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)

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Vampiryirya and the zombie horde

She shuddered to behold them. Her inky tresses shuddered as well.

‘Who,’ she intoned as she stared from her lofty pinnacle at the grounds below, ‘are these miserable creatures?’

‘They are undead, ma’am,’ said Tench her valet. ‘They are lost souls who have died but then returned. Their mission is to devour human flesh ma’am, if I understand the matter correctly.’

‘Well, I can’t say I particularly like the look of them,’ she said as the hobbled, lurching, decaying mob surrounded the mighty oaken front door and set up a monotonous but pulverisingly powerful battering. ‘See them off would you Tench?’

‘Ma’am.’

He worked his way down the endless stairs, floor after floor, until he reached the front hall. The pounding on the door was a slow, terrifying, earth-shaking thunder, as the foul creatures flung their rotten corpses against the door. As the ones at the front lost limbs, heads, even torsos, they were replaced by others who, gibbering and feeding on the ever-growing heap of human detritus, crawled over them to take up their positions, pounding and hammering. They gave vent to a wordless sound, part grunt part howl.

‘I say,’ said Tench through the letterbox. ‘I say, hello?’

The leader of the ghastly crowd bent down and surveyed him coolly from the other side of the letter box.

‘Uuuurgh.’

‘Yes, quite. Well I suppose I was just wondering, is there anything I can do for you at all?’

‘Uuuuuuurgh!’

‘Indeed. As you say. You see the thing is, sorry and all that, but my mistress isn’t at home just now. So sorry. Was there a message at all?’

The leader’s eye fell out, rolled through the letter box and landed, wetly, at Tench’s feet.

‘Yes. I see. Well thanks awfully for coming, and I’ll be sure to let my mistress know you came.’

The leader seemed at a loss for a moment. His ravaged, maggot-infested hand crept to his now empty eye socket. Then he turned to the mob behind him. He raised a bloodied stump of an arm.

‘Uuuurgh! Uuuuuuuuuuurgh!’

The mob fell silent for a moment. Then they tore him to pieces and started to feed. Tench wound his weary way back upstairs as the pounding started up again.

‘They seem to still be there, Tench,’ Vampiryirya said as he returned.

‘Ma’am. I did tell them you were not at home, but…’

Vampiryirya flung open the casement and threw scorn at the direful rabble.

‘You! You down there! Hear me! for I am Vampiryirya, Acting Queen of the Damned!’

Some heads twisted up to look (many of them, regrettably, fell off in the process). ‘I abjure you by all the powers of the dark, by the waters of sorrow and mystery, by the awful ecstasy of the Great Memnoch…’

The pounding showed no signs of abating: it seemed, in fact to be increasing in volume. The mob was growing with every minute, and the great door was starting to yield, inch by inch, as the pressure of the gruesome army increased.

‘I’m not sure you have their full attention, Ma’am,’ said Tench. ‘I wonder if they quite understand the meaning of “abjure”?’

‘Abjure? Well it means… you know, it means…’ She tossed her raven hair. ‘Oh sod it.’ She turned back to the casement where the grunts and howls of the horde below drifted up.

‘Look you lot. Just bugger off! OK?’

The mob gazed stupidly up at her.

‘Uuuurgh.’

‘Go on now. Shoo!’

‘Urgh.’

‘That’s it. For I am Vampiryirya, Ac…’

The mob stirred, seethed, grumbled. Then they turned and started to lurch away, leaving bits of themselves behind as they went.

‘Tench.’

‘Ma’am?’

‘Go down and clear up would you?’

‘Ma’am.’

‘Dirty little oiks. Oh, and Tench?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘Don’t get any of it on your shoes. Hmmm?’

‘Ma’am.’

‘For I, Vampiryirya, have only just had my carpets shampooed.’

‘As you say Ma’am.’