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)

Why I Wrote Sheep

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In 1991, I went to stay with a friend who was renovating a dilapidated farmhouse in Wales. It was a mammoth task, overwhelming, and he was floundering. Leaking septic tank, internal walls literally running with water, busted roof: it was basically falling down, a terrible mess inside and out. Poor man, he told me how some days he just sat with his head in his hands and was aghast at what he had taken on. The house was called Ty-Gwyneth, and for complicated family reasons his mother had bought it on the understanding that he would bring it up to a saleable condition over the winter, a decision everyone involved in was starting to regret.


The landscape was astonishing: cliffs like the edge of the world, fields as far as the eye could see, and sheep (of course) meandering about everywhere, blank and indifferent and alien.


There was a neighbour to the property, a sheep farmer. He was a handsome man in his fifties (at a guess), polite, but oddly unknowable. I had one brief conversation with him: he was off, he said, to visit his brother who lived nearby. He visited every Sunday and they had dinner together. Apart from this, my friend told me, he had no social contacts of any kind. No wife, no other family. He had no radio or television, read no newspapers: he was, essentially, from another era altogether. And I was absolutely fascinated by him.


Some distant scandal attached to the farmhouse my friend was doing up: a policeman had committed suicide there some time ago. Everything just started to click together in my head.


I had wanted for some time to write a book like The Shining, but different. I knew more about what I didn’t want than what I did: I didn’t want any kind of supernatural events, I didn’t want monsters or werewolves or vampires or ghosts. I wanted to write a book about fear, what it feels like, how it corrodes reason, how it drives people mad. As it turned out, I needed one vaguely supernatural thing to happen: a character needed to have some kind of equivocal communication with the dead ex-resident of the house, but this didn’t bother me too much – it could just as easily have been a hallucination. Every other element in the story was explicable in ordinary human terms and did not require any supernatural thing to occur.


I had read a fair bit of horror by this time, and I was amazed at how ineffective much of it was. Is anyone truly frightened of vampires, werewolves, giant crabs? The books I read seemed like elaborate fairy stories, grotesque and fanciful to be sure, but not remotely frightening: a million miles away from the real fears that I and everyone I knew had – fear of the dark, of failure, of loneliness, fear of ruin and shame, and strongest of all, for me anyway, fear of madness, my own and that of others. Fear of the self. The same fears, of course, that drive The Shining.


The other thing I was preoccupied with at this time (I still am) was religion. I was brought up Roman Catholic by devout parents: I remember a school chemistry lesson in which we were shown a short film that explained that the water molecule, H20, was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. My father had lapsed: my parents had had five children closely spaced and, on a teacher’s salary, more would have been ruinous. The Vatican had recently published a Papal Encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’, which forcefully restated the church’s stance on the evils of contraception. My father lost his faith, and it tormented him until he died.


My initial impulse was to write a sort of satire on religious belief, but the satire morphed into something else. Without giving away too much of the story, I wanted one of my characters to create a completely new religion, with new rituals, but based wholly on Biblical texts. I wanted to show up the selective nature of Christianity, how it picks and chooses the bits of The Bible that suit its agenda, and ignores the rest. My character would do the same, but with different bits of text, creating a monstrous and murderous new rite.


All of these things fused together to create Sheep. I wrote parts of it in a caravan in a field in Wales, with the sheep blundering about outside all day and night. To this day, I don’t like to get too close to them. (Not that I’m scared of them or anything…)