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June 17, 2013

Are YOU Ready for The Purge (or Similar Short Stories)?

I have a confession: I’m kind of obsessed with the new horror movie The Purge. Off the bat, you need to know that I am not a watcher of horror movies (I saw The Shining when I was 15 and didn’t sleep for three whole months --- it didn’t help that my older brother chased me around the house croaking, “Redrum!”). I am, though, obsessive about some of the really strange ones. Not the ones that are sleepy creepy, but the ones that have one element that is so mind-blowingly insane --- but also profoundly human. Movies like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, and --- my skin’s crawling just thinking about it --- Tom Six’s The Human Centipede. When I become obsessed, I force anyone and everyone to talk to me about aunt, my boss, the guy who makes my salad at my local deli.
The Purge is the latest movie to torment me. It started when I saw a Facebook ad for it that casually asked “Are you ready for the Purge?” I thought to myself, "Whatever that is it doesn’t sound healthy." So I clicked the link and was led to the movie trailer. The movie’s about a dystopian future America where crime rate is at an all-time low, but people are given the opportunity to purge all their most evil impulses one day a year. We’re not talking about jaywalking here. Legal and emergency services are suspended, and people are given free rein to commit even the most heinous crimes. The movie itself opens (so I read!) with a scene where the characters are discussing the importance of the Purge to society --- I’m sure in that kind of glassy-eyed, naïve way that characters in horror movies discuss the moral crux of the story before something goes horribly, irrevocably wrong.
It occurred to me (either in real life or during one of my waking nightmares) that some of the science fiction stories from my childhood and onward that have really stuck with me have had this same moral compromise as the engine that drives their stories. The idea of sacrificing one person or one thing or one day for the greater good of the community is not a new concept. It’s one that is fascinating (and deeply, darkly disturbing). Even before THE HUNGER GAMES, authors were considering questions like: Are the needs of the community greater than those of the individual, and: What is the true nature of sacrifice? These questions are not only still resonant --- they’re downright modern. Below, I’ve listed two stories (and one bonus) that I read when I was a kid and still think about (more frequently than I’d like to admit) today. Each time I reread these stories, I’m still stunned by their tranquil facades and the terrible truths blithely buried within them. 
“The Lottery” is “a chilling tale of conformity gone bad.” It was written by Shirley Jackson and published in The New Yorker in 1948, just as the baby boom era was really heating up. The plot is simple enough: On June 27, residents of a small village gather for an annual ritual know as “the lottery.” The day starts “sunny and clear,” and children with pockets stuffed carelessly full of pebbles gather, followed by the rest of the townsfolk, around a pile of stones. Once everyone is accounted for, Mr. Summers, “a round-faced, jovial man,” ceremoniously opens the lottery, and begins calling out people’s names. In case you haven’t read the story, I won’t spoil what the lottery is for, but I will tell you the climax of the story is shocking and devastating.  
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is 1973 short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is kind of dreamy and impressionistic on its surface. The first time I read it I was completely thrown by the fairy tale rhythm of Le Guin’s prose. Omelas, like the America of The Purge, is a nearly utopian city. The inhabitants are all intelligent, cultured and happy. The catch --- because there’s always a catch with utopian cities, isn’t there? --- is that one wretched child is forced to live in a windowless, tiny room below one of the beautiful public darkness, misery and filth. The residents of Omelas are exposed to this horrifying truth upon their own coming of age. Although initially shocked and disgusted, most are able to come to terms with this, but some choose to abandon the perfect city and venture into a world unknown and unimaginable.
“All of Summer in a Day" is a short story that doesn’t exactly share the others’ premise, but it happens to be stacked among them on my memory-bookshelf. I read this 1954 Ray Bradbury story when I was in eighth grade, and I still remember how I couldn’t look my classmates in the eyes for a week after reading it. It takes place on Venus, a world of endless rain and gloomy gray, where the sun only shines for two hours once every seven years. As a classroom full of children prepare for the rare pleasure of playing in the sun, Margot --- who recently moved from Earth and who remembers what sunshine looks and feels like --- describes the sun for her peers. This only makes them resentful. In a fit of jealousy the children lock Margot in the closet, and forget to let her out as the precious sun finally emerges.