Thursday, February 24, 2011

"The Horror, the Horror!"

Tis Friday - end of the week, beginning of the weekend.

Time for fun and frolics.

Today's article is about writing Horror - a much misunderstood genre, as I recently learned from a room full of people - not writers - that told me they never watch horror movies or read horror stories.

For an ardent fan of the genre, this is like saying you don't like breathing... I explain why below.

The above title comes, famously, from Joseph Conrad's short story, Heart of Darkness, later reworked for Francis Ford Copolla's movie, Apocalypse Now.

It's used to describe - in the book and the movie - something so awful that it is beyond description. It's potent because just the words have the power to evoke our darkest subconscious fears - without actually showing us anything. Clever trick.

Horror fiction - especially in the movies - balances the desire to show and describe horror images while at the same time leaving something to the imagination.

There's an irony here. Because fear of the unknown is often more potent than facing real horror. This is why actually seeing the gore and degradation of humanity in say, the Saw franchise, is ultimately less scary - though no less shocking at first sight - than the idea of something awful and gruesome going on unseen somewhere nearby.

Horror fiction writers need to balance this dichotomy with care.

Horror fiction - thanks to Stephen King and his imitators, became ever more gory and distasteful during the 70s, 80s and 90s. It was thought that the 'shock factor' was what horror fans were after.

I disagreed with that premise then - and still do. Shocking readers and viewers during a horror story is only a small part of the horror writer's job.

To learn more about what horror writing is really about, go here:

Fact is, horror fiction went into hiding for a few years after 9/11 - I think perhaps because the true horror of that day seriously tainted the genre in the minds of the public - who realized that the truth about humanity is often more gross and unsettling than any fiction.

But horror has managed to creep back into the limelight. Recent years have seen a slew of remakes of all the classic horror stories - Halloween, Amityville Horror, Nightmare on Elm St and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc, etc. The Saw movies and Eli Roth's Hostel have done much to feed a new wave of what's now known as 'torture porn'. But these are the more high profile of the genre.

Beneath plain sight, there are many other genres that have been using horror techniques largely unnoticed.

Shows like Medium, Ghost Whisperer and even Buffy use horror conventions liberally - as do the Harry Potter and Twilight books, These examples all use our fear of the dark side - whatever that is - to add spice to otherwise mundane stories about love, courage, power, passion and betrayal.

The current fascination with psychic detectives and ghost hunters on TV is, to me, rooted in the our fascination with what the psychologist Carl Jung called "The Shadow" - that part of ourselves that is the antithesis of goodness, moral correctness and decency.

To Jung, the dark side is not something we can ignore - it is part of our make-up, as important to our sanity as reliably waking up in our beds every morning knowing exactly who and where we are.

True horror is that certainty somehow being taken away from us.

Anyway, I was with a bunch of people the other day who told Robyn and me that they never watched horror and never read any either. Not so much because it was scary but because they thought there might be something inherently evil about the people who write this stuff!

My experience of reading lots of horror is completely the reverse.

To me, horror writers tend to be the most moral and virtuous of all writers - in their fiction anyway. Good always wins out over evil - as it should. Even up 90% of Stephen King's novels are often about loyalty, family values and the need for us - as people - to act with humanity.

Horror movie directors can sometimes miss or ignore these subtleties - but the good ones don't.

Wes Craven and John Carpenter, for instance, know that without humanity, decency and respect, there is nothing to counter the evil bad guys - or supernatural entities - that populate their movies.

At the end of the day I see horror as cathartic.

It's often said, by critics, that the 'dead teenager' movies - which are all rooted in the Friday the 13th movies by the way - enable teenagers to work through their angst about growing up good.

In often graphic detail, in movies like Final Destination, Scream and dozens of others, young adults are shown the consequences of drug use, promiscuity and selfish behavior in a much more powerful way than their concerned parents could ever hope to match.

I don't want to come across all preachy but I do think that most successful horror writers are fundamentally responsible in this regard. They do know what is right and wrong - but they also know that there is an allure in the dark side that is not only fun to explore, it's also important that, as a culture, we do so.

Far from being the catalyst that can corrupt, I believe horror fiction stems and curtails bad behavior - because experiencing horror second hand - as an observer or a reader - enables us to more fully appreciate the beauty and relative peace of the real world.

The freedom to creatively express our deepest fears in fiction is a privilege we all enjoy in free societies.

If you take away the ability of artists to explore the dark side of our nature, as happens in some more oppressive countries, the recourse to real violence seems much more prevalent.

Because if you try to hide horror away, it tends to rear its head in ways that are frighteningly more real and abhorrent than fiction.

For more info on horror writing, from a real horror writer, go here.
Keep writing!

Rob at Home
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""The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Albert Einstein
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