Horror in Times of Strife

d-z

It’s been about a month since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. I have been overwhelmed with shock and disgust, heartbreak and hopelessness, since finding out that enough of my fellow Americans support a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, corrupt, lying bully to get that man elected to the most powerful political office in the nation. Those feelings are only now starting to fade somewhat into the white noise of my daily life, not so much diminishing in their awfulness as simply coming to a point where they no longer outpace my ability to cope with them. I have to tell you, in the first few weeks following the election, I was a panicked, pessimistic mess. The only thing that helped me stay sane was a timely vacation in Providence, Rhode Island, with my girlfriend, which I had just begun when the Trump victory (something that felt like America’s death sentence) was announced.

It’s also been about a month and a week since I started this blog. I originally planned to follow up my first post, a rundown of five of my all-time favorite horror novels, with a rundown of five of my all-time favorite non-horror novels. But with the wounds of the election still so fresh, I didn’t really feel up to being the guy saying “Hey people, I know we’re all scared of this rising, regressive new regime which values violent self-interest and religious fundamentalism over compassion, logic, or basic human rights… but, c’mon, let me tell you why I like Moby-Dick!” I’m sure I’ll get around to boring you with my fanboy gushing eventually, but for now I think I’ll take this opportunity to bore you with some pseudo-intellectual pop psychology, philosophical wankery, and Cliff’s Notes-style genre history lessons instead.

See, while everyone (including yours truly) was pissing themselves over the grim possibilities of life under Herr Trump, Bram Stoker Award-winning horror writer and fellow Pennsylvanian Brian Keene took to social media and posted the following message to his Facebook wall:

“A Message to Young Horror Writers:

Stephen King and Texas Chainsaw happened in the shadow of Watergate/Vietnam.

Splatterpunk happened in the shadow of Reagan.

Vertigo Comics happened in the shadow of Thatcher.

My generation’s success happened in the shadow of Bush Junior.

Now it’s your turn. Go write about monsters and truth, because that’s our job, and there’s folks your age that are going to need it. Horror always does well in times of trouble, because people are seeking to escape from the very real monsters of the world, and curl up with safe, comforting, make-believe monsters. Don’t let those people down.”

Well said, and totally accurate, though admittedly small comfort (upon first glance) to those of us more worried about the well-being of ourselves, our loved ones, our country, and even the world as a whole than about the quality of the media we consume or the profitability of creating it. In that vein, Keene was deluged with negative comments accusing him of shrugging off people’s very real concerns in favor of quipping something along the lines of “Well, at least the horror genre’s going to be booming again, hurr hurr.” I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there’s a teeny tiny kernel of truth inside that response. Like I said, Keene’s words totally accurate but also, on the surface at least, not much more than a very minor comfort. In the grand scheme of things, it feels like a virtually infinitesimal, utterly petty comfort indeed. It’s hard to give much of a shit about make-believe monsters when you’re worried about losing your health insurance, your right to marry, or even your citizenship.

That said, I think a lot of Keene’s detractors were merely lashing out, taking their fresh pain and fear out on someone who ultimately didn’t deserve it.

Someone who ultimately was right.

Make no mistake, Keene was right. Horror does thrive in times of strife. These things are facts, not opinions. In addition to the examples he provided, it’s worth noting that the explosion of so-called “torture-porn” in horror cinema (embodied by the Saw and Hostel franchises) happened in the shadow of the War on Terror, which shoved the brutal realities of combat, as well as graphic videos of hostages being beheaded, into the faces of a previously sheltered young generation. In the ’80s, the horror genre, in all its various forms and formats, became increasingly fixated with displays of gore, transformation, mutation, and disease, all in the wake of this new ravager of human bodies called AIDS. In the ’60s and ’70s, as New Age spiritualism rattled the cages of established Western religions, the Satanic sacrilege of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, and the like reached a fever pitch. In the midst of the ’50s, when Cold War anxieties and McCarthyist oppression closed in on the American psyche from both sides, the pop cultural zeitgeist was under constant invasion from body snatchers, shape-changing things from another world, and unstoppable, absorbing, individuality-erasing red blobs.

Why? Why does horror thrive in times of strife? Are audiences looking to replace their real-life terrors with more easily conquerable fictional ones? Or maybe horror booms not because of audience appetites, but because of creator motivations. Is part of horror’s function, perhaps, to hold a mirror up to society and show us its reflection, warts and all? Certainly a genre preoccupied with “bad things” will have a lot to work with in times when bad things are in no short supply.

Is this all a meaningful form of self-expression, an act of political protest, an indulgence in escapism, or just fear-mongering opportunism? I suspect, in truth, the answer is “all of the above,” though the dreamer in me would like to believe that the overall mixture is such that the fourth option is in the minority.

When all is said and done, few genres of art and entertainment can capture the heart of an age better than horror, because horror is the genre that, more than any other, recognizes that said heart is often quite black. Fear is an ever-present puzzle piece of the human experience; we never feel truly and completely safe. In that sense, it is a common ground that unifies us all.

Of course, art in general is at its most vital when emotions are heightened, when sometimes love or joy, but more likely dread or rage, burn in your veins with such heat that you just have to find a way to let some of it out, be it onto the page or canvas or whatever. That’s why horror never completely goes out of style. Looking at those times when it most definitely is in style, however, one surely finds that not only its popularity but also its overall quality tends to rise and fall alongside the misfortunes of man.

When Keene pointed this out, I think some of his readers misinterpreted it as an attempt to latch onto some kind of flimsy silver lining. I think, in the haze of their hysteria, they saw a sleazy, insensitive bid to ring personal benefit out of a situation that could otherwise spell real horror for millions of innocent people. They saw encouragement for aspiring writers (like myself) to take advantage of others’ misfortune, spinning pain into profit. But they failed to see what Keene’s real intent was, or what I at least believe it was.

That is, he was making a call to action.

Keene’s political viewpoints are different from my own, no doubt. But his call to action is about as apolitical as one can be. It’s not unlike the calls to action others have made as of late: A reminder that, yeah, you’re scared and angry and bitter, but there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same way, people suffering under even worse circumstances than yourself, and what those people need right now is for someone to help them out.

Look, I get it. You’re frightened. Maybe you feel betrayed. You want to crawl into a cocoon of selfishness and just not care anymore. As I said earlier, I’ve been there. I’m still there, to a degree. It’s taken me a long time to shake off the worry and the hopelessness. It’s not just sour grapes because my “side” lost in this election. I genuinely feel like the bad guys won here, and I believe a lot of people are going to get hurt and that a dangerous precedent has been set. This election was not just any old presidential election; the stakes were real.

They still are.

Here’s the thing we have to remember: A battle was lost, admittedly a very big battle, but the war goes on. You don’t get to give up. You don’t get to just throw in the towel because things are about to get a hell of a lot harder. You do that and you’re no better than the people who got us into this mess. More than ever, we need to stand together and strive even harder to make sure things keep going forward, not back. We have to be willing to go farther than we’ve ever gone before. We have to protect the people we love, defend those who cannot defend themselves, call out corruption and deception wherever we find it, and anytime we lose we have to get back up and go at it again. The bad guys won’t stop fighting to mold the world in their image. Being a good guy means that you don’t stop trying to mold it in yours either.

“Go write about monsters and truth, because that’s our job, and there’s folks your age that are going to need it,” Keene said. He wasn’t talking about making the best of a bad situation. He was talking about doing your best even within a bad situation. There’s a difference.

As different as his politics may be from mine, I know Keene isn’t a fool. He isn’t selfish or callous. Nor is he so consumed with being a writer that writing is all he cares about. When he said “go write” he wasn’t saying to do only that. He was saying to continue on, continue standing up for what you believe in, but also remember that, as a writer, you have an additional tool in your toolbox that a lot of other people don’t have. You have a forum through which to help your fellow man in a manner that is important and meaningful in its own way. You can engage with your own fears and the fears of others. You can be the comfort for someone else that you yourself have sought.

So go out and contribute. Do something. Campaign for positive change. Donate to charities. Protest against inequalities. Run for office. Raise awareness. Stand vigilant. Speak out. Volunteer. Vote. And through it all, write. If you’re a writer, you write. That’s what you do. Take all of your anxieties and use them as fuel for your own fiction. Take that fiction and use it to attack the demons plaguing the world we live in, or use it to comfort readers who feel alone in their terror. Better yet, do both!

Don’t just crumble under the weight of your fear, sorrow, and rage.

Do something about it.

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