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sites of control/Sites of Contest:
The Deployment of Fear in 20th Century Narrative
Andrew J. Schopp
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
Requirements for the Degree
Doctor of Philosophy
Professor Bette London
Department of English The College
Arts and Science
University of Rochester Rochester, New York
UMI Number: 9523167
Copyright 1995 by Schopp, Andrew J. Al1 rights reserved.
UMI Microform Edition 9523167
Copyright 1995, by UMI Company. Al1 rights reserved.
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Andrew Schopp was born in st. Louis, Missouri on June 8, 1964. He attended The University of california at Los Angeles from 1982 to 1987, and he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1987. He came to the University of Rochester in the Fall of 1988 and began graduate studies in English Literature. He received a University Teaching Fellowship 1991-1993, a FIPSE Teaching Fellowship 1993-1994, The Department of English Graduate Student Teaching Award in 1993, and The Graduate Dean's Dissertation Fellowship in 1994. He pursued his research in 20th Century American and British Literature under the direction of Professor Bette London and received the Master of Arts degree in 1991.
I wish to thank Professor Bette London for her support and guidance, and especially for her willingess to oversee my research in a subject that so often deviated from nmainstreamn literary study. Her continual encouragement of my endeavour and her engagement with the material often made this project possible. I would also like to acknowledge that portions of Chapter Two have appeared in revised form in LIT: Literature. Interpretation. Theory 5.1 (1994): 29-43.
By exploring the deployment of fear in both popular and canonical texts, my di~sertation challenges two critical assumptions about the horror narrative: first, that horror constitutes a "safe" cultural space; second, that horror is an "essentially male" genre. Hany critics define the horror text as a "safe" narrative space that defuses cultural fears. However, post-structuralist theories of narrative and psychoanalytic assessments of subject formation complicate this widely accepted argument. If narrative does control and shape subjectivity, then the deployment of fear in narrative can be a coercive ideological tool for reaffirming or contestirig cultural fears and their ideological foundations. Since horror narratives often manipulate fears surrounding gender and sexuality, and since such fears frequently reflect patriarchal ideology, many critics have defined horror as an "essentially male" genre. Nonetheless, my analysis suggests that horror narratives can critique this "essential maleness." While traditional theories have limited their analyses to the popular horror genre, I contend that the horror "impulse" functions in most literature and that its study can afford crucial new understandings of canonical texts.
Hy study begins by examining Stephen King's Misex:y
and Christine as exemplars of the "safe" text that reaffirms cu1 tural norms. However, by exploring the vampire text as a site of performative transgression, I demonstrate that even popular texts can work to challenge ideologies of gender and sexuality. By examining Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson' s ~ Haunting of Hill House in terms of their respective cultural contexts, I demonstrate that these canonical texts manipulate cultural fears and dismantle narrative "safety." While James's narrative ambiguity manages to reaffirm conservative gender roles for women, Jackson uses the "horror" space to interrogate a domestic ideal. Finally, Toni Morrison's Belayed consistently disrupts na_rrative safety, takes "narrative" and "safety" as its subjects, and thus ultimately speaks to the control and threat of dominant social na~atives, specifically narratives that construct, and effectively endorse, cultural horrors such as slavery.
Table of Contents
Fear and Narrative: Establishing a Theoretical Framework •••••••••••••••••••• 1
Fear and the Normative Narrative Space:
Stephen King's Monstrous Females •••••••• 64
I. From Misogyny to Homophobia and Back Again: The Play of Erotic Triangles in Stephen King's Christine •••••••••••••••• 79
II. Writing (with) the Body: Stephen
King's Hisery •••••••••••••••••••••••••• 110
Chapter Three Exploiting the Ex-Centric: The Subversive
Vampire Space •••••••••.•••••••••••••••• 149
I. Female "Victim-Heroes" and Monstrous Patriarchy: Gender and the Vampire ••••• 169
II. Homoeroticism and the Vampire •••••• 194
CUltural Mandates/CUltural Fears:
Narrative Ambiguity in James and
Jackson •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 213
I. Demonizing the Governess: James's
The Turn of the Screw ••••••••••••••••• 221
II. Demonizing the Domestic Space:
Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House ••• 262
Narrative Control and SUbjectivity:
Dismantling Safety in Toni Morrison's
Beloved •••••••••.•••.•••..•••...••.••.. 303
Chapter One Fear and Narrative:
Establishing a Theoretical Framework
When one speaks of the relationship between fear and narrative, one inevitably raises the specter of the nhorror text. n One thinks perhaps of the High Gothic of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, the Southern Gothic of twentieth-century American literature,
or the popular horror fictions that have inundated American culture over the past twenty five years. While the two former genres have gained some degree of canonical leqi timacy (and thus have warranted academic study), the latter genre has been relatively ignored by the academic community. Critics have provided numerous analyses of the Gothic and of gothicism, yet only a handful of works attempt to examine the horror narrative,
while even fewer study the use of what I would call the horror impulse in narrative. This critical lack hardly
seems accidental. Rosemary Jackson, whose work on the fantastic includes what may come closest to an actual study of the horror impulse, claims that the fantastic
has been dismissed nto the margins of literary culture,n and that this dismissal is nan ideologically significant gesture, one which is not dissimilar to culture's
silencing of unreason" (Jackson 173). I would argue that the same claim could be made about the horror impulse in narrative.
But what exactly is this impulse? The horror impulse consists of those narrative elements that work to produce an emotion of fear in the reader. In the broadest sense, such elements can include horrific imagery, representations of violence, monstrosity, the culturally taboo. More specifically, such elements would include the manipulation of monstrosity and the monstrous figure, narrative techniques that disrupt and manipulate the reading subject's pleasure or that reaffirm socially constructed fears and their ideological implications, and the narrative construction of coercive identifications between the reading subject and, for example, monstrosity, fear, the culturally repressed. The horror impulse functions centrally in the Gothic and in popular horror fictions, yet the impulse is also evident in numerous works not normally identified with horror per se. Katherine Hume has said of fantasy that it is "not a separate or separable strain, but rather an impulse as significant as the mimetic impulse," and that we need to nrecognize that both are involved in the creation of most literaturen CHume xii). I would add that the horror impulse, whether enacted through a mimetic or fantastic
narrative, is also involved, to some degree, in most literature.
At times, evidence of this impulse can be blatant, as in Kurtz's final words nthe horror, the horrorn in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. At times its presence is more subtle, as in the echo from the Marabar Caves in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. But whether it is Annie Wilkes dismembering Paul Sheldon in Stephen King's Misery or Sethe dismembering her daughter in Toni Morrison's Beloved, whether it is Anne Rice's vampires, Henry James's ghosts or Shirley Jackson's haunted mansion, or even if it is an image as momentary and visceral as Myrtle Wilson's torn body, n ••• her left
breast. swinging loose like a flap ••• n in
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald 144), the narrative impulse to frighten, to evoke a sense of fear and revulsion, permeates literature.
Nonetheless, this impulse has undergone little scrutiny. Host studies of canonical works have either overlooked the horror impulse or subordinated its study to the analysis of more nacceptablen and nimportantn aesthetic and narrative devices. In the studies of genres that have risen around the horror impulse, little emphasis has been placed on how this impulse functions, on how and why such texts struggle to evoke fear (in
fact, many studies merely take this as a given). Host of
these analyses have either emphasized the way certain
textual elements relate to other literary, cultural or social contexts (while often diminishing the relationship
of these elements or contexts to fear), or ttley have
focussed almost obsessively on postulating the attraction of horror, usually offering hypotheses that limit any potential connection between horror narratives and social practice.2 And, while a few recent critics have begun to look at the relation between narratives that produce fear and the cultural practices that may rely on, or produce
the need for, such narratives,3 these assessments have
1For example, in her work Perils of the Night: A Feminist stugy of Nineteenth-CentukY Gothic, Eugenia Delamotte equates the Gothic's constant representations of locked doors and labyrinths with social and cultural concerns about transgressing boundaries. While she does discuss the anxiety intrinsically connected with the idea of enacting such transgressions, she focuses more on what such transgressions signify about the social than on how the fear produced by such transgressions might participate in a system of fears that serves to regulate the social. This is not to diminish the significance of her analysis (or of other analyses of the Gothic genre), but merely to suggest that while the horror impulse is often implicitly acknowledged in many works, it is seldom explicitly studied.
2See for example the recent works by James Twitchell and Noel carroll, both of which examine the "paradox" of the attraction to the horror text. An examination of both theorists and their underlying assumptions is presented below.
3See for example Joseph Grixti's Terror's of Uncertainty: The CUltural Context's of Horror Fiction.
remained limited to the Horror genre, even when they have
crossed the boundaries of narrative form (i. e. novel, film, television). As a result, possible connections between the horror impulse in t",;.he Horror genre and this impulse in other types of literature have not been explored. C
Clearly, then, the horror impulse has been relegated to the margins of literary culture. The following study attempts to reconfigure center and margin, arguing that popular horror texts provide the most prevalent uses of fear in narrative, and thus constitute a center against
which one can examine the uses of fear in works not
generally associated with horror. In fact, this study's trajectory moves from examining two novels that reflect popular horror as a central space for the horror impulse (Stephen King's Christine and Misery) to examining a text that is at best marginally associated with horror, that is cl~arly associated with nhigh art,n but that significantly manipulates cultural fears and horrors
CLouis Gross in Redefining the American Gothic from Wieland to Day of the Dead, does attempt to break the g~"'lre boundary. His analysis focuses on various expressions of nGothic anxietyn rather than the horror impulse. However, what is crucial and highly useful in his study, is his insistence on examining both nHigh Artn and popular texts (for example, works by Poe, Hawthorne and Faulkner as well as works by Anne Rice and John Rechy). In fact, Gross imposes the Gothic label on works that seldom carry it in other studies.
(Toni Horrison' s Beloved). Thus, this study does not merely strive to efface the horror/not horror dichotomy,
but the high art/low art dichotomy as well. I would contend that one reason for the critical silencing of horror is precisely the fact that the most consistent and
explicit uses of fear in narrative occur within the
popular horror genre, a product of mass culture.
Fredric Jameson has asked that we
rethink the opposition high culture/mass culture in such a way that the emphasis on evaluation to which it has traditionally given rise, and which • • • tends to function in some timeless realm of absolute aesthetic judgment, is replaced by a genuinely historical and dialectical approach to these phenomena. Such an approach demands that we read high and mass culture as objectively related and dialectically interdependent phenomena
Despite Jameson's insistence that mass cultural representations primarily express but then recontain
cultural anxieties (142), I find his call for a dialectical approach to mass artjhigh art very useful. As
Colin HacCabe has claimed, nthose who isolate themselves
within the narrow and exclusive traditions of high art,
those who glory in the simple popularity of the popular,
both effectively ignore the complex way in which
traditions and technologies combine to produce audiencesn
(HacCabe 8). Both Jameson and HacCabe speak to the
significance of recognizing the social in its relation to
cultural representations. As I plan to demonstrate, one element that is often missing, or at least downplayed, in
discussions of horror in narrative is the horror text's
relation to the social.
However, these critics also suggest a productive
tension that can exist between the two poles of this
dichotomy. Jameson's insistence on "recontainment," for
example, would seem to oppose HacCabe's comments about glorying in the popular. Nonetheless, critics Leslie Roman and Linda Christian-Smith have outlined a critical
position that explores the tension between the "cultural pessimist" impulse in cultural studies (consumers as passive dupes; popular culture as a site of containment) and the cultural populist impulse (popular culture as
almost always a site of challenge and resistance to dominant ideological positions).5 This critical position should apply to high as well as to mass culture; however, the consumer of high art representations seldom seems to be accused of the same kind of passivity.
Much of this chapter will be devoted to delineating
the tension between the reinscriptive potential of horror
(both "high art" and "popular") and its subversive possibilities. Thus, while I would accept Jameson's call
5 See their introduction to Becoming Feminine; The Politics of Popular culture.
to examine the productive relationship between mass and high culture, I would resist the implications of his insistence that mass culture is of necessity the other of high culture. This insistence does seem crucial to me, for it suggests that even a critic who values effacing this dichotomy can still reaffirm one of the ideologies that would seem to perpetuate this dichotomy. At the same time, one reason for the critical dismissal of horror is precisely that, since it is so aligned with the popular, it is relegated to the position of devalued, but potentially threatening, other.
Andreas Huyssen has investigated the implications of configuring mass culture as other to high culture. Specifically, he examines a history of perceiving mass culture as the "feminine" counterpart to the "masculine" realm of high art. Huyssen explains that these gendered associations carry with them cultural hierarchies of value--mass art/the feminine is devalued while high art/the masculine is upheld. Significantly, Huyssen interprets this dichotomy in terms of fear: "the fear of the masses in this age of declining liberalism is always also a fear of woman, a fear of nature out of control, a fear of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the loss of identity and stable ego boundaries in the mass" ("Mass culture as Woman" 196). Huyssen's description of mass
culture could easily be applied to the typical horror text since fear of woman, of nature out of control, and of sexuality constitute the most common "unspeakables" that the horror text speaks. Also, the horror text frequently relies upon a move towards eradicating identity and ego boundaries. Thus the horror text might be the perfect exemplar of Huyssen's theory--the mass cultural product par excellence.
Of course, Huyssen would insist that the idea of "mass culture and the masses as feminine threat" is now outdated, that it "belongs to another age" ("Mass CUlture ••• " 205). As I shall argue in Chapter Two, however, Stephen King's novel Misery suggests that our culture still devalues the popular and it does so specifically by aligning it with the feminine. Not only does King represent the consumer of mass culture as a monstrous female, but he suggests that the male producer is ultimately a feminized male. While Huyssen insists that postmodernism has effectively blurred the boundaries between mass and high culture (202), the boundaries still
exist, and not just for a "producer" like King. Apparently the boundaries even exist, to some degree, for a critic like Jameson. Of course, the blurring of boundaries, whether in a popular or high art postmodern text, is essentially threatening within a culture
10 predicated upon maintaining such boundaries, hierarchies and dichotomies. Thus, while the horror impulse's allegiance with the popular might constitute one reason for its critical marginalization, this reason in many ways constitutes a "safen facade, masking the more significant reason for such marginalization--i.e. the horror impulse, because it speaks the unspeakable and manipulates cultural fears, threatens social orders and must be silenced.
Most fears center on the unknown, and to delve into that realm is dangerous, since it might force us to face that which dominant cultural orders insist remain "unknown." Many critics obsessively ask why one would voluntarily expose oneself to a text that intends to frighten. However I this obsessive quest to understand horror's attraction simply restates that these products should be feared, and this message effectively defers any inquest into how and why such products utilize fear. In essence I the most threatening element of the horror text, or of any text that manipulates fear, is that it foregrou'l'lds fear and the social uses of fear I both coercive and subversive. That fear has a social function is implicit in a critic like Huyssen, but this fact is often ignored in studies of horror narrative and even in studies that examine fear as an emotion.
In his introduction to SociOl>hobics: The
Anthropology of Fear, David Scruton explains that fear has seldom been studied as a sociological phenomenon. Instead, it has generally been studied, as have most
emotions, as an individual psychic phenomenon. Scruton's
aim is to revise traditional approaches to fear by contending that fear is a powerful and crucial cultural
mode. He claims that fear, nas a cultural mode, is shown
to serve an important social function which may lead to the confirmation of and adherence to compelling values and norms" (2). Scruton asserts that the individual
cannot feel what he cannot say (23), and by this he means that a feeling must be articulated (or capable of articulation) in order to be experienced. He posits a direct connection, then, between feeling and language. 6 In fact, he insists that the feeling in itself is not the emotion. Rather, feelings are identified in light of the label given to certain sets of experiences. Emotions thus
serve as modes of communication, and he claims that n if
6Ini tially , this :may seem to oppose a fundamental premise of many approaches to horror (and specifically that of Jackson) which contend that the horror text elicits fear by speaking the unspeakable. But we must make a distinction between what cannot be articulated (there is no language available) and what cannot be allowed articulation (it must be culturally repressed). Scruton discusses the former and a critic like Jackson takes the latter as her starting point.
emotions are acts of communication, partaking of the nature of language, their expression to others must not be allowed to fall outside certain limitsn (25). Scruton essentially claims that fear, as an emotion and thus a form of communication, must be expressed in socially approved and determined ways.
At the same time, Scruton outlines the social use of fear. He claims that fear is na technique which allows an individual to avoid dangern (33), although these dangers may be socially determined as such. He also asserts that society profits from the advantages of fear. Not only does the individual's fear potentially function to preserve the individual's life and thus maintain hisjher status as an active member of the collectivity, but fear functions to maintain social order. According to Scruton, nmembers of a society are encouraged to be afraid of departing from what is expected. of them and what is tolerated" (42). Fear becomes a regulating tool, "useful to the group for its members are encouraged to behave properly lest they have cause to fear,n and "useful to the individual, for his fear alerts him to the possibility that he may incur his society's resentmentn (42). Scruton makes the coercive capacity of fear abundantly clear. He even claims that nfear is our society speaking to us 'through our own voice" (42;
emphasis mine). His analysis suggests that fear is an internalized corrective, structured and determined by the
culture in which the individual chances to be a member.
Scruton's purpose is not to detail the various
methods of constructing fear. He asserts, however, that while we may be born with a fear potential, it is crucial
that we learn to fear correctly.
We must not fear randomly or mistakenly. We must know how to fear, what to fear, when to fear, how to express fear in order to make it a more effective instrument of social purpose, and how to behave in response to it. Fears which are not heeded, or are responded to in the wrong way, or are responses to inappropriate circumstances are counter productive (43).
I would contend that the horror impulse in narrative provides one method for conditioning the subject in the
ways to fear. Horror narratives, and horror in narrative,
teach us to fear, structure how we fear, and attempt to
use fear as a coercive instrument. However, this would
hardly be the only use of fear in narrative. Scruton's claim about the counter-productivity of certain fears or
fearing practices suggests the potential for resistance
to the coercive uses of fear. If, for example, a text
teaches us to fear the established cultural order, or the processes that establish that order, it clearly uses the coercive capacity of fear to transgress, rather than
reaffirm, cultural boundaries. What might be the effects
of a text that lays bare the very processes of coercion via fear? What might be the effect of a text that produces an identification between the reading subject and a monstrous figure? What if that figure's monstrosity defied socio-cultural definitions of appropriate fears, if it demonized what our culture tells us we should not fear?
These questions reveal my interest in delineating the reinscriptive and subversive potentials available when fear is articulated in narrative. To some degree, the very fact of these potentials might account for the critical silencing of the horror impulse. If the horror impulse can work to subvert dominant ideological positions, then it threatens the established cultural order, and to study this impulse would be to risk exposing, confronting, and perhaps even furthering the subversive potential. (Although, one could argue that studying this subversive potential might provide a way to contain it). If, on the other hand, these narratives do function in a socially coercive fashion, if they do reinscribe dominant ideologies, then to study this impulse is to risk exposing a process that, left unchecked, works to perpetuate cultural order. Of course, such an exposure can itself be subversive in that it reveals the constructed nature of cultural order and
demonstrates how narratives function in a coercive capacity. Such a revelation implies that if the current cultural order is a construct, there is the possibility that it can be dismantled. In short then, the horror impulse's subversive capacity is threatening because it challenges cultural order, and its reinscriptive capacity, which works to perpetuate that order, becomes threatening when it is exposed to the critical eye. The horror impulse poses a double threat, one that can account, at least in part, for its relegation to a silenced position.
The relationship between fear and narrative seems predicated upon a constant tension between the horror impulse's reinscriptive and subversive potential. What follows, both in this chapter and the dissertation as a whole, is an attempt to trace the limits of this tension. In postulating why the horror impulse has been marginalized, I have consistently suggested that one reason "masks" another, or that adhering to a high art/low art dichotomy is more "safe" than examining the more deeply embedded reasons for horror's dismissal. I bring up the ideas of masking and safety, because I believe they reflect the central problem of most critical works that have examined the horror narrative. Perhaps the greatest irony of these analyses is that they
consistently strive to claim that the horror narrative is
social solely in its capacity to provide a "safe" space
for the reading subject to confront and, as Jameson would undoubtedly argue, recontain anxieties and fears. While I would hardly deny that such a process of "safety" is often at work in horror narratives (King's work would seem to provide a good example), I am basing my analysis,
in part, on the conviction that the "safe space" theory
is an ideologically significant fallacy.
The "Safe Space" Fallacy
Embedded in many recent stUdies of horror and the horror narrative is a telling analogy that, when carefully examined, reveals the underlying assumption upon which many of these studies are based. "Horror is like a roller coaster, pleasurable because it lets you be
frightened without being hurt" (Twitchell 65). While this
is merely one analogy used to explain the attraction to horror, it is perhaps the most common. Joseph Grixti
one re~-ring analogical image used is that of amusement park rides, which provide thrills and the taste of danger but always within a reassuringly controlled and unthreatening context. There are rules to this game, in other words, which readers of mainstream horror fiction expect to be respected when they place themselves in the hands of the
authors and entertainers who have offered to drive them safely through a series of adrenal in-raising thrills. (Grixti 148; emphasis mine)
Grixti eventually challenges this analogy, claiming that it assumes a uniform text and a uniform reader and thus
denies that texts can disturb or challenge, that readers may approach the "game" from varying perspectives, or
even that they may refuse to "play by the rules" (165). However, the language Grixti employs reveals the analogy's underlying assumption.
The notion of a nreassuringly controlled and
unthreatening contextn in which readers are driven
"safely through a series of • • • thrills" suggests that
the horror narrative is by and large a nsafe" space, one that comforts as much as, if not more than, it frightens. This idea has been a staple of discussions of the horror
narrative for years. In his book The Supernatural in
Fiction (1952), Peter Penzoldt claims that nthe weird
tale is primarily a means of overcoming certain fears in
the most agreeable fashion. These fears are represented by a skillful author as pure fantasy" (7). For Penzoldt,
the horror narrative allows us to overcome these fears
precisely because we know we can "close the book,n after
which nwe can feel delightfully certain that the horrors we have been contemplating are nought but fictionn (6).
An extension of Penzoldt's argument would be that we
don't really fear when we read the horror narrative
because we always know that the horror is just a
fiction;? in short, the most "agreeable" way to overcome
fear, then, is to fictionalize it, to make it unreal. The
difficulty of this position is that it ultimately limits the relationship between the horror narrative and real fears. In fact, what Penzoldt overlooks is the
probability that the process of deriving comfort by fictionalizing fears may be carried over to "real life" and may be an ideologically motivated process. If one accepts that fears are rendered harmless through their fictionalization, then one would feel less compelled to
examine such fears or the cultural processes that, as
Scruton argues, perpetuate themselves and regulate the
subject via the deployment of fear.
Martin Tropp employs the "safe spacefi argument when
claiming that "horror fiction gives the reader the tools
to 'read' experiences that would otherwise, like
nightmares, be incommunicable. In that way, the
inexpressible and private becomes understandable and
?Noel Carroll addresses arguments like that of Penzoldt when he discusses the paradox that claims we can't fear what we know to be fictional. Carroll concludes that we do not fear the fiction, nor do we really not fear. Instead, we fear the idea presented in the fiction; we fear the thought.
communal, shared and safen (5). While Tropp's argument does suggest a social effect of horror narratives--the fictional provides methods of dealing with the real--its fundamental premise is that such narratives function to defuse fears. They provide a safe way of approaching what is unsafe and effectively turn the threatening into the nonthreatening. The safety of the horror text allows real individual fears to be represented, an act which effectively negates them. Essentially, Tropp's argument suggests that once a fear is articulated, it ceases to frighten. From this position, the horror text's prima:t y social function is to recast fears ninto safe and communicable formsn (4), to let the reader know that such fears are shared and thus, somehow, not as threatening. His ideal text dissipates nterror in the act of creating itn (5). It functions solely to reassure, to defuse potential threats. At the same time, he seems unwilling to investigate the broader social implications that such a process of defusing fears might enable.
James Twitchell, in attempting to explain the attraction to horror, insists that our attraction relies upon this nsafe space.n He postulates three reasons why one might be attracted to the horror product: first, because it allows one to be safely frightened (he uses the roller coaster analogy): second, because nhorror
'pulls the pop-top' off repressed urges to let them escape via the fizz of fantasy:n and third because nhorror art plays out the 'do's' and 'don't's' of adolescent ser~ality explaining to the soon-to-bereproductive audience exactly how to avoid making horrible mistakesn (65). Twitchell devotes most of his argument to elaborating this latter reason, but this argument is clearly dependent on the first--namely that horror is a space in which one can safely address the unsafe. At the same time, his second and third reasons imply, as did Tropp, a defusing of potential fears.
Twitchell uses Freud's essay on the uncanny to suggest that the frightening images represented in horror are ndrawn from a combination of individual and group repressionsn(77). And these repressions are repressions of sexual desires that are nsafely abreacted in horror:n thus horror functions as a ndischarge system for pent up energy that, unless released, threatens to implode into neurosisn (77). Horror's primary social function is to safely discharge unwanted or threatening desires. To an extent this argument could be developed into one that discusses how such a discharge functions as a reinscriptive process. (Why are these desires unwanted? Who benefits from the discharging of unwanted desires?) However, Twitchell doesn't extend this argument that far,
21 in part because he insists that the primary audience for horror is the adolescent (and thus any social effect the text may have focuses solely on this group and primarily on the individual in this group), and in part because the assumption of a nsafe spacen implies harmlessness. The safe space of the horror text allows the individual to release the energies (desires) that might lead to his/her neurosis. While Twitchell acknowledges that this process is a necessary part of the adolescent's socialization and that this socialization is crucial to the maintenance of the social order, he fails to consider that the text may construct desires as well as, or even through the process of, releasing them. This failure seems due, in large part, to his interpretation of Freud. As I shall demonstrate shortly, a more sophisticated psychoanalytical assessment of subject formation can enable a more complex assessment of the horror space.
By calling into question the nsafe spacen assumption, I am by no means trying to completely deny its usefulness or validity. However, the implications of this assumption ~~d the concomit~~t limitations need to be examined. To begin with, any fictional text is a safe space. The fictional construct guarantees the reader a certain amount of distance and control. The reader can close any book if the narrative becomes too intense, too
frightening, too emotionally draining, too sad. Nonetheless, the insistence on the safety of the text limits the text to a space of containment. All thoughts, ideas, and emotions a text evokes become contained within the reading experience, for once the book is closed, the fears the text has produced have either been defused through the narrative or are subsequently dismissed as fictions. Such fears cannot carry over into the world beyond the text: they do not interact with the reader's or the culture's ideologies and belief systems. One implication of the safe space argument, then, would be that it often posits a divorce between narrative and social practice. As a result, the text cannot be a means of shaping or constructing our ideas and beliefs. While one might expect to find some analysis of this "safety" as an instrument of social control (and given Scruton's arguments, such an analysis would seem quite cogent), most critical assessments of horror stop short of extending their analyses this far. Instead, the text becomes a space for play (a term frequently used in these discussions), a h~-mless ~~te~~inment.
I am not trying to suggest that, in contrast, these texts are dangerous, but that the rhetoric of safety implies "harmless" and "without any real effect." Marcia Lieberman, in her study of female acculturation through
fairy tales, has suggested that "perhaps literature is suggestive in direct proportion to its ability to divert" (Lieberman 186). The supposed safety of these texts, or of any narrative, does seem highly diversionary. I would argue, however, that the theoretical insistence on safety also functions as a diversion, one that directs us away from what these texts might be trying to suggest. Lieberman's claims, however, demand that one seek out the "suggestions" that these texts and theories attempt to obfuscate.
Even those theorists who do imply a social function connected to the horror narrative undermine and limit the possible functions by insisting on the safety of the text. Tropp's reader, for example, learns how to deal with "real" horrors by "pretending" with fictional ones. But the fictional horror texts are ultimately inert; they do not participate in the cultural process of determining what we should and should not fear. His argument even suggests that they ultimately do not really make us fear, since the fear we experience when reading the horror narrative is safe and fictional ~,d always contrasted with the "real" horrors of the extra-textual world. Twitchell's reader has his (and it's clearly a "he" in Twitchell's argument) fears and feared desires defused so that he can become a functional member of the social
spectrum. The horror text is a safety valve, safely releasing those fears and desires that might prove threatening if not released. And yet Twitchell's insistence on the safety of the text and of this process effectively diverts us from any discussion of how this process can be coercive, conditioning the male adolescent into a prescribed role that necessitates defusing such fears and desires.
The nsafe space~ argument also relies on the assumption that the horror consumer does not desire to be truly frightened, that there is no pleasure to be derived from fear unless that fear is defused or lessened through the safety of narrative. Granted, the horror text is a fiction and as such it does not threaten the same way a violent act or Rmonstern would in real life. But this does not necessarily mean that the fear one experiences is any less genuine than the fear one experiences in the nrealn world. Hoel Carroll has suggested that in horror fiction one fears the thought content that is conveyed, the thought of the monster or of the violent act (Carroll 88), and that this emotion is as genuine as fear of actual events (80). If these texts do produce genuine fear, Carroll asks, why do we consume them since fear is an unpleasant emotion? His conclusion is that horror fascinates as much as it frightens. Although he suggests
that the pleasure (of fascination) compensates for the displeasure of the fear (1.93), I would argue that pleasure is intrinsically connected to fear.
For Carroll, horror narratives produce genuine fear, and we are attracted to such texts because we have a fascination with fear. He claims that this idea is a prerequisite to understanding the horror text's potential ideological uses. To an extent, I would agree. It would seem that the attraction of fear, the repulsion/attraction so often associated with the horrific, signifies the ideological underpinnings of dichotomies such as known/unknown, the culturally speakable/unspeakable. Carroll, however, also attempts to show that horror narratives cannot be classified in terms of their ideologically reinscriptive or subversive potential. A given work of horror may be one or the other, but this cannot account for its appeal ( 205). I would argue, however, that horror narratives can be ideologically repressive or subversive, even both at the same time, and that this quality does account, in part, for the appeal of the te~~. In Chapter Three, for example, I will demonstrate that the vampire text constitutes a performative space that allows for the "playing out" of alternatives to cultural dominants. Thus it is this text's ability to defy cultural norms and
ideologies that comprises at least part of its appeal. Nonetheless, the more significant issue is undoubtedly that the appeal of horror texts renders them more susceptible to ideological uses. The ostensible safety of this space, a factor that seems directly connected to its appeal, manages to mask the coercive, and even the subversive, processes at work.
While the nsafe spacen argument does imply a social use for the horror text, the argument is highly limited. Poststructuralist examinations of narrative and its ability to shape and construct subjectivity shed new light on the supposed nsafetyn of any narrative space, especially a space determined to artiCUlate that which our culture insists remain silenced. If narrative does strive to shape and control subjectivity, if it attempts to constitute the reading subject, then it would seem imperative that we examine this process as it functions wi thin texts predicated upon fear, an emotion that is in itself intent on conveying social mandates and regulating subjectivity. At the same time, recent theories of encoding/decoding practices suggest that there are at least some forms of resistance to the coercive control exerted by dominant cultural narratives. Thus, to deconstruct the notion of the horror text as a safe cultural space is to reveal a space that may rely on the
reading subject's belief in such safety, but that also often dramatically defies such safety. In fact, as my subsequent readings will illustrate, RsafetyR often becomes a vexed term, since the safety of one text may rest in the return to a cultural norm that still another text has rendered horrific.
If the Rsafe spaceR theory is essentially a fallacy, one culturally and critically sanctioned, then it would seem crucial to explore the potentials of the horror narrative. A text like King's novel Christine would seem to be relatively RsafeR and concomitantly to reinscribe dominant ideologies about gender and adolescent development. still, King's text uses horror as a means of critiquing cultural definitions of masculinity. While Henry James's The Turn of the Screw perpetuates an ambiguity that disrupts any textual "safety,R his text is highly coercive, managing to reinscribe cultural dominants of gender and class. And, while Morrison's Beloved self-consciously disrupts any attempt at narrative safety and thus manages to comment upon the d~,gers inherent in narrative containment, her novel is highly controlling and manipulative--subversive via its ability to regulate subjectivity.
The following analysis is predicated upon exploring the relationship between narrative and subjectivity and
---- -- -
the role of fear within this relationship. While my emphasis will often be on the texts themselves (examined in light of relevant critical and cultural contexts), I feel it is important to examine these texts within a framework that also considers encoding/decoding practices, postmodern assessments of reading strategies, and the "fantastic" as a transgressive site of alterity. In what immediately follows, I will establish the parameters of this framework, thereby demonstrating the significance of manipulating monstrosity for the reading subject, the coercive and subversive potentials enabled by constructing an, often uncomfortable, identification between reading subject and textual subject, the displeasure associated with narrative ambiguity, and the transgressive potential inherent in speaking the unspeakable, in allowing the culturally repressed to surface.
sites of Control/Sites of Contest
Much of Michel Foucault's work investigates disciplinary practices that have become so integrated into the social fabric that their coercive capacity often remains unacknowledged. In his discussion of panopticism, Foucault describes panoptic disciplinary processes, developed for institutionalized disciplinary purposes, as
they inevitably infected the social fabric. As he
explains, "The panoptic schema, without disappearing as
such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function" (Discipline 207). What
began as a method of incarceration, determined to create
within the inmate (prisoner, asylum patient, schoolboy) an internalized process of self discipline and self regulation, developed into a system of similar disciplinary practices within the larger social sphere. Foucault describes the type of discipline involved:
'discipline' may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a 'physics' or a~ 'anatomy' of power, a technology (Discipline 215).
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explores the wide-
spread social diffusion of this "technology," and he concludes that npanopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion" (222). Since this coercion spreads through all facets of social life,
narrative representations would also function in coercive
capacities, including their use as a means of promoting
self-regulation within the individual.
In his chapter on nThe Birth of the Asylumn from Madness and Civilization, Foucault explores the way fear can function to create an internalized self-regulation. His description of Pinel's asylum delineates the asylum's three fundamental means of instilling a disciplinary self-regulation within the patient: silence, recognition by mirror, and perpetual judgment. It is in the second phase of Pinel's cure that one can see the potential use of narratives, and specifically fear narratives.
The goal of the second method, recognition by mirror, is to create a condition in which nmadness would see itself, would be seen by itself--pure spectacle and absolute objectn (Madness 262). The first phase of recognition by mirror is the nphase of exaltationn in which "madness is made to observe itself, but in others: it appears in them as a baseless pretense--in other wordS, as absurdn (263). To achieve this first phase, the doctor or keeper would nshown the madman someone else who was mad, thus enabling the patient to identify mad behavior, but still see such behavior as other, as object. The second phase is the "phase of abasement" in which, npresumptuously identified with the object of his delirium, the madman recognizes himself as in a mirror in this madness whose absurd pretensions he has denouncedn
( 264 ). After this second phase, the patient learns to be
a perpetual judge of him/herself, thereby participating in the third means of moral synthesis. By perpetually judging him/herself, the patient learns to regulate his/her own sanity.
Although Foucault primarily focuses on the asylum patient, he implies throughout that the process of such regulation is as important for the sane as for the insane. When discussing Tuke's asylum, he explains that while the asylum functioned to organize the madman's guilt for the madman, it also provided the man of reason nan awareness of the Othern (247). Foucault's examination of the asylum suggests that narrative can produce a frightening identification with the monstrous Other, thereby coercing the patient into adherence with the moral/social norm.
In his discussion of Pinel's nrecognition by mirror" method, Foucault implies that some form of narrative functions to effect the necessary mirroring. Certainly, the phase of exaltation seems to rely on oral narrative, since madness in others must either be shown or described to the patient. HOwever, even in the phase of abasement we can see the potential use of narrative. Foucault describes a situation in which a keeper showed a patient another nmadman" who held the same delusion as the patient, and who had nbecome an object of mockeryn (263).
32 We know that some form of narrative had to accompany the keeper's "showing" the patient this "madman" because, in this pre-cinematic age, one could not show a person's having become the object of mockery. Even more important, however, is the fact that the narrative used is one of fear. The purpose of such "narratives" is to mirror madness and produce a regulating fear within the patient, the fear of "becoming an object of mockery," the fear of recognizing oneself as complicit with what one can identify as mad behavior. The emphasis on creating a "frightening identification" seems crucial.
In "Prison Talk," Foucault equates the nineteenth century's rising need to identify and segregate the criminal with the birth and importance of detective fiction and "the fait divers, the horrific newspaper crime stories" (Power/Knowledge 41). The more people were victims of crime, the more they feared it, and this increased fear produced a need for more literature that could help them identify and segregate the criminal. Foucault describes, here, a social use of narratives that elicit fear. Such narratives can produce a phase of exaltation in which the reader identifies monstrousness, deviation from cultural norms, taboos, etc. and perceives them as other and "to be feared." But can such narratives create a phase of abasement? Can they enable the reader
to do more than merely identify the nto be fearedn as object, as Other? Can they actually enable the reader to recognize his/her own complicity with, for example, the culturally forbidden, thereby coercing the reader away from such positions, and instilling within the reader a self-regulating process?
Scruton's analysis of fear insists that fear functions to maintain social order by guiding the individual away from boundaries, the crossing of which would threaten cultural order. If the horror narrative can produce a phase of exaltation, it helps the reading subject identify the boundaries one should not cross. If, however, it produces a phase of abasement, it can coerce its readers into specific patterns of cultural behavior by forcing them to recognize their potential for complicity with what they have identified as Other and nto be feared. n The question of course remains, can this narrative effect construct an internalized regulatory process such as Pinel expected to produce? Kaja Silverman's analysis of subjectivity would suggest that the answer is yes.
According to Silverman's account, the subject, its meaning and purpose are all culturally determined through a semiotic signifying process. Silverman explains that the term nsubjectn enables us
to conceive of human reality as a construction, as the product of signifying activities which are both culturally specific and generally unconscious. The category of the subject thus calls into question the notions both of the private and of a self synonymous with consciousness. It suggests that even desire is cu~tural~y instigated and bence co~~ective: and it decenters consciousness, relegating it • • • to a purely receptive capacity (subject 130: emphasis mine).
The active unconscious, then, makes use of the various
signs and codes received by the conscious: through this
process, the subject comes to understand and participate in the cultural order, read by the subject as reality. Silverman describes a dynamic process by which culturally determined signifying practices construct a subject that
in turn must use such signifying practices to maintain its existence in relation to the cultural order, the
"real" from which the subject is always alienated.8
8When she discusses Lacan' s theory of subjecti vi ty , Silverman explains that "the signifier is the mark of the subject's radical alienation from the real" (164). According to Lacan, signifiers have no direct relation to a physical reality, only to other signifiers. Thus the signifier always implies an alienation from reality. At the same time, when the subject enters the symbolic order, when it gains access to language (at which point the unconscious comes into existence), "it is reduced to the status of a signifier in the field of the Other. It is defined by a linguistic structure which does not in any way address its being, but which determines its entire cultural existence" (166). The subject is therefore culturally determined, constructed by the symbolic order of which it is a signifier. At the moment the subject gains access to language, it must learn to negotiate wi thin a system of
Silverman's analysis foregrounds the significance of
narration to this process, both in the sense of broader
cul tural narratives (e. g. ideological constructions and
definitions of gender, sexuality, acceptable behavior,
etc.) and the more specific representational narratives that serve as vehicles for disseminating these dominant cultural discourses. The subject, from the moment of its
inception, must continually participate in narrative, and
the implication of Silverman's analysis would be that subjectivity is very much subject to the dominant culture
and its narrative reinscriptions.
For Silverman, the subject enters language by
inhabiting a passive position, one in which all desires
"are those of an already constituted social order" (166). As Silverman suggests, "the subject has no meaning of its own, and is entirely subordinated to the field of social meaning and desire" (173). The "inauguration of meaning" at the moment of entry into language represents an initial self-loss, a separation of the subject from the state of being it originally understood itself to
inhabit. This initial self-loss, as well as those that
will inevitably follow as the subject functions within a cultural system that reinforces the subject's alienated
signification whose meaning is determined by the social forces that have constructed this system.
position, becomes inscribed into the unconscious, an act
that leads to the production of desire--i.e. the "product
of the divisions by means of which the subject is
constituted, divisions which inspire in the subject a
profound sense of lack" (176). Thus, cultural representations reinscribe cultural definitions of the subject's meaning and the subject's lack of meaning. Such representations function to shape subjectivity and desire, what we are and what we can only hope to be, because they transmit the signifiers by which such
distinctions are reinscribed:
Not only does language provide the agency of self-loss, but cultural representations supply the standard by which that loss is perceived. We look within the mirror of those representations--representations which structure every moment of our existence--not only to discover what we are, but what we can never hope to be and (as a consequence) hopelessly desire (177; emphasis mine).
Silverman's use of the term "mirror" speaks to the
influence of Lacan, but also aligns her theory with
Foucault's emphasis on identification. Taken together, these discussions detail the reading subject's
susceptibility to narrative, to the coercive
identifications that narrative will strive to produce in order to construct and regulate desire. If these
narrative mirrors "reflect" self-loss and create a desire
to repair this loss, this gap, it would seem crucial to understand both the process of "repair" and the limits of this process. Silverman's discussion of "suture" in narrative offers significant insights into how narrative manipulates subjectivity and desire. The theory of suture is useful precisely because it posits the "displeasure" associated with "self-loss" as the motivation for the suturing process, for the reader's engagement with narrative and for the reader's desire to construct a "safe" narrative identification. As my subsequent chapters will demonstrate, horror narratives are generally predicated upon ambiguity, upon lack, and upon gaps in information. These many narrative "lacks" would seem to function much like the disruptive edits in film. They foreground the subject' s own lack and all that this lack implies, and they create the desire for reparation, for an identification that provides some sense of "safety". Silverman's analysis, however, suggests that this identification is anything but safe, and that it at best masks the displeasure and horror associated with self-loss.
While Silverman's analysis limits itself to "suture" as an element of filmic narrative, she acknowledges that the theory of suture can be applied to written narrative. Critics Brian Finney, Steven Cohen and Linda Shires have
taken up her call, demonstrating that this theory does afford new insights into the narrative construction of subjectivity.9 Silverman's study of suture emphasizes the shot/reverse shot technique in film as the primary moment in which the textual identification is constructed. This
technique is a "cinematic set in which the second shot
shows the field from which the first shot is assumed to
have been taken" (201), and the technique creates the illusion that what is depicted has "an autonomous existence, independent of any ••• coercive gaze" (202).
Within this apparatus, "shot 1 shows a space which mayor
may not contain a human figure, • • • being careful not to violate the 1800 rule," and then "shot 2 locates a spectator in the other 1800 of the same circular field,
thereby implying that the preceding shot was seen through the eyes of a figure in the cinematic narrative" (202). The viewer recognizes that shot 1 implies a speaking subject outside the fiction who controls the fiction. Yet, this speaking subject remains hidden from the
viewer, necessitating the second shot which establishes
the fictional replacement for the speaking subject--~'
attempt at "suturing over" the lack this external
9 See Finney, "Suture In Literary Analysis;" Cohen and Shires, Telling Stories, especially Chapter 6 "The Subject of Narrative."
subject's existence produces. nThe gaze within the fiction serves to conceal the controlling gaze outside the fiction; a benign other steps in and obscures the presence of the coercive and castrating Othern (204). But this external Other implies a plenitude that the viewing
subject can never have yet always desires; the moment when the viewing subject recognizes this is equivalent to the infliction of a wound that must be sutured over with
narrative.10 To some extent, then, wi thin the narrative
the subject experiences the very alienation that constitutes the subject within culture and language. As
Cohen and Shires explain, na narrative text does not
simply represent subjectivity ~o readers or viewers •
it also signifies their subjectivity for themn (Cohen and
In order to repair the symbolic wound and satisfy the concomitant displeasure, the viewing/reading subject
allows the fictional character to nstand inn for it,
10 To some degree, Silverman's analysis might sound like another version of Wolfgang Iser's discussion of the reader's need to make connections betweens narrative gaps. The significant differe.1'lce, of course, is that Iser's analysis emphasizes the way such gaps construct a reading process, while Silverman (and other theorists of suture) emphasizes the way narrative disruptions construct a reading subject. As Rabinowitz explains, nalthough Wolfgang Iser does talk about the ways ideological commitment influences readers, he treats ideology much as the New critics did, as something that simply interferes with proper readingn (Rabinowitz 8).
40 thereby allowing that particular point of view to define what the subject sees (Silverman, Subject 205). Thus, the viewing/reading subject embraces an identification with one (or in a novel like Morrison's, many) textual subject(s). Unfortunately, the constant process of cutting in film effectively reopens the wound since it constantly implies that more can be known than is being shown, since it constantly foregrounds the spoken subject's lack. As Brian Finney has suggested, written narrative, like film narrative, contains numerous ways of disrupting the imaginary plenitude and thus reinforcing the desire for suture, for the reparative identification (Finney, "Suture ••• " 133). The suturing process is thus capable of constructing a coercive identification, yet it is also predicated upon satisfying displeasure, on finding a "safe" space. Nonetheless, the relationship between narrative and subjectivity, as theorized by Foucault and Silverman, suggests that the narrative space is anything but safe. The subject' s engagement with narrative constitutes a continual attempt to construct a space of safety, a moment of safety &,d pleasure, where there is none or where this space and moment are constantly threatened. The horror narrative, with its constant reliance upon ambiguity, lack and loss, consistently foregrounds this threat, creating an even
greater desire for the "safetyR of an identification whose coercive potential the reading subject either cannot see or willingly denies.
The narrative process of constructing a coercive
identification is evident in a number of texts in this
study from King's MisekY to James's The Turn of the Screw
to perhaps its most significant manifestation in Morrison's Beloved. My readings of Foucault and Silverman would suggest that the subject has little agency, that the reader is so effectively constituted in and by
narrative, and especially the horror narrative, that any mode of resistance is impossible. If one accepts Silverman's overall analysis, cultural representations
would seem to have little subversive potential since both Freud and Lacan claim that they function to perpetuate a
predetermined cultural order. However, even Silverman
contends that since this predetermined cultural order is
a construct, criticism and change are possible
(Silverman, Subject 192).11 It is important to remember that while the subject's meaning may be determined by the
cultural order, "meaning" itself may not be unitary.
CUltural representations can contain signifiers that
llBy this she means that we cannot conceive of the current, or any, cultural order as "natural," or "real." Instead we must acknowledge the constructed nature of this order, for what is constructed can be dismantled.
convey varied ideological nmeanings,n even if one set has been established as dominant.= Cohan and Shires, for
example, insist that one nview the text as a site of struggle among various discourses, each instrumental in
controlling the production and transmission of ideological representations of the subjectn (Cohen and Shires 142). The narrative space is thus a field of contesting attempts to constitute subjectivity, and as such it would seem to open pockets of potential
If this is true, then it would seem that the reading subject's decoding practice would constitute at least one important site of resistance. stuart Hall indicates as much when he rejects the idea that representations only convey signifiers that transmit dominant ideological
meanings. Instead, he suggests that representations can contain ncontesting codes,n and that they can therefore
provide challenges to the dominant cultural order and its ideological positions.
The transmission of meaning through the encoding and decoding of signifiers is a process that contains crucial
= In fact, the signifier ndominantn implies its relation to other signifiers such as nsubordinaten• Thus, a dominant cultural order, and its concomitant meanings, necessitates orders and meanings that are not dominant and that are, to some degree, opposed to it.
43 variables. nEncoding will have the effect of constructing some of the limits and parameters within which decodings will operaten (Hall 135); without such parameters an audience could read whatever message it liked into the text. Nonetheless, these limits and parameters open a spectrum of potential meanings within a particular encoded representation. Within discourse, signs ncombine both the denotative and the connotative aspectsn of signification (133). He wants to erase the distinction between nthose aspects of a sign which appear to be taken ••• as its 'literal' meaning (denotation)n and nthe more associative meanings for the sign which it is possible to generate (connotation)n (133); in fact, he describes this distinction as purely nanalytic." For the sake of analysis, it is a useful distinction because it allows us to identify the denotative, naturalized and therefore dominant meanings of signs. At the same time, it allows us to identify signs at the connotative level, when they "acquire their full ideological value--appear to be open to articulation with wider ideological discourses ~~d meaningsn (133). Because me~~inqs are not fixed at the connotative level, the sign's nfluidity of meaning and association can be more fully exploited and transformedn (133).
This argument reveals the process of signification as a space of contesting ideologies. While a given culture will always impose limits on the connotative potential of signs, the connotative level is open "to more active transformations" of ideological meaning (134). The process of encoding a text--a process that is itself culturally determined--does set up the parameters within which decoding may take place. But what Hall ultimately asserts is that this "openn ~~ace can allow the subject to make use of the connotative aspects of the codes, to decode meanings that may be ideologically opposed to the dominant meanings that the discourse, through its codes, is trying to convey.
Hall does not deny, then, the process by which culture, through signification, determines subjectivity. In fact, he contends that producers and consumers are always acted upon by culturally coded meanings and values. still, if the narrative space does open pockets of resistance, the crucial question becomes, nhow does one read horror?" Hall specifically suggests that recognizing different encodings allows for different and more politically subversive or challenging methods of decoding. He explains that "one of the most significant political moments • • • is the point when events which are normally signified and decoded in a negotiated way
begin to be given an oppositional readingn (138). In many ways then, determining the subversive potential of a text (i.e. the limits of its resistance) has as much to do
with how we decode these texts, how we actively choose to
read them and how we are compelled to read them, as it
does with how these texts are encoded, even if the
decoding possibilities are informed and restricted by the specific encodings in question. Unfortunately, much cultural criticism has tended to privilege encoding over decoding practices and has relied too heavily on generalized assumptions about who reads particular texts
In his essay nReading as Poaching,n Michel de Certeau has suggested that nreaders are travellers; they
move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads
poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves" (De Certeau, Practice 174). De Certeau insists that we learn to understand the act of consumption, and avoid
assuming that it means n'becoming similar to' what one
absorbs," when it very well might mean n'making something
13 For other studies that problematize such generalized assumptions, see Rosalind Brunt's essay nEngaging With the Popular: Audiences for Hass CUlture and What to Say About Them,n Laura Kipnis' essay n(Hale) Desire and (Female) Disgust: Reading Hustler,n or Janice Radway's Reading the Romance: Women Patriarchy and Popular Literature.
similar' to what one is, making it one's own, appropriating it or reappropriating it" (166). De Certeau's claims are important because they give the reader more agency than many cultural pessimists who make the assumption that all readers are basically no more than cultural dupes blindly receiving the messages encoded wi thin the texts they consume. De Certeau suggests that the reader invents texts as he/she reads, yet he also describes the reader oscillating "in a nowhere between what he (she) invents and what changes him (her)" (173). What de Certeau postulates is a reading process that fluctuates between creating and creation. The reader makes and is made, invents and is invented. Significantly, in the chapters that follow I will examine texts and horrific representations that explicitly lend themselves to this kind of play (e.g. the vampire texts examined in Chapter Three), texts that strive to intercept and defuse the potential for such play (e.g. Turn of the Screw, Beloved), and at least one text that makes the reading subject's use (abuse) of such play and invention the subject of the text's horror (King's Misery) •
What de Certeau doesn't explicitly address are the limits to this process imposed by the text (i.e. by the encodings within the text) and imposed by cultural
47 factors outside the text, factors that include everything from expectations attached to the genre of the text (one manifestation of Hall's negotiated decoding) to ideological shaping of the individual subject. As Janice Radway has suggested, we must remember "that comprehension is actually a process of making meaning, a process of sign production where the reader actively attributes significance to signifiers on the basis of previously learned cultural codes" (Reading the Romance 7). Peter Rabinowitz provides a compelling analysis of the culturally determined rules of reading one brings to particular texts. In fact, he explains that one reason why popular texts may be read more quickly and "carelessly" by many consumers is because the "shared reading conventions" associated with popular art are significantly different from those associated with "serious" art (Rabinowitz 184). In essence, Rabinowitz argues that culturally determined reading practices participate in culturally determined aesthetic hierarchies (and thus function to maintain a high art/low art dichotomy), ~~d concomit~~tly inform the reading subject's level of engagement with a particular text. What and how a reader notices in a text, how the reading subject decodes what has been encoded, is thus dramatically affected by pre-conceived assumptions about
the individual text. Thus it should not be surprising that critics continually attribute "safety" to a narrative space that our culture so often defines as "harmless" or "meaningless.n According to Rabinowitz, nit is probably the case that texts that disturb in certain ways are less likely to be canonized than others that are safern (229). Ironically, those texts which are able to disturb the most, those that rely most heavily on nfear,n are rendered nsafen by being marginalized, silenced and coded as meaningless.
Rabinowitz' study is grounded in his concern with interpretation as a political and social act. He wants to trace out the cultural encoding of the reader who must then decode the textual encodings. Rabinowitz offers an important corrective to de Certeau, emphasizing the parameters within which de Certeau's nplayn and ninventionn can operate. Taken together, however, these assessments of reading suggest a number of things: that the decoding practice can constitute a site of resistance to dominant encodings; that the tension between reinscription and subversion needs to be assessed as much in terms of how one decodes these texts as in terms of what messages these texts contain; and that the popular text may contain more significant encodings tha~ critics,
shaped as they are by culturally determined assumptions about popular fiction, would consciously admit.
While I accept as a basic premise the concept of a subject formed and shaped by cultural representations, I also wish to posit as a basic assumption a subject that must negotiate among codes that provide ideological meanings which often contest those of the dominant culture. still, one question remains to be answered: If the relationship between narrative and subjectivity functions in a primarily coercive (and thus reinscriptive) capacity, and if decoding practices offer at least one means of exploiting the pockets of resistance produced by a narrative's attempt to shape subjectivity, are there encodings or narrative practices specific to the horror text that provide more "subversive" potential?
My subsequent chapters will demonstrate that certain texts make the processes of narrative control and subjugation the very subject of their analysis and thus manage to demonize the coercive process. And as I have already suggested, the process of constructing a coercive identification can be used in numerous ways. The insistence in horror narratives on establishing both an attraction to and repulsion from the monstrous can function both to identify the monster as other and to
imply a complicity between reading subject and the
monstrous. At the same time, Rosemary Jackson has made
strong claims for the subversive potential of the fCL~tastic. Since the fantastic is often an integral
component of the horror text and almost all texts that
manipulate fear, her claims are worth investigation.
However, even the fantastic in narrative would seem to
offer at best another pocket of resistance.
In her exploration of the fantastic narrative's subversive potential, Rosemary Jackson frequently
discusses nhorrorn narratives. She explains that since
about 1800, fantastic narratives have become npeculiarly violent and horrificn (4), and she attributes this to the fact that they were produced within a capitalist
economy.14 Much of Jackson's discussion of the fantastic focusses on narratives that produce fear, and this makes
sense given her claim that this type of narrative subverts cultural order, thereby posing an inherent
14 Jackson's study would seem to counter Manuel Aguirre's claims in The Closed Space, since he sees horror, as it progresses in the last few centuries, moving from essentially fantastic to essentially psychological, from the spiritual to the concrete secular. Aguirre does posit a social element as central to modern horror. In fact, he argues that as the world becomes more and more nclosed,n more and more bounded by the individual's psyche and experience, the most powerful threat we see represented is that of the demonized social organization set on controlling this psyche and experience.
threat to the nreal" or what has been established as
such. She essentially claims that fantasy does not invent new worldS, but rather inverts elements of this world,
thereby producing something "strange, unfamiliar and aRParently 'new,' absolutely other and different" (8). Fantasy places this "other" alongside the real, and this
positioning is crucial for Jackson's argument.
For Jackson, fantasy creates 'alterity,' this world
re-placed and dis-located" (19). To help clarify this
idea, Jackson adopts a term from optics: "paraxis." She defines nparaxis" as "that which lies alongside the main
body. Paraxis is a telling notion in relation to the
place, or space, of the fantastic, for it implies an
inextricable link to the main body of the real which it
shades and threatens" (19). one example of "paraxis" in a fantastic narrative (and one that will be explored more fully in Chapter Three) would be Anne Rice's vampire
world in her Vampire Chronicles.~ Rice's vampire world has its own set of rules, customs, ideologies,
definitions of the real. And yet, this world is
inextricably linked to the world the reader knows. In
fact, in the second and third books, the protagonist
15 The Chronicles include Interview with Vampire, Dlg Vampire Lestat, OUeen of the Damned, and The Tale of the Body Thief.
Lestat must learn to understand contemporary culture in order to survive. In Rice's novelS, the vampire world is placed in a paraxic relationship with our world, and what Jackson suggests is that such a positioning allows the "other" world to comment on the "real" world, calling into question the "reality" of the "real" world and its system of order.
Significantly, the "inverted" world most often represents what cannot be in the "real" worId. Because it presents "that which cannot be, but .i§, fantasy exposes a culture's definitions of that which can be: it traces the limits of its epistemological and ontological framen (23). More importantly perhaps, fantasy calls into question signifying practices, because it ntraces in that which cannot be said, that which evades articulation or that which is represented as 'untrue' or 'unreal,n(37). Fantasy enacts a rupture of the signifying process by "pushing towards an area of nonsignification," either "by attempting to articulate 'the unnameable', the 'nameless things' of horror fiction, attempting to visualize the unseen, or by establishing a disjtL~ction of word and meaning through a play upon 'thingless names,n (41). Fantasy, and especially horror fantasy, artiCUlates what must be repressed, what cannot be allowed articulation,
whether this disallowed be idea, desire, act, or ideology.
The result of this signifying rupture is that distinctions become effaced. "I" and "Not-I" begin to merge. Of course, the Other, the "Not-I," is a staple of horror fiction whether it is the fantastic monster (e.g. the vampire, the fusion of life and death), the mimetic monster (e.g. Annie Wilkes in King's Misery, woman/notwoman), or the taboo desires that such "monsters" often enact. The horror impulse relies on the articulation of what must be repressed, an articulation that can occur through either a fantastic or a mimetic narrative. If, as Jackson suggests, "'Otherness' is all that threatens 'this' world, this "real' world, with dissolution" (57), and if the horror narrative subsists by offering representations of Otherness, by calling forth that which threatens to dissolve cultural order, then clearly it poses a potential danger to the established order. Perhaps the greatest potential for resistance, however, occurs at the level of the unconscious.
When Jackson discusses Freud's concept of "the uncanny, n she explains that the German word for the uncanny das Unheimlich must be understood as the negation of das Heimlich which signifies both "that which is homely, familiar, friendly, cheerful, comfortable,
54 intimate,n and nthat which is concealed from others: all that is hidden, secreted, obscuredn (65). As a negation of this term, das Unbeimlich both summons up nthe unfamiliar, uncomfortable, strange, alien, n and nfunctions to dis-cover, reveal, expose areas normally kept out of sightn (65). The ultimate result of the uncanny is that nit does not introduce novelty, so much as uncover all that needs to r~main hidden if the world is to be comfortably knosm" (65). This revelatory practice has crucial implications for signification. Because it attempts to nmake visible that which is culturally invisible and which is written out as negation and death, the fantastic introduces absences" (69). Fantasy re-places presence with absence, an act that introduces na non-signifying arean (69). The fantastic's attempt to articulate (to signify) this non-signifying area is crucial, nfor it represents a dissolution of a culture's signifying practice, the very means by which it establishes meaningn (69). Jackson sees this move as ncountercultural,n but claims that its true subversive power comes from its effect upon subjectivity.
Because fantasy artiCUlates the unsaid, because it attempts to rupture signifying practices, it moves toward a state of undifferentiation. As we have seen in Silverman's discussion of Lacanian theory, when the
subject gains access to language it experiences a selfloss, and meaning is established by the infliction of perpetual distinctions, the most immediate of which is "I"/"Not-I". Nonetheless, all signifying practices determine meaning by articulating relational differences between signifiers and signifieds. The cultural structuring of the subject relies on perpetuating the subject's sense of distinctness and difference, on establishing an "I" that is different from the "Not-I." Because fantasy tends to dissolve the signifying practices that maintain difference, it moves toward undifferentiation, toward entropy.
On the one hand, Lacan has claimed this move toward entropy and undifferentiation as the profoundest desire of the subject (Jackson 77). On the other hand, the move toward undifferentiation is highly threatening because
" , self' cannot be united with' other' without ceasing to be" (91). Jackson's analysis calls to mind Kristeva's "abjection" which is also predicated upon the "preobjectal." For Kristeva, "I experience abjection only if an ~~er bas settled in place ~~d stead of what will be 'me.' Not at all an other with whom I identify and incorporate, but an Other who proceeds and possesses me, and through such possession causes me to be" (Kristeva 10). Kristeva's description of the impulse towards
abjection would seem to parallel significantly the kind of monstrous identification forced upon the reading subject by disciplinary narratives, especially those of the horror text, predicated as it is upon the monstrous Other. At the same time, Kristeva's abjection is clearly the horrific experience of Jackson's entropic move, a return to nonsignification. In fact, according to Jackson, the extreme goal of such a move is to "reverse or rupture" the process by which the subject was formed.
The articulation of absence, the eradication of difference, the entropic move all function to expose the processes by which cultural order is constructed (thus implying the possibility for the dismantling of such orders). Kristeva asserts that "when narrated identity is unbearable, when the boundary between subject and object is shaken, and when even the limit between inside and outside becomes uncertain, the narrative is what is challenged first" (Kristeva 141). Kristeva insists that the narrative merely restructures itself in the face of such challenge, although she explains that such challenge would inevitably lead to "t.~e violence of poetry a~d silence" (141). Kristeva speaks here both to the subversive potential of abjection and the entropic move (it can continue to challenge despite narrative's resistance to such challenge) and to the politically
charged nature of silence and the act of silencing (silencing is, significantly for the horror text, narrative's final and ostensibly violent response to challenge). For Jackson, of course, the crucial point would be that the move toward non-signification opens up multiple ideological alternatives for the subject by removing the distinctions that maintain an order that confines the subject to socially prescribed positions.
We can see then why the paraxic world of the fantastic offers some potential for resistance. It is in many ways the inverse of "reality" as established by the cuI tural order. As we shall see in Chapter Three, Dan Simmons, Nancy Collins and Anne Rice all use paraxic worlds for subversive ends. These texts are highly "fantastic," even though they employ a mimetic narrative at points. However, Kristeva's analysis suggests that the move toward non-signification need not rely upon a fantastic narrative. In fact, I would argue that paraxis can occur even in texts that are essentially mimetic. In Stephen King's Misery, for example, the domestic space becomes a torture chamber, a frightening distortion of the "world" it "should" be. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the African jungle becomes a frightening "other world" that exists in constant relation with the "civilized" world of Marlow and Kurtz. Also, while James'
58 The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House could be defined as nfantastic," both texts are predicated upon an unresolvable narrative ambiguity-do the protagonists see ghosts or are they insane? To some degree, this very ambiguity produces the entropic move, since both possibilities cannot exist simultaneously and neither possibility can be affirmed as reality. In these novels, the manipulation of this ambiguity and its inherent displeasure enables a coercive reinscription in James and a subversive critique of the domestic in Jackson. Thus we need to bear in mind Hume's claim about the fantastic--that it is as prevalent an impulse as the mimetic. The horror narrative, whether mimetic, fantastic or (more likely) a mixture of both, often functions to dissolve the distinctions that structure cultural order and that constitute subjectivity.
Jackson is quite aware, of course, that the fantastic can function to reaffirm cultural dominants. She acknowledges that "fantasies are not, however,
countercultural merely through • thematic
transgression. On the contrary, they frequently re-confirm institutional order by supplying a vicarious fulfillment of desire and neutralizing an urge towards transgression" (Jackson 72). Horror narratives, in
particular, would seem to "reconfirm" more than they would challenge precisely because the move to eradicate differentiation is threatening and produces fear--i.e. if a narrative asks us to fear the move toward differentiation, then the subversive potential would be defused. Nonetheless, if the horror narrative does make this move to eradicate differentiation, it can pose a significant challenge, not only in its foregrounding of the constructed nature of the symbolic order, of the "real," but also in its ability to rupture signifying practices, and the ideological meaning they construct, for the subject.
The horror narrative's reliance upon eradicating differentiation would seem to account for its apparent obsession with demonizing cultural "difference," specifically in terms of gender and sexuality. While the following readings will examine texts in which this difference is configured in terms of class (James) and race (Morrison), when the unspeakable is spoken, it more often than not speaks about gender prescriptions and/or sexual diffeLence. The fears horror narratives articulate are often associated with deviations from dominant ideological definitions of gender roles and sexual orientation or behavior. As I shall demonstrate, however, not all texts articulate fears about such deviations in
order to reaffirm the norm. While a writer like King does rely heavily on demonizing the female who deviates from prescribed norms, he also manages to interrogate cultural definitions of masculinity. Similarly, while the figure of the vampire often reaffirms cultural notions of sexual difference and gender hierarchies, it has also provided a significant space for the revision of such notions and hierarchies. While James may manipulate ambiguity to reinscribe conservative proscriptions for female behavior, Shirley Jackson manipulates social fears about gender/sexual deviation to expose the monstrosity inherent in a culturally sanctioned domestic ideal. For Morrison, demonizing the process of subject formation enables her to expose the patriarchal basis of aCCUlturation and ideological control and containment. Thus she is able to lay bare the crucial link between an adherence to rigid, patriarchal cultural narratives and forms of social oppression including the oppression of women and the institution of slavery.
In short, then, while my emphasis in the following chapters will be on the narrative use of fears associated with ideologies of gender and sexuality, I am by no means positing a monolithic treatment of such fears. It is perhaps not surprising that the most nsafen texts to be studied are those that most consistently reaffirm
cultural norms of gender and sexuality; or that those texts that most radically contest such norms are either marginalized from the canon (Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House) or seldom considered in terms of their deployment of fear (Morrison's Beloved). once again, nsafetyn is predicated upon conservative ideology. In fact, many of these texts might be most threatening (and thus require the most silencing) precisely because they insist on dismantling cultural definitions of gender and sexual difference.
My trajectory in the chapters that follow is predicated upon a move from texts that constitute relatively nsafen narrative spaces, in that they reaffirm the norm, to texts that contest the supposed safety of the narrative space. And yet, this trajectory is really false, or at least incomplete. The following chapters begin by examining fear in popular horror texts since these provide the most concentrated uses of fear in narrative. Nonetheless, I would not want to suggest that all popular texts are necessarily more nsafen and thus less able to challenge norms, than those canonized works I will be studying. While I do establish King as a classic example of narrative safety that reaffirms the norm, I argue in Chapter Three that writers like Anne Rice, Nancy Collins, Jewelle Gomez and even the vampire
fan can disrupt the safety of the popular horror space and use this space to reconfigure and revise ideological norms. In my fourth chapter, I move into an analysis of two novels that have acquired more canonical legitimacy than the popular horror texts (although Shirley Jackson's novel clearly does not have the critical history or following that James's novel does). Both of these texts strive to manipulate displeasure and narrative safety. However, I situate each text within its socio-historical context and thus demonstrate that constructing a narrative ambiguity that manipulates social fears and ideologies can produce both coercive reinscriptions of the norm (in James) and powerful critiques of cultural dominants (in Jackson). Finally, in my fifth chapter, I examine Morrison's text as one that consistently disrupts narrative safety, and thus speaks to the control and threat of cultural narratives.
To some degree, the chapter on Morrison attempts to draw together threads initiated in earlier chapters. It extends my discussion of fear and the narrative construction of a monstrous identification, a discussion I begin in my chapter on King and continue in my analysis of James, particularly in his novel's narrative frame, and its representation of the governess. My fifth chapter also takes up my analysis of manipulating the monstrous
63 figure, of the subversive potential inherent in a figure who represents speaking the unspeakable. This analysis really begins in Chapter Three as I examine the figure of the vampire; however, Morrison's Beloved represents perhaps the most significant figure of the unspeakable that is spoken, but that cannot be spoken. This final chapter also extends my fourth chapter's analysis of narrative ambiguity. Like both James and Jackson, Morrison constructs a narrative that refuses to resolve the ambiguities it constructs, and this proves a powerfully coercive tool in all three texts. How this tool is used, whether to construct a site of control or a site of contest, is continually dependent on the way narrative manipulates fear. Underlying each of the following chapters, then, is my primary conviction that understanding the relationship between fear and narrative can afford significant new understandings of the way narrative works to shape subjectivity, or even to advocate a resistance to such shaping.
Fear and the Normative Narrative Space:
Stephen King's Monstrous Females
Stephen King has frequently described horror as a
conservative genre that functions as a nway of
confirming the norm" (Underwood and Miller, Bare Bones
94). According to King, horror has the neffect of
reconfirming values, of reconfirming self-image and our
good feelings about ourselvesn (9). Although King does believe that all of his horror has important and potentially subversive subtexts,1 he ultimately posits
the horror text as a safe space that provides catharsis:
nr think you can do serious work in horror and fantasy.
You can reach people of all ages, provide a catharsis,
and give them a way to get rid of some of their bad feelings" (211). For King, the horror writer willingly
bears such labels as sicko, pervert and weirdo, saying
what the reader cannot say or think, speaking the
cuI turally taboo. Thus the reader can experience repressed taboo desires while displacing responsibility
1For example, he has suggested that while his novel Salem's Lot may on the surface be about vampires infesting a town, it is also representative of certain social fears of the time in which it was written, specifically the fear of a threatening secret being kept hidden just under our noses, even more specifically the Watergate scandal (~ Bones 5). He has also suggested that his novel Carrie is really about nthe effects of the Women's Liberation movement on modern societyn (Herron 153).
65 for such fears and desires onto the horror producer (94). According to King, then, the text allows a reader to say "I'm okay, you're okay, but bleb, look at that" (94). Significantly, King's comments suggest that when the repressed monstrous surfaces within the text, the reader is able to experience the monstrous without any threat of personal implication in this "deviance." In essence, the monstrous remains "other," and thus the "norm" is reaffirmed.
For King, then, the text's "protection" extends both to the reader and to the conservative ideologies that would be threatened by speaking the culturally unspeakable • Given the weight King gives to the conservative aspects of horror, it should come as no surprise that most of King's texts primarily function in a reinscriptive capacity. Nonetheless, King's discussion of subtext would seem to imply at least some subversive potential. On the one hand, King claims that every horror novel has sub texts , that while the text "may be talking about a vampire • • • underneath or between the lines, in the tension, where the fear is, there's something else going on altogether" (Bare Bones 5). His discussion of this "something else" usually centers on some larger political or social issue: distrust of government, fear of technology, the women's movement, fear of
inappropriate parental drives, etc. And, King directly connects this underlying message with fear, thus implying a potential causal relationship between the two. Do we fear such political/social issues? Do we fear the
implications of such issues? Do we fear our own
investment in, and fear of, such issues?
On the other hand, King rejects the notion that
there are, or should be, any themes or symbols whose meanings are embedded deeply in the text. When asked if
he consciously tries to give his work subliminal content
No, never subliminal. I think it should be out there where anybody can see it. I don't believe in the idea that a symbol or theme should be coded so that only college graduates can read it. The only thing that type of self-conscious literature is good for is for people to dissect it and use it to get graduate degrees or write doctoral theses. Theme and symbol are very strong and valid parts of literature, and there's no reason not to put them right out front (Underwood and Miller, Feast 62).
Despite his dismissal of the very process in which I am presently engaged, the above passage raises some crucial questions for this study: how does one read these texts? who reads these texts? and what do King's apparent contradictions tell us about the cultural assumptions attached to this genre?
King's attempt to obfuscate the horror text's
"deeper" meanings seems particularly relevant, since the
"enjoyment" of the fear so often seems predicated upon a "superficial" reading. For many students, to bring
critical analysis into the experience of reading a horror
text is to effectively ruin the experience. To think about the text, to examine what might be going on in the text, is to strip away the pleasure of the reading experience, pleasure being directly linked to the emotional, and apparently meaningless, thrill of fear
followed by catharsis.2 I wonder then, if King's words comment less on what exists within these texts and more
on what the "assumed" reader has been acculturated to
look for in them. In any case, his contradictory claims
about the horror text reveal both an acknowledgment and
re-suppression of the horror text's coercive potential.
At the same time, King's insistence that horror confirms the norm ultimately reduces horror's potential. For example, in one interview King explains that when
writing The Shining he was keenly aware that he was
2 I base these claims on my experience teaching MisekY in a series of composition courses. While students often produced analyses that contested their own initial claims about the "meaningless" nature of an "entertainment" like this novel, they also often commented that such a critical engagement stripped away the pleasure of consuming the text.
writing about violent impulses toward his children. He also suggests that horror invites a connection to the darker side of humanity, allowing us to identify our violent impulses with those we see in the text (~ Bones 181). King's catharsis model would, of course, suggest that readers who identify with these violent impulses (e.g. those directed toward his/her children) would vicariously experience them, perhaps displace them onto the author or text, but would in any case eventually suppress them; the readers would thus be reassured of their status as ngood parent.n This is a convenient way of handling fears or of imagining how we would like to handle them. But this perspective denies the potential effects of experiencing an identification with such horrific impulses--e.g. that identifying with such impulses may feed them, that recognizing such impulses may coerce us away from enacting or reenacting them, that fear of such impulses, or of such an identification, may cause us to question why we are fearing them. Relying on either the catharsis argument or on the argument that a text merely provides &, emotional thrill appears to be a safety mechanism.
still, King's comments may well inform the production of his texts. In fact, the horror audience and the processes of production/consumption play significant
roles in both of the novels I will be examining--
Christine and Misery. His comments, however, also reflect
common assumptions about the horror readership and the reading/decoding process. In his interviews, King suggests that his primary audience is the teenager. Determining the primary consumer of the horror text is
crucial because the assumption of an adolescent audience, and in most cases an adolescent male audience, often
informs the subsequent assumption that the genre is
inherently nmalen and, by extension, misogynist. Such assumptions have informed both the critical dismissal of
horror, and what little criticism has been attempted.3
The claim that horror is a misogynist genre seems more easily defensible than the claim that it is inherently male. Horror frequently relies on misogynist representations that perpetuate ideologies which have led
3Consider for example James Twitchell's work in Dreadful Pleasures in which he assumes an adolescent male audience and bases his theoretical framework on conceptions of adolescent psychological development; Paul Sammon's examination of the splatterpunk phenomenon and the claims of misogyny levelled against it (Sammon 282-284); or Clare Hanson who claims in her essay ::Stephen King:Powers of Horrorn that "horror fiction is, primarily, produced and consumed by men," and then uses this generalization to imply that the genre as a whole is "masculinen and, by implication, anti-woman (Hanson 152-153). For Hanson, the romance genre is nfemininen and again the implication is that the genre's inherently gendered aspects are potentially misogynist since they participate in patriarchal definitions of masculinity or femininity.
to the oppression and control of women. As the readings that follow will demonstrate, Stephen King has done much to further the genre's misogynist reputation. Claiming that this is a genre by and for males is much more problematic, however. still, this assumption informs many approaches to the genre from studies of production~ to consumption, and thus it warrants some challenge.
The fact that many horror writers are first
published in "men's" magazines may account in part for
the assumption that horror is a male genre. Stephen King
has encouraged young writers to send stories to such
magazines first,S and Lisa Tuttle has claimed that there
is a parallel between horror and pornography when it comes to the producers' (writers and editors) and
consumers' assumptions about gender and the horror
product (Marotta 22). Even if this is true, I would ask
what cultural assumptions have led these magazines, in
particular, to market this type of fiction? Has the
4See for example a recent issue of Fangoria devoted to women in horror. The magazine's editors and Linda Marotta's article on women in horror both suggest that horror is no longer by and for men (Timpone 6; Marotta 20). Nonetheless, Marotta quotes writer Lisa Tuttle who explains that male editors still adhere to rigid gender assumptions about the horror product (Marotta 22).
5See King's essay "The Horror writer and the Ten Bears, A Forward" in Kingdom of Fear; The World of Stephen King by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller. New York: New American Library, 1986.
market changed as horror has become more popular? And finally, do stories published in such venues take on the social and political "baggage" of the venues themselves? In other words, given cultural assumptions about
pornography, is it really surprising that the horror genre, a commodity economically linked to pornography, has been labelled both a male genre and a misogynist one? Should we be surprised that there is such a resistance to attempts at questioning or complicating these labels? Laura Kipnis asks that we acknowledge the counter-
hegemonic impulses and encodings inherent in the
pornographic text, and her argument demands that critics resist and interrogate the critically dominant position that would reduce a text to a set of predetermined
The feminist anti-porn movement has achieved at least temporary hegemony over the terms in which debates on pornography take place: current discourses on porn on the left and wi thin feminism are faced with the task of framing themselves in relation to a set of arguments now firmly established as discursive landmarks: pornography is defined as a discourse about male domination--if not a direct cause of rape--and its pleasures, to the extent that pleasure is not directly conflated with misogyny, are confined to the male sphere of activity (Kipnis 374).
Given the potential connections between the horror text and the pornographic commodity, Kipnis's demand has bearing on the horror text as well.
The available demographic information, for example, suggests that determining the primary horror consumer is a difficult task, in part because the genre, as an identified genre, is relatively recent, despite a long tradition of horror tales extending back to the Gothic and beyond. While the mystery, science fiction, romance and action/adventure genres have been frequently surveyed in terms of both production and consumption habits, the horror genre has not. Another difficulty is in determining what texts fall into the category of horror. While for some authors and texts there seems little doubt (eli ve Barker or the splatterpunks, for example, are clearly horror), an author like King poses some difficulties. Novels like Salem's Lot, Christine, and ~ Shining are supernatural and would seem to fall into the "occult/supernatural" category of fiction used in most surveys of book purchasing practices. Yet works like Misery, Gerald's Game, or his novella Apt Pupil are psychological thrillers, and a novel like The Stand seems to defy classification by genre. Nonetheless, King is constantly referred to as the RKing of Horror," and he
has claimed to have redefined the horror genre (Goldstein
studies focussing on who buys/reads horror do not settle the dispute. One Publishers Weekly article on the rising popularity of horror offers varying opinions on the primary consumer. Waldenbook Buyer David Thorson claims that it nis primarily a teenage market, although adults read it toon (Sherman 27). Teresa Martini, manager of a Waldenbooks agrees, claiming that the horror market n is primarily teenagers, both male and female, and secondarily those in their 20s and 30sn (27). Don Herron confirms that teenage girls are a major constituent of at least the King aUdience.6 Horror clearly has a teenage aUdience, but it is difficult to confirm that this is the
While Waldenbooks reports a primarily teenage audience, Waldenbooks tend to locate in Malls, a mainstay of teenage social life. According to other book buyers
6 After listening to a call-in show in which the OJ asked who the greatest writer and greatest novel were, Herron reports that nmost of the call-ins came from teenage girls, and the majority of them voted for Stephen King's The Stand as the greatest and King himself as unquestionably the greatest writer to ever liven (Herron 150). Clearly, the preponderance of teenage girls responding in this instance may have more to do with the constituency of the radio audience, but Herron's account does suggest that teenage girls avidly read King, and Herron refers to teenage female fans throughout his essay as one of King's primary audiences.
and sellers, there are "horror readers in all age groupsn
(Sherman 28). A 1983 survey of book purchasing shows that 5% of males and 4% of females purchased occult or
supernatural books, with the highest percent of purchases being made by those in the 18-24 age range (Wood, "1983n
292). In more general terms, numerous surveys, including a 1990 Gallup Poll Survey, suggest that women read more fiction than men (~ 45)?, a fact that implies that
women read more widely than men ," Curiously enough, the
Gallup survey shows that Stephen King is the number one
author of those who offer a preference and is read by an equal number of men and women, about 43%, even though
women readers do tend to prefer romance novelists like
Danielle steele (~ 48). Clearly, then, the horror
audience is more varied than critics, producers and even
many consumers might wish to admit.
More demographic research would need to be done to substantiate any claim for the primary horror consumer. And perhaps the more significant question should be: what
7See also 1983 Consumer Research study on Reading and Book Purchasing p.34, and p. 144 where the statistics show that 73% of women polled read fiction while only 27% of men do.
8statistically, women do read significantly more romance, historical, and popular fiction, while men read more action/ adventure and science fiction (Wood, n1983n 292).
are the implications of a diverse audience so intent on "consuming" misogynist products? In the next chapter I will examine horror products that make such misogyny the subject of the horror, texts that clearly strive to defy and self-consciously interrogate the ideologies so often associated with horror. To answer the above question, however, one must consider the act of reading itself. If, as stuart Hall claims, "one of the most significant political moments • • • is the point when events which are normally signified and decoded in a negotiated way begin to be given an oppositional reading" (Hall 138), then determining whether particular texts are reinscriptive or subversive has as much to do with how we decode these texts as it does with how these texts are encoded. Michel de certeau insists that we learn to understand the act of consumption, and avoid assuming that it means "'becoming similar to' what one absorbs," when it very well might mean "'making something similar' to what one is, making it one's own, appropriating it or reappropriating it" (Practice 166).
King's novel Misery self-consciously examines the frightening implications of an audience that "appropriates" the narrative space, making it "one's own." Nonetheless, both Misery and Christine offer complex and often contradictory encodings. In both texts
76 there is a certain degree of narrative ambiguity centered on the locus of monstrosity, and in many ways the nmonstern becomes the site of encoded critique. King's manipulation of the monstrous figure ultimately enables him to nsafelyn challenge the cultural norms of masculinity. In the following readings, I plan to demonstrate that the horror narrative can function to reinscribe dominant ideologies, specifically those that function to define and perpetuate gendered power differentials, even though it calls such ideologies into question. While both texts contain ncounter-hegemonicn impulses, King's manipulation of the monstrous ultimately locates monstrosity in the empowered female. Both Christine and Misery offer frighteningly misogynistic representations of women, females as monsters not merely because of the violent acts they commit, but because they deviate from prescribed roles for women. At the same time, these texts call into question traditional assumptions about masculinity and the hegemony of male power.
In many ways, Christine serves as the consummate example of the nsafe spacen horror product. Yet even in this text, King manipulates the monstrous and pushes the limits of this genre's conventions. If, as Carol Clover has suggested, nthe 'identifications' of horror are in
place" even before we engage with the product (Clover 10), then in King's text we can recognize an attempt to both resist such identifications and return to them. The conventions of the genre provide such deep structural parameters that even counter-hegemonic encodings can coexist with normative impulses. In Christine, King's potentially powerful critique of masculinity and of the processes of patriarchal aCCUlturation do pose a threat to the text's "safety," to its ability to reaffirm conservative norms. To counter this potential, King couches this critique in representations of the monstrous that reinscribe misogynist ideology and the fear of "deviantn womanhood. At the same time, King selfconsciously addresses his nassumedn audience--the adolescent male. Christine constitutes a conduct book of sorts, teaching the adolescent male the potential horrors of thwarted acculturation. While the novel exposes as monstrous the mandates of patriarchal masculinity, it ultimately locates monstrosity in a female who perverts her son's oedipal development, leaving him prey to both a demonic fetish object and homosexual penetration.
In Misery, the monster as a site of critique is even more complex and is directly linked to the processes of production and consumption, encoding and decoding. While this text also complicates and problematizes its own move
to reaffirm cultural norms, the text uses the fear of empowered (thus deviant) womanhood to reassert dominant encodings. Again King offers a potential critique of patriarchal power, in this case in terms of the patriarchal use/abuse of language. King's text specifically configures controlling cultural narratives as male and as potentially monstrous. Nonetheless, King finally relies once again upon misogyny and fear of the empowered woman as his means of reaffirming the cultural norm and rendering his potential critique ostensibly moot.
The following readings illustrate the complexity of the horror text, its potential for subversive commentary but also the limitations inherent in its dependence on generic conventions. By making both his assumed audience and the producer/text/consumer relationship the subject of his texts, King's texts themselves provide crucial insights into horror's relation to the social. As I hope to demonstrate, King's own return to convention speaks to the inherent nhorrorn of the horror text's subversive potential.
I. From Misogyny to Homophobia and Back Again: The Play
of Erotic Triangles in Stephen King's Christine
The prologue to King's novel Christine begins, nThis is the story of a lover's triangle, I suppose you'd say--
Arnie CUnningham, Leigh Cabot, and of course, Christinen
(Christine 1). In actuality, Christine is a story filled with erotic triangles, and the interplay of these triangles propels much of the novel's action. Curiously, the novel opens by claiming that the primary triangle (in truth, the only acknowledged triangle) is that composed of Arnie, Leigh and Christine. This should not seem surprising since this statement is made by the book's narrator and protagonist Dennis Guilder.9 By opening in this way, Dennis deflects our attention from the more crucial erotic triangle of the novel, that composed of
Arnie, Christine and Dennis. He even says on the same
page, nArnie had me. Then he had Christine. Leigh came latern (1). The novel's three sections are entitled
nDennis--Teenage Car-songs,n nArnie--Teenage Love-songs,n
and nChristine--Teenage Death-songs,n a fact that also
9 Dennis is clearly the narrator of the entire novel.
Even though the novel's second section is written in the third person rather than the first person, Dennis takes credit/responsibility for that section in part three: nIt is a story you have already heard, so I won't repeat it here: suffice it to say that I tried to tell it pretty much as she told it to men (380).
80 links these three characters in a triangular arrangement. These titles, moreover, link Dennis in an erotic relationship with cars (presumably Arnie's role) and Arnie in a relationship with heterosexual romance (presumably Dennis' role). King's subtitles make it explicit that he is taking the teenager, presumably the teenage male, as his subject, and they construct a definitive triangle composed of male, car and romance. still, the order of the subtitles' triangular arrangement is crucial. In both Dennis' narrative statement and these subheadings, Arnie and Dennis are positioned first, with Christine the figure who comes along afterwards; in the novel's action, Christine is the third party who enters the scene and effectively intrudes upon and disrupts the relationship between Arnie and Dennis. Christine is initially monstrous, then, precisely because she comes between these two males, destroying their bond.
In her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Eve Kosofsky sedgwick examines critical approaches to the erotic triangle as discussed by Rene Girard, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Gayle Rubin, who complicates the discussion of erotic triangles by demonstrating that they enable the traffic in women. Sedgwick explains that in the tradition of major European fictions, "Girard traced a calculus of power that was
structured by the relation of rivalry between the two active members of an erotic triangle" (21), and she emphasizes Girard's insistence that "the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that
links either of the rivals to the beloved" (21). In her
assessment and use of Girard's theory, Sedgwick
establishes a rigidly gendered structure to these triangles in which the rivalry is between two men for one woman, and this allows Sedgwick to draw on Rubin's
discussion of the traffic in women, since Rubin's theory
suggests that such rivalry essentially exposes the use of women as "exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men" (26). According to Sedgwick, then, the male traffic in women enabled by the rivalry of the erotic triangle provides for the fulfillment of male homosocial desire through the exchange of the commodified female.10
However, Sedgwick explicitly grounds her argument in an examination of homosocial desire between men, a desire
that must be negotiated in culturally approved ways that
prevent it from trespassing into the arena of homoerotic
or homosexual desire. In other words, the erotic
10 The ideal example of this would be the traditional marriage in which the female is exchanged between two groups of men to cement the intrafamilial bonds (26).
triangle, the male traffic in women, allows men to maintain their homosocial bonds and connections, while displacing their "desire" onto the commodified female, thereby avoiding the threat of homosexuality. As I shall demonstrate shortly, the fear of homosexuality is central to this text.
Sedgwick makes clear the gendered power dynamics of the erotic triangle as it has most often been represented in fiction. Rosemary Jackson has argued that fantasy frequently involves an inverse of the world as we know it. To an extent, this novel provides various "inversions" or even "perversions" of the traditional erotic triangle. Nonetheless, these "inversions" and "perversions" still work within a gendered framework that perpetuates male power and privilege. This novel begins with a distorted triangle (distorted in the sense that Christine's intrusion produces a rivalry between Dennis and Christine over Arnie), one that functions to threaten male bonds and the fruition of homosocial desires. Christine, clearly codified as female, is also clearly codified as whore and monster, and precisely because she threatens male bonds and male power. By the novel's end, a second triangle forms--that of Arnie, Leigh and Dennis-in which Leigh, as "madonna" figure, becomes the object of rivalry between Arnie and Dennis, a rivalry that comes
into being as a means of suturing the bond ruptured by Christine's intervention. Along the way, the novel presents what Dennis has defined as the primary lover's triangle--Arnie, Leigh and Christine. While this triangle
might seem to be the complete inverse of the traditional triangle (two females in rivalry over one man), the effects with regard to power are much the same. Arnie is hardly an object exchanged between the two "females." Instead, he becomes the center around which these "females" battle in their attempt to destroy one another,
not so they can possess, but so they can be possessed. 11
Christine is clearly coded as female and not just by
her name. The novel offers periodic discussion of the male obsession with using feminine, and usually misogynist, referents for the automobile. From the
outset, however, Christine is also equated with the
female body. When Arnie and Dennis speak with Christine's original owner, Roland LeBay, he explains that Christine "had the smell of a brand new car, and that's about the
finest smell in the world
• Except maybe for pussy"
(Christine 10). LeBay's statement, one that echoes
throughout the novel, not only equates the car with the female body, or at least with the female genitals, but it
11 This is an erotic triangle that is hardly unconventional.
also implicitly places Christine in the role of sexual surrogate,~ which would explain her appeal to Arnie who,
as social outcast, has been denied any access to actual
female bodies (unlike his football player buddy, Dennis,
who makes casual references to his often unnamed
cheerleader girlfriend and the fact that he can "assault" her body whenever he chooses ). Arnie feels an attraction to Christine that is directly linked to his
desire to remake her, to make her something beautiful again (29), and in his process of remaking her he gains a sense of self esteem that eventually allows him access to Leigh Cabot, an actual female body. Arnie's father explains at one point that a car is necessary in order to
gain literal access to women, since it allows the male to
play the active role and pick up the female (119). The
car thus figures as the demonized symbol of adolescent
male sexual desire.
Christine, whose features are referred to as her
measurements (99), is a temptress and seductress, adorned with "rusty lace" (37) and capable of evoking in Dennis'
mind a voice much like that of Mae West, "Let's go for a
~ I refer here to Christine as sexual surrogate and not as fetish object because, as I shall try to make clear, Christine fluctuates between fetish object and female subject, part of the novel's horror being located in the premise of a fetish object come to life.
85 ride, big guy ••• Let's cruise" (33). This initial scene in which Dennis finds himself seduced and threatened--"I got out of that car just about as fast as I could"(34)-establishes Christine as a monstrous femme fatale and clearly as a whore. Dennis claims that LeBay's statement to Arnie, "Hope you enjoy her," makes him think of "a very old pimp huckstering a very young boy" (34). Christine is later described as a "baggy old whore" (67), who steals Arnie away from his family, but who primarily steals Arnie away from Dennis.
At LeBay's funeral, when Dennis speaks with LeBay's brother George, King makes it very clear that Christine is a threat to the bond between Dennis and Arnie. Dennis explains to George, "I don't think [christine's] been good for him. Maybe part of it's being • • • I don't know
••• n to which George responds, "Jealous? • Time he
used to spend with you he now spends with hern (90)? Dennis reluctantly agrees, but insists that there is something else going on. Finally, George insists that "love is the enemy ••• Love is a cannibal with extremely acute vision. Love is insectile; it is always hungry ••• It eats friendship" (91). On the one hand, this passage implies that Arnie's love for Christine threatens his friendship with Dennis. However, by establishing Christine as seductress, as monstrous whore, the novel
depicts Christine as the devourer of friendship, the destroyer of male bonds. As an almost immediate confirmation of this idea, the novel offers a crucial scene.
When Arnie and Dennis discuss Arnie's job with will Darnell, Arnie desperately explains all the work he needs to do on Christine, which makes Dennis feel that Arnie is pleading for his approval. This conversation reminds Dennis of their friend, Freddy, who nmet some slut from Penn Hills--and I mean a real slut, one more than happy to stoop for the troops, bang for the gang, pick your pejorativen (110). The girl ngot pregnant,n the implication being that it was not Freddy's child, and so Freddy married her. He gave up everything for her, she eventually went back to her old sexual practices, and Freddy desperately sought approval from all his friends. At this point in the story, Dennis claims, "I know they say that a stiff dick has no conscience, but I tell you now that some cunts have teeth, and when I looked at Freddy, looking ten years older than he should have, I felt like I wanted to cry" (111). It can hardly be coincidence that, after establishing Christine as a seductress, and after implying through George LeBay that Christine might devour the friendship between Dennis and Arnie, King would provide this narrative digression in
which a whore figure devours one of their friends, in which the vagina, already equated with Christine, is described as devouring. The parallel between Freddy's situation with the unnamed "slut" and Arnie's situation with Christine is obvious. More important, however, is the implication that such a woman is castrating, capable of not only threatening male friendship, but also of stripping males of their power.
Throughout the novel's first section, then, King establishes Christine as a seductress, as a sexual surrogate, as a whore and as a monster because she threatens male bonds and male power. Clearly, she begins to control Arnie, and clearly she challenges Dennis. He even begins to feel that the car doesn't like him, "as if it suspected [him] of coming between it and Arnie" (155), and he is plagued by dreams in which the car attempts to kill him. By the end of the first section, the triangle of Dennis, Arnie and Christine has been fairly well dismantled. Christine has empowered Arnie enough that he has asked Leigh Cabot on a date, Leigh being the only one who can demote Christine "back to her proper place as an it, a means of transportation" (159). The preceding discussion has considered only descriptions and events occurring in the first section, Christine's monstrous acts of violence (preventing Arnie from saving Leigh,
88 killing Arnie's enemies) not beginning until later in the text. Thus, King initially represents her as monstrous because of the gendered role she plays and the threat that she poses to men. As monstrous figure, she comments on norms of femininity while revealing the necessity of the commodified female for proper masculinity.
The novel's second section chronicles the triangle of Christine, Arnie and Leigh, an apparent inversion of Girard's romantic triangle, in which Arnie's male power is exposed as an illusion in the face of the female power to create, consume and control. This second triangle centers on a dynamic of making and remaking bodies, images and self images. Arnie describes his initial attraction to Christine in terms of his desire to fix her up, to make her beautiful again, to restore her body. In essence, she will be his Pygmalion, and as bearer of male power and privilege he will remake her. He spends a great deal of time and effort working to that end. Dennis notices early on, however, that the web of cracks in Christine's windshield is growing smaller, the first indication that the car is restoring itself (122). Eventually, the reader discovers that Arnie has little power to remake Christine. Instead, as her odometer rolls backward, she restores herself (321). While Arnie's
efforts may have no enduring effect on Christine, her efforts certainly effect great changes in him.
Dennis comments that Arnie's complexion is better, and he jokes that buying an old car may be the cure for acne (138). Christine thus effects changes in Arnie's body, a direct inversion of the appropriate order. But Christine also changes Arnie's self image and sense of personal power as she almost literally "makes a mann out of him. He explains that Christine helped him overcome his impotence, that without Christine "he never would have had the courage to call [Leigh] on the phonen (200). Also, Buddy Repperton's attack on the restored Christine is his way of symbolically attacking Arnie (yet another example of the traffic in women--Christine as object whose abuse serves as a signifying practice between rivals), and this suggests that for Arnie to possess Christine is to possess a certain amount of power. It is here that we can first see Christine functioning as something close to a fetish object. Kaja Silverman has convincingly argued that Freud's analysis of the motivations behind fetishism attest "to nothing so much as a successfully engineered projection, the externalizing displacement onto the female subject of what the male subject cannot tolerate in himself: castration or lack" (Acoustic Mirror 16). Christine as
90 object serves to make up for Arnie's lack--Iack of sexual access afforded by male power and possession of the phallus: and, as I shall soon demonstrate, lack of the phallus. Christine's monstrosity is located in part in the fact that she functions both as castrating female and as reparation of the lack produced by castration. She is both monstrous subject and fetish object.
At the same time, part of Leigh' s rivalry with Christine stems from ~ desire to remake Arnie: "she had, in weeks only, begun to make him over ••• to complete him" ( 211). To an extent, both females pose a threat to Arnie's male power. His ability to restore, to impose his vision on Christine and make her what he wants, is exposed as illusion, and he is caught between two female figures who wish to change him, to complete him. The irony is that only Christine succeeds. What is equally ironic is that this triangle almost appears as an ideal male fantasy. Arnie seemingly has it all--his whore and his madonna. The novel consistently describes Leigh as an ideal of beauty, sexy yet wholesome with her "cornfed" good looks (379), and relatively virtuous. Arnie is the first boy with whom she has made any sexual overture (193), and yet she can't fulfill that desire because to make love in Christine would be worse than an act of exhibitionism: it would be like "making love
91 inside the body of her rival" (196) (yet another image of Christine as consuming).
The rivalry between Leigh and Christine deepens and becomes more concrete as the novel blurs the distinction between Christine as object and Christine as subject. We can see this fluctuation between subject and object in the descriptions of Arnie's highly sexualized relationship with Christine. He claims at one point that he can't sell her because he has "put too much into hern (248), a sexually coded reference to his energy and effort. He finds Christine comforting because "she would never argue or complain • • • you could enter her anytime and rest in her plush upholstery, rest in her warmth. She would never deny" (319). Christine provides comfort by providing easy access, and the implication is easy sexual access, though this seems absurd since he is speaking about a car. King plays on adolescent male fantasy here; yet this is also an interesting comment about the male obsession with cars. Christine has become Arnie's substitute for sex, providing what Leigh can't or more importantly won't. Arnie even describes his restoration of Christine (the process in which he moved her odometer back in order to repair Buddy Repperton's destruction) as a "hellish consummation" (320).
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