I think I started the process of becoming a writer watching Night of the Living Dead
, 10 years old and scanning cable movie channels past midnight. I should give some credit elsewhere: I loved reading and writing before I found horror movies, had a privileged childhood with Friday-night Borders visits and teachers that assigned exercises in rhyming poetry on wide-ruled paper, not to mention near-unrestricted access to the electric typewriter in the basement. But there’s a difference between telling a story and that moment when the skin of a story splits open in front of you and you look inside. You realize, with some shock, just how much is in
there: blood and bones and organ systems that make the whole thing move. It’s a mess, and there’s an unseen animus to it that you can’t quite dissect your way down to yet, but it doesn’t make you sick, exactly. For some reason, you want to look deeper and see how it all joins together.
A novel, to me, has always felt less like a creature with removable parts than like some miraculous egg, whole and unbreakable and probably excreted all at once. I couldn’t fathom writing one. Last House on the Left
, Invasion of the Bee Girls
, though — these felt like something I could tackle. If how we learn a language is repetition, I had this one down cold: the in-media-res opening, the first kill, the synthesizer screech that signals the title credits. I taught myself how to predict the Jeep full of teenagers laughing towards the fateful beach or cabin in the woods or school-dance-soon-to-be-bloodbath. I grew new instincts: I could feel the build to the jump scare, the hinge between the second and final act, the little clues of camerawork and staging and style that signaled what the kill would be.
And then I learned the real thrill of realizing that my instincts were wrong: that a director had torqued the formula just enough to do something more than shock. I found good
horror films (though I still love the bad ones, too): the ones that lured you with a scare, but once the blood had been spilled, used the space to speak something painful into truth. I needed — I still need — bloody movies to show me the basic anatomy of narrative, and how that anatomy can be dismantled: spectacularly or quietly, with a flamethrower or the millimeter’s click of a vice grip.
My first novel, We Eat Our Own
, is based loosely on a film that manipulates its own formula probably better than any horror film I’ve ever seen. I watched Cannibal Holocaust
when I was around 16, probably in some friend’s basement, probably over an open pizza box and the noise of eight kids heckling the screen. Since it was shot in 1979, it’s become the kind of horror film that’s served as a dare for fans: a movie so graphic that it was banned in multiple countries, kills so real that the Italian director was brought up on murder charges, the rumors of how many countries and how many real kills inflated and warped as the movie gained infamy overseas and over 20+ years. I remember I watched it on a VHS tape with a masking tape label. I remember how I felt when the gorefest I’d come for changed its tack, when I felt the movie point back at me and asked me why
, exactly, I wanted to watch these people in grass skirts commit a slaughter.
I’ve been asked why I like horror films more times than I can count. I’ve asked others why they don’t
like them, and those answers usually come quickly. They don’t understand why anyone would pay money to feel scared or upset; an irresponsible babysitter exposed them to a Hitchcock film once as a kid and it haunts them; they just don’t “like” violence.
I don't “like” violence, either, but what I have a hard time explaining to the non-horror fan is that I don’t find horror films particularly violent — at least not in the sense that this non-horror fan finds them, and swears off the whole genre for good. The assumption that all depictions of violence are explicitly intended to traumatize is fair enough — we live in an awful world and, in particular, in a country where the news cycle often evinces this idea. But part of the guilty pleasure of a movie like Phantasm II (1998)
is that the violence, for once, is relieved of the weight of any implication: there is virtually no grief in horror films, virtually no PTSD, no justice system that fails the victims, no epilogue at all. And let’s be serious: a girl with feathered bangs getting her head exploded by a laser (Chopping Mall
, 1986) isn’t exactly the kind of violence that requests a solemn witness; a man getting mauled by a sentient soda machine (Maximum Overdrive
, 1986) doesn’t summon a candlelight vigil. These deaths are performed by consenting actors, stylized to the point of unreality, laced with humor as much as with horror. This is what I think we mean when we say that horror films can be cathartic: they let you stand safely outside of the billion ways a human body can be disassembled, adrenaline-rushed but totally intact.
There's a difference between telling a story and that moment when the skin of a story splits open in front of you and you look inside.
More to the point, horror films let you stand outside of the many justifications humans use for dismantling one another — and the ways that we contribute to the destruction of other human bodies even if we never take up a chainsaw, an ice pick, a railroad tie. Without spoiling the ending, Cannibal Holocaust
was one of the few horror films I’d ever seen that was not just violent, but seemed to ask questions about violence. It lures you in with tropes and dares and promises of the most controversial film ever made
in dripping letters on the poster, but then it jerks you to a halt and pins you down. It asks the questions that horror films don’t usually ask, that our culture
doesn’t always manage to ask: about who usually commits violence and why, if not some paranormal bogeyman without an ethic.
It doesn’t always ask those questions well, and it doesn’t do it without contradiction. The production — an on-location shoot in the Colombian rain forest, indigenous actors who may not have fully understood this bloody thing they were a part of — amplifies those hypocrisies. The town where the film was shot — an outpost for the trans-continental drug trade, run by an American expat — adds another wing to the echo chamber.
But the film did something to me as a 16-year-old, and does something to me now: it made me look at myself, a middle-class white girl with a DIY haircut in a finished basement an hour north of Amish country and an hour south of Cleveland, jeering at a man losing his life on a TV screen in a jungle a world away. It makes me look at myself now, an adult who wants to be a good person, who tries to be a part of dismantling systems of white supremacy and violence, who reads Michelle Alexander
and bell hooks
and has stood in the ranks of the Ferguson protesters — and is, without a doubt, still very much a part of a vast killing.
made me ask questions I’m still asking, and that I hope We Eat Our Own
asks of readers. Why do we watch horror films, and why do we make them? Why do we enact horrors, even if we don’t recognize them as horrors — even if we are sure that a certain act of violence is moral, or politically necessary, or merely unavoidable? How are we complicit in violence, even if we aren’t the ones with the weapon in our hands? And what does it do to us: the act of violence or the image of it, the trauma or the wound or the buzz of weird pleasure when you step out of the darkness into the theater lobby? How does it change us, and who are we now?
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received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she lives and works as a bookseller. We Eat Our Own
is her first novel.