Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In a previous post (“Horror as Image and Word”) , I spoke of the benefit that authors of horror stories can derive from physically isolating their characters. By locating the story’s action in a remote setting, a writer heightens their vulnerability. They are more helpless than they might be otherwise, had they not been cut off from the larger community, society, or nation in which they live, having no access to emergency medical services, law enforcement personnel, financial institutions, or even friends and family. They are on their own, with no one and nothing else to assist them.
There’s another way to isolate characters besides that of locating them in remote places, far from the madding crowd: separate them from others by making them shy, emotionally detached or withdrawn, or even antisocial. (I touch upon this topic in my earlier post, “Ray Bradbury’s ‘Love Potion ’: Learning from the Masters.”) Psychological or emotional isolation has similar effects to physical isolation, making it difficult for a character to share his or her true and deepest thoughts and emotions with others. A shy or socially withdrawn character is likely to be incommunicative beyond the most superficial level, and an antisocial character is apt to go so far as to lie to others, even on a routine basis.
Wikipedia describes shyness as a manifestation of such tendencies as an avoidance of “the objects of their apprehension in order to keep from feeling uncomfortable,” which initiates a vicious circle of sorts, in which “the situations remain unfamiliar and the shyness perpetuates itself.” Shyness, the article indicates, may be a temporary or a permanent condition, and it may be mild or extreme, adding:
The condition of true shyness may simply involve the discomfort of difficulty in knowing what to say in social situations, or may include crippling physical manifestations of uneasiness. Shyness usually involves a combination of both symptoms, and may be quite devastating for the sufferer, in many cases leading them to feel that they are boring, or exhibit bizarre behavior in an attempt to create interest, alienating them further. Behavioral traits in social situations such as smiling, easily producing suitable conversational topics, assuming a relaxed posture and making good eye contact, which come spontaneously for the average person. . . may not be second nature for a shy person. Such people might only effect such traits by great difficulty, or they may even be impossible to display. . . In fact, those who are shy are actually perceived more negatively because of the way they act towards others. Shy individuals are often distant during conversations, which may cause others to create poor impressions of them, simply adding to their shyness in social situations (“Shyness”).Jack Torrance, the protagonist of The Shining isn’t shy as much as he is socially detached from the world, or socially withdrawn. He is a mystery, if not exactly a stranger, even to his own wife and son. In discussing this character in an earlier post, “Narrative and Dramatic Techniques,” I indicated how, according to literary critics, the filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, used his motion picture camera’s photography of a mountain to characterize Torrance as emotionally cold and detached.
Extremely wide vistas of the mountainous landscape induce a cold, detached and depersonalized perspective. Humans are unimportant in this vast physical, and metaphysical, terrain. . . .As a result of his detachment, Torrance both becomes a monster, and his cold-heartedness becomes the death of him when, trapped inside a maze following a blizzard, he freezes to death as he pursues his young son, intent upon murdering the boy.
Jack undergoes a freezing of emotional warmth and empathy. His blood runs cold, both figuratively and literally, as he becomes one with the forces of winter and death (Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film, 43-44).
The antisocial personality disorder is different than shyness. Recognizing it as a mental illness of sorts, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines this condition as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder,” Wikipedia). Serial killer Ted Bundy, among others, is said to have had such a condition. The disorder is marked by such symptoms as
[a] persistent lying or stealing; [an] apparent lack or remorse or empathy for others; cruelty to animals; poor behavioral controls. . ; a history of childhood conduct disorder; recurring difficulties with the law; [a] tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others; substance abuse; aggressive, often violent behavior. . . [an] inability to tolerate boredom; [and a] disregard for safety” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder”).Such additional conditions are often associated with ant personality disorder as “anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, substance-related disorders, somatization disorder, pathological risk-seeking, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, [and] narcissistic personality disorder” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder”).
In short, those who are afflicted with the antisocial personality disorder are hard to get along with. They are dangerous not only to themselves, but to others as well. Moreover, despite the dazzling array of symptoms and associated disorders, such individuals can, and do, pass as normal among others. Bundy was not only considered sane by the team of psychiatric and psychological doctors who examined him, but by the coworker (and author of The Stranger Beside Me) Ann Rule, who worked alongside him in a Seattle crisis clinic for a year and a half. Young women often found the brutal killer attractive, and he had no problem in finding victims among the college coeds he frequently targeted. Even during his incarceration and trial, he had suitors among the female sex, one of whom, Carole Ann Boone, married him on the witness stand as Bundy cross-examined her, allegedly bearing the serial killer a daughter. During his career as a serial killer, however, Bundy killed somewhere between thirty and a hundred and thirty young women, one as young as twelve years old.
Interestingly, one critic, John E. Reilly, diagnoses the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” as a “paranoid schizophrenic” (“The Lesser Death-Watch and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, Second Quarter, 1969, 3-9), a diagnosis with which another critic, Brett Zimmerman, agrees in “‘Moral Insanity’ or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, 39-48). This storyteller’s mental illness has obviously alienated him (or, some critics recently claim, her) from both reality and his (or her) kinsman, whom he (or she) murders.
One need not suffer from either antisocial personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia to be emotionally detached or withdrawn. Shyness will also accomplish the goal of psychologically isolating a character from his or her peers and making him or her emotionally (and, indeed, physically) vulnerable to the monster, human or otherwise, who stalks a group of men and women, and a shy person may be regarded with sympathy on the part of the reader, whereas, despite his or her mental illnesses, neither an antisocial nor a paranoid schizophrenic is likely to garner much in the way of the reader’s compassion or even understanding. The writer may want to make a character who is stalked but not killed shy, but the character who is both stalked and killed antisocial or schizophrenic--or, for that matter, make the killer him- or herself antisocial or schizophrenic. There is, of course, another option for writers who want to isolate their characters so as to cut them off from all outside support and assistance: isolate them physically, by locating the story’s action in a remote and inaccessible setting, and then further isolate them by making one or more of the characters shy, antisocial, or schizophrenic.