The Mangler, and The Great Appeal of Horror Fiction

I.K. (and I think his brother F.K.), R.M.B., and my father have asked, why do people like to read horror stories, or watch horror movies? Why would I ever want to be scared?

I think part of the fun is seeing how skillfully a master yarn spinner like Stephen King unfolds (unmangles? see below) a story. In the Introduction of Night Shift, an anthology of short stories by Mr. King, John D. MacDonald writes:

Note this. Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humor and the occult. In clumsy hands the humor turns to dirge, and the occult turns funny.

So, part of the fun is just admiring how well a skilled story teller writes.

But this is only enjoying the horror story as a work of art, admiring a master’s expertise in his craft. I think there is a more visceral appeal of the horror story: the very experience of submerging oneself in a world created by the writer. (And it seems appropriate to evoke viscera when discussing horror fiction. Glistening internal organs sliding past one another…) Mr. King explains it better than I can.

One of my favorite short stories by Stephen King is The Mangler, which I have mentioned previously, and which appears in Night Shift. The Foreword that he wrote for that book is in itself a good read. There, Mr. King writes:

Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiousity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hundred parts, like the blind men with their elephant.

We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All our fears add up to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear – an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We’re afraid of the body under the sheet. It’s our body. And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths [italics mine].

I think Mr. King is onto something here. I think that the appeal of horror movies and horror stories, at least in part, is that it allows us a safe way to consider our own mortality, our own funeral, in an indirect and vicarious manner.

(I suppose I.K. might respond, “But that begs the question. Why would I ever want to rehearse my own death?” :-))

Mr. King wrote a book entitled On Writing, subtitled A Memoir of the Craft, in which he recounts his career as a writer. I think that The Mangler is based on some of his real-life experiences with laundries. On pp. 19 and 24 of On Writing, he mentions that when he was a child his mother once worked in a laundry on the “mangler crew,” and hated it.

One meaning of the word mangle comes from the laundry business, which is “to press fabrics by means of heated rollers” (so a mangler is a machine which presses fabrics). But another meaning is “to mutilate or disfigure by battering, hacking, cutting, or tearing”. In The Mangler, Mr. King is playing on the two senses of the word. This is delicious, delectable; it is fun to toggle back and forth between the two meanings, one mundane and the other gruesome, in my mind.

On p. 58 of On Writing, we learn that as a college student Mr. King himself picked up a job working in a laundry. And then on the next page, p. 59, we read about this creepy incident in the laundry:

On one occasion I heard a strange clicking from inside one of the Washex three-pockets which were my responsibility. I hit the Emergency Stop button, thinking the goddam thing was stripping its gears or something. I opened the doors and hauled out a huge wad of dripping surgical tunics and green caps [apparently, local hospitals used the laundry’s services — M.], soaking myself in the process. Below them, lying scattered across the colander-like inner sleeve of the middle pocket, was what looked like a complete set of human teeth. It crossed my mind that they would make an interesting necklace, then I scooped them out and tossed them into the trash.

Try to imagine if you had unexpectedly been presented with a collection of human teeth, grinning up at you in a disembodied rictus. I think I would have felt a giddy, fleeting fear in the pit of my stomach. It would make me think of somebody being tortured, and getting his or her teeth pulled without anesthesia. And I would think of a dread voodoo that requires human teeth as an ingredient for some black magic spell.

And then on p. 60, we read that Mr. King had a “floor-man” (which I take to be a sort of supervisor) named Harry. Mr. King describes this guy as follows:

Harry had hooks instead of hands as a result of a tumble into the sheet-mangler during World War II (he was dusting the beams above the machine and fell off). A comedian at heart, he would sometimes duck into the bathroom and run water from the cold tap over one hook and water from the hot tap over the other. Then he’d sneak up behind you while you were loading laundry and lay the steel hooks on the back of your neck.

I think it is likely that these somewhat negative or creepy experiences with laundries inspired Mr. King to write The Mangler.

Here’s an academic paper by poet Susan Stewart (now at Princeton University), in which she examines the inner workings of the horror story:

Susan Stewart, The Epistemology of the Horror Story, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 95, No. 375 (Jan. – Mar., 1982), pp. 33-50

Professor Stewart’s article starts:

NOWHERE ARE NARRATIVE’S IMAGES of unfolding, of hesitation, of the step and the key more thematically profound and more clearly worked on the level of effect than in the horror story.

Unfolding. There’s that word again.

Addendum (07/16/09): Cleaner has head cut off in giant meat blending machine. (via Fark)

Addendum (07/22/09): Woman found dead in a machine at a food processing plant. Investigators believe it was accidental. She died from “crushing injuries from a robotic packaging machine.” (via Fark)

Addendum (05/21/10): Man freed after getting hand caught in wood-chipping machine at Buderim. Reminds me of a scene from this movie. (via Fark)

Addendum (05/23/10): N.Y.-Toronto train kills 2 in separate collisions. Reminds me of Stephen King’s evil train, Blaine the Train. (via Fark)

Police: Man sucked into sausage seasoning machine. It “somehow” became activated while being cleaned. Somewhat more reminiscent of the first Mangler movie than either of the two sequels.

Addendum (07/28/10): Missing man crushed in trash compactor

Addendum (07/28/10): Worker dies after being crushed in paper roller machine in Claremont

Addendum (08/13/10): 2 NC men rescued after being trapped in hot dryer. “Authorities say one man got into the dryer to free an item that was jammed and he was overcome by the heat.”

(Recall that the original Mangler story was set in an industrial laundry facility.)

Addendum (09/28/10): Gardener decapitated in freak wood chipper accident

Addendum (01/24/11): Tortilla Factory Worker Killed in Mixing Accident. Sounds more like a Masher or Crusher, than a Mangler.

Addendum (04/12/11): Man dies after falling into pasta machine.

Addendum (05/24/11): Madelia man killed after being run over by his own riding mower.

Addendum (06/19/11): Woman killed in Bellingham steam roller accident.

Addendum (08/22/11): Lawnmower Slips From Jack, Kills Cemetery Worker.

Addendum (08/26/11): FDA warns of strangulation with massage machine.

Addendum (08/29/11): Worker’s leg crushed at Pepsi plant in Tampa. “The St. Petersburg Times reports this was the third major casualty at the plant in six months.”

Addendum (08/30/11): Sky Harbor worker gets trapped under baggage carousel. “The cause of the incident is not known.”

Addendum (09/21/11): Company fined over worker killed while cleaning blender.

Addendum (11/13/11): Child Saved From Washing Machine. “Surprisingly, that machine was out of order. ‘And I haven’t been able to run it since, and I haven’t been able to run it just before.’ ”


Have you ever wondered if that laundry machine you told me about is haunted, Johnny?

— Quote from The Mangler, by Stephen King

(12/18/11: This one was so striking that I was compelled to give it its own post.)

Addendum (11/18/11): Alton man dies in wood chipper accident in Belleville.

Addendum (11/27/11): Worker’s hand minced in Swedish meatball mishap

Addendum (12/18/11): Woman dies in freak NYC elevator accident

Addendum (12/18/11): Man dies in horrific accident after getting stuck in food grinder at hummus plant

Addendum (5/8/12): Horror as boy, 12, is crushed to death by automatic gate while playing game of chicken with friends