A Devil On Both Shoulders

I’ve been asked by those good people over at Grey Matter Press to contribute to a VERY exciting blog tour, in which the authors of the mighty EQUILIBRIUM OVERTURNED anthology (a 5-star best seller, dontcha know) offer their thoughts on the origins of their tales and/or the concept of a Horror Author’s best friend … Evil.

If you dare, I’d thoroughly recommend seeking out the other posts in the tour, which can be found at the Grey Matter Press site or the author’s individual blogs. All of them are excellent, and I’m honoured to present my own post here to join their ranks …

A DEVIL ON BOTH SHOULDERS

The devil on his left shoulder told him to kill her. He looked to the angel on his right. The angel smiled and said “Use the big knife.”

The above is a breath of microfiction that I composed for the Friday Phrases (#FP) phenomenon on Twitter, and when I was asked to contribute to this collection of thoughts on the concept of Evil, that FP was one of the first things that slithered into my mind.

It would be nice to think that Evil was that anthropomorphised little demon on your shoulder, an impulse that could be swept away like dust on your jacket, but as we know it’s not that simple. The modern science of the mind dismisses Evil as a metaphysical entity (the views of a certain Dr Loomis, a visitor to Haddonfield, Illinois, notwithstanding) and so, without the comfort blanket of believing that our species’ unpalatable actions are governed by some unknowable external force, we’re left with the cold hard truth that People Can Be Bad. It’s a frightening thought, that the gurgling, smiling baby that your co-worker proudly shows endless photographs of has the very real potential to grow up into a serial killer or cannibal. I’d venture that the assassins that have ascended into grim notoriety, the one’s with a heart on the stove or a head in the fridge, probably had a family photo album tucked away in the same apartment.

If you looked through that album, the chances are you wouldn’t be able to see the eyes of a killer in the pages. But it’s there, a time-bomb in the psyche, submerged in the coils as deeply as is the potential for good, if you ascribe to Jungian theory. There has been research to establish that there are certain physiological traits present in studied psychopaths (structural differences in the brain, a low resting heart rate etc) but of course these conclusions have been reached after the psychopathy has already been confirmed, when the evidence of a catastrophic behavioural glitch is in the bloodstains on the floor, their own irrefutable Rorschach test. These are the people with a devil on both shoulders.

It can’t be foreseen. As far as I’m aware no DNA test exists that can predict psychopathy in the womb (and wouldn’t that change the nature of those Jerry Springer type shows, with parents-to-be squabbling over which of them the flawed impulse came from?). Ultimately, we’re all born with our own devil on our shoulder, our own killer’s heart. It’s an instinct for survival and defence gifted to us by our reptilian selves, the primal fury that makes the placid man turn to violence when his family is directly threatened. Thankfully, for the most part in our lives, the most extreme responses of that instinct aren’t needed, and the reptilian brain remains a vigilant shadow behind the Paleo-mammalian and Neo-mammalian brains (respectively, our emotive and higher-thinking cores). The devil on our shoulder remains largely silent, quieted by the angelic constructs of society and culture.

As a Horror author, Evil, in both its metaphysical and real-world incarnations, is a tool of my trade, and I’ve learned to listen closely when that little devil whispers in my ear. I’ve never written about Evil as an absolute, bad just for the sake of it, because Evil needs a motivation or logic, however twisted it might seem to Human sensibilities. In my view, fictional Evil works best when it’s fuelled by, or preys upon the traits of Humanity, when it finds a breach or amoral void to exploit.

To return to the views of Dr Loomis, the psychiatrist devoted to ending Michael Myer’s killing spree in Halloween (1978), there’s a moment in the film when Loomis voices his assessment of Michael:

“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”

It’s a nice few lines in the script, and delivered with chilling elegance by Donald Pleasence, but there are clear metaphysical implications to what Loomis is saying. One might speculate that what he’s seeing in Michael is that amoral void I mentioned, a nothingness burned into him by the failed circuits of his psyche, and translating that in supernatural terms. On the (masked) face of it, Michael isn’t possessed. His inhuman resilience to injury aside (and again, that could be simply that he functions with his reptile brain in the pilot’s seat, the instinct that allows people to overcome the agony of a shattered leg and crawl away from a burning wreck), there’s nothing identifiably supernatural about Michael Myers. He’s presented as a kind of classic psychopath, finding a focus in the character of Laurie Strode, but content to leave a trail of random corpses behind him in his pursuit of her. He’s also somehow playful in his homicidal endeavours, taking a few moments to pose as sheet-wearing ghost prior to strangling one of his victims. His brief stint in a costume is there to provide a moment of tension and a slight amusement, but I like it because, intentionally or not, it contrasts the spooky trappings of the uncanny with the flesh and blood reality of Michael’s physical violence. He isn’t a ghost or a demon, he’s a man who just happens to be insane.

If there is Evil behind his eyes, it’s all his, and I think that gives us an intriguing perspective on how Evil might actually work, at least in fictional terms. What if Evil does exist as a metaphysical force, but rather than invading our lives from without, what if it’s infiltrating from within? What if something that each and every one of us is born with, our killer’s heart, our reptile brains, acts as a kind of lightning rod to our darker impulses? What if we’re all breathing the Evil in, absorbing it from each other in every touch or kiss or smile, never knowing the moment when it might reach enough critical mass to trip our kill-switch? What if the devil on your shoulder is calling his cousins home?

What if you have more than one?

 

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5 thoughts on “A Devil On Both Shoulders

  1. Seriously RJ, your short stories always find their mark with me, but to have a non-fiction piece leave me cold (in the best possible way)…you are born to write. This was clever, fresh and impressive as hell.

  2. “my view, fictional Evil works best when it’s fuelled by, or preys upon the traits of Humanity, when it finds a breach or amoral void to exploit.”

    I think this probably sums up why your horror stories always hit the mark with me. There *is* humanity there behind the evil. It is not evil for evil’s sake. Whether the evil comes in the guise of a spurned lover or an unloved child, it is this flip of the switch in the human psyche which is hugely disturbing and which you do so well in your stories.

    This is a great piece and a real eye opener into how and why you write as well as you do. Fab.

    1. Thank you as always for reading, JB, and for your kind comments. The piece actually did make me think about some of the themes underpinning my work, so it was a fun little voyage of discovery to write (plus I got to talk about cool brain stuff!)

      Thanks again! 🙂

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