How To Make Friends With A Ghost is a 2017 picture book written and illustrated by Rebecca Green. This cosy supernatural story is written as a non-fictional how-to guide and because this book deals with supernatural subject matter, covertly teaches how to be a good friend.Continue reading “How To Make Friends With A Ghost by Rebecca Green”
|40 days||Some vampires only live for 40 days. Others are immortal.|
|Aristocracy||Vampires tend to be of the aristocracy, though every now and then you’ll find one from an uncouth/peasant background e.g. the vampire in “The Vampire” by Basil Tozer (1902).|
|Bats||Bats are the only mammals that can fly, but vampire bats are the only mammals that feed entirely on blood. sleep during the day in total darkness, suspended upside down from the roofs of caves. They typically gather in colonies of about 100 animals, but sometimes live in groups of 1,000 or more. The supernatural horror character clearly takes details from this animal. In some cases, vampire bats feature in the stories as bats e.g. “The Vampire Nemesis” by someone called Dolly (1905) is about a suicide victim reincarnated as a vampire bat. (It’s not a good story.) Vampire bats are indirectly terrifying to human communities because they suck the blood out of precious horses and livestock.|
|Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre||A French poet who wrote a notorious book of poems called Flowers of Evil. These poems inspired many literary works for years after. They were flamboyant and depraved. He was ordered to remove six of the most offensive poems from his book. Two of these were about vampires: “The Vampire” and “Metamorphoses of the Vampire”.|
|Bloodlust||An obsessive desire for blood (probably human). Blood drinking is not just a vampire thing. In classic chivalric romance, when the young man in the woods is captured by a fairy queen and taken away to a dangerous fairy land, the fairies may drink blood. Blood drinking is connected historically to ancestors as well as to fairies — it has been believed in the past that if ancestors are not fed carefully they will take revenge by drinking the blood of living members of the family.|
|Body parts||Severed body parts are a horror trope, used equally in vampire horror. “The Blood Fetish” by Morley Roberts (1909) features a severed hand which takes on a life of its own, absorbing blood. “A Dead Finger” by S. Baring Gould is about a man haunted by an animated finger. He is attacked vampirically after the rest of the finger’s body materialises.|
|Body snatching||Body snatching is the secret removal of corpses from burial sites, though bodies usually weren’t dug up out of graves. In Britain, bodies used to be kept in mort houses until the ground warmed up and could be more easily dug up. (They had no back hoes back then.) A common purpose of body snatching, especially in the 19th century, was to sell the corpses to medical schools. This crime fed vampire mythology of the day and was clearly on everyone’s mind. People worried about their bodies being dug up could order an iron structure in the shape of a coffin. This was called a mortsafe. The family might also hire guards, though guards could be bribed.|
|Bram Stoker||Stoker wrote Dracula as well as several other crappier stories. He was stage manager for famous Shakespearean actor Henry Irving in the 1870s.|
|Byronic vampire||He is tall and gaunt, bordering on emaciated. He has a pale, spectral face. His demoniac eyes show he understands sin and passion. Those eyes seem to penetrate into the heart of his victim. He can read her thoughts. He has a wide mouth with thin, cruel lips. The lips are a brilliant red because he’s been sucking blood. They curl back in anger to reveal long, sharp teeth. He wears funereal black. His long black coat flaps about him like bat wings. In other words, he is irresistible. He has a magnetic personality and is sexually fascinating. He approaches his victims as a lover rather than as a predator. He lulls her into a false sense of security.|
|Camp||Some vampires are camp, which basically means a preference for reversal and a preference for artifice over nature.|
|Cannibalism||Vampires (and also zombies) are supernatural creatures with cannibalistic tendencies, though as Anne Rice’s vampire points out, at least vampires only take your blood (and, okay, maybe your ‘vitality’). They don’t butcher you dead for your meat and leather.|
|Carmilla||Considered the greatest vampire story prior to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This novella was written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, published 1871. Carmilla revolves around a beautiful female vampire’s attempts to seduce a frail young girl. It’s a lesbian love story. The vampire part only comes in at the end. Psychologically, the story was ahead of its time. (Historically there are very few gay vampire stories featuring two male characters.)|
|Chupacabra||Spanish for ‘goat sucker’, a mythological creature which kills livestock. The legend went viral in the 1990s after hundreds of dead farm animals were found in Puerto Rico, drained of their blood. Chupacabra tales soon spread around the world. People think they’ve seen the chupacabra but they’re probably seeing mangy dogs or coyotes.|
|Cloak||Modern vampires often wear normal clothes but last century vampires were associated with a cloak. That cloak with the high collar was a workaround by playwright Hamilton Dean whose stage adaptation of Dracula meant he had to create some way of making it looked like the count vanished into thin air in front of a live audience.|
|Cryptobotany||Long before Day of the Triffids, carnivorous plants existed in |
Gothic horror, including in vampire stories. This subgenre was pioneered by Phil Robinson who wrote “The Man Eating Tree” (1881). In “The Story of the Grey House” guests stay at a secluded country mansion but are strangled and drained of blood by a demoniacal creeper growing among the shrubbery. Another is “The Purple Terror” (1899) by Fred M. White.
|Curse||Some vampires became this way because of a supernatural curse. Others became vampires via a disease route, perhaps inherited. Sometimes they become a vampire because they’ve been bitten by another vampire (similar to an infectious disease).|
|Dawn||Some vampires must return to their graves at dawn. This is why the Twilight series makes use of times of day.|
|Daylight||Noserferatu was the first vampire to be killed by daylight.|
|Dead wizards||Dead wizards are vampires.|
|Decadent Movement||This movement was an influential force in European literature in the late 1850s. Its heyday was the 1880s. Vampire stories escaped straight Gothicism but became more sadist. Horror stories of this movement are obsessed with death and corruption and exploring abnormalities of sexuality. If Victorian society considered something taboo, you could probably read all about it in Decadent horror. The Decadents were morally influenced by Sade. They were thematically influenced by Poe.|
|Disease||In some vampire stories they spread disease. Vampire mythology is itself sometimes an allegory for the spread of disease. Diseases spread by blood are especially prone to this treatment.|
|Dracula||A classic novel by Bram Stoker, epitomal vampire story and a best seller since it was first published in 1897. Associates an undead lord with a harem of female vampires. Count Dracula is a homicidal lunatic and human bloodsucker. This is the story that systematised the rules for vampire stories. This book is out of copyright and can be read freely online.|
|Embrace||Sometimes this verb is used to mean the process of transformation into a vampire.|
|Erotic symbolism||In the repressive Victorian era censorship and strict moral codes prevented authors from writing erotic vampires (as the Romantics had done previously) so writers had to rely on a complex set of symbols to convey the same ideas.|
|Fangs||Blood-sucking vampires need to somehow puncture the skin so often have fangs. Fangs are the sexiest kind of teeth. Sometimes those are retractable or extend when feeding. Less attractive vampires might have shark or rodent teeth, or teeth like the inside of a leech’s mouth. The vampires in Twilight don’t have fangs but their teeth are sharp and coated in venom.|
|Fatal Man||The Fatal Man is a male anti-hero archetype created by the founders of the Romantic school of literature.|
|Fatal Woman||The Fatal Woman is a female antihero archetype created by the founders of the Romantic school of literature. She is more of a stock character than her male counterpart, because she’s the female equivalent of the Byronic vampire. She is an insatiable nymphomaniac even after she’s dead. She can be described in absolutes: absolutely beautiful, absolutely perverse, absolutely seductive. She is the quintessence of glamour. Like the male Byronic vampire her mouth is slightly too large. She loves the smell of rot. She inhales it like it’s an expensive perfume. She’ll have long red hair, either groomed in an irredescent coiffure or worn loose, in curls like snakes. When she drops her mask she is revealed to have the hungry visage of a praying mantis. Of all the Fatal Woman characters, the female vampire is the most deadly. After Baudelaire wrote his infamous vampire poems, the Fatal Woman dominated the scene. In one of the poems, the narrator imagines himself surrendering masochistically to the kisses of a fierce female vampire. The Fatal Woman dominated vampire stories until Bram Stoker came along.|
|Female vampires||At first, female vampires were rare. But as vampires became sexualised female vampires became popular. (All female monsters are at some point sexualised because sexualising a female monster is one way to subdue her. It happened to sirens, witches and so on.)|
|Femme fatale||The female Byronic vampire is your classic femme fatale, but femmes fatales go back way further than that. Cruel, sensuous women who like to destroy their lovers can be found in the literature of Antiquity and the Renaissance. But it was the Decadents (and later the Symbolists) who made her into an established archetype. By 1900, the ‘vamp’ had become a cliche.|
|Fledgling||a newly spawned vampire (a word from Anne Rice novels)|
|Free will||Unlike zombies, modern vampires have free will. They get to choose whether they are good or evil, depending on their individual choices. Some vampires are able to achieve a mutually symbiotic relationship with regular humans.|
|Ghoul||in vampire subculture, a ghoul is a servant under a vampire’s supernatural influence or control|
|Glamour||The female Byronic vampire is the quintessence of glamour.|
|Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction||By the start of the 1910s the golden age of supernatural fiction was drawing to a close. This subgenre of fantasy had been going strong since 1887. During this period: the first volumes of M. R. James’s ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood masterpieces like “The Wendigo”, Stoker’s Dracula, Arthur Machen’s “White People” and Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. This period has been hugely influential on later cosmic horror e.g. Lovecraft said he was influenced by James, Machen and Blackwood.|
|Gothic||Against what we might think, the vampire was almost entirely absent from fiction written in the high Gothic style. An exception is “Wake Not the Dead” by Johann Ludwig Tieck (c. 1800).|
|Grave robbing||The crime of stealing valuables which have been buried with the dead. This fed vampire mythology. Grave robbery is far more common than we might expect. Archeologists have been regularly disappointed to find historically significant graves which have been previously done over by robbers.|
|Knots||Vampires are supposed to be able to unravel any knot they come across.|
|Horla, The||“The Horla” is a short story by Guy de Maupassant about an invisible vampire (1887).|
|Incarnate||Embodied in human form, especially when it refers to a deity or spirit.|
|Insects||Vampires aren’t always human. “The Feather Pillow” by Horacio Quiroga (1907) is about a young woman whose blood is gradually sucked out of her body by a monstrous insect hiding in her pillow. “The Electric Vampire” by H. Power (1910) is about a mad scientist who creates a giant electrically charged insect who feeds vampirically on human blood.|
|Jiangshi||A Chinese vampire, also known as a Chinese hopping vampire or hopping zombie. It is a stiff corpse dressed in traditional clothing. It moves by hopping about with its arms outstretched. Unlike Dracula inspired vampires they can see their own reflections but are terrified of them.|
|La Morte Amoureuse||The most famous vampire tale of its era (published 1836) written by Theophile Gautier.|
|Leech||More animals than you think might suck on your blood, though the leech is one of the best known. And like vampires leeches have a ‘dual nature’ in relation to humans — enough leeches could kills us, but they’ve also been used medically. Today they are still used in many parts of the world to help heal wounds and restore circulation in blocked blood veins. Fleas, female mosquitoes, ticks and lice also consume blood from living beings — less commonly known is a bird known as the vampire finch. There’s also a vampire squid. Mosquitoes kill the most people worldwide but the candirú is perhaps the scariest. It swims up your urethra. Then there’s the lamprey. Lampreys latch onto a host with hook-like teeth and gulp down its blood as it swims. Fish don’t have arms and have no way of getting a lamprey off.|
|Life force||In some stories, vampires drain life-force. Commonly this is by drinking blood, but they might take some other bodily fluid or by frightening victims to death.|
|Lord Ruthven||The prototypal vampire, based on a real-life nobleman Lord Byron, created by Dr. John William Polidori, 1819, in a story called The Vampyre. Polidori was Lord Byron’s secretary and traveling companion. Lord Byron was flamboyant. The fictional creation Lord Ruthven was considered shocking in its day because writers didn’t normally write noblemen as monsters.|
|Mental vampirism||This is a type of vampirism where the villain gets into a victim’s head and steals their ideas e.g. The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck (1907). This novel is probably a satirical dig at Oscar Wilde.|
|Naturalist||In the 1700 and 1800s vampire stories got the high Gothic treatment. But in the early 1900s, on the European Continent, Gothic stories were looking outdated. Vampire stories were getting a more naturalistic treatment. A good example of this shift is “A Vampire” by Luigi Capuana (Italy, 1907). This story doesn’t feel at all like a tale of terror — it is more like a case study.|
|Nosferatu||A 1922 German silent film, which first brought Count Dracula to the big screen. (It was followed in 1931 by another Dracula film, this time starring Béla Lugosi.|
|Pallor||Vampires are often portrayed as pale in an unhealthy kind of way. But in European folktales vampires had dark or ruddy skin. Parodies of vampires can be any colour (lavender if you’re on Sesame Street, green if you’re Count Duckula). Ordinary to pale skin is more common. Stephenie Meyer came up with the invention of skin that sparkles under sunlight.|
|Plot||A traditional Gothic thriller vampire plot goes like this: Guests stay overnight at an abbey, formerly the bedchamber of notorious X (e.g. a knight). They wake in the morning exhausted with red marks on their skin. The hero discovers a secret entrance to an underground burial vault containing the coffin of the undead X. “The Stone Chamber” (1899) is a good example of this.|
|Poe||Edgar Allen Poe explored the darker side of the human psyche with his subtle vampire tales. Meanwhile, other vampire writers were relying heavily on Gothic effects which were becoming outdated (thanks to Poe).|
|Pregnancy||As if pregnant people don’t have enough rules to worry about, if a vampire looks at you in your sixth month, the baby inside will turn into one as well.|
|Psychic vampire||Psychic characters are common in vampire stories — either the vampires themselves or the detectives might have psychic abilities.|
|Psycho sexual vampire||Psycho sexual stories are about the psychological aspects of sex. A Nazi sympathiser was one of the first writers to create the vampire as a symbol of the psycho sexual impulse (Hanns Heinz Ewers). Partly for this reason, his work isn’t very popular today. Check out Alraune (1911) if you’d like to go there. For a less confronting insight into this archetype, check out the character of Raoul Duquette from “Je ne parle pas francais” by Katherine Mansfield.|
|Reflection||In many older stories, e.g. Dracula, vampires have no reflection (nor cast any shadow). This trait is still sometimes used by modern storytellers e.g. Being Human, The Lost Boys, Van Helsing, but perhaps more often in vampire parodies e.g. Sesame Street, Count Duckula. Traditionally, vampires are transparent. Light passes through them. (They’re related to the concept of a ghost.) Vampires can magically make themselves visible to humans, but this ability doesn’t extend to reflections. In modern stories, the ancient trait can be modified for modern technology — the vampire does not appear on film.|
|Romantics||The Romantics were interested in the connection between love and death, and the way pain is sometimes linked with pleasure. They portrayed the vampire as an irresistible seducer. The vampire personified darkness and forbidden pleasures. He was a man and chose innocent young women as victims. He takes delight in corrupting them. He robbed them of their blood and their virtue.|
|Seed scattering||If your vampire has to return to their grave before dawn, you can trap them above ground by scattering seeds. The vampire will feel compelled to count them and forget that the sun is coming up. This trait dropped out of fashion when vampires became sexy. This is not a very sexy thing to do.|
|Sekhmet||Blood sucking creatures exist in ancient myth. Sekhmet from Egyptian myth might one of earliest known vampires. She is a god with the face of a cat/lion who drank a lot of blood. In most depictions she is colored red. She was also a sun deity and had a dual nature — both good and bad. Apart from drinking blood she was also the goddess of healing. This is in line with much more modern vampiric creation in which a man doesn’t know if a femme fatale is going to seduce him or kill him.|
|Seventh son||Seventh sons are vampires.|
|Shapeshifter||The vampire is the ultimate shapeshifter. Versions of vampires are found in folklore from all over the world, making the vampire ‘the monster with 1000 faces’.|
|Silver||Silver was traditionally seen as a ‘pure’ metal. Purity is abhorrent to supernatural creatures. Originally mirrors were made by laying a sheet of glass over silver. This perhaps accounts for why vampires are unable to magically make themselves visible in mirrors, even though they do have the magical ability to appear to humans ‘in person’, despite the fact that light passes right through them.|
|Sire||In common vampire usage, the sire is the the vampire who transforms another person into one of the undead.|
|Soul||Vampires are members of the undead so they have no souls. Back in the day, it was thought that mirrors reflected souls. Creatures without souls can’t be reflected in a mirror, which accounts for why vampires can’t see themselves in a mirror.|
|Submission||Decadent vampire novels are full of effeminate, submissive male heroes who enjoy being the plaything of a cruel, dominant woman.|
|Tolerance||Children’s authors tend to use vampires in stories to promote tolerance towards people from other cultures, or anyone different from the norm.|
|Topographical vampire||When the setting behaves like a human-shaped vampire, sucking the life out of the human characters in some way e.g. the “Forbidden Corner” in “The Transfer” (1912) or the nature spirit of a snow-clad mountain/river/forest e.g. “A Descent Into Egypt” (1914), both by Algernon Blackwood.|
|Transubstantiation||Transubstantiation is a Christian concept. Eucharistic elements become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine. Vampire lore uses this symbolism.|
|Transgression||Vampire stories are transgressive. They are about pushing boundaries.|
|Transylvania||Vampires became associated with Transylvania because of Count Dracula. Vlad the Impaler (Stoker’s inspiration) was born in Sighisoara, a Transylvanian town. Today the region makes use of this association in its tourism. Visitors can visit Bran Castle, which is kind of ‘Dracular-y’ but doesn’t have any direct connection to the book.|
|Twilight||Twilight is a young adult series of novels by Stephenie Meyer, later adapted for film. This series was the beginning of a new resurgence in vampire enthusiasts in the early 2000s. Commentators draw parallels between Twilight and Pride and Prejudice.|
|Vampire||The word ‘vampire’ has French, Hungarian and Turkish origins, perhaps starting with Turkish ‘uber’, meaning ‘witch’. These days we associate the look and feel of a vampire with Count Dracula. Bram Stoker cemented the vampire’s details with his super popular book. But in earlier times, ‘vampire’ meant pretty much any form of non-ethereal (corporeal) undead. For instance, Balkan werewolves were considered a subcategory of vampire.|
|Vampire anime||Japanese vampire animation as developed a large fan base among English speaking audiences. e.g. Vampire Hunter D (1985).|
|Vampire poetry||The first vampire literature was poetry e.g. A Vampyre of the Fens (beginning of the 1000s) then Le Morte D’Arthur in the 1400s. (A lot of literature got lost in between)|
|Vampire romance||A subgenre of romance which is about intimacy rather than a disconnection between human and nonhuman. Obsession by Lori Herter in 1991 was the first vampire novel to be marketed as a romance rather than shelved with horror or fantasy.|
|Vitality||If you go to the doctor today she’s unlikely to ask you about your vitality, though medicine does talk about ‘vital statistics’ and so on. ‘Vitality’ once meant ‘life spirit’, ‘energy’, ‘general health levels’. Vitality is the mysterious life force that separated the living from the dead. Vitality could be sucked out of you by a supernatural creature. A malevolent elemental might become palpable after absorbing an invalid’s ‘vitality’ e.g. “The Story of the Moor Road“. The Light of the Eye (1897) by H. Chaytor is about a man whose eyes have the power to suck out other people’s vitality, so the magic isn’t necessarily blood related..|
|Vlad the Impaler||Cinema vampires tend towards good-looking these days but ‘good-looking’ wasn’t always the aim. Here is Stoker’s original description of Count Dracula, which is based on the story of Vlad the Impaler: ‘His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.’|
|Vrykolakas||This is the undead vampire equivalent from Greek mythology. Drinking blood isn’t one of its main features. They don’t decay after death. If you ate the meat of a werewolf you might become a vampire. You wouldn’t have wanted to have red hair and grey eyes at this point in history either, because people would’ve assumed you were a vrykolakas. (In the West, red hair was more associated with witches.)|
|Weird Tales: The unique magazine||Weird Tales was an American pulp magazine with higher than usual production values. The publication lasted 30 years from 1923. It was hugely influential and pioneered the development of the weird-fantasy story as a specialised form of popular fiction. It was the first all-fantasy magazine in the world. Vampires were a popular theme. The author most closely associated with Weird Tales was H. P. Lovecraft.|
Header painting: Jules Adler – Transfusion of Goat Blood 1892
|1200s||‘Eyrbyggja Saga’ (‘Story of the People of Eyrr’) was written. This story is full of the walking dead, e.g. Thorodd and his men. In this story, the living aren’t especially worried about the walking dead. Thorodd and his men have been drowned, and the living believed that drowned people had been well received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they attended their own funeral feast. It was only later that the walking dead became unwelcome. They loiter around the first every night and the living become unnerved. So the hero of the story sues them. They leave. These walking-dead stories are to do with the beliefs of pre-Northern Europeans — that the dead could still see, hear and feel.|
|1697||The word ‘zombi’ first appeared in Le Zombi du grand Perou by Corneille Blessebois. A woman is tricked into thinking she’s an invisible spirit called a zombi. Back then, zombis were spirits or ghosts, not the walking dead as we know them today.|
|1726||The word ‘zumbi’ appears with a meaning closer to how we use it today in A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring. The word ‘zumbi’ refers to the apparition of the dead person, but they walk around and torment the living, much like contemporary zombies.|
|1819||Robert Southey publishes History of Brazil, in which ‘zombi’ refers to the elected chief of the maroons in Pernambuco. Southey means the guy behaves like he doesn’t have any free will.|
|1838||The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.|
|1928||The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.|
|28 Days Later||Danny Boyle’s modern version of Romero’s films. But these zombies are neither bewitched nor reanimated dead. Instead, they’re infected with a virus known as ‘rage’. Docile humans transform into terrifying red-eyed shells of their former selves. The virus has a magical quality.|
|Astral zombies||Astral zombies are individuals who still walk among the living but have either sold their souls or had them stolen by a houngan. Astral zombies derive from Haitian folklore. But as you can probaly see, they also share similarities with Deal With The Devil stories. Young adult novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Die by William Sleator (2004) is an astral zombie story.|
|Automaton||Similar to zombies in that they have no free will, but unlike zombies they didn’t start from a living being.|
|Apocalypse||There are many references in the Bible about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. Zombies are thereby associated with apocalypse. Why We’re Obsessed With The Zombie Apocalypse from Live Science|
|Bokor||Many people who follow the voodoo religion today believe zombies are myths, but some believe zombies are people revived by a voodoo practitioner known as a bokor.|
|Cannibal||A cannibal eats other humans. Throughout human history, cannibalism has sometimes been acceptable practice, involving ceremonial consumption of flesh from diseased relatives or, more often, from captives of war. Zombies are commonly cannibals and have a craving for human flesh.|
|Brains||These days, zombies are commonly thought to eat brains. A lot of our modern conception of what zombies are like comes from George Romero’s film franchise, but Romero himself did not create zombies who ate brains (they ate living flesh in general). The idea that zombies eat brains may come from an episode of The Simpsons Dial Z For Zombies. This is a spoof of Return of the Living Dead. A generation of kids saw this episode before they were old enough to see a real zombie film.|
|Comics Code Authority||In the 1930s and 1940s plenty of zombie tales appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Strange Tales. In the 1950s, zombie tales alarmed child development experts. In America, their activism led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority. For the two decades after 1953, this authority prohibited ‘scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism’ and this put some horror comics out of business. However, some comic publishers refused to abide by the rules and zombie stories continued to find an audience.|
|Crypt||A crypt is a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church or other building. It typically contains coffins, sarcophagi (coffins) or religious relics.|
|Decay||Zombie bodies are often decaying. This emphasises the horror of death itself.|
|Dread||Dread is anticipatory anxiety. The fear of encroaching zombies is as bad as actually facing them head on, if not worse. Hence, they often walk slowly, allowing more time for audience (and character) dread.|
|Draugar||Malevolent corpses from the Norse sagas. These creatures take the offensive by attacking and eating anyone who invades their burial barrows. The wonderful gothic subject matter of these sagas became popular outside Scandinavia in the second half of the 1700s. Draug Asuidus and Thorolf Baegifot are examples.|
|Exhume||to dig out (something buried, especially a corpse) from the ground|
|Ezekiel||There aren’t exactly any zombies in the Bible, but there are many references to bodies being reanimated or resurrected. The book of Ezekiel describes a vision where Ezekiel is dropped in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones start to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they’re reanimated yet “there was no breath in them.”|
|Féile na Marbh||Irish Feast of the Dead. On this night, spirits of the departed rise up, seeking the warmth of the fireside and communion with their living kind. Irish families are supposed to light a candle and leave it in the window, or leave an empty chair by the fire to guide wandering wraiths back home, where the wraiths will receive their blessing for the coming year.|
|Flat character||Zombies in stories will always be flat characters because of their lack of free will. Their desires are basic (not tiered), they can’t make plans and they are indistinguishable from one another, or from any number of other horror monster creations which simply won’t quit. They don’t understand the wretchedness of their condition.|
|Frankenstein||Frankenstein’s monster is a bit like a zombie because he has no free will but he is not made from a reanimated human or animal and therefore does not qualify as a zombie.|
|Free will||To qualify as a zombie, a creature must have no free will. Mummies and vampires are also renanimated corpses but are not zombies because they have free will. Zombies must be completely subordinate to the will of someone else or to some monomaniacal drive. The drive might be for human flesh, violence, revenge or perhaps resistance of the tyranny of entropy itself. Zombies are therefore a parody of slavery. (The other critieria is that a zombie must be reanimated from a human or animal.)|
|Golem||in Jewish folklore, a golem is an image (typically made from clay or mud) brought to life by magic. Golem in the Bible and in Talmudic literature refers to an embryonic or incomplete substance. Golems are not zombies but instead corporeal beings created from other forms of matter. Zombies have to come from humans or animals to qualify as zombies.|
|Gothic||Modern zombie stories are commonly set in the 1700s especially if they’re comic e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was the century that invented the gothic novel. We think of Enlightenment and Regency England as a time of rigid, stable and elaborate social codes. Whether this is true or not, this era makes a good setting, ripe for disruption. Also, characters in powdered wigs contrast comically with decayed bodies wearing them. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) owes a lot to Gothic stories from the 1800s, and is very loosely based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bornte. The story is set in the Caribbean. Also typically, the dark-skinned natives use voodoo for good (improved health and well-being) but the whites appropriate native practices for their own evil ends.|
|Grendel||Grendel is a character in the poem Beowulf. HE and his mother exhibit some qualities of the modern zombie — they can’t speak, eat human flesh and just keep coming after the Danes for no reason. They are also strangely human. Metaphorically, they represent the Danes’ failings: pillaging vengeance and pride.|
|Grotesque||comically or repulsively ugly or distorted|
|Haitian Revolution||Important to understand: In the late 1700s, enslaved Haitians successfully threw off their oppressors. There was a massive bloody struggle. The number of British and French soldiers was far higher but slaves still managed a revolution. It was two decades after this revolution that the word ‘zombie’ first appeared in English. In 1819 a poet called Robert Southey used it as a metaphor for imperialism in the Americas, meaning that colonised people had been robbed of their free will.|
|Hamlet||Shakespeare may have made reference to zombies in Hamlet: |
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
|Houngan||Zombies have Haitian roots. A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. If you want to take revenge on someone, you can pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed – they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.|
|Italian zombie film||Zombie (1979) by Lucio Fulci is a typical example of the Italian zombie film – a category in its own right. Similar to serial killers in American slasher films, Italian zombie films are shot from the heterosexual male gaze, and the audience is expected to become complicit in feasting upon naked women, or preying on couples having sex. Laura Mulvey has said that the image of a naked young woman often juxtaposes against an image of a disgusting, decaying zombie. In the Italian zombie films this takes on a more literal layer – the zombie is shown to eat the naked woman’s body. These are women who receive abuse from both humans and zombies. The women exist to absorb violence.|
|Lunacy||the state of being a lunatic; insanity (not in technical use). The word comes from ‘moonstruck’. It used to be thought that the moon causes madness.|
|Macabre||This word describes something disturbing because of its connection with death.|
|Male gaze||In early 20th century zombie films, time and again villains learn that to possess the woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. (A guy called Dendle said that.) White Zombie is a classic example, and so is Plague.|
|Malevolent||having or showing a wish to do evil to others. This is the zombie’s only desire.|
|Maraud||to go about in search of things to steal or people to attack.|
|Marbh bheo||Irish night walkers|
|Memento Mori||The zombie is quite literally a memento mori, and serves to remind us that if we think we can cheat death, we are only fooling ourselves.|
Night of the Living Dead
|Misogyny||Zombie stories are typically about keeping women in traditional subordinate position. Does The Walking Dead Still Have A Woman Problem? (Season 3 update from Pajiba) See also: Walking Dead Writers — Don’t Ruin Carol, from Persephone Magazine. See also Thoughts On Andrea from My Friend Amy.|
|Mummy||Mummies share the shambling gait of the zombie but are generally covered in bandages. Generally mummies aren’t considered zombies because they not entirely without their own will, or completely controlled by one basic drive.|
|Night of the Living Dead||Night of the Living Dead by Romero (1968) is a watershed zombie film series. Romero took various aspects of earlier zombies and crystalised them into an iconic creature we recognise today — the slow, inarticulate, shambling, undead thing motivated only by a desire to eat human flesh. They have no master and are horribly persistent. George Romero’s zombies are created by a vague technology run amok. We are never told what brings the recently dead back to life, but it’s thought to be radiation leaking to earth from a satellite. This was a typically Cold War fear, reminiscent of a whole lot of 1950s films in which radiation causes men to shrink and women to grow massive. In this film there is an indistinct boundary between monster and victim, and the audience questions how monsters are essentially different from humans. (Maybe not so different after all.)|
|Ogre||Unlike giants (more generally), ogres have a massive appetite. Zombies and ogres are therefore related.|
|Outcast||On the island of Haiti, it’s not unheard of for family members to actually see their dead alive, walking in a state of zombification. But no one wants to reclaim them. They are seen as irredeemably unclean and are now outcasts forever. They’re not figures of terror, though. They’re not capable of harming anyone. Instead, they are a creature hovering between life and death – it has no will to kill, or any will at all – and is simply a scary symbol of human bondage.|
|Outbreak||In stories, zombies often come about due to some sort of outbreak. Robert Kirkman, creator of the immensely popular Walking Dead series, has said he will never reveal how the original zombie outbreak started or how the zombies infect through biting because that detail is “unimportant” to the story.|
|Powders||Bokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions including “zombie powders,” which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other marine species.|
|Racism||White film makers of the 20th century tended to appropriate from other cultures and centre white people and white people’s fears. The white male nature of zombie stories itself is a zombie that just won’t die.|
The Walking Dead Has Become A White Patriarchy, so I have been going elsewhere for my zombie stories.
|Reanimation||Zombies have two basic criteria: It must be the reanimated corpse or possessed living body of one person (or animal). (The other is it must have no free will.)|
|Ring of Salt||an enchanted circle of protection to keep the bad out — a kind of magic circle|
|Robert Southey||In the early 1800s poet Robert Southey used the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor for someone who has no will. This is how we tend to use zombie today.|
|Samhain||n Irish culture, Samhain is a major Druidic festival marking the boundary between the living and the spirit world. This is the last festival of the harvest year, so pagan Ireland decreed that fruit and nuts (especially apples) would be eaten on the night of Samhain.|
|Slaves||In a Haitian community Zombies make excellent slaves because their memory and intellect is disabled by the toxin but the lower brain functions still work, allowing the body to move. Obviously, keeping someone as a zombie slave requires complicity from an entire community. Generally, no one in the community likes the victim so they don’t bother checking they’re actually properly dead before burying them. (Means of checking might include cutting off their head or driving a dagger through the heart.) Some people might want to intervene, but they’re afraid the same thing will happen to them.|
|Soul||Zombies don’t have souls, and this distinguishes them from humans|
|Spirits||Zombies appeared in literature as far back as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic fiends.|
|Survival of the Fittest||This is a Darwinian term meaning harsh conditions weed out weaker members of a species. Survival of the Fittest a common theme among zombie narratives. Zombie narratives tend to have a resurgence after a big, scary world event such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.|
|Symbol||The zombie is a malleable symbol. Storytellers can use zombies as they see fit. Zombies have been used to represent the horrors of slavery, white xenophobia, Cold War angst, the fear of death, apprehensions about consumer culture. Zombie films are quite often about the specific anxieties of white men, and the perceived threat to the white male ability to control the sexuality of white women. Zombies Are All About The Heteronormative Power Struggle from Science 2.0 When zombies were about slavery, stories were concerned about how slavery transplanted to the USA something malignant, but for the masters more than the slaves. These stories were for white audiences terrified of voodoo. The House In The Magnolias (1932) and Song of the Slaves (1940) are two examples of that.|
|Tetrodotoxin||Used carefully at sub-lethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination may cause zombie-like symptoms such as difficulty walking, mental confusion and respiratory problems.|
High doses of tetrodotoxin can lead to paralysis and coma. This could cause someone to appear dead and be buried alive – then later revived.
|Undead||The Ancient Greeks may have been the first civilisation terrorised by a fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient graves which contained skeletons pinned down by rocks and other heavy objects, assumedly to prevent the dead bodies from reanimating.|
|Virus||Zombie outbreaks can be caused by a virus, which makes the story an allegory for our human fear of viruses. The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires from Discover Magazine|
|Voodoo||Voodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage.|
|Walking Corpse||In earlier English, corpse referred simply to ‘the body’. Only later did it refer to ‘the dead body’. Romeo’s zombies walk slowly, but Danny Boyle’s Zombies in 28 Days Later are really fast.|
|Weakness||In any good zombie story, the zombies represent the weakness of a society or community of people they come after. Zombie films are therefore allegories. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies tape into anxieties of the late 1960s — the dehumanising violence of the Vietnam War, uneasy reactions to the Civil Rights movement and a human tendency to become as monstrous as any monster who attacks us. With each subsequent film, the allegory gets updated. The next film is about brain-dead consumerism and after that the sexism turns into feminism.|
|White Zombie||The first zombie film. Frankenstein and Dracula also appeared on film at this time (1932). In early zombie films, villains learn that to possess a woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. White Zombie started that.|
|W. B. Seabrook||The word zombie was used intermittently throughout the 1800s but wasn’t a well-known word until 1929, when W. B. Seabrook published a travelogue called The Magic Island. Seabrook was an American journalist and adventurer who traveled to Haiti and lived there with his family. (Um, he was also a cannibal.) Seabrook collected stories about zombies and voodoo and he even thought he saw a dead man resurrected once. Readers in the West were intrigued by these stories, especially Protestant readers, perhaps, because free will is held very dear to the Protestant’s heart – thought to be humanity’s main virtue.|
|Zeitgeist||In 28 Days Later, the virus called ‘rage’ is the Zeitgeist of the modern era, where everything is so impersonalised and moves so rapidly that everyone is consumed by fury and can do nothing about it.|
|Zombie||An Enlightenment zombie meant someone who has no free will, and could refer to a high-level administator. Zombie can now mean that, but also a supernatural creature who has been renanimated from the dead and walks (or runs) around trying to eat the living, or infect them with a virus. More recently, zombie describes a computer that’s been taken over by a remote host. Zombies are generally stupid but recent zombies are able to learn quickly, sort of like artificial intelligence. This says something about our collective fear of computers taking over. For years zombi was spelt without an ‘e’ at the end.|
|Zombie lit||A whole literary subgenre featuring zombies|
I really like Walking Dead, in spite of its many problems. But the truth is, thinking about the show is often better than watching the show.Blue Milk
World War Z Concept Art Shows Off the Zombie Designs from Shock Til You Drop
“Powers” is the final story in the Runaway collection by Alice Munro, published 2004. I find this story the most challenging of the lot — as in, what in holy heck was that all about? I’m going to have to write about “Powers” in order to understand it.
Here goes my best shot. What can we learn about storytelling from this novella? About life?
If this is not an easy story to read, nor was it an easy story to write. This from her editor:
On her own, Alice did eight revisions of “Powers”. Then we worked on that ending because it was hard to finish off the story part of it and give Nancy her due.An Appreciation Of Alice Munro
The New York Times reviewer did not consider “Powers” a success:
“Powers” devolves into a melodramatic tale about a provincial Canadian woman, blessed or cursed with psychic abilities, and her exploitation by a charming but feckless man on the make.NYT
‘Melodramatic’ is an unusual word to ascribe to Alice Munro — a decidedly realist writer. Why would they have said that? I put it to you that this story is melodramatic if read at a more literal level. My own interpretation is highly metaphorical, as in, I don’t think Ollie is a real person. I think he’s a creation of Nancy’s imagination.
Hear me out.
STORYWORLD OF “POWERS”
TIME AND PLACE
Set in a small Ontario town after the First World War, the story spans about 50 years of Nancy’s life, starting as she’s about to get married, and skipping over the middle, child-rearing years.
There’s a hint of fabulism in this one, which may partly explain accusations of melodrama. Except I don’t for one moment believe Tessa genuinely has clairvoyant powers — I read this as a metaphor for people who sit on the fringes of life in general.
When Nancy takes Ollie to see her clairvoyant friend they go through a tunnel. This tunnel feels like a fantasy portal. Even when the other side of a tunnel is in ‘the real world’ (rather than some high fantasy landscape), a tunnel within a story often indicates an other-world of some kind. Hayao Miyazaki loves a good tunnel. He uses tunnels in Spirited Away (reality > fantasy), in Ponyo (reality > magic tinged reality), and in My Neighbour Totoro (reality > magic tinged reality). Since one of the ‘rules’ of portals is that the characters must pass quite slowly through them, tunnels as portals tend to feature characters walking through them, on foot. (A car would be too fast.)
The world on the other side of this particular tunnel is perhaps leading to a heterotopia; perhaps it’s simply a separated place where the rules work differently, or where inhabitants are different and ostracised.
Perhaps this tunnel is, for Nancy, a portal into her own imagination? This is at the heart of my thesis.
Could we go even further? Does Tessa exist? Both Tessa and Ollie could be part of a paracosm Nancy creates for herself to cope with an un-companionable, aloof and vocationally-oriented marriage partner. After much thought, I think Tessa does exist, though with fantasy add-ons. Tessa is possibly a disabled person who Nancy imagines has superpowers. I think it’s just Ollie she’s made up as an alter ego.
When “Powers” turns to the psychiatric institution, Munro takes us into a gothic setting. This is where Munro starts to play with scale — ‘”Gothic” biomedical models rely on a metonymic process of substitution of the person for increasingly smaller cellular and ultra cellular units’ (Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman). In the dream sequence we’ll have a character dreaming of a character (mise en abyme effect) examining a pile of dead flies on a windowsill. It is noted that Nancy (subsumed by Tessa via a dream) doesn’t have a microscope, yet her eyes seem to zoom in on these iridescent fly wings. (She’s just met Ollie — perhaps imaginatively — and Ollie has trouble reading a menu. Equally old herself, it’s unlikely Nancy’s eyes would be capable of examining the detail of fly wings in real life.)
A CULTURE BUILT ON THE CONCEPT OF FEMALE HYSTERIA
When considering the setting of a story, we can’t ignore the major cultural forces which shape the characters. One dominant aspect of early 20th century misogyny involved the idea that women are prone to hysteria.
Freud’s “discovery” of hysteria was both anticipated by, and grounded in, 19th-century realist fiction. …the dark continent that Freud called femininity was brought to life by these realist novelists. The hysterical character, she argues, conceives of every relationship as tragic, imaginatively doomed — hence the warning which forms the title of this book. Yet this character speaks for everyone. The insights of Anna Karenina, Gwendolen Harleth, or Cassandra give to them a dignity beyond pathology or their social position. They are not merely literary “femmes fatales”. It is part of being civilized, the author argues, to fear the people and things we love, particularly when they are intimate to us. Knowing this, each person is responsible for the form this apprehension takes — whether awe or panic, respect or protest, desire or denial. […] Balzac, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Tolstoy and Florence Nightingale […] are rich sources for understanding hysterical states of mind because they offer scope for interpretation that involves everyone as readers.The blurb of Never Marry A Girl With A Dead Father: Women’s Troubled Relationships in Realist Novels
It is known that Balzac expressed his admiration for Dante. So when Munro’s character Nancy wants to delve into Dante, what is she really wanting? Insight into her own human condition? Wilf encourages against that, instead arranging a ‘useful’ life for her — one of choosing wallpapers and childbearing and mothering. This is exactly how misogyny works.
Patriarchy is what’s upheld.
Sexism is why it’s upheld.
Misogyny is how it’s upheld.
While reading “Powers”, look for the ways in which fiction is portrayed as fraudulent, i.e., fiction has the power to obscure the truth.
Back to my enduring hypothesis of Ollie as imaginary character: A character you invent yourself won’t necessarily tell their inventor the truth. Not immediately, anyway, though even invented characters can help their inventors discover something about themselves.
[“Powers”] explores … the ramifications of the increasing dominance of biomedical approaches to mental illness and ageing on Canadians from the perspective of patients and their caregivers. […] “Powers” repeatedly emphasizes the ethical limits of fictive consolation — by that I mean the consolation provided by fantasy and, by extension, literature.Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
But an imaginary world can eventually reveal as well as obscure, because people use imaginary worlds in all kinds of different ways. In the end, Tessa’s conversation with Ollie (whether real or imagined) takes place on two different levels of her mind: There’s the story he tells her and the story she knows lies underneath. Nancy teeters on that interstial space between conscious fantasy and unconscious fantasy.
Of course, this story was written later than it is set. Is Munro writing of hysteria as if it’s a quirk of the past? No, she is not, and this is what makes her a feminist writer. That old ‘women are crazy’ chestnut is still influential today and can be seen in statistics as simple as how men are prescribed more pain killers, because when men say they’re in pain, men are more likely believed.
With Freud’s claims about the female psyche mostly discredited and the advances in treatment of mental illness over the years lauded, the average bystander might conclude that we’ve come a long way from labelling a normal reaction to sexual assault “hysteria.” But a long legacy of prescriptive and sexist science remains at the foundation of psychiatric medical treatment for women. From the first diagnosis of hysteria to the present-day disparities in mental health treatment, the tradition of medicating women’s emotions has held constant. Within this context, the line between empirical treatment and medicating the lived experiences of women grows dangerously thin.Sophie Putka, The New Enquiry
Could Tessa’s clairvoyance be an analogue for hysteria? Or rather, not for hysteria itself, but how hysteria has been viewed by the medical establishment? Early in the story, Tessa’s clairvoyance is taken somewhat seriously. It is later shown to be part of her mental illness. Or is it? In Nancy’s dream at the end, Tessa might actually know telepathically what’s in Ollie’s pocket. Despite clairvoyance clearly not being a thing (within the world of the story), despite science debunking that whole thing, there’s always a lingering what if? Science from the past continues to influence the present, and has a very real impact on women’s lives.
Some critics consider this aspect one of the most interesting of “Powers” — Munro’s exploration of dementia and hysteria, united in the power they have over us as a culture — women used to fear hysteria; now more likely fear dementia:
Whereas Tessa’s mysterious powers of consolation lie in recuperating what has been lost, Ollie’s power seemingly lies in dissociating from his own vulnerability, and reducing women — most obviously Tessa — to scientific specimens. Ollie’s strategy recalls late nineteenth and early twentieth century biomedical approaches to both hysteria and dementia, which entailed locating the disease processes in women’s minds and bodies and using them as scientific material.Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST PEOPLE WHO HAVE ‘FITS’
After World War I, when the return of thousands of disabled servicemen forced disability onto the political agenda, disabled people were hidden from history, shut away behind the walls of asylums with their voices silenced.
Disability discrimination endures into today, though its exact nature morphs over time. Today epilepsy is much better understood. But in the early 20th century and prior, people who had fits were cast out as those with lepers were cast out. The following images offer some context:
When a disease is not well understood, people worry that it may be contagious or that it may be a moral problem, or possibly even a supernatural one. This story deals with the supernatural misunderstanding of fits.
CHARACTERS OF “POWERS”
Every life in this story is marked and decided by accidents and the unforeseen. Hence the clairvoyance thread.
Munro juxtaposes two women, the brisk, self-absorbed Nancy, and Tessa, a strange girl with extraordinary, fragile powers [MIRROR CHARACTERS]. Yet it is Nancy, the skeptic and rationalist, who succeeds in peeling back the obscuring film over the past. She protests that she doesn’t want to live the past – she only wants to “open it up and get one good look.” That glimpse has such a weight of truth that though it may be dream or imagination, it is real and meaningful – like Munro’s own work.Quill and Quire
At the beginning of “Powers” she has just finished high school. Nancy’s diary entries portray her as capricious and full of life — her youth and lack of maturity shine through. I’m reminded of Kelly Kapoor from the American version of The Office, whose focus on weddings is all-consuming — she hasn’t thought about what it will be like to be married.
But Nancy has more empathy for others than Kelly, who is utterly self-absorbed. By Nancy’s own admission, she marries Wilf because he has already been turned down, and she doesn’t want to embarrass either of them by saying no.
Nancy has been brought up in a culture in which a woman’s needs are subsumed by that of a man — she makes it a goal to find out more of Wilf’s interests so that they’ll have something to talk about. (At no point does she expect him to be interested in her — and he is not.) She becomes pregnant soon into their marriage and we learn later she has had multiple children. These children are not mentioned — the early childhood years are skipped over.
Much later, with childcare done and dusted, she is now caring for her husband with dementia. Now Nancy is asked by the psychiatric institution if she would also care for Tessa. The emotional burden heaped upon women is a thread across the stories of Alice Munro. Take for example “Deep Holes”. There is a scene early on in which the reader is made fully aware of the effort that has gone into preparing a picnic to suit the individualised tastes of each family member. These efforts go unrewarded. Her ungrateful son cuts ties with her after he grows up, and as an older woman, the main character must find a way to live with this ingratitude.
Nancy visits Tessa in the psychiatric institution. Facing a painful moral dilemma, Nancy must decide if she has it in her to care for the both of them. Don’t forget, she’s been taking care of other people her whole adult life.
The moral dilemmas throughout “Powers” revolve around balancing Nancy’s own needs against caring ‘responsibilities’ the culture has instilled in her. A lot of woman readers in particular will identify with this.
Older Nancy has undergone a character arc in the parts left out of the story. She doesn’t have the spoons to care for anyone else. She leaves Tessa at the institution and returns to her own home.
To this end, I think Ollie is an imaginary invention to help Nancy assuage her own conscience. When you’ve been brought up to put the needs of others before your own, and then you suddenly can’t, or don’t, you need to find a way to justify your own actions to yourself. Imaginary Ollie helps her with that.
Of course, none of this would explain how Tessa ended up in America. I don’t think it matters which parts of the story occur within the ‘real world’ of the story and which occur in the ‘imagined world’ of the story. It’s all highly mutable. The whole story exists is a dream space, after all.
Wilf is the thirty-year-old town doctor, who asks much younger Nancy to marry him. He’s just asked someone else and been turned down. He is portrayed as a very distant, self-contained character.
Unlike in “Tricks”, the previous story of this collection, the reader has no sense that Nancy and Wilf will be a good match. There is no “I understand you” moment” (as Matt Bird calls it).
Alice Munro has said in an interview that marriage was different when she was young — young people of marriage age just sort of picked someone and went along with it. In contrast, dating today is a game of enormous choice, made all the more confusing by the illusion of online choice, and it would now appear foolish to ‘settle’ on someone without going through an extended period of dating many partners first. Nancy and Wilf both belong to this older generation who expect different things from marriage (not friendship, for instance) and who would like to get married so they can get on properly with their adult lives.
Wilf seems to want a uterus more than he wants a partner — he tells Nancy to ‘give Dante a rest’. He doesn’t want someone who is a deep thinker or an equal in conversation. He doesn’t respect that Nancy may really enjoy more difficult things. And he knows he can mould Nancy into whatever he wants her to be. The era makes this easy — an era in which wives did as their husbands instructed. They had no other real choice.
Towards the end of “Powers” we learn that Wilf lives with dementia later in life. Nancy has faithfully served as his wife and caregiver.
As noted above, Ollie may be Nancy’s invented, male alter ego.
Ollie is supposedly Wilf’s younger cousin, Nancy’s own age (by no coincidence).
Ollie starts out wanting to be a science journalist. Perhaps if Nancy were a man that’s what she’d like to do. Her interest in Dante suggests a youthful interest in deeper things than wallpaper and mothering.
Ollie is mercenary and capitalist. He could be the human embodiment of all that is wrong with modernisation (“getting and spending”). When he thinks Tessa has psychic powers he marries her in order to exploit her for money. He runs off to America with Tessa but sticks her in a dodgy institution which is not approved by the authorities.
Why does Ollie treat Tessa the way he does? Shouldn’t he know what it’s like to be so vulnerable? Well, that’s not how lateral violence works.
Pain that is not transformed is transferred.
— Fr. Richard Rohr
Readers learn that prior to visiting with Wilf and Nancy, Ollie spent three years in a TB sanatorium. As a patient he was subject to protracted, invasive treatments. Wilf, who is portrayed as an extremely dispassionate and detached physician, explains that doctors collapsed one of Ollie’s lungs so that they could treat the infection. While Wilf calmly recounts Ollies’ treatment, the latter puts his hands over his ears. As Ollie confesses, he prefers not to think about what was done to him. Instead, as he admits to Nancy, he “pretends to himself he is hollow like a celluloid doll”. Ollie’s experience as a TB patient is relevant for several reasons. First, it recalls Sontag’s discussion of the dread that attended TB — a dread that currently haunts Alzheimer’s disease. Second, Ollie’s traumatic experience may have motivated him to pass on this sense of dread. Ollie’s response is significant because it offers insight into the predicament of the elegist, who, confronted with the death of the other, recognizes his own vulnerability and mortality. In the masculine elegy, the poet responds by deifying the deceased and, at the same time, celebrating his own survival. […] Ollie’s treatment of Tessa echoes this patterns.Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
I find Ollie and his backstory unlikely, which is why I consider him a character inside Nancy’s imagination. Conversations she puts down to Ollie could easily be conversations she has with herself, or when other characters seem involved, what Ollie says could easily be what Nancy says, or what she would like to say.
Naturally, we can read any literary character in this way. Here’s the list of reasons why I suggest this guy be coded as Nancy’s creation:
- Nancy’s diary demonstrates she wants more from life than she gets, and inventing a parallel, peopled life would be one way of getting that.
- Ollie might be an invention to assuage Nancy’s own guilt — guilt that she doesn’t have it in her to care for both her own husband, own children as well as her childhood friend who winds up in a horrible institution. She can imagine she’s cared for by Ollie.
- Ollie may also be an invention to help Nancy cope with loneliness within marriage.
- Ollie’s hinted-at bisexuality may be more of a gender fluidity, in which Ollie is partly made up of Nancy, partly made up of Wilf (she’s made him Wilf’s cousin, after all). What she doesn’t get from Wilf (companionship and conversation) she is getting from Ollie, more or less. That said, Ollie doesn’t exactly tell her the truth. Why not invent a fictional character who at least tells you the truth? Because you may not even know the truth yourself. You can’t have an imaginary character tell you the truth until you’ve wrestled with the real situation yourself.
- Imaginary worlds come and go throughout a person’s life — busy with young children, it would seem natural Nancy had no time to even conjure Ollie for all those years, explaining the time jump. It’s at the ends of her life that she has the space to invent, and think, and overthink, and blame herself, and to try and make amends.
- Wilf clearly knows little about his own cousin. I accept that he’s an inward looking man, but still.
- Ollie ends up on Texada island. Islands are highly symbolic other spaces — especially in other Alice Munro stories. For example in “Cortes Island” the island is an imaginary space for main characters — imagined as a way of coping with day-to-day life.
- Ollie took Tessa around the vaudeville circuit. The vaudeville world itself is another fictional arena — perhaps a fictional world within a fictional world. It’s not exactly a run-of-the-mill way to live a life — more likely to occur in fiction than in reality.
The reader is not afforded a look into Tessa’s mind, except perhaps at the end as Nancy’s dream lets her look through Tessa’s eyes.
Tessa is Nancy’s childhood friend. She dropped out of school when she was 14 due to an unnamed illness, later revealed to include seizures. She is small in stature, as if illness has caused lack of growth.
Nancy cryptically explains to the reader that Tessa is “not in the world that the rest of us are in”. (This may give them something in common, if Nancy has this really rich imaginative life.)
We are eventually told that Tessa is a clairvoyant. Tessa uses these so-called psychic powers to help the townspeople find hidden or mislaid objects, sometimes even dead bodies.
Vulnerable, childlike Tessa marries Ollie, who has written an article about her, sending many people to her house. (This minor celebrity creates some havoc.) As Nancy has passively accepted her own entry into wife- and motherhood, Tessa seems to passively accept all this, and goes along with Ollie who transplants her to America.
But Ollie is a man and his caregiving capacities are limited. He puts her in an institution, which eventually closes in the late 1960s.
Like Wilf, Tessa also suffers memory loss as an older person. Dementia may combine with mental limitations caused by a lifetime of seizures — the difference is unclear and unimportant to the story.
NARRATION OF “POWERS”
The Guardian’s view of Nancy is less kind than my own:
“Powers”… is a little masterpiece of impersonation, an uncanny inhabiting of the mind of a meddling, egotistical girl and of a distinct historical period. The long range of Munro’s stories is only made possible by her apparently effortless possession of decade beyond decade of the past, her technique being the opposite of so much information-bolstered fiction of the present: she knows that life in the past was unhampered by any sense of its future quaintness, so she doesn’t explain. She gives us a past as unselfconscious as today. […] The sweep of the thing, the unfolding picture of the unforeseen life, the interlocking strangeness and ordinariness, the unravelling narrative of Nancy’s own consciousness, together make a deep impression.The Guardian review
STORY STRUCTURE OF “POWERS”
“Powers” is divided into five parts each with chapter names:
Give Dante a Rest
TIME: Spring, 1927
NARRATION: first person diaries of an unnamed character
Nancy, fresh out of high school, is convinced that she is destined to live a life of importance.
She has a joking, trickster side. She startles the town doctor, Wilf, on April Fool’s Day by rocking up at his house pretending to have a sore throat.
He does not share her sense of humour at all and tells her to get out. (He’s probably a good 12 years older than she is, which would be intimidating. This scene is the inverse of an “I understand you” moment. The reader can see that these two are wrong for each other.
Rather than blaming the doctor for his lack of humour, she feels really stupid. She was only having some fun, and perhaps trying to get his attention. The difference in maturity (borne of age difference) is also a factor here.
She sends a note of apology and hears nothing back, but when she’s trying to get through a novel by Dante, the doc turns up at her door, takes her out to see some ice breaking, and completely out of the blue offers his hand in marriage.
Nancy accepts his proposal, not because she feels affection for him, but because she can’t think of a good reason to say no — she doesn’t want him to feel bad, because her friend has already turned him down.
In her diary she seems disappointed that her life has turned out so mundane after all. Like all the other eligible young women she knows, she’s going to get married. (And she’s about to marry a doctor — financial stability for life.) Her path is set now. She’ll have his babies. He assumes so, too. She’s not going to have the special life she dreamed of.
This reminds me of Angela Hayes from the film American Beauty. Angela’s biggest fear is to be ordinary.
One of the worst criticisms that can be levelled at a young woman: “She thinks she’s all that.” She has ideas about herself.
In fiction, young women with aspirations above their station will invariably have rich imaginative lives. Of course they do, right? These characters have the ability to imagine how their lives might be, and that in itself requires imaginative power.[NANCY’S PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] Imagination itself can be a liability when you start to recast yourself. Safer, indeed, to invent a paracosm with a wholly original cast. Keep yourself right out of it, stories tell us, time and time again. In American Beauty, Angela’s story about herself (as a sexually experienced ingenue) seeps into the real world, making the actually virginal Angela highly vulnerable in the presence of her best friend’s sexual predator father.
Alice Munro doesn’t let us in on the exact nature of Nancy’s fantasies about herself. Or does she? (Cue the invention of Ollie. Perhaps she wants to be a science journalist, freed of the burden of caring for others, living on an island.)
Girl in a Middy
TIME: several months after Give Dante A Rest
NARRATION: third person
Nancy and Wilf are engaged and preparing for their wedding. Wilf’s cousin Ollie is in town to attend the ceremony. Nancy becomes fascinated by his worldly affectations.
In an attempt to impress him, she takes Ollie to visit Tessa, Tessa correctly identifies all of the items in Ollie’s pockets. Ollie seems to dismiss her, but Nancy fears he has ulterior motives.
Nancy writes to Tessa, warning her to avoid Ollie. Tessa responds, revealing that she and Ollie have already eloped to the United States. They intend to get married and test her abilities scientifically. Tessa ignores Nancy’s cruel but shrewd injunctions that Ollie only wants to exploit her gift for commercial ends.
Here’s a feature seen across Alice Munro’s short stories: There is a revelation, we expect the story can close now, but no — Munro is just cranking up. Each of these sections contains its own mini anagnorisis.
One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.
But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it, but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)
Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.Buried In Print
A Hole in the Head
TIME: forward into the 1960s
Nancy is now an ageing woman visiting an American mental hospital. Along with many such facilities of this era, the ward is shutting down. Nancy has received a letter asking that she retrieve Tessa, who has lived there for some time.
When Nancy and Tessa meet, Nancy tries to learn about Ollie and his life with Tessa. Tessa, however, cannot remember anything. Perhaps electroshock therapy has ruined her memory. Tessa claims that someone may have strangled Ollie, but recalls nothing else. Tessa then guesses that Nancy plans to abandon her at the facility. This is true. Feeling guilty, Nancy promises to write her letters. She never does.
A Square, A Circle, A Star
TIME: moves forward a few more years.
Wilf has died from the complications of a stroke (suggesting he had vascular dementia). It’s only now that Wilf is dead that Nancy has the spoons to consider her obligations to Tessa.
Nancy’s friends have filled in where Wilf left off, urging her against getting too invested in her own demons. They tell her to get out and about, to get involved in social activities. As she has done her whole life, despite seeming capricious in her diary entries, Nancy does as she’s told. She goes on a ghastly geriatric cruise at their behest. But now it seems she’s done with people telling her not to go deep into her own mind. Though this part is summarised rather than shown, her experience on the cruise ship seems to have switched something over in Nancy — she will no longer fill up the rest of her life with frivolities that keep her entertained on the surface.
So she visits Vancouver. What a coincidence. She bumps into Ollie. (Not a coincidence at all if you’re with me here and Ollie isn’t real.)
She and Ollie go to a Japanese restaurant, then to a coffee shop, where they continue their long discussion. Ollie discusses his travels with Tessa in the United States. He says that funding for research disappeared after World War II, forcing he and Tessa to work on the vaudeville circuit.
Vaudeville a type of entertainment popular chiefly in the USA in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of speciality acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance.
The only way to make any money that they discovered was to go with the travelling shows, to operate in town halls or at fall fairs. They shared the stage with the hypnotists and snake ladies and dirty monologuists and strippers in feathers.
Focusing on the burlesque aspect, I see older Nancy as a burlesque witch. (Better to click through on that to know what I mean.) The modern burlesque witch tends to view herself as a younger woman trapped in an old woman’s body. The following passage demonstrates this exact experience in “Powers”:
It happens only a few times in your life—at least it’s only a few times if you’re a woman—that you come upon yourself like this, with no preparation. It was a bad as those dreams in which she might find herself walking down the street in her night-gown, or nonchalantly wearing only the top of her pajamas [FEAR OF DEMENTIA OR ACCUSATIONS OF HYSTERIA].
During the past ten or fifteen years she had certainly taken time out to observe her own face in a harsh light so that she could better see what makeup could do, or decide whether the time had definitely come to start coloring her hair. But she had never had a jolt like this, a moment during which she saw not just some old and new trouble spots, or some decline that could not be ignored any longer, but a complete stranger [SHE HAS HAD A MAJOR ANAGNORISIS, OR REVERSAL].
Somebody she didn’t know and wouldn’t want to know.
The strain of performing gave Tessa headaches and gradually eroded her powers, but they developed a system to deceive their audiences. (Much as Nancy has ‘developed a system’ to deceive herself — the invention of Ollie.)
Eventually, Ollie tells her, Tessa died. Nancy does not contradict him but feels all through the conversation that he has not been telling the truth. Ollie drives her back to her hotel, and she is about to invite him to spend the night in the other bed of her motel room. This is because he appears to have nowhere to stay but inside his jalopy. Before she speaks, however, Ollie turns her down, as if he possesses a less magical form of clairvoyance himself. Or perhaps there’s no clairvoyance, so much as Ollie being literally of Nancy’s own mind.
Nancy feels complicit in Ollie’s lies to the point where she feels she is lying herself in not protesting at it. (If Ollie is an invented character than she is indeed lying to herself, via Ollie.)
To make things right, Nancy decides to find Tessa and bring her to Ollie. However, she does not succeed.
Flies on A Windowsill
TIME: decades later
Nancy’s grown children have been kept off the page, but now we learn they worry that Nancy is living in the past. In other words, they worry she’s living inside her imagination, not in the real, current world. (I suspect ‘living in the past’ is an accusation levelled at older people, whereas a young person would be accused of living ‘inside her head’.)
The story closes with a dream. Nancy falls asleep and dreams about Tessa and Ollie. They are staying at a motel. Tessa suffers from a terrible headache. In the dream, Tessa sees a messy little pyramid of flies hidden on the sill behind the curtain. Excited that her psychic powers have returned, she awakens Ollie and they embrace. As they embrace Ollie worries that Tessa can sense the papers in his front pocket, which will commit her to a mental hospital. It is implied that Tessa does indeed sense the paper’s presence. But she no longer cares what happens to her. Nancy then dreams that Ollie decides to spare Tessa. As she does so, a feeling of reprieve lights up her dream. Nancy is pulled out of it as her consciousness disintegrates around her.
It is a bold choice to end a story with a dream sequence. Do you consider this a successful short story? What did you get out of it?
Header photo by Hoshino Ai
I’ve previously taken a close look at wolves in literature, specifically in children’s stories. Werewolves are a separate archetype from wolves and play a different storytelling role.
THE HISTORY OF WEREWOLVES IN A NUTSHELL
Werewolf literally means ‘Man Wolf’. Were is from Old English ‘wer’ meaning ‘man’. The maleness of ‘were’ has since been lost in modern English, but if we wanted to seem technically accurate, the female equivalent would probably be ‘wifwolf’, and that’s not ideal in an age where women don’t always appreciate being referred to in relation to men. (Wif is the Old English word for ‘wife’, in an era where women did not exist as autonomous human beings, belonging only to fathers, husbands and sons.)
In Europe, people really used to believe werewolves were a thing. Imagine believing that. Imagine thinking that, if you weren’t careful, you yourself might turn into a werewolf. How would you regard the moon, if this were your worldview? Don’t know about you, but I’d stay inside on moonlit nights.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reports of werewolves pervaded much of Central Europe and sections of France along the Swiss border, notably the Jura and the Franche-Comfte. The surgeon Johann Dietz witnessed a crowd of villagers in the northern German town of Itzehoe chase a werewolf with spears and stakes. Even Paris suffered sporadic attacks. In 1683, a werewolf on the Notre-Dame-de-Grace road supposedly saved a party that included several priests.At Day’s Close, A. Roger Erkich
WEREWOLVES ACROSS CULTURES
Something about wolves that leads humans to think, across largely unrelated cultures, that people can turn into them. Horror storytellers have since turned all number of creatures into were-creatures, from horripilating to comedic effect and everything in between. Wallace and Gromit gave us the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, for instance, comedic because rabbits are not naturally terrifying (on their own).
Here is a good summary of werewolves across cultures.
The ‘were’ of ‘werewolf’ originally meant ‘man’ (man-wolf). This gendered meaning has largely been forgotten in contemporary English. We can therefore have female werewolves.
werewolves and the moon
There is a long history connecting moon cycles to changes in the human body:
Best known of the many “planets” said to influence the rhythms of everyday life was earth’s closest neighbour, the moon. While a welcome source of light, the moon reputedly affected the internal workings of the human body much as it did the flow and timing of ocean tides and the course of the weather. France’s “first philosophe”, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, was one of many learned authorities to perpetuate the medieval theory stressing the moon’s importance to physical health: “As it passes through its phase, it exerts a great influence for better or worse over the course of illnesses.” So potent was its power that the moon could alter the amount of moisture within a person’s body, including the brain, thereby driving some individuals insane or “moon-struck.” Observed the authors of Maison Rustique, or, the Countrey Farme (1616), the moon was the “governesse of all such humidities as are in earthly bodies.” When the moon was full, women were thought at particular risk to become “lunatics.” Some victims died on the spot. In London’s St. Botoloph’s Parish between 1583 and 1599, as many as twenty-two deaths were attributed to planetary influence.At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch
But the story which connected the moon so closely to werewolves for a modern audience was the 1941 Wolf Man movie. Earlier werewolf stories were more fairytale in nature. The person turning into the wolf tended to put on a certain item of clothing such as a magic belt or coat.
WEREWOLVES IN MODERN STORIES
When it comes to werewolf tropes, the tropes differ depending on the medium. Movie werewolves are most often supernatural horror villains, there for the gore and slashing, and could be swapped out with many other horror villains. For this reason, these werewolves are not particularly interesting.
Twilight shifted the status of werewolves — the character of Jacob paved the way for a modern werewolf who is also a potential love interest.
Werewolves can be used to convey many things, depending on the ideology of the storyteller. One common use of the werewolf (among various other wild animals) is as a proxy for overwhelming teenage sexuality:
It can be a hard thing to be a teenage girl. You face pressure from both your peers and society at large to rush into sexual activity you may not be ready for. You’re judged for your clothes, your makeup, your interests. You have to navigate that blurry line between childhood and adulthood, exemplified by physical changes that can make your body feel like it’s not your own.
Also, you might turn into a werewolf.
Or a mermaid.
Maybe a succubus.
At least that’s the case in the movies, where there exists a long and storied tradition of associating of female puberty with the supernatural.
Or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing: “Help, I’m a teenage girl coming into my own as a sexual creature, while also turning into a literal creature who transforms into a deadly animal/can control objects with my mind / has an all-consuming hunger for human flesh / bites dudes’ junk off with my vagina” (circle where applicable).
Supernatural sexuality is nothing new at the movies.
It’s a horror subgenre that’s shown its face time and time again throughout the decades. In 1942’s Cat People, a sexually repressed young woman refuses to be intimate with her husband due to her (justified, as it turns out) fear that doing so will cause her to turn into the killer cat that looms so large in her people’s mythology.Mashable
As such, the werewolf as sexual beast trope can be used to try and suppress sexuality, or to encourage readers to embrace it.
PROBLEMATIC WEREWOLF TROPES
The problem with many werewolf stories is that the wolf is based on inaccurate, outdated science, in which wolves were studied in captivity, not in the wild. When studied only in captivity, scientists came up with the following:
- In each pack there is an alpha male and an alpha female running things.
- The alpha male is more powerful than the alpha female.
- There will be wolves at the bottom of the hierarchy (omegas).
- Wolves mate for life.
In the wild:
- The parents are in charge of the pack. ‘Alpha male’ and ‘alpha female’ are mum and dad taking care of the teenagers. (Not so sexy now, right?)
- Wolves don’t mate for life.
- The ‘males are stronger than females’ thing is never so simplistic, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. It is a fantasy to imagine that men can protect us all. To take an example from a different species, it was only recently that researchers shared that male, alpha chimpanzees are only the alphas of the other males, and that an alpha male chimp can easily be dethroned if all the females decide to reject him. It is certain that the sexual hierarchy of wolf packs is equally nuanced and complicated as it is in chimpanzees.
If storytellers go with the captivity inaccuracies, this results in a romantic view of the (human) patriarchy, which is intimately connected to the One True Love story. We see this in Twilight, in which werewolf Jacob’s One True Love is Bella’s baby.
Consent is a complicated topic in storytelling because sexual fantasies are somewhat separate from what an audience will accept in reality. Or is the line really so clear? The very definition of ‘fantasy’ becomes muddied when narratees live in the real, non-fantasy world in which non-consensual activity happens to people frequently. Werewolf stories set up under the (human) patriarchal system require ‘underdogs’ do as they are told. While this hierarchy can pave the way for con-non-con fantasies, is it still a fantasy when the characters within the setting are unable to give their own consent? Con-non-con activities are in fact consensual. There is a dearth of stories modeling conversation which needs to take place beforehand. To what extent should stories model good behaviour? Does there need to be that wrapper story in which readers are gradually immersed further into the fantasy world?
As mentioned above, the alpha werewolf in a patriarchal werewolf story is more powerful than the alpha female. This is an uncritical presentation and serves to reinforce ‘the natural order of things’ (for humans).
Some werewolf stories present werewolf as analogue for disease. J.K. Rowling has said that in the Harry Potter series, the werewolf part stands for AIDs. Even if readers are supposed to get the message that ostracising werewolves (diseased people) is bad and we shouldn’t do it, the very act of writing a diseased character as a supernatural monster is in itself problematic, and perhaps relies too heavily on the audience’s ability to see the storyteller’s intent. Zombies are also used in this way.
Werewolves in modern stories are sometimes presented as protectors of nature, which is not problematic in its own right. It can become problematic once non-native writers include tokenistic, appropriated indigenous cultures and transfer those symbols onto wolves.
WHAT MAKES FOR A PROGRESSIVE WEREWOLF STORY?
In better stories, a werewolf can make for an interesting, rounded character in its own right. An adept storyteller can almost transport us into a canine body ourselves and send us running through the forest.
Modern werewolf stories tend to say one of the following:
- Friendship makes you stronger. The metaphor here is the wolf pack. Teen Wolf is a good example of that, with the additional message that ‘those in your pack don’t have to be wolves’, which conveys a message of diversity and ‘chosen family’.
- Werewolf stories can say something interesting about anger management, and the struggle to control one’s emotions.
- Werewolf stories can more generally be about Being Different — this plot is certainly not limited to werewolf stories.
WOLVES, TRANSFORMATION AND SEXUALITY
One modern and interesting way writers are using werewolves: As symbols for how hard it is to fit into the rules of the patriarchy.
The following example makes use of wolves rather than werewolves, but these wolves are functionally ‘were’- wolfish:
“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell is […] about a pack of wolf-girls sent away to live with nuns so they can transition into normal young women. I think Russell uses animals in this story as a symbol for the wildness in young people and how there is an expectation, especially for girls, to abandon rough or wild behaviour as they mature. It is about societal pressure, but it is also about the kinship people feel toward animals, and similarly the divide between animal and human that we can never traverse. Pulling from this set of examples, what are some of your favourite short stories and in what ways are animals used in them?
“Dear Amelia” by Anne Valente, explores a similar transformation in reverse. The story is narrated by a group of girls that is turning into Maine black bears, a secret that they keep to themselves. To me, this story is so much about the private discovery of the self as you come of age, an experience that is at once mysterious and magical. What better way to enact that than through this literal transformation?
MORE ON WEREWOLVES
- A Goodreads list of the most popular Werewolf novels recently. Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver series is near the top, and definitely the most popular YA werewolf series. There is another entire list dedicated to Werewolf Erotica. Anyone who has read Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden may not be surprised at werewolf erotica because dogs make a surprisingly frequent appearance in female sexual fantasy.
- The vampire can be compared to the wolf – the seducer wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and other stories.
- Review: Werewolves, Wolves and the Gothic from The Dark Arts Journal
- A lot of my ideas on werewolf tropes come from this Dirty Old Ladies podcast.
- The Dangers of Straying from the Path and Tales of Lycanthropy Part 1 – The Cautionary Warnings of Little Red Riding Hood and The Company of Wolves: Wanderings 38/52 from A Year In The Country
You may not believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.
There is a category of ghost story in which an ordinary person from the living world encounters not just a single scary ghost, but an entire room full of uncanny individuals. We suspect they are ghosts; this is subsequently confirmed.
What is so appealing about these stories, and what deeper psychological need do they satisfy in the audience?
Also, if you want to write one yourself, how are they structured? Once we learn the template writers can put our own fresh spin on it.
I’ll be looking at two stories of this category. The first is presented as a factual first person encounter — the “Lost In Time” episode of WYNC’s Spooked podcast (Episode 2 of Season 1). You can subscribe to the Spooked podcast via any podcast app for free. I don’t for a second believe this story as truth. After studying the story, this becomes obvious.
The second example has a completely different tone, presented as horror comedy — the “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” episode of New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal series (Episode 3 of Season 1). This episode is currently available via SBS in Australia, and you can purchase it via YouTube from elsewhere.
This is the general tone of the show. The show is a spoofy blend of The X-files and reality cop shows which are popular in New Zealand and in Australia, such as Police Ten 7.
There is already a comedy element to this show, though the comedy is somewhat muted by the fact we are laughing at the misfortunes of real people, often disenfranchised, often addicted to substances.
Another similar show is NZ Police College, only the police officers are new recruits.
Because of the inherent comedy factor, these shows are therefore ripe for a spoof treatment. And horror is the perfect blend. (Comedy and horror often go really well in stories for kids as well, e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog.)
THE APPEAL OF GHOST WORLD STORIES
- In these stories the audience gets a taste of what death beyond the grave might look like. Since no one really knows what death will be like, fictional possibilities are endlessly fascinating.
- Likewise, the idea that time can stand still is appealing, especially when it feels life has sped right up and will be over very soon.
- Supernatural element aside, we love stories in which characters have a near death experience but come out the other side unscathed.
- We are drawn to the uncanny, and these stories are nothing if not uncanny.
- Related tropes are The Inn of No Return (parodied in the Courage the Cowardly Dog pilot) and Hell Hotel. At TV Tropes, the theory is that hotels are inherently uncanny — they feel familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. This room with a bed in it… it’s kind of like your own bedroom, but it’s really not. I wonder if Foucault might call the hotel room a heterotopia.
- The hotel or pub is therefore a popular setting for an uncanny story, but basically any everyday setting can be seconded for this treatment. All the writer needs to do is make it familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Details are therefore important.
WRITING TEMPLATE FOR ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A GHOST’ GHOST STORY
Individual stories will differ, but here’s a classic example and a place to start. Notice how this structure is carefully set up with the main purpose of persuading the audience this really happened.
Note, too, how the audience starts off in audience superior position (knowing more than the main character), then we are alongside them, and finally we are learning from the main character. The writer has guided us from a superior position to an inferior one. The narrator/viewpoint character has been turned into our mentor and guide. The audience doesn’t even know this has happened because we are caught up in the spookiness of it all.
This is the power of persuasion at work. Tall tales of any kind work in the same way.
- SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD — the more every day and realistic, the better. If you can’t be specific about place (because it didn’t happen), at least be very specific about season/day of the week/time of day.
- SHORTCOMING OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
- DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE — what did the main character(s) set out to do before they ran into these ghosts?
- ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
- ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
- OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
- DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
- DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
- AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
- CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
- PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD — they still can’t believe it even though the audience knows what’s going on
- REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
- BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
- ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
- BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
- DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
- POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED — character may return to the scene or encounter someone else who confirms a similar experience, or read some document etc.
- NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT — if the story is set in the past the writer delivers us safely back to the present. The link between past and present is established to create an Overview Effect and we are further persuaded to trust the writer/narrator with our psychological/emotional safety.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOST IN TIME”
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD
Northwest Wisconsin, 20 years ago, 3 a.m. “A place with tiny communities and people living far apart from one another.” The woman telling this story comes from the city. She feels like a ‘stranger’ coming into these wild parts. “It’s hard to get reactions out of people. They’re friendly enough but you don’t really get close.”
‘Coming back from’ a bar in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a real, geolocatable place, but the place where this happens is described ambiguously. If I wanted to find this place I wouldn’t be able to. There are many roadhouses around Wisconsin, and all could go by the name of ‘Roadhouse Saloon’.
Pitch black, starless night. “You couldn’t see past the headlights. The forest on each side was swallowed in darkness.” With the verb ‘swallowed’, the setting is described as if it is alive.
Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘shortcoming’ of all the main characters:
“We ignore the warnings. We jump the fence, we peek through the keyhole and open up the dark closet”.
In other words, our human shortcoming is that we don’t believe inexplicable things when we first encounter them. We get into things that are way over our heads. When we escape with our lives, we are lucky.
In this particular story, the problem faced by the two main characters is that they are in the middle of wilderness Wisconsin in the middle of the night and they need a rest stop. (I’m not sure what that means because it’s not a local phrase — do they need to use the toilet? This is a hole in the story, because the narrator doesn’t actually use the toilet once she gets to the bar — instead she has a drink. The last thing you want when you’re busting to use the loo.)
The woman telling the story walks with a cane, which is good for the story because it lampshades the reason why she can’t just crouch on the side of the road. In the ‘pitch black’ and with no one else around this wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, right? There’s another good reason for the cane — this is a very identifiable thing specific to her, which comes in handy at the climax.
Characters who find themselves in a spooky, supernatural world didn’t actually mean to find themselves there. They set out on a journey with another goal in mind. What is that goal?
Here, narrator and Bob want to get home after spending the night at another bar. They want to find a rest stop. At first they appear to get what they want: The Roadhouse Saloon.
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD
Like portal fantasy, the narrator must focus on the entry to the supernatural world. In this story, the swinging doors of a saloon are emphasised numerous times. This world is inexplicably uncanny.
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG
‘Uncanny’ describes the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Therefore, the writer must go out of their way to present the setting as both familiar and off-kilter.
The other characters are not at all surprised to see Bob and the narrator. This helps the characters feel like nothing is wrong, but we know something is wrong because we know we are reading a ghost story. A helpful trick for the characters in these other worlds: Make them look like they are expecting the newcomers, as if fate has a hand in all this.
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS
There’s a weird vibe in here — normally, as the narrator explained earlier, people turn away to newcomers, but these ones are unusually friendly.
This makes the audience suspect these people are false allies.
The setting contains anachronous objects, i.e. the old jukebox (which doesn’t look worn). It plays “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Although this story is set 20 years ago (the late 1990s), this is a song from 1961.
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT
In this story there is an old mural on the wall of a saloon scene with swinging saloon doors, women sitting at a bar, gamblers sitting at a gambling table. “It had perspective but it was really unusual, garish perspective. It was almost tunnel-like but not quite, almost floorlit.” Bob notices that the men at the pool table are the same as the men playing cards in the bar. Gradually it dawns on them that all the characters in the bar are also in the painting. And there is no one else in that painting.
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS
They realise they are the only people in the bar who aren’t also in the painting. The audience has it confirmed that the characters are ghosts. Of course, we knew that all along, so the revelation is simply a creepy confirmation rather than a revelation.
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION
Bob and the narrator try to rationalise the scenario: Clearly these people in the bar and in the painting are regulars, so a painter must have made a cool mural starring locals.
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD
The narrator tries to ask the bartender about it. But he ‘shrug nods’ as if he doesn’t understand the words. The ladies don’t change expression at all when they are asked. These are clearly horror archetypes, with their robotic behaviour.
This is also a feature of comedy archetypes, which is why horror can so easily tip towards comedy, and why the horror-comedy blend is so often successful. This particular story is a genuinely scary story, especially for those who believe it’s true.
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD
The characters in the setting are not going to help them to understand this scenario, so the narrator and Bob rely on their own powers of deduction and observation:
The only people taking a sip of their drink are the narrator and her companion Bob.
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER
The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this big struggle phase, various tropes are utilised:
VIEWPOINT CHARACTER STILL ISN’T AS SCARED AS THE AUDIENCE IS
Now, if we, the audience were in this situation, we would get out of there. But the main character in a horror story has the shortcoming that they don’t really understand how close they are to death. So curiosity overrides fear. In this case, Bob isn’t scared and persuades the narrator to stay even when it’s clear to the audience that they should get out of there.
Everything is on repeat
“Let’s Twist AGAIN” is ironic. Ghosts stuck in an earthly realm are doomed to repeat a single night for the rest of eternity. Presumably, their motivation is to mix things up a bit by welcoming people from the live world into their ghostly fold.
“When someone plays a song twice that could be their favourite song, but when they play it a third time, you know something is wrong.”
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
The mural changes to include two shadowy figures outside the door. They get closer to the figures in the mural. These figures resemble Bob and the narrator. The woman in the mural is walking with a cane.
It looks as though those two figures are ‘being filled in’ on the mural. Narrator, Bob and audience know in unison: These people are near death. If they stick around they will become one of the ghosts.
ESCAPE FROM SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD
Bob and narrator hightail it for the door. Every one of the ghosts stands up and turns to them.
The guy who has been playing the record comes after them.
BACK TO SAFETY
But as soon as the door shuts the music stops instantly. The lights in the window go out. It is silent and black as if everything inside no longer exists. There are no cars in the carpark this time.
They speed out of there shaking, trying to catch their breath.
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
10 miles down the road they ask each other if it really happened. Two people have experienced the exact same thing. Folie a deux (shared psychosis) is a thing, but we’re not meant to consider that. The fact that two people saw the same thing is supposed to be a confirmation.
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED
In this sequence, something from the real world must connect to something from the supposed supernatural world.
Bob and narrator tell an outsider (narrator’s sister). They all return to the scene to check it out. The audience learns that this place itself does exist.
JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN COSY PRESENT AGAINST FREAKY PAST INCIDENT
The characters ‘feel compelled’ to go back into the saloon. The place is full. People are having food and drinks. The narrator recognises none of the faces but the people in the mural are all still there.
CHARACTER CHECKS DETAILS
Like a classic amateur detective, the narrator checks the scene for evidence. She notices the jukebox is no longer the Wurlitzer. Chubby Checker isn’t even on there.
The bartender is a young woman, not a man. The bartender tells the narrator (and us) that she and her dad are the only ones who tend bar, and they closed at midnight on Saturday night.
NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT
The saloon is still there. Now it’s part of a strip mall with an all night gas station and gift shops. But the mural is still there.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THINGS THAT DO THE BUMP IN THE NIGHT”
The Bump is a type of dance introduced in the 1970s.
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD
The historical setting of a 70s party makes a mockery of the fact that most ghost stories go further back in time e.g. back to a Gothic era. New Zealand doesn’t have a Gothic history to speak of, either. So this one is set in a Wellington house.
Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same shortcoming in every episode of Wellington Paranormal — they blunder forth doing their jobs as low-mimetic characters who aren’t very good at what they do. Especially considering their profession, they are wholly unobservant. They never learn from past incidents, like true comic characters.
So when Minogue and O’Leary stumble into a ghost world, they are too unobservant and grounded in the safety of the real world to be much perturbed. They will come close to death but they won’t realise the extent of it.
DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE
Minogue and O’Leary talk to the camera and tell us the goal: To get the party music turned down. In conversation between each other, they both agree it’s not their type of music.
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD
Minogue and O’Leary enter the house as police officers might, narrating their steps for us while using police-esque language such as ‘proceed with caution’. The narration allows us to focus on the portal entry. As mentioned above, this part can’t be skipped or glossed over.
Entry to the other world is given extra emphasis with insertion of the intro credits after this point.
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG
Wellington Paranormal has a way of handling this which is utilised across all of the different episodes:
Minogue and O’Leary see something wacko, they take it back to their boss at the station (Sergeant Maaka), who makes up some bullshit, super wacko theory to explain what they actually saw.
In this case, Sergeant Maaka draws a ridiculous picture of a creature with antennae, using them as a ‘self-defence mechanism’. The pseudo-scientific language of Sergeant Maaka coupled with the ‘police-esque’ language of Minogue and O’Leary make for a comedy with plenty of language based humour.
Minogue and O’Leary get drawn into this story, but they eventually land on the theory of ‘poltergeists’, which is correct for the setting.
OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS
When we first meet them, these ghosts don’t register the existence of the police officers. The officers resort to speaking to unruly ghosts like school teachers, which is a technique writer Jemaine Clement uses on the character of Murray in Flight of the Conchords. This undermines authority when no one takes him seriously.
A secondary opponent is brought in — the medium Chloe Patterson, a false ally. This medium derails the goal of getting the noise sorted out at this residence. Minogue thinks his grandpa is talking to him. (It is revealed subsequently that the grandpa is still alive.) This sequence is satire of the medium genre of TV shows. This establishes Chloe as a fake.
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS
Minogue and O’Leary revisit the empty house with the medium. They walk around with their torches and we see all the details.
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT
In this story, the central supernatural object is a birthday cake with candles on it. The birthday cake itself isn’t especially imbued with powers, but stands for the 20th anniversary nature of the party.
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS
“It’s a seventies ghost!”
This works especially well for a dumb character because we’ve already worked that out.
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION
Because Minogue is basically stupid, he doesn’t realise he’s walked in on ghosts in the hot tub. He thinks he’s walked in on real people. So this step is subverted.
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD
Minogue does realise something’s amiss when the medium gets sucked into the spirit world.
Now he attempts to understand the situation by:
- Working out there are two toilets in the house, by agreeing to rendezvous at this point
- Making heavy use of the walkie-talkie
They conclude, falsely, that they might be in the ‘upside down’, an allusion to Stranger Things.
AM I GOING CRAZY?
At one point O’Leary says, “Are you sure you’re not just fantasising?” Minogue replies “My fantasies are set in the nineties” (when he would’ve been a teenager).
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD
The toilet gag derails these characters, which means this step is subverted. These two never really work things out, or never really seem to.
When lipstick draws on the mirror, O’Leary says, “I think I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” which means she knows something is going on, but not to the point where she can put it into words.
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER
Subverted. A ghost writes words on a mirror in blood (lipstick). At first it appears to say ‘Welcome to Hell’ but the gag is that it continues writing: ‘Welcome to Helen and Ray’s 20th Anniversary’.
The terrifying becomes far less terrifying. “I thought it was going to be way more scary than that.”
However, they’ve still lost the medium.
“I just saw a hideous face at the window!”
It turns out to be Sergeant Maaka who has turned up to help. The near death experience is subverted as he tries to climb down from a very low window. “I appreciate the assist.” He has come with new information. The house used to belong to “Raymond Saint John. The party king.”
Borrowing from the detective genre, the name of the opponent (the criminal) is now known. The amps up the (comic) danger.
Sergeant Maaka delivers a metadiegetic backstory of one horrific night in 1977 when a series of events took place. Two people were found deceased when a table lamp fell into a spa pool. A man died when he got tangled up in a crocheted blanket.
Sergeant Maaka flops into a chair dramatically when learning of the ghosts.
The crocheted blanket rises up so they taser it. (New Zealand cops don’t normally carry guns.) While this near death experience is going on, O’Leary comically narrates what’s going on.
REVELATION ABOUT HOW THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD WORKS
This is where “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” departs from the structure of the Spooked episode above. The Spooked episode has a drawn out, multiple step ‘epilogue’ sort of sequence in which the characters return to the scene of the supernatural happenings.
Here, Minogue has a more classic revelation (which comes after the near-death Battle. Comically, Minogue is trying to work out a pattern. He opens and shuts the toilet door, each time expecting the toilet to transform from the 1970s to the present. But instead, it’s always just a normal toilet.
O’Leary summons them back by asking nicely.
But the Billy T. James ghost character proves to be belligerent and cheeky and won’t listen to requests to shut the noisy party down.
Inspired by a typical high school scenario, there is a juvenile scene in which the officers confront the ghosts. The Party King insults O’Leary by calling her a man and then a Nana.
ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD
O’Leary tells the party goers that they’re all deceased. They take the news on the chin and each leave, because it turns out some of them are over it. At the bottom of the stairwell they fall into a hole in the ground with flames coming out of it.
BACK TO SAFETY
The officers manage to persuade the ghosts to move on to the afterlife. We see them outside, in front of their patrol car, which is how we saw them in the very first scene. The story is now circular.
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
This step is subverted in a comedy. The funniest thing about Minogue and O’Leary is their partial obliviousness. So in lieu of this, we get Sergeant Maaka talking to the camera, assuring us that they are doing their job and the general public has nothing to worry about.
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED
At first the audience is encouraged to doubt if this is really a ghost story because the sergeants have the Party King in the back seat of the patrol car.
As the underling sergeants deliver a moral lecture to the camera saying, “You can party til you drop, just not after you drop,” the Party King floats up through the roof of the vehicle and scurries off.
As usual, the episode ends with the NZ Police slogan: “Safe communities together”.
Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Brave, of 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)
Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.
MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE
Genre Blend of Monster House
Monster House is a genre blend of Adventure and Comedy. Monster House is also a haunted house story, though it’s not DJ’s own house that is haunted, but the creepy old mansion across the road. Though not listed as a horror, this story borrows horror tropes. Horror and comedy are a surefire hit, if done correctly. Jump scares have to be genuine jump scares, and the writers have to know which scenes are to be taken seriously and which are a deliberate lampoon. Monster House achieves this balance, with genuine scares for the younger audience, followed by funny scenes which bring the audience back into safety… for a while.
Unfortunately, the popular horror genre has some highly problematic tropes, and the writers of Monster House borrowed those, too.
Monster theory states that the characters viewed as villains or monsters reflect cultural unease or prejudices. Often, this leads to the vilification of those who defy gender roles, and perpetuates this vilification in the media. […Many] stories place a heavy emphasis on female sexuality as a particularly awful form of deviance.
As for ‘adventure’, what does that mean for writers? It’s more of a director’s term than a scriptwriter’s term. Adventure means several things:
- The characters will leave the safety of home, in which case we’re often talking about mythic structure. In this case, ‘leaving home’ means ‘walking across the street’, but it’s still really scary.
- Lots of scenes written with spectacle in mind.
At the beginning of the story DJ has been monitoring the creepy house across the road. He has noticed that when toys land on Nebbercracker’s front lawn they disappear. Something spooky is going on there. The problem is, he doesn’t know what’s going on and because he lives across the road, it’s in his best interest to find out. Things get personal when his best friend Chowder loses his expensive basketball. Then DJ thinks he accidentally killed Nebbercracker. This makes him invested.
Under the surface, DJ wants to prove himself a man. (This is of course related to his major Shortcoming, that he is a powerless boy.) At the beginning we hear his voice crack. He considers himself too old for Trick or Treating. He says he’s too old for a babysitter — he’d be just fine alone with his parents off on holiday. This allows for some good, ironic comedy in which it is revealed that DJ is mostly still a child. He sleeps with his bunny rabbit, he is freaked out by small things (though justifiably freaked out by big things).
In some ways, DJ’s wish to be manly is shown by his desire to be childlike. Unfortunately, as almost always happens in stories about boys written and funded by men, DJ’s wish to be manly is also shown by his desire to be non-feminine. (Hence an actual girl has to come along. More on that below.)
Note to all writers everywhere: The opposite of ‘man’ is not ‘girl’. The opposite of ‘man’ is ‘boy’. Girls do not exist to affirm your heterosexual manliness.
Chowder and DJ are similar to Jeff Kinney’s Greg and Rowley. Greg is the pessimistic skinny one while Rowley is the chubby, childlike one. (More childlike than DJ.)Chowder is DJ’s Opponent in his mission to be considered more adult. Chowder is full of enthusiasm for trick or treating, and likes to play computer games and eat junk food. By hanging around with Chowder, DJ won’t be considered a man. Before they leave for their weekend away, the parents (especially the mother) are also opponents in this regard. DJ’s mother babies him in the most embarrassing fashion, making inappropriate remarks about his changing adolescent body.
Note that Jeff Kinney probably got this successful trio ensemble from J.K. Rowling, who probably got it from someone else again. The romantic opponent is Jenny — a Hermione character who is smart and organised and who drives the plan. Both DJ and Chowder compete for Jenny, at first objectifying her. We are encouraged to laugh at them as they try to impress her and fail. This, too, is the Wimpy Kid formula, in which girl characters are not quite human, considered a separate species (by the boys, and by extension, by the audience). Girls are also depicted as inherently ‘smarter’: more bookish, more scathing, more wily and underhanded. Jenny is an example of The Female Maturity Principle.
DJ’s babysitter, Zee, initially appears to be The Babysitter From Hell. She is depicted as a duplicitous goody-two-shoes who is actually into heavy metal and stoner boyfriends. The male scriptwriters have given her some pathetic, pseudo-feminist lines to make us despise her even more. Zee is actually on the same side as DJ though, because they have the same goal: To do their own thing in the house while they each leave the other alone. The babysitter’s stoner boyfriend represents the other side of the babysitter — together they form a slightly dangerous team. The audience knows this pair won’t be there to help the boys out should they need it. Parents and parental influences are safely out of the way in this story.
I have just listed the ‘inner circle’ of opposition, but the Big, Bad Opposition at first appears to be Nebbercracker, and is then revealed to be his house. This pairing is an example of a character who IS his house. At least, that’s how it’s set up:
When trespassed upon, the place reacts in a variety of antisocial ways: The lawn can suck things underground, and the facade takes on an unnaturally human visage, with two upper windows as eyes, a peak above the porch roof as a nose and the front door as a mouth, out of which rolls a lengthy tongue-like carpet with frog-like snatching ability.
This house is haunted by a wife who Nebbercracker ‘rescued’ from the Freak Show (presumably so he could own her, though he seems wholly redeemed by the plot line). This woman was in the freak show because she was ‘the size of a house’ (very fat). I’m uncomfortable with this. In essence, the big reveal is that Nebbercracker is himself a victim, to a fat woman with PTSD from a lifetime of being held in a cage. Everything I could say on this has already been said, back in 2006:
As the house, Constance is therefore enormous, insatiable, crazed – just as she was in life. Mr. Nebbercracker, in contrast, is small and skinny, the one who placates her great rage. This portrayal of a fat woman as out of control with huge appetites (whether for food or for sex) – as, literally, a maneater – is unfortunately all too common. In fact, the very difference in size between a large wife and a smaller husband, whether in literature, film, or real life, communicates the message that she is the dominant partner. These stereotypes of fat women are particular to fat women – the reverse wouldn’t work. There are no cultural figures of fat men whose appetites must be controlled by their skinny wives.
Further, the house is only silenced when it is destroyed, at which point we see Constance’s ghost dancing with Nebbercracker before swirling off into the sky. Nebbercracker then breaks down in relief that he and Constance have finally been set free. Thus, it is only through Constance’s destruction that her appetite is forever controlled.
What’s wrong with this picture? Monster House doesn’t merely reinforce negative stereotypes – it depends upon them. There would be no plot if not for the purposefully grotesque figure of Constance.
Another film — not a children’s film — which uses the ‘big as a house woman’ as opponent is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, from 1993.
Both films present images of the extremely fat woman as a hybridized “woman-house,” whose identity and body are merged with the physical structure of the house to which she is confined. Drawing upon the work of foundational psychoanalytic theorists, we illustrate that the fat woman as “woman-house” threatens those around her with psychic or physical annihilation and therefore must be destroyed.
As Big as a House: Representations of the Extremely Fat Woman and the Home by Caroline Narby & Katherine Phelps
Stories in which non-conforming women must die at the end extend beyond this narrow ‘women as houses’ trope. It is seen in a wide variety of films, including one of my favourites, Thelma and Louise.
Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art, and it simultaneously makes us. Shouldn’t it follow, then, that we can change ourselves by changing the art we make?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HOUSE IN GHOST STORIES
The book cover below is strongly suggestive of ghosts. What is it, exactly? The house. The gables. The vintage texture overlay, the aura in the sky, and also the fact that we can only see a part of the house. Dormer windows, and preferably attics, are almost a requirement, as are chimneys — hopefully one of those wide old chimneys — the kind you could send a kid down.
The haunted house is a character in its own right, ready to gobble up its inhabitants. One of the most famous haunted house stories was written by Shirley Jackson.
Top 10 Terrible Houses In Fiction from The Guardian
In a middle grade story where a group of kids must defeat something supernatural, they often visit some kind of sage. This is straight from mythic structure, a la Joseph Campbell. The screenwriters achieve a twist on this sage guy by making him the local video arcade loser.
Every time I’ve watched this film I’ve gotten bored for the Battle sequence. I feel this is the film’s structural shortcoming (trumped only by its ideological ones). This is a story would would have benefited from a shorter screening time, but unfortunately the industry is set up so that feature films must be of traditional feature length. The big struggle sequence involves a house which literally comes to life and turns into an animated monster. Spectacle can only last so long before the audience zones out. I have always responded like this to elongated big struggle sequences, though I suspect fans of action movies appreciate them. Reviewers described the big struggle sequence like this:
But the overriding impression is assaultive to a progressively off-putting degree. Kenan keeps hammering away with stun-gun cuts, visual ammo suddenly flying in from out of frame and ear-splitting sound effects and music cues, to the point where at least part of the audience will want to tune out. In this respect, it is a theme-park ride, with shocks and jolts provided with reliable regularity. Across 90 minutes, however, the experience is desensitizing and dispiriting and far too insistent.
Though Jenny was useful for formulating the plans, it’s up to the boys to save the day with brute force:
While Chowder is driving a steamshovel, simultaneously battling the now-mobile house and leading it to a strategic point under a crane, DJ and Jenny are scaling the crane, DJ with explosives in hand that he will drop into the house’s chimney, blowing it apart. Jenny has a minor role in this – I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it’s something like, DJ stumbles and drops the dynamite, she grabs it, throws it to DJ, and he drops it in. It was all so predictable – and so unnecessary. Why couldn’t Jenny have dropped it in? Why are girls almost always accessories and rarely the heroes? Allowing Jenny to be the one to finally drop the dynamite would have made it a group effort, rather than a boys’ effort with a girl tagging along.
That Jenny doesn’t get to use the weaponry is the least of my issues. My issue is that Jenny doesn’t get a character arc.
The mainstream (adult) film equivalent of this is giving the female character the gun while the male characters use brute force with blunt objects and so on. Guns, in movies, at least, are seen as the easy way to win a fight. I am familiar with the ‘feminist equality’ argument for private and unmoderated gun ownership: “Guns level the playing field. A woman with a gun can fight a big man.” American homicide statistics don’t back this argument up, but I digress.
Ironically, the anagnorisis that DJ has is that after all that adult responsibility of saving the neighbourhood from the massive house woman, he would like to be a child for a little while longer. We realise this when he agrees to go trick or treating with Chowder.
Apart from this his friendship with Chowder has been reaffirmed. Previously, their child development was out of sync, but now these two buddies have overcome that.
The house is destroyed. One lingering question: Where is Nebbercracker going to live? This is never answered, though Chowder speculates. Last thing we see is Bones climbing out of the rubble of the house. He has been trapped inside. He’ll probably assume he was on a drugged out bender.
In any case, the suburban neighborhood is now safe.
As for the romantic subplot, it’s kind of a rule that DJ ‘deserves’ to win Jenny. DJ is the more conventionally attractive boy and star of our story. Even J.K. Rowling herself has said that Harry should have ended up with Hermione. The problem with romantic subplots is that if the plot really is a distant second to the main action, we end up with a story in which the girl is given as a prize, with no real reason shown for why this girl would be interested in the boy she ends up with. For instance, a believable romance between equals features an ‘I understand you moment’, which is a phrase I’m borrowing from Matt Bird. I’ll just quote Matt:
The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.
“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.
Matt Bird, Secrets of Story
Matt does offer a bit of a disclaimer: Sometimes the writer can establish that two characters belong together before they even meet.
But why, exactly, are DJ and Jenny together? I can tell you why. It’s because DJ saw her across the road and it was love at first sight. In turn, Jenny is impressed by DJ’s saving the day while Jenny stood by and watched. I don’t know about you, but I think a smart, knowing character like Jenny would see right through that kind of bullshit. Don’t you? It’s how she was set up!
By the way, it was always clear that Chowder wasn’t going to ‘win the girl’. As explained by Michael Hauge, there are some rules of romantic triangles. (And by ‘triangle’ I mean the variety in which two boys are interested in one girl.)
1. Make the character who will be left behind a jerk who deserves to be jilted. This is the trick used here.Chowder is kind of lazy. The physical shortcut is that he’s also chubby, even though BMI and laziness do not correlate in real life. He says he worked really hard for his basketball, but he only asked his mom for a dollar 28 times. Not marriage material, in other words.
2. Let the rival be the one to realize the hero isn’t her destiny.
3. Give “Ms. Wrong” someone better to be with, who makes her happier than the hero can.
4. (Rare) Leave your protagonist alone at the end, but better off moving on.
The writers of Monster House have written a film that mostly works, structurally. They’ve relied on established, unhelpful tropes to that end.
This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that the remake was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.
PREMISE OF CARRIE
A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)
SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE
Your own powers can be the end of you.
I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)
It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.
Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.
GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE
The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.
Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.
The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.
— Howard Suber
I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.
The Female Gothic
Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.
Features of the Female Gothic Novel:
- Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
- Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine.
- The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
- The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
- The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
- The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
- The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)
In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.
STORYWORLD OF CARRIE
Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.
— Howard Suber
She was alone with Momma’s angry God.
The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.
— Stephen King, Carrie
The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.
Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.
There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.
The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.
She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.
Deaths In Schools
By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.
King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.
The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.
Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.
The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:
Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.
Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:
Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….
— Stephen King, Carrie
In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.
Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene.
Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)
Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.
King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:
- Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
- Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
- Hero (Sue)
- Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
- Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
- Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:
Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore
All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.Stephen King, Carrie
The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:
She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest
— Stephen King, Carrie
On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.
Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.
What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.
*In the novel Sue has dark hair.
King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.
but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.
Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.
There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.
Here King is kinder on men.
Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.
Pig blood for a pig.
The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.
As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower?
Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers.
Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.
King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.
“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.”
“Name them.” She leaned forward.
“First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?”
“Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“
“We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.”
“She’d go with you.”
Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.”
“Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?”
“You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.”
“A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.”
“All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”
In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:
- Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
- Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
- Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
- Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s
It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.
In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.
The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)
Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.
To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:
- The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
- The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.
Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)
In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer.
We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.
Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).
“Shirley The Medium” is an original recomposition of elements from diverse sources:
- Pandora’s Box, the Ancient Greek Myth
- A Christmas Carol, Dickens
- Modern TV psychics
STORY STRUCTURE OF SHIRLEY THE MEDIUM
Courage is unable to tell Eustace not to open the box. He is a dog and can’t speak English. Besides that, the adults don’t listen to him anyway.
Also, in this episode, one shortcoming is that Courage needs to please his owners, even though one of them is outright horrible. When he digs up a locked box he hands it over to Eustace after overhearing Eustace complaining about his dead brother’s box of money. This leads to no end of trouble.
Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.
There is a different desire, however, to set off the action. Courage wants to find his yo-yo. He runs out into the yard and searches through his hole, which is the child-dog equivalent of a child’s toy box.
The yo-yo could easily be treated as a McGuffin — something used to start the story off and then forgotten. But the yo-yo subplot is revived later for comic effect when Shirley the Medium exclaims, “I see… I see… A yo-yo! Under the couch!”
There is plenty of opportunity for conflict in this episode.
- The dead brother, comically named ‘Horse’. Muriel tells us that there was always a long-running feud between Eustace and Horse. Eustace’s reaction to Horse on his birthday is comically over-the-top: “We have settled our differences. He’s dead and I’m not!” In the Pandora mythology, Prometheus (“Foresight”) and his brother Epimetheus (“Hindsight”) likewise have a problematic relationship.
- Shirley the Medium, who Eustace dislikes — because Eustace automatically dislikes everyone. In this case he doesn’t like handing over money for a service he feels hasn’t been provided. Courage, too, knows that nothing good will come of Shirley’s helping to open the box.
- Between Eustace and Muriel — Muriel is conciliatory whereas Eustace alienates.
- Between Courage and Eustace/Muriel, who won’t listen to him.
- The Minotaur opponent: The ghouls inside the box. (This is also the least interesting opponent.)
Cleverly, the audience is not shown the ghouls. Instead we see Courage watching the ghouls.
We’re offered a taste of ghoulishness when we see Courage transmogrify.
Courage always has the same plan.
This story is similar to the mattress episode in that the plan comes from Muriel and Eustace initially. Muriel wants Eustace to wish Horse a happy birthday while Eustace wants to connect with his brother in order to find out what he did with the key to his box of money, which Courage has found while looking for his yo-yo, and naively handed over. The interesting comic technique here is piling coincidence upon coincidence. All of these things are happening at once:
- It’s Horse’s birthday
- Courage just happens to find a box of money while looking for his yo-yo
- Eustace just happens to mention the box of money
- An advertisement for a psychic medium comes on the telly just as they’re discussing Horse and his unwillingness to spill the beans on the money.
We can make the most of these coincidences when writing comedy. That many coincidences piled up are themselves comic.
Courage has already looked into the box and knows there’s nothing good inside. He tries to alert the people who can help. Eustace throws him aside (literally). Muriel is of a much kinder nature and unwittingly shuts him up by shoving a taste-test of jam into his mouth.
He tries to stop the medium coming into the house, to no avail.
With Muriel and Eustace’s plan winning out, we are treated to a highly comedic sequence in which Muriel talks to Gertrude, Horse’s dead wife, and the first thing they talk about is how much vinegar to use when making jam. This starts off the jam-making subplot which will keep Muriel occupied in the kitchen while Eustace is hell bent on opening the box. There is also a dial tone ringing. The seance is treated like a realworld telephone call. Eustace, exclaims, “He never answers my calls!”
The phone theme is continued when, unable to speak to Eustace using human language, it turns out he is able to (perhaps) be understood if he is calling on a phone. This implies that the only reason Eustace cannot understand Courage is because he knows from his form that he is a dog, and if only he were to listen closely enough he’d understand perfectly. The great thing about the setting is that it is completely desolate, so when the writers plonk a phone booth out there the juxtaposition provides humour.
Eustace does find out however that his brother has sewn the key to the box inside the lining of Eustace’s hat.
After the big struggle scene, Courage must change his plan. He goes to find Shirley the Medium so she can put the situation right. He carries her back to the house for a second time where she, and only, she has the power to (simply) shut the box.
Although it is Shirley who puts the finishing touches on saving the day, the main saviour is Courage, who not only retrieves Shirley, but has the idea of tying the house up with rope so that at least the ghouls are contained. He gets the rope from the washing line.
Hilariously, on the cusp of imminent death, Muriel asks if he’s folded up the washing first. (He has. “What a good dog!”)
The ‘thread thread’ is continued across scenes — when Courage reaches Shirley at her TV studio she happens to be flossing her teeth. This is a clever transition.
This episode has a moral: Greed will lead you to trouble. There’s nothing subtle about it. We’ve already seen in a previous episode another deadly sin utilised — both Eustace and his mother are vain (about their lack of hair). Greed is associated with the colour green — possibly more so in America, where money is literally green — so it’s fitting that the whole room light up green when Eustace opens the box.
Eustace finds himself shut inside the box and is delighted to see piles and piles of money.
“But… what can I spend it on?” he asks didactically. The message is obvious. This is a message that’s been done seriously many times before, perhaps most famously in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This cartoon doesn’t really exist to teach a message. Instead, the anagnorisis part of the story is a requirement of a complete narrative, and it must exist here no matter how ‘on-the-nose’ it is. In fact, its on-the-nose quality add to the humour. It’s funny that Eustace hasn’t already learned this simple life lesson.
The jam subplot is concluded with Muriel sitting on the rocking chair eating it out of the pot. Eustace calls out from the box, “Hey, can I buy some jam?” Muriel says he can eat jam just as soon as they find the key for the box.
The best of the Courage episodes have excellent closing scenes in which Courage turns to the audience and delivers a joke just for them. Here he reveals to us that he is hiding the key in his mouth. Young viewers love to feel included in this way, and feel fully on side with Courage.
The idea of an evil mattress is of course horror fantasy, but comes from the real world mistrust we have about sleeping on other people’s beds. Here in Australia it’s not even legal to sell a secondhand mattress. (The word secondhand itself is out of fashion.)
When sleeping in cheap joints (and even sometimes in expensive ones) we worry about bed bugs. Horror stories are always making the most of our deepest anxieties. Comic horror stories tend to pick the more trivial ones… like fear of creepy crawlies inside mattresses.
Colour is used in this episode as the story changes in tone.
Demonic possession is the belief that individuals can be possessed by malevolent preternatural beings, commonly referred to as demons or devils. Obsessions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among men. It is obsession when the demon acts externally against the person whom it besets, and possession when he acts internally, agitates them, excites their ill humor, makes them utter blasphemy, speak tongues they have never learned, discovers to them unknown secrets, and inspires them with the knowledge of the obscurest things in philosophy or theology.
The oldest mention of possession is Sumerian, but modern horror stories tend to draw most heavily from Christian traditions. Traditionally it was believed that people possessed are possessed by the Devil. The Devil is a fallen angel.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DEMON IN THE MATTRESS”
The episodes in which opponents come to the house, this farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, are similar to a Robinsonnade, in which there is an island. The drama in a Robinsonnade comes from the characterisation and interpersonal conflict. There’s not much characterisation here, of course. Mainly gags and horror tropes. In any case, the Bagge family don’t even need to leave their house — like a police station in a crime show, trouble just walks in the door.
As usual, and this never changes, Courage is just a dog and no one believes him when things go wrong.
As for the inciting incident/need of Muriel, this is established right away when she points out that a whole lot of springs are poking out of their mattress.
When Courage listens to the other end of the phone, he realises the mattress vendors are no good. They’ve ‘been waiting for your call’. He wants to save Muriel from the baddies.
Muriel wants a new mattress.
We first see a shot of the opponents’ lair. A couple of small creatures scuttle past.
The mattress delivery guys turn up in a medieval chariot.
They appear to be some kind of rodent pair. They have special contempt for Courage, hissing at him as they walk into the house. They know Courage is the only one who suspects them of mal-intent.
As ever, Courage first tries to warn Muriel, then when the possession happens he tries to tell Eustace.
And, as ever, he checks things out thoroughly before diving in. Here he is peering inside the window.
It’s clear by now that the family computer is the domestic equivalent of a sage. Courage asks the ‘sage’ how to get rid of a demon and then Eustace is able to read the print out. The plan is for Eustace to dress up in a floaty gown and memorise a chant.
As is common in children’s comedy, it is funny that Eustace (a man) is demeaned by dressing him in female clothing.
The big struggle sequence turns the house into an ominous shade of chartreuse. A green mist comes out of the bed and takes hold of Muriel. She loses her head. She is talking in a deep male voice. But the possessed Muriel is not truly horrific. She conceals something beneath the covers and we find out it’s a tray of tea (rather than a dismembered body part, say.)
The writers of Courage The Cowardly Dog like to make use of childhood games in the big struggle sequence. We’ve already seen a game of handball/squash and a food fight. Here the possessed Muriel has a thumb wrestle with Courage to settle the score.
In the end only Courage can save Muriel. Eustace isn’t saying the magic spell correctly. Courage digs a hole in the yard until he comes across the floating gown, then puts it on himself and turns Muriel back into Muriel.
Unfortunately, in this ‘never-ending’ or ‘repeating’ story, Eustace ends up possessed though his own ineptitude. Muriel hits on on the head with a rolling pin which she seems to carry everywhere. (It breaks in two.) Courage rolls him firmly inside a mattress in a second short big struggle. Eustace, in this episode, is rather a tragic figure and we feel sorry for him.
“We don’t want your special mattress,” Muriel says angrily into the receiver. She tells the creatures to come and pick it up for a refund.
Eustace is taken away by the pissed off rats.
Muriel and Courage sleep together on the couch downstairs, which Muriel declares is very comfortable.
But we know Eustace will make it back in time for the next episode…