I had a dream last night about many things, most of which are slipping through the cracks in my memory even as I write this not ten minutes after waking up. The main thing that I dreamed about though, was a woman who illustrated children’s horror stories, and the people who were touched by and drawn to those stories–a shop teacher with multiple injuries and casts on his hands, who could barely speak or write English to tell me what tools he needed me to find; a librarian who knew him and knew what he needed, but seemed afraid of the book he had asked for (though not so afraid that she wouldn’t help me find it); a feral child who was raised by a weak and timid forest spirit, and who had multiple homes so he always had somewhere to hide if one of them was compromised.
The stories were painted with dark colors that blended into one another, but had sharp edges. The characters were surreal and their forms strange, as one might expect from the genre. One story was about a shapeshifter, and the other, much older, was about some kind of crow monster. The author of these stories was morose–but not as much as me, and she was surprised when I spoke frankly with her about suicide and other dark thoughts. I told her that I also wrote horror stories, which, far from building a rapport with her, seemed to repulse and frighten her. Evidently the thing which we had in common was also a thing she hated and feared about herself.
When I woke up, the idea of myself as a horror writer was still very much on my mind, and specifically I questioned why I generally write horror rather than drawing it. Images are powerful and moving in ways that words fall short of. But the thing is, that people who draw horror are usually drawing monsters–beings that are physically twisted, disproportional, and dangerous. I don’t write horror about monsters.
Monsters can be strange and deformed and broken and ugly, but these are not things that frighten me. They can be sick or injured in ways that evoke body horror, and while I find that difficult to look at, it is because I feel pain when I see the pain of others, and not because they frighten me. I empathize with monsters; they are what I feel that I am, or could be, or should be. I love monsters; they are beautiful, strong, honest, and unafraid to pursue the things they want, whether that is food or escape or vengeance. They are an aspect of me that I deeply desire to express, but cannot. Monsters don’t scare me. But people scare me.
People are not like monsters. They are secretive about their motives and desires, which makes them hard to predict. They are capable of tremendous evil, and may be convinced that that evil is actually good or righteous. They are capable of such profound greed and selfishness that they might utterly destroy themselves in their pursuit of more. They lie to themselves and to others, and come to believe those lies, so that they know longer see their true selves but rather an image of themselves they have constructed. They manipulate each other, and some are so good at it that they can make others doubt reality and their own memories.
I am not a cynic or misanthrope. These are things which I believe can be overcome, not an inherent and inescapable aspect of human nature. After all, humans are just animals when it comes down to it, and animals don’t do these things. Humans invented ways to be terrible to each other and the world, just like they invented so many other things (gender, race, money, indoor toilets).
I don’t write horror about monsters. I write horror about people. And the horror that is in people isn’t something that can be seen from the outside. It’s in the ways that people, as society and as individuals, think. That isn’t something that I can easily get across with pictures, but it is something I can describe with words.
I feel that I should clarify that I am not talking about mental illness. Writing horror where the entire source of horror is “this person has Disassociative Identity Disorder” or “this person is a sociopath” or “wooOOOooooOOOOooo, it’s an insAAAaaaAAAaaannnne asyyyYYYyyyluuuUUUuuum!” is unethical and unoriginal. As someone who is mentally ill I am extremely uncomfortable with these kinds of stories, because they contribute to the popular stereotype of mentally ill people as violent and dangerous. Sure, some are. But the kind of people who shoot up schools or torture animals or intentionally spread disease and poison are usually suffering from societal illnesses, not individual ones. You don’t have to be mentally ill to be a murderer, an abuser, a rapist. Sane people created racism, colonization, eugenics, and genocide. Sane people attributed moral superiority to the rich, educated, able-bodied, and able-minded, and laziness and worthlessness to the poor, uneducated, and disabled. Sane people gave men power over women, and forced the entire human race to play one of those two roles. Sane people created the inquisition, slavery, nuclear weapons. Sane people let people die if they can’t afford life-saving medicine or surgery, raise cattle and chickens and dogs in horrific conditions, buy sources of clean water and sell it back to the people who depend on it at marked up prices, mutilate trans women for defying the role society forced on them in order to live as themselves, blow up mosques and burn synagogues, launch drone attacks against elementary schools, tell people who speak out against all of these things to kill themselves.
Too often I see horror as an expression of ableism, whether it be directed at physical traits (“deformed/misshapen”, sick, injured, most body horror) or mental ones (multiple personalities, hypoempathy, compulsion, obsession, addiction, delusion, etc.). There is also a huge prevalence of racism in horror (voodoo, Egyptian or Native American or “gypsy” curses, Lovecraft, zombies as a stand-in for immigrants or specific races “taking over”, black and darkness symbolizing evil while white and lightness symbolize good) and for queer-coded monsters/villains. A lot of it is pretty much just fantasizing about violence against women (who are the main targets of sexualized violence and really extreme graphic violence in horror) or about being able to murder anyone you see as a threat or as baggage with no consequences (zombies and other “your neighbors are the enemy” scenarios). I want to write horror that breaks out of these harmful tropes and brings to light the destructive and evil traits that are created and sustained by our messed up society.