SOME THOUGHTS ON HORROR

All fiction is shared experience. Authors reach out to some unknown other people, across time and distance, and say: “I felt this.” We look to horror in the same way we look to all genres of fiction, to experience what it’s like to be that character in that time and place, under those circumstances. So then, how weird is it that so many of us read horror fiction—willingly, even gleefully entering into a shared experience of horror, terror, and all the negative emotions that conjures up? Why do we want to, like to, even need to be scared?

According to Pam Weintraub in “Our Age of Horror,”

Horror is what anthropologists call biocultural. It is about fears we carry because we are primates with a certain evolved biology: the corruption of the flesh, the loss of our offspring. It is also about fears unique to our sociocultural moment: the potential danger of genetically modifying plants. The first type of fear is universal; the second is more flexible and contextual. Their cold currents meet where all great art does its work, down among the bottomless caves on the seabed of consciousness. Lurking here, a vision of myself paralysed in the dirt, invisible to those I love.

This sounds to me like what we’re really afraid of is being alone. That’s not too difficult to imagine, since we humans are definitely social animals, depending on some version of a tribe or pack for our survival going all the way back to the African savannah. That said, it’s not surprising that so much horror depends on a small set of characters cut off from the larger community of humans, the modern support structure of emergency first responders, then being picked off one by one, so our pack keeps getting small until, in some of the most effective cases (think Alien), we get down to one lone survivor.

In his brilliant book Tentacles Longer Than Night, Eugene Thacker wrote:

It’s all in your head. It really happened. These mutually exclusive statements mark out the terrain of the horror genre. And yet, everything interesting happens in the middle, in the wavering between these two poles—a familiar reality that is untenable, and an acknowledged reality that is impossible.

So then it might be that we’re afraid of losing touch with our closely held beliefs. This can’t happen, this can’t be happening, how is this happening? I wrote a bit more on that, what I called the persistence of the logical. I, personally, do not believe in ghosts. If I were to find myself in a real haunting I can’t see ever believing it, actually. The ghost would eat my soul even while I continued to reject that there’s even such a thing as a soul. I will be of no help to you in the seance. But if I was trapped in the supermarket in The Mist, I would accept that there are weird animals I’ve never heard of before and they are dangerous, then would act accordingly. But even then, I love horror that takes my closely held beliefs and rejects them up front. I like stories of demonic possession and hauntings as much as I like stories of magic and gods and aliens—and maybe, as Emily Asher-Perrin asserts in “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror Fiction and the Intuition of Women,”:

Horror exists as a genre primarily to reflect the ugly and the despicable parts of our world back at us through a funhouse lens that makes the trauma digestible. Most fans of horror know this and will tell you so; Frankenstein is about the terrifying possibilities that science and technology might visit on us; Invasion of the Body Snatchers told the story of what happened to a world beset by McCarthyism and Cold War anxieties; Get Out has shown us how the racism of white liberals is every bit as menacing as its more vitriolic counterpart. Some of these lessons are cautionary, which explains all the teenaged kids making bad spring break choices. But some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

So then, like both fantasy and science fiction, horror isn’t separate from the real world. Like every fantasy world from the mythology-inspired Middle Earth to the history plus D&D hack and slash of Westeros, and every imagined future from the hopeful socialist utopia of Star Trek to the dystopian crypto-fascist England of 1984, every horror story says things like: “Look how fragile our world is,” or “What would you do if…?” or “Communism is like being made into a pod person, stripped of your essential humanity.”

Though we may not all share certain specific Cold War Era fears, once we start making those things less specific, they start being more evenly applied. Invasion of the Body Snatchers still works not because we’re afraid of the Soviets but of course we’d all recoil from any mechanism of transformation that threatens to rob us of our individuality, our treasured relationships, our creative and emotional lives. And this goes even deeper once we start to look out into a flatly uncaring universe.

In a letter from to Farnsworth Wright dated July 5, 1927, quoted in the book In the Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker, H.P. Lovecraft explained something of his own motivation in writing characters with similar xenophobic worldviews to his own:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all… but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

Okay, so Lovecraft wouldn’t have been a Trekkie.

Author Victor LaValle picked up on this concept brilliantly in The Ballad of Black Tom, using this idea of humanity’s insignificance before the cosmic horror to motivate his villain:

When the sun rose, Robert Suydam concluded with one final piece of wisdom. He retrieved the stone from his pocket again. This time he pressed the rock into Tommy’s palm.

“How much did this stone matter to you, to your existence, before you picked it up to use it on those boys who followed you? That’s how little humanity’s silly struggles matter to the Sleeping King. When he returns, all the petty human evils, such as the ones visited on your people, will be swept away by his mighty hand. Isn’t that marvelous? And what will become of those of us who are left? The ones who helped him. Think of the rewards. I know you’re a man who believes in such things, and you’re smart enough to make sure they come to you.”

In Writing Monsters, and all over this blog, I point out that monsters of the mindless animal variety, like zombies, are really a force of nature, an ongoing natural (or supernatural) disaster, and the story is in the effect that disaster has on a group of characters. Some will rise to the occasion and behave heroically, some will let fear or ambition take hold and become villains.

So what if the universe doesn’t give a shit about you and is as likely to sterilize the Earth with a random gamma ray burst as to open its riches to the galaxy-spanning United Federation of Planets? Horror tends to say: This is bad—the world and the people in it as scary. And that can be true, but one more quote, this one from Frank Sinatra: “You only go around once, but if you play your cards right, once is enough.”

Terrible things might want to eat you. You’ve been warned. Now, what is that going to tell us about you?

—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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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