To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror
In his interesting book-length meditation, Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King posited the following theory regarding the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror:
Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?
The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.
Quite appropriately for somebody with a such royal name, in that passage King effectively gave us the One Theory to Rule Them All, the one idea that would become the ready response to questions about the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror. Countless creators and consumers of such entertainment have regurgitated King’s logic over the past three decades, to the point where it has become a convenient catchall that any Horror fan can brandish whenever his or her morbid predilections are called into question. Why Horror art? Because our souls need boot-camp training to toughen us up for when real life comes a-calling, of course!
Simple? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Useful? Absolutely. But is it accurate?
Although I am an admirer of many of Stephen King’s works, I confess to finding his logic here deeply suspect. The underlying implication of this theory is that Horror is a healthy, even a socially responsible, pastime: no need to worry if your great-aunt Tilly furrows her brow at your movie night selection. Just inform her that the cannibal frenzy she’ll be enduring in lurid, extreme close-ups for the next ninety minutes is for her own good, because it’s steeling her nerves for tomorrow’s lineup at the DMV.
The mind reels at such an absurd imagining. So violently, in fact, that the experience of it raises a fundamental question about the theory at hand, to wit: Does Horror art in any medium truly help us cope with life? And more importantly, must it? Does it require a purpose beyond serving us a delicious tide of frisson and grue? Surely even the genre’s most sophisticated examples cannot honestly be considered life lessons. Or then again, can they?
I’ve been consuming Horror for most of my life, and yet I cannot cite a single instance where the genre has bolstered me against the pains of the world. Attending the funerals of loved ones, trying to stay financially afloat, watching the world’s weather patterns assume ever-stranger and fiercer forms — none of these has been eased or made more comprehensible because of postmodern ghost stories or the oiled monstrosities of Bosch. But if Horror, while boring a bit deeper than most other forms of entertainment, still does precious little to aid the life strategies and situations of its readers and viewers, then what precisely does it do? Why do we, its practitioners and fans, continue to crash its cemetery gates year after year and generation after generation?
In his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (1982; found in The Nightmare Factory), Thomas Ligotti considers the theory of Horror-as-life-and-death-prep and finds it not just decidedly insufficient but fundamentally off-target. If people want to argue that the genre has prepared them for life, he challenges them to
Try drawing solace from your half-dozen viewings of The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre when they’re prepping you for brain surgery.
And there, friends, is the rub. For there is no consolation to be found for such a horrifying experience in such a horrifying film. The formula breaks down. The equation does not equate. The data do not compute. Between real-life horror and fictional/artistic Horror there is found not only a complete absence of beneficial symbiotic relationship but, when push comes to shove and scalpel meets flesh, a complete lack of any kind of meaningful relationship at all.
This leads us to a variation on our original query: if Horror has no discernible relevance to anything besides itself, then does that mean it intrinsically has no relevance at all?
The very question arises in the face of the fact that the genre continues to broach themes that seem relevant in the conventional sense, as in — to name just one example — the many smart readings of various films, stories, and books that bring out ostensibly political subtexts. And truly, a lot of entries in the genre have the appearance of such lessons for their shrewder audience members to glean. But I suggest that even these elements are little more than set dressings: a false subtext that the creator has (perhaps unwittingly) inserted in order to convince him- or herself that the whole exercise is more than just an empty reveling in abundant morbidity.
But I think a more accurate framing of the situation is to see the creator as someone who acts as an usher, who gently nudges us into a world that is at first, for all intents and purposes, mimetic. It is our world. We know this place. And yet there is a whiff of the uncanny about things. The scenery hangs slightly askew. There may be eyes watching us. This dollop of eeriness hardly sours the mix; if anything, it serves as the charnel perfume that intoxicates our inner ghoul. And if such speculations seem questionable, then consider this: when was the last time that you, presumably a reader of Horror fiction, slammed a book shut because your love of this world was too great to allow you to endure the mayhem that inevitably lies in store for the characters?
More often than not, our reaction is the polar opposite, isn’t it? We read on or sink more cozily into our theatre seats, following that ever-thickening thread of Horror like hounds in a foxhunt. We have caught the scent of Otherness just around the bend, and so we wait with bated breath to see how the creator will unfurl his or her revelation for us. How will this particular narrative peel back the blemish-less skin of apparent reality? When shall we be swept up in a symphony of coffin lids creaking open from the inside, of chandeliers clinking within vacant mansions, of howls from a moonlit wood?
And once this revel begins, is it not glorious? We know that for a certain span of time we will be swept up by this music of awfulness, and in this knowledge, some primordial inkling is satisfied: the hunch that these dramas have nothing truly to do with the world we’ve created for ourselves. Instead, the supernatural tale reveals a bigger world, a numinous and bewildering world, a world that was not designed to serve us. We bask in a draft of this world that runs beneath or behind the one we recognize, and we watch in near-delirium as this bigger world, which we recognize but so rarely experience in anything but the most subtle hint, suddenly rears its ugly head and swallows our comfortable, familiar world whole.
Perhaps this might represent a more honest statement of the interrelation between Horror and the world: not that Horror teaches us the ways of the world, but that it allows us to experience the paradoxical relief and dread of seeing our civilization rent to pieces by the bigger world it was designed to displace. For in principle, are we so different from the Puritans who put up fences to distinguish civilization from the unbridled, bewildering, uncaring wilderness that seemed so unwilling to yield to our wishes?
“Not that Horror teaches us the ways of the world, but that it allows us to experience the paradoxical relief and dread of seeing our civilization rent to pieces by the bigger world it was designed to displace.”
But all of this still does not answer the overarching question at hand: why?
Let us return to Thomas Ligotti’s essay, right at the point where he takes up this very theme:
Why, though, why?
Just to do it, that’s all. Just to see how much unmitigated weirdness, sorrow, desolation and cosmic anxiety the human heart can take and still have enough heart left over to translate these agonies into artistic forms.
[...] This, then, is the ultimate, that is only, consolation: simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.
So there we have it. King’s theory may be the more crowd-pleasing, but Ligotti’s is, in my opinion, the sounder one. At its purest, the supernatural Horror story is not an offering of life lessons that your brain can decipher and then utilize for leading a more productive and less painful existence. Rather, it is an amplification of those private, rarely uttered impressions of lurking nightmare that you yourself have had at one time or another. It is not about undergoing an initiation into the world of our making. It is a descent or transition into the nonhuman realm of nocturnal wilderness, even if that wilderness is located solely within our skulls.
Seeing our private anxieties stretched to a hideous scale, hearing our private wishes shrieked to the far walls of the icy cosmos, may be just about the only consolation, the only “value,” that Horror can offer.
For a spell, images of dread and otherness are free to run amok. . . at least until the tale is told, at which point our lycanthropic impulses nestle back down into the cool dark dens of our subconscious. We rise from our reading chairs or exit our climate-controlled neighbourhood cinema and return to the world, not much wiser but a bit more satisfied, for we know that somebody else out there is screaming inside, somebody else knows that, to borrow a lyric from Leonard Cohen, the deal is rotten. We are aware, painfully aware, that there is something more going on in the wilderness we keep behind our fences and beneath our lawns. But that something is often ineffable. It is not there “for” us. We did not create it, and it does not exist to serve man, no matter how much we may want it to. All we have is the world we have made for ourselves, the pale grey bogus world that we know to be a veneer.
And so we return to this world, to the very place we relished seeing destroyed, contaminated, and poisoned in our most recent Horror parade. Not to worry; though; our anxieties will once again reach the boiling point soon enough, at which time we can reach for the black-bound book or select the apt DVD from our neatly alphabetized library of mayhem.
Let us enjoy our consolations when, and while, we can.