“Why do you love horror?”
Better yet: “Why do you write horror?”
This last is a question that I hear often – even more often than most horror writers, probably, given that I’m a guy who doesn’t look like he’s planning on how to make a wallet out of your face-skin, have no terrifying scars or eyes that have “Will Kill For Food” written across them, and (most of all) that I am a deeply religious person who teaches Sunday School in between writing about monsters.
Yet despite these incontrovertible facts, I’ve not only read and watch horror, I actually make my living writing stories that make people cringe and shudder.
So… that question makes sense. Why do I write – and read, and watch, and just plain love – horror?
My answer: I write horror because horror is the genre of morality, and the language of hope.
When was the last time you read an involved discussion of good vs. evil in a piece of literary fiction? How often do you find a discussion of the possibility of something infinitely greater than ourselves, and of our relationship to such a thing, in a science fiction epic? Not just a strawman discussion, either, but an honest-to-goodness throw-down over questions that have plagued us as a species since the first moments we learned to speak: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What, if anything, happens after?
Horror is uniquely positioned to ask these questions. And not just that, but to discuss them on a deep level that both assumes their importance and (just as critical!) states that those huge, radically important questions actually have answers.
In other words, horror matters. Which is also why it is so polarizing, because things that matter… well, people care about them. That means they get angry if you disagree about the importance of those things, or think you are caring about the wrong things (or even about the right things in a wrong way). Things that matter are things close to the heart. Things close to the heart are, by nature, the ones that can hurt us.
And the things that hurt us… well, of course, they’re the things we most fear. And, more often than not, they’re also the things we most love.
There’s the dichotomy of horror: it is a genre that finds its footings in blood and fear – and some horror positively wallows in those things – but which, ultimately, is a kind of storytelling that defines goodness for the reader.* Horror tells us stories of morality: of the dangers of walking dark paths; and, ultimately, it reminds us that we live in a world of hope.
Some will read this and scoff. “But I read [insert name of book/story/movie/whatever here], and it was just blood, blood, blood!” Or, “What about every movie that came out of the 1980s? Just one kill after another, with the occasional pause for teens to get it on and show some skin!” Or even, “How can you claim that something like Hereditary (one of the darkest movie scripts ever written) is hopeful?”
But here’s the thing: horror, in order to actually be horror, must cause fear in the reader. It has to evoke a sense that what we are seeing or reading or hearing is deeply, unsettlingly wrong. But “wrong” (and its far darker offspring, “horrifying”) does not exist in a vacuum. “Wrong” is something that cannot be understood or even noticed unless we first understand – at least a little – that thing called “right.”
Horror stories, by nature, exist to show us the opposite of the way “things should be,” and so implies that there is a way things should be. A place where killers do not come for the innocent, where people can tuck their children in bed and be secure in the knowledge that no ghost or demon will come to steal them away (or, even worse, possess them).
There is a rightness in the universe. There is a thing we call “good,” and competent horror stories show us that good by demonstrating what happens in its absence.
Competent horror tears out the hearts of its readers. It throws those hearts in a ditch, the readers’ silent screams echoing in the authors’ ears as they bury their bloody treasures deep in the earth, one shovelful at a time. Violence, loss, fear… each adds more dirt to the grave, each further cuts the hearts off from the rest of the “right” universe. Yes, competent horror does that.
Competent horror buries your heart. It kicks you and knocks you down. Then it leaves you gasping, dying, alone. The story is a moral one, for – again – it must be moral to matter. A sense of what is “right” must exist for the “wrong” to matter at all, let alone for it to terrify us. But competent horror only exists to assert this fact: there is what is “right,” and there is also that thing called “wrong.” Then, its basic lesson taught, it leaves.
But great horror does more. It cuts out the reader’s heart (oft-times more cruelly and painfully than simply “competent” horror), and buries it deep (oft-times even deeper than “the good stuff” does). But – and here is the difference between competence and greatness – great horror adds one more step:
Great horror remains to see what will happen next. For the great horror stories know that the burial is not the end. For in horror, the burial does not signal the end of the story. After all, one of horror’s great lessons is that the monster, once vanquished and buried deep, will eventually rise again to terrorize and maim.
But if the monster does this… then why not us?
Great horror stories tear us apart and bury our still-beating hearts. And then it waits, knowing that given time, given encouragement, given (dare I say it?) a bit of grace… we can rise again. Our hearts will not only beat, but beat all the stronger because of what they have been through.
A decent horror story destroys us. A great one then helps us through the painful process of resurrection, and leave us with souls stronger than they were before.
Horror talks about ghosts and goblins, madmen and monsters, freaks and fiends. But what it actually does is this: it gives us the language to understand what we are seeing when we witness evil, it gives us the tools we need to confront that evil, and it reminds us that in the end – if we are smart enough, brave enough, true enough, good enough – we will triumph.
There are stories where evil appears to win. But great horror shows us that the battle goes on. In my own books, the “good guy” doesn’t necessarily make it to the final page. In fact, some important stories demand an unhappy ending. My novel Twisted, for example, is a ghost story… but it is also a story about child abuse, and the horrifying effects it has on the evil and innocent alike. Such stories cannot finish with “they all lived happily ever after.” Evil always leaves scars in its wake, and to ignore that fact is to do a disservice to those of us who have lived through darkness, and learned to survive and even thrive in spite of those scars. Some stories must end “badly,” if only so we may know how to avoid becoming the monsters they have described.
Besides, even in stories where evil appears to triumph, the reality is anything but. Because the moment after “the end” happens, the reader proves those two words to be a lie. The reader closes the book. The reader turns off the Kindle. The story is done, but the reader… the reader does not end. For the reader has survived. The reader will continue and, hopefully, continue forward stronger.
All horror shows us the darkness we are capable of. Great horror reminds us of the miraculous creatures we already are.
And that is why I write – and read, and will always love – horror.
* Or viewer, or whatever. I’m a screenwriter and author, so I deal with people reading, listening, and watching, but for ease of use purposes I’m just going to refer to “readers” from here on in. After all, you’re reading this right now, so it seems apropos.