Lego’s new “Hidden Side” theme is the only thing I need forever

I’ve been kind of bummed lately, what with the state of the world. Our headlong rush into fascism, irrevocable climate change, and, worst of all, the encroaching start of the school year have made me even more pensive and angsty than usual. Fortunately Lego is offering something starting in August that will blow all of that garbage right out of my dumb head and replace it with a fresh set of plastic ghouls and bizarrely sharp bricks with which to, I guess, build them. Things.

I speak, of course, of Hidden Side, the new Lego theme that involves ghosts. It apparently also involves other stuff, like some kids who hunt for said ghosts. But I have no time for that, ghosts being the only part that matters FOREVER

Hidden Side also involves some AR component where you’ll use your phone to interact with the sets somehow–mostly by shooting multi-colored fireballs at them, if the trailer is any indication. I don’t hold out much hope for this particular gimmick: if the past half-decade or so have taught us anything about AR, it’s that it seldom holds anybody’s interest for very long. (To wit, half the touted functionality of the Nintendo 3DS.) And the whole thing seems to be a somewhat blatant attempt to cash in on Stranger Things mania. But honestly, I’m okay with that, because Lego ghosts are pretty much my reason for breathing.

Lego Goes Demonic

Happy New Year, all. I hope it’s off to a good start.

I love Lego, as I think I’ve mentioned before. I have a bunch back in the States, mostly of the now-discontinued Monster Fighters variety. Here in Japan my access to Lego is, alas, limited, though I’ve kept abreast of new stuff and snagged a couple of cool minifigures (including, at long last, my beloved banshee).

One of Lego’s new themes is called NexoKnights, a sort of futuristic tech/sword & sorcery melange. While I dig the weird scifi/fantasy vibe, it might have passed me by completely if not for the theme’s uniquely demonic villains. Led by the crazy jester/wizard Jestro, they seem to be officially labeled silly things like “lava monsters” and “globlins.” There’s really no hiding the fact, though, that these things are hell demons sent to bathe the world in the blood of the innocent.


“Lava monsters.” Not screaming death-bringers from the deepest pits of Hell. No way.

In case it’s not already clear, I’m 100% on board with this. Demons are my joint. They even have some really cool Lego “book” pieces, including a Lego version of the Necronomicon (blandly titled the “Book of Monsters“) that is pretty wicked.

All of it is spun in typically goofy, family-friendly Lego style, of course; but my favorite character of the whole theme is just unequivocally a demon, no matter how they spin it. Behold Lavaria, perhaps the most metal thing Lego has ever released:


I’ll rip out your soul. Then I’ll rebuild it into some sort of retro spaceship robot thing. And leave lots of bricks on the floor for you to step on.

“Metal spider succubus” seems to be the only adequate combination of words to describe her (which I think is just swell). Needless to say I’ve ordered this set, and eagerly await its eventual arrival here in Japan sometime in the next thirty six months or so.


Halloween Meltdown ’15: LEGO!

legoBansheeEarlier every year, right? I know, it’s only August, but I’m not going to be in the US for Halloween, so I need to get my fix while I still can.

Those of you who aren’t Lego nerds may not be aware of the company’s ongoing Minifigures line. Understandable, given that you’re (presumably) mature, reasonable adults. I, however, am not, and I love Lego, and I love monsters. So I’m thrilled to learn that the next series of minifigures is all about, er, monsters.

The Brothers Brick have the whole set of photos over on their excellent Lego-centric blog. The series has a werewolf, a bunch of zombies, a gargoyle, a very cool ghost, and more. It’s not as good as a reboot of the Monster Fighters line, but it’s still pretty cool.

My favorite of the bunch is the banshee, and I will seriously stand in the Lego aisle at Target for three hours feeling through the blind packs until I find the damned thing. That is how awesome I am.

On Fear: A Response to Lisa Schwarzbaum

I was clicking around on the BBC’s website when I happened upon an opinion piece by one Lisa Schwarzbaum. The piece, entitled “After The Walking Dead, what is left to scare us?”, is a broad look at the history and future of horror, apparently prompted by the impending Walking Dead season finale.

Schwarzbaum asks,

Has the zombie genre become routine? And if so, are we now in need of the Next Great Scare? What is out there to frighten us silly? Because whatever scares us as a form of entertainment is never just the thing itself – the vampire, the axe murderer, the mutant lizard, extraterrestrial or stalker in the house with the unsuspecting nubile nanny – but also a manifestation of zeitgeist anxiety, a clue inside our society’s deepest fears at a particular moment.

Pictured: I don't know, probably, like, a metaphor for Obamacare.

Pictured: I don’t know, probably, like, a metaphor for Obamacare.

For Schwarzbaum, the fear that cinema elicits is entirely a function of larger, often unspoken, perhaps even unconscious anxieties, outgrowths of historical trends and events which are translated, literally or metaphorically, onto the screen. She goes on to discuss films like 2001 and more contemporary fare like Her which she sees as portraying societal fears of uncontrollably expanding, all-permeating technology.

While some of the macro-scale interpretations that Schwarzbaum offers are undoubtedly accurate, as far as they go, several aspects of her consideration of fear in film sound a slightly discordant note with me. The thing that stands out most, by its absence, is the entire horror genre.

Now, this isn’t about nitpicking generic definitions. I’m the last person to care about that kind of thing, with only a few very minor exceptions. Nevertheless, her list happens not to include any films that are conventionally counted as horror, aside from throwaway mentions of Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This seems like an oversight in a piece that purports to be about films and television shows that inspire fear.

The real issue here is not about genre at all, but about the assumption that only certain kinds of themes can inspire fear. We’re afraid of zombies because they represent mindless consumerism (or, conversely, Communism), the story goes. But personally, if I met a zombie, the last thing that would occur to me would be the metaphorical parallels between this shambling corpse and the hordes of people surging into Wal-Mart on Black Friday. The events on-screen have a literal diegetic existence first. By this I mean that, regardless of interpretations after the fact, in this movie there is a pack of werewolves disemboweling a guy, or whatever. On that level, I think the fears that horror evokes and invokes are quite different from the sociopolitical woes that Schwarzbaum identifies. It is possible to have a fear of flesh-eating ghouls that relates less to political orientation or social norms than to the more practical fear of having one’s flesh, um, eaten.

"We are here to call into question your reliance on pharmaceutical companies and the superficial nature of your social network-based relationships!"  "Your friends are judging your stupid hair!"  "Your favorite sports team eats babies!"

“We are here to call into question your reliance on pharmaceutical companies and the superficial nature of your social network-based relationships!” “Also your friends are judging your stupid hair!” “Also your favorite sports team eats babies probably!”

Ultimately the question is, who gets to speak for me? Who is this we who are supposedly more concerned with political-economic models than with flesh-eating ghouls? It’s possible to confuse authorial intent with audience reception, and some of that seems to be going on here. Not every scenario is intended to be read metaphorically, and not every audience member will interpret cinema conventions in the same way.

I have no doubt that Schwarzbaum is correct in asserting that contemporary events and pervasive social and political anxieties have influenced the films she cites in the ways she describes. I could add numerous others to the list, as could anyone who’s seen a movie in their lifetime. But in this quest to identify pressing social concerns, I think the smaller, experience-nearer fears (to borrow a venerable term from anthropologist Clifford Geertz) sometimes get lost. This is most evident, again, in the fact that Schwarzbaum’s list barely touches on the horror genre as it’s generally understood.

Sure, the piece is ostensibly about The Walking Dead. But that very fact begs the question: do any viewers actually find The Walking Dead scary? I certainly don’t, and I’d honestly be surprised if anyone said that they did. I can’t speak for the show’s producers, and I haven’t read the comics, but I doubt that it’s intended to be frightening in the way self-consciously horror-y stories generally are. Having a visceral reaction to a bloody dismemberment scene isn’t the same as leaping out of your chair when the phone rings after your first viewing of The Ring.

(Certainly The Ring references contemporary fears about pervasive technology; but rather than being the ultimate source of fear, I’d argue that technology, in The Ring, is simply a convenient vehicle for a supernatural evil. That the film has the power to undermine the seeming incompatibility between modernity and scary supernatural belief just underscores the frightful power of the latter. Sadako/Samara is the source of the fear. She just happens to know how to use a phone. And a VCR.)

Schwarzbaum ends her piece with a set of predictions about emerging fears that she believes will appear on screen.

But rather than that being a sign of Hollywood running out of ideas, our recurring zeitgeist fears reveal the immense capacity of the human race to repeat itself. Indeed, I predict many more horror movie and television plots based on technological anxieties – regarding fears of surveillance, control and conformity, and biological disruptions that result in mutant monsters.

I’m just not convinced by this. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s too broad, too obvious, and simultaneously too limiting. Too broad because “surveillance, control and conformity, and biological disruptions” are simply gigantic categories which have always been explored by filmmakers. You’ve got your spy/conspiracy thrillers (your Bonds and your Bournes and your X-Files); your cyberpunk/dystopian future whatsits (The Matrix, Equilibrium, V for Vendetta); and literally every conceivable monster movie/body horror/scifi creature feature ever, respectively. Naming these categories is akin to proclaiming, “People are likely to keep making the same movies that they have always made, as long as people continue paying to view them.” And you don’t need a degree or a column to make that observation.

These predictions are too obvious because of course popular culture is influenced by (and has tremendous influence on) technological developments. This is true, perhaps, of all fiction genres. Twenty years ago, Mulder and Scully were chasing aliens with the help of giant ’90s cell phones with those flimsy little pull-out antennae, and waiting to access encrypted databases of crazy world-shattering alien secrets to the merry sounds of dialup modems and dot-matrix printers. iPhone-like technology existed only in the form of Federation tricorders, and honestly I doubt those things had Angry Birds. Historical contexts change, and those changes are often reflected in fiction. “Predicting” more films and television shows that capitalize on changing social contexts and new technologies is like “predicting” that this summer will be warmer than last winter. Not 100% certain, but still a pretty safe assumption.

And they’re too limiting because they arbitrarily assign a set of values to the horror genre (despite not having discussed any of the many ways in which that genre is understood by popular audiences, or even really being about horror at all). The idea that the only scary film is a film which explicitly addresses real-life current events and social anxieties is problematic because it ignores the realm of fantasy, those new, untested scenarios that fiction is capable of generating (though to be sure it does not always do so successfully). More simply, it ignores frightening films and television that simply don’t do that, or at least not for all audiences. It’s possible, for instance, to read (or view) The Exorcist as a commentary on the decline of religious values in the US in the late 20th century; but there is also a core narrative here about a little girl who is literally possessed by an evil spirit. The fact of the real narrative underpinning the fictional events of Blatty’s novel (regardless of one’s stance on supernatural belief) hammers home the notion that there is more at stake here than superficial, ephemeral cultural criticism.

Schwarzbaum’s piece is useful for reminding us of the very real influence that changing technologies and social anxieties can exert over popular media. It would have benefitted from a more nuanced exploration of the various causes and meanings of fear. And it would have been nice to work some real horror in there somewhere.

Works Cited

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “After The Walking Dead, What Is Left to Scare Us?” BBC Culture. Accessed March 29, 2014.

Halloween Meltdown ’13: More Lego Nonsense

If it wasn’t already painfully clear, I love Lego. But I especially love the monster-themed Lego that was released a year or so ago (and, stupidly, canceled already–a pox on the fickle toy market).

All the classic movie monsters are represented: zombies, ghosts, vampires (human-looking and bat-like), werewolves, and even Frankenstein’s monster, as this clip shows. The minifigures are great, and the environments are even better. The only set more appropriately Halloweeny in all of Legodom is (possibly) the elusive (and preposterously overpriced) Lego Harry Potter: Graveyard Duel set.

But I can only show so many static images of Lego sets before it starts to wear thin. So instead, here’s this: