Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Girl Next Door

Until this semester, I'd never read a horror novel. I was nervous about this semester, but we started out tame, with classics and short stories. Even the Stephen King movie didn't freak me out too badly. I was handling it. I was cool.

And then I read "The Girl Next Door."

Correction, then I read all but two chapters toward the end. I couldn't do it. I psychically could not force my eyes to focus on the words, I was so horrified by their meaning. I literally felt sheer, unadulterated horror.

And that's the point of a horror novel, right? All popular fiction is designed to wring an emotional reaction from the reader. And this did it. Boy, did this do it. This is what I was scared of when I signed up for this class. Correction -- this was horrifically worse than I could have ever expected.

I found it interesting that the setting seemed to add a whole new level of horror to the book that no other setting could have done. First, you have the uncanny: the bomb shelter turned cell. I'm sure that through WWII and the Cold War, many such bomb shelters were built in homes. It was safe, protective. Something familiar that we no longer needed. And then it turned into something to restraining rather than protective. The nice, familiar, suburban town with the Leave it to Beaver feel. And rather than June Cleaver tucking the Beave into bed, we have Ruth Candler torturing and raping little girls.

In his article at the end, Ketchem says, "If you lived through the 1950's, then you know its dark side. All those nice, soft comfy little buboes of secrecy and repression black and ripe and ready to burst" (pg. 338, 2008 edition). And this probably would have only worked in the 50's. In a time when abuse and suffering was hidden behind polite smiles and pearls and dresses. When Meg talked to a policeman at the fair, I sighed with relief. Here was help for her. But it wasn't until 1974 that children had legal protection from their parents. There was no social service hotline to call, no reports to fill out. Each adults excused Ruth's actions, though they surely didn't know the extent.

But it wasn't just the repression of the 50's. It was the innocence too. The quiet streets and bikes and carnivals in church parking lots and catching crawfish. And against the backdrop of these two extremes was torture and pain and suffering.

This kind of horror has happened in today's day and age, but the reactions are light years apart. I would pray that today, a neighborhood of adults wouldn't turn a blind eye, and that even children would know how to help her.

I'm still disturbed by this book, and struggling to analyze it through the haze of, well, horror clouding my thoughts.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Using Misery to illuminate conflict theory

Last residency, I was chatting with Dr. Wendlend about dong a PhD program, and I complained that I would have to choose between Conflict Resolution (in which I have an MA and teach) and Literature/Writing. And how I hated to throw away everything I'd learned/studied about conflict res in order to get a PhD in literature. His response (in a voice only Al can do): "Well duh, put them together!"

However, I don't have the slightest idea how to actually going about doing that. But what is a novel if not a written interpretation of a conflict? Characters must be in conflict, or else there is no story. As one of the prompts for our term paper is to "Discuss how psychological horror fiction illuminates or critiques a specific field of science or art," I thought I'd make a first, short attempt here, flush the ideas out for the term paper, and see if there is any possibility of me stumbling upon something that might head me toward a dissertation.

Conflicts escalate in two ways: scope and severity (there is tons of research on conflict escalation, but this is the base level of escalation theory). As a conflict escalates, it requires more people are involved (scope) and participants intensify their actions (from yelling to name-calling to punching; or from diplomacy to threats to war). The audience is important here, because the audience is always pulled in, and always forced to pick sides (in high-intensity conflicts, such as ethnic cleansing or genocide, the moderates who refuse to pick a side are always executed first. Similarly, the friend who refuses to take my side when I whine about my husband is the one I ignore :).

The point here is that it is almost impossible for the audience to stay neutral in the face of a conflict, and as the conflict escalates and becomes more polarized, neutrality becomes even more difficult (again, there is tons of theory and literature on neutrality in conflict, but I'm staying simplistic here). In the average literature, the audience is the reader. We pick sides. We choose who to root for. We want a specific outcome for the in-group (our group, the character we identify ourselves with, primarily, the protagonist(s)) and for the out-group (the "others" the "them" in us vs. them, or primarily, the antagonist(s)). This is why, in series with love triangles, the two groups can become rabid against each other (I have seen literal cat-fights erupt in book-signing lines over who Stephanie Plum should marry in the Janet Evanovich series). But in normal literature, there's not a lot of room for escalation. We as readers can't take action to influence the conflict outcome.

In Misery, King flips this on its head. He puts the audience directly in the conflict, instead only peripherally. Instead of the audience identifying with the protagonist, the audience becomes the antagonist. The protagonist (in-group) is the writer himself, and the antagonist (out-group) is the readers/Annie. Rather than the audience just demanding a particular outcome in letters and thoughts and such, Sheldon's audience has literally taken him hostage and demanded a specific outcome, complete with threats and punishment for failure.

There's all sorts of room for escalation now, and boy does it escalate fast. With escalation comes both polarization and dehumanization.

Annie's a psycho, no doubt about it. She's killed hundreds of people, seemingly without conscience. But here's the really interesting contribution conflict theory can provide. She didn't need to be a psycho. Misery is conflict at its height,
when one side (Annie/readers) have completely dehumanized the other side (Paul Sheldon/writers). Conflicts escalate through a prescribed set of steps, and as escalation and polarization increase, trust and communication diminish, enemy images set in, more and more violent tactics are used, and finally, the enemy is fully dehumanized. Once dehumanization occurs, any level of atrocities are possible.

Any society or group, given the right set of circumstances, leaders, enemies, and resource shortages, can dehumanize an enemy. In Rwanda, is wasn't psychos like Annie going around chopping up Tutsi villagers, it was every day, "normal" Hutu citizens. In Nazi Germany, it was average citizens running concentration camps.

King's fears (presented vicariously through Sheldon) were justified fears. Once the conflict (between Sheldon and his readers) had escalated enough for the enemy
(i.e. Annie and readers) to dehumanize Shelden , anything was possible. Was it scary because she was clearly a psychopath? Sure. Did she have to be a psychopath? Not really. Makes me wonder which would have been even more terrifying.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I hate Freud

This is simply a random collection of my attempts to synthesize the material from Freud's article with the story "Seeing Double" I read from The New Uncanny.

1. Freud is insane

2. My genitals have never multiplied, in a dream or elsewhere

3. The ‘double’ could really belong to either class of the uncanny, either surmounted beliefs or infantile complexes (he says somewhere they’re only a fuzzy line between the two). However, I think it mostly belongs to the infantile complex class:

a. “The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect.” (pg. 389)

b. The double was friendly, known, tranquil (i.e. heimlich) in childhood

c. It disappeared (repressed) as the stages of the ego were lived

d. It then reappeared (repeated after repression) in a later stage and is no longer friendly, no longer heimlich, and therefore unheimlich (has been brought to light when it should have remained concealed – def. page 376)

i. Criticizes the narcissism of the ego

ii. Is dissociated from the ego

iii. Is discernible to the physician’s eye (midwife in this case)

iv. Not sure how the “impulse toward self-protection” applies here, or the “unfulfilled but possible futures”

4. This ‘double’ is different from other stories involving the double

a. In Jekyll/Hyde – it was clearly, purposeful move toward protecting the self while allowing the double to fulfill the ego’s phantasies

b. In the Picture of Dorian Gray – the double was the mirror, the conscious, the criticism of the narcissistic ego

c. In the Brood – the double again was self-protection, while the ‘double’ gave life to unfulfilled wishes; eps pertinent in the Brood, as the ego lacks any ability for empathy, as did the brood itself.

5. The double “has become a vision of terror” because it “dates backs to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect.” (pg. 389)

a. Implies that there cannot be a friendly double, as the double always harks back to the ego, which is narcissistic, and therefore cannot be friendly.

b. There are only three options available for the double to fulfill:

i. Childhood development stage in which is “wears a friendly aspect” – i.e. the childhood friend

ii. The criticism of the ego (taunting)

iii. Fulfillment of phanatasy (original narcissism)

c. The appearance of the double in childhood is the concept of immortality

d. Appearance in adulthood is “the ghastly harbinger of death” (pg. 387)

i. Death of the double always leads to death of self

ii. Death of self always leads to death of the double

iii. Therefore the double is not a sign of immortality at all.

6. If the first double is the immortal soul, and an insurance against death, than the outward projection of that double (the soul), is the harbringer of death

a. Only two options for the projected soul/double:

i. Unrestrained self-love (narcissism, wish fulfillment and a lack of empathy)

ii. Self-hatred (criticism of the ego, the conscious, censorship, being watched)

b. In either case, both lead to death

i. Either death from guilt (Jekyll), or murder by those trying to protect others (the Brood)

ii. Or an attempt to destroy the conscious, to get rid of the nagging voice/image (Dorian and Uncanny book)

7. So the soul must remain integrated with the self, rather than outwardly projected, in order to live?