Creating Context for Horror:
An Informal History of the Genre Culminating
in Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts
(Note: Not all links are safe for work or in perfect taste. It’s horror. Lighten up.)
In the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University, we divide horror into three main types depending on story. These categories are:
- Psychopaths (human monsters,)
- Monsters (the nonhuman variety,)
- Hauntings (including demons and ghosts.)
If we elect to classify as horror any story that incorporates one or more of these elements, then we soon discover that almost everything becomes horror. The Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, features a dizzying array of monsters created by Tiamat, the goddess of the primal chaos. The Bible speaks of demons; The Koran of jinn. Beowulf becomes horror, as do Richard III, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Scrooge’s encounter with the supernatural nets Dickens for the genre. Little Father Time’s murderous rampage in Jude the Obscure certainly makes him one of fiction’s more precocious psychopaths and the label engulfs Hardy as well.
Yet it’s disingenuous to lump A Christmas Carol alongside The Shining. Both books employ ghosts, but we don’t walk away from King’s work with a warm fuzzy in our belly, a twinkle in our eye, and a spring in our step. Pinpointing the difference, knowing what makes one work horror and the other not horror, looking beyond the associated tropes, depends in part on an understanding of the evolution of the genre. Determining what frightens people today requires knowing what frightened people in the past.
Many literary scholars consider modern horror to be a continuation and evolution of Gothic fiction. The Gothic literary movement appeared in England with the publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1765. The author, Horace Walpole, incorporated fantastic imagery, dark atmosphere, and elements from the ghost stories and urban legends of his day to produce a work of subtle political satire. The creation of an entire genre was completely unintentional.
The plot centers on the efforts of a corrupt nobleman, Manfred, to continue his familial line. Manfred’s plans to retain the usurped Castle of Otranto are thwarted by the appearance of a giant floating helmet which promptly kills his only son. Fearing the ruin of his house, Manfred attempts to rape his late son’s intended, only to encounter ghostly ancestors emerging from their portraits bearing dire warnings. The rest of the tale can only be described as a tangle of conflicting emotions, chase scenes through dark passages, and unexpected whimsy as the haunted helm’s matching suit of armor arrives to throw the castle into further disarray. In the end, Manfred’s line falls and the true prince emerges. Manfred, without position or title, must suffer the consequences of his ill-conceived actions and finds himself wholly at the mercy of strangers.
Walpole, a Member of Parliament, Fourth Earl of Orford, and son of a Prime Minister, used Otranto as a vehicle for social criticism. The symbolic value of an ancient suit of armor worn by a saint, larger than life and animated by some unseen force, speaks to ancient thought and ancient action adhered to only in outer form. Walpole seems to be communicating a sense of spiritual loss, as if the pieties of the past contained some truth lacking in the nobility of his day. The symbolism of a restored line of true princes, a device Tolkien would later employ to great effect, contains a revolutionary quality.
The intellectual atmosphere of Walpole’s time initiated the American and French Revolutions. As one of the political elite, Walpole felt the pressure of impending change and expressed his own rebellious thought in fiction. Attempting to read too deeply into Otranto with a mind to explore Jacobite sympathies among MPs from Rotten Burroughs, however, might distort the narrative.
Walpole inspired other writers who added their own voices to the emerging genre. Clara Reeve took the approach that subdued fantastic elements would make Gothic stories more believable. Ann Radcliffe introduced reason and explanation to counter the supernatural. Yet the setting of the Gothic novel remained the gloomy great house. The principle characters were always highly literate and often noble. Story arcs concluded with a measure of justice administered through supernatural or seemingly supernatural agencies. The unnoticed, undiscussed, or otherwise repressed yet romanticized past remained the source of fear.
In 1823, Mary Shelley released Frankenstein on the world and genre fiction changed forever. In the novel, Doctor Victor Frankenstein incorporates alchemy and galvanism to construct and animate a giant. In order to build his golem, Frankenstein uses the parts of multiple corpses and even bits of animals. The thing born of his efforts fails to meet Frankenstein’s aesthetic expectations and the doctor flees from his creation.
Unlike the monster depicted in the movies, the creature in Shelley’s novel possesses intelligence and eventually acquires speech and the ability to read. In due course, the monster seeks revenge for his nativity by murdering Victor’s brother, William, and framing a servant for the deed. In an effort to end the creature and prevent further deaths, Frankenstein pursues his creation to the North Pole and the two reach a truce.
Shelley’s understanding of electricity in the anatomy laboratory carried her novel beyond the realm of the Gothic. The repressed past, the traditional fount of horror in Gothic fiction, resides in Frankenstein’s undertaking—the creation of an alchemical homunculus, or artificial person. But the power of man’s intellect, the limitless potential of science untempered by faith or philosophy, realizes this ambition. For some scholars, this transference of emphasis away from the romanticized past and toward the unknown technological future qualifies Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel.
Early American writers working in the Gothic genre ditched the medieval aspect of their European counterparts, and replaced it with the guilty, dour, frightened Weltanschauung of the Puritans who settled the east coast. In Young Goodman Brown, Nathanael Hawthorne describes either a dream or a witches’ Sabbath witnessed by the titular character. The ambiguous vision transforms Young Goodman Brown from a kindhearted and carefree man into a mistrustful and bitter soul who lives the remainder of his life unable to enjoy anything.
Edgar Allan Poe brought elements of the English Gothic back when he penned The Fall of the House of Usher. Rather than dwell on the fears of early American Calvinists in humble colonial towns, Poe returned to the issues of lineage and inheritance found in Walpole’s work. Readers familiar with Poe’s short story The Cask of Amontillado will recognize the recurring theme of premature interment. Eventually the house succumbs to the forces of weather and vegetation with the emergence of the wrongly entombed Madeline. Nature and Super-Nature entwine perfectly to ruin the line of Roderick Usher and demolish his house. This notion of land and line being one gets picked up over a century later by John Boorman in the movie Excalibur, where the “secret of the grail” is the occult connection between Arthur’s spirit and the fecundity of England.
Another of Poe’s works, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, pits the original proto-Holmesian detective, Auguste Dupin, against a homicidal orangutan. Less the method employed, the theme of man against nature stands out. The subtext supports the argument that Poe was engaged in a kind of ecological activism, an early precursor to contemporary campaigns against snatching exotic pets from their habitats. There may be no such thing as a murderous slow loris, but the premise is the same.
Melville’s Moby Dick surfaces in the mid-nineteenth century to pit man against wild once again. A supernatural monster masquerading as an albino whale encounters the will of the deranged Captain Ahab and an ill-fated contest ensues. After the whale has destroyed Ahab and his ship, Ishmael, the lone survivor, drifts for a day atop the coffin of a prince before being rescued; the symbolism conveys notions of transformation and rebirth but at terrible cost. Prophecy plays an integral role in the tale and suggests that magic exists in the remote corners of the world, in the wild places well beyond the relative comfort of the industrial West.
In 1877 Benjamin Disraeli minted an imperial tiara for Victoria. Twenty years later, Bram Stoker penned Dracula, a novel about an ancient evil emerging from the rim of the Balkans to challenge the triumph of Western linear logic and deterministic science. Bloated imperialism attracted a vampire, a bloodsucking parasite, a symbol of the troubles Bismarck observed in that corner of the world. The caveat against entangling Britain in the affairs of Eastern Europe seems to resonate, yet not without a hint of xenophobia.
The early twentieth century saw drastic changes in man’s apprehension of nature. Einstein’s “Miracle Year” introduced the world to ideas about the fluidity of space and time, higher dimensions beyond the observable three, particles that behave as waves, and the equivalence of mass and energy. A decade later and general relativity would provide the theoretical basis for wormholes, black holes, and other spatial-temporal distortions of reality. These ideas influenced the writing of Howard Philips Lovecraft who fused the science of his day with ancient magical rituals and sanity-defying monsters to create the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos.” For Lovecraft, the magnitude of the distances and energies involved to span space, time, and higher dimensions serve to diminish mankind. Long before Sagan’s sober and poignant soliloquy on the Pale Blue Dot, Lovecraft unkindly pointed out that on the scale of the cosmos, we are inconsequential microbes eking out a pointless existence, barely aware of our own triviality, and blissfully ignorant of the machinations of mad cultists and madder alien deities.
Lovecraft projected his fear of those aligned with the extraterrestrial source of horror onto darker peoples. There’s no way around his horrible poetry: the man was, for the bulk of his life, a virulent racist. For the least egregious example of his prejudice in prose, consider his short story Polaris wherein the despoiler of civilization takes the guise of the Eskimos. Hateful, but original.
Lovecraft’s extreme Anglophilia aside, his style and vision launched a movement within horror known as Cosmicism. Cosmic horror rests on the premise that the universe we don’t know is vastly larger than the universe we do know and the universe is wholly ambivalent to our wants, needs, and wills. Dark and awful things squiggle in the spaces between the stars, below the ocean, and between the covers of forbidden books.
In his 1927 essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft distills horror to the fear of the unknown with such masterful ease and insight that the introductory paragraph demands repeating here:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.
A disciple of Lovecraft, Robert Bloch responded to the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein with an exploration of the abyss of the human psyche in his 1959 work Psycho. Norman Bates’ traditional Freudian psychoses reflect a fairly stock understanding of psychoanalytic theory on Bloch’s part, but the story works. Inner space, like outer space, could spawn its own terrors, hold its own better-left-unexamined wells of horrible depravity. The theme of Man-as-Evil acquired a workable template, and a hint of Norman’s voice would echo in the demands of Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs some 34 years later.
The same year Bloch released Psycho, Shirley Jackson explored the fusion of malicious intent and architecture in The Haunting of Hill House. Returning to the setting of the Gothic in the modern age, Jackson’s work suggested a lesbian attraction between the protagonist and another character. The repressed past of the setting coupled with the repressed sexuality of the characters produces an atmosphere of uneasy tension that disturbs less by the supernatural than by the awkward dialog. The ending remains unsatisfying to many readers and, while less subtle, Richard Matheson’s derivation of Jackson’s story provides a solid conclusion under an almost plagiarized name, Hell House.
Matheson, it should be noted, gave us the model for the pathogenic undead with his bacterial vampires in I Am Legend. Romero would employ something similar in his Living Dead movies, as would Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later. Viral zombies dominate horror cinema, sometimes as the byproduct of science transcending hubris, at other times explained or even countered through reason. Consequently, traditional zombies as the mindless servants of malicious sorcerers have largely been forgotten.
By the late twentieth century, the culture of consumerism produced a backlash in art. The evils of modern warfare on display in Vietnam, beamed into the American living room at the family dinner hour by satellites whizzing overhead, demanded an evil we could defeat. Ira Levin wrote Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, an antithetical paean to the occult revolution associated with the hippie movement, flower power, Tarot cards, and the I Ching. Subsequently, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist would pit a demon against a priest contending with a crisis of faith in a story arc that could only mimic Christ’s sacrifice. The Devil returned to the East Coast of the United States, to the haunts of Puritans and politicians, to torment innocent housewives and little girls. At the dawn of the disco era, Satan became a real force in literature once again.
In 1977 two very different books appeared in the horror genre. One, Stephen King’s The Shining, presents a glimpse into the mind of a desperate man trying to keep his family together at the expense of his sanity. Both Jack Torrance and his son Danny possess the Shining, a sixth sense that permits them to see the ghosts that haunt the grand hotel where the family is spending the winter as caretakers. As Jack falls under the spell of the spirits haunting the Overlook, Danny summons the help of Dick Hallorann. The Overlook goes up in flames as Jack fights the possessing spirit while his family escapes.
The second offering from 1977 for aficionados of the genre can only be described as a first effort in the arena of reality entertainment. The Amityville Horror thrust the lives of the Lutz family and the case of Ronald DeFeo, Jr. into the national spotlight. Alleging demonic activity forced them to flee their home at 112 Ocean Avenue Amityville, New York, the Lutzes subsequently sold the rights to their story to minor sports writer Jay Anson. Despite being poorly written with an abundance of unnecessary punctuation, the book became a best seller and spawned a movie franchise. But the family’s profits from the deal were negligible and the story became their albatross.
Coming to the present, Paul Tremblay offers A Head Full of Ghosts. Scrutiny of the tale suggests thematic connections to the fractional canon given above. The author presents the tale of a young girl, Merry, forced to witness the madness and attempted possession of her older sister, Marjorie. To complicate matters, Marjorie is to undergo a televised exorcism. By story’s end, the reader remains unsure whether a demon was involved, or if the “ghosts” were indicators of madness, so typing the novel as either a “haunting” or a “psychopath” story becomes difficult. The quality of uncertainty, of unknowing, satisfies Lovecraft’s maxim regarding the origin of fear.
Tremblay uses stories shared between the narrator and her sister, along with “retro” blog posts, to connect his work to classic themes from the past. One of the more interesting tales within the novel involves an inverse ecological disaster as the planet is overrun by large green “growing things.” Akin to the vegetation that actively gave The Fall of the House of Usher its title, the “growing things” symbolize nature as the agent of the supernatural, a theme that recurs in Moby Dick and Benchley’s Jaws.
Marjorie’s account of the Great Molasses Flood connects her tale to the historically repressed, a genuine tragedy born of technological hubris. The spectacular failure of the giant vat reaches into the fog of the past to touch the hand of Shelley’s giant; the imagined grand failing of fabulous science finds a semiotic if averse twin in the true grand failings of mundane technology.
Merry’s blog, in addition to being considered “retro” technology at the time she writes it, permits her to carry on a meta-discussion about horror itself. On page 238, in one particularly vivid entry, Merry places the reality TV show based on her sister’s possession into a canonical context through setting. Tremblay winks to us through Merry, encourages us to look for the elements common in horror throughout the ages.
We find in A Head Full of Ghosts a response to the age and an appeal to the past. Unlike Blatty’s Father Karras, Tremblay’s exorcist is dogged by the priest sex abuse scandal. The private crisis of faith resolved in the private rite of The Exorcist has become a public spectacle and an advertising tool. The two works serve as bookends for the last half-century, markers that subtly reveal changing attitudes toward faith, clergy, and privacy in the wake of changing technology, ideology, and law.
Beyond viscera and fear, past the typical behavior of ghosts and demons, what qualifies a work as horror is whether or not it rests comfortably within the broader canon of the genre. That is, a book is a horror novel if it does what we expect a horror novel to do. If we demand it frighten, then it must frighten. But if we demand that it respond to its age, then it must respond to its age by bringing forth the repressed past to challenge what we think we know.