It’s October–the month we celebrate Halloween. The holiday itself has a complicated history, but it all boils down to this: we try to convince ourselves we are fearless. We, the adults, have outgrown our phobias of the Monster Under the Bed. We watch movies about vampires, ghosts, and demons who would possess us with the nonchalance of a toddler picking his nose. We’re grownups, right? We’re the ones in charge. What do we have to be afraid of?
Of all the foundations of the shifting genre of Gothic, there’s one that never moves except to reflect the fears of the current generation. Tropes of the Gothic are celebrated on Halloween in full force, but if one pays attention the overall theme of this genre is fear of loss of control. Loss of control manifests in either physical or emotional entrapment or confinement. This is why in horror movies, the pretty girl is tied up in the basement, buried alive, or chased through the darkness by someone who means her harm. She is at the mercy of someone or something else. This motif rarely changes much in horror movies; it merely mutates to a different form.
Why are zombie movies so popular? It’s the same theme, only flipped. The dead/undead. Life/not life. As an advanced society, we have such powerful medical technology we can keep one who was meant to die alive indefinitely. What is a zombie but someone who is dead but unaware? Think life support keeping stroke victims technically alive when there is no brain activity. Life/not life.
There is another side of horror which Julia Kristeva calls the Abject.
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable…The abject has only one quality of the object–that of being opposed to I (Kristeva 1).
Kristeva further explains one characteristic of the Abject as being something that spreads, defiles, consumes. We must stop it in its tracks, lest the innocents be corrupted and lost.
I asked a question on Facebook: What are you afraid of? What is your deepest fear?
Many people replied with known phobias such as being afraid of snakes, spiders, taxidermy, claustrophobia, etc. Some delved a bit further under the surface and admitted to more personal psychological terrors. Here are the 5 top fears I found among teenagers and adults. It’s a basic fear of loss of control.
1. The fear of failing as a parent. I don’t know a decent mom who doesn’t lose sleep regarding her parenting decisions. More than that, we moms obsess about the example we share with our kids. Nothing hurts more than to see your child making the same mistakes you’ve made, with the same repercussions. We as moms blame ourselves for every bad thing that happens to our kids, whether it’s our fault or not.
Be gentle with yourself, dear Mama. Even if we are doing our best, we can’t help being human. As such, we are hopelessly flawed, and it’s almost a cosmic joke that our kids show us in living color every bad trait we ourselves exhibit.
2. The fear of failure. This is a big one that never seems to go away; rather it transforms as we grow into adulthood. As a high school student, we might be afraid of failing school, not making the team, not getting the attention of our crush, and for type A’s, not making the grade. It doesn’t go away as we grow into adults. Now, we fear failing as a parent, failing in our marriage, letting down our boss, our spouse, our children, the list goes on and on.
3. The fear of being forgotten. I’m pretty sure this one haunts everyone. What legacy are we leaving? Are we making a difference? What will our spouses, parents, children, families, friends….the world… remember about us when we are gone? What have we done of substance that will remain after our passing? For parents, this one really resonates within our hearts, because our hope is that our children will be our legacy, but also that we have made some kind of ripple in the pond.
4. The fear of loss. This one is the director of my nightmares. I’ve lost my father and both grandmothers, but there’s a tiny, ever-present terror of being left when my husband dies. Even greater is the terror of losing a child. If anything were to happen to one of my kids, I’m not certain I would survive emotionally. For those of you who have experienced this heartbreaking experience, my heart goes out to you.
5.The fear of dying and leaving our lives unfinished. This encapsulates a combination of the other four fears, conglomerating into a monster of a fear that keeps us up at night. We don’t want to die before we’ve finished that novel, seen our kids go to college, held our first grandchild. Even more scary is the idea of dying and leaving our children left behind to be raised by someone else. This fear takes on a new dimension for single parents who fear their children being put into the hands of people we don’t trust, whether it’s a crazy mother-in-law or a lazy ex-husband. In essence, our fears can be boiled down to the loss of two subjects: time and control.
So tell me now, what are you really afraid of?
Kristeva, Julia, and Leon S. Roudiez. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.
Have you ever thought of teaching Stephen King to college students? During my graduate work, I took an amazing class taught by Dr. Karen Sloan called American Gothic. It was one of my favorite classes of all time because it’s just right up my alley. I took it concurrently with Dr. Ross’s British Gothic and I learned so much about the roots of horror. Here’s 5 reasons why I teach “1408” in my English composition class.
1. It’s a great example of a short, well-written horror story that perfectly fits the Contemporary Gothic genre. King is the master of horror, and as much as I would like to teach an entire novel (The Shining, Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile would be great to dissect!), I just don’t have enough time in a composition class to cover it.
2. It’s a perfect King bite. A bit scary, but not too scary for the faint of heart and those who hate horror. “1408” is a delicious sample, like the ones they give away at Sam’s Club on Saturdays. I might not really WANT to buy a whole lasagna, but a bite or two is perfect!
3. I love surprising students with King’s literary depth. Many people underestimate King’s writing–even he does–as simple, popular mass market paperback books. Not so. They are chock full of well-crafted characters, action-packed plots and quotable lines. His works are so much more.
4. If there’s a literary device I want to teach (symbolism, foreshadowing, point of view, unreliable/reliable narrators), I have a full arsenal in “1408.” It’s densely packed with everything I need in less than 30 pages, and students who balk at traditionally taught literature seem to be more open to the Kingster. Yes, I just called him that.
5. Reading “1408” automatically gives me an excuse to watch John Cusack at his best. Enough said.