Hosted by Ty Schwamberger
Written by Elizabeth Massie
Pin any established* horror writer to the wall and demand he/she give a clear, detailed explanation of how they came to write what they write, and you’ll get an answer unique to that writer. The answer may have similarities to the answers of others, but his/hers will also have small details that are personal, intimate, and sometimes painful. That’s because horror is a genre that deals with the personal, the intimate, and the painful. Yes, it can deal with universal themes and often does, but the writer who imagines these tales are coming at them from their own dark and private places.
I’m going to get personal with this. Stop reading now if that idea bores or bothers you.
(*A quick clarification: I specify established horror writers because they are the ones who continue to delve over and over again into the terrifying and the troubling, the horrifying and the hurtful, the human and the inhumane. Some writers have dabbled in the genre for the fun of it, sticking a toe or foot into the swamp, mainly in an attempt to see if they can gross-out a reader. It’s my guess that most of these writers won’t become established. After a while the fun of the gross will fade and they’ll move on.)
I’m a horror writer. It’s not all I write. I also write historical fiction, media tie-ins, features and biographies for American history textbooks, science readers and activities for elementary and middle school programs, language arts testing passages, poetry, and plays. But horror was my first love, and we remained committed to each other.
I was a ‘fraidy-cat when I was little. That’s not to say I was cowering in the corner at any given moment, but a lot of things disturbed and bothered me. The second of four kids, the second of three girls, I fit many of the “middle child” traits: I tended to be secretive, keeping my deeper thoughts and feelings to myself. I was a peacemaker, trying to see all sides of a situation. I often felt alone, though was lucky enough to have a sister (my younger) who was and remains my best friend.
And I was overly sensitive. And some things that scared me didn’t seem to bother my older sister or younger brother.
There was the witch who lived a block down the street; she sat on her front porch and made bizarre sounds as we’d run by. There was the haunted house on the hill across the street; we never saw anyone go in and out of that house – ever – but there were lights that went on at night. There was the bully who lived in the duplex next door; he broke my Chatty Cathy doll so she could never speak again. There was a ghost in our basement, in that back-back room where nobody went. There was a smashed baby doll head that came to sit in my window at night to stare at me. There was the arm under the bed that grabbed for my bare ankle should it protrude from under the covers.
Not only was I surrounded by things I imagined wanted to catch, eat, or terrorize me, but I also grew up during a time of astoundingly strange, frightening, unsettling, and sometimes socially challenging television shows and movies. No Saw or Hostel. No Audition or Human Centipede. Rather The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Way Out. There were short films our class watched that warned us of the dangers of blasting caps, and we were crowded into the school auditorium to view Fail Safe and short documentaries on how we were to protect ourselves in case of an attack by the Soviets. A good number of these offerings dealt with themes of good and evil, fairness and injustice, understanding and denial, judgments and misjudgments, compassion and cruelty. These stuck with me. I thought about them. I dwelled on them. I tried to figure it all out.
My reading choices were varied, but included darker, more introspective works that lingered, that made me question and think about the human condition, even when I was not yet a teen. The Child Buyer by John Hersey, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Psycho by Robert Bloch. I read accounts in the papers and magazines about the brutality of the Vietnam War and the oft-times bloody fight for Civil Rights.
Then there was the issue of my own abuse. First, let me state right here and now that my nuclear family was wonderful, fun, loving, nurturing. So was most of our extended family, and we had quite a few in our small town. Yet it is my speculation that most families have a cold place, a danger zone. Ours was in the form of one particular family member. I won’t specify, but will admit here that I was sexually molested by this person. Off and on from age five until I was about eleven. I felt disgusted, confused, angry, and helpless. This kind of violation will settle into your soul and leave its mark. It will make you fearful and distrusting of certain aspects of life, but can also give you the chance to fight back and rise up. It can give you insight into the pains and struggles of others. It can cause you to wrangle with the concept of the terrors humans can endure (or not) and the intrinsic value of humanity itself. As for me, I have risen. The abuser is long dead and I live on.
Never in a million years would I have, during those tender years, imagined I would become a horror writer. A writer, yes. I always wanted to be a writer (as well as a famous horseback rider and actress), but writer of horror fiction? No. Yet life has a way of leading you up the right path if you pay attention. And so here I am. Embracing most of the ghosts of my past for what they are and what they did for me. Appreciating the things that disturbed me because they have a role in the writer, and the person, I am today.
I write horror. My horror may be psychological or supernatural. My horror may be graphic or understated. My horror may deal with social issues or spiritual issues. It may deal with the alienated, the isolated, the lonely. It may deal with the wealthy or the poor. It may be light-hearted or serious. But it all springs from my ghosts, from my past. And as time goes on, I collect more ghosts. I embrace them and all their disturbing aspects. I use them. I learn from them. And I hope my offering them up to readers might find something of value for themselves, as well.
Next time you meet a horror writer, keep this in mind. We’re dealing with our own personal, intimate, and painful ghosts, in whatever combination or quantity that might be. For our own reasons, we feel compelled to lay some of that bare and share with you. Don’t assume we’re just “trying to add more horror to the world” as one woman at a book signing accused me of. Most of us are, I believe, trying to understand the roots of horror, the reasons horrors exist. We’re writing for ourselves. We’re also writing for you. Our genre may make us seem tough, but it’s my guess that we all have a private, tender place on the inside. If you cut us open, yes, we’ll bleed.
You can learn more about Elizabeth and her writing at: Elizabeth Massie
Ty is an author in the horror genre. To learn more about his work, you can visit his website at: Ty Schwamberger