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What Scares You Most?



Horror literature has been a staple of modern fiction, with varying levels of popularity, for a couple hundred years in English. Its sensibilities have ebbed and flowed with changing times but the tropes, the underlying bedrock of blackened ooze that creates the foundations of what “horror” is, remain as unchanged as the idea of fear itself.


I aim to dissect what makes the realm of speculative fiction so vastly differing in what constitutes “horror,” the varying ways it is effective, as well as its unique way to address our evolutionary need for safety and security (and why anchoring on these leads to ineffective, yet lucrative, horror fiction). I hope to show how the efficacy of varying styles of this literature depends on tapping into that ancient and existential fear that resides at our core.


Not all horror is created equal


“Horror” literature is a veritable Baskin Robbins of subgenres. Often, a lot of what is touted in bookstores under the heading “horror,” turns out to be anything but (looking at you Twilight). That is not to disparage the personal enjoyment one may get from reading such, but to call it horror, or even to claim to be a horror fan based on books of this nature is a misnomer of the highest degree. True, there may be generalized horror elements held within (vampires, zombies, werewolves) but these only act as backdrops for the true purpose of the narrative, generally a hackneyed love story.


The intent of such stories isn’t generally to terrify or produce anxiety, but to use “otherness” as an easy explanation for overcoming struggle in the name of love. On the grittier side of this same coin lives the overtly badass protagonist (looking at you Patricia Briggs) where, similarly to the love story, any horror or “other” encountered exists in a space to allow the heroine or hero to put their grit and toughness on display. Again, it has its place, but is only horror in the lightest of senses. These are safe spaces to exist where love conquers all, the hero generally always wins, sunshine and rainbows stretch across the horizon.


At the opposite end of the spectrum from this lighter fare, you will find the niche “extreme horror.” These are books with subgenres like splatterpunk, bizarro, grindhouse. Think of these as The Human Centipede’s of the literary horror world. While some have artistic merit, many fall under the umbrella of pure shock value. Extreme violence, body horror, gross out sequences, disturbing sexual violence and proclivities abound in their pages. Just as the more palatable fare above, this is only “horror” in the lightest of senses, with the audience knowing pretty much what they’re signing up for with the price of admission.


Living comfortably between these two extremes we find the mainstream “horror,” your Kings, Koontz’, Barkers, and the like. Standing with these prolific shelf bloaters are the classics from which they took their inspiration. The haunted houses, the various monsters, the love of true horror itself grows from these seeds. Along with these we still get the sense of safety, the “roller coaster effect,” as I call it. We ride on roller coasters for the thrill, the ability to kiss the face of danger without having to truly face it head-on. We get in the car, we scream and go fast, and at the end we will slow and return to our safe state.


There is nothing wrong with horror literature that works in the way. It is cathartic and reassuring knowing that no matter what evil and torment we face, we will come out alright on the other side.

But true horror, lasting horror, that horror that works its way insidiously into your psyche, sinking its claws so deep that there is no real chance of escape, letting go, and reclaiming what was, exists in a space these same stories inhabit. The difference being true horror does not really care about your well-being, your safety, or lasting hope.


True horror is where things get less comforting and a lot crazy.


Walk on the wild side


Playing with narrative styles and exploring the ability of avantgarde storytelling works gloriously for some in portraying the uncanny and frightening. The comfort of tradition traded for immersion in the unknown. These books aren’t read so much as experienced, and they can be affecting. Engaging and entertaining, few fail to encapsulate the feeling beyond off-putting typographical nuance. The truest, lasting horror captures this feeling of dissociation in more conventional formats, and they are made all the more frightening for that fact.


Latching onto a basic fear of the unknown works for the most straightforward narratives, telling you “A is normality you know, which is why B is scary because it is different.” Again, grounding in this form is effective enough for most people, get your scare and get out, blissfully safe in the brightness of day. Safety and security are why horror buffs love it.


True horror begins to show itself when everything is the unknown, even yourself. The thoughts, ideas, actions, and construction of everyday reality becoming a mishmash of confusion and questioning. Without the moorings of what is a perceived truth, either about oneself or the universe, everything becomes the unknown. Lacking a touchstone of the real takes away the safety net of comparison. It removes the representative space that monsters and ghosts took up, and fills it with life, in all its absurd glory.


Existence itself takes on the role of the monster and all light accomplishes, rather than a return to safety, is making that knowledge more substantial. These stories that the horror from the bump in the night and places it firmly on the eternal bumping we have been ignorant to for all of time. Everything won’t be okay in the end because everything has never been okay to begin with.


The horror of weird fiction and the darkest of the dark can still tackle the aspects of love and character development and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the difference lying in the lack of a neat bow in conclusion. Addressing the why, or any attempt to glean reasoning at travails becomes fruitless. It is this stark contrast to traditional narrative that exemplifies true horror.


The Future is Dark


Art, including literature, has long served as a mirror of society. A beacon of varying interpretations and distraction to either reaffirm our long-held beliefs in our personal ideologies or to challenge them. Much of horror literature exists to try to do both, the challenge being the birth of the horror. The need for hope and a return to normality is necessary for many and should not be derided. Seeking, not a reflection of the situation as it stands, but a chance at overcoming and exceeding the confines of reality have their place, if not generally speaking, at the very least to maintain the sanity of most people. Escapism in its truest form.


True horror and the weird exist to not act as a mirror, but a magnifying glass, making bold the truths rather kept hidden and the desperation of life in focus. You can turn away only to be greeted by reflections ad infinitum, inescapable, and eternal. The pain and terror come from the struggle against this multitude of darkness. Relenting to the nightmare, as with an acceptance of the absurdity of human existence, can bring with it an almost unheard-of notion of peace. A view of life that doesn’t make sense, and that is alright as life itself doesn’t make sense. A peace that can only be found when is willing to take that leap into eternal night. A step into oblivion.

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