Monday, October 31, 2011

Three Flavors of Horror

Well, pickles, Halloween is here at last. What to do, what to say? I'm not dressed suitably for a human sacrifice and people keep saying I'm too old to trick-or-treat, so it's back to the ol' blog. Today is the last day of the celebrated Coffin Hop. I've met a bunch of wonderful authors (and their wonderful stories) along the way. Hopefully you have too. If you haven't, it's not too late. (And see the details of my contest below).

I know we should all be halfway to a sugar overdose by now, but before it gets too close to the witching hour (especially since I, in my infinite insanity, am doing NaNoWriMo this year) I want to take a moment to discuss my favorite flavors of horror.

Now some of you might be thinking, "How can horror have flavors? Horror is just horror; it isn't ice cream." That's where you're wrong, pickles (presuming that you were in fact thinking that). Horror IS like ice cream. It isn't just one giant all-consuming umbrella. It comes in flavors. Sit down to watch Psycho, The Company of Wolves and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and you're in for three very different viewing experiences. And yet, all three of these movies are classified as horror.

Before we get started, allow me to explain what I mean by horror. Funnily enough, if you were to ask three different people to define horror, you would probably get three different answers. At it's most basic, it can be defined by "that which frightens us." But fear, like love, is very subjective. Different people are frightened by different things. With this subjectivity in mind, I'm going to define horror as "that which can frighten its audience, regardless of age or genre, by exploring a dark idea." And now my three favorite flavors.

1. The Spooky Supernatural: In short, ghosts. I love ghost stories. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite books, and the blueprint for how to write a truly ambiguous, psychologically agonizing ghost story. Suggestion, subtlety, and the mysteries of life and death are all at play here. They say the best horror tales are those in which the supernatural elements can be read literally and as a metaphor for real life horrors. Most people believe in ghosts to a certain extent (even if they think they don't), because everyone is haunted by the inevitabilty and omnipresence of death. To live is to accept the fact that we all die and that's what lies at the heart of ghost stories.

2. The Grim Reality: That which, unfortunately, can and does happen. At a very early age, I developed a morbid interest in true crime that continues to this day. As a kid, I used to stay up late to watch Investigative Reports with Bill Curtis on A&E. Once, when talking about the Zodiac killer (who I became acquainted with at the ripe old age of nine), I almost slipped and called him "my favorite serial killer." All I meant was that it's the case I find most interesting, but favorite was the only word that came to mind. I'm not the only one. Shows, movies and books about serial killers, both real and fictional, keep popping up like whack-a-moles on the boardwalk. Clearly, there's a demand. My only explanation for this is that this very real horror scares us so much we can't help but to desire to understand it. If we surround ourselves with it, we think we can protect ourselves against it.

3. The Childhood Nightmare: This is my favorite. If you were to ask me which movie scared me the most as a child, I would have to say Pinocchio. Disney's Pinocchio. It was a toss-up for awhile between Pinocchio and Dumbo, but in the end, I have to give it to Pinoke. I forget when I saw it the first time, but I was very young (five or six). I remember seeing the donkey transformation scene on the big screen. At the moment when Lampwick's hands turn into hooves, I was sure I was going to die. It wasn't make believe; it was really happening. Didn't anybody else hear him screaming? Not long after, I received a VHS of Pinocchio as a present. I put it in the attic without even taking the plastic off. Such was my fear of this movie. I'm 24now and I've seen a bunch of horror movies. The Exorcist didn't keep me up at night and I fell asleep during The Ring, but that scene still disturbs me. I own Pinocchio on DVD and it's one I watch a lot, but I usually mute it for those few awful minutes. It feels real to me. A lot of people have a movie like Pinocchio in their past. I know the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did a number on a lot of kids. These scenes and characters harken back to the idea of the Boogeyman or the perennial monster in the closet, a fear that hits us in childhood and has the ability to render us children whenever it strikes, no matter how old we are. Pinocchio is not technically a horror movie, but it's relentlessly dark. None of the villains are captured; they're merely escaped. None of the donkeys turn back into boys. Hearing Lampwick call for his mother to no avail hits home every time I watch it and makes me feel like a kid again. Scary business, indeed.

Here is the scene if you're feeling brave.

Well, pickles, there's a Halloween feast for you. What kind of horror, if any, pushes your buttons? What childhood film scarred you for life? Leave it in the comments. Tomorrow I'm going to put the names of all Coffin Hop commenters into a hat and those three will get copies of Dark Moon Digest Presents Ghosts!, which coincidentally has a story by me in it. Happy Halloween and Happy Hopping to you Coffin Hoppers!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Welcome to Coffin Hop!!! or Ode to the Danse Macabre

Well, well, well. I have returned, pickles, to rescue this blog from the doldrums. I've let it languish, I know, but summer laziness has finally left me. Now that old autumnal drive has returned, fueled no doubt by a latent beginning-of-the-school-year spirit. And just in time for Halloween... the most wonderful time of the year.

But this Halloween isn't just any Halloween. This Halloween I am participating, along with many wonderful authors, in Coffin Hop!

(insert thunder clap)

Coffin Hop is an opportunity for you, the lovely reader, to meet nearly 100 horror writers via their blogs and websites. There will be contests! Even I will be having one. And where there are contests, there are prizes. Check back here for details through out the week. Peruse the list (here at and check out as many as you can. Like the forbidden room in Bluebeard's never know what you might find.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, which is strange because I was one of those kids who was scared of everything. Between my overactive imagination and the paranoia instilled in every child of the 80's (stranger danger! drugs! playing with matches!) it seemed there was plenty to be afraid of. Yet Halloween always acted as a surprising refuge from the fear. On Halloween, I was allowed to take part in that dark and shadowy world that so often held me in terror. I could dress myself up as a ghost or a witch or Wednesday Addams (one of my favorite costumes) and be someone--or something--that didn't have to be scared. On Halloween, the whole world plays make believe. We all revel in the nightmares that on every other day of the year have to be repressed.

A lot of people ask me why I write horror (especially the people who knew me as that nervous, easily frightened little girl). Why, they ask, do I keep writing stories about things I hope never to encounter in real life? Wouldn't it be much better for my mental health (and the mental health of my readers) to just write "happy things"? The reason why my stories so often favor the dark side is very similar to the reason why I love Halloween. When I play with the shadows, it makes me stronger.

There's a memory from my childhood that sums this idea up in a nutshell. When I was six years old, my elementary school music teacher decided to celebrate Halloween by showing the first grade a filmstrip of the Danse Macabre, Camille Saint-Saƫns's classic piece about spirits who rise up from their graves to dance the night away as Death himself leads on the violin. Few movie viewing experiences in childhood frightened me as much as this. Keep in mind. This was a filmstrip. These were still images I was watching, not state-of-the-art animation, but it still scared me so much I couldn't move. Trapped in that dark auditorium, forced to watch skeletons and ghosts hang suspended in the painted night air as a wild violin soared in the background, I was sure all my nightmares had finally come to life in front of my eyes. Even after the music faded, after the lights came back on and the big white screen disappeared, it stayed with me. I knew it was just biding its time until that awful limbo between getting in bed and falling asleep when we would be alone together. It haunted me that night and for several nights after, until my next music class later that week.

Our teacher was out sick so a substitute came to our classroom...and when she came she brought a slide projector with her. No, I thought, staring at it, feeling the dread creep back in, it's impossible. How could this be happening again? Why did it keep following me? The substitute clearly didn't know what else to do with us, that's why. She did, however, add a pinch of novelty by asking for a volunteer to run the slide projector, a popular honor in the time of elementary school filmstrips. I don't think I meant to do it. Pure primal instinct took over. My hand shot in the air, and I was chosen. So now not only was I watching this still-frame nightmare again, but I had by own will, ruined any chance of closing my eyes. Now I had to pay attention. I had to watch. I was controlling the damn thing. And there's your answer to why I write horror.

There are a lot of real-world things to be scared of, like strangers invading your home or disturbed children doing horrible things for no reason, but I find if I write a fear down, I can control it. I enjoy being scared when I can control the situation, (and I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy scaring people in turn). Like dressing up for Halloween, horror forces us to confront the inexplicable, rather than deny it and repress it. If we're lucky, this can lead to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. And either way, it's often good scary fun.

The Danse Macabre has become one of my favorite pieces of music. In an exercise that seemed made for me, when I was 10, the same music teacher played it for us AGAIN without the filmstrip and told us all to write a story based on it what we saw in our heads. I lost that story, but I may be moved to rewrite it someday. This being the glorious age of the Internet, I've looked long and hard for that filmstrip, but I haven't had any luck yet. I distinctly remember Death as a skeleton in a pink vest. Apparently, the Danse Macabre is its own genre of filmstrip because there are a bunch on YouTube. This is NOT the one I watched (though there is funnily enough a skeleton wearing pink), but it will do for now. If you have any similar memories of being scarred by this or any other Danse Macabre filmstrip, be sure to leave it in the comments. Maybe one of you remembers the one I saw.

That's all for now, pickles. Welcome to Coffin Hop. Check out other authors and Happy Almost Halloween!