Why Severed Heads Actually Matter

I don’t really care for severed heads and people terrified out of their wits or writhing in agony. I don’t cheer or laugh when chainsaws come out like adolescent boys might whoop and shout at explosions in an action film. I don’t particularly enjoy being scared – quite the opposite. And just like it’s a bogus myth a lot of non-literary people have that storytellers who write fantasy have psychedelic minds or are “weird”, it’s not true that people who tell horror stories secretly have actual heads in their freezers and ‘sick’ minds (we’ll address whether the horrible is always attributable to illness another time). But I have to deliberately ponder the question – actually I have to write it – to get at exactly the reasons horror, as a genre, appeals to me. So here goes:

  • asher-black-looking-at-youETHOS: I have a profoundly felt sense of justice and injustice when looking at the world, and while I don’t think of horror as fable – as morality play – I think horror, as a genre, has the greatest capacity (at least for me) to elaborate the problems in the world with the most truth, and possibly what can be done about them. I favour direct routes to a goal, and horror seems to provide this undistilled. Horror allows us to freely discuss the widest ranges of what is horrible in life, what causes human suffering, whether it’s starvation and we illustrate it through cannibalism, or it’s neglect and abandonment and we demonstrate it through vengeful ghosts, or so on. It isn’t, as one might suppose, an obsession with negativity or negative energy, either – I find in horror a tremendous capacity for articulating redemption. Horror, in short, feeds my ethical sense, and my sense of the titanic matters of significance facing us in the world today and since the fall of man.
  • SPEED: Redemption is a primary component of most fiction, actually, and so is elaborating core human problems and how we might overcome them. We live through the challenges, hurdles, trials and the potential (whether it’s realized or not, comedy or tragedy) for overcoming that makes us feel more like human beings. Blessed is he who overcomes. So in this way, I think horror is closest to the bone of all storytelling. The first stories were horrible. They were ghastly, they were warnings, were ghost stories, epics with monsters, the wrath of gods, the bestial fables of ethical or cultural disobedience or the myths of what lies in the dark woods. In short, this appeals to me, because I’m not a genius storyteller, and I’m not a seasoned hand at it – it’s a learning process into which I need to put my 10,000 hours of practice, like a violinist or a creative programmer, as Gladwell illustrates in Outliers. This again is the most direct route – a beeline to what’s essential in story itself. Learning to write horror is like learning the simplest of languages (arguably Spanish) – if you’re on a trajectory where you need to get good as soon as possible, it’s a really good option.
  • REVELATION: I suffered a lot, as a kid. And I have a need to express it, to convey it somehow, in a way people can understand. It heals me to do so. Perhaps the most important thing to do in this regard is truth telling – confession of what actually happened. Without it, there is no vindication, no honesty, not possible way to get beyond it. But no one of those who hurt me as a child will ever acknowledge it. And to tell it outright would frankly be too horrible. It’s like a severe burn victim – you want to look away. In this way, horror as fiction provides a filter, like Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock longing to see God in unapproachable light, and being able to look but only via a reflection. People can’t handle the whole truth unfettered as autobiography – they just can’t. And they can’t process it that way, and communicate it back, because already their hearts are closing up, because it’s a true story. You know this, because all they can express is pity, or wonder that you survived. “Precious” was a keen film, but not one you watch a second time; it’s like Sinclair’s novel The Jungle – we don’t really remember his principles of social progressivism, but rather his scandalous expose of the lard industry. So a storyteller can filter the basic concepts into fiction, and tell a different story, but one that conveys what horrible feels like. Because we need to tell the truth, and fiction becomes the only vehicle for telling the truth, where telling truth outright would only feel like fiction. In this way, horror can redeem the storyteller too. So I tell it, because I need to – because somebody somewhere must and, in that way, the storyteller’s voice becomes an other, someone else doing the telling, because fiction becomes an other version of the story – and it suffices.
  • HUMANITY: I am most interested in how human beings are revealed as human beings – more accurately, how persons of any kind or species are revealed for what they are – in the crucible of the horrible. I don’t think Romance does that, in the same way – in fact, because of our myths about romantic love, and the cultural baggage we attach to it, very often humanity is concealed rather than revealed. I don’t think the purely genre areas like Westerns do it, though some Westerns do – I’m not knocking it – but there’s nothing inherently revelatory about the Western vs. any other genre. I do think Sci-Fi has immense potential to reveal personhood for what it is – in fact, that’s one of the chief questions, given what you can do with cloning, alien species, and the challenges of robotics. Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” is one of my bibles, because of what it reveals to us about humanity. And certainly Dystopian literature also delves deeply in this area, thinking of Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, and so on. But horror, I think, accesses a specific case of how humanity is revealed, namely how it is revealed through suffering, through sadness, sorrow, pain, fear, and the various things that, if horror were not counterintuitive, we could classify as purely negative. I have looked into the faces of the exploited and the downtrodden, seen the agony, the crushed dreams, the loss of self, and I have seen their precious humanity revealed, far far more, than in the pampered faces of the Prada toting chic fashionistas in some place like Williamsburg. It’s not that I endorse suffering – it’s that I acknowledge that I see more depth in much earned weeping than in idiot laughter over jokes in a bar. You may disagree, but I’m saying horror appeals to me, because I long to feel and see and experience and convey humanity, however we might quantify that nebulous quality.
  • MISCHIEF: I have an energetic and imaginative capacity for mischief, to the point of being diabolical. It’s one of the traits that makes me effective in what I do for a living, but I need an outlet to fully elaborate it. If I had done the standard frat boy dorm thing, I would have been pranking all the time. Actually, I did quite a bit of that in college, and even founded organizations for the purpose, and as pranks in themselves. Actually… I still do. Be that as it may, horror provides an excellent means of being mischievous with the audience. I tend to see the alternate possible meanings of a thing, and mentally ‘hack’ the memes in the most mischievous manner possible. Horror fiction offers me a place where that’s not only welcome, but it’s basically a job qualification. You’re standing there singing happy birthday, and a clown pops out from around the corner, to the laughter and delight of your guests. Only… you didn’t hire a clown for this party. Mischief. It’s my stock and trade, because if it wasn’t, I’d have to be that clown. 🙂 This way I get to send hundreds of clowns. The clown apocalypse. And so on. 🙂 In short, horror is one way I have fun.

The horror I’ve toyed with has been Emotive Horror, and I’ve discussed that. But not all of it will be. I’m working on some things that aren’t. But the reason I started out with primarily emotional material, was that I wanted to work with something more than simple fear, or the fear or Death – which becomes much less important in the face of the potential to lose one’s soul, one’s self, the sense of one’s own humanity, in the context of the all-consuming world. Writing Emo Horror has been a vehicle for me to define the very things this article describes, but precisely so I can learn to use them to elaborate on the significance of events we find more viscerally horrible, can impute to them their true importance in the context of human experience, and so likewise those events can illustrate and convey more effectively the emotional locus of the genuinely horrible, and the intangible character of it, before it is tangible, so that we can think about it in the context of justice, of an ethos, of truth, and can possibly find it conveying other truths that we might not have expected. Anyone who loves the film Hearts in Atlantis knows what I mean.

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