Electric Shocks in Culture
The term “culture” has come to mean: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. There are many mediums for this transmission, including oral tales, religion, and other rituals. In more modern terms, a people’s way of life is often expressed through film, music, works of fiction and other recreational activities from daily routines. Man’s complete and utter fascination with electricity has earned it a place in myth, history, and modern pop culture.
Ancient peoples believed in ancient gods, and their stories of these deities reflected both their fear and respect of them. One of the earliest known gods is Zeus (Jupiter), the most powerful god and ruler of Olympus in Greek and Roman myth. He was the god of weather, law, order and fate. He is most commonly depicted holding a royal scepter in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other; the lightning bolts he used as a weapon of war were manufactured by his son, Hephaestus (Vulcan). The shaking of his might aegis shield created the thunder that accompanied his lightning bolts.
Zeus used the wrath of lightning and lightning bolts throughout Greek mythology, setting fire to the great monster Typhon, who intended to usurp Olympus; he struck down the Gigantes, whose crimes were many; and often used them to punish mortals who had displeased him or failed to make appropriate sacrifices.
Nearly as ancient as the Greeks were the Egyptians and Romans. It is believed by some that the Pharaoh’s Lighthouse at Alexandria utilized a sort of electricity to illuminate its beacon. It is also noted by Egyptologists that few of the myriad Egyptian drawings show any sort of light source, such as a candle or lantern. Some claim this is because the Egyptians were generating electricity. In fact, a carving beneath the temple at Denderah clearly shows electric searchlights being used.
In more recent history, recorded as fact instead of myth, most every school child has studied Benjamin Franklin’s “discovery” of electricity by flying a kite in a severe storm. When he ran a standard key up the kite string, and the key was duly struck, electricity was said to have been discovered and technology began rapid advancements shortly following.
In modern times, there are always new advancements in electric technology, be it green light bulbs or more efficient manners of generating power. However, it is the myth and legend of a people that are usually remembered and will live on for decades after they are gone. Today, myth and legend has been converted to popular culture, and the power of electricity and shock is seen in many aspects of it.
Take, for example, films. One could never detail every single instance of man’s fascination with electricity in modern movies, but no one can argue that some of the most poignant and gripping scenes involve the violence of this power.
The 1987 movie, Lethal Weapon, went on to become a multi-part series. Starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as two detectives with different approaches to their work, Lethal Weapon was a box office smash. Although the movie had many gripping moments, few people can disremember the scene in which Gibson’s character, Sgt. Martin Riggs, is captured by the movie’s baddies and strung up in the shower. He is questioned about inside police knowledge of illegal drug activity. To “encourage” talking, the drug dealers detain Riggs in a makeshift shower and repeatedly electrocute him with sponges attached to a car battery.
Tom Hanks’s 1999 The Green Mile also presents a horrific electrocution scene. Written in part by horror guru, Stephen King, The Green Mile depicts a brutal botched electrocution of the character Delacroix when the technicians fail to wet the sponge to carry the death charge into his body. The electrocution goes on for what seems like forever, leaving vomit and the stink of burned hair and flesh throughout the chamber.
Scientists engineer a breed of advanced mako shark in the 1999 thriller, Deep Blue Sea, in hopes of harvesting their tissues to cure Alzheimer’s. Of course, the plan fails and the super sharks are turned loose upon the world. At one point, Dr. Susan McAllister is attacked by a beast as she is attempting to fetch the files detailing their creation. She scales a shelf, breaks an electric wire and launches the live circuit into the water. She strips out of her wetsuit and stands on the rubber garment, insulating herself from the shock.
Author Michael Crichton truly loves the electric scenes in his novels, many of which have been adapted to the big screen. Jurassic Park, one of many, features an island filled with synthetically reproduced dinosaurs. They are contained by HUGE electrical fences. At one point, young Timmy is climbing over the powered-down fence to rejoin his group when the alarm sounds, signaling that the electricity is being booted up. He is unable to finish his climb over the huge fence and receives a powerful jolt, sending him flying from the fence in a ball of smoke. He suffers cardiac arrest, a common side effect of electrocution.
Of course, these grim scenes seem to go on forever, but not all electrical scenes in modern movies are so dark. Some are actually meant to be humorous and silly. Take the hilarious frying of Marv in Home Alone 2. This entire series details the ingenious traps set by a young boy who is inadvertently forgotten when his family takes a vacation. Burglars try breaking into the home, and he defends the property, using only his wits. At one point, he rigs the door handles with electricity and fries Marv as he screams.
An older flick, Ghostbusters, is a horror comedy that uses electricity in several scenes. We first meet Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) performing E.S.P. experiments on random test subjects. If they are able to guess the picture on the card he is holding, they are fine. If not, he shocks them. Unfortunately, the entire experiment is a quest for Venkman to improve his sex life, and boys (regardless of their skills) are shocked. Pretty girls, however, are made to think that they have psychic powers. Ghostbusters II will see the heroes battling old, electrocuted prison ghosts.
Mel Gibson again gets electrocuted in a bath in What Women Want. In an effort to better understand the fairer sex, Gibson finds himself in a bath experimenting with different cosmetic products; the electrocution makes him telepathic and able to understand women’s thoughts. Back to the Future II sees the famous DeLorean inadvertently sent back in time when it is struck by lightning, and it helps Uncle Fester regain his memory in The Addams Family.
Perhaps the greatest use of electricity in film was the 1959 thriller, The Tingler. Starring epic horror king Vincent Price, The Tingler is about a doctor who has been experimenting on patients who were in a state of fear before death. In fact, the opening scene of the film sees a man being dragged—most unwillingly—to his execution by the electric chair. What is so notable about that? Well, the early theaters…as director William Castle explains in the movie’s preface…were rigged with buzzers to simulate electric shock. Each time something electrifying happened on the screen, audience members would feel it from their chairs! In 1959 it was innovative, frightening and shocking!
In other forms of media, lightning and electricity make some ghastly and entertaining appearances, as well. In Mary Shelley’s classic novel, how did Dr. Frankenstein animate his monster? The fun anime cartoon series Pokemon arms the strange little creatures with lightning. While Shazam’s lightning bolt was a magical one sent by the gods, the comic book hero, the Flash, was electrified near a shelf of chemicals to achieve his magical properties. Electro is also a villain in the Spider-man series, and his name describes him to a fault. Virtually every science fiction or technological television hit features electricity in unconventional uses, ranging from a lightning-throwing guy on the X-Files to the Tower of Terror on The Twilight Zone. It is an extremely popular super hero skill, found in cartoons, literature and a plethora of video games, including Blizzard’s wildly popular Diablo II.
Games and Gags
Of course, not of all evidence of electricity in modern culture is so formalized as books or movies. People have been pulling electrical pranks on people since the power of electricity was harnessed. Ask any farm boy if he has ever peed on an electric fence, and he will likely admit that he has. Despite the warnings and despite knowing what the outcome is likely to be, people just can’t stop themselves from playing with electricity.
Electrical games and gags come in a variety of forms. Like peeing on the electric fence, an age-old gag involved scuffing your feet on the carpet of the schoolroom floor. After generating a fair amount of static electricity, touching the ear of the student sitting in front of you with your school-supplied little steel scissors could really create a yelp. Likewise, kids learn at a very young age that rubbing a standard balloon on their heads will also generate an electrical charge. The balloon will stick to their heads, or anything else following a good rubdown.
There are tons of magic tricks that are created with static electricity, and in fact, static electricity is such a well-known fact that many tricks work based on the illusion of static electricity, when they are actually sleight of hand. There are just as many gag gifts that are specifically manufactured for a shocking good time. We have all been victims of the electric pen or lighter trick. Nearly any item we can offer another human being out of the spirit of kindness, from gum to cigarettes, has been electrified in the spirit of good humor.
There are also many games manufactured with electricity as the focus. The most popular series is the Lightning Reflexes series. Here a group of participants will hold electrified buzzers and will receive mild, but unpleasant, shocks if they are the slowest to buzz in on cue. Other games involve battling electrical tanks, shocking hot potato balls, and a lie detector test that zaps you.
The power of electricity is so influential to pop culture that it has even made its way into the daily idioms we use. Anything exciting is electrifying. Anything amazing is shocking. If something has pep or zest, it is electric. Lightning itself has come to define speed, as in lightning reflexes or lightning quick. “Zap” has become an actual word instead of merely a comic book interjection. Shocks can be deadly or they can be fun in the world of modern man, but one point cannot be arguable: they are addictively fascinating.
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