what horror does

This past weekend, I watched The Cabin in the Woods again. I’ve seen it a number of times, and for good reason. It’s fun, interesting, well written and insightful. In fact, before it even hit theaters, critics and film aficionados alike were all atwitter with thoughts and theories about the message Drew Goddard (writer/director) and Joss Whedon (writer/producer) had hidden within the blood and guts. Not since Scream, I read again and again, has any horror movie deconstructed the genre so well.

Watching the special features and listening to the commentary, I’m not sure Goddard and Whedon meant to convey much more than a love of the genre delivered in a no-holds-barred story that covers damn near every horror cliché in one fell swoop. And that they did. In spades.

But, whether it was intended or not, I think the film defends the horror genre while also challenging those of us who write horror. Without question, as Cabin illustrates well, there is a formula to American horror. It’s so set, so consistent, that it’s practically a ritual. It’s worked for a good, long while, but will it continue to work, or is it time for a change?

I’ve argued for years that horror is about more than simply scaring people. Horror meets a very real set of psychological and emotional needs for the reader/viewer, and for the writer, too. It’s not just about scaring yourself, which can be fun. It’s about more. Through horror, we find ways to deal with monsters, face our fears, discover ourselves better, and even grapple with deep questions like the nature of life and death.

And here’s the rub: if our current formula is losing effectiveness, and we fail to come up with new and different ways to meet those needs, we’ll soon be left with a void. What happens when we run out of fictional monsters to be afraid of? When dark magic no longer strikes fear and all the bogeymen are dead? When we don’t believe in ghosts and nothing–not the woods or the dark, not the shadows under our beds or the black hole of an open closet door, not the bumps in the night or the chills we get in certain rooms or tales of vampires, ghouls, demons and madmen–when no fictional device leaves us both terrified and safe all at once, allowing us to visit the deep places of our own minds firmly anchored to reality?

What then? What have our scary stories held at bay? What will come crashing down on us when they are no longer there to provide a vehicle to meet these very real needs?

I don’t want to know.

And, I don’t plan on finding out. I intend to keep writing, trying to forge new ground and cheering on my fellow writers who dream up truly sick and twisted things. For every story that provokes nightmares is a salve, and every terrible vision a refuge. We need horror, my friends. We need it.

So keep it coming.

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