children aren’t always mature enough to understand the distinction between life and art, and this is why any artistic decision that is contrary to established societal rights and expectations can be a dangerous example of justified anarchy for kids. This political chasm is paralyzing, overwhelming and, above all, unrelenting.

Maintaining prelapsarian childhood innocence required an open dejection and isolation from such seizing crises of conscience. Mine, however, was spoiling with the thought that a soulless slugger in a show could murder someone who was so scared and human. Each thwack emphasized the brutality of senseless violence. I worried about the death of good triumphing against evil.

As I grew older, the paradox was resolved in its own time. Reflecting on the shimmering past as it creeps onto the present, I realize that the mature mind is the amoral mind, the one refusing notions of Zoroastrianism. F. Scott Fitzgerald says: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think his quote is more apt for the mature intelligence. Sure, the murderer in the TV show was entirely contradictory to all my ideals, and I couldn’t function if this unjustified violence existed in my innocent head. Time, however, chiseled my callous mind to one that is guided by its own constructed cosmology, and uses responsibility as the pilot of all decisions. It survives off basic instincts and emotions, using reasoning and logic, as opposed to dogmatic morality and justice, as its map and compass. Encyclopedias of catechisms have no room aboard this vessel.

Contact Parker Kjellin-Elder at 


DECEMBER 23, 2015