Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is There a Point to Writing Horror?

What is the point of writing horror? Why are horror stories important in the grand scheme of things? Are they important? Do they offer anything valid to the literary world? These are some of the questions I asked myself today.

I've never questioned the genre like this before but when faced with telling someone what my latest story was about I paused, considering how they might react, that they might think it was just a simple scare story and not understand why it was so important for me to tell that I had to allocate precious hours of my precious life to sit down and write.I felt like I had to justify my reason for writing a horror story.

Why did I feel this way? Did I feel there was some stigma against writing horror? Sure, but no one directly said or implied to me that horror stories lacked the depth that other styles of fiction offer so where did this idea come from?

I looked to all the popular forms of horror I know, the ones that weren't allegories like Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, the ultra popular stories like Carrie, and a short story I recently read Grey Matter and broke them down in my mind.

Carrie at it's core is about a girl who uses telekinesis to get revenge for getting picked on. Sure there are subtexts such as religious fanaticism and different ways of looking at the story like "Did Tommy deserve his fate? Did Sue deserve hers? Is bullying always wrong, or is it an evolutionary mechanism to seek out the dangerous ones, the outcasts from society and call attention to them if they should become a threat?" But at it's core, that is what the story is. And Grey Matter is a story about a fungal goop man.

What motive did Mr. Stephen King have for writing these stories (besides that I imagine they were a lot of fun)?  Did he just want to get a rise out of the audience? Possibly but I feel like there's more to it. Why do horror stories work? They scare us, but why?

Some psychologists say horror frightens and excites us because sometimes its like we're looking into a dark mirror reflection of our own lives, or what we can become. A monster, a raging murderer, its what we have the potential to become if we were to let ourselves slip, and it's sometimes difficult to face that truth so reading horror is one way to deal with it. We can distance ourselves a bit from acknowledging the parallels between the fantasy and the reality. But sometimes it hits too close to home, and that's when it's really good. It compels and repulses us simultaneously. Like a train that ran off the rails, slammed into the freeway at rush hour and left a wake of mechanical and bodily devastation. Naturally traffic on the other side of the freeway would slow to a standstill, the scene is grizzly but we can't look away.

And it doesn't have to be as extreme as the walking dead or creatures of the night, horror can be human. A serial killer, a rapist, a normal seeming person slipping into psychosis, losing control of their life. This is human horror. Tragedy. And sometimes it's scarier because it's real, it happens every day and can be waiting for you right outside your comfy little three bedroom home.

But it's not about simply eliciting fear.Not just about cheap jump-scares and endless gore. There's something more, something personal, something that eludes us and because it eludes us it is troublesome. That's why horror stories resonate with us for so long. We can remember some of the ones we were told from a young age even now, that's how powerful and effective they are.So we seek out that elusive something in horror. We seek out ourselves in horror.

As a writer it's not my favorite subject to write about. If I had my way I'd write about wizards and dragons all damn day long, but more than just occasionally I feel compelled to tell a story that fills me with dread because it terrifies me on some deep personal level, and it won't leave me alone until it's told. If I try to ignore it, it screams, it invades my life. But when it's done and it's told satisfactorily it leaves me alone and I have peace.I've wrestled with and reconciled with something within me and feel better because of it. Most of the time I don't know what the it was, but its been dealt with (for the moment) and now it's your turn to deal with your personal it.

Horror stories remind us of our mortality, of our fragility and our humanity, and our propensity for evil, I think more-so than any other genre. And horror/ thriller writers are exploring one of the true final frontiers left in the world and we don't have to go into deep space or leagues under the ocean to do it. That frontier has been right under... or, I should say, directly above our noses this whole time. We're exploring the human mind.

That alone is a great feat, and there should never be a reason for us to doubt our work's importance.


  1. Nice effort. Have you read yet, Stephen King's 1987 book on horror, Danse Macabre? :)

  2. Thanks!, Not yet, I've read some snippets of it but it's still on my "to read" list.