Horror and the Writer

No matter the genre, every story starts with an inspiration. But, where to look in terms of horror? Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire, found inspiration in an unfortunate life event. Her daughter, Michele, was “diagnosed with Leukaemia, she died before she was six, and Anne’s despair at her loss led to an early version of Interview with the Vampire.” (Wisker: 2005. 110) Michele comes through in Rice’s work through the character of Claudia, the child vampire saved from the plague by Louis.

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The subconscious is also a well of inspiration, dreams seem to come from nowhere but everyone has had the sort of dreams that don’t make sense and shrug them off as ‘weird’. These could be the origins of a writer’s horror story, which was the case with Mary Shelly. Frankenstein came to her after a strange nightmare where “…‘the pale student of unhallowed arts [was] kneeling beside the thing he had put together’… The image of man-made life gone awry was before her…” (Badalamenti: 2006. 423) There has been further psychoanalysis into her dream and a fascinating interpretation was that it “represent[s] her loss of a child by natures failure to bring it to full term and by its being the wrong gender in [her husband] Percy’s eyes.” (Ibid. 424)

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For Stephen King writing horror is about exploring “…areas of the human psyche that are usually pushed to the back of the mind.” (Wisker: 2005. 119) When searching for inspiration King has said “I ask myself what is forbidden? What can’t I write about? And then I write about it.” (Ibid) This could go a long way with explaining some of his more disturbing works such as IT, which includes an underage sex scene involving Beverly and all six boys of the Losers Club.

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In my personal experience, Stephen King is a horror writer that is either entirely loved or entirely hated. For me he is one of the best horror writers and never fails to bring me a sense of unease or disgust. His vivid descriptions create the most graphic scenes that it is near impossible not to wince or cringe – a technique he uses in the short story ‘The Cat from Hell’. While driving out of town the cat attacks Halston; “…The cat was on his head, blocking his vision with its furry belly, clawing at him, gouging at him,” (King: 2008. 355) which sends him off course down a ditch, where he passes out. The bloodiest scene comes soon after when the cat strikes again:

“The cat leaped at his face, claws out, spitting. Halston shut his eyes and opened his mouth. He bit at the cat’s belly and got nothing but fur. The cat’s front claws were clasped on his ears, digging in…Hissing and squalling, the cat held on. Halston could feel blood trickling down his cheeks. It was hard to get his breath. The cat’s chest was pressed over his nose…” (Ibid. 357) The evocative language used by King in this scene brings the violence to life. Having lived with and around affectionate cats for the majority of my life, the image of one being intentionally malicious sends a chill down my spine as it brings forward the idea of an animal having an evil conscience.

Although violence can bring additional horror to a scene, as is the case with King’s story, writers need to be careful not to allow it to overpower the narrative journey or pull the reader out of it. Violence should fit into the type of horror that’s being written. Guy Smith uses one of his own works to explain this clearer: “My ‘Crabs’ series are packed with violence but…mutilations are expected when Man meets monster. But should my invading army have been one of psychopaths rather than crabs, the blood and gore would have been distasteful.” (Smith: 1996. 35)

However, I believe this to be dependent on the development of characters in the story. The Shining focuses on the deteriorating sanity of Jack due to cabin fever, but there are many scenes of physical violence that are used to reinforce his madness. For example the scene of Jack’s self-inflicted beating when “the mallet began to rise and descend, destroying the last of Jack Torrance’s image. The thing in the hall danced an eerie, shuffling polka, the beat counterpointed by the hideous sound of the mallet head striking again and again. Blood splattered across the wallpaper. Shards of bone leaped into the air like broken piano keys. It was impossible to say just how long it went on…” (King: 1977. 429)

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When writing horror myself I relish the opportunity to write violence into my work as I believe it to be an effective way of presenting the raw and primitive human emotions of “…rage, hate and fear.” (King: 1982. 72) My inspiration usually derives from personal experiences that have made me feel these emotions and tend to draw parallels with people I know. This brings a cathartic element to writing horror as “somebody [I] dislike can meet a sticky end and only [I] will know about it!” (Smith: 1996. 25)

Word Count: 854  Quotes: 346

 

Sources:

Badalamenti, A. (2006) Why Did Mary Shelly Write Frankenstein? Journal of Religion and Health, 453, 419-439. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.winchester.idm.oclc.org/stable/27512949?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=why&searchText=write&searchText=horror?&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dwhy%2Bwrite%2Bhorror%253F&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [accessed February 27 2018]

King, S. (1982) Danse Macabre, London: Futura

King, S. (2008) ‘The Cat from Hell’ in Just After Sunset, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

King, S. (1977) The Shining, US: Doubleday

Smith, G. (1996) Writing Horror Fiction, London: A & C Black

Wisker, G. (2005) Horror Fiction an Introduction, London: Continuum.

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Horror and Location

“…I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone. I could see even in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather…Through these frowning walls and dark window openings it was not likely that my voice could penetrate…Then there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back.” (Stoker: 1993. 21-22) Castle Dracula is a prime example of “…an ominous, thickly atmospheric setting…[which]…prepare[s] the reader for the rest of the story.” (Todd: 2000-2010) Readers pick up stories like Dracula because they expect to be scared or shocked throughout the book.

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However, contemporary horror stories tend to be set in ordinary locations that readers can relate to, such as houses, hotels, schools and playgrounds or campsites. According to Mort Castle “…when the ordinary is invaded by the terrifying extraordinary, horror happens.” (Castle: 2007. 85) This is what creates the concept of the uncanny as familiar locations are ones that everyone can place themselves in but, by introducing something that doesn’t fit into the setting, readers begin to feel unsettled and vulnerable in a formerly safe place. This is my personal preference when choosing to experience horror fiction. In Stephen King’s The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates Jimmy finds himself somewhere that “‘Looks like Grand Central Station…Only bigger. And emptier. As if it wasn’t Grand Central at all but only…mmm…a movie set of Grand Central…’” (King: 2008. 369) By making Grand Central Station – somewhere that many people would recognise and know to be busy – uncharacteristically empty, it creates a great sense of unease in the readers because it’s obvious that there is something not quite right about Jimmy’s location.

Horror writers like Stephen King, tend to “…place evil where the reader doesn’t expect it, so when it starts roaming a school or playground or rustic countryside, the heebie-jeebies are worse than if the malevolent force were lurking in a ruined castle.” (Carpenter: 2012) These domestic spaces are popular choices to set a horror story in “…because of the safety, security and familiarity it promises,” ideal for creating uncanny elements (Wisker: 2005. 150). In King’s The Shining it is a hotel playing the part of ‘safety and security’ as a home-away-from-home for Jack Torrance and his family during the winter. The isolation of the hotel alone is enough to make readers aware that there is something ‘off’ about where the Torrance’s are staying; “Isolated settings are popular in horror novels and often play a critical role in the development of the plot.” This rings true in The Shining as the seclusion and strange goings on of the hotel begin Jack’s suffering with cabin fever that, ultimately, leads to his death.

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Not only can a setting be the reason for demise but it can also be a character in itself. Many writers “…use the techniques of characterisation – narrative description, dialogue, and characters in action – to reveal the details of the setting.”  Eudora Welty’s Clytie reveals the setting of the house as she is involved in her own character’s action; as Clytie goes inside out of the rain the hall she finds herself is  described as “…very dark and bare. The only light was falling on the white sheet which covered the solitary piece of furniture, an organ…” (Haining: 2007. 291) This characterises her home as surprisingly harsh and stark due to the lack of household comforts. The house also reflects the traits of the characters. Octavia, Clytie’s sister, is a guarded woman when it comes to allowing others outside of the family, access into the home. In the house itself, “every window was closed, and every shade was down…” (ibid) portraying it as being as reserved as Octavia.

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With all the ways that location can be utilised in horror there is something extra it needs to really unsettle readers; atmosphere. Without this the ‘fear factor’ would be greatly decreased as “it’s difficult to be frightened by a ghostly encounter in a brightly coloured kitchen on a summer day. Turn day into night, and make the kitchen old, dim and draughty, and you’re ready for a visit from the restless dead.” (Balfour: 2012) This applies to all horror fiction: without the dark gloominess of the castle, Dracula is just a rich, eccentric Count and without the emptiness and isolation of the hotel, Jack Torrance could have finished his novel and returned home with his wife and son.

No atmosphere = no fear, no horror.

 

Word Count: 781  Quotes: 323

 

Sources:

Balfour, A. (2012) ‘Writing Horror: the Importance of Atmosphere’ mcnallyrobinson.com http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/editorial-2771/Writing-Horror—The-Importance-of-Atmosphere  [accessed February 20 2018]

Carpenter, C. (2012) ‘Horror, Mysteries and Setting: Playing on the Unexpected’ Writersdigest.com http://www.writersdigest.com/tip-of-the-day/horror-mysteries-and-setting-playing-on-the-unexpected [accessed February 20 2018]

Castle, M (2007) On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books.

Haining, P. ed. (2007) The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories, London: Robinson.

King, S. (2008) ‘The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates’ in Just After Sunset, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Stoker, B (1993) Dracula, London: Penguin Books.

Todd, S. (2000-2010) ‘Horror Factor, Creating an Environment for a Horror Story’ horror.fictionfactor.com http://horror.fictionfactor.com/articles/environment.html [accessed February 20 2018]

Wisker, G. (2005) Horror Fiction an Introduction, London: Continuum.

‘Setting and Description in Horror Fiction’ Writersdigest.com, http://www.writersdigest.com/wp-content/uploads/Setting-And-Description-In-Horror-Fiction-Extended-Short-Story-Workshop.pdf  [accessed February 20 2018]

Horror and Me

I used to be the sort of person who would do anything to get out of watching horror films but as I have gotten older, I enjoy them a lot more. Throughout my childhood – until the age of seventeen – fear and horror were major parts of my life. Although I had the expected fears of a child, like the dark and monsters under the bed, the worst ones took the form of real people; my step-father and my former foster carer. Both posed “…a direct physical threat” to me (Saliba. 1980: 39) and I learned to fear them, and others similar to them.

Neal Miller believes that fears can be learned through negative experiences. He talks about how “…a child that has not previously feared dogs learns to fear them after having been bitten, it shows that fear is learnable.” (Miller. 1951: 436) This could explain my feelings of unease around new men and anyone who works for Social Services. In addition to this, I also developed a fear of the school playground as a child due to the constant bullying I experienced. I believe this to be why I relate to the film Carrie (2002); she was pushed and broken down by peers to the point where she lashes out, with her telekinetic abilities, and kills the ones who bullied her. Of course I would never seek revenge on my former bullies by killing them, but there is no harm in fantacising about it – I have been driven to the peak of anger, like Carrie, many times in school.

Carrie
Carrie 2002. Directed by David Carson. Adapted from Stephen King’s Carrie.

With both books and films, my relationship with horror now is more about the “…exciting appeal” of experiencing fear when I know I “…cannot be physically harmed by indulging in a blood chilling story.” (Saliba. 1980: 38) An emotion very different to the real harm caused by those I feared as a child. My past experiences have left me with emotional scars and I now suffer with depression, but I find that horror films help me to feel better when my mood is low.

This may seem like a contradictory idea but many others who suffer from mental health issues have found comfort in horror films because “it creates a different anxiety, and anxiety that isn’t about me…” Watching these films “…release[s] an incredible amount of adrenaline and dopamine…known as the feel-good hormone,” which helps me to combat the numb and empty feeling caused by my depression. This is especially true, for me, with horror films that include jump scares and moments of anticipation when the music builds to a crescendo.

Surprisingly, I am fascinated by horror films that use mental health as a primary theme. I find that they successfully create characters that are unpredictable due to their condition being just as unpredictable. Shutter Island (2010), and Misery (1990) are among my favourites as the protagonists in both start off being ‘normal’ people with a goal. For Teddy Daniels it was solving a case, and for Annie it was keeping her favourite fictional character alive. On their way to these goals their sanity declines to such a degree that the audience, and the other characters, never know what will happen next. These psychological horror film keep me in a constant state of anticipation, prolonging the heightened adrenaline levels.

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels from Shutter Island 2010. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

 

Mercy
Cathy Bates as Annie Wilkes from Misery 1990. Directed by Rob Reiner.

When it comes to literature, I am drawn to harrowing, eerie stories that play around with the human psyche, much like Stephen King’s Harvey’s Dream. (King. 2008: 121-134). The exposition describes an ordinary, mundane day in Janet’s life where she wonders “if this is where you come out of the deep dark woods…this parking lot…then why does anyone do it?” (King. 2008: 122). These resentments turn into regret as her husband describes a horrible dream, about their daughter’s death that seems to be unfolding before her eyes. The striking contrast fills me with dread as it plays on the “instability of norms.” (Carroll. 1990: 214)

 

Word count: 651   Quotes: 106

 

Sources:

Carroll, N (1990) The Philosophy of Horror, London: Routledge

Carrie. David Carson. 2002

Clapsaddle, N (2016) ‘Horror Movies Help Me Fight Depression’, Odyssey https://www.theodysseyonline.com/horror-movies-help-fight-depression [accessed February 12 2018]

King, S. (2008) ‘Harvey’s Dream’ in Just After Sunset, UK: Hodder & Stoughton

Misery. Rob Reiner. 1990

Moss, A. (2017) ‘Why Some Anxious People Find Comfort in Horror Movies’, Broadly, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/a3wdzk/why-some-anxious-people-find-comfort-in-horror-movies [accessed February 12 2018]

Miller, N. (1951) ‘Learnable Drives and Rewards’ in S.S. Stevens Handbook of Experimental Psychology, New York: John Wiley & Sons

Saliba, David R. (1980) A Psychology of Fear, Washington D.C: University Press of America

Shutter Island. Martin Scorsese. 2010

 

 

The Nature of Horror

“One of the most obvious features of horror is the way it retells the same stories decade after decade, sequel after sequel – stories are often age-old…to begin with…” (Clover, 1992: 212) Horror can be traced back to the 13th century when witchcraft and heresy became one in the same after “…the Vatican issued an order to re-establish the orthodoxy of faith.” (Masters, 2013) Fast forward to the Victorian era, where Horror was more recognised as Gothic, and elements of romance have found their way into Horror stories. The Gothic was “…fascinated by total sexual power, by these obscene patriarchal figures…[and]…the figure of the vulnerable young woman and her possible triumph over these apparently, unbeatable forces.” (click here)

Even with this change to Horror, one aspect remains the same: “…disruption and breakdown in the status quo.” (Wells, 2000: 9) “…horror texts engage with the collapse of social/socialised formations,” (Ibid: 9) which would explain why something as extraordinary as witches and spells could be seen to be powerful enough to disturb the faith of the people in the 13th century. While this event was to deter people from forgetting their faith, the Victorian Gothic novels could be seen more as a chance for repressed women of the era to escape from their normal lives. In a world where women were inferior, who would blame them for indulging in fantasies of sex and horrific excitement? There was a kind of safety for women when reading Gothic fictions as they remained in “…a detached…emotional state…” (Carroll, 1990: 167) meaning that they could enjoy everything they couldn’t do without it causing harm to themselves or anyone else.

Social fears change through the generations; our preceding generation had fears of nuclear war and AIDS, the generation before them feared immigrants and dealt with World War II, and the current generation have fears of failure, poor finances and the inability to reach personal aspirations (to name a few). The Horror genre “…seem[s] to address an uncertainty about living in the contemporary world…” through “its expatiation on the instability of norms.” (ibid: 214). A perfect example of this was captured in Stephen King’s Graduation Afternoon. Janice Gandolewski spends the afternoon at her rich boyfriend’s (Bruce) house with him and the family, while she contemplates whether or not she loves Bruce and puts up with his well-to-do family. This ordinary day is destroyed in minutes as they witness an atomic bomb destroy Manhattan.

As she stares at the explosion Janice “…thinks about the hike Bruce and is friends won’t be taking. She thinks about the party at Holy Now! they won’t be attending tonight…And she thinks of the country music her Dad listens to in his pickup truck on his way home from work.” (King, 2008: 261) This is an extreme and vivid example of the instability of normal life; how quickly everything humans have worked for could be incinerated. A great and personal fear of mine.

“…the horror genre gives every evidence of being pleasurable to its audience, but does so by means of trafficking in the very sorts of things that cause disquiet, distress, and displeasure,” (Carroll, 1990: 156) yet we continue to read horror fiction and watch horror films. An explanation for this could be that our most primitive emotions – “…rage and hate and fear” (King, 1982: 72) – are the strongest and need to be exercised just as much as joy and sadness. Stephen King describes the horror film as “…an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behaviour by proxy – to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears.” (Ibid: 47) There’s something cathartic about being able to enjoy things like violence, gore, monsters and madmen and still be able to return to normal life, without being harmed by it or disrupting the status quo.

However, I have been left with a great sense of unease from many horror stories, due to the ambiguity of their endings; leaving questions unanswered and creating more along the way. The mind tends to linger on these tales in order to conjure up some kind of conclusion but never knowing the true answers. This could be linked to humans being “…born with a kind of fear of the unknown which verges on awe,” (Carroll, 1990: 162) and the need to have closure about an extraordinary event or monster within an ordinary world.

 

Word Count: 734  Quotes: 256

 

Sources

Bowen, J. ‘The Gothic’ Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, British Library https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/videos/the-gothic [accessed February 7 2018]

Carroll, N. (1990) The Philosophy of Horror London: Routledge

Clover, C.J. (1992) Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Gelder, K. (2000) The Horror Reader London: Routledge

King, S. (1982) Danse Macabre, London: Futura

King, S. (2008) ‘Graduation Afternoon’ in Just After Sunset, UK: Hodder & Stoughton

Masters, K. ‘A Brief History of Horror Literature’, Books Tell You Why, October 24 2013 https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/-a-brief-history-of-horror-literature [accessed February 6 2018]

Wells, P. (2000) The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, London: Wallflower

The Autopsy of Horror

Why do we enjoy scaring ourselves? What is my relationship with the horror genre? How do authors create successful horror fiction? To find the answers (and more) I will be examining the organs inside the body of Horror…

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”  – The Shining

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