Naomi Wood had a grandfather who told stories, sometimes scary stories.
When he told these stories to the kids, he pushed out his false teeth.
“Oh, yeah,” Wood said.
And so began a career in literature – or at least the beginnings of a fascination with scary things, folk tales and fantasy stories. Over time, Wood began to ponder what made these stories work, which rules ghost stories and vampire stories always seem to follow, and why we seem to enjoy being scared.
That brings us, and Wood, to Halloween. Wood, an associate professor of English at Kansas State University, studies folk tales, myths and other wonders of literature for a living.
She knows that Halloween was once an Old World time of darkness and fear, which humans tried to chase away with light.
In America we made it a time of candy. Commercialization.
And a little more.
Halloween, as it is done now, is like what old European cultures used to do with carnivals before Lent – “to take on an identity you don’t usually have, getting you out of the everyday, channeling something else – sexy, scary, not your mundane self,” Wood said. “We’re not limited by boundaries of the stolid, money-making responsible self that has to go do homework, or go to work.”
Professors and scientists who study human nature have long noticed a paradox: Most of us abhor violence. But from the ancients to Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King, we like horror.
“We must be hardwired for this,” Wood said.
King brilliantly uses the motifs of ancient myths to create horrors that strike chords in many of us, she said: The demon car. The prom from hell.
Scholars and scientists have long known there are things buried deep in our brains – or perhaps in our souls – that make stories appealing. Steven Pinker, a Harvard scientist who has written extensively about brain science, has pointed out that humans spend enormous energy, money and thought on stories, from the Bible to Shakespeare to King’s “Pet Sematary.”
We do this when gossiping, or reading books, or making a moral point in a parable. Or trick-or-treating, or watching horror movies.
One thing that caught Wood’s eye as a young scholar were the rules horror stories follow – and how Poe and King and other masters use them so deftly.
Wood explains the rules of horror the way a mechanic explains the components of a car.
Used correctly, “scary” helps us assert control over real fears. Wood’s grandfather, by jutting out his false teeth, had taken control of a part of himself that might seem unpleasant.
“By telling a story, we engage with that story’s power,” she said.
The listeners may be frightened, but the storyteller assumes power over them all.
“To the person receiving the story, there is a pleasure also,” Wood said. “In receiving the story, you have a safe, fictional space to experience a fear, instead of giving way to your own fears outside that space.”
In the cocoon of bedtime or in a theater, we can be scared while feeling protected, while the story, like all good fiction, “allows us to explore feelings, thoughts and fears we wouldn’t want to experience in real life,” she said.
There’s a reason so many ancient folk tales survive. Folk tales deal with wishes, yearnings, and hopes unrealized.
Many fairy tales deal with overthrowing death. “That’s very compelling,” Wood said.
Monsters can serve as metaphors for real-life things we truly are afraid of, she said.
Politics, for example.
“Vampires since (Bram Stoker’s 19th-century original) Dracula have always had this spectrum of qualities: Vampires are almost always from old, aristocratic families in Old World countries,” she said. “And they prey on the children and young people of the New World.
“There seems to be something encoded in that – perhaps the power structures of the Old Country exacting revenge on the young people of the New World.
“And our response is to push those forces back. So there is this fear, but also this attraction to the aristocratic, the decadent, to ideals that refused to die, ideals that can only live by sucking the lifeblood out of the more democratic but hierarchical young people of the New World.”
But that’s only one layer of meaning. Vamp stories more recently seem to reflect anxieties about contagions and pandemic disease – and disagreements over multiculturalism. In other words, here are these aliens, how do they fit into our culture?
What some vampires do now, Wood said, is struggle to fit into our world. They practice self-denial, go “vegetarian.” They fit in, sometimes, to the mundane restraints of modernity.
“Ghosts often have to do with ancestors,” Wood said. Even with non-horror stories, in a classic like the Latin epic “Aeneid,” the writer conforms to the rules of ghostly tale-telling: Aeneas has to find out what his father wants him to do, so he must seek out the ghost of his father and spill blood to summon the ghost.
There’s a sense of being haunted by our forebearers – their goals, their unfinished business, their revenge not yet exacted, Wood said. “It’s about memory, right?” she said. “And fear of extinction … my line, my bloodline may not survive, and I have a duty to perpetuate my line and fulfill the wishes of my ancestors.
“Many ghost stories are about crime; someone was killed, or horribly hurt, or incarcerated. And because of that traumatic experience – there can be no peace in that location. So it’s a metaphor for how history is never finished.”
Ghost stories also can be about an innocent youth putting a ghost to rest – finding a solution the ghost wants.
Ghost stories tap into a fear we all have: that someone, somewhere, might be watching us.
As for Wood, she won’t be watching any of us – or trick-or-treating.
“I live out in the country,” she said. Not many trick-or-treaters out there.