Buggin’ Out: The Paranoid Style in American Motel Rooms

Few films capture the spirit of modern American paranoia better than William Friedkin‘s 2006 film “Bug“.  It is a bleak, disturbing picture of two people consumed by sadness and connected through a shared feeling of conspiratorial persecution. Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) is a drifter who wanders into the life of Agnes White (Ashley Judd).  They quickly find themselves embroiled in one of the more unhealthy relationships in recent film history.  Agnes has barely survived a horrifically abusive marriage and the kidnapping of her young son.  Peter has just finished a stretch some sort of shadowy psychiatric hospital where, depending on who you believe, he was either a severely disturbed escaped patient or a survivor of a series of Operation MK-Ultra meets The Manchurian Candidate type experiments.  Together, they become the proverbial Bogey and Bacall of the Black Helicopter set.  It would be easy to dismiss their ideas as the demented imaginings of two troubled people, but the narrative they construct about the meaning of lives and their relationship to the world is a powerful statement about modern mass hysteria.

Peter gets the paranoia party started by insisting that a mysterious THEY have put bugs in his blood.  He is deeply committed to this idea, to the point of yanking some of his own teeth out in order to remove the egg sacs that are in his mouth.  Quickly, things spiral out of control.  They cover the walls of the room in tin foil, buy up half the bug zappers in Oklahoma and embark on a wild spree of shared psychosis and Dionysian self destruction that eventually annihilates them.  The logic that gets them to this point is nothing short of amazing.  They come to believe that everything that is happening to them is somehow connected to a greater plan.  Peter connects his own experience to sixty years of back room schemes created by a mysterious unnamed cabal bent on completely enslaving the entire human race.  In an amazing monologue, Peter manages to link the bugs he believes to be carrying to The People’s Temple in Jonestown, the Bilderberg Group and their secret meetings from 1954 until the present and even Timothy McVeigh (who was apparently the other lab rat who was given these bugs).  Agnes soon links her own experiences to his and comes to realize that her abusive ex-husband and missing child are also products of the exact same treachery.  It is the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy writ larger than life.  All of these random, non-intersecting parts mean something.  Each person’s life is a giant puzzle where all the pieces fit.  It’s just a matter of collecting them all together and putting them in the correct places and then it will all make sense.  This is the sort of thinking that Kurt Vonnegut lays bare in his book “The Sirens of Titan“.  In that book, the entire arc of human history has been measured and calibrated in order create a replacement part for an alien space ship which will one day have the important task of placing a “greeting” message on a far away planet.  We all have a purpose and that purpose happens to be completely absurd.

“Bug” takes this theme and runs wild with it.  The characters have created meaning for their lives out of a mess of half-baked theories. Peter and Agnes really believe that this crazy composite of events was created for them.  They see themselves as the protagonists of human history.  They don’t simply pick one story as their narrative; they pick every single one that they have ever heard.  The world really does revolve around them.

As I was watching this film I began to wonder if this was an accurate portrayal of the condition of the paranoia that exists in the minds of most Americans?  Since I have never been in the minds of most Americans, I am not really able to say for sure. However, things are getting pretty weird out here in the real world and I have to wonder whether some of this isn’t the product of the same ideas that drove Peter and Agnes into mental oblivion.  After all, there are a good number of people who will tell you that our President was born in Kenya, the National Security Council masterminded the 9/11 attacks, or the Federal Reserve killed John F. Kennedy.  I’m not really interested in debating the validity of the ideas, I personally don’t believe them, but if you do that is really fine with me.   I have a few pretty bizarre ideas about human history myself.  What I find interesting about these theories is that how they illustrate the Woodward and Bernstein fantasy that some people are living.  We are the investigators of some great cosmic puzzle whose pieces are scattered willy-nilly through a series of cultural and political markers.  We are Sherlock Holmes turning our collective magnifying glass on everything.  Media events are not things unto themselves; they are clues that connect us all to a larger picture.

Marshall McLuhan argued in his book “Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man” that modern technology had “extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace”.  In “Bug”, Peter and Agnes disappear as individuals and instead try to take on the narrative of the human race as their new identity.  McLuhan saw this loss of identity as a dangerous thing.  He ominously noted that “the loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful”  (Canadian Forum, 1976)  This quote is “Bug” in a nutshell.  Two beings entirely destroyed (first as individuals, next as physical beings) by the electric connection to the rest of the world.  If violence is a necessary and eventual component of this search for identity then maybe we do have a great deal to be paranoid of.

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  1. #1 by Jim Wheeler on December 15, 2010 - 6:21 PM

    As a young man in the Golden Age of science fiction I enjoyed Vonnegut, Asimov, Simak, Van Vogt, and all the others. But the genre deteriorated in the 70’s and after, IMO. The movie “Bug” sounds like 80’s sci-fi.

    As far as society goes, seems to me that the main danger is not in sinister meanings confounding everyone but in bland distractions that prevent deep thinking of any kind. Think tweets.

  2. #2 by Keith Spillett on December 15, 2010 - 8:10 PM

    I love that genre myself. Twilight Zone reruns got me started and from there I got seriously hooked on Asimov (particularly the Foundation series), Vonnegut and Arthur C. Clarke. Bug would have been a superb Twilight Zone episode (except Serling wouldn’t have gotten much of it by the censors). The tone of “Bug” reminds me a lot of John Frankenheimer’s film “Seconds”. The film would have been a nice addition to his paranoia trilogy (“Seconds”, “Seven Days in May”, “The Manchurian Candidate”). It wouldn’t have done to well in the 80’s (it didn’t really do to well in 2007 either!) It’s got some genre issues that would have given it some trouble in the 80’s where things usually fit neatly in a box. It was marketed like a horror film but Friedkin saw it more as a comedy. It also lacks the campiness of most 80’s sci-fi.

    I would agree with you about the danger that lies in bland distraction. I can testify to the fact that it is quite easy to get sucked into those things. What intrigues me about the film is not so much the sinister messages that the characters pick up on but their feeling of almost complete engagement to the fantasy world that they have constructed and disengagement from the living creatures outside of their motel room. As our connection to the world increases, I wonder if some of the violence around us is a product of the feeling of alienation from the individual self that once stood apart from the zeitgeist as it’s own distinct thing. I think that’s what the film is trying to get at, but I also may be adding a bit too much McLuhan into the recipe.

  3. #3 by brucetheeconomist on December 16, 2010 - 12:03 AM

    It certainly seems to me that attributing the most base motives to your opponents has become the rule in politics much more than it used to be. This is especially true on the right I think.

    40 years ago, I think on social welfare issues, conservatives would condesend that liberals had good hearts, but could accept the costs of their utopian ideas were too high. Today, the likes of Glenn Beck don’t concede that the health care law is well intentioned but too costly or impractical. Now they suggest its a intentional plot to turn the country into a concentration cap nearly. I think you see motives impugned by the left also, but not to the same extent.

  4. #4 by Guillermo Verano on December 16, 2010 - 3:42 PM

    Then there’s this:

    http://www.infowars.net/

  5. #5 by Keith Spillett on December 16, 2010 - 5:08 PM

    I agree, Bruce. I have watched a little bit of the Glenn Beck circus and really have a hard time taking it seriously. The first time I saw him I thought it was Lenny Bruce back from the dead doing some sort of a perverse parody of what Joe McCarthy would be like if he were around today. What I have a hard time coming to terms with is that there is a segment of the population that thinks he’s Moses come down from the mountain. I don’t know what to make of that at all.

    Where I would agree that there are some dingbat ideas on the Right (FEMA concentration camps certainly being some of the most absurd), I think that the Left has it’s share of genuinely insane ideas. Most of the Truthers I’ve met are leftheaded and that is one of the more bizarre theories I’ve encountered in a long time. I would also point to the “Taliban Dan” Alan Greyson ad as another example of some weird lefty thinking. I’m convinced that this is a shared problem that runs deeper than political affiliation. I’m not quite sure what it means, but it makes me pretty uncomfortable.

  6. #6 by Keith Spillett on December 16, 2010 - 5:11 PM

    Oh man, Guillermo, you had to go ahead and bring Alex Jones into this thing! DON’T GET ME STARTED!!!!

    Next thing I know, your going to bring Art Bell, George Noori and Hangar 18 into this.

  7. #7 by Marcia Riefer Johnston on December 18, 2010 - 3:17 PM

    Love all your tags (not just on this entry).

  8. #8 by Keith Spillett on December 18, 2010 - 11:56 PM

    Thanks Marcia. I figure that it’s the best way to attract a wide variety of bizarre, unique, zany humans to the blog.

  9. #9 by Jennifer Ellison on March 1, 2014 - 10:01 AM

    What’s up, this weekend is fastidious designed for me, for the reason that this moment i am reading this enormous educational paragraph here at
    my residence.

  10. #10 by Joel on April 17, 2014 - 7:52 PM

    I never heard of this movie until now, but the idea of Michael Shannon playing a character like that is pretty intriguing.

    • #11 by Keith Spillett on April 17, 2014 - 10:09 PM

      It’s one of the greatest performances you will ever see.

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