Stories of Cruelty and Horror

Once I start reading a poem, story or novel, I feel compelled to finish it.  Yet recently while reading Gallery of Horror: 20 tales by the Modern Master of Dread there was one story that I could not stand to complete, “Down Among the Dead Men.”  Now this story wasn’t so frightening I couldn’t bear to read it; it was just cruel.  It dealt with a vampire in a concentration camp.  Here the narrator was dealing with real horror, with one of the greatest atrocities of the Twentieth Century, and he had to worry about a vampire preying on him and his fellow prisoners too.  For me that was too much.  If a character has to deal with realistic violence on that grand of a scale, I can’t help but feel that he or she shouldn’t have to deal with mythical monsters as well.

I suspect that the vampire was being presented as metaphor for what levels humans sink to when they are trying to survive.  But when dealing with a concentration camp you don’t need that type of metaphor.   In fact, the metaphor seems a bit cheap in this context, and has questionable implications.  If a vampire is imprisoned in concentration camp and feeding on its fellow prisoners, who is, the authors seem to be asking, the real monster?

Now I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t write about atrocities—writing about them is one of the ways we ensure they are not forgotten.  However, when someone writes about war crimes and genocide the purpose is usually to bear witness, to say these things happened and can happen again, and that any one is capable of committing these crimes, even ourselves.  Books like Night, The Shawl, and Maus may frighten us, because they show what monsters ordinary people are capable of being.  What makes these books readable is the compassion that the Elli Wiesel, Cynthia Ozick, and Art Spiegelman show to the victims of these atrocities.   Even with The Shawl, which is a work of fiction, you never feel for a moment that the characters are suffering for our titillation.

The genre of horror, however, tries to titillate its audience.  We in our everyday somewhat secure lives want to feel fear—and horror presents characters to sacrifice to that want.  Now horror can tell us of the monstrosities of which humans are capable, but not straight on.  Because the purpose of horror is to thrill us, it must approach heavy topics through metaphors.  Frankenstein is the classic example of horror, showing us an unpleasant reality through the metaphor of the sympathetic monster and the doctor who created and abandoned him.  In the film Halloween the scariest moment for me is when Lori Strode knocks on the neighbors’ door for help, and they turn off the lights and wait for her to go away.  Suddenly the movie switches from being about a boogeyman killing teenagers, to how people respond to violence, particularly violence against women.  (I have a lot say about how the first two Halloween films discuss violence against women, but that is for another time).  So these horror stories are made to frighten us, but they can use metaphors to say something more.

The best horror stories work because there is a character or characters that we feel compassion for.  When I watch a film or read a book where all the characters are unlikable, I can’t help but feel that it fails.  We feel no fear, and what is worst it tells us that everyone deserved what they got.

I suspect that “Down Among the Dead Men” was trying to titillate.  Two terrifying situations had been added together for twice the horror.  While the story was told in first person, I got the sense that the authors’ didn’t have compassion for their narrator.  They didn’t hate him, but the narrator was merely a device for a cheap twist-ending.

Pure unadulterated cruelty presented for audience titillation is the one thing in a piece of writing or film that I cannot bear.  It is all right to want to feel fear, to want to understand what it takes to survive or to want to know what makes a monster, but it’s not all right to enjoy watching the pain of others.

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