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2020 and the Horror of Time

When we talk about horror, we sometimes speak in terms of concrete threats: monsters, masked madmen, supernatural evil, or the various hobgoblins of folklore going back to the campfires of our earliest ancestors. Threats, real or imagined. It’s surprising how often, however, these threats reveal deeper fears, societal fears. When horror is at its best, it represents universal human fears. Sometimes these take the form of the concrete, but more often than not, universal human fears concern themes: loss, mortality, impermanence, or the horrible vacuum of the unknown. One fear manages to tie together the concrete and the thematic, while itself being hard to classify: I speak of the horror of time.

Time is sometimes the subject of horror in a very concrete sense (for example, horror/science fiction about time travel such as Primer, Timecrimes, or Looper). Time can also be used as a central framing mechanism; for example, some horror films take place in real time. The most recent film to make use of this effectively was Host, the Zoom call horror that more or less defines excellence in the genre of QuarHorror.

Two recent collaborations between Netflix and Mike Flanagan – The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor – were potent reminders that time has always been a metaphorical presence in that most storied of horror traditions: the ghost story. Tales of ghosts are, as Hill and Bly demonstrate with exquisite narrative flair and experimentation, always stories about time: time misplaced, time displaced, time lost, and, occasionally, found. Both Flanagan projects also make use of chronology in a way that emphasizes the subjective nature of human experience. We like to conceive of time as a mechanical, smoothly-functioning set of causal gears, but everything from general relativity to experiments in human psychology indicate that things are not as clean-cut as the mechanistic model implies.

None of us need be reminded of that fact on a personal level after the past year. In 2020, humanity’s better demons were assailed by once-a-century headwinds: a devastating global pandemic, that pandemic’s botched handling by right-wing governments, economic collapse, social unrest, and a typhoon of disinformation and conspiracy cult nonsense that has all but swallowed up half of the American electorate entirely. Throughout all of this horror, this parade of death and madness, there has been no enemy more crafty or ferocious than time. From the endless isolated hours of quarantine to the flash-bang rapidity with which events are unfolding in places like Portland, time has not been our friend this year. It has been, for most of us, an implacable enemy, a thing to be conquered and brought to heel by whatever methods we might have at our disposal.

2020 has been the worst year that I’ve lived through; many in my parents’ generation say the same thing. One probably has to wind the clock back to a world war or the Great Depression to find its equal. Horror has, of course, thrived throughout this bleak time, as it always does and always will, and we can take comfort in that, if nothing else. If we’re smart, we can learn lessons from horror on how to cope with the uncertainties (and certainties) of time, how not to take love for granted or look away from the scary parts of life. These are lessons that have been hard-won, and we’d be foolish to forget them.

Signs point to green shoots in 2021; a slow but budding recovery from a devastating time. Horror, too, holds a lot of promise in 2021 (as a Clive Barker fan, I am particularly looking forward to a new Candyman adaptation – a story that is in no small part about time, by the way). Whatever the situation, it is our wish here at Madness Heart Press that you have a peaceful, prosperous, safe, and joyous 2021. We’ve made it this far, and we deserve credit for that accomplishment.

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