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Is Horror Subversive?

To me, this is one of those questions where given responses frequently go against perceived experience. My experience of horror -- culturally -- is generally one of subversion. True, the underlying politics of much horror (especially filmic horror) is conservative, as are the morals. There is frequently a desperate attempt to reinstall the status quo by the end, no matter how devoted to destroying it the author has been -- and a tendency to punish characters who step outside the norm (such as the sexually promiscuous ... but hang on! Is faithfulness and sexual purity the norm?)

However, as a literature I think horror allows the writer to be subversive in the sense of undermining existing complacencies and violating norms in an initially familiar and often comfortable context, expressing hidden social fears and dragging that which society and individuals wish to keep hidden into the light, albeit briefly. To me, the 'happy ending' (restoration of normality) that often occurs in horror is a tainted affair, more a literary conceit than a true thematic restoration or justification of the status quo. Many (most) horror stories that allow normality to return do so through a deceptive bargain: you're still alive, and that's fine, and you've gone back to your comfortable suburban house, but there's things beneath the mask that you have to acknowledge now and they'll never go away. They'll always return to destroy your peace of mind. This applies to both the characters and the readers. Cope with that, if you can. Like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, you might save the world from the evil, but the Nazgul blade has left a wound that cannot ever heal. Often it can leave you an exile in your own place. You've seen what the pods produce and you're the only one who knows -- live with the knowledge. Generally speaking in horror stories, innocence is never returned, even when it pretends to have been.

Often, too, other more literal structures are destroyed that are never allowed to return -- not very conservationist, it seems to me. This is why horror has dwelt in that literary ghetto everyone talks about much longer than SF or, currently, fantasy.

OK, this is all generalisation. But the perceived wisdom that horror as a genre is conservative is to me as valid as saying SF is radical. There are plenty of science fiction stories (whole periods of them) where alternatives are presented only as a means of indicating that we'd better watch what we allow to happen -- stated or implied moral fables. I do agree that fantasy and SF tend to work by exploring alternatives (even if, as in the case of epic fantasy, the alternatives are formulated from structures borrowed from the past -- and are hence conservative), but one has to consider the results of the exploration before judging the literature itself. In the end, it is authors, not genres, that govern the political and moral conservatism (or otherwise) of a story.

There's another subversive element to horror. As a literature it has always seemed to me to be less constrained stylistically and even structurally than some of the other genres -- but that's a vast generalisation, too.


copyright©Robert Hood 2002

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