When someone says the word “define” to me my stomach knots. When it is followed by the ever faithful “in your own words” a bile sets into my mouth. Yet today, I was asked to do just that – to “define” horror, as a genre or otherwise, “in my own words”.
Up until that moment I had never thought of the definition of what has become throughout the course of my life one of the most influential and poignant tools to not only my writing but in turn, to my view of the world and its inhabitants.
Horror is widely perceived to offer the consumer one thing – cheap thrills. Anything deeper, or darker, than superficial (and mostly superfluous) entertainment usually brings about a completely different genre definition – Dracula for example. I would not define Dracula as horror, for the intimidating elements of Bram Stoker’s classic are not the defining characteristics of what has made it so timeless. It is erotic, thought provoking and two steps away from absurd at times. It’s the ultimate anti-hero tale that just so happens to be set against a spooky canvas with some devilish undertones.
Those of you who know me (and have read some of my rants on here) will be expecting one name to drop now – Stephen King. How you ask, can I write anything about, well anything, without somehow bringing the King into it? Well my friends, you know me well, because I am going to drop his name right now.
I do not perceive what the King writes to be “horror” in any traditional sense of the word, and those of you who are learned enough to have read beyond “It” and “Misery” will know why I say this. I can think of more books that the King has given us that have no supernatural elements whatsoever, that scarred my mind and played with my heart for longer than even his most sickly tales of textbook gore.
Three words – The Bachman Books. A compilation of stories published between 1977 and 1982 all of which are void of the standard boundaries of horror writing as we know it. (*Disclaimer – I refer to the four short stories published in the compilation The Bachman Books and do not include “Thinner” (1984) in the next series of statements (PS. Brackets inside brackets rock! :P)).
“Rage” (1977), “The Long Walk” (1979), “Roadwork” (1981) and “The Running Man” (1982) – These are my examples and if you have not read them, then you have no earthly business here so please move along, long days and pleasant nights to you J
For those of you that remain these stories are in my mind offer some of the most notable and defining characteristics of horror and still to this day haunt my mind from time to time like no others. They have no supernatural beings, no demons in hoods or inbred super humans with chainsaws – all they have is real people, in real (and some would say unthinkable) circumstances. Because at the end of if it all, is that not what we are afraid of most as human beings? The REAL horror?
We are told from the time we can remember that the things that scare us as children are A) not real or B) not threatening – or sometimes both. Therefore we starve that fear within ourselves and no longer as adults find the vampires, ghosts and ghouls of time gone by intimidating anymore. This is a double edged blade in many ways. It allows us to grow up (reasonably) well adjusted as an adult afraid of such childish notions is frowned upon – but the sharper side of that blade is that it desensitizes us to the things we SHOULD live in fear of and paints our world an shade of magnolia.
We should fear the ordinary, the mundane and the dreary that sap at our souls and eat away at our subconscious. We should fear each and everyday being the same, repetition leading to passivity. To be passive, about anything, is a disease. To be passive is to be dead on the inside, if not on the outside too. So we starve the fear of childhood and replace it with the fears of adulthood.
If you were to ask a grown man in the street which do you fear more – a dinosaur coming through your bedroom window and eating you and your wife while you sleep in your overpriced linens, OR lets say life strangling monetary debt? I cannot make any guarantees in this life, for I am not Yoda, but I would bet my breeches on the latter being more scary to anyone “normal” in this day and age.
One simple fact makes this so – debt is real, dinosaurs are not (sad face). Therefore you must ask yourself, as our fears change due to social, political, economical and a whole lot of other -cal unrest in the world, does this not in turn, change the definition of horror?
As adults we fear our cars not starting more than psychopathic clowns lurking in the bushes with razors for teeth. We fear maxing out our credit cards and then dealing with grossly inflated repayments, more so than we fear faceless monsters under our beds at night. We guard our houses with alarms and flashing lights to ward off burglars, feeling no need to have a barrage of crosses and garlic hanging by our front doors to ward off vampires.
The fear of a child is a beautiful, endearing and natural being that should be starved for the sanity of said child. As a person whom read her first King novel at the tender age of eleven, I can vouch for this. We forget that those children, whom starve their fears until they have no strength to scare them anymore, never quite have the ability to kill them completely. They therefore carry these fears into adulthood – that’s when it gets interesting.
Authors are duty bound to make you feel what they are portraying in their prose. To make someone swoon at a love story, cringe at a war crime, or feel empathy towards a lonely old spinster in a wedding dress – these emotions are easy to capture, as love, guilt, hurt, empathy – they are all emotions we are allowed to express as adults. Mummy and Daddy are however, not so easily entitled to fear as their children are.
To make Mummy and Daddy look over their shoulder when they are walking home from work, for fear of what lurks in the sewer grates beneath their feet, to make Mummy and Daddy get into bed before turning off the light at night, for fear of what may grab their bare feet from under the bed in the process – to make Mummy and Daddy’s hearts beat in their throat until they feel as though the bastard were physically trying to climb out of their mouths – this is the power of horror, because when it comes down to it, the things we are afraid of never change, just our willingness to address them.
If as a writer you can force people to address the things inside themselves that they forget they were afraid of so long ago, to make them look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what they would do if they actually did find themselves in palaver with a clown with razors for teeth, you are in turn forcing them to question their own psyches and again, as a result – their own humanity.
To make a credit card seem small, to make a deadline at work seem frivolous, to render Christmas with the in-laws worry free, by replacing these fears with those childish notions of fright – to make an adult face that child within them – opens so many doors, the draught alone may cause a complete overhaul of that persons life. It has the power to change them.
If you are capable of doing this, then my friends you will have marked the earth for eternity, for when human beings die, they leave behind headstones but when legends pass on – they leave behind legacies, that long outlive even the stone that upon which the mere mortals of this world will all inevitably carve their epitaphs.