On Writing Horror by Alex S. Johnson

More often than not these days, I am forced to ask myself some hard questions.

Whence this enduring fascination with horror and association with the fictional genre of the same name?

Am I obsessed with darkness, cruelty and evil? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I recognize, now more than ever, the reality of these qualities. I used to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that despite their manifestations in daily life, that these are abstract categories of the aesthetic realm and easy mannequins upon which to drape storytelling.

I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Although I refuse to impute essential evil to human beings–I was and still remain a believer in the core goodness of people–I do think there are individuals whose behavior is a transgression of the fragile bonds that unite the human community. Whether we call these individuals criminals, gangsters or monsters is a matter of nomenclature that tends to obscure the real issues.

How do people slide over the tenuous, slippery dividing line between outrage at evil behavior and demonstrating it, becoming it?

I have several theories, although my professional training is as a writing instructor and rhetorician, not as a criminologist, theologist or philosopher. From personal observation, I think that very often, evil behavior stems from a desire to do good and be good.

Awful paradox! Yet how else do we explain the cruelty, malice and selfishness of those who depict themselves as righteous and just?

Carl Jung imputed these dark impulses at the heart of the human beast to what he famously called “the shadow self”–the sum total of the conscious ego’s rejection of abjected material: desires and drives that, given free reign, cause injury and suffering to others. The dark side of the moon, if you will. What we refuse to believe possible of ourselves on the conscious level, driven down and projected outwards, becomes the Enemy, the Adversary (a common English translation of the Hebrew word Shaitan, or Satan). Look at the wars that have been waged in the name of the most holy, whether by Christians or followers of Islam. The untold misery we see around us as a result of violence carried out under the auspices of religion. The millions of lives that are lost, the devastation to our fair and fragile ecosystem.

There is no person alive who has not felt the draw of the dark side. In the Star Wars movie saga, inspired by and based on the teachings of Dr. Jung and the wisdom of the most ancient spiritual texts we know of, the Vedas, George Lucas depicts what his friend Joseph Campbell dubbed “the hero’s journey”–the dramatic arc of the human psyche from birth to death, in which all must needs face the shadow self, embrace and incorporate the dark side we all contain, and overcome it to become wise and aware beings. Short of that apotheosis, all of us stand at the cusp of a chasm, dreading the challenge of the abyss, the monster within.

But monsters can be guides and helpmates too. They can assist us in coming to terms with the unspeakable and untenable–emotions the medieval world knew as the deadly sins–avarice, anger, lust, gluttony, and the rest. They can help us negotiate the labyrinth of human, to recognize that fear of the dark side, horror before the shadow self, must be transcended, lest we allow it to shape our will in ways we condemn in others–towards anger, towards injustice, towards violence, towards malice.

Writing is a positive and soul-cleansing force, and writing horror, at least for me, is a way to put the demons to work for me instead of letting them become my puppet masters. I know I am capable of evil behavior, and that if my desires are thwarted I can behave in a way that is hurtful to others. I have no desire to cause hurt or become it; I just want to understand its nature and deep sources, in order to illuminate my own vision of human potential, to protect myself and my loved ones against it, and to point a way–however flawed, tentative and subject to revision–out.


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