Updated: Aug 5, 2019
When I was a kid, my mom sewed red and black cloaks for me and my little brother so we could be vampires for Halloween. I wore mine to school with a pair of vampire teeth, the kind that glowed in the dark and filled with spit in about five seconds.
The teeth were already bothering me by the time I got to school, so I shoved them into my knapsack, slicked back my hair, and for the rest of the day I told people I was the Devil. My second grade teacher raised an eyebrow at that. “How appropriate,” he said with a chortle. I was already a bit of a hellraiser by then, I guess.
When we’re young, vampires, demons and ghosts are easy to understand. They’re substitutes for our real fears. The monster under the bed. Werewolves in the woods. They’re easier to understand than the very real, complex horrors they represent. Early stories of demonic possession were likely cases of mental illness. Vampires have been seen as the fear of the Other, of homosexuality (and often sexuality in general, particularly in the nineteenth century), of addiction and disease; more recently, they have become symbols of our fascination with and repulsion towards life after death and immortality. Ghosts are our fear of death, and what comes after. Evil ghosts show us a pitiful existence beyond this life; “good” ghosts, that we can come back to visit our loved ones when they’re in need, and be visited by the deceased.
Stories of demonic possession can be traced back at least as far as the Old Testament. The vampire myth had been around for centuries before Stoker’s Dracula made it a household term, and the first example of a ghost story is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, from 2100 B.C. Ghosts, or spirits, are literally as old as storytelling itself. And yet, thousands of years later, writers are still making these ancient tropes dance like Halloween aisle skeletons. No matter how often we cry out, “Not another [insert archetype here] movie!” so long as the world continues to spin, I doubt we will stop writing about them and enjoying them.
With every advance in technology and scientific discovery, there is something new for spirits to haunt or “curse,” with every new drug or communicable disease there’s something new to equate with vampirism, and every year brings us another “based on a true story” possession the Holy See allegedly didn’t want the public to know about. The Ring used outdated video technology to tell a new twist on the ghost story; more recently, the massive Paranormal Activity franchise has done the same, and Unfriended just brought ghosts into social media. Twilight dropped vampires into the drab world of the self-obsessed teenager, and brought fear of sex back to the genre; The Strain used our very real fear of infectious diseases like ebola and H1N1, and gave the classic vampire tale a modern twist. The Exorcism of Emily Rose revived a genre that had peaked with The Evil Dead series in the ‘80s, though some successful attempts had been released over the years between: Denzel Washington in Fallen, and Matthew McConaughey’s Frailty are two excellent examples of films featuring demonic possession.
So much fiction revolves around these three central horror archetypes that they could almost be considered their own genres. So why vampires, demons and ghosts?
I don’t write about vampires often. Nor demonic possession. At some point, when I’ve got something to add to the conversation, I’ll dive in with abandon. But I have written about ghosts (in my first novel, Salvage, and in the short story “Artifact” from Gristle & Bone), and I plan to do so again. I understand the desire to go back to those near-exhausted wells. We write about them because they are stand-ins for the same things that scared us as children: violence, death, war, crime, disease, strangers, the unknown things that lurk in the dark. We write them because they are familiar to our readers, our audiences. They are the premade framework with which to hang more complex stories on; a skeleton to dress with flesh. We write about them because they scared us as children. Because they scare us still.
Of course these aren’t the only tropes we’ve grown familiar with over the years. Zombies have become extremely important to the horror genre since George Romero’s seminal 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead--though some might say they’ve taken over the genre, in an explosion of fiction and films that has multiplied like a zombie plague. Cthulhu mythos is also coming back into fashion, with True Detective’s “Yellow King” and pitch-black nihilism making Robert W. Chambers’s somewhat dainty cosmic horror shorts from 1895, The King in Yellow, into a modern bestseller. (Chambers’s work was said to be the inspiration for Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, for those who aren’t aware.) Werewolves and “shifters,” whose spiritual ancestor, Robert Louis Stevenson’s fever dream novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, grew to define the werewolf/shifter sub-genre, have seen dips in popularity throughout the years since Lon Chaney’s The Wolfman, but have never been as big as they are now. Serial killers, slasher films and torture porn will be around as long as there is murder. I would add stories about sentient robots (which take their cue from Shelley’s Frankenstein) and aliens (from H.G. Wells) to the mix as two other essential horror archetypes, though they aren’t seen quite so frequently.
What will the future hold for horror? What new archetypes will we invent? What will be the next big thing? Cannibalism has seen a bit of a resurgence since the Miami Zombie took “bath salts” and ate a man’s face in the middle of the day (turned out it was marijuana), and Hannibal recently burned too brightly our television sets. With the amount of horror in politics and the corporate world, I suspect “bodysnatchers” will see a rise in popularity.
But will there ever be a truly new monster? Or was Ecclesiastes right when he wrote “There is nothing new under the sun”? Will we continue mashing together genres and styles and pretend it’s not just an old product in shiny new packaging (Dreadpunk, I’m looking in your direction), or will we invent the next Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, Mr. Hyde, zombie, xenomorph, Hannibal Lecter?
I, for one, hope the horror genre continues to innovate. I hope we never stop seeking new ways to thrill and terrify. And I hope we never stop wanting to be afraid.
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