Humanity is the Heart of Horror

Eli HeadshotThe following is a guest post by Eli Ryder, whose short story “What Should Have Been” appeared in in issue 18 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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There’s an iconic moment in every apocalypse film you’ve ever seen wherein a character tiptoes through a grocery or pharmacy, navigating the mostly empty shelves and sweating through the quiet. Sometimes the character is Our Hero, bravely risking their own life in service of others. Sometimes, it’s a hapless redshirt whose brief time on screen serves only to let us know how horrific getting killed will be. We live their tension with them, knowing the stakes are life and death. We love to feel vulnerable, even need to, and that’s how good horror can be so good—it reminds us we’re human.

There’s a lot of blood-spraying, flesh-tearing horror slashing its way into our hearts on life and death alone. Any of the canonical slashers and their reboots, the glorious B-horror catalog, and even some comedy gems like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil draw revolted grimaces across our faces, and we love them all for it. They’re magnificent escapes, and we feel more alive when we return from those fantasies because we survived, dammit. We need those characters to suffer so that we can achieve that moment of arrival.

But sometimes the stakes are higher. Sometimes it’s a kid shaking and gasping through the store, freezing when a stray can falls off a shelf and clangs on the floor. It’s still life and death, but we’re doubly and triply afraid for the kid. Goes for dogs, too, and well-crafted relationships. There’s more than life to lose with those cases—there’s life worth living. And that adds heartbreak to horror. The kid has innocence, potential, things we still see in ourselves and lose right along with him when his toy shuttle’s lights and sound go off and the monster blurs furiously across the screen, leaving only a memory where the kid once stood.

I’m obviously thinking of A Quiet Place, but there are plenty of other examples. The first three seasons of The Walking Dead come to mind. 28 Days Later—if you didn’t mist up when Selena sees Jim’s eyes and doesn’t kill him, you’re probably a zombie.

Literary examples include Jack Ketchum’s Girl Next Door, which forces us to live through not only the physical torture portrayed in the book but also the emotional torture of being compliant in those gruesome acts and thus partially responsible for them. Another must-read is Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels, whose werewolf mythos is a doorway into the most beautiful and painful parts of growing up, of finding yourself. Of family. And, of course, there’s The Stand, Stephen King’s now seemingly prophetic chronicle of love that makes life worth living through the virulent plague ending the world.

These, and many others, use horror and its foundational elements to scare us into seeing ourselves and each other anew, into accepting and feeling things we’ve avoided, into processing and healing. Great horror scares us into loving harder and deeper than we thought we could and being better people for it.

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Eli Ryder is a college English professor in Texas, and his short stories and criticism appear in various online and print publications. He stole his MFA from UC Riverside’s low-residency program in Palm Desert, CA and can be found on Twitter @theeliryder.

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