Yesterday I took an extra long lunch break and finally got a chance to watch the movie Annihilation, which I have to admit (like most movies) I missed in theaters—and yes, I haven’t read the book, either. We can’t all read all the books after all… But that aside, I liked the movie and one part of one scene in particular got me thinking…

With at least a partial spoiler alert, Annihilation imagines that a meteor brings some kind of life form or physical effect to Earth that causes a growing zone of weirdness they call the “Shimmer.” All efforts to explore or explain this thing meet with disaster, so of course a new team—scientists this time instead of soldiers—is sent in. The team eventually finds the abandoned building used by the previous military team as a base camp and there’s a video card there that shows one soldier cutting open another soldier’s stomach to reveal what appears to be his intestines moving inside his body like worms or snakes—as if they had a life of their own.

The team’s medic, Anya, refuses to believe that the soldier’s guts are moving on their own, and passionately argues—desperately argues, you might even say—that it was a trick of the light, an optical illusion, a sign not of physical but psychological changes in the soldiers. The rest of the team urges her to believe her eyes—almost demands that she accept the unacceptable, that she embrace the impossible.

In that moment, though, I liked Anya’s explanation better. I suppose this could be because I’m a committed rationalist myself. You’d have to work really hard to actually get me to believe in ghosts or monsters or… gutimals? Intesticreatures?

But then these women are in this clearly weird, rules-breaking “Shimmer,” so… should Anya start to believe her eyes? Or should she continue to hold to her intellectual understanding of the world around her, supported by hands-on experience as a paramedic?

Watching Annihilation bumped into my own recent researches deep into the nature of horror literature in preparation for my Advanced Horror Workshop—reading into the rules and tropes of the genre and what horror does for and/or to us as readers, as writers, and as a culture.

This, for me, is a primary question in terms of horror as a genre and effective horror in general. I like to call it the persistence of the logical.

This is when characters—at least some of the characters—in a horror story maintain a logical or mundane explanation for whatever weirdness is going on, sometimes even past where that logic might hold up.

As Annihilation shows, though, sometimes this steadfast adherence to the logical can get in a character’s way. And more often than not—as is the case with Anya—the characters who do try to convince people that no, in fact, this house is not haunted or there absolutely is no such thing as werewolves, ends up either the first to die, or acts as a villain or antagonist, holding back the hero’s efforts to deal with what in the Advanced Horror Workshop we call the One Weird Thing. And that refusal causes additional trouble for everyone else.

In “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror Fiction and the Intuition of Women,” Emily Asher-Perrin drills down to a particular trope in which not just a character, but a specific character—a young woman—is not believed:

Why didn’t you believe her?

She told you she heard something, or saw it out of the corner of her eye. She told you she was scared, that she didn’t want to go into that boarded up house or creaky old cabin, that she didn’t want to keep making out, that she didn’t like this corner of the woods. She told you she was scared and you laughed at her. She told you she had a bad feeling and you thought it was adorable. She whined at you and she tugged at your sleeve and sometimes she even begged you to leave it, to just go home deal with it all later. You thought that made her a wet blanket, or worse, a tease. As though that somehow mattered more than the sanctity of her life. Or yours.

But she was right. And you were wrong. And if you had just listened…

In these cases (and Emily Asher-Perrin is absolutely correct in her assessment that, particularly in horror movies, there are lots of cases of this character being a woman dismissed) the persistence of the logical is a bad thing. It’s a way to impose order not just on a disordered world, but on women who are then marginalized as “hysterical.”

Though there’s no reason for us to continue the gender bias that Emily Asher-Perrin rails against, there are good storytelling reasons, especially in horror, for characters of any gender to begin with a healthy skepticism, and even continue being skeptical even past the point at which that stops being helpful. After all, we aren’t always helpful.

In her article “Our Age of Horror,” Pam Weintraub touches on the idea of characters as living, breathing, mistake-prone people who sometimes do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time:

Horror has always made good use of our deep aversion to what Lovecraft called ‘the oldest and strongest kind of fear’: the unknown. This is one of the ways in which horror (like the folktale) can display a sort of archetypal conservatism. In general terms, the best way to survive a horror setting is to be supremely, boringly sensible: don’t talk to strangers, don’t stay the night in a foreign town, don’t go to the aid of anyone who looks sick, don’t go into that crumbling old building. If a very attractive stranger tries to seduce you, it is almost definitely a trap. Respect tradition, do not commit sacrilege, listen to the advice of elderly locals. At the heart of a lot of horror is a conservative craving for the predictable and the known. The unpleasant atonal dissonance you’ll hear in every horror score reflects, through the collapse of harmony, the disintegration of familiar and comforting patterns out there in the world.

God forbid everyone make the smartest decisions at every turn. Where would a story come from if not for the mayor refusing to close the beaches in Jaws, or people immediately and completely adapting to the chaos of the Shimmer, or no one being driven insane by the unspeakable horrors of the impenetrable cosmos?

You need skeptics like me to tell you there’s no such thing as vampires, right before one of them rips my throat out. The case has to be made for a trick of the light, swamp gas, or hoaxes. The more something defies or knocks back logical explanation the more unsettling it is when it’s finally made clear that this house really is haunted, there really is a monster from outer space in the high school gymnasium, or the Shimmer really is mutating everything it touches.

I don’t believe in anything. Work me into your horror stories, then punish me accordingly.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Adam says:

    A wonderfully thorough discussion of horror and the necessary tropes. In some ways it reminds me of the film Cabin in the Woods, where they rather directly engage the idea that certain things “must happen”. And thank you for providing so many links to additional resources. It’s a very nice way to continue the conversation, for those who want to go deeper.

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