Sunday, November 29, 2015
Why Music Boxes Are Creepy
"Why Are Music Boxes Creepy?" I feel bad - guilt-ridden, truthfully - because that old "post" to which they are so often directed (you'd be surprised how many times a day people want to know why music boxes are creepy) is misleading. Some kid had written in to me with the idea that "Maybe music boxes are creepy because they are a purposeless vestige of Europe's aristo-centric period." And I quoted him in that "post" much too approvingly. Of course that's NOT why music boxes are creepy. Nor is this kid's highfalutin statement true in almost any way. Music boxes, for example, aren't any more "purposeless" than anything else. I gave that kid too much of a pass! I was trying to be nice. But now, all these years later, sad people who want to know why music boxes are creepy look to me for answers (several times a day, bewilderingly) and get nothing! And that kid is six years older now, so I suppose he can handle the truth that his big theories are full of beans. People aren't watching a movie about a dark house where a music box starts to play in the dead of night and the hair rises on their arms because they are suddenly reminded of "Europe's aristo-centric period"! Sorry to be so harsh! But you, theorizing kid, are probably at least 28, I'm going to guess, whoever you were, a full-grown adult by now who can accept the facts! I suppose music boxes are creepy because they are light and tinkly, for one thing. Scary noises in literature often start out soft... the rats scratching in Lovecraft, the beating of the telltale heart in Poe ("such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton")... soft music is scary at night... whistling, like in M or THE STEPFATHER... some awful killer is always humming softy to himself as he sharpens his instruments... also, music boxes are meant to be activated by the human hand (might be thought of, in fact, as an "alarm" of sorts... did people place diamonds and gold in them for this reason? Someone else may feel free to research the matter), so if you suddenly hear one in the middle of the night, when everyone is supposed to be asleep, something is wrong... like the record player and the wind-up toys and such in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND... music is a human endeavor, and maybe the mechanism IS an unwelcome (creepy?) reminder that our works can go on without us. And of course the kid from the old "post" WAS sort of onto something... in that a music box is a form of entertainment that a ghost might find comforting. Like, "I remember these!" Yes, just the sort of sentimental object to which a poor dead ghost might be attracted... a private, lonely entertainment even in life... so personal, maybe you shouldn't be overhearing it... a box to receive a particular soul... like a coffin... and yes, it IS a voice from the past, with a limited vocabulary. It can play only one thing... over and over... like a ghost... like the obsessive thoughts of a madman... like me... like that dude in MOBY-DICK... and slowing down, little by little... I was having drinks with Lee Durkee and he mentioned how music boxes are always slowing down... Sometimes they wind down unresolved, like life. There's nothing tenser in music than the "suspended fourth"... that's where the power of the music box's creepy cousin the jack-in-the-box comes in... the relationship between suspended chords and suspense. Bach could really leave you hanging, except he always had the luxury of resolving, except when played on a music box, I guess. Lee Durkee also contended that musical selections have something to do with it. "Music boxes don't play 'Turkey in the Straw,'" he said, emphasizing the jauntiness of that hoedown. I'll have to think about that. Is it true? And in any case I suspect "Turkey in the Straw" could be creepy enough on the right music box... Is the similarly bouncy "Pop Goes the Weasel" creepy just because we've heard it on so many dilapidated jack-in-the-boxes? Or is it the disturbing foreknowledge that the weasel is bound to "pop"?... Melodies are messages... pianos play by themselves in movies... half-forgotten snatches... they're trying to tell you something... they can't quite tell it to you straight... what's creepier than an oracle? And when you open a music box, a little ballerina figurine or such often begins to twirl stiffly... we think at once of what Freud said about dolls in his essay on "The Uncanny," but I think that book is in Dr. Theresa's office at the other end of the house and I don't feel like getting up. In conclusion, I apologize to all the people who have read that lazy and erroneous previous "blog" "post" lo these many years. My intellectual cowardice is beyond appalling! Another possible answer is: music boxes aren't creepy. (Illustration: Vera Farmiga looking at a creepy music box in a scary ghost movie we went to see with Chris Offutt. I saw Vera Farmiga checking into my hotel last time I was in Burbank! Sorry I forgot to tell you. I pestered her with fawning and she was real nice about it. She was wearing a stylish hat!) PS One Kris Simmons, whom I know via twitter, has chimed in to say, ha ha! - wait, is that even a pun? Do music boxes "chime"? - "I think it's because they sound out of tune." And she's onto something I hadn't considered! What could be more ghostly than these rusty gears and teeth and coils and knobby spools... still striving, but bent and warped by senescence? I ask you! Remember Edmund Spenser's ghosts with iron teeth... An out-of-tune music box is an echo, touchingly faded and changed... like a ghost... or a reflection... am I too suggestible? But this picture of Ms. Farmiga hints at a mirror in the lid... wasn't that common in music boxes? And aren't mirrors doorways into other worlds...? We just did a whole ADVENTURE TIME episode about that! Do I need to get all GOLDEN BOUGH on you...? So music boxes have little versions of ourselves inside... or else who's looking at what in that little mirror when the music box is playing by itself...? Okay! I'll keep adding more reasons music boxes are creepy. Send your suggestions to CREEPY MUSIC BOX c/o "Writer" Oxford, MS 38655. If you don't think music boxes are creepy be sure to include NOT CREEPY MUSIC BOX on your postcard.