Fear, Honour and Shame in Horror Stories of the 1950s and 1960s

Mare Kõiva

Mare Kõiva

Fear, honour and shame are terms openly or implicitly discussed in many forms of verbal art and can be also met in personal narratives. These same terms are related to stereotypic beliefs and attitudes, some of which we still meet in everyday expressions today.

Honour and shame, and also fear, are related to unwritten and written legal norms in a community, while the first two are simultaneously important bonds linking the individual to the community, shaping his image and thus influencing his career.

In the 1990s, I became interested in children’s horror stories. Some of these stories had left a deep impression on me in my childhood, comparable to the impression their childhood monsters had left on the characters of the short story ‘Ghost no. 5’.

At the time, I was interested in the structure and characters of children’s stories, how stable or labile the stories were, but the stories also enchanted me with their playfulness and the profound way in which they differed from adults’ horror stories of similar content — through the adults’ stories were based on profound belief (Kõiva 1998, see also Pakalns 1995, 2004).

Later, having studied urban legends, personal narratives, memoirs from Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, I have come to realise that presenting one’s self and memories are often a strategy for altering data. It is very common that variations are based on different experiences and there are many possible ways of recalling or recounting an experience.

In the present article will discuss horror stories told in a small town in the 1950s and 1960s: first of all, the expression of fears concerning personal existence in stories and a series of stories about a woman who killed her children at her lover’s insistence, as well as stories about blood takers and sausage makers.

For source material, I have used records of the Estonian Folklore Archives, memoirs by the local priest Herbert Kuurme (Kuurme 2001 a, b), personal interviews from more recent times and personal memories. I have attempted to choose locations that are known to me from my friends or that I have been to myself.

All this because of the very simple reason that there exists no simple uniform Soviet time. I was intrigued to find out why and how do some events become legends while others are forgotten.

During fieldwork and interviews, it is easily noticed that even the most fantastic fictions can be narrated as true experience stories and as first-person narratives, while there are topics and plots that are unerringly attributed even not to acquaintances but to anonymous characters, constituting heterodiegetic narratives. The article poses four principal hypotheses:

Firstly, homodiegetic narratives are governed by the established social norms and the role the narrator places himself in. Narrating to a wider audience, the narrator never places himself in a socially unfavourable position that could damage his honour or cause falling into shame, and be condemned by his closer social circle. This is avoided even in the case of an explicitly fictional story.

Secondly, the social values and value systems of social groups are conservative, oral legal contracts are long-lasting and deviation from these is sanctioned. In every society, there are rumours that a story’s characters, narrators and listeners are sensitive to, as these violate the common code of honour.

Thirdly, certain events or stereotypic stories of fear, shaming or shame can be told in the first person on the condition that these do not damage the person’s honour. That is to say, they allow the main character to place himself not in the psychologically and intuitively condemned role of a defenceless victim of violence, but rather in the role of a hero or martyr — someone who has escaped a complicated situation, a small hero.

Fourthly, although certain narrative types and motifs have a long history, it is important to place the story into the system of contemporary symbols and values, the system of social, economic and political relations. Only this can help to understand the underlying reason for the spread of the story. This is also necessary to avoid over-mythologisation.

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