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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