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Writing While Traumatized: Horror, History, and the Healing Powers of Genre-Blending

CW: sexual trauma

I love gothic literature and old horror movies. My favorite books are still Wuthering Heights and Dracula. Two of my favorite movies are The Wolf Man (1941) and Rebecca (1940). I was raised on classic horror. I remember spending Saturday nights as a very young child parked in front of the old console TV in our two-bedroom single-wide in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My brother and I sat with a bowl of air-popped popcorn between us and a couple glasses of (probably red) kool-aid and watched the horror double-feature.

I don't remember what channel is was on, but it was network TV. We definitely didn't have cable. And I remember there was an introduction to the evening, like a show opener, that was this white screen with blood streaming down it and then a bat would fly across. Some movies I remember really well (The Ape–1940) and some just in flashes (like a battle scene between a werwolf and a mummy). My love for monsters and monster movies was cemented over the course of those Saturday nights (more on that in Wednesday's post).

During those same formative years, and for some time before them, I was also being molested and raped by my step-father. And so, in the presence of my own living horror, when horror films took a turn towards more graphic violence—when people (primarily men) became the monsters I saw reflected in the movies (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare, etc.)—my love of horror came to an abrupt and jarring end. Those movies and the violent imagery they offered mixed with my very real understanding of how monstrous men could be, and they turned my stomach. Horror lost me. But in studying the genre, what I've come to learn is that horror lost a lot of people at that same cultural moment.

A little history of the genre:

To begin with, I'm talking about horror in film even though I am a horror writer, because for most people, it's in film that they (at least first) experienced the genre. The history of horror in film dates back to as early as the 1890's. The first U.S. depiction of Frankenstein came in 1910, but horror really started to take off in the 1930's when Universal Pictures began producing their monster movies, like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. Then came, of course, the 1940's-1950's, which are what most people consider the heyday of horror. This era produced some of the most famous horror films, including The Wolf Man, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the Post-war era, horror saw less supernatural monsters and more anxieties about human evolution and development and social protest (The Blob, Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead). Of course, I'm painting in broad strokes here. Crossing over and through these years was also sci-fi horror that explored cultural fears of radiation, scientific advancement, and space. The point I'm leading to is that prior to around the mid-to-late 1970's, everyone watched horror. That's right, horror was mainstream media.

Going back to the films my brother and I watched, my mother would have never classified them as horror. To her, they were just the movies she grew up with. If you asked her back then what "horror" was, she would have said Freddy Krueger. A lot of people would have said Freddy Krueger.

Note: this is the point in the article where I have to pause and say I'm not making detrimental claims about gore and/or slasher films or even that segment of the genre. This is about how the move towards those tropes unarguably altered the genre. How the move towards graphic visuals of bodies, mutilations, and violence (available because of advancements made in film industry technology), shifted horror from mainstream media to its own genre. And in making such a move, it lost a lot of people, many of whom it has not regained.

Back to me. So here I am now, in my forties finally processing decades of trauma and, wouldn't you know it, now ready to start writing fiction. I'm finally ready to own my desire to create stories and move that desire into action, so imagine my shock when I started writing horror. I found myself in what felt like a chasm, because I no longer associated myself with horror of any kind. The more I processed my own traumas, the less tolerant I became of violent imagery and graphic depictions of suffering. And yet, I knew what I was writing absolutely belonged in the horror genre. I mean, I was/am writing monsters. Scary monsters. People dealing with the aftermath of scary monsters. But not human monsters, I still can't go there. So I felt a resistance to my own writing. I didn't want to be a horror author because I didn't want to have to experience horror as a genre. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Prior to the late 70's, horror was best known for the outlet it gave to work out and through our social and cultural anxieties of the day. It was a space to process–not the thing we needed to process, but the vehicle through which we could do the processing. After I had my break-up with horror, I missed it. Not the new version of it, I missed the horror I grew up with. I missed the space of imagination and fright, the space that helped a young girl be mesmerized and temporarily taken out of her own living nightmare. As a writer with a protagonist who came almost fully formed to me, I struggled with how to tell the story and reclaim that magical, scary, wondrous, dark feeling I used to get as a horror fan. I wondered: might my own writing be a means of healing my relationship with horror?

There has been, in film, an attempt to reclaim some of the lost ground of horror. Recent titles like Get Out (2017), The Babadook (2014), Lovecraft Country (2021), and Let the Right One In (2008) harken back to a pre-slasher era. I doubt, though, that the genre will ever be considered mainstream again, that it will ever have the kind of universal audience in enjoyed when any mother was a child or when I was younger. I'm sure that's not necessarily a bad thing...actually, I'm not that sure. I miss the innocence of those movies. I miss the atmosphere, the mystique. Even the contemporary movies I listed above don't feel the way those older movies did for me (the notion of nostalgia is not lost on me here). That's where genre-blending comes in, and that's how I've made peace with writing in a genre I don't feel entirely comfortable in.

Genre-blending is exactly what it sounds like: taking tropes from two or more genres and blending them together to make something different. It's like mixing paint. Maybe you have a red you want to use, but it's way too bright. And there's an orange, but it's too orange, so you blend the two until you get the color you want. For me, that's been blending horror with mystery/thriller and fantasy/supernatural written for an upmarket audience. I'm not talking about subgenera here. Remember the paint example? When we mix the red and the orange, we get something altogether new. It has red and orange in it, but it's its own color now. When it comes to my personal limitations with horror, this blending has been a way of soothing the pain points of the genre for me. It's been a way to channel the emotions I used to feel as that little girl in front of the TV on Saturday nights, with those of the adult woman processing her own trauma, and the author writing a protagonist who has her own agenda.

When people ask me what I write, I say supernatural thrillers, but I know that isn't an industry marketing term. For the industry, it's a subgenera. One of many. But in my heart, it's a new space. It's a new color, created out of my history and my experiences and my desire to reclaim something I lost. And in that way, it is horror, because at its base, horror has always been about power.

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