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Horror and Grief: When the Scary Thing Hiding around the Corner is Your Emotion
Too often for my taste, horror settles for gross-outs and shock over fear. My favorite—and in my opinion, the best—horror is the kind in which your fear builds slowly. Maybe you’re walking down a hall and there’s a creak in the floorboard behind you. Your heart starts to race but when you turn the corner there’s nothing there. Your pulse slows down, but the hairs on your arms are still standing on end.
When I think about why some horror movies or books leave me cold, I find myself wondering if it’s because they lack a heart. Writing with emotion is hard in any genre, but I think it’s especially hard in a genre where so much of the plot is action-focused and designed to scare.
But really, what’s scarier than confronting your emotions?
To me, nothing can be harder, because every external struggle is coupled by an internal struggle. Injecting those emotions into your horror writing will only make it scarier, because it will become real.
While I don’t agree with biblio-therapeutic impulses, I think that books can be comforting. But I think the mistake most of those well-meaning but floundering people who give a grieving person a book for comfort is the type of book they typically choose.
Most people are terrified to interact with someone who is grieving. It reminds them that one day they too might grieve. And so they allow themselves to believe that a soft book, a calming and comforting book, will help. They give some sort of “realistic” novel about someone struggling with and overcoming loss.
But when I’m grieving, give me a horror novel.
The last thing I want to read about when I’m drowning in feelings I can’t explain is someone who works through their pain and feels better. Just as there is no escape from a good haunted house, there is no escape from grief. That unknown fear making the floorboards creak and writing ghostly messages on the mirror is the knowledge that you can’t hide anymore.
I share these thoughts because I think that considering the reader on an emotional level instead of demographic level will make the horror that you write more frightening.
Horror is real. It is metaphor and symbolism and unafraid to confront the fears that simmer underneath so much of life. To me, it is more real than so-called realism. We should always remember that as we right it. The feelings of terror and panic and pain in powerful horror novels are hauntingly real.
Writing the Five Stages of Grief in Horror
Grief is a lot more complicated than the five stages I’ll talk about below. First off, it’s different for everyone. It can last a month or a decade. These stages are also simplistic, but I want to explore the different fears that lurk beneath each of these emotions.
Here we have the “no, there’s no one in the house,” or the “I didn’t hear anything, did you?” In terms of grief, I might also call this stage shock. You don’t feel anything yet, and you can nestle into your nice little cocoon of not feeling. This stage is full of anxiety and dread, because on some deeper level that you can’t let yourself feel yet, you know that everything is about to get very scary.
Writing denial is essential for the rising action of a powerful horror novel. When it comes to logic, the inevitable, we fight. A character that gives into the terrifying too easily, who believes too easily that there’s a monster in the house, might be boring. The velvet coat of denial gives us time to build up our defenses and marinate in the knowledge that ultimately we can’t control what happens next…
As Patrick Ness writes in A Monster Calls,
“Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.”
The key to this stage is that what you’re really angry about is the fact that you have no control and can’t change anything. In terms of grief, you’re angry at the world for taking something you loved. In terms of horror, you’re angry at the world that bad things happen.
When writing an angry character, it is important to peel back the scowl and find the fear that lurks underneath. Maybe a character is lashing out because they are afraid to be alone, or afraid of change. Anger is an onion of emotions and a writer has to know those underlayers to be able to bring it realistically to the page.
This stage is the “please I’ll do anything just make it stop,” part of our journey. In horror, perhaps it’s the plea to the ghost or the big bad that you’ll leave it alone or you won’t tell the authorities. In grief, maybe you’re pleading with god or the universe to reverse time and bring back your loved one. I think this stage is a recurrence of denial. You are unable to believe that the world isn’t a balanced place.
Something taken means something has to be given.
But the only order in our world is that which we create in the safety of our own minds. And that, my writer friends, is a scary thought.
Finally, you stop trying to change the world and start feeling hopeless. You’re trapped, whether it’s in the attic with a killer babysitter on the loose, or in your own sorrow—overwhelmed by feelings you can’t escape anymore. No one could write it better than Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher):
“There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”
I sometimes think this should be called resignation instead. It’s the sun rising after a long night of fleeing for your life, the acceptance that life goes on. But make sure that whatever has happened to get us to this point isn’t forgotten. No one comes out the other side unchanged.
“We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic - now mercifully stilled, thank God - might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion as it had before.”
Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
Now, there’s no reason why this order needs to stay the same. Some of the greatest horror stories end with denial (Poe, for example, ends many stories with disbelief and denial), and some will cut the reader off before acceptance. The stages of grief don’t give a road map to plotting a story. Instead, I hope they help writers dig deeply into the reasons for fear.
Writers: take the emotions of grief for what they are: fear masked and hiding and lashing out. Take the horror of losing something, of being alone, of knowing that nothing will ever be the same again. Inject it into your monsters and ghosts. Let the journey through the haunted house be a cathartic one that leaves a reader changed but grateful for a momentary respite from a pain both the same and different than the one they carry within.
My Love Affair with the Humanities
My love affair with the humanities began before I was born when the English department at the college where my parents taught gifted me with a set of books, inscribed with notes of 'baby’s first canon.' The highlight of this collection was an anthology of poetry, illustrated by the glorious Tomie dePaola. Here was art, literature, material culture all rolled into one beautiful object.
The humanities opened my eyes to the world, and opened the world to me. They made me desperate to learn and wildly curious about everything.
In college, I studied literature, creative writing, and art history, and I came to realize the problems inherent in that igniting idea of the 'canon.' I was caught up in the 'greats,' in capital-L Literature. There’s a paradox here between the humanities and their study. To me, the humanities are about expressing and experiencing what it means to be human in this world. This study is endless, the metaphors infinite. The humanities are where the universal and personal collide, where questions without answers are asked. In contrast, the study of the humanities can too often be about dividing high culture, low culture, about marginalizing unheard voices or cultural objects that have mass appeal. (I’ll never forget a moment where I was told I needed to prove that the books I wanted to write about were a 'valuable contribution to literature.' The book in question? The Hound of the Baskerville). The study of the humanities was having an identity crisis. I think it is still in the midst of one today.
The study of the humanities should embrace all of humanity, all of their culture—from harlequin romance novels to Proust.
I finally found my home in the humanities in graduate school. Children’s literature. Here is a field that’s often marginalized, dismissed, seen as educational instead of aesthetic. But here, I found my personal humanities haven: a field of freedom, experimentation and commitment to changing our society. Children’s books are the ones that changed my life; they made me want to be who I am and do what I do. What better way to learn that anything is possible than by reading about magic and mystery?
If the humanities are going to change the world—and they can, and they must—then I think it’s important to look at those early years, at our first interactions with art and text. As a child, I learned to empathize with and understand other people through the characters in the books I read. And now as an adult, I see children’s literature as a changing world of representation (#weneeddiversebooks), imagination, and curiosity that centers the experience of a child holding a book in their hands. For me, there’s nothing more powerful than the moment when a child becomes a reader, when that drive to learn and understand humanity is born.
And I can trace it all back to a tongue-in-cheek note written on the first page of a book.
My Work Experience