The allure of horror has endured throughout the ages. Wouldn’t we be able to sleep easier without the nightmares?
“I delight in what I fear” - Shirley Jackson
At the age of 11 I saw George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. The experience was terrifying. It made me physically sick for two weeks and every night for a year I begged my elder sister to share her bed. I couldn't say the word zombie until I was 24.
As a child I was always nervous. Being unusually small for my age, I was acutely aware of my powerlessness. I waited for the worst to happen, waited for my delicate world of finely balanced calm to turn into chaos. The evening I watched the film I was supposed to have taken what I had produced in a cookery lesson home to feed my family. They were to be wowed by my first attempt at meatballs. Instead, I allowed a friend to tempt me back to her house, meatballs and all, to watch E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
The house was empty - no comforting parent to greet us at the door and give us snacks. My world teetered. There was no copy of E.T, only Dawn of the Dead. I couldn't back out. I couldn't show fear. Halfway through the film, my friend's mother turned up. My momentary relief at her arrival crumbled as instead of ending my nightmare she laughed at me as I cowered behind a cushion. Chaos reigned.
The film falsely quotes the Book of Revelation: "when hell is full the dead will walk the earth". Attributing it to the Bible leant it authenticity to my 11 year old mind. It made sense that hell would indeed get full up and the dead would end up walking the earth. Although, what was truly frightening was this: the world had changed, gone so entirely wrong that there was no way to make it right again. No matter what you do the zombies will get you in the end.
II. FEAR THERAPY
This was in direct contrast to my subsequent experiences with horror. On my regular Friday night sleepovers at my Nan and Grandad's house I was allowed to watch Hammer House of Horror or Amicus films. This was safe, a cosy fear with a frisson of excitement: being up late with my aunts and uncle, watching horror films and eating super noodles was a double-edged treat. The films were scary, but we laughed together, they were ridiculous too. I could indulge my fear and allow Nan's creepy collection of old ornaments to insight my fantasies. The large crucifix at the top of the stairs and the three wise monkeys apportioned judgement. The monkeys giving a sinister warning: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. A ship's bell hung over the fireplace, which I feared would ring of its own accord, summoning ghoulish pirates. My aunt would also joke about the ghost, Albert, who only haunted the upstairs, for some unexplained reason.
Horror stories are controlled chaos. We become fascinated with what frightens us. It becomes a dare: can I face this next horror? As a child I would imagine a seemingly endless variety of horrific scenarios and outcomes as I would lie in bed or walk home alone. Everything became a threat; my bedroom curtains, the noise of the boiler and the woods at the back of my house. My level of fear would depend on how safe I felt, how much in control. The world is scary and illogical. Our level of control an illusion. These insecurities fuelled me to tell stories. Fear allowed my imagination free reign.
Unconcerned with gore porn, my fascination is with the psychological and the mundane things that haunt us. Horror is a way of talking about the human condition while still maintaining an air of titillation and excitement for the reader. The conditions are safe, it's a story after all, but what I am really telling the reader is that the real horror is in the everyday: betrayal, abuse, disease, old-age and death. These can't be escaped, much like a zombie apocalypse. Ghosts and zombies were human after all.
III. DREADED INFLUENCES
I wasn't a strong reader as a child and attended a reading group throughout primary school. This never curbed my love for books and stories. My fascination with the written word grew as I got older. I became committed to the notion that the key to knowledge is reading. Forcing myself to become a better reader, I read as much as possible, anywhere that I could.
My Grandad was rather gruff and intimidating, so when he invited me to listen to an audio cassette of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I complied. I didn't entirely understand it all but was beguiled by the mystery and magic of the faerie folks’ forest home. Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush followed shortly after. Watching Top of the Pops I became mesmerised by the drama of the ghostly Cathy at the window and her hypnotic performance. It left me wondering what Wuthering Heights could really be. I read the book and fell in love with the ghost who wandered the windy moors.
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton
As a grown adult I felt my fear of zombies needed to come to an end. I was enticed into watching Shaun of the Dead because of my love of Simon Pegg’s earlier sitcom Spaced. I'm not claiming it cured me of my zombie fear, I still occasionally look over my shoulder returning home on a dark evening, but it has released some of the tension - enabled me to peek from behind my metaphorical cushion. This is why comedy horror is probably my favourite genre. Horror heightens fear and comedy releases it. They perfectly complement each other. Well executed, it can be responsible for the most extreme of emotional roller-coaster rides.
I like to scare people but it's only a story right? Both comedy horror and horror fulfil this fabulous function: they enable us to face the worst that can happen and then get back to everyday life pretending the terrible stuff only happens to other people. As Shirley Jackson says 'I delight in what I fear', but I would add only if the worst doesn't happen today.
To indulge in Sarah's unique take on horror, her books are available for purchase on Amazon here.