Life Advice

Star Wars Episode VIII – The One Whose Title I Remember

I saw the new Star Wars movie today. It is hard to compare the new series to the old, because they are doing such different things in terms of social effects and emotional reaction. The first three movies changed cinema in some fundamental ways, and were a great thrill ride to boot. They were trailblazers, going where no one has gone before (and yes, I know I am mixing taglines of different franchises here — what can I say, I’m an anarchist). The three that followed were garbage, pure and simple, and we will speak no more of them.

 

The current trilogy has a whole different set of goals. Anyone comparing them directly to the first is going to find them disappointing, and whether they realize it or not, I believe that this is largely due to the fact that the new movies are not designed as life-changing experiences. They are meant to carry the torch, to provide a fun movie, and to sell ancillaries (toys, T-shirts, lunchboxes, iPhone cases, brand-licensed contraceptives, etc.).

 

And they are succeeding.

 

Episode VII was a thoroughly competent movie, which almost could not fail to carry the torch of the original Star Wars, given that it followed the exact same story beat for beat, up to and including the MacGuffin of the Death Star, the child who comes from nothing but carries with her extraordinary powers, the swashbuckling rogue who doesn’t obey orders but always manages to be in the right place at the right time to do the noble thing, and the series regulars like C-3PO and Chewbacca and the like. It was a good movie. Nothing extraordinary, but nothing disappointing, either – unless you count the lack of anything extraordinary at something disappointing, in which case, again, you are probably looking for the same effect of the original Star Wars and are doomed to disappointment because that will never be replicated. Other movies may change cinema, may have societal impact on a grand scale, may sell ancillaries – one must look no further than the Harry Potter series to see exactly that kind of event. But the original Star Wars’ effects will never be duplicated, and to try and do so would be foolish. Disney is not foolish, they are not trying to do so. They are just trying to keep on with what Star Wars has become.

 

This is inherently safer, and the movies that result almost necessarily will be blander. That is why I much preferred Rogue One to Episode VII (a sign of its middle of the road approach being that I enjoyed it very much, but can never quite manage to remember its name without really putting thought into it). Because Rogue One was its own animal, part of the Star Wars universe but necessarily separated from it and many fundamental ways, it was free to do different things and was its own reward. I also clapped out loud when it ended the way it did — which ending I will not spoil for those of you who have not seen it, but which was quite a bold move for a family-oriented Producer and distributor like Disney.

 

Which brings us to Episode VIII, The Last Jedi. Like episode seven, It shared many story beats with its progenitors. In this case, I would argue it mostly moves to the structure and themes of The Empire Strikes Back, which is to its benefits since Empire was the best of the Star Wars movies. But unlike Episode VII, which felt like a Conscious attempt to replicate the structure and appeal of the first Star Wars, The Last Jedi felt much more like an homage, or perhaps even a love letter of sorts sent from writers and directors of today back to those children we were the first time we saw Star Wars, either upon its real original release, or later Via VHS, DVD, or the money-grabbing Millennial tradition of “an all-new, remastered re-release with never-before-seen footage!” It was less heavy-hundred, better-directed, and much more well-written then it’s predecessor in the Star Wars timeline. And its sense of fun was wonderfully displayed, from the excellent comedic turn of our new Rogue, to the (much better then Ewoks cute little sidekick/animals, to the wonderful nods to 1970s culture (anyone else spot the rebels playing Battleship?).

 

All this to say, I had a great time. It was not the original Star Wars, but it was not intended to be, it never could be, and it was far better off not attempting to be that movie.

 

I enjoyed it enough – laughing and clapping – that the man in front of me turned around and told me to quiet down, to which I simply responded, “no.“ He told me he would have me “ejected from the theater,“ which I simply responded to with a thumbs up, because theaters will not even toss people for answering their phones in the middle I have the movie, let alone simply laughing loud, clapping hard, and cheering wildly while witnessing a torch perfectly passed in a race long enjoyed.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com

My review of Justice League

I saw JUSTICE LEAGUE with my two oldest kids. Verdict: it was okay to good – which is at LEAST an order of magnitude better than I expected. You could absolutely feel Whedon’s touch in the script and directing – a bit lighter palette on screen, and a lighter feel. Some good jokes (Aquaman sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth is a standout), and the kid who played THE FLASH showed Jesse Eisenberg that it is possible to do manic/neurotic without veering into “I’m a weasel who was drinking an espresso right before I fell into this big vat of cocaine” mode.

 

The Good:

1) The Flash absolutely stole the show – magic every time he was onstage, and his “hero progression” was handled brilliantly.

2) Batfleck still fits surprisingly well, and has some nicely played moments (see Flash’s “hero progression”). He needs to ditch the hairpieces and just admit he’s bald, though.

3) Some BEAUTIFUL shots. I like how in this one and Wonder Woman they really seemed to be mining ancient art as a template for what the fight scenes should look like.

 

The Meh:

1) Wonder woman got very little in the way of good lines, character development, or anything else, which was a shame since she became such a well-drawn character in her recent movie. She hit some people good and made magic fire by clicking her arm protectors together (PS totally lame move if you’re going to use it repeatedly), but that was kinda it.

2) Aquaman is getting a “meh” because they took a character almost no one liked and made him look AMAZING, then the actor portrayed him as such a unidimensional surfer dude it got boring and occasionally took a flying leap into lame.

3) The story was a series of wasted ideas. There was room to do something very powerful and interesting, but the artists involved avoided depth to such an extent that it felt like a cinematic kiddie pool.

 

The Bad:

1) Zack Snyder. Also, Zack Snyder and for good measure Zack Snyder. The dude has made precisely ONE good movie, and that one was a remake. Other than that, he does movies that are GORGEOUS, bus so drab and dreary it feels like pre-cyclone Kansas. Also, I have yet to see a movie where he gets “Story by” or “Written by” in which the story wasn’t a muddled mess.

2) Supes is my favorite all-time superhero. And the makers decided to make him the catalyst (of sorts), essentially relegating him to scenes where the best character development came in the form of “I am not wearing a shirt now, so you just KNOW I’m gonna mess you up in the face!” Ditto Amy Adams as Lois Lane. You’ve got an actor of her caliber, and you USE it.

 

THE CONCLUSION: 

Overall, I would recommend it, but encourage low expectations. It was fun enough to watch with my kids, and they certainly loved it, but I will likely never watch it again. Glad I did once… but once was enough.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

Writing is Magic

I’ve been scarce on social media (including this site) as of late… building up my identity as a Western Romance writer has been much more time-consuming than I thought it would be. Which is probably funny for most people, considering the assumption of most is that I already have at LEAST seven or eight other personalities rolling around in my little brain, so what’s one more?

 

I thought it would be tough to shift to that from a position in the “darker arts” of horror and other spec-fic. But it turns out I’m a sappy romantic at heart. Or maybe not… I just got told for the tenth time that my writing reminds folks of The Man From Snowy River and its sequel…

 

And oh, boy, will I take that thankfully. Because I can remember standing up and CHEERING as a young kid when I first saw The Return Of The Man From Snowy River. And remembering that, I also remembered how AWESOME it was when the hero of that movie faced folks down in Old West Tyme Australia with a FRICKIN’ BULLWHIP.

 

And guess what the hero in my first Western Romance has instead of a gun?

 

All this goes to show you how important stories are. They become more than entertainment, they become the stuff of our lives… part of our laughs, our cries, our shouts of triumph and tears of despair. They meld themselves to our DNA, and make us into new – hopefully better – people.

 

To the writers out there: remember that. The first job of a storymaker was to create community. To turn Many into One, and to give that One the tools to imagine marvelous things… and then turn those marvels into reality. You now hold that mantle, and I always plead that you will wield your powers in ways that make the world better, more beautiful, more MAGICAL.

 

To the readers out there: remember that you change every time you read. You cannot choose otherwise. But you CAN choose the works you patronize, the people you support with your time and money. Not all story has to have a happy ending – indeed, some of the best tales are cautionary ones, and you can’t caution anyone without showing the danger that threatens – but they should all MAKE the world a happier place overall. They should bring smiles, either in the moment of reading, or in the moment of satisfaction when the reader (you, me, and so many others) realizes there are things that are WRONG out there… and then fixes them.

 

Write. Read. Live.

 

And make that life magical.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

Hope is a Dream, a Time Asleep…

After my recent retirement announcement, a few people have stated that my situation is discouraging, given that they have always hoped to make writing a career and here’s a guy (me) who HAD it as a career, but couldn’t hold onto it. A few have lost hope in their own talent, their own futures. Here’s what I said to one of them, and what I now say to ALL who feel this way:

 

Don’t lose that hope. This kind of “turn” hits almost every writer out there, successful or not. Some of them have banked enough millions that it just doesn’t matter – who, for instance, believes that Dan “DaVinci Code” Brown is going to have a writing career in ten years… or that he’ll even notice the money not flowing in any more. The rest of them, when they have downturns, work as pizza guys or notary publics or any of a thousand other things. And that’s okay, too!

 

Don’t hope to be a pro writer and to have all be roses and sunshine forever. You want to be a pro, then WORK YOUR ASS OFF FOR THAT. Then, when it happens (and I have no doubt you WILL make it happen), just know that this life, this creative world… it’s all based on dreams. And the one thing that every dream has in common: they all end eventually. And that’s not a bad thing, because “real life” is what supports and informs the dream, and what makes it worth going to again and again. And the dreams are scary, fun, thrilling, horrible, ugly, beautiful, hateful, and lovely… which means they are, in fact, just one more facet OF that real life.

 

Live. Live your best, and you will find your dream, whatever it is. And then, having found it, you may realize that your dream is not the perfect thing you thought it would be, and that real life – the waking world – is also a pretty neat place.

 

And, having experienced both, you will be all the wiser, all the stronger, all the better for it. Having experienced both, you will be able to enjoy either, and excel within the bounds of whichever reality in which you find yourself.

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

The Press – A Powerful Enemy (of Itself)

Here’s a good example of being your own worst enemy:

 

I *DESPISE* those people – usually powerful – who don’t like having to answer questions about their decisions; especially those who, once questioned, react with all the grace of a two-year-old who’s had his lollipop ripped right out of his mouth.

 

So this article, at first, made me angry.

 

A newly elected CONGRESSMAN? Hitting a reporter after the reporter DARED ask a question?

 

But then I read this line: “Jacobs [the reporter] said Gianforte [the ‘body-slammed me and broke my glasses’ after he asked a question about the Republican health care legislation.”

 

And I hear this in my head…

MbC’s Head: How dare he! How DARE a man in the Congressman-elect’s position BODY-SLAM a reporter and then — wait, what? “He broke my glasses”? That’s a weird thing to say after getting body-slammed. What about, “He shattered my femur” or, “He gave me a concussion”? Granted, the average congressperson has roughly the physical prowess of a quadriplegic three-toed sloth, but if the reporter got “body-slammed,” why is he complaining about his frickin’ GLASSES?

 

Uh-oh. And here’s the “own worst enemy” part. First of all, I deal with this kind of massive, ground-shaking level of complaint and fear for life and limb on a daily basis. I do, after all, have two pre-teens in my house. And any time it goes from, “HE/SHE ALMOST KILLED ME!” to “Also, look at this scratch on MY FAVORITE TOY,” I immediately know that the issue is not one of physical danger, but tender feelings with tewwible boo-boos.

 

This complaint, which devolves in a SINGLE SENTENCE from, “I was gravely attacked after doing my reporterly duty,” to “My glasses got busted by an old dude!” is, I fear, just the same.

 

About a year ago, a NY Daily News reporter (in)famously wrote an article called “What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing and very very loud.”

 

In it, the reporter told of the massive terror, which he claimed ACTUALLY CAUSED PTSD in the instant it occurred,* that he felt upon firing the weapon.

 

“It felt like firing a bazooka.”

“I was just terrified.”

“The recoil bruised my shoulder, which can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing. The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulfur and destruction made me sick. The explosions — loud like a bomb — gave me a temporary form of PTSD. For at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable.”

 

So how does this all tie in?

 

It used to be that reporters were there to keep the powerful accountable. They were there to uncover the truth, and to give us a more informed set of facts upon which to base our decisions.

 

Now? Now, sadly, they ARE the powerful. And we know the old adage about what power does. And we see, to our horror, that it’s true.

 

“He broke my glasses”?

 

Men and women of the press used to put their lives and careers on the line. Men and women of the press used to go up against the bullies, stand firm, and rely on the truth to take down those who abused their power.

 

Now? Now most of them put little on the line at all. Now men and women of the press are, all too often, the bullies themselves. Now they stand firm – no matter how unreasonable their positions – and rely on media pressure, mob mentality, and the threat of constant exposure to reprisals to take down those who stand in the way of the reporters’ power.

 

Is this always the case? No, of course not. And I don’t have all the details of the case of a man who was “body-slammed” and got a pair of broken glasses as a result. Perhaps it was a legitimately dangerous and terrifying event. But even if so, it doesn’t change the simple fact that “great reporting” used to mean timely, careful, and accurate dissemination of important information. Now it mostly means dissemination of information that is carefully timed to create the maximum buzz and anger. The accuracy is still there, but whereas “accuracy” used to mean “let us give the whole story, the whole set of facts, and let a human race that is mostly good come to the good conclusion on their own”; now it means, “what we said IS technically correct, and we’re going for the letter of the law because the spirit of the thing doesn’t pay as well.”

 

Freedom of the press is important – critical, really. But only if that press works to improve OUR freedoms, and not simply to create media firestorms, up ratings, and raise salaries.

 

There are good people in the press corps. I just wish I said that more from experience than from faith.

 

 

*The New York Daily News later posted this “update” from the reporter, Gersh Kuntzman, after a massive backlash to his use of the term “PTSD”:

 

Many people have objected to my use of the term “PTSD” in the above story. The use of this term was in no way meant to conflate my very temporary anxiety with the very real condition experienced by many of our brave men and women in uniform. I regret the inarticulate use of the term to describe my in-the-moment impression of the gun’s firepower, and apologize for it. [end quote]

 

I call bullshit – and those who know me and who read my posts know how rarely I use that term. The guy is a REPORTER. A professional writer whom we depend upon to provide full and accurate information. I know that when *I* write ANYTHING, from an entire book to a single WORD (like, for example, PTSD), that’s on me. Kuntzman says here that he made a mistake (only he doesn’t  even actually admit to any wrongdoing, just an “inarticulate use of the term” – which makes almost no sense at all, given that it is primarily used to describe indistinct speech patterns. If talking about the “cannot express oneself clearly,” definition, and if this applies to Kuntzman (especially since he admits it does), then he should not be publishing news pieces – even those of the op/ed variety – especially not on incendiary topics that require the utmost care to discuss and decide.

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

Happy Easter

It’s happening again.

 

It’s worse at the end of the year, but it happens now, too.

 

“Happy Easter!”

“Happy Easter?”

“Happy… Sunday?”

 

Every time there’s a religous-themed holiday, someone inevitably complains. Yes, there are the complaints about commercialization, or the True Meaning of [Fill in the Blank], or how the day brings out the worst as people horde over slightly-underpriced doo-dads. But I’m not talking about those.

 

I’m talking about the paired complaints: “I wish they wouldn’t wish me Happy Easter/Merry Christmas/Whatever,” and, “Why can’t I wish people Happy Easter/Merry Christmas/Whatever without someone biting my head off?”

 

I mention “Christian” holidays above, because they’re the ones I hear most about. But I have no doubt there are similar arguments about Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or Vesak, or any other holiday that has a deity (or two or three or more) at its center – or at least at its genesis, since that argument that the once-Holy-Days have converted to nothing more than “Retail Day #7” or “Buy Overpriced Roses Day” certainly has some merit.

 

I digress. Sorry. I do that. Squirrel!

 

In all seriousness, though (yeah, like that’s possible for me), I hate this argument, this “Respect my religious holidays vs. “Respect my lack of faith/belief/interest in your religious holidays” dispute. Because it makes it about belief, and in so doing, it utterly misses the point.

 

Yes, the holidays have the beliefs themselves as their basis. Though you don’t have to believe in Christ to celebrate Christmas – at least in the trimmings: presents and cocoa and a wonderful excuse to be nicer to each other – you can’t have Christmas without Christ. You can’t have the holiday without its history. You don’t have to ascribe to the stories, but they’re there, and without them you don’t get the holiday – package deal.

 

Similarly, you can run around pelting people with colored powder, exchange gifts, and enjoy some of the greatest food of your life no matter what you believe… but that doesn’t change the fact that Diwali doesn’t exist without its history, without its god-stories of Krisha and Vishnu and King Rama.

 

Easter, of course, is the same. I love Cadbury Eggs, and that enjoyment is completely separate from whether or not I believe that one day a tomb was empty because its inhabitant had risen up and ascended to Heaven. But without that ascension story, Cadbury Eggs probably wouldn’t exist (and the world would be all the poorer for it).

 

Now, note that I call these things “stories.” I mean no offense to those who believe them – I’m a believer myself, and will be celebrating Easter this Sunday with egg hunts and food and family, but also with time in church, time in prayer, time talking to my children about what Easter means to us.

 

So no, calling them “stories” is not an insult. On the contrary, it’s a compliment. Calling them “facts” would actually lessen them in certain respects, because facts are what control our lives, seen or unseen, believed or not… but “stories” are what we choose, what we as humans have that is separate from every other creature. Every animal – every bit of matter, for that matter (see what I did there, ha!) – is governed by “facts.” By the realities in which we exist. Perhaps those realities include this God or that, or none at all… debating that isn’t the point of this essay.

 

Stories, though… if facts provide the framework, then stories provide the potential. Stories are what we choose to believe, and in so doing, point us toward what we hope to become.

 

And that’s the point of “Happy Easter” or “Merry Christmas” or whatever Holy-day that enters a greeting. It is about a story.

 

Stories are wonderful things. They entertain, they enlighten. But at their heart, the greatest magic they weave is this: they create communities.

 

An example – and please trust me, I actually have a point to all this, ya just gotta bear with me and pay close atten – SQUIRREL!

 

Sorry, where was I?

 

Right. Example.

 

Picture this: I’m in line for the newest Marvel movie. Behind me is a 15-year-old girl. Suddenly, I whip around and say, in tones of near-frantic worry, “Do you think Iron Man’s gonna DIE in this one?”

 

What does she do? In all likelihood, she’ll respond with a good-natured laugh, and then her own personal fan-theory about what’s going to happen; maybe something she heard about the plot on the internet. Someone a bit down the line will shriek, “Spoiler alert!” when she does that, and everyone laughs.

 

Okay, now picture this: In an alternate universe where everything’s the same, only here I’m in line at McDonald’s. Suddenly, I whip around to the same 15-year-old girl, and say, in tones of near-frantic worry, “Do you think they’ll ever bring back the McRib FOR GOOD?”

 

What does she do? In all likelihood, she laughs nervously, says, “Uh, maybe?” and then steps back a pace or two while covertly getting ready to hammer 911 onto her phone before the coo-coo can eat her face off.

 

What’s the difference? Same people. Same middle-aged guy and same teenager. We’re standing just as close to each other in both situations; we’re even wearing the same clothes, for crying out loud. So why the disparate reactions?

 

 

[continue to the rest of the article…]

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: Ten Steps to Overnight Success…*

So you wanna be a writing success? Then let’s just dive right into the nitty-gritty, shall we? And no, I’m not talking about the “writing” part.

 

The top 1% of members of the Writers Guild of America — the folks who make between $600,000 and the “big money” (seven figures) number in the mere dozens. Of the rest of them — members of a group that as a rule has to get paid to even join — only the top 25% make $62,000 a year or more. And the average age of a person who actually makes it into the Guild — meaning they got that sale, or finally optioned enough screenplays to make it — is 35 years old.

 

Let’s talk now about some other averages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are “salaried writers” — narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are “professionals” (i.e., occasionally paid) — is
much, much lower.

 

In other words, “the big payoff” of becoming a “real, published author” may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.

 

Of course, the chances of making money go up greatly if you are signed by a large publisher — Scholastic, or Bantam, for instance. However, this itself has an inherent earnings inhibitor built in: most of the larger publishing houses require that submissions be “exclusive.” This means that a writer is only permitted to submit his work to one large publisher at a time. The average wait time to find out if the work has been rejected or accepted can range anywhere from a few weeks (if the writer already knows someone “on the inside” who is in a position to fast-track the review) or, more likely, several months to a year and a half. Then, even if the book is accepted for publication, the large publishing houses will typically take, again, several months to a year and a half to actually roll out the book.

 

In other words, even assuming your book is picked up by the first major publishing house you submit to — and the odds are against you — you are looking at somewhere between half a year and three years before you start really seeing any money. And if your book is not accepted by the first major publishing house, then you are once again in a sort of voluntary limbo, consigned there by the “no simultaneous submissions” rule.

 

What to do?

 

The reality is, most authors have “day jobs.” I am considered an anomaly. I have optioned screenplays and done rewrites for major Hollywood production companies. I have numerous television shows in development. I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon’s major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers.

 

I make a living writing.

 

Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first “sale” of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.

 

Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a “successful” writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my “road-map for success.” Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire…but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.

 

1) Write. This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE. Constantly and without letup. Write your books, your screenplays, your stories. And when you are done writing those, write about them. Start a blog. Issue press releases. Have a Facebook page. The “writing muscle” is one of the most easily atrophied muscles in the human body.

CONTINUE TO PART 2

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read, Writing Advice

Mormons and Horror: Light Within the Dark

Paper sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters,

presented at Life, the Universe, and Everything writing convention

February 18, 2017

 

 

I am a horror writer.

I am a Mormon.

Whenever these two intersecting – and yes, they are intersecting – facets of my life are discovered, the response is invariably one of surprise, if not outright incredulity. Contrary to most people’s expectations, no one at church has every said, “A horror writer? Well, you are definitely going to Hell.” Indeed, the first person I tend to call when I want to watch a scary movie is  my stake president. That being said, even he was surprised when he first found out. Because it seems… what? Wrong?

And yet, as will be stated shortly, horror is perhaps the best-suited “genre” for Mormons; and Mormons are themselves the most horror-laden people… and neither in quite the way you would expect.

 

  1. Our Thoughts on Horror

 

First of all, we must discuss what people think of as horror, for that is a large part of the reason that horror is thought of as anathematic to the Mormon lifestyle. And we must then discuss why the public conception is largely wrong – i.e., what horror is versus what people think of it.

 

  1. A short history of communication

Throughout history, information has been conveyed in a wealth of ways. The first is physical. People do not tend to think of purely physical movement as communication, but it is actually the most-used. Albert Mehrabian came up with the famous rule that intrapersonal communication is comprised 7% of words, 38% of tone of voice, and 55% of body language.[1] On its face, this can be easily observed, but at an even deeper level it becomes not just obvious, but certain. I.e., it is hard to misunderstand a person’s intentions when he/she is hitting you over the head with a stick: you have done something that person does not appreciate.

Physical communication can also be seen in dance, wherein entire stories are told. In modern forms they are typically coupled with music as part of the storytelling medium, but the earliest forms of dance were performed alone.

After nonverbal, however, there came the oral: the picture of an ape-man grunting as he discovers how to use a tool in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most enduring in cinema. Underlooked, however, is the more important moment of evolution. The moment when the godlike Monolith appears to a bunch of creatures huddling in a cave, swatting one another in irritation as their only seen mode of communication; of thought. When it appears, they dance around the Monolith, they touch it, they dance back. And then, suddenly… they speak. The small punches and hits disappear, and all gather together to give the most primal, principle form of communication: they worship. They, in essence, speak together for the first time. The discovery of a tool is the evolutionary step most noticed in cinema studies, but the oral communication – the gathering together in communal grunts to each other and to something greater than themselves, is surely just as important a moment, unobserved in the movie before that time. Tools bring obvious evolution, but when the New Men gather and sing – community is born.

From this, then, was born writing – a natural confluence of tools and oral communication. From Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia around 3200 BC, and via the Olmecs or Zapotecs of Mesoamerica circa 900 BC spring the oldest-known “original” examples of writing – not just numbers, but fully-formed series of symbols conveying complex thoughts and information. The movement from tools to speech to writing should be a fairly obvious jump, given that the last one is a marriage of the first two. Speech focuses abstract thought, and that speech is then recorded in writing.

So now we have writing, and from this, written stories.

Almost.

 

  1. The arrival of stories

It is interesting to note that, though we have writing that dates back to 3200 BC, the first surviving work of “great literature” – The Epic of Gilgamesh (hereinafter “EOG”) – appeared over a thousand years later, circa 2100 BC. Again, it makes sense: a student does not jump from “I see Spot” straight to “Enlil made him terrifying guardian/Whose mouth is fire, whose roar the floodwater.”[2] A burgeoning civilization, tens of thousands of individuals struggling to work and live together for the first time, is even less inclined to make the leap.

That said, EOG, miraculously,[3] came to be. Humanity had enjoyed stories for its entire existence – Adam himself was told stories of Life Before, of Life to Be, and why Life was (the famous Mormon questions: “Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?”). But EOG is the first great story to live that is not merely a recounting of what the Gods did, but of how we make sense of them.

And, appropriately, it is pure horror. A tale that centers around men and man-beasts who come to challenge one another in death and blood; of friendship found, only to be torn away by extraordinary pain followed by death; and above all of a king who is slated from the first to discover that he will die.

But in this death, he finds life. In this horror, he finds joy.

And this is the key.

 

  1. Books and booksellers

Long after Gilgamesh returned to Uruk, long after he discovered immortality was and ever would be beyond his grasp, written stories had passed from a thing of kings to a thing of commoners. Stories were bound in books. At first these books were still things of riches, beyond the dreaming of “normal” people. But eventually cheaper methods of paper production were found. The printing press was invented. Stories could not only be heard and seen, but read.

With the increased demand for books came an increased demand for something most of us fail to think of: booksellers. Mostly men, they opened small shops that catered to the needs and desires of their patrons. Though booksellers had existed in ancient Greece – it was, after all, quite fashionable to have a library if one could afford it – it was not until the 1800s that bookselling really took hold, primarily in Europe and the United States. Then came bookstores such as that of Kenyon College – the oldest continuously-operated bookstore in the United States, and third-oldest bookstore in the Americas – which was primarily to supply the Christ-seeking men of the college itself. Following shortly after, one could find neighborhood booksellers, catering to the men and women of the area, the people of their own communities.

In Stephen King’s horror novel Needful Things, a man comes to a small town. He operates the eponymous shop, a place of curios and antiques. It is only too late that he is recognized as what he is: a devil incarnate. Similarly, the bookstores came, cheap stories could be found…

… and with them, came horror.

 

  1. The booksellers’ prosperity, the root of our pain

As books became more popular, and booksellers more ubiquitous, a strange thing began to happen: the sellers no longer knew what they sold.

Early booksellers knew exactly where every book in their store could be found. A person came in and asked for a medical text. The proprietor took his customer to the third row, fourth shelf from the bottom, and… “Ah, here it is: Leidy’s ‘Anatomy,’ in Lippincott’s Medical Works, is really quite excellent.”

“Do you have something frightening and strange, good sir?” “Ah, yes, there in the back is a new arrival: a book called Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus.” Thanks are given, along with pence, and new book owners depart.

The pence do not.

The booksellers take them, invest them, and small bookstores are gradually supplanted by larger and larger ones – even chains of them. The bookseller cannot work alone, he must hire assistants. And, as is usually the case with assistants, they know less than he about the books.

“Excuse me, where may I find a book on the history of wars?” “Sir, this man wants a history of wars?”

And the bookseller, eventually tired of having to answer every single patron’s questions (why did he even hire an assistant?), now says, “I put up a sign on the fifth row. It says, ‘War.’ Our friend will no doubt find something there.”

“What, a book by Jane Austen? Try below the sign that says, ‘Romance.’”

“Oh, you wish a ghost story? Perhaps something by Poe?

“Try… horror.”

“Genre” was born, and with it that particular thing we call “horror.” But “horror” in the fashion that so many of us think is not a particular thing, it is nothing at all. It is a shelf. It is wherever Barnes & Noble have placed a particular book for purposes of finding it easily. It is whatever website label Amazon has given a book for purposes of selling it faster.

“Genre” is just a bastardized spelling of “sales.”

Many will no doubt point out that when they think of horror, they do not think of a bookshelf, they think of a story. A story with pain, violence, bloodshed.

To which I, the bookseller, respond, “So… Saving Private Ryan?”

“No, no. It’s got insanity. Men with knives and hatchets.”

“Ah, you mean like, Helter Skelter.”

“No. There need to be nude young people and illicit sex.”

Lady Chatterly’s Lover is in the ‘Romance’ section. Or perhaps ‘Erotica.’ Forgive my memory, there are just so many bookshelves – oops, I mean genres – now that it’s hard to keep up with them.”

This is an imagined exchange, but it highlights a very real set of facts. Namely:

 

1)     “Genre” is a forced fabrication.

2)     What most people think of as genre is in fact a list of “story elements.”

3)     The story elements most people think of as “horror” are found in other – mostly more acceptable – “genres.”

 

It is this last which is most interesting. Because horror was not always unseemly. There is no doubt that Shelley’s Frankenstein features almost every element of horror. So why do people think of it as literature? Not because it is so old (by today’s standards at least): even people who read it when it first came off the presses in 1820 (written anonymously by then twenty-year-old Shelley) did not say, “Bookseller, where can I find the horror book about the monster?” They asked for no horror, just for a rousingly good book that asked searching questions about the nature of man’s relationship to God.

Because there was no horror. There was only story.

Until there wasn’t.

 

  1. Why we believe horror is what it isn’t

If the “horror genre”[4] is really nothing but a space on a shelf, how is it that so many people know what horror is… and know the same things about it?

Because what they are thinking of is not horror. It is a horror poster.

As touched upon above, when people asked for Frankenstein, they did not ask for “that horror book.” They asked for Shelley’s Frankenstein. Books were all there were, and the only meaningful distinction between types of written fiction were whether they were told in poetry or prose.[5]

Books rose in popularity, and eventually supplanted plays as the most popular long-form storytelling media. That was, however, not to last. In the late 1800s, two inventions changed stories forever, and began the lie that we think of as “horror.”

 

  1. New media

Radio and television. By the early twentieth century, radio shows predominated. They changed elections of the highest offices, they provided news at a rate hitherto unimagined… and they told stories. Little Orphan Annie, The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum. Story after story enthralled, excited… horrified. Still, even this innovation paled in the face of what was to be the most life-changing invention of communication of all time (though the internet is poised to take over that spot): the motion picture camera.

With the motion picture camera, stories could at last truly be seen. Stage plays could be seen, true, but motion pictures allowed for a verisimilitude that could not be believed by most who first witnessed its final product. The world had, seemingly overnight, become a predominantly visual place.

The biggest booksellers – the publishers – saw a threat to their once-high position in media (by which it is meant they saw a loss of market share and corresponding loss of income). Books were books, no matter what – they were a collection of dark squiggles on light paper. But there were still places where they could accommodate the public’s desire to see things. Internal artwork became more prevalent, so people could see what their heroes looked like, or could witness a moment in the action. Even so, it is obvious that a dozen pictures – black-and-white, no less – tucked in the pages of a book will hardly create a media firestorm or a rise in sales.

That left the covers. And here we see where the idea of “what is horror” gained its first foothold. In a space of twenty or thirty years in the early 1900s (from around 1910 to 1930), covers went from predominantly black ink denoting the title, author, and publisher; to colorful artwork.

It should be no surprise, then, that people’s impressions of what a “kind” of book held were dominated by the largest publishers, who paid attention to one thing: what sold. If a book with romantic elements sold a million copies, the booksellers could take the cover element – an elegantly-dressed woman with a torn blouse, swept off her feet by a pirate with dashing looks and a muscled chest – and reproduce it over and over. Romance became a thing of rough, oversexualized men yanking beautiful, oversexualized women away from their boring lives and into adventure. Horror merited the same treatment, as booksellers inevitably discovered that a stark cover with “Frankenstein” etched across leather sold far less than a cover showing a hideous green face… and also covers showing a dark, oversexed man standing slightly behind a beautiful, oversexed woman with a ripped blouse laying on a bed.[6]

Still, even these methods would not gain every possible reader. Capitalism demands that money be made, and once the low-hanging fruit is taken (i.e., people attracted to oversexualized men and women), diversification must occur. Booksellers knew there were more people out there, waiting to be swayed and to part with their “pence.”

So what about showing the monster? Would that not gain readers attracted to that particular element, that desire of humans everywhere – the desire to be frightened? Or would that be going too far?

What about a melding of the two?

Now readers could find books that featured dark monsters framed in the light of an open door, hunched over and creeping toward women asleep on their beds. Suddenly, scary books had sex as a main element, regardless of whether the text actually delivered on the promises of the cover.

And movies, as they always do, made everything worse.

 

  1. Movies

By the 1950s, the covers of scary books featured sex and monsters galore. However, they were still tame by today’s standards: blood was hinted at but rarely shown; bosoms were evident, but shielded under carefully-placed swathes of fabric; and the monsters were, as often as not, shown by shadowed outline rather than by detailed rendering.

In the 1960s, two events in movies made everything change.

First of all, the Motion Picture Production Code (“MPPC”) was abandoned. This was the code through which Hollywood had self-censored for three decades. Before that, violence and sexual situations had been present – but the mores of the times still kept most films subtle as far as graphic violence or sexuality.[7] In the 1950s, however, the MPPC began its decline, sharpened when the United States Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, ruled that motion pictures fell squarely under First Amendment protections and that the New York State Board of Regents could not ban the short film “Il Miracolo” (“The Miracle”), which was part of an anthology film, and which featured the impregnation by a villainous man called “St. Joseph” of a disturbed peasant woman who believed herself to be the Virgin Mary.

The trend continued in the 1960s, as actors, producers, and directors clamored for more than the MPPC would permit. It was eventually abandoned in favor of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (“MPAA”) voluntary ratings code. Now, graphic violence and nudity could be shown with the mere appendage of an “R” rating. Even explicit sexual intercourse could be found, if a producer were willing to accept an “X.”

This was not the only change wrought in the 1960s. In 1962, as part of its anti-communist policies, the United States began a period of heavy military involvement in Vietnam. By 1963, there were over sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Nor were they the only newcomers: hundreds of journalists arrived, as well, providing coverage of the war at a level never before seen in history. Indeed, Vietnam was dubbed “the living room war,” with families gathered in their living rooms to watch video – often graphic, depicting violence and even on-screen death by various means. Never before had so many people been offered a window into the true horrors of war. Never before had the average person known so much of a faraway conflict.

And never before had media executives realized just how seductive the call of overt prurience could be. With the advent of the “living room” war came the realization that ratings could be bought with violence and sex. Pushed by the need for ever-greater profits, media organizations began pushing overtly violent and sexual advertisements and – almost as an afterthought in some cases – explicitly violent and sexual content.

This was fueled further by the “sexual awakening” of the 1960s. Bras – before then just another undergarment to be carefully covered and ignored – were now shown in public, sometimes the entire subject of news reports. “Free love” could be found on news and entertainment alike, not to mention its reality for many people’s day-to-day lives.

Violence. Sex. A perfect marriage – or perhaps a perfect storm.

The level of graphic content in movies surged, in no small part because people gradually became inured to what had previously pushed the envelope, and now demanded more and more. Sex sold in abundance, and violence did not push people away, it called them in.

Horror was not the leader in this, it was simply swept up in time’s current, along with everything else.

The 1970s and 1980s continued this trend, though “horror” movies and stories still carried something in common, a characteristic that all such stories carried from the beginning: they were morality plays. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, scary stories invariably existed within the framework of a moral universe. Gilgamesh finds out he must die, then realizes that his flawed, short life is the best gift he could possibly receive. Beowulf realizes the harsh effects of envy and vengeance. Dr. Faustus realizes that repentance is powerful, but it must be exercised in God’s time.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was more of the same. Teens discovered that drinking, smoking weed, and having premarital sex was a sure recipe for disembowelment. Young girls found that strength in the face of nightmares could win out. Parents were taught that their children had value, and should be listened to (both relatively new cultural ideas). Scary movies were simply educational tales. Never take candy from a witch – or strangers. Do not be taken in by the sensuousness of foreigners (as in Dracula) – or by the forbidden pleasures offered by a classmate. Strength is not found by seeking to rise above the Gods – or by anything other than your own inner self.

In the 1990s, though, audiences became jaded and grew tired of the morality framework of previous “horror” movies. They turned to cynical, meta-views of their own lives, and their own horrors. It is no surprise that the most successful horror franchise of the 1990s was Scream, a slasher-style film whose true genius is not in finding a new way to punish sinners, but in its ability to point out the (perceived) silliness of the stories that had gone before. The killer Ghostface is almost an afterthought, providing fewer kills than opportunities for the characters to discuss how film intersects with life, what happens when people break rules, and whether any of those things really matter.

Morality turned to cynicism, and cynicism then morphed to nihilism. The new millennium saw the rise of a new kind of horror, and one that indelibly linked the genre to a new level of pain: torture porn, which, like Scream, provided the new decade’s most profitable horror franchise.

In 2004, the movie Saw was released. At its heart, it was actually a throwback to an older style of horror and was highly redemptive. Its antagonist, Jigsaw, kidnaps a number of men and women and offers them chances to escape various deathtraps. The outcome will be either death or a new appreciation for the life they have (shades of that first story, The Epic of Gilgamesh). However, the story received far less notice than the methods it employed to tell that story. The tortures devised were complex and ingenious. They were also bloody to the point of near-obscenity.[8] Among others, Jigsaw employed a trap that would rip the victim’s jaw completely apart, a scenario that required its victim to saw off one of his own feet to survive, and a man given the choice to either kidnap a woman and her young child or die of a slow-acting poison.

No one knew, noticed, or cared that much of the gritty, dark, bloody look of the story was more about budget limitations than intent.[9] It was, suddenly, for a large percentage of the movie-going audience, all about the kills.

Is it any wonder, then, that when most of us think “horror,” we think not of a reasoned definition, but of a movie poster representative of our time? Of a woman hanging upside down, implicitly nude and awaiting torture. Of dismembered fingers spelling out the number of the newest movie installment. Of pain-ridden women whose tortured bodies form the figure of a skull.

This, for most people, is “horror.” And this, for all people, is what horror is not.

But what is it?

 

  1. Our reality

 

The penultimate sentence of the last part is something of a deception. Though Saw had a definite moral center, and clear hope by the filmmakers for some pedagogical effect, its followers did not. Each succeeding movie in the series became more and more about what kind of cruel deathtrap could be composed. Ditto a step-child series: Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, which centered around places where the rich could pay to torture and kill victims – mostly hormonal college kids out for a last fling before real life set in – in any way they could devise. The characters in these movies matter little. The blood and the nudity matter a great deal.

The very reality of these movies proves that there are, indeed, “horror” stories which fit fully and exactly with most people’s conceptions of the genre. But they are not all. They are not even the most important. And that, finally, is where Mormons and their relationship with horror makes its entrance.

There are two kinds of horror. The first are those that, like the progeny of Saw, exist to shock and dismay their audiences. Essentially, these movies and books exist to kick their audiences into a psychic sewer. They do not merely describe the offal that passes below our notice every day of our lives, they take their audiences into the sewers themselves, kick them until they have no choice but to fall in… and then leave them there. For most Mormons – and a large percentage of the general populace – these movies serve no good purpose and are best ignored.

But what of the second kind? This is the type of horror that not only attracts some Mormons, but actually represents the most important aspects of this religion.

I was once asked an important question while walking between meetings at church. The man who asked was not being spiteful or making fun; he honestly wanted to know: “How can you write those things? Why do you want to cut people’s hearts out like you do?”

I knew that this brother member had never read any of my books or stories, or seen any of the films that I had written. He was asking not about what I wrote, but how I could write a story like Saw V or Hostel or The Human Centipede (all of which feature grotesque ad images).

My response was simple, and true: “I don’t cut out people’s hearts. That’s not my goal. What I want to do is rip their hearts out, take everything away, then throw the heart into the darkest crevasse I can find.”

The brother was agog. “Why would you do that?” he finally stammered.

“Because it’s only when you take everything away from someone, and throw their heart – their essence, their soul – into the deepest dark that you can show them what happens next. Only in the lowest places can we see that we are enough to climb out. That we don’t need a fancy car or a beautiful girlfriend or anything else to climb into the light. We just need the one thing given to us without interruption our caveat: our spirits. And if the dark is too thick, the pit too deep for us to climb out of, then so much the better. Because that is the moment when we receive Grace. The darkness falls away, and the hand of God reaches down to pluck us up from the place where we were lost.”[10]

The first kind of horror pushes us into the dark for the dark’s sake. The second kind pushes us into the dark so that we may see the light. And far from being anathema to Latter-day Saint (“LDS”) beliefs, this is a core LDS truth.

 

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

13 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:11-13; emphasis added.)

 

As a basic matter, LDS beliefs demand that good be paired with evil. Without evil, good cannot be seen – or at least, cannot be seen for what it is, and appreciated. Without the dark, light cannot exist. Without horror, there can be no redemption.

More than this, though, Mormons positively revel in horror. Not in going to the movies to see what new trap Jigsaw has created. Not in watching nude teens bounce until they are inevitably massacred in buckets of gore. Not in any of the “first” kind of horror.

But our entire faith is built upon Christ. And the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6) is steeped in horror. In the darkest hours, followed by the light. In the second kind of horror.

To return to the brother who questioned how I could write such tawdry things. He asked about the blood, the sex. I reminded him of Zarahemna, who was not only scalped but actually saw his scalp affixed to a sword and waved about in the air – an image comparable to anything in the Saw series. I talked about the story in Judges 19:27-29:

 

27 And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way: and, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.

28 And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going. But none answered. Then the man took her up upon an ass, and the man rose up, and gat him unto his place.

29 ¶And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel.

 

Yes, he cut his lover into twelve pieces and mailed them all over the country.

“What about sex?” asked the brother.

I will not go into detail here, but suffice to say the scriptures are replete with sex, some of the tamest of which involves King David looking upon a nude woman as she bathes, and eventually having her husband killed so he can sleep with her.

Like horror, however, the best of Christianity is not defined by sex or by violence. Like the best of horror, the best of Christianity is defined by light followed by darkness, and darkness by light. At the end of our conversation, I leaned in close to this good brother, and whispered, “You know what the darkest horror story I’ve ever heard of is?” He looked interested, so I continued. “It’s awful. Truly horrific. A man does nothing but good, and instead of being treated well, he’s betrayed by a friend, has the skin literally torn in chunks off his back by a whip designed with just that purpose in mind, has three-inch-thorns plunged into his head, and then is nailed to a cross while people watch him suffer for hours.”

My friend blinked. A small smile curved his mouth. “I get it,” he said.

 

  1. Mormon horror, Satan’s horror

 

Horror is like anything else. It is a thing that can be used for good, or for ill. Sex can be perverted to pornography, service to a quest for power over others. Horror can be used to show the evil that looms everywhere, including within us, or it can be used to show that redemption is possible – even inevitable.

I frequently hold forth that horror is the most moral of all genres – or at least the most potentially moral. People who have never read a book by Stephen King or Dean Koontz will often judge them as sleazy or evil, while unaware that, unlike in your average scifi or fantasy, both men are not only concerned with the great questions of our religion (Where did we come from, why are we here, where will we go?), they are positively obsessed by them.

In The Stand, widely seen as King’s best single-volume work, two groups gather after a plague that nearly wipes out humanity.[11] They are explicitly evil and good, with the evil group gathering in Las Vegas (obvious thematic reasons why), and led by a character who appears in many of King’s books. Known as the Walkin’ Dude or the Man in Black in The Stand, he promises his people safety and security. They just have to bow to him and abdicate the power of all their decisions to him. And the effect (at least for a while) is that the people in Las Vegas are united and safe, and quickly moving back to the civilized world they recently lost.

Contrast that to the group of “good” people, who constantly bicker and fight amongst themselves. Defections to the “bads” are regular, and little work can get done because the people in the good group for some reason feel themselves free to disagree, to argue, to fight about every little thing. In sum, to choose for themselves.

They are also led by a Prophetess.

This is no error, and it is no unusual moment. In thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, people who profess to speak for God are either dubbed insane or malicious, or (in the case of fantasy) are mouthpieces for the gods of that universe, who rarely bear any resemblance to the gods worshiped by humanity today. In both cases, pedagogy is rare, and when it appears is often if not usually confined to the idea that Religious People Are Bad.

In horror, however, as in The Stand, prophets and prophetesses are not only real, they are the only path to salvation. The prophetess in King’s story leads the people to a promised land, where they will not be safe with no condition, but can become so if they make the right decisions. Her power rests not on physical force (she is an old, old woman), but in the fact that she is close to God, and the twin fact that those who listen will come closer to Him and His protection.

In the end of The Stand, King goes a step further as he all but testifies that God does live, and does watch out for us. The Walkin’ Dude’s people are set to kill all the righteous, and most of the good people’s leaders are set to be tortured and killed in view of all. What happens? The Walkin’ Dude conjures forth a ball of fire to destroy a dissenter, and in that moment “The Hand of God” (literally, that is what it is called in the text) takes the evil leader’s magic and turns it against him, setting off a nuclear warhead and destroying the wicked en masse.

The Hand of God. The good people have done their best, but it is not enough. Only intervention, saving Grace, can save them. In the words of a Book of Mormon prophet, King’s protagonists are saved “after all [they] can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Again, this is a uniquely “Mormon” concept… unseen in most religions, that is, but prominent in works of horror.

In a similar vein, Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking features a second flood, set to destroy the earth. Only the righteous are saved, and these by the intervention of creatures that are explicitly shown to be angels.[12] In The Face, a soul is literally shown descending to Hell, only to be redeemed by an angel who takes that soul to Heaven instead. In The Darkest Evening of the Year, a dog is vested with God’s power and saves a child who suffers a mental disability (which renders her innocent and incapable of sin).

The list goes on.

 

  1. The “Horror” Part of Horror

It is true that horror exists with pain. The same could be said of life. Horror is often interwoven with sex as a motivating factor. But sex, we know, is part of a holy sacrament, and sexual interaction was part of Gods first commandment to Adam and Eve. Unlike many religions, Mormons do not shun sex, they embrace it, though they believe it is to be exercised within the boundaries the Lord has set, which we call “chastity” for short.

Pain can be used as an end, or it can become a way of recognizing joy. Sex can be used to grow closer to a spouse and to bring more of the Lord’s waiting souls to Earth, or it can be misused and perverted in fornication, pornography, and more. None of these facts make trials (the Mormon name for pain) or sex into evil things. They simply show the reality that Satan knows well how to pervert the good. In like manner, the fact that some horror misuses its power does not make the “genre” into a bad one.

Instead, horror can be seen as a uniquely “Mormon” experience. In redemptive horror, blood is not the principle subject, sex is not gratuitous. Both are there to set the stage for final reward and ultimate release.

This is not to say that “good” horror stories must end happily. In my novel Apparition, for instance, all the characters suffer painful – even deadly – fates. But what makes it (in my opinion) bearable, is that the pain exists within that all-important moral framework. For me the story was, first and foremost, about the effects of child abuse and parents who put themselves above their children. Such things do not end well – not for the parents, not for the children. So the story I told ended badly. But it ended badly with the aim of telling a greater story: that we can change. That we can be better. That our mistakes can be forgiven, and our souls redeemed.

 

  1. Conclusion

 

Redemption. The word has come up often in this paper, and that is because it must. For horror is all about redemption. Horror stories can be about evil for its own sake, but they should be – and so often are – simply retellings of the First Story. The story of a man who, before we were born, volunteered to save us. Who “is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). A man who literally bled from his pores (and what a horrifying scene that must have been!) as he suffered not just our sins, but our infirmities and pains of every kind (Matthew 8:17). Pain suffered by one man, who was literally tortured as he knelt alone in Gethsemane, followed by the torture of scourging, having a crown of thorns pressed into his flesh, and finally the long misery of crucifixion.

But this is not all. This is not what makes the Savior’s story True Horror. It is the redemption that does this. The moment where He descends from Heaven, and shows Himself to Mary. The body He still holds, and which shows we will all live again in the flesh. The fact that He will one day return, and finally destroy the pain that has gripped us all.

Horror is not about the pain. It is about the relief. It is not about the blood, but about the healing. Even if the healing leaves scars, those scars can then be used to prove the reality of the blessing, just as Christ used his scars to prove who he was and that his blessings were real.

Horror – good horror, real horror, true horror – always asks questions. Three, in fact:

Where do we come from?

Why are we here?

What comes next?

And horror, for that reason, is not only appropriate for Mormons, when properly executed it is a uniquely Mormon experience.

[1] Mehrabia, Albert, Silent Messages (1971), Wadsworth.

[2] Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet II.

[3] And, in a very “Mormon” fashion, this miracle is not the only one, nor do such miracles cease in ancient days.

[4] In a stunning exhibition of hypocrisy, in spite of all that has gone before I will refer to “genre” often moving forward. This refers not to the actual definition of the word that I have set forth, but to the “idea” that so many hold of what a genre – particularly horror – really is.

[5] Prose is actually a relatively new form of storytelling, which only slowly gained in popularity after the invention of moveable type.

[6] This is not a facetious example. See Lion’s Publishing 1957 edition of the book.

[7] Though there are notable exceptions, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, in which female nudity is highlighted; and others which contained profanity or fairly graphic violence.

[8] Obscenity in a legal sense. Obscenity as a general impression is an extremely plastic thing, but as a legal category there are specific steps taken to determine it. This is important since, as opposed to mere pornography, obscenity enjoys no First Amendment protections.

[9] See Scott Tobias, “Saw creators [sic] Leigh Whannell and James Wan,” The Onion A.V. Club, October 29, 2010 (recovered February 12, 2017 at http://www.avclub.com/article/isaw-icreators-leigh-whannell-and-james-wan-46975).

[10] This is actually not a “prettying up” of my response; I gave it verbally much as it is written here, because I had long thought about this and realized its veracity. If not, I could never have begun writing horror for a living.

[11] Itself a story with obvious scriptural parallels.

[12] Interestingly, most of those saved are children, and the reasoning tracks that in Moroni 8.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read

Our Wonderful Obsession With Horror

What is it about horror? We’ve had it as part of our lives since… well, forever. I mean that literally. Look at the first recorded art — cave paintings. They weren’t about that one time when Cavedude got a shiny rock from Mrs. Cavedude, or about the time they had a nice romantic night away from the Cavekids, or that one time when he had a really good day where nothing much happened and there was no fire from the sky or T-rexes eating his foot or anything like that.

No, they were about Death. And yes, I meant it with a capital “D.”

They glorified animals (man among them) killing and being killed. Blood was central, and copious.

Many of the animals also feature incredibly large genitalia, which is kinda horrific for different reasons — but I digress.

Point is: we are born with a seed of horror inside. Born in blood, our first sounds screams of terror — ironically, as we leave the darkness and first experience the light. Horror is our first emotion on this earth, and the roots of that terror never quite die. We grow, and fear the night… because, at first, we don’t even have the required knowledge to know this terrifying, lonely time will ever end.

Then we learn the night does end, but now we wonder what it hides.

We grow, and fear of the dark — of what lurks within its shadowed depths — transforms to fear of the “rational” world: what if I lose my job? What if she leaves me? What if I someday die?

The last is silly, since death is sure to come to all of us. But still, many of us have that reality as a central — terrifying — theme in our lives.

What if?

What if?

What if?

Horror flogs us through life. Terror beats with every pulse of our doomed hearts. And what do we do about it?

We watch Insidious. We read Pet Sematary. We view art and media that can only be viewed as disturbing, terrifying.

Horrific.

We spend our lives hiding from the darkness, turning on the light before we take that first step into the basement (and who among us hasn’t had that fear, if only for a moment, that THIS will be the time something is down there, that THIS will be the moment we feel the claws and are dragged down to devil-only-knows where?).

And then, after turning on all the lights, putting the cops on speed dial, and carefully laying a golf club and some holy water next to our bed (just in case!), what do we do? We flock with friends to a darkened theater, to experience just what we so carefully avoided.

People of contradictions, people who yearn for light, for hope… but who also find themselves sometimes — strangely — at home in the dark.

And there, I think, lies the answer: we are people. People of hope, of despair, of light, of dark, of joy… and horror.

Every one of us has an innate fear of doing wrong, seeking wrong, being somehow… wrong. And horror feeds those thoughts, those concerns. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

But what all horror does — at least, when it’s doing its job — is it holds up a mirror. Not to our evil, not to the terrors that hound us through our nights and lives. No, it holds up a mirror to our whole selves. To the entirety of our humanity. To our hopes, to the fears that can dash them.

And, in the very best cases, to the redemption that we all seek.

I’m not talking about redemption in the religious sense — or at least, not necessarily. Though any careful readers of many of the masters — King and Koontz in particular — will note how often their plots climax in the infinite moment where people realize there is a greater power, or where God Himself all but steps down from his throne to save the main characters: to vicariously save all of us.

No, what I mean when I say horror is about redemption is something more basic. Less nuanced, but perhaps as critical as any strictly religious belief or dogma. The word “redeem” has its roots in Latin — “imere” which means “to purchase.” And all horror is about the purchases we make in life — for good or for ill.

When we make bad choices in a horror novel or movie, we tend to purchase an equally — or more — bad ending. The masked man hacks us in two. The cunning killer eats our face. The prophetess (that link to God again!) touches us and makes us dwindle away to nothing.

And when we make good choices we tend to purchase survival, a future. We earn a state of grace — which itself has interesting roots: it means grace, kindness, respect.

Respect. Respect for ourselves. Respect for the world — not taming it, but being carefully aware that there is more to the universe than us, that there is more to life than life itself. We know there is danger, we respect its power. But therein lies that grace: respect is something we grant to an equal, not to a superior. Respect is something that nods to the value of another thing, but does not scrape or beg or plead.

We read horror to be reminded that there are choices. That there are other choices being made at the same time, and some of those will lead to our harm. That our further choices determine how we are affected. And that, if we make the best possible choices, we will achieve a state of harmony, a sense of balance.

A way to cope with our own humanity.

We are born to blood, but yes, we are also sent directly into the light at that same moment. That first breath is to scream, but that first breath is also to live. There is an equality, a duality, an opposition present in every moment of life.

There is love… but people grow apart.

There is help… but people also make war upon one another.

There is hope… but the monsters do lurk. And have their own dark hopes for us.

And so we read horror. These sensibilities pervade the best horror, and manage to teach us neither of false perfection nor of base damnation. They show us both.

And then let us make a choice.

So why? Why do we love horror so much?

The answer, in sum, is simple: we love horror because the greatest horrors are us. And we need to be reminded of that fact from time to time so that we may also become more.

The best horror drives us into the Pit. It cuts away all that we think we are and leaves only what is the essence of our soul behind.

And then shows that that soul, that most basic identity, is enough to climb back to the light again.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: The Song of the Rafters

We moved a few years ago, and I was thrilled. Not because of the great neighborhood (though it was great), not because the new house was nice and big (though it was nice and big), not even because it came with its very own trampoline (boing!).

No. It was the garage. More to the point, it was the garage ceiling.

See, in my old place, the garage had one of those ceilings with exposed rafters. You know the kind: perfect for shoving stuff that’s not quite nice enough to actually have out, but not quite nasty enough to throw away. Keepsakes and mementos from some birthday you half remember; boxes just in case you move again; kids’ toys that the next one in line will probably use.

The new place didn’t have the exposed rafters. Which meant no more extra storage. The boxes would stick out like a sore thumb, right in the middle of the new garage. The keepsakes and mementos would have to find new homes — or be thrown away outright. Old toys would be given away.

But I was happy. Because in the old garage I spent hours looking up at those rafters, wondering which one would be the right one, the heaviest one, the strongest one.

Which one would be the best one to hang myself from.

Now, in every important way I have a pretty great life. I have a wife who is better than I deserve. I have children who fill me with wonder, and who make me laugh. I have a job that most people would kill for. So it’s not like I should be trying to escape.

But I also suffer from major depressive disorder with psychotic breaks.

This last part sounds scary. But don’t worry: if you ever visit you don’t have to worry about me trying to make a wallet out of your face-skin or anything. It just means that sometimes I am utterly incapable of understanding my proper relationship to the rest of the world. I can’t conceive of a universe where I in any way belong. Of an existence that needs me, or where I have anything but a negative effect.

So I would go to the garage. Or maybe I would stand in a corner and slap myself, because some dim part of my brain hoped that the physical pain would drive out a small bit of the far greater mental and emotional torment.

The new garage doesn’t have those rafters. It’s just blank ceiling.

Although I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I still get that way sometimes. Sigh.

Chances are that anyone reading this either suffers from or knows someone who suffers from depression. What do you do to help someone like that? Someone who has forgotten this one basic truth: that we all have value. That we all are special. That in our humanity lies a kernel not just of greatness, but of inestimable beauty.

I will tell you what my wife does. She isn’t just my Dream Girl — I could never have dreamed up something like her. She’s my Better Than Dream Girl. And when I’m at my worst, this is what she does, this is her magic: she follows me.

She goes with me to the garage. She stands with me in my corner. She holds my hands firmly so I can’t hurt myself, but not so tightly it hurts in and of itself. She whispers how she loves me, how she can’t let me leave because that would be a wound to her and to the world. She says things she knows I cannot believe, but that I will look back on and remember — things that will build a reservoir of strength for the future.

She stands with me.

She eventually puts an arm around me and leads me to a couch or a bed. Still embracing me, she helps me to sit or to lay down. She holds me. Perhaps scratches my back in silence. The words are done. There is only the fact that she is there, that she is not going anywhere. The silent reminder that in this moment, in this small now… I am not alone.

The great tragedy of depression is a crippling loneliness. A conviction that we are not and never can be worthy of anything but isolation. That the world has cut us off from all human connection — and that that is a good thing, because any other person coming in contact with us would simply suffer.

What to do then?

Stay with us.

When we are ready, hold us.

And in so doing, show us that we have that spark of worth, that potential for beauty.

Depression will not allow us to believe in our value. It forbids us any hope.

But…

But I have found that — with the right help, with the right friend — it will allow the hope of future hope. And in that we may walk away from the rafters. We may move to new, safer places, and find brighter paths.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read