“I don’t read that stuff.”
“Why do you write things like that?”
Those are common comments I get when people discover that I write horror fiction. People also give me a lot strange looks when I set up at local street festivals or wear a t-shirt with a picture of the Bride of Frankenstein on it. Everyone thinks that I’m going to say some kind of incantation in an arcane language and bring about the devil, himself, to tempt them to the dark delights of scary fiction, which of course will lead to the end of the world in a fiery Biblical-style apocalypse. Maybe this is just a reaction that I get. I do live in in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt.
Here’s the thing: I’m not going to raise the devil, call up Cthulhu, or reanimate a dead body using electricity. The only thing someone might get from one of my books is a cheap thrill and a nightmare or two. So many people think there is something evil or disturbed about the horror writer just because we dream up monsters and blood thirsty villains. They think the same thing about fans of the horror genre as well.
Another comment I get from the people who don’t cross themselves or pray after looking at my titles is, “How do you come up with such ideas?”
Simple answer, Karen—life.
The thing about the horror writer is this. We cannot imagine anything more horrific than what already happens. We try our best to take those daily horrors and make them something that help people come to terms with the evils around us. Isn’t the point of horror fiction to make the world a little less scary? Isn’t that why people enjoy it as much as they do? It’s an easy way to process the real world terrors that exist around us. Horror stories (including movies) have been trying to do that for centuries.
Take for example some of our classic monsters. So many of those arise from societal change that is striking fear into humanity. Those stories and monsters arise to help us make sense of the changing world and take some of the sting out of it. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a book that grew out of the fear of the changing scientific world. Almost everyone knows the origin story of this book. Shelley and her husband Percy spent a cold summer in Switzerland with Lord Bryon, his girlfriend, and Dr. Polidori. They read ghost stories and decided to have scary story contest. Mary dreamt her classic tale one night after this.
What people may not know about the creation of Frankenstein is that it drew off of the scientific breakthroughs of the day, including how electricity could make muscles move after death. Also the ideas of atheism were becoming wider spread. People feared that man would replace God. That’s exactly what Victor Frankenstein did with terrible consequences. Readers get to see what happens when man tries to become God.
Dracula is another work that addresses contemporary fears. In this tale, the modern world clashes with an ancient evil. It could be seen as a fear that old unenlightened ways might overtake the modern improvements of life. Of course, modernity triumphs.
Lovecraftian fiction is another good example of how horror attempts to take the sting of reality. He began writing his particular brand of weird fiction during the height of World War I. The Great War demonstrated how delicate human life was and how easily it could be destroyed en masse. At the end of the war, a lost generation discovered that human interests and desires didn’t matter much in the grand scale of things. Lovecraft gave his audiences monsters from beyond space and time that had no interest in human needs, wants, and desires. They only wished to destroy humanity playing on the nihilistic viewpoints that led the Jazz age generation to eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow they might die. Of course in Lovecraft, there is no opportunity for such revels. Those too are pointless to the Great Old Ones.
Zombies movies came to represent the fear of the faceless masses bent on changing society and overturning the historical system. Originally they represented the fear of the counter culture and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Later, they represented the dangers of blind consumerism and militarism. In the early 21st century, the zombie horde became fast and relentless like the faceless terrorists that threatened humanity in real life. They still run amok because there will always be the faceless crowd trying to change things. They might be the ultimate monsters for the cathartic release of modern fears.
Like Billy Mays would say, wait there’s more.
Vampires made a comeback during the 1980s and 1990s when sex and blood became deadly due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The audience had a visible and tangible creature to fear in place of the virus that was practically invisible. In the 1950s, alien invasion movies became the way for Americans to deal with their fear of communist infiltration. The same decade invented the word teenager and defined that culture. With that came the resurgence of the ultimate metaphor for adolescence, the werewolf.
Why do you write that stuff? Why do you like this schlock?
Easy answer—to deal with life. There’s nothing sinister about writing horror. We authors of the weird and frightening aren’t trying to corrupt the youth or bring about the end of the world. We’re trying to make dealing with life a little easier. We’re therapists offering a cathartic release for the tribulations of life.
Consumers of horror aren’t devil worshiping freaks. (Some of you might be, but that could just as easily be said of fans of romance.) You are looking for thrill to take you away from the real life horrors that exist around us. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually a healthy release. (Trust me. I’m a “retired” psychotherapist.)
I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir, but maybe if you’re reading this, you can proselytize this message to the people that might hassle you for liking the genre. Explain to them the importance of horror fiction and movies to individual and societal wellbeing.
So I’ll end with a question. It’ll help prepare you for the real life situation. Please read the question in the snarkiest sounding voice possible to simulate a real world experience. Feel free to leave an answer in the comments section.
“Why do you like horror?”