Oh, The Horror. The Horror.
I love horror fiction, and films. The weirder, the better. But, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to successfully write it. I’ll explain why after this gloomy self-portrait of Sir William Fettes Douglas:
If there was a philosophy to my early childhood, it’s this: “The world is dark and full of terrors.” (Apologies to George R.R. Martin.) I remember growing up in terror of the world, both outside the house (Stranger danger! Don’t run out into the street! Don’t go into that old shed! Don’t play on that tire, you’ll get tetanus!) and inside the house. My family wore feelings like flags. If someone was angry, the entire house knew it. You couldn’t deaden the yelling. It was like living in an emotional bombing zone at the best of times.
Later in life, I realized how lucky I was that this was the extent of my traumas, but that’s another topic.
Fear ruled my life. Some would say it still does but then, my fears were more tangible. They dug into everything I did: I wouldn’t see a movie, because I heard there was a scary part in it. I wouldn’t listen to a record because I heard it drove people to suicide. The constant protective fear I experienced left my emotional skin very thin. I had to thicken it up myself.
I did it with repeated listening of the story record for The Black Hole, with its gurgling audio of Anthony Perkins’ death at the spinning blades of Maximilian, the single most terrifying robot I’ve ever seen. The pictures of his scowling red eyeslit combined with one of the nastiest deaths in a supposed ‘space adventure’ burned into my brain.
I went through a wilderness of knives with Young Sherlock Holmes and the sacrifice of the young girl, smothered alive by hot wax in a pseudo-Egyptian ceremony. (At that age, I could actually feel the claustrophobia and suffocation she must have experienced). And in my dreams, I fought off the horrifying painting of one of my ancestors which stood in the house, glaring at us with his wire-brush beard and dark Serbian eyes. It made the portrait above look positively cheerful.
Over time, though, the fears of the dark and what lurked inside faded. I grew to love the fictional horrors out there. I’d dive into films, and books. Junior high was my first deep dive into terrors, as I found Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural edited by Henry Mazzeo with illustrations by Edward Gorey in the Thomwas W. Pyle Jr. High library. The fictional terrors comforted me. Outside the library were real horrors, ones encountered at a young age and kept encountering all my life.
When going to school terrifies you because of the people waiting there, and going home is just as terrifying because of the people waiting there, what’s in a book becomes comforting. Now that I’m entirely too grown, fictional terrors on TV, the big screen, and in literature are a cozy blanket and warm cup of tea for me. I taste terrors the way some taste wine: enjoying the complexities, but never losing myself to the alcohol.
Why? Because every day, at work, I face a monitor which runs CNN constantly. I listen to political feeds, hear twitter conversations, read about the worst parts of humanity. I’ve lived through seeing both sides of my family go from obscure countries no one cared about to shorthands for mass murderers and despots. In my world, when someone racks up a body count which rivals any hockey-masked golem, the first response is: “How can we capitalize on this? Quick, send out a press release blaming the welfare state.”
I’m convinced that, in this world, the horrors of literature would be drowned in the banal horrors of humanity. A dark cosmic void pointing to our insignificance is actually far more inspiring and magnificent than a distant board of executives who consider me just another liability which can be ditched if we don’t make our annual profit margins. At least alien biomechanoids consider me a valuable resource on one level…
John Carpenter said once there are fundamentally two types of horror: external or internal. Internal horror is about confronting the darkness within ourselves – our actions have led to a horrific consequence. External horror features a malevolent force attacking us and all we hold dear. But both start one deep assumption: there is some value in the status quo. It may suck, but at least you’re not being assaulted by undead creatures or your dad isn’t possessed by some entity out to kill you. Right?
I don’t think so. Horror gives us an enemy. You can focus on the terrifying thing caught in a home movie. You can try to defeat it. How do you defeat the fact your neighborhood was red-lined into persistent poverty?
True horror is a private security firm’s attack dog with its teeth red from the blood of anti-pipeline protesters. True horror is an athlete caught raping an unconscious woman, let go after three months because he’s a white kid from the right school, with a sympathetic judge. True horror is a neighborhood dying from toxins in the soil and water because they’re too poor to register on anyone’s political radar.
This is why I can’t write horror myself. Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write anything as terrifying as humanity at its worst.