Thursday, December 6, 2012

666


Jay Anson died in 1980, just before publication of his second (or first) novel, 666. It was published in 1981, right at the end of Jimmy Carter's term and during a long period of social and economic upheaval within the United States. 666 is about a haunted house that creates (or exacerbates) conflict between three people, a married couple and their male friend. I want to put to you in this post that this novel is reflecting and circulating multiple elements of anxiety within American society during the 1970s. It's a common and obvious observation to note that horror fiction tends to be a manifestation of conscious or unconscious fears. The more financially successful and popular the text, the more universal or generalized the fears with which it is dealing. Jay Anson's 666 isn't simply a haunted house novel, but rather an expression of anxieties related to the recession, inflation, gender employment disparity, female empowerment, marriage, divorce, and the housing situation within the United States.

In order to demonstrate this, I need to do a bit of historical contextualizing. Jimmy Carter's presidency can be distilled into a matter of economics. During his presidency, the US economy went through a severe recession from 1973 to 1975 as well as a later period of extremely high interest rates and double-digit inflation. Before the advent of neoliberalism (monetarist economics, AKA Chicago school), most government's responses to inflation was to spend money and to increase interest rates in order to promote lending (Keynesian economics). More lending in this case can be taken to mean more mortgages. Thankfully, this was mostly successful as by 1979 (before the oil crisis), the US economy had grown by 5%, unemployment decreased significantly, the median household income improved by 5% as well. Thus, more people were employed and owning homes. However, all was not good. Inflation was still high, so Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve in order to alleviate the problem. He raised interest rates — by 1981, some were as high as 20% — which contributed to a sharp recession at the end of the decade.

The 1979 energy crisis, caused by a multitude of complex geopolitical and economic factors, helped end any period of growth after the 1976 increase in the economy. Consumer confidence decreased significantly to the point where Jean-François Lyotard diagnosed a mass incredulity to metanarratives, calling this the postmodern condition. I would contend that this mass incredulity represents the greatest contributor to the horror boom of the 1980s, through the logic of horror's reflection of societal anxieties.

One metanarrative being continuously questioned after the 1970s is the "American Dream," whereby the exceptional individual has a right to a home, a job, a family, and the ability to juggle labour and leisure to a self-satisfying degree. The American Dream suffered a crushing blow thanks to a long decade of high interest, high inflation, and many people owing more on their mortgage than their home was worth (negative equity).

Using statistics from the US government, we can see that in 1970, 62.9% Americans owned homes. A decade later, this number has jumped by 2.38% — this increase is double from the previous decade's increase. With more people owning their own homes, but paying a significant amount on them, we can see why the haunted house narrative — already popular in the American conscious — comes to rise in the 1970s. The mortgage, the debt that weighs on you like a burden, comes to literally haunt you in the form of ghosts or malicious presence. A common aspect of haunted house narratives is the unbelievably low price at which the unsuspecting family acquires the home. Thus, the cheaper home, while economically attractive, is ultimately dangerous and ends in heartbreak for all involved.

The plot of the novel details the mysterious appearance of a home across the property line from the main characters' house. The suspicious and odd looking Victorian manse was apparently moved in its entirety across the nation after a man murdered two people in the house. It's set up as a rental property, and the protagonist and his wife become obsessed with the house.

In Jay Anson's 666, there is a constant concern and attention being paid to the physicality of the homes themselves, due to the career of Keith, the married protagonist. He owns his own carpentry business (American entrepreneurship fantasy) and has married Jennifer, an already divorced interior decorator. Despite the greater economic hardships of 1979, the year the novel is set, Keith is making enough money that Jennifer is able to give up her career and be a housewife. Although, there doesn't appear to be a lot for Jennifer to do other than make Keith his meals. There is a significant absence of feminine household maintenance in this novel — something I'll return to in a bit.

Keith's career enables the author to focalize on carpentry-specific details of the various homes featured in the novel. There's a preponderance of architectural jargon, including long passages detailing the renovations that Keith performs on the haunted house in the middle of the novel. Not only is the haunted house detailed (incredulously numbered six hundred and sixty six in both its previous address and its current!) but also Keith's home and even the couple's friend's apartment what with its antique expensive furniture.

David, the single handsome man that comes between husband and wife, is a successful antiques dealer that is everything Keith is not: cultured, sophisticated, charming, exceedingly good looking and in incredible shape, despite just playing racket ball every week. He is friends with Jennifer, meeting in professional circumstances but evolving into close friends, and this makes Keith, a former college football player, quite jealous.

What's interesting about this dynamic is the same thing that The Exorcist plays upon: divorce within American society. In order to demonstrate that I think 666 is manifesting a deep anxiety about divorce, I'll need to do some more contextualizing.

At some point in the past thirty years, it became fashionable to remark that 50% of American marriages end in divorce. The very fact that this "statistic" is circulated so easily and for so long suggests that there might be a grain of truth to it. In fact, the divorce rate in the US has increased significantly from the 1960s to the 1970s. Two academics write, quite succinctly that
The steady rise in the United States (U.S.) divorce rate from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s has been a topic of much debate among demographers and economists (Friedberg 1998; Goldstein 1999; Michael 1978, 1988; Oppenheimer 1997; Preston 1997; Ruggles 1997; Wolfers 2006). Researchers have focused much of their attention on explaining the rise in the divorce rate by examining changes in divorce laws during the early-1970s (Friedberg 1998; Wolfers 2006) and the economic empowerment of women (Bremmer and Kesselring 2004; Nunley 2010; Ruggles 1997). The consensus from the literature on divorce laws suggests that the reforms led to a small, transitory rise in the divorce rate.
Just because it's a small increase does not mean that it's a culturally significant issue. For comparison's sake, in the UK there were 300 deaths due to complications resulting from AIDS whereas 30,000 people a year died from lung cancer. Despite this disparity, there exists no cultural lung cancer panic near the same level as the AIDS panic of the 1980s.

In The Exorcist, a young girl, daughter to a divorced and economically independent woman, becomes possessed and only a father figure in the form of a Jesuit priest, Father Damian Karras, is able to save this girl. The novel and subsequent blockbuster film (which is indisputably a masterpiece) deal with cultural anxieties about the secularization of society and the dissolution of the family unit, often seen, in the American cultural consciousness, to be the strongest possible force against subversive or dangerous societal elements.

I would contend that with the incremental but significant increase in divorce rates, certain texts of horror looked at the dissolution of marriages rather than of the familial unit. Women's greater economic empowerment and other huge societal shifts contributed positively to the success and visibility of second-wave feminism (from the 1960s to the 1990s). As feminism is (still to this day) seen as a subversive element that seeks to disrupt the comfort and stability of the traditional American family unit, we can see then that 666 is expressing a complex but risible attitude to females and their ability to divorce.

Jennifer, as aforementioned, has already been divorced by the time that Keith marries her. Only a paragraph is given over to detailing the failed marriage, but its existence looms heavily in Keith's mind. The narrator relates Keith's jealousy, his resentment that he's had to share his wife with another man, which of course, speaks to the proprietary relation visualized between the American male and his wife. Keith’s jealousy vis-à-vis David is an expression of the anxiety that if Jennifer could divorce one man, then there is little stopping her from divorcing another.

This, I would contend, gets to the heart of the matter regarding this novel. It is a hysterical expression of fear in regards to female agency thanks to a society that is seeing more and more women becoming economically independent due to deregulation, the meteoric rise of inflation and the subsequent need for double incomes to sustain an accustomed and expected lifestyle. The divorce anxiety — “likely due to the fact that women began participating in the labor market and in higher education at increasing rates long before the sharp rise in the divorce rate starting in the mid-1960s” (here) — is encapsulated in the text’s subsequent limitation in Jennifer’s agency throughout the novel.

Once David has inevitably moved into the luxurious but haunted house, the home exerts an influence upon him, exacerbating behaviour that had hitherto been latent. He sustains frequent and seemingly innocent physical contact with Jennifer and expresses a desire for her to decorate the interior of the house. It’s far too easy of a target to denounce this novel for the only time Jennifer has agency it’s when she’s engaging in traditionally feminine exercises such as interior decorating. Other than this moment, she’s a listless empty character that cries when Keith is cold and distant and doesn’t appreciate the prosciutto sandwich she made. When she reflects on David’s charm and attractiveness, she thinks "it would be so easy to drift into an affair with him; to simply relax and allow it to happen" (Anson 234). This quotation perfectly encapsulates the lack of agency Jennifer displays — despite a constant mentioning by the narrator of Jennifer’s previous marriage and the ease of divorce.

In a spectacularly telling scene near the beginning of the novel, David is over at Keith and Jennifer’s house having dinner. During a lull in the conversation that was previously excluding Keith, he asks what of another couple they all knew. David reports that the wife asked for a divorce; it seems she has fallen in love with another man. Keith retorts, “‘And he’s going along with that? I’ll tell you, if that happened to me, I wouldn’t take it lying down! Why didn’t Jerry go over and shoot the man or something?’” (Anson 33). In his reply, David doesn’t respond to the violent threat implicit in the observation. Not just Keith’s threat to David, but even more implicit, Jennifer’s ability to divorce Keith.

Jennifer’s power over Keith is destabilized by Keith in a couple different ways. Firstly, he holds considerable sway within the relationship in terms of economic power. Jennifer is a housewife, but is becoming bored with this. She misses Manhattan and all the glitz and glamour that comes with it. In order to stave off this malaise, Keith pushes her into re-establishing her interior decorating business (again, the American entrepreneurship fantasy). He’s effectively maneuvering her into being productive to ward off the introspection that comes from boredom. In order words, he wants her to be busy enough not to realize how much power she actually has. This is why there is a distinct lack of actual household maintenance from the housewife in this novel. The text wants to suggest to Jennifer that she has power, while at the same time, her personality doesn’t allow for such self-awareness.

The other way Keith destabilizes Jennifer’s ability to grasp power (but never does) is through his physicality. This is manifested in myriad ways. Firstly, the house they live in is maintained and repaired by Keith. His is the body that works on the home, not hers. In a novel concerned with the corporeal details of home, this is a significant factor. Secondly, his dominates her sexually. Every time the couple has sex, it’s described in the same way: Keith makes love to her, not the other way around. He takes her to the bedroom and then makes love to her. It’s the same pattern repeated. He is in control of sex within this marriage, not her.

Despite these hysterical attempts at controlling Jennifer, he is unable to maintain discipline. In an obvious turn of events, she contemplates giving in to David, as aforementioned, and during the climactic confrontation, she decides to tell him “no” once and for all. However, when she arrives in the haunted house to make her declaration, she’s pretty much hypnotized by David’s corporeality. It is doubtful she would have abstained if Keith hadn’t burst in for the showdown between rivals that is inevitable in the logic of such narratives.

Instead of complex relational issues that create divorce, 666 submits that the Devil or Satan is ultimately responsible for the dissolution of the married couple. The variegated factors that lead to the demise of marriage are transubstantiated into an effective horror trope: the haunted house. Thus, we have a multifaceted portrait of American society at the end of the 1970s — a portrait that conveys anxieties about negative equity (due to high interest rates after a short intense spurt of mortgage acquisition) and the increasing prevalence of divorce.

Female economic and societal empowerment are dangerous elements, the horror texts would have us believe. They lead to more secularization (allowing for satanic cults and demons to exert more influence) and more divorce, allowing for the erosion of society itself. If horror texts are fundamentally expressions of cultural anxiety, then we have here a superlative example of this. By contextualizing 666 to show that divorce and home ownership were on the minds of the collective, we can see that this axiom holds true.

The best horror is the scariest horror. The scariest horror is the horror that comes from within. Thus, I would put to you that 666 is scary not because it’s about a haunted house but rather it’s about a decaying society, a dissolving marriage, and a country with a stagnate economy. It’s an expression of the incredulity to metanarratives such as home ownership and marriage and this incredulity always leads to the hysterical attempt at recuperating the very metanarrative being challenged — hence, Jennifer’s complex lack of agency within the text and yet, her strange power over the whole novel. Her insignificance is intrinsically significant. 666 is a novel about circulating and reflecting fears within American society, and it’s rather successful, I should think.

Also, I'm pretty sure that 666 is the 100th book I've read in 2012. Give or take one or two. And I read it in one evening. Not to boast or anything.

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