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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Why Horror? A personal exploration.

As a lifelong horror fanatic, a question I ask myself all the time is, why horror? I don’t mean as a casual fan, I mean as a life long obsessive. I mainly watch horror when I go to the cinema. My home library is pretty much all horror fiction or non-fiction about the horror genre. I pointedly study horror cinema from every country I can find it. I watch horror films from the dawn of cinema to the most recent releases. I make top ten lists of my favorite authors and I am always on the hunt for what is next in the horror genre. Which is all just symptoms of an obsession, but goes a little way to explain, I have pretty much centered my life around this. I don’t mean in a nerdy fanish Star Trek way, but as I view the world through a lens informed by Kafka and Lovecraft and Ligotti and Cronenberg and Kiernan and Koja. My horror obsession does not need other fans to validate it, I have lived most of my life without knowing anyone really read Ligotti or watched Eraserhead. With the advent of social media, I have met a lot of like-minded people. But if social media went away tomorrow, I would still be the same horror obsessive I am today. When I view a great horror film or read a great horror short story, I feel like life is worth living, and everyday life becomes interesting for a brief time. Horror obsession is a very personal thing that is hard to talk about. How do you explain why you like horror and what it means to you personally? Well, I guess let’s have a go at it, shall we? First I shall talk of some of the pleasures I get out of horror, then I shall talk about the basic relationship I feel with the horror genre. And let me also say, this is a personal trip down my obsession with horror, you may have a different relationship or viewpoint, there is nothing more personal than one's obsessions after all. 

What draws me to horror? Well, I think it comes down to two things. The first is, society is full of lies. Mainstream cinema is trying to sell you a message. Religion is trying to sell you a message. Our educational system is trying to sell you a message. Work, marry, reproduce, die. Keep your head down and be obedient sheep. I honestly don’t understand what people get out of say, Marvel superhero films or say, the pride of working two jobs and having no time left, a life only consisting of sleep and brainless work as if that is a goal one would want to achieve. It all just seems so banal and brainless. Modern culture and its entertainments are just so… empty. As a kid growing up dirt poor with no kind of hope for the future, I felt that only the horror genre spoke to me in a real and honest way about how life was. Reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and it’s breakdown of how absolutely nightmarish work life and family life can be, really hit home to me in a way that popular culture could just never do. Watching Fulci’s The Gates of Hell, someone understood the vertigo and panic of existing, recreating the anxiety of life through over the top surreal and horrific shocking imagery and subject matter. Eraserhead showed me that someone understood the horror of the body and its functions and de Sade showed me the horror that underlies the desires of others and the absolute void of meaning surrounding us. Finding that others shared a similar experience as me, and can honestly explore it, is a huge reason why I love horror. 

The second is that the horror genre is one of the only places that is not ashamed to show beauty and pleasure in a way that showed no shame or fear. The longing for a way past the crushing banality of everyday life, the sadness of our attempts at love, the desire for perversion and damnation, of Kiernan’s fiction really spoke to me. The pleasurable poisonous mindfucks of Cronenberg’s films. The delicate creeping dread featured in the fiction of Aickman and Campbell. Ligotti’s bleak nightmare commentaries of existence. The inhuman desires and sensual otherness of the creature from Alien thrills us in ways that the typical Hollywood science fiction film can not even grasp. These landscapes of decay, of death, of nightmare, are in the best sense of the word, erotic. In horror, we can talk openly how lonely we are, how desperate we are for some kind of connection, how life is not at all what we were promised as kids. In the horror genre, there is an honesty about how horrible things are, but there is also room for an honest discussion about the pleasures of life, however dark and taboo some may find them. I find a kind of rapturous beauty in the horror genre. 

So now we arrive at the crux of the issue. What is the core pleasure of horror and why do we crave it? Is it some kind of awe as a lot of people claim? I have seen many, many statements of that kind, that the greatest horror achieves a sense of awe. The common notion of finding “awe” in horror is I feel misplaced. I think saying “awe” is a safe way of describing the pleasures of horror in a very dishonest way. As if the experience of say, a horror film, is the same experience as seeing the Grand Canyon. Is it not what you are looking for in horror, that feeling of supreme delirium and creeping dread, deeply desired, wanting to be consumed by it, something almost orgasmic in its effect? Is this a better way of describing what you seek from the horror genre? Or is it really...awe? Now let’s look at another common statement about why we like horror. Horror is a way to deal with our fears. Is horror really a way to deal with our fears? Seeing images of killing and death prepare you for the inevitable end? Wouldn’t a viewing of an autopsy video be more effective at confronting your fears then say, watching Argento’s Suspiria? After a close relative dies, do you seek comfort in a horror film? I don’t. Does a horror film make you feel better about plague? About war and death? Safely confronting fears is not at all what the horror genre is about. This is pretty close to the argument saying that horror is like a rollercoaster ride. You get your thrills in a safe manner and then go home.  I think this may be true for the more casual fans of horror, and certainly does come closer, but does not yet explain the obsession people have with horror. No, I don’t think we are quite there yet. Let’s examine it a little more closely. You sit and watch a horror film, waiting for it to hit those notes you keep coming back for, those moments of exquisite dread and delirium. The bleakness of the end of Night of the Living Dead. The mindblowing surrealism of Videodrome. You seek these moments of horror, over and over again. And after the film, you obsess over it. You read articles on it and discuss it with your friends. Or you quietly think of it, knowing your friends would never understand what you get out of them, what you get out of a viewing of Repulsion or Persona. You keep it inside, a burning obsession you can not share. Horror is the most obsessive of genres. In fact, I would say that the direct sibling to horror is not fantasy, is not scifi, but erotica. You can’t describe what you like, you just know it when you see it. When it hits all the right notes, for that moment, it's transcendental. Both horror and erotica are the most poetic forms of genre. Horror is a way of taking the rotting corpse, the vast dark of the night sky, the seething desires of all living things, and making poetry out of it. It takes what destroys us, and makes it beautiful. Horror at its heart is a form of willful masochism. What do I mean by this? Masochism is taking what ravages you and worshiping it. It takes what you find to be beautiful, and gives it a whip. Masochism deals only with the unreal, it has no desire for the actual. Ligotti has this wonderful quote from talking about Lovecraft's work: “ Lovecraft dreamed the great dream of supernatural literature - to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare.” This, right here I think sums everything up nicely. Horror is a vision of the universe as a nightmare. Nightmares are based in unreality. And they probe our deepest fears. But a bleakness and a horribleness are not enough. The nightmare must also be… enchanting. Seductive. Erotic. Horror is the art of enchanting nightmares. Of desired dooms. Horror is where the darkly unreal and the dreadfully erotic merge. And we obsess over horror like the good masochists we are. Always awaiting our next unreal doom with eager anticipation. Elsewhere I have named this an “Abysmal Masochism”. A masochism to the bleak nightmares of the abyss we call existence? Yes, I think that is what I get out of horror.