Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On Hearing The Fly Buzz

I had the great good luck--and horrible misfortune--to grow up near one of the first modern indoor malls in South Jersey. It had a movie theater--which in the 1960s meant one screen, and that of course colossal--and on Saturday afternoons they ran a bargain matinee, showing a few cartoons followed by a science fiction or horror movie from the 1950s. My mother would take my sister and me to see Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Deadly Mantis and Invasion of the Saucer Men and too many more, all on the big screen, all at once absolutely irresistible and dismayingly horrifying.

I completely understood the Bill Cosby routine that begins, "When I was a kid I had pictures of monsters all over my walls, but I never looked at them. I was too afraid." I too indulged in such masochism, decorating my room with the unwholesome, the unholy, the unknown. Directly above my bed, the last thing I saw every evening as I lay straight (like a soldier at attention, as my mother observed, while my father more insightfully muttered, "He looks like a corpse"), my posture a defense against ax-murderers (I figured any limbs akimbo would be easy targets for a wildly swinging instrument of dismemberment), my eyes able to scan every increasingly menacing corner of my room--again, the last thing I saw was a poster of King Kong, Fay Wray clutched with proprietary insistence, his eyes locked on my vulnerable, supine form, flimsy as Fay's dress, as easy to rend as the tinfoil decks of the spaceship in It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Oh, those halcyon days of childhood.

Many of those afternoons of air-conditioned terror at the movies stay with me, but I particularly remember seeing The Fly, and being completely stricken by the helplessness of everyone--the scientist, his son, his wife, his friend--in the face of a life-sized Kafka nightmare, drowning them all in a maelstrom of mutation, repulsion, and literally crushing defeat. Even if you have never seen the movie, you probably know the sound, so endlessly parodied and misappropriated, of that tiny man-headed fly, caught in a spider web and squealing, "Help me! Help me!" That moment has never lost its power over me. It is the recurring fear of immobility, in which one's Doom inches ever closer. Indeed, many years later, as an adult in my 40s, I dreamed I was asleep on the couch and awoke, convinced that, as I told myself with absolute certainty, "It had caught up with me after all these years." And I couldn't move, as It crept nearer from behind me, as It actually got me, and I awoke once again, as breathless and goggled-eyed as I had been fourty years ago in the theater, watching the man-fly confronted and trapped by everything he had wrought, until Vincent Price mercifully crushed the whole mess with a rock.

Later that day, my father joined us at the mall and suggested we go to the movies. I stood there once again immobile, and in my panicked head ran the mantra, "Not The Fly, not The Fly, not The Fly." And it worked: we went to see McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force. Pretty horrifying in its own way, but a cooling balm after watching David Hedison twisted and crushed--twice.

Still, that night, alone in my room, like Emily Dickinson "I heard a Fly buzz." I really did, a sly whisper at my ear, and "The Stillness in the Room/Was like the Stillness in the Air--/Between the Heaves of Storm." Smart woman. She goes on to tell us that when "the Windows failed ... I could not see to see." Here is a truth you can take with you all the way, up or down, wriggling in your hands with dry and pulsing muscles.

It's funny, though: I didn't notice Dickinson at the Cherry Hill Cinema back there in 1965; but then again, I was only nine, and besides, poets are hard to spot when you're living inside the poem itself.

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