Wednesday, April 17, 2013

If I Were Writing Evil Ernie

Loneliness is a horrible thing.

Loneliness isn't a question of physical proximity to other people. Ask anyone who has ever lived in a big city or grew up significantly different in a small-minded little town. You can be surrounded by people, even people who know your name, and wind up feeling like the last person left on earth.

That kind of isolation can twist a person. I have a hard time believing that there is a lot of pure sociopathic evil in the world. Instead, I believe that the worst people in the world are the product of curdled bitterness. People get despondent or mean, start seeing life in a twisted way, and look for structures that support their newly-warped perspective. It seems like living damnation to me. 

So. Pretend you're a sixteen year old kid. You're terrified of your violent father, whom all the adults in your town seem love and admire. Nobody in school likes you, you're too timid to stand up for yourself, and you have no chance of ever getting laid.

Worse, you're psychic. Most people with no self-esteem simply imagine the terrible things people think about them. You get to actually hear it. You know that everyone around you can't stand being near you. Something about who you repulses them. 

Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn't it?

Now imagine that a magical woman visits you in your dreams. She's alabaster white, she says that she loves you, and that she can make you the most important person in the world. She will give you the sex that you've always dreamed about and she will give you the power to return to the world all the pain it has ever given you. And, once it's all done, you will be king of everything. You aren't the worthless weakling everyone said you were. You were different. You were powerful.

Evil Ernie is the patron saint of violent revenge fantasies.

Image by OtisFrampton

Revenge fantasies are nice. They're about the powerless regaining power, the underdog working toward the kind of fairness real life seldom offers. We tend to romanticize vengeance stories and ignore the innocent people trampled underneath. 

The hook behind Evil Ernie is that he has to kill everyone in the world in order for his lover to be reborn. In the meantime, everyone he kills becomes one of his army. The newly-dead members of his revolting crusade revere Ernie as something between a rock star and a god. It's a zombie apocalypse where the zombies are as intelligent as they are malicious.

The universe of Evil Ernie is somewhere between superhero comic, pro-wrestling jamboree, and slasher film. Ernie wages an endless war against humanity and everything he takes over turns into a twisted parody of itself. The baseball teams still play games, albeit with severed heads as balls, young lovers go on romantic massacres, and sitcom families argue about how best to carve the thanksgiving victim. 

There's so much ripe material to cultivate in the Evil Ernie mythology. His origin story is steeped in very human themes of isolation and madness, his armies create a morbid carnival in its wake, and his world is full of muscle-bound psychopaths and deranged soldiers and slinky vampire angels. It never quite came together as a story under original creator Brian Pulido's reign, as his reach often exceeded his abilities, but the potential is there to refresh the zombie apocalypse subgenre. Or, at least, turn it into a delightful Looney Tunes cartoon.

Unfortunately, all that good stuff has been jettisoned in the recent remake. Most of the story seems to center around "Evil" Ernie (who's actually a fairly nice emo boy) fighting his way though the prison his white trash father is incarcerated in. Lots of family drama and emotional vacillating, not a lot of  gleeful over-the-top chaos. Original Halloween vs. Rob Zombie's Halloween

If I were writing Evil Ernie, I'd stick close to the original ideas that shaped the character. I like the idea that he's a weak, bullied kid tormented by his peers and elevated by a twisted version of love. There's always been a sense of ambivalence as to whether or not Lady Death actually cares about him or if she's just using him to escape her hellish prison. I would like to see that built on and expanded further. Their relationship is operatic and high drama but they're both insane supernatural psychopaths. People fall in love for all sorts of reasons and some of them are very bad indeed.  

I'd also keep the trappings of the heavy metal universe Evil Ernie operates in. Monster movie iconography, grinning skeletons, comically gory abattoirs, blood, chrome, and viking bullshit. Brian Pulido definitely drew on 80s metal icons. Evil Ernie looks like a cross between Pulido himself and Iron Maiden's Eddie the Head icon. It's cool, but I like the way the remake made him younger and smoothed out his hair. The curly-haired metal guy look might be a little too 80s and making him younger makes him more vulnerable and more likely to be suckered by Lady Death's manipulations.
The big mistake the remake made is trying to make Ernie too conventionally sympathetic. He's a character of the id. We want to see him rampage and cause destruction so long as it's safely confined to the page. It's fun watching apocalyptic carnage from the monster's perspective. We sympathize with him because we can understand the feelings that lead him to become a monster. He's an outlet for us and he looks like he's having a good time doing it.

I've always felt that horror audiences secretly cheer the monster. They get to cut loose in a way that we aren't allowed to. But the bizarre paradox is that we demand the monster's destruction. We cannot allow evil to remain free for long and we celebrate its demise. Ernie lives in a world where the monsters win. Every evil thing that he does reshapes the world in his own image. He creates a place where people love him, where he doesn't have to be tormented or alone anymore.

A lot of horror stories answer the nature vs. nurture question of evil squarely on nature. Monsters do monstrous things because they are monsters. End of story. Evil Ernie is an example of Nurture evil. He is the product of cruelty. Obviously there's a limit to how much you can sympathize with a mass murderer, but Evil Ernie is fascinating examination of the dark side of giving power to the powerless. 

(Note to all y'all: This is part of a series I write on my tumblr where I discuss how I'd write major comic book characters. If you'd like to read more, check out Cable, Dr. Strange, and Green Arrow.) 

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