There’s a really gross urban legend you’ve probably heard in some capacity about a boy who can only sleep through the night with the assurance that his dog is lying beside his bed, keeping him safe from whatever monster potentially inhabits his closet. As the story goes, whenever the boy hears a suspect noise over the course of the night, he lowers his hand over the side of the bed and is pacified by the dog’s comforting tongue. The morning after this harrowing night, the boy wakes to find his dog skinned and hanging behind his shower curtain with some evidence left behind indicating that the gruesome event occurred before the boy even went to bed — the punchline being that it wasn’t really the dog who was licking his hand all night.
You can find the story in a number of urban legend anthologies dating back to the early ’80s in different iterations, most of which end in campy climax (my favorite: the boy wakes to find “HUMANS CAN LICK HANDS TOO” scrawled on the bathroom mirror in blood), and since then, of course, the basic idea has become a trope in horror movies in which the call is coming from inside the house, or maybe he was dead all along. It’s become so easy to satirize this idea that we have entire movie franchises dedicated to riffing on this horror genre trope inevitably referencing whatever campfire tale debuted this now-hackneyed plot twist.
The legitimate horror of this device never really hit me, though, until I’d found myself in a friendly email correspondence with a property owner on Chicago Craigslist who was offering me an impossibly good deal on an impossibly good apartment in an impossibly good neighborhood. He sent me way too much backstory about himself and the apartment, little of it made sense (he lives in Spain, but he bought an entire stack of apartments for his now-grown daughter for her four years of undergrad — like you do), but my concerns were sufficiently allayed over the course of our conversation. When he told me to wire him a security deposit before meeting, though, rather than simply realizing this was a scam and moving on, I felt nauseous, realizing I’d been exchanging niceties with a monster, like my hand had been licked by the forked Iberian tongue of a man who probably actually lived in his parents’ musty Florida basement.
The focal point of the story about the dog isn’t so much the grisly maiming of a canine family member as it is the eerie realization that the boy shared an intimate moment with an anonymous monster. Likewise, the horror of my encounter wasn’t so much rooted in the prospect of throwing away a few hundred dollars and a week of precious time leading up to the end of my lease, but rather in the idea that there’s an actual monster in the world who subsists on others’ hard earned money and can sleep at night knowing that his preying on oblivious yuppies has potentially destroyed their lives — but mostly, that I was entirely cordial with this person.
Looking back on this past year, I can’t think of a better metaphor for what we experienced as a country.
2017 was relentless in its tonguing the oblivious flesh clean off our national palm. Following the election of President Trump, our classmates, coworkers, neighbors, servers, tradespeople, and relatives quickly revealed themselves to be particularly sucky handlickers inspired by their perceived supremacy of their race, a collective dog-slayer biding time underneath our bed over the course of the past eight years consoling us with the pleasantries of an occasional “good morning,” “paper or plastic?,” or unwarrantedly defiant “Merry Christmas.” In an incredibly cowardly fashion, this considerable faction of America’s population revealed its predatory predilections only in what they rationally perceived to be political sanctuary, immediately preying on their victims when their power became legitimized.
But, again, it’s this fear of the unknown which lingers long after the latest headline reporting the bombing of a mosque in a nearby suburb — a fear of which of our classmates, coworkers, neighbors, etc. has yet to overcome their cowardice and commit a radical act affirming a longstanding belief they’ve been ashamed to make public thus far. On top of the countless undocumented acts of physical and psychological damage (not to mention the documented acts, which presumably exceed 2016’s 6,121 offenses) that’ve been inflicted purely based upon superficial heterogeneity in the past year, our country continues to cope with this new overwhelming bout of Phantom Dog syndrome, this constantly refreshed sense of the regularity with which — and gruesome extent to which — this violence is carried out as we continue to ignorantly exchange pleasantries with certain strangers and acquaintances until evidence of the sucky things they do presents itself to us.
This isn’t entirely dissimilar to another prominent plot point of 2017, which blossomed late in the year but seems entirely compatible. This is, of course, the outing of Harvey Weinstein and the general trend of sexual misconduct in Hollywood going as far back as a time when such behavior was typical in any industry — a sort of celebrity monster licking our limp limb over a much greater timeframe. The year was ushered in on the coattails of the resurfacing debate over whether it’s okay to have a 48-year-old man actually sexually assault a 19-year-old girl in a movie for the sake of an authentic rape scene, and ultimately reached a tipping point ten months later with the exposure of Weinstein’s sucky, sucky history.
From there, pillars of the institution were brought down one-by-one: James Toback, Academy-acknowledged writer of the early-nineties’ least-remembered screenplays; Brett Ratner, director of Rush Hour, evidently; Danny Masterson, just, come on. It wasn’t until the revelation of Kevin Spacey’s sucky behavior that we really began to glance at our hands, replaying the events of last night’s tonguing with utter terror and humiliation: Actors like Spacey and Dustin Hoffman have given us characters who’ve become inextricably linked with our culture, while Louis C.K.’s philosophies have likely shaped our broader worldview. As this trend quickly spilled over to other entertainment outlets, we were horrified to come across names like Jesse Lacey — whose angst carried a number of us through high school or college — and Charlie Rose — who’s hosted some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations our favorite public figures have ever engaged in.
It’s impossible to fully remove ourselves from the effect these figures have had on us, and it’s become mandatory to re-examine their influence through the lense of this new information. I now acknowledge that I blindly followed C.K. through five seasons of existential displacement and moral development, and related with his shortcomings (almost) every step of the way, believing Louie The Man Who Only Existed On Our Screens For 25-Minute Increments From June 2010 To May 2015 to be the exact same person as Louie The Human Being Whose Private Life Is Not Telecast To A Viewing Public (And Also, Unrelatedly, Who Directed Pootie Tang). After spending so much intimate time together, it’s painful to recollect the positive feelings I had while watching such an honest portrayal of an imperfect person baring everything, now knowing full well that that wasn’t the case at all.
It certainly isn’t a popular opinion to slap a passing grade on 2017, but its wholesale reckoning definitely bodes well for the future. 2017 was a year of recognizing the impossibility of certain appealing or comfortable relationships, both personal and celebrity; it was a year of rearranging philosophies to recover from the false comfort of whatever monsters were staking out our bedrooms; it will be a year to look back on and mourn the skinned dog carcass in our bathroom and ensure that the same fate won’t bestow our future sources of comfort. As our outlook on 2018 has devolved into paranoid obsession over our bank teller’s Richard Spencer sidepart, and over which of our celebrity heroes we’ll have to disown next, we’ll at least have the lessons 2017 wrought to incite a proper mindfulness.