Marvel’s 2013 superhero flick, Iron Man 3, begins with Tony Stark’s retrospective meditation on the idea that we create our own demons. Unlike the previous Marvel films that featured an unwaveringly confidant Stark, Iron Man 3 explores the emotional vulnerability of a super hero bogged down by the consequences of his own choices.
The film deals with the creation of personal demons not only in Stark’s struggle with PTSD but also his relationship to the film’s main baddie The Mandarin, an enemy Stark made years before by being an arrogant ass (go figure). As Stark’s life crumbles around him, it’s clear that his near downfall ties directly to his decision to step forward as Iron Man, and, more immediately relevant to the film’s plot, Starks ill-treatment of a crippled scientist deemed too “uncool” to party with Stark’s elite crowd.
Of course, the superhero genre doesn’t allow for bad guys to win, so the film ends with Stark vanquishing not only The Mandarin but his personal demons as well. It’s an uplifting conclusion that not only leaves us rooting for the hero, but leads us believe that we too can vanquish our own demons.
Though this theme is cropping up in contemporary media, it’s anything but new or exclusive to such “feel good” genres. For hundreds of years, horror fiction has explored less optimistic iterations of this theme, often indulging readers’ morbid curiosity by exploring the likely consequences of being overtaken by one’s own demons. Looking at two pieces of horror fiction as exemplars, I will illustrate the value of reading literature that forces us to confront that which we fear the most–the demons that we create.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein addresses personal demons on two levels, using both creator and created to illustrate the consequences of personal actions. And, in true horror fashion, Shelley lets her main characters suffer to the end.
Unfortunately, Frankenstein’s many retellings have left it a shadow of its former self, with each adaptation taking the tale farther and farther from Shelley’s original work. As such, it’s necessary to look at the original text to see the ways in which this theme manifests in Shelley’s work. In contrast with the popular depiction of the crazed scientist howling with pride of his creation, screaming, “It’s alive!”, the Dr. Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel is actually immediately horrified by his creation, and the resulting anxiety he feels about the creature throws him into a spiral of fear that ultimately leads to his ruin. In the scene just after his creature comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein ruminates:
“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (58).
Far from feeling pride over his creation, Dr. Frankenstein is immediately terrified by his creation. This can be read as the story of a man literally creating the thing that he comes to fear most of all–the very thing that ultimately destroys him. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a symbolic representation of his own demons, fashioned by his own hand. Scholars often read this novel as a commentary on prominent fears of science at the time the novel was written, which fits well with my reading. Perhaps against his better judgement, Frankenstein pushes the limits of science and, as a consequence, creates the thing that haunts him to his death.
Interestingly, the creature’s role also embodies this theme, albeit a bit differently. Unlike most versions of the classic tale, in the original text, the creature comes to be educated and very eloquently tells his own tale of suffering. Though huge and grotesque in appearance, the creature shows kindness to others and above all seeks acceptance and kinship. However, due to his hideous appearance, he’s rejected by all those who encounter him, including the man who created him. In a heartbreaking lament, the creature says:
“My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the the utmost limit of my ambition” (134).
The creature never receives this kindness. Instead, he’s rejected even in spite of extending selfless acts of kindness toward others:
“This was the reward for my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness, which I had entertained but a few moments before, gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth” (143).
In this scene in particular, Shelley shows the creature’s turn from kind to cruel in response to the way in which he has been treated. He is a product of the society of which is is a part, or rather, of which he is outcast. His inclination toward peace is crushed by those around him, causing him to become the thing that they all feared he was.
By giving the creature a voice and allowing readers to feel sympathetic to his plight, Shelley asks readers to consider the ways in which we might be responsible for creating the things that we fear. The creature’s story, more so even than Dr. Frankenstein’s, asks readers to evaluate social norms and expectations and perhaps question the choices we make every day that might lead to the creation of something terrible in another.
Clive Barker’s Dread
Barker’s 1984 short story traces fear back to its roots and shows how one man’s attempt to understand dread, leads to the creation of the very thing he feared the most.(1) After watching his parents’ vicious axe murder as a child, Quaid develops a crippling fear that he seeks to understand and overcome. His desire for mastery of fear leads him to isolate a classmate with the thing she fears. When that doesn’t yield satisfying results, he repeats the experiment with the protagonist, Stephen.
However, Stephen’s maltreatment, from both Quaid and those who were supposed to help him after his escape, turns him into a madman who seeks revenge in the way Quaid fears most. The blame for Stephen’s madness falls most clearly on Quaid, but Barker also shows the ways in which other members of society share the responsibility. When Stephen escapes Quaid’s sadistic game, he’s found by a police man who, without inquiring, assumes that Stephen is a drugged-out derelict:
“Jesus Chris,” said that police man, disgust written all over his face. “You’re in a right fucking state. Where do you live?” (361).
Whimpering for his mother and his home, unsure of who he is, and in need of help, Stephen meets no kindness. Instead, the police man “punched Steve in the stomach, a neat, sharp, functional blow” (362), and “Another blow finished the job of crippling the child, and then he took a fistful of Steve’s hair and pulled the little druggy’s face up to meet his” (362). Barker’s reference to Stephen as a “child” emphasizes his innocence and need for care, which stands in sharp contrast to the way the office actually treats him.
Upon entering a care home, Stephen is treated no better. The people working there spoke about him “as though he weren’t in the room” (362), robbing him of basic human kindness and dignity. As might be expected, the provisions in the home were sparse and unfit for most people. Others there were “coughing and muttering and weeping” (363). Stephen, like most societal outcasts, doesn’t receive care and compassion that his humanity alone should afford him.
Stephen steals and axe and wonders into Quaid’s home, to bring the story to its inevitable full-circle conclusion. In this ending, readers find horror but also poetic justice. Quaid is punished for the harm he causes others, seeing his own sadism come back to finish him off. However, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Stephen’s social rejection and the unkind treatment that he received after escaping from Quaid’s prison contributed to his psychosis. On a deeper level, Barker indicts all of society for the un-thought of actions, the unkind whims that we all commit daily against one another. For the horror of Stephen’s transformation, like the transformation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, is something we all fear and that we all must take responsibility for.
Hence, the closing scene of Barker’s tale inspires fear in us all, not just Quaid:
“Steve was happy as a lamb. They had the rest of the night ahead of them, and all the music he could possibly want was sounding in his head. And Quaid knew, meeting the clown’s vacant stare though an air turned bloody, that there was worse in the world than dread. Worse than death itself. There was pain without hope of healing. There was life that refused to end, long after the mind had begged the body to cease. And worst, there were dreams come true” (367).
Unlike the super hero movie that alleviates responsibility with a happy ending, horror fiction forces us to confront the consequences of our actions. Since we can’t accept the grotesque as readily as a light and entertaining narrative, we naturally seek to explain and understand what we’ve confronted. Good horror stories have something more than fear to show us.
The creation of our own demons is a captivating and terrifying theme because it asks us to consider the hand we may have played in creating the things we fear. By extension, it may even ask us to consider the ways in which we have contributed to our own unhappiness or failure. What’s clear in the examples I’ve examined, is that in reality the demons we create can’t be vanquished so easily.
In forgotten moments of disregard, disrespect, or even cruelty that we show others, we create that which we fear. The outcasts of society, the bottom dwellers, the untouchables who we believe had a fair shake and squandered it, are all beings who need acceptance and kindness and who rarely receive it. And we don’t want to take responsibility for that, even as we ignore their needs and look past them as though they were invisible.
It’s easier to believe that “bad guys” are inherently bad, but horror doesn’t allow for such delusions. It shows us that we, as individuals and as a society, create the things we fear. We bring our own demons and monsters to life. Though it seems paradoxical, confronting human nature through horror can teach us to be better humans. It ask us to take responsibility for the demons we create for ourselves and for others.
(1) The 2009 film adaptation follows the same general plot, but changes many aspects of the original narrative.