Quite a few years ago, my Mum related the story of how she and my Grandmother were alone in the house (This was many years before Mum and Dad emigrated to Australia from England.) and both of them were reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula . When it came time for them both to go to bed they were both too terrified to climb up the stairs.
We can laugh at this today but it does illustrate how, just like society, the things that we find scarey change over time, both in literature and film and television.
BOOKS CONTINUE OUR ORAL STORY TELLING TRADITION.
Books became an extension of our story telling tradion. Our ancestors would sit around a fire and tell stories of Gods and Monsters, of great hunting trips and so on. This story telling is now actually hot wired into our very being. It explains why we seek out stories that feature a hero or protaganist, a struggle, whether it be within the hero’s psyche or some external force and a resolution to the conflict or struggle. The hero or heroine having learnt a valuable lesson along the way or even overcome a personal character flaw. Books or other entertainment that don’t provide these elements usually fail simply because, the elements of story telling are so deeply ingrained within us that we reject any story that doesn’t satisfy this basic criteria.
You may not realise it, but almost all forms of story telling use this tradionally method. Look at Children’s stories, let’s take Cinderella as an example. Cinderella (the protaganist) is forced to work in slave like conditions for her stepmother and her ugly stepsisters (the antagonists). Cinderella’s problem is that she has no money or power to escape her situation (the struggle). With the help of her fairy Godmother, Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a beautiful ball gown. A pumkin and six mice are transformed into a coach and horses and she is given a pair of glass slippers. However she must return before the final stoke of midnight from the ball as the spell will fade and she will return to her drab self minus her coach and horses (temporary victory over struggle by the protaganist.) At the ball Cinderella dances with the handsome prince till after midnight and must flee before the spell wears off, leaving behind her glass slipper (protaganist failing to heed a warning or taking postive action to avoid a disaster. The Prince, now besotted with Cinderella, sends his men out to find the woman whose foot fits the glass slipper.
Needless to say it is Cinderella and they live happily ever after.The moral ends the story and teaches the reader a life lesson (A kind heart will triumph over power and cruelty, i.e Cinderella’s personality was stronger than the Stepmother/Sister’s power and dominance.)
Think of some of your favourite books, every single one of them will follow the path I’ve outlined, even if it may be somewhat obsure. Horror stories are no different. Their classic overriding them is good vs evil. Dracula is a prime example of this. Jonathan Harkness (the protaganist) must overcome many obstacles and terrors to stop his beloved Mina from being turned into a vampire and becoming the consort of the evil Count Dracula (the antagonist.)
You know, just reading this story description I can understand why Mum and Gran were too scared to climb the stairs all those years ago.
NEXT POST: In Part Two we’ll look at horror in film from the 20’s!