Offbeat – 28 September 2012
You are probably trying to do some intellectual dentistry with the goal of separating the teeth from the mouth. I thought about it as well. Without the context of a mouth to move them, teeth can be little more than components of a necklace for a surfer or a tourist, or a weapon for Harry Potter.
There are some things that I have difficulty writing about. The thing that creeps me out the most is the violent death of a child. I made my way through a novel recently, in which a child was killed, or at least the child’s body, was put on display for the reader. I thought I was immune to shocks but apparently I am not.
The mere idea of loss of a child, especially to a parent, is one of the most difficult things to contemplate. The mind tends to slip around it the way hands slip around soap in warm water. I’ll remember that novel because I had to go back and assure myself that the passage was really there.
I know that some of the people who read these columns are horror readers, so I won’t mention the title. If you come across it, you come across it. Examine your reaction.
Let’s get away from that nasty place and write about something scary, just not that terrifying. Say hello to Scary Mr Mouth. Having recently been gently reminded to generalise less as far as gender is concerned, it could also be Scary Mrs Mouth, or Wicked Mrs Mouth or that truly frightening thing, Mommy Mouth.
Bear with me for a bit. Repositioning the mouth as something that holds the potential for total evil is not a quick and obvious thing.
Let’s start with monsters. Vampires have very sharp teeth in their mouths. Picture the classic Christopher Plummer portrayal of Dracula. What do you see? Let’s be a little bit less obvious. What about Max Schreck as Nosferatu? Those teeth were long. Werewolves and wild dogs… can you see the mouths full of teeth snarling at you? That’s a classic cinematic archetype.
What about the zombie? The zombie, being human, doesn’t need sharp teeth. Ripping and tearing at the flesh seem to be enough. What about ghosts? We know that ghosts don’t have teeth and their mouths shouldn’t be all that frightening. So why is it that in the close-up shot of the ghost attacking its mouth always opens?
There are a hundred and one possible additions: from mutant X-File humanoids to great white sharks to piranhas to dragons and Godzilla. Good thing I stopped the sentence there.
The fact is that mouths contain teeth and teeth are one of the most primal fears. One look into a lion’s mouth and it is quite possible to understand how that fear has travelled through the ages. They are also the primal weapon. Infants and toddlers use biting for defense and offense. So did Mike Tyson, and look where that got him.
So great is the horror that biting is one of the few sins that is almost universally regarded as repulsive, and rooted out in infancy.
At this point, I can hear the cogs whirring in your head. You are probably trying to do some intellectual dentistry with the goal of separating the teeth from the mouth. I thought about it as well. Without the context of a mouth to move them, teeth can be little more than components of a necklace for a surfer or a tourist, or a weapon for Harry Potter.
Teeth are not the sum of the horror of the mouth. A smile can be even more frightening than a show of teeth. There’s a certain knowing type of smile that tells you that bad things lie ahead. If you haven’t yet seen the Exorcist it should be worth the effort if only for the fact that it managed to pervert the smile entirely. Megan’s unwholesome smile is both nauseating and terrible. The Movie makers have never looked back.
The tongue also resides in the mouth. Saliva has an intimacy which validates romance. Under any other circumstances it is a matter of revulsion. Many horror movies use the tongue and spitting to good effect. What about lips? How much Botox can be absorbed before people begin to shudder?
Unfortunately the mouth as a symbol of horror rarely translates well into writing, other than teeth. It’s the teeth that are easiest for us to imagine.
There you have it. Eyes may be the dark mirror of the soul, but once you have looked at them, it is almost inevitable that your gaze will shift downward to see what is coming next.