FROM THE BASEMENT where the casks of Amontillado, are kept, to the second floor of Hill House, to the top of Dracula’s keep, the thrill of horror lurks. In all horror stories, the story reaches a point where a character is trapped by the fateful sequences of the story they inhabit, but before that point, before the horror is insurmountable, there is another point where the reader or viewer wants to say, “Get out, get out now, while you still can!”. Yet, sadly, maybe due to the inevitability built into the genre of the story they inhabit, maybe for lack of clairvoyance of their own perilous situation, they never can or do.
We have all had an experience of befalling something greater yet harmful to ourselves that we have been ensnared by. It is precisely this entrapment within some terrible situation, that makes a horror story a horror story. The horror genre not only gets its thrill, but also its rightful place in literature from this universally experienced reality. The place of horror stories is to tell those stories, that we can all relate to, where evil befalls a character. These types of stories act as a cathartic release to the teller as well as acting as a lesson to the listener, reader, or watcher. But is the thrill which these stories invoke worth the evil they necessarily incur to the imagination?
Let us begin by defining our terms concerning the nature of the horror genre, and following from that, the purpose of horror. Horror is a genre of storytelling that tells about when a common person, more often than not, naively inept and ignorant of the power of evil, experiences it, or falls prey to it, and the story explains what happens to that person, for good or for ill. So, if our generally bumbling protagonist falls afoul of some ghoulish end does that glorify evil and in so doing, nullify the genre?
Hardly so. Art, at its best, imitates life, and in reality, there is good and there is evil and, in the end, good triumphs over evil. For all that, though, evil still befalls all men, it is a universal prerogative of life. Horror stories depict precisely when this truth comes to be in the life of the protagonist in order to demonstrate to all of us the merits or problems of the actions, or inaction, the main character commits in the face of evil. Some of the West’s greatest non-horror stories and works also wrestle with this same concept of evil men triumphing over good men and how the best of us have responded. Boethius argues in his jail cell with Lady Philosophy precisely about this concept in his inimitable Consolation of Philosophy. Socrates makes peace with it in his own cell in the Phaedo when he is unjustly condemned to death and serenely drinks his hemlock. And Christ is silent in the face of Pilate.
It is the place of Horror, when artfully done, to tell the stories that arise, mostly out of those experiences of being trapped with some supernatural evil, and wrestling with the consequences of this occurrence. Whether the story ends poorly or well for the protagonist, depends on the comedy or tragedy of the experience itself, but the genre does not relinquish merit because of the evil its stories possess within themselves. Indeed, the story’s very merit comes from the fact that we the audience learn something real about the nature of evil and in so doing learn how to avoid it or fight it when we experience it in our own lives.
Once a horror story turns into a bloody mess (for the sake of the blood), or any other carnal vulgarity for the sake of shock or showing carnal vulgarity, you are, in my opinion, outside the bounds of true horror and in the circus of pulp or commercial horror for which I find no redemption, and certainly no art. If you find yourself in the midst of mindless gore, you’ve gone too far. Turn around and get out. Mindless gore will get you nowhere except desensitized to actual human suffering, which is not a good place for anyone to be in.
The purpose of the Horror story seems to be threefold:
- As an art form, Horror conveys the mysterious, unexplained, and often spiritual experiences that are inherent to our blended world of spirit and matter, wherein a protagonist is faced with something, generally spiritual, that goes beyond himself and means him some harm. Whether the end result for the protagonist is for good or evil is regardless to the fact that the Horror story reflects that part of ourselves and our experiences, sometimes only within our feelings, which go beyond, or, are rooted in something other than the material world, and we are met with something that we thought couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be; a truly malignant spirit, or person, more powerful than ourselves, who wants nothing more than our destruction.
- This kind of story, besides reflecting a universally experienced truth, also teaches its adherents proper modes of behavior in an ofttimes bent and dissembling world.
- Horror acts as a cathartic cleanser. Catharsis is an emotional process whereby a person purges a negative emotion by plunging themselves into it. Although this doesn’t make logical sense, the emotions operate differently than our other powers, and this process has proven to be effective to our emotional, psychological, and sometimes even spiritual, health. Through the process of immersion, one learns something about the negative emotion they are in, and how to live with that negative emotion, if necessary, or purge it if possible. Thus through catharsis we learn a deeper truth about ourselves, the nature of reality, and how we can live better in a complicated, difficult, and sometimes harmful world. Some people must, much like Dante in his Inferno, travel to the depths of the underworld in order to get out of it.
This is not to suggest that people should go to the horror genre for spiritual cleansing, for they are likely, without discernment, to find the opposite of what they are looking for there. The point is that sometimes in order to get out of a thing you must go further into it rather than simply not touching it at all, doubly so if it has already been foisted on your experiences. Sometimes the only way out is to go further in, but while doing so, one should heed the guiding voice of reason, like Dante did to Virgil.
The Horror genre is perilous, there is no question about that. Its gallery of authors is rife with sadists looking to destroy souls. The stories themselves, if not outright occult, often glorify evil, normalizing it and making it the victor over good. Normal protagonists are more often than not crushed under the weight of its matter, and so are we, the audience, crushed in our emotional state if we are not careful.
Although these things can certainly be said about horror, and they are significant problems, they are also not insurmountable. There are still good horror stories where, if these things happen, something good can still be gleaned. One needs to be able to find those stories yet search for them cautiously, listening to their reason if it tells them they have strayed too far.
The question seems to be, when it comes to Horror, can a greater good come out of its evil? Within the natural state of things the answer is no, but, praise be to God, he is super-natural and through His grace He can bring a greater good out of an evil, sometimes even allowing that evil to exist for that reason. And so can it be with Horror.
In the end, a person should read some Horror stories, but with great caution and by following their reason. One should not enter the mines of Moria lightly without a Gandalf by their side. And remember, though Gandalf fell to his doom, he also rose back out again greater than before, and Dante found his Beatrice. Horror, when done well, can have such an effect on its audience as well. We, too, can emerge from its darkness with a greater grasp of the world at large, a greater grasp of the nature of good as well as the nature of evil, and when we are done with it, we can shake off its cobwebs and plant a surer foot on a firmer earth.
Andrew Beebe is a graduate of Christendom College and has taught at Chesterton and Gregory the Great Academies. He is a proud husband and father and is currently the founder and editor of Wonder Magazine.
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