“It’s Really about Something Else”: Using Enchantment in Young Adult Fantasy/Horror

If you’ve ever wanted to zombie walk (more like moan and shuffle) across the ASU campus pursuing your fellow (screaming) students while black slime oozes from your mouth, you had the perfect opportunity on Tuesday, October 1.  SICK: Book Launch and Zombie Romp celebrated the premier of Tom Leveen’s new novel, SICK: Because High School is Full of Monsters, the story of high school students on the fringe of teen society who fight off the zombie apocalypse from the stronghold of their high school drama department.

I might have said this is a departure from Leveen’s usual fare: edgy realism with fascinatingly quirky characters, but then Tom would have to pull off one of my ears (Yes, I was a member of the zombie horde that chased ASU students up the steps of Old Main into Carson Ballroom: red and white contacts shimmering, prosthetic gash oozing, gray skin mottling in the sun).  Leveen, a Piper Center faculty member and wildly popular presenter at Desert Nights, Rising Stars, actually began his creative career with zombie stories and amateur cinematography while a teenager, and with this new book, he explains he is merely returning to his previous fare (or gore, if you prefer).

I wonder if he knows why.

The second part of the title holds a clue: Because High School is Full of Monsters, and of course, this is allegorically true, and Tom himself said in his presentation to roughly 400 fans in Carson Ballroom that horror stories are never really about the literal topic but about something else. He explained that the real time and place in which readers find themselves always have (often unacknowledged) fearful elements that manifest themselves in popular culture through representative horrors. His examples included fear about the nuclear bomb testing in the Southwest, which was followed immediately by movies about giant radiation spawned creatures in the American desert (Them, 1954: giant man eating ants); and the red (communist) scare, which manifested in alien invasions from outer space (The War of the Worlds, 1953, technologically advanced Martians take over the Earth).  As Tom explained, “It’s always about something else, a fear that people are experiencing but can’t articulate or commiserate about, and horror stories, whether as books or movies, provide an emotional outlet.” People actually feel better after reading/watching horror!!  Whodathunkit?!

Tom’s premise may have even more weight than he knows.  Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990), an Austrian-born refugee who fled to New York in 1939 to escape the Nazis, espoused a radical idea about the symbolic role of scary fairytales in the lives of children. Dr. Bettelheim, a pioneer in child psychology, attempted to explain why traditional fairytales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm, tales that were often terribly violent and dark, containing death and dismemberment, cannibalism, and death of parents, retained their popularity generation after generation.  In The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage Books, 1976) Bettelheim explained that rather than disturbing children, although these stories could surely scare the pants off them on a dark night, fantastical stories with scary monsters (sometimes appearing in human form) actually helped children to grow up emotionally and to better deal with the daily fears of childhood, as well as the universal fears faced by adults. Bettelheim suggested that the stories enabled children to wrestle subconsciously with the fears they faced every day as they learned how scary a place the real world can be.  Bettelheim believed, like his contemporary Freud, that the subconscious mind dealt in symbols and metaphors, and it was much less harmful for youngsters to cope with mythical monsters standing-in symbolically for the real monsters in their lives than to tackle the reality.  Experiencing these dangers allegorically from the safe distance of literature/stories, helped them to grow up emotionally able to cope with the serious problems of adulthood. Pushing your stepmother into the very oven she meant to cook you in before eating you?  Well-done (pun intended)!

The scholars who presented on zombie scholarship at Leveen’s book launch event (Peter Goggin, Shawn Mitchell, and Emily Zarka) suggested that zombie stories, whether books or movies, have much to tell us about how we live our lives in the real world.  We may walk through our lives oblivious to anything but a narrow range of concerns, failing to engage with the world around us.  We may enjoy the liberating effects of imagining an uncomplicated world gone mad where life boils down to two principles: (1) Kill Zombies, and (2) don’t let zombies kill YOU. And we may be fascinated to observe how Zombie stories have served to articulate social issues over the course of many years.

Leveen, Goggin, Mitchell, and Zarka are right, and so was Bruno Bettelheim: “It’s always about something else,” and in doing so serves a useful purpose in society.  No one has seemed to be able to drive a stake through the heart of the vampire craze (crackin’ myself up, here!).  Fairytales from every culture continue to scare children half to death but provide opportunities for emotional/psychological growth.  And high school?  As long as it continues to be “full of monsters,” I think the walking dead may just walk into your very own homeroom at any time.