Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Getting Cozy with Horror

Once you reach a certain point in your friendship, Horror grows up and becomes a teenager. It’s no longer the BFF you spent the night with, eating cereal and reading comic books. It’s a young adult with grand ideas, mostly about itself.

“I’m a statement about our society,” it explains, breaking your heart. “People watch me because I help exorcise their fears. I empower them to face their real-life problems. It’s an act of catharsis. I’m a sophisticated art form, goddammit!”

Suffice to say, Horror isn’t interested in just “hanging” anymore. It tells you that it’s going to college because academia is finally respecting it. It’s not interested in being fun anymore. That kid stuff is in the past. From now on, it spends its time with a new clique of buddies-cum-critics who gush over how “transgressive” it is. How “disturbing” it is. Or, in the absolute darkest moments, how “elevated” it is now.

You realize that you and Horror are different people, and you want different things.

It makes you miss the old days, when you and Horror could just kick back and have a nice evening together. The days when Horror used to actually comfort you.

Comfort was the overriding sensation I felt during my youth, when I would spend my days reading Goosebumps at recess and my nights watching the Universal Monsters with my grandparents. The creepy comfort food that Horror served you might look different than mine, but the dishes I indulged in always utilized a handful of trusty ingredients: archness, theatricality, showmanship, pulpiness, and a heaping spoonful of the unthreatening. Based on this steady diet, it took me longer than most to graduate to films and books that spilled blood or tore flesh in any quantity. I would blush in every shade of Eastmancolor if there was so much as the threat of an exposed nipple in one of Hammer’s Dracula films.

I was basically a five-foot Puritan until I entered seventh grade.

Sensing my own stunted development, I made concerted efforts to take in some stronger stuff. It seems hysterical to me now that I did this by marathoning the likes of Freddy and Jason, when ten years later I would spend a solitary night at home screening Angst (1983) because apparently, I hadn’t made enough decisions to self-harm that day.

But there was no real lasting impact from these efforts. I was not converted into a diehard slasher fan or connoisseur of Japanese gore overnight. I was still the roly-poly horror Puritan who responded to the crackle and hiss of a Poverty Row chiller like the warmth of a welcome fire.

Everyone’s mileage will vary. In fact, it was this notion of the comforting being as subjective as the terrifying that led me to start a series of informal surveys across my friends list and several groups on Facebook. I was surprised and delighted by the wealth and diversity of responses. The idea of “cozy horror” stirred up strong feelings in a lot of people: recognition, dissent, and no small amount of confusion. Warm and fuzzy horror? What the hell was I talking about?

But the thoughts and examples provided by the respondents offered wonderful insight into this most contradictory of ideas. Taking a look at the titles and artists who exemplify cozy horror more closely, we are able to reverse engineer a working idea of what elements constitute this extremely loose category/subgenre/aesthetic.

So, let’s put a kettle on and dive in.

1. Familiarity

This element perhaps above all else. While many horror stories grapple with fear of the unknown, there are elements within and without the narrative of cozy horror stories that bring the work in question into a safer, more knowable realm, allowing for a sense of comfort to take hold. Take your pick of familiarization: there is the familiarization of formula (a work that lovingly digs into treasured tropes, as in the remake of The Woman in Black), the familiarization of nostalgia (works that scratch a rose-tinted itch with explicit call-backs to the past, like Night of the Creeps), and the familiarization of repeated exposure. To this last point I would argue that it is not enough for a work to be experienced again and again for it to qualify as cozy horror. (I feel something like Audition would resist this process, no matter how many marathons you had.) There needs to be other key elements in place for the work to truly generate a feeling of coziness. Which leads me to . . .

2. Sensuousness

Otherwise known in the parlance of the times as ASMR. For those readers who have yet to make the journey to this corner of YouTube, ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) essentially refers to the funny process of getting chills or “tingles” from a stimulant of a tactile or auditory nature. Visuals can get the job done, too, as can written prose which describes a comforting scenario or landscape within the work of cozy horror. (Think the sere and dusty prologues of an M.R. James yarn, or the lush, purple prose of Angela Carter’s fairy tales.) In this sense, the work of cozy horror literalizes the theme by portraying soothing moments of peace amidst the terror: crackling hearths, frothy tavern mugs, snuggling up in camping tents. Sometimes the medium and delivery in which the tale is told is itself the source of relaxation, which leads me to . . .

3. Distance

Cozy horror, being horror, can and will depict situations in which lives are lost and characters are shaken to their core. The difference here is that the primary threat within the work of cozy horror is (almost) always something the audience can feel that they are in no (relatively) immediate danger of ever having to endure themselves. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, for all that is unsettling about his consumption of terrified children, is, at the end of the day, a boogeyman in greasepaint in the same vein as Count Dracula. We cannot convince ourselves of the same thing when we watch The Strangers or read The Girl Next Door. Those grisly acts are not restricted to our entertainment; they make up our nightly news. And so cozy horror is horror at a distance, whether that be depicted in its content, or, as mentioned before, in its delivery. Psycho is closer in content to The Strangers than IT, but the 1960 film has several distancing factors that allow for coziness to take place. One is the black-and-white photography, a visual that immediately signals to the viewer that this is not the natural world they inhabit. Another is that the story, although eventually revealed to be otherwise, is conveyed as a spooky, possibly-supernatural mystery, the last dying gasp of the Gothic horrors that preceded it. The rambling Bates house makes it feel like a product from a bygone era when murder was as wholesome as mom’s apple pie.

4. Fun

Because how could it be cozy if we didn’t feel good about it? Horror films from the first half of the twentieth century typically presented themselves not as gambols through Hell, but as rousing adventures fitted with Halloween decorations. This was a time-honored tradition that began in Gothic literature, whose mysteries and melodramas were given extra zest by their proximity to dungeons and churchyards. Humor can also be employed, whether as isolated set pieces to act as stark contrast to the terror or as a steady throughline that punctuates the narrative with additional delicious flavors, like ripples of fudge in a tub of vanilla ice cream. One needn’t look any further for an example of this type of fun than that bastion of jubilant horror, Creepshow (1982). There are gore effects aplenty and even a few whisperings of sexual relations, elements that might otherwise jar with the cozy sensibility, but the whole thing is shot through with the unbridled enthusiasm of kids playing monsters in the woods so that the feeling of good, clean spookery is left intact.

Cozy horror has been on my mind a lot lately, seeing as how the world has been on fire. 2020 was also an additional year of me being a father to one and a children’s librarian to many. These two roles have added to my growing disinterest in Horror’s unending grittiness. Kids are joyful by nature, and they seek joy wherever they can find it. Being around them in both my personal and professional life has reminded me of that.

When I was a kid, I did not seek out horror because I liked being scared or because I wanted to feel like I was a commando charting dangerous waters. I did it out of joy, safe in the knowledge that R.L. Stine would have his kids defeat the goofy monsters by the end of the book before the wink-wink blackout. (As opposed to Christopher Pike, who I always gave a wide berth because I could tell just from the covers of his YA novels that he was a fucking murderer.)

All this thinking came to a head this past Halloween. My spirit was crushed by the idea that I might not be able to take my fairy toddler around the block to get a few meager scraps of candy. After a week of nocturnal readings of news articles and op-eds and election statistics, my brain was ready for the garbage disposal as well. It was then that, late one evening, I found myself on Amazon Prime, desperate for diversion. And there it was: The Creeping Flesh (1973), a film I hadn’t yet seen, but whose premise had always intrigued me. (It reminded me of another crackerjack, cozy favorite of mine, Horror Express [1972]).

But once spotted, I found myself proverbially lunging for this movie. I wanted—needed—to see it. I needed the sights of rain-spattered English manors and the sound of bubbling beakers to drain my sorrows, to hear the crisp accents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as they contended with the gargantuan skeleton of an evil alien whose bones sprouted flesh like weeds when bathed in water. The film itself didn’t quite deliver on all promised by its plot, but its penny dreadful melodramatics was just the thing that my fevered soul required.

In a way, this kind of comforting horror that I profess to love and prize over all others is in direct contention with what many of us think that the genre should be. But like our friend Teenage Horror from earlier, I think too often we tend to get caught up in the hip labels and Oxford Dictionary definitions. We get to thinking that, like boys on the cusp of manhood, horror hasn’t really proven itself unless it’s gone out and shot something.

But that needn’t be the case. The bedsheet ghost and the dapper werewolf are just as much a part of horror as the evil clown and the serial killer mastermind. Perhaps if we were to think of genres less like sandboxes and more like spectrums, we’d all be a lot happier. (Yes, but what would we debate about on the internet, then?)

And that’s what it comes down to for me: the horror that makes me happy. Because we need more of that now than perhaps we ever did. You can find it if you know where to look. And if you don’t, those of us who place our faith in the snuggly-quilt, warm-cookie side of the genre are always glad to help. Perhaps you can use these two curated lists of films (bit.ly/3hBtoMA) and books (bit.ly/33R9aGy) as a starting point to help you get through the year ahead.

After all, what are friends for?

Jose Cruz

Jose Cruz is a children’s librarian and author of dark fiction. His work has appeared in print and digital venues including Rue Morgue, Diabolique, The Terror Trap, Classic-Horror.com, Nightscript, and Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. “The Shepherd,” his third published story, was long-listed for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. Find out more at hauntedcruz.com.