The Horror Show: What we fear

Horror is one of the most enduring, yet least respected, literary and cinematic genres

If you really want to know someone, find out what they’re afraid of. Fear is one of the most primal emotions, uniting us on an evolutionary level with our early human ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. It is the fight or flight reflex that kicks in when we are startled by a loud noise or a shadow in the corner of the room. (Chances are it’s a clothes horse or a lamp, but who’s to say for sure?) There are large fears that seem to overwhelm us: fear of cancer, nuclear war, climate change, the death of a child or a spouse. Then there are more quotidian – though no less pressing – fears that nag at us from the corners of our day-to-day minds: the dark, enclosed spaces, spiders, dolls, clowns. Fear comes for us all, but not in the same way or the same shape. If death is the great leveller, fear is the great identifier, because while we are all heir to it, precisely what raises our hackles and makes our skin crawl is profoundly individual.

We fear the monstrous, but what qualifies as monstrous will vary depending on a whole host of factors, from background experience and childhood memories to emotional temperament and life situation. But if we’re honest, we’ll admit that the monster is always there, maybe buried deep in our subconscious or maybe much closer to the surface, waiting for its opportunity to announce itself. As Stephen King, American literature’s eminence grise of creepiness wrote many years ago, “[T]he monster never dies. Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnameable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies.”

Storytellers have been aware of this from the beginning: there’s a reason we don’t tell love stories around the campfire. One of the first longform works of literature in the English language, Beowulf, contains a monster as a central character. Horror fiction as we know it today began with the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and their contemporaries and evolved through the work of E.T.A. Hoffman, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, M.R. James, and on into the 20th century. So-called “literary” writers who have incorporated tropes of horror fiction into their work include Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daphne du Maurier, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, John Fowles, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, etcetera, etcetera.

Notwithstanding the literary cachet attached to many of its practitioners, the horror genre maintains a disreputable air among readers, many of whom may still associate it with Max Gaines’s lurid EC Comics titles from the 1950s (The Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear) or the equally lurid mass market paperbacks of the 1970s and ’80s that Grady Hendrix profiled in his compendium Paperbacks from Hell. Or it may have to do with film franchises from the ‘80s, including Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Child’s Play, which continue to spawn sequels and remakes, most of them subscribing to the law of diminishing returns. (The exceptions being, arguably, the 21st century reboots of Halloween, which benefited from the distinct cinematic sensibilities of directors Rob Zombie and David Gordon Green.)

But the genre’s disreputability has always been part of its attraction, to the extent that horror traffics in extremes of human emotion and behaviour and appeals to the darker side of a reader’s or viewer’s subconscious. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King argues that the genre is essentially conservative because it depends on social order being disrupted by a monstrous intruder, only to have order restored when the monster is inevitably defeated. This is a nice theory, so far as it goes, but what of the more subversive works of horror (including King’s own novel Pet Sematary, which contains a breathtakingly shocking downer of an ending that leaves no room for comfort or the reinstatement of traditional family values) that don’t end with order being restored? And what do we do with horror films like James Whale’s Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein, which encourage their viewer explicitly to sympathize with the monster against the mob of townspeople who symbolize traditional society?

One of the attractions of horror as a genre is precisely its interpretive slipperiness: one person’s conservative screed is another’s subversive social commentary. The genius of a film like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that it can work as an allegory for 1950s paranoia no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. Liberals will see it as a metaphor for McCarthyism; conservatives will read it as a cautionary tale about communists in our midst. Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives has been read as both a feminist and staunchly anti-feminist text. And William Friedkin rightly points out that a viewer will take from The Exorcist what that viewer brings to it: if you’re looking for a story about the Devil’s sway in our world, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for a story about the triumph of good over evil, you’ll find that, too. (However you read it, and no matter its evident quality as a motion picture, The Exorcist does qualify as one of the most conservative movies ever made by a Hollywood studio.)

Commentators often praise the more respectable horror of recent years – Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country and its HBO television series adaptation, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Jordon Peele’s Get Out – for their engagement with social issues, but this has always been a feature of the genre. George A. Romero, a liberal independent who eschewed Hollywood’s maw, made Night of the Living Dead – a film with a Black man in the lead – in 1968 at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement. His sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, was an allegory about consumerism. The spate of vampire books and movies that proliferated in the 1980s were an artistic response to the decade’s AIDS crisis. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel have spoken about how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a reaction to the Vietnam War. The difference with the new strain of horror is that it brings all these things to the surface – it makes the subtext text. A strange move for a genre that is supposed to operate on the level of the subconscious.

Because it’s the subconscious that horror preys upon most efficiently and most effectively. Freud was clear when he linked the uncanny to that which frightens us and there is, for those with a taste for it, a distinct pleasure in being scared within the controlled confines of an artistic work. There are horrors aplenty in the real world; it is somehow easier to manage them when they are filtered through the metaphors of vampires or zombies or changelings. If the reality of ongoing environmental degradation is too much for a person’s psyche to handle without breaking, perhaps it can survive if it views the problem through the prism of a community in Cape Cod that is ravaged by a colony of giant, mutant cockroaches. If the thought of cancer is too much to bear, there’s an artistic outlet in the film story of a scientist whose body literally begins falling apart after he inadvertently splices his own DNA with that of a common housefly.

Some people find the idea of taking pleasure in being scared perverse and inexplicable. For the rest of us, there is the month of October. The year 2020 has provided more than its share of literal horrors in the world outside our windows, from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to a trainwreck of an American election to racially motivated police violence and all manner of other catastrophes. It feels like a good time to seek refuge in some less immediate, artistically mediated horrors. Throughout the month of October, we’ll focus on some representative examples of horror across the decades: novels, short stories, and criticism. This will be the work of an enthusiast, so no attempt at comprehensiveness will be made. These are things that entertained me, that made me think, or – in the best instances – scared the bejeezus out of me. Maybe some of them might do the same for you.

The Horror Show: What we fear