Death & the Horror Writer?
by Paula Guran
We learn Death.
We are taught through symbol, ritual, religion, language, and art. Our societal view of mortality shifts when changes occur in our culture. For the most part, at least in Western society, we fear death and seek somehow to defeat it, to gain immortality.
The need to defeat death has been a prime impetus of humanity. Perhaps we seek to live forever through the biological, attempting through parenthood to attain a genetic continuity. Another way individuals have sought to defeat death is with creativity and invention. By making something that will last beyond our lifetimes, we try to find immortality. Dramatic or visual art, music, literature, thought, new ways to serve humanity--all give the creator a certain amount of life beyond the grave.
We also seek some form of eternal life through religion: a rebirth, a resurrection, a metamorphosis, some type of afterlife. Religion in the past offered solace, but it also created anxieties that became societal controls. Am I living a good life? Will I be condemned to hell? Do I face judgment after death? The creation of values and morality WAS an outgrowth of this acceptance that somehow a life beyond the present one was dependent upon one's actions or beliefs in one's life.
The respect we offer the dead is another way of defeating mortality. Earliest humanity's first detectable signs of civilization and recognition of the cycle of life were the ways in which WE buried the dead. Indeed, what we now know of the past is usually based on grave goods and artifacts interred with the dead.
Cemetery means "place of sleep." Monuments and tombstones are also a way of avoiding oblivion. The simple tombstones and the prevalence of the skull symbol in early Puritan headstones reflected the Puritan's insistence that the "end time" was near and showed contempt for what was surely a temporary world.
In the nineteenth century, the grim American theological concentration on a soon-to-be-doomed world and not much of a chance for heaven eventually gave way to less pessimistic forms of Christianity. Hope was offered for a better life beyond this one in a joyful "promised land" where one could be reunited with those who had crossed over before. There was also a sociological shift, with the new sciences of psychiatry and psychology and even criminology, toward the belief that people could be reformed or changed for the better. In cemeteries, this new optimism was reflected by sweet, winged cherubs, comforting angels, ornate tombs, and the softer epitaphs of that century. Death itself seemed less daunting with the promise of life beyond the grave for more people
Our modern parklike cemeteries got their start as pleasant places within urban boundaries for the living to stroll among the dead and contemplate eventual reunion. Death and grief in the nineteenth century were frequently contemplated and somewhat romanticized. In a time when infant and child mortality was extremely high, this was a comforting thought if something of a rationalization.
The places of the dead were no longer associated with a private rural family graveyard or the hallowed grounds of the church. Any individual could be buried in this new place of rest. If they wished, they could be buried with fellow Oddfellows or firefighters or veterans or those who shared the same ethnic origins. If one believed in the Second Coming, then one could focus on a day when believers were awakened from the grave. It was comforting to think one would spring from the tomb surrounded by those with similar associations. Religion was still influential, but urban societal ties coexisted with it. Another completely practical influence was heightened need for space due to various contagions that wiped out thousands in a short time span. At first these Edens of Death were full of the gothic marble and even small mausoleums. But eventually the plain uniform tombstones of the modern age replaced the more individual and decorative. They are a reflection of our current emphasis on rationality and of our bureaucratic times.
Today, religion no longer holds a monopoly over death--law and medicine do. With legalities the dead can hold unnatural power over the living through bequests and wills. Death is no longer a natural part of life. Our lives are now extended. We no longer die at home among relatives, but in institutions where modern science has placed us. We fear the slowed act of dying these days perhaps more than death itself. It is now the old who die more acceptably and with little grief, no longer considered useful. Once death came primarily to the young and the weak; now it is the young, unfulfilled life that, when cut short, is more mourned.
In horror we have always dealt with the dead and with the negative emotional terror of immortality. Most of our archetypes are symbolic representations of life gone beyond reality and beyond a comforting afterlife. Ghosts remain, disturbed spirits of the dead; zombies are the living dead; vampires are a triumph of immortality--and its curse. Our monsters--true ones, transformed ones, and human ones--are fearful because they bring untimely death. We write personifications of what disturbs us about death: that the next life is more terrible than the present one; that the dead prey upon the living and death defeats the living and that all our religion and rationality cannot combat this; that there are evil powers that use death; that death is violent and unnatural; that even if we become immortal it is eternal suffering.
In the United States we have a fascination with the violent, dangerous death, with death itself--just as we are entranced with the erotic. It grows from our culture's reticence to deal publicly with these issues. That which we deny is always seductive. It has been observed that as sex becomes pornographic and therefore titillating when separated from the emotions of love and affection, so, too, does death become pornographic when divorced from the natural emotion of grief. Perhaps it is the Anglo/American prudery concerning sex and death that makes horror popular in the culture.
We weave these themes constantly into modern horror. We entice the reader and the viewer to be frightened by considering them, thinking about that which we no longer think about, challenging what comforts we have found to deal with death.
Horror takes what we have learned of death and devises new, disquieting lessons. --Paula Guran, October, 1996