In The End, Our Choices Make Us

The ruined metropolitan city of Rapture in the game Bioshock (2007) is a microcosmic incarnation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. The first cut scene of the game introduces to the player the idea that Rapture was intended to be a haven for intellectual advancement free from moral constructs, but the player arrives after the city has fallen into disrepair. While navigating the ruined city, the player is presented with an array of monstrous former citizens, including splicers, deranged scientists, and Little Sisters. The Little Sisters present the player with the options of saving them for small gain or killing them for great gain. This moral quandary singlehandedly determines the narrative outcome of the game and has an impact on the ease with which the player moves through the game. When following the path where the player chooses to sacrifice morals for increased survival and ease of play, a causal relationship can be seen between the ideological structure of Rapture and the evolution of the main character. This relationship posits monstrosity as the logical conclusion of the unrestrained individualism and obsession with progress that the game derives from Rand’s Objectivism.

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Classical Music and Killer Psyches in Horror Settings

    Implementing otherwise calming orchestral music in a horror setting is an ingenious technique used to instill uneasiness. While playing with the viewer’s expectations, using classical music in this way simultaneously provides a depth to characters that would normally be written off as simply psychopaths. Characters such as Alex DeLarge from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, Patrick Bateman from Mary Herron’s 2000 film American Psycho, and Sander Cohen from 2k Games’ 2007 video game Bioshock are perfect examples of where this technique has achieved an affecting sense of uneasiness not otherwise associated with classical music.Thomas Fahy, in his article “Killer Culture: Classical Music and the Art of Killing in Silence of the Lambs and Se7en”, suggests that when classical music is used in horror settings it is “like an appreciation for literature and fine cuisine”, which all three of these characters have, which fits the persona of what Fahy calls the “Gentleman Killer”, one who “Having appropriated the pose of aristocratic or elite culture…feel empowered to judge and destroy those who fail to be ‘civilized’” (Fahy, 2003). The use of orchestral music is a way to provide an unspoken insight into these aforementioned characters’ psyche; their crimes are intricate, which lends to the idea that these characters are indeed intelligent. The idea that a killer is smarter than his victims is quite unsettling indeed. They could prey upon anyone and they are out there among us; they like the same things, attend the same concerts, and even have similar philosophies as the general public. Facetiously using classical music, which is usually associated with high class, in disturbing scenes is a tool used in games and movies that highlights antagonistic characters’ intelligence (and therefore their capabilities) and perspectives while exuding an anxious atmosphere not otherwise associated with the genre.

    Alex DeLarge, the main character of A Clockwork Orange, is a teen with a thirst for “ultra-violence” (as he calls it), who thinks very highly of himself. While a narcissistic character, using pieces such as Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” highlights the fact that Alex is well-read, smart and educated enough to blend in. He can hold a normal conversation, and is in fact highly gifted and imaginative with words; for example, Alex narrates while listening to the score, “…. Oh, it was gorgeousness…. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship…. I knew such lovely pictures!” ( Obviously inventive and literate, a disturbed Alex uses his cultural knowledge to incite terror on others. In the scene where one of his “droogs”, Georgie, decides to mutiny, Alex exacts his revenge when he is inspired by music coming from a stereo, “It was lovely music that came to my aid” (; it is prudent to point out that the “Overture” to “La Gazza Ladra” by Gioacchino Rossini is playing over this following scene, possibly meant as the song that inspires him. One can guess that the scene unfolds as a fight instigated by Alex assaulting Georgie. Interestingly, within the mechanics of the film, in Alex’s infamous punishment scenes, the “Ninth Symphony” is turned against him; he is forced to watch violent scenes while the music is played over them. Classical music is unusually used here as a torture device as he can not listen to Beethoven (his favorite composer) after his release. The uncharacteristic use of classical music in such ways influences the viewer to think that something terrible can happen in their own lives and it could come from a person one doesn’t expect, a gentleman who has inserted himself into an “elite culture” who could have a civilized conversation about elevated topics, but is really judging his companion. Regrets to those who do not, for they become prey.

    The use of classical music in American Psycho, is used to accentuate main character Patrick Bateman and his ideals. However, it should be briefly noted that modern music (like Huey Lewis and the News) is used during Bateman’s murder scenes, employing the same technique only with a different genre of music. Classical music is used in this film during the opening credits scene and Bateman’s personal introduction to the viewer. The opening scene has the capability of immediately instilling the level of uneasiness that the viewer feels for the entirety of the movie. Playing with the viewer’s expectations from the start, with an upbeat and playful score, there are drops and streams of red that the viewer can only assume (upon first viewing) is blood. However, it quickly becomes clear that it is an elegant dish being prepared (the red being some kind of sauce used as a garnish), not a build up to a crime scene. Yet, the viewer does not feel at ease upon this realization. This ambiguous title sequence combines beauty with crime, which is certainly how Bateman sees it: There is an art to murder; everything must be organized, pristine, and perfect (much like a classical music score). Though it should be said that this way of thinking is Bateman’s whole life, not just where murder is concerned; he has a very rigorous and detailed daily regime so he physically looks his best in order to avoid detection that he is different from his social circle. One of the tropes normally associated with a psychopath (in films anyway) is a need to feel normal, to “fit in” as Patrick puts it at one point.

    In the daily routine scene, classical piano music is played over his voiceover while the viewer witnesses this glimpse into Patrick Bateman’s life. Image and perfection are very important to him; it is imperative that he looks the best and has the best. The use of classical music here highlights the simultaneous paradox occurring: During an otherwise (somewhat) normal routine in a normal setting, the carefully planned regime is straight from the mind of a sociopath (who is usually very precise). Everything has its place in his life, even murder, and the balance must not be disturbed. In the final shot of this scene, Patrick says “There is no real me, only an entity”. This lends insight into his character, as he does not see himself as a person (another trope of the psychopath); yet, he is smart enough to not to draw attention to himself and uses his physical appearance as a way to fit in with everyone else. An unsettling reminder that he is a killer among us, indeed. However, his prey are the dregs of society; people, he thinks, that are expendable, and in fact should be destroyed. Bateman’s victims are mainly bums and prostitutes, two demographics he feels don’t have a place in society; in fact he feels the need to purge society of them. Combined with the fact that Patrick is dressed to the nines when committing these crimes and has a dialogue with his victims about the importance of being an elevated member of society, Fahy’s claim that a “Gentleman Killer” feels empowered to “judge” seems to hold true within Bateman and his ideals.

    Sander Cohen in Bioshock, is one of Rapture’s demented artist types who thinks himself as having an elevated status because of his passion concerning music and art. Similar to Bateman, he sees himself as high class, above everyone else. He forces the main character, Jack, to help him complete his masterpiece by killing other people and placing photos of their corpses into a collage (careful to not get his creative hands dirty). To Sander, people are expendable when it comes to making art; in Cohen’s audio diary “The Doubters”, he says “I suppose the Doubters think you can paint a picture without soiling your smock”( Indeed, there are instances in the modern art world that depict scenes of suffering; there is a beauty in death, but not when one is responsible for the killing(s). In Bioshock, as stated, Cohen forces Jack’s hand in completing his masterpiece collage so he doesn’t actually commit the murders. It seems, through the audio diary of one Anna Culpepper (a citizen of Rapture), that Cohen has often made art out of murder without doing the actual killing. She claims in a diary (titled “Ryan’s Stableboy”) that can be found in Fort Frolic that “Cohen tidies with a catchy melody and a clever turn of phrase” ( after Andrew Ryan (Rapture’s creator) has doled out deadly punishment. Even before the downfall of Rapture, he was creating art in the monstrous; however, he was creating it in such a smart way that he could always deny he was part of the event, only documenting the aftermath; “The burden of the artist is to capture”, Cohen claims. After Rapture falls, however, Cohen becomes more openly demented. As a way to get revenge on the ones who “doubted” and “betrayed” him, he doles out punishments of his own, becoming a dictator like Ryan, for the sake of his art.

    Before Cohen allows Jack to enter Fort Frolic, he sends splicers (psychopathic goons) after Jack to test his worthiness of meeting the great Sander Cohen. It should be noted that Cohen often refers to himself in the third person, as if he is the finale of an act, as a way to distinguish himself from anyone else; his artistic knowledge and creativity, he believes, allows him to be put on a pedestal. Upon beating the splicers and entering Fort Frolic, Jack is met with Kyle Fitzpatrick, a former disciple of Cohen’s, who is vigorously playing Cohen’s Scherzo. Upon closer examination, we can see that this is not out of leisure; Fitzpatrick is plastered to the piano, which is rigged with explosives. Upon this realization, the player is immediately uneasy; it’s quite apparent that something awful is about to happen. Classical music is again being uncharacteristically used as a torture device, like in A Clockwork Orange; it is the last thing Fitzpatrick will ever hear, and it is the tune of his enemy. Sadistic Sander knows Kyle will stop playing in defiance, which causes the piano (and Fitzpatrick) to explode. His death is always part of Cohen’s intricate plan, no doubt meant to highlight his intelligence. A further atypical use of classical music comes when Cohen irrationally believes that Jack is judging him upon placing the third picture in the collage. In a rage, Sander sends more splicers after Jack who battles the hoard while Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker plays. Usually a song reserved for the beauty and magic of the Nutcracker’s kingdom, the score is used here as Jack fights for his life with Cohen baiting him over the radio to “Smile! Smile!” as if Jack’s fighting were a performance. Cohen fits the bill almost perfectly for being a “Gentleman Killer”, though Fahy also says “By relying on ‘art’…. these crimes transform high culture into a tool for expressing violence” (Fahy, 2003). Similarly to Patrick Bateman, there is a parallel beauty to art and killing for Cohen.

    Albeit all mentally disturbed, there is an intelligence associated with these killers which is highlighted using an otherwise pacifying genre of music. When little attention is given to these characters, it is easy to write them off as simply the antagonist. This is a shame as a killer’s psyche is not so one-dimensional. Using classical music subtly and facetiously brings attention not otherwise paid to antagonists as a way to add depth to their characters. Upon a close reading of these texts, the subtle references to these characters’ complicated personalities is highlighted using orchestral music. A genre that is usually reserved for the high class, it is partly used to point out the fact that these “high class” characters could be the very people one walks by on the street everyday; all three of them look normal (for Cohen, based off his audio diary picture) and arguably act normal in public because they strive and know how to fit in. They have elevated likes (aka: an appreciation for music and art) and dislikes like everyone else, yet their mentality is extremely different from a normal citizen.

    In the cases mentioned, these characters are educated and have a public demeanor that alludes to an elevated status in society, all fitting Fahy’s description of a “Gentleman Killer”, which makes them hard to spot in a crowd of the same people. This is certainly an unsettling fact that breaks the fourth wall; it exhibits these killers’ intelligence at being able to blend in, which instills a sense of uneasiness for the viewer, not only within the film’s universe, but in the real world. A further aim of implementing classical music (in settings it normally wouldn’t be in) is to play with the viewer’s expectations, like with the American Psycho opening, and adds to the general uneasiness one is meant to feel when dealing with these characters, like when “Waltz of the Flowers”, a song usually associated with beauty, is played while Jack (aka: the player) fights for his life in Bioshock. Uncharacteristically using this otherwise soothing music genre in a horrific setting is an affecting, yet subtle, way to bring an awareness to these complex characters’ psyches.

Works Cited

  1. Fahy, Thomas. “Killer Culture: Classical Music and the Art of Killing in Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 27 June 2003. Web.

  2. Bioshock Wiki. 2015, web.

  3. IMDB. 2015, web.

No Gods, No Men, No Future: Bioshock’s Unregulated Nightmare


In “The Battle for Galt’s Gulch: Bioshock as Critique of Objectivism,” Joseph Packer argues that Rapture, the Objectivist underwater dystopian setting of Bioshock (2007), is full of  “dangerous [Objectivist] enemies, seeking to inflict harm for their own personal gain” (215). He consistently reiterates his argument that these enemies, called splicers, are acting in accordance with Objectivism’s core tenet of rational self-interest (216-21), suggesting that they are making these choices consciously and of their own volition. In painting all citizens of Rapture with such a wide brush, Packer misinterprets the motivations behind Bioshock’s enemies, and in doing so, he also misses the central catalyst for Rapture’s ruin in general. Society has collapsed in Rapture not because its citizens are selfish, but because there of the lack of government intervention to counter the moral bankruptcy of the business world of rapture.

In Brigid Tenenbaum’s audio diary “ADAM Explained,” she reveals the negative effects of ADAM, a popular substance in Rapture that allows for instant genetic modification. ADAM’s process of cellular regeneration, she states, causes “cosmetic and mental damage. You need more and more ADAM just to keep back the tide.” Because its debilitating effects can only be subdued by repeated applications, users are caught in a trap of psychological dependence after using it, leading to their violence against others who have ADAM. Therefore, Packer’s explanation of the splicers’ violence is inadequate. They attack the player not because of their ideology, but for physiological reasons beyond their control. The splicers are essentially stand-ins for drug addicts with no access to rehabilitative services.

In response, one might wonder why there are no rehabilitative centers in Rapture when there would certainly be a high demand. After all, Rapture is a free market society. The answer is that there is more money to be made from selling to the users of ADAM than rehabilitating them. As Tenenbaum also states in “ADAM Explained,” “From a medical standpoint, [the addictive nature of ADAM] is catastrophic. From a business standpoint, well… Fontaine sees the possibilities.” Frank Fontaine is the founder of Fontaine Futuristics, the business enterprise that funded Tenenbaum’s experiments leading to the discovery of ADAM. The high demand for ADAM only increases during the civil war, when “Johnny and Janey Citizen are lined up round the block for Plasmids” (Bioshock, “Fontaine’s Legacy”). In Rapture, there is no institution in place to stop someone like Fontaine from taking advantage of the masses’ dependence on ADAM.

Another prime example of the dangers of unmitigated ADAM distribution and consumption is Dr. Steinman. Steinman is a plastic surgeon in Rapture’s Medical Pavilion who becomes obsessed with elevating his trade to an artform. He pontificates about Pablo Picasso’s deconstructivist experimentalism and suggests that it has influenced him to perform unorthodox procedures on his patients (Bioshock, “Surgery’s Picasso”). Thus, his unregulated and unconventional practice usurps the desires of his patients, leading to horrifying deformations and even deaths (Bioshock, “Not What She Wanted”). Steinman, like the nameless splicer enemies, exemplifies how well-adjusted citizens can be destroyed by the unchecked, amoral free-market economy of Rapture.

The lack of official oversight in the form of safety nets in Rapture leads to class inequality. Because Fontaine has control over ADAM production, he is able to hoard the wealth of Rapture for himself, leaving the masses poor. He further takes advantage of them, as he explains in the audio diary “Sad Saps”:

These sad saps. They come to Rapture thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry, but they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets. What an angle they gave me… I hand these mugs a cot and a bowl of soup, and they give me their lives. Who needs an army when I got Fontaine’s Home for the Poor?

He is able to use these vulnerable citizens as soldiers to insulate him against any retribution. Once again thanks to the lack of government regulation, Fontaine is able to build a private army with deadly weapons and plasmids, exploiting the lack of a state-sanctioned military in Rapture.

To understand the graveness of the oppression brought on by the free market economy in Rapture, one needs only to listen to Julie Langford’s audio diary “Arcadia and Oxygen.” In it, Langford reveals that oxygen production and distribution in Rapture is also a part of the free market. Since Rapture is located at the bottom of the ocean, breathable oxygen is not naturally occurring and has to be farmed from trees in an area called Arcadia. Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder, demonstrates the dangers of such an arrangement when he kills the trees with herbicide, putting all of Rapture in jeopardy due to its oxygen dependence. Because oxygen is privately owned, prices can go unregulated, and the very life of public is determined by the state of the market. This is an extreme analogy that parallels real-life anti-government sentiments that oppose universal healthcare, food stamps, and other state-funded social safety nets.

Another injustice inherent in the absence of centralized government in Rapture is the lack of a public police force. Ryan has the privilege of employing a man named Sullivan to investigate anything Ryan perceives as criminal activity (Bioshock, “Timmy H. Interrogation”). These investigations often result in the murder of Ryan’s enemies, such as smugglers working for Fontaine that harm Ryan Industries’ profits and a young singer who gained popularity by singing protest songs (Bioshock, “Picked up Timmy H.”, “Artist Woman”). Again, the privatization of a force that is meant to protect the public leads to more inequality in Rapture. Even Sullivan becomes disillusioned by the impropriety of his own job and threatens to quit in his audio diary “Have My Badge”. Without public servants to protect the rights of the lower-class citizens of Rapture, the social disparity that is already so pervasive will perpetuate.

Similarly, if there had been an ethics committee to regulate scientific experimentation, all of the multitude of problems caused by ADAM would be non-existent in Rapture. Ryan openly celebrates the lack of ethical oversight in the sciences at Rapture. In the video that accompanies the first bathysphere ride, Ryan describes Rapture as a place “where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.” In another, particularly dark, revelation, it is revealed that Tenenbaum’s genetic experimentation that lead to the discovery of ADAM was likely a continuation of Nazi eugenics, in which Tenenbaum participated as an assistant in the concentration camps (Bioshock, “Useless Experiments”). The indifference toward using Nazi science is a clear indicator of the fatal extremes of Rapture’s laissez-faire take on science. As a result of being unhindered by government intervention, “Fontaine Futuristics is the biggest thing going in Rapture” according to Bill McDonagh, one of Rapture’s city council members (Bioshock, “Arresting Fontaine”). Thus, Fontaine Futuristics jump-starts the end of Rapture by mass-producing and distributing ADAM, completely unregulated and in defiance of ethical business practice.

Ryan’s favorite analogy for the free market is the Great Chain. He likens the path of the market to human industrial progress being pulled in the right direction (Bioshock, “The Great Chain”). This is ironic because there is no universal morality in Objectivism since every person has their own independent moral compass. As Ayn Rand writes in The Virtue of Selfishness, “the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose” (23). Thus, each puller of the proverbial chain is pulling in his or her own direction, without regard to the others, leading to stagnation. This is where Ryan’s Great Chain analogy falls flat, and his philosophy is complicit in the every aspect of the downfall of his city.

Ryan’s motto for Rapture is “No gods or kings. Only Man,” and that in itself is not problematic. But the overall sentiment is that Man doesn’t need anyone else to survive and prosper, which the downfall of Rapture has shown to be false. Government intervention is not a mere moral obligation, it’s also a rational one for a society to prosper. Public institutions help offset the greed, dysfunction, and chaos that arise from any the social interactions of any complex society. In denying the citizens of Rapture such benefits as medical regulation, social services, free access to breathable air, and a public police force, Ryan launched his city in a doomed trajectory for the masses.

Patrick Bateman: The American Male

In 2000, director Mary Harron released the black comedy psychological thriller American Psycho, based on Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel of the same name. Both follow the life of Patrick Bateman, a homocidal Wall Street investment banker living in Manhattan in the 1980’s. His superficial perfectionism—complete with socialite fiancee Evelyn, hard-earned physique, and lavish Upper West Side apartment—is combined with a deadly inclination to torture and kill innocent victims, most of whom are women. Harron describes the story as “a brilliant social satire and a devastating portrait of the 1980s” wherein Patrick Bateman—played by Christian Bale—is the embodiment of the decade’s materialism and general excess (“American Psycho”). Though American Psycho has primarily been received as a critique of the consumerist nature of 1980’s America, this “social satire” can be expanded to encompass America’s problematic understanding of and obsession with masculinity. Bateman’s tendencies towards dominance, power, acquisitiveness, and violence offer a removed and objective criticism of this limited definition of American masculinity and the psychological phenomenon of hyper-masculinity.

Masculinity as a western social construct emphasizes wealth, power, social status, stoicism, physical strength, and acquisitiveness—a limited definition that, according to the American Psychological Association can breed “emotionally stunted” men with a tendency towards violence (Clay 52). By this definition, anything associated with women is inherently not masculine, and men can experience a “flight from the feminine” in trying to affirm their manhood to others and to themselves (Clay 52). Thus, men attempt to avoid depth of emotion for fear of seeming weak and can perceive other men and women in a distorted manner that engenders “discrimination and sexualized violence” (Clay 52). Patrick Bateman satisfies all of these qualifications of problematic masculinity: he has money and displays of such wealth; he is physically fit and attractive to women; his career and lifestyle designate him as elite; and, most disturbingly, he describes himself as having “not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust” (American Psycho). These characteristics prove to be a deadly combination, in instances both in real life and with Patrick Bateman, who sheds his humanity in pursuit of the masculine, claiming on more than one occasion that “there is no real me” and that “I simply am not there” (American Psycho). Patrick Bateman’s exaggerated characteristics and circumstances make him into a caricature of American masculinity that—through humor and sheer extravagance—satirizes this gendered social construct.

Patrick Bateman is obsessed with the accumulation of wealth as a means to achieve what he and other perceive to be power and social status. He verbally connects his wealth with his violence, frequently citing the malapropism “murders and executions” when asked of his career (“mergers and acquisitions” at Pierce & Pierce investing). Adding to this witty banter is the fact that no one actually hears him say this; it’s usually in loud places, like night clubs, so that even though he is exposing his true interests, people only notice him expressing his wealth and status. His Upper West Side apartment is immaculately clean and well put-together, and upon seeing that his coworker and victim Paul Allen’s apartment is “overlooking the park and obviously more expensive than mine” he has a moment of “sheer panic” (American Psycho). His fear of having the lesser home is comedic, but the humor and exaggeration actually emphasizes the truth of the scenario. The satire is intensified when, at the end of the movie, Patrick Bateman’s psychological state begins to erode entirely and the lines between truth and fantasy are blurred. He admits his murders to his lawyer, who mistakes him for another investor—Davis—and laughs about how “Davis” mocked Bateman by ascribing these atrocious murders to him. Bateman is frequently confused for other partners of Pierce & Pierce, and though comedic, it emphasizes his loss of identity and humanity, playing into “an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction” but no “real” Bateman (American Psycho). His lawyer goes on to say that he had dinner with Paul Allen twice in London just a week ago, so Bateman couldn’t have killed him. The fact that these murders were a figment of Patrick’s imagination doesn’t take away from their potency, but simply increases the irony and thus the satire of the story with regards to masculinity’s emphasis on violence, accumulation of wealth and status, and a lack of emotional depth.

In accordance with the “flight from the feminine,” Patrick Bateman objectifies women and views them as having the same importance and purpose as his wealth—as a display of power and social status, and thus masculinity. Similarly to his reason for keeping his job, he is engaged to marry the popular and conventionally attractive Evelyn “because I want to fit in” (American Psycho). He refers to her as his “supposed fiancee” and tells her “you’re not terribly important to me” (American Psycho). He has countless affairs with prostitutes and other women during his engagement to Evelyn, and most of these women end up becoming his murder victims. His misogyny ranges from this extreme violence to casual sexist remarks like saying in unison with his colleagues that “there are no girls with good personalities” and that a restaurant they dislike is a “chick restaurant” (American Psycho). He even jokingly quotes serial killer Ed Gein: “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part wants me to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right […] [and the other part thinks] what her head would look like on a stick” (American Psycho). This extreme sexualized violence and objectification of women stems from his poor understanding of masculinity, which he translates into actual sexual experiences with women. He uses domination and violent treatment of them as a means to combat and control effeminate threats, emphasizing his importance over theirs by going so far as to change two prostitutes names for the evening. “You’ll respond only to Christie,” he tells one escort, and to the other, “I’m going to call you Sabrina” (American Psycho). The act of paying women for sex is demeaning and objectifying in itself, but he takes it farther by removing their identities and then physically abusing them. He orchestrates the entire experience like a pornographic film—he does actually film it—and stares at himself in the mirror while flexing during various sexual positions. Harron directed the scene to be funny to enhance the satire of it, and through this scene viewers further understand Bateman’s distorted perception of women and of himself. For him, this experience is not sexual; it’s a way for him to enhance his perception of his own masculinity through the domination of women. He physically assaults the prostitutes at the end of the night, and in a different encounter with “Christie” and another prostitute, he violently murders them. To Patrick Bateman, women and wealth are the same thing: materials to be gained as a show of masculinity, and a scale with which he can compare himself to the other elites of society.

Bateman’s bigotry is not limited to women; he also is a racist and classist, consistently using the vulnerable as stepping stones towards heightened masculinity. His racism isn’t as emphasized in the movie as in the novel, but he does make several snide remarks regarding Black people, including citing singer Huey Lewis as “too black sounding” for his liking (American Psycho). His classism is more prominent, having killed “some homeless people, maybe five or ten” (American Psycho). Like the women he murdered, he can’t distinguish one homeless person from another because he doesn’t view them or treat them with humanity; only as objects. The only scene where we actually witness one of these murders takes place after Bateman and his colleagues compare business cards, and Bateman’s isn’t the best. To release his anger from this incident of competitive loss that threatened his masculinity, he approaches a homeless man in an alley and berates him: “Why don’t you get a job? […] You reek of shit” (American Psycho). Finally, he says “I don’t have anything in common with you” and stabs him to death, killing his dog afterwards. It’s one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie. Harron had chosen to omit much of the violence described in the book to “capitalize on the humor” and “draw out the tale’s satirical essence” (“American Psycho”). This scene, however, is cold-hearted and distressing, though not particularly graphic. The targeting of an innocent and vulnerable man and an even more helpless dog resonates with viewers because of its brutality, serving as one of the first points in which we can recognize Patrick Bateman as the emotionless, violent, superficial man he is. This man was deprived of his humanity—like the prostitutes—and used as another object for Bateman to capitalize on in an attempt to gain back the masculinity he “lost” during the comparison of business cards previously in the night.

The other group Bateman targets in an attempt to emphasize his masculinity, among women, racial minorities, and the homeless, is the LGBTQ community. Gay men are excluded from traditional American ideas of masculinity and so straight men sometimes perceive homosexuality as a threat to their own masculinity. He admits to having killed “some old f****t with a dog” in Central Park, and frequently uses this derogatory remark throughout the film.  Actually one of the funnier scenes in the movie, Bateman puts on gloves and attempts to strangle his coworker, Luis Carruthers, in a restaurant bathroom. Again, this incident occurred after Bateman was once more shown to possess the lesser business card in comparison to Carruthers’ new one. However, Carruthers mistook Bateman’s shaky hands around his neck as a sign of affection and goes on to say “You can’t imagine how long I’ve wanted this” and remarking on Bateman’s “hot body” (American Psycho). Bateman is so disgusted with having been affectionately touched and spoken to by a man that he washes his gloves in the sink and promptly leaves. Psychologists in the American Psychological Association stated that “being called gay is often the worst possible insult among adolescent boys” because it questions a boy’s masculinity (since gay men are perceived as less “male” than straight men), so Patrick Bateman’s irrational fear of gayness further exaggerates his caricature as the stereotypical American male (Clay 52). It’s a disgusting example of homophobia, but the humor, as Harron intended, emphasized the satire and ridiculousness of the moment, since Bateman perceived something so innocent as affection as a serious affront to his manliness.

Interpretations of the character Patrick Bateman claim he was seeking revenge on the society that made him, or cite that he was acting out of a “primal need to be traditionally manly” (McCray). However, these are inaccurate interpretations in that Ellis and Harron both attempt to make it very clear that there is no excuse for his behavior. The humor saturating the story highlights the satire of it, as does Bateman’s absurdly violent and ill-matched reactions to stress-scenarios. Bateman doesn’t want revenge, because he targets women, minorities, the homeless, and gay men; these individuals aren’t the main perpetrators in creating a system of American masculinity. He certainly isn’t resorting to “primal” behavior, because American Psycho is a satire of modern American culture. Revenge can’t be sought on society by him because viewers watch Patrick Bateman on occasion after occasion make laughably violent and hateful choices of his own accord out of fear of not being masculine enough. It’s important to note, however, that we do not dislike Patrick Bateman for this, nor do we pity him or feel anything in particular towards him. The satire of the story allows us to perceive him in an objective manner in which we know that what he’s doing is wrong, but we don’t feel personally offended by it. The story has been extremely controversial however, and the book (which emphasizes violence significantly more than the movie) can’t be sold to minors in countries such as Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem also attempted to persuade Christian Bale to not take the role of Patrick Bateman due to the story’s exploitative and violent treatment of women. These interpretations fail to realize the satire of the story, without which it might look a lot like a slasher flick that focuses on violence towards women, gay men, and racial minorities. Patrick Bateman isn’t a victim of society, nor a villain of it: he is society, the exaggerated embodiment of not only American consumerism and materialism, but also the problematic American understanding of what constitutes masculinity. We do not pity Bateman, nor hate him, but we simply watch the circumstances surrounding him unfold and take it for what it is.


Works Cited

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. Lions Gate Films, 2000. Netflix. Web.

“American Psycho.” Vintage Screening Room. N.p., n.d. Web. < vintage/screen/books/psycho.html>.

Clay, Rebecca A. “Redefining Masculinity: Three Psychologists Strive to Build a ‘better’ Man.” American Psychological Association 43.6 (2012): 52. American Psychological Association. Web.

McCray, Sean, “Masculinity and the Postmodern in American Psycho and Fight Club” (2006). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 297. <>.

Let’s Talk About Sex[ual Violence], Baby

Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves is known most notedly for its self-aware structure, nesting doll style of narration, satirical nature, and, of course, its sheer creepiness. The novel’s themes of mental illness, suicide, addiction, and repression have been thoroughly analyzed in publications such as The New York Times and Purdue University’s peer-reviewed academic journal Modern Fiction Studies, as well as in countless online forums. Critics and fans of the novel have failed, however, to analyze the various instances of sexual violence in the novel and the role that they play in our interpretation of the text. The inclusion of rape, incest, molestation, and sexual assault in the plot, dialogue, and character histories influences the meaning of the characters, the house on Ash Tree Lane, and even the emotions of the characters—most notedly the characters’ feelings of something uncanny. Uncanny is defined in the novel as a sense of “not-being-at-home” (page 25) so readers can—and should—connect the uncanny nature of the house to how some unexplainable thing might feel wrong for a long time after being a victim of sexual violence, especially when the event is repressed. The prominence of sexual violence in House of Leaves and its omittance from analysis only emphasizes its importance when finally reviewed, and the instances, references, and effects of sexual violence chronicled by the novel connect so heavily to the other more obvious themes that we must realign our understanding of the book as a whole and view the house as a parallel to something rather than taking it at face value.

First and foremost, the consequences of sexual violence as described in the novel parallels the effects that the Ash Tree Lane house has on its visitors. The words “sex” and “sexual” are used on 18 pages throughout the book, and “rape” is used on four (as indicated in the Index); however, there are also other descriptions of both sex and sexual violence in the novel. Karen Green and Clara English—two of the more developed characters—both either state or imply that they have been victims of rape in the past. Several other characters have sexually violent histories assigned to them by Johnny Truant after he undergoes the transition from toying with sex—going to far as to flirt with his stripper love interest by “sticking exclusively to the subject of sex”—to viewing sex as a conduit to “desire and pain” (Danielewski 105, 265). Karen and her husband Will also view sex as something positive, and a lack of as a problem indicative of deeper marital issues (Danielewski 62). These characters, like most people, understand that sexual experiences are supposed to bring happiness, entertainment, and sometimes connectedness. In a similar fashion, the characters, like most people, also believe that our homes are expected to be a place of peace, contentedness, and comfort. When either of these pleasures are manipulated into something sinister, it becomes “surprising, unsettling, disturbing but most of all uncanny” (Danieleski 24). Billy Reston furthers the connection by directly referring to the house’s unexplainable physical anomaly as a “goddamn spatial rape” (Danielewski 55). Its foreignness and impossibility are uncomfortable, stressing Karen and Will’s emotional and physical intimacy alike. Karen is anxious and extremely claustrophobic, and the house aggravates this by reminding her of her own childhood rape. She grows increasingly distant from Will as he tries to explore the “rape” of their home, and their marriage is only fixed in the end, when she overcomes both her sexually violent history and her fear of the house.

Karen Green’s adolescent sexual trauma left permanent emotional scars that, when exacerbated by the house’s strangeness, caused her to withdraw from any physical or emotional affection. Her estranged sister claims that their step-father once raped them both and trapped them in a well outside, and although Karen denies this, her sudden disengagement and aloofness around the time of the purported event is indicative of trauma. She began practicing her smile in the mirror and “hardly spoke in class,” transforming from an outspoken tomboy into the epitome of high school popularity (Danielewski 58). She later became a model—literally—of the sexually perfect female, her practiced smile “tragically […] flawless” (Danielewski 59). Her perfection was feigned, and a professional in the novel suspected that her severe panic attacks and claustrophobia “stemmed from early adolescent betrayal” and “increased proportionally with the level of intimacy [experienced]” (Danielewski 59). When the closet—the first mystifying aspect of the house—appears between her bedroom and her children’s bedroom, her sexuality changed. She and Will had been enjoying an increase in physical affection, but after the appearance of the closet, she admits “I can’t. I don’t know why. It terrifies me.” (Danielewski 62). Not only is she explaining that she “can’t” emotionally or logically process the so-called “spatial rape” of her home, she is also explaining that its appearance makes her uncomfortable with her husband’s sexual advances; thus it is no accident that the closet is attached to their bedroom. Will is equally as perplexed and disturbed as she by her abrupt change, explaining that whenever he makes so innocent of a sexual advance as trying to kiss her, “she practically starts to cry” (Danielewski 62). The disruption of Karen’s home psychologically affects her in a very similar way that her sexual trauma does, and so these two instances which seem completely separate both begin to be viewed as a “rape.”

Like Karen, Johnny Truant also undergoes a mental transition in the novel with regards to sex, viewing it as something possibly sinister after his love interest Clara English admits to him that she was once raped. This confession haunts him for years, and he compares it to the emergence of “sharp thorns” that “spiked with hurt” and held a “poisonous bloom” (Danielewski 264). The profound effect his realization that sex can be malicious has on him and his analogy to describe it is truly interesting. Johnny refers to his mindset prior to Clara’s confession as a “blissful bower,” and afterwards it falls, “overrun by weeds and vines” (Danielewski 264). A bower can be defined as a cage, a woman’s bedroom in a castle, a leafy shelter in a garden, or as a structure made during courtship displays by the male bower bird. Thus, interpretations of his analogy include, respectively, that: The cage of ignorance in his mind has been opened to dangerous new knowledge; Women’s bedrooms literally and figuratively aren’t safe; His innocence is changed as the Garden of Eden’s innocence changed; And lastly, his willingness or ability to attract women has fallen. Defining bower as a woman’s bedroom is especially poignant since it directly connects one’s sexuality and one’s home, again playing into the idea of “spatial rape.” It’s powerful imagery with any interpretation, but Johnny’s main purpose for his analogy is to explain that his delicate, flower-like innocence has been irreversibly made more threatening by the “thorns” and “poison” of Clara’s confession. What’s more interesting still is that after this, Johnny goes on to ascribe short, fictitious stories of sexual violence to his friend Lude’s sexual partners in a list titled “Lude’s List Revisited” (Danielewski 264). Clara English’s confession is the only non-disputed instance of sexual violence in the novel, but Johnny feels justified in creating these stories because he sees Clara as proof that anyone could have a similar past that they hide or repress since sex is no longer strictly inherently good in his mind. In the order that House of Leaves is written, Johnny’s revelation coincides with his increasing fascination with the mystery of the house on Ash Tree Lane and his disengagement from reality. Johnny would only explain the Clara English situation and its effects at this point if he felt a relevant connection between it and the existence of the house’s anomaly, thereby emphasizing yet again the intimate nature of the home and the inherently sexual violation felt when the home is made unknown (when it becomes uncanny).

Danielewski claims his own childhood was traumatic, and though this does not necessarily mean that he has personal connections to rape or other forms of sexual violence, it does explain why viewing the home and sex as equally intimate, and their violations equally disturbing, is so important to consider when analyzing House of Leaves. He describes his childhood home as having held “many very painful and dangerous resonances” and shadows that are “impossible to light and very, very deep (“Haunted House” 115). He also claims that every detail of the novel was intentional and that he has expected every analysis thus far, and that women hugely impacted both his life and his novel (“Haunted House” 106, 111). Thus, given his statement that homes resonate the emotions of its inhabitants, that nothing in the novel was an accident, and that women heavily influenced the novel, it is impossible to ignore the theme of sexual violence any longer, lest readers don’t care to acknowledge and understand a glaring element to the labyrinthine novel. Like “Lude’s List Revisited,” it turns out that the Ash Tree Lane house never actually existed, nor did any such “spatial rapes” actually occur. But also like Lude’s revised list, the matter of truth is irrelevant, because “no one-is ever presented with the sacred truth, in books or in life” (“Haunted House” 121). Whether or not the violation of the home or the body actually happened, their possibility of existence and how intimately, sexually disturbing and uncanny that feels is the only thing that matters.


Works Cited

“A Conversation with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Interview by Sophie Cottrell. Random House,

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

“Haunted House-An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Interview by Larry McCaffrey and Sinda Gregory. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 44:2 26 Mar. 2010: 99-135.

Letters In Sympathy

In the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the ideas of sympathy and human connection are of vital importance. The characters of Walton, Victor, and the Creature are all looking for sympathy through the relationships that they forge, however not all find it attainable. In the end Walton is the only character that learns from his mistakes and succeeds at maintaining relations with those close to him. The frame narrative of Walton, which begins and ends the novel, is in the form of letters implying that the epistolary structure has a function beyond its outward appearance. Epistolary novels are grounded in the idea of connection and correspondence, and in Shelley’s case Walton’s ability to triumph over Victor’s and the Creature’s oral stories with his letters. Contrastingly, oral storytelling is based on fictional and mythical tales meant to excite or scare an audience, not create connections. Through the epistolary nature of the correspondence with his sister, Walton is able to maintain a relationship in ways that Victor and the Creature cannot, ultimately making his character capable of sympathy where Victor and the Creature are ultimately lacking.

In order to fully understand why Walton’s letters make him the most sympathetic and redeemable character, one must first examine the epistolary novel and its function in nineteenth century literature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word epistolary is defined as “of or relating to letters or letter-writing.” In the nineteenth century it was very normal to write letters on a daily basis, as telephones and the Internet did not exist; in the 1800’s letters were the only way to maintain a relationship. Mary A. Favret states in her article “The Letters of Frankenstein”, that the epistolary novel of the nineteenth century represents “connections and continuity” and “human correspondence in an age of instability and incertitude.” With this philosophy in mind, it is simple to see that the frame narrative of Shelley’s novel encompasses these characteristics. Walton is constantly writing to his sister complaining of loneliness and his desire for “the company of a man who could sympathise with [him]”, signifying his yearning for connection from both his sister and those around him (Shelley 19). The letters serve as a stark contrast to the tales of Victor and his Creature, who never quite master the art of correspondence. In victor’s case, he rarely replies to the heartfelt letters he receives from his family, altogether forgoing the use of letters to keep in touch with his loved ones. In the Creature’s case, he is so shunned by society that he is incapable of having correspondence with anyone but his creator who hates him. It is therefore fitting that Walton’s narrative takes the form of letters, representing his ability to keep in touch, and that Victor’s and the Creature’s narratives take on the form of oral storytelling, implying a transitory and fictional nature with regard to their relations.

While Walton, Victor, and the Creature all arguably desire human connections at some point in the novel – although with varying degrees of want – only Walton is able to truly forge those connections through the constant correspondence with his sister. Walton’s letters typically include terms of endearment such as “my dear sister” as he constantly reminds his sister that he “love[s] [her] very tenderly”, marking him as someone that earnestly wants to have meaningful relationships despite his ambitions (Shelley 23, 22). The fact that this is done through an epistolary form only reiterates that fact. For Victor, relationships are only forged through spoken incidents. Similarly, the story he tells to Walton and their sequential relationship is based off of his verbal recollections. As Walton and his letters signify correspondence and connection, it is only logical to conclude that Victor and his preference for the word of mouth signify ineptitude for the same. Furthermore, at a time when Victor finds happiness through nature he out rightly states that he prefers the solitude as “the presence of another would destroy” the experience, an attitude that mirrors the one he had in university and has throughout the rest of his life (Shelley 100). Contrastingly, the Creature actually does wish for relationships only to be “irrevocably excluded”, turning him into a “fiend” incapable of forging relationships (Shelley 103). When trying to appeal to people he also forgoes letters and instead uses the spoken word, signifying that like Victor he is incapable of keeping up relationships the way Walton does.

Victor and the Creature do go through experiences that make their characters sympathetic, but their lack of human connections and inability to recognize the error of their ways prevents them from truly gaining sympathy. Jeanne M. Britton argues in her article “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’”, that the overlaying frames of stories within Shelley’s novel are of importance because “the impossibility of sympathy silences each voice and concludes each frame” (6). Following this pattern, Victor and the Creature can be seen as sympathetic at some point in the novel, however they ultimately fail in gaining said sympathy leaving the novel to end with Walton and his letters. Victor watches his loved ones die around him, providing his character sympathy, but he is continuously portrayed as self-centered. He constantly reminds himself of the “labours [he] endured”, a character trait that marks him as incapable of having relationships with others (Shelley 143). Although one can argue Walton does sympathize with Victor, calling him “the brother of [his] heart”, this sympathy arises early on in Victor’s tale and in the end Walton decides to do what Victor never could: return to his loved ones; the sympathy that Walton may have held for Victor dies along with him. On his deathbed Victor remains full of hate and self-pity saying he “must pursue and destroy the being to whom [he] gave existence; then [his] lot on earth will be fulfilled”, denoting his lack of remorse for the terrible things he has done (Shelley 215). Shelley’s portrayal of Victor as a selfish man with an inability to own up to his mistakes and show remorse implies that his character is not deserving of sympathy. Likewise, the Creature wallows in self-pity, continuously reminding Victor that he feels like “a blot upon the earth” (Shelley 123). While he has certainly endured a difficult existence being shunned by society, his violent behavior creates a character that is truly unsympathetic. Circumstance is arguably what turns him into a violent monster, but his lack of ability to recognize the errors of his ways and right his wrongs is what makes him undeserving of sympathy.

Where Victor and the Creature lack the ability to change and show remorse, Walton understands his mistakes and genuinely wants to repair his relationships, making him the only character truly deserving of sympathy. Originally a selfish and ambitious man like Victor, Walton has a change of heart after Victor’s tale and writes to his sister “encompassed by peril” that he will never get the chance to return home (Shelley 215). Walton undergoes a transformation where he decides to “[return] to England” and “the dearer friends that inhabit it,” confirming that the constant correspondence with his sister gives him the ability to recognize his mistakes where Victor’s and the Creature’s isolation could not (Shelley 218, 215). In the end, Victor’s tale is a mere tool for Walton to recognize the error of his ways and return to his loved ones. Using Britton’s observations about the frame narratives in Shelley’s novel, one can argue that the fact that Walton’s narrative concludes the story means that he gains sympathy. Victor and the Creature show no remorse for their actions, and make no attempts to change their ways, which finally results in their narratives concluding with a lack of sympathy. Conversely, Walton’s story ends on an open-ended note. The reader is given only the information that he has decided to return home and that he has reminded his loved ones of his affection for them, the rest is up to interpretation. His innate difference from the other characters in the novel combined with Britton’s structural argument verifies that his character is the only one in the novel that is worthy of and receives sympathy.

At the end of the day Frankenstein is a novel about sympathy and the importance of relationships. Victor and the Creature never truly understand the connection between relationships and sympathy, ultimately leaving them alone and unsympathetic. Walton, on the other hand, comprehends what they cannot and gains sympathy through remorse and correspondence in his letters. Where Victor’s and the Creature’s oral stories of self-pity fail them, Walton’s epistolary narrative of righting wrongs and cherishing those around him leads him into a life of love and understanding.

Works Cited

Britton, Jeanne M. “Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’”. Studies in             Romanticism 48.1 (2009): 3–22. Web.

“epistolary, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 5                         December 2015.

Favret, Mary A. “The Letters of Frankenstein.” Genre 20 (1987): 3-24. Web.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin, 1994. Print.



A Failed Prometheus

In her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1831), Mary Shelley alludes to the myths of Prometheus as the creator and champion of mankind as a method to cast Victor Frankenstein in a negative light. Shelley’s novel, as suggested by the subtitle, slightly diverges from the traditional myths to emphasize a shift from an ancient story of heroism and responsibility to a modern one of cowardice and negligence. While Harriet Hustis’ article “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus” argues that Shelley’s modernization of the legends of Prometheus centers on Victor’s lack of responsibility towards his creation through the abandonment of his hideous child, Hustis’ analysis can be extended to include additional circumstances of departure from the myths that alter the perception of the true nature of Victor’s character. Although Victor parallels the character of Prometheus through his innovative role as a creator and his consequent subjection to a life of anguish, his contrasting selfish intentions, unjust treatment of his creation, and unresolved suffering ultimately shape him as a failed Prometheus.

While both Victor and the mythological character of Prometheus exhibit the characteristics of a creator, demonstrating a shared desire to instill life where none exists, Victor’s motives prove egocentric and contrast the selfless intentions of his counterpart. Victor’s initial infatuation with science stems from a mere childhood “curiosity” to understand the unknown and hidden “secret[s]” of the universe (Shelley 38). However, as pleasurable feelings of “rapture” and “deligh[t]” begin to accompany his studies, prompting Victor to embark on a journey of self and formal education, Shelley emphasizes that Victor’s interests are becoming fueled by alternative motives (Shelley 38). As Victor ages, his academic dedication results from an increasing desire for self-satisfaction rather than solely a thirst for knowledge. Therefore, through Victor’s realization that he would only be “grati[fied]” (Shelley 53) if he could “unfold to the world” a discovery of the “deepest mysteries of creation” and power (Shelley 49), it becomes apparent that Shelley alludes to the “obscur[e]” legend of Prometheus as the “maker of man” (Hustis 850). Shelley reveals that her modernization of the altruistic mythological character begins to take its shape with a disparity of intentions. According to the legend, Prometheus is given a task by the superior authority of Zeus to construct the human race. Prometheus utilizes “clay,” a substance generated from water and the earth, to meticulously mold and configure each being in the “image of the gods” (Raggio 46). While the ambiguity of this myth variation leaves limited explanation, a close reading of Prometheus’ creative process, namely his materials and inspiration, suggests the virtue of his intentions and highlights Shelley’s divergence from the legend. In carefully crafting each individual mortal to mirror the divine magnificence of those residing mightily in the heavens, Prometheus strives to position the human race, while inferior to the gods, as differentiated from and of higher status than the beasts of the earth. With an upright stature and appealing demeanor, Prometheus enables humankind to reach closer to Mount Olympus, more dignified and worthy of the gods’ attention. However, in contrast to his counterpart, Victor independently and of his own accord decides to undertake a similarly “bold” project (Shelley 52). Through a declaration that he can accomplish what the “wisest [of] men” could not, Victor, demonstrating hubris, discloses his belief that he is greater than his own kind (Shelley 53). Victor further conveys that when he succeeds, expressed haughtily without doubt in a matter of fact statement, he will create a new generation of organisms that will both “bless” him and shower him with “gratitude” (Shelley 55). Insinuating that he can and will reach a God-like status of divinity, Victor not only further discloses his conceit, but also his underlying motives to elevate his prestige among society. With the hope that he might receive “glory” and fame if credited as the first individual to achieve the unfathomable, Victor reveals that, unlike Prometheus who acts in the interest of the well-being of others, he is motivated by the idea of self-promotion (Shelley 42). As a result, Victor, acting solely with a selfish expectation for instant recompense, fails to mirror the diligence and thoughtfulness of his counterpart’s creative process. Despite his recognition of the insufficiency of his ingredients, Victor resolves to continue the construction of his creation with elements of the human body “corrup” and “degraded” by death” (Shelley 53). Victor parallels Prometheus through his utilization of inanimate materials. However, the grotesque nature of his decaying parts drastically contrasts the wholesome substances of his counterpart; implying that Victor’s character, actions, and motives are associated with darkness and negativity. Furthermore, in finding that the elaborate and minute “intricacies” (Shelley 54) of the human figure would “impede the [speed] and progress” of his project (Hustis 848), Victor chooses to expand the frame of his being to one of “gigantic stature” (Shelley 54). In addition to his blatant remiss of using inadequate human remains, Victor’s desire to disregard minor and time-consuming details highlights a further divergence from Prometheus’ demonstration of pensive consideration. Victor demonstrates through his process that his focus is on the “abstraction” and achievement of creating life rather than the quality of his creation (Hustis 848). Although he can be perceived to emulate God or a demi-god like that of Prometheus through the embodiment of the power and innovative role of a creator, Victor fails to exemplify Prometheus’ God-like mentality of selflessness and integrity. While Prometheus is depicted with a concern for how his creations come into existence, mindful of the traits they will exhibit and the condition of the lives they will lead, Victor is characterized only with a concern for his own success. As a contrast to his unselfish and benevolent counterpart, Victor is perceived as self-centered and ultimately cast in an unfavorable light.

Through a focus on the relationship between a creator and his creation, Shelley emphasizes that, unlike the mythological character of Prometheus, Victor demonstrates an abuse of creative power and a lack of responsibility towards his progeny; modernizing an ancient story of compassion and support to one of indifference and abandonment. Despite his efforts to establish mankind as the supreme species, Prometheus learns upon completion that “all the gifts of nature” were allocated “among the animals” (Raggio 45). While the beasts of the earth were bestowed with greater strength, speed, and bodily defense systems like sharp teeth, scales, and fur, the human race was left vulnerable and defenseless. Mankind, “naked…[,]unprotected,” and unable to survive on their own, ultimately represents the inferior species (Raggio 45). As Victor looks upon the hideous and uncanny appearance of the being that “lay at [his] feet…convulsi[ing with] motion,” he similarly reveals that the fulfillment of his desire did not turn out as intended (Shelley 58). Through the grotesque and animalistic deformations of semitransparent “yellow skin,” “watery eyes,” “straight black lips,” and a “shriveled complexion,” (Shelley 58) Victor reveals that his creation appears nothing like himself or a being as “wonderful as man” (Shelley 54). Although each creator reveals that the product of their toils fails to align with their visions, Victor, contrasting the sympathetic emotions of Prometheus with expressions of bitter disappointment and dread, perceives this event as a horrifying disaster rather than as heart breaking. Therefore, alluding to the “primary” legend of Prometheus as a fire-bearer, Shelley reveals that her modernization further stems from an emphasis on the divergence of each character’s reactions as a result of their individual interpretations (Hustis 846). Upon learning that his creations are destined to suffer lives of pain, despair, and hardships, Prometheus is immediately filled with sorrow. “Inspired by pity” and his recognition of humankind’s state of helplessness, Prometheus chooses to intervene and consequently, “steals fire” from the gods on Mount Olympus to give to the human race (Hustis 847). With fire came survival and a newfound ability to excel in the arts of agriculture, tool making, and weaponry. With this gift of “reason and wisdom” came civilization and thus, the prosperity and superiority of mankind (Raggio 45). In contrast, Victor expresses “breathless horror and disgust” at the “demoniacal” appearance of his creation (Shelley 58,59). This declaration of his personal fear and revulsion in addition to the grotesque and animalistic description of the being’s physical appearance further discloses Victor’s disapproval and adverse feelings towards his creation. As he refers to his creation solely as a “thing” and a “creature,” it becomes apparent that Victor exhibits detachment (Shelley 58). Through a refusal to recognize his creation as human or even as his child, Victor not only reveals that he is “unable to endure” and love a thing so frightening and ugly, but also that he desires to separate himself from a monstrous achievement that will taint his reputation (Shelley 58). Therefore, while Prometheus demonstrates compassion and a desire to help through an understanding of his “offspring[s’] need for…guidance…and support,” Victor, unwilling to embody the parental role of his counterpart, abandons his creation (Hustis 845). With inhuman characteristics and a horrifying physicality, Victor’s creation is perceived as a monster and destined to suffer the life of an outcast. However, unlike Prometheus who hoped to ensure the “survival [and] long-term happiness” of his children, Victor, consumed with fear and distaste, turns his back on his only child (Hustis 848). By denying his creation of affection[,]” and endearment as well as the knowledge of how to assimilate into society, Victor ultimately condemns his creature to a life of exclusion and misery (Shelley 103). As a result, while Prometheus is depicted as heroic by alleviating the sufferings of his progeny, Victor is perceived as negligent and, in turn, abusive. Exemplifying the source of his creation’s afflictions through his cowardice and selfishness, Victor fails to mirror the responsibility exhibited by his counterpart and consequently, is perceived as lesser in character.

Although Victor and the mythological character of Prometheus each endure the consequences from their decisions as creators, unlike Prometheus, Victor’s suffering proves unresolved and as a result, suggests the immorality of both his actions and the nature of his character. Through Victor’s choice to make man and Prometheus’ decision to steal fire from Zeus, each character “undertak[s an] act of daring responsibility” manifested in the form of a defiance of supreme authority (Hustis 847). Despite the successes of both Victor and Prometheus as they come to possess the power of a divine entity, namely God and the gods of Mount Olympus respectively, each character must face the ramifications of the implementation of their “creative power” (Hustis 846). While both Victor and Prometheus are subjected to a life of misery, Victor suffers emotionally whereas Prometheus endures physical torture. As Victor’s creation begins to embark on a “murderous rampage” as a result of his rejection and abandonment (Hustis 852), killing his creator’s loved-ones, Victor becomes filled with a “heart-sickening despair” (Shelley 87). Victor conveys that in addition to a life defined by “miserable reflections” of an accomplishment that failed to fulfill his aspirations for acclaim and esteem, he now also suffers the pain and anguish that stems from the horrific and “unalterable evils” committed by his creation (Shelley 94,95). Due to an abuse of power through negligence, exemplified in the “thoughtles[sness]” of both the generation and spurning of his creation, Victor is consumed not only with unhappiness and regret, but also the tormenting emotions of anxiety, apprehension, and terror as he awaits the arrival of another abhorrent incident (Shelley 95). According to the legends, Prometheus was similarly left to endure a miserable life of agony as a punishment for his “transgres[sion]” (Hustis 846). With a desire to sustain the existence of the human race, Prometheus defies the will of Zeus and bestows the unknown element of fire to humankind as a gift to promote societal advancement and survival. As a punishment, Prometheus is “bound…[with] chains” to a post and left to have his liver “feasted on” by an eagle (Philips 296). Prometheus, an immortal demi-god, “regenerat[es]” his liver each night and consequently, is exposed to the same physical trauma every day (Philips 296). However, according to many myth variations, Prometheus’ suffering, unlike that of Victor, proves not to be a life sentence. While Prometheus’ life of misery ends with the “slay[ing] of the eagle” by Heracles (Philips 296), Victor explains that only “in death” will “his spirit…[finally] sleep in peace” (Shelley 225). Therefore, Shelley’s modernization emphasizes a “departure” from the ending of the traditional myths (Hustis 845). Through the consideration of each character’s intentions and utilization of power, it becomes apparent that Shelley’s divergence exemplifies a tactic to highlight Victor as a morally corrupt and reprehensible character. While each character commits an offense, Prometheus’ “rebellion” is not only perceived as an act of “audacity,” but also a “gesture of compassion” and responsibility to change the “benighted state” of mankind (Hustis 847,848). In contrast to the egocentric character of Victor who cruelly spurns his creation out fear for the damage it might inflict on his life and reputation, Prometheus reveals his will to suffer for the well-being of others. When comparing the bravery of Prometheus and the goodness of his intentions to the self-promoting, cowardly, and immoral nature of Victor, Shelley casts Prometheus as heroic, honorable, self-sacrificing, and – unlike Victor – undeserving of punishment. By creating a disparity of endings through Prometheus’ sudden release and Victor’s unresolved suffering, Shelley not only implies Victor’s guilt, but also the ugliness of his true nature.

In her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley alludes to the traditional myths of Prometheus as the maker of man and the savior of the human race as a tactic to shape Victor Frankenstein as a failed Prometheus. While Prometheus is cast as selfless, willing to suffer for the survival and advancement of the human race, Victor, failing to mirror the heroism of his counterpart, abandons and rejects his own creation out of fear and self-interest. By modernizing, or diverging from, the legends through differing motives, reactions, and resolutions, Shelly highlights the true egocentric and morally corrupt nature of Victor.

Works Cited

Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43.4 (2003): 845-58. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Philips, F. Carter, Jr. “Narrative Compression and the Myths of Prometheus in Hesiod.” The Classical Journal 68.4 (1973): 289-305. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Raggio, Olga. “The Myth of Prometheus: Its Survival and Metamorphoses up to the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 21.1/2 (1958): 44-62. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus: Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Maurice Hindle; Revised Edition (Penguin Classics). Ed. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

How a House Houses Humanity

Much of Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves (2000) is spent addressing the various impossibilities that the Navidson home presents, and the ways in which each character reacts to this ineffable space. Be it the actual characters of The Navidson Record, the multitude of cited sources, or Zampano himself, each voice that comes into contact with the home has a unique context that informs his understanding of the house. Because the reader is several degrees of separation away from the physical home, reading an essay about a film written by a blind man that is compiled by a schizophrenic, one’s perception of the house is dependent upon these alternate and individual interpretations. Stephen Belletto argues that because there is no absolute truth by which to judge the “correctness” of each interpretation, it is impossible to assign each a relative validity, and thus that the true value lies within the act of interpretation itself. While his fundamental argument is sound, this paper will argue that the interpretations or lack thereof within House of Leaves are only valuable in their ability to reveal the humanity of the interpreter.

By withholding and distorting absolute, quantitative information about the house, Danielewski cements the reader’s understanding that the house cannot be humanly qualified or understood. Our very first interaction with the impossible characteristics of the house is in the measurement of its physical dimensions, with the inside being 5/16 in. larger than the outside. Already our most basic assumptions about how we interact with the world, the “absolute” laws of physics, are broken by the house. Removing this trust in reality gives Danielewski the opportunity to show the contrasting mental states of the Navidson brothers. While Tom is content to exist within a figurative clean well-lighted place, Navidson is troubled by a constant need to attach and to understand: “Tom just wants to be, Navidson must become (32).” As one of Zampano’s fictional authors describes, “…there must be an answer. From there comes torment (33).” The two brother’s contrasting interpretations of the house’s impossible nature provide a crack in their facades through which we are given a better understanding of their individuality, and how each brother chooses to confront the world around him. Navidson’s nagging uncertainty continues to haunt him through most of the book, and grows most heated after Exploration 4, when he uses his samples and tapes in an attempt to rationalize his experiences within the house. The very samples that were Navidson’s lifeline to reason fail to provide any comfort, as they continue to defy any semblance of order or intelligibility. To take it one step further, we are told that 17 pages of seemingly quantifiable data regarding the samples taken from the house mysteriously disappears, as if the house itself is destroying any evidence that might seek to contain or quantify it. The house refuses to be understood by anyone, be it Navidson himself or the reader.

The cognitive dissonance Navidson experiences between his reality and the house isn’t resolved until he has almost died during Exploration 5, when he finally abandons any attempt to make sense of the house in favor of contemplating his past. When trapped on the ledge, Navidson’s lighting of flares and watching the direction in which they fly is an attempt to understand and to interpret the space, and how he exists relative to it. The nonsensical manner in which the flares go both up and down and nowhere confirms the impossibility of the house. Even after he has no light source, and thus no way to judge direction, the question of his orientation within the house continues to haunt him, “I’ve been falling down so long it feels like floating up to me—(473)”. Only as he nears death does this internal struggle slip away, and is replaced with more intimate and human concerns: “Soon though he grows less concerned about where he is and becomes more consumed by who he once was.” Paradoxically, it is only by abandoning any attempt of interpretation that Navidson’s fears and failures are brought to light.

Where Navidson’s relationship with the house develops over the course of the book, Karen’s interviews with various persons of interest give us a glimpse into more immediate, reflexive responses to the house. Upon seeing footage of the house, Hunter S. Thompson experiences a visceral rejection. The irrationality of the space strikes him deeply, as opposed to the relatively superficial reactions of many of the other interviewees. Rather than attempting to attach any sort of truth or interpretation to what he sees, he shuts down and is unable to process his thoughts on the house: “I’ve never seen anything so goddamn fuck up, so fucking fucked up (363).” Though in context such a response may not seem totally uncharacteristic of Thompson, nonetheless the volatility the house incites within him suggests a commentary on the human inability to process the impossible: “…something humanity has always been able to believe in is that the universe adds up (32).” In contrast to this, Camille Paglia constructs a complex metaphor for the house as a form of womb envy. In the exclusively male exploration of the house, she sees the masculinity of invasion and penetration. Though her interpretation might seem more artificial and composed than Thompson’s rejection, the total emptiness of the house refuses preference or opinion. With no metric to judge validity, all opinions are equally true and equally false. In this way all interpretation becomes a form of closed-eye hallucination, or finding patterns and structure in pitch blackness. As Belletto writes, “absence becomes presence through interpretive acts (102).”

Upon abandoning the idea of validity, individual interpretations become valuable only in their expression of the interpreter. In Thompson’s panicked attempt to escape the house’s implications, we see his need for fundamental truths that ground him to reality. Paglia’s interpretation exposes if not her gender ideology, then at the very least an assertive and self-assured personality.

The unique context of every individual brings about an infinite number of unique perceptions of a single stimulus. Because of the limitations of human perception, truth is not a confirmation of something’s absolute nature, but an agreement between the observers of one mutually experienced observation. As Belletto writes, “true, what counts as acceptable in such a setting is defined by an unwritten set of rules that is not inherently more or less legitimate than others, but is rather dependent on a ‘core of agreement.’” But because the house evades singular, unified observation, each individual understanding of the space is equally irrefutable. Consensus is impossible, therefore truth is impossible. In such a nihilistic frame of reference, the validity of each interpretation is meaningless, and the value of the interpretations lie within what they reveal about the interpreter. Be it Navidson’s attempts to rationalize the house to Camille Paglia’s womb envy metaphor, each interpretation found within House of Leaves exposes the reader to a glimpse of human behavior, and how we attach personal meaning even to empty space.



Work Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Belletto, S. “Rescuing Interpretation with Mark Danielewski: The Genre of Scholarship in House    of Leaves.” Genre 42.3-4 (2009): 99-117. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a Metaphor for American Colonialism

The eponymous house of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published in 2000, is different things to different people. For some, such as Karen and Tom it is a threat, while for others, like Navidson, it is a dark fascination. The only quality of the house that appears immutable is that the house is something unknown to those who encounter it. This treatment of the house as an unknown, previously unexplored space takes a new meaning when the story’s context is taken into account: that is, the story’s deliberately American context. Throughout the novel, Danielewski makes a point of centering the story within an America-centric viewpoint through use of explicit references to American culture and the “American mindset”, as well as more covert references. This newly understood context combined with the fact that the story of The Navidson Record is essentially one about exploring uncharted territory suggests that the house functions as a metaphor for American Colonialism. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is a useful text for framing this topic, as he discusses how Western scholarship has historically characterized unknown, “unclaimed” territory as inhabited by primitive “others”, justifying its colonization; just as how the “monstrous” nature of the creature in the labyrinth vindicates its destruction.

The book wastes little time establishing itself within an American cultural context. The very first pages of Johnny Truant’s introduction place him within the United States by mentioning the California cities he had been staying in (pg. 11) as well as including distinctly American references in a seemingly unimportant, yet bizarrely violent and ultimately crucial, exchange between Johnny and his previous landlord. Through this exchange, which results in Johnny’s eviction, Danielewski not only establishes Johnny’s cynical, dark sense of humor by having him tell his landlord, who believes he is Charles de Gaulle, that “the thought of a 757 landing on him was not at all disagreeable” (pg. 11), but is also referencing an American made aircraft familiar to most anyone who has taken a commercial flight in the United States[1],  the identifying number of which just so happens to also be the telephone area code for southeast Virginia, which is not only the very place where the Navidson family encounters the infamous house, but also the site of the Jamestown colonial settlement. Jamestown is notable for its status as the first permanent English colonial settlement to be established in the Americas[2], therefore a quintessentially American setting, but is particularly important in the context of the book. Later in the novel, a journal by an occupant of the Jamestown colony is discovered and it is revealed that a set of stairs were found in the woods nearby, by a group of men. Two of these men turned up dead, and one was never heard from again, suggesting the existence of the house as an all-consuming entity even as far back as the 17th century. This reference is the most explicit connection in the novel between the house and American colonialism. Its inclusion, along with the other, more quickly digested reference points easily introduce the novel as contained within an American context.

The American references continue with the introduction of Zampano, and move into the realm of historical commentary. The very first sentence describing Zampano states that from what Johnny could gather “he was an American” (pg. 12). Even before Zampano’s name is given in the following paragraph, his supposed nationality is given. This positioning gives it emphasis, although Johnny does not mention why he feels the need to emphasize this. This statement is combined with a mention of those who knew Zampano having detected some hint of a foreign accent, “even if they could never say for certain where it came from” (pg. 12), and yet Johnny still insists upon Zampano’s American-ness. He even goes on to doubt Zampano’s real name. He states “Who knows where the name really came from. Maybe it’s authentic, maybe made up, maybe borrowed…” (pg.12). Johnny’s reasoning is further confused by the fact that, as we later discover, there are no personal records of Zampano in his apartment to confirm or deny his name or nationality. Even though the only personal information Johnny can gather from other people about this man is his foreign-sounding name and purported accent, it is all irrelevant; to Johnny, Zampano is American. There is no reason given for this assertion within the novel, but it adds to the list of components that lend the novel an objective Americentrism. Johnny exemplifies this when he rejects the notion of Zampano’s “foreign-ness” in favor of branding him with a generic American identity with no evidence to spur him on, and through this is participating in a type of cultural erasure similar to that imposed upon the “foreign” native peoples of a colonized space. Any foreign cultural identity Zampano might have had is wiped out by Johnny in an instance of inner-textual revisionist history. As Zampano’s narrative is framed by two other narrators, Johnny and the editors of the “found” texts comprising House of Leaves, information about him is susceptible to “hidden revisions” such as the one made by Johnny on page 12, where he only adds one word – “water” – but makes no editor’s note of it until after the reader has accepted it as canon. This highlights the uncertain nature of Zampano’s personal history by calling all of it into question, since none of it is communicated (to our knowledge) by Zampano himself, while much of Johnny’s background is written by his hand, according to the font. This “reclaiming” of a supposedly foreign individual’s history is a significant detail when considered in parallel to the “reclaiming” of the foreign space of the house by Navidson and his crew.

The novel’s parallels with American colonialism only become more apparent with the explorations of the house. Despite the danger it presents, the group’s devoted explorers still commit to the act of “conquering” the house through mapping it out and in doing so attempt to strip it of its identity as an “unknown” space. The framing of the “unexplored territory” as a house Navidson has just moved into gives a sense of entitlement to the explorations. When the first hallway within the house finally opens up into a wide expanse of darkness that surpasses the limits of Navidson’s understanding of the previous corridors, Zampano makes the statement, “Only now do we begin to see how big Navidson’s house really is” (pg.64). The house is still referred to as “Navidson’s” house, despite him being unable to lay any viable claim to this new space. Navidson didn’t even know that this place existed until this moment, but as soon as he peers into the vast “undisturbed blackness” (pg.64) looming in front of him, in an imperialistic move, Navidson’s narrative claims it as a part of “Navidson’s” house, in spite of not fully comprehending what he can only understand to be a preexisting presence within the house in the form of the “beast”. Navidson sees no other “people” within the unexplored region of the house, and so he assumes the role of pioneer; the first to see the land and thus its rightful “owner”. The other presence felt within the house, that of the “beast”, manifests as a disembodied utterance described as “a faint growl, rolling through the darkness like thunder” (pg. 68). The noise is almost always described specifically as a growling noise, and the animalistic connotations of this lead the reader to believe that it must belong to some beast stalking our explorers. This, along with the characterization of the noise as being naturalistic “like thunder”, gives a distinctly “wild”, or at least “uncivilized” persona to the growl. Whomever, or whatever, is with them in the depths of the house is thus defined as a being of primitive nature. The image of the rugged, male explorer team venturing into an unknown, threatening landscape inhabited only by feral, primitive beings strongly evokes the mythology of the American pioneers. Said, in his work, discusses how Western scholarship of places inhabited by “othered” populations rendered them as inherently inferior beings. This logic is also present in the justifications for colonialism, creating a formula in which the “superior intruder” is meant to dominate and the “irrational native” is to be assimilated or eliminated. This rhetoric plays a crucial role in the novel in establishing a clear historical link between the Navidson explorations and acts of a colonialist or imperialist nature.

The deliberate positioning of the novel and its characters within a distinctly American mindset as well as the parallel between the explorations of the house and those of the American pioneers create a clear parallel with the American Frontier experience, the characters’ fascination with exploring the house mirroring (or perhaps echoing?) the Manifest Destined desires of the American pioneers. If the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, the novel also throws in offhand information like Johnny’s birthday being July 4th (pg.181) and the recurrence of the colors red (the color of the passages referencing the minotaur myth), white (the color often associated with Johnny’s mental breaks and various characters’ dreams) and blue (the color of the word “house” throughout the novel). In this way, House of Leaves seems to propose the idea that the desire to conquer the unfamiliar does not always lead to glory as the American mythos would have you believe, but can also lead to trauma and loss, as experienced by the characters in the novel. However, it also suggests that the outcome can never be known upon entering unknown territory, just as no light can pierce the darkness in the depths of the house. By having the pioneer figures as our protagonists, we can see a kind of heroism in their actions. Perhaps it is as the great Charles de Gaulle himself once said, and “Greatness is a road leading towards the unknown”.

[1] The Boeing 757 aircraft was a popular passenger aircraft in America during the years of its production from 1981-2004 (Linares, Luis. “Flashback Friday: The Boeing 757.” Airchive. Airways International, 22 May 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.)

[2] “Jamestown Colony.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

What Denial Reveals in House of Leaves

House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski is made up of various narratives which are intertwined in such a way that disorients readers and obscures facts. Zampanò’s analyses of the documentary The Navidson Record are compiled together with an appendix by Johnny Truant, who also adds his own footnotes to the mix— altogether published by an unspecified group or individual only referred to as “The Editors.”[1] In her analysis of House of Leaves, Nicoline Timmer states how “the different possible meanings of certain references” that all the characters make in their respective narratives prevent readers from figuring out “the ultimate and conclusive true story.” This often proves to be accurate, however, I disagree with Timmer’s other argument that the characters, specifically Johnny, are not in “full narrative control” of what they want to hide or open up about. Instead, Navidson, Zampanò and Johnny make a clear distinction between what they choose to believe as true and what they deny. In consequence, whether deliberately or not, the testimonies they deny turn out more reliable and also insightful of their darkest misgivings.

Within his academic criticism of The Navidson Record, Zampanò decisively crosses out any mention of the Greek Minotaur myth. His narrative control falters only when Johnny, an audience member Zampanò never knows about, takes the liberty of keeping the censored parts in House of Leaves. Through these recovered sections, readers learn foremost about an alternate rendition of the myth depicting the “Minotaur” as the innocent son of King Minos, locked away from the public in a Labyrinth because of his “deformed face” (110). This information alone would have merely contributed to the display of excessive analysis Zampanò becomes known for, but Zampanò’s attempt at removing this material brings up questions about his personal affiliation to the story. Johnny even takes interest in Zampanò’s history and looks into the matter. He finds a “particularly disturbing coincidence” and does not immediately elaborate except with a few comments suggestive of Zampanò suffering from a “secret anguish” and “a fire that burned him” (337). It is not until Johnny discovers another topic which Zampanò chose to expunge from his work— the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau— that Johnny reveals his theory of Zampanò having either a brother, a son or even two sons (249). One hint toward the possibility of Zampanò having a child is the deliberate alignment of a section regarding the Minotaur myth which molded the text into a human-like shape (336). The shape may only be a portrayal of the Minotaur, but its modest size and resemblance to an infant one-piece speaks otherwise. Zampanò lingers on the father-son relationship aspect of the myth despite it having little correlation to the House’s labyrinth explorers in The Navidson Record. This implies that Zampanò chose to reflect on that particular theme because he made a personal connection with it. Regardless of whether or not Johnny’s theory is correct, Zampanò’s choice to get rid of these subjects inadvertently revealed how he was haunted by a certain episode in his past.

In addition to managing Zampanò’s work according to his whim, Johnny Truant chooses to blur his own history by inserting fictitious stories into his narrative. These stories “help [Johnny] to look away” and “protect [himself]” from the truth of his deteriorating mental state and also of his disturbing past. As an example of the former, Johnny’s false anecdote of meeting up with two doctor friends in Seattle who provide him with a “miracle drug” that could “cure [his] nightmares” (509) acts as a sort of wish fulfillment. Johnny wanted to “trick [himself]” into believing he “really was lucky enough” to undergo such a revival. Afterwards, just like with his other fabrications, Johnny exposes its falsehood. This pattern of deception followed by an abrupt confession represents how Johnny is willing to openly admit that his present life is not at all stable nor healthy.

However, Johnny is more on guard over his troublesome past. Despite being locked away in the back of his mind, Johnny’s progression through Zampanò’s writings triggers the re-formation of a traumatic memory involving him and his mother. The reemergence takes a long while to complete, so the memory starts out in the guise of a “Minotaur” stalking Johnny and at one point warps into a human being with “extremely long fingers” (71) who inflicted a “long, bloody scratch on the back of [his] neck” (72). Near the end of Johnny’s journey in House of Leaves, he realizes that his mother was the ‘creature’ following him. Johnny soon denies the truth of the memory by stating, “She hadn’t tried to strangle me and my father had never made a sound” (517). He then follows up with a story that acts as truth in place of his actual memory— a mother-son tale, apparently first told by the “Doc” from Seattle who was previously established as nonexistent. This is a reversal of the sequence for truth revealing Johnny regularly uses. By purposefully placing the contrived story at the very end of his narrative, Johnny ‘tricks’ himself one final time without a subsequent contradiction. However, like he mentioned before, Johnny does not intend to ‘trick’ readers as well (509). The last part of House of Leaves is the Appendix, which includes of a series of letters sent to Johnny by his mother, Pelafina. In one of these letters, Pelafina describes the fateful incident when she made “some half-moon cuts on the back of [Johnny’s] neck” with her “long, ridiculous purple nails” (630) as she tried to choke him to death. Johnny does not blatantly tell readers what they should believe, but he provides enough evidence, such as the “Whalestoe Letters,” to conclude that a certain moment from Johnny’s history, whether it be a near-death experience committed by his own mother or not, impacted his present life significantly. It is just Johnny himself who desires to be excluded from accepting the truth.

Even within The Navidson Record documentary, there are denials of truths later accepted by the audience because of overarching evidence. For instance, Will Navidson purposefully conceals the identity of “Delial” for much of TNR; Once he enters an inebriated state, he writes a repentant letter to his wife and exposes the hidden insecurities and secrets of his life. Navidson’s long-lasting silence on the topic is a form of denial because it is a rejection of Delial’s presence in his life ’. Navidson’s reserve leads Navidson’s wife, Karen, and many others to assume that Delial is a former lover. Instead, Navidson is hiding a truth he considers worthy of even greater shame. Being the subject of a photograph that should be considered Navidson’s finest achievement but is actually his biggest regret. Delial becomes, as Zampanò referred to her, Navidson’s “albatross” (17). Based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the albatross represents a severe burden one carries in consequence of a wicked deed. In Navidson’s case, he can’t forgive himself for spending precious minutes on taking a photo of Delial instead of trying to save her (393). This is the only instance out of the three narratives where the truth is ultimately accepted by both the audience and the narrator. Therefore, general agreement compared to one-sided denial is, admittedly, more effective in solidifying truths, yet also less discerning of someone’s inner workings.

Throughout the three core narratives of House of Leaves, denial proves to be a psychological mechanism for each one to get rid of the culpability for a transgression or a grievance toward another person. Thus, the denied truths tend to disclose more of the enigmatic histories of Zampanò, Johnny and Navidson than facts that are given without contradiction and dispute.

[1] Since all these sources come together as one final, real product, I will consider each narrative as ‘real’ and existent.


Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Timmer, Nicoline. “Johnny T.” Do You Feel It Too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. 243-297. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 360. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web.