Dragging Horror Into the Wrong Arguments: In Defense of “Psycho” (NPR, “TCM Reframed” & Work Taken Out of Context)


 

There I was, listening to the radio in five o’clock traffic while driving home from work last week when suddenly an on-air conversation took a peculiar turn into the Horror genre.

“TCM [Turner Classic Movies] Reframed” was being featured during an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered. According to the commentator, “TCM Reframed” has been created for the sole purpose of “re-examining” movie classics with a kind of “disclaimer” in the hope of “reconciling” Hollywood’s classic films (often drawn from from Classic Literary works) whose cultural failings do not measure up to the scrutiny of modern times. And in their sights is the movie Psycho. Psycho, they said, is an anti-trans film.

But the commentary of the hosts (Jacqueline Stewart and Ben Mankiewicz), did nothing to enlighten me as to why. In fact, I was left wondering what movie they were talking about. Because from where I sat, someone seemed to be plucking things out of context in order to make a shocking allegation of bigotry.

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“Cancel Culture” and the Arts: Is It Ever Okay?

Work and words taken out of context…bending scenes or themes or plots into strange configurations just to see if they can be bent…and in some cases, wishful thinking…

There has long been the sense that this is how Criticism is done and “cancellation” occurs, and it has been a contentious battle to convince artists and writers and filmmakers that the truth is otherwise.  It’s enough for some of us to never want to attract ANY attention – because…what if we aren’t perfect? What if we are found wanting? Do we really want our work to be vilified because times change?

It simply does not help when an armchair expert takes a shot at Criticism, and it’s why we recoil defensively when we find a favorite piece of writing, art, or film held up as an example of wrong-doing and evil intent. But it is also why we feel it as an attack on ourselves – and why we second-guess: the environment today is very predatory. Or did we miss something? Were we asleep when we fell in love with or potentially write a classic? Or is Something being made of Nothing?

How do we know? And what do we do when a work stands accused?

And where do we draw the line on defense? On our own reactions?

Sitting in my car, I had to ask myself those questions – when that talk show on NPR about the concerns of trans people for their representation in the Arts singled out the movie Psycho as a deliberate attack on their community…

Exactly WHEN is a work worthy of condemnation and banishment? And what if the accusing community is wrong?

I don’t know about you, but I find the term “cancel culture” offensive – not essentially what is done, but minimizing the power of society’s judgment to a mere snarky term. We have no right to “cancel” anyone; but we have every right to ostracize or shun, to avoid and not-support. We have every right to communicate to someone that their behavior is not acceptable in a civilized, enlightened society. But labels are offensive. And so are attempts to convince people about the evilness of someone or something else.

People are capable of making up their own minds. All we need is the facts.

What was intended by the creator of a work is everything. And it is high time we all grew up and realized that our world and the people in it are not perfect, but often their work is perfectly representative of a time or a point in their own personal growth. And that there are other times when the creator of the work and his or her literal footprint in the world – their legacy – has more to do with them than any “art” or “good” they might have done. If their name cannot be separated from their acts as human beings, then ostracism is an appropriate response, even if it comes at a cost of arts, sciences, or religion.

Before we tackle Psycho, let’s look at the times when banishing someone or their work is potentially justified – at the examples of the kinds of questions that must be asked before such an action is taken.

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  • The Question of Unclean Hands (example: Hitler and His Art) Most people know that Adolf Hitler was also a failed artist. And there have been those who think we should at least look at his art before we shun it, despite the fact that the Arts community of his time passed judgment on his skill as an artist long before he became what we all recognize. Let’s just disregard for a moment how many modern artists, writers, and musicians are also dismissed by our respective Establishments: the problem is not the artwork itself. The problem is not poorly executed portraits or flowers in vases. The problem is that what the artist CHOSE to do with his life in a fit of angst afterward had such far worse consequences to the rest of the world that even if he had been another DaVinci and produced wondrous works, most human beings wouldn’t want to endure their presence in the world because they serve as a reminder of those other, more despicable deeds.

No one wants to read a children’s story by a child molester, a crime novel by a murderer, to see paintings by a man responsible for the genocide of over six million human beings. This is when not “cancelling” – but full-on REJECTION is due and justified.

  • The Question of Intent (Example: Lovecraft – incitement, or did he just record the times?) Most of us in Horror are now learning that Lovecraft was not a particularly nice human being. He was a known racist, misogynist and bigot. Why, then, is HE not shunned? The reason is in the work. All of his writing contains antiquated, outdated dog-whistles, so much so that most of us miss them entirely today. But the essential clue is that his works are indeed “just” stories, and do not sink to the level of incitement. A wink-wink-nod-nod is not a call to incitement; it is an annoyingly rude assumption only. That is Lovecraft – a man who wrote some otherwise amazing Horror and Science Fiction – who wrote for a presumed white male audience who he assumed believed as he did.

Nowhere in his work is he trying to convert anyone, because he never felt he had to. Nowhere is he calling for anyone’s annihilation or even literally saying what he is implying (otherwise, we would all have “gotten it” with one read of his work). Instead, the racism, misogyny and bigotry is in subtext. It is a snapshot of his life and his times, and it is far from complimentary to him.

Yet there is in addition a third question we have to ask – and this is especially relevant in the question of Psycho being or not-being anti-trans. That is…

  • The Question of Relevance: can the work stand without the alleged “offensive” thing? In Psycho, the main issue in this anti-trans question is that Norman dresses as his mother. But on the way to relevance, we have to ask WHY he does this. Is this action important to the story, or does either the whole work or an offensive detail in the work exploit a fear that is in fact used as or be made to function as a dog whistle? In other words, has a detail been added to embellish a fear, again to incite, to plant judgment? Because if it can be removed from the work without consequence to the story and the character, then it is not necessary to the work – it is gratuitous and it is inflammatory.

As we round the corner to talk specifically about Psycho, then, we have to ask if what the trans community in this case infers is the source of the problem (Norman dressed as his mother wielding a knife and killing people) is something that was planted in the story to incite thought or behavior that is intentionally anti-trans.

This is important. Because before we go racing off to paint Robert Bloch (the author) or Alfred Hitchcock (the director) as anti-trans, we need to ask what happens if the detail of Norman dressing as his mother is removed, what happens to the story?

This is not about “ratcheting up” fear: this is about how incidental to the story the detail IS.

So let’s go there. Let’s go back to the accusation that Psycho is an explicit attack on the trans community.

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Getting Past the Knee-Jerk Reaction (What is Psycho About?)

When they said the movie is anti-trans, I felt confused: had I heard that wrong?

And then I felt curious: had I been dog-whistled yet again and totally missed it?

And then I felt angry: the speaker was talking about something that just isn’t there, I said to myself – not on the scale it was being accused of, and not in the way it was being accused of.

I admit to a snowflake moment, taking it kind of personally. But I also admit to a Literary Critical moment. And a Horror-lover’s moment. And a fan-of-the-movie-moment.

While it is true that the aggrieved community is also the most likely to identify such attacks on themselves, the critical theorist in me thinks that such a defamatory accusation has to provide proof – actual examples of how, when, where and why such a view is being presented in a work (if for no other reason than to prevent it from happening in contemporary new writing). And after listening to the two speakers’ arguments, here’s my conclusion: there no substantiating facts given in the interview, no examples of how or why the movie is anti-trans, other than presumed or imagined offense at images, at the suggestion that trans-people would feel offended and threatened by a messaging never disclosed.

If a work is racist, or bigoted, or misogynistic when it portrays a group of people a certain way – when it encourages an interpretation of those people in a derogatory manner, then there is a problem… and the speakers did not provide that example – at least in this case and in this interview. So with apologies to the trans community if I am not getting it (and in being aware I cannot know their collective pain), I respectfully disagree about the accusation of Psycho as being anti-trans. Here’s why:

The accusation made in the interview is that Psycho is a slam against transvestites in particular, and transgendered people altogether.

And we all know the story of Psycho – specifically vivid is the imagery of Norman dressed as his mother as he wields a butcher knife in the infamous shower scene. And while we could venture a theory that here we have a transvestite male murdering the “real” and “virtuous” white female… we would also have to dispense with interpreting the whole rest of the movie/story. The victim is not virtuous – she is a thief. And Norman is not a transvestite – he is psychotic.

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So this whole conversation – including lumping Psycho in with John Wayne movies and Gone With the Wind and the likereally felt like a stretch.

What do we do when something seems to come out of left field – when a reader or movie-goer sees something totally different than we thought was there? Do we automatically apologize, automatically defend, or do we just listen and then think about what is being said?

I say we should wait for the supporting facts of the argument, and I hope someone from the trans community will actually explain the facts that lead to the conclusion that the movie is anti-trans. Because the next question is: how should we react as a genre – especially when a Horror Classic is being accused of being a weapon of bigotry? I think the answer is we respectfully hear the accusers out. And then we ask our own Critically-based questions to see if they are right.

We are indeed in new and different times. And we are also just beginning to realize how privileged some of us have been in the creation, writing, and depictions of our own opinions… Horror is over-represented in this area: it has been white, male and upper-class heterosexual in much of its modern history. So what most of us grew up on — that same modern Horror –  has also been heavily slanted toward the viewpoint and prejudices of those same white males.

Most of the time this has been annoying noise – tributes laid on the altar of society’s (if not the author’s) ego. Our own silence has meant we’ve had an enshrined “norm” in the genre that has often been misrepresented to all of us as the Horror “formula” – and nothing else was Horror, nothing else was allowed or awarded or respected. We were not allowed to criticize it, so most of us just stopped looking at it or reading it. This does not minimize the harm, the endless psychic assault that says most of us will not be allowed to participate in something we care about. But it also means if we are going to start apologizing for mis-navigating the past, we are going to be doing it a long, long time. And those who are making the loud accusations in the fever of the moment had best be preparing their own mea culpas for those they are offending without knowing or thinking about it right now. I say again, none of us is perfect.

And so that is what makes it particularly galling that we might have missed something that should have been obvious. Is Psycho anti-trans?

I believe it is not.

Again, I think we have to listen to such accusations, which we have not fully heard. But I also think we have to answer them, and that not always will we agree with the accusers in the end. It doesn’t make us complicit. It doesn’t make us “tone-deaf.” It does make us part of the conversation that needs to be had.

Horror has plenty of offenders and offenses. There is no need to take works out of context – and that is what I believe the speakers in the NPR interview are doing. We are nowhere near to asking those three questions given above, but we need to ask them.

This is not to say that a viewer – particularly a trans community viewer – should or should not feel a certain way about certain scenes. Horror – in film most commonly – is all about the scenes, because Horror is all about conjuring the most disturbing mental imagery that we cannot get out of our heads. But before we condemn an entire work, we should consider the entire work – not just the scene.

We have to consider the messaging not just of a few images, but of the narrative in play. And at no time is the messaging in Psycho exclusive to trans people. The messaging of Psycho is right there in the title – it is directly targeting the mentally ill (and not in the way we first interpret it).  Psycho takes our prejudices against the mentally afflicted and turns our stereotypes inside out. Norman is likeable. Norman is vulnerable. Norman is himself a victim – of society, of his own mother, of his illness.

So let’s explore why I believe Psycho has nothing to do with the trans community, let alone attempts to defame it.

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The Argument In Defense of Psycho

Norman is never depicted as gay, or as transgendered, or as a transvestite. He is always depicted as mentally ill. The messaging is not that he dresses as his mother to be dressing as a woman in general, that he does so with pleasure and is therefore mentally ill – but that he is mentally ill and thereby dresses as his mother when his alternate self wakes and he becomes her. There is nothing remotely the same about a person identifying as the opposite gender, or enjoying dressing like the opposite gender, and a person having a literal psychotic break with reality that is beyond that person’s control. It’s why we have criminal verdicts that are tempered with the words “by reason of insanity.”

These are just not the same things! And to say or infer that they are is to nod to the very bigotry the movie (and therefore the book) is being accused of. It is to participate in the same mythology – to breathe life into a prejudice psychiatry has largely already debunked – that which aligns LGBTQ issues with mental illness.

Do we really want to go there again? To dredge up the allegation that the trans community is mentally ill?

To say that Psycho is telegraphing that message seems a stretch. To say it encourages people to see the trans community as “psycho” is to disregard the outstanding acting job of Anthony Perkins depicting a severe mental illness, to insult the intelligence of the audience, and to paint all of Horror with one broad brush. Horror (for all of its faults) is paying dearly for our recent past history of white male dominance; its roots are entwined with so much more than white male insecurity and homophobia. So I also resent the attack on the genre – a genre which has long offered a voice to the marginalized and remains a format for psychically embellished revenge, and a genre which needs LGBTQ voices.

And while the fear and belief of some that indeed the trans community must be mentally ill is a mainstay of many bigots – while it was a theory when the movie was made and the book was written –  it is NOT the story here. Yes, it plays on those fears if one already has them. Yes, it may pose that question for some – but if so, it does it backward. And it is NOT the focus of the story – but it cannot be separated from it.

There is simply no way that Norman can be separated from his overbearing, abusive mother who drives his illness. There is no way that Norman can be separated from the symptom of his dissociative identity disorder because that is what causes him to become his mother. Again this has nothing whatsoever in common with a person who is trans or a person who takes pleasure in dressing as the opposite gender. Norman is NOT trans. He does not REPRESENT trans. He is mentally ill.

Is it meant to shock? YES!!! Is it meant to horrify? YES!!! Because mental illness is terrifying enough to the average person without that same person becoming so lost as to “become” a whole other person…and have that avatar commit the worst of crimes in your own body…

If anyone has a right to judge this movie and book, it is the mentally ill community. It is the person who lives with a disease like schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder.

The rest of us are reacting to scenes…to images we are assigning our own meanings to…

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As I have said before, Horror is a genre where societal and cultural flaws are exposed as well as a genre that offers a unique platform for venting about such flaws. But we should always be alert to attempts by those who think to “bend” a Horror classic to service their own personal narrative. That, my friends, is gratuitous exploitation.

Granted, I have no idea how trans people feel about this. I invite their feedback, because it is clear that if they are indeed offended to such an extent as to demand “reframing” this movie, I am simply not seeing the same film.

Does Norman dressing as his mother to become his mother play on non-trans fears of those who dress as women (and by extension the trans community)? Surely. For how long have we all been told that stepping out of our assigned gender roles is a kind of certain mental illness? How long have the powerful people in our lives hidden, jailed, silenced, or murdered anyone who challenged the status quo? No doubt Norman dressing as his dead mother carries an inference about trans people being mentally ill – just as we have tried to paint the gay and lesbian community as mentally (if not spiritually) ill. But that is not the focus of the story…

At no time do I see the movie exploiting trans people – even if it exploits our prejudices connected to trans people via the mental illness “theory”…it is about dissociative identity disorder and its frequent connections to child abuse, to verbal and physical abuse, to sexual abuse…It is about our collective and very human terror of actually BEING so mentally ill in so unforgiving a world.

When I look at the book and movie Psycho, I still see a work of art. It takes a very scary mental illness and makes the ill person human. Despite his crimes, despite our fear of him or of such mentally ill people, we empathize with Norman. We fear FOR him. As overwhelming as the idea of such an extreme case as Norman’s version of mental illness may be, he is both protagonist and antagonist, and we as the audience are unable to look away without taking some idea of the human tragedy of that illness with us.

So for the trans community who might feel threatened by subtextual messaging in the movie Psycho, I would say I am sorry you have been made to feel that way, that these are the scenes that define this movie for you. I personally think the movie and book did a pretty good job of stepping out of the oppressive shadows cast by the 1940’s and 1950’s on ALL of us – from women trapped in narrow life roles to perceptions of the mentally ill. But I don’t think it was a commentary on trans people or those who like to dress in women’s clothes – even if there are those who want to drag such hateful thinking into our social associations.

Yes, it played on existing fears – but Psycho is no more about trans people than it is about serial killers: it IS about child abuse, mental illness, and our fears of becoming our parents. It’s about being a flawed and broken human being in a tightly boxed world. Surely we can all respect that for having been so poignantly and shockingly represented in its time.

And surely there are better movies – even in Horror – that show our cultural prejudices against trans people. (There certainly are plenty in the fiction area, especially when it comes to who gets published in the genre no matter how good the writing.)

In THIS genre, there is no need to force such arguments.

And I think that is exactly the case in this TCM attempt to make Psycho a poster child for all of our sins.

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Lola


Today I lost my Lola to cancer.

People who don’t like cats won’t understand this post, but I say people who belittle them just don’t know cats. And people who belittle those of us who mourn the loss of a cat, just don’t know about love.

If you really open your heart to a cat, the payback is priceless. There is no such thing as “just a cat”; there are only people who refuse to see and fear to feel the fullness of that relationship. There are no such things as bad cats, either – only people who do not listen to them. And for those who say they won’t own a pet because of this exact type of moment as this I say: today is one of the worst days of any pet parent’s life. But one cat gave me sixteen years of love, laughter, and companionship. It is always worth the price of admission.

Lola was the cat we adopted to ease the grief over the loss of 19-year-old Mischief, my deceased mother’s cat who helped me caretake Mom through terminal cancer – as myself, my husband, and our then-remaining cat Sugar Bear agonized over the hole she left in our lives.

A black-and-white polydactyl kitty with intense green eyes, Lola pulled us all out of our grief, even though we lost Sugar Bear at 18 years old some six months later…

I remember not feeling ready for a new cat. And now I will remember most that she taught me I was wrong. So wrong. I needed her less than two weeks after Missy died even though I didn’t know it then.

When we brought her home, I worried I wouldn’t bond with her, that I didn’t have enough left in my emotional tank…But then she crawled up on my shoulder and burrowed into my neck – and how does one resist that?

My husband named her… We walked into the shelter’s adoption space, he laid eyes on her and simply said, “Lola.”

And she was. And she was ours. We didn’t even look at another kitten.

As I held her that first day at home alone with her, I remembered the 1970’s song by the Kinks. It was one of my favorites as a teen – I loved something about the lyrics and everything about the chorus. It now should be an anthem for trans people everywhere, but that is getting off-point. There is a lyric in the song that I knew represented this kitten. It goes:

“Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls. It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world except for Lola. La-la-la Lola. La-la-la Lola.. Lola.”

Losing Mischief – my gray dilute tortie confidante, my own soul’s care-taker, my co-carer of Mom – levelled me. My world was mixed up, muddled up, shook up… And then came Lola.

I shouldn’t have worried about bonding. If I had known what all would come… two dental surgeries, a malignant cancerous mass removal, hyperthyroidism, IBD, and finally the cancerous mass in her stomach…the violent vomiting, diarrhea, and severe weight loss…the times I would spend soothing her and cleaning her up – a look of total humiliation in those perfect green eyes –  telling her it was okay that she had had accidents on the bed, all over the litter boxes, furniture and walls… I wouldn’t have believed then how much it wouldn’t matter…at how much I would grow to love her.

That first day when I was alone with her at home, I put on the Kinks and cranked up the song, held her in my arms and we danced around the room to Lola…I sang the lyrics to her and she purred… and as I held her little butterball body in my arms I was wondering then if Mischief had somehow guided me to her…

Sixteen years later…

I curled up in bed with Lola last night.

I held her too-thin body against mine. She must be down to three pounds, now, I was thinking… her face so gaunt, her fur so less shiny and feeling rough…yet those green eyes laid waste by disease were still so bright and looking into mine with absolute trust.

I pulled up the song on my laptop. I played Lola for my Lola… She watched the video with me. I sang it to her –especially the chorus. And she purred…all night… and even through the procedure until she breathed her last breath, taking a piece of me with her.

Lola – The Kinks 1970 – YouTube

More Care & Feeding of Genre: a Proposition for the Naming & Definitions of Horror Subgenres


One of the problems we have AS a genre is the inability or unwillingness to commit to a structure of subgenre.

And while this doesn’t sound like a big deal, it adds up to one because this is part of the foundation of our determining what IS and IS NOT Horror.

And whether HORRROR is HORROR.. or Weird. Or something else..

In order to be both recognized by the Literary Critical field (a goal argued and fought for by generations of writers and fans) AND to be able to properly sort and recognize the vast depth and variety of the genre, we have to commit to some structure. We need to officially claim names for things, define terms, and establish some basic criteria.

Since I can’t find that anywhere, no one is discussing it in the genre or the genre’s Leadership, then I am going to do the arrogant thing and try to start the conversation we are not-having in the genre.

Keep in mind, I am NOT a Literary Critic, I am NOT a professional genre editor, I am NOT a publisher or an academic. I am, however, a lifelong fan, a lay-theorist, and a writer (however good or bad) OF the genre. (So consider me a remnant of that Old 80s’ Horror Boom opinionated conversation group.)

Here is what I think. Now YOU think. And let’s start talking…

Horror’s Missing Hierarchy of Subgenre and Convention

When I was a teenager reading all things Horror, there was constant “genre noise” being made by fans, reviewers, theorists, Literary Critics and editors. Opinions were abundant and substantial; some were armchair authorities, knowledgeable in the history of the genre and its authors; others were passionate supporters of the Classic authors or the Paperback Kings and Queens of popular Horror, pulp fans and Literary defenders. Some were voices from within the industry – editors who made discoveries and choices and quality observations, Critics who were themselves at war over what Literature really is and should be and how it was made. There was always a buzz, debates, arguments and theories to be found in magazines, radio shows, newspapers, and paperback front matter. It was such a constant background hum, it now seems weird to hear absolutely nothing.

Yet here we are.

The closest thing we have to a genre platform is the Horror Writer’s Association. Yet not all are welcome there except to listen to the wisdom of the Chosen Ones. And that is the problem: discussion can only be had when there are differences of opinion and conflicting angles of approach. If the HWA is “it” for debate, we have lost our legitimacy as a genre. We have silenced the majority of voices. And I personally believe there are such voices and fellow-opinionated folk out there, we just have no official forum upon which to vent. And THAT means…

We are not listening to our audience.

So what happened to our genre? Where did all of those voices go, and how do we get them – or their modern equivalent – back in the game?

And what has that got to do with our missing subgenre hierarchy and those oft-alluded to yet never-defined conventions?

Unfortunately a lot. Without words, rules, and definitions, we cannot have discussions. And maybe that has become part of the plan. But I do think that a lot of our silence is a direct result of the upending of our publishing structure, of the delisting of so very many (former) Horror authors, of Someone Somewhere deciding for the greater good of the rest of us what is or should be Horror.

It’s already affecting our already-previously strained relationship with the Literary Critical community. They are asking for our genre definitions and criteria. And if we continue to ignore the questions being posed, it proves not only are we not interested in READING Criticism on our genre, but that we don’t respect either the academic process of Criticism, OR the blood-letting that happened to our writers in arguments on the way to this point. If we REALLY meant we want to be taken as a serious and Literary genre, then we need to start communicating with the Critics who ASK. And we need to be reading their Criticisms to agree or debate their findings. We need to show we care. DO IT FOR POE. DO IT FOR LOVECRAFT… both of whom fought valiantly for Literary recognition of our genre.

But it also affects the writer of Horror. There is already the challenge of self-education of Craft, of the study and interpretation of Literature, and genre history. But when one is ready to sit down and compose a story –  not-knowing if one is omitting or over-including some rumor of a convention, not-knowing what subgenre you are writing in or where you can market it – the distraction is absolutely story-stalling. This is my theory of why there is so little adventurous writing in the genre – everyone is afraid of crossing some invisible boundary and being made genre-less. Worse, everyone is afraid of admitting that none of us knows those alluded to conventions.

Yet apparently, neither do our genre “experts.”

Look, we really need to sit down and converse about this – admit where there are holes in our qualitative analysis, admit where we are just speculating on what we propose should be in the genre.

There should absolutely be no shame in not-knowing what no one is taught. So we should feel free to discuss our collective ignorance. And then fix the problem.

Yet there is a persistent and annoyingly loud loop repeating out there that no one is writing legitimate genre Horror or understands what proper Horror is and should be. This message is amplified by the Literary Critic, who is the only one who has the right to say so because it is NOT the job of the Literary Critic to define what is and is NOT Horror.

We are fortunate that this “expert” person (or persons) has no real concentrated power in reality, even if he or she thinks they do and even if they are in any way part of the HWA or traditional publishing and casts a long shadow. The ultimate power in any genre lies in the hands of those who are fans and potential fans of the genre – those who hold the very real purse strings. And since the necessary and Literary Critic-REQUESTED conversation is not being aired by our alleged leadership, then let US the writers and fans of Horror cast the first stone…

Let’s start with the basics. Let’s identify our inconsistencies and our faults. Let’s talk definitions.

Every Organization Needs Rules and Guidelines: Claiming & Naming Genre and Subgenre

If you have ever tried to submit a work for publication, you know the hypocrisy that riddles our genre.

“We want new authors….original work…only the best….must be previously published… like [insert author here]”

Most of us shrug, and press the SUBMIT button. And we typically get the standard Not-For-Us rejection, leaving the process none the wiser as to what was wanted or if we even came close.

The WHOLE GENRE is like this. There is no clear idea of what is wanted in the genre, of what IS genre, or SUBgenre, or “original” or “best”… Just like there is no real Horror canon.

That’s right.

There is NO HORROR CANON. 

(Canons are established by Literary Critics. Horror is just beginning the journey of being recognized by the field of Literary Criticism as a Literary Genre (i.e., a subgenre of Literature) and as a result, all we really have is a tiny handful of Critics just beginning to organize and define our genre for the field of Literary Criticism and the purpose of establishing our official canon of authors and works…So…no canon.)

And therefore our first problem is that our genre is constantly referring us to a canon that is not there and does not exist.

But we also find ourselves often being told how inadequate our work in the genre IS. Many of our editors have “bought into” the old and outdated Literary argument that the only thing Literary about our genre is Poe and Lovecraft, or writers like Jackson and Oates. Everyone and everything else is pushed away, even as it is asked for and demanded under threat of failing to remain “in-genre”…

We are constantly criticized for straying out of genre, of being more Fantasy or Science Fiction or Thriller or General Fiction, of writing like we think we are in the 1800’s or flat-out told we clearly violate conventions or need to reinterpret those conventions in order to be “original” (but not TOO original because it still needs to sell).

If you are a writer in the Horror genre, you know exactly what I am talking about; you have probably beat your own head against a wall trying to decipher and decode what the heck everyone wants from you. You may have signed up for classes, workshops, or (God forbid) an expensive MFA degree trying to break down that impenetrable fortress door. And yet you still are not Stephen King.  You still work two or three jobs just to keep the roof over your head and your computer updated.

And if you are a reader and a fan, you are probably wondering what the heck happened to our mojo in the genre that ONLY Stephen King seems able to strike our fancy…and keep the genre afloat…

So why is this all such a mystery?

Because we don’t TALK anymore. Because no one “in authority” is willing to assume some responsibility and venture out on a necessary limb to DEFINE the genre – to establish a position that can be refined and corrected and streamlined and debated and refined again until we get it right.

And neither do we make it clear that we need to HAVE A DISCUSSION – to find common ground and agree about the ground rules that the genre needs to abide by.

ALL of these things need to happen and need to happen right now.

After all, literal centuries of our authors (many of them who WILL BE Horror canon authors) who argued the merits of the Horror genre to Literary Critics, demanding the genre be accepted as a Literary genre, did not do all of the heavy lifting for us to stare at our feet and play pocket-pool when the New Literary Critics look at us and ask SIMPLE QUESTIONS that should have been answered a heckuva long time ago.

Where is the organization? The authoritative voice of our “Establishment” proposing their theories about everything the Critics want to (or will want to) know?

The mistake we are making is to fiddle while Rome burns. Critics may darned well shake their heads in amazement and walk away from us…because if WE don’t care, why the heck should THEY? Analysis and Criticism is a detailed, labor-heavy, time-consuming process: whole lives and careers will be given over to reading a LOT of Horror, good and bad. Who wants to bother if we can’t even provide the most basic answers to the questions:

What IS Horror by definition, and is Horror the proper name for the genre?

What are the criteria?

What are the recognized subgenres?

What are the established conventions and examples of works that exhibit those exact conventions?

When and to what extent should conventions be broken and still remain in-genre?

For all of our “experts” in the genre and the HWA, we have NO WRITTEN GUIDELINES OR DEFINITIONS.

None.

Think I’m kidding? Google “Horror conventions”… then find a wall.

It turns out there is no comprehensive list of conventions for Horror fiction. NONE.  You can find a sprinkling with relation to the Ghost Story, and with the traditional monsters…But there is no authoritative place to go with an actual list. Only musings. Preferences. Observations. The most you will find is in Film Theory…

So what does this mean? It means no one has a right to toss you, your writing, or others out of the genre. When someone deigns to commit some rules to paper in a place we can all find them, debate them and finalize them…then and only then should anyone vacate the genre.

We are risking everything right now by not allowing and encouraging discussion about where we should be going with this.

This is not to say that there are not scattered, informal discussions out there. There are several Horror podcasts, newsletters, and blogs about. But no one is collecting them, coordinating between them, inviting discussions between groups or participants. Just as no one saw fit to collect all of that valuable front matter of editorials, reviews, and criticisms and theory from past traditionally published collections and anthologies to save for posterity. THIS is our genre history. And it seems to be being relegated to a kind of rite-of-passage-if-you-didn’t-find-it-to-learn-about-it-you-aren’t-a-real-Horror-fan thing.

Besides being a sick, egotistical game, I repeat: this is our history.

And between Technology’s Big Thrill of killing publishing and all of the hard copies that define a history, and an Establishment that clearly thinks it has the sole intelligence and authority to remake Horror in its own image… We stand to lose everything our predecessors have worked so hard for – respectability and recognition.

How do I know this is a real problem?

Almost no one has ever disagreed with me on this blog.

WHY NOT?

This does NOT mean I am always right. It DOES mean we are not engaging with our “base”… we are not connecting… we are not discussing… Because SOMEONE should be saying, “I disagree…” Those of us who have formed opinions and done “a little research” should expect conversation. Yet we find only crickets.

Here are the most urgent of the questions Literary Critics have already ASKED US, and since no one seems to want to say, here are MY answers as a writer, fan, and researcher:

  • What IS Horror by definition, and is Horror the proper name for the genre? In my opinion, Horror is the proper name of the genre: the word encompasses everything from that which inspires fear, disgust, revulsion, terror, the supernatural, the paranormal, and the strange or weird. The Weird is only The Weird.
  • What are the criteria? I believe either the presence of actual monsters OR the supernatural  that are inseparable from the plot is THE criteria.
  • What are the recognized subgenres? Well let us explore that question further; allow me to get you started thinking about it…. Because I have been thinking. For years.

I consider there to be eighteen SUBGENRES, and even though there are definite overlaps, I believe there should be just as there are overlaps between genres.

For one thing, writers are not machines; there is a part of writing that remains organic no matter how often we may try to adhere to outlines, and we are wont to weave into our stories many different threads as we construct character and story just as an artist might use all of the colors on his or her palette. Cross-pollination is a natural result. And I don’t see this as a “cataloging” problem; just as we did in library cataloging, what dominates should dictate. Sorting should be an easy matter of deducing emphasis.

For another thing, we need to develop and define subgenre conventions to help stabilize and identify subgenres, and they don’t and should not have to be originality-killing tools of formula, but seedlings of formula.  When and to what extent should conventions be allowed to be bent or broken and a work still remain in-subgenre may help clarify the differences between subgenres, and cease to be a tool of overall genre-elimination – something that happened (I believe) because we allowed someone at the top to decide that Horror is one giant genre with one set of conventions. It is not. We are currently torn asunder with subgenres lacking names and definition.

And until we decide on subgenres, we have little use for free-floating conventions, don’t you think?

Here is my list and examples of some of the works and authors I would include in my version of the most prominently noticed subgenres:

The Gothic Subgenre (includes the original Gothic and the Gothic Romance) is traditional and Literary, built on genre precedent. Has formula and strict, already-established conventions clearly applied (such as the isolated manse, the targeted protagonist usually female, dark and gloomy atmosphere, dark family secret); the Horror should be impactful BUT subtle. Examples: Wuthering Heights (Jane Austen), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirly Jackson), Bellefleur (Joyce Carol Oates) The Fall of the House of Usher (Poe) The Old Nurse’s Story (Elizabeth Gaskell)

The Southern Gothic Subgenre (a strictly American regional offering) this is a clear and distinct form of The Gothic that is not fashioned in the strict mode of the European model of The Gothic, but that like The Gothic trends Literary. And while it is also dark, often includes a large “manse” and has a plotline rife with family or town secrets, it also tends to include an undercurrent of dark humor while being set exclusively in the American South, often serving as a coming-of-age story, characteristically drawing on the tragedy of slavery and loss, monsters and voodoo; although according to The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, this subgenre is already beginning to expand into other rich areas of the American Southern story with long-overdue love and attention – such as Native American presence in the South, socioeconomic class, and norms of gendered behavior and what has come to be called “the Southern Grotesque”… Feast of All Saints (Anne Rice), A Rose for Emily (William Faulkner), The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Grandy Hendrix), The Road (Cormac McCarthy), A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)

The New Gothic Subgenre is a mirror of the Old Gothic, but is set historically in more “modern” times – currently this subgenre is starting with World Wars I and II, using much the same formula as Old Gothic and Gothic Romance – same isolated, supernatural-laced settings, the isolated protagonist, The Family Secret, and the ghost. Unlike Southern Gothic, the New Gothic has more in common with Gothic Romance and our English roots than with our cultural failings. However, perhaps it is because the subgenre is just getting started…Things could indeed become much more Literary and interesting; sub subgenre emerging now? Urban Gothic. The Haunting of Maddy Clare (Simone St. James), The Haunting of Cabin Green (April A. Taylor),  The House Next Door (Darcy Coates)

The Ghost Story Subgenre is also traditional and typically Literary but includes modern interpretations and pulpy versions of the campfire tale. There are and have been sketchily “discussed” loose conventions, but their remaining in place should not be for the purpose of restricting the story, merely for identifying it as Horror where the ghost CANNOT be eliminated from the plot and where they are a platform to build upon like rhyme scheme in poetry. The Woman in Black (Hill), The Turn of the Screw (Henry James), Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (M.R. James), Green Tea (Sheridan LeFanu), The Ghost in the Rose Bush (Mary Wilkins Freeman), Night Terrors: the Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson (E.F. Benson)

The Weird Subgenre is largely Literary and mostly Lovecraft and Blackwood providing convention blueprints. Because of the higher interest from Literary Critics, it currently already includes a set of presumed “canon-elect”authors (with those who follow in contemporary times being labelled as imitators). It is, essentially, stories that “cannot possibly happen” because they rely on the knowledge of “science of the future” to be understood and “whose terror cannot be ontological in origin” according to S.T. Joshi in his book The Weird Tale.  Without new innovation, this subgenre is sometimes thought to be closing or closed, and only the publishing future and Literary Critics can tell. Currently recognized Weird authors are: H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Robert Aickman, Henry Ferris, Clark Ashton Smith, Thomas Ligotti, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell.

The Traditional Subgenre is all “traditional” monsters (even future new monsters are added even though what we consider traditional is still rather new as they derive from the first Golden Age of Horror 1930-1950 as led by Hollywood ) – the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, the witch, the mummy, and Frankenstein variants. Intermittent conventions can be found, and clearly were being discussed at one point within the genre, but there is still no definitive list. (Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice), Dracula (Bram Stoker), I Am Legend (Matheson), Ghost Story (Peter Straub), The Mummy: a Tale of the Twenty-second Century (Jane Webb Loudon)

Dark Fantasy/Folkloric Subgenre is all based on actual folklore traditions, urban folklore, and fantasy worlds or realities. Regardless of how fantastical or even literal it gets,we should see the folklore roots from here. Urban Fairy Tales are a sub subgenre.  Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), Faerie Tale (Raymond Feist), Rusalka (C.J. Cherryh), Weaveworld (Clive Barker), The Child Thief (Brom) The Changeling (Victor LaValle), The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood), Memory and Dream (Charles DeLint),  Book of the Damned (Secret Books of Paradys Book 1) (Tanith Lee)

Dark Science Fiction Subgenre is a blur of science fiction concepts overtaken by dark elements that pose (sometimes by the totality of the story) prominent supernatural or paranormal questions such as the meaning of life, religion, the soul. The Thing (John Campbell)  Event Horizon (Steven McDonald), Sphere (Crichton), Bird Box (Josh Malerman), Coma (Robin Cook) Blind Sight (Peter Watts), The Luminous Dead (Caitlin Starling) Nightflyers and Other Stories (George R.R. Martin)

Apocalyptic Horror Subgenre is exactly what it says it is –either about the ending of the world, the surviving of the end of the world, and the loss of world.  It does NOT have to be set far in the future, about zombies, vampires or pandemics, but may be about the mystery of how it happens (including right now) or the supernatural instigation or ramifications of such. This would include dead guys discovering they are dead, and trips through purgatory or hell, monsters like Cthulhu coming from outer space, monsters we make through our own incompetent actions and arrogances – but there must be the supernatural and/or monsters embedded in the plot.  The Book of Paradox (Louise Cooper), The Devine Comedy (Dante), The Stand (Stephen King)

The Literary Subgenre is void of pulp and commercialism, the polar opposite of the Pulp Subgenre and the endgame of more ambitious Popular Subgenre works; the Horror should be subtle but impactful and can include human Horrors like war, poverty, illness, death, sexual and physical abuse, murder and psychosis, BUT there must be a significant supernatural element. The Birds (and Other Stories) (Daphne DuMaurier), The Winter People (Jennifer McMahon), Mind of Winter (Laura Kasischeke), The Dollmaker (Joyce Carol Oates), Sacrament (Clive Barker), Delores Claiborne (Stephen King), Perfume (Patrick Suskind)

The Pulp Subgenre is nonLiterary, a fictional romp through genre tropes with no explored subtext and light character development, and is prominently featured as comics, graphic novels, and online forums like CreepyPasta (which at novel-length can become Popular). The Sandman (Book of Dreams) Gaiman, Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), Locke & Key (Hill), The Mammoth Book of Kaiju (Sean Wallace)

The Crossover Subgenre is a dump subgenre for writers who write perhaps only ONE piece of Horror or in a style that pushes them to the edge of their HOME Genre, leaving that work literarily homeless but laden with Horror elements that may force also sharing of one or more of our own subgenres. It is also for that block of writing that is simultaneously YA and not quite, Children’s and not quite. We need a place to welcome these orphaned authors and/or works. Piercing Ryu Murakami, I Remember You (Yrsa Sigurdardottir), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), Blood Crime (Sebastia Alzamora), Tales of the Unexpected (Roald Dahl), Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (J.K. Rowling) , Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Alvin Schwarz), The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

The Military Horror Subgenre (Just as in the Science Fiction subgenre), this is a place for the wartime survivors, war refugees, military historians, the battle-buff, and the supernatural-infiltrated PTSD writer of battlefield Horror and their jargon-laden stories. It is necessary, and it is a severely underrepresented part of our genre with a huge potential audience and potential field of writers whose stories would not only be therapeutic for their countries of origin, war-torn communities, and survivors, but also an education for those of us so graciously spared the experience of war. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Ambrose Bierce), Black Fire (Hernan Rodriguez), Existential (Ryan W. Aslesen), Koko (Peter Straub)

The Period/Historical Horror Subgenre (Just as it is in the Romance Genre) this would be a supernatural romp through a detailed, well-researched historical period. This opens the door to Horror needed by many minorities wanting to explore historical periods, as well as those who want to write the “weird” or haunted western, or who want to write “in the vein of/in the style of older, classic writers” to create a vintage mood. Cry to Heaven (Anne Rice), Phantom (Susan Kay), The Terror (Dan Simmons), The Hunger (Alma Katsu), and all of those Legacy Author anthologies.

The Hauntological Horror Subgenre (which should not be confused with Period/Historical Horror set in a specific historical time, but) is set in “modern day/after the focal event” with the Horror coming from the past OR a future misplaced. This would be the Racial or Species Guilt subgenre where the loss of class, security, environment or self-image is directly related to past events and/or the proximity of the sensed presence of the past.  A Stir of Echoes (Richard Matheson)  The Wendigo (Algernon Blackwood), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Coyote Songs (Gabino Iglesias), The Tree People (Naomi Stokes), The Only Good Indians (Stephen Graham Jones).

The Holiday Horror Subgenre would be Horror written specifically for and set within a specific Holiday – including Christmas, Halloween and even Valentine’s Day. This would typically be short fiction targeted for holiday contests, holiday anthologies, and holiday periodical features. A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens, Krampus: the Yule Lord (Brom), Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), Pumpkinhead (Cullen Bunn)

The Humorous/Satirical/Parody Horror Subgenre is horror attempting to bring wicked fun or a satirical twist or parody to the genre.  This style needs to be clearly distinct from standard subgenres as Horror fans wanting actual scary Horror do not want silly surprises, and those who want a giggle do not want scary stuff. Legend of Kelly Featherstone (Washington Irving) A Ghost Story (Mark Twain), The Canterville Ghost (Oscar Wilde), Herbert West-Reanimator (H.P. Lovecraft), The Open Window (H.H. Munro/Saki)

The Popular Horror Subgenre is mainstream, fiction-mill Horror, generically produced with actual formula restrictions – including acceptable length and formulaic setting and characters with limited development. This would be the fictional bridge between pulp and Literature commonly known as The Bestseller. Popular can be Literary, but its intention is specifically to sell and perhaps diversify into film. Its aims are all commercial, and should have a formula of conventions that dictate that success (certain events happening by certain pages, faster pace, action verbs, all designed to engage the public on a tale-telling adventure.) Carrie (King), Watchers (Koontz), Rosemary’s Baby (Levin), Hellraiser (Barker), Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews)

I am sure some of my classifications will raise a few hackles here or there, that some of my subgenres will seem to be sub sub-genres to some, that one could argue they seem too overlapping. They also could use more development and specific definition – but then I am just getting started. We have to get something up on the whiteboard, start brainstorming. I say we need to compile just such a list, debate it, vote on it, decide on it. Then we need to get busy establishing accepted conventions for each subgenre – and provide them to any writer or Literary Critic who asks for them.

So there you are: a starting point.

Do you agree? Where do you disagree?

What list would YOU make?

If we are going to grow this genre, mature it into a form worthy of Literary Critical attention, broaden our horizons, increase our creativity, inspire new writers, find new readers, seek out new twists on how we horrify each other, we are going to need appropriate and qualified leadership.

Is anybody out there?

(Black) Women in Horror Month: How What We Think Horror Is Determines Who “Writes” It (Part 2 – Weaponizing Theory)


When we ask for names of female writers of color in the Horror genre, we (as the alleged Horror mainstream) might expect to hear two: Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison.

Yet we also expect to hear that Morrison only wrote one Horror novel (and that one so Literary that the only thing making it the least bit Horror is the ghost that animates its prose) and that Butler is really more of a science fiction writer.

Why do we do this? Why do we take certain works and decide that some anonymous Horror authority has plucked certain criteria from these writers’ stories and found them “wanting”? And is it any coincidence that this keeps happening to writers of color in our genre, and has gone retroactive in our judgement of writers from the LGBTQ community in Horror?

What exactly are we using as justification for exclusion of these writers from our genre?

Would you believe we dare to invoke Literary Theory?

Would you believe we have no such expertise or authority to do so?

There is an idiom at play here: if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullsh*t…

Octavia Butler…Yeah. Horror.

Ladies-in-Waiting

When Americans want to say something is incredulous and inflect sarcasm about something they deem so unbelievable it is all but inconceivable, they say it is science fiction.

What a coincidence.

When we look at a writer like Octavia Butler, we are seeing someone so deftly accomplished that she can weave threads of multiple genres together and let the inferences lie where they may… In other words, she does indeed qualify to be in multiple genres… including Literature. And including Horror.

Yet many Black authors (and I use the designation “Black” to include those who are also not African-American) find themselves relegated to other genres for the alleged sake of Literary Criticism. We seem afraid to just say whether or not we think a work is not-Horror perhaps because of a misunderstood emphasis, or whether it has too many other-genre elements. Instead we seem to grab for Literary terms we do not grasp the full meaning of and hope the general audience of Horror fans does not understand either. So far it has been working. So far we have taken virtually every writer of color and pronounced their writing as too steeped in Literary elements to be considered Horror, as too packed with hidden agendas and racial “coding” for the presumed white majority audience to “get” the meaning of and not feel offended.

Part of the reason we can hide behind Literary Critical terms and use them in ignorance is because of the historical “ghettoization” of the Horror genre in general, which has often failed to attract both serious Literary Critics and writers who want to be taken seriously. We have been left to our own devices with no oversight, both in judging works as genre, and judging them as Literature while fending off a generally poor professional association which all speculative fiction suffers from. Indeed, even many white writers in the past have been known to use pseudonyms when writing Horror so as to “spare” their reputations. But the whole negative “cachet” has distorted our ability to attract serious Criticism and analyze all of our writers fairly – something always magnified by the time it gets to writers of color.

According to Kinitra D. Brooks in her spectacularly insightful book, Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, “The prejudices against speculative fiction also account for the discounting of fertile research opportunities in the already privileged literary fiction of writers like Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. Earlier analysis of their texts focused on the lived realities of their central characters or were given the misnomer of magical realism. Magical realism is a theoretical framework …in which we ‘find the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal.’ “ (53)

In other words, now that we are on the fringe of seeing Literary Criticism in Horror, we are ironically seeing it first through the Criticism of Literary Writers who write Horror So a writer like Toni Morrison finds her work Beloved caught in a Critic’s tug-of-war over Horror genre writing-as-Literature and the Black writers’ place in Literature. But this poses a new question: is a person’s writing – any person’s writing – just an unequivocal “statement” about their racial and cultural identity? And if it is, must we always label writing of the minority Other as “protest” Literature instead of genre? What if it is just about making a statement? Because isn’t it almost always interpreted as such when the writer is white?

Besides being unable to adequately define what Horror is and what criteria it requires for a work to be “in-genre,” we find ourselves in that ignorant state mysteriously looking at and judging the writing of all people of color suspecting something more than humor, parody, mockery, condemnation, rebellion, or criticism of the white majority is in play. Yet it might just be about the experience of living while Other… (which may or may not include criticism, condemnation, outrage or exhaustion of a life lived at their own expense). Writing fiction is about writing truth disguised as fiction. It has to stop being about alleged or contrived formula or misguided assumptions and start being about subtext if we are going to seriously pursue Literature in the genre – by writers of ANY color.

Yet especially when a writer is a writer of color and utilizes Literary elements in Horror, we use Literary cudgels on their writing with an amazingly lethal clumsiness. If they are established Literary Writers who write what appears to be a Horror story, we automatically say they are not writing Horror – in effect affixing them to our assumptions about presumed subtext.

This is far easier to do when a Literary writer drops by for a one-off Horror story…In that case we use the rest of their body of work to drag it out of genre and send it packing.

Exactly when did we as a genre decided that a writer must write ONLY in the Horror genre to write Horror? Honestly, we would have to let a lot of writers go – including Poe – if we engaged in such criteria-bending. We would lose almost all of our Literary writers, and subsequently ALL of our claims that Horror IS a Literary genre deserving of Literary recognition and our own claim to a Literary Canon. (If you want to throw Poe, Lovecraft and even Stephen King under that bus, be my guest. But that is the Literary equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of cutting off the nose to spite the face.)

If this isn’t racism and bigotry and misogyny, what else is it? Because if we are going to summon the spirits of Literary Theory to exclude such writers from Horror, we darn well better know what we are talking about. When we add “Black” or “Afro” or “African-American” to actual Literary Critical Theory, it is a misuse of terms when that same term is used to justify how a work or a writer becomes not-Horror.  Feminism for example, is Feminist Theory no matter what color the feminism. Literary Critics can slip into terms of sub-genre as part of their professional analysis of works. But if one does not have a Ph.D. in Literary Critical Theory, no one else has any business applying or misusing such terms predicated by race as a bludgeon to whitewash a genre.

So why is it being done by anonymous laypeople in Horror? And why is it couched in “fake compliments” as though it is our genre taking the bullet instead of the writer?

Let’s get one thing straight: Literary Theory is that which is used by Literary Critics to examine a work or a catalog of works to weigh the merits of those works to determine their place in the Literary Canon – not to decipher and judge whether or not they are Horror or Mystery or Science Fiction or Westerns, etc. – but whether they meet the High Criteria of Literature. That things are being pretentiously interpreted and applied differently is the fault of the genre leadership(which should be the authoritative, governing body of the genre and which should exercise some discretion of its own; there should be limits and censure, because there should be expertise).

Just how is it that there is this anonymously implied consensus that all writers of color CAN’T be writing Horror? Is this one of the many costs to the genre of not-having the Horror Establishment just sit down and academically parse out the necessary definitions by which all of our writing should live or die – be in-genre or out? I believe so. And I believe the ignorant wielding of Critical Theory and its parts are not only causing more confusion, but costing us writers the like of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler to merely mention two such capable-yet-ostracized writers of color.

Teasing this out has got to be made simpler. For the sakes of Butler and Morrison and all of the writers of color who need to come after… let’s straighten this out now. Let’s just commit to an understanding.

And let’s start right here.

Because Black women writing Horror is not science fiction… and we have kept them waiting long enough.

The Incomparable Toni Morrison

Magical Realism – Lock or Key to Horror?

One of the most lethal tools in the censor’s toolbox is the overused, but cool-sounding term Magical Realism. This is a Critical term that is used liberally when discussing writing by Black women, and it is always used in such a way that its mere pronunciation is a free ticket out of the Horror genre. Why is the question; because when we misappropriate the term to use in the analysis of white writing, the writer stays a Horror writer. But the term is not meant to address white writing – or Black writing for that matter. We have, in fact, resorted to misusing it to get our own way.

So what IS Magical Realism? According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is:  

(The) chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. Although this strategy is known in the literature of many cultures in many ages, the term magic realism is a relatively recent designation, first applied in the 1940s by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who recognized this characteristic in much Latin-American literature. Some scholars have posited that magic realism is a natural outcome of postcolonial writing, which must make sense of at least two separate realities—the reality of the conquerors as well as that of the conquered.  https://www.britannica.com/art/magic-realism

This means Magical Realism is all about emphasis and the raw power of subtext. And THAT means also that potentially one sharply delivered element of Magical Realism is expected to “last awhile” in the prose – characteristically Latin prose. A reader is more likely to see the misfortune of a character and then the magical element, so that when asked, a reader is not likely to say something is a ghost story – but rather a story about slavery (for example) with a ghost in it – as in Beloved by Toni Morrison, even when it was conceived of to explain the paranormal with its ghostly presence of history in a work like House of Spirits by Isabel Allende.

The question for the Horror genre is: How much Horror (and what type of Horror) must be in a story for it to be genre Horror? Does the use or misdiagnosis of Magical Realism change things and disqualify a writer or their work?

That answer is “no.” We have only to look at the track record in the genre.

White Magical Realism in Horror?

The Metamorphosis, (oh look – Wuthering Heights), The Graveyard Book, Imagica, Weaveworld, The Stand (Again), Pet Cemetery…

But on the converse, Critical Theorists like Kinitra Brooks propose that the act of labelling a work as “Magical Realism” dilutes the intended Literary messaging. She states: “I am certainly not declaring magical realism an inept theoretical concept – what I am stressing is that the framework does not fully address the racially gendered needs of black women’s creative fiction. It is a theoretical hand-me-down that fits black women’s literature, but not very well – it is in dire need of tailoring to its specific literary themes. I suggest that a racially gendered framework, grounded in horror theory, provides awesome research opportunities to contemporary black feminists.” (53-54)

So here again we have a case of a term being made to “fit” an author or work, and then being used to disqualify it from Horror. We clearly do not yet have enough Theories in place to adequately analyze works that are more than a sum of their theoretical parts (and that is why more Literary Critics —  including some of color – are badly needed).

Continues Brooks,“…black feminist theorists have consistently overlooked horror’s almost commonsensical potential to explore the marvelous in our scholarly readings of black women’s fiction. At its most base level Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) is a ghost story. True, themes of generational trauma, chattel slavery, and mother-daughter relationships are prevalent, but they all occur with the framework of a prototypical ghost story. Charles Saunders muses: ‘the strong supernatural element in Beloved could easily qualify it as fantasy, or, at the very least horror in the mode of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw’…” (54)

Henry James. White guy. Ghost story. Accepted as not just Horror – but canon-worthy Horror.

So even in respecting Brooks’ own opinion that we do not yet have adequate Theory in place to assess the writings of people of color who are addressing historical baggage of more modern characters while and by telling a Horror story (an enduring Literary Critic field problem if you are listening, English majors), I am irritated that we are not embracing these writers as writing Horror… Something that also happens when Folkloric Horror is invoked, because if such folklore is clearly and truthfully derived from an actual living culture, then that writing is automatically consigned to some cultural Literary tradition regardless of the Horror. This has happened to white writers like Charles deLint, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman – whose occasional dark fantasy tells culturally relevant stories which has caused them and their work to be unceremoniously “banished” to the Fantasy genre. Imagine what happens when a writer of color dares “go there…” All of this has been our loss.

Misusing the terminology of Magical Realism by painting with some unilaterally broad strokes ALL writers of color, we are also managing to excise the natural connection to Horror that Black writers and writers of color inherently bring to the genre with them. States Brooks, “I suggest that the (even partial) application of magical realism to black women’s supernatural literature is ill-conceived. Morrison herself chafes under the application of magical realism to her novels because the practice is both lazy and ahistorical, because it operates on the assumption that she is not without a literary tradition. Magical realism ignores African Americans’ long-standing oral and literary history of including the supernatural and the fantastical in our narratives…” (100)

And just because it is a cool-sounding term isn’t reason enough to use it everywhere; there is not a one-size fits all version of Magical Realism we could or should strap to all writers of color, or all writing.

I am irritated that we have “given up” Critically by allowing existing Theory and its aspects to be used to perform an inadequate and piecemeal hack-job on LITERATURE…simply because no one has ventured, plotted, and sailed a new course of Theory to address what needs to be addressed.  And THEN that we have employed that inadequate Criticism for the purpose of  excluding writers from the genre on top if it is maddening.

Here is the example of what I mean, as so perfectly described by Brooks: “The first eight to ten years of literary analysis of Beloved focused on ghosts and hauntings, but only spoke of these supernatural elements in terms of the ‘horrific’ effects of slavery upon the psyche of the formerly enslaved. There were no readings of the ghosts and the possessed as traditional horror and how Morrison employs them specifically within a black feminist dynamic – it remains incredible that so much genre potentiality was bypassed by the very creators of the discipline.” (54)

Read. That. Again.

The Horror genre by its Establishment should be out in front of this right now.

There should be dialogue with the Critical Establishment. We should be working with authors, Literary Critics, academics, and theorists on this exact issue. This is all about the future of the genre – both in readership AND in production.

Are we not addressing this because we are closet racist in our genre’s claim that we welcome Black-and-Other-People-of-Color into our genre? Are we just publishing token minority writers in our Best Of anthologies and paying lip service to make ourselves feel better?

Are we then also novices when it comes to explaining why a writer of color is not Horror, but experts when we make the decision? Because something is going on here. And it doesn’t look honorable.

Literary Critics and Horror genre “experts” have a problem. It is a mutual problem. And we need to stop taking it out on writers. We need to FIX IT.

Weaponizing Literary Theory with Futurism/Afrofuturism and Black Feminism

We have absolutely got to get past the idea that writings by people of color hold no interest for those of us not of color. We have got to realize that we have not lived in a vacuum and that our actions and those of ALL of our ancestors have had consequences. We also have to recognize that He Who Is In Charge of a country and its trajectory, is also to blame for its failings.

White people have been exploring this concept in futurism for a long time now – especially visible in our obsession with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. Zombies. Pandemics. Robots and machines run amok. Dead earth. Mad Max… White people know that what we have let out of Pandora’s Box is about to end us all.

So why are we afraid of facing our racial past? White people will claim that they don’t want to read stories designed to make us feel guilty about things we personally were not present for. But fine, then. What about things we are standing right in front of today? Do we not know how to walk and chew gum at the same time? How to be proud of our ancestry without using that pride to belittle someone else? Seems not. And that is disappointing, because we all have stories to tell.

We have been playing Critical games with writers of color in the Horror genre for a long time. And when we had a writer like Octavia Butler producing a catalog at the rate she did for so many years right here during this “modern era” of civil rights awakening and equality and such… we have to wonder what was used on her writing to disenfranchise her from the Horror genre.

It turns out, it was the same futurism… relabeled Afrofuturism. Ooooh. Scary. Black people. In the future.

Explains Kinitra Brooks, “Afrofuturism represents a successful articulation at recognizing the fluidity of science fiction, and, to some extent, fantasy as viewed through the lens of race, for it is ‘speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future – might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism…’ ”(68)

So what, you are asking, has science fiction and fantasy to do with Horror?

Gee, I don’t know…Alien, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings ( and then fantastical gremlins, evil fairies, Babadooks… Krampus… ) Because if you think we don’t have white Futurism in Horror, you better toss out all of those apocalyptic Horror anthologies and perhaps The Stand…The Walking Dead…World War Z… Poe’s short story “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”…

If the only thing we are adding to this winning formula of Horror-and-Science Fiction, or Horror and Fantasy is people of color…once again we have to ask WHY is that a “problem”?

Continues Brooks, “ ‘Afrofuturism’ has become a term for all things black and genre-related (with the exception of horror).” (69)

What – wait – “with the exception of horror” ?!?

“Many authors have been placed under its auspices, most especially Octavia Butler as well as Amiri Baraka, Nalo Hopkinson, Derrick Bell, and even Toni Morrison…” (69)

What – wait — WHO?

Why haven’t we heard these names, oh Horror Establishment? Where ARE THEY when we talk canon?

 Once again, the reason we do not know these names is because while the Literary Critical community might be appearing to push them toward the Horror genre, the Horror genre is pushing them toward the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres.

When we decide that Octavia Butler is writing Science Fiction (even with Vampires) then we need to ask why I Am Legend is solidly part of Horror in fiction because of its Vampires (and later movie Zombies) but suddenly becomes Science Fiction when Will Smith is cast as the lead… we are talking a need for some serious soul-searching here.

States Brooks, “Another critic, Mark Sinker, insists that the ‘central fact’ of Afrofuturism ‘is an acknowledgment that [the] Apocalypse [has] already happened – Armageddon [has] been in effect.’ The understanding of the contemporary postapocalyptic existence of Africa and its diaspora centers on colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade – that period of physical, cultural, and psychological loss was the Apocalypse. Afrofuturism…[explores] the very nature of being alien.” (68)

Yet here we are arguing how we cannot identify with this concept even as we embrace the blue-skinned Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar…

How blind of us to assume every Black story is automatically about Black angst, minimized to whinery instead of something more powerful and worthy of our attention. How ignorant to dismiss works that use Science Fiction elements as not-Horror when they also have traditional Horror elements.

Octavia Butler. Just sayin’….

Continues Brooks, “Black women genre writers refuse to be what genre fiction expects of them as they consistently fight invisibility and are becoming a notable presence only under their own terms.” (75)

Maybe it is as simple as ultimately not seeing people of color “just” an extra in our genre…about not-being the expendable character that gets eaten first.

And as for Feminism/Black Feminismin Horror? Feminist Theory is one of the most prominently exercised theories in Horror Criticism. Feminism has a long history in the genre – from its Gothic Romance and Ghost Story roots to aliens and dinosaurs… women have long used Horror to vent their protests. Can you SEE the ghosts of future Black Feminism in Jane Austen? In Bronte? In every American ghost story ever written? You should. Because they are there, grabbing ankles from Literary graves.

So why are we so off-put and likely to exclude a work when it gets labelled as Black Feminism?

The minute we insert a racial modifier in front of the word “Feminism” it suddenly spins out of Horror…Yet white femimism in Horror?

The Babadook, Silence of the Lambs, Rose Madder, Delores Claiborne, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives…

I rest my case. And I reiterate: we have work to do in this genre.

Why should we care?

Horror is going to continue to be written – whether the genre claims it or not. We all have tales of awakening to write, tales of identity and struggle, tales that are Literary and sometimes unapologetically pulpy… and most of us want to read each other’s stories…white or Black, Native or Asian…

As for the future of Horror and all of the writers of color who want to be part of this genre, perhaps Bugs Bunny says it best:

Overture, curtain, lights
This is it, we’ll hit the heights
And oh what heights we’ll hit
On with the show this is it…

Let’s get on with it. We’re wasting daylight…

References

Brooks, Kinitra D. Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press, c2018.

Ferrier-Watson, Sean. The Children’s Ghost Story in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, c2017.

Saulsen, Sumiko. 20 Black Women in Horror Writing (List 1) | Sumiko Saulson

Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, c2020.

(Black) Women in Horror Month: How What We Think Horror Is About Determines Who “Writes” It (Part 1)


When it comes to Horror written by “minorities”, one has to wonder: just what are we afraid of?

During this Women in Horror Month we cannot help but look to our most obvious problem: exclusion of writers of color – especially noticeable in the volume of work not-included in the Horror genre… So here we are also in Black History Month in the United States. And here the twain will meet…

Because the off-putting drive to keep contemporary Horror tied to the white Weird Fiction of Lovecraft and not let it breathe and grow is perplexing. The message is clear: keep it clean, guilt-free, and colorless. Write for that prepubescent white male and yet produce “original” fiction – just not too original.

Why is it we still believe that no one wants to read Horror written by women or writers of color? Why is it we still believe that there are no people of color who want to read Horror?

At what point do we just do the math and see that the potential audience for Horror is far larger among both females and people of color than it is among white teen and preteen boys?

Perhaps it is really a confession that women and people of color – being the poorest paid and most frequently impoverished – are not worth courting for those precious “expendable” dollars… But if so it is stupid. Because for most of us living on less than white male counterparts live on, the only simple and affordable pleasure is the occasional paperback offering.

And if the argument then becomes that women and people of color just don’t like reading or writing Horror, you haven’t been paying attention. On purpose.

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Continue reading “(Black) Women in Horror Month: How What We Think Horror Is About Determines Who “Writes” It (Part 1)”

The Return of the Ghost: Hauntology, Hontology & the Art of Growing Good Horror From Dead Things Today


It has long been surmised by the Literary Establishment as well as much of our genre establishment that the best of the ghost story is behind us.

“Authority” after “authority” has said so. Yet since the 1980s, there has been a growing American fascination with ghosts in general that is eerily reminiscent of that early twentieth century fixation on seances and spiritualism. From talk shows featuring modern-day mediums to Hollywood offerings that range from comedy to romance to outright Horror, right down to ghost hunters and fascination with demonology and witchcraft… we have become obsessed with ghosts.

Isn’t it ironic that we seem unable to capitalize on this successfully in the genre? And why is it that so many other academic researchers outside of Literature have seen the obvious and are actually studying the phenomenon?

Maybe it is time to wake up – to see with open eyes what these other academics are seeing:

That our obsession and preoccupation with ghosts is all about our national heritage and the subtext of our reinvented history.

That ghosts are Literary business. And it is no wonder a great ghost story is so hard to write even when we are bursting with personal demons.

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Hauntology and Hontology: the Future is Cancelled

One of the most interesting discoveries to make about the Horror genre is that Horror is complex in its primordial roots. Horror is not just about urban legends and folklore and paperback terrors – indeed Horror is all about philosophy, biology, brain science, social science, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and religion. And in every one of these academic subjects lies a research angle or two that draws inference from Horror and our invention, use of, and reaction to it.

We don’t have to flirt with haunted houses or seances or EMF meters chasing rumors of spirits to be drawn to the subject matter – to ask apart from religious association if ghosts are “real” and if so what their presence means. We don’t have to dissect and catalog the types of ghosts and hauntings to be captivated and disturbed by the idea of their presence. Yet we have been doing this in increasingly commercial ways since the 1980s, rationalizing that we are not at all incorporating “deep” religious questions into our own investigations which we proclaim are objectively scientific or cloaked in simple “curiosity”… We have been operating under the pretense that we ourselves have no secrets, and that our “interest” in the subject matter is exploited purely for the sake of entertainment.

Whether we are talking about paperback plots or haunted asylums, we posit a curious divestment from the subject matter of ghosts and the bigger questions they represent.

But that is not how historians and philosophers in particular are seeing this fascination with the paranormal.

Forget psychology and religion. These folks are associating a concurrent rise in ghost-busting with an international rise in political populism and  Black Lives Matter… In the cultural global phenomenon of cancelling the future in the effort to glorify and reclaim a reinvented past rife with – not ghost stories – but the real thing: Horror.

So how is this connected – this seemingly unrelated pursuit of proving or disproving ghosts and who we elect as President of the United States or Prime Minister of the UK, or ruler of a China or Russia?

The answer – as Mark Payne put it – is our collective “shame of life.” Payne, a professor in the Department of Classics and the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, explains: that “shame is the route by which we access the capabilities for living that are abrogated in modernity. This is the hontology of my [book] title, as opposed to the hauntology that Fisher took up… that it is the loss of the New World as a horizon in which these abrogated capabilities were still in play, and the inhabitants of the New World as presenting forms of life before which Europeans felt shame in comparison with their own…” (Payne 1)

In other words, all of that American Exceptionalism that we have pushed at each other nationally and internationally, has led to all of us feeling not only inadequate in these times of global economic and historic and social challenge, but has led us to rely on historic narratives of shady origin to begin with. We find ourselves competing with a mythology even as we attempt to reconstruct it in its own image. We are desperate for a semblance of stability we believe past generations have had, when in fact past generations were simply too (willingly or intentionally) socially isolated to compare notes about reality.

And as any ghost story lover can tell you, what we believe about reality means everything.

“Shame – la honte” is a term derived from French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 1993 lectures on Marx and Marxism, in which the title of the collection (The Spectres of Marx) refers to a statement by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto that a “spectre [is] haunting Europe.” Payne then asks, “What is this specter-ridden Europe?” And his argument is that shame lies somewhere in between the hegemony (leadership and dominance) of the United States with its own foundation resting on a repurposing of its indigenous peoples and an original (and borrowed) history from Europe that has resulted in a simple reinvention of the same Europe its founders had left…repeating the same sins from European pasts while proclaiming… well… alternative facts. And furthermore that the consequence of this reinvention has led (over time) to the realization that the lives we are living “is not really life.”  (2)

We have then a great need to keep our mythologies about – for instance – cowboys and Indians alive in our imaginations. We Americans need the fantasy of true freedom, true democracy, of feeling what it is to truly live every moment “to its fullest” by selectively remembering only the adrenaline of success of the hunt, or in war, in overcoming death. We romanticize a history that is neither true nor viable in order to live vicariously through those images.

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This is why we have to keep Native Americans culturally “dead.” If they are “alive,” they challenge the carefully crafted myth of freedom… from Chief Wahoo to Thanksgiving.

We have, in our fictionalized American lives, repurposed Native ones for our own use – supplanting indigenous peoples and making our real indigenous people superfluous, redundant, and strangely disingenuous. Says Joshua T. Anderson in an essay from Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre: “Carol Clover suggests there is a ‘special connection between the country folk of the urbanoia [or city-revenge] films,’ such as The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, ‘and the Indians of the settler-versus-Indian western.’ As Clover elaborates, ‘In these stories both redneck and redskin are figured as indigenous peoples on the verge of being deprived of their native lands,’ suggesting that ‘the rednecks of modern horror even look and act like movie Indians…” (Weird  132)

Here not only have we eviscerated that freedom, but we have devoured the dead and become one with the delusion. We have absorbed democracy – not practiced it. The American cowboy represents that ‘rugged’ individualism we value in our cookie-cutter understanding of our indigenous populations, that sense of imagined democracy in which we allegedly ‘do nothing we do not believe in personally,’ and abscond with the belief that we can in fact do anything and be anything we want…that the West (if not the Western U.S.) is a big enough place in which to act out our dreams.

Yet go West and the land is full. The Indians are “disappeared” onto out-of-sight/out-of-mind reservations, and the cowboy is a caricature for commercial use and selling cigarettes. We have no place left in which to realize our manifest destiny of machismo and individualism…

Go West and we are deflated. Our hopes are crushed. There is nowhere to go, no world to conquer, no challenge against which to prove ourselves… in which to live… We have killed ourselves. And we are haunted by that which we can no longer have.

Hauntology is described by James Ashford in an article from The Week, as “the idea that the present is haunted by the metaphorical “ghosts” of lost futures.

The concept asks people to consider how “spectres” of alternative futures influence current and historical discourse, and acknowledges that this “haunting” – or the study of the non-existent – has real effects.”  https://www.theweek.co.uk/104076/what-is-hauntology

Is it starting to come together – this quirky marriage between philosophy and history and Horror?

We keep telling ourselves that other people or peoples live more “real” lives. And we compound these imaginings with the knowledge that they are living these presumed lives despite our most vigorous efforts to eradicate them. And the more we entertain this inner dialog, the more personally angry we become at those people while believing ourselves even more disenfranchised of our own dreams. There is a term for this…

Hauntological melancholia…We become terrified that we – as a nation or even as a species – have already lived our best lives, done our greatest things, that we are a civilization and species in decline.

Says Mark Fisher, there are “two kinds” of such melancholia that the hauntological kind springs from: the first is “Wendy Brown’s ‘left melancholia’ [which] is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness, but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward-looking and punishing.” (Fisher 23) Herein the loss of the future we assumed to be ours has led to that weird pride of failure we see enacted by those ‘proud to be poor/I am what I am’ folks – a pushback to an immobile and stagnant future bereft of all imaginable forward momentum by being proud of how we got here because we can’t be proud of where we are going. We look backward and say it has all already been done.

We have to ask: is this why we have woken up – because the car stopped and the driver is gone?

Fisher states that his interpretation of hauntological melancholia means that instead of “giving up on desire” we instead “[refuse] to yield. It consists, that is to say, in a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality’ – even if the cost of that refusal is that you feel like an outcast in your own time.” (24) And here we are left with those who are aware of the loss of momentum, and the awareness demands an accounting of our own selves. Is this all there is to life? we ask, isn’t there something MORE? Why don’t I FEEL anything?

So we look backward for comfort. And encounter a new wall – one Fisher identifies as “post-colonial melancholia” which dirties the myth of how we got here…and is the second type of hauntological melancholia influencing his research.

Says Fisher, “Paul Gilroy defines this melancholia in terms of an avoidance: it is about evading ‘the painful obligations to work through the grim details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt into a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness…”(24) It is about justifying why our own failure to thrive has happened; it is blaming the Other and the immigrant…Fisher is instead linking his understanding of  hauntological melancholia to the loss of the narrative of promise as compromised by the framing of our decisions of the past – in other words, nostalgia for what we think our past promised us…the evaporation of what we thought was the process, the guarantee, the formula for success if not happiness.

We have been unable to process the concept of a shelf life for “the good old days.” We lost them — therefore we must claw them back.

And here we are, living with all four forms of hauntological melancholia peeking out behind a pandemic.

And as Fisher points out, it has led to the feeling that “the 21st century hasn’t started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century…[where] the slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.” We no longer hope for a new innovations in music or technology or the arts…We do not, for example, expect to ever see another band like The Beatles, or an artist like DaVinci. “The feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush, is as omnipresent as it is disavowed.” (Fisher 8)

And don’t we know all about this in our genre? Stephen King (unless we change our own philosophy) will be the last great Horror writer, and H.P. Lovecraft will be what Horror was really aspiring to, and therefore will indeed come to represent the end of the genre’s evolution. Yet this is everywhere…

Look at fashion. At music. At cars. There is no innovation…no sign of diversification or development, no evolution…We just keep making more of the same…of everything.

And this is directly linked to the past — our past and our narrative of it – as surely as it is linked to the way we feel right now, in this historical moment.

Are we not seeking ways to tell our Horror stories in the midst of this pandemic, surrounded by the ghosts of our carefully constructed, self-immolating history?

We have been high-centered as writers in the genre because we know this is BIG. And we have been looking for an angle. We have been hoping for word from on genre high – from a knowledgeable and eager Establishment.

And we have been left to figure it out on our own.

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Back to Ghosts

So here we are at this precarious moment in history (yes, history is something that is made by the present) and we have no clear understanding of either our future or the past.

Yet what if this is indicative of one of those truly integral moments we have seen in the past? The kind of moment that leads to a lurching explosion of discovery and invention?

We may indeed be on the brink of another “Golden Age” in our genre – one that will break more than a few norms because it is time for them to be broken and replaced with our next growth spurt, and as a consequence then build if not rebuild our fanbase.

Clearly our ability to fantasize about the past and the people in it is without boundaries – moral or factual. And we need to imagine those things so we can fit that narrative into our own. However we need to come to terms with the likely reality that the future for our ancestors was no more clear for them than it is for ourselves; and that all of that romanticized living of those  “real” lives meant they had precious little time or energy to do much more than plod onward on their own best guesses…just as worrying about bills, and Covid, and growing up to being whatever we wanted to be as children and raising children sucks up all of the oxygen in the room and saps our psychic and physical energy.

That those in the past were in the business of making the ghosts we are now obsessed with is of more than passing interest to historians and philosophers seeking to unravel the mystery of why we seem to be imploding in our national identity, politics, and personal lives. Ghosts are back – and back in a big way. And we are making more of them daily.

Is seeing them, pursuing them, or denying them a sign of our cultural stability?

Perhaps. Because it means that something is bothering us… a narrative we thought we controlled is proving to have a life of its own… a different version of the truth. The subtext is rising out of the ground we buried it in and following us home from the graveyard. It haunts us. And it threatens to possess us.

“Who are you?” we ask of the dark. “Why are you here? What do you want?”

And when it answers, we turn off the recorder. We run screaming back out to the light from the place we intentionally went into in order to find a ghost. We laugh nervously. We scared ourselves. The ghost was real, but we didn’t really want to know it: we didn’t stick around for the answers we didn’t want.

Says Jeffrey Weinstock in his introduction to Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination, “The idea of the ghost, of that which disrupts oppositional thinking and the linearity of historical chronology, has substantial affinities with post-structural thought in general. The ghost is that which interrupts the presentness of the present, and its haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorized version of events. As such, the contemporary fascination with ghosts is a reflection of an awareness of the narrativity of history.” (5)

There is precious little that is more interesting than the dead who don’t stay dead; ghosts defy being confined to narrative, to discerned facts, enacting their own versions of truth. Ghosts are also liminal things – not only existing between living and afterlife/oblivion, but also between past and present, operating outside of time and space. They represent both justice denied and justice sought. They represent the would-be of US.

We need ghosts. We need them to be real… Continues Weinstock: “They speak to our desire to be remembered and to our longing for a coherent and ‘correct’ narrative of history. We value our ghosts particularly during periods of cultural transition [my emphasis], because the alternative to their presence is even more frightening: if ghosts do not return to correct history, then privileged narratives of history are not open to contestation. If ghosts do not return to reveal crimes that have gone unpunished, then evil acts may in fact go unaddressed. If ghosts do not appear to validate faith, then faith remains just that – faith rather than fact; and without ghosts to point to things that have been lost and overlooked, things may disappear forever…That ghosts are particularly prominent in our cultural moment indicates that we are particularly vexed by these questions.” (6)

Are we not at this time in a particularly profound moment of cultural crisis? Are there not voices crying out for justice and governments in turmoil? Are there not endless horrors spilling from the pages of carefully penned history? And are we not all screaming at each other, waving flags and beliefs like amulets against a history we are afraid to acknowledge when the future is no longer anticipated or viable?

And is that crisis of culture not directly related to history and the narrative that can no longer be contained by simple racism?

When the truth wants out, ghosts walk.

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Back To Horror

What we are seeing here makes for a very interesting time and future for the Horror genre. In the attempt to suppress creativity and “control” the direction of the genre’s new writings and writers by rejecting Horror that is not in keeping with the Weird tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and additionally disparages our rediscovery of and struggles to reinvent the Literary ghost story, we have been on the wrong side of our own history. And we have stifled our own growth.

Other academic theorists have been doing our work – seeing in our genre what we have refused to see and to nourish. Our newer Critics are both too few and too typical – meaning it is the nature of Literary Critics to choose a writer and their catalog of works in which to build their own body of work in Criticism. So with too few Literary Critics and too much work waiting to be Criticized, we simply need more voices pointing out the obvious and sending our writers off in new directions.

Hauntology and Hontology – ghosts of the past that devour our future and shame that devours our present – are the fertile Literary ground we have been seeking. Neither excludes traditional monsters or folklore, yet both can open the door to better and more relevant Horror as we come to grips Nationally with the errant narrative of our own history, This is the chance for us as writers to tell our own stories – whether you are a white writer in the genre enduring the shock of realization and the guilt of institutionalized behavior you never meant to be a part of, or if you are in that oppressed class of “Other” enduring a very public and painful birth – these two theories are going to reinvigorate the ghost story subgenre. We simply need to be taking our cues from other genres, other academic studies from other academic theorists – including Film Critics – and our own lives.

We need to tell our tales. Dead men (and women) most certainly do tell secrets for which there are always two sides, because injustice haunts every living thing on this planet. It is our job as writers in the genre to speak those evils no matter what genre editors say or prefer, no matter what Critics want to see more of. We are the intermediaries, the documentarians, the liaisons between those who study and publish and judge the genre, and those who live and read it.

Don’t be afraid to turn out the lights…Call it forth, summon its forbidden truths with your eyes wide open.

Use what is happening today.

Call it by its name and it will come.

Tell us a ghost story…

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References

Anderson, Joshua T. “The Werewolf and the Were/Wear/Where-West in Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels.” Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre. Kerry Fine, Michael K. Johnson, Rebecca M. Lush, and Sara L. Spurgeon, eds. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, c2020.

James Ashford. “What is Hauntology? The Idea Asks if People Can Be Haunted By Ghosts of Lost Futures.” The Week U.K., (31 October 2019). Retrieved 12/15/202 from https//www.theweek.co.uk/104076/what-is-hauntology

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2014.

Kleinberg, Ethan. Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, c2017.

Payne, Mark. Hontonology: Depressive Anthropology and the Shame of Life. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2018.

Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. Andrew Weinstock, ed. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press/Poplar Press, c2004.

Monsters & Gender: Part 2 (Folding History Into Literature and Monster-Making)


For many fans of Horror, there is such a thing as looking too deeply at a work and drawing conclusions that seem more like overthinking things or wild-eyed free-association. And it does take some of the “fun” out of it. However, to intentionally not-look at subtext is to deny the genre its Literary bones. And while talking about women’s issues in the context of monsters may be a turn-off to some, it simply has to be done in the same way a mountain has to be climbed: because it’s there.

To be clear, overlaying something like Feminist Theory onto Horror is not about turning a bunch of angry women with pitchforks loose on polite society; it is not an attempt to malign the male gender. But it is meant to call significant problems to the attention of the reader or movie-goer and generate a response. This is what is meant by motere – the ability to move the audience into action…by creating empathy if not understanding.

Yet when we bring gender into the subtext of Horror, we often find resistance. It often suggested that such discussions are beneath Literary Horror by using the same language used in the arguments made by early Critics that women’s writing was about “women’s issues” and men’s writing was about “global or universal” (and therefore “Literary”) issues. But women are part of the world and the universe. It is simply that “theirs” are not “lofty” issues because men do not see them as such – instead they are down and dirty issues, issues about the drudgery of daily life and death and poverty and abuse.

Men, it would appear, prefer to think in terms of World Domination, power plays, and subterfuge. Yet while many fans of fiction and Horror fiction enjoy the monster that seeks to destroy the world and the hero who rises from the ranks to save us all with something nerdy, most of us are more intimately familiar with smaller, more insidious and localized Horrors. Most of us are looking for ways to get the better of our bullies, foil our personal enemies, to rise above our own limitations. World domination for the rest of us remains the exclusive territory of comic book heroes and video game upstarts…which means that many of us are open to exploring what the presence of female monsters may actually mean.

 And to do this, we have to do what Horror does: recognize that Horror reflects historical events and our gut reactions to those events.

If Horror Is Always About Sex (It Is), Then It Is Always About Gender

For a long time (and for what seems like a lifetime for those who grew up with Horror during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s) the face of Horror was defined by that Hollywood summer blockbuster where young, nubile girls frolicked through serial killers and haunted mansions in nightgowns. The sex-connection was pretty blatantly obvious, but the gender connection – until Jamie Lee Curtis introduced us to the concept of the Final Girl in Halloween – seemed a bit less recognizable.

Yet suddenly here was a reason girls could like a good Horror movie: we could all of us be Final Girls. And even as the messaging remained subverted (that “power and strength are not  [exclusively] male qualities, and that conformity is not only undesirable in a teenager, but a quality that could get him or her killed” (Muir 246)) a seed for the next generation of Horror fans and writers was planted.

For girls, this opened the door to acknowledging their own intimate connection to Horror – and even expressed the invitation to explore it – to expect it…to look for it.

But here again we must look at how girls are raised – to conform, to never-question the authority of men. We go to these movies and read these books, but we lie to ourselves and claim that we are infatuated with fact of the monster… that we just like being scared or startled or surprised. In reality, something else is drawing us back and drawing us in while we not-notice that the monster is female for a reason…

Hidden in the folds of monstrosity is the promise of justice, if not revenge.

This is one reason those accused of being monstrous can set aside umbrage and instead smile wickedly at the anticipation of an enemy’s fear. In our hour of need, at the moment of humiliation and defeat, the belief that monsters can rise and inflict justice on the sword-point of rage and indignation is cathartic. It allows the oppressed to survive, crouched in their own imaginations, wielding the belief that the required balance of nature will ensure their turn in the process of justice… monsters represent hope.

In monster-laced rhetoric, the marginalized can reimagine power – even if it is temporary, it will be terrible and emotionally freeing…a lesson repeated in action-adventure revenge-fantasies like Rambo and The Terminator…In Zombie-fests like The Walking Dead and movies like The Ring…

It just might be significant, then, that a man and a woman sitting in a movie theater watching Jurassic Park will see entirely different movies. So will those from different races or cultures. Yet for a brief moment we seem to be united in our terror. But are we really?

A man might look at the line that “all of the dinosaurs in the park are female” and accept it as the scientific reason given: so that the monsters cannot reproduce without the consent of man.

Yet for women in the audience… did a bell just ring? How often do we hear women’s demands to keep male-dominated religion and government out of our wombs?

All of the dinosaurs are female…

All of the monsters are female…

Reproduction is a monstrous act that must be controlled by men lest men be destroyed by it…

Women are here to destroy the world… whether justified or not. And mankind is the target of their bloodthirsty fury. Because…you know how women are…

Jurassic Park is just the most obvious of this angst, this battle between the sexes and the annoyance of one group of humanity versus the grievances of another. In fact, having all of the dinosaurs being female is itself a commentary on the greatest mystery of humanity – reproduction (and man’s desire to control it). Indeed, women throughout history have been assigned all manner of supernatural powers in the “seduction” of men – an irresistible supernatural kind of power equated to a kind of rape – where the godlike ability to create life without the consent or “knowledge” of innocent men can ruin patriarchal destiny. Women are seductresses, makers of the monstrous, emitters of things born in blood, an act suggestive of bodily discharge and disease.

And yet through this horrible gauntlet of blood and pain women survive… like any Horror movie monster, like every Final Girl, a woman rises from the offal and distaste of men to wreck the ambitions of those same men. The only hope of containment is total domination – from the ability to reproduce, to the isolation of monsters on “islands” where they are separated from their natural “herds”… Breeding for temperament is paramount. So are electrified fences and men with large guns.

(Cigar, anyone?)

(Or perhaps a Supreme Court Justice?)

Well let’s just go there. For the sake of understanding the way history and Literature intertwine, for the sake of building better Horror, let’s look at these two monsters we all know and love: the Jurassic Park Dinosaur and the Alien – the first of which came from published fiction, the second of which started as a screenplay…

Shoot Her! (Yes, All The Monsters On The Island Are Female – and What About the Traitor-to-her-Sex-and-Species Day-Saving T-Rex at The End?)

There is an opening scene in Jurassic Park where the monster fights back, grabbing one of its tormentors and dragging the body into its crate where it begins to devour him.

“Shoot her!” demands the head zookeeper. “Shoot her!”

Why do we in the audience sit back and decide to “wait and see”? Why do we assume the monster deserves it? And was there even the slightest flinch when you realized the monster was female?

We can call it the powerful peer pressure of the crowd – the same one that keeps us from responding immediately when we witness something happening we know is wrong but feel helpless to stop. It never occurs to us that we have been taught to feel that way – taught to second guess ourselves in favor of “authority” figures, in favor of the mob. 

But another part if it is realizing that if we react, we will be separated from the herd: we will be accused, and be exposed as the next potential victim. Freezing and showing no emotion or even laughing is a conditioned response to being bullied. It’s about survival. 

So it is a natural extension of our complacency that we would fail to “feel” anything when Horror monsters are feminized.

“Equal rights,” proclaim the boys triumphantly. But this is anything but… it is a continuation of the emotional assault on women’s rights.

Yet there is also a minimization at work here: the primary subtext in Jurassic Park is not about women, but about humanity’s hubris wielding technology – a retelling of the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun… So while women are sitting there absorbing the impact of the words “shoot her!” we are being distracted by the glamour of humanity’s technological godhood.

Any messaging about women and reproductive rights is sublimated, because mankind has just proven we don’t really need women to reproduce – just smart men with money and science.

Shooting the rebellious dinosaur disallowed to breed is simply enforcing the established rules.

Remember the conversation with scientist Henry Wu:

“Actually they can’t breed in the wild. Population control is one of our security precautions. There’s no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.

Dr. Ian Malcolm : How do you know they can’t breed?

Henry Wu : Well, because all the animals in Jurassic Park are female. We’ve engineered them that way.”

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107290/characters/nm0000703

Here – as in Alien – we are seeing the omniscient presence of the Company… that unnamed patriarchal invention disguised as “society” where everyone is expected to do as told, where existence depends on the value of exploitation and the ability to exercise containment…

Jurassic Park is not just about reconstituting dinosaurs, it is about denying the natural right of reproduction – something Alien underscores in bold lettering.

If the Alien franchise does nothing else, it reminds us that not only are working class people simple fodder in the machinery of making the exclusive wealthy and powerful few even richer and more powerful, but that the ability of women to subvert the plan by the act of reproduction demands the tightest of societal control. Could we stop there?

We could. But we shouldn’t. Horror always goes deep… And here (if one cares to look), we can see statements being made about the time the original films were being made and the stories written – times when the political environment was roiling with the battle over women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights…when science was replacing religion and religion was fighting back, when Big Business was stuffing us all into anonymous cubicles and invading every aspect of our private lives. When 1984 seemed like more than a passing fancy…

 Of course we can ignore that, grab some popcorn and be satisfied. But the success of Alien had a lot more to do with resonance that it did with good filmmaking. It had to do with change…and the fear it inspired…

We can, of course, point to Final Girls in Horror as proof that things are changing in Horror and society, but just how much are they really?

When the most iconic Final Girl – Ripley from the Alien franchise is only equally matched when she battles the alien female egg-layer, what is that really saying? That the Company can ruin her life, but only she can defeat the universe-plundering she-creature? That only a female can truly, finally defeat another female? And isn’t it at least interesting that our battles with other females in Real Life always cause us to resort to the same name-calling, the same need to just shoot her that males resort to? So why do we applaud the manifestation of the “cat fight”? Why do we want the establishment to shoot her for us?

Is it because (while we are toying with the subliminal) that we also are picking up on something else: on our own precarious political situations? Are monsters like these speaking to something even deeper? Are we afraid of the consequences of the changes we seek?

Nested within the Alien franchise is the battle over reproductive rights. Who exactly will get to control whether or not Ripley gives birth and to what she will give birth? The Company? Power Brokers in society such as the military? Scientists? The Monster itself?

Maybe worse…fellow women? Why is it that most women are “taken down” in Real Life by other patriarchy-rule-following women? By the (Handmaid’s Tale) Aunt Lydias of our world?

How often have we found patriarchal rules “enforced” by women we trusted? Women we expected to know about Real Life circumstance? To empathize with rape? To shelter against the violence of men? How often have they told us how happy we should be living under subjugation? How grateful? How we invited our own misfortunes like rape or assault if we do not conform? Didn’t you have a word for those women?

We have all been there. We have all said it. We have called other women a “female dog”… And we have meant it.

Nothing is worse than infighting, in the helpless anger that flows directly from hearing scripted dialogue long preached to hold you down falling from the lips of your own kind. It becomes a battle to see who will be the most man-like, the most righteously angry.

Women do this all of the time – reciting to each other the patriarchal rules whose violation will surely (according to men) lead to the annihilation of everything held dear, will lead to fire and brimstone and total anarchy.

Yet what is at stake is the shattering of the veneer of “happiness” women are commanded to live under… the oppression of seeing our own bodies through men’s eyes… of being led to believe that having any feelings other than “bliss” is unnatural, subversive, or supernatural.

And then fearing that the consequences of losing sight of all the things we are told create that bliss are compounded by our faults in executing our responsibilities.

At the first glimpse of the Sandy Hook shooter, the first question was “Where was the mother?” not “Where was the father?” not “Where was the local church? The school he went to? The neighbors? The gun background check?” Where was the MOTHER…

Any woman who is not where she is supposed to be doing what she is supposed to be doing is culpable in our society, even now… And the first people we want to hear from is…other mothers –  “good” mothers, whose sons do not grab automatic weapons and shoot other children.

Clearly the shooter’s mother was at the very least negligent. Her son was “evil.” Perhaps they were…odd… loners… outsiders… certainly not like the rest of us…

This is why all of the animals on the island are female. Females are not like the rest of us/males… women are from Venus. Or should be. But if they fail, if they are aberrations of the species, they should be eliminated – for the good (and safety) of society.

“Fixing” Our Monster Problem

When anything happens within the orbit of a woman, for good or ill, it is her fault. And maybe that is the true source behind Ripley’s venom… being sick of tripping over the feet extended everywhere she needs to walk.

We have a long way to go in “fixing” our monster problem, because we have a long way to go in making everyone see why there is a problem. And no doubt until we do there will be female monsters in Horror.

IS it coincidence that Women’s Rights were on the forefront of conversation and thought during the 1970s when the Alien franchise was born, or that (according to Poole): “Numerous films in the 1970s joined Alien in playing with the frightening potentialities of female biology and the politics of reproduction”?

Being a teenager in those times, I can tell you the environment felt anything but “safe” as the alleged adults in the room had increasingly venomous conversations about women’s bodies and the state of the women’s minds. Up for discussion were such mortifying topics as whether or not a woman could pilot an aircraft and think logically in a war-scenario if she was having her menstrual cycle (and if female presence represented a dangerous ‘distraction’ to men in the military), whether it was a woman’s biological imperative and true (universal) private desire  to have children and if childrearing was a natural instinct or a learned one, or if having babies was a “cure” for “female problems”, whether a woman’s mental and physical health were impacted if she did not biologically have her own children, if women were intellectually inferior in general to men (especially in the maths), or if women were lesbians if they didn’t want to marry.

There was a tremendous pressure to always “prove” your femininity, and a more-than-implied threat of what would happen if you got it “wrong.” Pregnancy and its consequences were a ghost that loomed large in young girls lives. Is it any wonder then that young girls in the theater of Alien were seeing a totally different movie on that big screen? We were living then (as now) in historic times…

Continues W. Scott Poole, “Notably Alien 3 appeared in 1992 after a series of Supreme Court rulings that allowed states to place barriers between women and abortion, including parental consent for minors and strictures against family planning clinics counseling abortion as an option.” (184) And when we really look at the politics of the moment, we see more than a movie about alien life seeking a differently framed invasion – we see something besides the cigar.

And what we see is a layer of Literary discussion about women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights. What we see is framed in Literary Critical Theory as Feminist Theory. But we also see a new Literary Critical Theory called New Historicism, and an additionally even more new theory from Film Criticism called Monster Theory… all of this designed to excavate the subtext of a story that on its surface was great fun in the movie theater…

But none of this is really “new”… We are building on the works of others – of women who wrote in the genre when writing was not considered the work of a reputable woman. Says Martin Tropp about those early ladies: “The ‘New Woman’ writers were the precursors of the suffragettes. By advocating, among other things, birth control, women in the professions, less restrictive dress, and freedom to travel unescorted, they threatened to realign the relationship between the sexes.” (160) The battle over who “gets” to control women’s bodies has been a long one, constantly poking its head out of Horror pages because no one is listening to the point of motere… And for that reason alone – that stasis of nothing changing – we can expect to see female monsters in Horror for a good while to come.

Stephen King definitely “gets” it. In so many of his works, he showcases the plight of women – never so more poignantly as revealed in his book Delores Claiborne, when the protagonist’s upper-class boss offers a truth that suffering among women is so often shared suffering:

Why then is that woman a monster? Not because she broke a human norm, but because she did a swan dive off the pedestal. We simply have not been creative in our labelling of the collateral damage and the angry women it creates.

Yet…Monster. Is that the ONLY vocabulary we all have for “disagreeable women” in our collective language arts – the very one used on the streets and in board rooms? I fully admit to being influenced by the politics of the moment. Because witnessing the acquiescence makes me question at what point do we say “enough”?

Go ahead. Look around the audience in that dark theater. Look at the faces you thought you knew… the ones you thought you could trust to have your own back.

Why are there such unchallenged, unanimous cries to “Shoot her!”?

And are we so conditioned to it, we cannot stop ourselves from nodding in assent, even if it is to not-draw notice from the predators in the room?

This brings us right back to the battle between the sexes. Any soldier can tell you that in battle dehumanizing your enemy is the best way to shut out and override any inclination to question the efficacy of what you are doing and who you are doing it for. That emotional distancing does two things: it disables any empathetic response, and it empowers the timid by creating a mob-mentality – a compliance driven by peer pressure and the fear to not go along with the group…something we see in Horror movies all of the time.

Abdicating judgment is freeing: how many atrocities have been committed by people “just following orders”? How much rationalization and compartmentalization occurs therein? How many cries to eliminate the trauma of having to make a stand on principle have been made pointless by taking up the cry to just “shoot her”?

If you are female, you should be feeling something about this – whether you agree or disagree. By all that is Horror, you should be thinking. But if all of the above is not enough to sway your opinion of yourself and your inherent rights, ponder this:

Says Natalie Wilson in her book Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21stCentury Horror: “Women are so regularly allied with the monstruous, in fact, that they are often not depicted in exaggerated form in horror texts, their mere bodies being enough to construe monstrosity.” (Wilson 182)

If that isn’t enough to make you at least think about the feminist argument, maybe you need to watch these two films again. Maybe you should think about the cost of living on a pedestal.

Because there are times when being the monster is good…

References

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed.New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c1984, c1979.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theater and Cinema Books, c2013.

Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918). Jefferson, NC, and London, c1990.

Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, c2020.

Monsters & Gender: Part 1 (Teenage Girls and the Role of History in the Making of the Modern Horror Monster)


Often for young women just entering the teen years, our first experience with the Horror genre is a summer blockbuster (if not a broken-backed used copy of a Stephen King novel). We are “in it” for the fun, for the thrill ride, for scaring ourselves. We don’t look too closely, we don’t draw comparisons to Real Life; we simply can’t wait to laugh at the way something made us jump, to grab the arm of the guy we came with.

Some of us stick around for years – long enough for the glamour to wear off, to start noticing things that seem to be there intentionally or accidentally, and we remain because we are transfixed by the contradiction of liking something that on its surface seems gratuitously misogynistic – yet being female – also haunts us. What is it about Horror, then, that draws a feminist in? Why do those of us with angst stay with the genre – poking at it, teasing it, dissecting it?

Worse, how is it that even we often fail to notice the little things that speak so very loudly about what is both right and wrong with our genre – the things that seem so obvious when pointed out?

How do we go in, eyes wide open, and still fall for the magic trick?

What Lies Beneath. What Lies.

How did we not-notice when monsters became female, and females became monsters?

One reason is simply that we came to see monsters. We came for the same thrills as when we were younger, but we also start to wake up to the inconsistencies. We are so busy being appalled at some of the more obvious suggestions about our bodies and our morals that we miss the whole subtextual argument that may at times be there…

Girls, you see, are used to being lied to. From I’ll-always-love-you’s to the no-you-don’t-look-fat comments, girls are used to being played… we just don’t always understand the stakes. We certainly aren’t prepared from an early age to be aware of the constant Battle for True Womanhood that come at us from churches, schools, families, and television sets – pretty much anyone who believes themselves qualified to comment. So a few monsters in a summer Horror movies seems like a break from all of that truly scary dialogue. Who wants to be held to piety and wholesomeness when we don’t even know who we are yet?

Yet it seems everyone has to weigh-in on how we should think, feel, and act. Messaging for young girls comes from literally everywhere. Why don’t monsters seem like more of the same? Why do they lure us in?

Because they are monsters… and we paid for the magic trick.

That answer may have to do with the way girls are raised – especially when we are raised to accept and reinforce a larger societal narrative that assures us that our lives are better if we do not question things established by society. When a society is established by white men, then that translates into not-questioning white men. And if white men write and produce our Horror, then we are meant to see the surface and repeat the mantra of what is obvious. We are meant to take away the immediate messaging that bad girls pay for their sins, that all things sexual are either miraculous or monstrous, and the feminine is the lynchpin to monstrosity.

Whether we are looking to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, fairy tales or Horror movies, in our stories of youth the feminine is the key to perfect lives falling irreparably apart. The message that women are the source of all evil and all failings is assimilated, without our permission, without our understanding.

When we are young, sex in Horror (when pointed out) is typically met with an eye roll. We are (after all) young – not stupid.  It is also clear to us as female fans, that the “design” of Hollywood Horror (like most other things) is geared toward the boys, with strong lessons for the girl which include such pearls of wisdom as “promiscuity is punishable by death” and “she who wears the least lasts the longest” and “boys who love you die”…

Still, most of us stay in the dark theater for the scary parts, to figure out how we would escape the circumstances (if not to congratulate ourselves for being too smart to open certain doors in Life). After all, we came with a date we “know” and “trust” and it is all just a movie anyway.

Yet the truth is, a lot of those movie scenes bug us. It’s not just the presence and eventual slaughter of the lauded Perfect Cheerleader and Perfect Jock Boyfriend (who we are all encouraged to emulate despite all of us knowing the shallow picture being peddled and disliking all of the implications), but rather it is also because we are immensely discomfited by the sheer violence – the dehumanization of our gender.

We SEE it. And we hope we are not thought of as deserving of such clear and public disapproval. In fact we immediately start reacting – whether we start dressing and acting more conservatively so as to not draw the “wrong” attention, or if we dress or act how we darn well want to prove it won’t happen to us…

And these messages are like a car accident we cannot avert our eyes from. We often witness real time abuse of ourselves, our friends, even our mothers or strangers at the grocery store… We see that nothing is done to stop the behavior. We see the victim only held accountable; stories we hear women repeat in muted voices reinforce that fact. And on the Big Screen we see it all endorsed.

But why has the change in monster gender started a whole new subtext?

When the monsters are presented as male, isn’t it the more consistent message? Aren’t we expecting that kind of monster to be visited upon us for being so “bad”? Aren’t males our judges and juries? And if the monsters are now female, is the message the same? Or is it…mutating?

Often the subtext holds the answer. And what the subtext in Horror has long shown is the ongoing battle between the sexes.

So isn’t it better that the monsters are now largely female? Doesn’t that mirror a change in our social perspective in modern society?

Sadly, the answer is no. Rather, it shows that the argument has gone to a ground game. But it also means we are starting to see a rebellion against all of the righteous lecturing.

Horror is (and should be) the fun house of young adulthood – it is all about immortality, the vitality of being young, the recklessness of immaturity that becomes Life’s gauntlet that most of us survive in spite of ourselves. But Horror is also about reality… especially the one that says power corrupts and those who have it will always believe they can get away with anything and everything.

Horror, therefore, is about the ones in power. It is a commentary and a condemnation. And it is not a plea – but a demand for justice. And in this genre, we are overflowing with the marginalized. For a very long time, too many of us have been designated “extras” who are both entertainment and expendable.

But maybe the most important thing a person can take away from the Horror genre is the truth that Horror has not always been a place cluttered with cleavage and underwear. Horror comes from much more dignified origins – even if the misogyny cannot be denied. And we are really not so far from the Gothic Romance and Ghost Story that we cannot see the point of diversion – that precarious turn down the dead-end-road of violence against women and minorities where bald-faced, irrational rage is blatantly clear.

This is a dialogue we are having today – the mindless chatter against immigrants, the rationalization of oppression of those we don’t politically agree with, the war on women’s bodies.

We’ve known it. But we aren’t supposed to say it. Because the messaging is that we have been very bad girls – so bad, we need to prove our worthiness for the rest of our lives.

And if you are a girl, that rhetoric gets really old really fast. Why? Because girls continue to be raised as the daughters of Eve, betrayer of Adam. Because everything from world religion to board rooms are used to reinforce the mythology that everything bad that happens did so because of the mere presence of a woman.

What happens when women rebel? And why is it that the rebellion becomes the distraction from the reason FOR all of that anger?

This is how women end up in attics and morgues, discredited and mocked, accused and convicted with or without a courtroom.

Whether we are talking about the creation of an entire institution for the mentally unfit (the asylum) in a blatant attempt to reclaim the attic, or the chants to “lock her up” at political pep rallies, the consequences of gaslighting the gal you love with Yellow Wallpaper, or hosting radio shows that call fed-up and opinionated women “feminazis”… When woman speak men tremble. And then they draw really big women destroying the metropolis men built.

Angry women are scary. They have to be monsters.

Welcome to Feminist Theory. Welcome to New Historicism. Welcome to the complicated yet interesting world of Literary Critical Theory…

The Feminine Mystique & The Making of Monstrous Women

History is a funny thing. We always think of it as what happened in the past in its own little bubble. But history is how we got to now. History is what we do with Now.

Where the 1950s were about fearing invasion from without (aliens, foreigners, communism), the 1960s were about fearing invasion from within (madness, loss of the family unit, loss of religion). When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1964, conservative America placed the blame for the many and vast social changes happening squarely on women.

And women were not happy in all of this. Women were just trying to follow the zig-zag of rules and watching their identities fade into ungrateful children and equally unhappy husbands. Women were quite often miserable…  You do, in fact, get tired of both the blame and the whining after a while. And when it is realized that “taking it” and not-punching back is an option…

Of course, it made no sense. “Happily married” was the moniker of the 1950s and 1960s, was it not? Life was children and cooking and cleaning in heels and pearls. How could any woman be unfulfilled? Surely, she just needed a new Whirlpool range or a pretty hat… Right here, in the wealthiest country in the world where all things were… possible… according to the rhetoric…women talking over the backyard fences were NOT happy.

It did not help being told that there was “something wrong” with the girl or woman who just didn’t want that life, who could not get excited over Jell-O recipes and sewing patterns or the Mr. Clean commercials.

But the truth is, women were not largely happy. Women did not always marry Prince Charming. Kids are hard. Housework is drudgery. And being relegated to tea parties and women’s clubs could be vacuous and mentally suffocating if that was not your idea of bliss or your husband smacked you around for jollies.  You think Covid 19 quarantine is hard?

Talk to mom or grandma sometime. About the 1950s and 1960s housewifery – when the world was a more “perfect” place… Or better yet, go back and look in those old photo albums and really look at their faces… How long have we been telling them how happy they were?

By the 1960’s women were more than ready to rebel and things were about to change. In fact, a LOT of folks had just about run out of patience with The System. As a young girl at the time, I remember it being terrifying and somehow exhilarating all at once – perhaps like the lion the first time it spots an open cage door…And men weren’t about to like it much.

Says W. Scott Poole in his book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting:

“The 1960’s, of course, represented a revolutionary period during which the struggle for minority and women’s rights registered significant gains. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act ensured African Americans the franchise, while acts of civil disobedience had crippled, if not destroyed Jim Crow’s hold over public life in much of the nation. In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) became instrumental in defining the political program of second-wave feminism that found expression in struggles for reproductive freedom, economic justice, and attempts to change both laws an attitudes about rape and domestic violence. By 1965, the small but growing gay and lesbian right movement held public political demonstrations for the first time…the American Indian Movement (AIM) used the tactics from the Black freedom struggle combined with the demands that the federal government adhere to its numerous broken treaties…” (154-155)

The times then were different than now, but so very resonant with now. Then it was like the very air was alive – crackling with the threat of change and no promise for tomorrow. Maybe that is the difference lack of technology made – when it felt like everyone was protesting, it was palpable and could be seen in actual faces. Today it all feels like a Hollywood movie framed by iPhones and police cameras and CTV footage… Other people are protesting… something or other. We let social media do the talking instead of “going down there” to see for ourselves, to participate, to “come out” on one side of history or another. Without social media, you had to if you did not trust the news outlets.

And the difference then was that if you got arrested or beat up and assaulted, chances are, no one would know it had happened to you. Except you. There was no Facebook glory, no Selfie “proof” you had been there. You took the risk not for the publicity but for the point.

Add in the turmoil that surrounded college students and the Vietnam War, the Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinations and chaos was the general zeitgeist of the moment. There was a constant sense of traditions being under fire, of patriotism evaporating, of growing distrust of government and motivations of others, and the distinctive feeling that someone was going to have to be blamed.  It didn’t matter that changes that came of it all were “incremental” or that “many elements of American life remained essentially the same”(155)..

Who were all of these “poorly raised” protest people? Who were these unAmerican rebels marching and burning flags as quickly as underwear?

While we all know that rapid change and profound change is unsettling, most of us know we don’t live in a timeless bubble. And something happens to people (women included) when we wake up and realize things have not gone exactly as planned, assumed, or hoped for.

We start asking not only what when wrong, but how to make a course correction (a thing happening right now in this country with the whole George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protest movement). Yet this is far from the original “boiling point” of our nation. We have had many; we have history. And it might come as a shock to many a protesting millennial that people pushing walkers and passing out breath mints today are the ones who were there making it.

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The Tipping Point That Leads to Modern Horror

Things in the 1950s and 1960s were indeed happening – and they spilled over into the 1970s… things that impacted and invaded daily life: bussing, desegregation, divorce, bra-burning, the end of institutionalization of the mentally ill, the sexual revolution and the rise of birth control and the demise of organized religion struck fear into the hearts of those in power. Rises in crime and the emergence of the serial killer with  television-structured stardom talks shows, boy bands and the Brady Bunch provided a complex, mixed media picture of anarchy and the destruction of the American family amidst Father Knows Best reruns and The Waltons.

“Suddenly” everything was out of control… we were careening along dangerous new paths which meant leaving the security of older ones, of known evils. We were told we were the “lost” generation, the spoiled ones, the atheists, the anarchists. Even if we were sitting quietly at home with our ankles crossed and our hands in our laps watching the same black-and-white television, it was made clear that in order to fix the damage, we were going to need a “return to family values.”

Someone had allowed all of this to start. And it wasn’t long at all for the blame to be affixed to women… mostly coalescing in the politics of the 1980s.

Continues Poole:

“In the 1984 Presidential race, Ronald Reagan made an assertion of allegedly traditional moral values central to his campaign. Reagan declared that ‘promiscuity’ had become ‘stylish’ and transformed a ‘sacred expression of love’ into something ‘casual and cheap.’ This claim went hand in hand with Reagan’s rhetorical war on poor single women (he coined the term ‘welfare queen’ and his opposition to abortion. His supporters in the Christian Right, represented by Tim LaHaye and Jerry  Falwell [yes, the Left Behind author and the father of the current disgraced Liberty Baptist University president] asserted that America had gone in to social and political decline because of the gains of the social protest movements of the 1960s.” (159)

This is why history is important. Because if you have a strange sense of déjà vu right now, the reason is listed above. We are again at a similar crossroads, and again women are being blamed – the battle currently embodied by the Roe v. Wade tug-of-war with Supreme Court Justices as puppets.

I am very much reminded of the way things felt – that pulse of society – in 1972 surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment, where who you were and would be allowed to be depended heavily on your ability to answer questions (that all too often felt like accusations) “properly.” There was a blatant threat placed upon women who were vocal, and implied threats made to young women who were just arriving at the crossroads of adulthood. Women who were pro-ERA were labeled as lesbians, socialists, communists, unfeminine, forward, sexually “frigid” and emasculating, poor mothers, and anti-Christian.

These were damaging accusations at the time, because even the whiff of impropriety could keep a woman out of work, out of marriage, out of churches, out of friendships, out of family, and IN poverty. Once your reputation was gone in the 1950s, 60s, and even 1970s, it could not be resuscitated. Worse, the accusation had merely to be made to finish you off.  No proof was ever needed. Ever.

And it is no small coincidence that we see the same “accusations” and threats being thrown around today (often by those who grew up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s with that messaging), often combined with terms like “feminazi” as though marrying a woman of strong will to the world’s most hideous of ideologies is in any way historically connected. We have been doing this sort of thing since classical antiquity, making strong women into monsters.

Horror has occupied this space for a very long time. From folklore and fairy tales, the scariest things were the women who ate children, who obliterated the family, fidelity, and flaunted sin or bucked the suffocation of patriarchal rules. This is because women have long been held to be the “keepers of the culture”… the nurturers, the mama grizzly willing to die for her children. Women are “nice” and “soft” and cardboard cut-outs on pedestals. Women are what we say they are.

What does this make a woman who does not like or want children? Who has no need for a husband? Who chooses a career? An abortion? And why is it men who can provide the only acceptable answer?

Continues Poole:

“Families and kinship networks have, for more than five millennia, served as a central organizing principle in human societies. Powerful patriarchal forces in traditional civilizations, including government, religion, medicine, and education have viewed the family as the first line of defense for male privilege. The combination of intimacy and authority that exists within the household provides the opportunity to inculcate societal conceptions of gender, sexuality and morality as well as to examine and police behaviors deemed abnormal or dangerous…Struggles for the liberation of women and sexual minorities in the 1960s raised numerous questions about the nature of family life in America. Second-wave feminism called for a radical redefinition of family life” that exploded conservative ‘minders’ of the established patriarchy and launched a cultural struggle against the perceived “attack on the family” and provoked new anxieties over the human body.” (178)

Who else but women were responsible for all of this cultural conditioning? For moral guidance and instruction in conformity? As the rebellion began to expose the failings of patriarchy, it became increasingly important to get women back “in line.”

But the genie was out of the bottle. And having “come of age” in those very times, I can tell you there was no way it was going back in. This was one of the first times the words “me, too” began to surface and result in angry defiance, when the groping of bosses and the abuses of fathers or boyfriends instead of intimidating, merely galvanized the anger.

And the Horror genre was very much there.

Poole states: “As the most intimate aspects of Americans’ biological experiences became battlegrounds of the culture war, monstrous images came crawling out of the womb. Fear that the patriarchal family had risen from its grave to wreak terror, or the anxiety that rapid changes to the family would twist and corrupt America, became the basis of both horror films and popular urban legends. The human body itself, especially the female body, came to be seen as a monster or at least a monster-birthing machine.” (179)

Do you feel that? Are you starting to see why Roe v. Wade is such an explosive incendiary point at THIS moment in history?

Do you want to know how women in Horror REALLY feel about that?

Then let’s take a look at the monsters. In Part 2. If there is no Civil War.

References

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c1984, c1979.

Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918). Jefferson, NC, and London, c1990.

Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, c2020.

Triology of Terror versus Chucky: Dog-Whistling Through Horror as a White Woman


I just wanted to distract myself. I thought: let’s watch a favorite kitschy 1970’s Horror movie for fun…

Nice to know at my age I can still be naïve. So, so naïve…

For many of us, these times remain endlessly exhausting. It is just so desirable that we find something, anything to stop the loudness of the explosion of truths all around us. We are looking for diversion, for a moment of rest, of pause. But the truth and trouble is we shall not have it. And this is a necessary lesson because those who have borne the burden of our societal failings have themselves been denied respite.

The reckoning has come.

It’s time to not-be surprised.

What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Trilogy of Terror

For most of my life in the genre, one of my favorite films was the 1975 schlock B-movie Trilogy of Terror, which I first saw as a teenager during some late summer night horror fest on television.  Maybe it was because the best offering of the trilogy was about a doll that comes to life (dolls being a chief Horror-button-pusher for me), although others might surmise that it has more to do with Grimm’s Fairy tales, gullible age, and the requisite poking around in the occult and folklore that comes with that stage of youth…

That movie haunted me and I loved it. I even bought a copy as an adult trying to recapture the mood and the fun, and despite the kitschiness of its age, still loved it…

Naivete is an amazing thing… And love (I can tell you as an older person) gets increasingly weird as time passes and you begin to rationalize bad Life choices.

Because for many years, everything that came after – including the whole possessed-doll franchise family of this decade has been subconsciously measured against the Trilogy as remembered in my mind.

I thought loving it was “safe.” I thought grabbing some microwave popcorn and tuning the world out by slipping that movie into the dvd player would make the unpleasantries of the world right now go away.

Imagine my Horror: Trilogy IS today.

Imagine my Horror part two: I have been in love with a damn dog whistle and didn’t even know it.

By the way, this is what happens when white people wake up… why we struggle to stay asleep.

We remember what we wanted (and maybe needed if there was familial dysfunction) to be there…  we were swimming on the surface with sharks and crocodiles, and we felt immortal, untouchable… We “use” it now – we look for diversion from unpleasant Life all of the time; we accept what we need to be leadership because thinking gets to be hard work.

Sadly, we miss those puppet-mastered moments when we thought we were JUST being entertained when what we really miss is PARENTING and slamming the door to our bedroom with the “Private” sign on it–we really miss being mothered and assured that our world will be alright. We miss the illusion that we don’t have to fact-check every word and reveal the magician’s trick every time because that is someone else’s job. We miss the “fun” of BEING tricked, of being children because being a grown-up loaded down with responsibilities isn’t fun after all. And then we discover…(surprise!) we were being TRICKED…by something bigger than strict parents. Talk about your Freud meeting fairy glamour…

Who really WANTS to see the ugly, twisted monster masquerading as messiah? Who ever really wants to see the man behind the curtain?

The whole problem for white people is this: we have been complicit without knowing because we, too, have been whitewashed. We have been raised to not-see and not-hear the things we are conditioned to repeat which Others are meant to take note of; this was part of the plan and a place where the cigar is never just the cigar.

Freud was right. Maybe we can’t help ourselves. Maybe that is good and means there is hope for us if we can learn to see what we really think. And avert the consequences. Do damage control.

Trilogy is a perfect example to understand where we as white people do not hear ourselves.

And it is also a perfect example to explain why the burden of all of this guilt is both unabating, and doubly painful for women in the genre (white women and nonwhite women now being threatened with the additional truth that it is not our star that is or should be rising in the genre or elsewhere, but that we now risk becoming the minority’s minority… shelved again in the shadow of Something More Important – racial injustice… because it IS more important when it supplants all other forms of discrimination, when it precedes and enables all other forms of oppression. And that makes the burden of truth somehow even more heavy for white women.)

So here I am, just another (now much older) white woman dragging her bones out of the shower, mindful of what might lurk outside of the stall. And it is all Trilogy’s fault. Or so it feels good to say, because I am now realizing that this may be the exact moment I went deaf and blind… and fell asleep.

This is the summary of Amelia — the Trilogy’s best offering — from Wikipedia (which just had the best summary I could find), and THE one of the trilogy I am referring to, the one most of us who saw the trilogy misremembered as the Devil Doll one…

”Amelia lives alone in a high-rise apartment building. She returns home after a fateful shopping spree carrying a package containing a wooden fetish doll, crafted in the form of a misshapen aboriginal warrior equipped with pointy, sharp teeth and a spear. A scroll comes with the doll, claiming that the doll contains the actual spirit of a Zuni hunter named “He Who Kills”, and that the gold chain adorning the doll keeps the spirit trapped within. As Amelia makes a call to her mother we learn that she suffers from her mother’s overbearing behavior. Amelia struggles to justify her independence and cancels their plans for the evening by claiming she has a date. As Amelia leaves the room, we see that the Zuni fetish doll’s golden chain has somehow fallen off.

Later, Amelia is preparing dinner, using a carving knife. She enters the darkened living room, and realizes the doll is not on the coffee table. Amelia hears a noise in the kitchen and when she investigates, the knife is missing. Returning to the living room, she is suddenly attacked by the doll, which stabs at her ankles viciously. She attempts to flee, but the doll chases her around the apartment. In the bathroom, Amelia envelops the doll in a towel and attempts futilely to drown it in the bathtub. She later traps it in a suitcase, but the doll begins cutting a circular hole through the top of suitcase with the butcher knife. After several more vicious attacks, Amelia manages to hurl the doll into the oven where it catches fire. She holds the oven door while she listens to the doll howling and screaming as it burns and, while black smoke billows out, she waits until the screaming eventually stops. Opening the oven to ensure that the doll is “dead”, she is struck by some force that pushes her backward and from which she emits a blood-curdling scream.

At some point after that, the audience sees Amelia (from behind) place another call to her mother. In a calm, controlled voice, she apologizes for her behavior during the previous call, and invites her mother to come for dinner. She then rips the bolt from her front door and crouches down low in an animalistic manner, carrying a large carving knife. She is now seen frontally, stabbing at the floor with the weapon, grinning ferally and revealing the horrific teeth of the Zuni fetish doll whose spirit now inhabits her body.”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilogy_of_Terror#:~:text=%20%20%201%20Karen%20Black%20as%20Amelia,the%20voice%20of%20the%20Zuni%20doll%20More%20

And now after you have a full appreciation of Richard Matheson’s scary-tale abilities, let’s look at the message in its full Hollywood subtext. Let’s see what is hiding in plain view, and has little to do with the story or its author…

Of course the doll comes to life. Of course it chases a half nude young white woman around her apartment trying to kill her by stabbing her thousands of times with its tiny spear in a blatant (though little “known” reference) to an ancient Chinese torture known as Lingchi, or the death from a thousand cuts… Of course the doll is Africanized in a grass skirt and not-native looking war paint and carrying a spear, yet referred to as a Native American tribal relic (Zuni)… Here we have weaponized and slandered no less than three minorities: Black, Asian, and Indigenous Peoples… dog-whistling our way into the white suburban subconsciousness with a messaging that resonates with any white woman who has ever looked at a minority man in an elevator and wondered if she was “safe.”

Imagine my disgust when I finally – FINALLY—saw this.

Yet this is how it is done, folks. And since it is largely white audiences that this is created for, realize that the conditioning has been just as much for that white audience as it was for minorities.

Doesn’t it make you mad? It should. Because despite all of the defenses offered (including the one that says the writers were products of their times and probably ALSO couldn’t hear themselves over that ever-present whistling in their own ears) THIS is how conditioning is DONE. This is how we look at different peoples and cultures and worry about the “unknowns”… the “unknowables”… the differences between us. This is how we learn to fear each other…

And how do we navigate this in Horror, where fear of the unknown is the single greatest tool in the toolbox?

Funny things happen when you “wake up” to betrayal… First you get mad. Then you get madder. Then you make a decision to just cut this out of the heart of your passion.

This is NOT the time to leave the genre. This is the time to reinvent the genre.

And maybe that means we have to look at Chucky, too…

Child’s Play It Isn’t

How I hated this movie… Still do. And it is not because of the doll, but because of the blatant violence. Where Trilogy gave us the concept of a death of a thousand cuts (less bloody-seeming but equally fatal – if not worse in its execution if you are the victim) and simultaneously instilled some weird sense of random minority vengeance, a 1988 Chuckie in Child’s Play gives us the angry white male killing not just white women, but everyone. How is that better?

For me, even the creepy factor couldn’t save the film from all the pointless violence. And according to a 2019 Variety article, I wasn’t apparently alone:

“Something happened to horror movies in the 1980s, starting a few years earlier with films such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: The villains in brutally violent slasher movies became the heroes — or, at least, the characters audiences found themselves rooting for — which in turn created the opportunity for franchises, where these virtually unstoppable killing machines came back in sequel after sequel, like some kind of recurring nightmare, to wreak more havoc. Michael, Jason, Freddy Krueger loomed iconic in the cultural imagination, spawning a wave of imitators, of which the most surreal may well have been Chucky — a blue-eyed, battery-operated doll possessed, via voodoo curse, by the soul of a deranged psycho.” https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/childs-play-review-1203248744/

(Battery operated… I’m not saying a word.)

Yeah. And on the lower note of being a young adult Horror fan at the time, the movie just seemed stupid. Just like today, apparently the creators then couldn’t just create a possessed doll for the sake of possession or evil, but HAD to include voodoo, with later sequels including a disgruntled Chinese factory worker who tampers with the electronics… (and that sound you now hear: woof).

The plot of a mother bringing home a doll for her son who self-proclaims he is too old (if you don’t have eyes or knowledge about kids in general) and which proceeds to come alive and kill everything in reach just doesn’t seem substantial enough to make a whole movie budget worthwhile. Continues the Variety article:

“This is the new normal for horror movies: The screenplays have to seem hipper than the premise they represent, which puts “Child’s Play” in the weird position of pointing out and poking fun at all the ways it fails to make sense.”

But I do have to at least applaud the fact that the doll was at least culturally relevant to the characters. At least the doll was white and clearly modern and clearly our own invention instead of misappropriated from a culture we feel entitled to rob. Then we had to add voodoo and muck that self-congratulation all up.

So why didn’t I like Chucky better than that cultural mélange of the Devil Doll? Why did the possessed white doll instead annoy me more than scare me? Does it mean that the greater terror for me WAS the racial ambiguity? That was the message I was supposed to get, right?

I think that the subtext is there. And maybe that means I have some soul-searching yet to do. But I also think that it means that fear of the unknown in general is potent – too potent to be removed from the Horror genre. But it is certainly time for it to be redirected.

The problem is that there are so, so many ways to convey the unknown without completely leaving your own cultural context (and I tend to think that Algernon Blackwood’s short story “The Willows” is just such a tale.)  Yet for Americans, that can be still a challenge. Our mistake is that we tend to look at earlier “successes” in the genre without seeing them in historical context – meaning we are unable, and educationally unequipped to discern between plots that mirror their times and plots that exploit the racism of their times. These are not the same, but both can reinforce racist messaging. And if we use them as examples of how to successfully scare audiences, then we are ignoring the truth that audiences and their fears change and should change.

So just like the creators of Chucky, we grab onto a premise, but fail to execute properly. Sometimes that is a matter of Craft, but many more times it is a more human arrogance at work. Our genre is stagnant because we are making it a mockery of itself.

Yet the “solution” of cultural sensitivity is not an easy fix (and maybe especially for white writers in the genre), because there are layers upon layers of questions. For example, being of Scots-Irish descent myself, am I entitled to “borrow” from those mother cultures? Am I entitled to remake those myths and legends for my own storytelling? Or is that just another form of racism, not having come by those stories as a native Scot or Irish person living on native soil, hearing them first-hand? Worse, does my attempt to tell such stories come off as lame, incorrect, and even worse still –make me insensitive if not just culturally wrong? Trust me, the worry is there, exacerbated by our Black Lives moment.

So then and therefore, what can I as a white American Horror writer dare write about? What part of the unknown is rightfully mine to write about? And why can’t I find it?

For minorities yet to write in the genre, this will also become an issue. As we naturally homogenize, those cultural differences handed down proudly from generation to generation will fade. And then you, too, may find yourself a kind of cultural orphan. There will be times when attempting to “write-in” the oppression of whites at the moment will be offensive and stereotypical, where whites will feel culturally assaulted.

This is the curse of finding equality at the cost of individualized culture (formerly buffered by racism into “safe” islands of the oppressed). White people are there, which is why we are all River Dance fans. We ALL start looking backward – to the Good Old Days when we knew who we were even if it was because we were pushing against the weight of the rest of the world.

Native American writer Sherman Alexie has already seen this happening:

And it isn’t just Americans going through this – especially as we embrace a world devoid historical reference and emphasize self-aggrandizement. We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, divorcing ourselves from the ancestors who were probably a lot more like ourselves than we are ready to admit, yet having this weird obsession with rewriting a history-flavored reality.

How can we reconcile the modern world with future Horror?  How do we keep racial and cultural identity safe and a source of pride without admitting we don’t want to surrender those rich details in order to be the Majority – so big and so anonymous all else is lost?

What is clear is that we cannot look to modern Horror to tell us much. But that is what writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker get so very right in the genre: the sense of folk belief without mimicry. They write Horror that is about us, about now… It feels like the Old-Country stuff, but it is built of our own times and our own fear of the modernized unknown. Race just doesn’t enter into it in the same misappropriated ways.

And we clearly need more of that. But as most writers can tell you, we are victims of our own times. Things are moving too fast to keep ANY of us relevant in our own stories. Increasingly our older writers in the genre – like Stephen King – seem slightly off-step, knocked off balance by the kind of change that makes today obsolete by tomorrow. This is an accelerated normal, and we are supposed to be having new writers ready to step up and lead the genre. But here we have been felled by both these publishing-challenged times, and a lot less effective leadership from within the genre’s elite. So we are stuck in a kind of time capsule, looking for our way out. And that leads right back to these chaotic times.

This is a lesson that is not going to go away with any resolution of Black Lives. Will we only learn it when we are completely homogenized? Or will that kill the messenger of so much Horror?

That Devil Doll haunts me. Trying to understand if the racist accoutrement of the doll made it more scary also haunts me. Because like so many other white people today, I so don’t want that to be true. Yet we have to admit it: we have been conditioned to believe certain things, and this is a danger even minorities on the brink of becoming a majority are facing. We have been made to believe in conformity down to our immediate emotional reactions…Power corrupts.

Why else do we have to stop to ask, “but did he (or she) do something to deserve it?”

Why else do we ask other people as women how we “look” or worry how we dress because we don’t want to be blamed for our own rape/robbery/murder?

Why else do we worry about “good” neighborhoods? “Good” schools? “Good” jobs?

We need to start really looking within ourselves – not for the purpose of confession, but for the purpose of absolution and healing.

We need to exorcize whatever demon made us create that Devil Doll…and then made us like it.

A Cautionary Tale for Future Writers in the Genre

Being not-awake is a lot like death: it’s peaceful, and we can fantasize about what it is or will be all we want – even thinking we miss that sweet promised peace: but death is still being dead. It just seems stupid (and quite vain) to “miss” those times when we thought we were at peace, but were really just dead.

Being woken up roughly feels like waking up old every day: it takes a lot longer to get your bearings, everything hurts, and you miss the days you could bound out of bed in seconds ready for a new challenge.

Today is not those days. Today many white people feel the weight of guilt-spawning centuries we know we weren’t present for, but whose legacy is responsible for all of this mess nonetheless. We cannot divorce ourselves from it; and we just don’t know how to respond. Expecting white people to call themselves racist is wrong. But calling ourselves institutionalized racists is not. We are because we have been. But we, too, must have hope for a better future.

Yet why do I still kind of like Trilogy?!  I want to tell myself it is because I find dolls creepy to begin with. Dolls coming alive is extra freaky for me… and a doll with a secret history and rules of carnage is even more scary. I want to tell myself it was a great story concept, and it was only in the details of Hollywood production that things went horribly awry…But I also now realize that we should have been able to tell the tale without stigmatizing Others. This is what waking up means.

We are not directly responsible for our horrible underbelly of history, but for its edification, for believing that the ends justify the means, for whitewashing the unpleasantries. We are not obliged to self-hate, but to just. Stop. Endorsing by silence or inaction…the INJUSTICE.

(Every Horror fan knows EXACTLY where that leads, and you don’t have to be wearing a flimsy nightie to KNOW it…)

What we are responsible for is what we do in this life; we do not owe our ancestors disgust, but an awareness that they may not have gotten it right even on their best days, that our actions have had consequences, that in a crowded pool, some will be drowned by accident, and some on purpose in the rush for oxygen. Now that we can see that trajectory for what it is, we need to take appropriate action. Just action… motion…movement.

So now that white people have been somewhat rudely awakened to the nightmare that has been playing in theaters near you for hundreds of years, what will you do with the new reality?

The future looks different for all of us, but really we can and should be on the same page. We should not feel threatened if we are white or are white women or minority women. This “awakening” is not about guilt (which is what dog whistlers want you to hear) but it is about taking responsibility for what we have collectively done or enabled.

It is about ending the insanity and valuing everyone’s contributions (including our own).

It is about hearing the dog whistles that we didn’t even know were going off everywhere and making darn sure we don’t accidentally repeat them.

Two wrongs never make a right.

Make it right.

Do New Horror better…

And take us all with you.