HORROR NOVELS, AND THE GENRE OF HORROR MEDIA IN GENERAL, ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED as being culturally conservative, reifying culturally entrenched fears and exclusions. In fact, in his essay Why we Crave Horror Movies, American horror author Stephen King describes horror as a method to “re-establish our feelings of essential normality; the horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary.” Horror can be a way of illustrating social exclusions – showing who is left out when we think of ideas of “the normal”. Outsiders become monsters...and monsters become outsiders, and we define ourselves in opposition to these outsiders saying, “We are this, because we aren’t that.” Horror movies often punish people from violating social taboos – for sexuality, breaking the law, “deviant” behavior.
BUT, horror also puts on display social fears and social exclusions. Horror makes us look into the dark places that our society doesn’t want to go. It makes us think about why things frighten us and what this says about our own ideas about normalcy and why we feel that we need certain social ideals of normalcy in order to survive. Because horror presents our fears, it makes us ask questions about those fears – “Why am I afraid of this?”; “What does this fear stand for?”
Our society often excludes and hides the things that we think don’t fit. We try, as a society, to ignore the things that disrupt our ideas of a perfect society – homelessness, drug use, and anything that we create as our “outsiders”, the people and things we don’t want to accept. When we look into the corners in which we cast our outsiders, we can see the things that we ignore, the issues that we pretend don’t exist, and question why we create certain ideas or people as outsiders.
Horror is often interested in things that are complicated – blendings of people, mixings of life and death, questions of humanity and the animal, and other strange, alchemical mixtures. Our monsters illustrate to us our desire to have firm categories, the crises that happen when boundaries are shaken, and when things mix that we like to keep disconnected (see, for example, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s essay Monster Culture: Seven Theses). The complications of horror, its willingness to blur boundaries, tear apart comforts, and make us face things that we don’t want to see, contain a pedagogical potential. When horror unsettles us, it places us in an area of question – a desire to interrogate why we feel so much about a certain situation, why we are uncomfortable. Our fears make us recoil from things...but that also makes us pause for a moment.
Horror exposes society’s silences because it refuses to be quiet. Horror is about being loud. I use horror texts in the university classroom as a way of getting students to ask complicated questions about identity, social exclusions, who we think of as monsters, and why we fear them. Horror illustrates what the dominant groups in our society consider frightening, and that is often the things that they exclude, the ways that they push people to the fringes because of their otherness, their uncomfortable nature. Our monsters are created by those in power, from their nightmares, their anxieties, and their issues. By showing us the fears of those in power, we are given the opportunity to question where these ideas have come from and how these fears have served to create social barriers – alienating certain people and ideas in order to create their notion of safety...which has become OUR notion of safety.
When we question what we consider to be normal, we have a potential to deeply interrogate our society. When we read horror novels (or teach them), we can explore our fears and look at the roots of those fears and where they have originated from. In order to use that discomfort, we can ask ourselves questions like:
“Why am I afraid of this?”
“Why am I uncomfortable?”
“What social fears is this novel representing?”
“Whose social fears is this novel representing?”
“Who are the ‘monsters’ here?”
“In what ways is the monster human...and in what ways is the human a monster?”
“What makes me human?”
“What makes me inhuman?”
“What is really haunting us? What lingers in the dark?”
When teaching Stephen King’s Misery earlier this week, I asked my students to look at the way in which King portrayed issues around fatphobia, gender, sexuality, disability, and power. Annie – a fan who saves her favorite author from a car crash and then beats him, amputates parts of his body, and keeps him confined while she forces him to write a novel for her – is a complex character. Her complexity arises partially from a mixing of various social fears, and the particular fears of the white, heterosexual male. She is described variously as being like a mother, as large and masculine, as someone the narrator depends upon, and as grotesque. In other words, she complicates categories and ideas of power. As a nurse, a mother figure, and a woman in power, she represents both a caring figure and also a figure who a male is dependent upon and therefore is considered a threat, a danger to the author, Paul’s sense of his own power. She makes him feel vulnerable. Vulnerability is powerful because it makes us ask questions. Annie is also a woman with mental illnesses (though a strange blend of various pathologies) and illustrates the social fear of psychological disabilities. She is uncomfortable and makes readers uncomfortable because she represents a combination of social fears.
In order to help my students to question the nature of Annie and the way she is created as a threat that is socially significant to a very specific group, I asked them to briefly play a game of stop and start the story. Students were asked to take Annie’s perspective, to narrate the villain, her motivations, her desires, and the things that created her. The narrative was turned from one that portrayed Annie as a threat...to one that portrayed Annie as a human being, a complicated character that has become a receptacle for society’s fears and discomforts. Students pondered about what could have motivated Annie – why she felt she needed to act as she did, what complicated social issues may have made her actions seem reasonable, and, in so doing, had an opportunity to reverse the narrative, to turn it upside down and look at it from a new perspective. They were able to briefly become the monster, and, from their monstrous vision, were able to see the social exclusions that exist that shape ideas of normalcy and cast certain people and ideas out of our society’s notions of expectation, acceptance, comfort, and safety. By becoming uncomfortable, by becoming something between themselves and the monster whose mind they were asked to invade, they straddled the border between normalcy and abnormalcy and were able to ask questions about why certain things are thought of as normal and others not.
There is a value in putting ourselves into the position of the monster, the villain, and examining their perceptions, the things that create them. Horror turns our world upside down, makes it strange, threatening, unsafe...and in that topsy turvy world of haunting visions and shaky ground, we can ask questions about things that are not always asked, we can ask those uncomfortable, strange, threatening, unsafe questions that we may not be able to ask when we are trying hard to be normal, to fit into social ideas and to perform.
The monster breaks through social barriers (and the pages of our novels or our television screens) and bites us, infecting us with its otherness, its strangeness and then asks, “Am I so strange?”, “Why am I so strange?”, and “What makes you unstrange?” Once bitten, we change, we shift, we transform. That transformative process is part of powerful learning. It takes us out of our positions of safety about what we know, and makes us look into the unknown, the dark, the forbidden depths that we can’t see by daylight.
Derek’s Bio: Derek Newman-Stille is a PhD student at the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies, Trent University. His research focuses on representations of disability in Canadian Speculative Fiction, focusing particularly on discourses of the body in Canadian horror and dark fantasy. He has taught courses on werewolves and witchcraft at Trent University. Derek runs the Prix Aurora Award winning website Speculating Canada (speculatingcanada.wordpress.com), which examines Canadian speculative fiction through reviews (with a little bit of lit crit), interviews with Canadian SF authors, and editorials about some of the issues of interest with Canadian SF.