The Horror Stigma
I doubt the fact that horror comes with a stigma will shock any LitReactor readers. I doubt it shocks anyone, really, but sometimes I wonder how many people realize how unbelievably prevalent it truly is, and how much it actually affects people’s lives. Avid horror fans can’t brush it off like the casual or occasional consumer, and creators, like myself, deal with it damn near daily in one form or another. It doesn’t just annoy me or hurt my feelings; it genuinely interferes with my career.
I’ve heard actual horror writers say they don’t like horror. (I… just… what?) I’ve seen a bestselling horror author claim they don’t write horror, despite bookshelves full of horror awards. I’ve heard a different bestselling horror author recommend to a room full of writers that they label their horror something else entirely so it will sell. I’ve had acquaintances brag to my face that they can’t stand horror. I’ve had writing organizations invite me to speak about horror and then censor the title of my presentation lest it offend someone. More times than I can count, when people ask me what I write and I answer “horror,” I’ve watched their noses scrunch. Their eyes get wide. That uncomfortable laugh. Sometimes they say well-intentioned things like, “Why would a sweet girl like you want to write about something like that?” (And given that many of these people are strangers, I can only assume that their perception of me as ‘a sweet girl’ comes solely from my physical appearance, which is a whole other rant.)
I’ve made no secret of my despair that even other horror authors avoid the word. I understand that what they really want is to avoid the stigma that comes with it (so they can sell to all those readers who love horror but hate the word – and there are a lot of those), but ultimately it serves to reinforce that stigma. Avoiding the label when it comes to quality work and applying it only to the most ‘extreme’ subgenres within the family simply confirms reader bias. To destigmatize the word, we must use it accurately, liberally, and without shame. Otherwise things will never change.
In 2014 I wrote a post on my own blog called “What Is Speculative Fiction?” detailing the definition and the many subgenres it holds, including the most popular triumvirate of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It has turned out to be one of my most popular blogs; it’s my second most-commented post. It came complete with diagram:
(You can see the further-labeled version at the bottom of my post.)
You can imagine my delight when an agent who came across my post emailed me to ask permission to use it in a presentation he was giving at a conference. But as with many things, it came with a caveat: he wanted to change the word “horror” to “paranormal” because “that is actually a less threatening term.”
Insert my face here. (And then watch it slam into my keyboard.)
The agent was threatened not just by the genre itself, but by the word for it? Holy hell, we have a whole new level of avoidance here, folks. For the record, I politely told him that no, he could not use my chart and change my terminology. He was welcome to use my chart as long as he gave me credit, but if he just personally didn’t like horror or didn’t want to accept it for submissions, he could tell the audience that, but I wouldn’t let him put my name on something that misrepresented the most accurate portrayal of the existence of the genre. Horror can certainly be paranormal, but doesn’t have to be, and paranormal doesn’t have to be horror, either, so his change was inaccurate in addition to insulting.
I could go on, but I won’t. I’m just trying to paint a broader picture, establish the pattern. So imagine my utter lack of surprise when against my better judgment I read the impressively stupid post “Do People Actually Enjoy Watching Horror Movies?” by Abigail McCoy at Glamour.
If you’re lacking your spike of rage for the day, go ahead and read it. If you’d rather not give it the click, allow me to sum up: the writer hates horror so much that she doesn’t even believe that anyone else likes it. Especially us womens. (Womens are always lying to get attention, aren’t we? Silly girls.) In the process of insulting horror fans, horror creators, women, and writers in general, she manages to insult men with small penises, people who like anime, and proponents of the word ‘moist.’ (Seriously, what is with the ‘moist’ boycott? Chill out, people. It’s a perfectly useful word.)
Poor writing and pathetic arguments aside – the writer openly admits to having only ever seen a grand total of ONE horror movie before deciding they are ALL utterly unworthy of her or anyone else’s time – one question remains, nagging at me: why was this published?
Seriously. Think about it. Why was this article published? Glamour obviously just wanted the click bait; that’s whatever. But why was it assigned? Why written? Why put out there for the world to read?
I want to make one thing very clear: I don’t care if you like horror or not. And I know that tone doesn’t always come across in text, so please don’t read anger, bitterness, or snark into that statement. It’s neutral, open. Beyond human interest, I genuinely don’t care what other people like and dislike. Why would I?
I generally don’t like action movies. It’s fine. It’s not personal. I don’t have anything against people who do like them. I just tend not to, so I don’t often watch them unless someone who knows me well enough to get my taste tells me one is unique in some way that may appeal to me despite my preferences.
The difference? I don’t go around shouting about how I dislike action movies. Most people probably didn’t even know it until I used it in this example. I’m not unable to fathom how other people might enjoy them, and I don’t accuse them of lying when they say they do. I trust that other people have different tastes and desires and that what doesn’t do much for me may be thrilling for them, and I’m actually really happy for them that they have something they enjoy. Everyone deserves to have things that bring them pleasure. That is literally why we have a broad array of entertainment genres and options: not everything is for everyone.
So what would one gain from writing a vapid, click-baity article about how she hates an entire genre and has disdain for anyone who doesn’t? (Besides whatever Glamour pays, which can’t possibly be enough to counteract the thrashing this person is receiving online in rebuttal.)
I guess we can’t really know. We can guess. Attention seems likely. A false sense of superiority. Distance from the feeling of discomfort that fear brings. Distance from embarrassment or shame, maybe.
I wish I knew, specifically, without guesswork. Why does anyone feel comfortable dismissing an entire group of people who enjoy something that doesn’t affect them? The stigma that comes with horror is so strong that it not only keeps people from watching/reading it, it causes people to wear their disdain for those who do like a badge of honor.
I think that’s sad.
Horror isn’t going anywhere. Writers love it because it allows us to explore the depths of humanity, because it pushes boundaries, which is a source of growth, because it serves as a fantastic vehicle for metaphor and thematic messages, and because sometimes it’s simply the best way to tell the stories we want to tell. Readers love it because it’s fun, entertaining, thought-provoking, and smart. It’s a safe way to face and overcome fears, to experience catharsis, to embrace a facet of life we’re usually told to stifle.
Horror is one of the most primal human emotions. We deal with dread, fear, discomfort, unease, disgust, and terror in one form or another throughout our lives. It’s a large part of human existence, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. So why don’t we acknowledge that and drop the stigma? At the very least, if not for ourselves, for others who do. Horror has much to teach us if we’re open-minded enough to learn.
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