The Protagonist Next Door: Where Horror’s Best Critic Says We’re Going Wrong


The question of how American Horror lost its scariness is a daunting one.

So if you are one of the many who are baffled by how we wound up in this unscary place, rest assured that even the Critics are mystified. There are speculations, of course; I myself have made several. But when it comes to really looking at the problem, we have to get into the technical issues – everything from tropes to convention and the literal execution of story.

Because Horror as a genre is just beginning its official Literary Critical journey, we are also at the beginning of the kind of intense excavations literary analysis will bring – along with its insights and – yes – opinions. So for those of us pondering the mystery of missing horror in Horror, we can and should look at the earliest of Critical argument as the hunt for the scary expands – in this case, an interesting theory put forth by one of our first and foremost Literary Critics in the genre, S.T. Joshi:

That our choice to write our protagonists as everyday people has undermined the potent power of Horror.

 

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Literary Critic, and imminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi

 

The Premise

In his absolute admiration for the fathers of Weird fiction – Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, James, Machan and Bierce in particular – S.T. Joshi has become a major authority on the subject of Weird fiction, especially where Lovecraft is concerned. His intense study has taken him interesting places, and as he has Critically begun to document the structure of Weird fiction (defining what makes Weird, Weird), he was quick to notice an interesting point about our protagonists: we have made them increasingly ordinary.

Is this, Joshi ponders, the vehicle by which we have lost our way? And are we simply writing bad Weird fiction (and not Horror at all) because we have broken a cardinal rule of it? Does great Horror require a certain type of protagonist?

There is one thing we can all agree upon: one of biggest differences separating contemporary Horror writing from that which up until now defined the irregular but interesting shape of the genre is the choices we make in characterization. Specifically, it is the rise of the “common” protagonist in modern fiction – our embrace of the everyman or woman who is just like us, caught doing nothing out of the ordinary, and who is suddenly faced with Horrors we are doing an equally bad or inconsistent job of revealing.

Joshi theorizes that this is in fact “a” (if not “the”) fatal flaw resulting in declining scariness.

The most easily recognized ring leader of this newer perspective has been Stephen King. And many would argue justifiably, that this is precisely why we like him. So it is ironic that at least for one Critic, the ordinariness of King’s characters is a pointed reason why Critics in general have developed an equally passionate and opposite opinion of his work.

This is also an example of our communication gap – revealing that fans, writers, and Critics often do not share the same values system.

Where Joshi’s position about the common-person-as-protagonist is clear, we often disagree about its importance in scaring. What, we wonder, is so bad about creating or reading about a main character based upon ourselves?

And aren’t we as writers creating a new, modern influence on writing conventions not so very different than the rise of the first person narrative?

Or are Critics right that we are (by creating ordinary protagonists) causing our own stories to flatline?

And what about style? Have we as readers and writers mistaken King’s style for a convention change – one we should not be imitating?

We tend to defend our choices: such characters have jobs and dysfunctions like us, speak like us, have the same nagging worries like us; we identify with them. In fact, we often pay a great deal of lip service to those carefully crafted similarities, mistakenly thinking we are showing our World View hand, creating a literary element that roots our fiction in this precise moment of time.

But what we are actually doing – according to Joshi – is making our Horror banal, our monsters underinflated, and our protagonists just plain boring…

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

What is important is that we remember we are all on the same side, suffering the same frustrations when we curl up with a Horror story that promises us the kind of fright that will pry our eyelids open for endless nights of residual terror, only to find ourselves distracted by the promise made on yet another book cover blurb…

Critics are equally baffled at how precisely we got here. But there is little work actually having been done with regard to exploring the problem (in case you are interested) because of two major reasons: one is that older Critics never really looked at Horror as its own established genre – so there is a messy thing happening when works are compared with no set criteria – complicated by the constant repurposing of terms and ideology in the genre even by our own writers. And this subsequent lack of established and agreed upon rules for the genre is our inheritance because up until this point (second reason) in the field of Literary Criticism, we have had no cadre of dedicated Critics analyzing our genre.

Analyzing the genre means setting up agreed upon definitions and rules. Then arguing about them. Then deciding after all of the arguments, which argument was right and balances all future arguments…all before we can name our Canon works and authors.

(English majors wondering what you can do with your degree, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a once-in-a-lifetime event: the official establishment of a genre in Literary Criticism…from the bottom up. Have at it…)

We need our own Literary Critics dedicated specifically to the Horror genre, whose job it is to establish these perimeters and definitions that will set the accepted criteria for the genre…including what it should be rightfully CALLED.

Whenever a Critic tries to begin the Critical process on a work or an author today, he or she immediately collides with the kinds of contradictions in terms that happens when a genre has been growing wild like so many weeds – but with actual roots and flowers that are intrinsic to a real, established genre all mixed in. There is research, reading, study, sorting and discussion to be done. And all of that is going to lead to serious debate.

These include arguments over even what basic conventions and tropes will be deemed acceptable, expected execution of Craft, as well as deciding which authors and which works are seminal to the genre and therefore Canon works – establishing in turn our own very first actual genre Canon.

(Because yes, Virginia, we have NO HORROR CANON until the Literary Critics establish one – Because that is their job; that is what they DO. If you want in on that action, you need to get your BA, your Masters, and a Ph.D. Period. All other discussions are secular and moot.)

And there are some very interesting questions to be resolved….many of which come to light when we ask the simple question why isn’t modern Horror scary anymore?

Are we looking at different types of Horror? Is it about subgenre? Is it about modern times versus the past and our technological differences? About our religious ones? Our regional ones? Our geography? Our culture? Is it about short story versus novels and word counts? Is it about the narrative we now abbreviate? About word choice? The length of our sentences? The backstory we edit out? The monster we edit in? Or is it something as basic as the building blocks of perceived convention? Is it about the characters we design?

S.T. Joshi started his probing by comparing what he considers the most successful of Horror – Weird Fiction – with the stuff we write now. And what he found is thought-provoking, especially because his research is thus far more comprehensive and/or available for laypeople to read and contemplate. This is a contributing factor to my referring to him as the “best” Critic in the genre.

So I mean no disrespect to China Mieville (who I genuinely wish would write a Critical tome about the genre and his Critical interpretations, if only for the sake of comparison and contrast)… or to Noel Carroll, whose work in the area of philosophy within the genre is equally thought-provoking.

However, because Joshi (himself a former fiction writer in the genre) is a world-renowned authority on Lovecraft who has published at least four seminal Literary Critical works on Horror and Supernatural Fiction (The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction in two volumes) which have made him a foundational Critic for the genre, there is more accessible information to study and consider with respect to the genre for future Critics, writers, and fans of Horror.

But I also appreciate his honesty, and his tendency to write for the layperson if not to the layperson.

Joshi has opened a window for those of us who always wondered what Critics do and how they do it, even if it means he disagrees with those of us who appreciate other facets of the genre; at least he explains his process.

Joshi readily admits to us a favoritism towards the Weird and Lovecraft, and to having a professional and personal aversion to most modern writers, of which Stephen King takes the brunt of his angst. And like all other Critics, his frustration about what is going wrong in modern Horror also remains ours: not only is Joshi perplexed at what is causing so thorough a failure of modern writing to produce actual horror, terror, dread, or fear in the manner to which readers of older genre works have become accustomed, but why is writing that is so much like King’s all that remains of our formerly vibrant genre? Where is the creative diversity?

Yet also, how is it that so many fans are adamantly enjoying King if King is doing something Critically wrong in his writing? Are we all simply uneducated or undereducated in the ways of Literature, or is King doing something not even Critics have figured out the value of yet? Are Critics biased? Or are we?

This brings us back to characterization – the most noticeable change in Horror since the Weird writers wowed us all. For Joshi, the first complaint is laid at the feet of the modern protagonist. And nobody does the modern protagonist as ordinarily as King.

(Keep in mind this is for the moment okay: it is by virtue of his success and popularity that Critics cannot choose to ignore King. But they do have to understand why whatever works with King works better with him than with anyone else writing modern Horror…Kind of a complement, really…)

 

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The Argument

In reading Joshi, one has always to remember that being among the first Literary Critics looking professionally at the Horror genre, he is overwhelmed with the need to constantly create definitions for terms he needs to use to do his job. One of those terms, for example, is the actual name of the genre, and the hierarchy of subgenres. Joshi admits that he is not certain yet as to whether what we call Horror is not just badly done Weird Fiction, or if one is a subgenre of the other. So when we read Joshi, we have to think laterally – accepting that he is also discussing Horror when he uses the term Weird, as he is sorting out criteria as he observes them. Naming the genre officially, then, could take a while.

But this has no effect on the point he makes about our newest interpretation of protagonists and the level of ordinariness we have layered them with. Keep in mind also, that commercial success is to most Critical thinking an anathema to all that is holy in Literature: sales figures simply do not correlate to the Literary “soundness” of a work. Commercial success is about the attractive outer clothing; Literature is about the hidden, academically derived technical soul of the work.

Says Joshi:

“One reason why the weird tale has become both commercially successful and, in my view, literarily problematical, is what Stephan Dziemianowicz has termed the ‘banalization’ of horror. This means the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (most of us are, after all, pretty ordinary) and to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.” (Joshi 6-7)

It is hard to not interpret this as Joshi thinking writers have become lazy in devising ways to create relevant fiction that should instead connect through its Weird I.V… over-relying on characterization and distracting details in the place of building a better “monster” or monstrous epiphany.

I get what he is saying here, and I agree but only up to a point, and this is why I say Weird fiction is in fact different… I agree that in Horror we are relying too heavily on extraneous details – complex relationships, distracting backstory…all in a strange attempt to disguise the elephant in the room we all paid to see… It does not make sense, it does seem superfluous and pointless – except in the writer’s desire to connect the story to the audience. By its proximity and our miseducation about the genre in general and the Weird in particular, our Horror “sins” have dirtied the face of all subgenres – including Weird fiction. Not seeing boundaries, not understanding boundaries, we have overrun them; we have contaminated Lovecraft’s perfect child.

But are we wrong in the rest of the genre – in the Petrie dish of new genre fiction – to be attempting to make our characters and our entry point of Horror ordinary?

And here I have to question the condemnation. Is this desire to connect more deeply with a modern audience we are told does not connect with old-style narrative reflected by a natural growth of the genre narrative?

In other words, are we legitimately responding to the needs of our audience in order to be read?

Is this as natural a “change” in narrative style as transitioning to the first person was in its day?

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

“In the end this technique is not so different in approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism. Although this dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife, and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction. This is not what Winfield Townley Scott meant by touching ‘the depths of human significance,” especially since most weird writers treat these issues superficially and sentimentally, and without sufficiently integrating them the weird scenario.” (7)

Well when you say it like that…

It would appear to me then that the issue is not ordinariness, but our ineptitude in turning that ordinariness into a vehicle to introduce, engage, and surrender to the Weird (or…Horror).

It implies that we are clumsy and do not thoroughly recognize the tool we have in our hands as a tool…we are chimpanzees at a canvas.

A little insulting, I know. But is it true?

Is underdeveloping the full complement of story why we are writing superficial Horror? Maybe we see the importance of the job loss, the World View impact of our modern Technology Revolution…but if we leave it a dangling modifier on the page…it is still bad grammar. It is still awkward usage. It is still lacking the full impact even we as writers wanted it to have…

So maybe Joshi is onto something here. Let’s go further. Joshi continues:

“Many modern weird writers do not appear to have taken much notice of Lovecraft’s words on this matter: ‘I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.’

“Weird fiction should never be about ordinary people. Even if one does not ‘adopt’ the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.” (7)

So Joshi reveals that it is not only our technical faults, but a misdirection of focus.

And this is true…we most certainly do retain the focus on our characters – not the monster or the monstrous. We seem to do this like babies reach for blankets – mistaking their soft warmth for mom. And that action is reinforced by the motivation for money and sequels. We don’t just leave the door open – we remove it from its hinges.

Yet It is so easy to hear arrogance in both the Critical voice and Lovecraft’s voice, we tend to react from the gut… it feels like classism – something that rattles us to our primal cores. We first interpret those words “ordinary people” as “common” in the vernacular of upper classes and inescapable caste systems, the concerns about family, food, and shelter as “incapable of captivating fancy” when most of us lose so much of our lives in the struggle to support those concerns, fancy never enters into it. It is a “how-dare-you” moment that prevents us from hearing what is being said. From hearing each other.

Lovecraft, for all his petty arrogances and bigotries, is saying something important about writing. About story.

Lovecraft is saying there is an elephant in the room and we are talking drapes and wallpaper.

Granted, in some cases that may be the Horror of it… But when we were clearly aiming for something else and didn’t deliver it, we have to admit it is time to take a hard look at how, where, and why we failed.

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A Rebuttal (Still Not Scary, Now Paranoid About Writing Protagonists)

Maybe we have to stop opening doors…maybe we need to let the monster – like Schrodinger’s cat – both be and not-be behind the door…to be dead and not-dead at the same time…

We can’t do that if the happy couple goes off thinking the Horror is over…even if we leave teasers suggesting it might be otherwise. I think we have to do more than suggest it: I think we have to communicate that because it is far bigger than us, older than us, more supernatural than us…we are blips on its radar, mere morsels to be snacked upon on the way to world domination, to the annihilation of humanity…Cthulhu sleeping at the bottom of the sea…

But I don’t think it means our protagonist cannot be the guy or gal next door. I don’t think it doesn’t mean we can have him get mugged, or laid off, or be a drug addict. But I do think that details that affirm those character supports cannot be left to overgrow the rest of the monster garden…they are backstory and must remain backstory; the monster must be front-and-center, even when he is just offstage.

Which makes me then ask…are we really talking about emphasizing the wrong character arc?

And if we choose the monster’s beginning, middle and end…will we be dinged for failing to show properly dimensional characters?

Of course this is a matter for Critics to discuss. That’s why we need more Critics.

We also cannot pretend that our religious orientations might not color our views of detail like what the differences are between Weird and nonWeird fiction and why we have lost the scary gene; indeed, both Joshi and Lovecraft come at Weird from atheistic angles. That in turn potentially colors Criticisms that Joshi might find a work as far too saccharine or silly for its author’s attempts to infuse religious messaging or morals into a work, yet too shallow if it didn’t offer something…but then it might also mean he has made a point. It might mean we have limited our audience and made our story trite instead of “touching the depths of the human experience…”

It might just mean that whether we are talking Horror as Weird or Weird as Horror that where we have gone wrong is not in how we see the protagonist at all…but how we see the monster.

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

Maybe our modern Horror disappoints because we really want to think ourselves far more interesting than monsters dreamt of. Maybe we really do believe that Cthulhu can’t get us if we see him first; that we are smarter, and more worthy of survival.

Because after all, there really is nothing scary about that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.

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You Can’t See Creepy With a Cellphone Light: Guilt & Shadows in American Horror


American Horror. It’s become this great, terrible disappointment.

What used to set my imagination on fire is now a non sequitur, a discombobulated mess of unrealized terrors.

I am bummed.

That realization started with the attempt to watch a movie in a movie theater not so long ago… A simple task, one which turned out to be a farce in a room full of bobbing silhouettes, a lot of explosions from nearby theater screens, and scores of cellphones – like fireflies – punctuating the darkness that was supposed to have monsters in it.

Imagine my Horror when the stars of the movie produced their own cellphones , holding them out like crucifixes to ward off the darkness of their haunted house. No wonder it took so long to find something scary. When the worst that can happen is no signal or a deficit of bars… well, the Horror just doesn’t get a foothold.

Today’s biggest fear: Not being able to text a buddy or access your Facebook profile.

How does a Horror writer work with that?

And if we are facing a future Renaissance, how do we “tap” into the important stuff – you know – to make American Horror more American? And Horrifying?

Cre1

 https://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3223252/stop-being-a-victim-you-can-stop-cell-phone-use-in-theaters/

 

It’s Under the Bed

It seems to me we’ve managed to lose – or maybe just misplace – a few important Horror tools in our rush to be “civilized”… I mean, whatever happened to worrying about going to Hell, or Hell coming after you personally? About footsteps behind you, whispers from no one, eyes in the dark, cold air in the summer time?

We have cheapened our monsters in American Horror…They are expected guests, too often late to the party, overdressed, and so glossy they risk flirtatious comparison to better monsters once constrained in zippers…We have conditioned ourselves, desensitized ourselves, and routinely dismiss the edgiest of new creatures because name-dropping is how we roll. But the best terrors have always been the simple, personal ones…

Whatever happened to real ghosts… the kind that aren’t really a serial killer, or a psychotic break, or evil stepmothers, a disguise for the worst possible witch EVER, or the disconnected, secular demon with one of two names?

Man, I miss ghosts… the really great ones that weren’t CG drawn, or implied by empty rooms with swinging light fixtures.

Whatever happened to real monsters… the kind that have tentacles and hide in weird, inconvenient places? Not the ones that are really an alien invasion, or a cut-and-paste frenzy of amalgamated, unexplained and resurrected traditional monsters, not another nuclear accident or escaped virus… But real dine-on-your-guts, eats-you-while-you’re-alive monsters? The kind that dropped out of our ancestral imaginations to stalk us through dark forests and black nights?

Man, I miss monsters….the kind that single us out of the herd and hunt in plain sight, or pull us under the bed by our ankles.

Isn’t it just a little bit sad that we are unwilling to put down the technology long enough to be scared? (“No, scare me with my cellphone – in case Fame and Fortune calls…”)

Well as a Horror writer here’s my theory: you’re too chicken to put the cellphone down. Sophisticated audience my sagging butt…You can’t even sit in a dark theater without a light in your hand. Oooo…Big Brave Modern Person waving a phone screen around a haunted house daring the ghost to show itself…

You want to see a ghost? Turn off the lights, dummy.

This is why British Horror works (listen up, I’m going to spill their secret): Technology may be present, but it doesn’t work where the monsters are.

That’s right. Monsters only live in that place between cellphone towers. When they are not inside them.

Call it atmosphere, call it obsession with an antiquated past. Go ahead and accuse them of exploiting their rich abundance of creepy ruins. But the British get it right on the most important score: they are going to isolate you long before the monster comes…they are going to give you a sweeping moor so you can see it coming…they are going to tell you WHY you DESERVE it.

(Sure, I probably should just go on and move to England. But they wouldn’t like me there: I have a funny accent.)

Really, American Horror writers have no excuse. We create new ruins daily. Just because we call them blight, or strip malls, or White Flight changes nothing. And they are loaded with all kinds of socially-dysfunctional atmosphere. We build them everywhere…on our own graveyards, on Native American graveyards, on Grandma’s house that some large corporation spent years of litigation forcing her out of just so a shopping center could sit empty on the spot.

We have slaughtered our own wilderness…riddling it nonthreatening Bambi-like animals and exclusive, gated neighborhoods that tend to get devoured by large wildfires, and lots of ATV trails…cause, you know, the forests belong to everyone…We leave islands of non-native trees and call them forests. We shoot wildlife that wanders into our neighborhoods fearing they will eat our children in revenge for depriving them of natural food and habitat. We expect manicured and managed grounds to keep the tigers and lions and scavengers at bay.

We avoid religion at all costs. We pronounce ourselves atheists or agnostics or some new species of Christian… all of whom remain mysteriously and miraculously unaffected by the doings of the Underworld, death, and its untidy accoutrement.

So why do we have the audacity to complain when “nothing” scares us?

I say it is an act. I say it indicates just how very scared we are…with the lights ON.

 

Cre2

https://www.beyondsciencetv.com/2017/07/25/the-mysterious-shadow-people/

Guilt: the Equal Opportunity Shadow Person

I find it interesting, this sudden manifestation of “shadow people” in all things Horror. But in truth, if we refuse to turn out the lights, what real recourse does any self-respecting ghost or monster actually have?

When we look at Horror – really LOOK at it – chances are what we are seeing is our own fears manifest. It’s what has made Horror not only a great genre, but a universal one.

We share fear as former prey animals, because before we built SUVs and McMansions, we slept in trees and under bushes where job success meant staying alive another day. And even though we are living lives that typically mask those memories with overnight delivery and beds we still find need to elevate ever higher off the ground, we dread the impersonal death we all face and which might just be watching us from the closet, its claws and tentacles retracted but still visible underneath that pile of clothes…

But for modern humanity that fear has taken on yet another dimension and indistinct origin – guilt. Sometimes it is collective guilt – the sense that we as human beings could have conducted ourselves better. But more often it is personal – the sense that just because an ancestor was not held to the scales of Justice, or that what we ourselves did to a coworker went unremarked – an avenging angel awaits our one moment of inattention. Like any delinquent child, we manipulate and lie and deny all things that might bring the sword down on our own heads. Yet deep down, we know justice will not be denied, and we fear the manner in which it will come for us.

The Shadow Man is the perfect manifestation of an equalizer. Shadows are by definition both part of and separate from us, featureless, colorless, yet sinister and representative of a primal terror of things come from above to end us.

How many toddlers run screaming from their first glance of their own shadow? How many creatures subconsciously duck when one moves overhead? It is perhaps why we look up so often, dreading to see God seeing us…knowing we are flawed creations, destined for sin, careening toward judgment, knowing we deserve whatever the Creator chooses for us.

We cannot escape our shadow: it goes everywhere with us, even when total light or total dark obliterates its image. And we watch it, mesmerized by its mimicry of our every move. It is because predators hide in shadows that we do not trust our own.

And so it is a logical next step to exaggerate our fears by giving shadows a life of their own – even liberating our own to take vengeance upon us.

It doesn’t matter that some deny guilt altogether, rejecting their place in human events if not their own lives and actions.

Monsters can see in the dark.

 

Cre3

http://archcity.media/2017/03/02/judgement-zone-vol-1/

Saving Ourselves

We still have just enough religion left in our souls to suspect there are consequences for everything, and to everything we will be held accountable. It makes sense; most religions tell us the Creator left us “in charge” of the planet and all life on it.

We are not free to point at failed leaders or flawed icons. The responsibility is absolute.

Yet we rebel. We point at each other, or dismiss the crimes if we cannot bury them or rewrite them out of existence. And so what is left if not our shadows?

It does not surprise me that Shadow People are the newest monster to enter the Horror pantheon. The more global we become, the more likely our sins against one another will rise to the surface. That they remain close, disguised as faceless imitations of ourselves is not surprising. We cannot go anywhere – not the White House, not Hollywood, not Mars – without our sins following us. Like shadows.

And perhaps it is all about frustration in the simple execution of justice that makes Shadow People so popular a phenomenon. There are so many, after all, who seem to get away with unforgivably much, without any sign of justice descending.

For that we need our demons to part the veil and savage the world. We need the sense that if the Creator won’t do it, then something darker will. And we relish the thought.

Yet we also worry about our own culpability. This is why so much Horror is written: we struggle with the parsing out of judgment. We ponder the Great Biblical Flood, and the realization that only one family was spared, deemed worthy of salvation. We suspect our own hands are not clean, and hope we can fool our final judge with tilted halo and angelic smile.

Guilt is why we light every corner. It is why we suspect every shadow.

Cre4

https://www.ghostlyactivities.com/dreaming-ghosts-monsters/

Dissembling, Disassembling & Dissociating

Horror has for some time now, embraced the overpopulation of monsters in its stories. One is never enough – especially in the United States. But worse than that, the monsters take shape and then are dismantled and reshaped and denied and then made into something else less paranormal, less religiously centered, and more psychological so they can be properly slain.

We are completely unable to commit. We hide among masks and monsters we prove to be not what they appeared, performing creative gymnastics to compartmentalize the guilt that summoned them.

I have long wondered why one really good, complete, storied monster is not enough in contemporary American Horror.

I have watched us build creatures that like Legos are deconstructed and reconstructed to the point that we lose interest in why they are there at all, until the subtext is so subverted and mangled that it comes as no surprise Literary Critics say that as writers we don’t “get” it.

But I think they are wrong: we “get” it, we just don’t understand the strength and responsibility it takes to wield it…to face ourselves. In the dark. Surrounded by shadows…

I confess that as a writer I have struggled with this power. In this time of conformity, it is easy to edit the monster right out of the Horror and the Horror out of the monster. In attempting to follow the long laundry list of what makes good writing and good monsters, we often find we have lost the slimy beasts themselves. We wake up to reread the revision and find we have written that same unsatisfactory story we hate in the theater.

Horror is elusive with too many people in your head…

And with so many examples foisted in front of us that are just wrong, how do we start to get it right? How do we readjust our monster-making machinery?

Perhaps first, we need the monster out of the shadows – just for a quick look, a quick confession.

Monsters are not the climactic answer, the tah dah! … Monsters are vehicles for expressing the subtext of guilt, of Justice Due.

To find them we most certainly have to be willing to turn out the lights…to experience the sounds of something unseen prowling about, weighing our souls. We have to embrace the fear.

That means we have to acknowledge the very act that causes the guilt…

The need to push that away, to deny we were even at that party is not good enough. Denial makes the monster bigger.

Yet we have adopted the convention that our characters must NOT – no matter what – acknowledge the monster “because it gives them power over us…”

How many times have you heard that?

How many times was it wrong?

Ghosts walk because of something we did. Denied in Life, they will not be denied in Death. Ignore them at your own peril…

Ghosts follow because it is you who must set things right when it is perhaps not you but your kind who owes the debt.

Shadows are ghosts freed from the haunted house. It is their nature to follow you. Everywhere. Even when you cannot or refuse to see them. Like your sins.

There is no elixir. No amulet. No exorcism. There is only an increasing demand for Justice denied.

Why don’t we just turn out the lights and face it? One has to wonder where our Literature is in these trying times, when we are otherwise being forced to acknowledge our failings and our stand up for our values and beliefs. Human ethical trials are, after all, where the world’s greatest Literature comes from…

Where is our Great American Horror of this era? It is lurking in an uncertain future, waiting for its writers to start seeing in the dark…

I personally think it is in that dark theater, its audience loaded down with cellphones, complaining that nothing is scary anymore, that Horror is a ripoff. I think it is in the denial that we have anything to do with anyone else’s suffering on this planet. I think it is the desperate hope that we can lie our way out of being devoured alive by the monsters we have created.

I think we should all turn out the lights and see.

Cre5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKUcW2uyYUc

Scaring the Lit Out of Yourself: Making Good Horror From Bad Memories (World View Part 2)


When Horror writers think of Horror as Literature, we think foremost of Lovecraft; Lovecraft is so intimately and unequivocally ours…Unlike Poe, who having been repeatedly devoured by Critics of Olde (who in turn we resolutely believe did not “get” us), seems hopelessly ensnared in academic debate even as he rises as proof that Horror is indeed Literary. Lovecraft is accessible to our imaginations.

Lovecraft is indeed different. Lovecraft is us.

He is the traditionally rejected writer dedicated to his own vision of monsters. He is the rebellious outsider, the flawed character in his own story, a rich man made poor, a lonely man made so by his own inability to navigate society. He is the one who said, “I told you so,” the one who showed up his critics and enemies by outlasting them all, and becoming one of the foremost and most immortal of Horror writers. Lovecraft is our revenge upon all naysayers made real. He is our idol.. because he transcended all predictions and Criticisms of his time. For that, we love and adore him.

But what we tend to forget is how isolated, terror-filled, and haunted his life really was.

We forget he was extolled and emulated only after his death; instead we picture him happy and wealthy, when Lovecraft lived an opposite life of constant poverty and was tormented by his own tailored variety of demons. And those monstrosities were so real he not only wrote about them – he named them and gave them their own worlds as they relentlessly chased him through his. That he might well have been mentally ill is (for most of us) beside the point. Lovecraft represents the struggle of an exceptional writer to get his work perfected and published.

Lovecraft is a community triumph.

And while what Lovecraft wrote is now being identified as the highest form of Literary – replete with a Critic-adored World View, he once was indeed…us.  That this may provide a useful hint as to the technique we need to find and put to use is — for many of us — beside the point:  it irks us to be reminded of the truth, knowing how passionately we identify with pieces of his life as imagined by ourselves.

And so we do not understand how he performed the trick. Like any good bit of magic, we have missed the essence of the illusion by being distracted by that very illusion.

That Lovecraft might well have performed it by accident disturbs us. We are formula hunters…Pattern seekers. And we want a sure-fire, step-by-step instruction manual.

To get there, we have to recognize the secret of the Secret Sauce; World View is a consequence of personal experience.

And how you mine personal experience is encapsulated in two sentences of advice we have had drilled into our brains with absolutely no understanding of what was meant:

  • Find what scares you.
  • Write what you know.

It turns out that writing good Horror depends heavily upon your ability to turn bad memories into good story. It means –even if you are convinced you have neither baggage nor enough life experience – learning to scare the Literature out of yourself… Because if you are going to expose your World View, personal experience is your vocabulary.

 

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Finding What Scares You

In the search for World View, we must look for metaphors. What incidents in your life provide the necessary cover for Life’s Bigger Issues? Chances are, they are the smaller ones…

Yet we are easily overwhelmed by thinking in Literary terms. So it is often better to think in personal ones, and then stitch in the Literary reinforcements at some later point of revision. To do that, we can safely start by using the advice of common How-to tomes…

However, over-used phrases like “write about what scares you” and its near and necessary relative “write what you know” are too nonspecific. They leave a lot open to misinterpretation and we can spend long, lonely years toiling down primrose paths of flat, boring Horror.

But if you are going to write good Horror, you need to understand exactly what is meant by both phrases. There are inextricably linked. And they don’t mean what they sound like they mean: they mean precisely what they mean.

Sound confusing?

Good. That means you are already thinking about it.

When we are told to “find what scares us” in particular, we suddenly become surface dwellers. In essence, we fail to go deep enough into the ugly, emotionally scarred territory of our own subconscious because we spend our lives trying to minimize the damage other people keep trying to do to us and our fragile egos. It is not so easy to reverse course, to dig deep and poke our private humiliations and fears. In fact, it often takes multiple attempts, multiple drafts, and some incredible, hair-tearing moments to pull it off.

According to Charles Baxter in his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, subtext, or “the unspoken soul matter… that critical twilight zone… that landscape haunted by the unseen” (4) is the provenance of characters. And it is through the artful manipulation of “dramatic placement” that the hidden is revealed – but not just shown. Subtext is a potent revelation that must be deduced, felt, and infallibly honest… wherewhat is displayed evokes what is not displayed.” (3)

Sounds simple. But this is astoundingly complicated, especially for new writers who tend to grab onto Horror with both hands while minimizing their own world experience. Worse, we are often in love with the creative process. We wallow in the magic like cats in catnip.

For many of us, writing is an escape. It’s like going to the movies and sitting in a dark theater watching a personal showing of an unknown story unfold – this is true in particular if you are an organic writer. To interrupt that process of drafting and probe about for unsettling memories or associations can (in your own mind)  wreck the whole thing.

This is largely because being human we choose to insulate our emotional selves from eviscerating wounds. To get it out, we have to trick ourselves. We may have plethora of great and ugly experiences we expect to tap for our writing. But thinking about it is depressing, defeating. It is natural to think of those very personal horrors only in the quiet of your room, when the world is shut out and you feel marginally safe to play with razor sharp images. So we write in circles… in denial.

We create a story with vivid characters and wonderful setting and a plot that seems to lie flat on the page and never quite scares anyone much. We fail to engage our own warp engines…

Yet we all already instinctively know that the best Horror is buried deep: that is where the elevation of the story hides. And our own self-defense mechanisms are constantly plotting against our conscious selves to keep it there.

So when we are asked in public what really scares us – as in a writing class (or when our minds are in public-mode) – we tend to choose and reveal innocuous things that mark us as “one of the group” but not the one who is the most vulnerable. This is not by mistake; not only do we have the savage lessons of predator and prey to remind us of the importance of the safety of numbers, but we have the collective peer pressure of Modern Times…

Continues Baxter, “Our times are marked by mishearing and miscueing and selective listening and selective response – features associated with information glut and self-inflammation” (85) No one really wants to hear our pain, and we are endlessly encouraged to not-think about things we are led to believe we cannot change. It is therefore not so far a leap to burying our own unpleasantries.

This is normal in a world where such vulnerability is met with the most unimaginable cruelties. It means there is a problem with society. And there is your Literary entrance to Horror…

Horror is a unique genre. It is all about the ugly details of how we fail each other, exploit each other, and seek vengeance upon each other.

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Yet it is also a very personal genre. Every one of us is a little bit Lovecraft. A little bit King. A little bit Poe. It’s why their writing speaks to us. Why we identify with it, and feel the need to regurgitate our own mortifications.

It is also why it is okay to not be perfect, to have flaws, and to have suffered for them.

Alone in our rooms (even as adults), we often spend way too much time tending our personal terrors, agonizing over things we cannot change, doting anxiously over perceived missteps and mistakes, aghast at our own propensity for victimhood.

The paranoid dialogue is endless, overwhelming, and even debilitating at times. But when the suggestion is made to find what scares us, we think in cartoons; we use place holders like Vampires and scaly monsters in effigy…we ignore the list of darker memories, the unspeakable horrors that haunt our dreams and stalk our hopes and supplant it with lists of petty annoyances like dress codes and politics.

The two lists are indeed quite different, but they are related, and they may be both true. The petty list elicits chuckles or empathetic nods. But it is the first that makes everyone uncomfortable, because we can see ourselves reflected in the mirror like ghosts.

And it is the first list that is most often private. It is the one that circulates in your head and makes ulcers in your stomach. THAT is the one you need to go to…because that one is real. It doesn’t matter if it seems small by comparison to Other People’s troubles. If it haunts you…you are plagued by monsters.

Horror is all about profound truth.

But understand, it is not about confession. You don’t have to write a diary entry to write truth. You do not have to be graphic. You do not have to “out” the child molester in your family. You do not have to have a child molester in your family. But like friend Vampire, you need to draw the essence of the specific fear out to create a solid story around a real Horror.

You have to create resonance. So whether you are writing about a very real personal Horror or imagining one, you have to find the common ground shared by emotions…primal emotions.

Good news: Horror is all about emotions. We all have them. And we all know what is inferred when the right emotional buttons are pushed. You are unique; but what scares you is universal because we all share the same unspoken language of fear. Likewise, how something happened to you is unique. And when you write using those situations or their possibility, no one will ever know for sure if you are being biographical or just insightful and intuitive.

All you have to do if find those unique ways of combining words to summon the images of the monster: that is subtext in its elementary form, the lump of clay all stories start with. You already know how fear makes you feel – that is what is important and potent – everything else can (and probably should be) researched.

It is also where personal experience pushes out character and scene.

This is all Stephen King territory, by the way. King is absolutely tormented by what it is to be an awkward teenager: it clearly made an impression upon him which he cannot forget and which haunts him to this day. It’s why we love him: he gets it. He knows and writes about the awful dread of an acne outbreak right before the prom with your first real crush. He writes about social group rejection. About unrequited love. About how it feels to be bullied. About hating yourself at a time everyone else seems confident and gifted. And then he makes monsters who know exactly how to manipulate those fears.

But what you don’t see is that a whole repertoire of terror is right there in you right now… just waiting to be put to good use. Whether you are twelve or eighty, I guarantee you can dredge up the memories of your most horrible days. Contrary to every piece of adult advice, they do not go away. They live in effigy in your mind forever.

So you might as well put them to work.

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Writing What You Know

This little phrase is another snipe hunt novice writers are sent on.

We think we must wait to write then, until we have worked through our first “everything.” But it is not about some vast accumulation of life experiences. It is about empathy. About sentience.

So what if you want to write about a character who commits suicide? You can’t do that and live to tell the tale.

What if a character is an addict? Is the editor suggesting you should indulge before you can write “legitimately” about it?

Let’s be smart about this; of course not. So how do you write what you know?

For one thing, writing what you know means mining your own emotional reactions to personal experience and transferring THAT to your writing.

We all have unpleasantries in our lives, bad memories, embarassments, humiliations, things that went sideways. Nobody’s life is perfect…not really. Of course, maybe the Horror is that everyone thinks your life is perfect…

But in reality, it most certainly is not. Now, if only we as writers can tap into that…to drill down to the bone…

You know how it feels. So you must take how that feels and elevate it. Give those emotions and dreads and horrors to your characters, mask it just enough that there is room for the story itself…. story is biographical but NOT biography.

You can write about a horrible event, a tragic event, a true event – for example… but in order to reach other people at their core, it has to be about the reaction to the event…You must take all of your memories of how The Event marked and marred you, and season your story with those real memories and emotions…leaving just enough off that your reader must imagine the worst that comes after. You want the reader to discover what is happening…remember show-don’t-tell? Well here it is.

But here is the deal. You don’t have to have been there. You have only to be human enough to empathize, to be able to imagine the absolute horror of it.

For example, imagine how it must feel to accidentally kill a child with your car. The emotions are immediate, visceral…unforgiving. Most of us cannot even imagine how one could successfully move beyond that moment of pure hell.

So you don’t have to have actually been there. You can indeed write about anything, as long as you remember that out there –somewhere – someone already has lived it.

You need to care enough to get it right. That means – especially if you are young – you need a reader of your work that does indeed know something about the kind of tale you are trying to tell. Someone who can give you advice and let you know if you captured the reality of it or not. If you do not have the Life Experience required to be accurate in the telling of the tale, find someone who has. It’s not that difficult.

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But you also have an obligation to do as much as you can first.

Writing what you know is all about fear. Dread. Social blunders. Awkwardness. Vulnerability…That is something we all already know intimately...because of our very own personal past experience.

You have to dig deep. Mine those emotions and nightmares and reshape them in your characters.

That is writing what you know. Dragging the resonating fears out of us (your readers) is how you write good Horror. You must make your reader uncomfortable. And that means you must make yourself uncomfortable…to scare yourself, as Stephen King says.

And keep in mind that most of our genre’s most successful writers wrote their best as young people – before Life got in its licks, but emotion was king.

Sometimes great Horror is about the raw stuff we fear as young people and utilizing the brevity of youth to just say it…

But how far should you go?

The answer: as far as it takes.

Fear is never a “tah dah!” moment. It is a seedling.

It is a conclusion the reader makes… it is not a salacious moment of abhorrent adjectives. It is not cheap. The coin is very precious and you must spend it wisely. This means that much of the monster is never seen… just a claw here, a fang there, the drag-marks made by the victim.

The secret is you want the reader to imagine the worst and if you succeed in making that happen the worst will materialize right there in your writing… BETWEEN THE LINES. Unspoken. Unwritten…in subtext.

When you are successful, the reader will come away with chills, with a haunted memory of having read your story….not necessarily the details of it, but because you described it like you were there and you dragged the reader there.

Again, Stephen King. It’s why he is so successful at scaring us.

If you are going to write about the most horrifying thing in your life, it may be the best – or the worst – writing you will ever do. But don’t give up. Keep remolding the clay. Have you said too much? Too little? Used the wrong words? The wrong monster?

Did I tell you writing is hard?

Did I tell you writing is work?

Writing is also slow torture.

And Literary Critics look for that torture to last a lifetime of writing. Literary Critics look ultimately at a writer’s catalog of works, rummaging around in World View, looking for subtle changes in the writer and the life’s work the way they looked for World View itself in each individual work. They are looking for a kind of character arc – YOURS.

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The “why” comes as part of the sum total job that a Critic does: first they find a Literary work. And then they ask: was it a fluke? Or is the writer Literary?

Because we change as Life has its way with us, it is logical that our World View would change right along with us – either growing deeper and more resolute, or resulting in an epiphany of change. That is what the Critic needs (and hopes) to see over a writer’s lifetime. It is not what you as a writer construct, but what is constructed by the act of your writing.

So what if you are an older writer who is not exactly long on time? Then a Critic needs nuance…perhaps a revelation of those changes that have already happened by presenting good characterization and a passionately true depiction of those earlier views. Yet aging is no excuse: we most certainly do continue to change as we age. And that change will continue to inform your writing…if you remain honest.

Because writing is about the most personal, the most painful, the most outrageous emotions we contain and which subsequently rule and sabotage our subconscious, typically ruining everything that matters. It is all about extracting the pain that you have spent all those years trying to bury, to deny.

Writing is about life and death. Horror is about digging up the bodies.

But more importantly, Horror is all about you – the real you, the alone-in-the-room you.

And no one can tell the story that you will, as long as you write what scares you the most and write what you know. Because to showcase that lusted-after World View, you’re going to have to get personal. You’re going to have to scare the Lit out of yourself.

And nothing scares like honesty.

 

References

Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2007.

Phillips, Carl. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2014.

The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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