Has Horror Been Eclipsed?

Reading & Writing

There’s a man sitting opposite me reading ‘Twilight’. He’s about forty, and is wearing three-quarter length camouflage trousers and a sleeveless top. This, I realise, is the core market my publisher wants me to chase.

Those of us who have spent a long time in love with horror in all its forms have been feeling a bit trapped of late. Torture porn films and novels weren’t the problem; that’s cyclical. We had the giallos of the seventies, the slashers and shock-novels of the eighties, we were due for more. I enjoyed quite a few of them, usually for the wrong reasons – the ‘Saw’ films, for example, are a great exercise in tortuous plotting on behalf of producers who never saw the sequels coming.

The real problem began when horror was co-opted as a teen demographic, and a Christian one at that. The idea of the unattainable male worshipped by girls fitted right in with a conservative agenda, and suddenly the supernatural romance was born in all its grisly forms, from loved-up vampires to moping ghosts and absurdly butch werewolves. The idea that man is an animal is hardly new. The idea that he’s an animal which can be conveniently tamed is.

Because it turns out that horror isn’t being re-invented this time – it’s being defanged and infantilised, turned into a kiddie-friendly commodity. Horror covers a multitude of ideas, of course, and one is certainly the cold-as-the-grave Gothic romance; that’s where horror’s roots lie. But it has always moved on, absorbing its surrounding cultures. When George A Romero began his Living Dead films, he wisely used the concept of zombies to reflect our obsession with consumerism, suggesting that we would finally consume ourselves. Then he proceeded to beat audiences to death with it for the rest of his life.

Now the world has turned once more and a new set of terrors lie in wait, opening up subjects that can best be tackled through the horror genre. The new fears should reflect our world – fear of alienation and losing your identity, fear of manipulation, cruelty, xenophobia, class divides, racism, fear of difference, fear of failure, of simply going unnoticed and unloved. There are a handful of writers tackling these subjects with brilliance, but the problem lies with publishers – if it’s not vampires, zombies and werewolves, they seem to think that it’s not horror, and the stories fall through the cracks.

I loved Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’, which owes a lot to ‘Shock Corridor’ and feels like a beloved old pulp paperback being rediscovered in a junk shop, but it’s definitely a horror film, not a mainstream thriller. The film ‘Orphan’, with its jaw-dropping twist, also played like a novel from the 1970s that you’d find in a secondhand store, and this was also sold as a mainstream thriller – but it’s not, it’s horror through and through.

Aren’t we just talking about cataloguing here? Do we need to be worried about the difference? Yes, because horror is being squeezed into a box labeled ‘Teen Stupid’. I enjoyed the Final Destination movies because, at the outset at least, they were tackling something rarely explored, the topic of predestination. ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and ‘Psychoville’ combined Monty Python – men as Victorian grotesques, women as drag gorgons – with Amicus and came up with something fresh. (I wonder where they got the idea for that latter title – could it have been when they were filming in my house? Near my bookcase?)

Right now, though, I’m looking at that guy ploughing through ‘Twilight’ and guessing he also read ‘Harry Potter’. Nothing wrong with that except they’re – to quote ‘The Hudsucker Proxy – ‘you know, for kids.’

18 comments on “Has Horror Been Eclipsed?”

  1. Alan Morgan says:

    I’m one to comment if at all with flippancy, that’s just me really. Too laid back perhaps. But with this I can say I agree whole heartedly and with a hollow chest of for fuck-sakes. I honestly am happy for the authors that they’re selling so well and presumably one hopes by writing what they like.

    But.

    This rising treacle tide of nice is getting to be too much. I don’t even like the idea that there is a teen market at all – people who can and many no doubt of which do just read… books. Not teen books, but books. There are new fears, there are old fears and there are – fuck me – stories too. And in books you will find these fears explored best because let’s face it it’s your fear therein.

    Perhaps then we do need catagories – something for teen horror that does not use the word horror. Or fear. Or let’s not talk down to teens anyway.

    But then not having read a Twilight book am I really in a position to say? Maybe they address genuine teen issues through sustained and clever allegory – which would at least explain why vampires are always such a bunch of wankers.

  2. Rachel Green says:

    An excellent post, sir.

  3. Donna Hibburd says:

    I’m not sure that Twilight can be blamed on horror being co-opted by the teen demographic. I think the paranormal romance sub-genre should step up and take credit for that. The attraction of the bad boy amplified by being a vampire, werewolf or more recently the fallen angel. I’m guilty of succumbing to that being a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse books and I still read Laurell K Hamilton books in the ever fainter hope of the re-appearance of the “armed for bear” Anita Blake. What I find depressing more than the bloodless Twilight series, is the disappointment you feel when these publishing phenomenon rise up and you think “great, young people are reading, there’s hope for the future of fantasy/horror fiction,” and then you read the book.

    But there’s still hope. I believe Dr Who is shining a light. Not only is it demonstrating there’s money to be made in scaring small children, it’s written in a way to be genuinely spooky for adults.

    As an aside, I am concerned that your blogs on the subject of writing seem increasingly an exercise in convincing yourself that writing, particularly writing horror is not worth it. I really hope not. After attending Brighton Shock, I came away intending to collect all the Mammoth Books of Horror (done)and read all of them (way off), write myself and read author blogs. I am compelled to listen to audiobooks and read Black Static e-magazines on my Ipod in those moments I cannot hold a book but worry that it won’t be long until I can only read old novels and stories as a number of my favourite authors will be burying their horror writing careers in (early) unmarked graves.

  4. BangBang!! says:

    First class post Mr Fowler. My wife refuses to go to the horror section in Waterstones with me anymore. She knows I’m going to go off on a rant; I just can’t seem to stop myself. You, however, said it in a more erudite way than I ever could. My language tends to be a little more, shall we say, earthy!

  5. I.A.M. says:

    Perhaps I’m mis-interpreting things, but didn’t the whole teen horror craze start way back with the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer? True, it was tongue-in-cheek, but that’s usually a good way to disarm people’s resistance to something.

  6. Daniel says:

    I’ve gone into more detail at my own blog, because no-one wants a 2000 word blog comment, but I think that the main thing with Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse, The Dresden Files, The Vampire Diaries, Anita Blake et al, is less to do with horror being toned down and more to do with vampires, werewolves and such being the monsters belonging to the generation before last. They never really scared anyone born after about 1965, only having a slight residue of real fear left clinging to them. To the newest generation of readers, they’re no more scary than Jacob Marley style, chain rattling ghosts, Peg Powler or Spring Heeled Jack were to people now aged 30 to 45. I consider myself a bit of a horror fan, but I revelled in the silliness of films like Dog Soldiers or Bubba Ho-Tep. Vampires are another monster which just no longer cut it in the fear stakes. (badum-tsh!) They have too much cultural baggage and the fears they symbolise just aren’t relevant to modern readers any more. I can still get a chill reading Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Let the Right One In, The Keep, or Manitou Blood (Yes, I’m the one person in the UK who still buys Graham Masterton novels) but for a person my age (31) I’m the exception rather than the norm.

    Horror fans might just have to accept that some of our iconic monsters aren’t really ours any more. They belong on the fantasy shelves at best, or in amongst the Mills & Boon and Silhouette novels. The fear is gone from them, for the most part. Fears shift and change, over time. After the specialists in cosmic horror, we needed Shirley Jackson to pave the way for the more intimate fears of the modern horror movement. While that seam is far from mined out, maybe horror needs to begin looking in new directions. In the climate of uncertainty and fear people feel in their real lives, thanks to a news media obsessed with making it seem like the end of society is just around the corner and a shaky economic future, maybe it’s time for horror to become external once more, rather than internal. People feel less afraid of what goes on within themselves and more afraid of what could happen to them from an outside source. We just need new monsters to do it with. We’ve spent too many years laughing at the old ones when what they represented wasn’t preying on our minds at that particular time.

    I should also doff my cap to the forty-ish bloke who was reading Twilight on public transport. That takes confidence. I’m not shy or ashamed about reading a YA book if it’s what I want to read, a well written book is a well written book, but Twilight carries so much excess baggage and potential for ridicule with it…

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Perhaps that 40-ish man was trying to find out what his children/students were on about. This blog is dragging me towards the horror shelves. I always avoided horror because I wasn’t interested in “the living dead” or “chain rattling ghosts”. I had similar wrong attitudes toward science fiction until I married a SF fan.

  8. Man of Constant Sorrow says:

    I’m not sure anybody need be ashamed of what they choose to read. I’m certainly not going to apoligise for re-visiting The Phantom Tollbooth or The Magic Pudding fairly often, or for recently re-reading The Moomin saga.
    Neither am I going to apologize for stating that the best horror novel I’ve read in some considerable time is Charlie Higson’s The Enemy, and the best fantasy was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy or for the fact that Eoin Colfer’s The Supernaturalist is a great book as well.
    Might be something to do with the fact that I read The Atrocity Exhibition when I was twelve, but I find restricting reading by age group is pretty pointless.

  9. vigo says:

    Twilight is teen corporate. The sublimated sex goth/ic romance element is nothing new, but its energy towards a dire bland conformism is – and its pop promo style reflects this.
    It is pervasive only because cinema and television broadcasting/exhibition and distribution is controlled by American majors to such an extent that it influences everything else – both cinematic and in publishing – they go hand in hand.
    Publishers want to buy into this. Culture is a war – its a battleground – and the US corporates are winning. The attempts to infantilise, ‘defang’ or ‘tame’ does reflect a change – but it is not a good one – even for something as harmless as entertainment – since it allows a kind of promulgation of a certain kind of philistine bland pop conservatism and passivity with a little shadow walk on the wild side, which the new ‘horror genre’ now caters to – an outlet for sense of otherness, alienation, exclusion – (now you can be a vampire,etc) an outlet for feelings of unhappiness and rebellion perhaps – all adolescent – telling then that thirty and forty somethings are still hanging on to this.
    ‘Fear’ is not really the issue – and certainly not as important as either wonder, suspense, awe, or a sense of the sacred (and it being endorsed or subverted) – or any of the other elements of horror fiction – tastes change but people have the same relationship to the story and its entertainment in any given age – as long as stories are told – since both the narrative and archetypes are continually reinvented to the times to reveal something about us and our own age. (In another hundred years people will still be discussing whether the novel has died and people will still be writing them – storytelling is part of the human condition.)
    The real contemporary ‘horror’ is not the wolf – it was wiped out, nor the vampire (brought to reality by the serial killer) – it is this ‘taming’ of people so such elements are increasingly ‘neutralised’, tamed, then identified with (rather than against) and therefore this neutralising process is co-opted into.
    Its another form of political correctness.
    The current generation of teens and twenty somethings have bought into a kind of bland conformism and powerlessness and their diversions with peurile watered down teeny bop semi goth vampire fantasies reflect this – at the same time the State backed by corporate power has so grown in strength that its ability to control with little or no resistance is unchallenged by the very age group that should be (and in previous generation did) challenge it. Now that IS frightening.

  10. vigo says:

    Though on second thoughts – as the vampire myth was the coded story of how aristocratic bloodsuckers such as Countess Bathory etc, could commit atrocities and get away with exactly what they wanted to, its a horror that is still very much with alive and with us.

  11. jovisgoesgreen says:

    Read ‘The Killer Department’ by Robert Cullen, the true story of Andrei Chikatillo, watch ‘To Catch a Killer’ about John Wayne Gacy, study The ‘BTK Killer’ about Dennis Rader, study ‘Ted Bundy’ or ‘Jeffrey Dahmer’, or top of the list, ‘Ed Gein’, often believed to be the inspiration for Hannibal Lector. This is real horror, real because it is real, as real as you can get. People were murdered and violated in the worst possible ways, in some cases even eaten, in yet others, worn, yes worn. Ed Gein was found wearing the skin of one of his victims as a sort of waistcoat. Chikatillo chewed parts of his victims, Dahmer was found cooking the brain of one of his victims. This was and is real horror. How could men, how do men, and they are always men, behave in this way? We don’t know. That is truly horrifying.

    The modern film dramas, ‘Twilight’, ‘Saw’, ‘The Vampire Diaries’ etc., etc., are just funny, and we can all laugh about them later, or pretend we wre scared. No, that is not real horror.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I have to agree with jovisgoesgreen about ‘real’ horror. Richard Powers, the author of Galatea 2.2 has written “Plowing the Dark” which explores the mind’s powers of imagination. One part of the book is devoted to the digital creation of a ‘real’ place while parallel with it is the development of the same ability in the mind of a middle eastern hostage. It has taken me a long time to finish it because the experiences of the hostage are so vivid. It is beautifully written and an author who can take you inside a horrible situation is vital to our civilisation. Horrible is possibly not horror, however. Is it?

  13. Jenifer A says:

    I currently reside in the much-hated “dark place” that is the Twilight’s core demographic. I am a female, I am in my early 20’s, and I read.

    Firstly, Twilight has never been billed as “horror”. This is and will always be a product of something completely different: paranormal romance. Twilight has never scared anyone. It doesn’t try to. It’s a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast: endless strength and fierce, exclusive love. The horror genre can do it’s own damage to itself. However, I ask that you reconsider passing of an entire genre of film and literature because of “Twilight” and a few dud “Saws”. Ponder something incredible like “Drag Me to Hell”.

    Vigo: I have to disagree with your imagining of “Twilight” as planned corporate brainwash. Currently, yes, the series is over-marketed by everything from cereal to chapstick. Initially, this was no corporate conspiracy. The author hit a chord with her audience and got lucky, this was not a Disney-created work, this was just one woman and her YA novel trying to break into the publishing market like everyone else. It only turned into this massive money making storm because we, the audience, America, loves it. It wasn’t shoved down our throats, we happily ate it.

  14. vigo says:

    Jenifer A – Yeah tell me about it. The Americans have swallowed a lot of corporate spoon fed gloop – thats the American way.

    Sadly its become the same in the uk also.

    My daughter thinks Twilight is great – mad about it – but shes of the age I suppose – 13. She is coming to the age where she will be ruled by her hormones. The forty year old man reading Twilight on the tube is wierd – but maybe he was trying to research the teen market? Going in for some hormone nostalgia? Hormone replacement? Teen girl research?

    Whats worse was that my daughter didnt rate ‘Let the Right One In’ that much – which my 8 year old son did. And to think that I raised that girl on Peter Cushing films.

    I did not use the word ‘conspiracy’ neither did I say it was ‘planned’ – its a kind of mass plugging in -an evolution of sorts or a transmorgification of the popular culture – like the Quatermass Xperiment (thats an old horror – like me).
    Yes, but it seemed Hollywood mainstream corporate to me.
    The kids in it seemed to be palpitating.

    You happily ate the Twilight thing because yep it hit a chord because it pretty much relates to whats out there at the moment. And its like a slush puppy with big eyes liquidised in with a mcflurry and a big bag of sugar – but still keeping the big eyes because the boys look cute and the girls look like they are into new age astrology, crystals and shit. It looks like it grew out of Harry Potter.

    Yes, I can seen how its a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast – fair enough – but at least go to the original not the Disney version. Come on, give me an old European snarl,think of ancient Roumanian… you know you can do it….back into the mists…back into the mists…

    Twilight.

    It just not nasty enough (like me) and its bollocks just arent as hairy as a werewolfs. (I should know – I’m married to one).

    The boys arent fully grown. they are just a bit moody.
    And they zip around on flywires and they look like theyve just sprayed their hair. Sensitive like.
    The fact is Jeniffer A that you want to kiss them.
    Go on admit it.
    We all had those feelings at your age – thats how I met my monster. they was sensitive also. Like Annie out of ‘Misery’.

    My daughter thinks I am just T-O-O O-L-D. My son thinks she is an idiot and Twilight is crap but he is of that age and I am on his side. He can recite whole stories out of the Beano so he is an authority on these matters.

    I will get my daughter to show me the film again and I will try to remember why exactly it was so lame. At the moment I am getting too old to remember…

    ‘Paranormal romance’ has always been a staple of the horror genre – from the early days of the gothic romance http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction

    whether its billed as horror or not – if its got vampires and love interest its horror.

    horror loves sexy girls
    sexy girls love sexy boys
    and they like the idea of biting eachother
    for some unfathomable reason loose women seem to get pleasure from being bitten by strange men in capes knocking on the window at night and it gets worse.

    Re – the serial killers. Yes – but dont necessarily relate horror only with ‘horrific’
    Polanskis film ‘Dance of the Vampires’ was horror but it wasnt horrific (well a bit).

    I disagree that ‘we dont know why people cook brains.
    and that is horrific.’
    I think We do know and our mouths water at the thought of – and the horror of it – and that is horrific and delicious o- -no no – at the same time. oh yuk yes, but you love it. go on. the horrible has a fascination.
    People enjoy horror like they enjoy pornography.
    Its salacious. jovisgoesgreen – You enjoyed making those descriptions.
    Go on admit it.
    These things arent really that alien from us.
    The most prolific killers do it because they often have good intentions – really – Hitler & co. etc.
    I suppose its what the monsters really represent and whether we want to love them or not.
    Twilight cant sanitise or clean up the act.

  15. I wanted to thank you for this terrific blog post. I seriously appeciate it.

  16. vigo says:

    Are there lots of pests in Seattle. There are here.

    We are watching New Moon now. My young son is teasing his sister by singing ‘I just cant stop this feeeeling’.

    We just watched a scene where two girls are walking along he innocently and genuinely
    said ‘which one is which?’

    Bella has just come off a motorbike. She could not control the throbbing of a 1000cc’s between her legs.

    She wants it bad. She is calling the boys ‘beautiful’.

    It is porn without the sex scenes. References to ‘growing up’ abound.

    Oh no. My son is rebelling he hates the film and is singing ‘I’ll blow your frickin’ head off’ His sister has told him to ‘shut the f**k up’ They are fighting. Great.

    How much do you charge for your pest control services?

  17. vigo says:

    The Bella wolf scene in the woods was straight out of The Hulk movie.

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