redemption

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

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?

Everything.

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