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 Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror

I have my sister to thank for getting me hooked on horror in my adult life. However, my first memories of horror movies were cringing at friends’ houses, while we watched movies like When a Stranger Calls and Black Christmas. I was too proud at that time (I was 14) to admit that I hated them. I knew I would spend the next several weeks worried that I would somehow make the inconceivable mistake of heading back upstairs after the heart-stopping “the call is coming from inside the house” twist.

However, in my 20s, my little sister revealed to me that she loved I Know What You Did Last Summer, and for some reason, it was then that horror movies clicked with me. I started watching the oldies: Carrie, The Exorcist, Amityville Horror. I loved them. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the psychological aspect of horror. My two favorite horror movies of 2019 are Midsommar and Us. I like Midsommar because I am interested in cults, and for weeks after watching it, found myself wondering if Dani will reconsider her final choices after the dust settles. Us was so creepy that I actually felt unnerved by my own reflection for a whole weekend. Also, I could not get out of my mind, the movie’s slowed-down, spooky version of “I’ve Got Five on It”!

There are many theories regarding why people like horror. Some say it’s an outlet for anxieties or a way to cohabitate safely with our inner monsters. (The Babadook handles the latter in an interesting, literal way.) Game of Thrones, although not a proper horror narrative, definitely exhibits horror elements. I admit that, during the “crown of gold” scene in season one, I found myself cheering for the grisly demise of Daenerys’ abuser, although it was unnecessarily vicious. Despite Daenery’s coldness, a trait I normally find unsettling, I felt relief for the end of that particular torment and for the way she embraces her unique gift and personal power.

I think one of the main draws of horror is an acknowledgement of exaggerated (for many of us) true-life suffering. When watching horror, we don’t need to deconstruct the nuances of our ennui: Pain is barreling through the woods in the form of a blunt man with a chainsaw. 

There is also a shared experience when watching horror. A community outcry, a “Don’t go in the basement” moment. We watch people bungle down narrow hallways and trip over rocks, knowing we’d have done it differently. There’s a comfort in believing we’d survive to be the final girl.

I credit this same survivor-desire for true crime’s rise in popularity. Yes, the abnormality of violent, human behavior fascinates people, but I think the real draw to true crime stems from anxiety. It’s no surprise that women are the primary consumers of true crime stories. Humans are hard-wired to scan and prepare for danger, and most domestic and sexually-related murders are committed against women. The “sleeping with the enemy” motif is popular in true crime narratives. These stories uncover the telltale signs of future violence, missed or ignored by the victims. Women are too often groomed to dismiss their intuition, which leaves them vulnerable, but true crime stories not only validate our instincts but encourage us to use them.

True crime narratives offer inside information about potential, domestic horror; however, the stories that end with the perpetrator in prison, also provide relief. Although, just as in most horror movies, the danger is never really over. There have always been violent criminals on the loose, no matter the number that get locked away.

Today I will leave you with a murder ballad called “Twa Sisters” (Two Sisters), which is believed to have first appeared on a Scottish broadside in 1656. The ballad chronicles the tale of a woman who drowns her younger sister over the love of a man. There have been many versions of the tale. In some versions, a man finds her body and uses her bones and hair to create a harp; in other versions, it’s a fiddle. Sometimes, the elder sister is exposed as a murderer, and the younger sister is portrayed as completely innocent. Other times, she has taunted the elder sister with the fact that she has won the beloved’s affections.

This ballad points to another reason people are interested in such horrific acts. These narratives sometimes ask us to consider how “monsters” are made. Whether the younger sister taunts or not, she surely does not deserve to be murdered, and yet, we can all relate to jealousy and the desire for revenge. These narratives beg a question: under the right circumstances, might we be the monster?

My favorite version of “Two Sisters” is Gillian Welch’s “Wind and Rain.” I love the refrain, “Oh the dreadful wind and rain,” and the way it illuminates the degrees of this horror. In the end, when the younger sister’s body has been crafted into a fiddle, it does not explicitly expose her murderer nor mention the man she loves. It will only play “Oh the dreadful wind and rain.” The ending does not provide any true justice or quick healing but rather suggests that art’s transformative power lies not in transcendence, but in accepting the present, dark as it may be.