Has the Internet Killed Merchants of the Bizarre?

I remember my senior year in high school, rummaging through anything I could online to find weird materials to share with my friends. One of the things I slipped up on was a VHS tape called “Weird Cartoons.” Most of what I found on that VHS is now found on “Johnny Legend’s Complete Weird Cartoons,” which appears to be available on DVD.

When I found this VHS tape, it was for the most part unheard of in my area. Before the Internet was predominant, only a handful of people had personal computers, and cable television was virtually non-existent in the North Country. We had a few network stations and that was about it. If you saw what by today’s standards qualified as a “weird cartoon” it was probably because one of the older network television stations let one of the racist cartoons slip through the censors. That wasn’t the good kind of weird. That was just awkward, especially in retrospect.

But the Ladislaw Starewicz stop-motion WAS weird. “The Devil’s Ball,” which apparently was part of a longer film known as “The Mascot,” really got me excited about the underbelly of history that I’d missed in the textbooks and on network television. I had been exposed to very tame art in elementary and junior high, but watching The Devil’s Ball–in which a drunkard stabs Satan in the gut and rips a gold coin out of a monkey’s throat right before it is about to rape a ballerina–I discovered that there was a time where art existed before the censors did. Scroll forward to around 8:55 in the video below to see what I’m talking about:

I became a merchant of the obscure and bizarre in my hometown. I didn’t want money in exchange for what I introduced my peers to, however. I wanted notoriety. Even on a microcosmic, local level, that’s all I wanted. I just wanted people to acknowledge that I had access to the weird, that I knew where to hunt it down and find it.

At first, when I was one of the few people in my hometown to have cheap dial-up, that trend continued. I remember the day I found “shit eaters” online after I typed “eat shit and die” into my browser after a rough day at school. I had never heard of coprophagia before that moment. And I never looked back . . . incidentally, neither did any of my friends. Sure, they looked away. But they could never “unsee” what they saw on that fateful day.

Things are changing. Starewicz is on YouTube, and his work has a fair amount of views. It’s there for the folks who want to see it. The value of the junk collectors, the collectors of the rare and obscure, has been lost to the predominance of free-access information on the internet.

And maybe that’s a good thing. It’s just going to take a while for us folks who took pride in being merchants of shit, and merchants of the rare and obscure, to accept our fate. We’re becoming obsolete. We don’t mean as much as we used to.

Now, just as I’m coming to terms with this, everything is changing again.

The sad thing is, most merchants of the bizarre were happy with barter. But information, no matter how obscure, is being integrated into the corporate mechanism that has taken over our world. The golden age of free information online is gone, or it will be in the near future. With the barter system of the merchants, recipients never had to pay anything out of pocket. Simply by viewing, by being influenced, they inspired the merchants. That was our payment.

I think everything gets commodified one way or another, but when money gets involved, that’s when things get dirty. When some corporate entity expects people to pay for what the merchants offered for little to nothing, it’s a true shame.

It’s strange how in American culture, there is this element of ownership inherent in dissemination of information. I told one of my students about Westborough Baptist Church a few weeks ago, and he decided to do some research on the group. He won’t forget that I exposed him to that. I become the source of his search knowledge in a particular vein, and my occupation as teacher, as one who imparts knowledge, is thus validated.

So maybe merchants of shit are not as obsolete as we thought. The information is there. We become, like we always were, crossing guards, street lights that guide the folks down the information superhighway, towards information that appeals to them. But we’re not the only crossing guard, so we have to be the best at what we do if we hope to draw people in and acquire validation.

No matter how I try to make sense of the problem, it always comes back to the issue I raised in Uncle Sam. Either we introduce the old to a new audience, or we create something new for the old audience. One thing I never factored in was the fact that if something bigger or better is doing our job more efficiently, our efforts don’t matter either way.

For some reason, the more avenues by which we can access that once-thought rare information, the more demoralizing this all becomes to me. The fact that exposure is quantified on websites like Youtube, that I can see the fact that 50,000 people have watched “The Devil’s Ball” is discouraging. The fact that “Coprophagia” yields thousands of results on Google rather than just a handful like it did ten or fifteen years ago, is disheartening. Someone already did my job, faster and more effectively than I did.  And in the near future, it’s likely going to go corporate.

The bizarre, the rare, the obscure, the pulp, it is making the transition to mainstream. I wonder what our place in tomorrow’s world will be when the underground is ripped from below and thrust above ground. Will it die a quick and painless death as so many trends before it? Or will a new underground movement sprout from the current trends?


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