Horror & Dark Fantasy

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The H Word: The Failure of Fear

Let me make a confession here: I haven’t been truly scared by a work of literary or cinematic horror in a long time—perhaps only once in my adult lifetime: fourteen years ago, when I saw The Blair Witch Project, and slept with the bedside lamp alight, to my wife’s amusement. What made the movie work (for me, anyway) was the way the film broke the fourth wall, successfully pretending to be found footage from a student documentary in the works, and casting complete unknowns who didn’t fulfill the horror movie clichés, which even a good film like The Cabin in the Woods indulges (however much it seeks to subvert them). The protagonists are neither budding Hollywood sensations nor gym-massaged hardbodies who spend the film in various states of undress: they’re everyday folks who spend most of the movie in parkas. The found footage motif has now become a cliché itself, but we’re still watching the same young hardbodies get sliced and diced on their way to the inevitable sequel. Not scary. Just as the literary side of the equation—even in the most accomplished hands (and I believe we’re experiencing a small renaissance in the genre)—almost invariably fails to unsettle me.

Yet I’m not by any means an unsatisfied customer. I continue to see a lot of horror films and to read widely in the genre—more widely, in fact, than in any other realm of fiction. There is an essential mystery about this that I first latched on to during a horror panel at the late lamented Trinoc*Con, when I found myself admitting (to my horror—pun intended) that unlike the other writers on the panel, I really didn’t work very hard at scaring people and indeed wasn’t much interested in it: this from a writer who works fairly regularly, though by no means exclusively, in the genre, and who has occasionally been nominated for its annual awards. I even won one, the International Horror Guild Award, for a novelette called “Death and Suffrage,” about zombies who return from the dead . . . to vote. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares.

In his now classic study of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King argues that “the genre exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it”—terror, horror, and revulsion. Terror operates through the unseen, the specter that is merely imagined. Horror presents the monster as physical reality. Revulsion—“the gross-out”—works by making us recoil from some gory “reality” (he offers us the chest-burster scene in Alien by way of example). Yet none of these levels really leaves me sleepless at night. I can think of no finer example of “terror” than Henry James’ Turn of the Screw—yet it does not terrify me. Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Slime,” with its eponymous—and very physical—monster, does not move me to leave the light on when I go to sleep. And even the most violent gross-out fantasy—think Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—is more likely to leave me wondering about the secret of the special effects (or bemoaning them in this era of CGI) than hiding my head under the bedclothes. A (very) informal poll of my friends, aficionados all, suggests that my reactions are not uncommon—that none of the three levels inspires the kind of quaking-under-your-covers, fearful-of-the-boogeyman-beyond-the-closet-door terror most of us experienced as children. On the rare occasions when we do experience true fear as adults, King admits, we regress into our “terrified ten-year-old” selves.

I’ll go with him that far, but I will not take the next logical step: That we have become jaded by exposure to the genre, or that we have outgrown our imaginations. If that were the case, we’d abandon the genre—admittedly, some people do—just as we abandon the other accoutrements of childhood: action figures and Barbies, bicycles with playing cards in the spokes, the baby dolls which many of us trade in for the real thing. When I became a man I put away childish things, and all that. But I am unwilling to argue that horror is essentially a juvenile genre. If it were, Stephen King would not routinely sit at the top of the bestseller lists. But of course he does, which raises the crucial question: Why do we keep returning to a genre that no longer achieves its purported end—that no longer “works” (if it ever did)? I’d like to answer the question definitively (ask any mathematician; there is nothing more satisfactory than discovering an airtight theorem) but here I am reduced to speculate upon two not necessarily contradictory theories.

By way of getting at the first of those theories, I’d compare horror to another genre of the fantastic: science fiction. Science fiction, despite the “sense of wonder” that has often been held as the central feature of the genre, for the most part hinges not upon a sense of mystery, but upon a firmly held belief in an orderly universe that can be apprehended through reason. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic assumes that what appears to be magic is indeed technology operating according to as yet undiscovered scientific law—the key words here being as yet. What is mysterious in the world will ultimately yield to the rational mind.

The horror writer (and reader), on the other hand, is committed to the idea that the universe is essentially unknowable. The monsters of Lovecraft’s Mythos are not in themselves particularly scary. Indeed, Cthulhu himself, with his wings and tentacles, is faintly ridiculous. As a symbol of the universe that will not yield to the human mind, however, he (it?) works just fine. As Lovecraft himself puts it in the justly famous opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu,” the action of the rational mind—“the piecing together of dissociated knowledge”—will not unveil an orderly universe, a world that makes sense, but a world of profound mystery: “terrifying vistas of reality” that will plunge us into madness. Horror fiction confirms an existential position that is the inverse of Clarke’s law: magic might well be magic. We live in a universe that we can never hope to understand, where mystery will never succumb to the power of reason. This is disturbing to be sure, but not on the visceral leave-the-lights-on level we experience as children unable fully to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

Second, I think that dissonance between reality and fantasy—and our increasing understanding of it as we age—further undermines horror fiction’s ability to scare us as adults. Frankly, a world where school shootings with massive body counts have become routine is infinitely more terrifying than any merely fictional threat, from haunts to Hannibal Lecter. It’s not the failure of adult imagination that leads to horror fiction’s inability to inspire real and lasting terror; it’s the superabundance of imagination. As a teacher and the spouse of a teacher, and especially as a parent, I am routinely aware of the threat of a campus shooter. Compared to that reality, The Shining seems like a walk in the park. And I don’t think, as some would argue, that such works provide catharsis by way of temporarily exorcising (or even exercising) those fears. I think they do something all the more disturbing: they confirm the essential darkness of the reality we live in, a reality where good is perishingly hard to find, and perishingly fragile when we find it. Horror readers (unlike, say, science fiction fans) are more than pessimists. They are realists, and—here is the secret—horror fiction provides the confirmation they crave. The boogeyman in the closet is little more than a symbolic reflection of the world we live in. And when nothing is scarier than the reality we live in, I would argue that nothing much is scary at all.

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Dale Bailey

Dale BaileyDale Bailey lives in North Carolina with his family, and has published three novels, The Fallen, House of Bones, and Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.). His short fiction, collected in The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories, has won the International Horror Guild Award and has been twice nominated for the Nebula Award. You can find him online at www.dalebailey.com.

Stories by Dale Bailey

7 Responses »

  1. Interesting points. I, myself, would posit that the warp core of SF is allegory over either mystery or reason while the beating heart of horror is not fear but rather empathy. To that point, I likewise have rarely been put to a tangible fear by a frame of film or the written word but have often experienced King’s top 2 tiers of genre in the company of a proper horrormiester.

    “The Sixth Sense” (M. Night Shyamalan) did not scare me per sey, but it did quite effectively crawl me up the back of my theatre seat for terrorizing my empathy bones to a near apoplexy on behalf of the young protagonist. “Singing My Sister Down” (Margo Lanagan) did not deprive me of a peaceful night’s sleep for fear of encroaching tar, but it did horrify me effectively enough to haunt my otherwise unoccupied moments for weeks over the fate of an empathetic murderess.

    Such responses are the brass ring of good horror, but they are not rooted in the generation of fear for self, or even for loved ones. Rather, they depend on the creation of a successful enough fictional reality (particularly a specific character’s reality) to evoke an overwhelming empathetic response when that reality comes under attack, even if said attack is from an otherwise faintly ridiculous winged, tentacled creature.

    So while I’d agree that the boogeyman in the closet is a symbolic reflection of the world in which we live? I’d argue that he only makes for good horror when the people outside that closet have been rendered in such a way as to evoke empathy for their impending fate. Fear of closets or for self is entirely optional.

  2. I have been arguing for years, ever since I was about 12, that nothing is scarier than facing the reality that we might just disappear one day (death) and we might do it in a very painful and hopeless way (read John Shirley’s Cram, or Tom Ligotti for this type of horror). Still, as you so ably say, this doesn’t lead us to “leave lights on” although I’m sure many lose plenty of sleep over it. And horror fiction and films don’t even come close. Like you, I have never really been scared by fiction or films. I can imagine though a real snuff film being much more disturbing than any fictional milieu, but still, leave the lights on, nah.

    I have always wondered what horror writing really does then other than force us to face these facts in a fictional context and your essay presents some interesting perspectives. How can one really enjoy it as a genre.? Murder mysteries and thrillers certainly present lots of death, torture, and mayhem but I don’t really care for these genres and its not just because these are more “real.” I’m still not sure but I think you point in the right direction.

  3. I do think empathy is at the heart of it, Beki. Unless we identify with the character, nothing is scary, which is why those Hollywood hardbody slashers don’t get me with anything more than the occasional jump-cut. I agree that “The Sixth Sense” is one of those that works at the empathy level (but oh how M. Night has fallen!).

    And it’s fear of death, Scott, too. Which is why I think thrillers and suspense films don’t evoke the same kind of “fear.” We know there is little chance that the main character is going to get knocked off in a suspense film (that’s why “Psycho” works so well). I wonder, too, if there is some division to be made between supernatural and non-supernatural horror; does one scare us us more than the other (and I mean in the existential sense, not the hide-your-head-under-the-covers sense)?

    • Off the radar, Dale. Off the freakin radar (M. Night has fallen).

      I see a significant division between supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror, but as to which holds more potential to scare? I’d argue the answer to that question is dictated primarily (albeit not necessarily solely) by the preexisting belief systems of the audience with the joker in that deck being a writer’s capacity to create belief out of disbelief.

      By instinct, we most fear what we believe possible, and there are as many degrees of belief in and/or disbelief of the supernatural as there are people. That being noted, invoking an empathetic fear response in the audience requires tapping into something much deeper than mere intellect, which is why so many who “don’t believe” in the supernatural can be scared silly by a well-crafted story rooted in as much (ie, The Exorcist).

      So I’d say 1) that what the audience believes possible — not on an intellectual level but rather on a gut level — will invoke the deepest fear and 2) what the audience believes possible is dictated by their own personal belief systems … belief systems that the best horror writers delight in leveraging against their audience to the creation of belief (or even just insecurity in their own disbelief) in the heretofore unbelieved and/or unconsidered situation, the gaping maw of unknown potential as exists between what they thought they knew and what the writer has convinced them is possible being the holy grail of all horror, supernatural or otherwise.

      Which is to say, for my money? The scariest of all scares come from the supernatural made natural, and the ability to create such alchemy within the audience’s imagination, even if only for a couple of hours, is the truest measure of a horror writer’s greatest skill.

  4. I think that empathy is part of it, the ability to genuinely imagine yourself in that situation. The other big part of it though is atmosphere, and pacing.

    Most horror movies fail to scare me specifically because of the speed, and violence of them. Once they hit a certain threshold, in either of these catagories, I start to react to them as (usually unsuccessful) action movies. It’s slow paced, atmospheric movies, where you get to know the characters, and feel for them, and where the horror comes from commonplace, creepy situations that are genuinely scary.

    Japanese horror movies tap into this, which is one reason I think they’re much scarier than western movies. The only western movie to scare me in the last 5 or 10 years was the recent remake of The Woman in Black. I watched it on a tiny screen, on an airplane, and I actually had to pause it at one stage, and stand up, because of the feeling of claustrophobic dread. If I hadn’t been on a public flight, I would have screamed aloud.

  5. Oddly, many similar points could be made about comedy. Failure of imagination, gross-out comedy, dissonance b/t reality and fantasy, etc. Watered down entertainment is all the rage these days.

  6. Respectfully, I think the idea that we don’t get jaded/calloused as we grow up is wrongheaded. Personally I think its as plain as day that we get use to things. People can get use to almost anything, that’s how humanity stays alive(adaptation, strengthening). Horror movies are like narcotics, you build up a tolerance. I can see that the whole of society has built up a tolerance. What use to scare the hell outta someone now is just kinda novel and even beautiful just because we’re so many years outside of it, and have “matured”(personally or culturally). We use to blush at episodes of “Threes Company” and now we don’t blink at “Desperate Housewives”. But there is society as a whole and then there is the individual. The masses is that big lump of dumb that can be led like ants across a line of sugar, but the particular can still be sharp and get through no matter what day and age you live in. Yea varily, there still is the kid that gets it. Its always nice to show an 18 year old “The Thing” and have him gasp at its gooey splendor. Or go and watch a revival of “The Exorcist” and hear the girl behind you say “this is the scariest movie Ive ever seen”. Its still very nice to know that some of the youth particulars still “Get It”. But I’m terribly AFRAID that we’ve become a bit jaded… yeah. I think that sums it up pretty well. But wait…. don’t despair. I think there’s a cure for that. Now hear me out: Maybe we could.. well.. possibly maybe we could try to put down our stemware some grand evening and instead pick up a can of dr.pepper and then maybe trade our duck l’orange in on a box of goobers and then just mayyyyybe tryyyyyy to get BACK in touch with our “old” selves.. come back to our senses again maybe? ya know? back when everything wasn’t so posh and “mature”? remember those times? ….. The magic is still there, its just that at some point we stopped believing in it simply because of those damn jones’s next door. ya see, there’s no room for magic and monsters in a world made up of only winners and losers. As our grand daddy’s might’ve told us ‘you’ve gotten too big for yer britches’. Yeah, I think we have.

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