This past June, an eleven-foot alligator basking in the waters of Florida’s Caloosahatchee River bit off the arm of a 17 year-old boy who was swimming with his friends, seeking relief from the terrible south Florida heat.
The alligator, like all cold-blooded creatures that are unable to regulate their own body temperature, was likewise trying to keep cool and probably didn’t appreciate the boy’s presence in its personal space on such a hot day. When the alligator charged him in the water, the boy instinctively thrust out his arm to repel the contact, and the alligator pulled him under water in a death roll. The boy realized that if he allowed the alligator to take his arm instead of tearing his body apart underwater, he would likely survive the attack, so he pressed down on the creature’s snout with his feet and used its mouth like a pair of giant shears, severing his own arm below the elbow in order to save his life.
As a writer of horror fiction—by definition a considerer of monsters—the horrific image of the screaming boy being pulled below the surface green water in the jaws of the alligator caught in my mental filter and was filed away in the place where images and impressions of monsters—animal, human, and otherwise—are always filed for future reference. As a human being, however, it occurred to me that this violence was a terrible, tragic price to pay for unwanted human contact.
But in this convection oven of a summer from hell, both the horror writer and the human being in me completely understood where the alligator was coming from: Stay away from me in this heat, or I will hurt you. I will hurt you badly. Because I can.
There was something about this summer—the very last summer that the ancient Mayans allotted for the survival of the human race before the world ends—that seemed to imply an offer of violence at all times. The temperatures in July were the highest ever in the history of the U.S.—not among the highest, but the highest ever in history. Nearly every night brought a new CNN report or an Internet news update of the devastation wrought by the heat—forest fires, blackouts, and entire communities without fridges or air conditioning. On Saturday June 2nd, a man opened fire in the food court of the Toronto Eaton Centre, killing one person and wounding 6 others. One victim died eight days later of his injuries, bringing the death toll to two. On July 16th, another shooting, this time a gang-related, at a barbecue in suburban Scarborough, Ontario, killed two people and wounded 19, including an infant. And in Aurora, Colorado, on July 19th, a gunman wearing a gas mask opened fire in a movie theatre during the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and injuring 50 others.
In cities, extreme heat nurtures its own type of sociopathy. It’s not the same cabin fever insanity that drives the human race indoors in winter to go stir crazy and, occasionally, murder each other. Rather, it’s the kind of crazy that makes every human contact a prospective revulsion with the potential for violence: recoiling from a stranger’s accidental brush in the subway, disgust at an accidental flick of sweat from a fellow gym-goer, or shrinking as far away from a lover’s touch as humanly possible on a hot, airless night. It renders our fellow man an “other,” an “it,” part of a crowd to be brushed past, hurried by, and, to a degree, expendable, at least in the short term. A recent North Western University study proposes that violent crime spikes in hot weather. In Toronto, since 2007, July has been the month with the most murders, followed by August. Cold weather, on the other hand, is oddly unifying. On a blustery winter day, strangers may shrug and smile at each other as if to say, So, remind me again why we live here? But on these sweaty, sodden summer days in cities, we can hate each other with a passion, however briefly, and with however much shame later. It makes monsters out of those we can’t brush past, either literally or virtually.
The same week the alligator tore off the boy’s arm in Florida, I came across a homeless man in Toronto sprawled on the same asphalt that had been searing the soft pads of dogs’ feet elsewhere in the city. His cheek lay against a filthy blanket, while a steady stream of people passed him by on the sun-softened macadam, flowing past on either side as if he were merely a large, obdurate rock in a river of asphalt to be navigated with barely a glance while people sweated and hurried into the next available air-conditioned sanctuary. It was as though a fellow human being collapsed at our feet, baking in the sun, was the new societal norm, and all of us were entirely desensitized by it. His pants were pulled halfway down, his flabby grey ass was half out, exposed to the hard sun and to plain view, one more dehumanizing—or, more accurately, hyper-humanizing—humiliation on top of the physical danger brought on by the heat.
My first instinct was not compassion. It was reflexive revulsion, even anger, at his very existence there on the street. I hated him for being in my line of sight, for forcing me to contemplate his misery, for making me feel guilty at my own good fortune in being clean and moneyed, and in being able to get out of the sun anytime I chose. I hated his dirt. I hated his ugliness.
Most of all, I hated him for making me feel the annihilating, suicidal shame of having had any of those terrible thoughts in the first place, and for making me realize what a lucky accident of birth had kept our circumstances from being reversed. But in that awful nanosecond, the slumbering alligator in my mind had seen him as a disposable it, not a him, and an it that had swum into my river and invaded my space.
I bought the man two bottles of water at a hot dog vendor’s cart and walked over to where he lay. I knelt beside him and tried to wake him up, to help him out of the sun and into the shade of a nearby warehouse. I said, Hey buddy, drink some water. Let’s get out of the sun. It’s too hot.
He muttered and buried his face in the folds of his blanket. I tucked the cold water under his arm. Then I stood up and hurried along to the gym, where it was cooler, feeling like the biggest asshole in the world, but also deeply disturbed by how quickly the heat had turned my own instincts cold and reptilian, giving me an unwanted, if momentary, kinship with monsters.
It’s a striking measure of the times in which we live that Luka Magnotta, the pouty-lipped, sloe-eyed ex-hustler, ex-porn star, ex-YouTube staple, perpetual aspiring celebrity, and the subject of a worldwide Interpol manhunt in connection with a murder so depraved that it briefly took over as the most ravenously consumed news item worldwide – was briefly one of the hottest media stars of the hottest summer.
The crimes Magnotta is accused of—murder, cannibalism, sadistic animal torture, necrophilia (both human and otherwise) and sending body parts through the mail—would be enough to qualify him as a monster, should he be found guilty of them. But it’s the fact that Magnotta allegedly posted videos of his gruesome crimes on the Internet, including allegedly dining on his victims, that makes both his purported crimes—and our reaction to them, beyond obvious, reflexive horror—the perfect zeitgeist moment.
I forced myself to watch whichever videos of Luka Magnotta hadn’t been taken off YouTube (of which there are many—his cyber footprint was enormous.)
The video oeuvre included two redacted videos, one of which is believed to be of him slowly suffocating two kittens to death in a plastic bag, the other of which is allegedly Magnotta dressed as Santa Claus, feeding another kitten to a white Burmese python while Christmas carols play softly in the background. The video is the very picture of a modern, 21st century urban monster for whom any sort of life is cheap and expendable, and meat for the alligators in the monster’s mind, even if those alligators are only hungry for a moment of horrible fame on the Internet.
After watching those particular videos, where ersatz “love” was used to lure the kittens to excruciating deaths while the human monster watched, waited, and videoed, I was physically sick, and my dreams that night were dark and violent and radioactive.
The videos that were obviously Magnotta included him talking to Naked News about being a “high-end, high-class” male escort, an audition tape for the Canadian makeover show Plastic Makes Perfect, and various shout-outs to his “fans.” Particularly in the Naked News segment, there’s a chilling sense of self-detachment, of being somewhere—or someone—else as he’s talking to the camera, perhaps imagining himself as any one of the hundreds of celebrities that are the social aristocrats of our age. What is alleged to have come later—the videotaped murder and dismemberment of Concordia student Jun Li and the subsequent dissemination of the images by Magnotta himself—could be read as the ultimate bid for lasting celebrity, whatever the sacrifice.
And on Monday the 4th of June, when the police in Berlin stormed the Internet café where he was apprehended, they found Magnotta raptly Googling himself. He was literally arrested marveling at his own fame.
When Brett Easton Ellis published his novel American Psycho in 1991, the literary and cultural canon was introduced to Patrick Bateman, a murderous New York investment banker with a passion for designer clothing and high-end bath products. Entire paragraphs of the first-person novel are devoted to Bateman’s obsessive cataloguing of the luxury with which he clothes himself, grooms himself with and dines on. Ironic or not, Ellis created a perfectly realized 1980s monster. The people around Bateman existed as one of two things: conduits to his continued social ascent, or consumption items—meat of one kind or another, to be fucked or murdered, or both.
In the heat of the alligator summer of 2012, this summer of urban monsters walking among us with guns and rage and video cameras, “fame,” however attained, is to the new millennium what designer labels were to the 1980s. We are a society of desperate anonymity, and we didn’t know there was anything wrong with that until YouTube and reality television showed us that we didn’t have to be anonymous anymore—no particular talent, money, or beauty was required in this carnivorous race to be seen and heard. Anyone with a digital video camera and a gimmick could achieve it. If the fictional Patrick Bateman were at his dark work in 2012, he might have been pursuing celebrity with the same terrible vengeance with which he pursued luxury in the waning days and nights of the 1980s.
Alligators didn’t look like alligators this summer: they looked like men with guns in shopping malls, or movie theatres, or suburban barbecues. They look like reality-TV stars and YouTube celebrities.
Of all of the photographs of Luka Magnotta, the alleged “Canadian Psycho,” one of the most widely circulated was a Facebook screen capture of his face. His hair falls seductively across his forehead; his eyes are preternaturally bright blue, his lips like gleaming red cherries. In the clearly retouched photo, Magnotta is beautiful, and the picture itself is a declarative invitation to ask: who is that famous-looking man?
And here’s the rub: in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, we’ve become harder and harder to shock. What we see on the news, or on television, is what’s “real,” and reality looks suspiciously like a special effect. As we do in the suffocating heat of an urban summer, we try to separate ourselves from the herd. Our world is divided into “us” and “them,” and a certain segment of society is in a race to be seen and heard. Anyone that swims into the river is meat, in that process. That complete and utter divorcement from morality isn’t remotely new in human history, but it’s never been so cheaply available. If these human monsters are insane, then the 24-hour news cycle age that feeds them is also insane.
In his 2009 essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King posited that watching aggressive horror films serve the purpose of “lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators,” because “it keeps them from getting out.” The alligators he refers to are the parts of the human psyche that turn away from what we collectively think of as “goodness,” and towards what we collectively think of as “evil.” The cathartic effect of the stylized violence of horror films may serve the purpose of keeping those alligators at bay, King says.
But what happens when the alligator’s diet is switched up? What happens when you feed them YouTube snuff videos, or “celebrity breaking news,” or episodes of The Real Housewives of Vancouver, or the brainless rage-pimping of right-wing news networks?
They may grow slower and fatter, but they’re very likely no less vicious. And on the deadly-hot days of an alligator summer, you never know where the next monster will appear.
Michael Rowe’s first novel Enter, Night (ChiZine Publications) was a finalist for the 2012 Prix Aurora and the 2012 Sunburst Award. His second novel, Wild Fell, will be published in October 2013.