Recently I watched Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. It’s delightful Giallo film about a young woman, Nora, who, after watching a family friend die and being mugged while trying to get help, may or may not have witnessed a murder. Her testimony is in doubt because of the unconscious state she was found in and because—prepare to roll your eyes—she reads mystery novels. During all this chaos, she meets Dr. Marcello, the obvious love interest, played by John Saxon.
If you are a horror fan, you’d probably recognized Saxon from Black Christmas and Nightmare on Elm Street. While those two films are only really linked in sharing an actor and both being slasher flicks, I cannot help but imagine them being in the same universe. Mainly because in both films Saxon plays a police lieutenant. In Black Christmas, he is a surprisingly competent cop (law enforcement is rarely helpful in slasher films) who is trying to find a missing child and college student. We know, as the viewer, that the killer has been hiding in the sorority house, with the body of the missing co-ed, the whole time, but Saxon’s character does a good job following leads, believing the endangered girls, and even taking the perverted calls that the sorority has been receiving seriously. Eventually, he discovers that the calls are indeed coming from within the house.
When watching Nightmare on Elm Street, it is fun to imagine that it is the same character. It may explain why he such a jerk in that film. How many slashers does one police officer have to put up with? Does this connection reveal anything more meaningful about these two movies? No, but it’s good fun.
However, some connection are more fulfilling. Take two books I’ve read recently, World War Z by Max Brooks and This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong. Both deal with the outcome of a zombie outbreak. Though Wong’s book doesn’t actually have zombies per say, but rather monster’s that in some ways are more reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing. However, the panic in the book is framed by a media saturated with zombies.
In World War Z, the book mirrors the popular narrative that we give World War II—considering the title, this was probably done on purpose. Even the fact that this book is structured like a collection of oral histories adds to this sense. At first there is panic, people die in poorly planned battles, and refuges look for a safe haven but find none. Then people start to pull together. And though the odds seems insurmountable, people overcome them and take back the world from the undead horde. All in all, it is the most optimistic Zombie fiction that I’ve come across.
Where as in This Book is Full of Spiders, the outbreak is focused in one city, but it certainly has a more pessimistic view. While the book is funny throughout, Wong show how people’s actions are stupid, selfish and absurd. In some ways, Wong seems to be the Samuel Beckett of comedic monster books. Throughout the text, Wong focuses on human’s lack of empathy. Dunbar’s number—the concept that one can only empathize with 230 people at most and beyond that everyone else becomes the other—is mentioned throughout the book. In the end, which I won’t spoil, Wong shows how we as species fail to pull together, rather he emphasizes our lack of sympathy when it comes to fellow human beings. Did I mention that this book was hilarious?
What I loved about reading these two books, around the same time, is that they reveal how humanity reacts to disaster and threats. Is Brooks right in his optimism or Wong right in his absurdist pessimism? I would yes, they are both right. The world is complex, and we seek out stories to better understand it. The thing is stories can never encapsulate the whole of any truth, by a story’s very nature—even when it acknowledges complexity—the truth is simplified. However, by reading widely I can face the many truths and the many stories that explain the world we live in.
To return to The Girl Who Knew Too Much, this movie presents one of my greatest fears: those in power dismissing what I have to say as only my imagination or worse madness. When Nora is first found unconscious on the street, she is taken to the hospital and put in the mental ward as a “drunk.” No one believes her, and she is only able to leave because she knows a Doctor who can vouch for her character. However, they convince her that the murder she witnessed was only her imagination, after all she reads mystery novels and a girl’s imaginations can run wild. Because these authorities doubt her testimony, she is put directly in harm’s way.
This problem shows up again in Nightmare on Elm Street: no one believes Nancy. She is forced to rely on her own wits to battle what basically amounts to a demon. While I’m not sure that there was actually anything that the adults could do to help, their dismissal of what she knows to be true is, in some ways, more terrifying than a demon who waits for you in your dreams.
Here are two movies separated by twenty years and an ocean, connected only by an actor and the fact that they tap into the very same fear. Both tell us that sometimes when those we trust to protect us say that it’s only our imagination and that such monsters aren’t real—they are wrong. Those monster are real, but we will be laughed at or locked up for our own safety if we dare ask for help. Perhaps I shouldn’t be focusing on how I keep finding these connection, but rather on why we keep telling this same story.