copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman
In high school, we learned that a metaphor is a figure of speech that explicitly states a comparison between two different things. Metaphors help us to unify experience, showing us how A and B, although mostly quite different, are also alike in some way.
I prefer a different definition for the term. I like to think of a metaphor as a verbal, or linguistic, equation. In this view, the metaphor isn’t simply stating that there’s a likeness, or similarity, between two different persons, places, or things. Instead, the metaphor is asserting that the two mean the same thing. If the metaphor is “fog blinds,” we’re saying fog = blindness, as, for instance, in math, 2 + 2 = 4.
One reason that I prefer the equation to the figure of speech concept is that the terms in an equation can be swapped with one another. If 2 + 2 = 4, then 4 = 2 + 2. Likewise, if a metaphor is considered an equation, fog = blindness can be recast as blindness = fog. This way of thinking helps a writer to remember clearly the significance of his or metaphors. When monsters are involved, remembering what one is about is important!
In horror fiction, monsters = metaphors; therefore, metaphors = monsters. This chart shows some of the metaphors that writers have employed to suggest comparisons between one thing and another:
There are many others as well, of course. Perhaps we will explore some of the others in future installments.
Some metaphors operate at several levels at the same time, creating a sort of chain of associations. These associations may be literal, symbolic, existential, and spiritual. Here’s an example, using fog:
The symbolic, or metaphorical, term in the first equation links fog with blindness. Fog, if it is thick and pervasive enough, can rob us of our ability to see clearly. It can blind us, as it were. Therefore, fog can be equated with blindness, as it is in the implied metaphor, fog = blindness. Notice, however, that these associations can be extended so that the literal-metaphorical becomes existential as well: blindness = fear of the unknown. What do children fear when the lights go out at night? We say that they are afraid of the dark, but what they actually fear is what may be there, unseen, with them in their bedrooms, invisible in the darkness. They fear the unknown. Therefore, blindness (a form of darkness, in a sense) = fear of the unknown. The chain of associations can be carried further, as the chart demonstrates. Why do we fear the unknown? We fear it because it may threaten us with harm or even death: fear of the unknown = death. Depending upon one’s religious convictions or lack thereof, death, in turn, equals either annihilation or, possibly, damnation--an eternity of torment in hell, cut off from both man and God: death = annihilation or death = damnation. (Of course, it could also equal an eternity of bliss in heaven [death= heaven], surrounded by fellow souls in the presence of God, but we are talking horror here, and, therefore, loss, not gain.)
The same way that some metaphorical equations can be extended so that they form a chain of associations, literal, metaphorical, existential, and spiritual, others can as well. The vampire is an especially rich and evocative possibility. Usually, those equations that can be so extended are the most effective ones for literature, whether of the horror genre or otherwise, because they furnish a broad plain upon which to explore the literal, the symbolic, the existential, and the spiritual aspects of the themes they involve.