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Amber Cowie on Elevating Horror


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The day after spring break my son was sent home early from kindergarten. His school has been rigorous about enforcing stringent health guidelines during the pandemic. Any sign of a symptom means a parent is called for early pick-up.

Since September, I’ve been called to retrieve him over a dozen times.

When I arrived, my son bounced out of the building in a state of barely restrained joy.

“HI MOM” he cried.

“Hi,” I said. “What’s going on, buddy? You not feeling good?”

My tone made his smile fade which is a terrible and tremendous parenting power.

“Ummmmmm. My stomach kind of hurts,” he said without meeting my eyes.

“Like you’re going to throw up?”

He paused.

“Yeah sort of…but also I don’t think so.”

He finally faced me and we stared in silence for a moment. I was nearly certain that he had once again found a way to game the system of COVID-19 education—in the past, his symptoms had disappeared the moment he slammed our car door. But I acquiesced.

“Okay, hon. Let’s go home.”

Unfortunately, the next hour of him rampaging through our house as I attempted to work from home cemented my convictions that he was in fine health. Shortly after a flying piece of Lego came dangerously close to breaking the screen of my laptop, I sat him down for a heart to heart. It was time for the sharpest tool I possess.

“Have you ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?” I asked.

“Nooooo,” he replied.

His eyes widened as I recounted the tale. After I finished, he peppered me with questions. (Did all the sheep die? Did the wolf eat them or were there pieces left? Did the boy get away?)

Hours later when we picked his older sister up from school, he was quiet on the way home, waiting until the two of them were eating a snack together before he asked.

“Have you heard about the sheep boy?”

His sister was confused but the nervous expression on his face made me certain that my scary story had hit home. It seemed that after months of faked illness and early pick-ups, I’d finally figured out how to reach him.

All it took was a little bit of fear.

***

Historically, storytellers have often used fear as a narrative tool. A legend from an indigenous nation whose territory I live on speaks of a witch who would capture and consume children if they stayed out after dark. The biblical caution about female desire created a tale frightening enough to fill the world with demons. Many fairy tales are harrowing, sometimes even barbaric, in their original form.

Today, unnerving stories like I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Other Black Girl, and The Only Good Indians are locking down spots on bestseller lists. Television series like Yellowjackets are storming social media. Fear is most definitely the driving force within these narratives but it’s not the jump scares of Freddy Kruger or the ironic blood baths endured by Sidney Prescott.

Instead, horror is currently being used by storytellers to make change, to draw attention to voices that have been silenced, and to shed light on the darkest parts of our systemic structures.

Storytellers want you to scream—then they’ll know you’re paying attention.

***

Horror stories often gain traction in times of social unease. In the 1970s, when previously unshakable constructs—religion, government, and gender roles—were undermined by social movements and political scandals, quietly terrifying films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, and The Exorcist dominated the box offices and bookstands.

In this moment, socio-economic structures, and the harm they have incurred on both individuals and communities are being questioned once again—and for good reason.

For hundreds of years, black men and women like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have been killed in ways that bleakly illustrate racism and discrimination bred in the bones of the legal and lawful arms of the state.

Since 2016, there’s been a parallel year over year rise in cases of mental health crises and fatal overdoses from a toxic drug supply in North America. From 2020 onward, more than 10,000 murdered bodies of children and youth have been unearthed on the sites of former residential schools run by the Canadian government and the Catholic Church. Finally, the pandemic and the accompanying divisive belief systems which have surfaced have splintered our ability to find a shared faith and purpose around the world.

It’s not an easy time to be alive.

As our collective knowledge grows regarding the horrific realities of our past and present, horror stories rise. Their aim is not to shock audiences with gore and guts. Instead, these stories seek to make sense of the senseless and elicit a response that goes far beyond fright.

This type of horror is grounded in a central belief; fear has the power to lift us up.

***

Contemporary iterations of horror have been categorized as “elevated” horror, broadly categorized as driven by dark, philosophical themes rather than piles of body parts. As noted, popular examples include Hereditary, Midsommar, Midnight Mass, all of Jordan Peele’s movies to date, and countless other books and television series.

The genre’s central conceit is that once evoked, deep fear cannot remain unexamined. Posing psychological, social and political questions—what is the meaning of sanity? how does race create reality? what happens when a way of life has been decimated?—to drive these stories means finding an answer becomes imperative for anyone who wants to sleep again.

A good story allows us to walk in the shoes of another. Experiencing the unspoken fears and knowledge of often unexplored or undeveloped narrators is an eerie opportunity for insight and understanding. Recent examples of elevated horror have delved into often unheard point of views to great effect.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the title of Iain Reid’s brutally beautiful book and an often-repeated phrase within the innovative narrative structure. As the plot progresses, the words become imbued with more sinister meaning than initially assumed. Reid employs uncanny repetition, a shifting temporal landscape, and a fixation on tiny details to inextricably wrap readers into the experience of a psychotic break. Though the story first appears to be about a relationship that is reaching a natural, if slightly messy, ending, the surreal conclusion is jaw dropping. The disconnect between the assumed reality and the objective truth takes the audience on an experiential slide from coherent mental stability to the tenuous reality of disordered thinking. Reading the terrifying climax of the story means absorbing the fragility between socially acceptable thought patterns and diagnosable mental illness .

Elevated horror gets under the skin—or at least it should. Its ability to needle into the back of a mind gives it the power to convey the grimmest aspects of racism. Jordan Peele’s Get Out immerses viewers in the unspoken uncertainties and tensions between white and black people before horrifically amplifying them. The Other Black Girl by talented Zakiya Dalila Harris continues the conversation by exploring the professional obstacles of a young black editorial assistant when a new young black female assistant is hired. Their mutual striving to secure a career in a predominantly white field quickly becomes darkly twisted and unflinching. Like Peele, Harris deepens the underlying dread within the story by situating it within the ingrained and unrelenting presence of racism.

The Only Good Indians by the riveting Stephen Graham Jones also captures the inescapable darkness of being brown in a world that favors white. Four Blackfoot men slaughter a herd of elk on hunting ground reserved for elders and are forced to kill a pregnant female in a hauntingly gruesome way. In a sophisticated and incisive subversion of a trope, the men then become cursed by a fascinatingly appalling being who shapeshifts to various forms but often takes the body of a woman with an elk’s head. The story is elevated horror at its finest—each sentence tautens the tension of the unanswered questions surrounding the loss or defiance of tradition and the danger of severing people from their history.

Each work left me with questions with which I still wrestle. That was the point.

***

Horror is the most primitively powerful method of embedding a message. It cannot be easily dismissed. Collective fear lets us learn from the experience of another—a whispered retelling of a nightmare in the darkest hours of the night gives us insight in the light of the day.

I know the awful quickening a scary story can possess. I want to teach but not terrorize my child. When my son asked if the boy had been eaten, I reassured him that only one sheep had been killed. It felt necessary to sacrifice one.

I was right. It’s been a month and my son hasn’t been sent home early from school since.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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