Why Do Horror Stories Resonate So Deeply Right Now?
From Get Out to The Changeling, These Are Creepy (Fictional) Times
What does it say about a cultural moment when its most resonant narratives are horror stories? Among the finalists for this year’s PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, intended for “a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact that has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence,” were Hari Kunzru’s White Tears and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. These are novels in which a haunted song engages in acts of vengeance for decades-old historical crimes and the disappearance of a child is the first of many uncanny actions to befall a young married couple, respectively. Kunzru’s novel is also one of the five books up for consideration for a citywide read in the One Book, One New York program. Both are emotionally and politically resonant; both also feature clear manifestations of the supernatural. In other words, they’re horror novels.
That’s not the only recent instance of critically acclaimed horror fiction being critically acclaimed fiction, period. Carmen Maria Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties was a National Book Award finalist, and won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. The opening story in said collection, “The Husband Stitch,” was itself a finalist for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette. And while some writers (including LaValle) have received prizes or been finalists for awards from these organizations, it’s not usually for the same works.
It’s not just the literary medium that’s seen this phenomenon emerge. Two of the films nominated for Best Picture this year at the Oscars were likewise rooted in horror: namely, Get Out and The Shape of Water. (This year also brought with it Steven Soderbergh’s acclaimed film Unsane, which can be read as a horror movie in which the monster is white male privilege.) As a Hollywood Reporter article from earlier this year noted, before this year only five horror movies had been ever been nominated for Best Picture. Something’s changed, then.
While we’re certainly living in a literary moment in which the genre/literary divide is (blessedly) crumbling, the elevation of certain horror stories to Serious Art at this point in time seems distinct from that phenomenon. But this isn’t necessarily the first time horror fiction has been elevated to the highest literary honors.
Why not begin with one of the biggest names in American horror? Stephen King received the National Book Foundation’s Medal For Distinguished Contribution To American Letters Award in 2003. At the time, this was subject to a fair amount of “what does this mean for American letters?” discussion, some snarky digs at King’s bibliography, and some more levelheaded analysis from various cultural commentators. (To get a sense of some of the debates at the time, this roundup of links is well worth revisiting.) At that point in American history, the national mood was bleak, with increased concerns over terrorism, a new war in Iraq, and growing concerns over the erosion of privacy and civil liberties. In other words, a moment in time when horror seemed less like an abstract concept and more like a facet of everyday life.“What does it mean when horror fiction is also our most currently acclaimed fiction?”
It’s been a long time since a book was a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award and the National Book Award for Fiction. It has, however, been done—and its timing seems of a piece with what’s come before. That novel in question is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, which features a sinister patriarch and raised questions about humanity, generational sins, and the nature of desire. Dunn’s novel was published in 1989. What else was in the public consciousness then? AIDS, governmental scandals from the end of the Reagan administration, the moral collapse of various religious leaders—all of which would understandably raise anxiety levels. All of which would clear a space for horror stories to seem like the most logical response to the events of the day.
In Danse Macabre, his study of the horror genre, Stephen King approaches the devices and appeal of horror from a number of angles. In his introduction, he notes that “the horror genre has often been able to find national phobic pressure points,” which he cites as a reason for the genre’s growing popularity. But it’s another passage, which speaks to the way that horror works on an almost unconscious level, that seems especially telling in this context. King writes:
[O]n another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.
Though perhaps in these cases, the civilized furniture of our lives is interested in works of horror.
What happens when King’s “national phobic pressure points” wind up becoming overwhelming, suffusing one’s everyday life and dominating perceptions of the quotidian. In the United States over the last few years, there’s been an increased awareness of institutional racism and sexism; there’s been the growing awareness that state violence is an entrenched and pernicious thing; there’s been the increased sense of corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of government; there’s been a growing sense that authoritarianism is on the rise.
Some of the best horror stories are those in which the familiar is revealed to be inherently monstrous—either through some aspect of the protagonist’s daily existence, or through the nature of the protagonist themselves. (H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is an archetypal example of the latter case.) That, too, has its echoes in the national consciousness. Consider Susan Sontag’s 2004 essay “Regarding the Torture of Others,” which deals with the photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, famously contains the phrase “the photographs are us,” which summons a sense of dread whenever I read it. It’s another moment of the revelation of horror—and of our position within that narrative.
What does it mean when horror fiction is also our most currently acclaimed fiction? Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that certain aspects of modern society are best understood through that lens, with all of the accumulated unrest that that brings with it. (See also: Jordan Peele’s contention about the appropriate genre for Get Out.) Or perhaps it’s a means by which horror is understood less as a kind of escapist narrative and more as one where anything is possible, with all that that implies. In a horror story, someone who seems heroic might turn out to be monstrous; in a horror story, a happy ending is far from guaranteed.