The Bosom Serpent: Folklore and Popular Art

The Bosom Serpent: Folklore and Popular Art

Gillian Bennett

The Bosom Serpent: Folklore and Popular Art. By Harold Schechter. 2nd edn. New York, Washington, Baltimore, Boston, Bern, Frankfurt-am Main, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2001. 174 pp. 15.00 [pounds sterling]/$23.95 (pbk). ISBN 0-08204-4514-2

This is a welcome second edition of Schechter’s 1988 publication with the University of Iowa Press. It is written with wit and clarity and is totally without any form of pretentiousness. In effect, it is a series of essays linked by the observation that many of the more successful popular films have their roots in folkloric plots, themes and motifs. “Turning out successful pop art–i.e. the stuff that sells–at a breakneck speed,” he says on page 82, “requires more than a kind of totally nondescript technical skill … it requires … people with a talent for dreaming up the very fantastic that the mass audience (with or without being aware of it) craves, at a given moment, to hear or see. But these fantasies inevitably turn out to be precisely those stories which have always amazed, amused, titillated, or terrified listeners, reinvented … in those forms that related to whatever anxieties or fads or obsessions happen to be in the air; stories, in short, with both the function and the essential form of traditional folktales.” This approach not only throws the traditional nature of, especially, the horror genre into perspective, but also corrects the often-held view that folktales are “nice” stories for children. His analysis of “Bluebeard” and other “forbidden chamber” narratives in chapter two and the comparison he makes between these stories and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one such useful corrective (pp. 29-37).

The new prologue and the first chapter set out the approach and the bulk of what theoretical underpinning there is, and subsequent chapters serve as illustration. So chapter two looks at terror films in terms of The Forbidden Chamber, and chapter three develops the argument by examining The Silence of the Lambs. Chapter four compares a 1950s film The Incredible Shrinking Man with Tom Thumb, and in chapter five the author explores the similarities between a Victorian publication The Illustrated Police News and modern tabloids, and picks out the motifs in the Aarne-Thompson index to which they correspond (a more entertaining analysis than it would seem on the surface). The next chapter looks at the Vietnam War film Platoon, as the “reinvention of a central American myth” and, more briefly, at Rambo as a sort of frontier hero. The final chapter examines the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films in terms of Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero pattern.

The author draws inspiration from Leslie Fiedler’s What Was Literature? (1982) (the book is dedicated to Fiedler), Stephen King’s study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre (1981), and Larry Danielson’s 1979 Western Folklore essay “Folklore and Film.” Where he compares films with contemporary legends (which he often does), the texts come from Jan Brunvand’s first two books for Norton–The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981) and The Choking Doberman (1984). My sole criticism of the book is that it would have benefited from being updated by reference to some more recent studies. As it is, his bibliography is dominated by books and essays of the 1970s and 1980s; very few more recent texts seem to have been consulted for this second edition. Also, many of the internal references are now out of date: for example, Joseph Campbell is spoken of as if he is still alive and S. S Prawer’s Caligari’s Children (1980) is called a “recent” book. To an extent, the discussion has been updated. There is, for example, a good analysis of The Silence of the Lambs, but I would also have liked to see analyses of some more recent films: Candyman, Urban Legend, and Men in Black would all be relevant to his theme.

“Of the many categories of popular art,” he writes on page 81, “the one which most closely resembles pure folklore is … the type with the fewest socially or aesthetically redeeming values; that is, the type that both its detractors and its admirers tend to refer to as pure schlock.” “The Silence of the Lambs,” for example, is “composed almost entirely of traditional motifs.” He demonstrates this by rewriting the opening scenes of the film as a Marchen and concludes that it is “a grim fairy tale for an age in which death and decay have become the final taboo.”

I find this approach to the subject refreshing in that there is no attempt to impose “meaning” or “relevance” on either the films or the folklore under discussion. Instead, the author recommends that they should be enjoyed for what they are. Time and again he warns against reductionist analyses and emphasises that the films and legends he is speaking of should be judged by narrative criteria, as entertainment, and as stories. He quotes with approval the words of Jack Finney, the author of the original The Body Snatchers, the book on which two movies were based: “I have read explanations of the ‘meaning’ of this story, which amuse me, because there is no meaning at all; it was just a story meant to entertain, and with no more meaning than that” (p. 54). Consequently, Schechter often prefers the “folk” or “popular” product to “art” redactions of the same themes and motifs; so, in the case of the “bosom serpent,” he judges that both the “unadorned” legend and the film Alien (which uses the same motifs for pure shock) are more successful than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s artful and moralistic short story “Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent.” Likewise, he is unimpressed with the film version of Stephen King’s The Shining, because the qualities for which critics have approved it (its artful camera work and so on) get in the way of the narrative and render the story less, rather than more, terrifying than other films of the same genre. This is not a commonplace view, and we must be grateful to the author for putting it forward.

Gillian Bennett, The Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group