“The Black Phone” by Joe Hill is a short horror story that was released in 2005 in the United Kingdom and was later released in the United States in October of 2007. Through the use of southern gothic, fantastic horror, and surreal horror, Joe Hill’s short story “The Black Phone,” warns young and fearless teens to be mindful that situations can turn out bad if they are not careful. “The Black Phone” represents art horror and pinpoints the issue of abduction the United States underwent in the 2000s. Although, Finney’s engagement with the stranger, Albert, can be seen as an educational lesson in regard to abductions and the decision-making of adolescents in today’s day and age.
Joe Hill, author of, “The Black Phone,” was born June 4, 1972. Hill is the son of Stephen and Tabitha King. Hill’s father, Stephen King, is a legendary horror and fiction writer. Although his real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, he chose to write under pen name the pen name Joe Hill. In an interview with Guy Kelly, author for The Telegraph news site, Hill states, “When I went into writing, I had to know that if someone bought one of my stories they’d bought it for the right reasons – that it is a good story – and not because of who my dad is” (Kelly). Although Hill tried to avoid leaking his identity as Stephen King’s son, in 2007 Hill’s secret was told, but he had already built a reputable name for himself regardless (Kelly). In 2006, Hill won a World Fantasy Best Collection nominee for his work, “20th Century Ghosts,” along with several other awards for his novel, “Heart-Shaped Box.”
“The Black Phone,” takes place in Galesburg, a town characteristic of cold conditions and occasional kidnapping. The story focuses on Johnny Finney, a thirteen-year-old, who was abducted while waiting for his father outside of Poole’s Hardware, when he goes to help a plump man named Albert with his fallen groceries. Albert, also known as “The Galesburg Grabber,” poisoned Finney by spraying a substance into his eyes and mouth and throwing him into the back of his van. Finney was brought into a confined sound-proof basement with white walls, a black phone, a striped mattress, and a barred, narrow window out of Finney’s reach. Finney is trapped in the basement and searches for ways to escape, being told that the phone doesn’t work and that his loudest screams will not be heard. Albert’s brother is in town and this forces him to hide Finney without his brother knowing, which in turn leaves Finney unattended for long periods of time. After answering the phone several times to no response, Finney finally hears someone on the phone and is told to fill the receiver with sand to effectively kill Albert. Albert’s brother discovers Finney had been abducted and confined in the house, so Albert kills his brother with an ax. The story concludes with Finney using the receiver to kill Albert and escape (Hill).
After reading, “The Black Phone,” Hill targets is a minor, male, and middle to upper class audience. In this story, Hill uses an intense dialogue and, in some instances, profanity amongst the conversations between Finney and Albert. The language Hill uses lets the audience know that Hill is targeting those mature enough to handle and understand it. The way that Hill builds the story around the thoughts and actions of Finney, who is thirteen years old, allows other minors to relate with him. The reader can also see that Hill is targeting a male audience because of his use of mainly male characters. The main characters of the story, Finney and Albert, are both males, along with Albert’s brother. Hill even mentions Finney’s father and the storekeeper at Poole’s Hardware, both of which are males. Lastly, Hill targets a middle to upper class audience through the way he describes the town and the well-being of Finney’s family. In the story as Finney is thinking about what his sister is doing while he is missing, he describes her riding a ten-speed bike with a denim jacket that had the collar popped up. This lets the audience know that Hill is referring to a well-off people. While she rides the bike, Hill also explains her riding down, “residential avenues,” which are well kept up (Hill). Now that the reader understands the audience they can better understand the message that Hill is trying to portray.
In this story, Hill’s message is to warn young and fearless teens to be mindful that situations can turn out bad. As a young teenage boy, Finney thought that as he sat there in front of the hardware shop that helping the fat man whose groceries were slipping would be no problem at all (Hill). While it may be a good thing to do, Finney was unaware of the possible dangers of what he was doing. Hill wants the audience to understand that being in vulnerable situations can be very dangerous. Not only was Finney much smaller than Albert, he did not know him either. When Finney witnesses Albert dropping his groceries, this catches his attention to help him (Hill). Hill wants young teenage boys to realize that they should not talk to strangers alone, even if they appear to be in need. Hill also wants to inform the audience of some instances where a situation can be dangerous. In the story, Hill references a van as Alberts vehicle, which is commonly associated with kidnapping. Hill also uses Albert as being a clown and having balloons to symbolize something that entices teens (Hill). Teens may see the balloons and think that he or she may be no harm, but clearly that was not the case as Finney was poisoned and kidnapped (Hill). Hill uses these elements to allow the audience to see and understand what to avoid and watch out for in order to keep steer clear of harm’s way.
“The Black Phone,” ties directly into a literary work of Art-Horror. Noel Carroll, Doctor of Philosophy in cinema studies and philosophy, defines art-horror as horror that provokes an emotional response or effect on its audience (52). Carroll goes on to discuss the characteristics of art-horror, one being the emotional reaction of the audience connecting to the “positive” character’s reaction to the monster (52). Finney in this case is seen as the positive character in which the audience connects to and Albert is the monster character. As Finney is sprayed in the eyes and mouth with poison by Albert, the audience is able to understand the hurt and pain that Finney is experiencing (Hill). The audience is also able feel sorrow for Finney when he is trapped in the basement and Albert has no regard to feed him or give him anything to drink (Hill). It instills in the audience a sorrow and anxiety that Finney is in this situation. Carroll defines monster as something, “impure and unclean,” which he later refers to as, “categorically interstitial” (54). Categorical interstitial is the state of being, “... categorically contradictory, categorically incomplete, or formless” (Carroll 55). In “The Black Phone,” Albert is categorically interstitial because he is both human and a psychopath. Albert is contradictory to the societal norms, by abducting Finney and leaving him trapped in a soundproof basement without food or drinking water (Hill). Also represented in this story are elements of the southern gothic. Southern gothic is primarily focused on grotesque themes along with mentally unstable characters (Southern Gothic). This relates back to “The Black Phone,” with Albert’s psychological state that he would take a teenager with intention of harming him. Hill also incorporates the use of an ax to kill Albert’s brother, and the use of the receiver to kill Albert, to represent bloodiness (Hill). “The Black Phone,” connects with the art-horror genre and southern gothic, but also has a definable category and subgenre.
The category that this story displays is the fantastic horror and the subgenre is surreal horror. Viktoria Prohaskova, of the Department of Massmedia Communication at the University of Ss. Cyrill and Method Trnava, wrote, “The Genre of Horror,” to explain the various categories and subgenres that horror stories may entail. Prohaskova defines fantastic horror as having no explanation for the events or actions that take place, giving the audiences alternatives of viewing it as paranormal activity or hallucination of the positive character (133). In “The Black Phone,” when the phone rings and Finney answers and is given instructions, the story suggests it is Bruce Yamada, who was another victim of, “The Galesburg Grabber,” who subsequently died. This instance of Finney speaking to someone who is dead can be seen as a hallucination. Finney was sprayed with the poison and is described as confused throughout the story. Finney saying that the phone was breathing and that he was talking to a man who died is seen as Finney hallucinating as a result of the poison or lack of nutrition, which is logical. It is up to the audience to decide for themselves just what happens because Hill leaves them the opportunity to decide as a correlation of the fantastic horror category. Prohaskova states that surreal horror is characteristic of a frightening, yet disturbing story that contains, “dreaminess, grotesqueness, bizarreness, and the fantastic” (134). Hill’s story does just that in frightening the audience at the thought of Finney’s abduction. The surreal subgenre is characteristic of the fantastic horror category, which aligns directly with “The Black Phone.” The grotesque theme is revealed when Finney bites into Albert’s arm until he tastes blood in an attempt to escape him (Hill). The main example of the grotesque in this story is when Albert uses the ax to kill his brother by stabbing him in the back of the head and Hill describes to the author the blood spouting out and covering Albert (Hill). Hill’s use of the fantastic horror category and surreal subgenre connect well and as a result evokes within the audience the fright, grotesque, and alternatives it intends to.
“The Black Phone,” was released in October of 2007 in the United States, while child abduction occurred way too often the past couple of years. Gabe Falcon, CNN writer, posted a blog post from Anderson Cooper to the CNN site, giving statistics behind abductions and kidnappings up to that point in 2007. Cooper’s blog uses data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) by the United States Department of Justice. Cooper wrote that according to the NCMEC, 58,200 children are abducted each year by strangers or those unrelated to the victim (Cooper). Cooper goes on to say that while that number is very large, only a scarce amount of abductions ends up being publicized, or stereotypical kidnapping according to the NCMEC (Cooper). The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stated that only about 115 victims experience, “stereotypical kidnapping” (Cooper). The NCMEC explains stereotypical kidnapping as, 'These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently' (Cooper). Out of those who are stereotypically, 57% return safely, but 43% do not consistent with the NCMEC (Cooper). Finney happens to be an example of stereotypical kidnapping and luckily would be included in the 57% of those who return safely (Cooper). The Office of the Inspector General conducted observations on child abductions between 2000 and 2007 based on the Federal Bureau Investigation. In the research the number of ransoms, or stranger related abductions have fluctuated from 106 cases in 2000, to 87 cases in 2005, and 77 cases in 2007 (Child Abduction). The numbers do appear to decline over the years, but the audience is still able to see the prevalence of abduction in the United States at the time. Hill uses his short horror story “The Black Phone,” to expose the real-world problem of abduction in the 2000s. Although the story’s message can still be applied today as abduction continues to be a major issue in society.
As today’s audience reads this short story, they too can recognize the issue of abduction that is discussed in “The Black Phone.” Similarly, abductions are continuing to take place today across the United States and the world. In article by Karin Bilich of Parents published in November of 2018, discusses the statistics of abduction are in which she draws from databases and bureaus cited in her paper. In December of 2017, it was reported by the Bureau’s National Crime Information Center that 32,000 people under 18 years old were missing (Bilich). Of the 32,000 people, 24% of them (7,680 people) were abducted by strangers (Bilich). Bilich explains later in her article that those who are abducted by strangers are most commonly teenage girls, but also involve boys. Bilich also states that abductors almost always pull the victims into their vehicles from the street. Young teenagers are not being mindful of their surroundings, and it puts them at significant risk for danger. Abduction is happening more and more in society due to a lack in regard to the dangers of the world.
Similar to Finney, teenagers often make quick decisions without thinking rationally if the decision they are making is good or bad. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry wrote an article to explain why teens are so impulsive or irrational in their decision making (Teen Brain: Behavior…). In the article, it discusses that when you are a teen, you tend to think using the part of your brain known as the, “amygdala,” which develops early and is responsible for sporadic reaction of the human (Teen Brain: Behavior…). As you grow older, your, “frontal cortex,” of your brain begins to develop, allowing you to think logically (Teen Brain: Behavior…). When teens grow with age, their brain develops and shift from using impulse to make decisions, to a thought process of making decisions (Teen Brain: Behavior…).
The abduction and irrational decision making of adolescents described in “The Black Phone,” is still relevant today. In the story, Finney was abducted by a stranger, Albert. This parallels abduction findings today. As Finney was abducted, he did not know the fat man, Albert, who took him, as many victims of abductions do not. Finney was also taken using a vehicle, a key component of abductions today (Bilich). Years later juveniles are still being captured by strangers and taken because similar mistakes are being made. The audience should read Hill’s story and be informed of the dangers of the society we live in, avoiding dangerous situations and being alone. In “The Black Phone,” Finney put himself in a situation where he was alone with someone he did not know, much smaller than the individual, and did not think of the dangers of the situation before entering it (Hill). Hill would like the audience to avoid being a statistic and draw knowledge and education from the mistakes that Finney made during the story, so they do not make the same mistakes (Hill).
After researching “The Black Phone” by determining the way surreal horror, fantastic horror, and southern gothic play into the story, the audience is able to better understand the message Hill displays. “The Black Phone” additionally displays the characteristics of art-horror and identifies abduction’s relevance in the early 2000s. The overlying issue of abduction is still relevant today and Hill wants the audience to read his story and become more aware of their surroundings and carefully avoid dangerous situations.
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making.” No. 95, Sept. 2016, https://www.aacap.org/aacap/familie s_and_youth/facts_for_families/fff-guide/the-teen-brain-behavior-problem-solving-and-decision-making-095.aspx
- Bilich, Karin A. “Child Abduction Statistics for Parents.” Parents, Parents, 29 Nov. 2018, www.parents.com/kids/safety/stranger-safety/child-abduction-facts/.
- Carrol, Noel. “The Nature of Horror.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. 46, no. 1, Sept. 1987, p. 51-59. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/431308.
- Cooper, Anderson. “Raw Data: Kidnapping Statistics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Jan. 2007, www.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/anderson.cooper.360/blog/2007/01/raw-data-kidna pping-statistics.html.
- Kelly, Guy. “Joe Hill: 'How I Escaped the Shadow of My Father, Stephen King'.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 23 June 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thefilter /joe-hill- how-i-escaped-the-shadow-of-my-father-stephen-king/.
- Prohászková, Viktória. “The Genre of Horror.” American International Journal of Contemporary Research, vol. 2, no. 4, April 2012, p. 132-142.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. “Southern Gothic Characteristics.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/southern-gothic/characteristics.html.
- “The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Efforts to Combat Crimes Against Children.” FBI, FBI, Jan. 2009, https://oig.justicegov/reports/FBI/a0908/chapter3.htm