There I was, in front of the VCR, age nine, watching the film adaptation of Left Behind, getting exposed to its dire, violent Infowars view of the world, with every other student in the Christian school, all thirty of them. My parents weren’t religious, but hey, would you refuse the opportunity to enrol your weird son somewhere with miniscule class sizes and Fridays off? It was the right choice for the right time. But the moment 9/11 happened it became horribly not the right time. The end times could happen at any moment, and every tool for making kids good Christians was a necessity: the pen that crossed out books from Scholastic order forms for magic and monsters. The alternative spelling textbooks full of scripture, insistently spelling God as GOD. And most importantly, that VCR. Each tape was a portal to a bizarre world parallel to ours, carefully controlled according to doctrine, intent on keeping you inside it as long as possible.
Throughout the decade of its online existence, the found footage collective Everything is Terrible! has plumbed the depths of that world, as it searches, shares and skewers the oddball artifacts of the VHS era, both online and onstage. I spoke with EIT! member, the pseudonymous Commodore Gilgamesh, on the life of the Christian video universe and EIT!’s process of satirical discovery inside it.
They so desperately want their viewers to like what they’re making. So, they directly copy media that they are so critical of for warping society’s perceptions. The result is this hideous and beautiful hate fuck of a production!
WR: Throughout the EIT’s existence, religious content, particularly Christian, has been a staple. There’s currently 234 posts in the EIT! archive with the “Christian” tag, far and away the most popular topic. Why does religious entertainment create so much mock-able material?
CG: We’ve probably only correctly tagged half of our videos, so double that number to around 500 X-ianity related videos. Christianity is definitely the subject that we deal with most, except maybe capitalism, but those frequently overlap. EIT! reflects directly upon the cultural output of our society, then we distort that reflection to match our own political, aesthetic, comedic agenda. Commenters over the years have given us some degree of guff for a perceived pass that we’ve given to non-X-ian religions, but if billions of Buddhist videos were made in the US from the 80’s to 2000’s, then I guess our work would look different. But honestly, how fucking stupid was that sentence? It doesn't make sense! Most evangelical X-ians and capitalists are hell-bent on converting/conquering/destroying the world! Look at the current state of politics in the US. The roots of all that are clearly portrayed in the VHS tapes that we cull.
We use nostalgia as the bait to manipulate the original piece and the viewer’s perception.
WR: Many Christian-oriented videos are often Jesus-friendly equivalents of something secular that’s already popular, like Christoga, Yoga with the eastern elements replaced, or Bibleman, superheroes with Biblical teaching injected. Why is there this impulse to create this whole Christian alternate universe through VHS?
CG: That’s one of the sad, awesome things about X-ian produced videos. They so desperately want their viewers to like what they’re making. So, they directly copy media that they are so critical of for warping society’s perceptions. The result is this hideous and beautiful hate fuck of a production! It’s all created through this fun-house mirror lens, not in an interesting and purposefully psychedelic way, but the most bland, conservative, closed manner, resulting in a perspective that lands way outside media mainstream; a wonderful, accidentally psychedelic, creation. Often they feature undeniably entertaining, artistic moments. At this point, I’m oddly more into Bibleman than Batman, but please don’t tell 12-year-old me that.
WR: Through Christian school, I was exposed to several of the videos you’ve covered in the wild, like Psalty the Psalmbook, and but most traumatically, apocalyptic thrillers like Left Behind. How often do you encounter people who were a part of that environment?
CG: We were all exposed to this garbage in some form. Even if we didn’t watch Psalty or Pleft Pbehind, we still share in that collective memory. EIT! is anti-nostalgia. It’s one of the things that our casual viewers most often get wrong about us and that’s ok. We use nostalgia as the bait to manipulate the original piece and the viewer’s perception. For some, that means having actually watched the source material before. That specific video probably hits them hardest, but for all the rest, even if you haven’t seen it, ugh, you know that godforsaken video. It’s like we all share a collective cultural memory without fully being aware of it.
I don’t think apocalyptic thoughts are exclusively X-ian, but holy shit, theirs are definitely the strangest! They wrote it into their narrative as a happy ending, so they are rooting for, and in many cases actively working towards, the end of humankind.
WR: Many times, with a miniscule tweak or edit, very innocent videos become very disconcerting. Why do so many of your videos about religion eventually descend into surrealist or occult horror?
CG: Our work aims to show that just under media’s veneer, which ranges from super shiny million-dollar-style gloss to a-few-hundred-bucks-in-an-uncle’s-backyard-style appeal, is a haunting darkness. It often takes very little on our part to highlight that. This nightmare inside of a dream that is our reality is a constant. People hide from it with religion or comfort or whatever, but it’s always there. That’s one of the things that EIT! does best. Pick any supposedly innocent thing from our culture and you’ll find an attached horrific cause or effect. This underlying terror is getting stronger, too. What a strange moment to be alive, where every miniscule decision you make has a devastating correlation. We edit our little videos on machines that are made by cruel corporations that exploit human bodies and lay waste to our environment, then we post our videos onto the internet, which was created by the US military. Yeah, the horror is very real, and ever-present.
WR: Why do you think so many images of apocalypse appear in the VHS era of Christian media?
CG: Being haunted by our own death (mini apocalypse), and the questions it brings about, are at least as old as humanity. Combine that haunted-ness with exponential technological growth and an impending, self-created mass extinction, and boy howdy, isn’t it a special time to exist! We’re all creating and absorbing millions of pieces of each other’s perspectives, and consuming an unprecedented amount of corporate, X-ian, or government propaganda. All the while we’re awaiting our own death, which we have no fucking clue about, compounded by the fact that we’re all active participants in humanity’s collective demise. I don’t think apocalyptic thoughts are exclusively X-ian, but holy shit, theirs are definitely the strangest! They wrote it into their narrative as a happy ending, so they are rooting for, and in many cases actively working towards, the end of humankind. The related videos are batshit crazy, obviously!
WR: While there are people that show up in your religious videos that really seem worthy of scorn (I’m thinking about “The Pineapple Preacher”,) some are probably just acting sincerely on faith. How do you strike a balance finding and editing tapes to be critical without being mean? How do you think the average devoted Christian would react to your work?
CG: That’s one of the toughest issues we deal with in our work, and I honestly think it’s a big reason why EIT! is definitely not for everyone. I’m sure that some of our fans are X-ians, right? On this topic, we often hide behind our tagline ‘If Everything Is Terrible, then nothing is.” One of the most negative aspects of the dominant internet culture is the absurd concept of black and white. Highlighting the gray areas is one of our favorite activities. Often our work is pointing out a truly wonderful puppet or song within what many would view as a flawed production. Even the characters that are a quick read for many EIT! fans carry this grayness. The Pineapple Preacher on paper is a good human, but in EIT! he is quickly identified as a villain.
Of course, there are human casualties to what we do. We know that many of the original makers, and viewers, wouldn’t like EIT! or would even be hurt by it. But, we always attempt to speak to power and I think that is how we’re able to make it work. We never want to bully anyone (although I think in our early years we made more mistakes on this front) but if your personal message fits within the larger oppressive and destructive structure that we are reacting to, you will be a casualty. This is something that we’re always improving upon, even after 10 years.
EIT! will be performing live in Vancouver early 2018. Their newest movie, The Great Satan, is also nearing completion. Their website is watch.everythingisterrible.com