The skin-crawling sense of unease that EC Comics artists and writers once gleefully instilled in their readership during the 1940s and 1950s often begins with a disorienting second-person present perspective. In Al Feldstein’s 1951 story “Reflection of Death”from Tales from the Crypt #23, “you” are a middle-aged white man named Al on a long road trip with a friend who drives late into the winter night. After your car veers into a set of oncoming headlights and crashes, you see through Al’s eyes as he emerges from an “empty” and “eternal” blackness in search of assistance. The men and women you encounter (even a hobo cooking stew under a bridge!) refuse to help and flee from you with mounting fear and revulsion until at last, when you behold yourself in a mirror — a dead, rotting reflection gapes back. If this is a nightmare, then you are its monster.
My understanding of this technique has always been grounded in the formalist discourse of reader identification. But are the social implications of EC’s second-person perspective worth further consideration? The second-person mode, so effectively deployed in suspense, horror, and erotica stories, heightens our ability to identify with the thoughts and sensations of bodies that are unfamiliar to us, to immerse ourselves in lives we may never encounter on our own. (A chilling thought for readers who are asked to imagine themselves as a walking corpse.) This unwitting urge to empathize with the Other is arguably the most crucial component of the second-person view, particularly given its role in EC’s most memorable stories. The issue extends not only to comics in which the perspective is verbally explicit, but also to works like “Judgment Day” and“Master Race” where a second-person mode dominates the visual orientation of the sequential narrative.