Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Anyone who has entered his or her name in an Internet image browser is likely, unless he or she has a truly unique appellation, to have had the rather disconcerting experience of having come face to face, so to speak, with a stranger who shares the same name. This experience is all the more unsettling if the other person is of a different race or ethnic group or (if one bears a unisex name) the opposite sex. Social utility websites allow the same distressing experience.
Sometimes, other media provide the same result. In Las Vegas, a billboard advertises George Wallace, an African American comedian who appears at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Younger folks often miss the irony of the entertainer’s name’s being identical to that of the racist former Alabama governor who resisted the initiation of segregation during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to bar the 1963 enrollment of the school’s first black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood (“George Wallace,” Wikipedia).
According to Wikipedia’s “disambiguation” list for “George Wallace,” no fewer than eleven more-or-less famous men share this name, among them the former governor; his son; the American comedian and two other such entertainers; a football player; several politicians; foreign and domestic; an actor; an army officer; and a politician. No doubt, there are several less-famous men with this name as well.
Occasionally, people also change their names, Norman Jean Baker becoming Marilyn Monroe and Marion Mitchell Morrison becoming John Wayne, for example, and others who would not have shared the names with such celebrities now having their names in common with such an entertainer. (One thinks of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, for example, sharing a name with the Western film star but not with the actor previously known as Marion Mitchell Morrison.)
To most of us, our name is a representation not merely of syllables of sound but of who we are, of ourselves. We think of ourselves as unique. Indeed, we are told, in our youth, that there is no other person quite like us, that we are in a class by itself, the one and only of our kind. Discovering that we share a name with someone else or that we can change our names or that our names can come from other names, even from names that are associated with the opposite sex, is surprising; it is also a bit disconcerting, suggesting that our identities might not be as fixed and permanent as we had previously supposed them to be. If we can share our names with others, maybe we could also become other. We could become a member of the opposite sex. We could become a serial killer. We could become a bigot. We could (if we are women) lose our own identities to those whom we wed. The truth of the matter, of course, is that our identities are not as fixed and permanent as we might believe. Over time, our attitudes, our beliefs, our feelings, our tastes, our values all change; we change. Nevertheless, we believe (or hope) that, at the very core of our being, our hearts and souls remain unchanged. We trust that the essence of ourselves remains unique and incorruptible, both to time and to events. Otherwise, we fear, at some point, we would cease to exist. The loss of identity is the loss of the self to madness or to death. Eve on our gravestones, our names remain--for a time. When the elements have finally obliterated our names, it shall be as if we never existed. There will be no remnant of our identities, of our being, or ourselves.
Therefore, we are jealous of our names, and we guard them zealously, fearing identity theft as much because it is a violation of who we are as because it promotes financial disaster for us as individuals.
Prisoners abhor the loss of their names, which occurs when they are issued numbers in place of their names. They feel that they have been made less than human by being designated numerically rather than alphabetically, as if their identities have been reduced to the nomenclature of mechanical parts and assemblies. Marines also dislike drill instructors’ refusal to allow them, as recruits, to refer to themselves in the first person, as “I” or “me,” and the demand that, instead, they speak of themselves only as “the private.” They perceive the dehumanization that such attempts at resocialization have upon them as individuals.
Horror fiction plays upon our fears of transformation, of loss of identity, and of life itself. Horror writers and filmmakers know what is and is not in a name and how to translate these fears onto a printed page or onto the silver screen. Human beings undergo terrible transformations, becoming werewolves or vampires. They lose themselves to madness. They suffer agonizing deaths at the hands of others who have lost their own minds and souls.
Such films as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), a remake of the 1958 version directed by Kurt Neumann; Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982); the several versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1982), John Carl Buechler’s Troll (1986), and Laurence Huntington’s The Vulture (1967) are just a few of the many, many titles of horror movies involving transformation that Buried.com lists for this category.
Edgar Allan Poe’s stories often feature protagonists who suffer a loss of themselves to madness, but this is a current theme among writers and filmmakers today as well, as is attested by such stories as John Fowles’ 1963 novel The Collector, the Friday the 13th movie series, the 1995 John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness (based upon the 1936 H. P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness), and, of course the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho (based upon Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same title).
Why should our sharing our names with strangers be disconcerting? I think it is because we invest symbolic value in them. Our first names are given to us by our parents. Our last names identify our families and, therefore, our lineage. Perhaps it is unsettling for those women who opt to take their husbands’ names in lieu of the surnames by which, until they marry, they have been known all their lives. Certainly, the custom alters their perspective--and that of society’s--to some degree as to married women’s identities. Women are seen as more fluid than fixed in their identities. Not only do they shift shape (during pregnancy), but they are also likely to change their very identities, Miss Emily Jones, for example, becoming Mrs. Emily Smith. In formal correspondence, married women may be stripped even of the very remnant of their personal identity and their femininity that their first, or given name, provides them, becoming the “Mrs. John Smith” whose name appears after her husband’s: “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” Even women who remain single often derive their identity from another person of the opposite sex: Paulette and Paula both owe their names to the masculine Paul, for instance, just as the name Denise is derived from the masculine name Dennis. It must be disconcerting, indeed, for a Samantha to realize that her feminine name is based upon a variation of the masculine Samuel.
Death is a staple of horror stories, novels, and films. Virtually every one of them alludes to or, more often, features at east one (and usually several, or even many) savage murders. However, the so-called slasher movies, wherein nubile hotties for the most part, are sliced and diced for audience members’ vicarious viewing pleasure, is perhaps the most extreme sort of this type of fare. Slasher titles include Jack Sholder’s Alone in the Dark (1982), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (based upon the 1973 Lois Duncan novel of the same title), Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers (2001), Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell (1980), Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp (1983), Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn (2003) (reminiscent of my own 2008 Blue Mountain Detour), and a host of others.
While writers and filmmakers are careful to disguise the fact that they are playing with readers’ and moviegoers’ identities by casting their treatments of this theme in terms of other “people’s” names (those of the characters who populate their pages or screens), make no mistake about it: a reader or a moviegoer by any other name would suffer the same existential angst as the characters who experience physical transformation, madness, or death in place of their voyeuristic audiences.
What’s in a name? More (and less) than one might think!