Tuesday, October 27, 2009

the wonderland obsession

I will try to make this sound intelligent on the general lack of sleep and functioning that defines this point in the semester. No wonder I lock myself up in my room so much, trying to catch up on readings or writing papers. There's barely any time for a social life let alone time to just sit and take a breather.

Right now I just need a way to escape.

Then again, aren't we all escapists at some point? Why is it, time and time again we all find ourselves spiraling down a rabbit hole into a world of insanity, where the rules have switched themselves and what we know is twisted around to a point barely beyond recognition, where rationality has been chewed up and spat out, where even the safest corners of your mind are lost amidst the darkest, most menacing parts of the imagination?

As a spirited temperamental 16-year-old who felt trapped at home and constantly fought with parents, I ran away from home and what I perceived as intolerance. I was only gone for a few hours, but I packed as if I would be living on the streets for a week- warm clothes, food, water. Then, on impulse, I threw in a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. To this day I can't explain why it was this book that I chose to take with me. Sure, I was reading it at the time, but I had read it before and knew it was not my favorite book. And yet the bizarre wanderings of Alice through her fantasy world somehow seemed fitting to the adventurous, yet terrifying experience I knew running away would put me through.

Adventurous, it was not. Terrifying, it was.

Somehow that's what so many people seem to focus on- the adventure and yet the sheer terror of Wonderland. It's some sort of obsession with the psychological affects of the imagination run wild, one that is so prominent in various media from the late 19th century to the present.

To get a full idea of how many books/movies/computer games/art and other aspects of our modern life influenced by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, check out this extremely long Wikipedia entry. I will personally focus on a few of the media I am most familiar with.

image source: mouseandcat
Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986) features melodramatic teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) in her quest through the twisting Labyrinth to save her baby brother Toby (Toby Froud) from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie). In the Labyrinth Sarah fights against the clock- she has 13 hours to save her brother before he is turned into a goblin. The maze is baffling- walls show up where they weren't before, and Jareth pops up every once in awhile to mess with her mind. On numerous occasions Sarah is put in danger, whether from the machination known as "the Cleaners" or nearly falling into the Bog of Eternal Stench. Many of the knickknacks shown in her bedroom at the beginning of the film are reflected in her travels through the Labyrinth, including a doll on a music box who wears a dress that she will later wear in a hallucination, a fox thing called Sir Didymus who rides a dog that looks exactly like her dog Merlin, and a figure of Jareth on her desk, which shows that the crazy, dangerous fantasy world she enters is actually an extension of her mind, even the dangerous parts. The party puppet scene at the end also demonstrates that too. Her defeat of Jareth is her victory over that dark part of her mind.

My father, as a huge Beatles fan, exposed me to all of their songs at a young age, including the trippy "I Am the Walrus." The walrus is a reference to the walrus in the poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass. The music video is bizarre enough to bring a sort of Wonderland to mind. I think the Eggmen and the Walrus are pretty creepy to say the least. I'm surprised they never gave me nightmares as a child.

image source: Waiting in Transit
Then there's American Mcgee's Alice (2000). I have never played this video game, but I became so intrigued by the backstory that I watched some playthroughs of a few of the levels on YouTube (yes, I am a dork). This is quite a backstory- after she participates in the adventures written in both the Alice books, Alice's parents die in a house fire while she escapes. She goes insane from survivor's guilt and is put in an asylum. Years later she receives a stuffed animal rabbit that talks to her and sends her back to Wonderland. But this Wonderland has been darkly altered by Alice's deteriorating mental state- all of the creatures she came across are either horribly deformed or horribly deformed and evil. Aided by the skeletally skinny Cheshire Cat and others, Alice must fight the evil creatures, including the mad scientist of a Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts, in order to save her own mind from destroying herself. Toys are used as weapons and characters bleed. It's a very violent and unnerving game in some ways due to the whole psychological aspect behind it, a setting that is so fitting to Wonderland. In fact, if you win in the game, the happily restored Wonderland somehow seems less sincere than the macabre one of Alice's making.

image source: NYC Department of Parks & Recreation
In NYC's Central Park there is a public art display of Alice and her imaginary characters. Bronze sculptures of Alice, her cat Dinah, and several of her Wonderland companions (the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Cheshire Cat, and the White Rabbit) sit at a tea party on larger-than-life mushrooms. Children and adults alike can sit with these characters for a little while and pretend they're in Wonderland. No terror here; just pure childhood fun.

There is also a neurological disorder marked by patients' thinking that objects or their own body parts are larger or smaller than they actually are. The name of the disorder is (surprise, surprise): Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.

Also keep in mind that Tim Burton is coming out with a movie adaptation of Lewis Carroll's stories called Alice in Wonderland. It looks to be a usual serving of Tim Burton's gothic, kooky imagination. It will probably be as scary as his adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) (which is more true to the original novel than the 1971 version.)

Why is this little Victorian girl the gateway to that release from reality and sanity? Why are we always escaping through her? Any thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this was a very elaborate and multifaceted post. I really like the Labyrinth reference--I never made the connection between the two. (And I'm a huge Labyrinth fan... I made my roommates watch it freshman year and they thought I was a freak. I was like c'mon! it's a classic! Oddly enough we're still friends.)
    I also like that you bring cultural references from several generations, to show how this book has repeatedly showed up in pop culture.
    The only thing I kept wanting to come across--especially during the part about the Beatles--was a reference to drugs. I know several of my friends in high school who got into psychedelics would watch Alice while tripping. The story is a trip unto itself. Which is perhaps why people love it so much... an escape from banal reality.

    So there's a novel for you, good discussion inciter!