Oedipus Complex as a Psychological Trope in Horror Fiction by John Quick

I’m not super familiar with John Quick so I’m just going to share his bio and then get right into the essay he has so graciously provided for us today. To learn more about his book, CONSEQUENCES, follow the product links in this article to read a synopsis and to purchase it.

15210557.jpgAbout John Quick:

John Quick has been reading and writing scary and disturbing stuff for as long as he can remember, and has only recently begun releasing some of his creations upon the world.

His debut novel, Consequences is available now as a paperback or digital eBook. Watch for his next novel to come from Sinister Grin Press in 2017. He lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife, two kids, and three dogs that think they’re kids.

When he’s not hard at work on his next novel, you can find him online at :http://johnquickauthor.blogspot.com/ or on Facebook and Twitter.

Oedipus Complex as a Psychological Trope in Horror Fiction

By John Quick

We’ve all heard it at one time or another, especially those of us from an older generation when the name-calling stage of bullying was considerably less homicidal: the boy who was coverweaker, maybe they cried easily at slights against them, and who just seemed pampered and almost feminine, was invariably called a “mama’s boy” at some point or another. Most of the time it was nothing more than an insult from kids who used it to make themselves feel superior by picking on the weak members of the herd, but what happens when the insult is actually fairly close to reality?

That very situation has become an almost-standard trope in the world of horror and genre fiction in general – the boy with an unhealthy fascination and dedication to his mother. Norman Bates is perhaps the best-known example, but it’s been used more recently as well. Kristopher Rufty uses the concept to great success in his latest novel Seven Buried Hill, for example, and I’ve even used it as the catalyst for the killer in Consequences. Almost without fail, once that particular quirk is introduced, the character who exhibits it becomes imminently creepier. But why does it work?

The condition actually has a basis is psychological theory. Freud called it an Oedipus Complex, or sometimes an Oedipal Complex. It is the condition that results from a latent sexual desire from a child to the parent of the opposite sex, and is based on an ancient Greek tragedy called Oedipus Rex where the titular character inadvertently kills his father and ends up marrying his mother. Jung called it an Elektra Complex when manifesting in females, but Freud applied the term to either gender. He also considered it a normal part of human sexual development. He posited that every child experiences this, and eventually resolves it on their own to become a normal, mentally stable member of society. On occasion, however, the condition never resolved, or did not resolve properly, which resulted in some form of sexual deviancy as the child grew to adulthood.

I’m not here to argue the merits or failings of the theory, only to explore why it functions so effectively in horror fiction. I should also point out that I’m no psychologist, so I can only offer opinions that may or may not coincide with your own. Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let’s move on.

Characters who exhibit Oedipal tendencies tend to be cast as villains or antagonists of some degree or another. They fit this role so well because of the discomfort we feel toward them, knowing their (to us, at least) unhealthy desires regarding their mothers. It doesn’t even have to be blatantly sexual; even the intimation of impropriety is enough to make us squirm. I would suggest there are two reasons for this. First, we who are relatively well-adjusted members of society who have no such unnatural desires see the characters as fundamentally different from us. Not in something as mundane as race or station in life, but on an almost chemical level. We would never harbor such thoughts, much less act upon them, because we know and understand how wrong such thoughts are. To see someone who welcomes those thoughts, or even thrives on them, makes us feel uneasy because they run so counter to our own mode of thinking.

Another reason it disturbs us, at least in the case of males (which is all I can truly posit considering I am one) has to do with the way we look at our own mothers. With some notable exceptions, most of us as we grow into adulthood feel a protective bond toward our mothers. Perhaps this is nothing more than a primal desire to make sure the women in our lives are safe and shielded from any potential harm, feminism be damned, but whatever the root cause, it exists. When we see someone so blatantly overindulging in that protective instinct, taking it to a level it has no business (to our minds) going, it brings out the anger within us. We transpose it, and suddenly the character is creating affront to our own mothers, suggesting they are impure as well, which makes us rebel against them dramatically.

But what about the extremes of the complex, the characters for whom the desire isn’t simply an over-infatuation but outright lustful in nature? Incest is considered taboo in almost every part of the civilized world. Some may see nothing wrong with marrying a cousin—it was actually fairly common in years past, to be quite frank—but still consider it beyond disgusting to think of a mother and child engaging in sexual activity with one another. Why else would “mother-fucker” be considered the most offensive combination of words in the English language? Maybe it also trips that protective instinct I mentioned, but this is one that crosses genders and becomes universally a revolting and downright creepy thing to consider.

Is this always the case? I’m sure it’s not, nor would I suggest otherwise. But I would think that more often than not, this is the key that unlocks that particular Pandora’s box. Think about it: in any situation where this occurred, how unnerved did the character make you if they even so much as hint at something more than a nurturing relationship with their mother? I’m willing to bet you felt your mind squirming at the thought. I know mine does.

Which is what makes the concept perfect for horror, when the key is to make you uncomfortable and put you on edge. Thanks to the rise of “torture porn” movies and unbelievably life-like special makeup effects, horror fans have become somewhat desensitized to gore and violence in the films they watch or the books they read. But put in a character who really loves his Mommy, and suddenly you’ve succeeded where all the Karo syrup blood fails: you’ve succeeded in making your audience uneasy. Is it a cheat to some degree? Maybe. But you have to admit, it’s an effective one.


Buy CONSEQUENCES by John Quick


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