Monday, October 17, 2016

Why Horror? (Or: What the Hell is Wrong With You?)

I get asked a lot why I'm fascinated with horror fiction. Oftentimes there's that underlying question: 'what made you so psychologically disturbed that you enjoy seeing people be stalked and killed by monsters?'

Well, here's what I know: I was born in 1973, I was part of the first generation of kids that had "Star Wars" toys, the Super Friends were on TV, so was Spider-Man. I loved all that stuff as much as any kid. When I played with those toys, though, the bad guys always won. Why? They were way cooler than the heroes. I mean - Darth Vader was the baddest ass in the galaxy and Luke Skywalker was this boring, whiny kid. There was no contest. It kept going - The Decepticons always beat the Autobots in my world, the poor GI Joe teams never stood a chance against the forces of Cobra. I was a much bigger fan of Electro than I was of Spider-Man. Even when I started watching pro wrestling, I never cheered for the vanilla babyface good guys, not when The Road Warriors and The Masked Superstar were running around actually being awesome by wreaking havoc and gloating about it.
And then there were the monsters. Glorious, gross, hideous creatures that prowled the night or the forest or outer space that took whatever they wanted from a world that was terrified of them. Is there ANY monster movie where I didn't cheer for the monster? I can't think of one.
Now, I wasn't an evil kid. I was a smart ass, maybe a little too imaginitive for my own good, but I wasn't harboring some deep suited hatred against mankind, I was just rebellious and liked stuff with a little more edge to it, even when I was six or seven years old. Charisma was a powerful thing. The good guy saving the day only had limited appeal for me. Especially when that good guy was a milque toast bore like The Lone Ranger who's motto was essentially "I shoot bad guys in the hand and then lecture kids on how to be good neighbors." It's no wonder I cheered for the guys in black hats to put a ball of lead between his eyes.
Good horror stories aren't about a hero saving the day. They're about a character SURVIVING. Man, that's the stuff. They come out WORSE for it. Does anyone think Laurie Strode was anything but traumatized by the events in "Halloween?" Poor Sally Hardesty probably ended up in a therapists chair for years after the events of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." But as protagonists these characters stand up and conquer their fears. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally. They aren't trained for this. They end up in the wrong place and have to decide if they want to live or if they want to die. Is it really that dramatic that all-powerful Superman shows up to give Lex Luthor the business? Superman has no character. He has no arc. He shows up in every story perfectly suited to win, and that's what he does. Ho hum. A punch in the head FOR JUSTICE.
I quickly lost interest in safe little child-proof stories and gravitated toward these dark (and highly inappropriate) stories aimed at adults. I wanted to be pushed and pulled through a story. Horror stories assault the audience. Wes Craven has said once an audience doesn't trust the storyteller that's when real horror happens. YES. As a creative kid, that's what I wanted to see. That's what I wanted to DO.
I wasn't numb to the effects of these movies and stories. It's not like I kept watching scary stuff and grew a thick skin and became immune to their effects. Oh, HELL NO. I was afraid of the dark most of my childhood. I never wanted to be left alone at night. After sneaking a peak of mom and dad watching 'Salem's Lot' once the lights went out I didn't dare look near my bedroom window, I was convinced there was going to be a vampire kid floating out there, waiting to take me to the dark side. But there was a thrill to all of that, even if it made for some long nights in grade school. Everything was ok during the day but once the darkness fell ... well, I wasn't one that wanted to be outside in the woods, that's for sure. I knew what was out there.
Now, I've spent a lot of my life reading super hero stories, don't get me wrong. I'm not trashing them. I'm just saying not every kid is so enraptured by that kind of story. Even in the golden age - lots of kids were sneaking peaks at EC Comics, which were chock full of blood and guts, when mom and dad weren't looking. Lots of kids picked up pro wrestling magazines based on which one had the bloodiest, craziest looking cover on the newsstand, not because they really wanted to know if Brad Armstrong vanquished The Spoiler. There's more to childhood than white knights and men in black hats.
I will say, after about 10,000 failed attempts, I don't have many upbeat super hero stories to tell. It's not my thing. But I have lots of scary stories to tell. It's in my genes at this point. Why? Because an otherwise unexpecting character facing and surviving that thing that goes bump in the night is really compelling to me.