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Friday, June 22, 2007


Metaphors for adolescence?

You've heard it before. The Incredible Shrinking Man, the werewolf, the mutant, all of them are popular with teenage audiences because stories of physical change echo the adolescent experience, the hormone surge that means your body is contantly changing itself.

Am I the only one who things this doesn't sound quite right?

When you're a teenager, obviously your body does change a lot. But there's something about this theory that smacks of Freud's idea of penis envy. Penis envy, among its many stupidities, is the theory of a man who tries to imagine being a woman, and can't project his empathy enough to grasp that if you've never had a penis, you don't miss it in the same way that a man who suddenly became a woman would. 'How would I feel if I was a woman? Well, I'd miss my penis...' Limited imagination, in other words. And from what I can remember of adolescence, there's an element of adult half-projection going on when people dwell so much on how fast a teenage body changes.

What adults forget is that adolescents are used to their bodies changing. It's been happening all their lives. Your body in childhood is not a fixed thing, it's a temporary point, taller every time you're measured, constantly outgrowing your clothes, surrounded by people a year younger than you who look tiny, towered over by adults, operating in a world where the doorknobs and chairs and light switches and every physical object you can think of has been designed for a body that can reach higher, spread wider, lift heavier than you can. And its this way from the moment you're born. You spend your entire prepubescence in a state of constant physical transition.

So when you reach adolescence, your body starts changing - but they're changes you have, if you've had any kind of education, been prepared for. You expect to change shape, change voice pitch, change hair patterns. You're highly self-conscious when you compare yourself with other people - but change in itself is not a foreign concept. You're just still growing. You've been doing it all your life.

The real change, I think, is aging. You don't get educated about that.

When you reach adulthood, you assume that your body is finished now, a fixed point. Which is simply not true. Bits of it stop working, and also it just changes. Your skin texture changes, and so does its colour in the areas that are usually exposed to sunlight. Your hands become dry. You're more likely to grow random hairs. Well, the list goes on, but a body past the first bloom of adulthood, where five or ten years go by with your body being pretty constant, goes back into a state of change. David Cronenberg said that The Fly isn't about science, it's about aging. And once he said it, you can instantly see what he means. I mentioned in an earlier post that you should not use a contraceptive implant - those things give you a massive hormone overdose and the side-effects are far worse than you expect - but using one for six months certainly gave me a better understanding of The Fly, because many of the side-effects were not unlike symptoms of menopause, and others were simply hard on my body in the same way that years are. The result was that I never knew when I was going to wake up in the morning and find out what new, horrible, irreversible thing had gone wrong with my body. (Boy, am I looking forward to actual menopause when I consider that.) If you've seen the movie, the theme may be familiar.

Aging also tends to bring changes for the worse, which is much closer to the horror movie theme. Obviously acne and a wobbly voice are't a joyous addition to a teenager's life, but you're surrounded by books emphasising that these things pass. And other changes are entirely for the better. Suddenly you can reach the top shelf! You can pick up heavy things! You can have orgasms, for goodness sake, which may surprise you the first time it happens but is hardly going to leave you crying 'The horror! The horror!'.

I may sound like I'm just grumbling about how whippersnappers have it easy, but I think there's grounds for considering this theory. They are simply this: it isn't generally teenagers who write and direct horror fiction. To tell a story successfully, you generally need to have some life experience and, in the case of directors, career standing, which means that you're probably in your twenties at the very youngest, and quite possibly in your forties or fifties. Adolescence is a long way behind you, but your own body is probably playing you up in some ways.

In short, if you have to come up with a metaphor for horror stories involving physical transformation - and there's no law that says you have to, come to that - let's not restrict ourselves to a single interpretation. There are others.

I think it was Woody Allen who said that Freud's mistake re: penis envy was in thinking it should be limited to women.
I think writing about aging is more frightening for people than writing about adolescence, is why there's not more of it about. With puberty and whatnot there's the assurance not only that you will get through it, and not only that ultimately it's not that bad, but also that there's a universality to it that you'll get to experience (I'm working on my wording here) because the people going through it with you will most likely still be alive on the other side of it. You have a reasonable chance of having lots of people to commiserate with. It's just not as daunting.

(Which starts that whole "should you only write about what you've experienced" debate. I don't necessarily agree -- I wrote a story about dying of old age when I was 22. The main workshop criticism was, then, "What are you writing about this for, you're young and healthy!"**)

It reminds me of an ongoing debate about why so many shows are set in high-school/secondary school, and tank as soon as the characters get to college/university. Or tank immediately, if the show starts out in a collegiate setting. The standard argument is always "Well, everybody goes to high school, not everybody goes to college!" which doesn't explain why "24" is so popular; I mean, I know a lot of people who've been to college and not one spy. That I know of.

But birth is another transformative experience, and that metaphor gets tons of play in horror. So there's a start.

(**Also, I think my short story might not have been very good. It would be hypocritical of me to omit that part. :-D)
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