A couple of years ago I started to write a story – a story about the end of the world – or rather about the end of everyone in it. My story was sad and funny and shocking and thrilling and emotive. It had love and friendship and family and, in some places, detailed the boring minutiae of the daily grind of modern life. It made me laugh and cry and shout at the stupidity and selfishness of my main character many, many times. My story eventually became long enough to become a novel, and that novel became Last One At The Party.
I didn’t know what genre LOATP was – I was too busy enjoying writing it to worry about that. If you’d asked me to define it then I would probably have classified it as ‘Chick Lit Plus.’ It’s chick lit with added elements of dystopia and sci-fi. I didn’t write it for specifically women and I know a lot of men have very much enjoyed it – but I also have one male reviewer who has called it “Bridget Jones: The Plague Years,” a moniker I wear with huge pride, so much so that I made it into a bumper sticker for my car.
But after LOATP was released, readers began to classify the novel for themselves and, time and time again, the same genre was top for them – horror.
This might make me sound naive but it never once crossed my mind that readers might classify LOATP as horror. Sure, it contains a pandemic that kills everyone in six days, plus lots of dead bodies, and killer rats and something extremely frightening that lives in the woods at one point. It also has a (very literal) final girl who has a shit-load to learn before she is worthy enough to defeat the Big Bad* at the end of the novel – but is it horror?
And this has led me to ask a very basic and yet incredibly difficult question – what is horror?
Comedy is universal. Someone slips on a banana skin – it’s funny, everyone laughs. You got a runaway train and a super soldier trying to save the 500 people on board? Then you got yourself an action movie. Dead body in a locked room? Murder mystery. Cop with a deep-seated emotional need and a terrible crime to solve? Police procedural. A couple that hate each other but love the same dog? Give me a call, Working Title, I’ve got a romcom pitch for you.
But horror? Horror is profoundly personal and undeniably unique to the person consuming it. One person’s stuff of nightmares is another’s walk through a sunny park. Different things scare different people and, whilst we can all probably agree that watching someone saw their own hand off is never going to be considered family viewing, there will be people who do not classify that as “real horror.” Whilst I would be hiding behind the sofa at the sight of a creaking door in an abandoned house on a windy night, my husband would be happily second screening and tweeting about dodgy special effects.
In researching this article – albeit in an extremely lazy way – I asked Twitter what the horror genre meant to them. There was an interesting discussion about the crossover of horror and other genres – sci-fi and thriller being particular favorites – and of how horror often elicits a visceral reaction from the reader or viewer. Some wrote of how they physically react to good horror and are unable to go upstairs alone or turn out the light or fall asleep after reading or watching something particularly affecting. The brilliant horror writer @craigwallwork replied to say ‘Just as the nightmare is a tool to learn how to survive in a safe environment, horror allows us to live through a terrible experience and know we will be okay. There’s something rewarding about that. So horror is cathartic. It teaches us to live.’ which is something I have never thought about whilst I have been peeking through my fingers to read the next chapter of a horror novel but is 100% true. Reaching the final page of a novel, surviving the horror within, is a feat that I have often rewarded myself for with a cup of tea, biscuit or sometimes a long awaited wee. We have made it out the other side, we survived the beast, we are alive, we win, we are victorious. But still I pondered the basic fact that what makes me scream, makes others snicker – how do we define horror in a universal way? How do we get that ‘one size fits all’ genre definition? Is it even possible?
Let’s put it to the test. I am going to tell you a scary story – two scary stories in fact. Scary things that are real, that happened to me. Get the popcorn.
My first scary story involves jam. Yes, jam. The stuff you spread on toast and have in sandwiches, the stuff you put into a PB&J – sweet, sticky, fruity, fun jam.
But not for me.
When I was about nine-years-old I had a terrible run of nightmares about jam. In my nightmares I was caught in a jam factory. I would flee from a faceless assailant who always eventually caught me and strapped me onto one of the endless conveyor belts that looped around the factory. I was on that conveyor belt for what felt like hours, desperately struggling to get loose, unable to move, horrifically aware of the fate that awaited me. When I reached the end of the conveyor belt there was a huge bucket suspended from the roof. The bucket would tip painfully slowly and the contents would gloop down from above. Jam. A huge, sloppy mess of jam, covering me, pinning me to the conveyor belt, drowning me in a sticky horror that I could not escape.
I don’t know what happened after I was covered in the jam – I always woke up before I could suffocate or be crushed by the sheer volume – but the claustrophobia of those few moments before I gained consciousness was painfully real. Even writing this I am more aware of my breathing and am remembering struggling to gasp through the gelatinous gloop.
Fast forward a couple of years – I am in my early teens, the jam nightmares have gone; I am older, wiser, less easily scared by boiled summer fruit. My scary story takes place once more at night – in the deepest, darkest hour before dawn – when everything is still, silent, enveloped in gloom. I awake from sleep in my room, a normal night, needing a wee, preparing to roll out of bed and go to the bathroom… and then I see it, crawling across the floor towards me. It’s black and big and approaching steadily. Is it one of my siblings? No, it’s too big and moving on all fours with far more grace than they could manage. Maybe it’s our dog.
Except, we don’t have a dog.
It’s silent, sinewy, a dark form moving slowly, deliberately across the floor towards my bed. It has intent, it has a need. I am that need. I am frozen with fear. I stop moving, stop breathing, my heart is the only part of me that works and it THUMPS, THUMPS, THUMPS in my chest – any moment now my heart will burst right out of me and make a break for the door all by itself. I cannot run, cannot scream, I will never close my eyes again, I am stuck here in this moment of terror forever. And then the thing on my floor stops, shifts and slowly, ever so slowly, lifts its head to look at me. I see brightly glowing eyes burning in a dark skull. No other features. Just eyes. They see me. They see my very soul.
And then I black out.
That is the only explanation that I have for what happened next. For, as soon as the creature looked at me, as soon as I saw those eyes, I fell straight back to sleep and did not wake again until morning. But how? Falling back to sleep would have been physically impossible – I was frozen with fear, I was never going to close my eyes again – especially with that thing in my room. I was desperate for a wee, on the verge of wetting the bed, I would have been kept awake by my bladder. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. I fell back to sleep. When it looked at me.
When I woke again in the morning I tried to convince myself that it had all been a dream, but both the door to my room and my wardrobe door were wide open. My entire family swore they had opened neither. I slept with a chair against my wardrobe door for the next two years.
And there you have it – two frightening experiences that happened to me nearly thirty years ago and that I still remember vividly today. Which one do you find most scary? “Jam” or “creature from the depths of Hell crawling across my bedroom floor to get me” (both extremely snappy titles)? I’m sure that most people would pick the hell creature, but for me it was, and still is, jam.
I do not have a mortal fear of jam – I will happily add it to every scone my British mouth scoffs – but to this day I break out in a light sweat whenever I recall those nights of terror. Why do I find that more scary? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it was that the nightmares went on for months and stopped me from viewing my bed as sanctuary – my bed became somewhere that I did battle, a place I had to be wary of. Maybe my unconscious mind linked the jam to the imminent arrival of my period, to me leaving childhood behind and becoming a woman – probably not, I doubt my subconscious was that sophisticated then and I doubt it is now. Maybe it has something to do with growing up, with the inevitability of life, the conveyor belt/treadmill of adulthood that I would soon find myself on – again, a huge stretch.
Nope, I believe the reason to be far simpler. It just fucking scared me. No reason, no great psychological link, no therapy session needed. It just scared me. Me – my psyche, my nerves. In the same way that I am scared by Hellraiser even though I know it’s just actors and make-up, in the same way that I am by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road even though I know it is a work of pure fiction and that I will never have to enter a basement like the one featured in the novel.
And do you know what? Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe horror is undefinable in a “one size fits all” way, and I love that. I love that my horror is different to yours, my husband’s, my best friend’s, and pretty much every person I know. I love that the horror genre can affect every person that reads or views it in a different way – we aren’t expected to gasp at the same time for the same reason; we are free to react in our own way at our time. Maybe horror is a genre for the individual, one that allows you to make up your own mind and doesn’t demand you fall in line with everyone else. Maybe it is impossible to truly define what horror is for each and every person and maybe, just maybe, that is what makes it so fucking great.
*If you have, or do, read LOATP please do not read anything into the fact that I called what happens at the end the ‘Big Bad’ – I am simply trying to make this an interesting article and not commenting on my own anatomy or the physical act that happens at the end of the book!