Whorror

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I've noticed something.  Perhaps you have, too.  Women aren't treated very nicely in horror.  They're the first ones killed, the last ones saved, the ones most brutalized... and the ones portrayed as the most stupid.

 

Now, yes, I know this always isn't the case, because, well, because sometimes women aren't in a horror story (see The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - although you could say a little girl was brutalized in the story).

 

Jack Ketchum's horror novel, The Girl Next Door, is a prime example of the abuse of woman in horror fiction.  It is a 16 year old girl who is brutally tortured.  It is also a crazy aunt who orchestrates the torture.  What is it that makes the abuse of woman so appealing (or perhaps so horrifying)?

 

I tried to discover the answer to this through Sigmund Freud's "The Uncanny."  In it, Freud states that one of the fears of mankind is castration (he relates this through the uncanny trope of losing an eye or dismemberment).  Is this fear portrayed through the mutilation of female genitalia in such pieces as The Girl Next Door?  Possibly, but I'm not sure.  Let's look further.

 

Oftentimes, the women who suffer the most are either promiscuous or sexually innocent.  Is, then, sexuality (blatant or latent) the reason women must suffer?  Meg was the latter in Ketchum's story.  In David Cronenberg's The Brood, when Nola thinks her husband has taken up with another woman (Candace's teacher), Nola bashes that woman's head in.

 

My assertion is that in the horror genre woman are brutalized and poorly represented because of the power of their sexuality, whether it is used or not.  Women are punished for this sexuality.  They are either punished because they use it (and offend others) or don't use it (and offend others).

Misery = Child

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The most frightening image in Stephen King's Misery?  It wasn't Paul Sheldon's hobbling or the murder of the young cop (spearing him first, then running over his face with a lawn mower).  It wasn't Annie's mutilation of her own face.

 

The most frightening image was when Paul watched as his manuscript, the long overdue Fast Cars, was destroyed.  The desecration of this art was more horrifying than anything else that occurred.

 

This year when I taught Guy de Maupassant's "The Head of Hair" to my 11th graders, a few classes wanted to talk about how someone could write something like that.  They wanted to know if Maupassant was deranged.  We then had a discussion about why someone would write a horror story if they themselves weren't horrific.  I explained that telling stories (any story, not just a horror story) was like sitting around with friends telling ghost stories or talking about the crazy thing that happened in class.  I told my kids that writers just write to entertain other people.  Writers can write about something without it having anything to do with them or their own life.

 

Well, I didn't quite tell the truth.  Every writer - and I mean every writer - puts pieces of herself in what she writes.  The writer's hopes, dreams and fears are all played out on the page.  In Misery, King puts his own fears on paper.

 

Some (like my husband), might argue that King writes of one of Freud's uncanny tropes.  They (Matt, particularly) would say that King's writing is about his fear of castration (since as Freud states, the fear of losing limbs is a repressed fear of losing your "member").  However, I argue that this is not true. 

 

King's fear is one that Freud did not discuss in "The Uncanny."  His fear is the fear of the death of his creation.  This fear is similar (and one could argue the same) as the fear a parent has of losing a child.  It is hard to imagine something worse than the loss of something into which you've poured your heart and soul.

 

On page 26, we see Paul tormented over Fast Cars.  He thinks, "...he didn't even make a copy until the second draft was done.  The manuscript copy of Fast Cars which was now in Annie Wilkes's possession was, in fact, the only existing copy in the whole world.  He had even burned his notes.  Two years of hard work, she didn't like it, and she was crazy" (King).

 

King devotes many pages to the horror surrounding the burning of Paul's manuscript.  And, when it's done, when the book is charred curls of paper, he thinks the same thing a parent might think upon the death of a child.  He thinks, "I'm going to kill her" (King 44).

 

The horror in Misery isn't the brutality inflicted upon Paul's body by Annie.  The horror in the novel is the fear of losing what the author loves most.

15 The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug;
       their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.

16 The LORD is known by his justice;
       the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.
       Higgaion. [
a] Selah

 

Psalm 9:15-16 NIV

 

If I were to classify types of horror fiction, one of the main categories would be "Horror as Punishment of Sin."  In this case, horror manifests itself as the response to immorality and wickedness.  Those punished by the grotesque, ghastly and terrible are either sinners or those who associate with sinners.

In Stephen King's short story, "Survivor Type," we see the literal interpretation of Psalm 9:15-16.  Richard Pine (nee Pinzetti) lived a life of immorality.  He hated his father (breaking a commandment!), he hired people to hurt others, he operated a gambling ring and he smuggled drugs.

As the Psalm says, what goes around comes around.  Dr. Pine lost his feet in the net he hid.

In David Cronenberg's The Brood, many people are slaughtered by the brood of navel-less mini-mes.  Their deaths are the result of Nola's deadly sin - wrath, which eventually destroys her - and their own sins.  By releasing Nola's anger, psychiatrist Ragland releases a Biblical sort of plague.  As previously stated, Nola is killed because she is filled with anger.  Her parents are killed because they are divorced and alcoholics (and possibly beat her).  Candice's teacher is killed because she is a would-be adulteress.  Ragland, of course, is killed because of his pride.

The punishment of sin even plays into Psycho.  Even though Marion is someone the audience sympathizes with, she is also punished for breaking a commandment of her own, "Thou shalt not steal."

In all these examples, bad things happen to bad people, or at least people who've done bad things.  Why is this?  Is this because in today's society that's not always the case (such as the mother in David Silva's "The Calling")?  Is it because we've grown up with the underlying societal impressions of hellfire and brimstone that was brought over on the Mayflower?  Let's explore both of these possibilities.

Oftentimes, headlines in the newspaper or on TV scream of the injustice of innocent lives being lost - children murdered, bystanders gunned down.  Tragedies are even more tragic when the lives touched are innocent lives.  And the world is left screaming, "Why?"

That's why horror fiction often punishes those who deserve the punishment.  In horror, justice can be served.  Terrible things happen to those who are terrible people, not to those who don't deserve the punishment.  In this way, the world seems to be put back into balance.  It is all right if the drug dealer loses his limbs.  It's not all right if the nice Fed Ex delivery man who loves Helen Hunt does (see Cast Away).

The second possibility is explained by our underlying belief that bad things happen to us when we do bad things.  How many grown men still feel uneasy masturbating because the notion that they'd go blind from doing such a thing was pressed into their heads from an early age?  Are we all still scared of what Puritanical religion warned?  That fear manifests itself in horror fiction.

Though not all horror falls into the category of "Horror as a Punishment for Sin," it is one of the main motifs of the genre.  People are punished for their sins or as the result of others' sins. 

As I read David Punter's analysis of Robert Bloch's Psycho, I found many valid points in his discussion of the novel.  I found some things especially interesting.  One of the things that stood out to me was Punter's note that "...it is a double death which is referred to, the deaths of a man and a woman; although the deaths do not actually occur simultaneously" (Punter 96).  I can see how the original murders - those of Norman's mother and her lover - connect in the murderers mind with these two later murders.

And that's when I got to thinking.  Does it have to be this way?  Did Bloch have to think all these things, to plan all these deeply insightful journeys into his pyschopath's mind?

Or did Bloch one day just sit down at his typewriter (that's what they used to write with in the 1950's, right?) and say, "Man, wouldn't it be great if there was this guy who killed these people dressed up in his mother's skin?!"

I had these same thoughts when reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and discussing the possibilities of homosexual undertones in the story.  Why couldn't Robert Louis Stevenson, gay or straight, just write a great story about a guy who managed to split himself into two personalities, one good and one bad?

Why do we search for hidden agendas and not just proclaim the beauty of a great plot?

Am I thinking this just because I don't have veiled meanings in my stories?  If someone were to read my work, would they wonder about latent lesbian tendencies or how well I delved into the psyche of a Regency era woman?  Would it matter if they did?  Heck, I might actually be flattered that they did - and then I'd run with it and say that was exactly my intent.

I know that Plato and Fish and Wolff have all debated literary theory before me, but I still wonder when plot is more than plot and words are more than words.

What makes it not enough for a writer to simply tell a good story?  Is there something wrong with the reader if he or she tries to dig up a meaning behind the words?

What makes us as readers search for hidden meanings?  Are we scared that someone like Bloch might tell a story of a shower-time decapitation without having multiple layers of psychoanalytical meaning?

What would happen if all the stories we read were just that, stories?  People would have to look at themselves, then, for the reaction a story created.

I think that's why we love to give deeper meanings to works of art.  If Stevenson didn't intend to put homosexual allusions in his story, then that means there is some part of us that sees those images in the text.  That's what scares us.  It's okay if an author put something in his or her story.  It's not okay if we take something out of the story. 

Especially in horror fiction, if we see our own meaning in a story, it means that we can relate to the story.  To relate to a horror story is... well, it's horrifying!  No one wants to admit that they could understand why someone would have a sexual relationship with a lock of hair.

So, I say to you, we need to look for the deeper meanings in literary criticism.  It is clear that David Punter had mother issues.  In fact, more than that, he struggles with his sexual identity.  Because of how his mother treated him, he wants to turn himself into a woman, though he struggles with how to become a "young girl with beautiful breasts" (Punter 95).

 

Works Cited

 

Punter, David. "Robert Bloch's Psycho: Some Pathological Contexts." In American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King. Ed. Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990. 92-106.

 

The Hair Hoarder

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I am quite surprised that I am announcing that my blog post this week will not be about Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Since enrolling in Readings in the Genre:  Horror, I've been eagerly awaiting the two weeks which were to be devoted to reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

However, after reading the assigned companion stories for this unit, I find myself eager to discuss "The Head of Hair" by Guy de Maupassant.  The key question I want to explore in this post is, "Did the hair really become the woman?"

At the very end of "The Head of Hair," the narrator who explores the case of the madman feels "the powerful temptation of something both disgusting and mysterious" (Maupassant 307).  This, for the first time, makes the reader realize that the plait of braided hair is more than just an instrument of a madman's delusions.  There is something mystical about this hair.

The Hair Hoarder, as I will call the madman, was a bit of an odd duck from the moment we first read about him in his diary.  We notice that he has more love for antique furniture than any woman.  We also see that he's afraid of death.  He says, "I am fascinated by the past and terrified by the present, because all that the future holds in store is death.  I long for everything that has already happened, I weep over those who have already lived.  If I could, I would stop the passage of time" (Maupassant 301).  This makes us, of course, doubt his sanity when the braid seems to spring to life.

Did the Hair Hoarder will this braid to life?  Did he make his own dreams come true?  Did obsession and want create this woman who was "tall, blonde, slightly plump, with cold breasts and hips shaped like a lyre?"  If he did, would he have imagined her with cold breasts?

Yet, when we realize the power of the braid through the man who observes the Hair Hoarder in his padded room, we begin to think that the hair might actually have sprung to life.  Would a man, fully aware that he was oddly obsessed with a lock of hair, be fooled by his own imaginings of a real woman?  Would he make up this blonde, buxom woman?

I'm still not sure about this.  Did Maupassant describe a specter that haunted men through a lock of her hair?  Or was he talking about one crazy man who fell in love with hair, who also happened to meet another crazy man who felt oddly attracted to this same lock of hair?

 

Guy De Maupassant, "The Head of Hair." (1884). From The Dedalus Book of French Horror. Ed. Terry Hale. England: Dedalus Books, 1998. 299-307.

I must admit that when I read the sixth chapter of Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, I went from intrigued to frustrated to utterly appalled.  Showalter's exploitation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in her chapter called "Dr. Jekyll's Closet" reminded me of juvenile interpretations I could see my XXXXXXXX creating while reading a work of literature.

Are my words harsh?  Probably.  Is my opinion justified?  Most likely.

By reducing Stevenson's descriptiveness of things like "A great chocolate colored pall..." (36) to "...images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (Showalter 113), she is both disrespectful of Stevenson's vision and insultingly stereotypical of homosexuals.

Why did Showalter feel she needed to read into things such as, "...the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask" (Stevenson 17)?  She insists that "the homosexual significance of 'queer' had entered English slang by 1900" (Showalter 112).  Yet, she fails to point out that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was printed in 1885.  Could slang have been drifting around unnoted for 25 years?  Sure.  Is it more likely that Stevenson actually meant "queer" as strange or odd?  Yes.

A more logical approach to Stevenson's use of his descriptions of the color brown and references to back doors points to his view of the hidden or darkly evil side of human nature portrayed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Why does Showalter not address the color imagery found elsewhere in the book?  Is she afraid that pointing out "An ivory-faced and silvery-haired old woman..." (Stevenson 37) will lend more to the visual perception of good versus evil?

Showalter also points to the close association of men as grounds for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's hidden homosexual agenda (110-111).  She takes this community of men as proof of homosexual penchants.  Yet, these kinds of social preferences are nothing more than de rigueur for the time period in which Stephenson's tale is set.  In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, the main characters mostly associate with other females.  Does this mean that Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are lesbians?  No.  It means that other than in certain social events, it was more likely and more acceptable for women to socialize with women and men to socialize with men.

If Showalter is to take this as a memoir of repressed homosexuality, then we, as readers must take it as a treatise against homosexuality.  Nothing good comes to those associated with Hyde, Showalter's homosexual representation of Jekyll.  It must be taken, then, that Stevenson is warning others against and scolding himself about homosexuality.  He must also be asserting that gay people are murderers and child-trampers, since those are actions of Hyde.

Instead of listening to Showalter's misguided beliefs, we should continue to view Stephenson's story as a cautionary tale about the dichotomy found in human nature.  Both good and evil reside in all of us (both hetero- and homosexual).  Where there is absence of one, there is absence of sanity.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Travels with a Donkey. Art-Type Edition. New York: Books, Inc., Unknown. Print.

In Katherine Ramsland's "Psychology of Horror and Fantasy," Ramsland asserts that people read and watch horror and fantasy because they want to get away from their own personal feelings of isolation.  She states that it also makes us "humane."

I cannot support her thesis.  My reason for this is that liking horror is in itself a social act.  Readers flock to buy the newest Stephen King novel.  Teenagers thrive on swarming, in groups, to movie theaters to watch the fifteenth installment of the Saw franchise.  If the mere pulling away from "the demanding and equivocal isolation of being individuals" (Williamson 126) were what drove us to enjoy horror, then the same could be said about The Hangover (how many of us went to the flick with five of our closest friends?), the circus (don't we go on school trips there?) and church?  All of these things make us feel like part of a community while making us see our own humanity (laughter! elephants! religion!).  Ramsland, however, implies that this feeling is limited to horror and fantasy fiction.

If Ramsland is wrong, then, why do people enjoy horror?  People enjoy horror because it shows that they have finally overcome the demons they had as children.

No time in life (assuming you live a relatively normal, horror-free existence) is as horrific as childhood.  Think back to your own childhood.  What were you afraid of?  Strangers? The dark?  Monsters under your bed?

In my own life, I can recall one very specific and terrifying event.  For about 48 hours, a local radio station broadcast one single statement, "Beware, it's coming."  This was said in a loud, rough voice with ominous music playing in the background.  As a 5 or 6 or 7 year old, I thought that this meant aliens were coming to earth and were going to kill us all.  I didn't sleep for two nights.  Then, after 48 hours of sheer terror, it was discovered that the radio station was changing over to a new talk radio/pop music format.

Looking back now, I see how silly and innocent I was.  Just think, I thought aliens were going to destroy the earth!  I'm now a far cry from that child.  I wouldn't be scared like that anymore, yet part of that fear remains.  Just like part of your fear remains.  Do you still shy away from strangers on the street?  Do you still shudder when the electricity goes off and you can't see?  Do you still cringe when you hear an unexpected noise come from your closet?

When we read horror novels, we are saying that those demons from our childhood can't affect us anymore.  Take for example, the stories, "The Sandman," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Dread."  Each of these stories deals with things that children fear.

How many children have been scared by tales that the Sandman is coming if they don't go to bed?  As adults, those scared children realize that the Sandman was nothing more than a tool used by parents who want their children to sleep (whether it's the scary one of ETA Hoffman's creation or The Chordettes' dream maker).  However, adults still remember that fear, and they shudder thinking about what if the Sandman were real.  In "The Sandman," that fear came true, and ended up killing the very person haunted by the Sandman.

Other children probably lived in fear of getting caught for doing something bad.  Perhaps they broke their mother's vase or kicked their sisters in the shins.  In the case of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," what is the protagonist afraid of?  He (she) is afraid of getting caught by the police for a very bad deed.

Some children are even afraid of clowns.  Many birthday parties were spent in tears because of it.  Now imagine Clive Barker's "Dread."  This time the "clown" isn't wielding flowers that squirt water, he's wielding an ax!

All these things terrified us as children.  That terror, though lessened, still lingers in the back of our minds (I'm predisposed to thinking that aliens, if they exist, are evil and want to destroy the world).  We read horror to reinforce that we don't need to be scared of those things anymore.

Laurell K. Hamilton recently gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly (issue 1059).  She was asked why vampires were appealing.  She responded "It's a way to be very scared... and still be safe.  You're sitting in your favorite chair, with hot cocoa, and when you close the book, your world is still there.  You're safe."

Much like we ran to our parents' bedroom to sleep or had our dads shine flashlights under the bed to prove there were no monsters, we use books to soothe us.  Closing that books says, "Don't worry, it was all make believe!  The world is normal and you're safe."

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Natalie Duvall on Whorror: Then why do women love the gen
Mike Arnzen on Whorror: You're making a great point --
Mike Arnzen on Misery = Child: Excellent response. Thanks, t
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Ron Edison on Hell Hath No Fury Like a Horror Writer: Horror always struck me as a '
Matt Duvall on Hell Hath No Fury Like a Horror Writer: Interesting thoughts. Althoug
Alan Zunun on The Hair Hoarder: I believe the woman attached t