Finding beauty in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The marmot’s early wake-up call. A long-form comic on sinking prisons. An ebullient character with the power to manipulate TikTok. And the reasons for a good scare.
Zefyr Lisowski | Electric Lit | October 26, 2023 | 3,553 words
Apparently, this month marked the 49th anniversary of the seminal horror film Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (That odd-number-ness might explain why you haven’t been bombarded with oral histories, retrospectives, and inane listicles like “11 Times Leatherface Gave Glam-God Chic While Dismembering Hippies and We Can’t Stop Crying About It.”) I’ve never seen the movie, but that didn’t stop me from being mesmerized by Zefyr Lisowski’s essay about its outsized role in her life. Though the piece will linger with you, “haunting” is the wrong word here. Nothing about Lisowski’s prose is uncertain or vaporous; she shows the reader her scars from sentence one, and the next 3,500 words are equally stark and vulnerable. She came to Chain Saw in high school, a miserable adolescent desperate for the distraction of a watch-it-if-you-dare YouTube challenge. What she found was revelation: a brightness and beauty that helped her embrace her Southern roots, and ultimately her own self. “There are marks that are left on us, and there are marks we leave on ourselves, and I’m not sure there’s a significant difference between the two,” she writes. At multiple turns, she expresses a thought with such economy that it becomes nearly aphoristic, escaping the borders of an individual experience to become universal. That’s the mark of a great essay—whether you can stomach horror movies or not. —PR
David Gessner | Orion Magazine | October 11, 2023 | 1,997 words
I recently read that we’re in for an El Niño winter, which brings less precipitation and increases temperatures. I thought this was a cause for celebration—I’ll gladly take any relief from our brutal winters—until David Gessner helped me understand how global warming is altering the habits and habitats of birds and wildlife with his piece at Orion Magazine. “Consider the lowly marmot,” writes Gessner. (Up until this point, I had not considered the marmot at all other than being mildly amused at the screaming marmot meme, despite our recent move to its natural habitat.) All jokes aside, warmer winters cause marmots to emerge from hibernation earlier, before the green shoots they feed on sprout from the soil. “’The salad bar was open,’ is how Anthony Barnosky, a University of California paleoecologist, put it. ‘But now with warmer winters, they wake early and stumble out into a still snow-covered world. They starve.’” What I loved most about this piece—in addition to learning more about how habitats are stretching farther north—is how Gessner conveys that all is not doom and marmot gloom. Later hard frosts let marmots feed longer before hibernation, allowing them to put on more fat so that they’re better equipped to survive a shorter winter. “We humans have changed the basic cycles of the years. We have altered the clock of the world. . . .Noticing, it turns out, matters.” Now, if only we could turn back time. —KS
Susie Cagle | The Marshall Project, in partnership with Grist | October 24, 2023
In the ’80s, a prison complex was constructed in Corcoran, a poor community in California’s Central Valley, in the dry Tulare lakebed. (Historically, Tulare Lake has been the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi.) The Department of Corrections convinced lawmakers to exempt the facility from environmental law. Fast-forward several decades, and the two prisons now house 8,000 people, the largest incarcerated population in the state. California’s very wet 2022-23 winter resulted in a record-high Sierra snowpack—great for drought conditions, but a threat to the state’s agricultural interior, bringing epic flooding to the region. In this engaging long-form comic, the first of its kind at The Marshall Project, Susie Cagle chronicles how decades-old decisions to hastily build the prisons has put thousands of incarcerated people at risk. (If you enjoy this piece, I also recommend Cagle’s illustrated Longreads feature about another rural Central Valley community, “After Water,” which offers a different angle on California’s climate and water crisis in a similarly engrossing way.) —CLR
Brendan I. Koerner | Wired | October 19, 2023| 6,959 words
Brendan I. Koerner’s splendid, exuberant piece took me a long time to read. For starters, it’s nearly 7,000 words—but then there are the links. So. Many. Rabbit holes. Although not one to usually click on every link on offer, after becoming engrossed in how Ursus Magana’s company, 25/7, elaborately manipulates algorithms to link music with TikTok videos, I needed to see the wrestler videos that launched YoungX777’s “Toxic” and the teens twerking to Syko’s “#BrooklynBloodPop!” (No, I was not previously familiar with these works.) Despite the time invested, I remained fascinated throughout this deep dive into the creator economy—a mystical world that Magana can weave to his will like a magician. (Probably less mysterious for those who didn’t grow up in an era where a mobile phone’s greatest wonder was Snake.) The musicians and content creators are a diverse collection, being pulled out into the light from behind their bedroom doors, but they still pale against Magana, whose backstory demonstrates true entrepreneurship in the face of adversity. His frenetic, joyful character is what repeatedly pulled me back in from the wilds of the TikTok video vortex. —CW
Athena Aktipis, Coltan Scrivner | Scientific American | November 1, 2023 | 3,137 words
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Halloween event. It was a big deal, with different haunted houses built in old farm buildings. As someone who jumps a mile if a piece of paper blows across my path, I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect—but my niece and her friend dragged me along. I’m not proud of how tightly I gripped the hands of those teens, or that I made them lead the way through rooms where witches and ghouls jumped out of the shadows (different teenagers, dressed up and trading their dignity for holiday money, but still terrifying). So why exactly did I do this to myself? Athena Aktipis and Coltan Scrivner know. Their absorbing essay details how this is all a part of our evolutionary past. A morbid fascination with danger is widespread amongst all animals—we inspect threats to know how to face them in the future. I was subconsciously rehearsing for when a real witch came to whisk me away. (Spoiler: she’d get me.) The modern decline in risky play has even led to increased anxiety in children. Full of such intriguing facts, Aktipis and Scrivner’s exploration into the psychology behind the scare will keep you on your toes—and inspire you to go out for some proper frights this Halloween weekend. —CW
Who won the most sets of eyes this week?
Baxter Holmes and Tim MacMahon | ESPN | October 18, 2023 | 4,516 words
Young basketball superstar Ja Morant has been an electrifying presence since he entered the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2019. But as his fame and fortune have mounted, so have the controversies surrounding him. For ESPN, Baxter Holmes and Tim MacMahon reconstruct the last year and a half, speaking with Grizzlies employees and Memphis business owners in order to elevate their feature well beyond respectability politics.—PR