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

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Where Have All the Zombies Gone? (the Dawn of a New Monster Era)


Truth be told, it is hard for this generation of Horror fans to remember a time without Zombies. Yet such a time seems to be upon us.

Rather abruptly (and some may think at last), the Zombie Craze seems to be fading.

What does it all mean?

And perhaps the more interesting question is – if your Literary senses are tingling –what comes next?

For those too young to remember, there have been other monster-dominated decades…and to fans of Literary Horror, such changes in Horrors represent changes in our times, our societies, our very self-image. More than any other genre, Horror “represents.” Horror is the spirit of the times…the Zeitgeist of who we think we are. And as such, these monster transitions can be very telling.

In Literature, Horror plays a unique and indispensable part. Horror mirrors our social and cultural failings: it is our dirty laundry, hung out for the world to see. And it is meant to awaken us, to inspire change.

Our World history and our regional histories are decorated by the monsters of our choosing. Pay attention: THIS is how Literature moves in Horror…

Because even if you don’t think your genre is speaking loudly in Literary terms – even if you “just” read or write pulp – monsters have historically been stand-ins for what scares us the most.

And what scares us the most – is humanity itself.

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Growing Up Zombie: the Decades of American Disillusionment

It came at the end of the Reign of Vampires: the rise of the Zombie and the apocalyptic visions of a world we were clearly eager to see end.

But for Literary watchers, it also came coincidentally during the tenure of the George W. Bush Presidency – a time (2001 to 2009) when the United States was shaken rudely awake from its American Dream, “given more real life strife than it had seen since in the 1960s, including two very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destruction on the home front in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus massive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and the global economic meltdown [of] 2008…” And the subsequent Zombie movie milieu “fits in perfectly with these aforementioned national and world events because it functions on two levels simultaneously. On a literal level, Zombie movies concern rampaging monsters that want to eat your flesh and/or brains. But on another, more metaphorical level, these movies focus on the collapse of the familiar infrastructure that maintains our high-tech civilization.” (Muir 159)

This was a rather unpleasant rousing from our previous Literary monster decade – the Vampire Era – which seemed like a lazy summer reverie in comparison. Those were the times born of the Summer of Love and spurred by gender rights and sexual liberation. And I can’t help wondering if there must have been something about those amorous Creatures of the Night which pissed most of us off – or finished doing so – in order that we were willing to exchange Horror’s most beloved monster for something more like ourselves.

That’s right: we are the Dr. Frankensteins, creating the monsters in our own image. And therein hides the Literature.

The Zombie says a lot about us. The Zombie tells the world how we felt from the mid1980’s onward: like we were all being marginalized…like we were undervalued cogs in machinery that had swallowed us whole…like nothing of ourselves was valued or mattered. We began to see ourselves as hapless, unwitting victims. Conspiracy theories and suspicions of everything from our own neighbors, coworkers and government rose from the ashes of immolated Vampires. And we got angry.

It is no small coincidence that the rise of the Zombie coincided with the rise of Technology. In fact, the last time a monster rose in such a way to represent us en masse was during the Industrial Revolution when it was the Ghost who came to envision how we felt – like we were truly rendered dead and invisible in our own time…like the world suddenly lurched forward without us…like it didn’t even have the courtesy to wait until we died before burying us in time-stamped irrelevance.

During the Ghost Era we saw so much suddenly slipping through our fingers – some of it wrenched heartlessly from them – seizing our sense of spirituality and subsequent order of our universe and replacing tradition with an unsettling, rapidly changing uncertainty.

Literature abounds with examples of the heartless separation of humanity from a more acceptably paced march forward. Everywhere people were awakening as if from a stupor to find change unfettered, science dominating, the human touch in life left cold and uncaring. In the Ghost Era, we discovered we could no longer live the lies. And women’s voices rose in chorus to name the sins, spawning the Golden Era of spectral fiction that still today informs us strongly of that time in history.

It was not long after that our genre began documenting our own shock at the world around us…and all manner of Horrors and deceit and human tragedy was rendered in Horror form. From the psychological Horrors of Poe to the alien monstrosities of Lovecraftian nightmares, our genre continued to narrate the changes we all encountered, the fears we hid and the resentments we nurtured.

 

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https://tulsaballet.org/dracula/

In fact we had tried on many monsters on the way to the Vampire (a constant infatuation throughout our folkloric history) – including the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolfman – all in the attempt to make sense of self-discovery.

So when the Vampire came along again in the 1970’s to tease us about our sexual indiscretions, our Sexual Revolution and search for gender identity, the threat was more subtle…less encompassing… and certainly left us employed and believing what we did and who we were somehow mattered. It seemed a pleasant, if not superfluous distraction, its latent threat more shadowy. With the Vampire, the illusion that all was still well – just different – predominated. Not so in the Zombie Era.

When the Zombies rose, it was an apocalyptic moment. It was a sign that while we were sleeping, something had gone terribly wrong.

Much like the Time of the Ghost, the rise of the Zombie represented our minimalization by those we had trusted – a betrayal that wounded in private places made horribly public.

We had become mindless cogs in someone else’s machine. Our days grew from nine-to-five with weekends and holidays off, to 24/7/365…instead of eight hours including a lunch it became eight hours or more plus another for lunch, plus accommodation for breaks, plus longer and longer congested commutes, plus forget holiday pay or overtime, count yourself lucky you still have a job…plus fund your own darn retirement…and insurance…and education….

Worse, we now had jobs (many times multiple ones) instead of careers. And at any point, anywhere along the way anyone from a politician to a coworker could take it all away with a single fib.

We had trusted, invested, and committed. And we were summarily robbed. Unbeknownst to minorities and immigrants, the betrayal had at last reached all the way up the ladder of entitlement…We were – all of us for that moment in time – equalized by an impending sense of doom, poverty, ill health and despair.

The world as we knew it and had relied on with its haphazard, unequally applied rules, was indeed ending.

And so the Zombie rose…hungry for mindless vengeance to supplicate mindless anger at a mindless society which eviscerated us without apparent care.

Because the Zombie is all about humanity, according to John Russo in his foreward to The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead, “about human beings, with all their good qualities and all their bad qualities, having to fight for survival against tremendous odds and daunting, soul-deadening destruction…[and] how we may rise to the occasion when we are in extreme jeopardy or how we may fail.” (xvii)

So this Zombie was different than any Zombie that came before.

Simply rising from the grave with a need to dine on brains wasn’t nearly enough to satiate our fury at what was happening in the world – at what was happening to us.

This new Zombie did not rise alone, but rose in hordes….walked in herds…swarmed like hungry locusts to purge the land of all we had built.

And we were different too – we who survived the first onslaught to fight the menace. WE rose as well…grabbing guns and bats and crossbows and swords and hatchets… We fought back in unspeakable violence – so much so that we shocked ourselves.

In earlier versions of the Zombie, the Zombie was the Horror. In this one, it was not only how the Zombie comes to be, but the hideous violence that we ourselves inflict on the Zombie that is the real Horror.

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How Furious Are We? ZombieLit…

As in the Industrial Revolution, the Technology Revolution has disfigured our ability to see ourselves out of it, and we cannot separate this newer revolution from the human carnage of today. Now as then we have experienced massive job loss, massive blows to our loyalties, our sense of worth, our very identities. Talk of retraining the masses has been a lie for most of us; and when thousands of jobs are replaced by one or two, that leaves a lot of us free to stew in anger.

Unfortunately, we are not very creative when we are reeling in personal pain. How angry are we?

Just look at what we have undone in the United States with one rebellious presidential election. Because this is what is going to inform our Literature for the next few decades…

This is not about liking or disliking a president or American politics. This is all about the surfacing of major divisions that have been simmering beneath the surface of contentment and “progress” in our country and the world at precisely the same time Technology has completely reshaped how we interact with the world, how we process TRUTH and FACTs and understand what we ARE or ARE NOT entitled to…

Rather than fix the problems our own greed has created, we have chosen the old default in a time we should know better: to blame the Other.

This is why the Zombie has gone away…

The World as we knew it has ended. And no amount of tantrum-throwing is going to fix things. Yet far too many of us fear our own adulthood. We search for blame and make it up if it suits our purposes.

We have become exactly what our enemies have been calling us.

And it wasn’t the fault of a political party or one black President. It was the fault of our own insatiable greed – the greed to be better than our own neighbors, to keep our own job even if it meant hundreds of other people losing theirs, if it meant pretending it was their own fault for not being bright enough or lucky enough to live and work where the Tech Revolution had not yet reached its suffocating tentacles, to bestow the title of Too Big To Fail on an irrational, select few.

Now that job loss and identity compromise has begun to hit the last of the holdouts – the ones who belittled the evisceration of millions of their own countrymen and -women – NOW there is a crisis.

Now bonking Zombies with a hatchet isn’t enough and is no longer funny. It is no longer sufficient. Because it DIDN’T WORK.

Because it is the upper classes, the wealthy, the alleged job-makers who have risen unscathed from the death threat… Surrounded by hordes of Zombies too oblivious or too greedy or too fearful themselves, these ever self-wealth-replenishing masters of the universe cannot be reached. The boss you dreamed of walloping over the Zombie head or eating the brains of is safely in the bunker he had you build.

Anger is no surprise. Blaming the Other is the disappointment.

Most of us had so hoped we were beyond this…

It is a sad fact of humanity that when we cannot get at the real problem, we get at the one we can reach….the convenient one.

And sometimes we are so, so angry we are willing to divest ourselves of important things in order to release that anger in mindless vengeance.

This is how a country like the United States begins rolling back human rights. This is how we rationalize doing so.

We are so brainwashed into believing that only the rich – in their wondrous, pure humanity – have the capacity to save us, that we forget we saved ourselves by forming this country in the first place. We forget we gave all future generations the tools to save each other.

We treat the Other like those Zombies – rending them limb from limb without the slightest human compassion all in an effort to vent without biting the hand we are told feeds us.

How soon we all forget….

We forget the Native American code-talkers that saved us in one war, the African American soldier that (forgiving the rest of us our judgment of them) shared our fox-hole in another, the immigrant soldiers who fight the same enemies in our name in order to participate in what used to be the world’s greatest Democracy, the foreign nationals who have given their lives or risked them to stand beside us, the Asian Americans who have built our infrastructure – not once, but twice over now, the gay Americans who have given us incomparable culture in unexpected ways, the American woman who has fought her own battles while defending those that cast long shadows on a mutual future, the Founding Fathers who without remembering to define what a “man” was freed forever what the definition of a “man” would be…

For certain our history has not been neat. But at least we could claim a percentage of ignorance in and of our own times. This – this new monstrosity rising from the ashes of the Zombie Apocalypse – is being resuscitated in the full light of day.

Where we could excuse ancestors for misinterpreting, for doing the best they could with what they had and what information they had…This time it is on US.

This time it is on PURPOSE.

For those gleefully waving the bat, the flag, the hatchet and the noose, there will be no forgiveness by your descendants. The stain here will be too great to cover with lies the rest of the world can already see through.

That any of us would STILL resort to blaming whole peoples for our own errors in judgment, our own misplaced trust, our own unwillingness to remake and reinvent ourselves is just plain indefensible.

We are lazy.

We are greedy.

We are selfish.

Way to make the terrorists of this world look right. Because now that the Zombie is dead, something else will rise to take its place.

I am betting on the Werewolf.

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Not The Good Old Days, Howling at the Moon

Chances are, if the Zombie was different this time around, so will the Werewolf be. In fact, the “Modern Werewolf” has already done some serious changing – slipping away from the simple, unfortunate nip in the moonlight to become (like the Vampire) an empathetic creature.

According to Nathan Robert Brown in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves, “Werewolves are no longer depicted in exclusively negative or evil light. In fact, modern pop culture has embraced the werewolf as a rebellious antihero. Similar to modern-day motorcycle gangs, they move and hunt and live and die as a pack, and they live outside society’s rules. Pack law is the only law. In the last century, werewolves have been embraced by every medium of pop culture. They’ve become major figures in literature, films, art, comic books, and even video games. In America, urban legends about werewolves have sprung up with increasing frequency over the last 50 years.” (109)

I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of our modern outsider, rebel political factions right there. I hear the phrase “silent majority.”

Here we have a creature that cannot control its fury, who while in “human form” cannot fathom the carnage it creates, who cannot remember its animal behavior (which is far too convenient to ignore here), and who hides among the rest of us undetected, and for whom the end justifies the means. Like a mean drunk justifying his or her actions, everyone and everything else is responsible for the ensuing bloodshed – real or imagined.

Remember the last election? Yeah, I don’t know half of the people I thought I did, either…

But what I do know is that the Werewolf always denies he or she is a Werewolf – because that would be a horrible thing to be.

So they become in their own minds – if Were-anything – Werepoodles, I assume.

Where once they were unfortunate, hapless victims themselves… now with a kind of mental Photoshop, they are free to remake themselves into vigilantes – heroes of the state, the arm of popular justice…the same ones who say it is better to execute an innocent man now and then than miss one single guilty one.

And as we learned from the Zombie Apocalypse, there is safety in numbers…

Instead of being an isolated case, now we have Were-communities.

Like the Vampire Mega-Covens and the Zombie Hordes before them, we no longer think in singular terms….This is about survival. So what if other people think we are wrong to become a monster rather than cease to exist: they aren’t here with us.

Besides. They can’t get all of us if we swarm them, and if there is more than one of us, we are in the right…right? And if collateral damage happens, it cannot be helped…what can one person do in the face of the rise of Hell itself? The Devil made us do it…sure it looks like me, but it wasn’t me….I was just following the pack, the will of the people, orders….

For some of us, the familiarity of the excuses makes the hair stand on end, the hackles rise, our own fangs bare…

Like the Zombie Apocalypse before it, this new Horror is all about the Little Guy surviving the end of all reasonable things. And that means your neighbor may not in fact be your neighbor…but something else….something come to destroy all that the Zombies left of you…

And so what if the Werewolf is US? Or a spouse? Or a relative? Or a boss?

Forget the blood dripping from their lips….look at all of the STUFF they get to keep…

And if you keep feeding them Others, they might leave you alone.

Except they won’t. They can’t help themselves. They are sociopathic predators. You aren’t them. They are better than you.

Beware of Dog. Because like the Zombie Apocalypse, it is most likely not you who will survive. Once the carnage starts, we are ALL meat.

Read any old Werewolf story. Read what happens to the victims of the Werewolf.

In its animal form it can barely stop itself from devouring what it loves in its human form.

Do you want to take that chance?

How’d ya do stopping the Zombie Apocalypse? The Industrial Revolution? The Tech Revolution?

This is going to take more than Wolfsbane.

All of us better be prepared to lose some flesh.

Because if the Werewolf is back, we have to remember that as much as we once valued the human form, we are going to have to put the animal down, because indeed we might not be speaking of folklore anymore…

What cannot be trusted, what randomly and wantonly and indiscriminately destroys what we have – all of us – built, cannot be suffered to live and thrive and reproduce.

Horror “represents…”

Get your silver bullets. There will be blood. And this time, it will most likely be justifiably our own.

z5

References

Brown, Nathan Robert. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves. New York: Alpha Books, c2009.

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

John Russo. “Why Don’t They Die?” Foreward. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead Langley, Travis, ed. New York: Sterling Press, c2015.

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.