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Bag of Bones and “Young Goodman Brown”

Bag of Bones

Bag of Bones and Young Goodman Brown Show Us True Horror When Stories Get Real

Bag of Bones & Young Goodman Brown – What qualifies as horror is a question that tends to result in a lot of conflict. Tears are shed. Punches are thrown. Wars are started. Families are torn apart. Okay, I’m exaggerating maybe just a little. However, people do get a little weird when you refer to classic literature as horror and seem to tend to go onto bizarre hair-splitting expeditions to get out of the possibility that something might qualify as a horror story. Here’s the barometer I’m using to determine what is and isn’t a horror story: was it written with the specific intention of scaring the reader? If so, you’ve found a horror story.

With this in mind, let’s piss off your current or former lit professors some more and talk about “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne on a horror site. “Young Goodman Brown” follows a Puritan who believes he witnessed a “witch-meeting” where he saw numerous people from his town, including his own wife, in the woods, sign their souls away to the Devil. It’s not clear if this was real or if it was a nightmare. Whether it was a nightmare or not is relevant to the atmosphere of the story, which certainly feels nightmarish, but irrelevant to Brown, who spends the rest of his life bitter and cynical. He “loses his Faith,” as the story says, referring to both his love for his wife as well as his religious faith. Whether or not it was a nightmare, the Devil won.

If you’re still not convinced that “Young Goodman Brown” is a horror story, I’d like to point out its influence on other horror stories. There’s a lot of “Young Goodman Brown” in Bag of Bones by Stephen King, for instance. Bag of Bones follows Mike Noonan as he unravels the secrets of a small town and discovers that not only does the town have a horrifically racist past, but the people he was close to were also racist. As is often the case in Stephen King stories, the conflict of the story is a metaphor for how small town bigotry can destroy a community. With, you know, ghosts and hauntings and whatnot. It is a Stephen King book, after all.

Bag of Bones will always remind me of “Young Goodman Brown.” I think about “Young Goodman Brown” often, to the point where “Young Goodman Brown moment” is a phrase I use a lot. This may be related to the fact that I was assigned to read it at least a million times, but it’s also difficult to shake off how relatable the story is.

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I’ve been through multiple moments in my life that I’ve come to think of as “Young Goodman Brown moments.” That moment where you realize that the people you’re surrounded by aren’t who you think they are. That moment where you realize you’ve trusted people who are actually a danger to you. I’ve dealt with a lot of antisemitism in my life. I’m not comfortable going into a lot of detail, but it was very overt, deeply upsetting, and sometimes very frightening. A lot of it has come from people who’d known me for years, despite the fact that I’m very openly Jewish. I write under my Hebrew name, for heaven’s sake. 

 So what do you do? Do you keep your mouth shut to get along? Do you fight? Do you run? I’ve done all of those things at different points in my life. They all suck for different reasons. Goodman Brown did the first of those things. For all he knew, there really was nothing to it. It may very well have been a dream, right? Maybe. But once you see that, you can’t unsee it. Staying quiet kept Goodman Brown out of trouble, but by the Puritan standards that he held, it likely also condemned his soul. It’s a solution that temporarily makes you feel safer and more comfortable, but in the long run, it  will make you increasingly less safe. It will also make you hate yourself.

Fighting is the solution most people idealize, but it’s also not always plausible or safe. There are situations where I could and did, but I’d be lying if I said that running wasn’t often my solution. Sometimes, that is the safest method. It sucks, it’s traumatic, and it’s probably cowardly- but I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t gotten me out of a fair number of bad situations. People are complicated. The world is complicated. Most people are basically good, which is part of why bad people are frightening. You don’t expect them, and you don’t want to think they’re people you know. Yet sometimes, they are. And realizing that is its own horror.

So if your professor rolls their eyes at you for calling “Young Goodman Brown” a horror story, I might recommend pointing that out.

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