Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pontypool & The Motif of Harmful Sensation

Danger! The following post contains a dangerous, highly contagious meme, as well as major spoilers for the excellent new film Pontypool. For your safety and the safety of all you communicate with, do not read any of the red text below. I repeat, do not read the red text.

The 'motif of harmful sensation' is an inelegant term for a concept that occasionally crops up in horror and speculative fiction in which mental or physical injury is sustained through a perception rather than physical interaction. Instead of axes, chainsaws, and machine guns, damage is done via sounds, imagery, or even abstract thought itself. (A million points to anyone who successfully coins a better term.)

There is an immediate and powerful common-sense impulse to immediately dismiss the concept as absurd, but there are plenty of less fanciful examples of harmful sensory input in the real world. For instance, the eyes and ears can be easily damaged by overloading; if you doubt this, stare directly into the sun while listening to Slayer on your iPod with the volume turned way up. Some sufferers of epilepsy will lapse into dangerous seizures when exposed to pulsing lights or Pokemon cartoons, while everyone can be psychologically harmed by traumatic sensory input. (Such as a recording of the untimely demise of a loved one.)

When a fanciful imagination combines this relatively mundane concept with the philosophical gray area between the brick and mortar reality around us and the perception filtered reality in our heads, the idea of harmful sensation spirals outwards. One of the earliest and most famous examples comes from the mythological Medusa, a gorgon so monstrous that any who looked upon her would turn to stone. She is eventually slain by Perseus, who only looks at her reflection during the battle, thanks to a mirrored shield. This loophole implies that it is not merely her epic ugliness that calcifies her victims, but some sort of magic radiation that is not reflected with the visible spectrum. Of course it is possible the polished bronze shield was not a perfect mirror, giving the hero enough information for combat purposes while leaving the lethal details indistinct.Modern tales of harmful sensation often focus on technology; specifically how society's newfound ability to easily record, duplicate, and spread information could become a vector for spreading a pandemic if a chunk of that info became toxic. In David Cronenberg's infinitely excellent Videodrome, a small time pornographic broadcaster becomes embroiled in a massive conspiracy after discovering a mysterious video signal that causes hallucinations, mind control, and possibly physical mutations in anyone who sees it. Since overexposure causes madness and death, the sinister forces of purity want to implant the signal behind the porno in order to infect the population's undesirables.In the aptly named The Signal, a similar madness inducing broadcast is sent out across all phones, radios, and televisions, both disrupting normal communications and driving everyone rather nutty. Like the Videodrome signal, the effect is irreversible and its intensity correlates with the length of exposure, but rather than being surreptitiously hidden behind certain programming, it is blasted across all mediums as aural white noise and trippy visuals.In the realm of J-horror, harmful sensations are also found lurking within various technological marvels, but unlike the West, they are almost exclusively supernatural in origin. In The Ring series, a cursed videotape created by the malevolent spirit of a troubled psychic causes its viewers to be killed by said spirit exactly seven days later. In Kiyoshi Kurosawa's epic Pulse (aka Kairo) ghosts invade the world via the internet and begin draining everyone's will to live via making scary eye contact with them.
In all of the above examples, be they based in science or spirituality, the harmful sensation is transmitted directly through the act of observation. The damage is done directly by the malicious photons or sound-waves entering the sensory organs, whether or not the victim is even consciously aware of it. In the Canadian pseudo-zombie flick Pontypool and its ilk, the concept of harmful sensation becomes even more abstract. Videodrome (also Canadian) involves what is essentially killer visual radiation; Pontypool, on the other hand, trembles in fear of the dread 'killer meme.'

Memes, as you should know (you are using the internet, after all) are chunks of cultural data that can be passed from brain to brain. They can take the form of lolcats, jokes, masturbation techniques, songs that get stuck in your head, and basically the entirety of Internet culture. In one of Mark Twain's lesser known tales "A Literary Nightmare," the narrator becomes obsessed with a catchy jingle he sees in the newspaper (How does that even work? Does it come with sheet music?) and finds his brain crippled by distraction. After inadvertently infecting a friend, he finds himself cured, then helps his victim find similar relief by spreading it to a university class. Like in The Ring, the only relief is to continue circulating the meme/jingle/evil tape, but as it is a memetic harmful sensation, Twain had to understand the jingle in order to be affected by it. A meme in a foreign language is rendered powerless by its incomprehensibility.

Monty Python's Flying Circus portrayed the prototypical killer meme with the "Funniest Joke in the World" sketch, where the English discover a joke so funny that all who hear it die laughing. After sacrificing many lives to contain the joke, they translate it into German to use in World War II. The process has to be done one word at a time, as even viewing two in sequence causes hospitalization, but proves quite effective on the battlefield. The Brits can merely read the joke phonetically to slaughter whole battalions, and never have to understand the fatal witticism themselves.
Not too many nuggets of information can induce the massive emotional responses required for lethality, so instead of a factoid or joke, the 1980s era Twilight Zone episode "Need to Know'' has at the center of its harmful sensation, nothing less than the very meaning of life. The dude from CSI has to help Francis McDormand find out why a small town is going insane, and they discover that a local weirdo back recently from 'the East' (dun-dun-du-un!) has figured out the meaning to existence, which naturally drives all who learn it hopelessly insane.

The Videodrome signal is more important that the video image carrying it, and not all malevolent memes are simple deliveries of forbidden or obsessive knowledge. As the concept climbs higher and higher, the act of understanding itself is subverted. In the cyberpunk thriller Snow Crash, the Sumerian tongue turns out to be a sort of proto-language upon which other languages are built, allowing those who understand it to be programmed like computers. It was abandoned after some mean person introduces a linguistic virus that crashes brains faster than [witty software joke not found]. The virus is later recreated as a black and white bitmap that only affects those familiar with binary code.This all brings us to Pontypool, which is such a fan of Snow Crash that it uses a copy of the book as a prop. In the film, a small town radio station is caught between a snowstorm and a mysterious plague of violent madness that is slowly revealed to be spread through the English language itself. Unlike previous examples, the damage is not tied to any specific chunk of information, but jumps around from word to word. Terms of endearment are apparently particularly susceptible, but no English word is truly safe. People seem to be initially infected via exposure to the mad ramblings of other victims, but do not start showing advanced symptoms until they attempt to express themselves with certain specific words. In this case, spreading the meme is integral to its dangerous nature. They become confused by the words and begin repeating them, apparently unable to resolve something in their head. Eventually the disorder renders them completely unable to communicate or think properly, and in the final stages they violently attack anyone (or anything) that is producing intelligible speech before ultimately expiring.The film never establishes its rules in stone (perhaps the novel it is adapted from does) due to the limited information available to the characters, but they manage to find a few loopholes nonetheless. Only spoken English is affected; using broken French, writing, and thinking (at least pre-symptoms) are relatively safe. Once a person starts showing the first symptoms, there are two courses of action explored in the film: either they can produce an endless stream of non-English speech to prevent themselves from focusing on their infected word, or they can attempt to rob the word of its meaning. One character postulates that the infection copies itself during the act of understanding a word, but unfortunately this is usually a reflex rather than a conscious act. *Mega Spoiler* During the climax, the last survivors manage to (at least temporarily) save a character by chanting a nonsense phrase intended to make the word seem alien, halting the infection in its tracks instead of letting it spread through the victim's desperate, disordered attempts to 'understand'. *Mega Spoiler Over*
Starring a real life Mummy... who is actually pretty awesome.

There has already been some mild criticism of Pontypool for its outlandish premise. Obviously there is absolutely no scientific basis for a virus that can be transmitted through language, but the fact is that the film's trapped characters are merely using the term 'virus' as a stopgap for a concept that they don't (and possibly can't) ever fully understand. Like a virus, it is dangerous and transmissible, but that is the extent of the similarities. (It should be noted that Snow Crash's virus does make the jump to the physical world.) A more apt comparision for the Pontypool disorder would be prions, which are infectious particles of mis-folded protein responsible for diseases like mad cow or Kuru, the cannibalism spread 'laughing' disease. Prions generally infect the brain tissue, and as more and more proteins fall victim, the organ is essentially eaten away. This is not to say that the disease is literally a prion, but it does function in a very similar way. Rather than a mis-folded protein, it's a scrambled meme. It wreaks havoc on those who fall under its influence then uses them to spread itself to more victims.

It's hard to predict where harmful sensations will pop up next. I'm pretty sure Pontypool is scraping the ceiling of this highest of high concepts, but as information technology continues its rapid clip, there will be innumerable opportunities to apply the idea. My best guess is that we will see the rise of the Deadly Tweet in the not too distant future.
For a zombie centric take on the film, check out Where the Long Tail Ends.


  1. One day, years from now, the motif will return home to roost in Wikipedia. :3

  2. In that they'll reinstate the article about it, or that a Wiki page will start killing us all? Either way I'm all for it.

  3. As I would probably visit it, preferrably only the former :]

  4. Cool to see some other films listed here that explore the same sort of territory, especially since I haven't really heard of many of them. Just more films to add to the list!

  5. (A million points to anyone who successfully coins a better term.)

    Brown Note.

  6. AHHHHH a tvtropes link. There goes my next four hours, thanks Serpent.