Christmas Time Terror in “The Revelations of ’Becka Paulson”
By Sara Century
When it comes to Stephen King’s oeuvre, “The Revelations of ’Becka Paulson” is an easy one to miss. This short story dropped in an issue of Rolling Stone in 1984, then was collected in Skeleton Crew (1985), only to ultimately be reworked to fit into the later novel The Tommyknockers (1987) as a B-Plot.
In King’s repertoire, this is a story that comes across like a puzzle piece that belongs to another puzzle entirely. It plays with themes of “ordinary” women suffering long-term domestic abuse that King has so often gravitated towards in works like Delores Claiborne (1992) and Rose Madder (1995) among others. Yet, despite reworkings from the author, it never quite works until given a slightly different direction by others via The Outer Limits television series (1995–2002) with direction from Steve Weber, teleplay writer Brad Wright, and an incredible performance from the great Catherine O’Hara.
The basic plot behind “The Revelations of ’Becka Paulson” short story is much the same as that of the Outer Limits adaptation episode. At the beginning, Becka shoots herself in the head by accident only to see a sharp increase in psychic awareness and a surprising development of expertise regarding STEM topics. This allows Becka to grasp that she’s been trapped in a loveless marriage as the voice of Jesus tells her that her husband is cheating on her, and so she rigs an elaborate trap to kill him.
This is one story that may have been better served by the adaptation. While the original short sets up much of the plot that the episode follows, the acting and directing combo of Steven Weber and Catherine O’Hara goes to some lengths to play up the humanity and the humor of the scenario presented to us. The short reads as a lengthy rant from Becka while the episode commits to showing her in a more heroic light.
Gone are the references to Jesus, Jerry Falwell, and deep-seated cultural homophobia that appeared in the short story, which perhaps detracted somewhat from our ability to sympathize with her. This take on Becka is working through issues of sexism and sexual repression, and the male figure that she focuses on is not Jesus but a stock photo of a handsome, nameless man in a frame known only as “The 8x10 Man.” Played by Steve Weber, this character adds significant fun to the story by giving her a handsome leading-man type to interact with rather than fielding strange condemnations from a Jesus that sounds suspiciously like Becka’s father, like in the short story.
Another element that is pushed to new heights with the TV series is the Christmas theme. Leaning into the timing of this story as taking place right before Christmas adds a lot to the aesthetic. Christmas lights and decorations populate the dismal trailer park that Becka calls home, and the cumulative moment involves a hazardous wiring job that allows the whole place to spark up, adding a darkly comedic effect while also echoing real world Christmas tragedies.
Becka is a classic unreliable narrator, so it’s hard to tell if her husband is actually cheating on her or if any of the town gossip that pops up in her head is actually true. One thing that is undeniably factual, however, is that in any version of the story, we’re dealing with a traumatized character. The bullet wound to the head appears to have unlocked something magical and repressed in her mind, but it has also brought an onslaught of ugly memories and an awareness of the dissatisfaction she’s allowed herself to ignore for decades.
Both stories are at their most disturbing when they view Becka as a character who is reeling from lifelong trauma. Both the episode and the short include many references to childhood abuse. Even in adulthood, she constantly reflects on the cruelty of her father, who proudly issued physical threats and beat her regularly for minor infractions. The violence doesn’t seem to have carried on into her marriage, but the relationship is full of insults to her intelligence and undermining of her accomplishments. The men in Becka’s life make her feel like she’s worthless, which adds an interesting element to the story as we watch her rapidly succeed in creating complicated inventions like a motorized vacuum cleaner.
The level of charisma and comedic timing that the actors put into this story very much transforms it from just another Stephen King short into a genuinely moving work of weird horror. It might be a stretch to refer to Becka as a feminist character as so much of her story involves her referring to the woman her husband is apparently having an affair with as a “hussy,” but her new level of self-awareness allows us to experience a kind of awakening with her that characters of this type are seldom granted.
The “new” Becka makes an effort to enjoy sex with her husband, and he has no idea what to do with it. When he makes fun of her in front of his friends, she throws a container of peanuts on him as he cowers in his chair. The 8x10 Man gives positive reinforcement, offering a completely opposite image of the men in her life, encouraging her willingness to experiment with electronics, and sharing her elation at discovering that if she can follow a recipe to cook, then she can follow an instruction manual to build a motor. The chains that have held Becka begin to fall away, and that is the true apex of the story.
In 2020, rumors of a TV series-style adaptation of this story made the rounds, and though there have been no recent updates, there’s certainly a wealth of material behind this quirky, strange tale of a woman who suddenly gains access to a hidden part of her brain. Killer performances alternating between comedic and horrific alongside a strange and intriguing plot make this one of the great underrated TV Christmas episodes as well as an undeniably compelling entry in the Christmas Horror canon. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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