Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Something’s wrong with. . . .
Well, just about everything.
We fear that something is not quite right. That something is wide of the mark. That something is improper.
Something’s wrong with the baby!
That could be the tagline for Rosemary’s Baby.
Something’s wrong with the dog!
That could be the tagline for Cujo.
Something’s wrong with the house!
That could be the tagline for The Amityville Horror.
Something could go wrong with virtually anything--or anyone.
Including me. . . . or you.
There’s something wrong with my nurse!
Couldn’t that be the tagline for Misery?
There’s something wrong with my husband!
That could be the tagline for The Shining.
What could go wrong?
Again, almost anything.
The baby could be the spawn of Satan, a true devil’s child. The dog could have rabies. The house could be haunted. The nurse and, for that matter, one’s husband could be psychotic and violent, even murderous. Whatever could go wrong might go wrong.
Horror stories are often about things (and people) that go wrong. They suffer a mechanical, an electrical, or a nervous breakdown. They go awry or insane. They fly off the handle, hit the roof, lose it, flip their lids, lose their heads.
The things that go wrong or, sometimes, the things that make other things go wrong, are the monsters or their human equivalents, most of which are symbolic of other, actual dangers: demons (weaknesses and appetites), ghosts (past traumas or guilt or fears that both haunt and drive the emotions of the haunted), giants (seemingly insurmountable, irresistible, or invincible situations), ogres (natural catastrophes or technological terrors), vampires (depression or sexual lust or perversions), werewolves (the animal within), witches (women in league with forces beyond human understanding), and zombies (the brain damaged, the psychotic, and the mesmerized). Look up synonyms for some of these terms, and their real-world equivalents will appear. “Haunted,” for example, suggests haunted “troubled,” “preoccupied,” “worried,” “disturbed,” “anxious,” or “obsessed.”
Horror stories are also about what happens after things (and people) go wrong. Such fiction is about survival and recovery. Novels and short stories in this genre are about restoration and rebirth. In seeing what protagonists and other characters do in the face of extreme danger, menaced by natural, paranormal, or supernatural forces as irresistible and as powerful as they are relentless, we readers can learn how to survive and recover. We can learn how to be restored and how to be reborn.
We can also learn the nature of the monster, whether it takes the form of a charismatic man or a beautiful woman, a seemingly innocent child with a shy smile, or a leader who promises things for which we’ve longed all our lives or have clutched to our breasts only in our dreams, and we can avoid the menace or neutralize or kill it.
Of course, we can always say that there is nothing wrong, that everything is all right, that there’s no cause for alarm.
Life gives us that choice; horror fiction often doesn’t.