Thursday, 7 June 2012

The horror of everyday objects

My recently published story 'The Doorbell' is the tale of an everyday object gone bad. There's a long history of horror stories based around innocuous objects and as a writer and fan of the genre I wanted to try my hand at it. Oneof the most famous examples is 'Christine' by Stephen King and it's perhaps no coincidence that King's story of a classic car possessed by an evil spirit was the first horror novel I read as a 12 year old. Screw RL Stine I got straight into the good stuff.
Listing every example of the benign and inanimate demonised in horror would be a fool's errand but here are a few. Note that the titles are often as imaginative as that of The 'Doorbell', making the story or film very much focused on the object:
Cars - 'The Car', 'Christine'
Trucks - 'Duel'
Ambulances - 'The Ambulance'
Dolls - 'Dolls'
Puppets - The 'Puppetmaster' series 
Ventriloquist's dummies - 'Magic', 'Dead of Night'
Televisions - 'Poltergeist', 'The Ring', 'Demons 2', 'The Video Dead'
Tyres - 'Rubber'
Any household object you can think of - The 'Final Destination' series. 

The horror of these tales often comes from the fact that these are things that we have willingly allowed into our homes and welcomed into our lives. They are objects that we trust and that then betray us. The use of such familiar things as a focal point is effective because it makes it easy for the reader/viewer to make a connection with the story. One of the big themes in horror at the start of the modern period (mid-70s onwards) when King and Spielberg were at the heights of their popularity was ordinariness. Following the focus on period horror movies in the 60s (Hammer, Roger Corman's Poe adaptations) and the hysterical, exotic or apocalyptic in the 70s (The Exorcist, The Omen, Dawn of the Dead), 80s horror was often about sinister but localised things happening to normal seeming folk. The families in Poltergeist or King's books are believable and easy to identify with, leading familiar lives until the horrific overwhelms them. This sense of familiarity is often enhanced by references to objects that are known to the audience. King certainly loves to pack his books with brand names and cultural references. I tried to do something similar in The Doorbell. The characters are boringly normal: they bicker, they drink a bit too much, they Sky+ things and eat take always. 
So ordinariness draws the reader in and engages them. The other thing that the demonisation of everyday objects brings though is the opposite. It makes it easy for the reader or viewer to put the horror behind them when the story is over. The cymbal-clapping wind-up toy in King's short story The Monkey is terrifying when you're reading about it. When you put the book down though it's just a toy. Similarly the horror of a story like Christine is of the roller-coaster variety. It's thrilling while it lasts but unlike something like The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it doesn't linger. It doesn't get under your skin.
I liked the idea of a doorbell as the focal point for my story because it is, on the surface, such a ridiculous notion. So much so, in fact, that unlike conditions like "fear of men with beards" (Pogomophobia), "fear of long words" (Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia) or "fear of losing an erection" (Medomalacuphobia) there doesn't seem to be a word for it. 
Doorbells, however, can be alarming and annoying when they ring unexpectedly. Just like the shrill ring of the telephone the doorbell can interrupt intimate moments. Unlike the phone though it's very hard to ignore. When someone rings your doorbell there's always a fear that they'll know you're in. More so than ever with the advent of mobiles it is acceptable to ignore the ring of the phone. Mobiles are often set to silent or calls rejected out of hand in the knowledge that the caller can leave a message. A knock on the front door is harder to ignore, even if you know it's someone you don't want to talk to. Opening your front door to someone is a trusting, symbolic gesture, in opening the door you are giving your visitors access to your world. Indeed the motif of monster asking for or trying to enter homes is a common one in scary stories. From the wolf in the Three Little Pigs, through vampires having to be granted admission, to Jack Nicholson in The Shining and the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. The home is very important in horror, representing the normality that the monsters of the story are trying to destroy amd as noted above, the ring of a doorbell intrudes into that space even if no physical invasion takes place.

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