It’s nearly Halloween, which, among other things, means my laugh is growing more like a cackle. There is always a hint of madness in the air this time of year. My particular madness this Halloween comes in the form of a young adult fantasy novel on the verge of completion: a threshold where demons lurk. When I’m in a bad mood, I feel like using it as kindling for a toasty autumn bonfire. When I’m feeling less haunted, I imagine the positive reviews it’s going to get. They all use the word “bone-chilling.”
So how, I’ve been asking myself, does one go about chilling bones? The answer, it turns out, can be found in Halloween itself.
Halloween, or at least its precurser, the Celtic holiday Samhain, falls midway between the equinox and the solstice. Neither summer nor winter, it was once a time to be thankful for the bounty of the harvest even while preparing for the scarcity to come. Little wonder that at such an in-between time, the veil between the worlds becomes thin and beings from the Other Side intrude into our lives. This is precisely where horror lies: In the liminal spaces where the Other creeps into our comfortable worlds.
The Other, writes psychologist Carolyn Kaufman, is “someone or something we perceive as radically, insurmountably different from ourselves.” An evil spirit, a hideous monster, a person who has lost (or never had) the qualities that make us human—the Other is always someone whose desires are unthinkable, whose motivations are inconceivable. It is the anti-us. It makes us what we are by being so utterly what we aren’t.
The Other is often a being who crosses categories, who merges the qualities of two opposing entities or concepts. It may be a grotesque blend of animal and human—the werewolf, for example. More often, it’s a disturbing mixture of living and dead: Vampires (the “undead”), zombies (the “walking dead”), and ghosts (who are truly dead, but act like they’re living).
But the Other takes its most disturbing form when it merges the qualities of innocence and evil. The Exorcist didn’t shock us just because it was about a human being possessed by a vomiting, obscenity-spewing demon, but because that human was a 12-year old girl. In Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, we are confronted with the appalling image of a toddler knifing his own mother. And the classic 1956 horror movie, The Bad Seed treats us to the lusciously horrible image of a pigtailed eight-year-old murderer blithefully practicing the piano while listening to one of her victims go to a screaming death-by-burning.
Just as ghosts cross from the realm of the dead on Halloween night, the Other’s disruptive presence crashes our everyday lives in horror fiction. It is this that sends needles of cold into our hearts: The intrusion of the Other into our comfortable and familiar world. That is why the best horror fiction is often set in the most ordinary places, making the presence of the Other all the more disturbing. Any fan of the old Twilight Zone television series knows how a common business office or service station can be the site of evil. American towns where kids jump rope and throw baseballs in grassy backyards house many of Stephen King’s creepiest villains. ShirleyJackson’s chilling short story The Lottery takes place in an utterly run-of-the-mill village, and A Nightmare happens on the very familiar-sounding Elm Street.
Of course, the most horrifying thing about the Other is that it might not be so other, after all. Perhaps it isn’t the opposite of us. Perhaps it is the side of us we want to force back. The evil we don’t want to admit. The Shadow that keeps edging its way into our consciousness. We are, after all, the ones who disguise ourselves on Halloween, who hide behind masks and makeup. Perhaps that is because, on Halloween as in horror fiction, we are trying to come to terms with what we really are.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...