Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Why do we need allegories? Why, instead of beating around the bush, don’t we just come right out with what we mean to say? Why don’t we just say it? One reason might be that allegories allow readers (and writers) to broach subjects that are not discussed openly in polite company. By suggesting that one thing (say, child abuse) is another (say, demonic oppression or possession), horror writers can bring up the issue in disguise, so to speak, making the matter palatable enough to consider without cognitive indigestion, so to speak, among men and women who, otherwise, might prefer not to entertain the topic at all.
In an interesting twist upon the Aristotelian notion of catharsis, Edward J. Ingebretsen, the author of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King argues that the horror genre serves just such an allegorical function. In ‘Salem’s Lot, for example, Ingebretsen contends, the presence of the vampire Barlow supplies the scapegoat that both the townspeople and the reader need; they can blame the vampire for the wickedness that they themselves do, witness, or imagine--wickedness which is very wicked, indeed:
After about a hundred pages of King’s novel [‘Salem’s Lot], an alert reader asks, how do the predatory and brutal intimacies offered by Barlow the vampire differ from the brutalities exchanged between husband and wife (Bonnie and Reggie Sawyer); between boyfriend and girlfriend (Susan Norton and Floyd Tibbets); between mother and the child she beats (Sandy and Randy McDougal); or, finally, the brutalities implicitly exchanged between author and reader? There is little difference. People feed upon each other routinely for business (like Larry Crockett), and for perverse pleasures (like Dudley). The townspeople are vampiric in the most real of ways. . . consumption is intimacy, and power, rather than love, shapes human relations. . . .
Fantasy gives readers an excuse not to see what they will not face. For example, Reggie Sawyer’s vicious male-rape of Corey, the telephone installer he finds in dalliance with his wife--and then the subsequent brutalizing rape of his wife--is just
a diversion, after all. . . .
King’s readers. . . engage the text much the same way that the townspeople of 'Salem’s Lot engage each other--in vampiric, voyeuristic ways. . . . So long as Barlow could be identified as the vampire, the townspeople--and King’s readers--can consider themselves free of taint (182-184).
In Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim makes a similar claim, from a psychoanalytical point of view.
Those who outlawed traditional folk fairy tales decided that if there were monsters in a story told to children, these must all be friendly--but they missed the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be, and which also sometimes persecutes him. By keeping this monster within the child unspoken of, hidden in his unconscious, adults prevent the child from spinning fantasies around it in the image of the fairy tales he knows. Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it (120).
Writers are important, even in--or, perhaps, especially in--an age of looming illiteracy, because it is they who find the words and the images in which and by which to convey the meaning, in human terms, of the perceptions and events that the society of their day experiences. Whether interpreted from a pagan, a Christian, an evolutionary, a materialistic and empirical, an existential, or some other perspective, facts do not speak for themselves. They are mute spectacles, as it were, until the poet, or, in our time, more often, the novelist or the screenwriter, gives them voice. Writers do so by suggesting that “this” can be understood as a new example of “that” (whether “that” turns out to be the world view of the pagan, the Christian, the evolutionist, the materialistic empiricist, the existentialist, or the adherent of some new model of reality).
The curse (and, perhaps, the blessing) of the human species is that we are unintelligible in terms of ourselves, for we are both part of nature and, at the same time, partly transcendent to nature. To attempt to explain ourselves in terms of ourselves would be tautological, not to mention solipsistic. Attempting to explain ourselves in terms of ourselves would be, in effect, to explain ourselves away.
Language is metaphorical; so is thought. We cannot grasp the meaning of a “this” without a contrasting “that” or of a “that” without a contrasting “this.” Therefore, to make sense of our experience, and of ourselves, we need people who can discern relationships among things, who can recognize relationships between things and ourselves, and who can help us to see such relationships. In horror fiction, the relationships are between the Self and the Other, between the hero (or the monster) within and the monster (or the hero) without. Experience changes, but the process of allegorizing what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, and feel remains the same, providing what unity we can wrest from the multiplicity of perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Upon the basis of such a unity, we built--and forever rebuild--our world.