The Horror of New Adult Fiction & the Over-Categorization of Writing


Sometimes trying to figure out where to find a book you want is as hard as trying to figure out where you would market your own.

These are troubling times. Not only have we lost our Horror section in most bookstores, but now if marketing departments raised by the internet get their way, we will have to look in yet one more subsection: New Adult Fiction.

That’s right…New Adult… the new next stop after Young Adult Fiction.

And we may have the internet to blame… because it is demanding we change the way we think.

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Chunk Change

I don’t know about you, but I am not liking this tendency toward condensing, homogenizing and labeling everything under the guise of search-ability without the consideration of individual characteristics that make both ourselves and what we do unique.

We are living in the age of generic categorization… an overarching, nonspecific set of search terms that are “chunking” fiction like they “chunk” blocks of information on the internet.

What I can’t figure is how this is helpful.

As everything we do – whether work or leisure – is bent toward the unique demands of social media and the internet, we are seeing an unpleasant and taxing requirement to change the way we think. And this is not as savvy as it sounds because we are taking the very unique way that humans already and naturally think, organize and catalog information and stipulating that there is only one way to think of things – the internet way.

Everything comes down to a “search” word, a “key” word. And then all the tags and categories unite in a set of blinking Christmas tree lights that sometimes work and often don’t.

No wonder our kids have self-image problems; we have invented a whole new system for pigeonholing everything from blogs to people.

The internet has given rise to a new Age of Minimization, and popularity is based on wanton flamboyance or how much one is willing to pay.

Forget for a moment what this means for poor people, poor countries, struggling businesses, small businesses, and those who want nothing to do with the internet. Let’s look at the sales pitch we were given when the internet became not-free (because if you have to pay for hardware, software, support, protection, and access…it isn’t.)

Let’s talk about the world of all information allegedly at your fingertips.

Turns out, the world’s information is not so easy to catalog. The easier solution? Base search-ability on everyone’s ability to pay…

I don’t know about you, but I still have trouble finding things on the internet – even information I know exists.

Turns out… when it’s not about censorship, it’s all about paying for SEO … Search Engine Optimization. And if you don’t pay for it, you don’t get it… SEO is all about getting an item, a website, an information byte “out there” and found within the first ten search item results on your search engine (like Mozilla or Google). It’s about indexing the internet and (unlike the sales pitch of the internet) not getting all of the information on a particular subject, but the top few who paid for the exposure.

Sure. If something “goes viral” it can foil the system. But if people cannot find the item, how likely is that?

Take this blog. I have exclusive and personal knowledge it exists. Yet if I type in “Zombie Salmon” on Google, it must be somewhere on the last page of options. I personally have never “nexted” my way far enough to find it.

In blogworld, WordPress has SEO…as long as you either pay for it on your own domain, or if you include WordPress in your search criteria. “Zombie Salmon WordPress” brings up this blog.

But how many people know this? Especially how many people know this who set out to form a business or write a book, or simply try to find information?

Turns out, not as many as you think.

And I’m not just talking about dinosaurs like me.

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The Case of Over-Thinking Versus Not Thinking Enough

Originally, the founders of the internet wanted it to be academic, free, a source of vetted information…like an Encyclopedia Britannica only one everyone could have in their homes.

But then came the enormity of the task, and the land-grab, wild west, survival of the craftiest mentality. The surrender has been ominously complete… just look at the fear of “fake news”… (which should not be so hard to expose…just research the facts or lack thereof given). No one wants to be the Bad Guy and call a spade a spade, or unvetted information what it is: lies. So we have unceremoniously left it all out hanging out there. And sometimes the bearers of misinformation have more money than the rest of us, putting all manner of things – categorized correctly or not – in the top search results.

All of this reading and researching and vetting is work… uncelebrated, unrewarded, unrecognized work.

So it is no wonder that no one wants to actually read a book to classify it in a system that has worked since…well… 48 BCE in Alexandria. It is far easier to call it a one-word something, and wait for the check in the mail.

Clearly, the internet has “better” ideas for classification… especially ideas that glorify youth to the point that no one else in the whole wide world has ever had a better thought or process.

Talk about divide and conquer. But many of us old folks are not irritated at youth – only the ones who blithely declare that because they are young, they are smarter. We know better: we were smarter once, too.

In this internet age of reinvention, the reinvention is happening without looking at anything that has been tried or gone before. We are unceremoniously throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

And New Adult fiction is the perfect example.

It has been created to “help” the category of book-buying audience that is more sophisticated than Young Adults and Teens, but not yet ready to fully embrace Real Adulthood.

New Adults are those between ages 18 and 30. You know – the ones we expect to cast votes and go fight in wars.

And apparently, knowing one is a New Adult or writing for New Adults is supposed to insure that audience finds product written especially for them, and everyone lives happily ever after.

(Interestingly, one of the things that identify children as children is the need for products designed especially for their age group so as to not confuse or overwhelm them with topics they are not mature enough to process.)

Kinda makes you want to rush out and declare yourself a New Adult, doesn’t it?

We are wolves in internet clothing, apparently trying to eliminate genres entirely, declaring everything to be some level of Literature (hint from a genre writer, it is not). We are classifying everything by age, as though this ensures that product is placed neatly into the proper audience hands (hint: reading level is about maturity not age). And, we are tossing one-word descriptions into the cataloging mix which look suspiciously like genre headings (hint: you are not fooling anyone and the old headings worked just fine for centuries of book hunting).

And besides requiring yet another level of cataloging (age and subject), what does this actually accomplish?

So I am thinking that some marketing group somewhere thinks that 18-30 year-olds would be traumatized by reading Real Adult fiction, and potentially need therapy just after reading a blurb that is meant to tell a potential reader what a book is about.

Are we really raising a generation that needs this kind of coddling?

 

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Pardon me, but…WTF?!

Having actually been in a university with kids some thirty years my junior, I can say that particular age group has taught me a few things about Life…I am convinced that they are not only quite capable of surviving the experience of reading Real Adult Fiction, but I am fine with being tended by them in my nursing home. They are smart, unnervingly savvy, politically involved and wide awake – something I most assuredly can not say about many of my own generation (see recent American Presidential election).

And yet, the marketing push continues…even though I am not seeing publishers bite the apple yet: I have not seen any spines proudly announcing they are New Adult titles, or seen any calls for submission of New Adult Fiction.

There is, however, at least one how-to book on writing New Adult Fiction…

Write it and they will come…

I’m remembering what it was like to be sixteen, and thinking not.

I remember sneak-reading my Mom’s Rudyard Kipling books, paging through her Pearl S. Buck novels long before I had any New Adult thoughts.

I remember eagerly awaiting the day when I, too, was a Real Adult. And I wanted to read what grown-ups were reading. I might not have been ready to participate in adult discussions, but I wanted to listen to them.

Note to marketing departments: teens upward are still in sponge mode; they are curious, adventurous, bold and timid at the same time, eager to model adult behaviors and desperately searching for themselves in all of the data.

Why in the world do we want to filter that? I mean if you aren’t willing to filter the internet, get out of my fiction.

Quite setting limits for young and new adults and thereby for older ones…

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Eldritch Adult Fiction

Surely, this would be the next step: fiction for geriatrics… You know, nothing too traumatizing for Grandma, like those cozy mysteries where talking cats solve crimes.

And of course it would provide a nice segue for aging writers who can no longer write authoritatively of their day (because it is now long past). Yes, in Eldritch Adult Fiction there would be rotary phones, carbon copies, and mimeograph machines. We would be free to live in eternal denial of progress, perpetually checked out of the New Adult world because it is too scary anyway. And, we wouldn’t have to try to keep up with changing technology or slang or fashions.

All of our protagonists would need liposuction, blood pressure meds, and Viagra. They could wear polyester and pants with elastic waistbands, conduct their seances before 8 p.m., and their murders before the early bird. And best of all, our audience would know exactly what our literary references meant…and truly understand what it is like to slide inevitably toward our deserved ends.

If this strikes you as absurd, imagine how writers must feel contemplating forcing our writing into one more age-restricted category.

I may be old, but often my characters range the spectrum of every age I have been.

And as a writer, I may write for an audience – a Horror audience – but I don’t care hold old a reader is. If a reader can follow my wordy sentence structure and understands or can look up any challenging vocabulary they find, then they are welcome read what I write. I’m pretty sure most writers feel the same way.

My point is, sooner or later we have to realize that the Arts (being subjective) have a limit in useful cataloging.

And I suggest this to marketing departments with grandiose ideas:

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
  2. Treat writing like Fine Art (catalogued by medium/genre, by artist, by style /subgenre, by period)
  3. Let the audience decide what they are ready for

It’s high time we acknowledged that the internet by its limited capacity to catalog the world’s offerings in any complete and useful way is too overambitious to be of any ultimate and conclusive value in guiding the cataloging of information in general, let alone fiction; that in the end, we still need humans and the way humans think.

We also need to acknowledge that some of our best discoveries have come because of the questions we asked in our searches for information – whole questions, not key words, not with results that are money-driven.

And we need to flat-out state that our strength and versatility as an Art-producing species relies on our quirky and out-of-the-box thinkers, the misfits, the socially awkward, the true individuals of our kind.

Diversity in all things makes us better.

Why on earth do we expect to find anything of value in a one or two worded box?

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Creepy Clowns: New Trope, or Very, Very Old One?


What is it about clowns?

We either love them, or hate them. And it seems we decide which side of the fence we are on pretty early in childhood. It’s a position that never seems to change, even as we grow older. But why do we fear them at all? Aren’t they there to bring us happiness and laughter?

And why does dressing as a scary clown cause so much emotional distress?

Surely it can’t be Stephen King’s fault… Even though those of us who saw the first incarnation of It on television that November of 1990 probably still can’t get the images of Pennywise as played by the incomparable Tim Curry out of our heads…

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No, our fear and dread of clowns goes much, much deeper.

And the real explanation is yet another reason why Horror is such a complex, subtext-laced genre – one which has so many tentacles in cultural, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological sciences.

Because if we are going to understand how clowns are connected to our deepest, darkest fears, we are going to have to look at our all-too-human beginnings.

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Clown Kachina (Koshari)

The Clown As Trickster

For many primitive cultures, clowns serve a function that is only in part comedic. The comedy of such clowns is meant to be a distraction – a tool for nudging or shifting the attention from the worldly to the spiritual by exaggerating behaviors, mores, and the absurdity of humanity’s natural hubris. But the non-comedic and true purpose of clowns is instruction. And much like the recorded encounters of common people with fairies and beings of folk tale and myth, such meetings are pregnant with danger.

Clowns are spirit-beings, capricious, dangerous creatures who trick hapless humans into seeing the world obliquely, spiritually, respectfully in spite of our personally contrived perceptions of normalcy (with which we continually edit the world to our own satisfaction).

Depicted in ways that exaggerate, mock or distort human physical characteristics or behaviors, our early ancestors saw clowns for what they are: forces of nature that sometimes struggle to imitate an imperfect humanity, but always have an agenda. Their images were rendered as curious, sometimes comical, yet other worldly and never quite human. Often our reciprocal imitation of the clown imitating us is equally disturbing, the use of paint and masks and props meant to communicate that a clown is indeed something to be wary of.

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African clown (Ogbo)

Worse, the motives of clowns are always unknown. Sometimes they distract nastier spirits from their intentions against humans – like a rodeo clown distracts the bull. But more often they seek to teach humans by utilizing a rather unsettling series of actions based within a complicated theater of the absurd.

As such, encounters with clowns are better experienced as cautionary tales; because clowns are travelers along the borders of perceived reality and the supernatural one in which all manner of spiritual dangers reside. Therefore within many primitive cultures, such intercourse with the world of spirit requires the presence of and interpretation by shamans, medicine people, priests, and sorcerers. Insanity, possession, and illness can result from these encounters if proper protocols and interpretation are not followed.

What is certain about clowns recounted in this primitive dance is that such beings from the Other World operate according to rules that do not apply to humans, but within the web of which there are serious human consequences. As such, those rules are unknown by most humans; and when recounted, they seem comical and absurd even of themselves. To navigate such meetings then, is a precarious and dangerous affair – something our primitive brains still recognize when we stare at the toy clown sitting in the rocking chair in the moonlight.

In primitive traditions, clowns are simultaneously both sacred and base mischief-makers. But they are always dangerous, their intentions never fully revealed.

Their lessons are always taught by deceit and rough handling. They are seldom sympathetic or empathetic to their human subjects.

The clown is, according to Joseph Campbell, an enduring archetype of myth (Campbell [5]). And as such, we already know him intimately… perhaps, too intimately for comfort.

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The Clown as Allegory

In Literature and film and all of the Arts, the Clown is never just a clown.

It is the very irksome nature of clowns that keeps us off balance enough that we might just learn something in spite of ourselves, and for that reason, writers and artists and playwrights have used them generously in their works.

Some even say that the presence of the clown represents the writer or artist him- or herself. According to E.A. Williams in an essay which addresses the Literary roles of the clown in film, poetry and prose titled “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film”:

“Defined by their unfamiliar and alien status, these characters are metaphorical reflections…of some other’s mode of being. Consequently, these masks ‘simply do not exist’ beyond their function as outsiders or others; they function only as ‘prosaic allegorizations’ or ‘prosaic metaphors’ that reveal and subvert the falsity of official culture at the same time at the same time as they serve to endorse certain folk truths.” (Williams 110)

In other words, like their handling by primitive cultures, clowns in film and Literature – by their seeming out-of-place and out-of-step – are there to draw the attention of their audience to something else.

Continues Williams:

“Clown and fool characters instantiate carnival inversions of mainstream culture, but they are less directly connected to their author’s intentions and the world outside their texts.” (111) But they do “’degrade official culture by eliciting the audience’s laughter at the ideologies they parody. But unlike the rogue, neither the clown nor the fool takes pleasure in letting the audience in on the joke…clowns and fools are also distinct from rogues in that they can seem otherworldly” and furthermore “do not understand the extratextual world [;] they clearly do not belong to it, remaining detached from the audience’s reality.”

Clowns remain uncontrollable, yet control the stage upon which they inform their audience. Whether we laugh because the clown makes us uncomfortable, or because it causes us distress over its point can be a mystery even to ourselves. Yet in clowns we tolerate what is otherwise unacceptable behavior or commentary. We readily accept satire and parody, mockery and offensive imitation with nothing more than laughter. This is something comedians understand, something poets like Shakespeare mastered, and something even contemporary writers use often in building supernatural characters. Clowns can give us our voice.

As Williams says, “it is because these characters are ‘not of this world’ [that] they possess their own special rights and privileges for degrading the ideologies of the world’s official culture.” Indeed, these figures continually “espouse offensive or objectionable feelings in their words, actions, and thoughts. Moreover their bizarre behavior distinguishes them from the audience, granting them an exclusive ‘right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life.’” (112)

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Medieval European Clown

This makes the use of clowns in film and Literature invaluable – even when the clown archetype is subverted, hidden beneath human characterization. It is with the use of the clown that Literary motifs can be achieved, hidden symbols revealed, themes punctuated.

Is this why we find clowns neatly tucked into Horror?

Very likely; clowns can be the vehicle through which Literary messages can be coded, where deeper issues can be critiqued and even mocked. But it remains the over-arching and very primal discomfort at the simple sight of a clown that for Horror writers and Horror audiences provides the artistic coup de grâce. This is because we still have Freud…and we still have our primitive minds to thank for the unsettling creepiness of clowns.

Explains Tara Brady in her article, “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?”:

“The Freudian id is not the only psychoanalytical trope in play. In his (increasingly voguish) 1919 paper, The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud postulates that we are frightened by something that is simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar, a thesis that finds parallels in contemporary neurological research into fear and pattern recognition. Clowns, by this account, are both recognisably human, yet visibly distorted, what with those elongated feet and bulbous noses.”  ( Brady)

And indeed it is the very appearance of clowns that is indescribably, primally disturbing…

Yet it is one thing to tuck clowns neatly into boxes lined with fine Literature and theatrical plays – where we can take them out and analyze them in the safety of academia. It is quite another when –as in primitive times – they rise to trick us and unbalance our perceptions right in real life.

Sometimes this occurs with an unwelcome gift from a well-meaning relative, a unexpected find in an antique shop, or maybe by our proximity in being a little too close to a satirized reality… and the absurd truth of the moment.

Yet we seem fixated on the perceived “loss” of the cheerful clown; and in that way, we are made afraid of our “new” obsession with creepy clowns. We fear things have changed within us somehow, and not for the better.

Asks Becky Little in her article, “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns:

“Why exactly have creepy clowns become such a trope in pop culture? After all, didn’t they used to be happy and cheerful? Well, not exactly, according to Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns.

‘It’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad,” he says, “because they were never really good.’” (Little)

And this was true until about 1950.

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Bozo and Friends: the Re-Purposing of Clowns & the Illusion of Happiness

It doesn’t help that for many of us, our formal introduction to clowns came at the hands of children’s television shows and as pitchmen for hawking hamburgers. Such re-purposing of the clown from supernatural trickster to camera-ready advertisement could only conclude in disaster for both humanity and the clown in general. Indeed, if there was a plan, it backfired.

Within a brief few generations, we were encouraging our children to love clowns, to trust clowns, to embrace the happiness they were said to represent. Yet many children did not get the message, carrying within their very DNA an unspoken Horror of clowns. For those kids, the world of It makes raw, perfect sense.

In fact, according to one University of Sheffield Study as reported by the BBC in 2008, Researcher Dr. Penny Curtis said: “As adults we make assumptions about what works for children.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.”

And child psychologist Patricia Doorbar goes on to clarify:

“Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.” (BBC)

Still the Public Relations machinery was in gear, and what children they could not bribe with cartoons, prancing poodles, and birthday parties, they sought to lure with a burger and fries.

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For some, it worked. But we barely had the opportunity to fall under the spell of the happy clown when it all ended. Almost overnight, the magic of clowns was gone –replaced by the magic of television, and then by the Power of Adults, who could so easily replace one clown with another, one actor with another, one product with another.

The Age of Disposability was upon us.

The last heyday of happy clowning was when children knew the names of their avatars: Bozo, Clarabell, Willie the Hobo, Chuchin, Freddie the Freeloader… Once clowns were officially made back into fools, most of us emotionally checked out.

So is it not surprising that the archetype would rise from the ashes, and to do so wearing the mask of Horror? Clowns have always had dual natures. And they are fickle, capricious teachers.

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John Wayne Gacy, 1976

The Return to Creepy

The most disturbing concept of the clown drifted into our imaginations with the rise of a serial killer. John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 known victims from 1972 to 1978 in Cook County, Illinois, and performed as Pogo the Clown for charitable events, parades, and children’s parties. And despite the heinousness of his crimes, nothing stuck in the American imagination like the fact that he performed as a clown for children.

This was in all likelihood the beginning of the Creepy Clown phase in American subculture. And while one can argue that it is much easier to mock what one truly fears, we should also be asking why we found it so much easier to find the clown at fault than the man behind the mask…

True to form, we took our fears to excess. Gone was the “happy clown” who had then existed for a relatively brief historical period. And back is the one that haunted our primitive dreams, presently disguised as a serial killer who surely was more than that, and whose image masked something older, more terrible and insidious – now, when we have so deftly banished shamans, medicine people, priests and sorcerers from our sophisticated lives.

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And at the precise moment when circuses – our official “home” for clowns and clowning – were coming under fire for animal abuse by watchdog groups like PETA, the world we had fashioned to contain clowns and what they represented to us for good or ill was also falling, changing, becoming unrecognizable.

Within the microcosm of the falling Big Top, we could see our own failures and losses. The innocence of the circus (and therefore all things American) was being tainted; the idea of carnival workers was becoming a source for assumed criminal behavior – the carnival the last hiding place for misfits, Others, and those who did not belong as seen through so many lenses of inequality (class, culture, race, physical deformity). We liked everything having its place, popping out merely to entertain us and then leaving town. We never imagined it was us under the tent. Indeed, so much more was coming down with the tent poles…

Formerly a place where magic existed, the circus and carnivals became symbolically an entirely different and potent place where magic was twisted to fit a new need: anger, violence, mockery, revenge. Circuses and carnivals with their clowns and costumes, their masks and mischief, suddenly became threatening. And clowns were their spokesmen, the entities of Horror when they did not conjure it.

Yet we left it there –precisely there. After Stephen King’s It, we seemed unable or unwilling to investigate the mystery of the clown further…we were…distracted.

Until suddenly in August, 2016, when the peculiar, occasional “sighting” came to an international head.

According to Becky Little, “Creepy (and fake) clown sightings spread across the U.S. and other countries, creating a kind of viral clown panic.”

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The Wasco Clown, 2014. http://www.huhmagazine.co.uk/7834/clowns-are-wandering-california-at-night-and-no-one-knows-why

Speculation for why clowns began “appearing,” of course, runs rampant. But although one could venture more scientifically or sociologically founded guesses, one also has to consider the far reach of the Internet, the average person’s need for fifteen minutes of fame, the underground popularity of such characters as Slender Man and other fanfic memes, and simple perverse human curiosity.

Although, one peculiar coincidence lingers to tease the American mind:

“Andrew McConnell Stott suggests that the clown epidemic may be related to an orange-haired, rival entertainer.

‘It all peaked during the election period,’ says McConnell Stott. ‘I think if you look at the heightened absurdity in contemporary American political discourse and public discourse, the clues are there. Something I thought fascinating is that scary clowns were sighted primarily in at-risk communities, like rust-belt communities or rural communities; places that have been hollowed out by economic stress. Scary clowns were seen on the peripheries of these communities; they didn’t go up to people and wave knives in their faces. They were glimpsed in windows or stood under streetlamps. Just enough to freak everybody out, but not to endanger them. Reminders of a previous age. The return of the repressed. And then. Donald Trump was elected and the clowns were never seen again.’” (Brady)

(And if that isn’t food for Literary thought, you haven’t been paying attention…)

Still, as we sit on the eve of another decade of clown-induced dread and Horror wrought at the hands of the remake of It… One should consider this:

Anything we cannot understand or interpret, anything wearing a mask and hiding its true intent, anything we cannot see completely or assess the level of threat of (yet has at least momentary power over us), we fear. Peculiar, unpredictable or inappropriate movements, unsettling eye contact, behaviors, and clothing… anything not “right” to our vision, that reeks of the unfamiliar, the “other,” and the “exotic unknown and unknowable”….all of those things summon the image of the ancient clown – the one which made its appearances before campfires to teach us how unimportant we are in the world – that clown scares us.

Because when it comes to supernatural influence, there is nothing at all we can do about that; there is no one we can call. And if it comes from that dark and mysterious place between the two worlds, there is probably no place to run…

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References

BBC News. “Hospital Clown Images ‘Too Scary’” January 15, 2008. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7189401.stm

Brady, Tara. “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?” The Irish Times. Sept. 9, 2017. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/no-laughing-matter-why-are-we-so-terrified-of-clowns-1.3209215

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Pdf excerpt retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://podcasts.shelbyed.k12.al.us/shutchings/files/2015/05/TheHeroJourney.pdf

Little, Becky. “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns.” Sept 13, 2017. Retrieved 10/31, 2017 from http://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-creepy-clowns

Williams, E.A. “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film.” Philament 20(2015) : Humor. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://www.philamentjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/20_WILLIAMS_150204.pdf

SEE ALSO

http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/03/health/creepy-clown-sighting-psychology/index.html

 

Good, Evil & Supernatural Horror: Does What You Believe Color Your Fiction?


I once read an essay (now long lost) that suggested Catholic Horror writers wrote better Horror…

I don’t remember the argument or the examples, but the question has stayed with me well past my own conversion to Catholicism. I deny, of course, that I converted for the Horror. But it is fun to say. And it also means this is a question that has dogged my reading and writing career.

Is it true? Do Catholics write better Horror? And more importantly, does what you believe affect not only choices you make in writing Horror, but the quality of the stories you tell?

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The Question of Faith

One of the most interesting facets of Horror fiction is that it perpetually asks: what is the relevance of faith?

Modern characters are often nonreligious, agnostic or atheistic, and are left defenseless to confront the evils of the world – up to and including the demonic – all without the slightest understanding of the immensity of the situation. This is a blessing to Hollywood, which gets to explore all manner of special effects on the way to the protagonist’s discovery that whatever it is, it is directly from Hell, and there is no cure for the evil coming for them…

And it makes things easier for the writer, who doesn’t have to worry about knowing obscure and arcane facts, who can “learn” right along with their characters, and who can feel equally “safe” in making up solutions that eliminate or “postpone” the problem – even if it means passing the evil onto someone else – preferably a minor antagonist who “deserves” it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have all manner of “reality” ghostbusting television shows to thank for replacing that void which not only religion, but folk and fairy lore used to occupy. We can refer or defer to them as the “authority” on how supernatural things happen, and even lessen the importance of why.

We are innocent, after all – all of us. We never, ever deserve the evil that roams the world as punisher.

But isn’t this delivery of supernatural fiction from a position of ignorance the reason modern Horror is more two dimensional than ever? Do we need a belief system in order to “dress” the details of a real religious crisis?

Is the problem that we no longer believe in a real religious crisis?

I have wondered about this for a long time – especially since I left my own Protestant church with a crisis of faith about the same time that a good deal of mainstream America was doing the same – the 1970’s. And one has only to ask “what are the main Protestant denominations today?” to see what the national restructuring of faith resulted in – a loss of consistency, a loss of definable doctrine greater than sola scriptura – or God’s Word alone.

Yet the Catholic Church was not immune from parishioner defection.

Everyone, it seemed, was having a crisis of faith – not only at the time when science and technology was again on the rise – but at the time when a U.S. President could be assassinated, when a Civil Rights leader could be murdered in the light of day, when our own government was caught in lies that went back centuries, and the first cracks in the American Dream became visible.

Pair that with the teenage years of the Baby Boom generation, and there was a whole lot of questioning going on. And churches of all faiths were caught unaware and reacted with indignant shock.

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But this never meant we stopped craving religion, or some proof of it.

And for that proof, we cast our gaze to the very thing that robbed us of our faith: evil…the kind of evil that seems in its tenacity and freedom from judgment to run rampant in the world, savaging humanity without an apparent comment from God.

Why is God silent, if indeed he is there?

The question has haunted generations of agnostics who want more, of atheists who require tangible proof to believe more, and of the faithful who kneel in churches in the face of tragic events. And where Literature has long explored the theme, Horror has reveled in it.

Clearly humanity needs an answer, if not God Himself. We would not ponder and debate the question of His existence if we did not need Him in the most primal way – ask any psychologist, sociologist, or priest.

Faith is the scab over the old wound that never heals, the one we pick at, and point at, and deride others about for choosing faith, or choosing no faith, or the wrong faith.

Of course in our genre, we get to take matters of religion to the extremes. But we do so because the question of faith is that important to us – whether as witnesses to human arrogance, or as victims of those seeming above any laws. Clearly we need to know there is judgment of some sort… and if we can’t get God to respond, we will turn to the Devil.

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The Devil as Default

We have long sought out evil in an attempt to flush out God.

It is the most basic attempt to tease God out of Heaven, to prove His existence to us, and more importantly, to prove our worthiness, our special place in His universe.

But we have also done so by placing evil in the laboratory and under the microscope in the hope of understanding ourselves – if not excusing ourselves.

Says Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c2002): “Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory and acceptable in practice” (Neiman 44).

Knowing how to recognize evil might offer us the opportunity to eradicate it, to give us hints on how to avoid its demonic gaze. So we attempt to define it by assigning categories of human behavior to it.

The irony is not lost on Horror writers, who often then weave the demonic right back into humanity. Who’s the Devil here? And why isn’t Satan the perfect vehicle for all of our troubles?

The answer is: because if we believe in the Devil, we are also wont to believe in God. And today, that equates for many to simple superstition.

But then Horror asks (when it is really good Horror)… what if religion is real?

As though such a question represents the purist, the most preachy among us, bad or weak Horror has therefore grabbed onto the Devil by his horns and thrust him into every subgenre and every trope sacred to our genre as though to ward off any further questions.

Today it is never just a witch, but the Devil’s personal favorite. It is never just a ghost but a demon from the Devil’s right hand. It is never just a werewolf but a personal brush with a hound from Hell. It is never just a mass murderer but one possessed. It is never just a vampire, but one bewitched by the witch who is the Devil’s personal favorite… and so it goes… ad nauseum.

Today, evil just IS…

We have no real relation to it, other than to be an innocent victim of it.

Whether we are trying to explain a terrorist act or a weak fiction plot, it is just easier to drag the Devil into it. It gives us permission to become hapless victims and righteous soldiers. Says Neiman, “Belief in Providence presumes that we are innocent long after we’ve begun to look very suspicious.” (199)

We have completely missed the message of evil.

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The Exorcist and the Battle of Good and Evil

Of course, Horror took up the challenge. And the reasons for the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is not only why we have some pretty awesomely scary Horror to look back on today, but it is also why modern writers stay away from religious questions almost entirely in contemporary Horror fiction.

Blatty, it appeared, went just a little bit too far… not in his monster –the Devil was great in this on (and was even able to send his right hand demon for one of the first times in modern Horror fiction and as a result it was unique, and a worthy surprise for Horror audiences and lapsed Christians everywhere) – but because Blatty made the mistake of not letting the story speak for itself.

As Horror Critic S.T. Joshi says, “the sole function of his writing is to reconcile us to Catholicism…” (Joshi 61)

Blatty framed his characters in the exact moment of time in which we were living: many Americans in 1971 were no longer members of any church, even when we considered ourselves to be Christian. A growing segment of the population were self-identifying as agnostic, and many others of us were flirting with atheism while embracing our pseudo-enlightenment, rejecting the beliefs of our parents who we were coming to see as parochial and even ignorant. To a Catholic writer like Blatty, something needed to be done to herd us all back to the fold… to revisit the issue and necessity of faith.

While it is not so obvious in the film, the book reveals more of his intent… seeming “preachy” while it attempts to take a skeptical, modern reader and explain how true evil has no scientific explanation, and no solution other than what God can provide through established religion and faith. Says Joshi, “Blatty so insistently pushes his theology in our faces” that it virtually bankrupts any aesthetic value of his work (Joshi 61).

This is a consequence of Blatty’s attempt to demonstrate – much to many readers’ chagrin – that the atheistic mother of the possessed child has no choice but to exhaust all of the “logical” and “scientific” explanations for possession until the character must in abject desperation concede that only God and her reclaimed faith can save her child.

This is exactly where we all were with religion: we did it if we did it once a week, and the rest of the time we were duly enlightened.

In the book, there is the usual parade of psychiatrists, medical doctors, medications and therapies which because of our modern resistance to the metaphysical, must be explored in order to prove their irrelevance to the supernatural problem. We must be made to see ourselves in our faithless world, too busy and too oblivious to consider the truth that humanity is the unwavering target of evil. And indeed, the reader goes on this very tedious journey with her.

Blatty’s purpose, of course, is to show that true religious events are matters of faith – not science.

And to some degree, he succeeded. The message was not lost on many Catholics. And the possibility of demonic possession delivered upon an innocent child led many Protestants to rethink their baptism-as-lifetime-guarantee position. But it did not drive us all back into the pews. Instead, it ushered in the New Age and a re-visitation of spiritualism and tinkering with the arcane.

It also led to a certain reluctance among Horror writers to write anything which would label them as “preachy.” And so began the mad dash to found footage and staring for hours at empty rooms in the hopes of seeing a swinging chandelier or a door closing ever so slowly… the Devil became the default explanation for everything that could go wrong in a Horror novel.

But ironically, we seem to prefer that the Devil cannot be defeated…

We just don’t seem to want to believe in a God who makes us discover faith in a room full of demons.

We don’t want to bring in Christianity.

We don’t want anything that reeks of superstition to taint our big boy Rambo image, so we feign ignorance of religion and make the secret rites of the Catholic Church a rental option.

Fix and forget it. That’s our modern motto.

Never mind that our robotic obsession with living in a bubble might be abnormal, and the battle between good and evil, the normal. That would be too scary….and preachy.

It seems sad to me that we have ignored the greater message which does persist behind Blatty’s desire for a mass return to faith: that some things are just beyond our control because maybe-just-maybe we are not the center of the universe after all.

Yet we struggle with the concept of anyone – God or exorcist or deliverance minister – being the final answer to our problems. We are, it seems, too great a set of control freaks to let that be a default in our fiction. We’d rather just have the demon who cannot be completely banished, the mystery we cannot completely uncover. So we hide behind extinct or obscure cultures, and – if all else fails – we make things up.

This is true for Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet… do we write differently because of our own intimate beliefs?

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Catholics, Protestants, and Atheists… Oh My!

Horror has always consisted of a diverse field of writers.

With regard to that essay I referenced at the beginning, I have not found one religious (or nonreligious) persuasion to be better or more prolific than another.

Do I think a belief system or lack of one influences writers of Horror? Definitely yes: whether we write to obscure or promote our own beliefs, or in fear of having those beliefs ridiculed or to spite our parents or Critics, or because we do not believe in one religion or in perhaps even in God, religion cannot help but impose its shadow upon our genre.

Do I think it makes us better or worse as writers?

I think the temptation to overreach is there, whether a writer subconsciously mocks or feels mocked or anticipates mockery. Religion must be entered into “just so” in our genre, lest it spoil the tale. As a result, our very personal position on religion or lack of it can affect our work for better or worse.

But I don’t think it is the determiner of our fates as Horror writers…although perhaps it will contribute something to style.

For example, in Horror, we have the Reformation to thank for separating the ways Protestants and Catholics look at the supernatural, starting with ghosts. Says Gillian Bennett in an introduction to the Seventeenth Century chapter of her book The Best 100 British Ghost Stories:

“Catholics and Protestants agreed that the souls of bad people would not be allowed to escape from Hell and the souls of good people would not wish to leave Heaven. The only place restless spirits could be coming from was therefore Purgatory, which was conceived of as a sort of holding pen where souls could be purged of sin. It followed that if there was no Purgatory, there could be no ghosts; but if ghosts could be proved to exist, the existence Purgatory was confirmed.” (Bennett 15)

Therefore Catholics believed in ghosts, Protestants did not. Toss in the modern reluctance to consider ghosts to be anything other than demons imitating loved ones to gain access to the soul, and we lose Catholics as well…but only publicly.

In private, we all ponder the existence of ghosts, and even play at “busting” them.

Yet our religious training in where we place them and whether they are or ever were human changes the way we write ghosts and demons and influences the belief of whether or not they can or should be driven to Hell…right along with who has the religious authority to do the driving…

So yes, our religious beliefs can and do affect how we tell a tale.

As an observer, I also believe Catholics are wont to write “deeper” in the area of religious problems like death and grief, ghosts and possession. I think the possibilities that await those who stray too far from God hold a certain terror for Catholics that Protestants do not anticipate or seem willing to entertain, and maybe that has to do with our early religious upbringings. But I think Protestants write better modern characters and situational Horror. And I think atheists write better Weird and subversive monsters than any of us.

Indeed, most of Weird fiction’s prominent and founding writers have been atheists according to Joshi. And many supernatural/spectral writers are Catholic. And of course many of todays’ giants are Protestants. So while religion or lack of it is most certainly an influence, it is not an indicator of success or failure – only a comfort zone for the kind of monsters we choose to write.

Most of us writing in Horror have lapsed in our faith a time or two, whether we were able to translate our own mystic fears and worldviews into our fiction or not, whether we eventually abandoned it altogether or not. It is the nature of the Horror genre that we question reality and our place in it. So it is also natural that we question surreality and its place in our world, that we poke at boundaries and wonder about it if something dares poke back.

Horror is not and should not be about driving the masses back into the arms of a loving God or into experimenting with the supernatural or declaring ourselves proudly above religion entirely. But it is about allowing ourselves the right to believe… even if it is only long enough to drive a demon out of this world, or to experience the what if of the moment.

It is about questioning, and sometimes…discovery – even discoveries we didn’t want to make and don’t know what to do about.

Not because Catholics or Protestants or atheists might write better Horror fiction, but because if the monstrous unseen really is out there, then the monstrous human is not the worst thing to worry about. And whether religion is superstition or not, some of us would rather not contemplate a world where we are completely, excruciatingly alone.

After all, there would be no one left to read our work…

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References

Bennett, Gillian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire, Great Britain: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

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

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternate History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c2002.