47 Sharks, day 6
My latest fiction project is squarely in the horror and dark fantasy genre. That has got me thinking. Out of all of my recurring obsessions, my love of horror is the hardest for me to understand.
My first love, like so many other people, was high fantasy. Elves and dragons and wizards kindled in me a passion for the fantastic that has defined my life more than any other factor. But over time, high fantasy and I grew apart. I needed more, but took comfort in the fact the genre could find comfort in the brains of those who never get tired of its tropes and consistency.
But high fantasy and mythology opened up a door to the wonder that was subgenres. Over the years, I have had dalliances with urban fantasy, magical realism, humorous fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical fantasy, and many, many others. These interests always flare up into obsession, and then dim back down into flickering candle-flames of casual interest. The only one that endures is my unconditional affection for the wildly inventive. Give me a story that ditches the laws of physics, causality, and basic human psychology, and I will give you my heart. But this is not a subgenre, so much as a type of story that can show up to the party wearing any outfit it desires.
These passions are fickle, like most everything else about me. But they are simple. They usually follow the same form. I love a subgenre for a while, then we both agree, mutually, to move on. This is true for all of them, except horror. My relationship with horror? Oh boy. That is complicated.
I love horror. My obsession level rises and falls, but I always come back. The thing is, I don’t like being scared. There are plenty of horror fans who aren’t in it for the scares, but just about all of them are thick-skinned. They like the intensity and excitement horror provides. They love the darkness and the aesthetic. Not so for me. I am not a battle cat. I am a cringer. A single twisted face and a few frightening chords are enough to make me turn up the lights, play something from Phineas and Ferb, and get myself a burrito.
I find burritos comforting.
To say that you love horror is like saying you like the circus but hate acrobatics and elephants. As for me, I love the circus. Because it is kind of terrifying, and I love horror.
I used to say that I liked horror fiction, but not horror cinema. It’s kind of true. I don’t care for horror that is all about the scares. Horror films are predominated by this kind of horror. I know that a serious horror fan would protest that I do a disservice to the genre by saying that. And it’s true. Schlocky horror is all about the scares. There are plenty of high quality films that are firmly planted in the horror genre. The problem is that when I talk to a horror fan, they seem to have trouble telling which ones those are.
As far as I can tell want something very specific element from their movies. When a movie nails that element, they like it. Maybe its fright-level, maybe it’s more complicated. Whatever it is I don’t care for it. I have found over and over again that I can’t trust horror fans for recommendations. I only watch a horror movie if friends of mine who don’t really like horror tell me to watch it.
Horror fiction, on the other hand, often does something I love: it throws the readers out of our comfort zones. I love stories that draw a single slash over the world, and all of a sudden it looks wrong, and nothing makes sense. It is amazing to feel that the apparently safe and easy-to-understand world is, one layer under the surface, utterly different and incomprehensible. It should come as no shock that my love of horror stemmed from my discovery of Lovecraft.
Though I dislike being scared, I love to be creeped out. Research suggests that the feeling of creepiness comes when we are faced with something that is unfamiliar enough to feel threatening, while at the same time there is no observable danger. A face that is almost but not quite lifelike, or something small and apparently inanimate that starts to wriggle creates a dissonance in our brains that expresses itself as low-level fear accompanied by confusion. I think this confusion leads naturally to curiosity. Creepy things are off-putting, but they are also intriguing. That dissonance is addictive. Sometimes I sit on my bed, wearing only one sock.
In addition to birthing my love of mind-bending horror, I blame Lovecraft for the fact that I really dig italicized sentences.
I also love a lot of things that are almost horror. I love dark fantasy that takes place in a horror universe, but the protagonists are empowered to fight back against it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural are the two obvious examples, but urban supernatural detective fiction and paranormal romance novels walks those streets as well. I love meta-horror, although the only example I can think of is Cabin in the Woods. Heck, I love some things that are out-and-out horror as long as they have a strict set of metaphysical rules they stick to.
My paradoxical relationship with horror has some serious disadvantages. I watched the Ring because I heard it was a good movie. I liked it, because it was intriguing and uncomfortable in just the right way. But I spent the next month constantly terrified. It was horrible. For years I wished I had never seen that movie. Now that the fear is gone, I can go back to liking it again. But I wouldn’t watch it again for all the burritos in China.
I want my scary movie or book to lash me with its single tailed whip. But only enough to titillate me. The problem is the dark horror mistress doesn’t want to stop there. She wants to make me bleed. Sure, I have a safeword. I can always leave the movie, or close the book. I can always listen to that Phineas and Ferb song or eat that burrito. But that is so very unsatisfying. Plus, it is hard to tell whether the whip will leave scars on my back until after the flesh has been flayed clean away. It is so very, very easy to venture too deep. It’s dark, down there, but the sharks can see just fine.
I will continue to venture. Even though I know, some time soon, I will watch or read something that I will wish desperately to un-see. I’ve been watching Slender Man videos recently. So far, they put me just where I want to go. But I won’t know about the danger until I close my eyes to find Him staring back from the darkness. Until there isn’t a sufficiently steak-filled burrito in the world to purge the screams from my mind. But it’s worth it. I will risk the sting of fear, for the chance to twist my mind just so. For the chance to feel exquisitely uncomfortable.
Like I said, it’s complicated.