Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Watching children watching cartoons that contain moments which, to their audience, are frightening reveal that youngsters are often frightened by much the same things as oldsters: sudden attacks, distorted faces and figures, eerie sounds, and the like. One cannot plan to defend oneself against sudden attacks. A distorted face or figure suggests that something terrible may have happened to another person and that something just as terrible could therefore happen to oneself. Eerie sounds suggest the unfamiliar, and that which is unknown may be fraught with menace. In “Killed By Death,” vampire slayer Buffy Summers assures the children in a hospital in which youngsters are dying (and are possibly being killed) at an alarming rate that she knows, as they do, that monsters, but, she declares, there are those who fight monsters, too, and that she is one.
Children are not reassured by promises that the monsters they fear--the monsters in the closet or under the bed--are not real, but imaginary, because kids don’t yet have enough of a handle on the world to tightly compartmentalize “real” and “unreal,” or “imaginary”; the wall between these realms in thin, and, sometimes, the fantastic bleeds through, into the real world. Therefore, Buffy gains credibility by admitting to the kids to whom she speaks that the monsters they fear are real. Because she is believable about this concern, her declaration that she, a hero who fights monsters, is also real is also believable to the children.
In the real world, adults know that monsters are real, too: there are serial killers, rapists, and thieves. There are backbiters and toadies--and even politicians. But there are heroes, too, who fight these monsters: cops and firefighters and emergency medical technicians and soldiers and everyday men and women who are willing to risk their own lives to save others who are in trouble and need help. The everyday hero, however, is too mundane to celebrate for more than a day or two. Horror fiction (like other literary genres) create villains who are larger than life--Pennywise the Clown, Dracula, Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, Der Kinderstod--so that there can be larger-than -life heroes, both extraordinary and ordinary--the Losers, Count Van Helsing, Sam Loomis, Clarice Starling, Buffy Summers.
The phrase “head and shoulders above the crowd” derives from the custom of ancient Greek and Roman sculptors of indicating heroism by creating statues of heroic individuals that were a head length taller than the statues of ordinary mortals. The ordinary figure, ancient artists determined, is equal to seven and a half head lengths; therefore, the statue of a heroic individual would be eight and a half head lengths in stature. In a similar way, writers make both villains and heroes larger than life, so that they embody, in a heightened manner, the villainous and the heroic in ordinary men; the villains and heroes of horror (and other genres) are ourselves, writ large.