There is a war of words out there…and the genre of Horror is smack in the middle of it. Horror is unlike other genres in that its proximity to real life and real life experiences makes it susceptible to a shared vocabulary of nouns and adjectives which – because they are a part of a living language – keep changing in meaning. This is having devastating effects on the genre.
Horror. Terror. Dread. Fear. Hate. Revenge. Doom. Death. Judgment. Evil.
These are the word-tools of Horror. They are one reason some are seeking safety in resurrected terms like Gothic, and Weird; because publishers and marketers today realize that the emotional load which these words carry is substantial in today’s environment of international terrorism, in a world where religions have seen an influx of evangelism that divides and labels, leaving implied and implicit threats that are all too real to many of the world’s peoples. Is it socially acceptable to use the terms “Horror” or “terror” to market fiction? Is it socially responsible?
The problem is that the description implied by those words is still relevant to the genre. Imagine telling mystery writers that they could no longer market the word “mystery” or science fiction writers the word “science.” Horror is about horror.
HOISTED BY OUR OWN PITARD
Some of this is our own fault. We allowed the genre to be hijacked by the subgenre that endorses gratuitous sex and violence, foul language and limited (frequently redundant) plot. We encouraged Hollywood to ramrod the genre into slasher territory, and never uttered a peep when both print and film began to cater to Young Adults. Even now, few Adults will admit they love Horror, fearing association with the subgenre and a further misinterpretation of the word “adult.”
Take Fantasy – specifically Dark Fantasy. While some people claim Dark Fantasy isn’t much of a real category, I disagree. I almost decided to write in it while in my thirties. But realizing I was truly an Adult Horror writer changed my mind. Dark Fantasy is Fantasy… with dark, Horror elements. The difference is an almost gamer or graphic novel setting, the inclusion of sword and black sorcery, the historical elements and folkloric creatures that typically populate the background or backstory of Fantasy are all moved to the forefront. Dark Fantasy is (in my opinion) a Fantasy subgenre that exchanges lifeblood and certain body fluids with Horror.
But Fantasy as a genre is frequently misinterpreted by non-genre folk. After subscribing to several Fantasy magazines in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was alarmed at how many adult-themed catalogs were deposited in my mailbox…Frederick’s of Hollywood, S & M….I was terrified at what my neighbors – and my mailman – were thinking of me…And the same thing happens when one pairs the words “adult” and “horror.” Along come the Playboy subscription invites, more catalogs of the sexual and psycho-social subcultures… I’m thinking something needs to change. I’m thinking we need to at least convince people some words have dual meanings…
So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to reclaim the genre and the name… or to hide under tons of Classic Literature. Me, I want the genre back.
ADULT MEANS GROWN-UP, NOT “ADULT”
Many Horror fans grew up with Horror. So the original focus of the 1970’s genre greats probably does carry a whiff of what is now the burgeoning Young Adult category about it. However I was there in the 1970’s, and I remember that it was a time when a lot of interest in all things paranormal was bursting forth into day-to-day discussion. Talk shows were rife with tales of ghosts, reincarnation, the psychic, angels, the role of religion and the afterlife. Churches stepped up their warnings on messing with the occult, and the Ouija Board was a top-seller.
Horror fiction still carried the flame from its roots, tales were still obviously connected to traditional monsters and the Gothic, carrying familiar themes and tropes and attempts to tap relevant social issues of the day (if only at times with little more than a glancing blow). Horror also wasn’t trying to be exclusive in its audience. For example, main characters remembered their childhoods as adults; there was also more age variance in characters, so that the audience remained potentially broad. It was simply that kids were more okay with poking the arcane than our strictly religious parents were. We were more irreverent, immortal and patently unafraid of a God we weren’t thoroughly convinced was still up there.
Meanwhile, Adults at the time were giving serious open discussion to topics like atheism, sexism and inequality in churches, and child sexual abuse, both in and outside of family and religion. Divorce was becoming a better alternative practiced by many. Cancer burst forth on the scene bringing death and human destruction along with it. Vietnam brought more death and war and the maimed into our homes and families. Kids not wanting to go to church were indulged – a possible historic first…
Pampered American kids were suddenly no longer sheltered from the harsher realities our parents had originally sought to protect us from, and we wound up having better relationships with our Depression-era, World War I generation grandparents who weren’t afraid to call a corpse a corpse. Scary shows were a dime a dozen on television. We wanted to see ghosts, we asked if Satanism was real, drugs were filtering our music and our Free-Love culture. Experimentation was “in” and parents were checking out.
So teens became the audience, and then the twenty-year-olds. However just when Horror was becoming visceral, those older Horror fans were having children of their own and rethinking the wisdom of their reading choices; try explaining scary monsters with dripping fangs and bloody corpses on darkly-rendered book covers to a toddler. Then suddenly a monster – human or otherwise – threatening a child hits a different nerve. The tendency to put away Horror the way one puts away all other toys of childhood when one becomes an “Adult” is the reason publishers and Hollywood turned full-thrust to Young Adults to survive.
We Adults abdicated our own genre…
Now I am not endorsing wild abandon – especially if you are a young parent with young children. Unless you want to pay for therapy, I would leave the kids at home or miss the movie; I would remove the hardback dust jackets, or read my Horror after bedtime. (Maybe that would actually bring back the concept of bedtimes for small kids?) But I know that I love Horror, and that I will never again let anyone tell me it’s “just for kids.” Anyone who actually believes so needs to talk to an older person with some years on the clock and some snow on the roof…
A lot of “experts” say that Adults no longer read Horror because it is just too much like Real Life. They point to trends in Horror that now include a preponderance of End-of-Days scenarios, true-crime type villains, and the rise of the Human Monster. There is even a plot device of terrorism currently growing into yet another subgenre. But I say that these trends do not represent the whole of Horror and trends are not graven in stone. Certainly trends have no business being interpreted as genres, anyway…
Adult Horror can involve real life scenarios – indeed it should. But it also involves our endless search for meaning, for validation, for religion and the truths about the unseen world. It is about exploring all of our fears – not just the visceral ones. This is not just kid territory. As we get older and face the realities of our own mortality and that of those whom we love, the questions deepen. The search becomes more urgent and poignant.
Surely this is the realm of Adult Horror. Because Horror has always traditionally offered a little bit more than a scare: it either poses a question, or it posits an answer.
WE SEE DEAD PEOPLE
Horror is unequivocally about death. It is also about immortality, and not just the teen variety. While we first really start to probe the question as teenagers, most of us blissfully remain ignorant of our own susceptibility to the condition until we are older. This is our advantage as older Adult Horror writers and readers. We understand the touch of death which has brushed a few body parts by middle-age. We have experienced the beginning of our own decline. We can see the Void from here and we have reason to question whether we are ready for it.
Whether it is the result of having gone to war, or nursing a dying parent, or burying a child, being an Adult means that we understand the full value of human life. We understand how temporary, fragile and precious it is. This is not extraneous information. This is Life. By middle age, we stand with an Abyss on either side; one is filled with lost youth and regret, the other with finite time and the tangible threat of sheer terror. What better place from which to mine Horror? What better audience to turn the pages with?
I – possibly all by myself if rumors are to be believed – do not believe that Horror is dead or needs to be renamed. I believe the genre has never been richer, the waters never fuller of fish. However I do believe that we as writers are going to have to work to get our audience back. We have to convince publishers, vendors and Adults that Horror is their genre… That it remains relevant to Adults, and that Adults still have questions to ask and points to ponder…That they want their action-adventure-thriller scares with older characters who have a lot more to lose… That they want to read about other Adults who have felt the cold fingers of death grip their lives uninvited and lived to tell the tale…
There should be no apologies…Apart perhaps from dropping the ball in the 1980’s when the whole Horror genre became “icky.” We should have stood our ground. We should have demanded better of our genre, challenged our writers, communicated with our publishers. We should have been Adults.
I HEAR SINGING (OR ENTER, YON FAT LADY)
But it is not too late. I refuse to believe so. If indeed we are in another Golden Age of Horror, then now is the time. If you write, start educating yourself on the tradition of the genre so that you might contribute to it instead of competing with it. Do something different than what is flooding the genre currently; write Adult Horror with Adult subjects (not of the mail order adult fantasy catalog variety), and give us a good scare. If you read it, keep coming back to the Adult section. Use purchase power to communicate that you want your own Horror category back by supporting Adult genre anthologies. Subscribe to at least one magazine that carries Adult Horror. But most of all come back to Horror, to the genre and the word and all of the terror, dread, fear, hate, revenge, doom, death, judgment, and evil it encompasses.
Don’t be afraid. We are all Adults here.