Why Do I Write Horror?
It started with radio. Old broadcasts on cassette tapes listened to in the dark. Tales of monstrous creatures found in caverns, the deformed offspring of long-lost wagon trains. Martians masquerading as dead family members in a false heaven until exposed they peeled off their skin to reveal the flesh-eating beasts beneath. The things which cry out in the night.
Film came next, though not immediately. My parents forbade horror in their household. At least, the silver screen variety. My father because he didn’t care for cinematic scares, so everyone in the family was expected to dislike them as well. My mother, on the other hand, worried about any nightmares that might follow a viewing. Still, whether well-meaning or controlling, forbiddance sowed seeds of curiosity and rebellion.
So, down into the basement with the television volume low, I watched in secret whatever Saturday afternoon broadcasts chanced a horror flick. It’s a lost joy from the antennae era of television, stumbling upon a movie, especially something forbidden—Pennywise, Elm Street, and Aliens. Censored, of course, but still enough on-screen to fire the imagination. Unfortunately, it turned out mother knew best. Yet, I continued watching.
With each viewing I grew a little less afraid. I didn’t know fear lessened. Growing up, it only ever seemed to get worse. For instance, my older brother, angry and embarrassed by some sarcastic riposte I gutted him with at dinner, would creep into my room at night to me attack me in my sleep. Nothing inspires a sense of connection to the victims in slasher flicks like waking up to someone three times your size punching your face repeatedly in the dark. No matter how often that happens the repetition doesn’t inure one against future events. The opposite, at least in my case, seems more true. Horror films, however, were something that exposure to actually made you stronger. Or maybe the recurrence of real nightmares made the fictional ones less unsettling. Then, something very curious occurred.
My father infrequently attended business dinners. These amounted to all-night affairs gorging on prime rib and draining a bar on the company dime. Normally he preferred sitting at home, drinking beer, and telling us how much we disappointed him. However, from time to time, he felt a need to join his colleagues celebrating some corporate victory.
I always looked forward to these occasions because it meant a trip to the video store without him. The television intended to be a babysitting assistant a wider leeway was given when it came to whatever video we chose to rent. What stood out about this occasion, though, is that my mother picked a movie for herself. The oddity being, she refused to say what she selected. That piqued my curiosity. We usually watched all our video picks together. This time, not only did she opt out of Dad’s cheapskate date night, but she wanted to watch her movie alone.
Bored by the film my brother chose—I can’t even remember what it was—I went upstairs. Creeping up the steps, curiouser and curiouser, the soft sound of the television on a low volume, bits of dialogue drifting through a closed door; I heard, “Put the fucking lotion in the basket!” Intriguing to say the least given I grew up in a household where goddamn is considered akin to motherfucker. So, I knocked.
Mom paused the movie then opened the door a crack. I asked what she was watching and if I could join her. She hesitated a second, asking only if my older brother was around. I told her he was fixated on his action flick. She ushered me inside, closed the door, and said, “Don’t tell your father about this.”
Then we watched Silence of the Lambs together, though never spoke of it again. I always assumed she told my Pops. However, years after she died, I mentioned the incident. Clearly surprised, he confessed to having no idea she ever saw the film. He then went to the cemetery to demand an explanation, and I’ve always wondered what he thought she said.
Watching that movie with her felt like permission. Especially as I began exploring a loophole. Not allowed to see a horror movie, my parents barely batted an eye if I wanted to read the book that inspired it. The classics came first for safety sake, easier to argue the literary merits of Dracula than anything by Stephen King. Essentially, when it came to literature, manipulating my father’s dilettante snobbery to my advantage. However, one of the first lessons a child learns is that parents are not omniscient. My experiences with Saturday afternoon horror flicks made me realize, I could read whatever I wanted so long as I didn’t get caught.
Unfortunately, high school did a solid job of making me hate reading. Suffice it to say, the demands and restrictive nature of a Jesuit education left little time to indulge in my own literary desires as well as spurred me towards more casual distractions like whiskey, weed, and LSD. It’s hard, and I dare say inadvisable to read The Hellbound Heart after ingesting high powered acid. Music had also entered into my life, another previous denial clandestinely plunged into headlong; my father once forced me to watch a five-hour documentary meant to incontrovertibly prove the influence of Satan in rock ‘n’ roll, rock’s sole purpose to corrupt the youth. It wouldn’t be until college I found my love of literature again, and we reconnected like lovers estranged though our heartstrings never entirely severed.
Then it’s a blur of Barker, Lovecraft, and gems like M.R. James Casting the Runes. Yet, for all the stories I found that I loved, I still found things missing. Holes in the great tapestry of terror. Rather than wait for someone else to do the patchwork, I decided to fill the emptiness myself.
I’ve always believed that’s what ultimately sparks a creative person. Consumers continue searching, waiting for someone else to make that story, song, painting, whatever they want to but have yet to see. Creators make it. The stories I wanted but couldn’t find inspired me to turn my pen in that direction—make what’s missing.
Love of an art form inspires a desire to be a part of it. Artists begin by copying what they love. Musicians learn the songs they enjoy, painters utilize a beloved style, and writers mimic their favorite authors. However, at a certain point, a split occurs. Someone else’s voice can’t tell your story.
In addition, it’s important and necessary to contemporize fiction. Fear evolves, changing with society. Urban gothic horror arrived during the industrial revolution because industrialization became the most horrifying thing in existence. Just look at the ways many of those tales feature dehumanized individuals, dehumanization a criticism of the industrial revolution. Dr. Jekyll transforms into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Frankenstein’s monster is literally a manufactured being. These are byproducts of a society coming to grips with a changing reality.
As the internet era dawned, ghosts moved into computers. It used to take a book, but now visiting the wrong website unleashed a curse. Cell phones connected humanity to audio zombie infections, onryō, and selfie serial killers. The tools may not change much, it’s still the undead, spirits, demons, werewolves, and curses, but what they produce, where they come from reflects the times of their user. A narrative thread linking us all.
In Alan Benett’s History Boys there’s a line about,
“when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
In many ways my life has mirrored horror fiction. Reading a book my father would rather hit me with than see me read makes me feel a certain kinship with those desiring to glimpse the pages of the dread Necronomicon. I once intentionally tried to choke a bully to death, and though I unfortunately didn’t succeed because a teacher intervened, I’ve always wondered what route my life would’ve taken if I had. Not much unlike Bill Denbrough in It, my past and traumas inspire many of the monsters and terrors in the tales I tell. Though that isn’t solely the case; writing isn’t always a purging of personal demons.
In a way, in the beginning, writing horror continued that initial rebellious impulse. Delving pen and keystroke intro forbidden territory. Every story I wrote, especially those I sold, a fuck you to those who said not to. But the more I wrote the more I saw other opportunities.
Rod Serling started The Twilight Zone because he saw a chance to tell socially relevant stories that would otherwise be denied by other venues. Symbolism and metaphor, obvious or otherwise, allows a freedom in fiction that realism and drama sometimes lack. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it doesn’t have the same room to stretch. Facts can be strange. They can also be shackles. Fiction isn’t necessarily what happened, but what might’ve happened.
That means an ability to delve into humanity which draws me to horror. People always reveal themselves in times of crisis. We are at our best or worse in the face of the truly terrible. The boyfriend preaching eternal love if baby we just fuck is suddenly gone in the flash of a killer’s blade. Supposed cowards find their strength as red rivers flow. There’s also a humor in horror, comedy to dull the terrible blade. Not every horror story needs to be bone chilling terror. Horror is a chance to be scared yet laugh at the darkness.
There are obvious themes at play in horror. Ghost stories, for instance, often involve dysfunctional families moving into haunted houses. The poltergeist therein acting as a metaphor for the family’s dysfunction. Death is a prevalent theme, though never forget madness, perhaps the more sinister aftermath. Consider that the protagonists of gothic or cosmic horror may survive nightmarish events, but then spend the rest of their lives in an asylum, strapped in a straitjacket contemplating suicide. As someone with mental health issues, horror is a chance to explore that concept in a way that makes it relatable to people who don’t necessarily have the same issue.
Yes, these themes when explored lead to a kind of catharsis. Still, I doubt my childhood traumas will be expunged by writing them into metaphorical doppelgangers defeated in print (or celluloid). That doesn’t make writing it less enjoyable. Setting the slasher avatar of a bully, my brother, or whichever asshole on fire still carries a degree of satisfaction. And because many of us share similar experiences, that satisfaction is given to readers as well. There’s a reason so many cheer when certain kinds of asshole are killed by the werewolf, vampire, El Silbón, ax murderer, rusalka, etc.
I like the idea of offering that chance to cheer. Friends getting together over drinks and pizza, sharing stories. Someone says, “Have you heard about this one?” Then they talk about it, why it scared them, maybe made them laugh, how it related to them. It isn’t a far-off concept because I’ve spent many evenings with friends doing the same. I write horror to give people that opportunity—the icebreaker, the display of bravery (“It didn’t scare me”), the confession of terror (“It kept me up at night”), and all the ways that sharing connects us to one another.
Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t also say it’s also fun. No one wants to tell the bad ghost story. We want to be the one who makes everyone afraid to leave the campfire, and I find the best way to do that is discovering monsters and terrors no one’s ever heard of. I want to explore the uncharted darkness with my stories.
J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog www.honestyisnotcontagious.com and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.