Friday, June 11, 2010

What is horror?

On her blog, Kristin, who's just finished Coach's Midnight Diner: The Back from the Dead Edition, asks whether there's such a thing as Christian horror:
One thing that the anthology got me thinking about is whether there can even be such a thing as Christian horror. I’m not talking about the window dressing of horror, the zombies and demons and serial killers and such. What I mean is that many critics seem to be arguing that one of the essential features of horror fiction is, at its core, a sense that everything is meaningless. That there’s no underlying purpose to our lives, or to life in general; or if there is, then the mind behind that purpose (if there is such a mind) does not wish us well. Most Christians would agree, I think, that this worldview is antithetical to the essential doctrines of Christianity.

I realize that Coach’s Midnight Diner doesn’t limit itself to horror fiction. But having read the anthology didn’t do much to convince me that there is such a thing as Christian horror. Most of the best stories were neither horror, nor particularly Christian (I don’t mean that they were anti-Christian, just that Christianity wasn’t relevant to the story). Some were one, but not the other. Even stories with horrific or frightening elements often ended on too much of a redemptive note to seem true to the grim and hopeless horror aesthetic.

I think one of the reasons I especially liked “Flowers for Shelly”, though, is that it did a better job than any of the other stories at walking the line between Christian faith (the first person narrator who turns into a zombie is a devout Christian, and of course there’s the question of how God could allow a zombie apocalypse to happen to good people), and grim hopelessness (perhaps there’s a purpose, but the zombified protagonist isn’t going to find out what it is). It’s also a bleakly funny story.

The problem I have with this definition of horror, that everything is meaningless, is that it's simply not true for all, or even most, horror stories. Stephen King and Dean Koontz, two of the most popular horror writers, do not write stories set in a meaningless universe (Koontz should be self-evident, but read King's Dark Tower series for evidence of how he thinks). Nor is it true for classics of the genre, such as Frankenstein or Dracula. So if it's not true of the classics or the popular modern fiction, I think said critics are defining horror too narrowly. Horror is more than Lovecraft and his successors.

As a Christian and sometime horror writer myself, I have a somewhat different definition of horror, which I know I've expounded on in this blog, but I think it was lost in the transition. Horror should disturb us, not just scare us. It should undercut our assumptions, challenge our beliefs, question our certainties about the universe, and make us feel a little less safe. Notice that meaninglessness can be a part of this, but it's neither the beginning nor the end. In fact, I think meaninglessness can defeat the purpose of horror, leading to a kind of apathy. If nothing matters, why get so worked up about it? Once you decide that the universe is meaningless, what's the big deal about zombies or vampires or one more meaningless thing out to destroy meaningless you? The only reason that meaninglessness is horrifying to us is because we do have hope in a purpose, because it challenges and makes us question that hope. If it ever completely succeeds, it loses its power. So I think horror is most effective when it leaves us an out, when it allows for the possibility of hope, when it can challenge without completely destroying.

Notice that I focused on meaning, but my definition allows for attacks on other foundations of our universe. Our sense of safety and security, for instance. Our faith in God, reality, ourselves, or each other. Horror frightens us because it makes us less sure, and there are myriad ways it can do so. Those who think horror is only about meaninglessness are writing themselves into a box, and I invite them to see what they can do if they explore what else horror can do.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I moderate comments on posts more than a week old. Your comment will appear immediately on new posts, or as soon as I get a chance to review it for older posts.