In more innocent times, parents taught their children that the police were their friends. Cops were good guys, who could be trusted. If one were ever to be in trouble, he or she was to run to an officer of the law (assuming that an officer was available, although, adults often joked, “there’s never a cop around when you need one”). In those days, only a few policemen were women--mostly crossing guards and meter maids. Police officers were respected, if not admired, or, at least, they seemed to be, and, among bakers, glazed doughnut-crazed cops were loved. Whenever the police appeared in films (other than as the Keystone Kops), they were cast as good guys who were brave and noble, living, like Superman, to enforce “truth, justice, and the American way,” if not always life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the interval between the 1950’s and the turn of the century, something happened. Cops lost their shine. The badge became a badge not of honor so much as of disgrace. Rather than receiving praise from the public that the police claimed to “protect and serve,” the blue knights became the recipients of doubt, fear, and disdain, especially among minorities, who complained of “police brutality” (a charge that has often been shown to be true in videotapes of brutal police beatings and of cops' unnecessary use of their favorite new weapon, the taser). Newspaper and television reports cited police corruption, detailing cases in which cops had been bribed or became extortionists, rapists, and even murderers. The police became criminals themselves. They were just another gang among gangs. The public no longer trusted and admired, or even respected, the police. Instead, they feared and loathed their supposed protectors, their alleged servants, their supposed defenders.
As the public’s confidence in the police waned, the police became “pigs,” and the ways in which they were portrayed in fiction changed as well. In science fiction and horror stories, as in mainstream literature, when the cops weren’t shown as incompetent or as victims themselves (as in The Terminator, in which a cyborg killer goes on a rampage inside a police precinct, slaughtering the officers and detectives on duty), the police were revealed as just another threat in the ever-growing cavalcade of monsters. They were seen, and portrayed, as fiends with badges, handcuffs, Mace--and guns. In Terminator 2, the villain, a new breed, as it were, of cyborg assassin known as a T-1000-series android, is a shape shifter among whose many disguises is that of a policeman. A cop-killer, the T-1000 assumes the identity of its victim, tracking down his target, John Connor, using the computer aboard the dead cop’s patrol car. The movie’s anti-police subtext is anything but subtle, showing the public’s fear and hatred of corrupt peace officers who use their badges and guns to perpetrate crimes against members of the very public they are sworn to protect and serve.
Not surprisingly, Stephen King’s novels sometimes depict police as everyday horrors. Like his fans, King knows the horror that can lurk behind the badge of a cop gone bad. In Rose Madder, the protagonist’s husband, Norman Daniels, is a brutal, sadistic cop who routinely beats his wife, Rose, within an inch of her life, even when she is pregnant with their child (causing her to have a miscarriage). Norman is, in fact, a misogynist, having been charged, recently, with assaulting a black woman, Wendy Yarrow. The internal affairs investigation has been as fuel to his fiery rage, which explodes in his near-fatal assault upon Rose. Her latest beating, for the “offense” of having accidentally spilled iced tea upon Norman, makes her again consider leaving him. She’s been the victim of his brutality for fourteen years. If anything, his mindless rage has become even worse, and she fears that if she continues to stay with him, she’s liable to be killed. If she isn’t killed, she might well wish she were dead if she suffers at his hands for another fourteen years. By then, she may be unrecognizable, she thinks. She finally flees, but Norman, adept at skip-tracing, soon locates her, and the story takes on a supernatural dimension that leads to a particularly violent and gruesome climax and a resolution that underscores the permanent damage that domestic violence, especially at the hands of a rogue cop, can have upon its victim’s life.
As bad as Norman Daniels is, he’s not King’s worst monster behind a badge. This distinction (so far) belongs to Desperation’s Collie Entragian, whose very surname is an anagram for “near giant.” The deputy sheriff of Desperation, Nevada, a small mining town along U. S. Highway 50, the “loneliest road in America,” Entragian makes a habit of stopping, kidnapping, torturing, and killing hapless motorists, using the highway as if it were a strand of spider’s web bringing victims into his jurisdiction. True to the experience of many a driver, the deputy uses one trumped-up charge after another to justify his many traffic stops. However, the arrested offenders are, in reality, his captives, and they soon discover that Entragian is a madman. (In reading one couple their Miranda rights, he reserves his “right” to kill them.) In fact, he’s worse even than a psychotic killer; he’s possessed by a parasitic demon named Tak who uses the police officer as his latest host. The device of having the deputy possessed by a demon allows King to depict the mindless violence of a policeman whose own soul has become corrupted by the power that society has bestowed upon him. This cop could care less about bribes and payoffs; he wants nothing less than the power to bludgeon, torture, and kill those who fall into his demonic hands. In this novel, the power of the police is absolute, and absolute power not only corrupts but kills in the most horrific ways imaginable. Again, the subtext is hard to miss: a police state is a terrible state of affairs, indeed, even in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Entragian--or Tak--is such a threat to society that God himself intervenes to put things right, just as the deity does, implicitly, in Thomas Jefferson’s call to revolution, in The Declaration of Independence.
Of course, the police are sometimes dependable, if perfunctory, characters in King’s fiction. In this dichotomy as dutiful, but unimaginative, defenders of the status quo on one hand and as vile and brutal criminals or worse on the other hand lies the true terror of the men (and, increasingly, the women) in blue. Daily news stories of out-of-control cops reinforce the ambiguity with which law-abiding folk view those whom they’ve trusted to protect and to serve them. It’s a horrible experience to know that the police officer who, today, saves a hostage from a psychotic drug addict with nothing left to lose may be the same one who, tomorrow, pulls over a female on a dark and deserted highway and rapes and kills her or who turns a blind eye to a mob killing.
Modern-day variants upon the Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde theme, police fare the same in other horror writers’ fiction. They’re both the good guy and the bad guy (sometimes at the same time). For example, in the novels of Dean Koontz, cops are sometimes competent and trustworthy, but they are, other times, corrupt and treacherous. When they’re neither the good guys nor the villains in his novels, they’re often simply ineffective, incompetent, and moronic. Velocity, The Husband, and The Good Guy are cases in point. Cops don’t generally fare well in such novels as Bentley Little’s The Store and The Ignored, either, where they’re cast as barely a blip on the Stanford-Binet I. Q. scale.
Even when the police aren’t stupid, bungling, or vicious and corrupt, they’re not good for much when it comes to matching wits--or tooth and fang--with the monsters of horror fiction. As the protagonist of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer says, “Cops can’t fight demons. I have to do it.” (Besides, as the town’s high school principal says, “The police in Sunnydale are deeply stupid.”)
In horror fiction, cops are often creepy--maybe it's because of their fetish for polyester and doughnuts.
“Everyday Horrors: The Police” is one in a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.