It’s that time of the year again. Halloween is around the corner, and horror films fill our recommended viewing on the streaming platforms. Even book bloggers and vloggers join in with recommended horror novels.
In this article, I hope to convince you that horror is the perfect literary genre for our current moment. They aren’t just meant for Halloween. They have literary importance through manifesting internal psychological states as external images.
Our current moment?
Well, let’s not get too bogged down in what I meant by that. I roughly mean that we stare at our phones looking for quick dopamine fixes. Even people who consider themselves big readers tend to read to escape.
When was the last time you asked yourself: what on Earth am I even doing?
Probably not recently, and that’s not good.
You shouldn’t fill your free moments getting worked up over some Twitter feud or mobile game until you fall asleep at night. It leaves you no time for reflection.
Sitting with a big book for extended periods of time is good for you. It’s doubly good if it makes you ask uncomfortable questions.
General Impressions on Horror
What is horror?
If you’re not an avid reader of the genre, you probably have some general impressions that are wildly skewed. Let’s get rid of those first.
Sure, some horror is about making you squirm. There’s a thrill to going into Saw, wondering if you’ll be able to “handle” it.
I’ll admit to loving the Scream and Halloween movies as a kid.
But this type of horror that’s purely about the blood and guts and torture and killing is a minority these days. Jump scares and gore are techniques. They’re not essentials to the genre.
Think of it like elves in fantasy. Sometimes they exist but not all fantasy has elves.
You must get this general impression of horror out of your head before we continue.
So: What is this enlightenment you claim horror provides?
We’ll get into the specifics with the case studies below, but here’s roughly how I see it.
Horror turns psychological fears and trauma into a real, external presence. It lets us directly experience another human’s internal state in a way that other literature can’t.
But it does more than that because then it gives action for confronting and overcoming those fears. When done well, horror can make broader societal analogies with these metaphors to bring people to real-world action.
Since it’s not below, here’s a great example: Clive Barker’s Sacrament is about a nature photographer who sees a horrible plague happening to animals in nature. It is set during the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.
It realizes the horror of human apathy toward the destruction of nature and creates a parallel between the extinction of a species to the mass epidemic death of the gay community.
These two topics, especially in 1996, were hugely important.
How could one write about either without some element of horror? It’s a powerful and moving reading experience, and in my mind, it established Barker as a titan of literary fiction.
Yet the world at large still thinks of him as a genre writer responsible for Hellraiser.
Five Case Studies from the Past Four Decades
Let’s now dig into five examples of what I’m talking about. I’ll identify the internal psychology that gets externalize and how this is used in the work.
I’ll do three books, one classic movie, and one modern TV series. But I still honestly believe the best experience is reading so that you don’t just passively use the experience as a cheap thrill.
There will be mild spoilers so that the interpretation is clear. But, honestly, nothing I write here will ruin the experience of these excellent works of art.
Grief in Phantasm (1979)
Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is one of those movies that returns to us every year. It’s a cult classic staple of Halloween-time viewing without being one of the blockbusters.
This bizarre film has a lot going on. The Tall Man lurking around, hooded dwarves, floating killer balls, another dimension.
If you’ve only seen this once, I can understand if you walked away totally confused. But as soon as you see the film as a realization of the main character’s grief, a lot starts to make sense.
The movie starts with a murder and a funeral. Mike is just a boy, and his parents have both passed away. The death is of a friend, but it serves as a stand-in for that grief.
The undertaker is the Tall Man, and to children, undertakers are very scary people. They take away loved ones. We have no idea what they do with the bodies. We basically have to trust them.
Most of the horror elements in the film all trace back to elements of fear and grief of Mike over his parents. The nightmarish car crashes in the movie are Mike’s vivid re-imagining of how his parents died.
The dead bodies turning into dwarves are his fear that his parents haven’t been properly buried. Maybe they’re still out there in some other form, even if terrifying.
The absurd juxtaposition of intense horror with calm comedy reminds us that grief is often like that. One minute it’s all-consuming; another minute we’re lost back in our lives.
Power in The Great and Secret Show (1989)
Clive Barker’s epic, yet to be completed trilogy, Books of the Art, is not easy to describe. It’s like Gravity’s Rainbow had a dark fantasy child.
The Great and Secret Show has grand conspiracy, metaphysical discussions about other planes of existence, and seizing control of other people’s bodies.
Some of our greatest fears in modern society have to do with secret power and freedom:
- What if there is a whole secret network of old money that uses this power to get their kids into college?
- What if scientists are secretly using genetic engineering to “improve” the human species?
- What if a big data firm undermined our elections by manipulating what we thought about things without us even realizing it was happening?
The Great and Secret Show takes this hidden, powerful world and makes it a reality. A secret society keeps people from finding the dream realm that influences everything.
Two men have access to an evolved way of being and can manipulate people so thoroughly that they drive three girls to carry their babies.
And all of this is basically in the first few pages!
This is some deeply disturbing stuff. It lays bare all these fears in one philosophical concept.
And news flash, if you weren’t aware, this secret underworld does exist in the real world and is constantly exerting its power on us without our consent.
Is there an answer?
Books that give easy answers are giving false answers. But the Art is a place to begin. And that’s the whole point of this article.
Greed in Needful Things (1991)
This is going to sound weird, but I remember Stephen King’s Needful Things as being the first adult novel I read.
I found it at the library, and the librarian actually asked my mom if it was okay if I read it before allowing me to check it out.
I was 11. It was a reasonable question.
She had no idea what it was or why someone would ask that. The only thing that must have been going through her mind was:
My 11-year-old wants to read a 700-page novel for fun, don’t ruin this!
Needful Things has a simple idea that has been explored through the ages: what are you willing to do for something you want? Think of it as a longer, more graphic version of Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
Allowing this to play out in a horror novel ups the stakes. Instead of a tragic incident leaving the characters in sadness having learned their lesson, this novel just escalates without end.
In the real world, people often don’t realize how their greed has affected others. They don’t learn their lesson.
This is one of literature’s best features. It lets you experience situations before they happen. If you can’t find a bit of yourself in these characters, you probably aren’t very self-aware.
Part of the brilliance of this version of the parable is that the “needful things” are so trivial and useless. We, as the reader, can see this.
The revelation of the book is realizing that all non-essentials are trivial and useless. You may want it, but it’s not worth selling your soul over.
Desperation in The Terror (2007)
Dan Simmons’ The Terror is a remarkable feat: historical fiction with a fantasy/horror twist.
Captain Sir John Franklin’s trip to the arctic in search of the Northwest Passage would have been terrifying enough if Simmons had stuck to a strict historical accounting: desperate starvation turning to cannibalism for survival.
But, no offense to the real-world people who have had to go through these things, my first reaction is to yawn.
This story has been written many, many times: Alive, Flyboys, Miracle in the Andes, Desperate Passage, etc.
The whole point of this article is that horror can do things other genres aren’t allowed to do, and historical fiction isn’t allowed to have the Tuunbaq, a product of the Inuit gods that has taken the form of a bear and feeds on human souls.
Not only is this a beautiful way to embrace the setting of the novel, it externalizes the expedition’s desperation for survival.
Readers aren’t just horrified and grossed out by what is going on as in the other listed books.
We, as readers, actually feel this dread creeping on us. Like it could get us at any moment. The people on the expedition could lose their souls and eat another human if the desperation got bad enough.
The way this fantastical being stalks the group realizes the psychological state with an external manifestation. It lets a reader feel something rather than watch from a distance.
Addiction in The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Anyone who has watched Netflix’s recent show, The Haunting of Hill House, can attest to what a tour de force it is. I know it was originally a book, but this version draws out certain themes in new ways.
Each character sees demons related to their psychological problems, but let’s focus on Luke.
Luke is an addict through and through. Over the course of the series, he goes in and out of facilities to get help.
Traditionally, characters like Luke, no matter how empathetic the author, tend to come across as weak and unrelatable.
You want to shake them and scream: Why do you keep going back? What is your problem? Are you even trying?
Look, Infinite Jest is one of my favorite novels, but nothing, and I mean nothing, even comes close to how well this show portrays addiction.
You’ll experience the same cold sweats of panic and fear when that horrific demon creeps up on him. That’s his addiction. Even when he’s been sober for 90 days, it lurks back there, ready to engulf him and destroy his life.
Luke tries and tries to get away. He faces away from it and counts and paces. But it lurks there. It’s outside of him and there’s nothing in his power to fix that.
It’s not that his will is weak or that he’s not taking his recovery seriously. It’s that the specter of addiction is infinitely powerful and persistent and will strike at the tiniest of openings.
If you don’t feel that sense of dread during these scenes, you’ve lost your humanity.
Horror as a literary genre is uniquely poised to penetrate our glazed-over eyes. It can shock us into thinking about difficult topics and drive us into action.
But mostly, it can give us empathy for the other. It gets us closer to experiencing unimaginable psychological states than any other art can.
I know what some of you are thinking: you’re referring to themes and symbols and metaphors. These devices have been used for centuries in mainstream literature. You shouldn’t praise a genre for having minimal literary standards.
That’s not what this is about.
It’s about letting us get into the heads of people experiencing true psychological trauma, not with cliche voice-over, but by externalizing it.
Would you sell your soul for consumeristic pleasures? Well, that’s not just a turn of phrase in Needful Things; it’s literal.
Instead of watching The Politician with detached awe and fascination, we should feel a visceral dread and terror at that type of power trip as we do in The Great and Secret Show.
Outside of some experimental non-horror literature, this type of technique in writing has not been done much or well.
Let’s wake up, ask the big questions, and heaven-forbid, actually feel something for a change.