The New Normal

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At the root of most psychological horror is the underlying premise of abnormality, and an exploration of how that abnormality comes to be.  While we read these stories and watch these movies to see an exploration of the depraved mind of "the other," are we hoping to discover what drives someone to commit such horrific acts?  This week, we read Ramsland's article "The Psychology of Horror and Fantasy."  She contends that horror allows us to escape our isolation, categorize our own thoughts and emotions, and provide a cathartic release for both author and reader.  These are interesting theories, and certainly worth considering.  But might psychological horror also be appealing because it explores one of our own deepest fears, the fear of being different?  Perhaps this style of horror fulfills our need to reassure ourselves that, even with all of our flaws, we aren't that crazy.


This week we read Edgar Allan Poe's classic horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart."  It starts with this statement by the narrator: "...very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?"  It's interesting that Poe's storyteller is willing to admit to murder, but not to have the reader think that he (she?) is abnormal.


In America, we have a desire to be rugged individualists, while at the same time we spend much of our time (especially during the teen and early adult years) struggling to achieve conformity.  Psychologists have identified a disorder called "gelotophobia," which is fear of being laughed at.  At its worst, the disease can lead to "breaking out in a sweat, heart palpitations, trembling or simply freezing up" (Woolls).  In popular magazines like Cosmo Girl, Men's Fitness, and more there are advice columns dedicated to reassuring readers that they are not different--that they are, in fact, normal.


In "The Sandman" by Hoffmann, we find that the protagonist is "quite indignant that Clara did not admit the demon's existence outside his own mind."  Again, the character is most concerned with being labeled crazy.  In "Dread," Barker makes the villain Quaid's first foray into psychological mind games an effort to prove to Cheryl that she is normal, and like other normal people experiences dread and fear.


It's interesting that in all of the fiction we read this week, we have unreliable narrators who are revealed to be different or abnormal, either to us as the reader or to the other characters in the story.  This allows us to reassure ourselves that our definition of normality holds true, while also identifying the abnormality of such perpetrators of violence.  In our horror fiction, we want to be reassured that despicable actions are the result of some flaw in the system, and be reassured that we are not different, that we are normal.  Sometimes, though, being normal isn't such a good thing.



Woolls, Daniel. "Gelotophobia, No Laughing Matter." 09 July 2008. CBS Interactive Inc. 2 Aug 2009 <>.





Mike Arnzen said:

"It's interesting that Poe's storyteller is willing to admit to murder, but not to have the reader think that he (she?) is abnormal." Great point, Matt! It's called "denial," yes? :-) Mystery writers will use this a lot when criminal characters will claim "I didn't do it" -- and which cops interpret as "Methinks you protest too much."

Thanks for introducing me to the term "gelotophobia". Hadn't heard of it before. And just saying the word makes me laugh because I think of Bill Cosby for some reason.

But all silliness aside, you point that this fiction affirms that "we aren't that crazy" is true, and yet at the same time we do identify with the insane sometimes in these stories and "go a little crazy" when we read. The way horror stories draw closure makes all the difference between reinforcing our high opinions of ourselves, or leaving us questioning it. Good horror, in my opinion, can be ambivalent in this way; it doesn't always demonize the Other. But in the stories we read this week, perhaps, the writers all do.

I enjoyed this blog and I agree with the search in this country for individualism, but the struggle for conformity at the same time. So, does this sound sane? We want to be different, but the same as everyone else.

My other question is, what is normal?

I think that we tend to read horror because it gives us an outlet for our own "madness." Instead of reading it to make ourselves feel better, (that there is nothing wrong with us), perhaps we sometimes read it for just the opposite effect. What do you think?

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