Ephebiphobia and the West Memphis Three

Mugshots of the West Memphis Three

After 18 years in jail, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have been released. While they were forced to submit guilty pleas, and accept a sentence of time already served, they are no longer moldering in prison (with Echols on Death Row) for a crime it has become clear (thanks to DNA evidence) they did not commit. They owe their freedom in no small part to documentary makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose trio of Paradise Lost films argued long and hard for the boys’ innocence, and attracted moral and financial support for their cause from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines.

The film-makers’ persistent questions (their first film came out in 1996) about the validity of the trial, the lack of physical evidence, and the insistence that the murders were part of ‘satanic cult’ activity kept Echols clear of a lethal injection, and also kept media interest in the case alive. Alongside social media efforts (such as Free The West Memphis Three and Facebook pages supporting the trio), the exposure provided by the documentaries meant that this case didn’t go away.

The Paradise Lost films are worth examining, not just for the light they shed on one particular miscarriage of justice, but for how they show young men being demonized for their choices in music, clothing, hairstyles and reading matter, and made into scapegoats for society’s ills.

‘Fear of youth’ is well documented (in institutional rules and government edicts), and is known as ephebiphobia. It has been part of our cultures for centuries. Young people (especially young men), thanks to their strength, energy and willingness to try new ideas, are seen as a destabilising force by those who are invested in the old order. As the oldsters are the ones with all the power, they often take brutal pre-emptive and/or retributive action against perceived threats from youth (see: the Lost Boys of the FLDS). Most moral panics revolve around an aspect of youth or street culture, as authorities are persuaded by public outcry to crack down on aberrant behavior primarily from young males.

The discovery of the bodies of three eight year old boys in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, in May 1993, led to a moral panic that was to set the ephebiphobic aesthetic of the decade. The horrific murders were immediately attributed to a ‘satanic cult’ believed to be operating in the area, and the name of a local teenager, Damien Echols, was mentioned as a possible perpetrator.

Damien attracted suspicion, not because he had a track record of violent criminal behavior (although local police had been trying to pin all manner of crimes on him) but because he was different. In this staunchly Baptist community he had sought spiritual answers elsewhere, through Buddhism, Catholicism and Wicca. He grew his hair long, listened to Metallica, read Stephen King novels. He had also been treated for depression, and habitually wore black, including a long black coat. The local community believed that these circumstances made the unhappy and isolated young man ‘sinister’, and so the witch hunt began.

Instead of reviewing evidence dispassionately (which might have led them to one of the stepfathers of the murdered boys), the local police decided that Damien was to blame, and set about gathering gossip and hearsay that, in their eyes, could prove their case in a court of law. When solid proof of Damien’s guilt was not forthcoming, they hauled in “witnesses” who, tempted by the $30,000 reward money on offer, were happy to make up any amount of lies about what they had seen and heard. They also corralled Jessie Misskelley, an acquaintance of Damien’s. Jessie was mentally disabled, with an IQ of 72, and eventually, after much prodding from police, came up with a confession that implicated himself, Damien, and another boy, Jason Baldwin, in the murders.

Despite the gaping holes in Jessie’s confession (which he later recanted), and the lack of any substantial evidence, the local media, police and community were insistent that the boys were guilty, that they were Satanists, and that the victims had been sacrificed as part of some crazed blood ritual. Christianity is a force to be reckoned with in West Memphis, and the locals found it easier to believe that Satan was working among them (via Damien) than to confront uncomfortable questions about child abuse within the victims’ families. The crime was firmly pinned on the ‘Others’, the young, disenfranchised outsiders. The kid who had dared to be different was sentenced to death.

Throwing three innocent kids in jail didn’t solve the wider issues. The alienation felt by young American males was still there, and became an increasing part of the cultural zeitgeist, their inarticulate anger explored in movies like The Basketball Diaries, and songs like Pearl Jam’s Jeremy.

Did the songs, movies and video games of the era create monsters, or just call them out of the dark?

Luke Woodham, Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, Jamie Rouse, Barry Loukaitis, Colt Todd, Andrew Wurst and Evan Ramsey were all aged between 14-16 when they opened fire on parents, teachers and classmates in small towns across America during a period of just over two years (February 1996-May 1998). However, before any of these boys brought a gun to school, or wrote a note, or built a bomb, or posted on an internet bulletin board, society was already afraid of them, thanks to the specters of the West Memphis Three. The school shooters simply bought into the idea that because they were different, they were doomed. Give a dog a bad name, and he might shoot himself.

The media jumped on their perceived common traits, depicting them as a homogenous group of depressive, bedroom-dwelling, video game obsessed, grunge or metalhead, friendless losers – younger brothers to Damien Echols – and, with a national Satanic panic out of the question desperately tried to link these disaffected killers to specific media texts, rather than say, the medication many of them were taking. These boys wore black, especially in the form of long coats, as a way of expressing their otherness amongst the colorful plaid and sweats of their peers. They came to signify a national malaise, an army of Others who could pop up, guns blazing, in any high school corridor near you.

By the end of the decade, thanks to the Internet, and to the murderous actions of Klebold and Harris in Columbine, this tribe of misfits acquired a label: the Trenchcoat Mafia. The stereotyping begun with Damien Echols was set in stone, and outsider equalled killer, to be isolated and ignored, despite the fact that many of the teens who adopted the attitude and uniform of the subculture had never even handled a gun.

It’s 2011. Now Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are free men, perhaps we should look again at the prejudices that falsely convicted them? Is it possible for us to learn from the mistakes of the past? Now, instead of demons in dusters, we have hoodie horrors; the outer layer has changed but the inner bogeyman remains the same. Adolescent males are still being ostracized and criminalized by adult society. They are forced to the fringes, denied status, affection, hope for the future, paraded as straw dogs in movies like Eden Lake, Harry Brown, even The InBetweeners. Should we be surprised when they bite back, as in London and Philadelphia recently? Will we continue to substitute stereotyping for genuine understanding?

The West Memphis Three – Comprehensive case history from TruTV Crime Library
Who Are The Trenchcoat Mafia– BBC archive from April 21st, 1999, which shows how quickly the media jumped on the term.

The Blame Game #londonriots

Double Decker Bus Aflame #LondonRiots on TwitpicAs London battens down the hatches for another night of lawlessness, the media bristles with pointed fingers. Who is to blame?!? The liberal bleating of the broadsheets (police brutality! cutbacks!) is counterbalanced by the fizzing outrage of the Daily Mail, which, in a single news event, has all its scapegoats (kids, chavs, immigrants, hoodies, poor people, benefit cheats etc) in a row. It’s the same old same old, the class war dialectic rehashed from the 1980s.

However, this is 2011, the era of citizen journalism. In addition to the shock and scaremongering gushing from the mouths of traditional media outlets, individuals get to say their pieces too. Those caught in the thick of it are blogging, tweeting, posting images, videos, getting their personal view of events out there. The unifying characteristic of these unmediated posts is anger. Lots of it, directed against many different targets. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ explanation for the violence. We’ll never get one. What is emerging is a picture of a country in crisis, with deep gulfs scored between the haves and have-nots, the empowered and the disenfranchised, those inside the gates, and those waving flaming torches outside the walls.

Much has been made of the apolitical, seemingly purposeless background to these riots: the crowd weren’t demanding access to food, shelter, medication, clean water, a vote in an upcoming election. The rioters were those who had the first three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs nailed (Food, Shelter, Family), unlike many of their counterparts across the globe. So why were they rioting?

The top two levels of Maslow’s triangle are self-esteem, and self-actualisation, qualities in short supply in many of the UK’s inner city communities. Unfortunately, when the usual routes to self-respect (education, job, community service) are blocked or devalued, the easiest way to get to the top of the triangle is to smash and grab. Low self-esteem? Join your rampaging mates and prove you can loot and burn with the best of them – infamy leads to glory. Unable to realise your potential through lack of opportunity? Simply steal the consumer goods you would have bought with your wages.

This much is clear: frustrated citizens of a First World country have taken to the streets, bypassing the democratic process, eschewing law and order, and ignoring the social codes that usually prevent neighbour from turning on neighbour in the pursuit of individual wants.

So, whose fault is it?

Every individual who made the decision to join a mob, throw a brick, light a match, break a window or steal a trophy is culpable and criminal. These are bad decisions. The people making them are thinking only in terms of short term gratification and emotional release and not about the consequences of their actions on the community in which they live. This Hackney grandmother sums it up:

Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail expresses the same disgust. Could he be going soft in his old age?

This wasn’t a spontaneous uprising of dissent from the downtrodden masses, it was shopping with violence…This wasn’t a political protest, or a demonstration against oppression, it was a grotesque manifestation of our shallow, instant gratification, I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now consumerist society, coupled with an extreme explosion of the kind of casual violence which scars our town and city centres across Britain every weekend.

Despite Littlejohn’s anti-consumerist sentiments, the online editors of the Mail apparently have no sense of irony. As usual, their sidebar is filled with images of bikini babes, tittle tattle about Kate Middleton and J.Lo, and glorification of reality TV stars. The Daily Mail is all about celebrating consumerism and celebrity culture, propagating images of impossible body shapes and lifestyles, devaluing ordinary achievement and encouraging constant, unhealthy, upward comparison. No wonder frustrated DM readers seized their only opportunity to “get some London”.

Littlejohn gets back on track later in his article. He blames those he designates as ‘youths’, with the implication that most of them are black. When in doubt, turn to the usual easy stereotypes:

There’s resentment among the ‘youths’ against those who are perceived to have got on in life. Look no further than the Tweet from one of the looters which read: ‘F*** the electronics, them Turkish jewellers needed to get robbed.’

Unemployment is a problem, largely because so many of the poor, misunderstood ‘youths’ prefer to live on benefits and the proceeds of gang crime rather than seek gainful employment.

While they are posing for ‘gangsta’ photos on Facebook, most of the low-paid, but essential, jobs are filled by hard-working recent arrivals.

Daily Mail

Littlejohn doesn’t seem to take into account that, with jobs scarce or non-existent, and the £30/week Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped from September, inner-city teens are all out of ‘gainful employment’ options. Still, at least he’s started referring to immigrants as “hard-working recent arrivals”(!!!).

It’s left to a 24 year old blogger to provide the most honest and clear-sighted assessment of the situation, describing it as “viral civil unrest”. I encourage you to read Laurie’s post in its entirety:

Panic On The Streets of London – Penny Red

Many commentators, especially those who experience inner city blight on a daily basis, have noted that these riots were horrifying, but not shocking. West Indian writer and Croydon resident Darcus Howe was interviewed by the BBC, and asked for his thoughts on the inevitability of events. It’s unlikely, as the poster says, that the BBC will re-broadcast the clip, as the 68 year old broadcaster and columnist had to take the presenter to task on the racist assumptions behind her questions.

The riots, and their representation, expose a near pre-Revolutionary gap between the Establishment and the masses. While ordinary people suffer from the effects of cutbacks in everything from policing to health services, the Prime Minister holidays in Tuscany. As the price of higher education spirals more and more out of the reach of ordinary families, Russell Group universities cherry-pick the best students from private schools, and those without GCSEs or training are condemned to the proverbial scrapheap – and castigated for fighting back. Individuals are jailed for drug addiction, while multinational corporations and banks flaunt regulations for decades and escape with a slap on the wrist (and a hefty bailout).

Those who’ve gained a modicum of self-esteem by carrying home a stolen trophy TV this weekend may find the laugh’s on them. They’ll be stuck watching repeats of Made In Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a series of constant reminders that hard work doesn’t pay, the only way up is celebrity (not education), and that happiness resides in having the right handbag. No matter how much you try, you can’t loot an entire lifestyle.

If all that upward comparison does your head in, there’s always Jeremy Kyle, reinforcing a stream of negative stereotypes about ‘the underclass’ (or Littlejohn’s ‘youths’). The media is a mirror, and these riots have proved what an ugly, funhouse image it projects. Broken Britain: business as usual.

“This Summer”, “Epic Battle”,”A Love That Will Stand the Test Of Time” etc: the art of the movie trailer

Thanks to YouTube, movie trailers are no longer ephemera, glimpsed on TV over a couple of weeks then relegated to the Special Features section on the eventual DVD release. Trailers have always been a cornerstone of any movie marketing campaign, but now they’re analysed, angsted over and recut almost as much as the movie they’re promoting. Trailers for a tentpole release start appearing online up to a year before the actual movie appears, and now they stay online, forever a testament to what the studio hoped people would think the movie was about.

The Independent profiles the format today:

The trailer came into being in 1913 when the Loews Cinemas company created one for the musical, The Pleasure Seekers, which was playing on Broadway. But the early days of trailers were usually maladroit and audiences immediately knew they were being sold something. The Bishop’s Wife in 1947 gave a knowing nod to such tactics with a self-referencing trailer staring David Niven and Cary Grant on their way to film a promo for the movie.

Until the 1950s, American trailers were produced by the National Screen Service, although some directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford liked to produce their own. In the 1960s film directors took a keener interest, leading to more stylish trailers. Plot spoilers in trailers still existed into the 1970s although trailers were less brash than today. “This is Universal’s extraordinary motion picture version of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel, Jaws,” intoned the gentle voiceover on a trailer for Speilberg’s shark fest which, during its three minutes, showed so much footage and dialogue, it was akin to an abridged version of the film.

By the 1980s, trailers were more vague and teasing. Today, producers of trailers understand they are not selling a narrative but an abstract representation of one. They tend to make films seem like an offering (“the producers of Film X bring you…”) and they stick to strict time limits of two minutes and 30 seconds as laid down by the Motion Picture Association of America.

While a good trailer can make a bad film seem awesome (at least until the first audiences start tweeting their opinions on their way out of the theater), a bad trailer can be an expensive mistake that takes many months to put right in terms of advance word.

And of course, there’s a well-established set of clichés…

The science of the trailer– The Independent