While messing around in Merriam-Webster's online thesaurus in search of a title for this essay, I was surprised that a search for synonyms for "heroic" included the following:
crazy, foolish, half-witted, insane, lunatic, mad, nutty
I think this connotation of "heroic" occurs only under specialized circumstances, as when someone of faint heart thinks that a hero is "crazy" for attempting some heroic act. Yet it's a fortuitous cross-comparison, because I gave some thought today on the significance of "crazy heroes" for my NUM formula.
As I've noted on many occasions, there are certain works which just barely seem to cross the threshold of the naturalistic into the uncanny. In this 2012 essay, I gave three examples of thriller-films that had a very "naturalistic" look overall, though I asserted that one of them, EYES OF A STRANGER, registered as "uncanny" thanks to certain diegetic factors:
EYES debuted in theaters at a time when psycho-slasher films were still in ascendance, but this film's killer has little in common with the more colorful fiends of the period: he isn't deformed, wears no distinctive mask or clothing, and uses no special gimmicks or bizarre methods to commit his murders-- all in spite of the fact that one of the writers credited with the EYES screenplay also worked on the seminal 1980 FRIDAY THE 13TH. Nevertheless, for all the naturalistic touches here, the script does give the villain a larger-than-life quality that confers a sense of dread to the proceedings. For one thing, though the psycho-rapist never earns a distinctive nom du crime, on occasion the heroine, news reporter Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes), dubs him "the Phone Freak" because he preys on women after tormenting them with lascivious phone calls.
I mentioned the example of "the Phone Freak" earlier on this blog in my more recent essay ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4, as one of a handful of examples of "psycho killers" who attained a "larger-than-life" quality that I subsumed under the term "artifice."
But this conception returns me to the line of thought expressed in my "Power and Potency" series, where I drew a comparison between G. Wilson Knight's thoughts on Shakespeare's character Hamlet and the general idea of the "perilous psycho."
G. Wilson Knight's essay on HAMLET implies this opposition between body and non-body when, as I showed in Part 1, Knight imputed to the moody Prince of Denmark a power that was not a literal power, saying that "the poison of [Hamlet's] mental essence spreads outward among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal." When he wrote this, Knight was not being at all literal, as his use of the acid simile demonstrates. Hamlet has no more physical power than any other human being, but because he has "held converse with death," he *SEEMS LIKE* he has become something more than human. But the "seeming" takes place purely upon the mental/spiritual/"non-body" plane of being.
Until reading Knight, I had always classified HAMLET and most of its film adaptations as instances of the trope I call "phantasmal figuration." However, Knight's description makes Hamlet sound very much like the type of uncanny-or-naturalistic figure of another trope: "the perilous psycho." In terms of the play proper, one may argue back and forth whether or not Hamlet, in feigning madness, may have actually gone mad. But whether the Danish prince is mad or merely infected with a pestilential cynicism, his attitude has given him a special "potency," even though he has no special power-- just like all of the "psycho" characters I've studied.
The "psycho" usually takes the persona of either a monster or a demihero, but I began thinking: is it possible to view any mostly naturalistic "heroes" as being uncanny purely because they're, well, somewhat crazy?
Often I've put forth examples of heroes who are uncanny in terms of their appearance. In this essay, I asserted that the oater-hero the Durango Kid was one such uncanny hero, even thought there was absolutely nothing to separate one of his adventures from a Roy Rogers western except for the Kid's uncanny garb.
I've also defined some heroes as being in an uncanny phenomenality due to the monsters they oppose, as I did in my review of 1984's FEAR CITY, wherein traumatized boxer Matt Rossi makes it his business to take down a weird serial-killer.
But to be a direct parallel to the example of EYES OF A STRANGER, my hypothetical "lunatic lawman" would have to have nothing special about his appearance, his resources, or his antagonists.
Now, as it happens, vigilante lawmen are frequently figures of terror to criminals in a manner analogous to the way serial killers terrorize ordinary citizens. But since I've said that the Phone Freak invokes "dread" rather than just simple "fear," as my 2012 essay argues in detail, a mostly naturalistic hero would have to do the same thing. This is less common for heroes than for monsters, since heroes are usually pretty flamboyant about who they are and what they do.
One possible example of a "crazy hero" type might be the ex-'Nam vigilante hero. This hero-type was largely initiated by the incredible popularity of the paperback hero The Executioner, who in 1969 began his run of over 400 novels and almost certainly influenced Marvel Comics' Punisher. I've read only one of these novels and so could not make any determinations about the series without much more research. However, according to my system, the only way that such a hero could be uncanny would be if his acts were so crazy that they went beyond the basics of the heroic type. For instance, here's a description by blogger Joe Kenney of a particularly horrific execution pulled off by one of the Executioner-imitators, the Penetrator:
The battles are mostly one-sided, with the goons no match for Hardin's skills. Regardless the action sequences are all well staged and expertly rendered, particularly a great scene where Hardin gets a small army of mobsters stuck in a canyon and lobs white phosphorous down upon them. This is probably the most brutal treatment I've ever seen delivered to the mob in a men's adventure novel!
Having read few works in this genre, I probably can't do more than make general hypothetical statements. However, another possible example of a "crazy hero" might be seen in 1984's RED DAWN. I judged this film as uncanny largely because of it's "what if" situation of showing a Russian invasion of the United States. But the heroes of the film, Jed Eckert and his "Wolverines," have taken a certain uncanny potency by virtue of following in the footsteps of aboriginal Americans. Thus Eckert may be the "crazy hero" who offers the best contrast to the almost naturalistic "crazy monster."