Would You Like Some Tears with Your Terror? What Horror Narratives Gain from Grief

Recently, I watched Shirley, a movie that attempts to tell a story about someone writing a story, the latter of which usually proves boring to watch. I make this statement as a writer myself. Unlike a dancer, for instance, a writer’s art is what she gives you after its completion, not the act of creating the art itself. That phase usually consists of long hours of staring into space, scribbling, and talking to one’s self. The movie spices up the process by focusing the Shirley Jackson character’s twisted relationship with a boarder (a purely fictional character used as a plot device). The movie was all right, but it rekindled my interest in Jackson’s work, including one of her more famous gothic horror novels, The Haunting of Hill House. I had never read it before and  enjoyed the book’s ghosts—literal and figurative—and the ending, which does not clearly resolve the mystery.

I also watched the recent television version of the book.  I thought the reimagining of the story was quite interesting. The main characters are transformed into a family unit (instead of a group of strangers from the book) and the majority of the narrative takes place outside of Hill House. However, I did not care for its tear-jerker tone. The incredibly sad memorial scene stretched on for so long that I felt relief when the remaining family members finally got chased by angry ghosts again.

Ghost with bent neck, standing next to her open casket.

Horror can provide a safe environment to channel excess anxiety, and in fact, it has been scientifically proven that children who experience trauma will forever produce too much adrenal. Considering the number of children who have either experienced abuse or other traumas (such as war and poverty) one can better understand the potential healing affects of the ax-murderer through the woods scene! (Read more about the therapeutic need for horror in “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror”.) I think it’s interesting, though, that recent horror narratives seem to dial up the grief factor. There are some people who claim to benefit from the cathartic affects of the tear-jerker, but I am not one of them. I always feel manipulated by overtly sad narratives, and when I’m watching horror, intensively sad scenes hit me harder than a monster lunging from a closet, horrible grin and hatchet in hand. I’m not at a horror movie to cry.

But what is the purpose of grief in horror? Horror narratives speak to the audience’s fears, of course. Blood, guts, violence—yes, those are easy buttons to press, but what really keeps people up at night depends largely on the time period and the specific audience. Rosemary’s Baby came out at a time when people were particularly anxious about women’s reproductive rights. Us speaks to our current notion that horror is our fellow American. (I think that idea works no matter what side of the political spectrum the audience resides.) Ready or Not responds to our anxiety about the 1% and its control over the vulnerable.

Woman with blood on face, hiding behind door, with rich people on the other side, covering hteir eyes.

But grief is sneakier than anxiety. It runs deeper in our psyche. Perhaps it’s even the root of anxiety. Grief is horror, but it is also so commonplace, one could almost miss it. The Netflix movie, Bulbbul explores grief to a backdrop of witchcraft and feminism. (Read more on horror and feminism, in “Everyday Horrors”.) Although producer Anushka Sharma claims that the movie is a drama-thriller, I’ve always found that the combination of feminist issues and revenge-murder leans more toward the horror genre. Either way, this movie struck me for its ability to weave the grief of the protagonist (an abused child bride) with a hopeful revenge scenario, fueled by Kali.

Kali facing audience in seated position, her many arms holding weapons, a genie lamp, and a decapitated head.
The Goddess, Kali

There are some parts of the movie that could use revision (like the worn and offensive “developmentally-challenged-man-as-predator” trope). Overall, though, I enjoyed the movie. The tension between the calm smirk of the protagonist and her past trauma, which is revealed, bit by bit, intrigues. Although not a tear-jerker, the grief of violation and captivity acts as an invisible monster, lurking beneath the beautiful, bright setting and lush costumes.

Bulbbul fanning herself as an attendant brushes her hair.

It will be interesting to see what horror narratives are born from our current pandemic. Covid-19 has all the makings of a horror-genre monster. It’s invisible to the naked eye, and symptoms of its presence could be the virus or just something benign, like hay fever. Even the results of catching the virus is unpredictable, from asymptomatic to painful death. Add to this fear the grief of losing our loved ones (or that potential) and the sadness of being cut off from loved ones as we quarantine. Even the connection lost from covering our faces with masks depresses. (Although the use of masks is wise and necessary).

Perhaps it’s the ordinariness of grief that makes it a fertile seed for a horror narrative. Our every day problems and sadness can sometimes add up to one hell of a demon.

Still, I prefer not to bring a tissue to a jump scare.

Today, I will leave you with a simple haiku by Clement Hoyt. I like this one because it takes an ordinary, creepy item and animates it to unsettling results.

A Hallwe’en mask,
floating face up in the ditch,
slowly shakes its head.

 

The Comfort of Bad TV

Recently, I OD’ed on darkness. Sometimes, I cope with life’s terrors by watching horror movies and listening to true crime podcasts. There are many theories regarding the therapeutic nature of horror, some of which I discuss in my post “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror.” But this month, I dove a little too far into the abyss (and it did not help that I had also read the beautiful but depressing books, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.) I was in desperate need of an overcorrect. I have read that type 2 diabetes can be cured with veganism, and I, too, needed an overly pure, difficult-to-sustain treatment, in order to counteract the narratives of serial killers and demonic influence that danced in my head. 

Then, as though sent from above, I received a notice on Netflix that there was a new season of the Hallmark Channel’s Good Witch. A few years ago, I had watched the first two seasons of the show but figured that it had been cancelled. As it turns out, there are now SIX SEASONS!! Thank the goddess!

Cassie, in her beautiful, twinkling shop, advising a customer.
Cassie, working in her shop, Bell, Book and Candle

What is Good Witch about, you ask? Well, it’s basically the witch-version of 7th Heaven. Remember that gem? I do, because I used to watch it every time I craved outlandish optimism and the absence of long-term struggle.

Usually, I like some juice in my stories, something at stake. It need not be literal life and death, but I want a reason to continue. Recently, I watched The Great, a series loosely based on Catherine the Great, and although it is a comedy, I felt compelled to watch as the teenage spitfire fights for education, feminism, and the American dre—oh, whoops, I mean the Russian dream. (It’s ok, Russia, it hasn’t exactly worked out for America either.)

Catherine the Great and her lover, in bed looking as though they've been deep in conversation.
Catherine the Great and her cute lover.

7th Heaven and Good Witch offer little to bite at, which is perhaps why they provide such a soothing balm. Both shows center around easily-resolved family issues, under the umbrella of watered down religion: The Camdens are Christian because they go to church and try to be nice to people; the Merriwick women are witches because they’re intuitive and drink tea. This dash of religion presents both stories as palpable to a mainstream audience, which traditionally opts for vanilla. 

7th Heaven does confront some legitimately stressful problems such as spousal abuse, gun violence, racism, and slut-shaming. (The latter ironically co-exists with the show’s human chastity belt, eldest son, Matt, who obsesses over his younger sisters’ potentially budding sexuality. This behavior is encouraged by the father, Reverend Camden, and it makes me want to wretch every time I think of it.)

Mary and Lucy looking off camera with frustrated, "I'm not having it" expressions.
Mary and Lucy: “What now, patriarch?”

But what takes the sting out of each trouble (even the waves of nausea triggered by creepy Matt) is that the problems are more or less resolved within an hour and often times, are never seen again. If we’re being honest, true issues are  rarely seen once. Most of the time, 7th Heaven problems are not actually problems. For instance, after the family doctor mixes up test results and incorrectly tells the Reverend and Mrs. Camden that Mary is pregnant (poor Mrs. Camden and her ever-fertile womb) Mary scolds her parents for thinking that she would “betray their trust” by having sex out of wedlock. But in case that’s not enough fantasy for you, there’s the episode that contains the least problem-y problem, “No Sex, Some Drugs and a Little Rock ‘N Roll,” where little Ruthie must come to terms with her gum-chewing vice. Seriously. 

Little Ruthie, looking seriously into the camera while drinking from a pink, toy tea cup and wearing a pink boa.
Little Ruthie: Trouble

Nevertheless, I am unironically fond of the episode, “Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion” where the (mostly grown) kids go to great lengths to hide their tattoos. At the end of the episode, the parents— alone in their bedroom—reveal that they already know about the kids’ tattoos, as they pull down their pajama pants to reveal their own ink—mark of the beast be damned!

When I was younger, I’d fantasize that I was somehow the long, lost daughter of the Camden’s and got to be a part of their family (whilst keeping my distance from purity-ring-Matt). I can’t say how my life with the Camdens would have worked out, though, as I am uncertain of how the characters’ lives actually function. I also don’t know if they accept non-heterosexuality. In my recollection of the show, no one ever asked about it. They did accept Judaism, though, so mazel tov to progress!

Matt and Sarah on their wedding day.
Here’s ol’ chastity belt himself, marrying a Jewish woman— officially—after secretly marrying her 24 hours after they met. Seriously. 

Meanwhile, in Middleton, the witches experience a similar dearth of painful problems. The protagonist, Cassie, does deal with the haunting presence of her late husband and lightly mourns her troubled childhood; however, the appearance of the handsome doctor, who moves in next door, at least gives her something pretty to look at. And yes, of course, they find love. Maybe the most vexing issue for the couple is their tendency toward mild arguments regarding western medicine versus herbalism. Here’s my interpretation of such a debate between them:

Sam: No! But…SCIENCE!
Cassie: Well, we’re both right, but mostly, I’m right. (knowingly smiles)
Sam: (thinks: She’s so pretty in that tight dress. Too bad sex does not exist in Middleton.)

Cassie and Sam, with jars of herbs in the foreground.
Cassie and Sam

Oh, that’s the other thing, as of Season 3, sex does not exist in Middleton. Nobody’s weird about sex but nobody’s having it, either. There is sex on 7th Heaven, but everyone gets all excited about it and not in a good way. 

Middleton is an entire town of people who cannot solve their own problems, without the Merriwick witches and essential oils. One can tell that they are definitely witches because they rarely charge anyone for their merchandise, and yet, Cassie maintains a beautiful, witchy shop, as well as an impeccable, mansion-sized bed and breakfast called, Grey House. 

This magic apparently rubs off on everyone because the town routinely joins together to produce extremely expensive, large-scale festivals and parties, all within around three days.

The carousel during the light festival.
Middleton organizes an ornate, expensive light festival within a couple days.

I fantasize about moving to Middleton. I can easily imagine the magic of fantasy-television, bestowing on me what would be, in real life, quite a chunk of cash, and then, mostly just milling around in Cassie’s shop, drinking tea, and taking long walks in the beautiful town. But what about the people? Would Cassie be my friend? Would we brew tea together? Or would her know-it-all sorcery grate on my nerves, like the mayor’s dissonant “yoo-hoo!” that slices every conversation. But I can hover in brief daydreams, imagining the beautiful vintage clothes I’d don on my way to meet friends at Middleton Microbrewery.

Mayor Martha Tinsdale, arms outstretched.
Mayor Martha Tinsdale

Middleton has also found its way into my sleeping-dreams. The night after the peaceful protests in my city (Birmingham, AL) turned aggressive, I dreamed that a few people from Middleton and I circled a crop of beautiful, six-foot-tall flowers and gently shoveled garden soil unto their base. I could not understand what, exactly, we were doing, but it felt correct. 

Cassie, holding an old book and gazing lovingly at the Middleton Merriwick flower.
Cassie, observing the famous Middleton Merriwick flower.

Nevertheless, as with any dream, one eventually wakes up. The world is a mess and always has been. Often, it’s hard to know how to change it. As I have yet to see systemic racism in Middleton (or actually any BIPOC at all) I assume that Cassie does not possess a tea remedy for four hundred years of oppression.

In Sammy Rhodes’ book, Broken and Beloved: How Jesus Loves Us into Wholeness, he laments the success of 7th Heaven, claiming that he’s “convinced that Satan loved” the show because “When there is no real sin to repent of, there is no need for a real savior.” I see what he’s saying, but as a non-Christian, it baffles me to abhor good behavior for any reason. In contrast, Diana Tourjée’s article, “‘Satan’s Favorite TV Show’: The False Moralism of 7th Heaven,” ponders the show’s legacy after the sexual abuse allegations against Stephen Collins emerged in 2014: “So what does a show like 7th Heaven sell to its consumer? We already know that faith can be a mask to religious leaders whose personal lives are wicked. The series feels desperate in its attempt to reconstruct an American life it felt was in jeopardy. While much of religious media feels like it consists of caricatures of real families, 7th Heaven felt exceptionally crude—so clean it was obscene.”

For me, the hyper-vigilant peace and community of these television shows is both what provides an escape and what eventually annoys me. It’s a tease. First, I want to live in that world of puny struggles and gorgeous homes. Then, I realize that the majority of my friends nor I could possibly live there, and even if we could, it would mean the end of growth. There is more to give the world than well-rested smiles and wholesome advice. There is also more to receive and to learn.

I am reminded of the Good Witch episode (“In Sickness and in Health”) where a grumpy painter blows into town and is given a magic brush. (Seriously, Cassie sells magic paintbrushes in her shop.) He finds inspiration and paints several pieces that predict the bland, near future of the characters on the show. He leaves feeling better, inspired by a new perspective. But the point is, he leaves picturesque Middleton for a world where chaos and pain, and yes, also love and peace, intermingle and co-exist. Middleton is no place for an artist, unless he’s able to unhook the town’s snow-white bodice and reveal the dark contrast of human existence: we only know happiness as deeply as we know grief.

Today, I leave you with a simple haiku by Hokushi about a small moment that contrasts joy and loneliness:

for that brief moment
when the fire-fly went out…O
the lonely darkness

UPDATE: I finished season 3 and here are a few observations.

  1. POC siting! She buys valerian root for her sleeping problems. Hmmm…
  2. Someone (who lives in Chicago—not Middleton) finally tells Cassie to lay off the predictions.
  3. More mild trouble between Sam and Cassie: Sam doesn’t want to get married again; Cassie does. This conflict, expressed in near whispers, ends two tv-hours later with a horse-driven carriage ride and Sam on one knee. Huzzah!