I know I’m not alone in having been a child whose love of all things related to horror fiction was incomprehensible to the majority of people in their lives. If I had a dime for ever person who said, “I don’t know how you can like that stuff,” I’d be regarded as an independently wealthy eccentric with a passion for community involvement, instead of a mentally ill, subsisting individual with a troubling outlook on the world I live in.
Growing up, I always responded, “I just like it. I love the imagination and artistry that goes into it.” This was not a lie. I have always respected the artistry and technical acumen that has gone into creating horror in it’s different mediums. An obsession with special effects make-up was part of my initial entry into horror film fandom, a la Tommy Jarvis in “Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter.”
Saying, “I just like them,” wasn’t a lie. It also wasn’t and hasn’t ever been the full truth.
If I’m completely honest, I can’t say I even understand the full truth. I understand more of it than I did as a kid, but if that weren’t true, would anything else even matter? I do know I’ve always found some degree of comfort in horror films and literature. That this is true has seemed odd to me at times. I remember those bemused reactions from other people learning about this love affair with horror because it did seem odd to me too. “Why am I comforted by what is arguably the most disquieting genre of narrative fiction that human beings have created?”
Some explanation can be found in my age and the time my relationship to horror was developing. I’d found and begun falling in love with Stephen King’s writing first. I was born in 1977, and became a reader at an early age. In the mid-eighties and late eighties, King ruled the literary world. Critics might not have liked it, but when it came to the number of books sold, and overall reach and influence among the public, no one else got close.
I don’t remember which of his books I read first, but the effect was pretty immediate. I began devouring his novels as quickly as I could finish one and get my hands on another. I do remember being profoundly affected by It, The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Talisman and The Gunslinger (the first of his Dark Tower series). Pet Sematary scared me more than these did, but these also hit on some primal emotions. I know I’d seen “Stand By Me” either when it came on HBO or when it was released on VHS, which also touched on some profound emotions for me.
It makes sense, looking back on it, that those particular stories would have made such an impact on me. All of them involve young boys on some kind of grand, exciting, dangerous and often terrifying adventure. Themes of friendship run through all of them too. It wasn’t even that they particularly frightened me as a kid, but more that they were emotionally compelling, overall. The Sunlight Home for Boys section of The Talisman will probably be forever etched into my mind. It wasn’t just King either. Frankenstein had a profound effect on me as a boy. Lovecraft succeeded in scaring me more than the others, as well, and Bradbury wrote some kind of magic, capturing something ineffable about boyhood.
I was about 10 when I experienced an event which in my adult life I’ve come to recognize as deeply traumatic, and whose influence on my psychology I’m still learning about. I now don’t think my obsession with horror fiction was a coincidence or just some personality quirk. There was already some familiarity with it, and an ability to engage with the material without it terrifying me, but now I think the love of horror became part of a network of coping mechanisms that developed without my conscious understanding.
All throughout the eighties, right through the time I was developing my obsession with all things horror, the country itself was obsessed with tales of satanic cults, ritual murder, demonic possession, satanic propaganda in every conceivable form and a host of other not at all based in reality fears. The Satanic Panic, as it’s referred to now, seems completely ridiculous, but it had real and significant consequences. The PMRC controversy would come not long after. I wasn’t a particularly precocious kid, in the sense of being so deeply aware of the world around me that current events were constantly part of my view of the world. That may have been true of popular arts, movies and music more particularly. I was keenly aware of The Satanic Panic, and the PMRC though. At the time, due to the constant drumbeat of stories alleging every town and hamlet in the country had satanic rituals happening in it’s secluded places, I dragged any of my friends who would accompany me into every wooded or uninhabited area of the small town we lived in, searching for some sign of cult rituals. I knew every wooded area of vacant lot like the back of my hand by the time it was all said and done. We never found much more than evidence of teenagers getting drunk, and in acts of rebellion which could have been foreseen by any sideshow fortune teller worth their salt, a 666 or pentagram or pentacle drawn or painted here or there. The number of cheap beer cans or broken 40 oz. malt liquor bottles was usually a dead giveaway that we hadn’t come across the works of Satan’s underground network of housewives, real estate agents, accountants and dental hygienists.
It’s become clear that these were a convergence of issues that laid the foundation for what has been my lifelong love of horror. I was particularly sensitive to the idea that some random, arbitrary and frankly delusional loudmouths who believed Jesus had either given them the authority or the responsibility were attempting to make unavailable to me something very comforting after the trauma I’d experienced. Despite my near constant intake of every variety of horror fiction I could get my hands on. Despite the tales being told about horror and what it was going to do to children, including me at the time, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who knew me in childhood that wouldn’t describe me as sensitive, curious, articulate and smart. I wasn’t a violent kid. I wasn’t even particularly withdrawn yet.
All of the things which the progenitors of Satanic Panic and the PMRC were fear mongering about, violence, drug use, sexual adventurism (which they’d refer to as promiscuity) wouldn’t come along in my life until later, and none of them can be blamed on horror fiction or any other kind of art form as much as they can be laid at the feet of the very same kind of obsessiveness for conformity the amoral crusaders for an angry Jesus who believed themselves the “moral” majority.
The co-mingling of childhood trauma, violent enforcement of gender norms (specifically masculinity), and the politics of race and class were the things I desperately needed not just an escape from, but some kind of genuine intellectual and emotional engagement with. Without a culture of engagement, escape became the primary answer. Those weren’t to be found in the suburbs during climate created by the PMRC and Satanic Panic, in the years when “Greed is good” wasn’t recognized as a satirical swipe, but instead a mantra to center ones chakras around or initialize their crystals for the correct healthy vibration. The eighties were a strange time.
Later, I’d learn few things to be as good to dull psychic and emotional pain as alcohol and drugs, and nothing so effective at suppressing fears and a sense of shame about one’s masculinity as violence and the quest for sexual conquest. Let’s face it, few things are as deeply connected to our concept of masculinity as violence and the validity of one’s being as evidenced in sexual conquest and prowess.
Horror always was or had become the realm of the other, full of monsters, madness, mayhem and probably most importantly for me, survivors. The community around horror seemed to exalt them all. The creatives who worked in horror were themselves outsiders or outcasts in their respective mediums. Some of them, like Stephen King, might make a mint and be able to sell millions of dollars worth of their work, but these weren’t years when horror was artistically respected. King, despite or maybe because of his monetary success was regarded as usurper or babaric invader by the literary world.
I had become an other in my own mind, through no intention of my own. It just comes with childhood sexual trauma. This also makes sense in relation to my horror obsession. If you are being othered, chances are you’re being othered by the same people who support the idea that someone like Wes Craven should be othered too. And have no doubt, being male and having experienced childhood sexual trauma is to be othered by basically all of the presentations of masculinity society puts a premium on.
Wes Craven had made “Last House on the Left” as his first film. Despite it’s being remarkably profitable, he was essentially blacklisted for 7 years because the film was so controversial. If the guy who’d go on to make “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” was being othered by the same forces of conformity and traditionalism, that I felt alienated by, I felt I wasn’t in terrible company.
The prevailing narrative suggests the love of horror films is primarily concerned with identification with the villains. I certainly marveled at the likes of Robert Englund, who so embodied the kind of all knowing, ever present, demonic trickster that his character instantly became part of the canon of horror villains and popular culture icons. Make no mistake either, it’s not nostalgia speaking to say Freddy Kruger very quickly became a genuine cultural icon. I poured over articles about the make-up, how different scenes from each film were achieved, like his ghostly visage pushing out from a flat wall as if he were about to burst through from the world of dreams into the real world, Freddy’s gloved hand rising out of the bathtub while Nancy drowses, his arms stretching on camera, across the length of an alleyway, and him chopping off two of his fingers as one of the characters and the audience watches. I was chilled and occasionally repulsed, but drawn to that gleefully sadistic laugh and head twisting pranks. The combination of Robert Englund’s performance and Wes Craven’s characterization drew respect for it’s creativity. I’d obsessed about the creativity that went into giving Freddy a life on screen. It didn’t matter that “Elm Street” was relatively low budget, I was still young, and my imagination ran with what it was provided.
At least as importantly for me, maybe even more so, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson hooked me into the story. It was Nancy who knew something was wrong. Something was going on that her mother, teachers, her father who was also the police chief and everyone hopelessly anchored in the adult world were never going to be able to solve. This was something happening very much in my own life. I knew something was going on with me, something was wrong, and none of the adults in my life seemed to be able to puzzle it out. Before Nancy and Freddy though, there had been Laurie Strode and Michael Myers, engaged in a similar struggle. The survivor attempting to sound the alarm, finding either no one responding or no one willing to listen, then having to survive and live on, learning in the sequels that one battle may have been survived, but that the destructive, inhuman evil was still out there.
I didn’t have to obsess over Laurie, Nancy or Kristy Cotton when she had her own conflict with Pinhead and his Cenobites in “Hellraiser.” I knew these heroines, and their worlds. There wasn’t anything else to know or research. I lived in the world they came from with it’s same rules of conformity that made it blind to its own monsters or worse, that process by which people in this world went from being Laurie, Nancy or Kristy to being Michael, Freddy or one of Pinhead’s Cenobites. I understood the world where Nancy’s mother, in her stuporous attempts to do what she thought was best for her daughter, put bars on the doors and windows, guaranteeing the monster would be locked in with Nancy, not locked it out.
Nancy’s mother resides in the same world we do, which was intent on locking away the catharsis of horror out of my reach, and locking me in with the destructive and deadly norms of masculinity, capitalism, racism and the like. My monster was the trauma I’d experienced and the forces of conformity that required silence about that trauma. Those same forces of conformity required meeting other norms which because of the nature of that trauma, I couldn’t meet, much like the adults in the worlds those heroines inhabited.
I was too young and not quite experienced enough to see how these things were all embedded in these same films and books I was finding solace in. The survivor’s narrative was always what was paramount for me because it gave me some sense that someone out there knew there was even a struggle at all. Later though, the avenues for me to learn the lessons which made the failings within horror clear, the way it can also uphold those destructive norms, were all opened to me as the result of the obsession with the genre. It was through my love for horror that I learned to trace influences and the history of ideas, going as far sitting for hours in the school library or town library and learning about many of the folk origins of most of our most recognizable villains and monsters. To their credit, I want to mention I can’t ever remember a librarian saying or doing anything that made me feel they thought it odd I was asking them to help me find lists of books detailing the histories of a rolodex full of mythical creatures. The practice of that skill, following ideas and their evolution and mutation over time, would come in handy later when it was time for me to start learning about those destructive norms and the ways they effect us all.
Part of the survivor’s narrative does follow the old advice to “know your enemy,” after all. Along with the combination of a great grandmother intensely interested in the economic, social and political life of the country, and a Jewish stepfather who’d found his calling as a social worker and anti-racism activist, with a push from the greater adult world to take away something which gave me a narrative to make sense of my own life, the survivor’s narrative, curiosity led me to what’s been the twin obsessions in my life. Horror itself, and the other which has to be connected to it, fighting our monsters to make the world a little better for all of us.
The only way to fight the monsters is to learn enough about them to know their weaknesses. Freddy’s weakness is that his power is derived from the fear we give him. Pinhead’s weakness is the same box that summons him. It’s the doorway letting him in, but it can also lock him out. Jason’s weakness is the source of the vengeful rage that drives him, his mother, and the water he originally died in. Then there’s Michael Myers, who may be the most frightening of them all and in some ways may be the most realistic. Michael’s only weakness is inhabiting a physical body. It can be hurt, it can be slowed, and that’s all. Nothing else about Michael suggests any other kind of weakness. He’s always going to heal, and he’s always going to come back, stalking, just barely perceptible, until the opportunity comes and there is no escape for his intended victim. The only way to see a weakness in Michael is to look at it from the other side. His intended victims aren’t always going to lack the resourcefulness, determination, sense of self preservation and/or general rage to be able to effectively fight back and escape. The battle against Michael Myers is closest to being a battle against an idea, which may come in the form of a representative sometimes, but isn’t defeated when it’s representative is either.
I’m 42 now, and learning through hard experience that horror has helped me survive. Being a survivor of childhood sexual trauma has left me with so many of the traits common to other people who’ve experienced it. I’ve spent around 30 years fighting major depression, anxiety and hyper vigilance. Recently, within the last few years, I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms of which have also been with me all these years. I’m not sure I can describe what it’s like to realize that the entirety of who you are and what your life experience has been, how you’ve been shaped to become yourself is completely inseparable from the traits and coping mechanisms which are diagnosed as mental illness, all a result of someone injecting themselves and their own maladjustment into your life.
There is a connection to the survivors narrative and where I find myself today. I’ve never experienced homophobia, racism or sexism, as the result of being gay, not white or not recognizably conforming to gender norms. I will never experience those things, though the question of conforming to gender norms certainly come into play where issues of the enforcement of masculinity is concerned, and I’ve experienced that.
Part of that experience has been the conformity of silence. Being allowed access to privileges of masculinity as a cultural and social concept involves being silent about many things, including that you have experienced childhood sexual trauma. To be honest about my experience, would involve being honest about the parts masculinity played in it. It is in direct opposition to the standards of masculinity to either admit having been a victim or to ask what part masculinity played in creating the event in which you were victimized. The requirement is silence. Even as I will never experience the many other forms of discrimination takes against the LGBTQ community, people of color, women or people who can be visually recognized as not conforming to gender norms, I am intimately familiar with the requirement of silence from the same social and political forces who support and spread the kinds of ideas that lead to the trauma I experienced as they are given privilege and are valued at a premium by society. One of the central reasons people face discrimination is the requirement and enforcement of silence when their experience reveals a harmful result of what is privileged and valued, and this I understand too well. Even as my silence will afford me access to some privilege, the cost is my well being. To be allowed access to that privilege, I can’t ever be honest about who I am, and if I am going to be honest, it is with the understanding that enforcement of the protection of the norms of masculinity can and often includes, but is in no way limited to violence.
The fact that our concept of masculinity drove what was responsible for my traumatic experience, the need to perform and express power and dominance specifically, and that the most damaging of my own coping mechanisms and behaviors related to that trauma were also driven by our most horrible ideas about masculinity isn’t just something I struggled with. It’s a reality that there are social, economic costs, and de facto political consequences extracted as a price for openly speaking about this or acting in contradiction to the norms of masculinity. The shunning, harassment, and a whole variety of methods are used in order to create consequences for violating the requirement of silent conformity.
Among those methods used to silence us is the repeated return to what’s alternately described as a “narrative of victimhood,” “cult of victimhood,” or “playing the victim.” These are the same ideas of conformity which were appealing to some confused sense of morality in waging war against horror, music and literature. Now, they’re enforcing conformity to the requirement for silence where harm caused by the norms and standards that give them social and cultural power are concerned. When they can’t enforce the requirement for silence, they use the connotations related to the word “victim” as a way to create an atmosphere which isn’t conducive to an honest expression about the experiences people have had.
The loss of control which creates trauma is intrinsically connected to the word “victim.” No one wants to see themselves as a victim, and for people who have experienced trauma, there can be a particular aversion to the connection to powerlessness. Levying the word against us is a way to prevent us from revealing or engaging with criticism of the driving forces behind the events that left us with that trauma. It’s a way to create pain and belittlement as the cost for the honest revelation of experience in order to paint that honest revelation as irrational.
Using phrases like “the cult of victimhood,” the “victim narrative” or saying we’re “playing the victim,” is also part of trying to gain control of what defines trauma. It’s part of attempting to use shame to silence us and to deny the power of those of us who’ve experienced trauma to be able to understand and articulate that experience in it’s full context. It’s the attempt to create an atmosphere where we are perpetual victims, robbing us of the power that comes from understanding and not giving us the ability to define ourselves as either victims or survivors. It’s the attempt to silence us from even being able to say “This is who I am. This is my experience and this is what I know from having lived it.” It’s defending the power of the ideas that created the circumstances that lead to those traumas. It’s placing the premium on power, instead of on the experience of its consequences. The monster defends its secret weaknesses.
The survivors narrative so common in horror is the antithesis of what these attempts to enforce silence are based on. Nancy Thompson has faced the menace of Freddy Kruger and later attempts to teach a new generation what she learned as a result. The same is true of Tommy Jarvis and his experience with Jason Voorhees. Laurie Strode’s narrative has now twice been tied to the idea of generational trauma, how to go on with a life that has been shaped by the initial instance of trauma and how to use that knowledge to prevent others from being traumatized by powerlessness at the hands of The Shape, as he’s referred to in the script for “Halloween”. (*Note — I wrote a separate piece about the fact that understanding Myers as The Shape as a near perfect metaphor for the violent aspects of masculinity we refuse to acknowledge and constructively address.)
The other function of using concepts like “playing the victim card” to belittle people who experience trauma as the result of dominant paradigms begins at distraction and leads to creating an amoral public consciousness. Part of the reason these concepts and phrases are used is because they are hurtful and insulting. It’s meant to push us from talking about our experience and the paradigms which made it possible to talking about the person who is using the concept or phrase of “the victim narrative”. It’s another way to enforce silence.
If we’re arguing about how shitty a person is for belittling or insulting people with our experiences, we’ve stopped talking about the power of the paradigms which created those experiences. By doing this, it becomes a discussion of the explicitly personal, which veils the social and cultural power of the underlying paradigm. Anyone can ignore one asshole. An army of 50 million assholes seems insurmountable. Cultures coming to understand previously held ideas as ineffective or distinctly destructive, on the other hand, is a very recognizable part of human history and is achievable. That is ultimately what we’re meant to be distracted from. The monster wants to seem all powerful and all knowing.
If the distraction can be continued, the result is the transformation of the kinds of public space where these things might be discussed into an amoral playground for sadists. Instead of the continued effort to find a moral ground on which we can stand as we attempt to place value in the participants who seek to rid ourselves of these destructive ideas which create trauma, it becomes a space dominated by insults, dehumanization, reactionary anger and personal attacks, ad infinitum.
The attempt to belittle people who’ve experienced these traumas with phrases like, “playing the victim card” specifically because they’re being open about their experience is meant to add insult to injury in a literal sense, which is then furthered by referring to “sensitivity” as irrational for being insulted by being belittled. The attempt to create a space where common solutions could be found to replace these destructive ideas is punishing people who seek to prevent others from having to experience the repercussions of ideas so destructive the results are medically defined as traumatizing.
To treat this sensitivity as irrational creates a public discourse and decision making process that is amoral at best and at worst rewards sadism. It’s evident in the consistent use of “triggered” as an insult. Using “triggered” this way is the celebration of “victory” won through causing emotional or psychological pain. It’s part of the understanding of power that comes from power being linked to masculinity for centuries. To experience an emotional response to the belittlement of the most painful experiences in your life is to be weak, as masculinity dictates. When the focus is placed on irrationality the result is to never acknowledge the celebration of the pain that is sadism. In the absence of this moral framework, an understanding that celebrating pain caused to others is sadism, what’s left is the playground of the amoral, and the uplifting of the sadistic. Power becomes its own reason and strength is defined as the ability to cause pain. The monster wants us to believe it can hurt us, anytime, anywhere.
Horror can and has examined these same ideas. One of the most controversial and disturbing films of all time, “Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom” is a narrative built around the consequences of power being it’s own reason, and strength being defined as the ability to cause pain. It has the distinction of being a film I couldn’t even finish watching. It understands it’s subject too well.
For many of us who have experienced trauma as the result of these powerfully protected, horrible norms, our fight doesn’t end with just surviving the initial event. Our monsters aren’t vanquished because the credits rolled or the “debate/discussion” ended or some new topic is drawing away everyone’s attention. We know our monsters aren’t truly dead or vanquished. We know they’re too powerful to be destroyed within our lifetimes, but that our fight is about passing on what we’ve learned and doing our best to weaken it so that the next generation or the one after might be able to finish the job for good. We know that defeating it means beating it back, again and again and again until it is no longer able to add to the list of people it can name as its victims. Our monsters aren’t flesh and blood, but the concepts which animate the flesh and blood to celebrate the trauma they’ve caused and define the ability to cause trauma as power.
Beyond what the survivors narrative has meant in giving me some degree of a positive narrative, and with it the power to be able to define my own experience, as horror takes its shape across so many mediums and in so many forms, it becomes its own doorway to the unfettered humanity that is creativity. It’s our common humanity we recognize in narrative forms. It’s what we’re responding to when we find a narrative that particularly speaks to us. We can also recognize that shared humanity in the desire to expend effort which goes into the other creative pieces involved with something like a horror film. After all, an obsessive curiosity about the technical aspects of special effects make-up and creature creation were part of my early love of horror films.
There has always been a genuine sense of wonder and awe seeing the results, and knowing they had been achieved through the creative efforts of an individual or team. Seeing things like the legendary transformation sequence in “An American Werewolf in London” or the various incarnations of “The Thing” through that film, made it clear there was a level of care and love going into their creation. The sheer imaginative scope was awe inspiring. Whoever created them, loved doing so as much as I loved watching the results, if not more.
It wasn’t just through special effects either. It’s not possible to see Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” without being awed by the intricate richness of the costumes or the mind-bogglingly detailed sense of an actually lived in space that’s conveyed from the set design in “Alien.” There’s always joy connected to the wonder and awe I feel toward these incredible pieces of creativity. It’s joy for the person who created it, in hopes that they realize how excellent their creation in, and in knowing years and years of effort went into to being able to learn how to be that good at their craft. I also feel joy for the many people, like myself, who fall in love with what it’s part of creating.
Another part of it is knowing the people who create them are just as human as I am, and maybe, if I keep trying, keep learning and keep practicing, I might be able to create something as well crafted, something which will give other people joy as these give me. It’s knowing that through these crafts, these people are expressing their deep love and respect for these same crafts by having dedicated all those years to creating real artistry and expertise. They’re adding to that great human endeavor which is The Arts as a whole, and the history of the particular art they practice.
This common humanity in creativity can help with one of the most destructive issues for people with a background that includes trauma. For some of us, the ability to trust other people has been damaged in a way that is so significant, calling it foundational or profound is an understatement. The combination of whatever event created the trauma with the experience of the enforcement of conformity to silence, creates a barrier which can feel insurmountable, and the sense of isolation which results can feel nearly complete and total. Combine it with the number of other coping mechanisms which result from experiencing trauma, and personal relationships become extremely difficult and incredibly fraught. A deep sense of isolation is all too common and possibly the most destructive of all the things common to trauma survivors.
There were times in my own life, especially throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood when the thing which was most able to penetrate that barrier was the connection to other people’s humanity through their creativity. It was a significant aid in preventing loneliness and hopelessness from being complete. It was the small bit of oxygen making it through into what was otherwise an airtight isolation.
I didn’t need a campaign to tell me that it gets better. It was clear that there was a better. I’m not belittling the “It Gets Better” campaign here, more so I’m pointing to part of what they were speaking to, being able to see myself in the work other people created. Being one of the people who wrote the lines in the book which I could see myself in or the lines being said by an actor in the moments of a scene which felt like it could have come from my life or being the photographer who saw the image which said so much in it’s frame, the special effects artist who labored to design the creature we all cringed at… any of these were “better” than where I felt I was. Someone loved these things enough to put the time into creating them, while I loved experiencing them and respected the craft that went into creating them. It would be better to take my place in that cycle, and that they existed meant it was possible to do so.
There was no way to create Jack Torrence if Stephen King hadn’t had his own struggles with the norms and standards of masculinity. Danny Torrence could never exist without some degree of understanding that the norms of masculinity are genuinely frightening and destructive to many children. For those who haven’t read the novel, it is significantly different from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, and worth reading because those differences due make a significant difference in the way the story unfolds, and ultimately what it has to say. Ray Bradbury couldn’t have written half of his catalog if he hadn’t been willing to plumb the depths of boyhood for all of its beauty, curiosity, wonder, confusion, terror and its horror. Mary Shelley’s suspicions about the arrogance and bottomless ambition of the men around her spoke to me, even as it had been wrapped in metaphor two centuries before. Without creations like these and many, many, many others, I may not have survived. Being able to feel their lived understanding of those truths, in their work, often brought me hope when I couldn’t find it elsewhere. When they could speak to me out of time and through space, our common humanity was undeniable.
This love affair with horror and the awe it’s creativity inspires has been with me through the whole of my life. I was already into adulthood when the greater “fan community” of horror became available to me through the internet. I was almost 30 by the time I had my first computer that could actually handle an internet connection which would allow the use of YouTube, the more image heavy message boards and the like.
I can’t really describe the level of disappointment which came along with starting to understand how reactionary so much of the fan community is. As a kid, I’d somehow just believed there was no way fans of the genre could or would in any way ally themselves with the kind of ideas that had been so long used to try and make horror unavailable to us or to curb it’s creation in every possible way. It seemed like a betrayal, on a personal level, but also on the level of horror more generally. The term “edgelord” is relatively new. The shitty thing it describes isn’t new at all. They are just more agents of silence as conformity. For them, it is the monster they identify with, the desire to define power as the ability to cause pain. Silence only allows them to continue the charade.
My love of horror never left, but through the years, my desire or willingness to engage with the fan community has waned. Now, I’m 42, and through necessity having to examine myself and my life, yet again. My second obsession, attempting to do some good in the world, make it a slightly better place, has still been with me, and it’s taken the form of being involved in social justice initiatives, organizations and groups. It’s existed alongside my love for horror for a very long time, and the seeming dichotomy has also been the source of some self reflection. I’m realizing the two aren’t contradictory or at least don’t have to be.
Lately though, one of the things becoming clear which has always been a barrier to a better life for me has been the kind of silence enforced by the reactionary ideas which drove me away from the horror community. It’s also become clear horror fiction has brought many unquestionably positive things into my life. Looking back, the importance of the survivor narrative and it’s part in my love of horror fiction makes perfect sense, and now, in attempting to find some path to new progress, I can see how positive it still is and why I’ve returned to it so often.
The monsters in our lives only gain strength from our silence. We can’t help to pass on our earned wisdom, the things gained from survival, if we’re silent. To be a survivor is to have been a victim. The two ideas are connected in a way as to be impossible to pull apart. It’s not up to me to tell you whether you are a victim or a survivor. That aspect of the discussion which often takes up so much energy is almost pointless. The truth is I am a survivor, and I have been a victim. Some days I’m still a victim, and every day I’m alive, I’m still a survivor. The day you ask me is as likely to dictate my answer as anything else. As important as it is for me to understand the distinction is for me to not define it for anyone else or for anyone else to define it for me.
Silence gives the ideas behind what caused our traumas the power to prevent us from understanding that even as our experiences may be different, the circumstances of our trauma may be different, we are all fighting the same monsters who require our silence, and the traumas we’ve experienced have been for the benefit of many of those same ideas and the entities they empower. I’m not going to be silent about these things for someone else’s comfort or perception of their ability to wield power or dominance, when they have effected my ability to survive.
For many survivors, horror may not be an avenue through which they are helped to find some level of comfort, empowerment and hope. The survivors narrative has always been open to them though. For those of us who have found horror to be one of those avenues, to be something positive, it is breaking our silence and bringing our whole selves to these stories, our love of the genre and the community which will keep that door open for others who may find the positive and life affirming in them, and which gives us the power of shared experience within the community. It’s not me individually or you individually. It’s all of us who can speak to the reality and the necessity of the survivors narrative and continuing to see all of our stories told within the framework of horror fiction.
For me, I’m as excited about horror as a genre at 42 as I was at 14. The last two decades have been amazing for horror cinema particularly. The number of films ranging from truly exceptional to extremely entertaining has been inspiring by itself. We have a whole new generation of film makers, putting their stamp on the genre and taking it in new directions or demonstrating how what has always made the genre great still can when capable creators take hold of it. Jordan Peele, Karyn Kusama, Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, Mike Flanagan, Jennifer Kent… All of them (and those I’m missing) have demonstrated their love for the genre by making excellent, thought provoking movies which have ranged from creepy or frightening to profoundly disturbing, while also treating the audience as if we are intelligent. I haven’t kept up with literature as much, something I’ve been trying to remedy in the last few months, but I’m sure there are some great books out there, just waiting for me to revel in the feeling of recognizing the humanity of the author radiating from the other side of the words.
I’ve started writing horror fiction again, as well. This is the first I’ve attempted it since I was in high school. Somewhere along the way, some combination of my own sense of a lack of worth and idolizing my favorite writers convinced me I’d never be able to write anything worth anyone’s time. Things have changed though. It’s worth my time, because I enjoy it. Writing, in any form, is as close to a compulsion as any other thing I’ve ever. I’ve done it since I was about 8. For the last decade it’s been exclusively related to current events, politics, social justice, news and the like. As it’s related to my other obsession in life, that won’t stop, but it dawned on me within the last few months that it’s not very fun. It’s engaging and rewarding, but it’s not fun. Coming back to horror fiction gives me some ways to still be able to explore ideas and topics that mean something to me, but to get at them a little differently and most importantly, to have fun and enjoy writing more.
If I’m incredibly lucky, I’ll be able to write something which will have a few lines or a scene which will do for someone else what so many other works of horror have done for me, and I’ll have succeeded in passing on what was there for me when I was in need.