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2020 Was the Year that Horror Became Nonfiction

I’ve loved horror as long as I can remember. From Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark onward, I took to the genre like a duck to water, or perhaps more accurately, like a thirsty vampire to a nice, bulging carotid. Even so, and even as a young man with an active and morbid imagination, I have never had a hard time separating truth from fiction (with the notable exception of my youthful dalliance with Catholicism). There was a bright, bloody line separating my world from the ones I read about or watched – and, I have to admit in retrospect, I took that fact for granted.

Well, no more. Going into 2020, I repeatedly said that it was going to be a “hell of a year.” I wasn’t the only one who felt this trepidation; podcaster and combat journalist Robert Evans (along with co-hosts Katy Stoll and Cody Johnston) started the podcast Worst Year Ever in anticipation of same. Any prediction or frame of reference short of nuclear annihilation or the Rapture, however, has come up short. You want political turmoil just this side of open civil war? You got it. Death on a scale that is difficult to wrap your mind around? Coming right up. Earthquakes? Swarms of locusts? Sure, why not.

In these terrible times, it is natural for people to seek comfort where they can. Some have regrettably placed their faith in charlatans and grifters, some of these conmen crawling up from the sewers of religion, and others from the slimy ductwork of politics. Some people have looked for relief, on the other hand, in fiction; and a growing body of evidence suggests that horror, in particular, has a correlation with positive coping mechanisms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether this relationship is causal is an entirely different discussion, but the relationship exists.

One possible explanation is that, for many of us horror fans, 2020 has felt, well, familiar. From the “Captain Trips” superflu of The Stand to the political nightmares of The Purge and Red State, 2020 has been the year that horror became nonfiction. Themes that have resonated in horror since Poe’s plague poetry and the hideous, racist paranoia of Lovecraft are now playing out before our eyes in real time. Perhaps horror fans are coping relatively well because we’ve heard many of these stories before. We already know how they end.

And that may be another reason that horror fans are coping better: horror in its most elemental form is an examination of our own mortality. It is an exploration of the frailty of the human form. A critic might call this desensitization. I prefer to think of it as becoming comfortable with our true nature as humans. We are fragile and impermanent. The contemplation of this fact shouldn’t cause us to despair, but rather to celebrate the incandescent wonder of every moment that we are alive, and to take what actions we can to mitigate the suffering of the vulnerable among us. Horror – and life – teaches us that every day is precious, and that to take that for granted is to risk calamity.

A caveat. The conspiratorial bent of much of horror (and of fiction in general) has undoubtedly had a corrosive effect on the psyche of some. It’s hard to imagine a cult like QAnon existing without the narrative skeleton it steals from films like Rosemary’s Baby or They Live. It’s likewise hard to imagine anti-mask conspiracy theories cropping up the way they have if people had not been primed by horror culture to believe that “the government” or an evil corporation would unleash a virus on the public. It’s a trope in countless films from the Resident Evil franchise to 28 Days Later to, well, you name it. While it is undoubtedly criminal incompetence on the part of the outgoing administration that got us to this point, this pandemic is as organic as a green smoothie. It was not unleashed by Pfizer or the government. In fact, if anything, Big Pharma and the government will likely provide the only path out of the dark thicket humanity wandered into in 2020. (Please do not think for a moment that I suffer from the delusion that capital has our best interests at heart in this or any other case – I’m merely referring to the manufacturing and distribution of a vaccine.)

One last note about the horrors of 2020. Few phenomena are unmitigated evils, and the multiple overlapping disasters of this rotten year have brought out the best in many people. Horror fans are an incredible community, one made up of some of the best, most passionate and compassionate people I’ve ever met. We aren’t the only community that has banded together in 2020 (and, please note, if you are reading this, you are part of that “we”). We might just be the most psychologically prepared.  

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