Monday, October 31, 2011

The Amityville Horror: Similar Elements to Other “Haunted House” Novels

I think what’s most interesting about this book is that even though it’s supposed to be real, it contains so many of the same “elements” as some fictitious “haunted house” books.  And in this post, I’d like to explore some of those elements.
One is the idea of a certain place in the haunted house that is “particularly haunted.”  What’s interesting is that this book has a few (rather than just one).  Strange things always seem to happen in the sewing room (flies accumulate, the window slams on one of the kids’ hands, etc.), and there always seems to be something odd affiliated with the boathouse and the red-walled room in the basement.  In Hell House, a particularly evil energy emanates from the chapel.  In A Haunting on Hill House, it’s the nursery.
Another is the object that keeps moving or shifting position.  In this book it’s the four-foot ceramic lion.  It reminded me a lot of The Shining with the lion-sculpted shrub (although all the shrubs moved and what not).
The house’s history also gives possible explanations for the hauntings, like in a lot of novels.  For example, on page 122 George unearths information about the house being built on land the Shinnecock Indians used to enclose the sick and dying.  He also uncovers information about the past owners of the house performing Satanic rituals in the red-walled room involving slaughtering animals, such as pigs.  The history of fictitious places in horror novels also offer possible reasons behind the hauntings, too, like the murders in the suite of The Overlook in The Shining, or the intense debauchery Belasco and his guests participate in in his house.
There are also lots of potential explanations for the hauntings in general, something I plan on exploring in my final project.  In addition to the histories of the house, the weather is sometimes a potential reason (they have frequent storms that could explain why the windows and doors are blown open).  Father Mancuso’s account of the hauntings (he becomes very sick whenever he even thinks about the house) is also called into question.  On page 255 Father Ryan “wanted to know if Father Mancuso thought the recurring affliction could be psychosomatic.  Wasn’t it possible that his emotional state could be influencing his rash of illnesses?”  George also experiences some things like being levitated or his wife levitating – all while he’s in a “dream-like state.”  So who’s to say he wasn’t just dreaming?  To draw the similarities to fictitious stories, The Haunting of Hill House offers a few potential reasons, too: not only a history, but also the odd architecture of the house might explain why doors open and close.  Not to mention the main character, Eleanor, exhibits signs of not being totally sane, which makes you wonder if you can even trust her account of what’s happening in the house at all (similar to Father Mancuso’s potential psychosomatic experience and George in his “dream-like state”).
Even though there’s no scientist in The Amityville Horror like there is in A Haunting of Hill House and Hell House, George states how he thinks it can all be explained by science on page 123.  When asked by his wife Kathy if the house is haunted, he replies, “’No way…I don’t believe in ghosts.  Besides, everything that’s happened around here must have a logical and scientific explanation to it.’”
The Amityville Horror also makes use of the “imaginary friend” concept.  The younger daughter, Missy, sees and speaks with Jodie, a pig who is supposedly her imaginary friend – until George and the rest of his family see the pig outside the window in her room.  George also sees the pig (or pig-related things) a few other times.  This type of thing is used a lot in fiction.  A couple movies I can think of are The Others, in which the young daughter sees a boy around the house, a sort of “ghostly presence.”  Even though we didn’t watch it for this horror course, The Exorcist also employs the same idea.  The main character, a young girl, has an imaginary friend who turns out to be Satan, who’s possessing her.
There’s even a similarity to the movie Ghostbusters in The Amityville Horror.  In the movie, there’s a green blob of a ghost that leaves slime on whatever it touches.  There’s no green ghost in The Amityville Horror, but green slime makes an appearance on page 226: “On every wall in the hall were green gelatinous spots, oozing down from the ceiling to the floor, settling in shimmering pools of green slime.”
Even though this post has been mainly comparing this supposedly true story to fictional stories, I find it interesting that there are also a few similarities between this book and another allegedly true “haunted house” account, Grave’s End.  Examples include the fact the houses were built over a burial ground, they both contain a well, etc.  So The Amityville Horror contains a lot of elements from both fictitious and nonfiction accounts, I guess.  Makes you wonder if it’s real after all or just a hoax.  Who knows?

Works Cited

Anson, Jay.  The Amityville Horror.  New York: Pocket Books, 2005.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Lovely Bones: A Few Things

I hate to say I found this book kind of boring, but that’s personal taste, of course.  I think I find it so because there wasn’t much mystery going on.  We already know who the murderer is, so that mystery’s off the table.  I have to admit that as I read, I was hoping the main tension of the book was going to be how the murderer, Mr. Harvey, is discovered.  That would’ve worked fine by me (and would’ve been unique as far as I’m concerned).  I thought that author Alice Sebold would have him almost be caught many times, have us on the edge of our seats as Suzie’s family barely misses discovering an essential clue and what not – and then I imagined finally being satisfied when they nab that damn bastard in the end.  But, sadly, most of the book chronicled the disintegration of Suzie’s grieving family.  BOR-ING.  I wanted some more action and close-calls, but people who enjoy more of a quieter, emotional ride will find this book enjoyable.
I want to draw an interesting parallel between this book and the movie The Others.  Like The Others, the protagonist of this book, Susie, is a ghost.  The protags from both the movie and the book also share another similarity: they need to make a realization in order to be get peace and be set free.  In The Others, Grace Stewart and her kids needed to realize that they’re dead and that the “intruders” in their house are living people who have moved in.  Even though they eventually decide to fight for their house, the ghosts at least come to terms with the fact that they’re dead.  Susie, on the other hand, will be set free with a different realization, as Franny in heaven tells her on page 120: she needs to stop wondering why she was killed instead of somebody else, stop wondering what’s going on with her loved ones and how they’re feeling on earth, etc.  Once she lets that emotional baggage go, she can finally be set free.  I thought that was an interesting twist, but it makes sense when it comes to ghost stories, as a common “trope” of ghost stories are that ghosts have some kind of “unfinished business” or “emotional turmoil” they weren’t able to solve in life.
I thought the villain of The Lovely Bones, Mr. Harvey, was interesting, too.  He’s somewhat sympathetic, which I think is important for all villains in stories these days, so all us writers need to remember that!  Don’t get me wrong.  As readers we hate Mr. Harvey for the whole book, but he becomes more three-dimensional and human (perhaps making him even scarier) when we see how he hates killing people (even though he does it) and that he’d rather kill animals than people because they’re at least “lesser beings.”  Either way, he’s still killing, so obviously readers are going to hate him, but we can at least empathize on a small level with the fact that he hates doing it and would like to “minimize” his killings if at all possible.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Others: A Pill of Trouble

            I really enjoyed this movie, especially the séance scene at the end.  What an awesome twist, and I have to admit I totally didn’t see it coming.
            During this movie a very small part stood out to me from the standpoint of a writer/storyteller.  It’s the scene where the housekeeper gives Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) a pill for her migraines, but this is around the time in the movie when the housekeepers are acting a bit odd.  Therefore, Grace is suspicious of this pill, presumably thinking the housekeepers are pulling one over on her, so we see her pour it out in the sink when the housekeeper is gone from the room.  For a horror movie, this little snippet kind of works double-time.  For one, it can offer or at least suggest a potential reason for the hauntings (something I want to write my final paper on – the different types of ways to suggest a potential reason for the hauntings in a horror story) – perhaps the housekeepers have been messing with Grace, giving her pills that muddle her mind.  Or perhaps they have something else in mind entirely.  However, it’s also just an example of regular old great storytelling that can be used in any story – a small hint of potential trouble.  At the end of the movie, I thought back to that moment and realized – “hey, that pill really didn’t have anything to do with anything.”  But what made that part so effective is that it got the viewer wondering if it did – if it all came down to those pills or if the housekeeper was purposefully messing around with Grace for whatever reason, even if it didn’t even tie directly into the hauntings.  Like I said, it was like a small “dose of potential trouble.”  I think this is something for us storytellers to keep in mind no matter what genre we write in.  Even if there’s a possibility for trouble, why not hint at it, even if it doesn’t wind up holding any water?  It will keep the viewer/reader guessing, not to mention intrigued about the possibility of trouble.  Like Michael Arnzen has told us many times, “Trouble is interesting.”  So perhaps it’s always a good idea to keep that in mind and add a little “pill of trouble” to our stories from time to time (I’m coining that phrase lol).
            I also wanted to add another point about this.  It’s also much better for these “pills of trouble” to be of action rather than a character’s internalization.  In a story I’ve been writing, I realized that I sometimes insert these “pills” via a character’s thoughts, which is not nearly as effective as action.  For example, it would have been far worse for Grace to have simply wondered to herself (though, obviously, it would be tougher to do this in a movie than a book), perhaps in a room by herself, “Hmmm…those ‘migraine’ pills – I wonder if they’re not what they seem.  Maybe they’re not really migraine pills, but something bad – some kind of poison the housekeeper is giving us!”  But that’s not nearly as effective as having her be suspicious when the housekeeper actually gives her the pill, and having Grace outwardly question them before dumping them into the sink.  It feels like much more of a real threat when it’s part of the action than when she’s just thinking it.  Plus, it makes the reader wonder about the nature of the pills – makes them think about what they could really be, which is far more effective than the character wondering.
            I wanted to bring up another part of the movie just because I was a bit confused by it.  It’s the part where the father comes home from the war.  This part seemed odd and kind of like it was just stuck in there to me based on the way Grace finds him.  She’s out in the woods near the house and randomly runs into her husband – all by himself.  As a viewer, I was like, “Oh – come ON.”  It just seemed way too random and kind of silly – how could he be all by himself so close to the house?  Of course, by the end of the movie I guess it makes sense, since Grace, her kids, and her husband (I think) are all dead, so theoretically their spirits (including his) can go and be wherever they want, but I don’t feel like the addition of the husband added much to the story.  Maybe I missed something, but instead it made me cry foul at that part, which is obviously not what you want to do unless you have a VERY good reason for it, and I don’t feel like this was a good reason.  Could be just me, though.  Did anyone else find that part far-fetched (even though it eventually did make some sort of sense) or kind of silly?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Shining: Wasps, Wasps, and More Wasps

I enjoyed The Shining on the whole.  As with a lot of Stephen King books I read, I felt like it dragged for a good portion of the book, as he goes into excruciating (and sometimes seemingly needless) detail to the point where I just want the story to move forward.  But toward the end, I was all in, especially since the whole novel had built up to the moment when Jack Torrance would go insane and swing that sledgehammer around.  I was hungrily waiting for that moment, wanting to witness the steps that led up to it, not to mention the actual event itself.
However, despite all the supernatural and admittedly pretty cool stuff going on in this book, the part that “horrified” me the most wasn’t any of that.  Not to mention it happened early in the novel.  It was the part where Jack is ripping away the rotted shingles on the roof, gets stung by the wasp, and pretty much prays that that the rest of the wasps don’t swarm him.  Luckily, they don’t, but it’s the concept that Jack may have killed himself if they did that really stabbed fear into my heart.  After getting stung, he thinks about how he probably would have hurled himself off the top of the Overlook out of fear if the wasps were stinging him – how he wouldn’t even be really thinking, just reacting out of pure fear.  I found my horror at this point interesting for two reasons.  The first is that, like I said, this is such a normal thing.  There are no supernatural elements, it hits so close to home.  This could easily happen to me on the roof of my own house – like right now, if I happened to be pulling off rotted shingles.  The other thing is that this terrible demise doesn’t even really happen.  I was horrified purely based on the concept.  I have to admit that was pretty cool, and it taught me a lesson in horror and storytelling: sometimes you don’t even have to show something horrible happening.  Just the idea that it could happen or even the concept by itself can be horrifying.  Something to remember when trying to entertain those damn readers.  Interesting…
On another note, there are obviously lots of allusions to wasps in this book.  Not only does Jack Torrance discover a hive on the roof and get stung, but the wasps make a “magical” reappearance in his family’s suite, there’s a flashback to a time when Jack’s father killed a wasp hive, and the noises that things make in the Overlook remind Jack and Danny of a wasp’s buzz (such as the motor of the snowmobile, not to mention the machine looks like a wasp itself), among other things, probably.  Throughout the whole book, I tried to figure out what the significance of the wasps was.  I’m not really sure I was all that successful.  I think the idea behind them is how somebody can become overwhelmed by an emotion and, as a result, do something by accident without being aware of what they’re doing.  I think that goes back to the first scene on the roof when Jack is stung.  He thinks about how fear could have overcome him and, without even meaning to or realizing it, he could have fallen or even jumped off the roof.  Eventually, that’s kind of what happens to Jack at the end of the book, except it isn’t fear that overcomes him, but anger.  I kind of see the Overlook as a giant wasp’s nest.  It’s full of lots of wasps, or angry spirits, that just want to sting people.  Therefore, they all “sting” Jack, who then becomes enraged and tries to kill his family, all the while clearly unaware that he’s doing it, and obviously doesn’t really want to at his core (he is the flawed protagonist, after all).  A moment that convinces me of this is on page 494.  It’s a moment that’s kind of like the calm before the storm: it feels like the hotel is just about to erupt and go crazy, all its spirits coming out to play and wreaking havoc on Jack’s family.  On that page, Danny “hears” the spirits: “It was like the somnolent hum of summer wasps in a ground nest, sleepy, deadly, beginning to wake up.  They were ten thousand feet high.”  Makes it sound like Danny and his family are on the roof where the wasps are, and they’re just about to wake up and cause some serious harm…
Anyway, does anyone else have any ideas behind the whole wasp thing?
Source: King, Stephen.  The Shining.  New York: Pocket Books, 1977.