Friday, September 28, 2012

Victims in Mysteries, Thrillers, and Horror Fiction Often Invite Their Own Doom

Once upon a time, I loved a good fright. I’d line up on opening night for the latest slasher movie and sleep fitfully for the next month, my dreams drifting into nightmare and back again. But when the next scary movie opened, I was back for my share of fear and adrenaline.

In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween played for the first time in theaters across the land. I was among the first to see it after walking from my home to the nearest theater, a scant two-mile stroll on the way to the movie, but a long, halting march through dark places and spaces on the way home. I jumped at every noise, every movement caught in my peripheral vision.

Halloween was one of the last horror films I saw, but it certainly was not the last book from the horror fiction shelf that I read. I’m a Stephen King fan although I’ve never managed to read everything he’s written. I’ve also read one or two by Dean Koontz and Peter Straub, and of course, I read the Twilight series as well as The Hunger Games trilogy in order to pluck apt pop culture references from them to spice up classroom discussions about any number of other books.

From such books, from The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, and from slasher movies, I have drawn several conclusions about the human condition as seen through the lens of horror, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you in the next weeks. Some of the inferences will be familiar to you because Scream (the first) made the rules well-known. Others, I hope, will give you new ways to think about fiction and horror fiction in particular.

Rule, the First. Victims are rarely innocent or random.

In Tana French’s latest police procedural, the protagonist, Detective Sergeant Kennedy asserts that people who die violently have opened the door to violence and let it walk right in. They have kept secrets or refused help or given into temptation or let wicked thoughts come to life. Indeed, that is a central premise of much written under the genre names of mystery, thriller, and horror.

In Halloween, the good and wholesome babysitter draws the killer to her when she investigates the vacant house her friends have commandeered for a wanton party involving sex and cigarettes. Of course, teens that push the upright boundaries often find themselves impaled upon those struts, and they die horribly, knives thrust through mattresses from below, the killer unseen. He may rise and show himself briefly in the rearview car mirror before cutting off the driver’s screams and air. The driver was in the wrong place at the wrong time, usually well past the hour when men and women should be home behind locked doors, and worse, he or she ignored the simple, sensible precaution of locking the car doors and windows.

Even poor Bill Murray, playing himself in Zombieland, is not an innocent. He masquerades as the enemy, putting himself in jeopardy, and he fully intends to frighten Columbus and Little Rock before mocking their fears. He put himself in harm’s way and died.

In Dolores Claiborne, the title character, Dolores, participates in a fiction called her marriage. Her husband is a mean drunk, capable of dissembling long enough to put her off her guard, then strike her with a fireplace log, unconcerned that he could have broken her back. She hides her pain and her husband’s menace from their daughter, Selena, thus nurturing the greatest lie: that Selena is the child of a loving, good man. The violence that follows could have been sidestepped if Dolores had had better judgment, if she had been able to defy her husband as easily as she defies society and its judgment, if she had been unwilling to serve a self-absorbed, needy employer. The choices that Dolores made led her directly into the nightmare she must live.

And in The Shining, Jack is the architect of his own destruction. His weak character makes him vulnerable to troubling influences: his own inflated notion of his talent, alcohol, and anger. No ghost helped him break his own son’s arm, and evil spirits were not present when he struck a student and lost his job. Jack did those things without The Overlook Hotel or its ghostly past. He opened the door to tragedy long before he became a caretaker.

In examining crime statistics, it becomes apparent that few people are killed or maimed in random acts of violence. Most become the temporary property of a medical examiner because they engaged in criminal activities including drug trafficking, human trafficking, gun-running, extortion, bribery, and promiscuity. They were not simply in the wrong place at the wrong time accidentally; they had chosen to be where they were at that moment.

Even more disturbing are the data that show only 25% of people killed are killed by strangers. The victims in the Aurora, Colorado mass killing are among that group. But the majority of murders are committed by parents, spouses, and lovers who kill those whom they are supposed to love and protect, and they kill for the reasons introduced in horror fiction. They kill in anger, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol--like Jack Torrance. They kill because they failed to act when peaceful means could free them--like Dolores Claiborne. They kill when cornered, frightened, and offended--like Columbus in Zombieland. The Michael Myers among us--the amoral psychopath who cannot feel empathy or shame--is most rare. It is ourselves we should fear more, not him. Still we should be careful not to stray too far from the safety of social mores lest we open the door to Michael and invite him inside.

Reading Challenge:
Read any one of the books and movies mentioned in this post, or think of your favorite horror story. What does it reveal about human nature?

Writing Challenge:

Read an article about horror fiction, found at Then compose your own definition of horror fiction.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to Basics, A Review of Pronoun-Verb Agreement

None of us is perfect. Each of us carries the seeds of our own destruction, especially if we yield to dangerous impulses such as greed and gluttony.

None is a pronoun that refers to no one. Each is a pronoun that refers to one. Both pronouns require the use of a singular verb.