Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do./ Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:19-20)
According to psychologists, we repress many of our desires. Sigmund Freud suggests that these repressed urges can reappear in disguised versions of themselves, often as instances of the uncanny. Apparently, such thinkers suppose, we are much like a computer: the data we delete—that is, those which we intend to delete and believe that we have deleted—are actually erased only when the computer needs the hard drive space upon which the “deleted” data are stored, awaiting the moment (if it ever comes) that they are overwritten with new data. Until this happens, the “deleted” data remain, rather as a body remains, even after it has died, until, eventually, nature, in her own sweet time, recycles the cadaver’s no-longer-living constituents.
In other words, we are all doubles. There is the persona, or public face, and there is the secret self, known, sometimes, not even by our conscious selves, consisting of those impulses and interests which we have rejected (repressed and suppressed), usually because the collective voice of society—or maybe only our parents or our friends—suggested that these desires are asocial, criminal, deviant, perverse, unnatural, or otherwise undesirable.
A Casper Milquetoast could harbor an Attila the Hun (or vice versa), just as the well-mannered, well-spoken Dr. Jekyll harbored the hideous Mr. Hyde. It’s not only Peter Parker, after all, who has a secret identity. We all have skeletons in our closets—in fact, we ourselves might be those very skeletons—or, at least, the repressed self within might be.
Horror stories, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray—or, for that matter, Stephen King’s The Dark Half or Dean Koontz’s Mr. Murder—are horrifying, in part, because they threaten to reveal the secret, not-so-nice second self which we have hidden away in the basements of our unconscious minds. It wouldn’t do to let anyone see the repulsive, slimy, deviant thing we harbor within, which is an unseemly and unacceptable caricature of who we truly are (or appear to be).
For different folks, the secret self is—well, different folk. For Stevenson, Mr. Hyde might have been the consequences of an unresolved moral dualism; for Wilde, homosexuality; for King, his public image as a popular writer; for Koontz, some version of his abusive, half-mad father. Whatever—or whoever—we’re hiding deep inside ourselves is apt to be partially or fully monstrous, as were the inner demons that inhabited Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Son of Sam. It’s best that they be kept under psychic lock and key. Unfortunately, sometimes the mental jails and prisons—the dungeons of the mind—fail in their mission to keep these beastly secret selves incarcerated, and they escape.
If Ed Gein’s or Charles Manson’s inner demons could get away, why not our own, someday? The possibility is more then frightening; it’s terrifying, and it is this fear of being revealed—fully revealed—for who—and what—we are that is the rock-solid foundation of stories in which the horror stems from the fear of the exposure of one’s secret, hidden doppelganger.