Guest blogger Author Shane KP O’Neill shares his fascination and insights on horror.
All my life, no other genre in literature or film has interested me, or held my attention, the way the horror genre has. Of course, we all have our individual tastes. Romance will always be the biggest seller, closely followed by thrillers and crime novels, and now the trending fascination of late with BDSM and the Scottish Highlands. We all like what we like and with no disrespect to those who have a preference for anything from the above-mentioned list, little of it is of interest to me.
None of these will ever give me that fear factor, or shock me, or leave me feeling numb. When all the rigours of the day are behind me or if I am finished writing and just wish to relax, I want to pick up a book and experience that rush from being scared before I close my eyes. As a writer of horror, I endeavour to probe and stimulate the darker recesses of your psyches – the amygdala and hypothalamus – and provide the catalysts to detonate those incendiary devices within your minds that manifest themselves in fear.
I have been this way all my life, though indulging my penchant for such things was not so easy for me when I was young, my hurdle being a strict and overzealous mother. Of course, I found my opportunity every Friday night when babysitting my younger sisters, and usually enjoyed a serving or two of the Hammer horror films.
Those images of the blood-red eyes of Christopher Lee’s Dracula and of all the terrible things Vincent Price’s Dr Phibes did to his hapless victims have never left me. I was quite an innocent pre-adolescent, and these movies often scared the hell out of me, but come the following Friday I would turn off the light and sit there in the dark, waiting to be scared senseless again, every shadow cast on the walls by the images on the TV screen making me more and more nervous. In particular I remember, at age 13, receiving permission from my father to stay up and watch Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s classic vampire offering. The scene where Danny Glick’s mother awakened in the morgue as a vampire, her hand emerging from under the sheet while Ben Mears frantically built his makeshift crucifix and recited the Lord’s Prayer was one of the defining moments in horror cinema, though Danny Glick himself scratching at Mark Petrie’s bedroom window stayed with me much longer. Nothing has terrified me as much before or since, and I admit I had frequent nightmares for the next decade. Raised a staunch Catholic, I always had a problem with scenes of demonic possession, but still I watched. It was this I craved and, no matter how scared, I had to have more. Clearly the release of glutamate in my brain had become my drug of choice.
Through my teens I began to devour dozens of novels by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, and Robert McCammon. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s a steady stream of horror flicks came along to complement the literary horror boom, some of these adapted by from the books of the men listed above.
I found these tiresome after a time. The production teams on these movies became more and more visceral in their attempts to bring shock value. As with most successful formulae that are re-hashed time and time again, they became much of a muchness. The horror was blunt and in your face, but it was not scary. Instead of having nightmares and remembering scenes from these movies when I was alone, or walking some dark country lane, I found myself getting bored and forgetting the majority of what I had seen. The genre had taken on a much more visual aspect and, to me, it was digressing from its principles and from the foundations laid down by the greats of literary and cinematic horror.
At this point, as I immersed myself in my writing, I tried to evaluate the true essence of horror. Over the years I have asked many of my friends what they deem horror to be, and acquired a variety of different answers, though none matched my own idea of how horror should be defined.
We see horror around us every day. The news on the TV and in the papers is full of it, and it is truly terrible. But it has little effect on us. We can turn the TV off or switch the channel, or discard the newspaper and pick up a romance novel and read that instead. It is something we can tolerate if it is happening to someone else. We know it is there, but as long as it does not affect us directly, or those we love, we do not dwell on it so much.
Horror, though, can take on many forms. It does not necessarily have to be the devastation of a terrorist bomb, or some unbalanced individual going on a killing spree. Horror can exist for an infant experiencing that first shock of pain from a burn, or from getting their fingers jammed in a door. It can exist for an adolescent suffering physical or mental intimidation from their peers. Horror can manifest itself for that teenager suffering that first rejection from a love interest of theirs. For sure, we remember these things and they all serve to have an impact on our future lives.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are those of us that like to take risks or live on the edge, in need of that glutamate fix. They want a glimpse of what could happen if they pick up that stranger in their car, or if they meet that mysterious but alluring person they spoke to online, or if they purchase that gun, or drive too fast, perhaps follow that impulse to travel alone to some exotic location, or involve themselves with that occultist group, jump out of that aeroplane, or take that tablet someone is selling in a nightclub. I have faced a few near-death situations in my life and in those instances where my every sense was aroused, I never felt more alive.
To try and understand or define the true essence of horror, we also must understand fear. The master of the literary horror novel, Stephen King, defines horror as a rehearsal for death. In a way it is, a way to train our minds for that inevitability, because it comes to us all irrespective of who we are. No one is immune to it. Abigail Marsh, a Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, correctly defines fear as seeing or hearing something that makes us anticipate harm. I feel if we are to identify the true essence of horror, then we must understand both these aspects and their relation to each other, for one cannot exist without the other. I always defined fear as the worry of dying in a horrible way or of some terrible harm or suffering coming to us or to someone we love and care about. If this is a correct means of defining fear, then horror must be the physical manifestation of that. So when I have asked numerous friends over the years to tell me what they believe the essence of horror to be, I was hoping someone would define horror as “fear for one’s life.”
The vampire or werewolf does not encapsulate horror – they are ingredients of it. The horror lies in the thought of what they could do to us should we encounter them. They might cause us great suffering, they might kill us, or even turn us into a beast or monster the same as they.
As I grow older I realise horror has to be more psychological as opposed to physical or visual. Fear for one’s life. The real horrors we experience in life are those that leave the mental scars. Physical scars heal with time, whereas the psychological variety are less likely to.
With this in mind, I saw horror in a different light. A vampire ripping out its victim’s throat does not scare me. Ed Harris’s portrayal of Blair Sullivan in the movie Just Cause; that scared me. The image of Joe Pesci’s character watching his brother beaten senseless and then buried alive before enduring the same in the movie Casino, had the same effect. Shaun Dooley’s character in the movie Eden Lake, where he played the father of the psychotic teenager, Brett; he also scared me.
Through this newer perspective, I began to rely more on literary horror than the visual variety to get that glutamate fix. The beauty of the novel, and of being a writer, is that the writer has a unique and very individual relationship with each different reader. The images the writer conjures the reader re-creates in his/her own mind. Here is where the psychological aspect of horror becomes more apparent. To understand horror, one must jump into the heart and mind of the character and know what it is they are enduring; the fear for their life, and finding a way to somehow survive their impending death.
With fantasy we can stretch the boundaries and limits imposed on us by our physical form. We can use our imaginations to stretch the possibilities. But even in the realms of fantasy we are left to wonder that maybe, just maybe, this could happen to one of us. That is the essence of the horror movie, or novel, and of what horror really is.
Where every cloud has a silver lining, so too can you find the beauty in horror, once you grasp the essence of it and you know where to look.
Copyright © 2016 Shane KP O’Neill
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