Humans love to be freaked out. We just love it. Does anything make us happier than a creepy long-haired girl crawling out of a well?
I studied gothic fiction in my final year of university and it was the best few months of my entire education. We got to read all the classic horror stories (Frankenstein, The Beetle, Dracula, Haunting of Hill House etc.), listen to Nick Cave songs and explore the social history of humanity’s deepest, darkest fears, right from Tacitus encountering the Visigoths, to today’s horrors of postmodernism.
When you dig deep enough into anything, you’ll find fear. Fear is perhaps our most basic instinct: it’s how our ancestors didn’t get eaten by giant insects and sabre-tooth tigers. But fear also causes us a lot of problems in the modern world. Even those of us who lead the safest, cushiest, most privileged lives today with cars and air-con and Netflix, still have fear hard-wired into our DNA. Which is why there’s racism, misogyny and homophobia, and probably why so many of us suffer from generalised anxiety disorders.
Fictional monsters are manifestations of our real-life fears. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the late nineteenth century, it was at a time when immigrants were flooding into the UK from Eastern Europe. Coincidence? Absolutely not. Victorians were shitting themselves over the arrival of these strange, pale, black-haired, meat-loving foreigners from the bleak forests of the north. The best horror hooks onto the most current cultural fears. That’s why gothic fiction is so fascinating. It tells us what people in all different eras were scared of.
While in England we were writing stories about ghosts (fear of the past), vampires (fear of immigrants) and zombies (fear of science), writers in America were developing one of today’s favourite genres: the psychological thriller. This is all about the horror of humanity: the impossible standards of the American Dream, the nuclear family, the rise of mass consumerism and advertising. All of these mad expectations on everyone resulted in a lot of ill mental health and the rise of the drug industry, which made films like The Shining and Shutter Island such a hit.
America is full of horrors, which is probably why Halloween’s so big over there. It’s a fetishisation of horror, making scary things cute and consumable. Chunky little toddlers dressed up as pumpkins, autumnal wreaths on doors, pumpkin spiced lattes. It’s all very Instagrammable. And thanks to social media, Spooky Season has spread to Britain too.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Personally I enjoy seasonal celebrations. I love horror stories and films, I love witchy, gothicky things and I like a pumpkin as much as the next person. But I’m also intrigued by the dark truths gothic fiction reveals, and what our obsession with the macabre says about humanity.
The truth is that while we’re cuddled up in our knitted jumpers sipping pumpkin-spiced lattes, there are real-life horrors going on. And paradoxically it’s this very thing – the consumerist fantasy we buy into, that distracts us from the horror of itself. Mass industry, depleting resources, human displacement, gross wealth, terrible poverty, genocide, propaganda and an increasing detachment from nature and from each other.
And maybe this is the horror of the modern day. We’ve explored and regurgitated all the classic tropes – vampires, zombies, werewolves (think Twilight). Perhaps nothing scares us any more. And of course, as I mentioned before, fear is necessary. It exists for a reason. It keeps us alive. It also draws us together, it creates communities, a sense of unity and spirit. It ignites our passions, inspires us to create things.
Maybe the horror of modern Western society is that we are on the verge of having no fear. We’ve become desensitised to horror. We can no longer be frightened because we’ve been over-exposed to it all on the Internet and on TV. Gore just doesn’t do it any more, so we’re like domesticated guinea pigs let loose in the wild, happily grazing on grass while unbeknown to us, predators circle.
Right, that’s enough from me. Hope I’ve cheered up your Wednesday evening.