September 2009 Archives

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.

 

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