Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Often, we think of horror fiction as a visceral genre, focusing, as it frequently does, on blood and guts and gore. However, the best horror fiction transcends the merely physical and addresses, albeit usually symbolically, those dimensions of our existence that are peculiarly human: the theological, the philosophical, the social, the psychological, and the technological. We are more than bodies. We are ghosts. We are spirits. We are souls. We believe in God, we think about the implications of our perceptions and beliefs, we organize as societies and nations, we emote, and we use tools of spectacular complexity and variety. The best horror fiction addresses these aspects of our existence.
One reason that William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) is a great novel (and a movie, released in 1973) is that it explores the problem of evil and the meaning of true faith, showing that, more than being mere belief, such faith involves trust in God; love for God, for oneself, and for others; and the needs to forgive and to be forgiven. The novel also suggests that evil is not only real but that it is also of a spiritual, rather than of a psychological or a social, nature (although evil may be expressed psychologically or socially--or in other ways).
Part of the reason that The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is a good, if not great, film, is that it is both theological, questioning whether God and the devil actually exist or are merely metaphors for experience that is not fully understood, and philosophical, asking whether human beings should consider themselves to be nothing more than one of the many products of evolution. There are consequences for both world views, the movie suggests, and it is the filmmaker's intent to force a decision for or against one worldview and its consequences or the other Weltanschauung and its consequences. According to the film's director, Scott Derrickson:
What I wanted to do was write something that wasn’t propaganda, wasn’t about trying to persuade people to think the way that I do, but recognize the fundamental importance of that question, the central question — does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a devil, and more importantly, is there a God? And if so, what are the implications of that? I don’t care what you believe — those are questions to be reckoned with… Everyone has to answer that question. And in some ways everyone lives their life based on what they believe about that question.
Many of Stephen King’s novels examine the effects of community life upon the residents of small towns, focusing upon the pressures upon, and the consequences to, individuality and personality that social mores, traditions, and expectations tend to exert and have; among the best of these novels, perhaps (but by no means the best of King‘s work to date), are Carrie (1974), Needful Things (1991), and Under the Dome (2009).
Perhaps the best-know and certainly one of the artistically finest horror films that delves into the mysteries of the human personality is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which is based upon Robert Bloch’s novel of the same title (1959). How much of our behavior as adults is shaped by our childhood experiences, and, in particular, by the hand that rocks the cradle? If the challenges of childhood and adolescence take different avenues than is typical or normal, might a boy grow up to be a monster rather than a man? “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” Norman Bates declares, but, clearly, in his case, this was not true. Why? The film perhaps leaves more questions unanswered than answered, despite the psychiatrist’s explanation of the protagonist’s behavior at the end of the film, but it brings to the attention of its millions of viewers the importance of seeking answers to questions of nature and nurture, of learning and genetics. In the process, the film makes it quite clear that people are more than merely food for worms, for machines, whether of flesh or of steel, operate according to their design, without being affected by the attitudinal, emotional, or other cognitive functions that are peculiar to creatures that have been created in the image and likeness of God.
Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1977), in which a computer impregnates a woman who gives birth to a cyborg infant, explores the implications of the human-technology dynamic, admittedly taken to rather absurd extremes. It’s a reworking, of sorts, of the Frankenstein motif, wherein the monster is, quite literally, a ghost in a machine, but one of technological, rather than of divine, conception and origin. A 1977 movie, of the same title, directed by Donald Cammell, is based upon Koontz’s book.
It is interesting (and, one might add, significant) that several of these novels and movies are based, allegedly, at least, upon actual events. The Exorcist is based upon a titanic spiritual battle that Blatty heard about during his college days. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based upon the horrific experiences of Anneliese Michel. Although Carrie is an entirely fictional work, the protagonist, Carietta (Carrie) White, is “based on a combination of two girls in King's past; one of them went to school with him, the other was a student of his,” Timeline’s Internet article “Carrie becomes King‘s debut novel,” points out:
The young girl King went to school with lived down the street from him when he lived in Durham, Maine. King recalls, in an interview with Charles L. Grant for Twilight Zone Magazine (Apr 1981), “She was a very peculiar girl who came from a very peculiar family. Her mother wasn’t a religious nut like the mother in Carrie; she was a game nut, a sweepstakes nut who subscribed to magazines for people who entered contests . . . The girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she'd bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she'd changed the black skirt and white blouse--which was all anybody had every seen her in--for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”
Needful Things, King says, was inspired by the excesses of televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Under the Dome’s villain is based upon Vice-President Dick Cheney--as King sees him, of course. Psycho is based upon the murderous Ed Gein.
(It is also interesting and probably significant that several of these writers and filmmakers are Christian: Blatty is a Catholic, Derrickson is a Protestant, King is a believer but differs in his belief from traditional Protestants, and Koontz is a Catholic.)
Basing one’s fiction, entirely or in part, upon real-world people, situations, or events is one way to ensure that one has realistic, believable fodder upon which to base one’s theological, philosophical, social, psychological, and technological explorations, examinations, insights, and criticisms. That it is possible to do so underscores one of the points of horror fiction in general--and perhaps the biggest point of them all--which is that human beings, both actual and fictional, are more than blood, guts, and gore. There is a spiritual as well as a physical dimension to human existence; if there were not, horror itself would be impossible and there would be neither novels nor movies based upon this emotional reaction to external and internal evil that, like goodness, is both transcendent and immanent to human beings themselves.