Nothing To Fear

 

A study by psychologist Adah Maurer in 1965* showed that childhood fear of ‘wild animals and spooks and the supernatural’ peaks at age 6, and has largely disappeared by age 11 and 12, to be replaced with a fear of ‘people’ (ie, bad people). The study suggests that what we fear as young children is improbable, fanciful events, such as being mauled by a bear or seeing a ghost. What we fear as older children is starting to reflect our more adult understanding of the world: there probably isn’t really a bear outside, or a monster under the bed, but there could easily be a bad man nearby. The six year old fears live on in masquerade form as Halloween.

Mainstream horror  – vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts – puts these six year old fantasies centre stage. Far from being an attempt to scare us, it is an attempt to soothe us, to tell us that everything is alright. By deliberately relocating the object of fear from a real life possibility (such as, for instance, lonely death), to a carnival of grotesques, familiar since early childhood, it seeks to persuade us that our fears, really, have no validity. We are playing with our outgrown terrors, inventing colourful and exotic versions of fears we have long since overcome. Practising, perhaps. Pretending.

Recently, horror has embraced simpler, gorier, sillier scenarios: the Saw franchise for instance, and The Human Centipede. But again, these are pantomimes of fear, tongue firmly in cheek (literally, in the case of The Human Centipede). Horror fiction, no matter how extreme it strives to be, cannot of course compete with the visceral, sickening jolt of real life – what you can see on the news any day of the week – and makes no attempt to do so.  Most of the time it is content to stay in safe, comfortable territory, with clearly defined, clearly identifiable monsters, and rules for how they can be defeated. These monsters have become set, made rigid and inflexible and harmless through constant re-use. They are nursery figures, unchanging, well-understood, unthreatening. If we fear what we don’t understand, then we have nothing to fear from this kind of horror fiction, because we understand it all too well. We should do: we lived it (when we were six). Mainstream horror doggedly lumbers on, preferring to become a kind of heritage spectacle of creaky old tropes.

This is perhaps why it is so easy, and so tempting, to parody it. The history of horror parodies is as long and respectable as the genre itself: as early as 1824, a mere 6 years after the original, a spoof called Frankenstitch was a popular hit in London. Jane Austen parodied Gothic romance, the 18th Century’s version of horror, in Northanger Abbey (1818). Horror has danced uneasily hand in hand with parodies of itself since its inception. Southpark: The Ungrounded, a spoof of the Twilight  franchise, is a notable recent example. The teen slasher phenomenon has always had a knowing sense of its own absurdity, and is happy to parody itself.

I would hope it doesn’t need saying that some horror fiction is excellent, and is the result of a serious-minded attempt to grapple with fundamental human issues: fear of contagion, shame, defeat, disgrace, loss of status, loneliness. Spend any time at all in the genre and you will find work of depth, brilliance, daring and originality. But such writing will always be marginal to the genre, and for the most part mainstream horror fiction is content to be unreflective, undemanding and uninvolving. Everyone will have authors and stories they champion: for the record, I would defend Stephen King’s Apt Pupil to my last breath as a great piece of writing, of any kind. But it would be hard to claim, on current evidence (Human Centipede, Twilight, The Walking Dead) that this is a genre that is currently in robust good health, bursting with new ideas. Box office may be great: creatively, though, what you hear is the sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped, again and again. In troubled times, people seek the familiar, and that’s what these old stories deliver. Not fear, but actually the opposite of fear: certainty.

The fundamental problem, I think, is one of shape. A monster story really only has one way to go. It doesn’t matter whether vampire, mutated lizard or psychotic torturer: a monster is a monster is a monster. They will attempt to harm us, we will be partially defeated by them, then we will mount some kind of fightback. We will succeed, but they will come back in the final frame. Ready for their sequel. There just isn’t much else a monster story can give you, because monsters, by definition, are not human and so do not share human characteristics. They remain stubbornly ‘other’, unavailable for psychological inspection, in much the same way that a plank of wood is. What motivates a zombie? What motivates a psychopathic torturer? Questions in fiction are always ‘why’ questions: why did he do that, why did she think this? But mainstream horror fiction takes away the possibility of these ‘why’ questions by removing the very quality that would make them germane: psychology. A ghoul or a vampire or a psychopath hasn’t got any psychology, because if they had they would become human, and if they were human they would be messy, complicated, unpredictable. Real. Horrifying, in fact.

If you have only got one story shape at your disposal, things are going to get repetitive fast. Once you’ve been on one ghost train, the next one is not likely to hold too much in the way of surprise. Mainstream horror fiction is, seemingly, condemned to endlessly re-enact the same few tattered nursery fantasies, never quite being able to render them as anything other than fancy dress outfits, put on in a spirit either of nostalgia or kitsch or affectionate mockery. But what any of this has got to do with fear – real fear, the kind of incapacitating, debilitating anguish that grips us all sometimes in the middle of the night –  is far from obvious. For that, you will need to look outside of the genre. Because mainstream horror fiction doesn’t appear to want to scare us at all, but rather to reassure us.

Unless you’re six, of course, in which case you probably shouldn’t be watching it.

(*Maurer, A: What Children Fear, Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 106, pp265-277)

Advertisements

Angry author: ‘I’m ready to sue.’

'Stunning new look.’

Controversial novelist Simon Nolan (Whitehawk) says he is ‘ready to take action’ over a publicity picture.

‘I’m quite angry about it,’ he said in a recent interview. When asked if he was ready to take action, he refused to rule it out. ‘I’m not ruling it out,’ he said. The picture will be used in a high profile media campaign to promote the novel, which is published on July 14. Industry insiders say the launch will go ahead, despite the furore over the picture.

Stephen Foy, from Outtasight Promotions, the agency who commissioned the portrait, said:

‘We stand by this picture, which we think is a strong and distinctive image. We wanted to give Nolan a stunning new look, redefine him, re-niche him for a whole new generation of consumers, and we think we’ve done exactly that. We’re very proud of the picture.’

Amita Mukerjee, socialite and publisher, was too drunk to comment, though she did issue the following statement:

‘I’m too drunk to comment.’

Associated Press.

Live or die by the stats.

It's a worry.

I’ve just figured out how to do Amazon author rankings. This of course is precisely the kind of thing that people like me should never, ever be allowed to do. The last thing people like me need is yet another opportunity for anxious comparisons.

One of my titles, out of print for fifteen years or so, is currently ranked at 298,784, which is a faintly problematical datum to process. Does it mean that this book is currently (let’s round it up for ease of handling) the 300,000th most popular book in the world? Is this good or bad? How many books are there in the world? What interpretative gymnastics would be required to decide whether this is a cause for celebration or for secret anguish? What, in short, does it mean?

I have enough to worry about as it is. Website analytics, for instance. A visit from Warsaw lasting 2:38. Three visits on consecutive days from Hyderabad. A deeply puzzling visit from Moscow lasting over 28 minutes. 28! Either a very thorough reader this, or perhaps the doorbell went and he forgot to log off? Or perhaps he was taken ill and  the computer got left on until the battery died? (Hello, whoever you are, and thank you for your visit. I hope you’re alright. Do please come again when you have more time. I’m worried about you.) I am pathetically grateful for all visits, of course, but how to interpret them? What is the world saying to me?

Obviously, I have more important, more substantial, things to do than check stats every ten minutes. (I must have. Surely.) A life unexamined is a life half lived, perhaps, but what about a life that is ranked and analysed and quantified down to its atomic essentials, daily, hourly? What kind of life is that? I am not a number! Although in some quite real sense, I now am a number, and my number is #298,784.

It’s a worry.

Cave painting? It’s just a fad.

The world through a 3D lens, or maybe two.

So I finally got round to seeing a film in 3D, Clash of the Titans. I saw it on a Thursday afternoon, and the auditorium was packed with possibly as many as 5 people. Nothing wrong with the film, but the 3D ads were far more entertaining, in particular an ad featuring a tennis ball that appeared miraculously hanging in the air, just out of reach. It’s not at all clear to me what 3D is adding to the experience of watching a film, except that you have to have peculiar glasses on that make you look like a late-era Roy Orbison and you are constantly distracting yourself from the action to make mental notes about how the 3D is distracting you from the action.

But then I alway was a late adopter. I found it agonising to throw away my Betamax video, and resisted CD’s for so long that I pretty much went straight from cassette to MP3. I can never see what’s wrong with what we’ve got. Cassette had so many advantages over CD, not the least of which was the lovely rich, compressed,  bassy analogue sound and the sheer rattly plasticky pleasure of the things. Betamax, as has been extensively and very boringly established, was in every way superior to VHS (…drones on about obsolete formats for three and a half hours…)  I only started internetting about 5 years ago: I just couldn’t see the point of it. It’ll never catch on, I would comment sagely. It’s just a fad. I am currently holding out against digital telly, and no doubt by the time I am finally forced to relent there will be something else. But I like what I’ve got, I think, in a plaintive little voice. If I had my way we would still all be living in caves and throwing rocks at each other to communicate. Direct, easy to understand, cheap. Win-win, I’d say.

But they’re going to turn the analogue signal off. They keep going on about it: it’s like some sinister curse. ‘Everything you know and value is about to be swept away,’ they say. ‘Rejoice!’

I saw some pictures of gaslight being used for the first time in domestic houses, early in the 19th Century: everyone looked like they’d just been caught out doing something that would previously have gone unremarked in the warm, flickery glow of candles. The new lights cast ugly shadows over everything and no one looked quite at ease anymore.

You know where you are with a cave and a rock. Mind you, I’m against this new fad for cave painting. It’ll never catch on, trust me. I mean, what’s wrong with the walls as they are?