A friend of mine declared, regarding the recent IT remake, that murderous clown Pennywise would never be able to prey on adults. I think this may have even been a plot point in the original story: that children’s fears, tangible and rooted in nightmares and twisted fairy tales, provide a more concrete jumping ground for a monster that feeds on terror. The protagonists of IT fear germs, creepy paintings, and appropriately, clowns. Could Pennywise really embody losing your job, or leaving the stove on, or your awareness of your own mortality?
(Well, he embodies that last one pretty well, at least.)
Thankfully I don’t have much in common with Pennywise – I hope – but writing horror means working with a a similar problem: how to externalize what’s very internal, how to embody something so personal and specific as fear. After all, at its best, the genre can distill complex and pervasive personal and societal horrors into a demon, or a ghost, or a guy with an axe. The Babadook made a storybook monster out of grief, depression, and its effects on a widow’s relationship with her son. Get Out delves into the violent, dehumanizing consequences of white liberal racism to devastating effect.
And while we’re on the subject of IT, Stephen King based the first scene of the novel on a violent, and ultimately fatal, homophobic attack on 23-year-old Charlie Howard, just down the street from King’s own home in Bangor, Maine. The murder, King later wrote, ‘shocked him out of his complacency.’ It makes sense, then, that a byproduct of Pennywise’s thrall on the town is indifference. It isn’t that the people of fictional Derry don’t notice what’s happening. It’s that they look the other way.
Of course, not all horror thinks so seriously about its goals. And at its worst and most sloppily done, the genre can perpetuate harm rather than examine it. But as both a frequent writer and consumer all things creepy, I am a believer in the cathartic power of horror. And as a person with chronic anxiety, I spend a lot of time thinking about fear.
The fears of our childhood, I think, never really fade. I’m still afraid of needles, and moths, and weirdly enough, popping balloons. But in my adulthood, these fears live alongside larger and more abstract ones, fears harder to pin down under my fingers. Large scale and small. Outside and in. Fear of others, and more often than I’d like, fear of myself.
But when you’ve witnessed something terrible, or been through it yourself, people can make you feel, intentionally or not, like you’re a monster by extension. Like they don’t want to look at you too closely, lest they catch your misfortune. In those times, a good horror story can make you feel seen. It can turn that feeling in the pit of your stomach into something tangible, offer it in small doses like an inoculation.
Some fears can be conquered. Some you have to undo slowly, and some are beyond one person’s power to address alone. But the best horror stories reassure us: we can live alongside fear. And sometimes, we can even win.
Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow