Thirteen Scary Questions
Halloween is my Christmas
So last night I paid twenty bucks then stood in line for better than two hours to finally get to stumble and cringe and scream my way through a haunted house. And I’ve got to say, I would have waited four hours. Six. Just because that thrill of being scared, that rush, in spite of that you know better, it’s one of the better things in this world. And not because it’s “safety-net horror” like we’ve all been told, where we feel the danger without ever actually being in danger, but because, like when reading John Barth, say, when he’s telling us in every way possible that this story we’re in, it’s constructed, it’s fake as a three-dollar bill, it’s spun up from nothing, still, there’ll usually come a point in the story where, in spite of that we know better, we’ll get hit in the gut with some emotional punch which just folds us over, leaves us kissing the ground.
And that’s the magic of haunted houses, I think. Maybe even of horror: that it gets to us in spite of that we know better. And it does so even when we don’t want it to. And that’s about the most beautiful transaction there can be between artist and audience, I think. The most honest. Which I only finally figured out last night right as I stepped from the smoky dark halls and into the cool night air, when it hit me as intensely as anything ever has that this is exactly what I want to give my readers. That feeling of laughing and screaming in the same breath. Of flinching away from what’s definitely fake. That stepping forward into a velvety blackness, unsure if the floor’s been raised or lowered, and sure the whole time that something’s about to jump out, or down, or up. And sometimes, I mean, sometimes when a room’s just empty, that’s the scariest room of all, where it’s just you, and everything you’ve brought in with you.
Anyway, when Scott asked if I had anything for Halloween, I of course said I could, sure. But then I remembered pretty soon into it that I have no idea how to write an essay, much less an article or a coherent-type post. Above, about the haunted house and (of?) fiction, that’s about as close as I can get, really, and even at the end I’m already starting to go somewhere else. Driving in a straight line’s not my thing. Give me a plot to follow, please, a character to traipse around behind, but not an augment, not a point, not a subject matter or an issue. Allow me a few slow-pitch questions, though, let me stage the thing as some kind of self-interview, and then I can sometimes luck into a thing or two. So, below, it’s me, feeling my way through the dark, like always, and finally settling on thirteen, just because 666 questions seemed a little extreme:
Thirteen Scary Questions about Horror
Question: So why do we all wear Michael Myers masks for Halloween instead of Jamie Lee Curtis masks?
Answer: Yeah, and does this, by suggesting that we identify with the killer more than the victim, lend credence to all the accusations that horror’s basically unhealthy? The opposite, I think. But it’s complicated, has all these levels. At the first, one of the basic draws of dressing up for Halloween is that you get to be something you’re not. So, in that sense, by ducking into that whited-out Shatnery mask, what we’re essentially saying is “Look what I’m not.” And then of course there’s just the even simpler angle: if the purpose of dressing up is to scare others, then what’s more scary? Easy answer. And while neither of them are wrong, there’s a more right answer too, I think. Talking Myers in particular, he’s of course the prototypical slasher, and slashers are nothing else if not an indication that the world will always rebalance itself, will always correct for whatever mistake. Slashers are justice personified; they punish those who are asking for it, and “let live” the only good one from the group. So, if you ask me, wearing those blue overalls and that white mask, what you’re saying with that is that you have hope, that you want to believe in a world where all’s fair, or at least getting that way, bloody though the trip may be.
Question: Why does horror even exist?
Answer: I suspect it’s pretty much the same answer for why religion exists: being all vulnerable and mortal, we want so badly to believe in something bigger, if unseen. We’re hardwired for faith, I think. It’s what allows us to give meaning to our lives. And I’m not saying that cynically or anything, and sure don’t mean to suggest that faith can’t be applied to art or technology or music or slammed trucks or better shoes or whatever. We all believe in what we believe in. But we all believe, even if the object of our belief is nothing. Where horror comes into this, I think, is that in a world so thoroughly illuminated by our smart monkey minds, a world that leaves us very little room to apply our impulse to believe, our faith, horror kind of repopulates the few remaining shadows. It doesn’t say for sure that there’s some slobbering beast or spectral ghostie in that corner, but it says, hey, maybe there is, yeah? And if you shrug and skirt that dark corner, just on the infinitesimal chance that something’s waiting there for you, then what horror’s done there is re-enchant the world. With trolls and vampires, sure. But that’s also the world fairies and angels can live in, I think. So horror, then, what it’s doing is providing us a wedge with which to keep the door open on hope, as un-intuitive as that might sound.
Question: The currents trends in the cineplex for horror seem to be torture-porn and zombies. What’s next?
Answer: Man, who can know? I’m hoping for werewolves, but it’s not like I have some graph plotted out with a wolf head at the eventual end of it. As for the current torture-porn thing — Hostel, Saw — what I suspect is that, the same way the golden age of slashers got all their conventions made legitimate with Fatal Attraction and Silence of the Lambs, so’ll Hostel and Saw get unbloody and “legitimate” as well. Meanwhile, though, it’ll be a pretty fun ride getting to that low point, which the critics’ll likely think’s a “high” point. As for zombies, yeah, they’re the rage right now, I suppose, but I think that’s just a result of the audience’s boredom with the romantic, gothed-up vampire, and the fact that 28 Days Later showed us that zombies don’t have to just lumber around. They can scurry, even run. Which, itself, that development likely stems from gaming, I’d guess, but that’s a world I know zilch about, so won’t even go near it. However, you hit a wall pretty fast there, with making zombies fast. Or, Romero’s already hitting it, I guess, with Land of the Dead, with that one shuffler kind of waking up, seeing past his own teeth. And the reason that’s a wall is that if the zombie goes any farther than that, that is, if he’s both fast and smart, I mean, that’s a vampire, yeah? And Will Smith’s already about to be dealing with them for all of us.
Question: Horror fiction was an absolute juggernaut in the eighties. What happened?
Answer: I’d like to say that horror’s own excesses pulled it down, just because that’s the way we always want things to work. And sure, maybe the publishers were glutting the market, lowering their standards to compete on the shelf, all that, but, really, I think what’s more to blame — or gets more of the credit, depending on how you look at it — would be that horror fiction was replaced somehow by non-fiction. Specifically, the memoir. Instead of reading about this supernatural bad guy who chased all these kids, we started reading about the bad guy dad chasing his kid through his or her childhood, a dad who for all intents and purposes seemed to be, from the powerless point-of-view of the kid anyway, supernatural. For some reason — and yeah, I guess “reality tv” was growing up at the same time here — we went from the terrible fantastic to the terrible normal. Which I guess was supposed to be scarier. I mean, like lots of horror authors say when asked what scares them: “people.” But now, man, you’ve got stuff like, say, Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. That’s like the memoir sucked back into horror fiction. And man, it’s grown up, into something truly terrible. In the most wonderful way. Thanks, memoir.
Question: Scream: did it fundamentally, permanently change the slasher, or simply rebirth it in order to kill it?
Answer: It’s been eleven years now, yeah? Wow. But sure, Scream did more or less rebirth the slasher, better than ever. Instead of horror movies existing in some side-dimension, where there had been no other horror movies, Scream was in our world now, one in which the slasher conventions were already tired. And of course a success like Scream, it doesn’t just call for sequels, it calls for clones, and we got them all, and me, I loved most of them, especially the Final Destination stuff. But that cycle of clones, or box-office cashing-in, whatever you want to call it, it wrapped itself up pretty neatly by Cry_Wolf or so, I’d say. But, too, I mean, go from Friday the 13th to Return to Horror High, which is a journey from gleefully blind to pretty self-conscious, and that’s just seven years, right? Maybe the slasher-cycle’s somehow inbuilt to be short. Intense, but short. However, no, I’m not taking into account All the Boys Love Mandy Lane here, which, from what I’ve heard, seems to work both against and with the slasher, like a lot of the Canadian stuff from the early eighties, which was so vital to the burgeoning genre, just as pressure release of sorts, or governor, I never have been able to really figure it out. More important than all that, though, I think what Scream brought back, which we really hadn’t seen a lot of since ReAnimator (okay, Popcorn, maybe), at least not in a non-campy way, was humor. Comedy. We laugh and we scream. And that’s so, so important. And, I mean, look at what we’ve got since Scream: Idle Hands, Psycho Beach Party, Club Dread, Dead & Breakfast, Shaun of the Dead, Night of the Living Dorks, Slither, Feast, Severance. Good times. Not all slashers, of course, but that’s largely because Scream kind of just set a whole new standard for the slasher. And, talking just horror, it still blows me away that we got Scream, The Sixth Sense, and The Ring in these three-year increments like we did, each just wholly escalating what horror could be. And I guess I left Blair Witch Project out of that line-up, but it’d be on the three-year schedule, anyway, right alongside Shyamalan.
Question: Same question, pretty much: Stephen King — what’s he done for horror?
Answer: Just everything, I guess. I don’t know. He’s pretty much slung the canvas bag of horror over his shoulder Audition-style and carried it around for thirty years. But I guess the question here would be Did he “invent” mainstream horror in such a way that he was pretty much supplying a market-driven template for everybody else to follow, and where might we be had we had another template? Like I can answer that either. I do think he significantly upped the ante, imagination-wise — and hardly ever repeats himself, does he? I mean except in the obvious ways that no writer can avoid. Too, I think that by and large he’s held himself to a high standard. I mean, as a writer, anyway, he’s never stopped getting better, I don’t think. From Carrie to Lisey’s Story, he’s hit it out of the park just a whole lot more than he’s struck out, I think. And this from a guy (me) who hates baseball, and all metaphors associated with it. But King, I don’t know — what he’s done, and done better than anybody, especially if you take into account longevity, is he’s straddled that fence between literary integrity and commercial success. I mean, most people stand there for one book, maybe, and then either sell out or take the “higher path.” Too, I guess what King’s given a whole generation of novelists is hope. That they too can walk onto a scene at the perfect time, with the perfect amount of talent, and just take over the world. I respect him, I mean, and read him kind of compulsively, I suppose. Well, jealously first, but there’s some compulsion there as well. To be jealous maybe, I don’t know. Feels good in a bad sort of way.
Question: We’ve talked about why horror exists. What about its function, if there even is one?
Question: Before horror was written down, even, it was told, it was oral. And back then it supplied just what it supplies now, I think: cautionary tales. Grimm stuff. “If you find an old artifact with dead people rotting all around it, maybe don’t pick it up and hide it in your desk,” that kind of stuff. Like all good literature, horror teaches us how to live, how to survive. And just because it packages all that in an entertaining format, I don’t think that should be held against it. There’s nothing at all wrong with entertaining your audience. In fact, if you don’t, you won’t have an audience. And, by the same token, there’s nothing wrong with just entertaining your audience either, I don’t think. Sometimes we just want the joke, or the rollercoaster ride. But, too, if you can tell that joke or give that ride, but then have some meat under there somewhere — Straub, when he’s really cooking, he can do this — then you’ve written something that’s worth visiting again. Which is my definition of “literary,” anyway: worth hitting again. There’s a lot of horror like that, too. A lot more than people think.
Question: Talking literary, why is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, say, in the canon, while Straub’s Shadow Land isn’t?
Answer: See question one, I suppose, about this being in an unfair world. It’s stupid, though. I don’t know. Because Frankenstein’s old? Because it was first in a lot of ways? Because it’s a pretty good lens on its part of history, because there’s been x number of critical articles and books written on it? Because it’s really pretty good? I don’t know. I mean, even Fowles’ The Magus, which Shadow Land is patterned on, it doesn’t get talked about much anymore, in spite of it being about as close to a perfectly-formed novel as we’ve got. Or, here’s the bad attitude reason why: because horror’s “genre” fiction. Because if a literary novelist writes horror, that is, anything with a built-in audience, she or he’s “slumming.” A truly ridiculous hierarchy. Why we’ve moved so far from the fantastic, into this even more ridiculous fictional landscape of “realism” — thanks, Madame Bovary — I can’t even imagine. I mean, we could have gone Swift’s way. But then Marquez would have been just another writer, I suppose, Vonnegut another hack. And that’d be as unfair a world as any.
Question: Supposedly, in times of horror, horror fiction wanes, just because our appetite for it’s already satiated by the six o’clock news. True?
Answer: I don’t think so, no. Or, why’s the causality have to even go just one way, right? Maybe we go to war when the shelves are running low on horror. Not to make light of war, though, yeah. My guess is that, right now, somehow discounting The Ruins and The Road and Max Brooks and Joe Hill and Laurel K. Hamilton and Charlie Huston, and just not even taking into account any of the excitement over Duma Key or or the coming coolness of Sharp Teeth, if horror’s waning while war’s going the other way, that’s more coincidence than anything. That non-fiction takeover I was talking about, that’s finally, I think, starting to wind down some, what with Frey and Leroy and Nasdijj having their fun, kind of making explicit what’s likely implicit in the majority of the stuff. But then too, being a fiction writer, I tend to be too defensive there. Sorry. Kind of.
Question: Does the final girl always have to live?
Answer: Well, horror is one of the more conservative genres, I’d say. You’re nearly guaranteed a happy ending. Or, to put more of a point on it: after three hundred pages (or ninety minutes) of pure unadulterated hell, it would be irresponsible of the writer not to give the audience a glass of water. Or just look at it structurally. Say you skip into some story about rainbows and mermaids, and it’s all happy and the character never has anything bad happen. The tension after a few pages there’ll get nearly unbearable, just because we, being sophisticated readers, know that this all set-up, all contrast; the hammer’s about to fall, and hard. By the same token, if you stumble into a story where there’s some knife-happy masked dude chasing a character who was already dealing with some bad stuff at home, then that’s pretty much telling us that, in order to give us that narrative reversal at the end that we so need (not to be confused with the “twist”), things are going to have to do an about-face — the prey’s going to turn on the predator, and walk instead of run from that last battle scene. As for a “final girl,” though, I think the reason the slasher got kind of stuck doing that is because it makes the narrative reversal even more abrupt if it’s a woman, a girl even, suddenly going all Ripley. Like the closing of Just Before Dawn, or Feast. Neither would be so surprising were the hero there male. I mean, sure, it’s only surprising when filtered through our many and complicated and stupid sets of prejudices, but, I mean, we’re a ways yet from getting rid of those prejudices too. But things are changing, slowly, and in spite of audience members like me. Even from as long ago as The Burning, but, more recently, Pitch Black and Hostel. They all had final guys. Maybe it’ll be the new trend, even.
Question: What does horror need more of it’s to remain vital?
Question: On the page or on the screen? Or maybe it’s the same question. Or maybe I’m just stalling. Anyway, what I think horror might need: more campfire tellery. Which is already around, yeah — Joe Lansdale’s as good at it as anybody — but isn’t nearly prevalent enough. And by “campfire tellery,” what I’m trying to mean is a distinct awareness on the writer’s part for pacing, for gotcha! moments, for humor, for gore, and what voice to best deliver that gore to this specific audience in. How to hold the biggest part of his or her listener’s attention, how to be in complete control of the material. Something I wish I had more of, I mean. I can’t even tell a joke out loud (which is really the only way to do it, I hear), just because, knowing the punch line, I start laughing right up front, and never quite recover, usually wind up just forgetting how I’m supposed to get to that punch line at all.
Question: Must a horror writer him- or herself be scared by the material?
Question: I say definitely. It’s like that question Should the writer have no idea what’s coming in the story or have it all plotted out in advance? I’m for the former, just because the discoveries you make while writing, they’re more intense for the reader if they’re real instead of staged, if they’re accidental instead of crafted. Same with horror: if you’re writing it and terrified of it at the same time, it’s hard to keep that from leeching down onto the page in some way. Me, I write with the door closed. And I have a couple of stories I can’t even write down, because they’re too scary, and I can’t live in them right now. Maybe ever.
Question: What is horror?
Question: Yeah. Sure. Real slow pitch. I guess it’s related to fear, to dread, to terror, each of which is its own separate thing. Like I was saying way earlier, too, it’s necessary for us a species, I think. It houses our uncertainties, allows that sense of uncertainty to permeate our reality, and thus breed hope. Or, really, when I think of horror I think of laughter, except what’s happened to that laughter is that, while it had its mouth opened, somebody reached straight down its throat, grabbed it where it lives, and pulled, not just turning it inside out in a bloody screaming mess, but then hiding it behind the shed and not feeding it either, so that it’s going to go for the first person who walks by, if it’s dark enough, and if, instead of wearing that pasty white mask in defense, to show he’s already in league with what would eat him, that person’s been foolish enough to slip into a Jamie Lee Curtis mask. Kind of like they’re asking for it. Which is what horror’s all about.
–By Stephen Graham Jones