Monday, May 24, 2010

Thoughts on horror.

My mom and I are alike in a lot of ways, but when it comes to taste in books we're basically polar opposites. She will happily read a history of post-millenial religions, or the importance of salt in international sea trade, or an account of the early 20th century flu epidemic. And I'm not making any of those up.

I, on the other hand, tend towards lighter and less realistic fare. Something like a story about a possessed car, or an angel and devil working together to prevent the Apocalypse, or a vampire-turned-rock-star. And I'm not making any of those up, either.*

*For the curious: Christine by Stephen King; Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; and The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice.

Occasionally, however, our interests will overlap. I loaned her memoir from a woman named Carolyn who escaped from the FLDS (the offshoot-Mormon polygamist cult) with her eight children. It's a fascinating read, but reading about some of the things this woman went through made me sick to my stomach. For example: Carolyn's husband wanted her to manage a hotel he owned in another town. This continued even after a shady-looking man came around and began stalking her. The husband refused to call the cops on the stalker. It's like he wanted her to end up getting raped or killed. And the worst part of this is that it actually happened. That is terrifying, and not in a fun way.

I do like to scare myself sometimes by watching something creepy on TV or reading a horror novel. But the horror is self-contained, and I know that no matter how creepy the monsters are, when I turn off the television or close the book, they're gone. I also tend towards media where the monsters are limited by clearly defined rules and weaknesses. One of the things that makes vampires so fascinating is the paradox that they are powerful (super speed and strength, immortality, near-invulnerability) and, at the same time, powerless (depending on the author, they will run away from crosses, mirrors, or seasonings, plus the whole deal with sunlight). Sure, they can tear your throat open to drink your blood, and turn you into a soulless demon, but only at night and only if you're not wearing protection (in the form of a cross necklace).

In my mind, the most effective horror takes something familiar and makes the audience look at it with new, suspicious eyes. That's one of the things that makes Doctor Who so creepy: previous episodes have managed to make viewers terrified of broken clocks, statues, and shadows.*

*For the curious: Girl in the Fireplace; Blink; and Silence in the Library.