Copyright 2009 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.
1. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
2. Rescue a damsel in distress. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
3. Find the strange in the familiar. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
4. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
5. Conduct an experiment. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which we discussed in a previous post); Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, and many of H. G. Wells’ novels (e. g., The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau) and some of his short stories. Most readers are familiar with Frankenstein, although more so with the movie versions than with the expostulatory novel in which a student of science creates a monstrous human being from cadavers, from which he flees. The monster, seeking companionship, intends to kidnap a boy, but kills him instead, when he learns the boy is his maker’s younger brother, and implicates a girl in the murder. The monster then demands that Frankenstein create a wife for him, and, to protect his family, the student agrees, but, repenting, destroys his work before it is completed, whereupon the monster avenges himself by killing Frankenstein’s bride, his cousin Elizabeth, whose father died soon thereafter, of grief. The grieving groom pursues his creation to the north pole, where the monster commits suicide. In Wells’ The Food of the Gods, scientists Bensington and Redwood concoct Herakleophobia IV, a chemical growth agent that causes organisms, whether plants or animals, to grow to tremendous size. Their experiment commences with chickens, but the careless couple whom they hire to feed the fowl allow other animals to eat the food as well, with the result that giant rats, wasps, and even worms are soon terrorizing the countryside. Armed with rifles, the scientists hunt down the monstrous animals and burn down their farm. However, rather stupid for scientists, the researchers next feed children the chemical treat, producing giants whom the world fear and reject. After one of the giants is killed, the others, whom Wells labels “Children of the Food” square off for a showdown with the normal human beings who persecute them, whom Wells describes as the “Pygmies.” The hatred and fear with which the ostracized Children of the Food are treated by ordinary men and women is echoed by society’s treatment of the Marvel Comics mutant superheroes known as The X-Men. In The Invisible Man, Wells’ scientist is a man named Griffin, believing that a person might be rendered invisible by altering his refractive index to match those of the air so that his body no longer reflects light, puts his theory to the test on himself, with the result that he becomes invisible. Thereafter, he goes insane, threatening and attacking others, until he is beaten to death by a mob. His invisibility formula is lost to posterity because of indecipherable pages in his journal. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked survivor, is brought ashore by natives of a remote, uncharted island, where he discovers Dr. Moreau’s experimental attempts to create man-animal hybrids, the so-called Beast Folk. Moreau is killed by an escaped puma, and, after Moreau’s assistant, Dr. Montgomery, is later killed by the Beast Folk, Prendick lives among the hybrid creatures until he is able to escape the island aboard a ship that washes ashore, is picked up by a ship that is returning to England, and returns to homeland, having learned by the reaction of the rescuers to his tale not to tell of his experiences to others, lest he be thought insane, and adopts the pretense of having acquired amnesia concerning the time he spent as a castaway. The theme of the mad scientist has become a favorite among both science fiction and horror writers, and it underlies such additional stories as Jurassic Park (1993), Metropolis (1927), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), The Mysterious Island (1974), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Carnosaur (1993), Re-Animator (1985), The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984), and many others.
6. Invade paradise. In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale comes to appreciate the home that she first disparaged, taking her Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and life on their Kansas farm for granted. This is a theme common to many horror films as well, in which the true value of a person, place, or thing, be it ever so humble, is first taken for granted but, after it is threatened, (often, in the case of places, by invasion) is appreciated for, if not exactly paradise, comes to be valued. Invaders From Mars, The War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers are some of the science fiction-cum-horror films that are based upon this there’s-no-place-like-home theme. The haunted house can be an example of an invaded paradise, as it is in Poltergeist, which is invaded by demonic spirits, and another twist on this motif is that of demonic possession in which it is not a place, but a person, who is threatened or, as it were, invaded, as in The Exorcist and The Possession of Emily Rose.
7. Dig up that which has been buried (repressed). Besides concerning himself with such matters as boys’ fears of castration which he believed the sight of a vagina created in males and girls’ supposed “envy” of boys’ penises, the eclectic theorist Sigmund Freud suggested that the uncanny has a déjà vu element that is caused by the fact that unpleasant feelings which have been repressed by a person return in somewhat disguised form and seems at once both familiar and strange, and both attractive and repulsive. Be that as it may, some find the idea of repressed memories a useful springboard for the introduction of horrible and horrific incidents. Xander Harris, a character in the televisions series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sums up this view in his typically zany, but apt, “Xanderspeak,” when he tells the protagonist, Buffy Summers, in the “Dead Man’s Party” episode, “You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get you,” just before their party is attacked by zombies. The Others (2001) is another example of this approach. After she and her children experience a series of bizarre incidents, Grace Stewart believes that her house is haunted, only to find out that the ghosts are living people and that she and her children are the true ghosts who are haunting the house. Grace had repressed the memory of having killed her own children before committing suicide. Hide and Seek (2005) also employs this tactic. Following the murder of her mother, Emily Callaway adopts an imaginary playmate named Charlie, who is actually the alter ego of her father, the murderer, who has a split personality. Emily witnessed her father’s murder of her mother, but repressed the memory of this experience by positing the existence of Charlie as her mother’s actual killer.
In subsequent posts, we will continue our consideration of basic horror storylines.