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COVER STORY : The Hobgoblins of Pop Culture : Why wait until year’s end? Halloween is the perfect day to stalk the scary things loose in the land

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<i> Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

The Mummy. The Wolf Man. Dracula. Frankenstein. Them! Norman. Carrie. The Alien. The Aliens. Jason. Freddy.

. . . Oprah.

So maybe they don’t make bogymen like they used to, but there’s no shortage of frightfulness. Do you ever feel like you’ve grown and Stephen King hasn’t, but for some reason, reading Entertainment Weekly makes you want to leave the night light on? Have you ever heard tree limbs scraping against the window on a stormy night and been consumed with the paralyzing fear that it’s John Tesh, trying to get in ?

You’re not alone in being afraid . . . being very afraid.

Remember when pop culture used to be friend, not fiend? No more, not with 500 channels and nearly as many talk-show hosts scratching at our doors. Future schlock is now, and what’s more terrifying, it’s ever-encroachingly interactive : Art imitates life imitates Beavis in the middle of a highway. You want to spook us this Halloween? Send your little boys to our doors dressed in Howard Stern masks. Have the girls beg us for candy, kick at our shins and then explain, “I’m not a bitch, this town just can’t deal with strong women.” Your trick-or-treating little Brendas and Butt-heads can do their worst to frighten us, but tonight we’re locking up our cats, turning off the lights and snuggling under the covers with a good, old-fashioned Marshall McLuhan chiller.

Forget waiting till New Year’s Eve for the usual punditry about the pulse of the mass media, we say. Ominous All Hallow’s Eve is an even more appropriate holiday, so bundle up as Calendar surveys the 13 scariest things about pop culture right now.

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Booga-booga.

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1. DOESN’T ANYBODY OUT THERE HAVE A LIFE? OR: REALITY--WHAT A (WORN-OUT HIGH-) CONCEPT.

Forget Beavis and Butt-head. What about the reality latchkey kids are exposed to, as seen through the prism of Geraldo or Sally Jessy Raphael? (Our Top 10 Raphael shows from the last 10 months: “A Pervert Is Stalking My Small Child.” “If I Can’t Have Him, No One Will--Female Stalkers.” “My Little Girl Is Trapped in a Woman’s Body.” “I Can’t Have Sex--My Adult Children Moved Back Home.” “My Wife Beats Me.” “Gay Interracial Adoptions.” “Too Ugly to Leave the House.” “Help! My Dad’s a Nerd.” “Gorgeous Women Who Love Fat Men.” “I Was Arrested Naked.” And the No. 1 scary topic, “Mickey Rooney.”)

From there, it’s just one step up to selling rights to your own made-for-TV movie, at least if you’re a white woman who’s been the perpetrator of an eccentric felony. If you’re no David Koresh, you may have to settle for being stalked in real time on “Cops,” “911” or “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol,” the kind of reality shows that prove truth is stranger than fiction and a hell of a lot cheaper to produce.

While we await the scientists’ perfection of virtual reality, we already enjoy reality that’s more virtual than real, like Universal’s CityWalk--not an actual tacky urban consumer center but an incredible simulation.

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2. THE COROLLARY: WHEN TV/MOVIE/MUSIC BECOME REALITY AND AFFECT PUBLIC POLICY AND LIVES, WE’RE IN DEEP TROUBLE.

Billionaires announce call-in runs for the land’s highest office on “Larry King Live.” Tabitha Soren more or less takes credit for rounding up the youth vote for Bill Clinton. Yikes. Can anything less than a Dan Cortese candidacy (“Washington--I love this place!”) be next?

Nowadays, Oliver Stone fans lobby to get the Warren Commission files declassified so it can finally be proved that Tommy Lee Jones really did kill J.F.K. And then, just to make everything “interactive” again, there’s public policy about the arts: Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) picks up where Dan Quayle left off, reminding us that the only thing more scary than so many kids watching television is that so many politicos are watching. (But can’t Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) learn the real names of “Buffcoat and Beaver”?)

That old urge to legislate--or at least bluff about it--comes up every time somebody picks up a bad idea at the picture show, like setting abusive spouses on fire in bed or impressing Jodie Foster or going down to the expressway to make some Zen connection with the double-yellow line. No one talks about the lesser-reported up side of Hollywood’s influence, like those three Midwestern teen-agers who allegedly went home after seeing “The Age of Innocence” and ate dinner with their elbows off the table.

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3. DOESN’T ANYBODY OUT THERE HAVE AN ORIGINAL IDEA?!?!

It’s the scary killer bees-ness of cross-pollination. You’ve got your movies to Broadway shows (“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Goodbye Girl”). TV shows to movies (“Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Fugitive”). Cartoons to movies (“Flintstones,” “Casper,” James Cameron’s “Spider-Man”). Comic strips to movies (“Dennis the Menace,” “Richie Rich”). Video games to movies (“Super Mario Bros.,” “Mortal Kombat”). TV skits into movies (“Coneheads,” “It’s Pat,” anything “SNL” ever put on). Country songs to movies (“Achy Breaky Heart”). Movies to theme-park rides (“Jurassic Park,” “Back to the Future”). Sitcoms to stage (“The Real Live Brady Bunch”). Best-selling schmaltzy books to best-selling schmaltzy record albums (“The Bridges/Ballads of Madison County”). Cartoon shows to records (“The Simpsons Sing the Blues,” “The Beavis and Butt-head Experience”). And TV, radio and everything else to publishing (cf. Leading Literary Lights, below).

So what’s still up for multimedia grabs? John Hughes brings “Nancy” to the big screen? “David Letterman’s The Guy Under the Stairs--The Movie”? . . . Good Lord, you don’t suppose we’re giving anybody any ideas?

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4. AMERICA’S LEADING LITERARY LIGHTS ARE . . .

Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Seinfeld. The good news is, people are buying hardbacks again. The bad news is, it’s because their Reader’s Digest subscriptions ran out. Limbaugh’s transcribed diatribes, “The Way Things Ought to Be,” have sold 4.5 million copies. Seinfeld’s more recent “SeinLanguage”--which the author describes, with a touch of his beloved minimalism, as a book of “the stuff I have that you can read”--is edging toward 1 million hardcovers moved. Neither of these is a match for Stern, who declared a moral crusade to topple Seinfeld’s No. 1 writerly ranking (“God, I hope I knock him off . . . I don’t think he put 10 minutes of work into it”), and whose “Private Parts” proved the fastest-seller in Simon & Schuster’s 70-year history.

There’s still a separate list for actual literature--like Robert James Waller, who managed to take his first romance novel to No. 1 without even putting Fabio on the dust jacket.

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5. AS LUDICROUS AS IT SOUNDS, THE VALUE OF CELEBRITYHOOD HAS BEEN COMPLETELY DEVALUED. OR: THOSE 15 MINUTES OF FAME HAVE GOTTEN A LOT SHORTER.

Susan Powter--instant celeb based on one crazed fitness infomercial and now, a future sitcom star . . . Heidi Fleiss--instant celeb based on plying the world’s oldest profession to a few actors and Hollywood execs as well as the usual international tourists; now self-proclaimed fashion designer, preparing line of Heidi sleep wear . . . Those crazy kids on MTV’s “The Real World” reality series--instant celebs based on being picked from nowhere to share a loft; now collecting agents . . . Ashley Hamilton--instant celeb based on marrying up, perilously; now enjoying career as party-hopping paparazzi magnet, with and without spouse Shannen Doherty.

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6. THE COROLLARY: WHO SAID YOU HAD THE RIGHT TO KNOW THE INTIMATE AND SOMETIMES DISGUSTING DETAILS ABOUT CELEBRITIES’ PRIVATE LIVES?

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Uh, the Constitution? No? You mean Burt just volunteered the fact that Loni never cooked, without so much as a subpoena? That Woody and Mia spilled conflicting tales of terror about voodoo valentines and misadventures in baby-sitting just for self-preservation or spiteful sport? That Shannen Doherty insists on trading barbs and fisticuffs with ex-fiances and jealous starlets and sacrificially offers herself as America’s Most Hated only because she’s an ill-trained 22-year-old who believes the myth that any publicity is good publicity and not because of any federal injunction against celebrity good sense? That Kurt and Courtney give self-damaging interviews only to reinforce their persecutory world view and collect future paranoid album fodder? . . . Geez, in that case, thank you all for giving .

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7. “SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW” WAS A SWEET THING WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT WEDDINGS, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO POP MUSIC . . .

We don’t mind that Steven Tyler is still rocking at 45. We do mind that he keeps posing for those open-shirted pin-ups. It’s like “The Chest of Dorian Gray.” Every time you open a newsweekly, there’s a story about the geezer-rock phenomenon--you know, McCartney’s latest Grecian Formula stadium tour, and Aerosmith and the Stones signing eight-figure retirement pension deals. So who are your fresher-faced pop-star alternatives? Well, dull-witted “slacker” rockers who haven’t learned to tuck in their shirts yet and short-fused gangsta rappers who haven’t learned that murder is immoral yet. Nothing like 19-year-old millionaires affecting attitudes so world-weary they could be . . . geezer rockers.

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8. SO, YOU THINK YOU HAVE SOME INFLUENCE? MAYBE, IF YOU’RE EITHER A 21-YEAR-OLD WHITE MALE OR A 30-ISH WORKING WOMAN. EVERYBODY ELSE, BUGGER OFF.

OK, so you’ve dealt with the crushing realization that you think of yourself as a rock ‘n’ roller and yet, the last time you were anywhere remotely near MTV’s core target demographic (upper boundary: 24), they were still showing Styx videos. But at least you’re not too old for the movies ? Yeah, right. Just don’t shatter the delusion by walking down Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, where all those folks with clipboards soliciting volunteers for research screenings will cheerfully inform you that, sorry, you’re too long in the tooth to get to go vote on whether James L. Brooks should cut all the songs out of “I’ll Do Anything” or not. It’s the acne crowd re-editing all our movies, and you’ve got one foot in the grave, chump.

But there’s hope for the post-collegiate: It’s the three original major networks, who still like women. ABC’s and NBC’s upper-demo boundary is 49, while CBS (the old fogies’ web?) stands its brave, anti-ageist ground by targeting shows all the way up to a creaky 54. Fox is definitely the kiddie channel, with its primary demo topping out at 34.

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9. THERE I WAS TOOLING ALONG THAT INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY AND I WAS RUN OVER BY 20 GAZILLION GIGABYTES OF UTTER CONFUSION. OR: EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS OBSOLETE. OR: COMING SOON--THE ICELAND CHANNEL.

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Or to update Bruce Springsteen, “570 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Computer-driven cable narrowcasting is the future, they assure us--a promising thought, when you fantasize hypothetical offerings like the Truffaut Channel, and a daunting one, when you realize most everything’s going to be more like Dick Clark’s All-Bloopers Network. One consolation: It may be all-bad, but it’s going to be all-high-definition , and you’ll get to watch close-ups of talking heads on a wider screen. (With, we presume, a remote as big as all outdoors, or at least the coffee table.)

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10. CYBERSEX.

Now we’ve got computer video games with two-dimensional seductresses doing things that’d make Annie Sprinkle blush. Someday, the Gibsonites tell us, there might even be virtual-reality fornication via full-body gloves with computers. Which sounds like safe sex, unless you ever saw “Demon Seed.”

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11. MY BODY, NOT MY TEMPLE.

Seems like everybody’s poking holes in themselves lately: You’ve got your Modern Primitives (that new breed of performance artists who pierce themselves with sharp objects); wanna-be modern primitives (Lenny Kravitz’s and Lisa Bonet’s separated but equal nose rings); you’ve got your scary star body parts (Elton’s hair, Anna Nicole Smith’s chest, everybody’s noses); you’ve got half of Hollywood going under the tattoo needle like there was a lottery for the “Illustrated Man II” lead.

But most follow the traditional path of piercing and mutilating their fellow man. Usually this is vicariously limited to the work itself, as in movies like “True Romance” or “Boxing Helena.”

Occasionally, though, the line between real bloodletting and fake blurs.Snoop Doggy Dogg enjoys one of the more unusual publicity campaigns of our time with his indictment for murder, which is expected to help position his upcoming solo debut at No. 1.

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12. IS ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER SCARY OR IS EVERYONE JUST JEALOUS?

He’s not just the world’s most beloved lower-middlebrow composer, he’s a cottage industry. “Phantom” finally vaporized from the Ahmanson, but as trade-off, this year L.A. got revivals of “Jesus,” “Joseph” and--look out!--”Starlight Express,” Lloyd Webber’s wacky musical about roller-skating UFOs. All this in preparation for “Sunset Boulevard,” which somehow even Billy Wilder has condoned. Can the contemporary theater escape Sir Andrew’s evil web? He’s ready for his hemlock, Mr. DeMille.

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13. POLLUTING THE GLOBAL VILLAGE. OR: THE AMERICANIZATION OF MORE THAN EMILY.

It was flattering when Soviet kids used to exchange bootleg Beatles tapes and we could imagine--perhaps rightly--that the urge to “Twist and Shout” might break the Iron Curtain. And all those previously verboten rockers singing alongside the crumbling Berlin Wall was a nice touch. Now they’re getting a steady diet of MTV and death-metal. So much for grace periods.

Britain hardly has a film industry left, thanks to the love for American imports; U.S. movies thoroughly dominate the Top 10 in Italy, Australia, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. In France, they love Danielle Steel as much as Jerry Lewis. In Mexico, candy-stuffed Simpsons and Ninja Turtles pinatas are replacing bulls at children’s parties. In South Africa, “Who’s the Boss” is the most popular TV show.

But what twisted American fantasy is our most beloved export nearly every place else on the map? “Baywatch.” So that’s how the world ends--with a thong, not a whimper.

Sweet dreams.

The Times’ Editorial Library provided research for this article.

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