The Unlikely Comforts of Horrror

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I have found myself, lately, finding refuge from the troubles of the world by spending time revisiting some old films and books that I have enjoyed in the past.  It seems somewhat counterintuitive, but the most comforting of these mini-escapes have come in the form of old horror stories.  Sitting in the backyard on weekend afternoons, for example, reading Stephen King and Peter Straub.  Crashed out on the basement sofa long after midnight, watching Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant adaptation of The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing, or Francis Ford Coppola’s gloriously bombastic Bram Stoker’s Dracula. 

For some reason, this darker material soothes and cheers me in a way that more lighthearted fare simply can’t do.  It’s not that I don’t like comedy and action films.  I do.  But they don’t seem to transport me in the same way that horror stories have been able to in the past few years.

Perhaps it’s that the emotional atmosphere of horror is more in keeping with the tenor of our increasingly fraught and perilous age.  Somehow sunny, upbeat, or purely escapist modes of storytelling aren’t quite scratching my itch.  I feel that I want to—need to—engage with the darkness that I see in countless news stories.  But maybe not engage with it head on, if you see what I mean.  I want the pervasive unheimlich quality of the modern world reflected and refracted through the transformative mirrors and prisms of art, of imagination.

Without a doubt, there’s an escapist element at play here.  In many darkly fantastic novels and films—at least the ones I’ve been gravitating towards – the Horror takes place somewhere quite distant from my everyday world.  The sites where terrible things happen are easy to imagine, but very remote: a gothic castle, an isolated arctic research station, an inaccessible and abandoned hotel.  Not, in other words, the hallways of an elementary school, or a brightly lit suburban shopping mall, or a splash pad in a peaceful park on a sunny day.

As well, in the vivid landscapes of storytelling, even the worst manifestations of evil can be aesthetically pleasing.  The vampire is often elegant and seductive.  The cold-blooded psychopath is frequently erudite and refined.  The Devil is wicked, of course, but also charming.  This is in contrast to the real world, in which the flesh-and-blood monsters are almost invariably ignorant, rancid, hate-filled, and banal.

In horror movies and books, there is, naturally, plentiful mayhem, dread, and death.  But, if it’s done right, there are also moments great beauty and thematic insight.  Sometimes there are lessons to be learned about courage, resilience, or acceptance that are not so apparent in the litany of weekly real-world atrocities.

Beyond this, there is also the primal pleasure of well-told stories—one of the greatest compensations for the tribulations of existence.  Stories with suspense and glimpses of things beyond our ordinary understanding, of magic, however unsettling.  Stories that, for all their darkness, manage to illuminate some aspect of ourselves, and what it means to live in in a wild, dangerous, and often breathtaking world.