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Going Bump in the Night


You remember when you were a kid and you went to your first haunted house? I do. I was about seven years old when I was invited to the neighbor's haunted house down the street. We were taken into a dark room and I put my hand into different buckets. Behind me a lady in a witch's costume said "Welcome to my coven! Feel the ingredients of my witch's brew. Eyeballs! Eh hehehehehe!"

Of course it was cranberries or cherries playing the part of eyeballs. Pasta became guts. All of this was gross and spooky, but when the "late" owner of these organs jumped out of his refrigerator box coffin...it scared we kids to death. In exchange for near heart attacks we were all given candy and sent on our way. This was called "fun."

For the sake of fun Phil, Mike and I are reprinting some rules to follow if you ever find yourself living in a horror movie.

Then we are going to try to come up with plausible classic horror monsters.

Lastly, we are going to get slightly serious about the things that really do scare us about the future. Yes, even optimists have concerns.

First, the rules:

Horror Movie Safety Tips

  1. When it appears that you have killed the monster, never check to see if it's really dead.

  2. Never read a book of demon-summoning aloud, even as a joke.

  3. Do not search the basement, especially if the power has gone out.

  4. If your children speak to you in Latin--or any other language that they should not know--burn them immediately. It will save you a lot of grief in the long run. This also applies to children who speak with somebody else's voice.

  5. As a general rule, don't solve puzzles that open portals to Hell.

  6. Never stand in, on, or above a grave, tomb, or crypt. This would apply to any other house of the dead as well.

  7. If appliances start operating by themselves, do not check for short circuits; just get out.

  8. Do not take anything from the dead.

  9. If you find a town which looks deserted, there's probably a good reason for it. Don't stop and look around.

  10. Don't fool with recombinant DNA technology unless you're sure you know what you're doing.

  11. If your companions suddenly begin to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior such as hissing, fascination for blood, glowing eyes, increasing hairiness, and so on, burn them immediately.

  12. Stay away from certain geographical locations, some of which are listed here: Amityville, Elm Street, Transylvania, Nilbog (you're in trouble if you recognize this one), anywhere in Texas where chainsaws are sold, the Bermuda Triangle, or any small town in Maine.

  13. If your car runs out of gas at night on a lonely road, do not go to the nearby deserted house to phone for help. If you think that it is strange you ran out of gas because you thought you had most of a tank, shoot yourself instead. You are going to die anyway, and most likely be eaten.

  14. Beware of strangers bearing tools. For example: chainsaws, staple guns, hedge trimmers, electric carving knives, combines, lawnmowers, butane torches, soldering irons, band saws, or any devices made from deceased companions.

  15. If you find that your house is built upon a cemetery, now is the time to take advantage of the real-estate bubble and move in with the in-laws. This also applies to houses that had previous inhabitants who went mad or committed suicide or died in some horrible, unusual fashion, or who performed bizarre rituals.

  16. Dress appropriately. When investigating a noise downstairs in an old house, women should not wear a flimsy negligee. Additionally, carry a flashlight, not a candle.

  17. On a related note, DO NOT under any circumstance have sex. Virtuous girls have a chance. Guys, I'm sorry, but you're probably dead-meat regardless - particularly if you are a side-kick.

  18. Do not go looking for witches in the Maryland countryside.

  19. If you're searching for something that caused a loud noise and find out that it's just the cat, GET OUT!

You've been warned. Good luck!

The Speculist List of Likely Classic Horror Monsters

From least likely to most likely:

  1. Anything undead.

    In my experience, only viruses are undead. Everything else is clearly dead or alive. So we don't expect to see undead zombies or mummies walking around.

    Now living semi-conscious marauding people that look like zombies - eh, maybe. We suppose a human victim of rabies might act somewhat strange. The 28 days Later movie had a related theme. The "zombies" were victims of a disease that had wiped out civilization.

  2. The Wolf-Man

    Lycanthropy is an actual mental illness. Of course the transformation is not as stark as say, American Werewolf in London or The Howling

  3. The Invisible Man

    "Active Camouflage" Man doesn't have the same ring does it?

  4. The Frankenstein Monster

    Frankenstein is a real classic that's hard to pigeonhole. It could be considered a parable of the relationship between God and Man.

    It obviously a warning of the dangers of tinkering with matters best left to God. It could be seen as the dark side of cryopreservation. Will the person who is revived be the person who was there before?

    Or, it could be seen as a parable of the dangers of rebelling robots. More on that below.

Now the real stuff...

Like kid's in the neighborhood haunted house, sometimes we can talk ourselves into being scared of things that really aren't dangerous. We stumble into the future blind to what is coming. So when something like in vitro fertilization comes along, we think it's a danger to the human soul.

It's easy to forget today how disconcerting in vitro fertization technology was to some people when it first arrived. Leon Kass was against it, but even he has come around:

"...one could justify its use for infertile couples. And having known some such children myself, one is simply delighted they are here."

Exactly. Nobody is making Frankenstein monsters - it's just the kid next door...or down the hall.

On the other hand, there are many pitfalls that we should be more concerned about. Both Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy think it was a dangerous error to publish the exact genetic sequence to the 1918 flu. Here we have the best known techno-optimist and one of the best known techno-pessimists collaborating in a warning. Whatever your preferred flavor of futurist, this is something we should be much more careful about.

Phil is concerned about the dangers of creating miniature black holes or baby universes in a supercollider. Since we really have no idea what the outcome of these tests could be, I agree.

The trick is to know which scary things pose real danger and which are just bumps in the night. The more informed voices participating in this conversation, the better prepared we all can be. So, with that in mind, here are the things that scare us, the optimistic authors of The Speculist:

Enough chills! The reason we remain optimistic in the face of these dangers is that we believe that the defenses to these threats will, for the most part, develop right along with the danger.

But sometime we still whistle past the graveyard.

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