It’s not often that I can claim to be ahead of the curve. A “late bloomer,” I was a timid child whose reaction to most of the world was a species of phobia. It probably didn’t help that I watched monster movies and was an early fan of the original Dark Shadows. As I learned to relate to others and take consolation in religion, these more macabre interests became latent rather than obvious, only to come out into the open when working at a Gothic seminary in the woods of Wisconsin and then being fired from said seminary, casting me into the outer darkness. I found myself being interested in horror again although I’d put it aside from bachelor’s to doctorate. Now it started to feel therapeutic.
My wife sent me an NPR story by Ruthanna Emrys titled “Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World.” The premise is one I’d read before—we find horror compelling because it gives us skills that we need to survive. It teaches us how to separate evil from mere shadow and how to (or not to) fight such evil. In other words, horror can be heuristic. Those who know me as a generally calm, quiet—shy even—individual express surprise when I confess to my secret fascination. One of the most common responses is the question of “why?” Why would anyone want to watch such stuff? My observation is that those who ask haven’t tried. Horror is not often what it seems. Or perhaps they have better coping mechanisms than I have already in place.
The names of many writers of what might be considered horror have gained mainstream respectability. Stephen King’s name alone is enough to assure the success of a novel. These days you can mention the name Lovecraft and a fair number of people will have at least heard of it (him) before. Jorge Luis Borges has respectability for having been Argentine. Joyce Carol Oates for being both an academic and a woman. If you’ve read their works, however, there’s no doubt that something scary is going on here. As Emrys points out, with our world becoming a more polarized and frightened place, horror may be ready to hang out its shingle saying “the mad doctor is in.” In fact, it may become even more popular than it is already. We human beings set ourselves up for horror constantly and repeatedly. I’m seldom ahead of the curve. I hang back to see what might happen to those out in front. Call it a survival technique.