In the May-June 2015 edition of Horror Fiction magazine Black Static, Stephen Volk wrote a commentary piece called Horror (Not Horror). In the article he poses that “‘Not Really Horror’ may be the new horror”, citing examples of two Hollywood horror movies (stand up Babadook and Oculus) that started with such promise, only to fail to deliver in the end. He compares this to the idea that some non-horror movies such as 10 Rillington Place or Wake In Fright contain more true horror.
Although I’ve watched a total of none of those four movies mentioned above, what Volk was driving at was crystal clear to me. Let me give you an example of my own. I think that Travis Bickle is a more frightening prospect than Jason Voorhies, because you could walk past a real Travis Bickle on any given day and not bat an eyelash. In fact, you might try not to look at him. He might just give off that vibe that makes you uneasy. He doesn’t need a hockey mask and machete to have that effect on you. A childhood friend of mine lost stability after military service in guess which conflict. His honourable discharge followed sudden and random acts of violence, and the years to follow saw him slip into deeper and darker places, becoming more and more anti-social over time. He’s real, he’s alive. He thought the snipers in the windows above Costa coffee were real too, and that’s why he went into this hyper-anxious state where he started throwing people around.
Now there’s someone you don’t give a machete to.
Horror as a genre is as hard to nail down as comedy. What I think to be terrifying, others will think is a picnic. What others find gruesome, I may find hilarious. There are, however real life news stories that do, or should, horrify most well-adjusted people with a healthy sense of self-preservation. As I write this, news reports run about a suspected bomb attack in Bangkok. I’ll take a leap and drag terrorists into the scene. Whenever such an attack takes place, people tend to think, “That could happen here”, or “That’s really close to here” or close to someone I know, or I used to work there – what if I still did? What if it’s Newcastle next? What if it’s New York again? What if, what if, what if?
It doesn’t have to be terrorist attacks, though. We need look no further than the Ariel Castro kidnappings. There is real horror, because it makes you think and again it comes down to what ifs…
What would you want?
I’ve worked within the health and social care sector for knocking on 15 years now. The people I have supported throughout my career have lived with all kinds of conditions, from young people with learning disabilities, to the very old and infirm, living out their final years in the distorting mists of dementia.
In that time I have been privileged enough to work with and to teach many great care staff, but no matter how great the support they give is, no matter how much they love and respect those who need their care, a common theme arises among them – among us. When we empathise with those living with complex needs, we begin to imagine what it would be like for us – that’s what drives a higher quality of care, or it should. And in that imagining, that common idea surfaces in many, many carers: if I ever get like that, someone put me down.
You’re wondering where my point is, aren’t you? I’m getting to it. I promise, I am.
What is it that makes say, Alzheimer’s so terrifying? Why did the guy I looked like, whose brain suffered catastrophic damage from his motorcycle accident cause us to love him, but realise that if we were him, we’d want you to put a pillow over our faces and finish the job?
What would you want? How much of you do you get to keep after an accident like that? Or how about this scenario: you’re the carer who said “Never let me get like that”, you get that diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, you get your medication and stave off each descending plateau of ability for as long as you can, promising to live each day to the full, spend as much time with family and friends and when you can’t take it anymore, you’ll take a one-way walk into the woods and never have to go too deep into the condition…
What if you miss that window of opportunity, and you wake up one morning too disabled to do the job and end it all? What if your mental capacity is so diminished that you don’t even know what the plan was? It’s too late to go. You’re now going to rely on the carers and be looked after in exactly the way you said would never happen to you. You are trapped. Trapped in your body, trapped in your collapsing life. You have no control over your destiny anymore.
Now what could be more terrifying than that? Or perhaps you aren’t convinced.
To me, though, horror is loss of control.
Earlier this year I read Richard Laymon’s In The Dark. For those who haven’t read it, I found it really enjoyable and here I’m going to drop a spoiler or two, so maybe you need to duck out now and come back after you’ve read it. I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Still here? Okay, well I warned you.
So in the story, Jane Kerry gets wrapped up in The Game, a sort of dangerous treasure hunt of sorts, where the risks get greater and the tasks become more and more sinister. Sinister, creepy and dangerous, in fact.
Jane is warned by her friend that she is losing control, that she is in fact being controlled, manipulated into staying on in The Game. As the Master Of Games leads her along, it becomes clear he has more than just the entertainment of watching Jane struggle through the tasks in mind, and the tasks begin to shift into a psycho-sexual territory: change into this nightdress and lie in the coffin. She knows he’s watching her as she strips, he always is.
The pawn, Jane is injured several times, kills, is almost killed on a few occasions, is nearly raped, and finally in her confrontation with the Master Of Games himself, as she fights for her life, she is indeed penetrated, hurt by his massive dick.
Her experiences increased in intensity as she spiraled deeper into The Game, unable to take control and get out of it. At the end, is it a stronger version of herself who comes through, or mental cripple, driven mad by the insane things she has experienced?
You see, the horror in all of that for me was the loss of control. The loss of choice once one choice had been made. There was no tentacle monster, no hockey-mask wearing killer, just a guy with a sick mind. A manipulator. A groomer.
When Jane picked up that first $100 bill in the library for finding that book, did she expect that this put her on a direct collision course with the Master Of Games’ throbbing cock? Of course not, but she went along with The Game and ultimately, the ability to choose, the control, was taken away from her.
I remember feeling very threatened in a souk in Kusadasi while on holiday with my partner. We’d gone quite a bit off the beaten track and down some very narrow lanes. It seemed like every eye was on us – on her. We had come to a place that felt very unsafe. Now, obviously, we were ok. It was probably just paranoia, but my fight-or-flight reflex was certainly primed on that occasion. The old Spidey-sense was tingling. What did I imagine was going to go wrong had we not turned around and gone back to a more tourist-orientated area? What if that decision to go that far off the reservation came with dire consequences? What if control and choice had been taken away from us by that simple mistake? What if? What if? What if?
Horror can be forged by testing one simple question…
What are you prepared to go on living without?
That fear of changes being forced onto your body, of irrevocable alterations to your mind – things that may forever change one’s sense of self, is something I find fascinating. Perhaps I find it fascinating because it’s a fear I hold strongly and I am certain I’m not the only one.
Some people would avoid a fight because fighting is wrong. Others avoid fights because the loss of a tooth would have a huge impact on them.
Question: What’s more horrifying or painful than losing a tooth in a fight? (and no, the answer is not several teeth)…
Answer: Losing half a tooth in a fight.
Perhaps you don’t agree, but let me go a little further. When your tooth is smashed out, all you have to do is stop the bleeding, or you may even be able to press the tooth back in and have the socket take hold once more if you’re really lucky.
But half a tooth? That’s a different matter. That fight you have on Saturday night that sees half of that tooth broken out and your dental nerve inflamed, inflicting agony on you every second of the day? That’s a fight you won’t get to forget in a hurry. Especially when your dentist is closed until Monday morning.
Your smile is changed. Your face has changed. The way you have to eat is now changed. Your attractiveness is impeded. You have been changed.
But what if it isn’t a tooth, or half a tooth? What if it’s an eyeball, or a finger?
So before I go a little further, let’s gather the thoughts I’ve scattered throughout this piece. I’ve talked about horror coming from:
- Fear of things that could really happen feeds the impact of horror.
- Loss of control.
- Freedom of choice being taken away entirely.
- Making choices that openly lead you into a position where you can no longer choose.
- Making a fatal error.
- Changes being forced onto your mind, body or soul.
- The irreversible nature of all of these things.
I apply these thoughts to my own horror creations, but I only realized recently that this appeared as a common theme throughout my work. Now, if you’re not familiar with my stories, this would be a good time to duck out of the blog. There may be a couple of spoilers ahead, so I’m holding the emergency exit open for you right now and pointing you in the direction of Amazon…
Still here? Good, you must have already read some of my work… or maybe not! Maybe you’re still here because you have no intention of reading it!
Let’s look at good old Dr Blessing (The Cabinet of Dr Blessing, published by Dark Chapter Press). He makes, in essence, one decision. One critical, earth-shattering decision, against the advice of his most trusted friend. He chooses to let an unknown creature live. As a result of this, the hopeful, forward-thinking man undergoes tremendous physical and mental change. He loses family and friends, his livelihood and some of the consequences of that single decision stretch out as far as all of London… and potentially the world!
In The Séance (Dark Chapter Press), Sally Kench decided to attend a séance with friends. The interruption of the mysterious and malevolent Aubrey Levi-Black sees Sally suffer horrendous injuries and a complete mental collapse. There are other characters who enter into this plot and who are forever changed, beyond control, beyond repair… beyond even the boundaries of the world around us.
Then I wrote Anti-Terror for Stuart Keane’s graphic Carnage: Extreme Horror collection. I’ve already blogged about the departure that particular piece was from my existing work. Regardless, that same theme pops up in there. How much would you want to survive? How much could you suffer and still wish to live on? What could you lose, and carry on without?
Finally, in my most recently released piece, at the time of writing, Home, Sweet Home featured in Kill For A Copy, again released under Dark Chapter Press, I really drilled into this. Almost every character in that story loses something. In some cases, it is a lost friendship, perhaps, but for the majority of the players in there, the changes are huge.
In Home, Sweet Home, the clock is ticking. The damage and the effects of the damage sustained by characters is as real as you could read. Keith and Mandy choose to move into their new home, but the agenda of someone around them dictates that their choices are not to be their own for very long. Just because you’re unconscious, doesn’t mean the bad guy stops what he’s doing, and the results are some of the most nerve-shattering scenes I have ever written.
So while the perpetrators of the horror, or the implements used are not all necessarily grounded in reality, the reactions and the damage, the pain, the loss, all of these things, should be grounded in reality. If a writer has done his or her job in the first place, you would already care about the characters and the situations they find themselves in. If they do it really well, you’ll start to empathize with the characters; you’ll switch places with them and suffer their wounds, sustain their losses and wonder, how could you survive that, and would you even want to?
The writer might even be kind to you, and show you how the character overcomes this adversity and somehow manages to claw back something for themselves… revenge, perhaps… some sort of catharsis or healing, maybe. Or they may leave the character and you now connected to them, in the chilling darkness of a life beyond all hope… and make you wonder… what if…
Now, over to you: sound off in the comments – tell me your fears and what you think makes the best horror stories.