Forgetting the "Why" in the Narrative of Horror
Photo: Tyler Wakstein
Less than a month ago (at the time of this writing), two explosions ripped through downtown Boston. The blasts killed three people and injured 264 others. As the situation began to unfold, the pressing question of the hour changed. First, we all wanted to know what was being done to make sure things were being handled as well as could be expected. This is certainly a reasonable, and even practical concern. As soon as it became clear that we were safe (for the moment), the nation’s collective thoughts turned somewhere else.
The rampant speculation as to motives began almost immediately after reports of the gun battle that raged through Watertown, MA, broke on social media. This isn’t surprising: the Boston bombings had been the story of the week, and in the new 24/7 news cycle, those who aren’t reporting are lagging dangerously behind. When there was no new information to report, reporters began to wonder, in order to keep viewers glued to their television sets. These journalistic musings have a secondary goal as well: to help us understand why.
I’d argue that the most deeply disturbing elements of fear boil down to unanswered questions. Where is the strangler hiding? Which of my servants is trying to poison me? How will I escape this bottomless pit? However, none of these carry such a blossoming, poisonous dread as an unanswered “why?”
There’s a reason besides the commercial viability of a story behind the media’s constant search for “why?” Deep down, despite all the talk and falderal about Americans needing their news to scare the crap out of them, we don’t actually want our news to frighten us. To that end, our villains need origin stories. The problem: the most villainous villains tend to not have any. Horror cinema has been making this mistake a lot lately, making the current wave of reboot-addiction all the more unbearable. We’ve been given lame, cobbled-together nonsense that attempts to explain abominations like Leatherface and Michael Meyers. That said, it’s no surprise that the warmed-over reiterations of classic villains have gotten worse and worse, with a few notable exceptions. The most telling line of the wonderful film The Strangers comes from a terrified Liv Tyler, pleading with her youthful tormenters as she and her husband are run through the wringer. “Why are you doing this?” Tyler screams. One of the masked youth considers the question for a moment, and then turns to her before stating matter-of-factly: “Because you were home.”
Great horror doesn’t need a reason to exist. That’s part of what makes it so horrifying. We want realism in our horror yes, but the truth is, terrible things happen for no reason whatsoever far more often than an evil maniac decides to poison a water supply because his father touched him when he was six. Eternal optimists love to say that “everything happens for a reason”, but the realist, and the true maestro of horror might more accurately say: “things happen.” There are a few landmark horror works that stand as shining examples of fear, deep-seated, dirty, and as unblinking and unrevealing as a pool of black, stagnant water.
Clive Barker’s novella about a woman who unleashes a horde of cold-hearted shades that thirst for human suffering was the basis for the hit film Hellraiser, and was adapted and directed by Barker himself. The film spawned numerous sequels, each more terrible than the last, and though the canon of the Cenobites was later expanded via comic books and the like, the original world of The Hellbound Heart gives us very little to work on. We know that the device that summons the demons, the aptly titled Lament Configuration, was discovered by the protagonist’s brother-in-law years ago. However, the true origin of the puzzle-box and the spawn it unleashes upon our universe remains shrouded in mystery. Barker’s story is terrifying, not only because he dabbles so readily in things somewhat inconceivable to the layperson’s mind (the Cenobites are not depicted as necessarily malicious, and actually seem rather indifferent to the violence and suffering they inflict upon the human characters), but because of the thinly veiled subtext woven into the pages. Perhaps pain, suffering, and violence disgust and repulse us precisely because deep down, we are a little curious, perhaps even a little thirsty for the extreme punishment depicted in The Hellbound Heart, whether it be as slave or master.
The matter of subtext brings us to one of the reasons the mystique of horror is so effective when done with appropriate restraint. Most great storytelling in general has two sides to it, or an “A” and “B” storyline, in movie industry terms. Horror is certainly no exception, and much of the respected horror canon lacks any exhaustively researched origin story, partly because great horror stories tend to be about something other than what lurks on the top of the surface.
No article about indeterminate origins, subtext, and horror would be complete without a nod to Stephen King’s masterwork, The Shining. We’re certainly all familiar with the plot of this book by now, but to recap: a down-on-his-luck writer moves his family into a mountain resort, is possessed by evil spirits lurking within the hotel, and tries to murder his wife and son. That’s the “A” storyline, of course. The “B” storyline, disguised here more thinly than in some other tales, is Jack’s addiction. To that end, there’s a bit of history, but no real explanation for The Overlook being a fertile place to filet your family. That’s partly because King understands that audiences fear that which they don’t understand, and partly because The Shining isn’t really about a hotel at all. King himself has admitted that the through-line of Jack Torrance’s struggle is meant to mirror King’s own hostile and borderline violent feelings towards his own children.
“Sometimes you confess. You always hide what you’re confessing to. That’s one of the reasons why you make up a story. When I wrote The Shining…as a young father with two children, I was horrified at my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward them. Won’t you ever stop? Won’t you ever go to bed?...So when I wrote this book I wrote a lot of that down and tried to get it out of my system, but it was also a confession. Yes, there are times when I felt very angry toward my children and have even felt as though I cold hurt them.”
The author’s confession here shines a light on the misplaced value of the “why” question in horror. Sometimes, the answer to “why” exists, but outside of the text itself.
I’ve been a big horror fan for a number of years, and I’ve always found that the best horror stories, be they supernatural stories or tales from urban reality, tended to work when their authors ignored the nagging voice in the back of their head that asked “why”? Max Landis, son of director Jon Landis and writer of the superhero found-footage film Chronicle, speaks about his father’s storytelling advice in a short film about the Death of Superman. During this clip, the younger Landis describes writing a horror story and becoming frustrated and trapped by the rules he had set up in the world he created. The elder Landis asked: “How do you kill a vampire?” Max replied with the old favorites: garlic, crosses, stakes through the heart. “Wrong,” Jon said. “You can kill a vampire any way you want because vampires don’t exist.” Horror writers are in the business of scaring people who want to feel the rush of a visceral sensation like abject terror, and sometimes (or most of the time), it’s enough to respond to the “But why?” query of a reader with a patient and saintly “because I said so.”
Even the most fantastic of horror writers deal in cold, hard, inescapable facts, though they may have to bury those facts under an avalanche of metaphor. The truth is, human beings are hopelessly adrift on a cold and uncaring rock, spinning into a dark and unforgiving universe, the machinations of which will never be fully comprehended by any one person. Horror is rooted in the darkest forms of reality, and reality is indifferent. An origin story, particularly one that tends towards theories of “nurture” versus “nature”, undercuts the very real possibility that all of the careful planning and decision-making will not necessarily save you.
Perhaps Dzhokar and Tamerlin Tsarnaev would have thought twice on that fateful day in Boston if the right person stepped in. Perhaps if the situation in the caucuses, or the USA’s foreign policy were different, we wouldn’t have spent the week glued to our twitter feeds and television sets. Perhaps there is a “why” behind all of the bloodshed and the alienation and the…horror. But even if there was a way to know the answer to every “why” question we wanted to ask, we could never, ever prevent every situation that prompted such questions in the first place. By all accounts, those people whose lives were either cut short or irrevocably altered on that day on Copley Street had done nothing to deserve it, had no reason to suspect that the day would be different from any other marathon Monday. They might ask “why”, and nobody would ever begrudge them such a thing. However, the simple, chilling truth is, there might not be an answer.
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