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The Menace of Cornfields

By Henry p. raleigh
ART TIMES August 2005

SOME HISTORIANS CLAIM it began in 1939 with "The Wizard of Oz". To my mind this is not entirely credible. Itís true there was a cornfield and a desiccated figure hanging from a post but the corn, after all, is clearly not real. Others, with somewhat more credence, believe the key year is 1954 when Burt Lancaster can be seen dodging pursuers in a rather sparse cornfield in "Apache". I would, however, argue that it really began in 1959. You have probably seen it in re-runs or videotape — a Cary Grant classic, "North by Northwest". A single frame serves to advertise it — I'm sure you know it, Grant running through a cornfield, looking fearfully over his shoulder as a crop duster bears threateningly down at him. Now this is the first time that a cornfield is shown in its intimidating fullness — tall, emotionless, exhibiting the unmistakable quality of an ominous presence.

At the time I didn't realize the implications of this and it wasn't until I attended a history conference at a mid-Western university that I actually came up against cornfields in the flesh, so to speak. Growing up and living in Brooklyn doesn't provide you with very much experience with cornfields. Vacations on Long Island added no more to my knowledge for farm acreage back then was largely given over to potatoes, Brussels sprouts and white Peking ducks and certainly none of these products grow especially tall.  Now housed in a motel outside the university campus I found myself literally surrounded by cornfields, corn stretching forever to the far horizon, rustling, whispering (even chuckling, I imagined) in the wind that seldom let up. The feeling is oppressive and grew alarming when the housemaid informed me (while looking fearfully over her shoulder) that when the wind abates in the evening you can hear the corn growing.  I did not care to listen and left immediately.

It was no surprise to me after this confrontation with cornfields, mano y mano, that there should appear in 1984 "Children of the Corn". Here cornfields came into their complete terrifying being, inhabited by a gaggle of murderous children practicing strange rituals with corn stalks and popping out now and then to slaughter every adult in sight. It may be noted that it was just about now that crop circles were getting a lot of attention and it was obvious that aliens had not a bit of interest in carving designs in, say, a few acres of green beans. No, it was only cornfields that were malevolent enough to lure them down — or in — or however they made their entrance. Significantly another phenomenon presented itself. I noticed with some trepidation that Long Island's potatoes, Brussels sprouts and ducks had disappeared, replaced by vineyards and cornfields — cornfields that every October were cut into mazes by — who knows, really? Within these devious pathways were hidden skeletons and hideous monsters that leaped out at tourists careless and unknowing who had paid five dollars to seek a pumpkin. No one kept track of how many went in and how many finally came out.

Doesn't all this add up to something sinister going on? Oh, there was an attempt in 1989 to sidestep this growing problem, to soften the frightening image of cornfields. "Field of Dreams" portrayed a cornfield that harbored the rather friendly ghosts of old baseball players who emerged once in awhile to play a fun, American game of ball. Yet think of it — a cornfield where dead people lurked; how did they get there? What else might be dwelling amid the snickering stalks? Would you want to take a stroll through something like that?

After 1989 the danger posed by cornfields seem to recede until 1993 "Children of the Corn II: the Final Sacrifice" reminds us that it is not yet over. "Forrest Gump" in '94 works in a frightening scene in a cornfield followed quickly over the next years by " Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest", " Children of the Corn IV: the Gathering", and by the far most disturbing " Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror". Fields of terror says it all I should think but if these warnings are not sufficient is it possible any longer to ignore the message revealed in the 2002 "Signs" and verified by none other than Mel Gibson? Here again are the terrifying walls of rustling, whispering, chortling (and don't forget chuckling) corn that harbors within its bosom nameless horrors. This is something to think about, all right.

Incidentally, its no accident, you know, that country parents have traditionally told their young ones that children who dare to enter the cornfield to fashion cigarettes out of corn silk never come out again. You can bet they knew.

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