Tag Archives: horror

Women in Horror Month

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror writer they will ever try. Don’t scare them off.

***

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Women in Horror month comes around and everybody’s a statistician. Editors lay bare their numbers, and many outlets’ submission data does show that women submit fiction less than men, a fact duly blamed on the female writers for not submitting enough. Not being brave. Of course, you as a woman have never applied for a job for which you feel underqualified, and you have never negotiated a raise. In your current workplace, you don’t engage in as much self-promotion as your male peers. This isn’t just because you’re trying to be nice. You know that a good girl follows the rules and waits her turn and doesn’t push her luck, or herself, onto others. After all, you wouldn’t want to come across as too abrasive. You also notice that some of these outlets only ever seem to publish men, so no wonder you wouldn’t have submitted there. You know when you’re not wanted.

***

You write a story that includes some discussion of gender issues. You worry you’re overdoing it. You worry you’re going to be labeled as a writer with a political agenda, mostly because you are a woman writing about gender. If you were a man, you would be writing a story. But you are a woman and you are writing a polemic. You do it anyway.

***

You are invited to an anthology. You hope it is not just because you are a woman, or because you are young, or because you are (half) a minority. But even if it is, oh well. You believe the editors are trying to do the right thing.

***

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Women in Horror Month is here and it’s a giant popularity contest, even more than writing already is: let’s-name-all-the-female-horror-writers-we-can-possibly-name! You don’t look at the lists, because you know you’re still not on them, and that worm of self-doubt that lives inside your brain doesn’t need any more to chew on (why do you even try?), thank you. Then you feel bad and jealous, and bad because you feel jealous. You re-read the manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” and remember that progress for one is progress for all. Besides, you feel shitty about promoting yourself anyway – how dare you, who the fuck are you? Then you feel shitty about not promoting yourself – you’re a dumb ass and you deserve everything you get.

***

You go to see another new horror movie, a sequel to one of your all-time favorites. You anticipate that it will be terrible, and it is. It has also introduced a brand new rape-and-captivity subplot to explain the origin of all the evil. It’s our punishment for her suffering. The fact that this movie was made is punishment enough. You wonder what it is with blind old recluses and rape these days. The young female lead rests on her side in bed, her breasts lovingly pressed together by her tight white camisole.

***

When you were young, you couldn’t count any women among your favorite writers. You can’t understand any of the female characters you read as humans, let alone as women. The boys in your American Literature class chortle about them, about how their male creators defined them solely by their “easy” sexuality. Your favorite writer in high school admitted that he never writes female characters, because he knows he would be bad at it. He’s kind of right. But you are also bad at it, and you are a girl! Your best friend, another girl, tells you after reading your novel draft, “Either you have a serious problem with women, or do.” And you know it’s you. You were raised on classical British literature and you love big heroic adventure arcs (like paladins, more paladins please) and what’s more, you hate yourself. Then you read The Bell Jar, and that changes everything. Then you read The Haunting of Hill House, and that changes everything again.

***

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Congratulations – you have helped fill an anthology’s diversity quota. Collect $200. You hope your story doesn’t convince somebody never to read another lady horror writer.

***

You and your roommate have seen a lot of horror movies: bad ones, good ones, so-bad-they’re-good ones. You have also noticed that you have never seen male rape depicted in a straight-up genre horror movie. “That would be the worst thing,” your roommate says, shuddering. “As a guy? That would be the most terrifying thing to watch.” You reply, flatly, “Yeah, well, that’s how it is for women, all the time. And we just have to deal. We just have to get used to it.” On-screen, some anonymous woman is crying and afraid.

***

An anthology you are in is accused of reverse discrimination because it is populated solely by female writers. It is accused of having a political agenda (because reinforcing the status quo is never political; only disrupting it): promoting shoddy women over competent men. Other people launch defenses: you have to over-correct to break structural inequality; many anthologies are essentially male-only because no female writers were chosen or submitted to be chosen; it’s important for our society to make sure marginalized voices are heard and the male voice permeates SF/F/H as it is. Meanwhile, you are hit with a soft psychosomatic blow to the stomach. Oh no. What if you are actually shit?

***

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You attend a Superbowl watch party with about 50 other people. When they air the trailer for the next season of Stranger Things, everyone cheers loudly. You are much more subdued. Your coworker leans over and confesses he has yet to watch this show. You say, “Yeah, it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most of these guys, because…” “Because you’re a writer,” he guesses. “…Because I didn’t like how it treated its female characters,” you finish. “Like I said,” he says, laughing. “Because you’re a writer.”

 ***

You are lucky. You were supported, by both men and women with more clout and experience and influence and power than you. You try to believe in yourself enough to trust that this support had nothing to do with quotas, nothing to do with anything except your writing. You believe, as good girls always do, that SF/F/H is generally meritocratic – certainly more so than your day job, anyway.

 ***

You have been published since you were 21, and you still feel like an interloper who wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say. So you are still, mostly, quiet. You find it amazing how confident men are in talking about their work (young men, old men, much-younger-than-you men), how confident they are in talking to older and more established writers, how easy it must be for them to see themselves in their idols. How nice it must be, you think, to feel like the place at the table is already set for you.

 ***

It’s Women in Horror Month, and you read some article asking Where Are All the Women, Are They Just Not Writing?  And you slowly bash your head against the wall.

 ***

Movies Pictured: It Follows; Under The Shadow; The Witch; Darling

Soundtrack: “Sick” – Salem

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In Defense of The Price

I miss high-stakes horror movies.

I miss not knowing who’s going to die. I miss not being able to telegraph the end. I miss protagonists that make bad decisions. I miss last-minute twists. What I really miss are lasting consequences. I miss horror movies where every bet is off save for one eternal rule: The Price.

This is the law of The Price. Imagine that in every horror movie, there is a troll under the bridge who collects the fare – The Price – for crossing over from the so-called normal world, or their ordinary existence, into the world of the dead or the damned or whatever else. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to trespass across this boundary – a character decides to use a ouija board to contact a dead relative; a character uses a spell to hex a rival – and sometimes it’s not – a character makes a wrong turn down an unfamiliar road; a character takes in an orphaned child. Sometimes it’s a total freak coincidence – a character gets a phone call from an unknown number; a character sees a neighbor being murdered. However it happens, that character has tasted the forbidden fruit of the abnormal world, and now they have to pay The Price.

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The Price can be paid in a variety of ways, but it’s not a blister that heals with a band-aid. Here are some good options: character death; character loved one death; character damnation; character incapacitation (mental or physical); massive character dislocation. And yes, sometimes it’s terribly unfair: all I did was check-in on my brother! But fair isn’t the point. The point is to recognize that that other world is powerful, palpable, and not to be fucked with. Oh yeah, and that life’s not fair. It’s Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror”:

The black mirror knows no reflection
It knows not pride or vanity
It cares not about your dreams
It cares not for your pyramid schemes
Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken

I don’t know when I learned about The Price, but I remember the first time I noticed that it was missing: the Anthony Hopkins exorcism movie The Rite, where no one seems to pay any price at all. The Rite really shocked me, because of any horror movie subgenre, the exorcism movie is typically the most brutal, given that it deals with literal pure Evil.

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I initially thought that not paying The Price is symptomatic of a movie being part of a franchise, as in The Conjuring series, where no one seems to ever be of any serious risk of anything other than having the fear of God put into them, presumably to keep Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson headlining a universe of Psychic Superhero movies. But horror franchises have been paying The Price for years, and that in fact The Price has jumpstarted various creative detours compelled by the deaths of primary characters (Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, and Friday the 13th all killed their original final girls.)

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So now I think it’s something else: now I think there is a strange reluctance to make horror movies that are “too dark.” I think maybe we want updated versions of the original don’t-go-into-the-woods morality tale: if you do go into the woods, if you’re a good person you’ll figure out how to defeat evil and walk away unscathed. That’s some bullshit, folks. Not only does it: (a) not reflect the reality of how bad things actually happen, (b) represent a pretty self-defeating morality tale – so it’s okay to go into the woods, eh?, but it (c) sucks all tension out of what is supposed to be a tense experience. Oh gee whiz, wonder if this nice little American family with three little kids is going to survive the haunted house!

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Some bullshit.

Because The Price isn’t really about trespassing unseen boundaries. The Price is about that great price we all must pay for being alive, being human, being part of a cruel civilization – the guilt of knowing you are sitting comfortably in your home while terrible things are done to people no different from you halfway across the world; the fact that tender hearts are the most vulnerable; the knowledge that you are alive and well because your ancestors made cold-blooded choices that victimized other people – or else they were the victims, and did terrible things to survive; the sinking feeling that someone knows what you did that summer. To quote another song, this one “Courage (for Hugh Maclennan)” by The Tragically Hip:

the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
[of actions performed] Under pressure

That’s The Price, my friends, and we all must pay it.

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Horror movies that are all about The Price pictured above: 1) The Ring; 2) The Exorcist; 3) Candyman; 4) Pet Sematary; 5) Retribution [Sakebi].

 

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“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” [The Playlist]

As is appropriate for a story that’s a reworking of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is named after two songs centered on color: 311’s laidback, beachy “Amber,” and Hole’s angry, feminist “Violet.” I doubt that MRA types would like this story. In my defense, though, “The Colour Out of Space” practically demanded a feminist revision. It’s fundamentally a story about a cranky farmer who keeps his family increasingly isolated, then imprisoned, resulting in the deaths of all. There’s a neighbor who seems to check in a lot. Oh yeah, and something’s off about the water and the crops. And the woman locked in the attic is the crazy one?

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Nick Mamatas wrote a great essay about writing Lovecraftian fiction as a social outsider in Lovecraft’s Western Civilization despite Lovecraft being a “racist clown.” His conclusion: “we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.” My Lovecraftian fiction tends to be of this bent (see “Truth is Order and Order is Truth”). What I love about cosmic horror is its total blindness to any notions of society or morality or anything else humans might use to define themselves. Like the Arcade Fire song “Black Mirror” goes, “The black mirror knows no reflection/ it knows not pride or vanity/ it cares not about your dreams/ cares not for your pyramid schemes.” The colour out of space doesn’t care about Nate’s fixation with being the house’s final authority. It doesn’t care about the family farm. It doesn’t care about the lines of familial sanctity being broached by the neighbor. It doesn’t even care about Abby or her children. But in its willful, violent nonchalance, it (like death, and all great monsters) is the great equalizer. Or in this case, the great fertilizer.

“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is in She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles.

“Black Balloon” – Goo Goo Dolls: What’s the things they never showed you that swallowed the light from the sun inside your room?

“This Bitter Earth and On The Nature of Daylight” – Dinah Washington and Max Richter: This bitter earth, what fruit it bears. If my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose, then what good am I?

“The Hollow (Constantly Consuming Mix by Paz Lenchantin)” – A Passive Circle: Screaming “feed me here, fill me up again, temporarily pacify this hungering.”

“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” – Sufjan Stevens: When we are dead, we all have wings/ And when we receive to see a change at last.

“Insect Eyes” – Devendra Banhart: And the neck her head’s on is a tunnel of dawn, but darkness will come.


 

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a walking study in demonology

In responding to accusations that her character Amy Dunne in Gone Girl perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes, Gillian Flynn says:

the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.

And also, in explaining her predilection for writing villainous women in general:

I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.

As someone who is writing her own female villain right now, I would like to suggest a few of the noteworthy “bad girls” that came before her and helped to inspire her – female villains that are authentically scary, violent, and arguably evil (I’m generally uncomfortable throwing around “evil,” despite writing in horror). They’re also so enrapturing that you just can’t look away. Clearly, there are many other types of female villains – the Bad Nurse, the Vain Actress, the Jealous Wannabe. The girls on this list, and the one I’m writing, are what I’ll call Superpredators.

Merricat Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

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It’s to Jackson’s credit that you don’t quite realize it at first, but Merricat is a mass-murdering little psychopath who kills nearly her entire family for no reason and allows her older sister to take the blame. She exhibits no remorse and no regard for anyone except herself (and maybe her cat) – even her “care” for her older sister is ultimately an attempt to resist any undesired change in her life regardless of the cost she inflicts on others. She’s completely lacking in empathy – completely absorbed by her own logical system, a self-made witchcraft – and completely fine with that.

Tomie, Tomie, by Junji Ito

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Tomie was also born bad to the bone, but she’s more demon than psychopath. Always appearing as a beautiful, conniving high-school girl, Tomie breaks up relationships, ruins friendships, and inspires murder. Inevitably, she always winds up on the wrong side of somebody’s knife, but Tomie is unkillable – an eternal embodiment of the cost of desire. I’ve always thought there was something very bold about Ito’s decision to make his demoness both unquestionably evil at the elemental level and also a perpetual victim of horrific, very human violence.

Beloved, Beloved, by Toni Morrison

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Beloved was the first female character to scare the shit out of me, because Morrison writes her so incomprehensibly alien, so “not right.” She is clearly dead yet clearly corporeal, and imposes an oppressive gloom over a makeshift family that is already struggling uphill to stay together. Like Tomie, Beloved reflects the evil of human society and the darkness of the human heart. Her ultimate childishly selfish objective is to drive everyone else away from her mother using whatever means necessary so she can have her mother to herself – and, apparently, to consume and destroy life.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Daisy is oft-dismissed as an ineffectual non-character, but I consider her a non-violent, slothful psychopath. Daisy is vapidly selfish, does not demonstrate capacity to feel for anything except objects (over-the-top melodramatic performances aside), and I think there’s a compelling alt-reading of this book in which she murders her husband’s mistress in cold blood and manipulates her brutish oaf-husband to have her cloying lover killed because he’s begun to inconvenience her. The fact that none of the male characters see this is demonstrative of how well she’s learned to game them.

Callisto, Xena: Warrior Princess

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Try as I might to root for bad-ass and rather boring Xena and idealistic jokester Gabrielle, it was unstable, evil, hyena-laughing Callisto, a female mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Apocalypse Now‘s napalm-and-surf-loving Kilgore, who always stole the show. She was such a shameless fiend. Callisto wasn’t born bad – she was driven mad by watching bad Xena kill her family. Like any classical supervillain, Callisto is completely warped by her desire for vengeance over Xena, which she also frequently mistakes for a desire to be Xena.

Katie Featherston, Paranormal Activity

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It’s hard to pick just one female horror spook – they are all over the place, and are usually the angry victims of a patriarchal society – but I went with Katie, the demon-possessed heroine/antagonist of the Paranormal Activity series, because her transformation from relatable girl-next-door to a non-human uber-monster is so shocking and tragic. Katie is also the victim of the patriarchy, having been saddled with the demon by her brother-in-law, and despite her unthinking post-possession brutality, the PA series loves her like Scream loves Sidney Prescott – she’s the bleeding heart of the franchise.

Maybe it’s because I’m absorbed with horror that I think there’s no shortage of evil women. The horror-related question I’m asked most often by friends is “why do all ghosts seem to be women?” and no matter how you answer (I have several stand-by explanations, and I’m sure there are many others), there’s no avoiding the very close relationship that women have with evil, or at least the dark, in horror. Things are different in political fiction – there are some morally corrupt Mata Haris, the Bond Girls who are on the wrong side of Western civilization, but they’re the women Flynn would dismiss as vamps. A lot of political novels have either one female character – a love interest or ingenue, flat with goodness – or no female characters (except a revolving door of prostitutes). It’s easily argued that politics and governance are a man’s game, but real life shows that women can very easily be political villains, no matter whether you think that’s Margaret Thatcher or Jane Fonda. Lady Macbeth aside, I’m not sure fiction has quite reached its full potential on this front. But I hope my girl Carly will be a worthy contribution.

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welcome to the bestiary

One of the many things I adore about NBC’s Hannibal is the feathered stag that haunts Will Graham and sometimes evolves into a stag-man.  I have a huge soft spot for the recurrent use of animals as symbolic, otherworldly entities in horror – i.e., not as monster bait, nor necessarily as the monster itself, but as a sort of gateway, sometimes a hallucinatory one, between the normal and paranormal world, or between the mundane and the sublime.

Hannibal_Stag_zps46309a7cClearly, I like stags for this purpose – I did write a story about a Stag-Man, after all – as they strike very evocative poses and call to mind a strange combination of beauty, royalty, sacrament, and ultimate victimhood (the ridiculous idea of Bambi as King of the Forest).  Any sort of animal horn is probably going to immediately ping your cultural spidey-sense, whether you think of the Abrahamic Devil or something older, like a bull-god.  Much like the stag, you hit that weird sweet spot between an image that looks very powerful but is intended to be sacrificed.  The Conspiracy captures this quite well, when one of the guys trying to break into a secret society finds himself wearing a very ominous-looking bull mask that marks him as the “quarry”:

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But you don’t have to stop there.  Twin Peaks does this with owls (they are not what they seem), so well that I actually am rather frightened of owls now.  It’s a shame, because I used to like owls.  The video for the song “The Owl,” by I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, doesn’t help.

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Candyman does this with bees.

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Ju-On does this with cats.

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The Omen does this with dogs (all kinds of dogs, but the skeletonized jackal in the remake is the worst IMO).

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The Disney movie captures precisely none of this, but Kipling’s The Jungle-Book has one of the greatest ambiguous animal conduits into the unknown of all time – the “ghost”-tiger Shere-Khan. I’m sure Shere-Khan himself was inspired by the great man-eating tigers that were the bane of British India’s attempts to lay railroad tracks.

Buldeo was explaining how the tiger that had carried away Messua’s son was a ghost-tiger, and his body was inhabited by the ghost of a wicked, old money-lender, who had died some years ago. “And I know that this is true,” he said, “because Purun Dass always limped from the blow that he got in a riot when his account books were burned, and the tiger that I speak of he limps, too, for the tracks of his pads are unequal.”

“True, true, that must be the truth,” said the gray-beards, nodding together.

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The Control Group

I’ve been really digging Emily Carroll’s horror comics. My favorite so far has been the very ghoulish “Out of Skin.”  Her wife Kate Craig’s comic “Heart Of Ice” is great too, especially if you love arctic horror (and who doesn’t?).  

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I really admire artists that can draw scary things, mostly because I can’t imagine possessing that delicate of a balance between creative expression and mental control: I am pretty confident that if I ever created anything like one of Junji Ito’s comics, I would immediately burn it for fear of it coming to life. Not that this isn’t something I worry about with writing too – even though I write what I broadly classify as horror (I prefer “dark”), few things that I’ve written actually terrify me in the way that Ju-On, for example, terrifies me, and I think there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to push that envelope because I’m afraid of my fears manifesting in real life. There are enough horror movies about writers who go forth to learn what fear is and cross one bridge too many (see also: reason I’m not about to go live in an old house for three months to pound out my final draft).

Of course, I have written stories featuring elements that frighten me – “Red Goat Black Goat” probably being the prime example, since that was based off a childhood story that scared the shit out of me, although “Girl I Love You,” “The Five Stages of Grief,” and “Pugelbone” also creep me out – and I haven’t gone crazy. I have “retained control” (get back to me if I ever write a story about crawling ghosts, though).  I’m sure horror illustrators don’t go crazy either (although I still think there’s something about image that is much more powerful than written text). They created it, after all; they control it. I think this is actually at the heart of the reason a lot of people tell horror stories – whether in text or art or film or music – they want to conquer some fleeting thing, some image, some sentence, some idea, that scares them. They want to wrangle it into something they can understand and control.  Which gets to something that Emily Carroll talks about in this interview, something that I’ve sort of dealt with too when people ask me to explain a story like, say, “Absolute Zero”:

So often people will treat that story like it’s a mystery with One True Solution, as though the final panel is a puzzle to be solved, but it really isn’t like that at all. And that was on purpose – growing up, my least favourite part of any horror story was the part towards the end that explained all the scariness away. Because I want to keep away from that in my own work, I made the conscious decision to leave the ending of that story (and preceding events, really) ambiguous and unresolved, in an effort to create a haunting feeling even after the comic ends.

 

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“bad houses hate our warmth and our human-ness”

Title quote from one of my favorite monologues on haunted houses, in Rose Red (which itself is heavily inspired by The Haunting of Hill House).  The speaker is, of course, a ghost who embodies the “bad house” in question.

The Paris Review has a great essay on the modern economic context of haunted houses.  It touches not only on economic crisis but Jentsch’s (“where one is unclear as to whether an object or figure or a person is inanimate or somehow alive”) and Freud’s (“Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden, and has come into the open”) definition of the uncanny, as well as a place the author calls the Happy Murder Castle.  It’s a winning combo that digs into the psychology of horror:

The Happy Murder Castle was disquieting, uncanny, possessed of an uneasy sense I’ve rarely felt in any structure; I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to call it “haunted.” We tell ourselves ghost stories perhaps because we truly believe in the paranormal—or perhaps because we just need a word, a term, a story for that vague feeling that would be too silly to admit otherwise.

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