Monday, October 23, 2006

The Fear Behind the Fear

(Day 5 of Countdown)

"How, then, am I mad? Hearken!
And observe how healthily—
how calmly
I can
tell you
the whole story."

--Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart"

The threat of insanity stalks the ghost story. Henry James's classic A Turn of the Screw is archetypal in that it makes equal sense either as a tale of the supernatural or as a description of madness. More broadly, the fear that one's perception may be fundamentally flawed actually serves as a root archetype underlying all of our monsters. Put simply, the scariest thing may be that "I saw it with my own eyes" means nothing at all.

The Romantic writers obsessed over the dangers of false perception. Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous short story, "Young Goodman Brown," finds its richness in this fear. At the beginning of this tale, like a crime story, the young protagonist leaves his wife alone to engage in one evil errand—just one little thing he has to do before he can live the upright life he desires with his wife. The details of this errand are never revealed because they do not matter to Hawthorne. What matters is that Brown has taken that universal step of rationalizing that the ends will justify the means.

When he journeys into the forest, he encounters a devil who informs him that he is hardly an exception in his sin; his ancestors all made this same journey before him. In the woods, Brown meets his Sunday School teacher and all of his fellow townspeople, and the climax comes when he realizes that even his wife, Faith, has journeyed to the woods for the same reason.

For the rest of his life, Goodman Brown is tortured by the fact that everyone he once admired is tainted by evil. He shuns his townspeople and even his wife, and he dies miserable and lonely.

But, for our purposes, the key moment comes when the narrator suggests that the event in the woods may have only been a dream.

If the event was a dream, then Goodman Brown wasted his life in reaction to a delusion. If the event was real, he condemned his fellow man for the same sin that tempted him. Either way, his perception of the event in the woods is responsible for the tragic outcome. He has failed to find a constructive way to deal with it, and his life and death mean nothing to himself or those he might have loved.

Edgar Allan Poe's work returns to this treacherous vulnerability of perception time and time again. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" a man kills another because of the way the victim looks at him. In "A Cask of Amontillado," the narrator's cold-blooded revenge is based on something his victim said (never explained) that hurt his feelings, which seems like nothing next to the narrator's plot to bury his enemy alive. Tellingly, when the victim slips into madness while his killer walls him into the cellar, his maniacal laughter is echoed by the laughter of his killer. Madness consumes the scene.

In "Fall of the House of Usher," a seemingly sane narrator grows less trustworthy while spending time with an isolated, nervous friend. By the end of the story, he shares his friend's belief that the man's dead sister has returned from the grave and flees the home that, for no natural reason, topples to the ground.

In "The Masque of the Red Death," Poe describes a prince's party to escape the threat of a plague, "The Red Death." Every aspect of this story—from the bizarre décor that the prince finds appropriate to the behavior of the nervous guests to the eventual confrontation with a mysterious specter—suggests some mad hallucination.

Poe's most famous work, his poem "The Raven," captures the madness of grief, a favorite theme from an author who lost every woman he ever loved to sickness. After all, the poem's conflict revolves around a grieving man talking to a bird late at night. And his vision of the bird piercing his heart with its beak can only be the deadly conclusion to a flight of fancy (not that any of us who have grieved heavily don't know exactly how lethal such visions can feel or, most disturbingly, how welcome they can be). The fact that Edgar Allan Poe's name is virtually synonymous with the concept of horror says a lot about what we most fear.

Another horror of perception that we will tackle at length later, a profound feeling of insignificance, also dwells in this house of insanity. One of the most vivid examples is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic "The Yellow Wallpaper." This story revolves around a Victorian wife's secret journal, a journal she has been forbidden to write. Her husband and brother, convinced of her frailty, are keeping her confined in an upstairs room of a home in the country (which the family has purchased with hopes of bringing her out of her hysteria). The narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom and the parallel universe, including a woman like herself, confined there. It does not take a familiarity with Gillman's radical political writings to recognize here the insignificance of the narrowly-circumscribed role of the bourgeois wife described by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State or the hysteria described by Betty Frieden half a century later in The Feminine Mystique.

Incubus, succubus and vampire themes often touch on similar territory, as repressed sexual fantasies morph into deadly night visitors—as in the 1982 movie The Entity, in which a sexy single mother of three seems to have dreamed up a phantom abusive boyfriend. Such movies also play with the child's fear of helplessness in a home where the rock has come unmoored.

Flipping the gender on "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Entity, Bill Paxton's movie Frailty deals with the madness that stems from a single father's need to be a hero. What’s scary is that his son is faced with whether it is wrong to doubt Dad though every fiber of what he knows to be right and wrong says Pop’s gone rabid.

Madness is the single most common theme in modern horror, whether we are talking about The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, Halloween, Identity, In the Mouth of Madness, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the Others. In most cases, the sanity of the protagonists is questioned. In Carrie , the insanity of the protagonist pales compared to both the insanity of her Bible-slapping mother and the insanity of the society of high school. In the most acclaimed recent take on the zombie picture, 28 Days Later , the insanity of the neo-Nazis who are fighting the zombies is weighed against the zombies themselves, and the protagonists decide to take their chances with the zombies. Similarly, George Romero’s Land of the Dead makes clear what his epic series has always been about--the madness of what passes for civilization.

Since madness serves as an explanation for anything irrational, all horror may be seen as an exploration of madness. In his exploration of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King recalls the day his Uncle Clayt convinced him that dowsing for water really worked:

"I will say that Uncle Clayt had lulled me into that same state that I have tried again and again to lull readers of my stories into—that state of believing where the ossified shield of 'rationality' has been temporarily laid aside, the suspension of disbelief is at hand, and the sense of wonder is again within reach."

King makes the point that children get to that place much easier than adults because kids do not expect to have control over their world. Giving up control to the storyteller is easy for a child, but uncomfortable for the adult. For this reason, he suggests that a child actually deals with fears better than an adult:

"…if you put a little kid of six in the front row at a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre along with an adult who was temporarily unable to distinguish between make believe and 'real things' (as Danny Torrance, the little boy in The Shining puts it)—if, for instance, you had given the adult a hit of Yellow Sunshine LSD about two hours before the movie started—my guess is that the kid would have maybe a week's worth of bad dreams. The adult might spend a year or so in a rubber room, writing home with Crayolas."

King does two things at once in this passage. One is that he suggests that engaging in horror is a perfectly decent activity for kids. He also implies that surrender of control to such irrational forces may exercise useful mental muscles for adult and child alike.

Counterintuitive as it may be, who is to say that the fantasy fan isn't better prepared to deal with the horrors of the real world than the person who only deals with the realm of reason? What does the purely rational person do with the fall of the World Trade Center, the War on Terror or the phenomenon surrounding the Passion of the Christ? What does the person with no horror muscle tone do with clergy who molest children, fathers who murder their pregnant wives or children who go on shooting rampages (much less 30-something men who kill Amish school girls)? Craziest of all, how does the rational person explain people with full bellies preaching their value system to those who can't feed their children?

The answer, of course, is not simple. Some people retreat into a world of fantasy to escape the real world. While some who deal in reason can use the rational mind with the precision of a scalpel to restore a sense of priority and focus to the most outrageous realities. (Both abound in fiction, Poe's rationalist prototype of Sherlock Holmes, Monsieur Dupin, at one end of the spectrum, while, at the other, the X-Files' Fox Mulder uses similar analytical skills to embrace the paranormal.)

The important point here is that dealing with the real world demands some capacity for dealing with the irrational. It's a crazy place. In fact, one of the comforts of fantasy is that the most outlandish fiction will almost certainly make more sense than the world of the reader. The writer guarantees some order that no one's guaranteeing you when you walk out the door each day.

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