Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this post, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that A. LEE MARTINEZ APPRECIATION DAY!! (Jan 12th) is on its way. Not that you needed to be reminded, I’m sure.
Onto the less important stuff:
I’m not a horror guy. I’ve written stories with horror elements, but for the most part, it’s not a genre I enjoy very much. This isn’t because I think it’s a bad genre. Fear, terror, dread, etc. are all important human emotions, and I’m all for indulging those emotions in media. Especially fiction, where we are free to experience and explore our emotional hot buttons with little fear of repercussion. While I might not care for horror films in general, I respect the genre.
Horror is a pretty big genre though. Much as the fantasy genre can be anything from elves and dragons to robots and ray guns. We could argue all day what constitutes “true” horror, but it’s mostly a matter of personal taste. We are all, either through habit or predisposition or both, out to satisfy different emotional needs. The first step is to acknowledge that. That doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of fiction that doesn’t satisfy us. It only means we should remember that if we find something unsatisfying, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Heck, it might even be great. Just not for us.
I’m the guy who enjoyed Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, but don’t find it especially engaging. It’s not something I’ve watched since first seeing it, which is kind of weird considering there’s some pretty cool fantasy action in the films. But it’s just surrounded by stuff I don’t really care that much about. Meanwhile, I absolutely love Real Steel, a movie about boxing robots. Not just because of the boxing robots either, but because I find myself genuinely touched by the story itself. The robots might seem superfluous but then again, without them, I wouldn’t really be into this movie. But here’s the truth. I freely admit that anything with cool robots gets a lot of bonus points for me. Maybe robots don’t do the same thing for you. In which case, The Mighty Robot King forgives you because he’s cool like that.
Back to horror.
Horror, to me, is one of the most personal and perplexing of genres. Perhaps because horror is so difficult to quantify. Fear and dread don’t fit in easy packages. Is the horror of being torn apart by a saber-toothed tiger safer than the fear of being tortured? Moving past the conventional horror, what about a story about a protagonist who wakes up one day, discovering that a child has vanished, completely erased from everyone else’s memory? Yes, that’s the plot of The Forgotten, an underrated horror flick that has no gore, very little violence, and features villains who never appear on screen.
(ASIDE AND SPOILER ALERT: Some people say the bad guys are aliens, but there’s absolutely no indication this is true. The bad guys in The Forgotten are supremely undefined, so absurdly beyond human ken that they could just as easily be rogue angels or Lovecraftian entities. The Forgotten offers no answers, which is one of the reasons I rather enjoy it. Even after giving you this info, I think it’s worth watching as an example of fear of insignificance and the power of a greater malicious Unknown with a capital U.)
My own fears are less about being killed and tortured (though those are certainly unpleasant ideas and gruesome in their own right) than about a larger and more vast universe in which I am just an unimportant speck. Funnily enough, I accepted this notion quite a while ago, and I don’t find it quite as terrifying as it could be. That’s probably why my own take on cosmic horror Chasing the Moon has many of the hallmarks of this notion without being depressing about it. It’s a bit of a paradox, but it doesn’t lessen the dread that occasionally comes from believing there’s every possibility human lives are meaningless in the grand scheme.
Wow. When you type it out, it certainly sounds dreadful, doesn’t it?
For me, true horror is found in the unknown. That sort of nameless dread is difficult to capture. Even when people think of Lovecraftian horror, they tend to focus on the monsters and weirdness rather than the underlying concept. Ironically, we took the symbols of dread, neutered them, and now we laugh about it. Cthulhu is a plush toy that allows us to fear the dark without having to confront it. We love horror. We just can’t help but hide from it.
It’s the complaint I had with Prometheus. Alien is at its most horrific when we have no idea where the xenomorph came from. The xenomorph, like the mi-go, like so many terrifying alien things, have no origin. They aren’t merely another creature in this universe. They’re the stark and brutally indifferent unknown made manifest. That they kill you isn’t what makes them horrific. Tigers can kill you. Humans can kill you. Falling rocks can kill you. That’s fear, and while it’s a potent survival mechanism, it’s not quite horrific to me.
We aren’t comfortable with fear, and who can blame us? It’s hardwired in our brains to avoid it. It’s why, given a chance, we’ll take the teeth out of any imaginary horror we construct. It’s why vampires and werewolves became less monstrous, more misunderstood. And why we’ll take something as terrifying as the xenomorphs and just make them extensions of ourselves. In a way, it’s also a natural process. For primitive man, a tiger or wolf was a terrifying monster. Now we know they’re only dangerous animals. Familiarity breeds contempt, and while we all know wild predators can be dangerous, we don’t fool ourselves into thinking there is malice in their actions.
This is why I love one-shot ideas. Monsters lose their punch after a while. Every monster becomes less of an unknown the more time we spend with them. They stop being the terrifying embodiment of primal fear and just another lurking tiger. Dangerous? Certainly. Dreadful? Not really. The most dreadful monster is the one that we only catch a fleeting glimpse of.
The catch though is that we don’t live in a society of one-shot ideas. Everything is a series, a spinoff, a remake, a reimagining. Those are easy to get made, easy to sell to the audience. And while I think it’s lead to tremendous amount of stagnation across all medium (A&E has three shows about shipping locker auctions), horror is one that suffers perhaps most because after a while, nobody takes even Cthulhu seriously. He’s just a bumper sticker. And that’s just a shame, but there’s not a lot we can do about it.
Not that I know much about it. After all, I’m not a horror guy.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,