Analysis of ‘The Dead Zone’

The Dead Zone is a supernatural thriller novel by Stephen King that was published in 1979. It’s about a man, Johnny Smith, who has psychic powers of precognition and clairvoyance, which give him visions of the past or future of whomever he touches.

David Cronenberg directed a film adaptation, with Christopher Walken as Smith, in 1983. A TV series with Anthony Michael Hall as Smith was produced in the 2000s. I’ll be referencing the novel and Cronenberg’s film.

Here are some quotes, from the novel:

“But the people didn’t elect buffoons to Washington. Well—hardly ever.” (p. 199)

“Did I grow a third eye?” –Johnny, p. 98

Nothing is ever lost, Sarah. Nothing that can’t be found.” (p. 402)

“It’s been my experience that ninety-five percent of the people who walk the earth are simply inert, Johnny. One percent are saints, and one percent are assholes. The other three percent are the people who do what they say they can do.” –Roger Chatsworth, p. 285

“PRECOGNITION, TELEPATHY, BULLSHIT! EAT MY DONG, YOU EXTRASENSORY TURKEY!” –hate letter to Johnny, p. 181

Well, we all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.” –Johnny’s letter to Sarah, p. 401

“…some things are better lost than found.” –Dr. Sam Weizak, to Johnny, p. 223

From the film:

‘”Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!’ –Johnny Smith

“I need your support, I need your expertise, I need your input, and most importantly, I need your money.” [laughter] –Greg Stillson

“I have had a vision that I am going to be President of the United States someday. And nobody, and I mean nobody is going to stop me!” –Stillson

“Let’s send Greg Stillson to the United States Senate – and mediocrity to hell!” –Stillson […]

Johnny Smith: I’ve been tutoring this boy named Stuart. In the vision, I saw him drown. But that’s not the point. In the vision, something was missing.

Dr. Sam Weizak: How – how do you mean?

Johnny Smith: It was like… a blank spot, a dead zone.

Dr. Sam Weizak: First of all, tell me, did the boy, in fact, drown?

Johnny Smith: His father wanted him to play hockey. I talked him out of it. The boy’s alive.

Dr. Sam Weizak: Ah. Yes. Don’t you see how clear it is? Not only can you see the future, you can…

Johnny Smith: I can change it.

Dr. Sam Weizak: You can change it, exactly. Here. Yes, John. That is your… your “dead zone.” The possibility of… of altering the outcome of your premonitions. It’s fascinating. Let me make a note. […]

Johnny Smith: [touching the mother of serial killer Frank Dodd] You knew? Didn’t you?

Henrietta Dodd: You… you’re a devil, sent from Hell!

In spite of his special powers of knowing what most people couldn’t know, Johnny also has a limit to that unique knowledge, a realm of unknowing that he calls the dead zone: ‘The tumor lies in that area which I always called “the dead zone.”‘ (p. 396) This leads us to a central theme in the novel, a dialectical understanding of the relationship between knowing and unknowing. The biting head of the ouroboros (where dialectical opposites meet) of extrasensory knowledge leads to the bitten tail of unknowing.

Connected to this yin-and-yang concept of knowledge and ignorance is the relationship between organized religion–an authoritarian establishment often associated with superstition and fundamentalist bigotry towards any other forms of knowledge contradictory to its dogma–and intuitive mysticism and spirituality. Johnny’s mother, Vera, adheres to the former; Greg Stillson peddles the former as a Bible salesman in the 1950s; and Johnny demonstrates the latter with his psychic powers.

In this connection, consider what the Tao Te Ching says: “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness.” (71) Also, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (56) Vera’s overconfidence in the ‘truth’ of her Christian fundamentalism, with her attendant neuroticism, demonstrates how she thinks she knows the truth, but doesn’t. Johnny’s admitted “dead zone” of unknowing, along with his unassuming nature, evading the spotlight, shows how he knows, because he doesn’t know.

Added to this virtue is Johnny’s loving, empathic nature. Those who insist on fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical prophecy, obsessing over how Scripture supposedly warns us of 20th and 21st century evils, things its writers couldn’t possibly have known, ought to recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Johnny has oceans of this love: he has it for his father, his mother (as irritating as her fundamentalism may be), and for his girl, Sarah, whom he would have married, if not for his car accident and four-and-a-half-year coma, a kind of extended stay in the belly of the great fish, making Jonah‘s sojourn a mere pit-stop in comparison.

In relation to the rest of the events of the story (and to Jonah’s, and to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to which Johnny’s coma is symbolically associated), the timing of Johnny’s coma is unusual. The coma occurs towards the beginning of the novel/film, before his hesitancy to use his abilities for the good of the world; whereas Jonah’s wish to escape having to obey God’s command preceded his time in the belly of the great fish. The same goes for Jesus’ harrowing of Hell, between his death and resurrection: this harrowing occurs towards the end of the four Gospels, after his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, and after his spiritual struggle in Gethsemane, as we know.

Johnny’s name is a pun on Jonah; it also shares a J with Jesus (Yeshua being a variant of Joshua). Johnny is a teacher, with a good heart, like Jesus (who was often called ‘rabbi’), and also like carpenter Jesus, he’s a man of modest means. Contrast Johnny with Trump-like, narcissistic Stillson, whose ambition is to become the US president one day, and to prove his daddy wrong, that he’s better than Daddy claimed he is (‘…his father was…bellowing, “You’re no good, runt! You’re no fucking good!”‘p. 9).

Heinz Kohut wrote of how the narcissistic personality grows from a lack of parental empathy, and this is clearly what Stillson lacked in childhood. Johnny, in contrast, has deeply loving parents, instilling a self-love in him that cultivates humility. Just as there’s a dialectical relationship between knowing and unknowing, so is there such a relationship between humility/self-love and narcissism/self-hate.

As it is within, so is it without: Johnny gives out love as best he can to the world, even when cruel, bad luck takes away his job and the love of his life (ironically and dialectically, right after his amazingly good luck on the Wheel of Fortune); Stillson, on the other hand, abuses a dog (when selling Bibles!–pp. 5-7), and bullies those around him to make them comply with his ambitions (e.g., Chapter 18). Even in the alternate future Johnny prevents, with Stillson achieving his presidential ambition, he chooses nuclear genocide over diplomacy with the Soviets. Johnny projects and introjects good, Stillson, evil, regardless of good or ill fortune.

In the end, though Johnny dies, his spirit is felt by Sarah: his Christ-like spiritual body (i.e., his hand–p. 401) touches her. In the novel, we don’t read of Stillson’s suicide, as we see it in the film; he is, however, spiritually destroyed by the scandal caused by his using a child as a human shield against Johnny’s rifle. In the end, Greg is still just the son of his contemptuous father. Johnny, however, is more of a son of God, not just through his abilities, but also through his selfless sacrifice for humanity.

Indeed, in many ways, Johnny’s life can be paralleled with Christ’s, though the order of events seem scrambled, reversed, or even of a contrary nature when compared to the narrative of the Gospels. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s ‘death-and-resurrection’ coma occurs towards the beginning, rather than at the end, of the story. His final act of sacrifice to save humanity involves trying to kill a malefactor (Stillson) rather than save one, as Jesus does when he says, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When Johnny is shot, a bullet hits him in the hand (in the movie), suggesting the stigmata. According to the novel, the last bullet to hit him goes “into the left side of his midsection” (p. 384), comparable to the spear stuck in Christ’s side (John 19:34), the last piercing of his skin. Stillson’s use of the child as a human shield suggests the self-centredness of the other crucified malefactor: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Luke 23:39)

Sarah’s relationship with Johnny, still a love relationship after she married Walt Hazlett during Johnny’s coma, is an illicit one, since she commits adultery by sleeping with Johnny. Her adultery invites comparison with Mary Magdalene, who visited Christ’s tomb when he, risen from the dead, spoke her name (John 20:16). The comparison is clearer when Sarah feels the hand of Johnny’s spirit on her neck (p. 401)

So Johnny is the Jesus of anti-authoritarianism, symbolically in his ‘death-resurrection’ coma happening at the beginning of the story, rather than at the end, as in the Gospels; in his salvific assassination attempt on Stillson; in the superiority of Johnny’s psychic powers to the dogma of Christian fundamentalism.

“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Johnny may have a dead zone, but he still has more in him than mortal knowledge, for he is full of love for humanity.

And even Vera’s unknowing has its limits, for she is right that Johnny should use his divine gift to help humanity. He is reluctant to at first, and in this way his struggle parallels Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, or Jonah’s attempted flight from God.

But Johnny eventually relents, helping the police catch a serial killer/rapist, who as it turns out is a cop himself, Frank Dodd! Here again, we see the anti-authoritarian Jesus in Johnny, exposing a killer among the authorities, the cops–something that upsets Sheriff Bannerman, who has held Dodd in high regard up to this point. This anti-authority Johnny is in this respect like anti-authoritarian Jesus, who exposed the moral hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the legal and religious authorities of his time. (Matthew 23)

Dodd, as a serial killer/rapist, is of the Norman Bates/Ed Gein variety: he lives at home with his mother, Henrietta, from whom he’s received his pathologies, in particular, the notion of “those cheap slutty women that’d be happy to give a nice boy like my Frank an incurable disease” (p. 252). Henrietta is so obsessed with ‘protecting’ her son from “those cheap slutty women” that she “put a clothespin on it so [little Frank would] know how it felt…when you got a disease. A disease from one of those nasty-fuckers, they’re all nasty-fuckers, and they have to be stopped…” (p. 240)

The attitude that Dodd got from his mother, that ‘all women are whores,’ while his mother is apparently the only feminine angel (she who pierced his dick with a clothespin when he was a child!), is an example of psychological splitting, a common defence mechanism, but one here that is taken to a pathological level.

Thus we see in Dodd, as we see in Stillson, a common origin of authoritarian thinking: toxic parenting (consider Philip Larkin‘s famous poem in this regard). The Biblical injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is transferred, by the victims of toxic parents, onto a similarly pathological honouring of authority figures–police, politicians, and religious leaders, even to the point of revering scriptural conceptions of divinity.

Now, Johnny has quite a flawed mother, one whose religious excesses he even compares to Henrietta’s pathologies: “there was something in her eyes, narrowed to glittering slits in their puffy sockets, that reminded him unpleasantly of the way his mother’s eyes had sometimes looked when Vera Smith was transported into one of her religious frenzies.” (p. 251)

But Vera’s faults don’t cause Johnny to split his internal and external worlds into narcissistic idealizing and devaluing, as Stillson’s and Dodd’s parents do. Johnny’s psychic gift symbolizes his empathy, for it connects and unifies him with the external world, rather than alienates him from it. His precognition and clairvoyance also link the past, present, and future for him. Finally, the paradox of his knowing and unknowing, his psychic authority (coupled with his spiritual anti-authoritarianism), the living death of his coma, and his saving of the world by trying to murder Stillson, all show how his actions unify opposites.

Thus, Johnny symbolizes the ideal that I call The Three Unities, those of Space, Time, and Action, a spirituality free of the authoritarianism of organized religion. This dialectical monism is similar to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, an ineffable, inscrutable notion of Ultimate Reality that is attained only through an “abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” (Grotstein) This abandonment of understanding almost sounds like a giving-up of knowledge…the dead zone for accessing divine knowledge? Attaining knowing through a cloud of unknowing? How dialectical!

To return to the Christian symbolism of the story, I find it interesting to compare Johnny’s suffering with Jesus’ passion. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s coma is a symbolic death and resurrection. Jesus’ physical suffering–his scourging, the crown of thorns, the nails through his hands and feet, and the torture of slowly dying on a cross (hence the term excruciating)–is the temporal opposite of Johnny’s psychological suffering–losing Sarah, losing four and a half years of his life, losing his teaching job, and losing his ability to walk normally–which comes after his coma.

This reversal of events symbolizes how Johnny’s a kind of ‘anti-Jesus,’ if you will (not an antichrist, of course!), in that his miraculous acts, his self-sacrifice, and his love of humanity don’t result in a new religion exploiting his memory to establish yet another authoritarian institution. His dead zone, emphasized in the story to the point of being its title, shows how important it is to stress the limitations of one’s talents and knowledge, which is the true basis of humility.

If we pretend we don’t have those limitations, we become like the “slick” Dodd (p, 240), or “The Laughing Tiger” Stillson (p. 293), men whose overweening pride collapses into shame, as when Dodd confesses (p. 255) and kills himself, and in the aftermath of Stillson’s use of a child as a human shield. Tragic irony for the hubristic.

(By the way, another bit of paradoxical irony is seen in how narcissistic Stillson is compared to Trump, and in many ways correctly so, of course: yet, where Stillson as president endangers humanity by wanting to start nuclear war with Russia, Trump’s relative reluctance to show hostility to Russia is what makes the political establishment dislike him. As I’ve argued elsewhere, though, our reasons for disliking him should be the same reasons for disliking that political establishment: they’re all authoritarian narcissists, and they’re all dangerous…but hey! What do I know?)

Stephen King, The Dead Zone, Signet Books, New York, 1979

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, Shambhala, New York, 1961

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