It has long been assumed that people who write horror fiction are one fang short of a vampire. First, we exploit irrational fears of our would-be readers; then we turn our own imaginations inside out to scare ourselves. What prompts a person to write horror? Is it – like hair on the knuckles – a sign of insanity? Should we be writing up a storm in dark corners like manic geniuses, or in therapy weaving baskets?
It’s a question every horror writer gets asked eventually, and usually it is accompanied by an instant, primal recoil from which erupts the words, “What is wrong with you?” The good news is, according to the research, nothing. But that would have been a hard sell to my mother.
The wagging finger became the wrinkled brow and then the dreaded eye-roll, followed by the exasperated sigh and finally – much to my chagrin – the apology. To make matters worse, then I found myself apologizing… From my lofty perch on the cathedral walls beside the gargoyles of my imagination, I would watch the excitement fade from the eyes of those who were originally impressed with the fact that I write, the light extinguishing faster than that of the life-force of a gazelle in the mouth of a lion with my simple admission. Horror, it seems, has lost its cachet.
There are ways to cover up any undesirable habit. “I write genre fiction,” I might say instead of the whole truth. But if pressed, I tend to confess in less than penitent tones, “I’m sorry…I write horror.” It’s a tactic one acquires to deflect the inevitable Frown of Disappointment. I mean I write about monsters, it’s not as though I build them in my basement. Yet the overall judgment by our peers is that there must be something terribly wrong in our psychological make-up. After all, writing horror is just, well, sick.
I disagree. I mean, I admit that at this very moment in a particularly dark corner of my imagination a great hoary beast with particularly long fangs has wrapped glistening tentacles around a certain pickup truck driver sitting in the local jail, but it’s not like that one doesn’t deserve at least that. My monsters don’t run rampant without cause. Besides which, I agree with researchers who say that writing or reading horror is just a way to relieve stress, to practice for the more unpalatable scenarios of life.
One critical essay by Noel Carroll called “The Nature of Horror” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/431308) calls literary horror “art horror…that is to say it narrowly refers to the effects of a specific genre…crystallized roughly around the time of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” God love him, Mr. Carroll calls science fiction a subcategory of horror…but his essay mostly speaks to the universality of horror in all genres and I am uncomfortable resting on top of his pyramid cloaked in my genre of invisibility. But I agree with Mr. Carroll on one important research point: that “What appears to distinguish the horror story from mere stories with monsters, such as fairy tales, is the attitude of characters in the story to the monsters they chance upon. In the works of horror, the humans regard the monsters that they encounter as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order…”
How can a monster be rightfully anything else? And what weird web of appeal do they weave that so captivates writers and fans of the genre?
Professor emeritus of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles and senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology says in the article, “Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies” (http://www/thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/10/25/why-our-brains-love-horror=movies-fear-cartharsis-a-sense-of-...) that the craving for safe horror… the intense experience of excitement is what we desire most – especially if we languish in “relatively calm, uneventful lifestyles in which our nervous system requires periodic revving.” Another researcher, John Edward Campbell, says paradoxically – or maybe just interestingly – in the same article, “that desire [for intensity] fades with age, especially as people become more sensitive to their own physiology: middle-aged and older adults tend not to seek out experiences that make their hearts race, and feel that real life is scary enough…Life’s [real] horrors scare them, or they don’t find them entertaining any more – or interesting.”
Hmm… I guess that explains Mom… but what about me? Sure, Mom’s death from cancer stopped me right in my writing tracks. I even remember asking: how can I write about a horror which seems so small and trite next to what I just witnessed? Even now, barely a week out from losing my fourteen-year-old nephew in an unconscionable tragedy, how can I go back to writing horror? The answer is: because you write what you know.
That statement should disturb us all. But the fact is, we all do know horror, and as we grow older it only develops more texture and depth. Poe is an excellent example. Poe scares all of us – from teenagers to the nursing home. He was old enough and wealthy enough in observation and participation in real life to reach deeply into the nasty corners of human experience to be able to write about the monsters within. That is the zone from which horror writers write, and it is the singular reason I have hope for the future of the Adult Horror genre. Youth can produce the interesting and innovative like Blair Witch, the fun of Freddy Krueger on a Halloween night. But it takes an Ambrose Bierce, an older Stephen King, a misfit Lovecraft, a tortured Poe to disturb our sleep... because until we can connect a monster with its threat and the weight of loss of life, we cannot imagine terror…
Horror is about what leaks out of the imagination like the acid of Alien’s blood…eating through the hull of our reserve, and making us realize why other human beings matter to us. Horror makes me tell my husband I love him every day. It makes me weep at funerals for children, and demand justice for those transgressed. Horror is why I write; it holds me upright in a tempest-strewn world. I know I have yet to excavate some of the more heinous monsters from my own mind and memory. But I can feel them writhing there; I hear the beastlike sounds with their hellish utterances, restless in the dark of live burial. I know they drive my words on the page, and spawn fellow monstrosities like spores cast adrift between the larger fonts of my life’s narrative. Horror waits, because that’s what horror does.
So is writing Horror a sign of mental abnormality? I don’t believe so – at least not where “art horror” is concerned. Rather, I believe it is a sign of life, a method of coping, an exploration of what makes us human. Isn’t that also the definition of art?
One can debate the presence of “Victorian moral codes” (same article) in Horror which we seem to be strangely addicted to, even in this day and age – sometimes being a little too eager for the “bad girl” or “evil man” to get their rightful come-uppance. But Jung argued that horror touches on the primordial images in the collective unconscious…and maybe he was onto something other than psychoanalysis. We all know what terrifies us because we all share the same or similar fears: like the ones that torment us with the possibility that we will die too young, or too horribly, or in vain and too quickly forgotten; that we do not matter in the grand scheme of things, or that there is nothing afterward to make it all have form and sense. Horror is a facing of those fears by proxy. We can “train for terror” (same truly awesome article), or use it as catharsis to get us through one more day of life not making sense.
But I, for one, am done apologizing for writing Horror. Somebody has to don the armor, seize the sword and slay the monsters. Me, I know they are in there; I can smell their reptile-scent. I can hear them calling my name. I will engage them and do battle, because that is my vocation. I will detail my experiences in prose and poetry and the occasional blog post, because that is my mission. But most of all I will sit at my keyboard in the dark of the night, listening to the sounds that only dark rooms make as I reach into that cauldron of indistinct memory and snarling creatures and pull out words to share with those who know that life is a full-on experience of “terror training” that does not end until we do. I write Horror. That is my passion. The rest of life is just going through the motions and Horror’s tentacles reach too deeply into my psyche. So I must write those tentacles, explore them, speak with them, share them… Horror is meant to be shared.
Tentacles…I must have tentacles.