Nov. 13, 2020
The Danger of the Uninvited
Classic Noir and Contemporary Horror During the Pandemic
In the hands of the best writers, an unexpected knock on the door is far more sinister than a knife. And in this strange year, it’s been unnerving to find that the scariest part of real life is that there are no knocks at all.
My door has remained closed to protect my family from the worst of the world—an invisible virus, treacherous authorities, and a burning climate. As a result, fictional knocks in classic noir and contemporary horror provided me with a strange and unexpected relief.
Reading books relying on the darkness of a different time like Strangers on a Train and Double Indemnity felt safer than reading the news. For months, I surrounded myself with former soldiers in grey flannel suits drinking five o’clock highballs to distract myself from social distancing and uncertain end points.
The most captivating book I read in this period is a touchstone of the genre: In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes. With her characteristic talent for subtle tension, Hughes begins the story with the implication of a knock echoing around a dark California street. Her main character, Dix Steele, walks alone down a fog-filled street, pausing to watch a young woman getting off a bus. He thinks about following her to her doorstep. He chooses not to do so when the house lights are on. Later, we learn that a woman was found murdered on that very street. Even later still, we realize that our narrator was the one to blame.
Escaping to post-war Los Angeles for the roughly two hundred pages of the novel was unsettlingly reassuring in a moment of global uncertainty. Steele is a man damaged by war and dislocated by peace. Like so many of us in 2020, he is constantly uneasy and unable to control his emotions. Unlike many of us, however, Steele’s solution for his troubled mind is to seek the thrills of war by satisfying his misogynistic need to murder women.
Eventually, the ugly truth of Dix Steele is exposed by two riveting female characters in a deeply satisfying resolution. Unfortunately, there was no satisfying finale to be found for the physical, social, and environmental chaos which continued to encircle me in real life. If anything, the monsters were just getting started.
As the pandemic persisted, I sought the supernatural, not because I needed stories that eradicated fear, but because I was searching for a creature to contain it. Being scared of something invented was a lot easier than being scared of something real. Stories about monsters usually end with a satisfying defeat of the terror. Those clear victories were a balm for me in a time with no conclusions. I filled my nights with monsters so I didn’t have to deal with the monstrosities on my social media feeds. For that purpose, there was no better story than The Babadook.
The Babadook is, at its core, a story about grief. It was the perfect monster for a moment when we are all grieving the loss of easy intimacy and community connection. Some of us are grieving our health. The hardest hit among us must grieve loved ones like the film’s main character, Amelia. After her husband dies in a terrible car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth, she pushes down her sadness and anger to raise their son without him. But grief cannot be denied. Sooner or later, it comes knocking.
One night, Amelia finds an unexplained book on her son’s bookshelf. The first pages warn that readers will hear “a rumbling sound then three sharp knocks” before a monster arrives. Later, the awful, predicted sounds wake her from her sleep. The Babadook appears and wreaks havoc in their home until Amelis faces her deepest saddest memories. The Babadook is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen and also one of the most comforting. At the end of the movie, Amelia banishes the monster to the basement. She visits it occasionally then leaves it behind to live her life.
I first learned about the Australian horror film six years ago from my sister who hates scary movies but found herself captivated by the extremely terrifying trailer. With wide eyes, she tapped play and we both jumped when we heard the creature knocking on the door. The preview was so scary that I couldn’t bear to watch the actual movie until 2020 when the real world became more frightening than the story.
The monstrous presence of the pandemic, climate change, and racialized violence arrived on our doorsteps uninvited. The monsters have taught me that must be faced, or they will become stronger. Knocks on the door get louder if they are ignored.
About the Author
Amber Cowie is a novelist and freelance writer living in a small town on the west coast of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, the Globe and Mail, and Crime Reads among other publications. She has appeared at Left Coast Crime, the Pacific Northwest Writers Festival, and the Whistler Writers Festival. She is a member of several writing groups and holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Victoria. She is a mother of two and reader of many. She likes skiing, running and making up stories that make her internet search history unnerving.
See more at Ambercowie.com