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The Sublime Trials of Jack Ketchum: Teaching The Girl Next Door in the Era of Torture Porn
Perhaps I’d made a mistake. The student who met me near the school fountain bore a familiar expression of distress – and I knew why. For one thing, December approached, bringing with it looming finals and term paper due dates. For another, the students in my ‘Horror in Literature’ course had started reading Jack Ketchum’s notorious novel, The Girl Next Door. For the second year in a row, I had to wonder if I’d made a mistake.
My current students knew what to expect from Ketchum’s novel, thanks to students who took ‘Horror in Literature’ in the previous fall term. In subsequent semesters, they still talked about this book in a way that they did not discuss Dracula, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Clive Barker’s ‘Dread’, or even Harlan Ellison’s ‘The Whimper of Whipped Dogs’. Students would repeatedly bring up Ketchum’s novel in other courses, breathlessly announcing to those amongst their peers not already in the know that it crossed a line that other texts in their literature courses dare not cross. During class breaks, I would see students hand over their used dog-eared copies to their friends, and even if they’d not read any of their required course material, they had read The Girl Next Door. And when it came time to enrol in Fall courses, even more students signed up for ‘Horror in Literature’, and once again I would warn them about the last book on the syllabus, telling them that it would demand a great deal of them emotionally and that they should consider not taking the course if such material bothered them. To that they would nod and smile. They had already heard and felt prepared. After all, they had seen Saw, Hostel, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and just about every other excessive example of so called ‘torture porn’ currently churning out blood and guts in the multiplex. They had come to party, and they knew what to expect.
But no, they never really do.
And now, this student at the fountain, looking distressed. He wanted to tell me why he had missed class, and as he searched for words, I prepared myself for the usual explanation of how The Girl Next Door had drained him spiritually to the point of paralysis and made the very idea of a class discussion about torture unbearable. Instead, he said his alarm clock had failed to go off. ‘Oh,’ I said, trying not to look relieved. ‘And by the way,’ he added, ‘that book you assigned? I ended up finishing it in one night. Every page was like torture, but I finished the whole fucking thing.’ I nodded and wondered if he expected an apology. But before I could, he quipped, ‘That’s horror, isn’t it? I think I get what that quote means.’
He referred to a now-famous quotation by Douglas E. Winter, one that challenges how we understand horror’s status as a genre. Horror, Winter writes, ‘is not a genre; it is an emotion, exercised – at least in its best moments – in insistently progressive novels and stories whose essential elements evolve to meet the fears and anxieties of their times’ (Wiater, p. 216). Winter’s frequently quoted statement underscores the challenges behind presenting horror in a classroom: done right, horror must evoke emotion – and not just any emotion, but unpleasant emotion. This reality creates a daunting challenge for an instructor, especially in light of the fact that students believe that they know horror when they come through the door of the classroom.
They have seen the films. In some cases, they’ve read the books (most often Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and for the especially hip ones, H.P. Lovecraft). None of that fully prepares them for what The Girl Next Door brings to the table.
As I write it, this paper wants to become a confession. Some of my colleagues will likely believe that as a college instructor who has required students to read The Girl Next Door, I certainly do need to confess to something, perhaps the painful reading experience to which I have subjected my students. Regardless of their gender, students experience a plethora of powerful emotions after reading the novel, and true to the nature of horror, they are not altogether pleasant ones. For instance, at the beginning of a class discussion, a male student remarked that Ketchum’s novel ‘rapes your soul’. A female student shared her response in an e-mail before coming to class where she likened the novel to a car crash, noting that the ‘imagery from its pages is burned into my mind, and... I'm a changed person.’ She went on to remark that
‘the events in it are horrible, but it's hard not to see yourself in the narrator. He can't turn away, even though he wants to help Meg...it mirrors our own reaction to horror. The reader wants to reach out to help the victim, but she is powerless, and can only watch – yet watching is in itself like being an accomplice to the monster.’
The student who wrote these words indicated that she didn’t feel at all like coming to class. She ended up attending class after anyway, but she needed to write her 1,290-word e-mail first.
Her response underscores crucial questions we must confront when teaching horror, specifically, where one should draw the lines of safety. Should such a course focus only on the metaphorical monsters like Dracula, Cthulhu and Mr. Hyde, leaving the literal monsters to nightly newscasts? I would suggest that this approach is disingenuous and that The Girl Next Door offers students the opportunity to investigate and reflect upon emotions central to our particularly confusing and turbulent historical moment. We live in a time when news reports of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay coincide with entertainment that falls into the ‘torture porn’ category, which on the surface seems to celebrate torture without inviting viewers to reflect critically about its inherent horrors. In fact, the political context of torture porn has not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by a David Edelstein article in New York magazine. Edelstein argues that the post 9/11 world has made ‘us [presumably Americans] all potential torturers,’ and he continues by remarking on the ‘national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib’ (Edelstein). Hence, movies such as Saw and Hostel function as a response to this national crisis, one that foregrounds us as ‘potential victims’ and ‘potential torturers’ (Edelstein).
However, where these films muddy the water and invite us to relish in the uber-moralistic tools and traps of Jigsaw in the Saw series, or in capitalism’s gruesome logic in the Hostel films, The Girl Next Door works on a much more sophisticated and arguably more disturbing meta-textual level, insisting that the reader constantly evaluate his or her responses to the atrocities being depicted. After a semester marked by authors such as Stoker, Le Fanu and Poe, it stands as the text that asks students to understand the value of art that demonstrates what Aaron Smuts calls ‘the paradox of painful art’ (p. 60).
In his attempt to explain the ‘paradox’ behind why people actively seek out ‘painful art’, Smuts frequently references the horror genre and brings up troubling questions. In particular, he notes that the ‘problem is not in explaining how we take pleasure in painful fiction since this assumes that the reason we desire such fictions is because they are pleasurable, which is exactly what is at issue’ (p. 74). In his conclusion, he notes:
‘Art safely provides us the opportunity to have rich emotional experiences that are either impossible or far too risky to have in our daily lives. We can feel fear without risking our lives, pity without seeing our loved ones suffer, thrills without risking going to jail, and a variety of other experiences that usually come with unwelcome pitfalls’ (p. 74).
This explanation holds a certain degree of attraction and logic, and in terms of understanding Ketchum’s novel, it helps – to a point. Indeed, the very beginning of The Girl Next Door serves as a sort of warning. ‘You think you know about pain?’ Ketchum writes, at which point the narrator takes the reader on a tour of his personal pain, one based loosely upon the story of Sylvia Marie Likens, a sixteen-year-old girl murdered by an adult guardian working in collusion with various neighborhood children in 1965 (p. 3). Had Ketchum wanted to tell a ‘true crime’ story, he would have found plenty of details to work from in the original murder case. However, the opening line, with its emphasis on calling upon the reader’s associations with pain, establish his primary purpose: not to relay the ‘facts’ of a murder case, but to force a reader to scrutinize his or her own responses to horror. ‘You see [pain] and you take it in. And then it’s you,’ he writes in the first chapter (p. 5). Introducing pain this way before we formally meet the narrator or the other characters of the novel establishes a meta-narrative level for the text, a self-reflexivity that continues for the duration of the narrative.
Ketchum succeeds in pulling off this meta-narrative in large part because of the narrator he chooses: David, a young boy on the brink of sexual-awakening, who draws our sympathies despite being complicit in the torture and eventual murder of Meg. As a character, he exists in a liminal realm between villain and hero, and at any moment, the reader can perceive him as either, sometimes even both at once. As he says at one point, ‘I was a conspirator now.... In two ways. On both sides’ (p. 191). What then becomes of the role of the reader? Even as we see Meg beaten, raped, and even, in one unbearable sequence, sexually mutilated, he watches and, through him, so do we, likewise on both sides. Ketchum hints at such self-reflexivity in scenes that emphasize voyeurism. For example, in an early scene in the novel, the youthful male characters spy upon Meg through a window, hoping to catch a glimpse of her naked body. As David observes the others taking their turn in trying, he remarks, ‘We watched them watching’ (p. 70). The reader, by extension, watches them watching the others watching, and in so doing, becomes part of a problematic chain of complicit observers.
Thus, on some level, the reader him or herself becomes the subject of The Girl Next Door, and in horror, that makes for uncomfortable reading. Such meta-textuality might come up in veiled ways in such ‘torture porn’ exercises as Saw or Hostel II, films that sometimes feature video-links that serve to remind the viewer of his or her own spectatorship. However, these films seldom ever allow such associations to become uncomfortable. Even when a heroine can become infected by the desire to mutilate and murder, as happens in Eli Roth’s Hostel II, the filmmakers grant us comfortable space within which we can celebrate and enjoy the violence. At the end of that film, the heroine turns the tables on her captors, using her wealth to ‘buy’ the castration-murder of the businessman who intended to mutilate her. In the coda of the film, she finds the woman who helped plot her capture and decapitates her, leaving us with the carnivalesque closing sequence of children using her head as a soccer ball.
By contrast, Ketchum’s violence appears decidedly non-celebratory, with no room for exhilaration amongst such bleak moments. Instead, even witnessing violence becomes an act of corruption. ‘I watched and saw,’ David states on more than one occasion, most notably when Ruth, the adult corrupter, instructs the children to use a hot tyre iron to mutilate Meg’s genitalia (p. 292). Even as he says this, David declares that such an act defies his ability to describe it. ‘I’m not going to tell you about this,’ he states, adding, ‘I refuse to’ (p. 292). However, we understand from the statement, ‘I watched and saw,’ that the act of observing the incident amounts to a form of participation. Such a corrupting incident does not remain solely with David but extends to the reader as well.
In effect, the reader becomes part of a disquieting chain of power relationships. In trying to understand why we seek out ‘painful art’, Aaron Smuts dwells for a moment on power as a determining factor. For Smuts, the issue comes down to ‘control’. He explains that
‘since we can usually control when such experiences take place and often have the power to walk away when they get to be too much, the pain involved usually does not pass a certain toleration threshold. The safety garnered from our powers of control over art experiences also allows for some reflection on the experiences themselves, which can provide certain cognitive pleasures as we learn about our emotional capacities. Further, our ability to endure certain emotional extremes can provide enjoyment from feelings of power that result from a certain kind of self-overcoming and from an awareness of our own capacities’ (Smuts, p. 72).
Smuts acknowledges that this dynamic alone cannot explain why we seek out ‘painful art’, but his suppositions warrant close examination in the context of The Girl Next Door. Indeed, the discomfort of reading the novel, especially in the classroom, stems from the reality that we do not experience the novel from the point of view of the victim, Meg. In other words, Ketchum does not invite us to imagine our own capacity to survive the torture she experiences but instead invites us to examine our capacity for corruption. Indeed, had Ketchum written the novel from Meg’s perspective, an entirely different, even ‘safer’ narrative would have resulted. Despite the fact that David describes Meg as ‘heroine’ on more than occasion, the physical pain that she endures exists almost entirely outside of the reader’s experience (p. 156).
Ultimately, to write the narrative from Meg’s perspective would mean granting the reader a taste of that heroism, a sense of survival that seems crucial to many other horror texts. However, Ketchum intends for us to arrive at something altogether different from a simple sense of survival, and through this process, the novel reveals its pedagogical value. Here, the destruction of the body, so often shredded, torn and ripped in most examples of ‘torture porn’, leads to a real awareness of pain and not dissociation. Scarred from the very beginning by the car accident that killed her parents, Meg’s body undergoes more destruction, including obscene messages carved into her skin, eventually even ‘turning finally against itself’ as she digs into her scars in a moment of delusion (p. 298). Even her ‘final act of defiance’ occurring before her death involves digging into concrete, resulting in more bodily destruction with ‘fingernails broken back and bleeding, one gone already, the tips of her fingers bloody too’ (p. 316).
Meg’s body ‘turning finally on itself’ serves to counter the objectification she undergoes as under David’s gaze. During the early stages of Meg’s torture, David reflects on the sense of ‘power’ he derives from simply watching, leading to the crucial question of, ‘when did it happen? when was I, yes, corrupted’ (p. 156, sic, Ketchum’s emphasis). Strikingly, we know Meg’s pain and humiliation best when David discovers his own capacity to feel it, but even those moments sometimes come with their own voyeuristic ambiguity. ‘It was as though I were drinking her in,’ he states at one point, surveying her scars, ‘as though I were somehow becoming her’ (p. 268, Ketchum’s emphasis). The idea of ‘drinking her in’ bears disturbing erotic connotations, the kind that Ketchum does not shy away from throughout the novel, especially when the characters suspend Meg naked, making her at once an object of pity and a sexualized object for David’s gaze, as well as our own.
Such scenes jeopardize David’s sense of humanity. Moreover, as a glance at Amazon.com customer reviews would indicate, these scenes also veer uncomfortably into pornographic territory for many readers. Quite easily, his crisis becomes our own, as the text dwells over the details of Meg’s body, resulting in what David describes at one point as a ‘stew of sex’ (p. 178). As accomplices, we watch Ruth gradually break her prohibition on touching, eventually allowing the boys to rape Meg. Mirroring the earlier scene at the window, we watch David watching, as his closest friend, Donny, carries out the act. ‘I could almost feel his weight on top of her,’ David states, ‘pounding her to the rough hard floor’ (p. 274).
Once again, Ketchum reminds us that watching makes us part of the event and that like his, our own humanity depends upon a struggle to see past our position of power and into the experience of the victim. Ketchum makes us work for this experience, and, hence, we can see the most problematic and simultaneously useful aspect of teaching The Girl Next Door. Students respond to the narrative of Meg’s torture with feelings of helplessness and discomfort. In the e-mail cited earlier, the student stated, ‘As far as horror movies go, nothing could possibly compare to what Ketchum forced me to imagine’ (Fedrowitz). Thus, when we consider the novel’s matrix of power relationships involving Ruth, David, Donny, Meg and the other characters, we must also consider Ketchum’s place and his relationship to us as readers. Horror, in Ketchum’s hands, seems to transcend the conventional scenario, where a reader can stop reading and safely close a book when he or she feels like it.
And if Ketchum seems to exercise a kind of power over the reader who wants to stop reading and thinking but can’t, then what of the instructor who makes The Girl Next Door assigned reading? Earlier, I suggested that teaching horror need not be a safe enterprise, and on some level, to do it right, it cannot be. Part of that lack of safety involves a hazardous position for the instructor, who must to some degree confront his or her own position of power. What Ketchum teaches us, though, is that power over others should give way to empathy and understanding. In a ‘Pod of Horror Interview’, Ketchum responds to the question of a horror writer’s moral responsibility by saying, ‘I think we’re supposed to support one another’ (‘Voices’). What then to do with the students who whisper or e-mail their anxieties about attending class to talk about the tortures of Ketchum’s novel? To some degree, that’s the fire they must walk through for such a course. Ketchum implicitly assigns all of us who read his novel with a moral mandate: to talk about it, to heal ourselves and each other. The student at the fountain had it right. Yeah, that’s horror.
Ketchum, Jack (2005) The Girl Next Door (New York: Leisure).
Smuts, Aaron (2007) ‘The Paradox of Painful Art’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education 41.3, pp. 59-76.
Wiater, Stanley (2001) (ed.) Dark Dreamers: Facing the Masters of Fear (Baltimore: Cemetery Dance).
‘Voices of Horror: an Interview with Jack Ketchum’, (2005)
Pod of Horror, 26 Sept. 2005, 6 Oct. 2007, <http://cdn.libsyn.com/horrorreader/Voices_of_Horror
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