Sunday, April 3, 2011

Killer Claustrophobia

By Hilary Davidson

"There's a killer on the other side of your bathroom door. What do you do?" Let me get this straight: I'm inside my own bathroom and the killer is outside, aiming to get into the bathroom to do away with me? Ha! I'm completely safe. For the record, I live in a New York City apartment with a bathroom so tiny, my attacker would have to be toddler-sized to get inside with me. Good luck, little killer.

But the question made me think about the settings I use in books and stories. As much as I may curse my tiny bathroom in real life, claustrophobic settings can be a goldmine in crime fiction, both on the page and on the screen. One writer who really exploited this territory was Edgar Allan Poe. His "The Pit and The Pendulum" is the most claustrophobic story I've ever read (after all, the burning walls really do close in on the narrator, while a pit yawns below and a blade slices at him from above; try getting out of that, Houdini). Other stories featured cellar tombs ("The Black Cat"), people buried alive ("The Premature Burial"), and collapsing houses ("The Fall of the House of Usher" — which also featured a cellar tomb and a live burial, making it a triple threat).

Alfred Hitchcock shared Poe's fascination for claustrophobic settings, but in his films they were served up with a twist. Hitchcock had a talent for taking a magnificent setting (think of the mansions in Notorious and Rebecca) and give the viewer an ever-increasing sensation of the walls closing in. Even more deviously, he could contort crowd scenes into pictures of total isolation. That's not to say that he didn't use small spaces — think of the shower scene in Psycho (come to think of it, I guess that could be taken as Hitchcock's answer to our question of the week).

I keep both Poe and Hitchcock in mind when I'm writing. Lily Moore, my main character in The Damage Done and The Next One to Fall, suffers from claustrophobia. Oh, she's fine getting on a plane or standing on a crowded subway train, but if she feels trapped, she panics — and that can happen in places large and small.

I can't even begin to describe how Lily would feel about my miniscule bathroom. One thing I know: she would actually choose to unlock the door and face the killer outside. But, knowing her, she would take a razor out of the medicine cabinet first.


Edward Pettit said...

Hilary, Hitch also admitted his own indebtedness to Poe:

"Very likely it's because I was so taken with the Poe stories that I later made suspense films. I don't want to seem immodest, but I can't help comparing what I've tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels [sic]: a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow."

More here:

Meredith Cole said...

I like your image of a killer midget trying to get into your bathroom with you! Glad your heroine is quick witted enough to grab a razor blade before she goes to do battle with the bad guy...

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Excellent post, as usual, Hilary! Thanks for sharing such wonderful examples, and letting us visit with Lily as she would face this situation. The razor issue reminds me of my police academy days; we witnessed a search of one of our instructors, and were asked if we thought the "suspect" was checked completely. He wasn't; he had a razor blade under his tongue.

Speaking of bathrooms and being trapped: I must share this true tale: an elderly women got locked in her Paris apt bathroom. For 3 weeks, she tapped on pipes, hoping this Morse-code-type attempt might get someone's attention.
She was found - alive, after her neighbors reported her missing. Turned out these were the same neighbors who drafted a petition to get the pipe-banging stopped. Here's one of the articles on this amazing story:

Hilary Davidson said...

Edward, Meredith & Kathy, thanks for stopping by!

Edward, that "Imps of the Perverse" essay you linked to about Poe and Hitchcock makes for wonderful reading. It's amazing to think how many artists are directly indebted to Poe. I'm glad Hitch was honest about that debt!

Meredith, I'm glad my little killer made you laugh!

Kathy, that story you relate is just chilling. You hear a lot about people in cities ignoring cries for help (because they think someone else will help). But the fact that the building got a petition together... yikes. Thanks so much for sharing that story — it feels like it could be great inspiration for a fictional tale!

Reece said...

Excellent post, Hilary. You're absolutely right about how Hitchcock could show isolation even in a crowd scene. Your comment reminded of the great tennis match scene in "Strangers on a Train" when every head in the crowd is turned to follow the ball, but psychopath Robert Walker stands out because he's staring right at the camera ... and the viewer.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

I like the little killer, too! Of course, I'll now have nightmares of one coming into my bathroom and slashing my kneecaps with knives. But that's just the kind of twisted stuff I've come to like and expect from you, Hilary!

Unknown said...

I really liked this post! Plus, I am a huge fan of both Poe and Especially Hitchcock I gaurantee I was the only 8 year old requesting CLUE's Hitchcock Edition.. and I still have it 13 years later = )

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post! Love the tiny killer visual!

All I have in my bathroom are safety razors. Drat! How can I defeat the murderous midget with that?

Back to the lid to the toilet tank.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for dropping in, Reece, PCN & Becky (and lovely to meet you, KThomas5)! I love that Poe and Hitchcock resonate with so many people. And the scene Reece mentions from "Strangers on a Train" is another great one. I never get tired of re-watching Hitchcock's films, or re-reading Poe's stories.

Christine said...

So, it was toss-up of which "little killer" came to mind first: Chucky or that freaky little fetish doll going after Karen Black in TRILOGY OF TERROR. *shudder*

Great post, Hilary!