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Literature / The Dead Zone

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The Dead Zone is a 1979 sci-fi/thriller novel by Stephen King. It has the distinction of being entirely planned from the start unlike his usual Writing by the Seat of Your Pants, and is the only time he tried this and ended up liking the result.

A high school teacher named Johnny Smith is left in a coma for four and a half years following a car accident — only to discover when he wakes up that, while he has suffered slight brain damage creating a "dead zone" where certain concepts are inaccessible, he has also gone from having occasional flashes of precognition, to having a powerful form of psychometry. Now, whenever he touches something or someone, Johnny may have a psychic vision of the past, present or a possible future. As he comes to terms with all that has happened in the missing five years of his life and the notoriety he gains with his abilities, he finds himself trying to stop the election of Greg Stillson, an up-and-coming politician whom Johnny foresees will cause a nuclear apocalypse.

The story has been adapted twice into visual media. The 1983 film stars Christopher Walken as Johnny and Martin Sheen as Stillson and was directed by David Cronenberg. In 2002, a television series based loosely on the novel aired on the USA Network, starring Anthony Michael Hall as Smith.

Not to be confused with the Dragon Ball Z movie Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone provides examples of the following tropes:

  • 90% of Your Brain: The accident left Johnny with a "dead zone" in the brain, related to names of places and certain objects which he cannot evoke anymore, and an inactive part of the brain was activated to take its place; this part is responsible for his visions.
  • A-Team Firing: Johnny has a perfect vantage point, a clear view and a brand new, high-quality rifle. And he misses Stillson with every one of his shots. Meanwhile, Stillson's security team avert the trope, as they riddle him with bullets pretty quickly.
  • Anonymous Killer Narrator: Frank Dodd's first murder is told from his point of view, without revealing his name; the narration refers to him as "the killer".
  • Ass Shove: The book mentions that two hired thugs with brass knuckles came around to Stillson's house after he gained national fame humiliating the Ranchers' and Cattlemen's Association, trying to "persuade" him to leave town forever. The goons were later found badly beaten and pantsless with their instruments in places "most commonly associated with sitting down", one of them even needing surgery to remove the foreign object.
  • The Atoner: Roger becomes this after not heeding Johnny's warning about the restaurant fire. He aggressively tries to track Johnny down to give him a financial reward, and even pays off his massive amounts of medical debt. Despite this, he mentions that the money can't restore the lives lost or stop the nightmares he now suffers from. As Johnny's father puts it, Roger is "doing penance the only way he knows how".
  • Bald of Evil: Stillson is almost completely bald in Johnny's vision, which actually gets him to put off doing anything about it since it's probably far in the future.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Averted. Turns out that the visions of the future allow one to change it.
  • Being Good Sucks: Johnny wants nothing to do with the potential of his abilities, primarily due to the physical, psychological and sociological toll using them has on his life. Every time he involves himself with the content of his visions (a lot of them forcing him to see and feel horrifying things), he only does it when there are lives on the line, and even then no one actually believes him until it's too late and they require extensive goading to do anything. He even risks being seen as a historical villain and madman by trying to assassinate Greg Stillson just to save the lives of billions in a potential nuclear apocalypse, something that ends his life.
  • Big Bad: Greg Stillson.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Johnny fails at assassinating Stillson and is mortally wounded but during his attempt, Stillson uses a child as a Human Shield which is caught on camera by a photographer. A dying Johnny touches Stillson's ankle and sees that Stillson will not become president and his career in politics is in ruins, thus preventing him from starting a nuclear war. Plus, Johnny was going to die soon from a brain tumor anyway.
  • Blackmail: Stillson gets a banker to finance his campaign for Congress by threatening to expose the banker's extramarital affair.
  • Blessed with Suck: Psychic powers don't seem as much fun when you have to live through the attack of a serial killer on a nine-year-old girl, through the killer's point of view. Not only that, but nearly everyone either sees Johnny as a crazy person, a scam artist or a prophet, something that does not help his already deescalating life after having been stuck in a coma for five-years.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Johnny reminds Sarah that while she had five years of him being in a coma to move on, from his point of view he had a fantastic date with a woman he was planning to propose to, only to wake up the next morning to the news that she had left him, gotten married, and had a kid with someone else.
  • Came Back Strong: Johnny is critically injured in a car accident and is in a coma for five years. When he wakes up, he has Psychic Powers, including precognition and psychometry. Averted with his physical state, though. It takes numerous operations, implants, and months of rehabilitation for him to be able to even move on his own. He's well-aware and informed many times that he will be never as strong as he was before the accident.
  • The Cassandra: Johnny notices a pattern in that whenever he tries telling someone about his prediction, no one believes him until after the fact. Even when someone heeds his warning, they only ever do it to humor him, and when he proves them right everyone becomes frightened and suspicious of him.
  • Cassandra Did It: When the news confirms Johnny's predictions about the fire at Cathy's comes true and the party-goers at Chuck's house see it on the news, one of the party-goers hysterically blames Johnny for the fire using pyrokinesis.
  • Catching Up on History: When John Smith wakes up from a coma he has been in for several years, he starts reading a backlog of old newspapers and magazines to catch up on what happened while he was in a coma (including Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War). At one point, he notes that one morbid aspect of this reading is finding out who died in the intervening years.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Johnny predicts that there will be a fire in a restaurant-lounge called Cathy's, during a graduation party. After this happens, someone accuses him of setting it on fire "by his mind, just like in that book Carrie" (also written by Stephen King).
  • Character Overlap: The tabloid reporter Dees gets his own turn in the limelight as the protagonist of the short story "The Night Flier" in Nightmares & Dreamscapes.
  • Children Are Innocent: When Johnny holds Sarah's baby, he gets a pleasant image of simple contentment. The baby doesn't worry about the future, he's just happy to be warm and dry and near his mother.
  • Convenient Coma: It's one of few examples where this trope is averted. Due to spending years in a coma, Johnny's legs deteriorate and he needs several surgeries and grueling physical therapy to be able to walk again.
  • Cower Power: When Johnny tries to shoot him, Stillson grabs a small child to shield himself. Unfortunately for him, the whole thing is captured on camera, and the resulting negative publicity is enough to ruin Stillson's rise to power.
  • Death of a Child:
    • Some of the ones killed in the accident Johnny was in were high school students.
    • One of the murder victims is 9 years old. The police chief's daughter knew her and came very close to being a victim herself, except she was walking with a friend that day. The horror of this is not overlooked in story.
    • Most of the victims of the fire at Cathy's were high school students celebrating their graduation.
    • The possible consequence of electing a dangerous unstable psychopath to the highest position of power - particularly one who believes he has a divine mission to start World War III.
  • Deconstructed Trope: Discussed in Johnny's case-book when he muses on his other options for dealing with Stilson. He appreciates that his visions aren't a valid source of evidence for anyone else that Stillson will be dangerous in the future, but Johnny himself doesn't have the experience or skills needed to conduct a more conventional investigation into Stilson's activities in the hope of finding something that people will believe.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Greg Stillson: a cunning sociopath who would happily sign the death warrant for humanity, and in Johnny's vision, gets that chance. This trope is a large part of the whole premise, in order to help get us on the potential assassin's side so that the assassin, for once, can be the good guy.
  • Dirty Coward: Stillson reacts to the attempt on his life by grabbing a young boy and using him as a Human Shield.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Frank Dodd. After meeting Johnny, he somehow senses that Johnny will find out that he's a serial killer, so he goes home and kills himself.
    • In the film, as a dying Johnny grabs Stillson's hand he sees a vision of the future where Stillson's political career is ruined (as a magazine conveniently shows), and sees Stillson shooting himself in the head.
  • Epistolary Novel: Parts of the story are told through letters and excerpts of newspaper and magazine articles.
  • Establishing Character Moment: While he's still a Bible salesman, Stillson stops at a house with a Angry Guard Dog, he keeps his friendly, affable disposition - until he's sure nobody is home, at which he maces and viscously beats the dog to death.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Stillson. He lived with his mother and supported her financially until she died when he was 25. When Johnny is doing research on him, he finds that his mother was the only important woman in Stillson's life.
  • Even Mooks Have Loved Ones: Stillson's campaign manager and chief fundraiser is a banker with a wife and son, to whom Stillson threatened to show pictures of the banker and a waitress having sex in order to get him to work for him.
  • Failed Future Forecast: A minor example. Johnny predicts that the flashpoint for Stillson's apocalypse will be South Africa, which at the time was developing a nuclear weapons program during The Apartheid Era. However, South Africa dismantled its nuclear arsenal in 1989, three years before Smith believes Stillson would be elected. Of course, Stillson's influence may have changed how world politics developed such that they remained a nuclear power.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Greg Stillson. Underneath his public persona of a charismatic, avuncular politician lurks a vicious psychopath.
  • Fictional Political Party: Stillson forms the America Now party after he gets into the House of Representatives as an independent. He's obviously inspired by certain radical right-wing movements, and he used to distribute John Birch-style tracts about Jewish/Communist conspiracies.
    • When Johnny starts following Stillson's career in earnest, he notes that while Stillson talks a big game about independence and rejecting both parties, his actual voting record and legislative proposals are strictly right wing.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Double subverted. Johnny is shot to death before he can kill Stillson, but Stillson's reaction to the attempt on his life (he picks up a child to use as a Human Shield) ends up destroying his political career, thus averting the apocalypse.
  • Historical In-Joke: Johnny makes a hobby of shaking the hands of political candidates. When he runs into Jimmy Carter he flashes on the fact that he's going to win the election and become President.
    • The book was published just a little too early, however, for him to have a similar reaction when he shakes the hand of Ronald Reagan. A preemptive excuse for missing any such future developments is provided by saying that for many of the politicians, shaking hands has become so routine as to become meaningless, thus preventing Johnny from getting much of a read on them. Also, Reagan may only have been able to become president after Stillson becoming president was averted, which hadn't happened yet.
  • I Love the Dead: Frank Dodd rapes the corpse of his first victim after strangling her to death.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Averted for Johnny, who, despite having a clear view, close range, a quality weapon, and previous hunting experience, misses every shot when he attempts to assassinate Stillson. Security guards are a realistic mixed bag, some missing and some hitting but non-lethally, at least at first.
  • Kick the Dog: A horrifically literal example in the prologue depicts a young Greg Stillson spraying ammonia in a dog's face and kicking it to death.
  • Mission from God: On her deathbed, Johnny's mother tells him that God gave him special powers because He has a job for Johnny. Johnny dismisses this at the time (though promises that he will "do his duty" so his mother could die in peace), but later comes to believe that killing Stillson is his mission, even if he still can't believe in a personal God.
  • My Beloved Smother: Frank Dodd's mother takes it to a truly horrific level.
  • Mr. Smith: Johnny buys a rifle to shoot Stillson under his own name. The clerk is sure that he's using an alias.
  • Nice Guy: Johnny. Sarah thinks that he's impossible to resent.
  • Papa Wolf: Johnny initially doesn't want to help with the murder/rape cases, although he feels guilty, because he's afraid of being put back in the spotlight. When the next victim is a nine-year-old girl? He picks up the phone before the news item is over.
  • Party Scheduling Gambit: When Johnny foresees that most of Chuck Chatsworth's high school class will die in a fire when the restaurant their graduation celebration is to be held in is struck by lightning, his father Roger Chatsworth doesn't really believe it will happen, but humors Johnny by inviting the entire class to come to his home for an alternate party instead. Those who accept his invitation survive, while most of those who stick with the original party die horribly.
  • Psychometry: Johnny's visions are triggered by touching people or objects, and while the visions are sometimes prophetic, others are mental impressions, such as when he hears Frank Dodd's thoughts after touching the bandstand where he raped and murdered a child.
  • President Evil: Johnny's vision of Stillson. Given Stillson's history of poor impulse-control and general hawkishness, it's left vague whether he causes the apocalypse out of genuine malice or blind incompetence.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Sheriff Bannerman asks for Johnny's help, and readily accepts that he could come up empty, saying "no venture, no gain" more than once. He's sympathetic to Johnny's situation and treats him well (except for one outburst when some exceptionally shocking news is delivered rather abruptly).
  • Rip Van Winkle: Johnny falls into a coma in October 1970, and wakes up in May 1975. He's shocked to learn that during this time Nixon had to resign, the Vietnam War was won by the Communists, and on the personal front, his girlfriend got married and had a son. He even compares himself to Rip van Winkle.
  • Sanity Slippage: Johnny's mother started out as a regular Baptist with a passing interest in New Age topics and conspiracy theories. After Johnny winds up in a coma, her faith begins to overwhelm her reason and she starts believing the more out-there fringe-denominations with increased vigor, unapologetically spending more money than they have on televangelists, scam holy-relics, anti-science propaganda and Christian/UFO Apocalypse Cults, and even trying to sell their house without telling her husband. By the time her stroke claims her life, she is convinced that Johnny's powers were given to him for a Mission from God.
  • Scam Religion: Johnny's mother sinks a lot of her and her husband's savings on fake relics, televangelists and Apocalypse Cults, rationalizing that whenever none of them work or when their predictions are incorrect that it was just not the correct time to use them.
  • Scrapbook Story: We learn of Johnny's reasoning through his writings in a series of scrapbooks he keeps on Stilson. The epilogue contains excerpts from Johnny's letters to his father and Sarah, and the "transcript" of hearings by a Senate committee investigating Johnny's attempt to assassinate Stillson.
  • Second Love:
    • Walt is this for Sarah.
    • Charlene is this for Johnny's father.
  • Serial Killer: Frank Dodd, a rapist and strangler of women and girls. He was a sheriff's deputy who lived with his mother in a childish clown-patterned bedroom.
  • The '70s: Aside from the prologue, the novel takes place between 1970 and 1979, and references many of the historical events that happened in between. Johnny even shakes hands with Jimmy Carter and predicts he will be elected president.
  • The Sheriff: George Bannerman of Castle Rock, who enlists a reluctant Johnny to help him track down the Castle Rock Strangler.
  • Sleazy Politician: Greg Stillson regularly uses illegal methods, such as blackmailing businessmen to finance his campaigns, and intimidating whistleblowers with thugs.
  • The Sociopath: Stillson. Ax-Crazy with a Hair-Trigger Temper, violent towards children and animals even from a young age, obscenely narcissistic and cares about no one but himself, willing to do anything to put himself on top...he checks just about all the boxes.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: Sheriff Bannerman resorts to asking Johnny for help because up until then his only lead for the Castle Rock killer is:
    "One of them thinks he might have seen "some guy" standing on the other side of the bandstand. That's our whole description. "Some guy." We ought to put it out on the wire, what do you think? 'Be on the lookout for some guy'.".
  • The One That Got Away: Sarah for Johnny. While he's in a coma, she marries someone else, but Johnny never gets over her and doesn't have another serious relationship after waking up.
  • Title Drop: Every version features the phrase "the dead zone". However, oddly enough each version ascribes the phrase a different meaning. In the original novel it refers to parts of Johnny's brain which had died during his coma, leaving certain concepts, mostly relating to locations, inaccessible to him. This becomes important when he has a crucial vision of the future — some elements of which he couldn't make out because they were "in the dead zone."
  • Traveling Salesman: Stillson used to be one in the '50s, selling Bibles and books about a Communist-Jewish conspiracy against America.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Stillson enjoys widespread public support for most of the story thanks to his charismatic demeanor and populist platform. It comes crashing down after he uses a child to shield himself from Johnny's gun.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Frank Dodd's last victim is a nine-year-old girl whom he rapes and strangles to death.
    • This is what ultimately torpedoes Stillson's chance at the presidency - when Johnny tries to shoot him, he grabs a small child to use as a human shield. The whole thing is captured in a photo, and the image of Stillson putting a toddler in danger to save himself is enough to turn the public against him.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: The only reason Johnny doesn't shoot Stillson to death is because he's using a young boy as a human shield.

Tropes specific to the movie:

  • Adaptational Jerkass: Johnny's employer to tutor his son, Roger Stuart, is more of a vehement Fantasy-Forbidding Father and a Supernatural-Proof Father who disbelieves Johnny about the fatal hockey game in which the thin ice would break with his son Chris on it and fires him to get him off his and his son's back. When the incident happens, Roger the next day has a My God, What Have I Done? Jerkass Realization expression on his face whilst sitting in his armchair as he regrets not heeding Johnny's warnings, even though Chris actually listened and survived, possibly as the Sole Survivor while his friends perished.
  • Adaptational Name Change: Roger Chatsworth becomes Roger Stuart in the film, while his son Chuck is renamed Chris.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Stillson, as if he weren't already villainous in the book. In the novel, it's left unclear whether Stillson will start the nuclear war deliberately or through his incompetence, while the movie does no such thing. In Johnny's vision, Stillson gives the launch order euphorically, even though a diplomatic solution to the international crisis has been reached.
  • Broken Pedestal: Johnny becomes this to his tutoring employer Roger Stuart when he tries to warn him about the fatal hockey game icebreaking, only to be vehemently disbelieved and then fired as Roger initially thought Johnny was trying to be The Atoner with his tutoring job to pay his debt to society for being a Con Man with his so-called "fake" powers that prompted him to hire him in the first place and later believed Johnny is unrepentantly trying to con him and his son about the fatal hockey game that instead gave him a reason to fire him.
  • Death by Adaptation: Stillson. In the novel it's clear he's still alive while the hearings in the wake of his stunt at the rally are taking place (one witness declares Stillson wouldn't even be voted for dogcatcher). In the movie, Johnny's last vision is of Stillson committing suicide when he realizes that Johnny was right: "It's over. You're finished."
  • Driven to Suicide: Dodd and Stillson.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Sonny (Stillson's bodyguard) is a violent thug, but even he is repulsed by Stillson's cowardly use of a child as a human shield. When Stillson orders Sonny to track down the photographer who took incriminating photos, Sonny just shrugs and sarcastically says that he didn't see any photographer.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Johnny, as not only his powers makes him a social outcast, but he can alternatively be seen as The Cassandra Con Man towards anyone who doesn't believe in his powers such as Roger Stuart.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Johnny presents this scenario to Dr. Weizak as a way to decide whether he should go through with his decision to kill Stillson before he causes a nuclear apocalypse. Weizak tries avoiding the question but he finally states that as a man of medicine, he's expected to save lives and ease suffering so yes, even if he didn't get away with it alive, he would "kill the son of a bitch".
  • Labcoat of Science and Medicine: Dr. Sam Weizak almost consistently wears one in the hospital scenes.
  • Left Hanging: Played with. After Johnny touches Dr. Weizak's hand, he senses that Weizak's mother, (whom he thought was killed in WWII, is actually still alive, and tells him how to contact her. Weizak finds her number, and even calls it, but hangs up without speaking to her, saying it's not meant to be.
  • Meaningful Background Event: When Johnny and Sheriff Bannerman converse in the tunnel, Frank Dodd can be seen nervously looking back and forth at them. It's because he's legitimately scared that Johnny is going to out him as the serial killer then and there.
  • Noodle Incident: When the tabloid reporter pushes Johnny to demonstrate his alleged powers, Johnny asks him if he'd really like to know how and why his sister committed suicide. The reporter's reaction is one of fear and disgust, suggesting that something that he did drove his sister to suicide, or at least that he somehow bears some responsibility for what happened. We never find out what that was.
  • Oh, Crap!: The look that Stillson's vice president and secretary of state give to each other when he tells them that the missiles are flying in Johnny's vision.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Stillson
    Greg Stillson: The missiles are flying! Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
  • Papa Wolf: Roger Stuart entered this mode against Johnny when he thinks Johnny was trying to con him about the fatal hockey game and fires him as his son's tutor.
  • The Shrink: Dr. Sam Weizak eventually becomes this to a sort with Johnny. While he's mainly there to treat Johnny's physical trauma, he also serves as a sounding board once Johnny figures out he has a "gift," and the discuss the pros and cons of him using it, and the negative effect it could have on people's perceptions of Johnny. The biggest moment comes when Johnny is on the fence about shooting Stillson to prevent nuclear war, and asks Weizak if he'd kill Hitler if he could go back in time. When the good-natured Weizak admits he'd do it, even if it meant his death in the process, it's the final push Johnny needs.
  • Title Drop: Every version features the phrase "the dead zone." However, oddly enough each version ascribes the phrase a different meaning. In the movie, Johnny explains to another character that his visions of the future are different from his visions of the past or present, in that they had a "dead zone" — his way of describing a sense that change the future seen in his visions the events weren't solid or fixed, but could be prevented.
  • Two-Keyed Lock: Before pushing the Big Red Button to launch the nuclear missiles, Stillson needs a general to scan his handprint to verify the command, and threatens to cut his hand off and do it himself if he won't.
  • Would You Like to Hear How They Died?: A rare non-villainous example occurs in the film, when Johnny is being berated by a talkshow host and accused of being a fraud. He eventually loses his patience and calmly asks if he would like to know how his sister really killed herself?