What Good is Horror

I hear it all the time: why do you spend your time on horror when there are so many other “good” things you could be writing?
And it’s a legitimate question. A lot of people’s opinions on horror are shaped by the images they see on movie trailers, or confined to the vague idea that horror is something best kept on the back shelves of the book store.
Certainly the average horror novel cover doesn’t do much to dispel that myth, either: disturbing images, creepy figures half-hidden (if we’re lucky) in dark mists… about the only things they all have in common is that 1) they seem a bit less polished than, say, the cover for The Joy Luck Club, and 2) they are designed to elicit fear.
A lot of this is just economic realities: as one of the red-headed stepchildren of publishing, horror has often gotten less-than-prime marketing; has often had to settle for covers that were slipshod or second-rate. Not always, of course, and things are improving a lot as the years go by, but it’s no secret that for decades the covers of horror novels pretty much all involved blood, guts, maybe a bit of flesh peeking out of a torn dress, and a half-seen monster or two.
And even now, when there’s more money and care to be had, a lot of said money goes to things like Hostel Part 42 or Saw 18: The Last Gut-Wrenching. So again, no surprise that people have a concept of horror that often skews toward the obscene.
And the reality is that there is a lot of horror that’s designed (or so it would seem) solely to elicit a gag reflex. Some so-called horror writers think the secret to horror is guts, gore, and gobs of goo. But they’re not really creating horror.
They’re creating pornography: a series of visual or mental images devoid of any emotion other than the minimum required to elicit a physical reaction.
Still, horror – real horror – is different. It’s a special class of literature that serves to remind us that there is evil abroad in the world. That there is terror outside our houses… sometimes even right in our own bedrooms.
But that’s only half the story of horror.
The other half is just as important: because horror, at its best, serves not only to terrorize, but to remind us that we are better than our fear. It drags us to the depths, yes, but then lifts us up again… and in so doing, reminds us that though we have a near-infinite capacity to fail and to fall, so also we have the ability to rise above ourselves. We can survive, we can thrive.
Evil and tragedy are realities, both in life and in fiction. Avoiding them only weakens the stories we tell. I’m not saying we have to dive into the sewers of our darkest impulses for no other reason than because we can, but I do believe that it is only after surviving the darkest hours that we can truly appreciate the brightest days.
A final thought on the brightness that is only possible in horror:
I have a beautiful wife. And by beautiful, I mean stunning. She is so pretty that the first few times I saw her I could barely talk – not a normal occurrence for me.
Now jump to another thought (I promise, it’ll all link up eventually): my gorgeous wife and I lost a child. Years ago. It was – and continues to be – one of the hardest things that either of us have ever gone through. But juxtaposed with that memory, that true horror (one which I dealt with in later novels), is a memory of my wife’s beauty. Because the time I remember her being her most beautiful was not the first time I laid eyes on her, it wasn’t the moment I realized I was in love, it wasn’t our wedding day or the births of our healthy children.
It was in a hospital. There was blood on the sheets, tears in our eyes. Our child was gone. And my wife, through her tears, looked at me… and smiled. She held my hand and said, “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
She was so beautiful.
Horror takes us far beyond what is comfortable. It takes us far below what we feel we can endure. But on the other side of horror, there is light, and beauty, and peace.
And this, my friends, is why I spend my time on horror rather than on “good” stories: because horror leads, in the hands of the best writers, inexorably to the “good” stories. They are one and the same.

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

Horror and Hope

I am a guy who writes scary stuff. It’s basically all I do. I’m one of the bestselling horror writers on Amazon, and as of this writing one of the scary movies in Redboxes and video stores all over the world has my name after the “screenplay by” part.

I specialize in ghosts and goblins. In things that go bump in the night, in demons that steal souls, in madmen whose greatest desire is to maim and to kill.

In my most recent bestselling horror novel, Apparition, I write extensively about filicide – about parents who kill their children. And in my book, the parents who commit such atrocities do so with gusto, with relish, with lust. It is, as many reviewers have said, not only scary, but a deeply disturbing book.

To reiterate: I am a guy who writes scary stuff.

I am also a father who adores his children, a husband who loves his wife to a point that verges at times on worshipfulness. And I am a fairly (I hope) faithful member of my church (I’m LDS – what most folks call a Mormon), a person who believes in good and bad, and in a God who loves us.

This last is particularly interesting. There have been a lot of conversations at church that have gone like this:

Other Church Person: Hi! You must be new here!
Me: Yup! Just moved in.
OCP: Well, glad to have you. What do you do.
Me: I’m a writer.
OCP: How cool! Like, Harry Potter?
Me: Yeah. If Harry bursts into flames and then murders Ron and Hermione.
OCP: Um… huh….

I’m exaggerating a bit. But there are a lot of surprised looks when they realize I wrote that book, or that movie. Because how could someone so normal-seeming, so loving, so God-fearing write stuff like that?

The answer is in the question: it’s precisely because I am those things that horror comes so easily to me. Because horror is by far the most hopeful and Godly (note the capital “g”) of all the genres.

To be sure, there are plenty of horror stories out there that are nothing more than an excuse to go diving in the sewers of the mind. The kind of movies and books that basically make their audiences feel like taking a shower afterward… if not just taking a Brillo to the surface of their brains to get those images out.

But the thing about horror is that because it is, by definition, horrible, it also allows for goodness to bloom. In taking us to the depths of misery it allows us to climb to the heights of heroism.

An example: during history classes in U.S. schools, wars are taught more than anything else. Partly this is because wars determine history more than almost any other factor. Partly it is because wars are intrinsically dramatic and therefor interesting.

And of all the wars taught, there are two that are taught more than any other: WWII and the Civil War. There are a lot of erudite, scholarly reasons that could be given for this. But they are wrong. The simple fact is that in these two wars we saw something rare: a clear “good” guy and an even clearer “bad” guy. There was no way of painting the South as anything but evil, since their primary political platform rested on the backs of African slaves. Similarly, Hitler’s entire philosophy was one of megalomaniacal hatred and genocide. He even had the black moustache preferred by evildoers since caveman times (Snidely Whiplash and Yosemite Sam are actually based on cave paintings found in Mesopotamia).

So the lines were drawn. The evil stood on one side, the good on the other. And these were not genteel, rule-abiding evils. If you ever want a real definition of “horror,” read about what happened at places like Dachau and Buchenwald, imagine what occurred during the Bataan Death March, try to put yourself in the place of the slaves transported from Africa to the Southern Confederacy in the bellies of ships we wouldn’t consider humane for cockroaches today. The horror was real, and it was beyond the imagining of most of us.

But just as important… the horror, the evil, the wickedness failed to conquer. There were perils, there were horrors. Real people were challenged, many lost their lives. Perhaps even worse, those that did not die lived lives marred by mental and physical maimings, by emotional and psychic traumas the true depths of which no one else could understand.

But we went on. Heroes were made, not born. Humanity rose above itself and, in the best of moments, became enough – if only just enough – to combat the evil.

We remember Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, in no small measure because we see him as the embodiment of the spirit that brought us through a terrible and troubling time in our nation’s history. We remember the WWII G.I.’s as some of the Greatest Generation, because they fought some of the wickedest men the world has ever known… and resisted the urge to become that wickedness themselves.

And what does all this have to do with writing horror?


Horror has power possessed by no other genre. It can take us to the depths. It can then leave us there to rot, which is not my style, or it can then bring us back up… and in so doing show us that salvation is possible even from the profoundest darkness. It can possess a child and put her through terrible privations and suffering… but then rescue her, and in so doing remind us that if there is a Devil, perhaps there is also a God.

There are many kinds of horror. There are those that celebrate evil, and I don’t like those so much. I’m not saying don’t ever read them, I’m not advocating for a book-burning (one of the lessons we’ve learned). I’m just saying I don’t like them.

But I do like the horror that examines evil. And then shows us its weaknesses. Shows us that it can be beaten. And shows us, most importantly, that we are not it. That we are better than it. That we are more than what we fear.

Horror is the failure of hope. But it is only in that final moment when hope fails that we can find faith, and in so doing can rise above our fallen states and find a bit of divinity within ourselves.

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