* WARNING: This article contains spoilers for different books and films. *
In Danse Macabre, his influential work of nonfiction, Stephen King wrote that horror is
really as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit… [because] its
main purpose is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen
to people who venture into taboo lands. Within the framework of most horror tales we find
a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile.
Horror has always focused on misfits; unfortunately, those misfits don’t tend to survive. Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, Jason Vorhees, Carmilla (or Millarca, if you prefer), Pinhead, Chucky, Freddy Krueger—each of these figures disrupts and subverts expectations of normalcy through their supernatural natures, or through their appearances, or through the uncanny way they embody our deepest fears. By and large, human beings do not like disruptions, so these figures must be eliminated.
Therein lies the plot of most horror stories: normal life is disrupted. The disruption wreaks havoc. The heroes defeat the disruption, and life returns to normal.
But the plot is changing.
Over the last decade, horror stories have become more willing to work toward and maintain disruptions and embrace new norms. They do not end by returning to the norm shown at the beginning, but instead by suggesting a new way of being, a shift in perspective. Hereditary ends with the entire Graham family dead and the remaining, physically intact member, Peter, possessed by a king of hell. Us ends with a panoramic view of America as the Tethered join hands after conducting the slaughter of their privileged doppelgangers.
I’m Deaf. And mentally ill. According to society, I am disruptive, because my perspective is skewed and my access needs challenge what is normal.
The thing is, normal is exclusive. It is dangerous.
As a horror writer and as a disabled person, I actively seek disruption, because disruption is good. It forces us to confront how harmful normalcy is and prompts us to make productive changes.
For me, the most effective horror stories are the ones where things don’t go back to normal. I remember the first time I watched the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and living in Prince George, BC. I watched it on our TV in the basement, popping in the videocassette I rented from the Hart Video store just across the highway, where they regularly rented R-rated films to kids like me. I’d been raised on Halloween and Friday the 13th films, so I expected that Leatherface would get his just deserts by the end of the film.
Except he didn’t. He was still alive. That final shot of Leatherface pirouetting with the chainsaw held above his head made a dent in my brain. I wore hearing aids at the time, and the angry and disconcerting roar of the chainsaw and the way its growls reached a ferocious octave when Leatherface swung it still fill my ears. The chainsaw was his voice, and his voice would live on. The police didn’t catch him. The protagonists were either all dead or, in the case of Sally Hardesty, irrevocably traumatized.
It wasn’t until years later that I saw why that ending impacted me so much. It was the first horror story that completely shook my sense of safety. It suggested that sometimes the monsters continue to live, continue to frighten, continue to kill. Nothing would be normal again.
The 60s and 70s are filled with such films. Rosemary’s Baby, the original Halloween, The Omen, The Exorcist. These films challenged people’s sense of safety and, in the process, became cultural phenomena.
But then came the 80s. Ronald Reagan was elected. The rusty edge of the 70s was polished into a more streamlined, conservative view of horror that King describes, and it is only recently, with the increasing mainstream acceptance of horror, that this conservative approach has waned in favour of something more open and beautiful.
In 2014, Jennifer Kent’s debut film The Babadook came out. It has since become a modern horror classic, and with good reason. The film ends with exactly the kind of new normal I mention here: the mother, Amelia, and her son, Samuel, cannot kill the titular monster in the story. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” They must learn to live with the monster, and, after a terrifying struggle that nearly kills them both, they do. They defeat the monster, but they do not kill it. They keep in the basement, feeding it worms but otherwise not letting it rule their lives. They find a workable balance.
Jeff Vandermeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation does something similar. The anonymous narrator describes her journey into Area X, a region where all the organic and inorganic materials have spliced together, creating an uncanny and unsettling landscape. Anyone who ventures into Area X either leaves completely changed or doesn’t leave at all. At the end, the novel’s narrator must decide whether to try and return to the world, or continue venturing deeper into Area X to try and find a glimpse of her husband. She believes she will not find him, but rather might see him “in the eye of a dolphin” or “in the touch of an uprising of moss,” thinking his DNA has merged with the land itself. Like Amelia and Samuel in The Babadook, the narrator recognizes that she cannot go back, that things will not return to normal. The novel ends with the declarative line, “I am not returning home.”
King’s statement about horror and normalcy came at a time when the most prominent voices in the genre were white men. Since then, dozens of fresh and exhilarating voices have arisen: Tananarive Due, Gretchen Felker-Martin, Jordan Peele, P. Djèlí Clark, M. Night Shyamalan, Agustina Bazterrica, Eric LaRocca, David Demchuk, Issa Lopez, Cassandra Khaw, Gabino Iglesias, Kyle Edward Ball, Stephen Graham Jones. These amazing artists have all challenged normalcy by not only centering Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latin American, and LGBTQQA2S voices, but by suggesting new ways of seeing and constructing the world. They point out dangers that we refused to acknowledge, shining lights into corners we avoided looking at. Their monsters disturb us in the best possible ways, whether it is Clark’s demons that take the form of KKK members, or Bazterrica’s society that breeds human beings specifically for meat, or Ball’s unseen apparition that clings to the shadows of its chosen house, or Jones’s slasher-inspired villain that haunts Indian Lake.
It cannot be a coincidence that the mainstream acceptance of horror and its persistent questioning of normalcy has reached a fever pitch during a worldwide pandemic. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it is that we cannot return to normal. Trying to do so has killed nearly seven million people worldwide, and hundreds of thousands of disabled, chronically ill, and immunocompromised people still cannot leave their homes or see their families because of the risk COVID and other illnesses pose.
Horror is comforting because it offers hope in the form of new perspectives, new ways of being. The most beautiful thing about the genre is the way it consistently exhibits human strength and industriousness.
Things will not return to normal, no matter how much we ignore masking mandates or avoid vaccinations. Normal is gone. It’s dead.
Thankfully, we possess the strength and the creativity to persist.
We must therefore embrace the opportunity, in both horror and in life, to create new norms.
Look for Adam Pottle's debut horror novel, Apparitions from Dark Hart this Fall!