Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Horror in Strange Times

I taught a class called “The Monstrous and the Terrible” this semester, a class in which we read horror fiction and watched horror films. I’ve taught this class twice before, and by this time have a regular rhythm for how I teach it: a set of core stories starting with Poe that I teach, a set of films that we watch. I’ve always taught, for instance, The Thing, which I think of as one of the great horror movies, and Alien, which is a kind of haunted-house-in-space movie. I know what I think about these movies and stories, having read and seen them many times, and at this point could almost teach the class in my sleep. I can use them to bolster an argument about what Horror is or should be, how Horror shifts as it changes medium, and how, as we become accustomed to certain tropes, the more interesting makers figure out ways of revitalizing them and giving us something new.

Usually we start by reading a lot of stories, establishing a historical sense of how Horror developed, and then, as the semester goes on, we watch more and more films. Halfway through this semester, just as our film viewing was reaching the point where it was ramping up, Covid-19 closed the university. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, since we watched it inexorably come, closing down country after country) I had to transform an in-person class into an online class in ten days.

Considering everything else going on, this was a small thing. I had taught online classes before, and even though I didn’t like it, I knew I could do it. But did I really want to teach a horror class at a time like this? Did my students, who were being abruptly forced to leave campus and move back home, really want to continue to think about Horror as a genre? They would have all sorts of real-life horrors on their mind. Some of them would get sick, some would lose friends and family members. Why study Horror in the face of disaster?

Moving the course online, I discovered that the digital film archive that CalArts subscribed to had access to only one film that could be vaguely described as Horror: The Hitch-Hiker, the 1953 film directed by Ida Lupino. I managed to get CalArts to change their subscription to add more horror films, but they still could only get access to one film I had originally planned to show: Eyes Without a Face. Could they get me The Thing? No they could not. Well, was it possible to get a substitute John Carpenter movie? Again, no. No Rosemary’s Baby, no Alien, no Hausu, no The Happiness of the Katakuris. Instead, I would have to make do with Shutter (the Thai version, not the American remake), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Scanners, and What We Do in the Shadows.

I bridled against this. Maybe I could show films that were available on Netflix, I thought, but not all my students had a Netflix subscription. Maybe I could have a meeting with myself by Zoom, play a film, share my screen, record it, and then later have them watch the Zoom recording. But there were obvious legal issues with this, plus when I tried to rescreen a clip I’d experimented with, the quality was poor.

So, instead, I abandoned the films on my original syllabus, chose stories that might fit better with these new films, and plowed ahead.

• • • •

What does Horror do to us in difficult times? What does it do for us? I think one of the things that first drew me to Horror was the fact that I grew up Mormon, in a town in Utah that was referred to by people around me as “Happy Valley.” The words “Happy Valley” come from Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, and refer to a beautiful valley in which the heirs to a throne are kept imprisoned until (and if) their turn to rule comes. Utah did often feel like a prison to me, and I felt that the insistence upon putting on a happy face hid so much. Mormon Church President Spencer Kimball argued that you should keep a daily journal, but only record the good things while forgetting the bad. That was insisted upon so often by people who struck me as not having learned from anything that had happened to them that I felt I would be better off to face the more difficult parts of life head on.

Horror at its best, I think, is willing to look without flinching. It is willing to extrapolate from small difficulties to think through how wrong things could go. It looks closely at the worst and allows that worst to play itself out on the page, allows us to experience it vicariously, at a second order of experience. And then we can take a deep breath and return to our lives. Truly excellent horror writers deepen that experience through their use of rhythm and sound and language, allowing language to augment the nature of the vicarious experience in a way that can leave us shaken and changed, that returns us to the world slightly different than when we left it.

All my writing life has been committed to vicariously experiencing disaster, and to encouraging others to experience it. But now, in the middle of a pandemic, teaching a horror class that had had to be revamped, I began to wonder about this. The thing about actual disaster is the way that it loans its flavor to everything, and makes the taste of those things you’ve gotten used to slightly different, slightly . . . off.

That’s true with what you read and watch as well. You bring enough of the disaster along with you to begin to notice different things: moments in a story that you might normally have passed over are suddenly heightened. Now, staying six feet away from everyone around you, you notice when people touch in stories, for instance, even when the author did not intend you to. The carceral elements of Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman” have a different weight when you’re the one who can’t leave the house and you’re living with your parents, as does the faceless daughter’s restriction to her mansion in Eyes Without a Face. You feel the tightness of the shackle attaching the minor character to the table in Aickman’s “The Hospice.” Margaret’s inability to find her house at the end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Beautiful Stranger” resonates with your own feeling that the world has been pulled out from under you and replaced with another, slightly different one. Or Jackson’s “The Summer House”—in which the Allisons choose to stay on past the end of the holiday season and feel increasingly isolated and threatened, while outside the weather continues to be blithely perfect—suddenly seems an apt metaphor for what it feels like for me to look out my Southern Californian window.

The Thing, with its sense of isolation and slow death at the end of the world, would have been perfect (in my opinion, The Thing is always perfect). As would Alien: you’re in a spaceship (house) and can’t leave, and something you brought in with you is killing everybody (virus—though admittedly the mortality rate for the xenomorph is much higher than it is for Covid-19). But also, at this moment, maybe too perfect. Teaching Shutter as tensions rose, I found my class highly aware that humans do more awful things to humans than supernatural creatures do. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, in which only men die, and largely because they seem to deserve it, seemed almost reassuring: it implies a world where people die according some sort of logic. Still, watching it at this moment, it was hard not to think about the ravine full of bodies that everyone walks by and seems to ignore. Scanners struck some of my students as about control, power, and manipulation in a way that’s particularly resonant to our current political regime, despite the film’s dial-up modems. What We Do in the Shadows, with its genial vampires with semi-real-world roommate problems, felt profoundly comforting to many of the students: talking back and forth over Zoom about which moments they liked the best and why was about as close as any of them were likely to get to hanging out casually with a large group of friends with similar interests any time soon.

That’s not to say that any of that is the main thrust of any of those works, only that Horror, as a genre that traffics in mood as much as anything else, is also a genre whose individual reception can be highly inflected by the state of the world of the reader. What was surprising to me was that the students really did want to keep reading and watching Horror, despite the state of the world. Indeed, reading and talking and thinking about Horror quickly became part of their coping mechanism for what they were going through. Good Horror is resilient enough to reveal new sides of itself as the world changes, and to make us, in reading it, in watching it, more resilient—and more resistant too. In the time of a disaster (and perhaps we are always to some degree or other in a time of disaster—it’s just a question of whether we’re insulated from knowing so by our resources or our class or our race), Horror becomes a place to gather and contemplate the disaster spreading out around us.

But Horror also sharpens our awareness of the flaws of the real world. There’s a moment in Algernon Blackwood’s “The Damned” that I’ve thought about a lot the last few months. That story is a supernatural one written in Blackwood’s inimitable style, in which everything that happens happens beneath the surface of things, fear gradually building. But the moment I keep thinking about is not supernatural at all. The narrator, Bill, comes across a little girl who has been tied up by two boys and is very afraid. It is a matter, Bill understands, of some game that has turned serious. After freeing her, he confronts the boys and finds they “aped a monstrous reality”:

To them, though make-believe, it was a make-believe of something that was right and natural and in no sense cruel. Grown-ups did it too. It was necessary for her good.

“We was going to burn her up, sir,” the older one informed me, answering my “Why?” with the explanation, “Because she wouldn’t believe what we wanted ’er to believe.”

Bill acknowledges that this “was their inheritance. They had breathed it in with the atmosphere of their bringing-up. They would renew the salutary torture when they could—till she ‘believed’ as they did.” In the midst, then, of slowly building up supernatural dread, Blackwood offers us this pointed warning about the darker mechanisms that drive so-called culture. Great Horror is full of such clear-sighted moments, and the best stories and films allow us a place to stand from which to view our own culture’s disaster and well as a lens to understand it more acutely. It gives us relief, through its fictional disasters, from our lived disaster (a strange relief since it comes about through simulating intensity, fear, and stress). But it also allows us to return to our own moment with a more acute understanding and more tools for survival. Those things, taken together, are what make Horror an essential genre, especially now.

Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World. He has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award five times and he has been included in The Year’s Best Horror and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. His novel The Open Curtain was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the International Horror Award for best story collection), The Warren, A Collapse of Horses, Immobility, and Altmann’s Tongue. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship and a Guggenheim Award. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.