Don’t be fooled by the title. I’m a big horror fan. In fact, it’s my mainstay. When a work in progress of mine gains fruition, and I see a horror story emerging, I tend to say to myself, “Horror…why would I have imagined it to be anything else but horror?”
It’s a question horror authors are often asked. What attracts us to pondering those hidden dark corners of the universe? What drives us to explore the baser parts of human nature? Horror writers come up with all kinds of answers to this question.
Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, answered this question with some irreverent humor. He said, “People hear that I’m a horror writer and they think I must be a monster, but actually I have the heart of a small child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Enough said. The ghoulish connotation causes the questioner to hesitate about pursuing the question further. Yet the tongue in cheek sarcasm allows for good-natured conversation to continue. Nice deflection. The truth is, writers of horror don’t completely know why they’re attracted to that which goes bump in the night. Does it give us a thrill? Sure. Does it help us understand the darker workings of the human condition and the universe? Maybe, although I wouldn’t say we understand beyond a mere conjectural, academic point, despite all the research we might do on some horrific topic. For many of us, we’ve been courting it since childhood. Horror almost seems to be a built-in part of the original package.
Some authors have tried to to give a more meaningful answer to the questioners. Stephen King even wrote a near 500-page book on the subject called Danse Macabre. One of the book’s overarching themes seems to say that “imaginary horrors help us deal with the real horrors.” There’s some truth to this. If we understand a fictional story to be a vehicle for exercising our emotions, the horror story allows readers to overcome their anxiety along with the characters they’re reading about. We feel the same relief a main character feels when they escape or destroy the monster. It also allows the reader to confront that which they’re afraid of, allowing for the possibility to learn to cope with said fear. As a child, I was terrified of sharks after seeing the film Jaws. However, a gripping fascination accompanied this fear. I became compulsively driven to learn all I could about sharks. H.P. Lovecraft stated that “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” You could say my terror of the ferocious beast in the Steven Spielberg movie compelled me to learn if real sharks were just as seemingly malevolent. The more I learned they were not, the more fascination replaced the feeling of terror. I guess you could say that which was “unknown,” in Lovecraft’s terms, updated to “known,” allowing me a greater control over my fear. A useful emotional exercise. However, not all the fear is gone. A healthy amount of it remains. You won’t ever find me swimming in the ocean. Sometimes real sharks show flashes of the mythic Leviathan’s ferocity.
Richard Laymon, author of The Woods Are Dark, claimed that, “Horror writers are specialists in the worst case scenario.” This is true. The horror writer envisions a situation and asks the question, “How bad can it get?” Then the horror writer puts a set of characters in the bad situation and watches whether they make prudent decisions to overcome the worst case scenario, or bad decisions that cause them to sink deeper into the unfortunate muck. More often than not, we see the latter. The characters in a horror story are commonly more frightening than the monsters. The unworldly monsters serve to reveal the monstrous in the human characters, consider stories like Stephen King’s The Mist.
I personally prefer Robert Bloch’s tongue in cheek boyish irreverence. His answer admits that he doesn’t have an exact answer to why he writes horror, and he doesn’t care. Nothing in Robert Bloch’s answer feels like a stretch. Nothing about it seems to be trying too hard. Nothing about it emanates the pretension of self-importance. He’s comfortable in his own horror writer skin. All of us horror writers should be.
Danse Macabre by Stephen King- Available on Amazon.