Friday, October 30, 2009

The three poles of TERROR: Have a structural Halloween

I was thinking a lot about horror and scary stories tonight, and it occurred to me that fear-inducing entities in storytelling typically have three essential sources. These are very abstract, of course, and they probably leave some outliers that I'm not thinking about, but still, it was an interesting little exercise to look at how they relate, and plot all the major studio monsters I could think of onto a field of horror concept.

I broke it down to three categories:

1) NATURAL: this includes anything with an explanation in plausible, real-world terms. Head-cases and psychological abominations... anything that represents an abberration of nature or humanity... that goes in this category. This category is driven by fear of disorder and lack of control.

2) SUPERNATURAL: supernatural is anything that completely refuses to be explained or justified in terms of physical or psychological laws. Supernatural forces come from other worlds, and the reason these worlds are "other" is that we don't have any way of understanding them. This is driven by fear of otherness and the unknown.

3) THE DEAD: A necessary third category, because it represents so much fiction. Apparently we're in constant fear of having to face an incarnation of mortality, which is where the unknown looms in all our lives. This is driven by fear of death (duh).

All objects of anxiety in horror and "tales of the strange" represent some combination of these essential anxieties. I put them all into a cool little graph, so we can discuss their various roles. Here it is... click for a huge version:

By the way, congratulations to Freddy Krueger, who gets the central spot. He's an insane child molester, murdered by an angry mob, who now inhabits the "other world" of dreams, a common focal point for myths of the supernatural. He's pretty much the best of all three horror worlds, which is why I'll never watch a Nightmare On Elm Street (revision LOL) movie by myself, or after dark, or without being physically forced to do so.

Also, it's worth noting some other little insights here. Dracula is clearly down on the line between "dead" and "supernatural," because he traded his humanity for his immortality, and died a symbolic death in the process. However, other vampires may inhabit other locations on this little graph. Some are the products of science, or a blood disease, like the crazy beasties in I Am Legend. Some don't really die in order to become Vampires, like the gothy teenagers in Vampire: The Masquerade.

It's worth contrasting Dracula with the Zombie myth... zombies are embodiments of death, much like vampires, but unlike vampires, they're usually explained scientifically, rather than supernaturally.

I've placed all "demonic" presences down by "supernatural," with a little nudge toward "dead," because even though they themselves were never human, and therefore never died human deaths, they still preside over the land of the dead, and death is their explicit domain. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones are the only creatures I can think of that are absolutely, completely otherworldly, in a non-scientific way, and aren't somehow related to human mortality.

So that's today's structuralist musing on horror, and a new addition to my list of cute little graphical gestures in this bloggy-blog. I wonder if you'd get more out of it by adding another variable, like original release/appearance date for each villain? You could code that into colors for the dots, and maybe you'd discover that horror has been moving from more supernatural to more natural over time.


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