Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the first three of a baker’s dozen (plus one) of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.
1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We can thank Edgar Allan Poe for this one. The narrator of his short story “Berenice” asks, “How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?” In most beautiful persons, places, and things, there is the potential for hidden ugliness. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” are examples, as is Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In “The Birthmark,” Georgiana is an exquisitely beautiful young woman with but one defect. She has an unsightly birthmark that prevents her husband, a scientist named Aylmer, from viewing her as physically perfect. He becomes obsessed with this blemish, and Georgiana comes to share her husband’s fixation. Together, assisted by Aminadab, Aylmer’s aide, the couple seeks to remove the birthmark, but, when they succeed, Georgiana dies. The ugliness, of course, is not in the birthmark, but in Aylmer’s attitude and superficiality. In “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” a scientist, conducting a secret experiment with exotic poisonous plants, keeps his daughter, as a research subject, locked inside the garden that doubles as his laboratory. A medical student, Giovanni, falls in love with Beatrice, visiting her in the garden, whereupon he falls victim to plants’ poison--and to the now-poisonous Beatrice as well. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the oil portrait of the title character ages and becomes uglier and uglier, suffering the consequences of his sins while Gray himself remains youthful and healthy, right up to the moment that he plunges a knife into his likeness and dies, a withered and grotesque old man.
2. Develop a continuing theme. Again, Poe exemplifies the process. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” he argues that the death of a beautiful young woman is the most poetic topic in the world, and this theme is the basis for not only his poems The Raven and “Anabelle Lee,” but also such of his stories as “The Oval Portrait” and “Berenice.” Since we have discussed both The Raven and “The Oval Portrait” in previous posts, we will restrict our current consideration of Poe’s works to “Anabelle Lee” and “Berenice.” “Anabelle Lee” recounts the suspicions of the narrator that angels killed his beloved Anabelle because they were jealousy of her surpassing beauty. Nevertheless, he believes that their love for one another transcends time and space and that, once he is dead, he shall be reunited with her for eternity. Meanwhile, he sleeps beside her tomb by the sea each night, where, in the stars, he imagines he sees her loving gaze. In “Berenice,” Egaeus, planning to wed his cousin, becomes obsessed with the beauty of her teeth. Berenice’s health fails, and, after she dies, Egaeus’ servant brings him the horrible news that Berenice’s grave has been violated. Covered in blood, and with dental instruments beside him, Egaeus realizes that, in a somnambulistic-like state, has robbed his beloved’s grave and extracted the teeth from her corpse. (The fact that Berenice may have suffered from catalepsy and may, therefore, have been mistakenly buried alive, adds to the horror of the story.)
3. Enact revenge. Poe, once again, exemplifies this approach in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, also demonstrates how the theme of vengeance can advance a horror story’s plot. In Poe’s story, Montresor, believing that his guest, a wine expert named Fortunato, has insulted him, lures Fortunato into Montresor’s wine cellar, on the pretext that he wishes Fortunato to evaluate a cask of Amontillado wine Montresor has purchased recently. Instead, after getting Fortunato drunk by pausing to have him sample various other wines along the way, Montresor walls his guest up, alive, behind bricks he lays while Fortunato is chained to a wall, leaving him to die. King’s Carrie White has telekinetic powers, which she uses to avenge herself against her cruel classmates and her insane mother, whose religious fanaticism has been a vehicle of psychological abuse for years, leaving Carrie ill prepared to deal with such matters as adolescence, sex, and the society of her peers. Of course, many other horror stories also employ the revenge motif. It is one of the staples of horror plots, both past and present, and, it seems safe to predict, it will continue to remain such in the future.
In subsequent posts, we will consider some of the other techniques by which horror writers develop storylines.