Horror maestro Stephen King
One way to consider a lot of the explanations horror fiction has put forth for the evils that this genre of fiction depicts (and sometimes celebrates) is to consider some of the major novels of Stephen King (stories with identical causes are excluded, as are those for which no more than a mere mention is given on King’s website:
What makes one explanation for the bizarre incidents and situations in a horror story acceptable to an audience while another explanation for such happenings is not? Here are a few possibilities:
- Magical Thinking. No, we don’t live in a pre-scientific age during which magical thinking is part and parcel of one’s worldview, but, were we to be honest, we’d have to admit that, even in the twenty-first century, after having put a man on the moon, we still believe in magic, at least on a gut level. How else do we explain such notions as penis envy, the Oedipus complex, phallic women, and Rorschach inkblots? How else do we understand the way television signal transmissions and receptions operate or gravity or thermodynamics? The scientists among us may be able to answer some of the questions we have concerning the universe and our place in it, but they also admit that many of their statements are analogical or metaphorical, rather than literal, meaning that, beyond a certain level, they have no idea what they’re talking about. As Sir William Frazier points out in The Golden Bough, there are basically two types of magic: sympathetic, or imitative, magic and the magic of correspondence. Both rely upon magical thinking--the belief that non-scientific relationships among phenomena can be of such a nature that one somehow (mysteriously) affects or controls another. Sympathetic magic rests upon the premise that one can obtain the results that he or she imitates. Want to cause someone to suffer a heart attack? Stick a pin into voodoo doll’s chest. Correspondence rests upon the premise that one can influence what occurs to one person, place, or thing by manipulating another person, place, or thing to which the former is somehow related. Astrology (“as above, so below”) is a perfect example: the positions of heavenly bodies affect and determine one’s fate. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, sympathetic magic is probably behind such beliefs as those pertaining to “most forms of divination. . . voodoo. . . psychometry. . . psychic detectives. . . graphologists. . . karma. . . synchronicity. . . homeopathy” and, of course, magic itself. This list indicates that, pre-scientific age or not, ours is still one in which there are a great many believers in magic and the thinking that underlies it.
- Recognition. Emotion, rather than logic, can be sufficient grounds for many of us to accept an explanation as appropriate and satisfying. To be emotionally acceptable to us, the explanation for the horror story’s uncanny events must suggest that the truth that the main character learns about him- or herself and/or the world, including others, is a natural, even inevitable, consequence of his or her experience. In other words, given what has happened to him or her, the protagonist has no other alternative but to draw the conclusions that he or she draws concerning the cause of these events--and the cause will have to do with his or her own behavior. Carrie’s explanation for the bizarre incidents that take place in the novel (and the movie based upon the novel) is acceptable to its readers (and viewers) because Stephen King ties the incidents to the existential and psychological states of the protagonist whose telekinesis, in service to her damaged emotions, self-image, and thinking, causes the murder and mayhem that she unleashes upon her tormentors, almost as an afterthought, once she realizes that, despite appearances to the contrary, nothing has changed, and she is still the target of other people’s prejudices and hatred.
- Tradition, or Familiarity. Once a type of monster gains acceptance from the general public, usually as a result of its traditional use, its reference as the cause of the story’s eerie events is accepted for the sake of the narrative, even if (as is likely) it is rejected on the rational level. In other words, readers and viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief. This tendency on the part of readers and moviegoers to accept traditional monsters as the causes of bizarre incidents is the basis for the use of demons, ghosts, mummies, vampires, werewolves, and the like as causal agents in horror stories. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also generate a grudging acceptance of causality which, otherwise, would be summarily dismissed. “Oh, it’s a werewolf. Okay, then.”
- Analogy. To be persuasive as a cause of the horror story’s horrific events, an explanation must be detailed. There must be a series of correspondences between the alleged cause and the alleged effects. In other words, one must be able to infer, on the basis of the similarities between two things that these same two things are alike in yet other ways (“A” is like “B.” “B” has property “C.” Therefore, “A” has property “C.”) Analogies are notoriously unreliable and often fallacious, but that doesn’t stop them from being persuasive to many, and, in fiction, what counts is their persuasiveness as causes. Writers of fiction are not especially concerned at all points (or maybe at any point) as to whether statements are true; they’re concerned with entertaining their audience, and, to this end, with whether their audience will “buy” a particular explanation of their action’s incidents and situations, bizarre and uncanny or otherwise.
- Integrality. The explanation, whatever it is, must not be haphazard. It must not be tacked on, seemingly at the last minute, simply to explain (or to explain away) the story’s eerie occurrences. Instead, the explanation must be essential. Without the explanation, the series of odd incidents and situations would make no sense (not that they need to make a whole lot of sense, necessarily, even with the explanation in place). For the explanation to be acceptable or plausible, the writer must give hints early and often as to the nature of the cause behind the effects. In The Taking, Dean Koontz, early on, plants the idea that the bizarre actions in his novel may be the effect of Satan’s return to earth, and this possibility is repeated in the thoughts of the protagonist concerning her sorrow for past moral offenses she’s committed and her hope for forgiveness and reconciliation and by the narrative’s end, in which she becomes a new Eve, carrying within her womb the first of humanity’s new humanity. At the same time, however, the possibility that the novel’s bizarre events are the effects of reverse-terraforming by an advance party of invading aliens purposely detracts from this, the actual, cause. By contrast, in The Resort, Bentley Little merely mentions an older resort near the one in which his story’s action take place and implies, without ever saying exactly how, that the former resort is somehow associated with the contemporary one. There are no specific correspondences, no detailed links, between the two (the older one of which, in fact, has burned down). There is only the suggestion, without a supporting context supplied by a pertinent back story or other means of exposition. The result is the deux ex machina that Aristotle so much abhorred and rejects in his Poetics as emotionally and dramatically unconvincing.
Dean Koontz and TrixieA horror story stands or falls, to a large extent, by its explanation for the evil, bizarre events and situations that occur during much of the story. The explanation may not pass scientific muster, but it must at least pass the emotional and dramatic smell tests of the audience if it is to be satisfying and, therefore, successful. In the final analysis, the inexplicable must be explained, if only in theory.