Is Horror the Most Conservative Fiction Genre?

 

shutterstock_232268611In two days, I’ll be a panelist at the World Horror Convention. This surprises me as much as anyone: Horror, I’ve always thought, just ain’t my thing. But on the other hand, if I run down my list of favorite books from the past ten or fifteen years, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas Series holds several slots. Many books that I read and thoroughly enjoyed — thinking they were fantasies or thrillers — take some very dark turns; a reasonable person could look at Tim Powers’s Declare, for example, and be forgiven for thinking it belongs on the shelf next to Steven King instead of sitting next to Terry Pratchett.

In preparing for WHC, I reviewed some notes from a discussion I listened to at Comic Con Salt Lake. I wish I could remember who said it, but one of the authors in the discussion made the following statement: “Horror is the most conservative of all genres because, as the story builds to a climax, the protagonist is stripped of everything artificial and is left with only the core of who they are as a person to defend themselves against the Evil that’s coming at them.”

I don’t think it’s a truism that the protagonists of horror stories are the most moral people in the room. Maybe that used to be true, but in the post-Scream world, the sex-obsessed teens aren’t always the first to get knocked off. I’ve stopped reading some novels (both horror and otherwise) because the author kept taking me into the minds of people I found too repulsive to want to spend time with, even when they were being stalked by something/someone worse than them. But if I look at the darker stories that make my cut of my best novels of the past several years — especially the Koontz — I find over and over that I’m reading about good people who get themselves trapped in horrible places, battling against some truly evil forces, and yet manage to remain good people throughout. They’re often given a choice to betray their core values–but in the end, they remain true to their principles.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that this “formula” is unique to horror; what I’ve just described is simply good storytelling, no matter the genre.  But that said — and maybe it’s because I have horror on the brain leading up to the convention — the horror genre lays this formula bare, and does the best job of showing us (the readers or the viewers) good people trying to do and be good when the evil around them is both evident and malevolent.

In a dinner conversation last night with some friends, I brought up the idea that fairy tales — especially in their original non-Disneyfied versions — are the original horror stories. As the conversation progressed, I was shocked to hear nearly everyone in the room suggest that children should be protected from the original stories and only exposed to the Happily Ever After versions. I’m not sure I agree with that. Not all of the original fairy tales had happy endings but, for generations before Disney, children loved them anyway.

When Neil Gaiman wrote his updated take on Hansel and Gretel, he said:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids. And, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming: t’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story, as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

I definitely think that’s true for children and fairy-tales.

And in this topsy-turvy world, maybe the best stories from the horror genre can do the same thing for those of us who are a little older, too.

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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I haven’t read much horror fiction, but consider how many horror movies basically boil down to punishing teenagers for having premarital sex.

    There are very few horror movies where the victims don’t deserve their fate on some level. Actions have consequences is a pretty conservative concept.

    Furthermore, any story where beings/souls exist outside of the observable universe is (arguably) inherently conservative, as that would be counter to materialism.

    The horror stories that don’t conform to these rules tend to be genre-bending meta-stories, like the first Alien movie, or the Scream franchise.

    • #1
  2. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    Misthiocracy: The horror stories that don’t conform to these rules tend to be genre-bending meta-stories, like the first Alien movie, or the Scream franchise.

    I think that used to be true, but isn’t held-to quite as much anymore.  Justin Cronin’s The Passage is one of the books that I gave up on because morality didn’t matter–and it’s won some major praise/awards (not that that matters for the purpose of this discussion).

    Ditto for many Steven King novels.  For example, I enjoyed Duma Key, but by no means would I say the protagonist won the day because he was a moral person.

    • #2
  3. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Great post.

    I really don’t like the original fairy tales. It’s not just because they are dark. It’s also because the stories are so disjointed and rambling. Maybe they were originally passed down orally, and every grandma added her embellishments (“And then they chopped it up into little pieces, and left it on the girl’s doorstep!” [Gasp.])

    • #3
  4. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    sawatdeeka:Great post.

    I really don’t like the original fairy tales. It’s not just because they are dark. It’s also because the stories are so disjointed and rambling. Maybe they were originally passed down orally, and every grandma added her embellishments (“And then they chopped it up into little pieces, and left it on the girl’s doorstep!” [Gasp.])

    Exactly so. The first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairytales were direct transcriptions of oral-tradition stories. They  had no literary embellishment at all.  By the seventh edition, Wilhelm had “fixed” many of the stories so that they read better, but he also inserted a different sense of morality into many of the stories than were found in the first edition.

    • #4
  5. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    The Beard of Avon:

    sawatdeeka:Great post.

    I really don’t like the original fairy tales. It’s not just because they are dark. It’s also because the stories are so disjointed and rambling. Maybe they were originally passed down orally, and every grandma added her embellishments (“And then they chopped it up into little pieces, and left it on the girl’s doorstep!” [Gasp.])

    Exactly so. The first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairytales were direct transcriptions of oral-tradition stories. They had no literary embellishment at all. By the seventh edition, Wilhelm had “fixed” many of the stories so that they read better, but he also inserted a different sense of morality into many of the stories than were found in the first edition.

    I probably read about the oral tradition somewhere, and it seemed like a good explanation for the odd structure.

    • #5
  6. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    The Beard of Avon:

    I wish I could remember for certain who said it, but one of the authors in the discussion made the following statement: “Horror is the most conservative of all genres because, as the story builds to a climax, the protagonist is stripped of everything artificial and is left with only the core of who they are as a person to defend themselves against the Evil that’s coming at them.”

    That rings true.

    Many genres revolve around this ‘protagonist is stripped bare and left with only the core of who they are as a person to….’.

    Is Horror conservative because of the assumption is that there is an Evil that’s coming to get you? (Linked to the assumption that change is more likely to be evil than not.)

    Which would you say was the most Progressive genre?  I’m voting for science fiction.

    Not saying that there are no Conservative scifi writers and readers, just that the base assumption of the genre – that change is good,  interesting and transformative – is progressive.

    • #6
  7. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    Zafar:Is Horror conservative because of the assumption is that there is an Evil that’s coming to get you?

    I’ll buy that. So much fiction today seems to focus on illuminating how everything is a shade of gray, it’s nice to have a genre where, for the most part, there’s still a firm definition of black and white. There are some modern horror novels that are starting to get away from that (see my reference to The Passage above), but generally, horror probably does the best at showing that there’s a difference between good and evil in the world.

    Which would you say was the most Progressive genre? I’m voting for science fiction.

    Not saying that there are no Conservative scifi writers and readers, just that the base assumption of the genre – that change is good, interesting and transformative – is progressive

    That’s certainly true of today’s SF stories, but perhaps much less so of SF’s Golden Age. There’s been enough written about the liberal bent in SF with the Hugo awards and Sad Puppies last year that I’ll avoid pointing out specifics and just say that you’re not wrong.

    (Continued below)

    • #7
  8. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    Personally speaking–and I know I’ll get in trouble with some people for saying this–I believe Romance is, if not the most Progressve, the most dangerous genre for conservative thought (or “family values”). I know an editor at a major publishing house who calls it Romantica because of the number of raw sex scenes that populate much of Romance fiction these days. Sex is presented as a replacement for love; the initial spark of attraction is elevated above lasting commitment to a relationship.

    I have seen first-hand how the Romance Novel mindset can undermine marriage vows and ruin families, so I’m a little biased on the question.

    • #8
  9. MerryKate Inactive
    MerryKate
    @MerryKate

    Which would you say was the most Progressive genre? I’m voting for science fiction.

    Scifi usually starts out with a darwinian worldview which assumes the worst of humans, and it tends towards nihilism and gets terribly depressing. It is the perfect format for eco-warriors to tell each other how badly the world will turn out if they don’t win their latest political crusade.

    That Gaiman quote reminds me of one of my favorite C.S. Lewis comments on fairytales:

    “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

    Adults may read & watch stories about zombies, vampires and the like rather than dragons, but I think the idea fits.  I’ll conclude with yet another Lewis quote:

    “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    • #9
  10. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    A couple of years ago

    I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids. And, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming: t’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

    I’ve come across that Gaiman quote before and I like more every time.

    • #10
  11. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Somewhat relatedly, I wrote a piece on HP Lovecraft a few years back that I’m still reasonably proud of.

    • #11
  12. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    The Beard of Avon:

    Misthiocracy: The horror stories that don’t conform to these rules tend to be genre-bending meta-stories, like the first Alien movie, or the Scream franchise.

    I think that used to be true, but isn’t held-to quite as much anymore. Justin Cronin’s The Passage is one of the books that I gave up on because morality didn’t matter–and it’s won some major praise/awards (not that that matters for the purpose of this discussion).

    Ditto for many Steven King novels. For example, I enjoyed Duma Key, but by no means would I say the protagonist won the day because he was a moral person.

    I haven’t read too much of King lately, even though I think he is a brilliant writer.  Based on his early work, though, I thought King would be personally conservative.  Many of his early books (The Stand, for example) are about good versus evil as a proxy for the conflict between God and Demons.  Because King seemed to understand this conflict so well, I assumed that he (like Koontz, who writes in a very similar vein) would live his own life that way.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that King is a lefty.  Oh well.  Thank goodness that Koontz is so prolific.  And I miss Tom Clancy.

    • #12
  13. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    Zafar: Which would you say was the most Progressive genre? I’m voting for science fiction.

    Not saying that there are no Conservative scifi writers and readers, just that the base assumption of the genre – that change is good, interesting and transformative – is progressive.

    There’s a ton of lefty sci-fi fans that would agree with you but I think you’re not really looking at science fiction properly if you think “change is good” is the underlying message of the genre.

    For example none of 1984, Brave New World and A Canticle for Leibowitz posit a great future filled with positive change – one posits a totalitarian dictatorship, the other a hedonistic drug-using dystopia and the last ends with a second nuclear conflagration.

    Science fiction is more properly about telling stories about characters in a different setting than the modern world while eschewing magic (except Space Opera, which is special) – most of the modern “progressive” fiction, at least in American SF, is the result a trend where SF editors and authors were chasing mainstream respectability by embracing publishing’s overall leftist bent.

    • #13
  14. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. ” -G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

    • #14
  15. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    J Climacus:“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. ” -G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

    Bruno Bettelheim wrote about fairy tales from a Freudian perspective in The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

    • #15
  16. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    Horror tends to be conservative because it shows that there are forces abroad that cannot be understood or managed merely through technical competence, and that our hubris and arrogance may unleash destructive forces beyond our comprehension. These are lessons in humility and the value of tradition.

    • #16
  17. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    I don’t know if ghost stories should be included in the horror genre, but Russell Kirk wrote quite a few of them.

    • #17
  18. Man With the Axe Inactive
    Man With the Axe
    @ManWiththeAxe

    What was said above about fairy tales, that they can be dark and at the same time show how courageous good can overcome evil, is exemplified in “The Princess Bride.”

    There are very bad men in positions of power, murderers and torturers, there are monsters, and there are heroes. There are even bad men who, deep down, are capable of being heroic once they are given the chance.

    A child hearing this story (both the book and the movie are terrific) learns a lot about what it takes to overcome evil.

    • #18
  19. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I’m not sure if science fiction as a whole is leftist or conservative, but the “Dean of Science Fiction,” Robert Heinlein, was one of the most libertarian writers ever.  (If you google “Dean of Science Fiction,” the first thing to come up will be Heinlein’s Wikipedia page.)

    • #19
  20. DrewInWisconsin Member
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    The Beard of Avon:When Neil Gaiman wrote his updated take on Hansel and Gretel, he said:

    I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids. And, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.

    And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming: t’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

    And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story, as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

    I definitely think that’s true for children and fairy-tales.

    I think that’s true for just about any genre of literature, not just horror. Books give young people a chance to test moral values and see how they stand up to various situations — but in a sort of laboratory setting. . . .

    (Cont. below)

    • #20
  21. DrewInWisconsin Member
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    (Cont. from above)

    Then, when the values they’ve tested “in the lab” are put to the test outside the pages of a book, they’ve prepared themselves.

    Books — perhaps particularly fiction — are a great way to build a moral foundation in young people while you still have them in a “controlled setting” of the home.

    The Gaiman quote is almost exactly the same as the mission statement of a curriculum publisher where I worked for a decade writing and editing literature curriculum.

    • #21
  22. DrewInWisconsin Member
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    MerryKate:That Gaiman quote reminds me of one of my favorite C.S. Lewis comments on fairytales:

    “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

    That’s great!

    • #22
  23. Mister D Member
    Mister D
    @MisterD

    I am a big horror fan and co-host of a weekly horror podcast. In my experience, horror people lean more towards the independent or libertarian spectrum (basically wanting to be left the heck alone). But this is about the work, not the people.

    Whether horror is conservative would likely depend on your interpretation of “conservative.” It is a badly misunderstood genre (even by its fans), leading to beliefs that its about killing teens for having sex. I find most horror tales have the following traits (most if not all):

    1. Recognition that evil exists in one form or another and that the world is a dangerous place.
    2. Not everyone gets a happy ending. Someone will almost certainly die, and that may not be on merit.
    3. Those who are most likely to die are the irresponsible (think the teen counselors at Camp Crystal Lake) or those who cannot recognize reality (think the scientist from Hawk’s The Thing From Another World)
    4. All people are sinners. You’ll rarely find a “noble savage” in a horror tale

    If you consider these conservative, then, sure it’s a conservative genre.

    • #23
  24. Mister D Member
    Mister D
    @MisterD

    Larry3435:I haven’t read too much of King lately, even though I think he is a brilliant writer. Based on his early work, though, I thought King would be personally conservative. Many of his early books (The Stand, for example) are about good versus evil as a proxy for the conflict between God and Demons. Because King seemed to understand this conflict so well, I assumed that he (like Koontz, who writes in a very similar vein) would live his own life that way. Imagine my surprise when I learned that King is a lefty. Oh well. Thank goodness that Koontz is so prolific. And I miss Tom Clancy.

    Many lefty writers write conservative themes without understanding they are conservative themes.

    • #24
  25. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Larry3435:

    The Beard of Avon:

    Misthiocracy: The horror stories that don’t conform to these rules tend to be genre-bending meta-stories, like the first Alien movie, or the Scream franchise.

    I think that used to be true, but isn’t held-to quite as much anymore. Justin Cronin’s The Passage is one of the books that I gave up on because morality didn’t matter–and it’s won some major praise/awards (not that that matters for the purpose of this discussion).

    Ditto for many Steven King novels. For example, I enjoyed Duma Key, but by no means would I say the protagonist won the day because he was a moral person.

    I haven’t read too much of King lately, even though I think he is a brilliant writer. Based on his early work, though, I thought King would be personally conservative. Many of his early books (The Stand, for example) are about good versus evil as a proxy for the conflict between God and Demons. Because King seemed to understand this conflict so well, I assumed that he (like Koontz, who writes in a very similar vein) would live his own life that way. Imagine my surprise when I learned that King is a lefty. Oh well. Thank goodness that Koontz is so prolific. And I miss Tom Clancy.

    Indeed, my biggest complaint about King is his tendency to inject unnecessary supernatural subplots into straightforwardly scary stories.

    • #25
  26. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    That’s very interesting.  Odd Thomas, the only horror I’ve read since a kid, is clearly conservative and Catholic, and the trashy superficial girls were always the first to get killed in b grade horror movies and never had the sense to turn on the lights or just get the hell out.  But you may have something there.   Children’s fairy tales have been brushed clean and dumbed down so they clearly appeared to be conservative to censuring publishers.  It’s hard to find originals.

    • #26
  27. Chris Member
    Chris
    @Chris

    With its tag line of “A Grim Fairy Tale”, the late 80’s film “Pumpkinhead” has always struck me as a conservative, cautionary tale.

    Not the best movie perhaps, but a warning about the false allure of evil and how bad things can happen to good people.

    It is a Prime Movie on Amazon for anyone interested.

    • #27
  28. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    I Walton:Children’s fairy tales have been brushed clean and dumbed down so they clearly appeared to be conservative to censuring publishers. It’s hard to find originals.

    There’s a new translation of the 1st edition of Brothers Grimm. Came out last year.  http://www.amazon.com/Original-Fairy-Tales-Brothers-Grimm/dp/0691160597

    • #28
  29. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Well, you may be right if by conservative we mean by that affirming the objective reality of good and evil. This was a point made on Hollywood Jesus a few years go and, no, I cannot remember by whom.

    • #29
  30. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I think it depends on what you consider horror.  There are a streak of stories in which have miserable endings and the theme is that good people get crushed and wicked people flourish and nothing in the universe sets things right.  Those are not horror like supernatural or serial killers.  But I think that is a kind of horror.  I find that kind of thing more disturbing than Dracula or other monsters.  Not everyone would call that horror and I don’t think that is conservative.

    I think more traditional horror leans conservative, but not all of it is horror to me.  (In the way that Jaws plays like an action movie to me, but might have played as more of a horror movie in 1975.  But that may be why it still works.)

    • #30
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