There I was, thinking of what to write for this month's issue of Better Than Sliced Bread. The theme was simple enough: hobbies and interests. Hell, I had hobbies and interests. Who doesn't? There are loads of things I could write about without alienating our readership! That was before I realized that nobody in their right mind would want to read my look into the morality of Dungeons and Dragons and how the game proposes a world-view with very little room for moral relativism but at the same time fails to answer key moral and ethical questions. (If, incidentally, you feel like you would've liked to read that, may I suggest that you seek help, you nerd?)
I could write about books, but there's only so much to be said about the stuff I read, I could write about music, but I appreciate the fact that writing an article titled "Top 10 Bands You've Never Heard Of and Why You Should Feel Bad About It" wouldn't exactly endear myself to my audience. So I decided to write about the one thing that can apply universally: an appreciation for the terrible, the bad, the horrible and the camp.
It's actually a hobby that is very much in vogue these days: ever since the earnestness of the 80s gave way to the cynicism of the 90s there has been a cultural undercurrent of appreciating things for their cheesiness. In this age of the internet, access to things that used to be simply bad has increased, giving camp afficianados like myself a much needed resource for sharing all the horrible things that exist in this world. As the various video sites on the internet become more and more flooded with reviews for terrible video games, sarcastic analyses of pop culture staples and clips from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which is in the opinion of yours truly one of the greatest shows ever made) it is almost impossible not to come into contact with something that is truly horrible or that relishes in the truly horrible for effect. With the main voice of our generation being the voice of disdainful irony and with anything of real artistic merit having been cut up and all of its various tropes and clichés analyzed, we tend to look for entertainment in the terrible.
But what is it about the camp that makes people gravitate towards it? How do we who seek out bad and terrible movies and other things justify to ourselves the time spent on something that we can only enjoy for its sheer lack of quality?
The explanation to this is manifold. On its most basic level it's simply a feeling of schadenfreude. There is just something extremely visceral and primal about seeing something that another person has made, earnestly believing in its artistic merit and redeeming value, and completely blasting it and laughing at it. I'm not proud to admit it, but there is something cathartic about watching Manos: The Hands of Fate with the knowledge that the director thought he was making a modern horror masterpiece and seeing that the end result is just a terribly-scripted, unintentionally hilarious mess, whose few attempts at humour simply make you groan and whose serious moments make you laugh at the hamminess of the acting and scripting.
However, I believe that it is not simply unjustified feelings of superiority that drives us to appreciate the horrible. Another important factor at play is the fact that through exposure to truly terrible things one can come to truly appreciate the good things out there. For an example, for the longest time as a teenager I didn't fully appreciate the awesomeness of the Super Mario Bros. games, simply because I'd become too exposed to them. The over-exposure to their awesomeness had made me lose all appreciation for that awesomeness. Now, enter the Super Mario Bros. movie. After watching that film and thinking "Wow, good thing the games aren't as horrible as that turgid waste of time" I was actually capable of enjoying the simple fun of Super Mario World once again. Similarly, at one time in my life I actually doubted whether Dungeons and Dragons, a role-playing game that has brought me nothing but joy for years, was actually the game for me, I stumbled upon a truly horrible excuse for an RPG titled FATAL. I won't bore you with the details, but the game was just so terribly written that it made me appreciate D&D, even with all of its flaws, on a completely different level.
But the most important reason for appreciating the terrible things in life is this: it's fun.
Most truly great things are capable of evoking great emotions. However, evoking fun is not an easy task. While witty banter and great timing can make for a truly funny experience, there's nothing that we enjoy more than seeing others fail, and what could be funnier than something that fails spectacularly at everything that it sets out to achieve? A good comedy can make you laugh, but an unintentionally funny movie can make you laugh even harder. To mention another example from the world of terrible movies, Troll 2, while a truly atrocious film, is probably one of the funniest films I've ever seen simply because you can tell that everyone involved in the movie is being completely earnest about it. When the movie tries to be funny it's terrible, but at other times it manages to be so funny I wouldn't be surprised if it had actually been meant as a travesty.
And that's the most important thing: even if something is truly terrible and allegedly lacking in any redeeming value, its redeeming value may actually be found in how happy it makes us, even if for the wrong reason. Anything, when bad enough, whether it be literature, movies, games or television, can make us happier simply for the fact of knowing that better things are out there. They can make us laugh, if only because they fail at evoking any other emotion so spectacularly. They can make us feel like better people for experiencing them, if only because we aren't the ones responsible for making something so horrible.
And in the end, it's all about making people happy.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show that made making fun of terrible old movies cool.
- Tvtropes.org, the website dedicated to analyzing the hell out of everything you know and love.
- For movies notorious for their awesome lack of quality, see Troll 2, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, or simply put any movie that has been featured on MST3K.