Let’s talk about horror, and the loss of control.
All horror may not necessarily be about the loss of control, but I think it’s fair to say that much of it is just that. We see it, for example, in that trope where the twist reveals that the whole town, even the people you thought would save the day, are in on it–like when the friendly gas station proprietor in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre winds up driving Sally right back to the Sawyer House. Even simply being faced with a killer or a monster that the character cannot fight is a loss of control. That sort of thing is frightening to us–perhaps because most people are used to having some sense of autonomy and control over (at the very least) our own survival. When that is tested, in fiction or in real life, it can be horrifying.
What I have recently begun to notice, however, is that the horror genre carries with it its own, inherent, taking away of control–specifically the reader’s control.
Think about it: the one thing we know when we decide to consume a piece of horror media is that it is horror. The very genre announces to us that something horrific and bad is going to happen; we know this in much the same way that we know a classic tragedy is going to end in, well, tragedy. It is, in a sense, inevitable.
Now, keeping this knowledge constantly at the forefront of our mind can often suck a lot of the tension out of the story, or make reading it feel pointless. So, we suspend our disbelief. We try to ignore that meta-knowledge, and a good horror story will often do its best at helping us ignore it. The author lures us into a false sense of security.
At the same time, a good story will work to make us care for the characters and their fates. This is important. We have to wish for a happy outcome, despite our subconscious dread that tells us we will probably not get one. When I, for instance, read about Jack Torrance’s struggle to stay sober, turn his life around, and do what is best for his family, I find myself rooting for his success–even though I see the way that so many aspects of his situation threaten to destroy his goals.
That is not to say, of course, that a person reading the Shining for the first time (provided they have not had had the ending spoiled by the pop-cultural zeitgeist) knows for certain that everything is going to go badly. It is a horror book, sure, but those can still have bittersweet (or sometimes, even happy) endings. Stephen King has written several.
Even if you know or dread that Jack is doomed to be corrupted by the Overlook, you don’t know how, or what the fate will necessarily be for the other characters. That mystery, along with our sense-of-disbelief-fuelled hope, drags us through the story. And when the inevitable fall comes, it is strengthened by our own internal struggle of meta-knowledge vs hope.
Let me discuss a different example:
I recently read Scott Smith’s short story Christmas in Barcelona. If you can, I’d recommend that you go and read it, because I will be spoiling it in detail in the next few paragraphs. It is a delightful read, and not very long. You can find it in the anthology Hark! The Herald Angels Scream.
(Don’t ask why I’m reading Christmas-themed horror anthologies in the middle of summer because I don’t have a good answer for you).
The story is about a couple who decide to go on a vacation to Barcelona with their few-months-old baby. Now, it could be very easy to dislike them for that (after all, who hasn’t been on a plane with a screaming baby), but Smith has a couple of methods of getting the reader on the main character’s side:
First of all, the story is written in the second person–while an uncommon and often distracting POV, especially in genre fiction, it does a good job of immersing the reader. It is you that is going through this awful vacation; you’re the one doing your best here.
Secondly, the annual Christmas vacation abroad is the couple’s tradition, and anyway, the baby has, until that point, been exceptionally quiet and well behaved. “Such a perfect child. One month in, and he was sleeping through the night.” You can see, at least, why the parents thought that it might be a good idea.
Of course, it isn’t a good idea. The whole trip seems cursed: first the baby won’t stop crying (though there are occasional respites), next their luggage is lost, there are issues with the hotel room, blistered feet after long hours walking in the heat, etc. etc. All very stressful, and very relatable situations (even if you personally haven’t had the misfortune to share in all of them).
The couple is bitter, angry with one another, entirely exhausted and on the verge of a colossal fight. Yet Smith manages to write the story in such a way that you, as the reader, find yourself hoping that they make up. You are in the husband’s shoes, after all, and he wants everything to work out. You can see that they do clearly love each other, despite everything–if only the universe would give them a break, things might be all right.
That break comes. When they finally manage to get a room, things settle down. The baby stops crying and falls asleep in its cradle on the floor of the on-suite bathroom (they were given a very small room). The main characters can finally, after a long and horrible day, eat, rest, and relax. Calmed down, they apologize to one another, and it seems that the worst is over.
The husband goes outside to buy some essentials to replace those lost with the luggage, and while he’s on the way back, near midnight now, he comes across an old woman selling dolls from a nativity scene. As midnight strikes, they come alive by way of Christmas magic, only for the 24 hours of Christmas Day.
The main character is amazed and buys three of these figures: The roman soldier, donkey and ox. He imagines his child growing up with these, and how his wife is going to react. Sure enough, Tess ends up being just as awed as he was. They realize that the vacation, for all its hardships, has nevertheless managed to be (quite literally) magical. And you as the reader are happy for them, and relieved that the storm of the previous day seems to be over.
Yet, you still remember, in the back of your mind, that this is a horror story. It’s a nagging feeling breaking up the magic of the moment. As the story draws to a conclusion, the knowledge bothers you more and more. The couple loses track of the animated roman soldier. Even before Tess asks why there’s a roman soldier in a nativity scene–even before she rushes to the bathroom, the husband still confused–your mind is making connections, and you realize the inevitable, horrible conclusion to the story. You turn the final page, wishing against all odds that you are wrong.
And then that shoe finally drops.
And the horror is all the more potent because you understood what was about to come, and because you had no power to avert it.
As I said, it’s a delightful* story. I wrote this whole post mainly as an excuse to discuss how masterfully Scott Smith played with my emotions. It’s the thing that made me realize just how big a part the reader’s genre-savviness can play in making the reader themselves feel helpless, and in creating truly effective horror.
That’s not the only thing Christmas in Barcelona does well, of course, but it’s a tool that stood out to me as a writer. I plan to experiment with it in my own stories, now that I’ve been made aware with it on a level beyond the subconscious. If you’re a writer, I urge you to play around with this facet of horror as well.
If anyone has any thoughts of their own on this topic, I’d love to discuss it further with you in the comments.
* My use of the word delightful might seem like a strange choice to use to describe a story that ends with a baby being killed, but that was my genuine reaction to it. I mean it, I even smiled. This is because I take the same kind of delight in an exceedingly well-crafted horror story as I imagine a musician takes in hearing someone use their instrument in a truly masterful way. There’s also the fact that horror writers, in my experience, all tend to share a certain sadistic streak**, and the ending was nothing if not gleefully sadistic.
**Only in fiction, of course! I wouldn’t want to accuse anyone (least of all myself) of being a psychopath or sadist or anything like that.