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Monster Mashups: The Recurring Horror of Mary Poppins

By posted at 6:00 am on November 16, 2011 3

I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.

coverI regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.

Imagine my surprise and horror, then, upon viewing for the first time Chris Rule’s “Scary Mary Poppins” mashup.

The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.

The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.

coverRule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,

I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.

Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”

The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.

covercoverCertainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of fanfiction.net. But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.

As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,

No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.

The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.

Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr





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3 Responses to “Monster Mashups: The Recurring Horror of Mary Poppins”

  1. Jack M
    at 7:50 am on November 16, 2011

    Steve, you are probably older than I am, because when Mary Poppins came out it was nothing more than a very fun Disney movie. The video is very funny, but nothing like my memory of all the singing and dancing. And those animated dancing penguins!

  2. Cutting Versions of Your Fear « 10 Billion Canons
    at 9:51 am on November 16, 2011

    […] at The Millons, Steve Himmer writes of a childhood fear of Mary Poppins that finds its embodiment in the mashup, “Scary […]

  3. Owen A
    at 12:57 pm on November 17, 2011

    The re-cut reminds me of the Mary Poppins books. P.L. Travers’ Poppins was a much edgier character than the Disney/Andrews version. The fun she hatched always had a dark underside. Being around her was an adventure in bipolar living–her mood could change in an instant. She was strangely heartless, ready to leave the children at a moment’s notice with no explanation. I loved the books for these reasons–they touched upon the real experiences and emotions of a childhood spent among unreliable adults.

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