Why Horror Fans Don’t Squee, & Other Observations on Our Field’s Relationship to Trauma

I don’t talk about this a lot, but I spent the first part of my life immersed in trauma.  (And by “trauma”, I don’t mean the angsty, emo, “the world doesn’t understand me” sense of the word.  I mean the sense of the word that entails police cars and funerals, among other things.)

The good news is that I’ve survived all that.  I have a happy marriage and a day job that’s not so bad (though, of course, I am working toward writing full-time).  I have friends and a house.  I have peace of mind.  Most of all, I actually feel (in an odd way) grateful for the traumas because they taught me a lot about just how the world works.  I mean, I wouldn’t want to re-live them.  But, increasingly, I accept them as a part of my history.  In a way, a part of me.  And, most certainly, I couldn’t write my particular style of horror without them.

My gut feeling tells me that horror fiction, at its best, is written by traumatized people, for traumatized people.

I think this explains why science fiction and fantasy people sometimes just don’t get horror, and vice-versa.  They just don’t get the need to pick up the world’s rocks and look at the slugs underneath.  To me, horror people seem less in love with the world than SF and fantasy people.  (Horror fans don’t “squee”.  You ever notice that?  When’s the last time you heard “Clive Barker…SQUEE!”?   You know why horror fans don’t squee?  Because the last time we let ourselves “squee”, five people died the next day.)

That’s a joke.

Anyway, Gary Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness is the go-to resource on this topic, and I’ll refer you to that book for a more detailed discussion of how you can tap into your own darkness to create quality horror fiction.

What I’m interested in doing today  is exploring two ways that horror writers miss the mark when depicting traumatic events.  For the record, I’m pretty sure I’ve made these mistakes myself, particularly in my early work.  But now that I feel I’ve started to grow past them, I think it’s important to share the lesson.

The first error, as I see it, is trivializing the traumatic events.  As far as I can tell from secondhand accounts, this is the problem that led to the end of the “horror boom” in the late ’80s and early ’90s.  When violence is inflicted over and over without any realistic emotional consequence or — especially — when the violence becomes cartoonish in a work that’s not specifically intended as a work of humor, it’s been trivialized.  To use an example from pop culture, Freddy Krueger was truly frightening in the first Nightmare on Elm Street film.  But by the later installments we were half-rooting for him as he wisecracked his way through teenage intestines.   Freddy actually became less powerful, as a monster.  Even though his claws gushed more and more blood with each sequel, he was essentially de-clawed as a villain because he wasn’t really scary any more.  That’s the irony.  I think violence is a powerful tool in horror fiction, but it’s the most powerful when used sparingly and in an emotional context.  To paraphrase Joe Hill, spilling guts is fine…but the story works best if we know and care about the person whose guts are being spilled.

The second error, as I see it, is the aversion to depicting extreme emotion (even when the story merits such emotion).  I suspect that this error is a reaction to the first error.  The field grew wary of the extreme violence of the ’80s, and — in my opinion — has over-corrected, favoring subtlety in all its manifestations. The problem is that it’s impossible to scream a subtle scream or weep subtle tears, or,  yes, bleed subtle blood.  And trauma will often lead characters to scream, or weep, or bleed.  Trauma is pretty much the least subtle thing there is.We thus end up with beautifully written, but seemingly passionless stories.  Perhaps technically brilliant, but depicting the horrific in a manner akin to filming through two or three layers of gauze.  The end result is that the reader (or, at least, this reader) feels detached from the horrific rather than in contract with it or (better still) engulfed by it.

Mind you, I’m all for engaging the tools of literary fiction. I dig John Cheever and Raymond Carver and Junot Diaz.  In the horror field, I enjoy the work of quiet horror authors like Ligotti and Glen Hirshberg and Algernon Blackwood.  I dig subtext.  A lot.  But all subtext and no…well…text makes for an unsatisfying read.

It’s all about balance.

So…what do you think?

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Posted on May 1, 2013, in Horror, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great article. I don’t read a lot of horror but I am a huge horror film fan. I agree that sacrificing emotion (be it fear, anger, sadness, whatever) for the sake of blood and guts really limits the effectiveness of a horror film/story. Getting into the characters heads in a realistic way is what connects the audience to the story.

  2. nicolecushing

    Dan:

    Thanks for dropping by the Abyss!

    If you ever have an interest in checking out more horror fiction, let me know. I’ve recently had a book released, and I can recommend some other authors I think you might dig, too.

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