Is Literary Interpretation of Horror Conditioned by Inherited Determinants? The Case of the Haunted House. Clara Pallejá-López - PDF

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Is Literary Interpretation of Horror Conditioned by Inherited Determinants? The Case of the Haunted House Clara Pallejá-López Abstract: The identification of the stathmin gene as an important mediator

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Is Literary Interpretation of Horror Conditioned by Inherited Determinants? The Case of the Haunted House Clara Pallejá-López Abstract: The identification of the stathmin gene as an important mediator of both instinctive and learned fear has supported the hypothesis that some fears are inherited in humans. Genetic research has further demonstrated that fears can also be gender-specific, triggering different responses to particular stimuli depending on the sex of the individual. These discoveries open up new ways of interpreting icons of fear in both literature and film. Of these the house, which can operate as a symbol of women s restricted role in society, inevitably looms largest for many female writers and readers. This chapter introduces some basic notions of the latest genetic research into fear and explores whether the fear responses of readers and audiences can be conditioned by their gender. By reviewing a series of haunted house narratives authored by male and female authors, including Shirley Jackson, Anne Rivers Siddons, Stephen King, Jay Anson, and Richard Matheson, among others, it is shown that understandings of the haunted house differ significantly between men and women. Key Words: Gender-specific responses, haunted house, inherited fears, interpretation, sentient house, spatial restriction. ***** A major change in the conventions of the haunted house story took place in mid-twentieth century: the appearance of the evil house or sentient house. Before then, stories about hauntings normally revolved around ghosts or demons rather than focusing on buildings themselves. The ghosts were normally connected to evil either through their past crimes or as victims of third parties. Alternatively, hauntings were connected to Satan, demons and hell. This chapter argues that the emergence of an evil and responsive house can in part be explained by the cumulative and generational gender-specific fear related to the spatial restriction of women. Recent discoveries in genetic research suggest that memories related to fear and the adequate response to them might be transmitted from generation to generation. In the case of animals, this is not new, but the preferred term has been instinct, and more specifically survival instinct. Entire patterns of behaviour in animals have been explained as a blurred combination of learning from other members of the group and the particular species instinct. The genetic transmission of instincts in animals is now widely accepted, but in the case of humans, animal instinct has traditionally been understood as accounting for a very limited amount of human conduct. Individual progress is mostly seen as the result of intelligent learning. As a consequence, the biological transmission of knowledge in humans has been, to a great extent, overlooked. The reality is that humans do display behaviour that can only be caused by non-associative fears building up over generations. An illustration of this can be seen in neonates startled response to loud noise, or the blinking of their eyes when objects suddenly approach. 1 These basic responses have traditionally been regarded as intuition, but are in fact behaviour derived from traces of genetic memory. More complex non-associative fears include fear of animals, heights or separation, and with these fears similar internal processes are involved. 2 According to recent studies, the reason why humans are born with encoded fears is because these are passed on by our ancestors in the stathmin gene, which controls both learned and innate fear. 3 Indeed, some fears may remain dormant if individuals have no traumatic experience of the relevant situation, yet manifest quickly and persistently after subjects have undergone minimal vicarious or direct trauma. 4 When lab-reared primates watched a monkey displaying fear of both live and toy snakes, they were instantly conditioned with a strong fear of snakes, even when the model was shown on videotape. This did not happen when snakes were substituted by other animals, demonstrating that they were responding through inherited knowledge about the shape of snakes and the consequences of their bite. 5 Once activated, these inherited fears provoke an immediate adequate response to what, for our ancestors, was a threat. Current research supports the hypothesis that women may be more predisposed than men to learn the appropriate emotion for nonhuman animals that were recurrent threats over evolutionary time. 6 For instance, five-month-old girls appear to have a perceptual template of spiders and snakes that the boys do not have. Researchers see in this gender difference the results of the different roles played by males and females throughout their evolution. Among fears which females show greater predisposition for are those related to spatial restriction. While males and females score similarly in modern fears such as flying or syringes, situational phobias such as claustrophobia and darkness are far more common in women than in men. 7 This relationship between closed spaces, females and fear is so deeply ingrained that spatial alterations apparently affect unrelated areas of female conduct such as parental instincts and procreation. 8 Taking all of the above into consideration, it seems logical to ponder whether the male and female responses to spatial fears might be different on the basis of inherited knowledge of fears. The briefest survey of Western history is all that is required to demonstrate that the female relationship with the home has been both complex and traumatic, often subject to the constraints of patriarchal power. If the house has repeatedly been presented as a specific hazard or source of anxiety down the ages, this might explain its emergence as a preeminent object of women s fear. The horror genre provides a suitable corpus in which these genderconditioned fears can be easily traced. Indeed, when looking at houses in horror fiction, male and female writers show key differences. Specifically, women appear to make use of an exclusive type of horror based on claustrophobia and psychological dependence on buildings, whereas male authors consistently rely on graphic violence, demonology or sexual perversion as the genesis for their hauntings. These differences in approach correspond nicely with the higher rate of claustrophobia and fear of darkness in women. If recent research is correct in postulating that women experience evolutionary fears specific to their gender, we could argue that women have something akin to a negative genetic blueprint concerning the idea of houses, resulting from millennia of domestic entrapment. An implication of this theory would be that a horror text could well work on the reader s biochemistry his or her inherited anxieties which, although obscure to the individual as no direct experience explains them, would nevertheless be present on the subconscious level. The house as an antagonist could not appear in Western literature until women s position in society began to change dramatically after the Second World War. Until this turning point, it seems fair to say that there had been relatively effective spatial control of women by the patriarchal system. As this decreased, the presence of the house is intensified in women s writing, culminating in the emergence of the evil house in the 1950s. Fiction written by women before 1900 already reveals an intuition about the psychological processes surrounding the home and homemaking. These played a crucial role in the emergence of the sentient haunted house as an autonomous antagonist that ultimately facilitates the disappearance of ghosts. A commonly discussed story when discussing haunted houses is Charlotte Perkins Gilman s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), in which the figures of the ghost and the house merge into one. Further precursors of the sentient house are The House That Was Not (1898) and The Room of the Evil Thought (1898) by Elia W. Peattie, as well as the story Afterward (1910) by Edith Wharton. All of these present the house as an active and independent force that causes destructive transformations in its occupants. However, intelligent sentience per se was not fully developed until the publication of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson. The sociocultural context of Jackson s novel was the forcing back of American women into suburban homemaking after they had kept the country running during war. The sentient house arrives at the point when women s awareness of the house s destructive potential meets the impossibility of escaping it. Hill House is the first house to be born evil for no apparent reason. The house was born from the imagination of an educated woman living in suburbia who was always torn between her domestic obligations and her need for her own privacy and space. The Haunting of Hill House opens with a powerfully descriptive paragraph which identifies the eponymous house as not sane. There are four main characters: Dr John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a shy young woman; Theodora, a larger-than-life bohemian artist; and Luke, the young heir to Hill House. Searching for scientific evidence of the supernatural, Dr Montague invites people with past experience with paranormal events to stay with him in Hill House. As the story progresses, the house gradually targets and seduces Eleanor, at first through subtle references in the form of textual apparitions, noises and shared feelings, which then escalate into major manifestations. To the others and the reader s surprise, Eleanor becomes torn between feelings of sheer terror and attraction to the building. Fearing for her safety, Dr. Montague insists she must leave. Eleanor, however, now thinks of the house as her home, and refuses to go. After being forced into her car, she is killed when she crashes into a large tree on the property. The book finishes with the same opening paragraph describing the insanity of Hill House, and how whatever walked there, walked alone. Jackson s book began as a writing exercise inspired by William Castle s film The House on Haunted Hill (1959), a standard haunted house story which stars Vincent Price and is a garish feast of violence. Jackson s story, however, has no violence, ghosts or demons, and yet it is highly effective and has been widely praised. Here we see how greatly male and female treatments of essentially the same material can vary. Once initiated by Jackson, the trope of the sentient house was pursued by both male and female writers. However, while male writers have praised and adopted the device, they persist in filling their narratives with extreme violence and satanic ritual. A brief survey of the best-selling haunted house narratives Richard Matheson s Hell House (1971), Stephen King s The Shining (1977), and Jay Anson s The Amityville Horror (1977) shows to what extent male authors rely on past evils or demons, even using the violation of burial grounds as possible explanations for the hauntings (as is the case with both King and Anson). This is equally valid for horror films by male directors, as we shall see below. The film adaptations of these three titles plus other well known works such as Steven Spielberg s Poltergeist (1982) all converge in similar understandings of hauntings. Just like The Haunting of Hill House, Richard Matheson s Hell House describes a scientific experiment that aims to prove the existence of the supernatural. It relies heavily on demonology, murder, torture, and sex crimes. This applies both to the past history of the building and to the narrative present. As the book draws to an end, a deceased owner of the house is identified as responsible for the haunting, a man who committed extremely violent crimes involving fatal orgies and massacres. Fear in Hell House thus relies on graphic description rather than presenting the house as a character or as a claustrophobic structure. Its characters do not develop psychological attachments to the house and show no will to stay. Although the house is initially presented with a certain degree of sentience and as a participant in the manifestations, it is gradually revealed to be merely the location of crimes committed before and after his owner s death. Similarly, Jay Anson s The Amityville Horror, based on a real-life family massacre, makes initial use of sentience, but as the story progresses the presence of the building weakens to allow room for other entities. The book incorporates a cursed cemetery, Satanism, sightings of ghosts and demons, animal sacrifices, and attacks on Church authorities, among other things. While it is initially presented as an evil place, with the Amityville house the significance of setting, space and associated claustrophobia is minimal. Our last male author, Stephen King, has openly declared his admiration for Jackson and for The Haunting of Hill House, which he intended to emulate with The Shining. In this book, the Overlook Hotel appears to be alive and aware, but its malignancy, it transpires, is the direct result of murders committed by members of the mafia. King deploys graphic descriptions of these crimes and presents both sinful and innocent ghosts, as well the animation of non-sentient matter such as the predatory trees in the hotel s topiary. The source of fear lies in the ominous surrendering of the protagonist to the ghosts dictates to murder his own family, and therefore the author again relies on bodily injury and physical aggression. I now turn to one of Jackson s leading female literary heirs, Anne Rivers Siddons. Nearly twenty years after The Haunting of Hill House, Siddons published The House Next Door (1978), which adopts similar techniques to those observed in Jackson s book. Like its predecessor, Siddons relies solely on psychological dependence and focuses unrelentingly on space. The House Next Door is the story of an intelligent, predatory house, for whose malevolence we are given no reasons at all it is just evil. The narrative follows the consecutive habitations of three sets of occupants in the house and their corresponding destruction not necessarily through death. The story begins with the building of a house in an idyllic spot surrounded by trees with a brook nearby with no hint of it being built on a burial ground. The completed structure is described as a charming modern house which earns the approval of all of the neighbours. However, one by one the house studies and destroys the lives of its occupants in unexpected ways, including that of its architect, who dies without understanding the source of its malignancy. Both The Haunting of Hill House and The House Next Door have been adapted into films which offer further evidence of the different fears underlying male and female psyches. When male directors are in the process of adapting a female text for the screen, it would seem that their inherited understanding of what is to be feared in a house dictates the introduction of extreme violence, demonology or past crimes. Specifically, two of the three film adaptations shift the emphasis from the malignancy of the house to that of a particular character. I will discuss the second film adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House first. In Jan de Bont s The Haunting (1999), Hugh Crain the original and deceased owner of the house in the book is revealed as the perpetrator of the haunting, and we witness the abuse of orphans, graphic decapitations, multiple ghosts, and a final confrontation between a devil-like Crain and the female protagonist. In very much the same vein, Jeff Woolnough s made-for-tv film The House Next Door (2006) makes a devil-like architect responsible for the haunting. These male adaptations ignore the many and explicit references to the building s own awareness in the female originals. The first adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wise s The Haunting (1963), follows the novel faithfully. Wise s film definitely cannot be accused of being untrue to Jackson s focus on psychological restriction and lack of back history. This might initially appear to disprove the theory being advanced in this chapter. However, this version of The Haunting of Hill House was to a large extent supervised by Jackson herself. Moreover, when Nelson Gidding was writing the script, his understanding was that the book was lacking something and was not a ghost story at all, but rather the jumbling together of the insane thoughts of Eleanor Vance. 9 Tellingly, when Wise and Gidding travelled to Vermont for one of their meetings with Jackson, she did restate that the novel was definitely about a haunted house. 10 The fact that male authors and directors are generally reluctant to say the least to privilege an inexplicably malevolent house over graphic violence and external explanations for the haunted house s malevolence, coupled with the fact that the sentient house originated with Jackson s The Haunting of Hill House, would seem to support the theory that females have inherited a gender-conditioned ability to see a fearful side of the house itself, which goes someway to explaining the limited male mastery of the possibilities of the sentient house narrative. 1NotesN Isaac Marks, Innate and Learned Fears Are at Opposite Ends of a Continuum of Associability, Behaviour Research and Therapy 40 (2002): Ibid, Gleb Shumyatsky et. al., Stathmin, a Gene Enriched in the Amygdala, Controls Both Learned and Innate Fear, Cell 123 (2005): Marks, Innate and Learned Fears, Arne Öhman and Susan Mineka, The Malicious Serpent: Snakes as a Prototypical Stimulus for and Evolved Module of Fear, Current Directions in Psychological Science 12 (2003): David H. Rakison, Does Women s Greater Fear of Snakes and Spiders Originate in Infancy? Evolution and Human Behavior 30 (2009): M. Fredrikson et al., Gender and Age Differences in the Prevalence of Specific Fears and Phobias. Behaviour Research and Therapy 34 (1996): Mice Missing Fear Gene Slow to Protect Offspring, ScienceDaily. Viewed 20 May 2014 www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/ htm . 9 Tom Weaver, I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmakers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2001, Ibid., Bibliography Anson, Jay. The Amityville Horror. London: Pan, Couture, Suzette. The House Next Door. Directed by Jeff Woolnough Montreal: Muse Entertainment. Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. London: Robinson, 1999 [1959]. King, Stephen. The Shining. London: New English Library, 1982 [1977]. Knight, Denise D., ed., The Yellow Wall-Paper and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Newark: University of Delaware Press, Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Viking, Peattie, Elia Wilkinson. The Shape of Fear and Other Ghostly Tales. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1969 [1898]. Self, David, and Michael Tolkin. The Haunting. Directed by Jan de Bont Universal City, CA: DreamWorks Pictures. Siddons, Anne Rivers. The House Next Door. New York: Ballantine, 1983 [1978]. Spielberg, Steven. Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hopper Los Angeles, CA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Wharton, Edith. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. London: Virago, 1996 [1910]. White, Robb. The House on Haunted Hill. Directed by William Castle Hacienda Heights, CA: Allied Artists. Clara Pallejá López is a lecturer in the Catholic University of Murcia. Her current research interest is the intertwining of sociocultural tensions with horror and fantasy fiction.
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