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Literature / Haunted (2005)

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Haunted is a unique collection of short stories by Chuck Palahniuk. Seventeen unusual people, all of whom happen to be writers, sign up to attend a three-month writer's workshop courtesy of the mysterious Mr. Whittier. Acting on assumption necessities of toothpaste and toilet roll will be available, each writer brings a suitcase each of personal items.

Given the ultimatum that leaving is not an option until the three months are up, the writers quickly learn that there's no escape and no help coming; under this knowledge, they instead concoct the ruse that they're all martyrs and victims trapped by Mr. Whittier, and begin to destroy themselves (both mentally and physically) between telling highly dramatized versions of their own life stories. What results is a deconstruction of reality TV shows, and a whole lot of squick.

While it never becomes clear how much of their backstories are true or made up, expect most of them to have Body Horror, Nausea Fuel, Nightmare Fuel and/or Rape as Drama. It should also be noted that, whilst some of the tales seem downright impossible, quite a few are very closely based on real events.

The novel's first chapter, "Guts", was published in Playboy magazine well before the book came out proper presumably as a warning. Palahniuk did readings of it during his worldwide book tour for diary. Over 80 people fainted.

Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a trope.

  • Accidental Suicide: In the short story "Guts" it mentions in passing that some public health officials believe that the recent spike in teen suicides was in part caused by auto-erotic asphyxiation gone awry.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: The end of Mr. Whittier's second story, "Obsolete", with two teenagers literally named Adam and Eve escaping a world-wide mass suicide. It's never clarified if it's really happening in-universe or it's just a story he made up.
  • All Men Are Perverts: In Director Denial's story, all male social workers at her office used the child sex dolls. Also, at least a few of them used the CPR dummy's mouth as a masturbation aid.
  • All-Natural Snake Oil: Discussed in "Foot Work."
    "All those cures and remedies that claim to be 100-percent natural ingredients, therefore 100-percent safe, Angelique laughs. She says, Cyanide is natural. So is arsenic.
  • Already Met Everyone/Forgotten First Meeting: A few times, it seems like characters from one story will show up in another.
    • For example, in "The Nightmare Box" one of the people in the art gallery is described as having a ponytail and chewing gum... Just like The Duke of Vandals, who is perpetually chewing nicotine gum and, as an artist, would have a lot of reason to be hanging around an art gallery.
  • Ancient Artifact/Artifact of Doom: The Nightmare Box, possibly.
  • Anyone Can Die: Lady Baglady, Duke of Vandals, Comrade Snarky, Miss America, The Matchmaker, Missing Link, Mrs. Clark, and Miss Sneezy. Most likely the rest of the cast as well if the ending is anything to go by...
  • Arc Words: Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment...
    • "The camera behind the camera behind the camera."
    • "The mythology of us."
    • Numerous lesser examples, phrases repeated in a new context to give a new, often darker meaning. This is a recurring theme in Chuck's work.
  • Ass Shove: In "Guts". With a carrot.
    • One of Cassandra's MANY injuries after her disappearance is that someone shoved a chair leg up her ass and twisted it. She did.
  • Back from the Dead: Mr. Whittier faked his death and watched the rest of the writers' ordeal from hiding.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Mrs. Clark.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Mother Nature, who aside from cutting herself to appear more sympathetic and pretends to be love with Saint Gut-Free because 'every good story needs a romance plot', doesn't really do much through out the book. Up until the last chapter where she stabs Miss Sneezy and drags her corpse back inside, all so her and Saint Gut-Free can stay in longer and get the most fame for when they're found. If they ever get found
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: "Missing Link" postulates that these creatures are actually humans with an odd genetic quirk causing were-creature-style transformation. The teller of this story belongs to a fictitious Native American tribe in which this trait is allegedly quite common, including a supposed case in the teller's own family.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Good. Gravy. Absolutely NO ONE in this book gets off clean. The closest thing to a "good guy" we get is Ms. Clark and she murdered her daughter.
    • There's also Miss America. Even though she's a catty bitch, the worst things she does is state Comrade Snarky is dead when she's only fainted (though whether she intended to is dubious) and she eats Cora Reynolds the cat for no real reason.
    • Miss Sneezy is also fairly innocent. However, the thing that needs to be kept in mind is that, with the exception of Ms. Clark, even the ones who don't dirty their hands just stand by while it happens.
  • Black Comedy: Some parts of the book can be construed this way.
  • Blackmail: Chef Assassin's story is a letter to his favorite kitchen knife manufacturer, revealing himself as a serial killer of food critics. He (almost apologetically) asks them to pay him to either start a new career or switch to a competing brand to avoid negative PR. If the huge supply of cash he has at the beginning is any indication, they accepted.
  • Body Horror: Several instances. At one point, several characters want to seem the biggest victim, and they begin to compete in self-mutilation.
    • Saint Gut-Free tells a story about a guy he knew, who tried masturbating with a strip of candle-wax down his urethra. It ends up lodged in his bladder, and his parents use his college fund to pay for the operation. "One stupid mistake, and now he'll never be a lawyer." Saint Gut-Free's own story of masturbation-inflicted injury manages to be even worse. He was sitting underwater on the pool circulation pump, and the suction caused his large intestine to prolapse, tethering him to the pump so that he couldn't get up. He was forced to gnaw it off or drown.
    • The Baroness Frostbite applies from the beginning; her mouth has already been reduced to a greasy hole without lips due to...guess.
  • Brown Note: A Real Life one, if you can believe it. Chuck has read the short story "Guts" several times while promoting the book, and almost everytime, someone has fainted. There's also accounts of others reading this story to their peers with similar effects. Oddly, New Yorkers seem to be immune to the story's effect. As an anonymous audience member responded when Palahniuk expressed surprise that no one had fainted: "*snort* This is New York."
    • The story "Foot Work" has a tactile version. As a reflexologist, Mother Nature learns that stimulating the right foot muscles can give the subject a spontaneous orgasm. Or kill them.
    • Those who look in the Nightmare Box when it's activated see something that renders them completely passive and unmotivated, with no more interest in their regular life. A bit of an unusual case, in that the subjects themselves don't seem unhappy about this state of affairs, though their families and social circle suffer.
  • Bubble Boy: Inverted. Miss Sneezy describes herself as the opposite of this phenomena: cut off from society in a maximum-security medical facility, so that her fatal disease (of which she's an asymptomatic carrier) won't spread.
  • Callousness Towards Emergency: During Mr. Whittier's alleged death everyone is trying to think of some way they can speed the process along, rather than try to help.
  • Catchphrase: Several (due to multiple narrators), such as "Don't laugh, but..." occurring frequently in Mother Nature's story.
  • Characters as Device: When the writers decide that they would rather sell their collective story than their own personal tales, they begin talking about who will fulfill which role in the story (Sacrificial Lamb, Romance Arc, etc.).
  • Closed Circle: The characters trap themselves in an isolated theater, each unwilling to leave until they're able to present themselves as the hero of the resulting news stories and Ripped from the Headlines movie.
  • Conjoined Twins: Saint Gut-Free's "ghost" is a two-headed baby.
  • Correspondence Course: Agent Tattletale takes one to become a private investigator.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: In "The Nightmare Box." We hear about the box being "ready" four times. Three out of those four times, someone looked in the box.
  • Designated Villain: The writers decide that, in order to make their story marketable, they need villains. They designate Mr. Whittier for this purpose, and shortly thereafter, his assistant Mrs. Clark when he dies.
    • Invoked and Discussed in Mrs. Clark's case: Mrs. Clark hasn't actually done anything to the writers, but they still designate her as the villain because she wasn't one of the original writers.
    "There's no point in blaming one of us for this. There are victims...And there are villains...Don't create shades of gray that a mass audience can't follow."
  • Depraved Bisexual: More "manipulative and controlling" than outright depraved, but the Matchmaker is so-called because he hired a male sex worker named Steed to seduce his ex-girlfriend, gather intelligence on her, then break her heart so the Matchmaker could catch her on the rebound. At their last transaction he has sex with Steed himself "so he'll know who's in her head."
  • Deuteragonist: Seventeen of them, all vying for the position of The Hero.
  • Dirty Old Man: Mr Whittier appears to be one of these except he's actually thirteen.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Female: Horribly averted in "Speaking Bitterness" when a trans-exclusionary radical feminist group suspects the newest member "Miranda" of being a postoperative transgender woman. Their response? Strip her naked and force objects inside of her to see if she's a female as she claims. All the women in the group also act extremely misogynistic, claiming that Miranda was "asking for it" due to her provocative clothing and flamboyant style. In the ultimate twist of irony, it's strongly implied that Miranda is biologically female and that all the women of the group became the very thing they claim to hate.
  • Downer Ending: It's pretty much hinted that everyone dies.
  • Driven to Suicide: One of the people who looked into the Nightmare Box.
  • Eats Babies: Miss America is pregnant at the beginning of the book and goes into labour around the time everyone has entered Donner Party Mode. And just because the situation wasn't horrifying enough, the others bring her some baby stew afterwards. Luckily(?) it's possible she died before eating it.
    • Somewhat averted by the fact that it was a miscarriage.
  • Enfant Terrible: Brandon Whittier at age 13. He has progeria, a disease which causes its victims to age at seven times the normal rate, becoming Younger Than They Look. He tricks the female volunteers at the nursing home where he lives into thinking he's eighteen, begging them not to let him die a virgin, and then threatening to report them for child molestation unless they give him ten thousand dollars.
  • Everyone Meets Everyone: The novel opens with Saint Gut-Free driving a tour bus around to pick up the other writers.
  • Fan Disservice: Cassandra Clark is described as an Innocent Fanservice Girl with a fit body who spends most of her onstage time either naked or close to it. She also spends most of her onstage time clinically depressed, mutilated, driven mad, and eventually dead and rotting.
  • Fingore: Wanting to play the biggest victim for when their story sells, quite a few characters begin lopping off their own fingers and toes.
  • Foot Focus: Mother Nature's reflexology requires a considerable amount of focus on feet.
  • Foreshadowing: Several of the writers' goodbye notes foreshadow their stories; the most dire is Miss Sneezy's, when she spray paints "Call me when you find a cure" on a bus stop bench. She turns out to be carrying a fatal, and very communicable, disease.
  • Former Child Star: Kenneth Wilcox in Swan Song, the Earl of Slander's story. Unlike most examples, Ken is well-adjusted and living a normal, if boring, life as a veterinarian, until the Earl of Slander drugs him, stages his suicide, plants drugs and illicit pornography in his apartment, and fakes a tell-all interview of how his life went down the drain. Nobody wants to buy a boring, content-ever-after story...
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: One of the stories involves something called a "nightmare box" which does this to whoever looks inside it.
  • Granola Girl: Mother Nature, who (despite being young) is pretty much a full-on hippie neck-deep in the 21st century and in 21st century New Age movements.
  • Groin Attack:
    • Director Denial's story describes how a fellow Social Worker became so fed up with the local cops having sex with the anatomically-correct dolls she used with sex crime victims that she put razor blades in its orifices. Not to mention the Matchmaker's story. Shoo-rook.
    • How the Matchmaker dies, in an attempt to make himself the most sympathetic. He has the Reverend chop his penis off with a cleaver, but reality ensues when he bleeds out moments later.
  • Home Porn Movie: "The Porn Stars". They started out making the movie as a labor of love and to make money. By the time they're finished, they've realized how artificial their relationship has become.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Bowling ball?
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Discussed, as everyone notes Miss Sneezy has poor health due to her sneezing all the time, and that she'd make a great martyr for their story. Also Double Subverted as, in reality, she sneezes all the time because her sinuses are wrecked from her past; carrying a deadly airborne virus, she damaged her sinuses escaping island quarantine by walking several miles underwater in an airtight, anti-contamination suit.
  • I Taste Delicious: Comrade Snarky, having actually fainted instead of dying, awakens unaware that her ass has been carved off and follows the delicious smell of cooked meat. She keeps eating until she notices the rose tattoo on her butt is on some crackling.
  • From Bad to Worse: As you might predict, the story starts with 17 neurotic writers trapped in a building, and it slowly starts going downhill from there.
  • Lonely Doll Girl: Cora Reynolds in "Exodus."
  • Mad Artist: Everybody. Each one of the protagonistic individuals are haunted by their own past, as well as aspiring writers.
  • Magical Native American: Missing Link.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mr. Whittier.
  • Meaningful Rename: The first poem, "Guinea Pigs", discusses how they got their names: each of them was named after a sin or something that they did that got them in trouble. To quote the poem, "the opposite of superhero names".
  • Mechanical Abomination: The "Nightmare Box". Whoever looks inside and presses the button apparently sees the "real reality" and learns that the one we occupy is "infinitely fake" and a "nightmare". Everyone who witnesses this is driven insane or commits suicide.
  • Mind Rape: Whatever the "Nightmare Box" does.
  • Muse Abuse: The story is about a creative writing retreat wherein, instead of trying to come up with story ideas, the participants opt to torture each other so they can write a book... about their harrowing experience on the writers' retreat.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: As the workshop group begin to sabotage their facilities to make a more dramatic, bankable story, they begin to suffer starvation. When it came to finding the Duke of Vandals dead and putrefying, Mrs. Clark told them not to eat the body. The group start to become more desperate, starting by eating Comrade Snarky's buttock when they mistake her for dead and end up killing her for real.
  • Official Couple: Invoked. Saint Gut-Free and Mother Nature believe that a romantic couple will draw sympathy from audiences.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Everyone who isn't Mr. Whittier or Mrs. Clark.
    • Some fractions of names are given in the stories, though. In some cases, we even get full names.
  • Power Perversion Potential: Mother Nature's backstory involves her meeting up with an old friend who...misuses her reflexology training to give foot massages with er...unusual effects. Mother Nature was pulled into the career until circumstances forced her to quit. This eventually culminates to the footjob she did for Saint Gut-Free at the end of the story.
  • Pregnant Hostage: Miss America, who learns shortly after the story's beginning that she's carrying her boyfriend's child.
  • Psycho Knife Nut: Chef Assassin. He not only brings his favorite set of chef's knives with him to the retreat, but his entire story is a love letter to their manufacturer in which he reveals he's taken to using them to carve up food critics.
  • Rape as Drama: Invoked occasionally:
    • Mr. Whittier: Actually thirteen years old and suffering from a type of progeria. He tricks wealthy volunteer housewives into having sex with him, only to blackmail them as they've unknowingly committed statutory rape.
    • Comrade Snarky: She and her feminist group, believing the new, overly effeminate group member to be a male-to-female transgender, proceed to remove her clothes and sexually assault her to "check" if she's really a woman.
    • Director Denial: Her story involves the wrong type of anatomically-accurate child dolls being ordered for the county CPR training facility, and several police officers using said dolls for extremely questionable sexual purposes. Taken further as the protagonist of the story sees the dolls as living things.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The boy and dog from "Hot Potting?" they're real.
    • At least part of "Guts" is true: Faulty pool drains can and have sucked out people's intestines. Former politician John Edwards made his name representing a three year old girl who suffered that fate.
      • Actually, all three stories in "Guts" are true stories recounted to Chuck, the first two by friends, the third by a man he met at a Sexoholic's meeting when researching for Choke.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: The characters choose Miss Sneezy on account of her Incurable Cough of Death. Lady Baglady actually ends up being this, and Miss Sneezy survives until the end of the story.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: The workshop is really a derelict building in the urban hinterland, sealed up and kept locked. For three months.
  • Slumming It: Lady Baglady, her late husband, and friends of theirs made a hobby of pretending to be street people for a change of pace from their ultra-luxurious "real lives". Then someone started killing off street people to eliminate potential witnesses to a bloody kidnapping...
  • Small Name, Big Ego: In-universe, Chef Assassin. He doesn't like critics.
  • Snark Ball: Comrade Snarky spends the entire bus ride to the theater riffing on everyone around her.
  • Stepford Smiler: Miss America. She acts at all times like she is on camera.
  • Straw Feminist: Comrade Snarky and her group. Granted, many of them have good reasons for being distrustful of men, but it really doesn't give them the excuse to rape a new member they suspect is transgender.
  • Surrogate Soliloquy: After her daughter is killed, Mrs. Clark goes to the place her body was found to talk to "her" and that's how the police know that she was the murderer.
  • Taking the Veil: Mother Nature tried to enter a nunnery in order to hide from the Russian mob.
  • Teenage Pregnancy: The end of "Obsolete", as part of the Adam and Eve Plot, Eve is a school-age kid, who's pregnant with the child of Adam, another school-age kid.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: According to the museum curator, the Nightmare Box contains the truth of reality, which drove three people into a state of near-madness.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The Matchmaker ends up dying after he gets someone to chop off his dick, despite knowing that in his story, the general dies right after accidentally doing the same to himself.
  • Typhoid Mary: Miss Sneezy.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Possibly. There is the potential for tons of it. Keeping in mind that these people are writers, it's easy to start second guessing their stories. When the stories first acquire an air of Magical Realism and then become increasingly fantastic, it is left up to the audience to decide what to believe (if anything), and what to doubt (if anything).
    • Especially considering that two of the stories are about biological mutations and psychic abilities.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Saint Gut-Free referred to his attempts at underwater masturbation as "Pearl Diving".
    • Specifically the act of collecting the little "pearls" of ejaculate from the pool.
  • Younger Than They Look: Mr. Whittier is a thirteen-year-old suffering from progeria.
    • Miss Sneezy is actually only twenty-two, she just suffers from extreme sinus problems.
  • Zip Me Up: A somewhat disturbing example. Mother Nature asks her self-appointed love interest to help zip her up... because she doesn't have enough fingers to do it herself, as she and her companions have been cutting off parts of their fingers to garner sympathy from others.