By Paula R. Stiles
One day when I was 14, my maternal grandfather bit into a burger and nearly choked to death in front of me and my cousin. It was fall and our extended family was passing through Lebanon, NH, so we had stopped at the A&W Root Beer restaurant there (sadly, now long gone) for supper.
Beloved and much-missed Grandpa Van was not eating too fast. He hadn’t taken too big a bite to eat. No. His throat muscles had atrophied thanks to his recent diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, now known as ALS. He died a few months later. Ever since, I dread whenever water or a bit of cracker goes down the wrong pipe. You see, ALS can have a genetic component. And it can skip a generation.
We all fear what Stephen King once called “the bad death.” What’s funny, though, is what kind of bad death we want to see in our horror stories. The more exotic, the less likely it is to take us, the better.
Zombies? Check. Vampires? Sure. Werewolves? Absolutely. Flesh-eating bacteria? Uh-huh. World-killing flu? Why not? Balloon-carrying, clown serial killers? Alrighty-then.
Heart attack? Cancer? MS? Alzheimer’s? Not so much. At least, not straight up with no chaser.
Sure, good horror does often evoke real-life horrors in a metaphorical way. We see a lot of domestic abuse in horror (and yes, domestic abuse is very common in real life), especially in the vampire sub-genre. And there’s body horror, which often mimics what a parasite from some hot and far-away part of the world can do to an unsuspecting First World body. In fact, some things (like rape) are not only very common, they are portrayed in many works as universally happening to female characters in a tone-deaf way. It’s a free-for-all of gender violence aimed at women in a lot of horror.
But let’s face it – your odds of being whacked by a killer clown while at summer camp are much less than getting lost and dying of exposure, or being killed in a car crash on the way home (or sexually assaulted). But what do we see in theaters and on our bookshelves? Endless movies about hot, young teens whittled down by some chainsaw-wielding maniac. Or zombie horror. Or vampires, sparkly and otherwise.
Admittedly, some of this has to do with the target audience – complacent, social-anxiety-ridden teenagers who think they’re physically invulnerable, for the movies; young, white men for books and graphic novels. When the genre does bother to target other groups, it splits off to paranormal romance for women (young women, of course, because why would older women read books, am I right?) or magical realism/literary for People of Color, both writers and readers. Horror writers and fans look down on these two categories, even though paranormal romance, like most things romance-genre-connected, sells like hotcakes while horror is considered a genre ghetto. Older people who actually buy a whole lot of books might as well not exist in the eyes of those selling them, at least when it comes to horror.
Still, I think a lot of it boils down to simple escapism. King talked at length in his two non-fiction books, Danse Macabre and On Writing, about how he put a lot of his early struggles with poverty and alcoholism into his books. And those elements definitely ground his books in a way that lesser books by lesser authors are not.
But even there, these themes are distanced by the supernatural element. Jack Torrance struggles with his alcoholism and isolation (and being so broke that taking a caretaker job with his wife and son at an off-season hotel in the middle of winter and nowhere is a great opportunity), but those are just the elements of his personality that make him vulnerable to the ghosts. The ghosts are what push him over the edge.
If he went over the edge due to the drinking and isolation, that would be drama. In horror, the ghosts aren’t just metaphors. They are real. So, there’s always an external element of threat in horror that doesn’t exist in straight drama that perhaps makes the threat easier to connect with emotionally.
It’s much easier to deal with things like genocide in The Martian Chronicles when it involves Martians and hypothetical spacemen than when it involves your direct and not-so-distant ancestors (or cousins). Dementia and mental illness are more tolerable in the context of The Twilight Zone than a hospital room. And nuclear holocaust, despite attempts by Hollywood to make it “respectable” drama, was monopolized by the horror genre early on. Nobody ever wanted to think about nuclear bombs in a “realistic” context.
This may be why people seek out horror despite its dark themes. And it may be why some themes (which can be given a horror spin more easily) are more common that others. The fantasy element is like a shield that allows you to see Medusa without being turned to stone.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
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