by Lyle Enright
Winter tends to be the time that many associate with the darker parts of the imagination. The cold drives us inside, the sun goes down early, and we celebrate that turnover at Halloween. But summer also has its ways of luring us into dark places, and it isn’t only because the Hollywood Blockbuster season gives us our yearly dose of creep. Bats sweep through the air against huge, sad moons the likes of which you never see during the winter. We spend more time outside, hardly noticing the settling dusk. These are the conditions for real exploration, as kids sneak off to cemeteries or abandoned buildings, wandering around to see who gets spooked first.
“Think of just about any horror film,” says Houston Baptist professor Philip Tallon, “and you will find that it works upon us by tearing down some boundary we had in place, but perhaps forgot was there.” Tallon explains that this sense of violation “is a discomforting aspect of horror, but there is also a desirable quality to it. It terrifies us and gives us a sense of moral, social, and aesthetic stability.” Perhaps, but do we really believe in such stability today? Is there a place for such stories–or even their subversion–when our politics are unpredictable, people live in fear of being scapegoated and harassed, and it seems the threat of a new war is around every corner? In a widely-read essay appropriately titled “Real Horror” (2003), the late professor Robert C. Solomon said that “art-horror” provided a buffer for our psyche simply because it wasn’t real; that buffer collapsed on September 11, 2001 and took the pleasure of horror stories with it.
And yet, if anything, horror seems to have seen a renaissance in the 21st Century. Films such as The Ring (2002), Saw (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and most recently Get Out (2017) are all powerful standouts, while in the world of literature Stephen King continues to publish prolifically alongside such recent successes as Coraline (2002), Let the Right One In (2004), World War Z (2006), and John Dies at the End (2009). What is it that keeps us coming back to such stories, when it seems that all we need to scare ourselves is to turn on the news?
Reflecting on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said that “The Importance of Being Scared” is less complicated than Tallon makes it out to be. Rather, it involves recognizing that “evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.” If Szymborska is right, and evil is a form of intellectual poverty, this is a lesson that is often lost under the din of partisan politics, where the “bad guy”–the “monster”–is always someone else, whether it be the person in power, or the person who wishes they were. Perhaps horror stories remain a better, subtler means of drawing us towards that realization and placing us on our guard, even against ourselves. That, at least, is the rationale with which I will be teaching my students in the Fall. During the Summer, I’ll be re-reading my way through the course syllabus, and re-learning the lessons I hope to convey:
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818). The fragility of human mastery is a major element of Frankenstein. At a time when we seem to be returning to science as a discourse of control and mastery in the face of “post-truth” politics, perhaps Shelley’s novel still has other ways to humble us.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897). Manifesting anxieties over modern psychology, sexual politics and xenophobia, Stoker’s Count Dracula is also an excellent example of a character whose malice survives any sort of deconstruction or Hollywood domestication.
Select Fiction by H. P. Lovecraft (1917-1935). Lovecraft’s “weird” fiction demonstrates a uniquely Darwinian sense of horror, framing humanity as a cosmic accident. What makes Lovecraft’s fiction so uncomfortable is the way his huge themes play off smaller details; it is easy to abhor Lovecraft’s politics, but the deeper question of his writing is whether any of it really matters.
The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter (1979). This collection of re-told fairytales gets underneath the roles of fear and power as tools of control, but hardly in a liberating sense. Rather, when Carter shifts power to otherwise marginal characters, she is quick to remind us that in such cases, someone still has power, and as we know, power corrupts…
Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson (2000-2015). Perfect for summer reading, Jamaican speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson infuses her stories with Jamaican folklore and magic to create tense and unsettling post-colonial scares that touch a number of nerves.
A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay (2015). A postmodern love-letter to The Exorcist (1971), Tremblay’s novel is also a thoroughly 21st Century scare written for university humanities students, accusing academic “Big Theory” of being a coping mechanism rather than a cure and demonstrating that trauma continues to run deeper than our diagnoses.
Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago. Horror fiction is his favorite way of taking a break from his dissertation, which explores intersections between contemporary literature and political or “radical” theology. Lyle has also written for Renascence, Textual Cultures, Relief, and Homebrewed Christianity to name a few. You can find him at allmyfootnotes.wordpress.com, or on Twitter @YnysDyn.