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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, April 13, 2018


In Part 2, I attempted to better define the psycho-killer subgenre by contrasting two classes of monster: one whose roots are in psychological processes as modern culture understands them, and one in which the monster originates from processes allied with either archaic folklore and magic, or with innovations in science. However, it belatedly occurred to me that my distinction drew on one made by Stephen King in his 1981 essay-book DANSE MACABRE. Having realized this, I chose not to go back and reread the King passages on this subject, since it's probable that I'd deviate from his theory in any case. In this 2013 review of several CHILDREN OF THE CORN films, I said:

In his nonfiction work DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King made a distinction between "inside horror," dealing with the sort of horror stemming from human motivations, and "outside horror," dealing with horror stemming from the nonhuman.  
Without implicating Stephen King further in my own theorizing, suffice to say that for me, "outside horror"-- or any comparable fictional affect, for that matter-- is based on human perceptions of nonhuman forces or entities. These perceptions include discovering the nature of the nonhuman, which can only be comprehended through one of two cultural concepts. If it's something that seems to hearken back to the earliest times of humankind, it's "magic." If it's something that is better allied to the advance of current human knowledge, then it aligns with the cultural concept of "science." In fiction the concept of magic give rise to such forms as "high fantasy" and 'supernatural fiction," for which there is no handy portmanteau term, while the concept of science has given rise to two non-identical portmanteaus: "science fiction" and "speculative fiction."

Now, based on these brief descriptions, one might expect everything in the latter cultural concept, "science," to also align with the concept of modernity. However, in the history of literature both "fantasy" and "science fiction" have been traditionally rejected by critics who claimed to represent the spirit of modernity, ranging from Edmund Wilson to Theodor Adorno. My interpretation of this phenomenon is that the apostles of modernity emphasize the status quo of current existence to such an extent that anything that either "goes back" or "goes forward" is often rejected out of hand. Thus, even though the concept of science has proven vital in modernity's rejection of the concept of magic, the apostles must reject fiction about science that has not happened yet just as much as they reject fiction about magical forces and entities.

I mentioned in Part 2 that in the domain of cinema, the most common iteration of the psycho-killer monster is a human being whose evil stems from his psychological motivations. Further, I asserted that most films about such monsters generally pursued either a naturalistic or an uncanny phenomenality. However, there are a few monsters who have marvelous aspects, even though I find that these do not explain their evil, as Dracula's evil is explained by the folkloric tradition of vampirism. The most common form of the marvelous psycho-killer is usually a revenant of some kind. Freddy Krueger is the most famous ghostly killer, though sometimes one sees the body rather than the soul survive death, as with the Maniac Cop--

And "Uncle Sam" from the 1996 video of the same name.

And then there are also psycho-killers whose spirits become embodied in nonhuman objects, like the celebrated Chucky.

Occasionally marvelous psycho-killers don't technically die, but are possessed by unfathomable forces that make it impossible to kill them, as with Michael Myers--

While Jason Voorhees is noteworthy for starting out as an uncanny psycho-killer who graduated to marvelous status once his producers decided it was just too complicated to revive him the old way.

What all of these marvelous psychos have in common is that there's usually very little expatiation on the "rules" that make their existence possible, in contradistinction to the type of rule-based narratives one finds in fantasy and science fiction. Again, the aberrant psychology of the psycho-killer, the thing that makes him kill and kill again, is the main feature of these films. I would say this probably applies to psycho-killer fiction in general, but can't claim to be deeply read in the history of prose psychos.

It's also noteworthy that when ordinary humans have to battle marvelous psycho-killers, only rarely do they use any rule-based strategy. The Dream Warriors of the third Freddy Krueger film articulate some very vague rules about forming "dream bodies," but one simply doesn't see a strong emphasis on such abstractions.

Part 4 coming up next.

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