Is there something wrong with perpetuating superstition through fiction?
The Power of Urban Legends
There’s a reason I put off getting my hair cut until the sides grow into big Wolverine spikes. I get nervous about the conversation with the hairdresser. I don’t like sitting in silence while the client next to me is laughing. I like to take on the appearance of a sociable well adjusted human being, if only for the time it takes to get my bangs trimmed. So I prepare material: funny memories I try to pass off as something that happened recently, news stories that aren’t politically polarizing, and list of the most recent films I’ve seen.
If I cycle through all my conversation starters and the hairdresser says, “You know I’m really not that into movies.” Then the weather better be doing something incredible, because there goes most of my material.
The last time this happened I decided to pitch a subplot from my work in progress We the Damned. It went like this:
Morgan lives with her husband, Tim, in a small town in Northern California. They’re surrounded by a curtain of giant redwoods, trees as old as the common era. Morgan is a popular gardener. She’s the breadwinner of the family while Tim aspires to be an entrepreneur.
Tim is literally trying to build his own job. He wheels woodworking materials out into the forest. He’s found a trail long forgotten by the forest service. He lines it with fake landmarks so he can give haunted tours. Tim lays out an orphan graveyard and grows moss on the stones. He hangs wind chimes and rusts the metal with chemicals. He builds an old shack, caves the roof in, and ages the wood.
Morgan gets concerned when Tim starts spending his nights in the woods. Afraid her husband might be cheating Morgan enables the tracking feature on his phone. One morning she traces Tim’s signal to the trail. She follows the chimes to the shack she’s seen on Tim’s computer. There’s something about it she hadn’t anticipated. It reeks of death. It’s possible a raccoon fell through the roof. Morgan decides not to check, but then the wind blows the door open and reveals a wall covered in crimson. There’s a mountain of animal skins on the floor, and a grid of corpses mounted to the wall. Worse yet, their blood is still wet.
Morgan flees the scene, hacks into her husband’s cloud documents, and finds his plans to build an attraction around a ghost story about a wronged woman. In the text he muses about how he wishes Pilgrim Valley had a suicide in its recent history. It would corroborate his claims of a haunting. At the end of this document Morgan finds instructions on how to tie a noose.
The hairdresser cut me off. “Wait, did this actually happen? She seriously found instructions on how to tie a noose?”
I shook my head. “Yeah, it happens in the story.”
The hairdresser tilted her head back and forth. “So this is based on actual events, right?”
“No, but if you follow urban legends you start to see storytelling patterns. Writers play with these archetypes until they create something that feels real.”
“But that’s a real town?”
“No. I built Pilgrim Valley with a well trodden template.”
A funny thing happened during this conversation. The more I kept trying to convince the hairdresser my story was fiction the more she believed it had actually happened.
I was tempted to say, “Actually, this was based on a local legend.” just to see how far it would travel. Maybe one day I’d pitch it to a hairdresser across town and they’d say, “Wait, I’ve heard about this. This really happened, didn’t it?”
As a horror writer I love playing on people’s fears, but I can’t help but wonder how horror stories impact readers’ realities.
Is there a Relationship Between Fiction and Superstition?
In The Omen, Father Jennings quotes a cryptic verse from the bible:
“When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet rips the sky, and the Holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, till man exists no more… The Book of Revelations predicted it all.”
People continue to quote this verse in anticipation of the end times. The only problem is it’s not in the bible. Revelations is written in the first person, there are no references to comets, and it never rhymes. Screenwriter David Selzter made the quote up and viewers assumed it was buried in the scriptures somewhere.
In the weeks after The Exorcist premiered in 1973 a Boston Catholic Center was flooded with requests for exorcisms every day. Since then there have been dozens of films about demon possession. Many claiming to be “inspired by actual events.” According to a 2012 poll by Public Policy Polling 57 percent of American voters believe demon possession is possible.
As a horror writer, I love the idea that scary stories have such a powerful impact on people, but these superstitious beliefs can have deadly consequences. In 1973 Anneliese Michel started taking anti-psychotics to deal with the intense seizures she was experiencing. In 1975 she went off of her medication. She underwent a series of exorcisms, twice a week over a period of ten months. She stopped eating. In 1976, Anneliese died in her home. She weighed 68 pounds.
During the trial it was revealed by one of Anneliese’s physicians that she had epilepsy. The exorcists were convicted of manslaughter.
Anneliese’s story was adapted into The Exorcism of Emily Rose which implied she was possessed, not epileptic, and exonerated its priest of any wrong doing. It perpetuated the same superstitious beliefs that cost Anneliese her life.
Horror writers should be able to blur the line between fantasy and reality, but the thesis of our stories shouldn’t be that our fiction is really happening. We can use demon possession as a way of addressing mental illness without convincing people to go without treatment. Films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose make a compelling argument for epileptics to think they’re inhabited by Satan.
Why Writers Shouldn’t Dust Off a Superstition That’s Been Disproven
In the 1980s the United States was in the grip of something called “The Satanic Panic.” People were coming forward with stories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The popular allegation was that cultists were raping family members, dragging them to black masses in the forest, and forcing them to sacrifice the offspring of incestuous unions. It was believed cultists were getting away with this because the victims repressed their memories. That all changed when regression hypnotherapy came into popularity. More and more people were going to see therapists and coming out with stories of blood soaked alters in the woods.
It seemed like a massive conspiracy was coming to light. Farms were dug up. Families were torn apart. Communities were shaken. Then the FBI investigated. Some of the women who believed their babies had been sacrificed were revealed to be virgins. The bureau found that none of the sacrifices had actually happened. It turned out that mass hysteria and regression hypnotherapy were the cause of the conspiracy.
Now in 2015, Hollywood is putting out a film called Regression that appears to portray these events as if they’ve actually happened. It is entirely possible that this film will come down on the side against superstition, but given Hollywood’s track record I wouldn’t count on it.
Suspension of disbelief matters, especially if your story hinges on a busted myth.
I just watched a documentary on sleep paralysis called The Nightmare. I myself have suffered from sleep paralysis throughout my twenties. It got so bad I had to see a neurologist.
In the documentary, the subjects describe the same hallucinations I experienced: shadow people with big red eyes standing at the foot of their beds. The filmmakers even shot reenactments of their subjects’ terrifying visions. Half of the people interviewed believed their experiences were caused by demons trying to suck out their souls. I watched The Nightmare documentary right before I fell asleep.
That night I slept like a baby.
I know there is more academic information about sleep paralysis than the subjects of the film wanted to admit. Some preferred to perpetuate the shadow man urban legend, others wanted to believe they were important enough to be targeted by demons. I know better.
I know enough about the origins of monsters to build monsters of my own. I’m not about to lose sleep over someone else’s superstition.
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After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.