The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.
(*This post contains some spoilers from House of Leaves, The Devil of Nanking, Hotel Rot, and Breaking Bad. Seriously, major Breaking Bad spoilers. You’ve been warned.)
While I’ve read horror since I was very young, I’ve also continued to engage with the genre through most of my life. There are certain things that make horror horrifying. The most important, as far as I’m concerned, is that horror creates monsters that allow us to engage with a fear of ours. Often, the fear is something that we don’t know what to do about, like death, that causes anxiety. We worry in the back of our minds all the time, but horror lets us release our emotions about it, fight it in a fictional setting, and either triumph or fail. It’s cathartic.
In my opinion, this is the essence of horror. It brings out our emotions relating to a fear. Because of this, though, not everything that I consider horror is classified that way. Just because something has zombies in it doesn’t make it horror to me (a lot of zombie movies are really more in the action genre) and just because something doesn’t have any murderers or undead people doesn’t mean it’s not horror.
I really think that as I’ve grown, my opinion on what is considered horror has changed, and because of this, I’m starting to feel there is a real, identifiable difference between ‘young people’s horror’ and ‘adult horror.’ And that has nothing to do with the gore or sexual content.
See, the thing about children’s horror is to communicate that “dragons can be beaten.” It’s to encourage people that their problems are solvable and to comfort them about their fears. Because of this, your main characters (usually) live, and those who are morally upstanding will definitely prevail. More than that, the monsters are either not as bad as you thought, or dead and can never get you.
The most important part of horror for young people is to make it clear that the monster can not get your audience. We speak in terms of boogymen, werewolves, goblins, and ghosts which allow for reassurance that even if they could get children in the world of the story, those things don’t exist here. We hold up blankets and plug in night lights and everything is better.
This is excellent, because it’s what horror is all about. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of horror, and if you prefer your stories to only contain fantastical elements so you can separate yourself from the world after you set down the book, I completely understand. I still really enjoy this kind of horror. It’s not immature or juvenile, it’s legitimate and scary, and allows for catharsis because the monsters represent things that do exist.
But the difference is, I think that kind of horror can be good people of any age, but I think the other kind should only be for adults.
The other kind, the ‘adult horror,’ are stories where the fear can get you in the real world. These stories just build the tension higher and higher, and when you leave the world they just sit in your head for weeks. These bring out your emotions and leave them there for you to sort through, and they usually are dealing with things that actually happen.
My first ‘adult horror’ book was probably House of Leaves. In this book, there is a house bigger on the inside than the outside, expanding into ever-shifting black hallways, and a documentary is made, which a blind man watches and writes a long academic narrative about, but then dies, and the book is then sorted through and arranged by a man who is clearly going insane.
It’s definitely not for everyone, especially because it’s a difficult book. It requires active participation of the reader, and because it is about the concept of the labyrinth, the book tries to get you lost in the maze. But what stuck out to me was that there was no monster, no minotaur, in the actual house in the book, if there was an actual house at all. It existed in layers, and in the real world. The house was the book and the leaves were the pages. The house, with all its dark hallways, was your brain. If there was a monster, it would be inside you, something that would haunt you, the reader.
“This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won’t matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how. You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place
You might try then, as I did, to find a sky so full of stars it will blind you again. Only no sky can blind you now. Even with all that iridescent magic up there, your eye will no longer linger on the light, it will no longer trace constellations. You’ll care only about the darkness and you’ll watch it for hours, for days, maybe even for years, trying in vain to believe you’re some kind of indispensable, universe-appointed sentinel, as if just by looking you could actually keep it all at bay. It will get so bad you’ll be afraid to look away, you’ll be afraid to sleep.
Then no matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.
And then the nightmares will begin.”
-House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielwski
There are many others that I would consider adult horror that do not involve such play with meta-fiction and weaving layers of narrative. Mo Hayder, for instance, writes about fictional characters, but all of her monsters are humans doing human things. She explores the absolute horror of what people are capable, the terrifying behaviors and realities that are a part of humanity.
In one of her novels, The Devil of Nanking, she writes about war crimes committed during the Rape of Nanking. Tied in with this are the horrors of being uneducated about one’s own body. It deals with fears of war, violence, pregnancy, censorship, and of not knowing. The themes are very adult, and the content is completely disturbing, especially because atrocities described are entirely possible in this world, and many actually occurred.
One author, Aimee Bender, writes what is usually considered magical realism. Her work was recommended to me by a friend who rarely, if ever, reads work specifically labeled horror, but one of her short stories has continued to stick in my mind.
“Hotel Rot” is about a group that collects birds, flowers, and bones– as many as they can find– and packs them all into three large rooms, charging entry fees. The flower petals wilt and dissolve, and the birds suffer and rot there over the course of a few days. Custodial workers try to clean it all, and their lives are forever changed in ways that are horrible but hard to articulate.
I feel incredibly anxious every time I read the story, and consider it adult horror. The use of life as something to sell, the suffering of living beings for momentary displays, is very real in our world, and not something that vanishes once the short story ends.
One piece of adult horror you may have seen was Breaking Bad. For me, the true horror in the show wasn’t because of the cancer, the drug dealing, or even the constant death toll as the show progressed. What really got to me was how utterly accurately the show depicted abusive relationships.
Not that most abusive relationships involve homicidal meth kingpins (though, certainly some do), but just the way the story was told was startling to me.
You begin with Walter and Jesse’s relationship, which slowly becomes a friendship of some sort. They have some degree of commitment to each other that grows through their making meth together. It actually is a bonding experience, despite how morally gray the whole thing is, and once you see how Jesse’s parents treat him, and how under appreciated Walter is, you’re pretty grateful they have each other. It seems like a positive relationship, it really does.
Then things get worse, and worse. Jesse gets hurt and Walter doesn’t seem to care. Walter disapproves of Jesse’s friends, and starts to tell Jesse exactly what he can and can’t do. He begins to pressure Jesse into doing things that horrify him, and then slowly offers him less and less of the affection Jesse is trying to earn.
At one point, after it turns out Walter has literally been tracking Jesse, bugging his car to see where he is every minute, Jesse confronts him about it. Walter immediately twists it around into making Jesse feel bad and worthless, basically telling Jesse to go die: “I’m sorry, after everything you’ve done for me? What you’ve done for me? You’ve killed me is what you’ve done! You’ve signed my death warrant. And now you want advice? I’ll give you advice: Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will. And wind up in a barrel somewhere! “
Walter makes Jesse kill people, he lets Jesse’s girlfriend die in front of him (then waits to tell Jesse until it will hurt him most) and makes him leave the love of his life and her child when he sees them getting close. Walter physically abuses Jesse, threatens to kill him, and then gives him up to nazis so they can torture him for months.
At some point during all this, you realize that Walter is a monster, and that Jesse has been trying to escape him for a long time, and you didn’t even realize. How could you have not known? How could you possibly been complacent in this completely toxic, dangerous relationship for so long? Everything spins.
“I am not turning down the money! I am turning down you! You get it? I want NOTHING to do with you! Ever since I met you, everything I ever cared about is gone! Ruined, turned to shit, dead, ever since I hooked up with the great Heisenberg! I have never been more alone! I HAVE NOTHING! NO ONE! ALRIGHT, IT’S ALL GONE, GET IT? No, no, no, why… why would you get it? What do you even care, as long as you get what you want, right? You don’t give a shit about me! You said I was no good. I’m nothing! Why would you want me, huh?”
-Jesse, Season 3.7
Jesse: Would you just, for once, stop working me?
Walter: What are you talking about?
Jesse: Can you just, uh, stop working me for, like, ten seconds straight? Stop jerking me around?
Walter: Jesse, I am not working you.
Jesse: Yes. Yes, you are. All right? Just drop the whole concerned dad thing and tell me the truth. I mean, you’re– you’re acting like me leaving town is– is all about me and turning over a new leaf, but it’s really– it’s really about you. I mean, you need me gone, ’cause your dickhead brother-in-law is never gonna let up. Just say so. Just ask me for a favor. Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me, and it’s either this– it’s either this or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike. I mean, isn’t that what this is all about? Huh? Us meeting way the hell out here? In case I say no? Come on. Just tell me you need this.
The scariest part of the whole thing is how gradual it all is. The viewer is so willing to excuse one thing after the next. Even things that are clearly awful, we find excuses for. “Well he has cancer.” “Well, he was in a hard situation.” “It was just the one time, he clearly cares about Jesse.”
It is absolutely eerie, because by the time Jesse realizes it’s time to get out of the relationship, it’s far too late. He can’t, no matter how hard he tries. Walter lies, threatens, and manipulates until he’s back again. And the viewer is the same way. By the time we realize what’s happened, we’ve excused terrible things. Breaking Bad is horror because it shows us how easily we could be manipulated by real life monsters, and how quickly people become them.
‘Adult Horror’ lets us explore the fears that exist in our world. They’re personal and unsettling, and sometimes leave lingering anxiety rather than release it. But, at its core, it is still horror, and I believe that it helps us articulate our fears, and thus, understand and discuss them.
Many adult fears relating to the brain, perception, war, ignorance, suffering, environmental damage, consumerism, and abuse, actually can be fought in the real world to some extent through open dialogue on these issues.
Perhaps it doesn’t really have to do with age, this divide. Perhaps the kinds of horror are just for different sorts of fear.
What I called ‘Young people’s horror’ is horror which explores anxieties that we can do nothing about, and the stories let us imagine fighting them, and allow us to release our fear. ‘Adult’ horror is horror that explores anxieties that we must strive to do something about, and heightens our anxiety about those issues so that it haunts us after the book is closed, the television is off, and we’re staring at our ceilings in bed.
Maybe we don’t always need characters to battle for us. Perhaps this horror helps us fight our fears in our own lives.