“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” – G.K. Chesterton
Somehow, I keep adding new followers on my Twitter account. (If you follow me there, thanks!) I received another one this morning, who indicated on his page that he writes poetry. I followed links trying to find his poems, but ran across a description of a horror novel he had written instead. He wondered if anyone still took horror seriously, and lamented that people didn’t seem interested in his story. Reading his post caused me to think about my own feelings towards the genre.
Horror was a popular genre in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was a kid, and I enjoyed reading its novels and watching scary movies growing up. I still do. What fascinates me about horror is seeing the worst side of humanity reflected in the monsters, and how we struggle against it. We can relate to the monster, and sometimes the characters in the story turn into the monster. Some of the best horror stories, like Frankenstein, show us that the true monster isn’t the creature lurking in the shadows, but ordinary people who enact their darkest thoughts.
I wasn’t a Disney kid. I read Grimm’s fairy tales when I was little, and I grew up reading authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Ira Levin, Dean Koontz, Mary Shelley, Anne Rice, and more recently Neil Gaiman. I’ve watched movies based on the works of Clive Barker, Stephen King, Bram Stoker, V. C. Andrews, and Alfred Hitchcock. Naturally, I’ve also watched a few slasher movies like Friday the 13th and the Halloween movies, but modern slasher films like Saw seem to rely more on blood, gore, the grotesque, and cruelty, so they don’t interest me. I don’t watch horror to be grossed out; I enjoy the thrill of it.
I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was on television. My favorite horror show on TV today is Supernatural. The main characters, Sam and Dean Winchester, are hunters who fight monsters on a regular basis. The first season had a monster-of-the-week setup, which the show moved away from in the next season because there really aren’t that many different types of monsters already well-established in the genre. Now entering its 11th season, the show has had the brothers fight all the usual suspects – ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, wendigos, zombies, shape shifters, ghouls – as well as supernatural creatures like demons, angels, demigods, and fairies.
Supernatural also created its own unique monster, which Dean (a huge classic rock fan) named “Jefferson Starships” because, like the band, “they’re horrible and hard to kill.” Buffy was also known for its humor. Adding comedy allows the viewer to relax for a moment and release some nervous energy, so the suspense can build again. It can also foreshadow what is about to happen, creating additional suspense. For example, the Scream movies poked fun at slasher movies, and used humor to outline what would happen next in the first movie of its series.
Another important element is hope. Hope has to exist at some point in the story, or the characters involved would just give up. Right or wrong, they have to believe their actions will make a difference, either to save themselves or to sacrifice themselves to save others. That same hope allows the reader or viewer to root for the characters involved. We know at the start not all of the characters will survive, but I know I wouldn’t continue with the story if I didn’t have hope that at least one character would escape to tell the tale. Short stories are a little different, in that it may involve only one character facing adversity, who may or may not survive. Still, it is the uncertainty that compels me to keep reading or watching.
Horror reveals the best and worst humanity may choose to do when our backs are to the wall. It’s a reflection of our darker nature, and offers us examples of courage. Horror provides struggle. It requires the characters to strive, to fight, and to overcome or perish. It can be funny, but it should always be scary, and give a good thrill. It’s fun, and I enjoy the escape it provides from my own thoughts.