It is tempting to impose the framework of fiction on our own lives in order to edit out the chaos, because as humans we prefer stories to reality. We write our own character arcs, placing ourselves at the center of a coherent yarn made from causally related events. Thanks to the Internet and televised media, we have all internalized our own ideas of how reality should work based on another world of human manufacture, and it gives us the illusion of control. We know the shorthands for love, revenge, safety, sex and success thanks to the narratives we consume as escapism and then try to implement in our lives. It’s not a great scenario.
I have found that any real success or happiness I have found has come from acknowledging that everything I learned about life was imprinted on me by TV and then rejecting (or at least deconstructing) those media lessons with a mind open to learning. If you don't already, then I suggest you do the same. Worlds are colliding and the result is an uncleansable corruption.
Recently a family was driven from their million dollar dream home because of letters sent from a stalker that calls itself The Watcher. It claims to be the current generation in a legacy of watchers, and is all but demanding the sacrifice of children, which are euphemistically referred to in the unsettling correspondence as "young blood." I wish I were making this up, but it’s true.
The story itself is at once incredibly upsetting and guilt-inducingly exciting. The family that this is happening to is being psychologically tortured from afar by an entity that claims to have knowledge of their actions and is routinely threatening their children. But the language of horror that The Watcher uses, along with the cliche circumstances around the incident, make every news story on this active criminal incident read like a serialized pulp horror novel. It also doesn’t help that the terrorized home in question is located in the town where Ed was shot.
Ed, which ran on NBC for four seasons starting in 2000, is the opposite of horror. It stars Canadian treasure Tom Cavanagh who moves back to his home town of Stuckeyville after being fired from his New York law firm over a punctuation error. He buys a bowling alley, but soon finds himself representing townsfolk in small town court because he cares about the proverbial little guy. It is a show that aims to make you laugh and cry within the same hour, all while falling in love with Cavanagh, a pre-Lost Julie Bowen and a supporting cast that includes Michael Ian Black and Justin Long.
Now that I know this factoid about The Watcher, and I’ve read the many excerpts from this grisly letter writing campaign, the fictional town of Stuckeyville has been corrupted. The house, as far as I am aware, has never appeared on the show, but the news media’s insistence on including this small detail -- that Westfield, New Jersey, is the real town used to portray the charming bowling-litigation antics of Ed -- has still added a permanent element of darkness to an excellent turn of the Millennium dramedy.
More interestingly though is how that door swings both ways. The innocence of Ed juxtaposed with what The Watcher did to that family makes the real life events seem more shocking because the symbol of Stuckeyville is actually more real in the minds of onlookers than Westfield. Just as The Watcher has tainted Ed, Ed has given context to The Watcher, amplifying its crimes by virtue of sharing the same space.
It is an odd metaphysical phenomenon exemplified in the coverage of The Watcher, and while it’s relatively modern, it is extremely powerful. The media we consume is as important to us as the history we’re taught. When pop culture shares a space along with its history, like in movies about New York, that’s comforting. Ghostbusters never happened, but when I first step foot in the New York Public Library a few years ago, the Grey Lady might as well have been as real as Giuliani.
The same can’t be said for situations of appropriation though, and that’s why Stuckeyville has corrupted Westfield. A false narrative has imposed itself upon reality and altered the way we see events that take place there.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, in his essay “Peyton’s Place,” tells of his experience in letting One Tree Hill use his colonial house (pictured above) as the home of primary character Peyton Sawyer. Sullivan illustrates perfectly the strange dissonance between real personal history one has with a location and the false narrative that grows a place when TV land encroaches on reality.
When Sullivan, his wife and daughter are made to stay in a local hotel, they watch the fake version of their real house on TV. He writes:
“We formed memories of our house that weren't memories; we'd experienced them solely through television.”
Later, as the One Tree Hill became grittier, Sullivan’s basement was used for a prom night attempted rape scene. The week he wrote the essay in question, a couple of tourists from South Carolina asked to see his basement, and he refused, opting to show them pictures he’d taken instead. The fictional narrative, to outsiders, has become something so important that it breeds within them a need to confirm its existence.
I am guilty of this line of thinking, and I think most media literate people are. Due to some human need for coherent narratives, we imbue fiction with greater value than reality, even if we understand that as irresponsible and kind of childish. The fact is, to our brains a story is just a story, and a fake exciting one that’s even just competently told trumps the terror of the unknown and the possibility that Westfield might be exactly like your hometown.
We crave stories, any stories, the more detailed and narratively sound the better. We grab hold of them and become obsessed as a reaction to a deep animal terror that nothing actually has meaning, and that chaos is the only true state of the universe. To apply fiction to reality as a form of history is a metaphysical corruption, but at least it can keep The Watchers of the world at bay while you sleep.