Stephen King wrote that terror “arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking.” These appear in his 1983 assessment of modern horror fiction and film, Danse Macabre.
Life has moments of joy and of sadness, victory and loss, boredom and excitement; but lurking in the background of those everyday and ordinary experiences is the threat of horror and the sneaking suspicion that society exists in a delicate balancing act—a tightrope walk over the pit of Hell. We know from history, both ancient and modern, that while America largely enjoys relative peace and safety there has been and continue to be stomach-churning horrors. They are not perpetrated by ghosts or monsters per se, but by the evil and the potential for evil that rests in each one of us.
Of course, none of us really believe ourselves to be evil or go have the potential for evil. But that is like walking along the tightrope without looking down or even being aware that you are on the tightrope. Recognizing the potential for horror, terror, and evil is essential for us to avoid slipping into them, as has been too often the case. Those who specialize in looking to the fears of society and humanity’s ugly nature are therefore in a unique position to offer insights into our ugly potential.
Horror rarely gets the credit it deserves from the literary establishment, but there’s a strong case to be made it has always offered more trenchant social critiques than any other genre. Insofar as horror fiction reflects society it is also unavoidably political—not in a partisan way but in a more meaningful way; it reminds us that we always balance precariously over that pit, and there is not much wiggle room. Bram Stoker Award-winner Sarah Langan says, “Horror and Sci-Fi are the most political of all genres, including literary. It’s all they ever cover—violence, war, social policy and hierarchy, and most importantly, right and wrong.”
Of course, creating or interpreting any work of art as overtly political is usually a mistake. Mav Skye, independent author of Wanted: Single Rose, writes, “Yes, horror is political in the sense that people fear changes in their world, fear their world falling apart. Upheaval in government and society threaten the things people hold dear, so actualizing those fears can make for an excellent horror story. But trying to shoehorn a political viewpoint into a horror story, or worse yet, camouflaging a political rant by adding a werewolf is just dumb and a blatant abuse of the genre and its audience.”
King’s name is synonymous with horror fiction, but it’s also synonymous with generational commentary. “He’s the the voice of the Baby Boomer generation; whatever they are concerned about, he writes about,” says Nick Mamatas, editor and author of The Last Weekend.
Indeed, the themes in King’s work are often of a moral character. Generally (at least in his earlier fiction — it can be hard to keep up) the characters who were often taken by dark forces were those who had transgressed some moral boundary such as infidelity or domestic abuse; they were, say, drunken louts or domineering fundamentalist Christian mothers. ‘Salem’s Lot could be seen as a kill-off of a bunch of townies who had it coming.
Laird Barron, an author whose work has become so popular that there was an anthology of short stories about him, cites Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick as some of those authors who truly captured the anxieties of modern America.
“Bradbury in the 1950s and ‘60s—my god, those short stories were quintessentially small town America, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is the exemplar. Philip K. Dick was the rebel who held up a coke-stained mirror and said, ‘look, f–ker,’ in everything he wrote. A young Stephen King at his rawest, his most earnest, wrote the mythical ‘great American novel.’ The Stand encapsulated the tumult of post-Vietnam, the transformation of hippie culture and the peacenik movement into something cold and mercenary, our national unease at the looming threat of nuclear war … and concomitant fascination with the impending apocalypse.”
A Refuge For Outsiders
Pther authors that both preceded King and have followed in his massive wake have captured the modern tightrope walk over a potential Hell. Authors of horror generally have some view from the outside of current social norms. For that reason, women writers of the macabre have authored some of the most historically significant works of horror, coming from outside the ranks of power throughout much of history.
Molly Tanzer, author of Vermillion and The Pleasure Merchant, compares Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to John William Polidori’s The Vampyre.
“Both deal with big social questions like, what does it mean to be a moral creature? Are there monsters among us, and if so, who are they, and what do they want with us? But of course, the conclusions are very different. The ‘other’ in Frankenstein–the monster–is portrayed as sympathetic, ruined by the cruel and indifferent world, where as the eponymous vampire in Polidori is pretty much all about deflowering cute girls, and even good men are powerless to stop him in his quest for their blood!”
Tanzer adds that horror fiction is still a refuge for the marginalized and outsiders who “make different points about who we are, what scares us — and what ought to scare us.”
At the time of both Mary Shelley and Polidori’s writing, Europe was at the height of its industrial and scientific revolution. Classic questions of right and wrong and what makes the good society were being tested with massive social and technological change. As the world was growing closer, more dense and more urban, fears about the monstrous “other” took hold. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often looked upon as an example of capturing British fears of Eastern European others immigrating to the country. During times of great social change and upheaval, horror writers, often on the outside looking in, find their voice and capture a picture of their perspective societies.
Skye cites Shirley Jackson, who wrote the masterful Haunting of Hill House. “Jackson touches on the ghostly and great beyond, but mostly she brings our attention to young women with lost identities or identities that are created to manipulate or control the world they live in. Women had the freedom to vote, freely express their social and political thoughts, and work. Despite this, society still feared and looked down upon women empowered to achieve, create, and speak up against the status quo. This is exactly the kind of woman Shirley Jackson was, and I think at the time, her strength was belittled in society’s eyes.”
Written during the 1950s when America was experiencing both the benefits and horror of world super-power status, the characters wander the hallways of an ancient house, lying to themselves and each other about who they are. The characters make up stories, identities by which to define themselves. America, the melting pot, struggled to find its identity during those years. It likewise now faces a crisis of identity, both nationally and in the psyches of its individual citizens.
Attempts at defining ourselves through the anonymity of the Internet, faux outrages that are spun into political legislation, and constant questioning of what “American values” truly are tell of a nation that is very unsettled. Mythology has been stripped away and we are left staring in a cracked and broken mirror trying to put the pieces together to form a true reflection. Even horror fiction that encapsulated a generational moment in time rears its head in the wake of current events. Of course, the danger in Hill House is complete loss of self, a disappearance into insanity.
William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is one of those books that, particularly when converted into film by William Friedkin, tapped into an under-current of 1970s America. While I doubt Blatty could claim any social outsider status (he was educated at Georgetown University and had several hit comedic novels), his religious beliefs set the stage for a popular upheaval. The reception of The Exorcist was seen by many as a refutation of the “stainless steel society,” a modern world based on science that left behind its religious mythology.
The Exorcist’s success signaled a resurgence in occult and paranormal belief that were anathema to what had been fashioned by the technological age. A headline from The Christian Science Monitor in 1974 reads, “Occult Interest Suggest Technology Faith Shattered.” On the heels of The Exorcist was Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and then King’s Carrie.
While Blatty’s work showed religious belief to be the answer, King portrayed it as part of the problem, but both were steeped in the realm of spiritual warfare in a society where all notions of God were supposedly dead. These works showed that for better or worse, society still held its capacity for belief.
Today, modern horror fiction is dominated by what is known as “cosmic horror,” and its godfather is H.P. Lovecraft, a man who has been dead since the 1930s but whose work has seen a resurgence unlike any author in modern memory. Lovecraft was virtually unknown during his time. Mamatas—whose forthcoming novel I Am Providence is a murder mystery set during a Lovecraft festival—is an expert on all things Lovecraft.
“In his lifetime, Lovecraft wasn’t very commercially ambitious. He never really tried to submit novels, and was happy to be published in the amateur press as well as the pulp magazines.” Lovecraft wrote about “elder gods” – ancient, inter-dimensional beings that are occasionally summoned by occultists and the sight of which drives people insane. Lovecraft was a shut-in who feared the waves of immigrants coming to the country. His racism is the subject of at least one panel discussion at every Lovecraft festival every year. Some have suggested that his vision of these demonic beings may have been a metaphor for his fear of race-mixing, but the hard evidence is scant. His views certainly don’t explain his popularity in a genre of writers who pride themselves on inclusivity.
“Certainly, Lovecraft could find many co-thinkers were he alive today, but his popularity has more to do with the cosmic horror—the idea that humanity is inconsequential in the scheme of things—and the camp value of his otherworldly creatures—than his politics.” Lovecraft’s popularity may be more about religious transference than politics, according to Barron. “Lovecraft’s ascent coincides with the steady decline of Christian-Judeo primacy. HPL wrote about gods that weren’t gods. He naturalized spirituality into the realm of science fiction and sketched a framework that supports mutability, adaptation.”
Similar to Lovecraft, but less well known, is the cultish figure of Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti picked up many of Lovecraft’s themes and ideas but treated them with a fierce nihilism that showed man as nothing more than a puppet, doomed to a banal existence of being pulled at by outside forces. The horror of his vision is often the horror of inescapable nothingness.
In his philosophical work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, he cites human consciousness as the true enemy and advocates for the disintegration of the human race by ceasing reproduction. While that may sound extreme and “crazy” to many of you, it was Ligotti’s work that formed the basis for the popular character Rustin Cohle in HBO’s first season of True Detective.
Cohle has a rather famous quote that is pure Ligotti: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction—one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
Twilight In The Material World
Of course, modern horror is not just all elder gods and temptations toward suicide. There are also works that engage the cultural and material realm as much as the existential. “Handmaid’s Tale [Margaret Atwood] meant a lot to me,” Langan says. “The scene in which that man is literally torn apart now reminds me of social media and the endless, totally idiotic shaming that happens there. Nobody knows the full story, but they’ll go so far as to try to get people fired from their jobs for poorly worded Tweets. It’s horrific. I’ve seen my own friends lash out at strangers because it’s socially acceptable. They take out their unhappiness on these poor saps, utterly unaware that they’re the ones with the problem. Probably because they’re on the damn computer all day.”
Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Atwood may be popular among those entrenched in the genre, but they pale in comparison to the popular success of works like Twilight.
Tanzer writes, “Twilight, as reviled as it was (for both good and deeply stupid reasons), absolutely captured something big: the lack of explicitly sexual wish-fulfillment fantasy out there for tween and teen girls. What was fascinating was that Twilight and its sequels managed to then in turn play on the fears of both the hand-wringing, progressive left (silly, uneducated girls might read them and be tempted to get into emotionally abusive relationships with vampires!!) and the regressive, conservative right (how dare teen girls and their moms love something–better belittle it and make it a punchline because otherwise they might come to consider their interests to be valid!). I thought it was completely fascinating to watch it all play out.”
Even Mamatas couldn’t stay away from the Twilight action: “I think many of the urban fantasy writers whose work is horrific are very concerned about sex, class, and the failures of monogamy—what else does it mean to be a kick-ass woman with a rich vampire boyfriend and a downmarket werewolf boyfriend who hate one another?”
Anarchy, Zombies, and Utopia
Of course, there is also the ever-present popularity of zombie fiction in both books and film/television. The popular World War Z by Max Brooks is probably the greatest example of modern zombie fiction in that it is explicitly political. Langan writes, “It addresses my personal fears—bureaucracy, the invisible monster, the inefficiencies of modern institutions that get people killed … I think our national conscience isn’t sleeping so well lately. We’ve got zombie nightmares because we worry we ARE the zombies.”
If horror reflects society and its underlying fears, beliefs, and anxieties, then it is inherently political. What does the popularity and influence of Lovecraft and Ligotti say about society today? If King’s assessment still holds true, what does the modern world coming undone look like now?
“If anything, horror as a whole has moved into either the dystopian or the apocalyptic. Look no further than the bureaucratic nightmares of young adult fiction, and the zombies rampaging through adult fiction. Something is going to collapse,” says Mamatas. “Either the broad liberal consensus, or everything at all. The stark choice is either overwhelming statism or an anarchy with neither cooperative or market mechanisms.” The absurdist nightmares of Ligotti portray a meaningless, labyrinthine society, similar to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and the pervasive popularity of zombie fiction shows individuals left alone, the last thinking beings among swarms of the walking dead. The allure of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mimics a religious mythology that, at times, seems real.
“I think the fear of being alone is more rampant than ever before, possibly in the history of the world,” Skye writes. “Why? The Millennial generation have practically been birthed into technology and social media. There’s this phenomenon that one thinks the world is listening and watching them through social media, selfies, pics their friends took. But, what happens if that goes away?” Isolation in the face of the bureaucratic machine, loneliness in spite of global reach, the lone man or woman against the masses of the undead. These are the fears that lurk in the back of the body politic.
A Glimpse Of The Elusive Good
“Horror tends to be political in the sense that over the years much of it here in the west is rooted in a Judeo-Christian world view and the economy-sized can of worms that entails in an increasingly fractured and progressive society. Doesn’t get much more political than good versus evil,” Barron writes. Of course, good versus evil is the crux of any horror story and it is only by staring into the darkness that we can occasionally get a vision of the light.
Professor and folklorist Bill Ellis wrote that many young Christians experiment with Ouija boards, contrary to religious warnings, as a means of trying to discover if the spiritual realm really exists. They experiment in contacting evil in order to prove the good. Horror fiction and film works in a similar way, and humanity gives us plenty of darkness to stare into. By probing the the plentitude of evil in this world, we can hope to catch a glimpse of the elusive good. If we can uncover True Evil, can we likewise uncover True Good? It is a question that will probably remain a mystery, but which keeps horror writers and fans looking and exploring.
Horror fiction can be anything to anybody regardless of their political persuasion, but it will always remain political in one glaring respect: it will never be satisfied, it will never be satiated. In a hypothetical perfect society horror writers would be holding up a mirror and screaming “YOU ARE THE HORROR!” It is a rapacious beast, so don’t be surprised if it offends whatever political views you happen to hold or critique whatever time in society you happen to look upon with rose-colored lenses. Its all food for the beast.
“There’s this psychotic amnesia Americans suffer from, in which we’ve got no idea how all that meat gets on our tables, or those cadmium batteries into our iPhones, but we see a sick dog on the street and we become hysterical. Call the ASPCA! Spend $50 million on ad campaigns!” Langan says. “We’ve let the machines do our killing for us, because we want all that good material stuff, but we’d hate to have to shoot that sick dog in person. Horror reminds us: you guys have been killing a lot of dogs! And your iPhone? It’s totally haunted.”