"If we do not initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat" - African Proverb
Rites of Passage as inspiration for stories
The primal nature of life-passages, and their profound social, psychological and biological significance, makes them a perfect basis for stories.
But what is a Rite of Passage?
A rite of passage is a ceremony or event marking the transition from one phase of life to another. People often use the phrase to describe the change from adolescence to adulthood (coming-of-age), but there are many other passages in our lives: becoming part of a group or organisation, getting married or starting other kinds of partnership, adjusting to old age …
And the most important passages are the big biological milestones - birth, maturity, reproduction and death.
Horror, Comedy and Drama
The joys and pains of moving (or not) on in life provide the motive force for many stories. A vast number of dramatic situations arise when people refuse or fail to make transitions, or are unprepared for their consequences. This can play out in a comic way, as in Failure to Launch (2006) or The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005).
On the other hand, some screen monsters are essentially people who’ve become stuck in a particular phase of life and can’t or won't move forward – like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960).
And when societies stop marking life passages adequately, people may find their own, less acceptable methods to do so (as expressed in the African proverb above). Think of the fatal "chicken run" car races to the edge of the cliffs in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Carrie as a “Failed Rite of Passage” story
Menstruation is a clear biological marker of the change from girlhood to adolescence, but in Carrie (1976, remade 2013), the title character’s religious-fanatic single mother hasn’t prepared her for it – so Carrie is humiliated when her first period happens unexpectedly, among her hateful and antagonistic classmates.
Meanwhile, the Senior Prom is approaching: itself a passage rite in American life which (at least in films) seems focused on distinguishing those able to find acceptable partners from the wallflowers and inadequates who can’t manage it.
Carrie’s classmates decide to continue her harassment at the Prom. But when she retaliates with her psychic powers, the event becomes (quite literally) a bloodbath – a fitting ending for a story whose inciting moment revolves around blood.
Sometimes it’s good to be a Werewolf
Ginger Snaps (2000) was also about a girl’s transition to adolescence, symbolised by her transformation into a werewolf - a theme also explored in The Company of Wolves (1984). The protagonist in Ginger Snaps comes to a sticky end, but in the latter story it’s a positive move when "Little Red Riding Hood" leaves home with the handsome werewolf who is to be her lover – she’s taken the next step in life.
The story suggests that we may need to embrace the darker side of our nature in order to move on and taste new experiences.
The positive aspects of becoming a monster are further explored in Wolf (1994). Jack Nicholson plays Will Randall, an ageing editor at a large publishing company. Younger, more rapacious colleagues are conspiring to ace him out of his job, and he’s failing in his struggle against them.
The scene is set for his passage into old age and retirement. But when he is “infected” by a werewolf attack and becomes a werewolf himself, his dwindling powers aren’t just restored: they’re massively heightened, giving him the qualities he needs to win out against his rivals.
The story's satirical suggestion is that one actually needs to be a monster in order to thrive in the corporate world.
Vampires and blocked Rites of Passage
Among other things, vampire stories show us what it’s like to be stuck in a single phase of life. Vampires don't grow old - or grow up. In some instances, like Let the Right One In and Byzantium, the central character is an eternal child or adolescent, but one who seems to have come to terms with this fact.
In Interview with the Vampire, however, Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia becomes vengeful and enraged when it dawns on her that she’ll never grow into a woman and know the pleasures of love, sexuality and motherhood. She tries to murder Lestat de Lioncourt, who was responsible for turning her into an ever-juvenile vampire.
These are just a few possibilities of a huge and fascinating theme which continues to inspire many different kinds of story.
And it's just one of the avenues for fresh stories in the Horror genre that I’ll be investigating in my workshop, Writing Horror Now, on January 23rd in London.