About the Authors


Photo source: Brittney Christy

“There’s no conscious thing thing on the face of the world that doesn’t know dread more intimately than its own heartbeat.”  -Clive Barker

We are graduate students interested in the academic and social value of horror. Our interest stems from a desire to understand the relationship between horror and human nature. It seems paradoxical that we endure and perhaps even enjoy scenes of horror that, in reality, would inspire repulsion and disgust. So, why do we indulge in the grotesque? What is the appeal of terror? Why do we peek between our fingers when our hands seek to shield us? In our readings of well-known horror fiction, we seek to answer these questions.

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The Door To Hell

Even knowing what horror has the potential to do—as explored in my last post—there is still the question of why we are drawn to horror, whether in books, movies, or the recently popular two-sentence horror stories that have been circling social media as of late. Is it just a way to indulge the darkness within ourselves? An adrenaline rush? A way of testing our own fears, and challenging them?

David Edelstein’s argues in, “Zombies in the Time of Ebola; The news gets scarier every day. Maybe we need horror movie now more than ever,” that horror movies offer us more realistic pictures of our lives, and help us grapple more meaningfully with the things that scare us. Edelstein writes, “Unlike earnest, realistic films with Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval, horror movies—with their sadism, unapologetic sensationalism, lack of nuance, and avid gratification of pathological impulses—offer sharper, more acute versions of our worst-case scenarios, brilliant metaphors for what haunts us.” Horror movies—and horror stories—provide us with the means to understand real-world experiences and deal with them indirectly.

In fact, Edelstein asserts that zombies—much more mainstream now than they used to be—are particularly good for this, as readers and viewers can project onto zombies what they need to:

“Right-wingers can view them as alien invaders (seal the Mexican border!) who require a paramilitary response, as they are not just infectious but also great fun to shoot, bludgeon, and decapitate. Liberals like George Romero, who, in Night of the Living Dead, invented the modern zombie cannibal, reserve their truest horror for that paramilitary impulse and even cast zombies in the role of the disenfranchised underclass. Satirists like the Brits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead use zombies to illustrate a species of English middle-class complacency.”

The near-ubiquitous zombies in mainstream American culture today suggest the truth of this assertion—the undead are the new blank canvasses, primed and ready for political expression.


Perhaps the best example of the way that horror can be used to deal with real-life horrors is Joyce Carol Oates’ black box story, whose title is simply a black box, as if the words have been redacted. Our protagonist, June, tells the story of visiting relatives when she was eleven years old at their home on a lake: “How excited I was, how special I felt, singled out for a visit to Uncle Rebhorn’s house in Grosse Pointe Shores. I see the house shimmering before me and then I see emptiness, a strange rectangular blackness, and nothing. For at the center of what happened on that Sunday many years ago is blackness” (Oates 473).

This girl recounts her story as a much older woman, telling of this day with her aunt and uncle and cousins, in which they went sailing, and she was sexually assaulted by her uncle, the implication being that her female cousin is subject to this treatment all the time. However, throughout the story there are moments which are blacked out, just like the title, and moments which read like a supernatural horror story, like the description of her aunt and uncle’s home:

“As we approached the big front door which was made of carved wood, with a beautiful gleaming brass American eagle, its dimensions seemed to shrink; the closer we got, the smaller the door got, reversing the usual circumstances [….] We were in a kind of tunnel, crowded together. There was a strong smell of something sharp and hurtful like ammonia; at first I couldn’t breathe, and started to choke. [….] The tunnel was too low for standing upright and you couldn’t crawl on your hands and knees because the floor was littered with shards of glass. Why was it so dark? Where were the windows I’d seen from the outside? [….] Strands of cobweb brushed my face. I was breathing so hard and in such a choppy way it sounded like sobbing which scared me because I knew Uncle Rebhorn would be offended” (Oates 476).

The horror that is child molestation, sexual assault, rape—however you want to frame it—is sometimes overdone. Violence against women in a trope in fiction, period, but especially in horror fiction. So how does one grapple with something this horrifying—and this serious—without descending into the melodramatic, or reducing the victim to a plot device? Oates solves this problem by not grappling with the issue itself, but the fear-based response to it. Even as June is telling the story of what happened to her—memories of which are clearly altered as a reflection of the horror she feels about that day—there are empty spaces that she cannot fill, because she has blocked it out. The text represents, very closely, the state of her mind in response to this event, even decades after it occurred, and provides a way for us to think about something horrible like sexual assault and child molestation that is human without being unbearable.


Gary Bruanbeck’s short story also undertakes the task of providing a space for people to understand and grapple with horrific events. In this case, mass shootings, especially by teenagers. Safe begins with an assertion, and a question:

“Violence never really ends, no more than a symphony ceases to exist once the orchestra has stopped playing; bloodstains and bullet holes, fragments of shattered glass, knife wounds that never heal properly, nightmarish memories that thrash the heart…all fasten themselves like a leech to a person’s core and suck away the spirit bit by bit until there’s nothing left but a shell that looks like it might once have been a human being;” and

“My God, what do you suppose happened to that person?”(Braunbeck 120).

Our protagonist, Geoff Conover, is a high school teacher who, in the wake of a recent shooting, makes a deal with his class: if he talks to them about the murders that had taken place 36 years previous, for which he was “around” (121), they will talk about how they’re feeling about this recent shooting. And so Geoff tells his students—and the reader—about interviewing people in Cedar Hill, asking about the murders, looking for answers. The murders in question occurred when Andy Leonard, a high school student, directed his best friend to drive his grandmother home and, once they were gone, proceeded to murder thirteen of his immediate family members, before driving into town, shooting people on his way, before finally take his own life. By the end of the story it is revealed that Geoff is Andy’s nephew, and had been an infant at the time—the only family member in the house to have survived the brutal assault.

There is speculation amongst the townspeople, as Geoff interviews them, trying to determine why Andy would have done such a thing—as there always is in the news media, following a mass shooting in real life. Townspeople speculate: Andy had a brain tumor, his father beat him, he was sexually depraved, he was too nice, the house was haunted and ghosts told Andy to do it (143). But the truth is, there isn’t an easy, obvious answer. And Geoff is terrified—spends his life trying to feel safe, but can’t, “Because that kind of violence never really ends” (147).

Mass shooting have become ridiculously common in our culture, and though everyone seems to think they know the answer—arm teachers, arm civilians, tougher gun control, more mental health services—we don’t really know what this happens, or what makes perfectly ordinary people snap like this. It’s something we can’t deal with—not really—in the real world, because it’s raw and it’s political and it’s hard. But in fiction, gruesome though it may be, the unreality provides an outlet; we can discuss fictional characters committing heinous crimes, precisely because they are fictional, and that is easier to deal with.

Edelstein concludes that, “Happy endings are impossible. We used to expect them in the days when heroes were counted on to triumph over evil. But that’s the exception nowadays. One reason you can’t keep a good demon down, of course, is that if you could, there’d be no ‘franchises’. But it goes deeper than Hollywood profiteering. Most of us have come to doubt that the door to hell—however you define hell—can be closed.”

Maybe our horror stories had happy endings, once upon a time, when we as a culture believed in those. If that cynicism reflects a genuine change in the nature of the world we live in is unclear; that it reflects a genuine change in the perception of the world we live in is obvious. Americans today are terrified, of everything, and that is reflected in our media. We don’t need happy endings because they don’t speak to our perception of reality—but we need stories that look through that door to hell, precisely because it cannot be closed. We need to be able to grapple with what the world is going to throw at us—does throw at us—and horror provides an all-too-necessary space in which to do so.


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What Makes a Man a Monster?

Daniel Baker’s “Why We Need Dragons: The Progressive Potential of Fantasy,” makes a compelling case for the ability of the genres of fantasy and sci-fi to effect social change. In his article, Baker asserts that the more mainstream realist fiction does not allow for the same critical exploration of the world. Fantasy and Sci-Fi, by the very nature of their unreality, allow the reader the necessary distance from social issues to view them with a less biased, more objective perspective; their unreality also creates for the reader a space in which to question the real. As Baker notes, “By the simple act of constructing a “disturbing,” “weird,” “impossible,” world, fantasy turns “real” into a category—a category that can be opened to radical, progressive change” (Baker 439). Because stories within the fantasy and sci-fi genres necessarily require world-building, they highlight the constructed nature of our own realities, and allow us, as readers, to view those realities with a more critical eye.

What this means is that although a realist novel might depict racism or sexism, and seek to address the problematic nature of either, any reader will bring to the book their own real-world biases, political views, social norms, and cultural blind-spots. A sci-fi novel can depict racial discrimination between two species of alien, and the reader brings no emotional baggage to that issue; they have no horse in the race, so to speak. Because of this, they are more likely to view the issue objectively, without the social and cultural interference. Additionally, reading about the cultural norms of a fictional society which the reader knows is constructed, by the author, draws attention to the fact that the reader’s own cultural norms are constructed by the society in which they live, rather than existing as universal ways of thinking and being.

Although Baker does not expand his theories into Horror Fiction, there is a long tradition of social commentary within the genre. A modern example of this can be seen in the recently released horror flick, It Follows, which features a young woman who contracts a murderous demon through an ill-advised sexual encounter: a literal ghostly STI. In the film, the entity—whose origin or purpose is not explained—follows its victim, slowly, but endlessly, until it catches and kills. Victims can pass it along via sexual contact, at which point it will follow that person until they pass it on or are caught. If the entity is successful, it goes back down the line, reverting back to each person who had passed it along, potentially coming back to bite them years later. Not all horror includes such patronizing, moralizing, sex-negative social commentary—but the point is that the tradition of socially-motivated horror is alive and well.

The reasons for this are two-fold. On the one hand, horror is an effective space for social commentary in the same way that fantasy and sci-fi are—it invokes the supernatural, the unreal, and allows its reader—or viewer—the distance to be objective, and the unreality to question the real. But horror might be an even more fertile ground, because it also provides an outlet for exploring our fears—and seeking solutions to them—in a space that is decidedly unreal and therefore safe in a way the real world is not.

Peter Straub’s The Blue Rose

Perhaps the most notable of these fears that we are unable to address head-on is the existence of monsters among us. There are people in the world who do truly heinous things, and while there seems to be a consensus that some people make the wrong decision in times of stress—the stereotypical husband returning home early from a business trip to surprise his wife, only to find her in bed with another man—and that some people are sadistic and murderous as an essential part of who they are. History is littered with the stories of serial killers, driven to violence by more than moments of passion and human weakness, and a great many of them were able to “pass” as “normal” for years before they were found out.

That’s terrifying.

Of course it is—we rely on our understanding of our own consciences, and our assumptions about others’—to reassure ourselves that people, generally, are not scary, not dangerous, not to be feared. The exceptions to that rule, then, become the things that nightmares are made of.

The morbid fascination with this internal darkness is evident in the success of the television series Dexter, which features a man who “needs” to kill, and so channels his inner darkness into the productive murder and dismemberment of criminals unjustly acquitted from the court system.

What is really frightening here, beyond just the fact that you might know one of these people and never know them for what they truly are, is just how these people come to exist. Is a psychopath born? Is it created? How would you know one when you saw one?

Peter Straub’s “The Blue Rose” explores this very issue. The short story follows Harry Beever, a precocious 10 year old boy living with his several siblings, his verbally abusive mother, and his alcoholic father in a working class household. Both parents are absent or negligent, and allow Harry to watch over his 9 year old brother, Little Eddie. Harry, an intelligent and yet angry little boy, begins his tale by manipulating his little brother into giving him the brand new toy car he had received for his birthday, and subsequently destroying it.

The description of Harry mutilating the car is the first glimpse we have of this possible darkness within him; Harry’s face heats, his breathing increases “more from emotion than exertion” (Straub 166), and he pockets the car’s tires as a trophy. “Without tires, well-scratched and dented, the Ultraglide Roadster had lost most of its power. Harry looked it over with a bitter, deep satisfaction” (166). Harry takes pleasure in destroying something that had been shiny and new, keeps a trophy—a typical sign of a serial killer—and gains a deep satisfaction from having taken the power away from something else.

But although Harry is positioned as a dark character, he is also a sympathetic character, clearly as much victim as he is victimizer—and likely more so, as he is bullied by his older brother, disregarded by his mother, barely acknowledged by his father, and living a life which is clearly made more difficult by his family’s economic hardships. So when Harry finds a how-to book on hypnosis in the attic, the reader is terrified—for whomever Harry might decide target, but also for Harry himself, because this is clearly not going to end well for the powerless, angry little boy.

This is emphasized by the way his mother responds to him finding the book: “She squinted at the print on the cover: “Hypnosis Made Easy. Some drugstore trash. You want to read this?” Harry nodded. “I don’t suppose it can hurt you much.” She negligently passed the book back to him” (Straub 165). While the reader feels a sense of impending doom from the moment the book is introduced, terrified for Harry and Little Eddie, their mother is dismissive, negligently passing the book back to a boy with some inner demons that would be obvious to anyone paying attention.

Harry will go on from this moment to hypnotize his little brother, and explore his newfound sense of power and his interest in destruction on Little Eddie, as the reader could have predicted. Harry will eventually kill his little brother, and manage to make it look like an accident, and go on to commit several other murders in the same fashion, becoming successful in the meantime, and masquerading as an upstanding member of society. But it is important to recognize that Harry as a child is not Harry as an adult. There is a progression there, an essential change that takes place after the reader meets Harry.

Because he is sympathetic—a child—at first meeting. And his first baby steps into hypnotism involve him hurting his brother—but hypnotizing him not to feel any pain, a decision that implies that he is not naturally a sadist; he is interested in the power he is given over the things that he destroys, but not in causing pain. He is a victim of his own life circumstances, created by the darkness of the world he lives in, and that darkness is nurtured by the neglect and mistreatment he suffers at the hands of his own parents.

Here we are presented clear evidence of society creating its own problems, its own fears, its own monsters; Harry is a product of his environment. We have neglected Harry—and all of the Harrys out there—as clearly as his parents have, and we have made him into what he is—just as we have made his parents what they are. We see this because horror has given us the space to do so. It is frightening—too terrible for our delicate sensibilities—to ask why Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson did what they did. We don’t want to empathize with real-life monsters, because it would mean acknowledging that, given a different set of life experiences, we might have been the monsters ourselves. But we can sympathize with Harry—he’s a child, after all.

In fiction, safe and unreal, we can ask the question: What makes a man a monster?


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Horror as a Shield from Madness

Horror tends to stay closer to a less-optimistic reality than other genres. It’s not afraid to kill the protagonist, let the bad guy win, or leave the wicked unpunished. Perhaps this explains why the genre has not traditionally held popularity in mainstream media; while often garnering a cult following, horror doesn’t often maintain the spotlight because it offers a version of reality that most would rather not acknowledge.

It’s an under-appreciated and often-hated, genre because it’s not afraid to explore the darkness that lurks within all of us–the darkness that’s inherent in human nature. It makes us afraid because it holds up a mirror that reflects not just the good, but the bad and the ugly too. It gives life to the impulses that most of us ignore or pretend not to feel. It explores the mind of the psychopath, the deranged, and sometimes, it asks us to sympathize.

Horror often attempts to challenge the limits of psychological tolerance. It asks you to contemplate the dark truths of life, the “what ifs” that you don’t want to accept as a possibility. It shows us things that we’re afraid to see but too curious not to see. Whether its the classic horror obsessed teen or the elderly couple watching the nightly news, everybody finds an outlet for reveling in the grotesque. This undeniable attraction to horror must indicate that it does something for us, whether we conscious realize it or not.

The Theory 

In his article “Madness: Terror and Necessity–thoughts on Winnicott”, Christo Joannidis draws from psychological theory to consider the necessity of terror and to understand our psychological responses to it. He writes that “various psychotic manifestations, be they delusions, hallucinations, schizoid withdrawal, catatonic states, or foreclosure of experiences, are the not madness per se, but a defense against it” (54). That is to say, according to Joannidis, that the psychological manifestations of madness are actually our mind’s attempt to combat true psychological destruction.

He takes the argument further by suggesting that our social institutions have accommodated this necessity by allowing for controlled madness, of sorts. That is, we’ve created traditions that allow us to lose ourselves within a semi-controlled environment. Joannidis writes:

“What if it is the remembering of the madness within that has created institutions of social akrasia such as the Roman Saturnalia and their orgies or the ritualistic events described in Euripides Bacchae?” (57). 

If this is a possibility, then the question becomes, in what ways does our contemporary society account for the necessity of madness? I propose that this is where the rise of horror fiction might be explained. Reading about horrific happenings, particularly well-written stories that persuade us to sympathize with the people committing horrific acts (or silently bearing witness to them), provides a safe and cathartic experience of madness. It shields us from the dark impulses that we all feel by allowing us to experience those impulses through an outside entity–the story and its characters.

Horror fiction, especially that which closely mirrors reality, would be understood as a shield from madness. To apply this theory, I will offer a reading of a short story based on an actual event.

Harlan Ellison’s The Whimper of Whipped Dogs 

Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” fictionalizes the events of an actual murder in what seems like an attempt to explain how such a heinous event could take place.

Ellison’s story is based on the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese outside her apartment in Queens, New York. Though there’s some dispute over how many witnesses saw and to what extent they understood the crime they were witnessing, there were at least a dozen who saw the crime in progress, a few of whom knew that Genovese had been stabbed. The story piqued social scientists to study the bystander effect, and inspired Ellison to probe the human psyche by fictionalizing the event.

Within the story, the protagonist, Beth, is one of the witnesses. Ellison begins with a description of the murder, keeping relatively close to the known details of the event:

“On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and, like them, she did nothing to stop it” (118). 

From this point, the story follows Beth through the psychological aftermath of witnessing such an event. In response to the trauma, she begins to see the world differently, focusing more and more on the ways in which people are cruel and unkind. In response, she begins to fray, becoming more unkind herself. This is the beginning of her descent into madness–the coping mechanism she utilizes to deal with the trauma of witnessing a murder.

The relatability of her change allows readers to feel the trauma with her, without having witnessed a murder. As she’s haunted by scenes from the stabbing, readers share in that fictional memory:

“She could not blot the scenes of the night before from her mind; she re-ran them again and again, every moment of that reaper arm playing over and over as though on a short loop of memory. The woman’s head thrown back for silent screams. The blood. Those eyes in a fog” (121). 

As Beth’s mental state weakens, she takes an abusive lover, Ray. She tolerates his ill treatment because she’s afraid, and he offers her a sense of protection. He is the physical shield that she hopes will save her from harm, both from the outside world and from her psychological degeneration. Ray serves a purpose to readers as well; his insights on human nature help explain the murder, which perhaps alleviates the personal stress associated with witnessing a horrific act. In response to his cruelty toward her, Ray explains to Beth that he cannot help it, that it’s part of living among so many. He says:

“They take rats and they put them in boxes and when there are too many of them, some of the little fuckers go out of their minds and start gnawing the rest to death” (125). 

He further explains that the city has made him crazy:

“I’ve lived in this great bit snapping dog of a city all my life and I’m mad as a mud fly, for crissakes!” (125). 

This is an interesting moment in terms of understanding madness because Ray is meant to be the protector, yet he is a manifestation of the city’s madness. He’s both a shield and a weapon. Though he hurts Beth, like madness, he also protects her–coming to her aide at the end of the story when she’s attacked by an intruder. In the final scene, she gives herself over to the madness of the city, and the madness that her protector represents. In giving herself over, she finds safety and peace:

“As Ray’s naked body pressed tightly against her, she drank deeply of the night, knowing whatever voices she heard from this moment forward would be the voices not of whipped dogs, but those of strong, meat-eating beasts. At last she was unafraid, and it was good, so very good, not to be afraid” (131).

When read in this manner, the story works on readers in two ways. First, it’s a cathartic brush with madness that we experience along with the protagonist that helps us cope with our own dark impulses. Second, it illustrates the ways in which madness can bring about peace and psychological healing.

Experiencing horror is a way to understand and embrace the madness that dwells within each of us. It’s a coping mechanism for things we don’t know how to explain, and it’s a shield from complete alienation of the self. It’s a socially-sanctioned outlet for temporary madness and psychological relief.


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We Create Our Own Demons

Marvel’s 2013 superhero flick, Iron Man 3, begins with Tony Stark’s retrospective meditation on the idea that we create our own demons. Unlike the previous Marvel films that featured an unwaveringly confidant Stark, Iron Man 3 explores the emotional vulnerability of a super hero bogged down by the consequences of his own choices.

The film deals with the creation of personal demons not only in Stark’s struggle with PTSD but also his relationship to the film’s main baddie The Mandarin, an enemy Stark made years before by being an arrogant ass (go figure). As Stark’s life crumbles around him, it’s clear that his near downfall ties directly to his decision to step forward as Iron Man, and, more immediately relevant to the film’s plot, Starks ill-treatment of a crippled scientist deemed too “uncool” to party with Stark’s elite crowd.

Of course, the superhero genre doesn’t allow for bad guys to win, so the film ends with Stark vanquishing not only The Mandarin but his personal demons as well. It’s an uplifting conclusion that not only leaves us rooting for the hero, but leads us believe that we too can vanquish our own demons.

Though this theme is cropping up in contemporary media, it’s anything but new or exclusive to such “feel good” genres. For hundreds of years, horror fiction has explored less optimistic iterations of this theme, often indulging readers’ morbid curiosity by exploring the likely consequences of being overtaken by one’s own demons. Looking at two pieces of horror fiction as exemplars, I will illustrate the value of reading literature that forces us to confront that which we fear the most–the demons that we create.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein addresses personal demons on two levels, using both creator and created to illustrate the consequences of personal actions. And, in true horror fashion, Shelley lets her main characters suffer to the end.

Unfortunately, Frankenstein’s many retellings have left it a shadow of its former self, with each adaptation taking the tale farther and farther from Shelley’s original work. As such, it’s necessary to look at the original text to see the ways in which this theme manifests in Shelley’s work. In contrast with the popular depiction of the crazed scientist howling with pride of his creation, screaming, “It’s alive!”, the Dr. Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel is actually immediately horrified by his creation, and the resulting anxiety he feels about the creature throws him into a spiral of fear that ultimately leads to his ruin. In the scene just after his creature comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein ruminates:

“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (58).

Far from feeling pride over his creation, Dr. Frankenstein is immediately terrified by his creation. This can be read as the story of a man literally creating the thing that he comes to fear most of all–the very thing that ultimately destroys him. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a symbolic representation of his own demons, fashioned by his own hand. Scholars often read this novel as a commentary on prominent fears of science at the time the novel was written, which fits well with my reading. Perhaps against his better judgement, Frankenstein pushes the limits of science and, as a consequence, creates the thing that haunts him to his death.

Interestingly, the creature’s role also embodies this theme, albeit a bit differently. Unlike most versions of the classic tale, in the original text, the creature comes to be educated and very eloquently tells his own tale of suffering. Though huge and grotesque in appearance, the creature shows kindness to others and above all seeks acceptance and kinship. However, due to his hideous appearance, he’s rejected by all those who encounter him, including the man who created him. In a heartbreaking lament, the creature says:

“My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the the utmost limit of my ambition” (134). 

The creature never receives this kindness. Instead, he’s rejected even in spite of extending selfless acts of kindness toward others:

“This was the reward for my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness, which I had entertained but a few moments before, gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth” (143). 

In this scene in particular, Shelley shows the creature’s turn from kind to cruel in response to the way in which he has been treated. He is a product of the society of which is is a part, or rather, of which he is outcast. His inclination toward peace is crushed by those around him, causing him to become the thing that they all feared he was.

By giving the creature a voice and allowing readers to feel sympathetic to his plight, Shelley asks readers to consider the ways in which we might be responsible for creating the things that we fear. The creature’s story, more so even than Dr. Frankenstein’s, asks readers to evaluate social norms and expectations and perhaps question the choices we make every day that might lead to the creation of something terrible in another.

Clive Barker’s Dread

Barker’s 1984 short story traces fear back to its roots and shows how one man’s attempt to understand dread, leads to the creation of the very thing he feared the most.(1) After watching his parents’ vicious axe murder as a child, Quaid develops a crippling fear that he seeks to understand and overcome. His desire for mastery of fear leads him to isolate a classmate with the thing she fears. When that doesn’t yield satisfying results, he repeats the experiment with the protagonist, Stephen.

However, Stephen’s maltreatment, from both Quaid and those who were supposed to help him after his escape, turns him into a madman who seeks revenge in the way Quaid fears most. The blame for Stephen’s madness falls most clearly on Quaid, but Barker also shows the ways in which other members of society share the responsibility. When Stephen escapes Quaid’s sadistic game, he’s found by a police man who, without inquiring, assumes that Stephen is a drugged-out derelict:

“Jesus Chris,” said that police man, disgust written all over his face. “You’re in a right fucking state. Where do you live?” (361). 

Whimpering for his mother and his home, unsure of who he is, and in need of help, Stephen meets no kindness. Instead, the police man “punched Steve in the stomach, a neat, sharp, functional blow” (362), and “Another blow finished the job of crippling the child, and then he took a fistful of Steve’s hair and pulled the little druggy’s face up to meet his” (362). Barker’s reference to Stephen as a “child” emphasizes his innocence and need for care, which stands in sharp contrast to the way the office actually treats him.

Upon entering a care home, Stephen is treated no better. The people working there spoke about him “as though he weren’t in the room” (362), robbing him of basic human kindness and dignity. As might be expected, the provisions in the home were sparse and unfit for most people. Others there were “coughing and muttering and weeping” (363). Stephen, like most societal outcasts, doesn’t receive care and compassion that his humanity alone should afford him.

Stephen steals and axe and wonders into Quaid’s home, to bring the story to its inevitable full-circle conclusion. In this ending, readers find horror but also poetic justice. Quaid is punished for the harm he causes others, seeing his own sadism come back to finish him off. However, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Stephen’s social rejection and the unkind treatment that he received after escaping from Quaid’s prison contributed to his psychosis. On a deeper level, Barker indicts all of society for the un-thought of actions, the unkind whims that we all commit daily against one another. For the horror of Stephen’s transformation, like the transformation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, is something we all fear and that we all must take responsibility for.

Hence, the closing scene of Barker’s tale inspires fear in us all, not just Quaid:

“Steve was happy as a lamb. They had the rest of the night ahead of them, and all the music he could possibly want was sounding in his head. And Quaid knew, meeting the clown’s vacant stare though an air turned bloody, that there was worse in the world than dread. Worse than death itself. There was pain without hope of healing. There was life that refused to end, long after the mind had begged the body to cease. And worst, there were dreams come true” (367).

Concluding Thoughts 

Unlike the super hero movie that alleviates responsibility with a happy ending, horror fiction forces us to confront the consequences of our actions. Since we can’t accept the grotesque as readily as a light and entertaining narrative, we naturally seek to explain and understand what we’ve confronted. Good horror stories have something more than fear to show us.

The creation of our own demons is a captivating and terrifying theme because it asks us to consider the hand we may have played in creating the things we fear. By extension, it may even ask us to consider the ways in which we have contributed to our own unhappiness or failure. What’s clear in the examples I’ve examined, is that in reality the demons we create can’t be vanquished so easily.

In forgotten moments of disregard, disrespect, or even cruelty that we show others, we create that which we fear. The outcasts of society, the bottom dwellers, the untouchables who we believe had a fair shake and squandered it, are all beings who need acceptance and kindness and who rarely receive it. And we don’t want to take responsibility for that, even as we ignore their needs and look past them as though they were invisible.

It’s easier to believe that “bad guys” are inherently bad, but horror doesn’t allow for such delusions. It shows us that we, as individuals and as a society, create the things we fear. We bring our own demons and monsters to life. Though it seems paradoxical, confronting human nature through horror can teach us to be better humans. It ask us to take responsibility for the demons we create for ourselves and for others.


(1) The 2009 film adaptation follows the same general plot, but changes many aspects of the original narrative.

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