“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part One)


Here’s the question in debate: Is Horror a subgenre of Weird Fiction, or is Weird Fiction a subgenre of Horror?

When I returned to college and began to comprehend the organizational structure of Literature as established by Literary Criticism, I thought it would be fun to apply the substance of what I was learning to Horror. Why? Because I was convinced there was structure in Horror.

There had to be. Right?

But what I found not only surprised me; turned out it was interesting, too…Because Horror – having long been the splinter in the flesh to Literary purists – had only the structure and spurts of structure authors and Critics had sporadically given it. And once we left English soil, American Horror’s plan to re-invent itself instead resulted in a kind of Literary disorientation rife with distracting rumors and its own mythology.

To my surprise I discovered that there was no canon; there was historically no established Criticism by Critics other than essays and articles created to roundly condemn the genre as genre (and its writers by association); and that the very genre name was something even its authors historically argued over.

Horror – as the red-headed-stepchild of speculative fiction – continues to emerge from the darkness in this country, shedding forms as it grows, morphing from one interpretation to the next as it blindly seeks to discover and define itself.

No wonder the Critics are frustrated and our writers seem to wander and careen about the genre…

How then do we have a discussion, let alone a debate? Answer: we listen to the words of our best writers and the constructive comments of new Critics…. Then we all need to participate in the careful examination of points presented.

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

Perhaps the first and most surprising thing for this child of the sixties to trip over was the discovery that Horror was not always Horror. In fact, the name “Horror” for the genre was a relatively “recent” attachment. Horror – as we know it – began with names we no longer call it.

Those earlier names made it clear that stories told under the genre umbrella were largely sensational short works designed for quick chills and thrills with their folk roots showing: Ghost Stories, Spectral Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Thrillers, Tales of Terror, Gothic Fiction… Critics were quick to point out their campfire glow, their dependence on both superstition and the naiveté and/or rural links associated with the illiterate and uneducated masses.

In other words, the genre was considered childish and unsophisticated; it was most certainly not for a mature audience tuned to the marvels of modern scientific thought, and it was not a genre that represented our best profile. And as the genre blossomed at the precise time of the industrial revolution and the birth of technology, it was an unwelcome reminder of times ruled by emotions instead of analytical thought.

So emotion became both the hallmark of and the motivation behind the choice of genre name. The choice seemed likely: Horror was what you were promised in those early publications…. terror…fear…creepy… scary….eerie…frightening….amazing…astounding…unbelievable… indescribable… tales.

The parade of adjectives led directly to the name “Horror.” And it did so because it managed to encompass and corral all of the many subgenres that were developing their own rules and authors. This is not to say that all of those subgenres are subgenres of Horror… but that “Horror” was hung as a name over all of the writings in the genre – whatever its proper name should have been…

We cannot know what would have happened in the vacuum of a printing press-less world. Writers were already sharing and bending terms to their purposes, and perhaps it was Critical derision that resulted in the spotty criteria writers used to define and clarify subgenres. But despite the best efforts of some editors and some writers, terms and definitions began to swim and swirl in the creative currents until many became inseparable from each other.

Meanwhile even as the first publishing boom was happening and pulp dotted the writing landscape, a small detachment of writers began writing something “new”… and they were calling it “Weird.”

Lovecraft3

It was the emergence of the Weird tale – a proliferation of the strange, the supernatural, the cosmic dominated by unique group of writers who knew their fiction was “different” than the norm, and who did not consider themselves so much “horror” writers that sparked the venom anew of earlier Critics and now hold the academic interest of contemporary Critics.

But something weird happened to the Weird: while it began before Lovecraft, it seemed to culminate with his efforts, thereafter sliding into a combination of hackneyed Literary efforts and Critical disinterest. For Critics today, there is a noticeable pair of bookends surrounding this period, and to at least one modern Critic, the thread that made the Weird so fascinating a kind of story has been all but lost.

Joshi1

Says S.T. Joshi –the most prominent of Literary Critics now laying the Critical groundwork necessary for Literary Criticism in our genre – “It is my impression that what has frequently been termed the ‘ghettoization’ of weird fiction – especially in America – occurred as a direct result of the pulp magazines. All of the standard ‘genres’ we now recognize — mystery, horror, science fiction, western, romance – either grew out of the pulp magazines of the 1920’s (even though the pulps as originally conceived at the turn of the century were by no means specialized in terms of content) or received considerable impetus from them…” And here Joshi asserts “As a result, weird material in particular disappeared almost entirely from mainstream magazines, since there seemed to develop a notion that such material now had a market of its own.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4)

One has only to look at the assortment of magazines to see the coalescence of our genre into semi-firm molds of subgenre. Early writers had already began to weigh in, discussing in essays exchanged in letters and Amateur Press Associations the nature of what was being written – all as part of the argument that the genre had a glimmer of Literary offerings. But just as things might have been becoming clearer, the paperback was born…and back to the primal mud our genre crawled… and it may have taken the Weird with it.

The official market “tagging” of the genre by publishers as “Horror” sometime in the 1970’s all but obliterated the earlier discussions. Weird fiction – which had its own audience and writers – became an alternative adjective instead of the noun it was intended to be. Publishers – not being Critics – saw a sales-driven mission of lumping everything together into a broad category – whereas Critics and writers are wont to separate and define. Editors were somewhere in the middle, and have been trying to argue their way out for some time.

But perhaps the most damaging and consequential result was what happened to the rest of us… because the publishing boom did something else – instead of enlightening us all to the history and progression of the genre, it simply ceased to clearly define subgenres and instead vomited up a plethora of terms for which none of us had immediate association. No wonder we lost the ability to build on the Weird tradition in this country; we lost our vision of tradition altogether.

Those of us “coming of age” in the genre of the 1970’s and 80’s were awed by the tossing about of terms, certain that those who were using them knew what they meant. We never dreamed that they did not. And it has been the genre nerds who woke us up – the Lovecraft fans, the passionate heirs and curators of the Weird.

While the rest of us were luxuriating in the massive deluge of scary and strange stuff, even pretending we understood the term “Gothic,” we were losing everything we had gained in genre awareness. In this country, it was the Weird fan who kept us grounded by adhering to a bold and determined declaration of ‘genre.’ Those of us not disciples of the Weird were ignorantly adrift in a flotsam of alleged subgenres that shared and cross-pollinated names and distorted conventions.

While Horror was exploding onto the popular fiction scene, it seemed that American writers became disoriented instead of inspired. It did not matter that writers referred to what we now consider classic works; we did not feel the connection to recreate it. If you read American 1980’s Horror, what started out as inspired eventually becomes circular and redundant. Today’s American Horror is still stuck in that rut, prompting many of us as writers and fans to return to Lovecraft and Poe to try to figure out where we lost that thread of continuity while others try to hide behind the concerted effort to force the genre into a more Literary straitjacket.

I don’t know how it feels for European writers, for British writers of the genre… But here in the U.S. it is confusion resulting from our lost or disordered history that seems to dominate and dog our fiction. It prompts both editors and Critics to say we don’t comprehend what has already been done or done to death in the genre.

That in turn has caused a resurgence of interest in the Weird – and in Lovecraft specifically. We may not understand what we feel, but we know we feel it in Lovecraft’s shadow. So we sit there in it… enveloped in tentacles, begging Cthulhu to tuck some Horror in our minds. Editors feel it, too: we are awash in Lovecraftian-themed anthologies, struggling to recapture the elements that make Weird fiction so effective a storytelling device. But then we ran into a complication. Whether it is subgenre or genre, where are the rules?

Suddenly those of us who thought we could write it find no guidance and empty references to unnamed conventions and undefined formulas.

What is Weird Fiction? And if so many people can reference it, why can’t anyone define it?

We thought it was us.

Yet the more we set out to understand what was “wanted by the genre” (itself a paradox because we have abdicated who the authority of the genre is and publishers are never the genre even as this is who we continue to look to even now), the more the structure of genre evaporated. Our conventions are convoluted and polluted. Our fiction is substandard and hybridized and we feel it but cannot name it. The epiphany will come from Innsmouth…of that we all seem certain.

What we have to realize is that the train came off the rails with the hand-over-fist American publishing boom of the 1980’s. We buried the essays and drowned the voices of the early genre writers with a flood of new writers seeking careers in storytelling. Certainly a peek at all of the financial reasons is self-explanatory, but only a handful of thoughtful editors who placed important Critical writings and author commentary in the front matter and endpapers of classic collections of the genre kept our history from completely going dark. When we began to follow the Pied Piper and call the genre Horror, we ceased to see what else it might have been.

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

Now we are scraping all of these commentaries together, and our first Literary Critics are having the task of sorting out exactly where the genre was heading before the boom of reading, writing, and publishing that inflated the 1980’s into a wanton writer’s market. As already stated, prior to that time Horror had been addressed by many other names, and had already established a long and tumultuous history of impoverished writers condemned for their artistic choices.

When the emergence of the mass market paperback created the explosion of affordable fiction which seeded the Horror boom, it also created a generation of readers who knew the genre by one name only: Horror. For most of us, “Weird” as a term has no traction in our memories, and there is no clear understanding in our composition of contemporary writing. We are Horror writers, we say… and isn’t “Weird” just a synonym for “strange?”

Mieville 2

This is where newer writers need the Literary Critic – or at least those with Critical analytic capabilities such as writer and Critic China Mieville – who can help put our socks on straight. Mieville not only helps us greatly by reminding us that the “invention” of the tentacle heavily influences the texture of what should be considered Weird, but that “Weird fiction [shares] with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that [is] in fact saturated with the uncanny.”(Mieville  xiii)

Our hackneyed understanding of the Weird has now spilled into our own interpretations of what we are trying to write, or think we are writing. It is presenting a problem for some Critics, who themselves are trying to unravel a clear understanding of what the effective Weird was and now find themselves awash in what some writers are calling Weird fiction that appears to be not. And sometimes it is when something is diluted that the pure solution becomes more obvious.

The more Critics look at the original writings and writers of the Weird, the bigger, more viable its legitimate core seems to get…So much so, that some are starting to propose that Weird fiction encapsulates Horror, and not the other way around.

Asserts S.T. Joshi, “Strictly speaking I regard ‘horror’ as a subset of the weird, since fantasy of the Dunsany or Tolkien type is just as much a branch of weird fiction as any other, and ‘horror’ itself must be subdivided into supernatural and nonsupernatural horror” (Joshi-Modern Weird 3). For Joshi, the impervious structure needed to provide a broad foundation for subgenres is already fractured when attempting to apply the name “Horror” to the whole genre – a Critical sign that it cannot be the parent of Weird offspring and is therefore not the correct name to use.

Mieville proposes that “Traditionally, genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo—one which the protagonists frantically scrabble to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft’s horror [Lovecraft being the towering genius among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point] is not one of intrusion but realization.” (Mieville xii-xiii)

While Mieville’s description of the Weird simply seems to differentiate between what we perceive as Horror and what we experience as the Weird, he actually has something in common with Joshi. It is important to note that like Joshi’s interpretation, in Mieville’s look at the two in the context of a Horror versus Weird as genre argument, it is again the Weird that provides greater Literary foundation which seems more potent and Literarily promising than any singular assemblage of the moving parts of Horror.

This is not to say that sometimes the argument for Weird as a more likely independent and Literary genre doesn’t get – well – weird…

Another – and I find odd – part of this dissatisfaction with the term “Horror” is encapsulated by Joshi’s exasperated question, “What other mode of writing is designated by an emotion?” As Joshi interprets it, “horror” is a term rendered even more inadequate for him as a Critic because “The term ‘horror’ also suggests” – and he emphasizes – “(falsely, to my mind) that the arousal of fear is somehow the prime concern of weird writing” instead of the more Literary depiction of world view. (Joshi-The Modern Weird 3)

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

I find that this part of the argument against the term “Horror” implies that the word “Horror” as applied to genre involves only the emotion of fear and not its cousins – dread, discomfort, disturbance, disgust. I find that both Horror AND Weird fiction has some of those elements on a regular basis (as apparently does Mieville (“Lovecraft’s stories …move tightly and precisely, evoking growing foreboding…aggregating a sense of dread and awe” (xii)) – and those adjectives are especially evident in the descriptions used to define cosmic horrors and human failures. So while I empathize with Joshi on this point, I do not agree with him. I do agree with Joshi, however, that the intrusion of “world view” in Weird fiction is of Literary blood, and is an important point in establishing the criteria that would define Weird fiction as a genre/subgenre.

For Literary Critics, this relevance to bigger things – to the real issues that shape and affect humanity – is what defines Literature. And as such, it is the bread crumb trail that helps identify when something in genre writing is bigger than genre. It is most certainly there in the Weird. But is Literature always the biological parent? Or might the parent be a gangly, disproportioned and lovingly awkward mutt?

With so much confusion and overlap of genre and subgenre, the muddle of terms, Joshi admits with considerable exasperation: “I do not know what one is to do about this whole issue.” However just because a matter is entangled by centuries of amateur theories does not mean it should not be UN-entangled….clarified….and committed to. And Joshi himself cannot seem to let it go, because the question and argument of which came first haunts all of his work on Criticism in our genre.

So while I do not agree that “Horror” being an emotion disqualifies it from being a genre name, I do agree with Mr. Joshi that study and discussion of this messy subject is necessary to sort it all out. And I agree that if Literary Critics can do so with legitimate theoretical reasons for creating a better terminology for the genre, then it should be done. We may all have our preferences, but the truth of the matter is that until we settle on terms and definitions, we cannot present arguments or press works through Critical Theories.

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

Deciding what we call ourselves may seem a moot point, but for Critics, the name of the structural tree from which we hang our Literature does matter. And it should matter to us as writers, so we can be certain we are delivering the goods to our readers, and making conscious choices about the quality and creative direction of our fiction.

Like the new Literary Critic, we need to revisit the discussion that was in play during the time of Lovecraft… Because if we are to argue the Literary merits of the genre, we have to start thinking more like the Literary Critic and that means we must be looking at what we write and where it falls on the scale of genre definitions. And that means we must not be adverse to the reordering of terms and conventions.

It’s time to go there… and due to the length of the discussion, we will in the succeeding post.

 

References

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

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c1990.

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: he Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.

Horror the Second Time Around: the Paradox of Misremembering Scary Things


In the constant quest to scare myself and compare newer works to old, I have come to notice something peculiar happening: when I choose to revisit that special movie or book a second time to recapture that eerie, horrified feeling of doom and dread… to savor it once again, to relive the scary…the magic isn’t there. (Or maybe I should say: the same magic isn’t there.)

In fact, whole sections of rather detailed – and what I recall as emotionally integral – terrifying scenes routinely turn up muted or missing.

How can this be? What happens to the mind reading Horror or sitting in a dark theater that we invent so much that isn’t there? Does Horror really lose its effectiveness because we get older? How do we come to misremember the Horror that we remember so well?

Our Brains in a Jar: the Science of Horror

When H.P. Lovecraft rose to the defense of our genre in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, speaking against the Literary Critics of his time, he stated:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (105).

Savor those words a minute…because the literary definition of Horror has long been “stories that exploit fear…”

It is around the potency of this emotion that the Horror genre (even when called Weird) is built. And for that exact reason, every student of Horror should dig deeply into the anatomy of fear. Of course that means digging into some science – specifically the science of the brain (neuroscience), the science of perception (psychology), and the science of the body (biology).

Because for anyone who ever wondered why watching the movie or reading the book the second time around is so totally not the same experience, reading up on the technical end of things sheds some fascinating light. Horror, it would appear, it a whole-body experience.

One of the most interesting books I happened across recently is called What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund. The associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf and designer of some pretty iconic book covers, Mendelsund did some interesting digging of his own into the application of imagination in reading.

What do we see when we read? This (it turns out) is a very interesting question. Because apparently, reading is a kind of marriage between what the author suggests and what we remember.

You read right: what we remember. Because according to Mendelsund, we build new literary images from consolidating relevant or similar details born of our own experiences.

Says Mendesund, “the idea of [a] house, and the emotions it evokes in me are the nucleus of a complex atom, around which orbit various sounds, fleeting images, and an entire spectrum of personal associations.” (207)

Furthermore, “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: what we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours…and the feeling has primacy over the image…” (207)

So when we read, we reach into that catalogue of remembrances for the most similar thing and attach it to the skeleton of the author’s words. We shape and refine, correct and adapt as the author gives us more information, but the power of the moment – the very images we associate with that first reading – are not only retained in ghostly fashion, but are most likely ours and based on our personal experiences at that moment in time.

Says Mendelsund, “Much of our reading imagination comprises visual free association…untethered from the author’s text… (we daydream while reading)…A novel invites our interpretive skills, but it also invites our minds to wander…” (294)

And wander Horror minds do…

It goes back to the psychology of the moment associated with the image the author has summoned by the spell of his or her words. Say our victim is wandering an old house in her nightgown. We all have a concept of an old house in mind, but we all also most like remember a very specific old house, one that had some creepy element that haunts us still. We also all understand what it is to discover that we are not safe after all when we are asleep at night (at our most vulnerable, very likely naked or nearly so). So with one simple concept, likely one simple sentence, we have created the whole scary house and put ourselves in it.

We remember, we empathize, and we shiver. It doesn’t matter that, as we read the book, we concede certain facts to the revelations of the author – who constantly divulges them bit by bit. We keep what we kill.

“When we remember reading books, we don’t remember having made these constant little adjustments…We simply remember it as if we had watched the movie…” (Mendelsund 53)

Unfortunately, when we re-read the same sentence years later, we very often have more houses to compare the images to, and have made some decisions about sleeping naked (or nearly so). Therefore when we read the same book or passage years later, it is not the same because the house is different, the victim is different, and the survival plan has changed.

The truth of why Horror doesn’t scare you the same way a second time is one of biology: you changed and the book did not.

Thank God! It’s Brain Science & Not Old Age…

People like to say that Horror is a young person’s game. They claim that it is really a Young Adult obsession, or worse – a phase.

But it turns out that this is not completely true. Of course there are consequences to growing older that affect how our brains ­process Horror. And that has more to do with memory than it has to do with becoming more “emotionally mature.”

But the good news is: if you love Horror, you can love it all of your life. Contrary to speculation (if not popular opinion), we do not outgrow Horror… we out-fox it.

First, we have to look at the profile of those who like Horror, who love to scare themselves, those who refuse to let go of the genre. While there may be a thrill-seeker or two among us, we tend to be pretty “normal” types. But we do confess to having an addiction to adrenaline rushes that a good Horror story can inflict. Having seen what Real Life can do, we also tend to prefer the mental-emotional playground that is the Horror genre.

We also tend to have been the types that have drilled ourselves relentlessly from childhood on how to survive life-threatening events – including the monster under the bed. Only now we choose Zombies over middle-eastern wars, troublesome Ghosts over broken social mores, Vampires over empty relationships. We still have minds that like to work on problem-solving (as all humans do). So we like to pimp our ride: we decorate the threat with shreds of rotting flesh and fangs dripping with radioactive drool and see if we can survive the experience of the encounter.

The reason any of this works or presents any “value” is because of what that little primal germ of fear enables in the brain. As Mendelsund says with regard to the feeling, we “do not want it supplanted by facts.” (206) We crave the feeling of fear.

So with Horror we recreate the tiger in the tall grass, and every time we make him bigger, gnarlier, scarier…to challenge ourselves.

We practice survival of the primal instincts as complicated by the rational mind.

And biology is our co-pilot.

…Because it is the nature of biology to adapt to changing circumstances and ever-changing threats, and Horror is one biological roller coaster ride that lasts from the first sensory intake, loop-de-loops through the amygdala, races through the nerve endings and thrusts fast-twitch muscle fibers of our legs into action even as the scream leaves our mouths.

Yet even then something is happening in our brains – young or old – that makes a significant difference in recapturing that same feeling more than once.

Just as we are hard-wired to jump at indistinct motion in the darkness (thus illuminating the biology behind the jump-scare success of Hollywood), we are hard-wired to catalog the experience for comparison later.

A tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat…you scream…

And you live to tell all your friends the next day over lunch. The next night, a tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat… you wonder where it is coming from….

Already your brain has logged the experience as non-lethal and maybe not even important – just curious.

Your brain has stepped in and…”helped” you. Now you won’t waste precious time and calories running crazily and needlessly through the tall grass. You can wait for the next tiger. The bigger, more lethal tiger. Because this one has shown you all of the criteria for being present and noticed but not a danger to you – not worth endangering yourself. See enough tigers, and you might become desensitized.

Suddenly the Zombie is just this wobbly dead guy; sure he’s ugly, but he’s slow and if you split open his head, it is Life As Usual. Big whup. What else you got?

But this is not necessarily a good thing. Every Zombie has the potential to be different the way every tiger is different. Sometimes we have to remind the brain that it is prudent to run… which is why the rational part of our brain keeps buying into Horror. Deep down, we know we are prey and we really, really want to run…

But this presents a challenge for the makers of Horror, who battle their own cardboard tigers even as they figure a way to surprise their audience with new and improved tigers to fool the brain… So the successful Horror story becomes one in which a new Horror emerges – one you never thought of. It means we have to find ways to outsmart ourselves and our increasingly desensitized audience.

Which makes writing and reading Horror as an older person …even harder; we go through more books and movies before we find a passable scare because as we get older, we have a much thicker catalog to compare things to. But it also means (if we are also writers) that we have the opportunity to make things even more interesting.

Misremembering: It’s Not You, It’s ME

It’s so easy to blame the filmmaker or think the author tricked us. Somehow. All that time ago.

Because the truly weird thing about Horror the second time around is the inserting of whole scenes that we come to discover were never there.

How and why we do this resides in the way human memory works. Because we form memories from a collection of our own experiences – even as we are gathering new ones – every monster is Frankenstein. When we read or see certain images, they resonate with our subconscious and glom together in the darkness of our imagination. Sometimes right in the middle of a book or a movie we go off on a primrose path lined with gothic bleakness and horrible thoughts or crippling fears born of our own personal experiences… our own minds present a few what-if scenarios connected more to our pasts than to what we are reading or seeing and we subconsciously press the emotions generated right into the pages of a book or the cells of a film. We create a ghost of those personal memories and mistakenly think the book or film is speaking directly to us. But then we risk imagining terrors greater than what are actually shown or described. And terror lasts a long, long time in our limbic system.

Being aware of this recollection and comparison of intimate and personal Horrors makes no difference to the outcome.

Even as we rationalize about how that moment is taking us right to this or that memory or traumatic event, it is incorporated into the exoskeleton of the story. Later when we recall the book or film, we remember the terror invoked even when it was our own terror that rose from the ashes of real memory or supposition. We attach those emotions to that fiction and tell ourselves, “that was a good Horror story.”

We even tell our friends. And then they go see it or read it and think it was inane or toothless and tell us so.

And then in indignation, we go and read it or see it again and think what was I thinking? What about that scene where… But there is no such scene. Or it is a big nothing…a field of monster seedlings that no longer germinate in your mind.

Your brain has moved on.

And boy, do you miss that scary part that was never, ever there. You can keep the book as long as you like, but the fairy glamour has dissipated…a fading spell, well-worn even as it has been touched and caressed many times in the imagination. The Horror has become a ghost.

It’s called “emotional re-learning,” and it’s how we manage our trauma which, in turn, transforms the impact of the original Horror.

Here we can learn a lot from sufferers of PTSD. For example, “the sense in which PTSD patients feel ‘unsafe’ goes beyond the fears that dangers lurk around them; their insecurity begins more intimately, in the feeling that they have no control over what is happening in their body and to their emotions. This is understandable, given the hair trigger for emotional hijacking that PTSD creates by hypersensitizing the amygdala circuitry.” (Goleman 210-211)

Nobody wants that. Except that we do –as Horror fans. It is exactly what we attempt to create and experience in a good genre novel or film. But the revelation as to why Horror loses its punch the second time around has a lot to do with how PTSD sufferers resolve their traumas…

Because one step in healing PTSD “involves retelling and reconstructing the story of the trauma in the harbor of that safety, allowing the emotional circuitry to acquire a new, more realistic understanding of and response to the traumatic memory and its triggers. As patients retell the horrific details of the trauma, the memory starts to be transformed, both in its emotional meaning and in its effects on the emotional brain.” (Goleman 211)

In other words, it is the turning on of the lights and the exiting of the theatre where “The therapist encourages the patient to retell the traumatic events as vividly as possible, like a horror home video, retrieving every sordid detail…the goal here is to put the entire memory into words, which means capturing parts of the memory that may have been dissociated and so are absent from conscious recall. By putting sensory details and feelings into words, presumably memories are brought more under control of the neocortex, where the reactions they kindle can be rendered more understandable and so more manageable.” (Goleman 212)

What Horrors cannot be rewired? The ones we can’t put into words… I detect a conundrum…

Every time we intentionally revisit the memory of that movie or book that scared us so well, every time we read it or see it or talk about it, we remove a tooth from the tiger…we are rewiring the memory and its requisite trauma. And we can’t help ourselves. It’s a brain thing.

The Difference Between HD and Analog

The pure biological truth is tough: we are going to have to outwit ourselves, to trick our brains into being scared in order to keep enjoying Horror. We do that by making and seeking monsters that are infinitely indistinct, partially sensed, indescribable, primal creatures. We do it by letting the audience fill in important blanks with their own PTSD, phobias, and painfully personal details.. and then by not spoiling those images with a far-too total reveal.

Look at Stephen King’s It (in particular in movie form)…a great, truly creepy story that I always abandon at the ending. It got ruined when they wheeled out the Muppet Spider. It was too much information that my own brain had a solution for (a really big shoe). I much prefer to stay in that nebulous, monster-and-clown-infested country that Stephen King novels create before Hollywood gets hold of them.

It really is the difference between analog and HD… because our brains (once they categorize something) shift the images right into analog: worthy of note, but not anything to write home about… a kitschy black and white monster with the zipper showing. We see that the tiger has gray on its muzzle and a bit of a limp; we suspect we can out run him.

In our first encounter on the savannah we saw sudden, undefined motion in the dark…then the green glow of eyes…then TEETH… we imagined the claws ripping us apart and we screamed and grabbed our boyfriends. Or girlfriends. We came out of the movie theater or put down the book and felt positively breathless…like we had stood in a wind tunnel that sucked away everything but us…

But once the biology sets in, there is no getting that feeling back. Once we see tons of tigers, we start counting stripes instead of teeth. We biologically forget the danger because our experience nullifies it. Our inner computer updates with what is – in reality – wrong information. But it is right for the suburban family whose main concern is paying the cable bill and what’s for dinner. Horror works when the writer or film maker can change out the predictability expected by our brains. And what works for me might not work for you…

This is why success in Horror is spelled Stephen King: he connects with the broadest sampling of modern fears. The rest of us (in trying to out-Horror the King of Horror) all too frequently discover that our fears are more to the outside of the mean. Maybe we like Old Horror because those stories contain the kinds of Horror that sneak up on our brains…while maybe Old Horror falls flat to the guy who lives near a graveyard. Horror is relative. Figure in the unpredictable amount of experiences a person can have that mutes those Horrors and the genre is a challenge. But it is a fun challenge.

Just don’t expect to be scared effectively twice by the same monster… Only irrational fears get past the catalog. Even Muppet Spiders. For the rest of us, it’s an endless search for HD in an analog world. Beware the tall grass.

 

References

Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund New York: Vintage Books, c2014.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, c1994.

Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” At The Mountains of Madness.The Definitive Edition. New York: The Modern Library, c2005.