I’m walking in the woods. There’s no one around, and it’s 2005 so I don’t have a cellphone. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot him – Edgar Allan Poe. To his left a raven flaps its wings and quoths its lore of some sad sorrow nevermore. To his right, the ghost of Annabel Lee floats eerily far from her graveside by the sea. This horror drew me in with a sort of inevitable curiosity to look at the things I was told didn’t exist. It reaches out to the misshapen in all of us: the still-bleeding wounds, the aching scars, the hidden traumas. The monstrous side of us refuses to be shut out from our lives, and it’s only by embracing it that we find our humanity.
I was instantly fascinated by the dissonance inherent between the melodiousness of Poe’s language and the brokenness of his characters. Call me a sucker, but any fool with a thesaurus and a solid grasp of assonance can lure me into their wine cellar for a good time. The beauty of it beats like a still thumping heart under your floorboards. Poe’s characters all had some idée fixee that we do not understand and perhaps do not entirely wish to understand, and it drove them further and further into the territory of the morbidly inexplicable and societally incorrect. Nevertheless, the horror is real whether or not we want it to be real and whether or not we can believe it to be real. The story is right there on the page, solid in black and white. It cannot be untold.
It’s 2010. I’m walking through a foggy town. The cars lining the sidewalks are empty and still, and the houses lining the streets are dark and void. I shiver. Before me looms the brick-and-mortar school where my dad works. It was built in the 30s, and hasn’t been renovated in at least twenty years. As I enter, I can almost hear the shriek of mouldering monsters behind me, lonesome forgotten things that have never seen sunlight. Each step of the old wooden staircase creaks with age and memory, the ghosts of schoolchildren that have long since grown and gone. It isn’t Silent Hill, but it could be.
That could-be is enough to make me quicken my walk and rush to the safety of electric light where nothing can lurk in the corners unseen. There isn’t anything out there, of course; but the thought that there could be makes me more careful in places where I’m at my most vulnerable. I think twice. I watch where I’m going. The memory and resonance of horror keeps me safe, because it keeps my eyes open and my feet fast.
It also raises questions. Silent Hill has two states of being: the Otherworld, and the real world. The real world is an abandoned small town, foggy and isolated; the Otherworld is a rusty distortion of that same place, bleeding and populated. The one place can rapidly shift into its double with little to no warning. The monsters themselves are psychological amalgamations of the protagonist’s fears and leftovers from previous games – but it’s never entirely clear if they’re humans you see as monsters, or delusions of your drugged imagination. In the same way, it’s rarely clear whether or not the protagonist is as much of a monster as the ones they fight. The question raised is this: what makes a monster?
It’s 2013, and my first year away from home for college. I’m alone and don’t know anyone in the area yet. I do the research; I learn the risks; I calculate the odds. One out of 8 women get sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, and it’s rarely the stranger they have to worry about; it’s the people they already know. The Gift of Fear teaches me how to watch out for myself and for others, how to trust my instincts, and how to see boundary-crossing for the dangerous thing it is. I learned how not to excuse the inexcusable, even if making excuses is easier. I know what things go bump in the night, and I bump back.
It’s 2014. I’m looking for fun things to do on the internet, and I find Fallen London – a Victorian Gothic interactive fictional take on history, if history had included London being stolen from the Surface to far below the earth’s crust. The overriding theme of Fallen London is complicity. What are the things you’ll say yes to and the things you’ll say no to? You start the game dropped in prison and have to fight your way out into the city. Any purity you could lay claim to is vanished. As soon as you escape, you’re plunged into a world of hanged men’s clothes and whispered secrets. While the status quo may level out to an ersatz normal at first, the things beneath the normalcy are far stranger and mysterious than could possibly be imagined.
Small horrors grow in the gaps between larger ones, and they all become commonplace through exposure. It just stops being weird to have primordial shrieks and stolen correspondences in your inventory. Scams become organized crime, and a cut-throat becomes a policeman. Jack-of-Smiles could possess any passerby in a murdering frenzy, and no one would blink. You simply get up, heal your capacious wounds, and go on with your day. Your Cheerful Goldfish can become a Haunted Goldfish without very much effort on your part.
It takes all your wits to survive. Devils want to purchase your soul – after all, it’s not as if you’re using it, dear. Something eternally hungry walks of nights and calls you delicious friend. Rubbery Men, weird tentacled things, slosh the streets in ill-fitting human suits of clothing. Clay Men speak little and do much. And the rumors about the Royal Family are scarcely to be believed! You can’t thrive in Fallen London if you don’t compromise on something, somewhere. It’s a world where there are no good choices and the line between human and other is continually contorted.
In a place of such fluid moral ambiguity, monstrosity is a matter of definition. Anything can become normal; anything can become horrific. Your choices drive your failures as much as your successes. For me, this was a liberating narrative. In Fallen London, you are free to do as you will, with all the consequences that result from such agency. The only thing you have to carry is the memory of the things you’ve done. The monster at the end of the book, so to speak, is you – even in a darkness of larger ones with sharper teeth and stranger skins. They’re coming to eat you, if you don’t eat them first.
It’s 2018. Because of horror, there’s now more monsters in my closet than clothes. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories whisper strange truths to me about the toxic tincture of violence and love: how violence can warp and mold a person, how love can be selfish and self-sacrificing all at once. Frankenstein’s monster is still sitting on an iceberg, having isolated itself from the world it wanted so much to know – forever rejected and three times a murderer. The Phantom of the Opera is here, inside my mind.
I admit some slight hyperbole, but that illusion of closeness matters. That these things can wind themselves into our imaginations and haunt our nightmares – it makes a difference. You don’t get that kind of impact without some sort of connection. The horror is in our relation to these creations of our unthinkable uglinesses. They are us, at our most socially unacceptable. They are us, when we look into the mirror in the middle of the night. They are us, when we don’t want to be ourselves.
So what does it mean, really, to look at the horrific and see humanity? The monster in the closet is yourself; or a reflection of yourself you’d rather not look at; or worse yet a reflection of other people through the filter of your imagination. They are a transgression. You can run and never truly escape from the fear that pursues you, or you can choose to reach out and touch the thing that scares you. Choosing to embrace these things is the way I find I have to approach horror. It’s a place of empathy – of looking at the ugliness and refusing to look away – and it has defined so much of my approach to life that I could never be ungrateful.