Sarah Langan on Imagining Horror as the World Burns

To celebrate the release of the second season of Come Join Us By The Fire, our audio horror anthology, we’ve asked authors with stories included in this year’s anthology to join us and write about horror. Below, Sarah Langan, whose story “The Changeling” you can listen to here, writes about her lifelong love of horror and the real-life horrors of fall 2020.


I’m pretty sure I was born loving horror. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to be scared. I’m told the same type of personality loves roller coasters (I do!) – it’s all about the thrill. The feeling of unsafety, while knowing you’re safe. As a kid, reading books by Lois Duncan and watching movies like Dawn of the Dead was great fun and a type of intellectual exercise. A giant what if: Would I go to a mall, if the dead rose, because that gun store would be super cool? Would I learn to fly a helicopter? Would I ride a tricycle through an empty hotel? Learn to astral project? 

It’s so much fun to imagine these survival scenarios, and to also imagine that we’d be the ones to choose wisely. We’d never go into the house alone. We’d never walk into the room without looking behind the door. And if a guy walking really slowly came toward us, we’d absolutely stab him in the head! Jesus, he’s obviously a zombie! The cops SO won’t care! 

Those were such fun days. Even as we began to grow up, and the stories got proportionately scarier, because I was proportionately more mortal, they were still great fun. Even as I wrote my own novels, and two towers fell near where I worked, making me sick for years, I was still, somehow, safe. I believed in society and my country and my fellow human beings.

There’s this article someone wrote about how when the towers were hit, we entered a bad, parallel universe. Somewhere else, our counterparts are living their best lives. And we are here, living the wrong side of “The Savage Curtain.”

I live in California. Our Covid-19 numbers, as I write this, are still high. As someone with asthma and messed-up lungs from the World Trade Center, I’m a bad candidate to get the disease so we’ve been careful. For instance, my mom died in New York and not only have I missed her funeral, but it’s been three months now, and I haven’t even flown home to see my dad. On good days I understand that this makes sense, as my dad also has medical issues. On bad days, I wonder if I’m just selfish, and so numb inside I can’t be bothered.

Virtual school started up for both my kids three weeks ago. We got them nice chairs, so they can sit in their rooms. My older daughter takes PE every other day. This involves roll call, and watching films about physical fitness. Covertly, to keep herself occupied, she does sit-ups.

It was the hottest day on record over the weekend. When the wind blew, it hurt my eyeballs. Literally. The heat burned my eyes. My husband and I stopped at homeless encampments to give away bottles of frozen water. This is the first thing we’ve done to help other people since the beginning of the pandemic. On good days, I tell myself that raising my kids and writing my fiction is the way I make the world better. On bad days, it’s unclear to me what I’m actually teaching them. Pretend everything’s fine? Let them believe they’re safe? Are they safe?

Two days ago, I heard on the radio that the enormous, record shattering fires up north were started by gender reveal party incendiaries. I had to stop for a second. Because this happened last year, in 2019. Terrible fires that sent me and my family fleeing to the ocean, were started by a gender reveal party. I assumed the radio was playing an old episode. Even as I read more about it on social media, which I no longer trust, I assumed: it can’t be the same thing again.

And then, at dinner, my husband asked if I’d heard what had started the wildfires: a gender reveal party. And I literally asked, “But hasn’t this already happened?” And he said that it had, last year. Yes, this was the second terrible wildfire started by a gender reveal party. And I felt very untethered from the world just then. 

Yesterday morning, people in San Francisco woke to orange skies and cool weather, despite the heat wave. When I got my master’s in environmental toxicology, we studied this effect, called global dimming. It’s not desirable. People with asthma are likely to get sick, and in the long term, die. I heard on the Twitter stream that in fact, it really wasn’t that bad. It just looked bad. And I was reminded of the weeks after September 11, 2001, when my boss called to tell me that while most of the office had rented a place to work in Jersey, could I go back to Wall Street and hold down the fort? I wasn’t sure that I could, but everyone kept saying the air was fine. Not really as bad as it looked. And I went back. And the vents were open to outside for legal reasons (?), and ashy pieces of building covered my paperwork, and I started getting bloody noses. But sure, it wasn’t that bad.

Last night, my sinuses were bothering me too much to sleep. I wondered if it was psychosomatic, or unrelated, somehow, to the giant fires burning all over California. And then I woke up to the smell of smoke. It’s foggy out this morning. The smoke has carried. It should be bright and sunny, but it isn’t. We will be leaving for a hotel in a few hours, and maybe we’ll stay for four nights, or maybe we’ll stay for a month. 

It feels so odd to talk about horror in fiction, when it’s happening right now in the world. There’s a friction there that’s painful to me. I find myself often close to crying. And most days I work through it, do the jobs I’m supposed to do, despite everything else. But today is not that day. So, I’m sorry for you, if you’re not in that kind of mood. I empathize. 90% of the time, I don’t want to feel any of this, either. Fuck this shit. I mean, seriously. Fuck it.

To get back to the question (I realize I digress), the piece of horror that speaks most directly to me right now, and informs my trajectory, is a B movie called Frankenstein Unbound, with a 44% rating of Rotten Tomatoes, with which I would not disagree. But I’d give 2020 a 35% Rotten Tomatoes rating. So, whatever.

I watched Frankenstein Unbound when I was about fifteen, and what I remember most was being totally freaked out. The movie plays with timelines and weather, real historical characters and fictional ones. It’s nihilistic in a way that truly captures nihilism. Nobody wants the world to end, but it does seem to be happening, and it does not seem to be preventable. 

I guess my point here is: in horror, nobody’s playing with the idea of their safety anymore. It’s no longer fun to imagine ourselves in a scary story and wonder what we’d do under those same circumstances. We know already. I’d go to the office and get sick. Then I’d learn not to do that, and teach my children not to do that. Maybe you, reading this, would be smarter than me. I hope you would be.

What the Frankenstein story has in common, through all its iterations (because Mary Shelley is a genius, born of a genius mom whom I hero-worship), is that a creator has intended to do something good, but instead done something very bad, and in doing so, broken down the walls of human reality. This creator could admit his error, but instead he stays quiet, ashamed by his failure, and this is the real tragedy – his pride. He’s stuck in a position he can’t or won’t walk back from and he pays for it with the life of his entire family. 

As a kid, Frankenstein stuck with me in ways I couldn’t articulate. But we are all time travelers, and I held onto the story until now, when it seems applicable to my life. Reality has broken down. The horror is here. What we need to do is not just admit that it is horror but also admit that we have made mistakes. 

And then, the real horror: we need to fix them.

That’s what I think about when I write, these days. It’s also, on some time-traveling, cautionary tale level, what I knew I would one day have to think about, and have always known. Just like a character from a Lois Duncan novel.

Wishing you all very well, from some place in California, that I hope is far from smoke and plague, and most importantly, lies.

Sincerely,
Sarah Langan


Sarah Langan, a Columbia MFA graduate and three-time recipient of the Bram Stoker Award, is the author of novels including The Keeper, The Missing, and Good Neighbors (out Feb 2, 2021). She grew up in Long Island and she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Find out more at SarahLangan.com.

Listen to Sarah’s story “The Changeling” on Google Play here, and listen the the entirety of the second season of Come Join Us By The Fire here.



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