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Horror is about… being scared. Therefore it’s also about pain. We fear pain, suffering, and death, and those are some of the only sure things in real life. So horror is also about how we face those realities and what that means for us as humans. At its best, it’s also about examining that which inflicts pain: real-life “monsters” like trauma, sexual predators, harmful industrial and political systems, social injustice, even climate change. We use fantastic or horrific metaphor to illustrate real-life horror and dread and then face them head-on—so we know they can be defeated.
“Fairy tales [and horror] do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” ― G.K. Chesterton
And the best horror even the most brutal, is rife with commentary, whether overt (think The Purge or Kevin Smith’s Red State) or metaphorical (like Final Destination, The Grudge, or anything else dealing with the supernatural). On politics, on our social order, on the individual struggles of life and death as a human being. And, like satire, it’s meant for punching up, not down. It might hurt, but it’s a Good Pain... But there’s a big difference between horror at its best, and what we usually get in mainstream movies and TV shows. Way too often, instead of that prescient commentary, we get gratuitous and often pointless torture porn, with marginalized folks usually suffering the worst, if they’re not straight-up villainized. (How often does the one black character die first? Or anyone who dares to have sex, reflecting a weirdly puritanical undertone? How many human villains are disabled or disfigured, especially compared to the heroes? So much they’ve become cliches and self-aware jokes in themselves.)
Now, I’m not saying if a thing doesn’t have a Positive or Deep Message, it’s worthless. Mind candy escapism is important in an increasingly scary world, and something doesn’t have to be clever or socially relevant to be valuable. We’re allowed to have fun.
I’m also not saying if a thing is gorey or violent, it’s immediately Bad, or has nothing to say (Saw comes to mind, the first one especially), or even has to. Or that if something is gore-light/more psychological/artfully filmed, it’s automatically Valid/smart/profound. Some of the more “high art” horror can be incoherent nonsense, or as guilty of down-punching as anything else. One of my least favorite tropes across the board is an ending where everybody dies and nothing changes; the monster “wins,” or nobody (besides the viewers) even know anything happened at all, rendering everything we’ve just seen ultimately pointless.
That can really give the feeling that everything is hopeless, evil is invincible, and Resistance Is Futile… often while crushing marginalized folk into particularly fine dust, first and worst.
And when that happens, what you get is Bad Pain. I wrote about the difference between Good and Bad Pain in a Twitter thread a while back. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Bad Pain: Pure shock value. Emphasis on pointlessness/suffering to the exclusion of story/character. Everyone* Is Expendable. Gratuitous torture OR trauma glossed over.
- Good Pain: Catharsis, expression, aids in eventual healing – for characters and/or the reader.
Both are emotional gut-punches. The difference with good pain is you feel alive instead of dead. You feel heard instead of silenced. You feel respected and acknowledged instead of ignored or brutalized or used as a prop.
*But “everyone” usually seems to be marginalized in some way...
I’m not going to talk about Bad Horror too much, because I’m not here to dump on anything, especially other peoples’ faves, but we’ve all probably seen it. Ableism is one of the most common minefields here—just look at the number of stories set in asylums, whether active or haunted. The message is often that mentally ill people are Scary and will Hurt You (despite the reality that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims themselves than to hurt anyone else).
But no, wait, don’t a lot of those stories show the asylum staff are the evil ones, using inhumane “treatments” on the innocent residents? Like in American Horror Story: Asylum, or the less-supernatural but still-horrific One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? Well, yes, but then we can really catapult way into the whole torture porn thing—named so because showing so much disproportionate suffering, especially of marginalized people, kind of suggests viewers, or at least filmmakers… get off on it. And at the very least, disabled characters are hardly ever played by disabled actors.
(…Okay fine, I have to mention M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit in particular as the worst example of villainous ableism I’ve seen in recent memory. Also Split. Like really, can he not? Can M. Night please stop? I know he won’t, but damn.)
But it’s not all terrible. Two recent TV shows stand out in my mind as being not only wonderfully chilling, but doing Good Pain right, or at least being self-aware enough to try.
The first is Netflix’s popular Halloweeny release, The Haunting Of Hill House.
Sure, it’s got some plot holes and unexplained weirdness, and sometimes tries to be tighter and more cleverly written than it is, but ultimately we got a solid first season of a really cool-looking new show. Mostly thanks to the cast’s chemistry/acting chops, and the sympathetic, multidimensional characters. It’s also genuinely scary and visually creepy/striking without being super gore-heavy (aside from the poor Bent-Neck Lady).
If you haven’t seen it, we follow the Crain family in the past and present as they face horrible trauma then and now. The major themes are grief, guilt, emotional processing and coping mechanisms, and family/hope for a better world, against isolation/imprisonment/despair that the world is ugly and will devour you and your loved ones—and how those two can blend together and resemble one another more than you might think. Sometimes with deadly consequences.
After repeated family tragedies, we see the survivors cope in a variety of ways, and not all of them healthy. There’s a fair amount of criticism, mostly of the “you’re not processing right” variety, but this also tends to be called out. Theo gets some great moments here. She also gets extremely drunk, arguably not great for your sister’s wake, but the show respects that people do respond in different, sometimes messy ways. And even when it’s universally discouraged, like with Luke’s heroin addiction, his family still loves and supports him, and even Steven—probably the most critical of everybody—makes the distinction between being a good person, and behaving badly (stealing, lying, getting others to enable or directly buy drugs for him). They’re not mutually exclusive, and Luke isn’t written off as a lost cause.
Another great thing is that marginalized chars (mostly) don’t suffer disproportionately. This is sort of a spoiler, but Theo doesn’t die—which honestly surprised the heck out of me, I mean, a cool and snarky lesbian who lives through a horror thing? That isn’t AHS? Come on. though sadly, Nell’s husband Arthur does, and who didn’t see that coming? Only major black guy doesn’t die first, but he does, and…
It's been out for a while, but SPOILER ALERT.
...Nell staying in the house forever and not getting to go on to be with Arthur was Some Bullshit and it was never commented on at all? Everyone else gets a good ending, her parents are fine here, but she and Arthur are forever separated and we’re supposed to—gah!
Okay, END SPOILER/rant. It’s mostly good, really. Above nonsense aside, I think the first season ends about as happily as it could under the circumstances. Anyway.
My second example of Good TV Horror is the sadly short-lived FOX show The Exorcist, and I could write many essays on why.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me scream about how great this show is, and I’m not quitting any time soon. It picks up in the same universe as the classic film, but set in modern times, with a (mostly) new cast. You don’t need to know anything about the movies to enjoy the show, and if you’re anything like me, you will.
In season one, demonic possession is both coded and flat-out stated to be a “metaphor” for violation and rape, and the story is all about sending them to Hell where they belong. Season two brings in a super diverse foster family (headed by the amazing and delightful John Cho) and has the strong message that they are a real family, and they are stronger than demons. And when I say ‘diverse,’ I mean it. One of the kids is blind. One’s autistic—and valued, and loved, which is sadly rare and so good to see. One’s a Jehovah’s Witness. And my favorite forever girl Verity is a lesbian recovering from hellish conversion therapy at the hands of religious parents who tried to “pray the gay away.”
Verity’s trauma happens offscreen, so we’re never subjected to Horribly Tortured Gays, and we’re very obviously supposed to know this was really bad. Partly because Marcus, one of the two leads, is queer as… heaven.
I just really love horror with major queer (and disabled) characters who don’t freaking die. Here, they suffer because everybody suffers, not because they’re queer. Evil entities will sometimes needle them for it but we’re to understand this is Bad because… they’re demons. And something else I find significant: one character (nobody mentioned above) commits suicide—and is literally never “demonized” for it, at any point, not even by a demon. Nobody ever says or even implies that she committed a mortal sin and went to Hell, which is basically unheard-of in any Catholic-themed media.
One caveat/spoiler; John Cho’s character does die, which sucks really hard, partly because he’s straight up awesome, and partly because again, even in otherwise good shows, we have a real problem with characters of color being killed off. His death, at least, is a very good one, meaningful and honored and significant (unlike poor Arthur, whose death is supremely pointless and never really mentioned aside from a brief appearance afterwards). If he has to die, and yes, in horror sometimes people do have to die, this is the way to do it. As pain goes, it’s miles ahead of so much worse we’ve seen—but it still hurts, and anyone has the total right to be hurt and angry about it.
But even in death, every marginalized character in this show is treated with respect, and given their own arc and development, which quite frankly blew me the heck away seeing it. I have never, before or since, seen horror like this before, and I doubt I’ll ever shut up about it.
I even wrote about how important it was for me to see as an abuse/assault survivor, also on Twitter.
Because it really is that important, here’s my favorite conversation from the last episode of season one. (Ex-)Father Marcus has just saved teenage Casey and her family from a terrifying demonic possession, consistently shown as both metaphorical and literal sexual assault. They’re not just talking about demons here. Well, they are, but sometimes the demons are human.
CASEY: How many [of the people you saved] got better?
MARCUS: Some. Not all. Some people… (sighs) …they stay in that pain forever, ’cause they don’t think anyone else will believe them. Or understand what they went through.
CASEY: So how do you get past it?
MARCUS: You tell yourself, I’m still here. And I’ll be here tomorrow and the day after. And it wasn’t my fault. ‘Cause that’s the deal we make with the world every time we get out of bed in the morning. Hurt me all you want, but the bastards don’t get to win.
CASEY: (voice breaking): What if I’m not strong enough?
MARCUS: Then I’d say that, in the 40-odd years I’ve been doing this… You might just be the strongest person I’ve ever met in my whole life. Remember that. THEY DON’T GET TO WIN.
FOX, of course, cancelled it after two seasons because 1) FOX cancels everything good, or just doesn’t market it and then cancels it for bad ratings 2) it really goes against uh… everything they stand for, in stating that queer and disabled folk are not only people, but can be badass, amazing, heroic people. Honestly I’m surprised it lasted that long there.
But I’m also disappointed. We need it back, and lots more shows like it. We need more Good Pain/Horror in general.
I try to do Good Horror with my vampire book Stake Sauce, and Good Pain in everything else I write, which always seems to feature queer/disabled/trans chars fighting evil in the form of ferociously dystopian governments, religious zealotry, and assault—and winning. Horror stories where marginalized people triumph are few, far between, and when they’re done right, incredibly important for healing. I hope these shows are examples of a growing shift. We know monsters exist. We need to know they can be destroyed. And that sometimes we’re the ones who can slay them.