How can writers work their adult fears into stories to help craft authentic horror narratives? (Continued from Part 1.)
It’s a disappointingly popular opinion that fundamentalism is the sole property of certain religions, so let’s knock that idea on the head right now. Fundamentalism is not equivalent to religion. Rather, any ideology can become fundamentalist ideology. That is, if you travel far enough along the axis of any system of belief, it will become a twisted mockery of what it set out to achieve.
Hang on a moment, though. Doesn’t the very tenets of a free society permit people to hold strong beliefs in whichever direction they choose? And, if so, where does the boundary lie between ideology and fundamentalism? When does catechism become plain barking dogma?
Of course, postmodernism abhors boundaries, and ultimately the answer to this will lie with the individual who considers it. However, I’d suggest a decent place to start would be where a belief becomes so strong that it must be forced onto others through threats and other forms of coercion up to and including acts of harm. Or, to put it simply: conformity and obedience via violence.
This does not have to be purposeful violence. For example, economic fundamentalism or fundamentalist capitalism has led to the injury and death of countless people through wilful negligence. Thousands of residents surrounding the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, India were killed by the toxic gas which vented in 1984 when water was introduced to a tank containing methyl isocyanate, forming a runaway exothermic reaction.
The disaster has been linked to perfect storm of poor maintenance, lax or non-existent emergency systems and a cavalier disregard for safety standards which occurred as UCIL profits fell. In a country where many of the victims’ families eventually received less than $2,000 compensation for the deaths of their loved ones (coincidentally, the same amount that the UCIL chairman was fined for his role in the disaster), the Scrooge-like measures of economic fundamentalism were deemed an acceptable risk.
Want an interesting antagonist? Take a well intentioned idea and then deform it so that it extends to cover all scenarios. Think that the wrong knowledge can be dangerous? Burn all books, then (Fahrenheit 451). Humans have a detrimental effect on the environment? Devise a viral solution to the overcrowding (Dr Peters, 12 Monkeys). Although these are not horror narratives, the desire of the antagonist within is certainly horrific.
Example: the Pod People, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
In the post-war paradise of 50s America, ideologies of freedom meet McCarthyist panic in the idyllic Californian town of Santa Mira, when the wholesome townsfolk are quickly replaced by emotionless but near-perfect alien facsimiles.
In the space of a couple of days, the town becomes a paranoid prison for the remaining humans, with the pod people outnumbering them and determined to convert those danged different thinkers by force. Ignore the 2007 remake starring Nicole Kidman and James Bond, which has an ending of such saccharine banality that it makes Spielberg look like George Romero.
5. Involuntary manipulation of the mind
I’m strange and I’m flawed, but I’m me. Losing ‘me’ may seem an irrational fear, because my sense of who I am is constantly changing. However, as it happens incrementally, (can all determinists please look away for a moment) I have the impression that I’m in charge of the change.
So, what if someone else was suddenly in charge of that change? What if the change was sudden and profound? What if I came out the other side as a stranger to myself?
I’m not suggesting that you all should adjust your aluminum Akubras to offer best protection against CIA contrails and the extreme low frequency transmissions of the New World Order. Let’s just deal with the facts, ma’am.
We already aware of the vast power that language holds over the human mind. With language we can, as Steven Pinker notes, “shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision.” Words beget faith, and faith can drive a person to extraordinary lengths. It makes gods out of some, and demons of others.
What about direct biological intervention with the mind? Lobotomies, or the destruction of certain areas and pathways of the brain for a direct effect on personality and actions, are still performed today, albeit under much more stringent circumstances than during the dark ages of brain surgery, when they were even forced on children who displayed behaviour that deviated too far from the norm.
The spectre of lobotomies as a form of social control have arisen again with news of recent Chinese experiments to cure addiction by killing the part of the brain which rewards alcohol and opiate use with the sensation of pleasure, although the cutting devices of the past have been replaced with electrodes which are inserted into the brain. Memory loss and significant shifts in personality have been widely reported in test subjects.
Marginalised groups have often faced involuntary solutions to the perceived problems they present the greater good. For example, the idea that treatment could be withheld from patients purely to study the terrible effects as they succumbed to curable diseases seems a barbaric anachronism from the distant past, but this was occurring in the United States as little as two generations ago.
Over the course of four decades, a study group of African Americans from the area surrounding Tuskegee, Alabama received only placebo treatments for their syphilis, and were allowed to infect their wives and unborn children. Scores subsequently died. Dr John Heller, who led the study during the concluding years, had this to say of the victims: “The men’s status did not warrant ethical debate. They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people.”
This desire to control human behaviour, often shrouded by a facade of well-meaning mumblings about a promised utopia, has echoed up through Ivan Pavlov, Burrhus Skinner and William Sargant, often using experimental techniques with the same callous disregard for consequence as displayed at Tuskegee. (It is a little known fact that Pavlov sometimes substituted street urchins for dogs in his experiments.)
We can already roughly control our actions via chemicals and direct electric stimulus, but as our understanding of how the brain works improves and the use of neuroprosthetics become more widespread, will we look to more permanent solutions to the age-old question of social deviance? After all, we’ve recently learned how to control the movement of a live rat’s tail via ultrasound. Oh, did I mention that the ultrasound commands were triggered by thought commands, rather than the touch of a keyboard? But we’re much more advanced than rats. Surely that could never happen to us.
Example: Jack Torrance, The Shining (1980)
“Meet Jack Torrance! He’s a writer, looking for inspiration. Meet Danny! He’s a kid, looking for a dad,” goes the intro for Shining, a parody trailer that recuts The Shining as a redemptive romantic comedy. The actual book and movie feature a gargantuan haunted hotel that gradually nibbles at caretaker Jack Torrance’s mind until he’s convinced that the best way to stop his wife and son from acting out is to bury an axe deep into their noggins. Of course, he takes that advice from the ghost of the last caretaker, Delbert Grady, who ‘corrected’ his wife and daughters in a similar manner. It all makes perfect sense when you’re being slowly driven insane by a malevolent building.
6. Being trapped close to an impossible freedom
During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941, the USS West Virginia was struck by a brace of torpedoes and a pair of armour-piercing bombs, which caused it to sink and settle, fully upright, on the floor of the harbour just twelve metres below. Much of the upper structure of the West Virginia was still above the water. However, three young sailors found themselves trapped in an airtight compartment on the lowest deck of the ship.
In the days after the attack, guards posted around the West Virginia late at night were horrified to hear the faint banging made by the men echoing from the bowels of the wreck. It was a sound they had to ignore, because there was no possible way that the men could be reached through thick armour and compartments now filled with a mixture of water, diesel and explosive gas which preventing any possible method of cutting into the ship to free them. The modern scuba equipment that may have saved them had not yet been invented. The three sailors were left to their fate.
When the West Virginia was finally repaired enough to be raised, nearly six months later, the first workers to enter the compartment were horrified to discover a calendar that indicated the men had survived for sixteen days on emergency rations before their air finally ran out. They were, at most, only twenty metres under the water, but trapped as they were by countless tonnes of steel, they might as well have been on the far side of the moon.
The idea of being trapped somewhere as something vital to your survival runs out (air, usually, but if you have a good think about Maslow’s pyramid, it may the kindest cut) is bad enough; consider cave divers lost or tangled in their lines and loony from nitrogen narcosis, or the urban legend of forgotten Russian cosmonauts forever circling the Earth in their frozen tombs.
However, when salvation is insurmountably close – that’s when the real horror is unleashed. Consider endurance hiker Aron Ralston, miles from nowhere and his hand trapped by a fallen rock, who took five days to realise that no help was coming and that he would most likely die unless he worked out a way to sever his forearm, including breaking both bones, with a cheap, blunt multitool.
Example: The Cell (2000)
Gorgeous and empty, like a beautiful partner who you ultimately know won’t be much good for you, The Cell showcases stunning scenery that Jennifer Lopez kind of floats through, as if she was an alien being consisting almost entirely of gas. (It was also that weird stage of her career in the late 90s when producers were trying to mould her into an action hero, aka Jenny with a Glock; shortly before they gave up and let her star in approximately two hundred rom-coms.)
Anyway, amid all the hoopla is the titular device which the killer uses to off his victims: a giant aquarium connected to a timed inlet that gradually floods it with water. It’s a simple, deadly, horrific equation: on one side of the impregnable glass is water, on the other, the air that you so desperately need.
Proceed to ‘Everything I know about indie publishing’, or return to Re: writing.
What are your fears as an adult, and have you seen these reflected in a horror narrative? I’d like to hear your responses below.