Just World

From the time we’re born, we love hearing stories. In the world of fiction, authors have the ability to arrange events and character arcs so that everything generally works together thematically and makes sense in terms of some greater meaning. Things have reason for happening, and usually things will end up in a way that seems satisfying, even if there is some tragedy.

We start with fairytales, which are so blatant about this type of world building that they usually not only have events and characters that are molded by themes, but also by morals. There are lessons that emerge, and a sense of justice applied to all events.

A good example of this is the story of the little red hen. The hen plants seeds, takes care of them, cuts the wheat when it grows, takes it to the mill, brings back flour, makes the dough, and bakes the bread. Through every step, she asks all her friends for help, but the dog, cat, and duck (described with clear negative adjectives like lazy, sleepy, and noisy) refuse to help, letting her do the work all herself. At the end, when there is delicious, warm bread, everyone asks to ‘help’ eat some, and the chicken replies that she’ll eat it all by herself.

In this story, it’s satisfying, because we know that the chicken deserves to eat all the bread. This is considered fair. It would not be the same story if all the animals helped during every step and the chicken still ate all the bread herself. It also would be very different if the dog went through all the work of making it and the chicken decided to take it for herself. These stories wouldn’t be considered fair, and would likely leave us feeling uncomfortable, or even angry.

Not every story is as clear cut as “The Little Red Hen.” A similar story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” repeats the situation where one character gathers food and another character does not, leaving the unhelpful character hungry in the end. However, in this story there are a few essential differences.

First, the grasshopper wasn’t gathering food because (depending on the version) he was singing, dancing, or playing the fiddle. This immediately casts undertones that feel uncomfortable to any artist, implying that creation of art isn’t actually contributing to the world, and it was foolish and morally wrong to create it when you should be doing real work.

Second, the story implies that the grasshopper and ant act differently because it is their nature to act differently, which brings in a whole element of determinism and might make readers feel unsettled depending on whether or not they feel people should be helped or punished for differences that cause some degree of societal harm. In the story, if the grasshopper truly didn’t know any better, or didn’t know how to store food for the winter, is it entirely his fault for not helping gather food? Should he have been punished, or taught how for the following year?

Third, the consequence for playing music all summer in the warm weather was being locked out in the cold and starving to death. This is a much more extreme punishment than the animals in the little red hen story faced. While it generally feels satisfying to think of unhelpful people not getting to enjoy fresh bread, and the person who worked hard on it getting rewarded— it feels pretty unsettling to think of a fiddle player starving to death in the winter.

Why does it make us so uncomfortable when stories don’t adhere to the kind of justice that we expect? When a fictional character dies in a grand sacrifice, letting their name go down in history, and changing the world for the better, we’re sad, but it feels satisfying and right, somehow. But when a beloved character dies due to a wrongful execution, or an infection that’s never treated, or a stray bullet fired by a soldier who never knew them, we are outraged.

We react very strongly to our idea of a just world being stripped from us. Even those of us who do like our stories to be a little unjust, using descriptors like “dark” or “gritty,” will be horrified or angry every time a terrible immoral character is praised and rewarded and our beloved protagonists are insulted, stripped, tortured, killed, and forgotten.

We don’t like thinking of the world as unjust, and even when it has no real-world consequences, like in a fictional narrative, we almost always prefer the lie.

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everyone lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lie to Me

The problem is, we also prefer the lie in real life.

We prefer to think that there is some sort of moral balancing act in the universe. We tell ourselves things like “If you just work hard and are a good person, good things will come your way.”  “You’ve got good karma.” “What goes around comes around.” “He’ll get his.” “Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

We love thinking this way, for obvious reasons. It’s reassuring, and gives us motivation and hope that we need to accomplish anything, and to be good people. How cold-hearted it would be if a friend came to us, upset and lonely, and we said, “There’s no actual guarantee anything will get better.” It’s cruel to say, and hard to believe, so instead we tell them, “Things will get better soon. No one deserves it more than you.”

At first, clinging to the idea of a ‘just world’ seems beneficial. It’s a motivational tool, it gives us meaning, and it helps us comfort each other.

Only, it doesn’t. It also turns into a terrible force against empathy whenever real tragedy meets anyone. Believing that the world is just is irreconcilable with the belief that morally good, kindhearted people can suffer horribly or die lonely. But they do. And we prefer the lie of the just world so much, that sometimes instead of letting go of that comforting idea, we try to find some way that the people who suffered were wrong.

If it’s a just world, only bad people suffer. So if that person is homeless and hungry, maybe it was his own fault for not saving his money, like that grasshopper in the story. If someone was killed, maybe it was because they were acting threatening. If someone was raped, maybe they dressed wrong, or drank too much, or went a place they shouldn’t have. If someone dies of a heart attack, we’ll talk about how they should have eaten better or taken better care of themselves. We’ll look through a victim’s history, picking their life apart for irrelevant details— they stole something once, they had lots of partners, they did drugs, they ate unhealthily and didn’t exercise, they made stupid choices. Anything we can find that we can define as ‘immoral’ we bring up so that it makes more sense why something bad happened.

This is called ‘victim blaming’ and is incredibly harmful. It strips empathy from us. Normally caring people, who would never picture themselves hurting someone when they’re down, do just that. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” they say, “You deserved it. That would never happen to me.

This is terrible. It’s wrong, and it’s never, ever okay. In a just world, victim blaming would never happen. But this isn’t a just world, and it happens all the time.

Even those of us who know and acknowledge that the world isn’t fair still sometimes fall into this harmful fallacy. Embracing that the universe does not reward ‘goodness’ or punish ‘evil’ is scary. It is terrifying to believe that bad things could happen to you for no reason. You could get sick and never get better, someone you love might never love you back, your house could burn down, some kids could steal your cat and torture it for fun, and you could die in a car crash tomorrow on your way to work.

Who wants to acknowledge those possibilities? How could you ever sleep at night? It’s really scary, and I don’t blame anyone for using the just world fallacy to get through their day to day life. Sometimes it is kind to believe in. Sometimes it really is helpful to lie to ourselves.

But when bad things happen, we can’t start assigning blame. We must break down the fallacy, let our guard down, and embrace that reality that terrible things can happen to anyone for no reason. Tragedy isn’t contagious and we’re not helping ourselves by shutting the world’s hurt away in quarantine.

So when you hear of something terrible happening to someone, please let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel what means that something bad could happen to you, not because you deserve it, but because “deserving it” has no meaning to the universe. Then, try to stop thinking about that fear in terms of yourself, and just think about who has actually suffered. Try to help them, or those who love them. Try to help our culture rid itself of the “just world” shield when it needs to so that we can collectively experience empathy and show compassion.

This world is not just, but we can be.

Monster (Part IV)

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.
-Season 5.11

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.

“Monster” (Part I)

(I originally intended to wait on this post until it was at least October first, but Halloween is somehow bleeding into late September for me, so I’m just going to embrace it.)

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.

My mom has always been into horror (and anything with elements of horror, like science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mystery, thriller, and magical realism). So, I absorbed a good deal of this when growing up.

When you love someone, you share your favorite experiences with them, so I have all sorts of memories from childhood and early adolescence of the two of us hiding under an afghan on the couch while we watched ghosts haunt, vampires stalk, werewolves bite, zombies eat, and murderers slice open victims.

By the time I was in middle school, I aspired to become the next Stephen King.

The fact that I was born in late October and every single birthday party of my life was Halloween-themed also cemented my good feelings for general spookiness. My ideas about death, life, fear, excitement, imagination, and monsters have always been braided together.

As a child, some of my favorite books were horror stories. And I don’t mean child as in ten or twelve, I mean as a tiny little person, eyes wide at picture books. Sure I started with Go Away, Big Green Monster but the amount of horror I craved steadily increased.

I was a really big fan of Scared Silly.

My favorite story being one where a little girl, Tilly, starts to hear a voice whisper to her at night. Of course, her parents didn’t believe her, because those silly parents never do. But the voice continues. Each night it tells her how close it’s gotten.

I remember my mom’s voice reading,

“Tilly, I’m on the fifth step.”

“Tilly, I’m in the hall.”

“Tilly, I’m at the foot of your bed.”

On the last night, the voice growls “I’VE GOT YOU” and a big hairy arm yanks the girl out of bed. My favorite story ended in the scared child getting eaten by a monster. I was terrified and excited, and I loved it.

Lots of kids read Where the Wild Things Are, and they weren’t all necessarily horror fans, but to me the idea of a child sailing away to go dance with the monsters was thrilling.

“We’ll eat you up, we love you so!”

I watched The Nightmare before Christmas religiously, starting when I was two-and-a-half and learned all the words to every song. My mom told me that before the movie became really famous, other parents would look at her strangely when her little daughter was smiling, singing “I am the one hiding under your bed, teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red” or listening to kids discussing various ways to torture Santa Claus by clenching his ankle in a trap, boiling him alive, burying him, throwing him in the ocean, or locking him in a cage.

Hocus Pocus captivated me, I was a huge fan of Scooby Doo and Courage the Cowardly Dog , and I treasured all the ghost stories in Hey Arnold. 

(from “Headless Cabbie”)

For people who never got into the holiday or the genre, it’s hard for me to explain why it’s so completely addicting. I know that there’s all kinds of problematic cultural ideas reinforced in cheesy horror movies with young women constantly getting murdered. I know that the special effects and ideas can seem silly. I can understand someone thinking that all that romanticism of death, blood, and monsters can be distasteful at best, or dangerous at worst.

But for me, monsters have always been a symbol of both freedom of expression and empowerment.

As a child, I quickly realized that there was a whole lot in this world to be afraid of. Not just the drooling nightmare in the basement, but the cars that might squash me if I crossed the street, the waves that might pull me into the deep or smash me along the cliff-sides, the strangers that might try to lure me into cars, the blood vessels that might burst in a parent’s brain and make them go away forever.

It didn’t take me very long to realize that death wasn’t just a story— it applied to me, too.

But we’re not supposed to dwell on those things. We’re all supposed to act happy, or at least content, as we go through our lives. We’re not really allowed to be afraid or grown ups think there’s something wrong.

“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
-Maurice Sendak

When reading horror stories, you’re allowed to feel afraid, and allowed to say so. You can scream or hide or laugh, and no one judges you for your emotional release. A scary story is permission to be honest, permission to feel and express feeling.

We invent monsters as ways of exploring the things that we’re not allowed to talk about the rest of our lives. Skeletons and corpses help us understand the troublesome relationship with our mortal bodies. Stories about hidden ghouls that only lurk when we’re alone teach what to do when no one will believe or help us. Axe murderers are people who hurt us, or who could. Zombies are the looming threat of death, or our distrust of our minds. Giants, beasts, and dragons are the great, uncaring universe which doesn’t think about us much at all. We can allow ourselves to address fear, powerlessness, inevitability, and pain.

“It’s a way of talking about lust without talking about lust, he told them.

It’s a way of talking about sex, and fear of sex, and death, and fear of death, and what else is there to talk about?”

-Neil Gaiman, “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”

But horror doesn’t just make you think about it, or no one would like it. Horror lets you be brave. You have permission to not only fear monsters, but to try to fight against them.

Whether you’re the character in a book, holding up your sword to the hungry wolves or great dragons, or whether you’re the person in bed, alone at night, who has the power to close the book whenever you want, you get to be in control. You can choose when your fears can get you and when they have to stop, and it’s the only time in life that’s true.

You can be brave when you’re afraid. In fact, you’re especially brave when you’re afraid, because it means you’re facing your fears (even if you need to hide under a blanket while doing it).

(From “Dragons and Giants” in Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel)

The definition of monster is:

monster |ˈmänstər| noun

an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.

I believe it’s important to let our imaginations find monsters. There are real large, ugly, frightening things that lurk in the corners of our lives— secret things that bite and hurt that we pretend aren’t there.

It’s important to confront them in stories, movies, or on Halloween, because it’s the only time that the monsters need to play by our rules.

We can think about the dark things and confront them. We have the freedom to be scared, to hide, fight, or scream. We get to be brave.

Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part II).