Writing, for me, is about healing and reconciliation.
I do not mean that this is how I read all writing, but my interest in composing fiction is to that end. I also do not mean my own healing and reconciliation, because I also believe that if a writer composes with the intent of exorcising their personal demons that the writing will fail. It’s a sort of confirmation bias where the writer forces the matter down unnatural avenues. It becomes propaganda, and I do not wish to write propoganda.
Generally, things done for entertainment value alone are of little interest to me (though I admit that sometimes means that I dismiss things that might have a deeper meaning simply because I missed it – heaven knows I have revisited stories from my youth with an older mind and found poignancy where I once hadn’t). I suppose that is because I am not there for entertainment. I want a story to provoke my thinking and if the story amounts to, “Isn’t this cool?” I would much rather spend my time elsewhere.
A little background for proceeding: two genres fascinate me more than others – comedy and horror. I find something unique about their promise. Comedy promises a laugh and horror promises a fright. Unlike other genres, audiences have a visceral reaction to these genres. I do not mean a reaction to the content of the story (laughing at something funny or screaming at something horrifying), but rather a reaction to the story itself.
Write an unfunny comedy and the audience may become virulently angry about it. The same is true with horror. The ability of these two genres to transcend simple disappointment is remarkable.
Of course, the true challenge with comedy and horror is that they are exceptionally difficult to accomplish. Subjective nature, perhaps.
John Cleese once said of Monty Python performing on stage night after night that one evening the audience simply did not laugh. Same performance that had audiences rolling in the aisles every other night – yet this audience did not laugh. And in that silence was a simple truth: they were not funny. The next performance the audience laughed again and they were again funny.
As with so much in life, intent does not matter so much as the consequences, and delivering comedy or horror to a wide audience is an incredible feat. I admire the individuals who attempt it and adore the ones who find consistent success with it.
Which brings me back to the original thread: horror. I do not possess a macabre mind. I enjoy Christmas and Disney and pun-based jokes. When reading an intense piece of horror, one might conjure images of a Victorian Edgar Allan Poe, writing in a dark, damp, cobwebbed room by candlelight. Only a disturbed mind could compose disturbed prose, right?
What I came to appreciate about horror is that it’s not so different from fantasy (save perhaps the gravity of the aforementioned promise). It requires imagination only, and, depending on the writer’s process, any type of mind will suffice.
What I enjoy more about horror is how accessible it makes the worst elements of the human experience.
I could, for example, compose a drama about a life with mental illness. Those with experience with mental illness would likely find the piece taxing with an unsatisfactory payoff (such a piece is unlikely to offer any miracle cure or remedy with which they are unfamiliar). For those with no experience, they will come away with an incomplete understanding of mental illness.
If, on the other hand, one were to externalise the internal struggle, suddenly the subject becomes accessible.
Example: Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. The novel and TV miniseries tell the same story as Kubrick’s film, but they focus more on father Jack’s alcoholism (my biggest issue with Kubrick’s film – Jack Nicholson feels unhinged from the start of the film rather than spiralling).
If you are fortunate enough not to have an alcoholic in your family (I am so fortunate), it would be difficult to understand what that is like. A film like The Shining does not describe the experience (as a drama about alcoholism might), but it does capture how it feels. You see and feel what Jack’s unravelling does to Wendy and Danny.
Babadook does this wonderfully with depression. Get Out does it with racial injustice.
(In a non-horror instance, Frozen does a wonderful job with depression and anxiety. ‘Let It Go’ is still my anthem to help alleviate anxiety.)
My personal gripe with the genre is the desire (I presume more on the part of publishers and production companies) for profitability. After setting up a protagonist against their obstacle, the protagonist almost always overcomes eventually – though some do just end on a sour note.
Horror (movies in particular) then has this terrible habit of throwing everything away on a closing scare that says, “Obstacle not overcome after all!” It makes great sense for a cheap scare and/or to set up a lucrative franchise, but it makes no sense from a narrative perspective.
Still, the idea of identifying an aspect of the human condition, externalising that inner struggle as horror, and then healing/reconciling through character development is an attractive option for a young writer.
…or is it?
No, it is.