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.