Shades of Creepy

On the one hand, I’m rather fond of messed-up social dynamics and mindscrewy plots and behaviors, in my fiction and sometimes even in my gaming (when done well): they’re interesting reading, they show me a part of human nature that I really don’t want to deal with face to face but do think that I need to understand, and… well, the overall combination of those with other factors leaves me downright fascinated. I can go for hours attempting to explain, for instance, the twisty social dynamic between two of my long-running NPCs, and one of my favorite PCs never seemed to be quite so happy as when she had a dedicated villain with whom she was battling it out with wits and words for control of her brainspace. “Yeah, these are messed-up people,” I find myself saying halfway through the explanation, but I still love it.

On the other, there are some things—stories, books, you get the idea—where the overall dynamic is very similar, but it absolutely pounds on my squick buttons, and next thing I know I’m carefully steering a patron away from getting this one for her kids– “Yeah, I read that when I was a kid, and I didn’t realize until I was older just how screwed up some of the themes were—here, I think they’ll do better with this one, or if they like their material a bit more gritty, this one is gorgeous.” And heaven forbid someone ask me for my opinion on something like 50 Shades of Grey (oh, book, how closely do you mirror an abusive relationship? Let me count the red flags).

It’s easy to ask how these are so different. Certainly, the characters’ actions might not be; I could claim that this PC has more of a spine than that fictional character, or this particular antagonist considers sexual harassment beneath him, but looking simply at who does what, there probably isn’t that much to choose. Heck, even the aforementioned PC has occasionally toyed with the idea of trying to get her opponents to change, though she’s always been far more interested in the Powers of Rhetoric, Common Sense and Dogged Cunning than any ideas about redemption through love. (There are more excuses. I’ll drop them for now.)

The difference, I think, is in how the situation is portrayed. The creepy I embrace is actively, deliberately, unrepentantly creepy. It recognizes that fact. It wallows in it. The narrative voice may not explicitly say “dang this is screwed up”, but it’s pretty easy to gather from it nonetheless, and that’s the point. The situation, fascinating though it may be, is one that needs to be worked its way out of, and that’s the conflict. The ones that squick me out… not so much. Some of them—Twilight, for instance—just don’t recognize how creepy what they’re portraying actually is. Then you get things like Fifty Shades, or Hush, Hush, that do acknowledge what a mess Creepy Character’s behavior is, and then wave it away because Romance, and the optimal, final happy ending state is still Creep Gets Non-Creep. In short, whether they mean to or not, they turn creepy into desirable.

And this is something I wish more writers would do in this day and age: recognize when what they’re describing is just screwed up. People will still read it—I’m sure my predilection for this sort of psychology is not by a long shot unique—but it won’t normalize the screwed-up behavior in the same way. I’ve heard all the arguments about people telling fantasy from reality; I’m a fantasy reader, I’m a tabletopper, I know what they say. But I also know that people learn from books, about how people interact, about what society says is awesome and what it says is horrible, about how they’re expected to behave, and how they’re expected to excel, and what they’re expected to dream about. I’ve seen people wonder, not “What must be going through this character’s mind right now, that she’s not seeing the problem with this/not acting on her ‘run for it!’ instinct/playing along?”, but “How do I get me a guy like that?” And that squicks me out more than anything.

And hey. Once it’s clear that the situation’s being recognized for what it is on some level? Let’s get back to our previously scheduled mindscrew.

4 comments

  1. justaguy says:

    The really weird part of 50 shades is that it’s just Twilight fanfic that was reskined to remove the vampire elements.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    I agree with you about a lot of this. In a lot of romantic songs/movies/books, they talk about trying to win back a lover. There’s a fine line between this and stalking. Just like being protective can lead to controlling. A lot of creepy behavior is romantic stereotypes taken too far.

    Ack, just thinking about this has me feeling unclean.

  3. UZ says:

    This is not a problem for me because all of my characters are upstandingly moral, and I never talk about controversial subjects or have bad thoughts of any kind.

    HA HA HA just kidding. To say the unclean is my playground would be exaggerating and would also summon an unwanted mental image. But! I do often review my own work to make sure it conforms to some relative level of acceptability.

    Consider the term “breeding program”, one I’ve mentioned before. Various writers including me will talk about these things without going into the uncomfortable details, but a quick review of what’s considered normal in animal husbandry will show that it has vastly different standards from what we consider *not creepy* in human reproduction. Even Dune vaguely skirts this issue. And that’s without even considering other things like, you know, consent.

    So if I decide to skirt the issue Dunewise by pretending that such troubling things weren’t necessary in the recent term and not talking about anything previous to that, then how creepy this will seem to a given reader will probably depend on how much they know about standard breeding practices.

    As such, careful review is important! Even something well-accepted in SF – like cross-species romance, for example – can easily be made creepy if you’re not careful.

  4. Adam Meyers says:

    Ever hear of the book Pamela? (Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pamela;_or,_Virtue_Rewarded) My wife studied it in a college course: It was written by a talented author as an experiment in emotional manipulation, where the point was for his audience to ask, as you put it, “What must be going through this character’s mind right now, that she’s not seeing the problem with this?”

    The problem was instead, he just fueled fantasies where women would actually seek out maid jobs in hopes that their master would try and rape them, so they could hold out and change him from a creepy into a non-creepy.

    In just about every way, both in the book and the outcries around its publication, it was the precursor to Twilight. Today it’s only studied, as far as I know, in classes looking at the Sensibility movement, and how destructive it was with its emotional manipulation.

    Other interesting fact: it’s the literary movement Jane Austin was making fun of in her book: “Sense and Sensibility.”

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