Image via Wikipedia. This is what our monsters have become.
Hidey-ho, Faithful Readers! I know I have been pretty silent lately, and I beg your forgiveness. As many of you know, last spring I woke up in hideous pain, and it turned out I have a degenerative spinal disease. Since then, I have been trying to deal with pain management and the emotional/mental fallout of being permanently disabled in my early thirties. Slowly but surely, I have been getting a handle on all of this and recovering from the depression and anxiety set off by all of this. I am writing again, and the promised novels, poetry, and short story collection will be coming along…just more slowly.
But while I wanted to reassure my readers and fans that I haven’t died, disappeared, or retired, that is not the point of this post. What I want to do right now is talk about fear…fear in all its forms, flavors, and textures. I want to talk about fear because I feel that the horror genre, as a whole, is suffering from major problems right now. I watch every new horror movie that comes out, mainstream and independent. I also read a lot of the new work coming out and watch the so-called horror TV shows. And I have to say, we have a problem, Faithful Readers, and that problem can be summed up in a single question:
When was the last time you were scared?
I don’t mean scared of not being able to pay the rent or put food on the table. We are living in a period of economic and political instability, and if you aren’t anxious about those issues you either aren’t paying attention or have specifically chosen not to engage with these fears. I also don’t mean the fear of getting robbed in a bad neighborhood or that your spouse/partner will leave you. I mean real fear. Terror. The kind of fear that makes reality itself slip sideways and makes you lay awake in the dark, terrified to move lest “they” realize you’re there. Horror. Terror. Awe. Real fear that used to be the kind of thing writers like myself were trying to tap into.
I can’t remember the last time I was truly afraid in this way. I get glimmers of it every now and then, but those glimmers never come from what the so-called professionals are putting out. Horror movies now are either pathetic remakes of movies from 30 years ago or attempts to make “safe” horror…horror that entertains, that makes us laugh, but does not induce us to sleep with the lights on or question our priorities in life. Horror used to not be safe, remember? Horror used to be able to change us.
The only places I find horror capable of causing these sort of frissons, of inspiring this sort of instability in our personal realities, are the least professional works that exist: the genre of internet media called “creepypasta”…bits of stories and lore patched together on usenet, forums, blogs, and through ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). These works, especially the ones that end up creating an entire mythos unto themselves (check out the Slender Man mythos or “Ben Drowned” for examples of what I am talking about), actually inspire real terror, real fear, as do the blogs and forums that are (ostensibly) telling people’s true stories of interaction with the paranormal (check out From the Shadows, one of the best paranormal blogs I know of, for examples). Indeed, these two genres, the “true” paranormal stories and the creepypasta, overlap…it’s difficult to know what is real and what is meant to be fiction sometimes. And this, of course, leads to a better scare.
It seems to me that the horror genre has gotten stuck in old fears. People in the movies and stories react almost like caricatures of people, rather than resonating with the depth and complexity of real human beings. The fears the stories take up, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the like…we’re not really afraid of these things. We romanticize them, we reinterpret them, we do any number of things, but it’s pretty safe to say that the stand-by monsters of horror simply aren’t frightening anymore. Serial killers aren’t frightening anymore. Possession isn’t frightening anymore.
Why not? Well, I have a number of theories, and I’m always creating new ones, but the main reason I think these things aren’t frightening anymore is that they are predictable. We have seen them so much and so often that they just don’t scare us. Cthulhu was on South Park and has been made into plushy toys. The most popular vampire of the modern era sparkles in the sunlight, goes to high school at over a century old, and really just wants to be loved. The most popular werewolf is not feared…he is idolized or romantically desired. The zombie is being deconstructed, and we have begun to see movies and shows where zombies are likeable, lovable, funny, and most of all…not scary.
Now, as a writer of speculative fiction of all three types (horror, fantasy, and science fiction), I find myself in a difficult situation. The book that made me want to be a writer was Stephen King’s The Shining. I read it in the first grade (yes, yes, not the best parenting in the world, I know) and I knew, right then, that I wanted to be a writer, and specifically I wanted to be a horror writer. I wanted to be able to inspire the powerful, cathartic terror that changed me forever. Later, I fell in love with other genres and I have written in all of them, but my first love was horror. I wanted to scare people. Not make them laugh, nor make them feel reassured of the moral order they were raised with (horror with a happy ending?). I didn’t want to give pre-teen girls a metaphor for their burgeoning sexuality (or instruct them in how to be a passive, codependent willing victim of abuse…I’m talking to you, Meyer!). I wanted to scare the crap out of people. I wanted them to come out of reading my work forced to view the world differently. I wanted to turn their reality on its ear and leave them screaming.
But how, in the modern era, can I achieve that? The monsters have been used and abused so much that they have turned into inversions and subversions of themselves. The monsters have become metaphors for misunderstood emo kids and fundamentally immature (hence why Edward can fall in love with a teenager and go to high school without it seeming like what it is…creepy pedophilia far beyond Lolita). They stole the monsters that used to plague our nightmares and turned them into ways to sell breakfast cereal.
So what I want to know, Faithful Readers, is this: what scares you? Not a little bit. Not “creeps me out”. Not funny-scary or sexy-scary. Not a metaphor for the insecurity of adolescence or unfamiliar sexuality. Real, unremitting, terror. The sort that, if you were forced to face it, would leave you a drooling, collapsed mess, not inspire you to wear a “Team Edward” t-shirt while writing fan-fiction about the “ultimate bad boy/girl” who changes to a goody-goody because of your pure love. This is the sort of fear I want to hear about. I want to hear about the thoughts, images, and ideas that make death seem like a pleasant release. I want terror.
So tell me. I’m going to leave this post up for a while, so everyone sees it. I want to hear what makes you scream.