Thursday, April 22, 2010

Toxic Ideas in Horror Fiction

Recently a friend of mine loaned me a horror novel. The author was a big name who I've been meaning to check out for some time and a previous winner of the Bram Stoker Award. I was looking forward to the book, but somewhere between the unpleasantness of the lead characters, the overly-caustic tough guy dialogue, and the trite Stephen-King-Did-It-Better menace, I found myself feeling the same despair I feel every time I pick up an issue of Fangoria and seeing nothing but direct-to-video zombie movies. Are there any new ideas? Is there anything really innovative in our genre or are we doomed to keep retreading the same ground like Michael Myers on a slow-moving treadmill.

One of the things that really didn't sit too well with me while reading the book was how painfully familiar it all felt. The story revolved around a mysterious supernatural threat that befalls a small suburban town. The residence succumb to madness and violence as the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away and people blah de blah de fucking blah.

I get that horror isn't exactly an optimistic genre, but I've seen this theme done to death. Plus, I don't think it's a really accurate portrayal of humanity. Constantly harping on the evil inherent in humanity completely misses out on our higher aspects. Even if an idea is old there's still some value in exploring it, but it needs to lie fallow for a time.

With that, I want to look at a few themes that really need to be put on the backburner. I'll probably expand this list as times goes on, but these are the subjects that bug me the most.

1) There were some things Man was not meant to know.

This one really drives me nuts.

I get where this one comes from. You used to see this theme a lot in the creature features of the 50s, when atomic warfare seemed destined to wipe the human race off the planet. Hell, this theme goes all the way back to the roots of the horror genre, when the mad doctor Frankenstein spits in the eye of God and loses control of his blasphemous creation. While I understand people's phobias about atomic destruction, it seems like every time some new piece of technology emerges some jackass makes a ham-handed cautionary tale of how it could go wrong.

Me, I like technology. Lord knows I don't get it, but I like it.

I'm with Spider Jerusalem on this one: the future is inherently a good thing. The future represents an opportunity to crawl further away from the mean roots of our humanity and embrace something better. Change doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. We want change. We want new things. We want to know that there's a newer, brighter land on the other side of the mountain. What we don't want is some dire monastic killjoy nervously whispering to us that everything could fall apart and we're better off staying where we are. If humanity believed that, we'd still be flopping in the muck instead of swaggering around Williamsburg with ironic moustaches.

2) Sexual promiscuity is a moral failing and punishable by death.

I've covered this one before at great length but it still keeps coming up and it still keeps pissing me me off.

One of my heroes, author and sex advice columnist Dan Savage, once wrote that slutting around is like travel; it broadens the mind. Now, while I do believe it depends on the mind in question, I subscribe to the idea that sex and sexuality isn't intrinsically bad and that it's part of life. But then I'm a godless liberal educated city-dweller type, born in San Francisco and living in New York. In summation of my previous arguments, uptight virginal characters are boring and it's a bit puritanical to bump off characters who have the audacity to have sex on-camera. It's like we want to see them do it, then we want to see them punished. What the fuck is that about?

I've recently been revisiting slasher classics and one thing I couldn't help but notice is that I can't think of many final girls who are clearly labeled as virgins. Many of them have boyfriends, some of them are actually quite forward (Ginny from Friday the 13th part 2 and Megan from Friday the 13th part 6), and they seem more bothered by their friend's boneheadedness than their promiscuity. Sure, they're often outsiders in their groups but that's because they're brainier and more mature than their friends. On the other hand, abstinence is usually a big part of their survival, if only because they're paying attention to their environments rather than their bacchanalian excesses.

One of the things I really liked about Wrong Turn 2 is that the final girl clearly isn't a virgin. She's damaged goods, we get the sense that she's lived an interesting life, and we know that the shit she's been through gives her the tools she needs to survive.

As I've said before, let the sluts and the stoners live. They're usually more likable, more interesting, and probably better equipped to survive because their brains haven't been turned into anxiety-flavored taffy by a lifetime of conservative dogma.

3) Humanity falls apart once the light goes out.

I object to a lot of these themes on moral or intellectual grounds. I'm just plain sick of this one.

You've seen this one as far back as The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. A community is isolated from the world, some weird shit happens, and everyone turns against each other. There's lynching and looting and chest thumping and oh-my-god-civilization-is-a-thin-veneer-over-primitive-madness. The idea of going all Lord of the Flies on your neighbors holds some gruesome appeal, but at this point it's become tiresome.

I really don't think horror gives humanity enough credit. Sure, when disasters happen, there's looting and civil unrest, but there's also tons of people donating blood and digging through wreckage and doing their best to keep their fellow humans warm and sheltered and safe. I don't know about you, but I find that side of humanity inspiring. The fact that horror never seems to acknowledge that side of our character puts me in mind of an angsty teenager who only chooses to see the worst in everything because it fits with his bleak and hormone-soaked world view. In other words, it reminds me of myself at fourteen.

4) Pacifism is a useless, high-minded ideal.

This one comes up a lot in stories that involve fierce survival situations, like The Hills Have Eyes or Joe R. Lansdale's The Nightrunners, where innocent, good-natured city types are beset by territorial cannibals or sadistic ghouls or vicious hoodlums. Most of the time there's one guy in the group who is singled out as the wimpy but good-hearted pacifist who ever imagine harming another human being but is eventually forced to reconnect with his bloody, savage natural instincts in order to survive. Sometimes this is framed as part of the horror, as the poor man (and it's ALWAYS a man) becomes just as savage as the monsters he fights, but most of the time we're clearly meant to be impatient with the wimp and to celebrate the time he embraces his manhood and clubs the mewling, wounded monster to death with a big hunk of wood.

Of course, the gimmick of having a character put in a situation that forces him to work against his limitations is straight out of Dramatic Conflict 101 and it's so familiar at this point that it's simply exhausting. What bothers me most in this theme is the narrow-minded definition of masculinity at the center of it. Sure, when you're put in a situation where it's kill or be killed against a bunch of snarling monsters the choice is a no-brainer. But there's something vaguely simplistic and mean-spirited about the whole idea.

I myself am some sort of a pacifist, partially because I'd never win a fight and partially because I believe it's a losing game to measure your masculinity based on whose ass you can kick, but in horror that attitude is framed as a character weakness. The pacifist is always the most cowardly, the most snotty, the most unwilling to adapt, and, bluntly, the most stupid character in the group. All pacifist characters come off as red-state stereotypes about educated people. What we need is a good solid push so we can start kicking righteous ass. It touches on some ugly, outdated ideas of what a man is supposed to be.


I have no doubt I'm going to add to this list. I pay a lot of attention to subtext and horror is full of dodgy ideas and puritanical subtext. At some point I want to do an article on the age old misogyny question, but for right now I'll leave it at these. Readers, if you've got any other good ones, send 'em my way.


Penh said...

I can't believe you're not gonna tell us what the book is!! Just for that, I won't leave a strikingly insightful comment full of wit and, er, insight.

Creature said...

I really wanted to, believe me. I was all set to write a big negative review on the subject, but every time I tried, it fell flat. It got me to thinking about all the tropes in horror I get sick of, which lead to this post. Besides, I promised myself early on that I wouldn't write a bunch of negative reviews on horror stuff, mostly because the vast majority of the genre is pretty bad. Open any Fangoria and you'll see a cavalcade of mediocrity.

Finally, it often surprises me how many writers and filmmakers stumble across my blog. Every now and again, someone contacts me about a review. I'm not out to burn bridges, so I took the gentleman's way out. Still, I sent you the book title via facebook.

C.R. Langille said...

Great post. You touch on a lot of tropes of the genre and I think you have a lot of great insight on the subject. I don't agree with all of it, but that's what makes us human right? If we all agreed with one another, the planet would be fairly boring. For instance, I actually like number one. I think I find that theme interesting because of my love for Lovecraft. His stories are always full of people paying the price for forbidden knowledge. Keep up the good posts, I love the thought provoking material.

Creature said...

Shmup, Cody.

I should probably clarify my position on number one because I agree with you. I loooooove Lovecraft and he's pretty much the poster boy for Things That Should Not Be Uncovered. That stuff is cosmic horror and it's some of my favorite because it speaks to an outlook I happen to share about life, which is that we're in the middle of an indifferent universe. I'm more talking about stuff where human science is punished for being too ambitious.

The big difference, I think, is the worldview. Lovecraft characters discover the truth behind existence, while science types Disturb the Natural Order. One is undeniably theistic, and it's something I have little patience for.

Querus Abuttu said...

Hey, Creature-Man,

I'm not a horror expert but I think the overdone themes you bring out are spot on for the most part. I wouldn't call them "toxic" per se', but just hackneyed, and I agree with all of them. Maybe those story approaches are just ingrained in us and eventually someone is going to use them in a different environment whether they realize it or not. I probably have, and now I'm afraid to go back and analyze all my short stories and NIP's. :) Nice posting.