Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In an earlier post, I suggested that horror fiction awakens its readers from complacency about themselves, their lives, and life in general and, by reminding them of the things (for example, life and limb, family and friends, love and health), that matter most, serves as a rough guide to the good life.
However, horror fiction produces other equally profound effects as well.
As cultures, communities, and individuals, we develop Weltanschauungs, or worldviews, upon which, in large measure, we base our attitudes and from which, to some degree, spring our actions. Some such views are religious, others are philosophical, and still others are a hodge-podge of rather unexamined and even conflicting beliefs based upon untested assumptions and traditional folkways and mores. Horror fiction puts these views of the world, whether collective or individual, to the test, often showing how, in some way or another, these understandings of self, other, and world are mistaken, incomplete, or false.
By categorizing experience, we make sense of the world and of ourselves. The appearance of an anomaly threatens the categories of our understanding: the Euglena, which has both the chloroplasts of the plant and the cell wall of the animal, threatens our division of organisms into plants and animals; the hermaphrodite, which has the genitals of both sexes, imperils our concepts of sex and gender; the monster upsets our understanding of normality; the alien challenges our ideas about our place in the scheme of things and our belief that we may be the only intelligent life in the universe.
When possible, we seek to accommodate the anomaly. If we cannot do so, we must modify our scheme, as scientists are said to do with regard to their paradigms: When science is unable to account for an anomaly (a fact that doesn’t fit the existing scientific model of reality), it reevaluates and makes appropriate changes to the model, or paradigm, as may occur with discoveries of new species, whether in the field or as the result of the application of new inventions (e. g., the scanning electron microscope, the Hubble telescope, and onboard satellite cameras have enabled scientists to see data that had been previously undetectable to them) or the as the result of the adoption of revolutionary theories such as Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which replaced the theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Sometimes, horror fiction has such a result.
More often, horror fiction’s anomalies are not directed as much at apparent violations of known scientific theories and principles as they are at violations, as it were, of human (i. e., personal, political, cultural, moral, philosophical, and religious) beliefs. The monsters of horror fiction are threats not so much to formal and expert worldviews as to personal and communal (or, sometimes, even idiosyncratic) understandings of the world and of one’s place in it. The “world,” in this sense, is apt to be much smaller, much less well-defined, and largely untested or, for that matter, even less well- known, than the world as it is understood (some might say as it is constructed) by the scientific community, consisting, for example, of families, friends, and coworkers and the organizations and institutions that bind these groups together and to oneself and to the values, beliefs, principles, attitudes, opinions, and emotions that derive from such a conglomeration of persons, places, and things, many of which are understood only vaguely and partially. (For example, how many Americans can analyze the Constitution as well as a Constitutional lawyer or scholar or, for that matter, can specify its contents in any detail or can recite the Apostle’s Creed or name all nine of the Supreme Court justices?)
Often, the anomaly (i. e., the monster) in horror stories appears not as the thing itself that he, she, or it represents (monsters are metaphors, after all), but in disguise. For example, the monster in Stephen King’s Cujo is adultery, which destroys a family, but it appears in the form of a rabid St. Bernard; likewise, alcoholism and child abuse are the true monsters of King’s novel The Shining, but they appear in the forms of ghosts. These monsters threaten the sanctity of the home and try the fidelity of the protagonists’ alleged values. Does Donna Trenton love her husband and son well enough to stay faithful to her marriage vows when temptation, in the form of itinerant repairman Steve Kemp, arrives on the scene? Will Jack Torrance choose his wife and son over his alcoholism and narcissism? Will the value of family, as reinforced by the institutions of marriage, law, and religious belief, win against the inner demons of the self, or, in Freudian terms, the monsters of the id? Sometimes, the forces of civilization and culture do win. Sometimes, they lose.
Whether the monster wins or loses, though, its threatening appearance has the effect of reminding the reader, who is expected to identify, to some extent, with the protagonist of the tale, of what’s at stake and of the consequences--death, destruction, injury, damage--to self and society that may result even if the monster doesn’t win. If the protagonist survives, a chink or weakness in his or her armor has been exposed, which may (or may not) be repaired (or reparable). If he or she does not survive, the reader does and may examine his or her own armor for chinks or weaknesses before the monster’s true-life counterpart, whether adultery, alcoholism, child abuse, or something else as evil appears, and it’s too late.