Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why Do You Write That Stuff?

by Thomas Smith

Why do we do it?

Why do seemingly rational, well-balanced folks insist on writing about ghosts, the undead, killers, zombies, haunted places, and things that thrive in the dark? Why do we plumb the depths of the dark side of the literary spectrum? Why, you may ask, would someone write horror novels and stories when there are so many other kinds of things to write? 

Maybe the first line from this Associated Press story will help set the answer in context:

“A Louisiana man is accused of decapitating and dismembering his disabled 7-year-old son and leaving the boy’s head near the street so the child’s mother would see it – a killing that brought seasoned police officers to tears, authorities said Monday.”

The story went on to explain that the father was tired of taking care of a son who had cerebral palsy, a heart condition, a feeding tube, and was confined to a wheelchair. Police Chief Scott Silverii said the father’s only explanation for placing the child’s head where his mother would have to see it when she came home was, “…just that he wanted her to feel stupid when she saw the head.”

Dear God in heaven, what drives a man to dismember his own son? His own defenseless flesh-and-blood son?


Not badness. Not sickness. Evil.

Now I don’t pretend to speak for any other writer, but I have a feeling many would agree with me when I say even though we write about the struggle between good and evil, we can only examine the battle and the aftermath.


Ask yourself this: How do you fathom an act of pure evil? How do you “understand” the dismemberment of an innocent child? The serial killing of dozens of strangers? The kidnapping of and the keeping a child/woman as a sexual slave for 18 years à la Jaycee Lee Dugard. How do you fathom absolutely depraved acts committed against children and adults for the sheer enjoyment of it?

You can’t.

Oh sure, society can excuse it, assigning absolution because they feel someone came from a broken home. Because they were abused. Because they were underprivileged. Because they were not afforded the same breaks as some other people. Because they were “legally” ill (as opposed to those who may have a legitimate mental illness). Then they shake their heads, say “tsk, tsk, that’s so sad,” and go on with their lives as if nothing happened.

The fact is no decent person will ever be able to fully fathom the actual participation in such acts. But we can understand something about the nature of evil. we can understand that it is both stimulus and response. It is a force. It is something we can choose to either shun or embrace. It is both the catalyst of an act and the act itself.

Sociologist Fred Katz defines evil as “…behavior that deliberately deprives innocent people of their humanity, from small scale assaults on their dignity to outright murder.” But that is just the tip of the iceberg, because evil, if we are honest, is more than just a behavior. 

James E. Holmes embraced evil before he walked into a movie theater on a Friday night (July 20, 2012), started shooting, and left 12 people dead and 58 people wounded in Aurora, Colorado.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embraced it before they murdered 12 students, one teacher, and wounded 24 additional students at Columbine High School (April 20, 1999).

Adam Lanza embraced it before he killed twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School (December 14, 2012).

And they are only the tip of a bloody iceberg.

So why do horror writers write horror? Why not look the other way and write something else?

We do it so we won’t mistake evil for badness. So we will know the difference when we see it. And we do it so we can show the face of the beast to others. The stories are simply a canvas for a greater truth. A picture of us writ large.

We do it so acts like those above and the ones that will surely follow will revolt us and be more than a horrible news segment soon to be replaced in our memory by Miley Cyrus’ latest butt-shaking shenanigans or the next celebrity break up.

My novel, Something Stirs (yep, I stole the title as a tribute to my mentor and friend, Charlie Grant. His wife Kat said it was OK) was one of the first haunted house novels for the Christian market (though I write on “both sides of the publishing fence”).And one of the things I heard most often at book signings, via email, and in blog comments was, “I can’t read that. I don’t want that kind of thing in my head.”

When the book was released, my editor approached a group about the possibility of having me as one of the authors involved in a large scale signing event. And while I will not reveal name of the person who nixed the idea, their reasoning was that they saw no benefit in “that kind of thing.” They felt it had no redeeming value. So allow me will respond to them and to the ones who don’t want “that kind of thing in their head.”

In short, look at it from my point of view. I don’t mind haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, reanimated corpses, things created from DNA experiments gone wrong, gods who were old when the earth was new, or any other creatures (human or otherwise) that haunt the night. I create them. I direct them. I decide their ultimate fate, as do my colleagues with their creations. And I know before I type the first word that ultimately the evil will be destroyed or contained and hope will prevail. It may get ugly, and it might not be readily apparent, but I know who the good guys are. Even when they surprise me.

I also know that the images we horror writers create can combine to show a larger picture of the power of hope at work in the lives of folks like you and me. The creatures are just window dressing and metaphors. A vehicle for the message. Just like the Amish characters, the romantic couples, and the star crossed lovers separated by war and circumstance. Those stories, through their trials and tribulations, ultimately speak to the power of love and fidelity in the face of all obstacles.

I don’t really like many of those stories. But I get it. And I appreciate that there are many readers for whom those stories are a way to reinforce something very noble in their lives.

My stories are of a much darker nature. But the darkness exists, not to glorify evil, but to celebrate the light. To celebrate goodness. Perseverence. The power of God in our lives. So what exactly is it that has no value in these tales? Is it the notion that there is no life so broken that God cannot touch it and heal it? Is it maybe the power of Christ to intervene on our behalf? Maybe it is the notion that in the midst of darkness there is something noble in the heart of every one of us?

What is it you don’t want in your head? Don’t you want a sense of hope in your head? You don’t want the triumph of good over evil in your head? You don’t want the fact that God loves us in your head? You don’t want the knowledge that no matter what evil the powers of darkness bring to bear against us that we have an advocate with the father, who is Jesus Christ the righteous, and that he will ultimately triumph over the worst Satan has to offer?


You see, as I’ve said before, the story is simply a canvas on which the truth is revealed. Even in many secular horror and dark fantasy stories, the upshot of the tale is the fact that there is something good and noble in each of us. There is beauty in the world. And there is something greater than all of us (God) that wants nothing more than to lead us away from the darkness and into the light.

You don’t believe me? Check out Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series. Or Stephen King’s The Stand.

That being said, this is what I don’t want in my head.

I don’t want the knowledge that Aurora Colorado will never be the same. I don’t want the knowledge that Columbine will never be the same. I don’t want the knowledge that Newtown will never be the same. Because the stuff I write, even the stuff based in fact, will never go beyond the page. It is a series of literary manipulations designed for no other purpose than to move the reader from hopelessness to hope. From darkness to light. From hate to love.

A good horror story is a roller coaster for cowards. And a metaphor for something greater than all of us.

But evil?

That’s real.

And sometimes it needs to be pointed out.

From the Shameless Plug Department:


Alycia Morales said...

This is such a great post. I am a fan of crime shows and suspense novels (think Criminal Minds and Steven James). More than once my husband has asked why I "fill my head with that crap." He's only trying to protect me, and I understand that and admire him for it. But, I watch these shows and read these books for the same reasons you've stated here. To remind myself that evil truly exists and that there is a hope in Jesus Christ that evil can be and is overcome by Him. I'd much rather see it fictionalized and watch the bad guys get caught and justice prevail than hear about it in the news, where it's really happened and not everyone is fairly judged for their sins or their crimes. At least they won't get away with what they've done in eternity and God knows the truth about what criminals try to cover up.

Nicole said...

Well said. I'm with Alycia here, and I admire those who can write it with the clarity and objective stated in your post. Again, well said.

marianne sutton said...

When you learn about evil and the devil in Sunday school, he can easily be assigned a dark, make believe persona like the Joker or the Penguin. It wasn't until I was much older that I understood that Evil was real, so very real. One of the stories that you didn't mention was the assault and killings of the little Amish girls in their school house, evil so real it still makes me cry. Because of the courage and pure goodness shown by the brave Amish girl who offered her life first, I believe that God triumphed through that little girl's actions. In fact, God triumphed again as the Amish community came together to help the killer's wife through her grief. You are correct in thinking that without these stories, we could just give the Devil a cape and some horns and pretend that if he 'isn't in my head," he doesn't exist. Bravo!

Angie Arndt said...

In my lifetime, I've known two close friends who were murdered, three who committed suicide and four who tried and failed. Yet I still write suspense, just as Thomas said, "to examine the battle and the aftermath." I want to show that we can still find joy, no matter how bad our life has become. Our God is still in control.

Michael Ehret said...

Extended applause.

Ane Mulligan said...

Bravo, Thomas! Wonderful post. If it weren't for those of you who do write it, like so many have note, we would assign the devil to a cartoon character and not the dark liar he is.

Michael Ehret said...

Why don't blogs have "like" buttons? I too love the whole "battle and the aftermath" part. Even when a battle doesn't turn out the way I might wish, seeing that and what follows is essential. The big battle, though, goes God's way.