Hell Hath No Fury Like a Horror Writer

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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. 

5 Comments

Matt Duvall said:

Interesting thoughts. Although it brings up an interesting question--is anyone really "innocent," at least in Biblical terms? This is the same book that states that everyone has sinned. Everyone. So in those terms, there is no innocent.

Also, in studies, psychologists have found that 98% of men admit to masturbating. They hypothesize that 2% of men are chronic liars. Selah.

Ron Edison said:

Horror always struck me as a 'no holds barred' genre and the LAST genre to promote a 'punishment for sin' philosophy. Makes you wonder who's behind it all.

Mike Arnzen said:

The "poetic justice" of the genre typically does employ these kinds of issues. Ron is right that horror seems to allow sin and transgression, but he's mistaken in the 'punishment' aspect of it. The moral arc of most horror themes seem to be exactly along the lines of what Natalie suggests: that evil (and evil thoughts) must be contained, stopped, prevented, killed -- even if the taboo pleasures they release are indulged for 98% of the story.

(Story, Matt, story. Stick to the texts, please).

So both sin and salvation play their hands in the genre. As Barker once wrote, "Writing about the unholy is one way of writing about the holy." But perhaps another way to think about the biblical issues at play here is not to turn to the The Ten Commandments or even the Book of Revelation, but to the Book of Job. Horror is often as much about existential suffering as it is about sin, evil, wrong-doing, and the taboo.


Eric Spery said:

Mike, your reference to the Book of Job is interesting. Because, we're talking about cause/effect here. I'm bad, so I get punished. With Job it was an attempt at effect/cause, right? The devils says, "Hey God, if we afflict Job with a bunch of nastiness, he'll forsake you." Off hand, I'm not thinking of any stories in the horror genre that follow this effect/cause pattern, but they must be there, right? Bad things happen to good people.

Interesting thoughts... however, I don't see this as effect/cause. Instead, I still see it as cause (let's go after Job) and prediction of the effect (will he forsake you?). Thoughts?

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