When Things Go Bad
It’s an entertainment genre barely recognised, but once you look around you’ll see it everywhere; stories of an object that, once owned, brings bad luck and often death in its wake. The things of desire make for great morality tales.
Stephen King has produced his fair share of cursed objects, especially in ‘Needful Things’, which delivers a twisted version of caveat emptor as townsfolk get their comeuppance for wanting too much. But so did Ray Bradbury in ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, the objects of desire being a little less tangible.
‘The Amulet’ in Michael McDowell’s novel brings a rising and increasingly gory body count, but refreshingly, the jewellery in question arrives in answer to an existing dilemma; it seems to kill off the enemies of the heroine and her vegetative husband.
The compendium film ‘Dead of Night’ brings us one of at least four cursed mirror stories I can think of. Usually the image shows a monstrously dark future for the protagonist. Evil dolls became an entire sub-genre after an evil clown attacked a little girl in ‘Poltergeist’, with the first ‘Chucky’ film being the best of the bunch. The Annabelle films (Eight altogether in ‘The Conjuring’ universe) continue the trend even now, to diminishing effect.
One of the most inventive ‘Deadly Things’ tales is ‘In Fabric’, a British film starring the ever-excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste, which takes the term ‘killer red dress’ literally. Although she should have sensed something was wrong from the Suspiria-like department store where she bought the dress.
Equally offbeat is ‘Bad Hair’, in which deadly hair extensions carry a legacy of death, gorily plaguing a young black woman. Amazingly it’s not the only killer hair story (I’ve written one).
MR James had spooky fun with a sheet which forms a human figure, but the sheet is incidental to the manifestation. Dangerous suits, furniture and cars offer warnings that a love of material goods can literally end your life. Marghanita Lanski added a psychological dimension when she wrote the eerie, disturbing ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’, in which an enervated wife becomes imprisoned by her solicitous husband and family on her day bed. The book is about a heightening emotional state that readers easily connect with.
Perhaps the ultimate example is Brian Moore’s dreamlike ‘The Great Victorian Collection’, in which a man imagines an entire art fair of antique belongings that soon come to own him. Joan Samsom’s ‘The Auctioneer’ reverses the idea, as the title character strips away a family’s possessions.
The mobile phone and the computer have paved the way for thousands of anti-tech moral tales which always seem to feature someone smashing said device. In the 1950s television was perceived as the threat, an enemy in the living room that would steal away our sense of values.
Are we doomed to own things that kill us? Is the simple act of wanting more a reason for punishment? Or are material goods merely the conduit for latent sins? After all, the Red Shoes killed their ballet star owner simply for wanting to achieve perfection.
And therein lies the answer. Perfection cannot be achieved. A glamorous lifestyle is something to aim for, not achieve. Life is not perfect and you can’t have it all. When those who try for more fail, we feel schadenfreude. And so the genre takes on a conservative agenda; stay in your place, don’t want things which are not for you.
Or perhaps it’s just fun to be haunted by inanimate objects.