Catharsis or Carnival?

As anyone connected to the horror genre can tell you, we get more than our fair share of questions that boil down to “why do you read/write that stuff?” along with the accompanying nervous sidelong looks and wrinkled nose gestures. And, put on the spot, I’ve always found it difficult to give a reasoned answer, settling for either the glib (“because I’m more twisted than a yoga mom wrestling with a Slinky in a pretzel machine”) or the cop-out (a bewildered shrug). So when Sue Palmer from Book Junkies did me the recent kindness of asking me a far more nuanced and generously-phrased version of that question, I snapped her hand off and wrote down some thoughts. Only, I didn’t actually snap her hand off. That’s a metaphor, thankfully. Here are those thoughts, and I think they come closest to capturing what it is about the genre that attracts me, repels me, keeps me coming back as a reader, writer and even viewer. Well, all this and the euphoric thrill of the carnival ride, too; let’s not forget that.

Horror is the only genre named after an emotion, and a very specific feeling at that. Which is strange when you think about it. I mean, why don’t we call comedy “hilarity”, or drama “alarm”? But this one word doesn’t really do it justice, since we can can experience everything from terror to revulsion to disquiet when reading a horror story. I think this provides a lot more scope than is immediately obvious, and the genre has always suffered from a perception of distaste. Or plain bad taste. Something it has fully and even gleefully embraced on occasion. I think it’s far more rich and varied than the casual reader often assumes, however, and its effects can range from the thrill ride at the carnival to sheer gross-out to a sense of true and deep unease. Escapism? Catharsis? The arguments have raged on that one for centuries.

I wish I could cite just one author as my main inspiration, but I’d have to reel off a list. I suppose Stephen King comes closest, in terms of his dazzling and prolific storytelling ability, although my own stories tend not to lean toward the supernatural as much as King’s do. Clive Barker, for his sheer writing chops, his unrelenting willingness to go places most shy away from and his complex imaginative world-building, would be another.

My own tastes tend toward the darkly psychological and even surreal. If you could somehow meld Barker’s technical wizardry with King’s storytelling and throw in some David Lynch, you might get what I am trying to achieve when I write horror. I suppose the best word to sum that up would be dread. A kind of bleak yet strangely or fleetingly beautiful unease. The agony of that elusive beauty amid the sewer. I am intrigued by exactly how far down that old disused well really goes. And not so much what lives in it but what lives within us when we find ourselves there.

As for modern horror, I think it is currently as diverse as it has ever been. With everything from the Twilight series (not a fan, but each to his or her own) to both American Horror Story and The Walking Dead on television, there seems to be a resurgence in those traditional horror tropes I tend not to be as interested in (zombies are my one exception to this, as they seem almost plausible in a world in which genetic experimentation, environmental disaster and deadly viruses are not only possible but actual realities). And recent horror film is a rich smorgasbord, with incredible 21st Century pickings such as Audition, Let the Right One in, Martyrs, Oldboy, Rec, and hundreds of others I could name here. But I don’t complain about even the more lightweight stuff, as I remember times when the horror genre was brushed under the carpet, treated like the red-headed stepchild of all genre writing, basically looked down upon. For this renaissance, King must take a huge amount of credit. That said, I don’t think a genre that explores some of the darker sides of our nature will ever be accepted by the mainstream, for good or for ill. There will be plenty who see it as exploitative or sensational or even childish, and oddly, some of those same people will laud Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, the Grimm brothers, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Daphne du Maurier, etc., all of whom wrote horror at some point.

There are so many branches, however: the religion-based terror of The Exorcist is a world away from the transgressive horror of, say, Dennis Cooper or Poppy Z Brite. The late-’80s horror resurgence that gave birth to the so-called splatterpunks (Skipp, Spector, Lansdale) was also the era in which Peter Straub’s literary and darkly imaginative work was ascendant. Or Ramsey Campbell’s near-hallucinogenic nightmare visions of urban decay. John Farris, too (now there’s a relatively unheralded master). And yet they are equally capable of shocking. Or disturbing. Again, why some readers should want to be disturbed escapes me, but in a world where babies are sometimes raped and bayoneted in front of their parents, or in which our bodies can turn on themselves and literally eat us alive, I don’t blame horror writers for reflecting that and trying to wrestle with how truly awful things can get, how deeply, sickeningly violent humans can become. Writers write about the human condition, after all. Perhaps if I can tell some of these stories while shedding some light on the terrible darkness, there’s a glimmer of healing. Or maybe I and my fellow horror fans/writers are kidding ourselves and all we really want is that thrill ride on the roller coaster. Or maybe it’s some of each. I honestly don’t know. But thanks to my work with abused kids, I do know this: telling stories can be how we deal with trauma; in fact, relating our “truths” out loud is essential to what trauma experts have called “critical incident stress debriefing” and perhaps that, in the end, is the root impulse of the genre we’ve chosen to term “horror”—that by telling each other how it felt to meet the boogeyman, we’re simply trying to heal.

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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type.

A version of this article appears in a recent Book Junkies Journal column. [subscribe2]

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Catharsis or Carnival?”

  1. A counter question – why do people read horror? I think the one may answer the other. I used to, until I became a mother. So why did that change me? I think it is one of those areas that are so deep and convoluted the answers are as diverse as the writers and readers, and likely very personal.

    1. Yvonne, that's interesting. I parted ways with the genre, too, when my son was very small, only returning recently. I always assumed it was because I'd worked on some personal stuff, but maybe it was also related to being a parent. Hmmm…

  2. I'm interested in the difference between reading and writing horror too. I see why writers view the genre as a way to explore the depths of human nature and to examine how fear and dread make people behave, (and just maybe, sometimes, to get a reaction) but I wonder about readers. Does one select the aspect of life/death/dread that one fears the most, to try it on for size, see how it feels to survive the book or movie in tact? Or does one pick a sub-genre that doesn't gnaw at the soul? As though to wave it at the things that do and say, 'yah boo, I can deal with this though'. And as Yvonne says, the answer is probably different every time.

    I ask from a position of zero experience, I absolutely don't do horror from either angle myself. I've always said, somewhat glibly, that real life is horrifying enough for me, but now you have me thinking. We all have to tweak the bogeyman's nose somehow to survive, I guess I must do it with sick jokes instead. But then, sick jokes were always the emergency services' version of the critical incident debrief. So I guess we're feeding the same need, whatever it is, and whatever we call it.

    1. Oh, as a kind of worst-case scenario rehearsal? Yeah, I wonder about this too. I know Stephen King as a writer (how much the distinction between reader and writer figures here, I have no idea) says he was working out his deepest terrors in his early novels, at least. Fear of addiction, fear of being a terrible father, fear of losing a child, etc.

      I also have a very deep gallows humour, so yeah, maybe the two are related. Notice how many horror movies in particular play on the edge of fear and comedy? Not all, though.

      I love how we're coming up with more questions! Ah, who needs answers?

  3. David, you have peaked my curiosity with the following beautiful paragraph (and I'm stunned that I am using the word 'beautiful' in relation to anything in a piece about horror): "I suppose the best word to sum that up would be dread. A kind of bleak yet strangely or fleetingly beautiful unease. The agony of that elusive beauty amid the sewer. I am intrigued by exactly how far down that old disused well really goes. And not so much what lives in it but what lives within us when we find ourselves there."

    I've always kept my distance from books in the horror section, assuming the violence, gore, etc…was for shock value and nothing more. After your post, David, I'm intrigued. Thanks for shedding some light on the darkest corner of fiction.

    1. Some horror is indeed exploitative and nasty, Jo. But something else convinced me that more is going on: when you view or read the masters of the genre (King, Straub, Barker, etc) discussing their novels, the genre, or aspects of life itself, they always come across as especially thoughtful and compassionate people, so I don't think a gratuitous sadism is at the heart of their work. Which is interesting in itself. Perhaps gentleness and compassion do lie at the core of the really good stuff. If we didn't care, after all, it wouldn't be effective.

      Thanks to everyone for such thoughtful questions and insights, here.

  4. I see horror as the worst case and then in the end if it is done right, catharsis and hope that life will get better. I like Koontz because he gets down to the worst and then brings us back. When I realized after I got sick that I was writing horror (or elements thereof) I realized it had a lot to do with the horror of finding out that I will be sick until the end.

    Hope was very important to me because without hope I couldn't fight the disease. Writing is the same for me.

    Cyn

    1. Yeah. Hope itself is double-edged. On the one hand, well, it's *hope*, but on the other, it can be crueler than resignation. I think *good* horror plays around with all those contradictions and yes, discovers the tiny ember of goodness or humanity or whatever we want to call it, flickering however weakly in the middle of the bleakest, darkest night.

  5. Love your insight! I've never really thought about why we write the stories we do.

    I agree with your last sentence most. I think there's some small feeling of relief when we weave our own heavy experiences into our work.

    I know I feel better just writing things down. Maybe it's a way of creative "venting." Or maybe I just really need to find a psychiatrist for myself.

    Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed your thoughts!

  6. David, you horrific man. With your well reasoned arguments and thoughtful posts. But seriously. Learn how a blog works. Use at least one or two tags on your post. It helps us all out. Selfish freak.

  7. Fantastic post, David. Beyond King and Lynch, I really didn't know much about horror. I've tended to shy away because I'm prone to nightmares, but maybe I've been selling an entire genre short based on one or two bad experiences. Hmm. Thanks!

    1. I suppose it's true of all genres, but with horror I feel like it's especially true: you have to be discerning. Laurie, I know you're a fan of good *writing*, so I'd recommend Clive Barker's Books of Blood, only with one caveat: as beautifully written as they are, they're not for the fainthearted. Very graphic and upsetting in places. Um, you know, it's structured like a traditional Ghost Story, but another excellent book is Peter Straub's, um, Ghost Story (I know, that title!). Gorgeously written and creepy without being blood and guts horror. I've been thinking for a while now that horror works better in short form, so if you're interested I could give you a list of classic anthologies.

  8. I wonder, too, if some of the same things are at play for those who like thrill rides or choose high risk behaviours. Those seem to diminish with age as well. Why do kids love scary fairy tales, in spite of parents who try to protect them? What makes fear so enticing?

    1. Fairy tales seem to be a huge key to this puzzle. Why do we tell our children scary stories like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc? That's a genuine question and not an admonishment. I know I loved creepy and unsettling stories when I was a kid. Are we preparing children for every aspect of life? Warning them of predators? Ha, more questions, I love it.

        1. Ha, good for you! Anderson, Grimm bros. Some of the Grimm brothers stuff is actually censored in North America (or excluded from collections, at least). They're aptly named, those guys. There's one in which a stepmom cuts off her stepson's head and feeds his remains to the family in a stew! o_0

          This may sound like a strange thing for a writer to like, but I love one of Hans Christian Anderson's quotes and even used it as a subtitle for an old music blog I used to write:

          "Where words fail, music speaks."

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