It’s Feb. 1 and that means it’s Women in Horror Month. I will ambitiously try to feature a guest each day of this month who will speak about horror. Today I have Jennifer Kennedy who talks about storytelling and writing horror.
About twenty years ago, I joined a storytelling organization, and shortly afterward volunteered to tell a story at a local Halloween event. I found myself telling alongside Marie Anne McLean, whose hair-raising versions of urban myths, re-set in and around Edmonton, set a very high bar. I still shudder when I think of the first time I heard her tell “The Furry Collar.” We both continued to tell at this event in the years that followed, and in the process I experimented with many different stories, some of which were more successfully frightening than others. One particular story was without a doubt my most successful: “The Night Doctors.”
I came across the basis for this story in a book of African-American folk tales. The entry
was quite short: just a paragraph or two. It was an urban legend from an earlier time, according to which there were certain doctors in the Southern U.S. who were famous for their experimental work during the time of slavery, and suspected of using human subjects. The story was that after emancipation, they were not willing to give up their research, and so they began snatching people at night, sneaking up on them in carriages with muffled wheels, and shooting them with drugged needles.
I imagined that these Night Doctors were still active, even in modern times, and came up with a story about a teenage boy who is captured by them. He almost escapes but is injured and foolishly goes to a hospital for help. I think that what made this story effective was not just the twist at the end, but the setting. There are few situations in our lives when we are more vulnerable than when we place ourselves under the care of medical professionals. In developing the story, I had tapped into some of my own fears, and it was clear from the reaction I got that I touched a nerve in others as well. It seemed like most of the really scary urban legends had crazed serial killers as villains, but in some ways those were easier to disassociate from than a killer who might be lurking behind a surgical mask.
More recently, I became an actor at Deadmonton haunted house. The theme in 2018 was Quarantine and I ended up playing the part of a military nurse who checks people for signs of infection before they go into the building. Once again, it was clear that I was tapping into a deep discomfort in many people. One of the characters that came to mind as inspiration for the part was Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was not surprised to learn that many people rate Nurse Ratched as one of the most chilling characters in film. One of the essential traits of the character I was playing was the ability to dehumanize: to view anyone who was infected with our fictional virus as essentially written off as a human being. In a similar way, Nurse Ratched first writes off her patient as mentally unfit and then actually acts to erase the humanity he tries so hard to assert. In a similar way, the Night Doctors choose to regard their victims as less than human.
Institutions, and particularly hospitals and asylums, are always dehumanizing to some extent, and that is surely a large part of why they make us feel so vulnerable. Prototypical crazed serial killers also dehumanize their victims, but they do not generally change their status in the eyes of the outside world. There is something particularly disturbing about a monster that has authority behind them, and a society that, whether blindly or with complicity, places people in their power.
I have tried a few times to come up with a written version of my Night Doctors story, but I find that for me, some stories lend themselves to telling, and others to writing, and this was definitely a story for telling. Conversely, an unsuccessful attempt at an original ghost story to tell at the same event ended up working better written down, and was published in an anthology as “The Fatality Sign.” I expect I will come back to villains with a medical bent though, whether in writing or other mediums. The details of the story may not translate, but the fear that drives it remains powerful.
Jennifer Kennedy lives in Alberta, where she writes under the byline J.Y.T. Kennedy, as well as occasionally appearing as a storyteller or in other guises. Her poem, “The King in Red” appeared in the Alice Unbound anthology in 2018. Information on some of her other work can be found on her website.