Tag Archives: horror

Horror: The Cult of Exotic Death


By Paula R. Stiles


One day when I was 14, my maternal grandfather bit into a burger and nearly choked to death in front of me and my cousin. It was fall and our extended family was passing through Lebanon, NH, so we had stopped at the A&W Root Beer restaurant there (sadly, now long gone) for supper.

Beloved and much-missed Grandpa Van was not eating too fast. He hadn’t taken too big a bite to eat. No. His throat muscles had atrophied thanks to his recent diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, now known as ALS. He died a few months later. Ever since, I dread whenever water or a bit of cracker goes down the wrong pipe. You see, ALS can have a genetic component. And it can skip a generation.

We all fear what Stephen King once called “the bad death.” What’s funny, though, is what kind of bad death we want to see in our horror stories. The more exotic, the less likely it is to take us, the better.

Zombies? Check. Vampires? Sure. Werewolves? Absolutely. Flesh-eating bacteria? Uh-huh. World-killing flu? Why not? Balloon-carrying, clown serial killers? Alrighty-then.

Heart attack? Cancer? MS? Alzheimer’s? Not so much. At least, not straight up with no chaser.

Sure, good horror does often evoke real-life horrors in a metaphorical way. We see a lot of domestic abuse in horror (and yes, domestic abuse is very common in real life), especially in the vampire sub-genre. And there’s body horror, which often mimics what a parasite from some hot and far-away part of the world can do to an unsuspecting First World body. In fact, some things (like rape) are not only very common, they are portrayed in many works as universally happening to female characters in a tone-deaf way. It’s a free-for-all of gender violence aimed at women in a lot of horror.

But let’s face it – your odds of being whacked by a killer clown while at summer camp are much less than getting lost and dying of exposure, or being killed in a car crash on the way home (or sexually assaulted). But what do we see in theaters and on our bookshelves? Endless movies about hot, young teens whittled down by some chainsaw-wielding maniac. Or zombie horror. Or vampires, sparkly and otherwise.

Admittedly, some of this has to do with the target audience – complacent, social-anxiety-ridden teenagers who think they’re physically invulnerable, for the movies; young, white men for books and graphic novels. When the genre does bother to target other groups, it splits off to paranormal romance for women (young women, of course, because why would older women read books, am I right?) or magical realism/literary for People of Color, both writers and readers. Horror writers and fans look down on these two categories, even though paranormal romance, like most things romance-genre-connected, sells like hotcakes while horror is considered a genre ghetto. Older people who actually buy a whole lot of books might as well not exist in the eyes of those selling them, at least when it comes to horror.

Still, I think a lot of it boils down to simple escapism. King talked at length in his two non-fiction books, Danse Macabre and On Writing, about how he put a lot of his early struggles with poverty and alcoholism into his books. And those elements definitely ground his books in a way that lesser books by lesser authors are not.

But even there, these themes are distanced by the supernatural element. Jack Torrance struggles with his alcoholism and isolation (and being so broke that taking a caretaker job with his wife and son at an off-season hotel in the middle of winter and nowhere is a great opportunity), but those are just the elements of his personality that make him vulnerable to the ghosts. The ghosts are what push him over the edge.

If he went over the edge due to the drinking and isolation, that would be drama. In horror, the ghosts aren’t just metaphors. They are real. So, there’s always an external element of threat in horror that doesn’t exist in straight drama that perhaps makes the threat easier to connect with emotionally.

It’s much easier to deal with things like genocide in The Martian Chronicles when it involves Martians and hypothetical spacemen than when it involves your direct and not-so-distant ancestors (or cousins). Dementia and mental illness are more tolerable in the context of The Twilight Zone than a hospital room. And nuclear holocaust, despite attempts by Hollywood to make it “respectable” drama, was monopolized by the horror genre early on. Nobody ever wanted to think about nuclear bombs in a “realistic” context.

This may be why people seek out horror despite its dark themes. And it may be why some themes (which can be given a horror spin more easily) are more common that others. The fantasy element is like a shield that allows you to see Medusa without being turned to stone.


Happy Halloween, everyone!


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Mommy’s Burning on the Ceiling: Mary Winchester in “Supernatural”


By Paula R. Stiles


I’ve made no secret over the years that Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith), the fridged matriarch of the Winchester family on CW show Supernatural is one of my favorite characters. I’m also quite partial to Meg, both versions. I liked Jessica, Ellen and Pamela. I like Amara, as well as Jody and her adopted brood. And I’ve warmed to Rowena. Clearly, my tastes run toward older, experienced and spiky, played by talented actresses. Jessica wasn’t the first three, but Adrianne Palicki is definitely talented (still sad her Wonder Woman series never took off), so she gets a pass.

Mary’s popularity increases with me in that she is now the longest-running character on the show, even appearing before her sons Sam and Dean. Plus, the show has teased us over the years with versions of Not-Mary played by Smith (most successfully with Eve in season six episode “Mommy Dearest), and the younger Hunter version of her played by Amy Gumenick in season four’s “In the Beginning” and season five’s “The Song Remains the Same.”

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However, the older I get, the less patient I am with the dire writing of women on television, to the point that even an irritating side character can turn me off to an entire show (The Flash and Arrow, for example). I doubt I’ll stop watching Supernatural any time soon, but it’s been on so long that its early seasons encompass a very different television landscape from the one (admittedly with its own imperfections) today. And one of the things that still seemed acceptable without comment in 2005 was bookending your pilot episode with a double-fridging of female characters.

It’s therefore still disappointing to see a character with so much potential as Mary initially introduced as Fridged Mommy, though in her case, she’s burned on a ceiling, instead. Even more disappointing is seeing Sam’s girlfriend Jessica endure the same fate at the end of the Pilot, simply because the show’s creator Eric Kripke was too lazy to think of anything else to do with her. There’s no doubt about it. That’s bad writing.

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So, it’s understandable that when the omnipotent goddess Amara rewarded Mary’s son Dean for helping her reconcile with her brother by resurrecting his mother, not all fans of the show were enthused. Bringing back a fridged character usually results in that character’s immediate refridging (often after she turns EVOL). But I’ve always wanted to see Mary back and hope springs eternal.

Let’s talk a bit about what makes a fridged character. I think we can all identify her fairly easily from back in the day. You’re watching Bonanza or Miami Vice or Magnum P.I., or reading a Batman comic or whatever, and let’s just say there aren’t a whole lot of regular female characters on the show or in the comic.

Then, one day, a female character who actually seems pretty cool shows up. She falls in mutual love with the Hero (eh, okay, whatever) and then, by the end of the episode, she’s dead, insane, evil and then dead, or moved to Timbuktu with a new boyfriend and ten cats. Either way, she’s gone for good. It’s like, “Hello, Female Character with Potential; goodbye, Female Character with Potential!”

And all the time, the male writers of the show are complaining that they’ve gotta put in female characters with “romance” plots because “chicks dig it” and that’s why they also write them out as quickly as possible, because they were forced into sullying their magnum opus with girl cooties. Why, if they had their druthers, the show would be a sausagefest 24/7 (except, like, not with any canonical slash overtones, c’mon, dude), just as it should be.

The nerve of the network making them do changes like that. The show would be perfect without them, don’t you agree?

It takes you quite a long time to unpack just how thoroughly misogynistic it is to resent having to include 51% of the population in a story. It takes you even longer to figure out that the real reason they put these love interests and doomed mothers/sisters/cousins into stories aimed at male audiences is because these female characters are not really characters — they’re plot coupons and rewards for the Heroes. Those female characters are actually necessary to the story the writers want to tell and insisted on by the writers themselves. They just aren’t meant for the female fans.

Everyone knows that the Heroes can’t be Heroes unless they are restless and miserable, so these rewards are constantly taken away from them, in a way that creates as much angst as possible. And the fact that women are not job promotions or cartons of Ben&Jerry’s ice cream — they are people — is never, ever acknowledged. In fact, it’s strenuously ignored.

Which brings us to the Women in Refrigerators website. It was originally based on an incident in the Green Lantern comic in which the Hero’s new girlfriend gets murdered by a villain and stuffed in a refrigerator for her boyfriend to find.

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Now, aside from the fact that this plot alone sounds incredibly stupid (and the art in the comic panels does it no favors), the author of the site’s point that this happens a lot to women in genre fiction is well-taken. I may not agree with every single entry on her list, but she’s dead-right that a disturbingly high number of female characters in genre media are introduced as Love Interests, Mothers, Hot Sisters/Cousins, etc., only to be brutally killed off or otherwise written out almost as soon as we meet them. The Green Lantern’s girlfriend, for example, is introduced a mere six issues before she’s killed off. So, these characters, on top of being horribly dead, have little audience investment because they are one-dimensional.

Surprisingly, some of them turn out to be really popular because the writers, to save time, make them perfect and awesome (or get lucky with casting, as Supernatural did with Samantha Smith and Adrianne Palicki) so that the pain of losing them can be felt by the reader/viewer as it is by the Hero — you know, instead of actually developing them over time as real characters and then killing them off for reasons that are about them and not their boyfriends.

Many writers go another route. They have them “meet cute” in a way where the female Love Interest treats the Hero like dirt right off the bat (so we don’t actually like her that much after all) and usually interferes with his (or sometimes, her) main purpose in the story. This is why I call Love Interests “soft antagonists.” They are usually good people, but they create conflict for the Hero’s mission in the story and interfere with its continuation in some way. Therefore, at some point, they’ve gotta go.

Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, doesn’t like him initially and then doesn’t like it when he gets his Green Lantern ring, so she’s gotta go. It’s her or the superpowered Call to Action. In a comic, the superpowered macguffin always wins that war.

An equally high number of women with actual agency in these stories (i.e., protagonists) are depowered/turned evil/killed off through similar means. A Xena: Warrior Princess is quite rare. Sexual violence is especially favored, used in a tone-deaf way as a tool to create more angst or, worse, as an origin story for toughening up a female victim into a hero. Game of Thrones pre-season six fairly leaps to mind here and from the rape rumors surrounding the upcoming Westworld series, HBO hasn’t learned a thing. Joss Whedon even did a fridging with a lesbian couple in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I can’t say I was thrilled about it.

I don’t believe in over-applying such tropes to the point of pointlessness, as it were, but I trust it’s not hard to see why the Mary of the Pilot, like Jessica, is a fridged character. Where it gets interesting is that not long after, Mary starts being something else.

For one thing, show creator Eric Kripke always claimed that he intended for Mary to recognize her demonic murderer (keeping in mind that none of the rest of her family had any clue about his identity for over two decades after her death), but decided to hold that reveal until near the end of season two. This would explain why, halfway through season one, we get the episode “Home” where it’s hinted that Mary wasn’t your usual sunny, innocent fridged woman, that she wasn’t killed to get her husband John out on the road, either. She was killed for reasons that had to do with her — and as a ghost, she has power.

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That storyline wasn’t about John. It wasn’t even about her sons. It was about her. In Supernatural, knowledge is power. Paradoxically, Mary had to die, not just to push forward John’s story, but because she knew too much. It was the same reason the show killed off John early in season two.

Jessica never stops being a fridged girlfriend (to the point where the prelude to the reveal of her gruesome fate is nearly identical to that of Alexandra DeWitt’s). That’s even emphasized in later seasons. But Mary goes from June Cleaver to Queen Gertrude to someone even darker, someone more like Sarah Connor, very quickly. So, there’s this mystery to her, a subtext that belies the innocent mother of the Pilot, that is intriguing.

Then we get to season four, where she turns out to be a badass Hunter (“Aha!” cries the subtext) and even fights one-on-one against an angel in season five. While pregnant with her badass son Dean, no less. And we find out that the Winchester tragedy of demon deals began with Mama — not Papa — Winchester, that he was the innocent civilian in that marriage while she was the one who knew about the supernatural world and was trying to retire from hunting all along. Like Shane, she brought the job home, despite her best efforts, and it caught up with her in the end. The traditional roles of the trope have been reversed and they never quite flip back.

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Unfortunately, the writers recast her (still leaving poor Samantha Smith in that damned nightgown). And once they were done with that past storyline, they promptly got rid of Young!Mary via a mindwipe, of all things, so they could ensure she walked into that nursery unaware. The worst part was that the writer of that episode, Sera Gamble, not only was a woman, but she became showrunner and then wrote another episode where she fridged a Love Interest with a similar trope. Ugh. We women sure can be our own worst enemies, sometimes.

Now, I’ve been dying to see Mary come back in her older form, especially since Smith’s turn as Eve the Mother of Monsters in season six’s “Mommy Dearest.” So, I’m thrilled to see her back. Granted, there are ways they could do horrible things with this, but the trailer (despite its unnecessary commentary by the most irritating fangirls the show could find) indicates we won’t be getting a return to Fridged Mommy in a Nightgown. It indicates we will be getting Sarah Connor. I am all for Sarah Connor, preferably with that stupid mindwipe lifted. That’s meaty. That’s fun. Let’s go there, show.

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