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Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner

Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner




Domestic Dissection: Mike Arnzen’s Domestic Horror

Gina Wisker

Mike Arnzen’s minimalist horror fiction and poetry cuts straight through the artifice of domestic and romantic relationships, revealing a disturbing core of dis-ease, decapitation, dismemberment, dismay. His use of horror, ‘the genre of the undead’(100 Jolts, 2004, p. 11) is shockingly contemporary, yet follows in the tradition of others who take the everyday, the domestic, and disturb our complacencies, notably Edgar Allen Poe, H.P Lovecraft, and Stephen King. Identifying horror’s differences from crime fictions, he notes:

Horror’s mysteries are usually universally repressed truths, whereas suspense is a piano chord that can only be played so long. Horror bangs on the same piano as suspense, but it produces more chaotic chords. Cacophony, sometimes. Horror pounds the keys of the literary piano in staccato rhythm. Horror resides in the chirp of the Psycho soundtrack. The arc of Mother’s knife. And the pulse-racing dribble and twist of the camera down the drain afterwards. (Arnzen, ‘Minimalist Horror’, 100 Jolts, p. 10)

This homes in on the discomfort of domestic horror, which explores those repressed truths, the disorientation when what has been taken for granted as dependable: home, hearth, family, children, partner, parents, the conventional safety of a suburban everyday, are revealed as only constructions held in place tenuously by our beliefs, and just as likely to be displaced and undercut as are predictions of the weather.

Arnzen’s work features fast food outlets, babies as playthings, a zombie anniversary meal celebrating six millennia, the preservation of the body of a dead beloved wife. All of these are both topical and, differently contextualised, traumas and concerns of the human condition. The tone of the stories is laced with the threateningly macabre, the deadly interlinking of gender and power politics, poison and bodily rupture reminiscent of the revenge tragedians of the Renaissance: Webster, Tourneur, Shakespeare, and of the Gothic streak in Romantic and Victorian poetry . So we are reminded of Keats’ ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, her lover’s head growing herbs after her brothers’ brutal rejection, when in Arnzen’s ‘Gardener’ the wife clips the husband’s spinal cord, prunes the skull, and grows tomatoes in his head. ‘I hated every single word he spoke’ she begins, clips his spinal cord, turns him into a vegetable then neglects him, finally pruning his skull, ‘then I turned him upside down and grew tomatoes in his potted head.’ (‘Gardener’ in 100 Jolts). While the Keats tale emphasises the power of the brothers to prevent romance and love, this minimalist fiction by Mike Arnzen focuses on the irritations of long term domesticity, in which revenge of a particular horticultural kind both emphasises the domestic, tomatoes growing from his skull, and undermines any sense of nurturance in relationships. The gardening motif returns, with the garden box burial of a husband who won’t share childcare in ‘Taking Care of Baby’ (100 Jolts). The irritated husband demands that the wife deal with the baby when it screams at night. It is not his responsibility, in his view. In the second stanza, she emphasises his uselessness as a support of her hard work, getting revenge out of her resentment: ‘He screams from the box beneath my garden bed, pounding: “Babe, will you please open this thing up?”’ The companion piece to his insistence that she ‘shut that thing up’ when baby cried a little earlier, gives her back the power, turns the tables. The husband fulfils the promise of his vegetative state.

Domestic horror is particularly threatening to our tenuously held notions of the status quo because it attacks us where we need to feel most secure, in the supermarket with its muzak as much in the lounge, garden, playpen. Domestic horror has a sound pedigree. It picks on an innate need for safety, the complacent assumption that social obedience and common sense reward us. However, as Stephen King points out:

…the good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of. (King, Danse Macabre, p. 149)

Using and disturbing the comfortable location of the home, King indicates both the horror of place and the horror of self. The room at the centre of our life is our own identity, our sanity, our sense of stability of self. But in domestic horror the revelation is that those around us and the places in which we live no longer reflect and resonate with safety and certainty but instead leak disturbance and dismay. Domestic spaces such as rooms, homes, beds, are choice locations for horror primarily because of the safety, security and familiarity they promise. Disturbing these certainties fundamentally undercuts identity and ontological security. Jung, in aligning the self with the house, home, or living space, opened up a gap for disturbance and terror, for insecurity and questioning. In horror, there are direct connections between insecurity, stability, identity and the house or home. Horror takes the Gothic fascination with locations straight into our most intimate and personal spaces. Virginia Andrews’ terrifying Flowers in the Attic (1979) is a disturbing example of this – as it involves incarceration, child abuse and neglect at the heart of the family relationships and domestic spaces – exactly where you would hope to find nurturance. Following the death of their father, the Dollenganger children, twins and a brother and sister, are incarcerated by their untrustworthy mother in an attic in their grandmother’s house. The bullying, puritanical grandfather is to be feared and avoided, even the mother is terrified of him and he must never know of the existence of the children. Inheritance and heritage are dangerous, diseased, threatened, rather than celebrated in this narrative situation. The spiteful, violent grandmother clearly hates the idea of children and particularly hates a union of uncle and niece (their parents), which she finds blasphemous. The walls of the children’s attic are covered with scenes from hell. They cannot escape until it is almost too late for all four of them, and gradually wither away. Neglect instead of nurturance, brutality, the starving of affection and condemnation of identity instead of love and care are the experience of these children’s lives.

Mike Arnzen’s fictional children similarly experience neglect and sometimes plain destruction. So in ‘Stress Toy’ a child is misinterpreted as entertainment, location for the emotional dysfunctions of a modern couple. Hubby and Wifey contemplate the new stress toy which has been delivered to help minimise anxieties at work. It is ugly, boxed and new, a gift, an object on which to offload destructive energies so that the modern self can survive intact. Each examine it with disgust. Because of its named function, stress toy, there is license here to treat the toy as brutally as the husband wishes, in order to relieve his stress. They are legitimated in this by the directions on the box. At his comment: ‘A squeeze toy? You mean I just throttle it and that relieves stress?’ (100 Jolts, p. 52) the toy rolls its eyes up at the couple, belying its existence as mere object, disturbing the reader, indicating that its status and treatment are a construction, an excuse for their cruelty. Their smiling down at the creature inside the box reveals their collusion in their acts of neglect and violence. To the reader the awful truth is that the creature is actually alive. Children, for this is clearly a child, are revealed stress relievers, squeeze toys, something to confirm the sense of control and relief for their parents. This creature/object can legitimately be brutalized because of its confused status as a toy but the language reveals its human characteristics and the deliberate collusion of the couple as an ignoring of such characteristics:

‘she squeezes, the executive toy whimpers before its chest puffs out and its eyes bulge all googly from the squeezing. Its arms and legs swat and swim in the air. Wifey waits until the toy’s head turns to purple so she can see the veins pattern and throb on the scalp. “See?”’ (p. 52)

Demon and deadly children are as common as their deadly parents. In the poem ‘The Suckling’ (Gorelets, 2003, p. 57), in a travesty of the birth experience, a newborn creature is born into a crypt, sucks off its own umbilical cord as its undead mother comforts and feeds it, so:

His mother lines his mouth
With a handful of leeches
And cradles the undead child
In her pale lithe arms to feed.
(‘The Suckling’ Gorelets, p. 57)

Families are threatening, deadly. Domestic spaces and the homely locations of mall, café, suburbs, family house, are all deceptive, liable to erupt, implode, suck you into some terrible experience, punish you for some previous ill deed. Horror frequently exposes and explodes familiar locations as confined when they would be nurturing and safe, threatening where we would have them as confirmatory of security, of being and self – exposing the family, home, attic, cellar, kitchen, bedroom, toilet, garden and neighbourhood as danger zones. Horror also undermines our sense of reality by transforming what is considered ‘real’ through exposing what is feared and hidden. In doing so, spatial descriptors become important, deploying what Freud defines as ‘paraxis’. Rosemary Jackson explores those Gothic horror spaces as indicators of alternative truths revealed in situ, on location, exposing this notion of an underside or alternative space as beyond, beneath, or above the recognisably ordinary; figuring the home, office, bedroom, fast food outlet, playpen, garden, the suburbs themselves as actually much less secure and safe than we need them to be:

Fantasy lies alongside the axis of the real, and many of the prepositional constructions which are used to introduce a fantastic realm emphasize its interstitial placing, ‘On the edge’, ‘through’, ‘beyond’, ‘between’, ‘at the back of’, ‘underneath’ or adjectives such as ‘topsy turvy’, ‘reversed’, ‘inverted’. (Jackson, Fantasy, p. 64)

Domestic horror frequently uses adjectives suggesting invasion/explosion/disturbance of those spaces, a cracking of the secure fabric to reveal gaps, fissures, and leakages, indicating contradictions and threats to what then appears a kind of culpably naïve investment in domestic and personal security. Such are the contemporary threats to Middle America and other Western urban and suburban locations, the neighbourhoods of comfortable families, 2.4 children, and their baby-sitters. In horror, such locations harbour axe murderers, psychotics (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street), terrible secrets, villages of alien children, and plants that pick up their roots, chase, and eat people (John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids), crazed pets (Cujo), demonic domestic appliances or family cars (From a Buick 8, Christine), household walls that reach out grab and haul in the crazed lone individual (Polanski’s Repulsion). For Stephen King, among others, what is fascinatingly played out is the unsettling character of Middle America, its lurking fears, and the disturbance of its complicity in all that would undermine its façade of order. For British writers John Wyndham, Dennis Wheatley, Angela Carter, parents are likely to sell daughters’ souls to the devil (Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter), homes are likely to need the protection of a magic circle (Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out), uncles locate performative spaces in their cellars and try to turn nieces into puppets and rape victims (Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop).

Alfred Hitchcock urges us to ‘put back horror where it belongs, in the family’ (exhibition, Sydney museum of art, 1998). Entrapment, engulfment, monstrous parents and equally monstrous children, skeletons in closets and chopped messes on the kitchen table are all features of domestic horror that focus on the oppressive, the threatening, the perverse, and the sickening flip side of ‘domestic bliss’.

Edgar Allan Poe, Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Melanie Tem, Virginia Andrews, among a range of horror writers, concentrate on domestic horror, as do a range of films depicting family horrors in enclosed spaces (e.g., The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Village of the Damned), set in apartment blocks, hotels, homes, pleasant country villages, and which variously focus on mad monster fathers, changeling children – usually the devil’s own offspring (or aliens) and invasion of the domestic home. Domestic horror exposes the contradictions and potential/real unpleasantness of domestic settings and relationships, of nuclear and extended families, of romance, marriage and parenting. It focuses in particular on the unsafe neighbourhood, the ostensibly loving but actually non-nurturing home as sites for horror. It re-represents parents, partners and children as variously deceptive, destructive, invasive, life-denying.

What is so terrifying about domestic horror? The horror of the disruption of the everyday world? Why might the family home, intimate relationships and parenting be a site for horror when on them depend our sense of safety, continuity, comfort, and familiarity – a reflection of ourselves, of our sense of security, and, through our children a sense of some kind of identity, heredity, immortality? Domestic horror is terrifying and disturbing precisely for those reasons. The qualities and certainties we desire from domestic life, relationships and families, reveal our vulnerabilities as we try to construct safe havens, continuities of self and relationships, and believe that we ward off the dark. The stuff of horror operates through the removal or undercutting of these securities and certainties which keep out the dark. We are all concerned with security, trust, ontological certainty, the immortality children offer us. Beneath that sort of comfort lie the fears of parasitic children, domineering husbands, incarceration in the threatened home, nurturing turned to abuse or neglect. ‘Domestic bliss’ has of course been critiqued by feminism as well as popular fiction, after the feminist recognition that ‘You start by sinking into his arms and you end up with your arms in his sink’. In horror, of course, you might end up with your body parts in his fridge. Mike Arnzen is certainly influenced by such post-feminist revelations, as you might imagine a lecturer who teaches today’s students to be. In Mike Arnzen’s minimalist fictions and poetry, housework and domestic or suburban locations feature, just as many demonic and collusive wives, partners and husbands, as strangers. In fact, the closer the relative, the more dangerous and destructive they tend to be.

Everyday terrors enter each seemingly safe familiar world. As the protagonist passes the time, his daughter playing among coloured plastic balls suddenly retrieves the first of several human skulls. The young daughter retrieving skulls from among the playzone, coloured balls in the local fast food chain (‘Diving In’, 2004) exposes the proximity of death, destruction, hidden horrors in the safety of contemporary life. The bizarre pops up in the everyday:

Her favorite continent in Playland is the giant pen full of plastic balls which she loves to dive into and hide within, only to leap back out and scare other children whenever they enter the bin. You eat a burger and it’s business as usual, until you hear her scream. Authentically. You turn, and for only a moment you think she’s found some strange sort of puppet. But you quickly realize: your daughter holds a real human skull in her hands. (Arnzen, ‘Diving In’, p. 12)

This is the first of such skulls. Genocide, and serial killings are brought into playspaces, safe spaces, revealing both their artifice and the numbing secrets of a world of danger, engulfment, the monstrous, around us everywhere.

The texts which form the recently produced short films sequence, Exquisite Corpse (2006), reveal the inequalities of childcare sharing, the deadly potential of sado-masochistic sexual games, and the implications of covert desires for total mind, body, soul manipulation and ownership fuelling the fetishistic objectification of representation of the loved one, capturing and preserving the moment, in the picture, in art. Reminiscent of the powerful Duke’s turning his wife into a portrait only he can own in Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, and Poe’s deadly painter who focuses on the portrait rather than the (neglected, soon dead) wife, a post modernist painter uses as paint the bloodsplatter of the model he shoots point blank , needing to own her ‘perfect eyes’ in his ‘perfect portrait’ plugging, daubing, fixing, her ‘piercing stare’, matched by the way he ‘pierces her clean through/the skull lodging a slug right between/the eyes of his perfect portrait’.

Where is horror? It is all around us, and in the places we wish were most secure:

It’s in black-jacketed books and lurid movie posters. It’s in police reports from murder sites and tearful recollections from battlefields. It’s in our nightmares. It’s in our secret ambitions. (Barker, A–Z of Horror, p. 16)

And in Mike Arnzen’s work it is in our beds, our playpens, our homes, ourselves. A man threatens to microwave the cat, promising his neighbour his is an oven that is different, remote controlled, and in a smart move, turns the waves outside, microwaving his loathed neighbour (‘Next-door’, 100 Jolts). A wife lunges at her husband with a pizza cutter, his body stinging from the garlic and peppers, his remains delivered in cardboard like a take-out pizza. He realises ‘It was then I realized she liked her men cold and leftover’ (‘Take Out’ in 100 Jolts, p 35). Arnzen’s zombie couples have no need to swear eternal love. Theirs will continue as the undead throughout time, snacking on each other’s attire, with a disarmingly gossipy tone undermined by the disgusting abject details:

‘She wed the zombie too young’

We are informed, and is awoken nightly, in a domestic scenario, by his cold feet.

Yet his love will never die so long as
She nurtures him with the cow brains
She dons for dinner like a wet wig’
(‘Nightmarried’ in Gorelets, p. 49)

Arnzen reveals romance and representation as violent invasion, ownership, fetishisation of body parts, dismemberment of the whole person, the opposite of the intimate completion and reassurance of popular belief. His domestic bliss reveals babies as brutalised playthings, marriage as a gendered war of power play, deceit, dire revelations, engulfment, an eternity locked in a deadly embrace. As he dissects the domestic, so he disturbs our equilibrium. The home and family will never seem so comforting again.

Andrews, Virginia, Flowers in the Attic (New York: Pocket Books, 1979).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Nightmarried’ in Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems (Fairwood Press: Auburn, WA, 2003).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘The Suckling’ in Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems (Fairwood Press: Auburn, WA, 2003).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Diving In’, in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Gardener’, in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville: Raw Dog Screaming Press, MD, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘How to Grow a Man-Eating Plant’, in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Introduction: Minimalist Horror’, in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Next-door’, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Stress Toy’, in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Take Out’ in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, ‘Taking Care of Baby’ in 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2004).

Arnzen, Michael, Exquisite Corpse: An International Collaboration of Dark Cinema, http://www.exquisitecorpsemovie.com, producer Jim Minton Design, 2006.

Barker, Clive, Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, compiled by Stephen Jones (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).

Jackson, Rosemary, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1981).

King Stephen, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror (London: Futura, 1982).


Website maintained by Michelle Bernard - Contact m.bernard@anglia.ac.uk - last updated October 17, 2006