Why Do I Choose The Haunted Path?

In a previous post I discussed what attracted other horror writers to the haunted pathway. Today, I’m going to try to understand why I write horror.

It’s hard to explain why, exactly. I don’t remember a moment in my life when I stood at a crossroads, one path designating a sunnier atmosphere of flower blossoms and butterflies fluttering over green grasses–the non-horror path. Whilst the other path designated withered flowers and dead grass, most of it eerily shrouded in mist–the path of horror. It’s kind of always been with me, lingering like a shadow companion.

I remember the first story I ever wrote. This was twenty-eight years ago, when I was seven years of age. I scrawled it out on folded sheets of blank paper, even supplying crude stick-figure illustrations to aid my storytelling. The story was about my little sister and I battling a strange monster. The monster gobbles us up and traps us in its belly like Jonah in the whale. No worries, though. We discover the power of transformation and change into fire, burning our way free of the monster and destroying it in the process.

As you can see, the first story I ever wrote was a horror tale, a battle with a fierce beast from the unknown wastes clashing with my ordinary world. The horror tale has always called out to me.

But why? I get asked this question fairly often, most often by relatives who are worried about me, believing us horror writers go into maniacal fugue states in the middle of the night or something. Sometimes a joke is the best answer the horror writer can provide, as the late and great Robert Bloch did, stating that “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a little boy. I keep it in a jar on his desk.”

I’ve referenced Stephen King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre on this subject before, and dammit, here I go again, but King supplies another answer to the “why I write horror?” question that’s frequently crossed my mind. Back in 1979 Stephen King attended a panel discussing horror with other authors of the genre. One of the questioners asked, “Can you recall anything from your childhood that was particularly terrible?” (another concern some of my fretting friends and relatives express to me). None of the other authors on the panel supplied an answer to this, but Mr. King didn’t want them to be totally disappointed. He told a story of a time in his youth when he witnessed one of his friends being run over by a train. King was so traumatized by the event he didn’t retain any memory of it. All he knows is what his mother told him. She even supplied the grisly detail that they picked up the deceased boy’s pieces in a wicker basket. After telling this story, Janet Jeppson, a fellow author on the panel who was also a psychiatrist, responded with, “But you’ve been writing about it ever since.”

When I was only months old, my mother suffered a stroke and died. Of course, I have no memory of the incident, only the fragments of memories some of my siblings have been able to supply. I was told she was holding me at the time she suffered the stroke and set me on the counter before she collapsed. One of my older brothers attempted to give her CPR. My grandma said at one point after the funeral that, “I was the saddest baby she’d ever seen.”

Have my stories about monstrous possession and transformation been disguised dreams of this traumatic moment from my youth?

King’s response to Janet Jeppson’s statement: “There was an approving murmur from the audience. Here was a pigeonhole where I could be filed…here was a by-God motive. I wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and destroyed the world by plague in The Stand because I saw this kid run over by a slow freight in the days of my impressionable youth. I believe this is a totally specious idea–such shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology. Not that the past doesn’t supply grist for the writer’s mill; of course it does. (Danse Macabre, 84).

Specious indeed. I think we’re attracted to this idea because it exhibits a clear logic: writer writes x (horror) because y (trauma) occurred. However, logic does not mean truth. One can carefully craft logical lies. I agree that past events can serve as an indirect influence to a writer’s imagination. My short story “Lights Out” is about a boy who kills his parents inadvertently by a power inside him he doesn’t know how to control. My mother’s stroke was caused by a blood clot resulting from the pangs of my birth. I was an indirect cause to her death. Could my short story be an expression of grief and culpability through the character of Tommy? Maybe. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. One thing I do know–I certainly didn’t consciously plan or realize this expression when I wrote the story. The realization came later, revisiting the story.

Trauma is part of the human experience. We can’t escape it. We live in a fallen world, susceptible to failure, disease, betrayal, and all kinds of suffering. The stories we tell reflect this reality, and the horror tale is a useful vehicle for it. I guess there’s a part of me that’s either more susceptible to noticing these hardships–relating to Richard Laymon’s explanation that the horror writer is a “worst case scenario specialist”–or I cope with the suffering of life more effectively when I confront it through symbolic form in the horror story.

Before I close, another experience comes to mind from my impressionable youth. This might have been around Halloween, because my sisters and I were enjoying the fun play of building spook alleys. We dressed up in spooky costumes, creating eerie scenarios for them, acting out horror tales, in other words. At the end of our fun, we sat down in the dark and by the dim glow of a flashlight took turns telling scary stories to one another. Who could create the scariest tale? It was a contest. I can’t remember any of our stories ( vaguely I remember my older sister telling one about a possessed doll), but I do remember ending our session feeling frustrated. My story was the unscariest of them all. My sisters laughed at it; they told me it was boring. So badly I wanted to scare them. Talk about the past haunting us. Perhaps all this time I’ve been writing horror tales in reaction to that evening with my sisters. Each horror tale I write today is my symbolic attempt to win that contest and scare the living daylights out of them. Considering the fact that none of my sisters dare read any of my horror tales, I must have finally won.

“… horror stories aren’t so much about making the world a better place as they’re about trying to get out alive, with as many shreds of your soul as you can steal back from the darkness.”

Stephen Graham Jones

5 thoughts on “Why Do I Choose The Haunted Path?

  1. What a great exploration of why you write in your genre. I don’t know why but I’m drawn to writing sci-fi, and can’t explain it as well as you. Also, that King story was crazy.

    1. Thanks, Stuart. It is fascinating to examine why we’re attracted to certain genres more than others. Childhood experiences definitely are a big influencing role. King’s book Danse Macabre is an interesting study of the horror genre. I highly recommend it if you want to learn more about the genre and its motifs and themes.

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