Thursday, November 5, 2015

Page 83: The Hook

Everyone knows the urban legend of the Hook. Like me, you probably heard it huddled around a flashlight with your friends at a slumber party, campfire, or Halloween party at which scary stories were told. Rudinger (1976) called it “one, if not the most widespread, of all modern horror legends” (p. 90).

It goes like this: A young couple are making out in a car in lover’s lane when their radio mood music is interrupted by a news bulletin: A homicidal maniac with a hook for a hand has escaped from a local mental institution. The date, frightened by this report, asks to be taken home where it is safe. After some protestations and reassurances in vain, the boyfriend relents and, disappointed and annoyed, speeds off toward her home. Arrived at her home, he walks around the car to open her door. From the handle dangles A BLOODY HOOK!!!


Bugs Bunny gets the hook!
(Still from a classic Looney Tunes cartoon, © Warner Bros.)
As Brunvand puts it, “The legend has also been incorporated into comic strips, films, and TV programs to such a degree that the very image of a hook dangling from a car-door hangle is enough to suggest for most people the whole genre of urban legends” (p. 200). This is why I decided to get The Hook out of the way early: It’s so well-known that I couldn’t use it later, so I took advantage of its archetypal nature to immediately set the stage for Belanger.

Although variations of the basic story are rooted deep in history, its present form apparently emerged in the 1950s, originally centered around Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. Ellis (1994) argues that its resurgent popularity owed something to a real-life incident which vaguely echoed the legend: the 1948 arrest of lover’s lane robber-rapist Caryl Chessman, nicknamed “Hooknose” because of an accidental deformity. Peaking in popularity in the 1960s, it gradually transformed from an urban legend and into a nigh-universal “children’s scare story” (Ellis, 66).

Dustin Hoffman at Peter Pan's nemesis in Hook
(©1991, dir. Steven Spielberg, TriStar Pictures.)
This legend has been interpreted from many different perspectives: sociological, psychoanalytic, Jungian, structuralist, etc. So depending on who you ask, you may be told that the Hook represents:
  • Girls’ fears of how otherwise nice boys in romantic settings may transform into aggressors if unrestrained, the Hook being a phallic symbol of that most threatening appendage (and its removal—or “castration”—symbolizing removal of that threat).
  • Adolescent boys’ fear of parental reprisal—symbolized by cutting off the hand—for exploring their burgeoning sexuality through masturbation.
  • Or, more broadly, adolescents’ fears at a time when their bodies are going through a bewildering and possibly frightening sexual transformation.
  • From a Jungian perspective, an early encounter with the Shadow.
  • The discomfort often experienced by those encountering the handicapped or mentally ill.
  • From a structuralist standpoint, the Hook can be seen as part man and part thing, representing the liminal state between social order and chaotic nature…much like the secluded lover’s lane setting in the semi-wilderness.
  • A morality play in which abruptly leaving lover’s lane not only saves their lives, but also spares the youngsters from “losing their virtue.”

FOR FURTHER READING:

Jan Brunvand. “The Hook.” In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 199–201.

William M. Clements. “Mythography and the Modern Legend: Interpreting ‘The Hook.’Journal of Popular Culture, spring 1986, 19(4): 39–46.

Linda Dégh. “The Hook.” Indiana Folklore 1968, 1(1): 92–100.

Alan Dundes. “On the Psychology of Legend.”  In Wayland D. Hand (ed.), American Folk Legend: A Symposium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 29–31 (full paper: 21 – 36).

Bill Ellis. “‘The Hook’ Reconsidered: Problems in Classifying and Interpreting Adolescent Horror Legends.” Folklore 1994, 105: 61–75.

Barbara Mikkelson, “The Hook,” Snopes.com, June 2, 2008.

Joel D. Rudinger. “Folk Ogres of the Firelands: Narrative Variations of a North Central Ohio
Community.” Indiana Folklore 1976, 9:  41–93 (esp. page 90n).

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