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.
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?