I am an admitted Horror junkie. When a reviewer claims a book or a movie is TERRIFYING or SCARIFYING BEYOND BELIEF I tend to fall for it – reluctantly, mind you – but eventually I will relinquish my skepticism and take it all in. Sad to say, I am usually HORRIFIED alright…at what often passes for contemporary Horror.
It’s almost as though Hollywood and many writers have bought into that old potato chip ad campaign: Nobody can eat just one. Because in our genre, it appears that when it comes to wheeling in the monsters, nobody can be eaten or terrorized by just one anymore.
Ghosts are never just ghosts. They must be demonic, or of a child-molesting, Satan-worshipping serial killer mutated by some environmental disaster that just might be of alien origin if not really a werewolf in a multi-dimensional war with vampires…
What has happened to our storytelling? What has happened to the power of One?Some like to suggest that it is because readers and audiences are much more sophisticated; it takes much more to surprise them; we aren’t Victorians, after all – we have electric lights and the internet. But I disagree. I think resorting to so many monsters in the attempt to scare your audience means you don’t have much of a story to tell, or you are not doing a thorough and competent job in telling it.
All of our monsters have been affected. I find it strange, because there is so much information out there, so much precedence in the form of actual literature and old fiction, so many tomes of psychological, sociological, and ethnic research. Where exactly is the shortage of detail? Of historical context that binds our scary, primal past to our over-confident, day-glow present? Yet we offer little in the way of tradition, and our monsters become sad imitations of what they used to be, lacking in depth and disconnected from readers or audiences who seem satisfied to have monsters dropped in front of them from doorframes instead of understanding how the real Horror came about.
I’ve watched a lot of Horror movies in my time, but the fact remains that my cats scare me just as often in the dark as most of those films. The reason is because the monsters are coming from…nowhere. They have no motive. They have no antidote.
Vampires are the only monsters these days with real backstory. In fact there is a little too much information sharing in my opinion – so much that we completely empathize with the monster and overlook the unspeakable behaviors that should appall us. We are so busy hoping the vampire in question finds true love that we fail to be disturbed by our own loyalties – which have ceased to be with the survival of humankind and have invited us into a world where bloodletting is just another part of karmic revenge.
Don’t get me wrong – I love what Anne Rice did for the vampire, giving the genre a whole new way to look at its monsters the way Frankenstein did before there was a Horror genre. But if you read Anne Rice you cannot fail to miss the utter revulsion the vampire protagonists feel for themselves, the clear admonition that what has happened is an abomination of nature. We fall in love with her characters and hate ourselves for it. That is good storytelling.
Books and movies that utilize whole mobs of monsters are just window-dressing two-dimensional stories. They don’t adhere to tradition or build on it. They just toss in a bunch of stereotypes and stand back to watch the forced chaos. Werewolves, we are led to believe, are pack animals. So therein we must have multitudes of were-folk to sufficiently terrorize us mortals. Zombies can only thrive in armies… Fairies come in dark hordes…Witches cannot function without a coven-war.
Does anyone else find this exhausting?
How about distracting?
I am thinking that there is a reason most Horror movies wind up in the B-Title section of the film industry and the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. I am also thinking it is unnecessary if writers and movie producers spent a little more time and care developing the darker textures of the genre. One doesn’t have to go to the slow extreme of Woman in Black, nor the elaborate detail of Lovecraft’s mythos. But there needs to be more to Horror than a hand-held camera and poor attempts to startle the audience…In the best of old Horror movies, the scream was followed by at least a partial reveal – there was no attempt to hide cheap effects by dropping the camera onto the floor so the audience could stare at a table leg while the monster rampaged. The Horror was the reality of the monster.
But reality is apparently a foreign concept in a lot of today’s Horror – especially in film. Is this a fear of commitment? Are we afraid to admit that a simple bump in the night – especially when properly described, properly set up and predicated by actual story elements even in film – is sufficiently scary to us that we overcompensate and throw in that which we hope scares everyone else? Why are we piling on monsters unless it is to cover up our own failings? There are plenty of examples of this Horror insecurity…
I liked Blair Witch until it went from ghost hunting to witches, a Lost-style mystery monster, a serial child murderer and an underdeveloped Indian legend. I was rooting for the many beasties by the end of the film. Exactly what was the film about besides found footage of lost teens? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-watched the DVD trying to figure it out. I’m either totally dense, or a plot isn’t really there… just a vague semblance of a story-line that commits to no single truth.
Much to my chagrin, that was the beginning of a new subgenre of underdeveloped Horror plots and cheap film tricks – and this in a time of truly amazing technological artistry in film special effects. Much to my shame, I keep watching these wannabee Horror movies. I guess I am waiting for someone to actually provide a memorable viewing experience…
And I keep reading Horror stories hoping to be seriously disturbed, most of the time with a result of not-so-much. Thank heavens for the British, and those who write after them. I’m not saying I do any better – one tends to be shaped by one’s times. But at least I know when something was not my best…When I cheated to finish the story. I know that is not good enough and relegate those little gems to the Revision Folder... because as a writer, I want better for my genre. I might not write literature-quality works – at least yet. But one should at least have something of the sort as a goal, even if it is just pure good storytelling.
It pays to remember that there are eyes everywhere. And those eyes have opinions.
Armchair critics lurk in the most obscure of places and are more than happy to vent all over your hard work. Doesn’t it make sense then to seriously do that work? As a writer myself, I want anything I might see of my own work published to represent a passion, a relationship and a commitment to the past tradition of Horror. I may or may not succeed, but that is what rough drafts are for…That is why Revision is still unpleasantly hard. Good writing is not something everyone can do, but it is something too many can clearly mimic under cover of Hollywood contracts. This is a fact that is truly scary, because one would like to operate under the assumption that PUBLICATION = QUALITY, yet that is too often not true.
This means that as writers we have to self-regulate. We have to realize that standards are a good thing, and that for the Horror author, studying the art of what has gone before and reaching for a mastery of craft is what sets the better writer apart and that one single agenda in newer fiction can help push Horror over the top as a genre deserving critical review and critical acclaim. If someone is poking you with a stick, take it away from them. If you have been disappointed by Hollywood or some of the anthologies you read, if you want Horror to be recognized by literary critics and given proper respect, then it is up to you to be part of the change of opinion. Poe and Lovecraft cracked the door open.
Can you see the light at the top of the stairs? Care to grab a tentacle?