How to analyse horror - Horror - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


39. Horror


Victoria de Rijke


How to analyse horror


Despite its predictabilities, ‘horror’ as a category is still a moveable feast, wherever you are in the world. A hybrid form, horror crosses disciplines with the genres of ghost, vampire, suspense, supernatural, thriller and science fiction. I shall approach horror fiction for children from the points of view of the sub-genre or style of writing used and from the kind of dread or fear inspired. The theoretical approach taken throughout is psychoanalytic, and the following five sub-categories are suggested as an analytical framework with which to hold the slippery horror genre, though not to be held too seriously: BOO!-horror, schlock-horror, camp-horror, gothic horror and the Horror. The kinds of dread explored related to these categories will be fear of being eaten, fear of being watched/seeing death/the dead/undead, fear of the Suburban, fear of the inner self/double/being stolen, and fear of the Real.


BOO!-horror, or the fear of being eaten

‘PeekaBOO!’ or similar is used in children’s games all over the world (for example, ‘boggart’ (England), ‘booman’ (Scotland), ‘bugaboo’ (Isle of Man), ‘buggane’ (Wales), ‘buca’ (Russia), ‘boogeraman’ (southern USA), and ‘boo-bagger’ and ‘bullyboo’ in Newfoundland (Warner 2000: 43). ‘BOO!’ is arguably every small child’s favourite game, but why? Why do children ‘produce their own horror’ (Haviland 1973: 104)? ‘BOO!’ is a fundamental of childhood development. It plays out disappearance (death) and sudden, pleasurable return (life) (as in the ‘fort’/’da’ (gone/there) game that Freud described seeing his grandson play, and which inspired his theories of the ‘death drive’ and the ‘pleasure principle’. It enacts and alleviates the perpetual anxiety of desertion, but with a twist, a dramatic frisson of shock or fear, as whoever/whatever comes back shouts ‘BOO!’ Without the ‘BOO!’ element, the game becomes too predictable, too safe. In a sense, almost all horror has its ‘BOO!’ element.

Too many (particularly western middle-class) children, if allowed outside at all, climb child-safe equipment over special surfaces in fenced-off playgrounds under bored and controlling adult supervision, rather than roam their backyards, streets, parks, woods and fields, wild and free. We live in what Ulrich Beck calls a ‘risk society’, or a ‘culture of fear’. Beck’s concept of a ‘risk society’ in late modernity places the child centre-stage, partly in reaction to the breakdown of adult relationships. He refers to the ‘staging of childhood’ where the ‘poor over-loved creatures’ are protected from imagined risk in all arenas outside the home, despite the fact that statistically children are most at risk there. Charitable bodies such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (in the UK) and sociologists such as Beck point to the (contrary) tendency for public and private spaces increasingly monitored by closed-circuit cameras to contain the threat that unsupervised children are imagined to pose (NSPCC 2000; Beck 1992). The University of Sussex, at a conference in 2000, warned parents of the social and health problems created by raising children in this ‘culture of fear’ which prevents children from experiencing ‘such basic freedoms as unsupervised play and travelling to school independently’ (Reynolds et al. 2001: 3). In this context, perhaps one of the only ways children can still make protective spaces thrilling is to play at fear - there being a troll under the bridge waiting to eat them up as they go trip-trapping over, and so on. Even asleep you are not safe:


The Wendigo! The Wendigo! Its eyes are ice and indigo!

Its blood is rank and yellowish! Its voice is hoarse and bellowish!

... As you are lolling hammockwise

It contemplates you stomachwise.

(Nash 1985: 36-7)


Are stories of being eaten representations of selfish parents or, as Bruno Bettelheim (who makes unashamedly orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic interpretations of key fairy tales) would have it, the projections of ‘untamed id impulses’ - the child’s own oral greed (quoted in Tatar 1992: 196)? Cannibalism is one of our oldest realities, thus perhaps our oldest fear. The fear of being eaten has served countless functions in literature since the mythological tales of the god of the underworld, Kronos, eating his own children, or the devouring ogre ‘swallow tales’ that Marina Warner has traced in No Go the Bogeyman. Anthony Browne’s picture book Hansel and Gretel (1981) implies that the wicked stepmother starving the children and the witch with the gingerbread house are one and the same person. In Off with Their Heads! Tatar reminds us that Freud discovered that the fear of being eaten is associated with the parents -‘the real ogres in a child’s life’ (191). The patient’s dream of being eaten by a wolf was interpreted by Freud as the fear and desire of being consumed by his father, related to ‘affectionate abuse’ (threatening in fun to gobble the child up). Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are inverts this power relation, when, sent to bed without supper, the child Max retaliates by shouting at his mother: ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ Then Max becomes king of all the wild things. As his revenge, he leaves them as they beg ‘ “Oh please don’t go - we’ll eat you up - we love you so!” And Max said, “NO!”’ (Sendak 1981: n.p.). The fear of being gobbled up remains perhaps the greatest auto-erotic fantasy of all. Logically, as soon as the ego recognises danger, it gives off anxiety signals and inhibits through the ‘pleasure-unpleasure’ agency to avoid harm to the id, yet that fails to account for the recurring imaginative pleasures of suspense and fear in literature. Horror is therefore not a pedagogic, moralistic medium, but a pleasurable one.


these cannibalistic fiends in fiction ... inspire in children both horror and delight ... stories about witches who plan to feast on the flesh of small children and about ogres who relish the thought of drinking an English boy’s blood rank among the most popular tales, perhaps because no-one has ever been able to turn them into stories that preach and teach.

(Tatar 1992: 191, my emphasis)


Folk and fairy tales, then, are more frightening than contemporary stories because they can point to harsh realities such as the threat to children by abuse and starvation, or psychoanalytically related cultural taboos of incest and cannibalism, as in ‘Baba Yaga’ or ‘The Juniper Tree’. Such tales may have elements of the erotic, bound up in cannibalism, infanticide and sexual power relations. Fingers on the Back of the Neck has a story by Charles Mungoshi, ‘The Mountain’, set in Zimbabwe, with two boys walking a lane at night, pretending not to have the ‘heeby-jeebies’. Eventually, one admits: ‘That was a bad place ... That’s where my father met witches eating human bones, riding on their husbands’ (Mahy et al. 1998: 44).

Given that children are not literally being eaten, why does the danger of being eaten figure in so much contemporary scare and warning literature (folk and fairy tales were originally called Schreckmdrchen und Warnmdrchen, or ‘scare and warning tales’) other than as a pleasurable literary device? Literal dangers are now mythologised, but fears of forests, wolves, witches and vampires still inform our collective cultural memory of what constitutes danger. In real terms, we are more at risk from the mosquito than the giant, but it is not literature’s job to be literal. The giant is a metaphor: for owning property, expressing power, and seeming dangerous. Like the mosquito, the giant feeds on people:


‘Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.

Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.’


(Who the giant really is, as children recite the text, is their business. I once saw the unforgettable sight of a child literally drooling at the mouth with pleasure as he chanted the ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ rhyme in unison with his mother. Who was he planning to eat?)

Typically, horror fiction relishes spare writing and detached description, so that the protagonist (and by implication, reader) is not responsible for finding the motive for evil, but for solving how it works. This comes as a relief to the reader, who does not need to dwell on the horrible realities of different forms of human consumption but can use the text as a form of what Freud would call ‘working through’. This involves taking up, over an extended period of reading (including the picture book) the full implications of detailed interpretations and insights offered within the text, as a way of resolving a painful experience. BOO!-horror uses levels of ironic detachment or questioning motifs so that the reader/viewer is ironically aware of the fictional experience, and can work it through.


Schlock-horror, or the fear of being watched/seeing death/ the dead/undead

‘Shock-Horror-Death-Probe’ the Mitford sisters used to chant in a cupboard under the stairs as children. Though shock-horror is a familiar term from the media, ‘schlock-horror’ is a Yiddish-sounding term generally used to describe badly made 1950s/1960s monster/horror films, now enjoyed ironically. During those years Mexico in particular produced countless mummy, werewolf and vampire films, the US many zombie/alien The Thing from ...’ and low budget sci-fi, ‘It Came From...’ B-type communist-fears-writ-large movies. Cult ‘slasher’ films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continued the schlock tradition (cinemas even hold ‘schlockfests’ - e.g. Adelaide 1999, Amsterdam 2002).

Many computer games attempt to copy this genre. According to the makers of the game series Scared Stiff, they are unique because they ‘model the INADVERTENCE of the art - poorly executed horror that is accidentally funny’. Not surprisingly (with titles such as Attack of the 50ft Girl Gang), the games are ‘written in a light style that causes many people to laugh aloud at the humour every few pages’ (Scared Stiff Misadventure Series 2002).

But even the inadvertently comic can disguise subtexts. In one of the Point Horror series, The Yearbook, a sinister kind of octopus drains both the soil and people of calcium and lives in an underground lair, which is described with interesting paranoia as being like those fraternised by communists: ‘some weird germ or virus’ is entering the air everyone breathes, forming mutant calcium growths, and destroying whole communities with ‘a kind of cancer’ (Lerangis 1999: 206). It is fought by pouring Coca-Cola on to it, which perhaps reflects the overtly right-wing politics of the book (enormous capitalist conglomerates like Coca-Cola ‘good’, communists ‘bad’). This would seem to contradict Sarland’s reassurance that children are not exposed to ‘some horrible propaganda’ in reading this genre. In his (and others’) opinion, the characters depicted in Point Horror are ‘shallow, self-centred and represent most of what is worst about modern consumer society’ (Sarland in Styles et al. 1996: 71).


Camp-horror, or the fear of the suburban

Camp-horror is invariably comic and disruptive rather than terrifying; full of selfconscious, self-referential theatrical irony and exaggeration, like much performative camp. The Opies’ history of rhyming away horrors and fears, Warner’s study of fairy-tale, carnival and playground games reinventing the ogre, internalising the aggressor in order to stave off fear, all demonstrate that children’s camp-horror literatures share the small but indomitable spirit of comic optimism: ‘terror is conquered by laughter’ (Bakhtin quoted in Morris 1994: 195).

Fear of the suburban is fear of social death. It is possibly the adolescent’s worst fear: to be seen to conform (with parents) while wanting to rebel (with peers). The extent that boredom may reach under claustrophobic supervision also has its own dangers, emphasising the psychoanalytic idea that to be at home in the world we need to keep it inhospitable. Too much security does not allow for ‘the beast in the nursery’ (Philips 1998: title).

Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak series begins with the formula of ordinary schoolboy Darren turned vampire to save a friend. When he first meets the vampire who is to convert him, garlic, silver bullets and other stereotypes are exposed as camp props, as the sinister Mr Crepsley crushes the cross, uncorks the holy water and drinks it:


‘You know what I love?’ he asked. ‘I love people who watch lots of horror movies and read horror books. Because they believe what they read and hear and come packing silly things like crosses and holy water, instead of weapons which could do real damage, like guns and hand grenades.

(Shan 2000: 135)


In camp-horror, it is ordinary families who cause most alarm, as in Colin McNaughton’s Have You Seen Who’s Just Moved in Next Door to Us? (1991), when the author’s own family moves into a street populated by trolls, aliens, werewolves, witches, Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong, all living harmoniously in their usual camp roles. Such metafictive ironic self-awareness of suburban horrors can also be seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both in TV and book form, where Buffy and her adolescent friends battle tirelessly with fiends associated with dating, school, addiction and - worst of all - square parents.


Gothic horror, or fear of the self/double/being stolen

Strictly, gothic horror can be characterised by a plot that turns on some threat to civilisation from evil or irrationality; highly dense, or intensely descriptive writing; and the device of the unreliable (or maniacal/homicidal) narrator. Gothic text is often punctuated with disturbing and unanswerable questions to strike fear into your rational self. This is horror that rarely amuses. For example, is American gothic writer Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The TellTale Heart’ (1843) a story about a real dismembered corpse under the floorboards, or does the narrator go mad as we read, listening to his own heartbeat? As you read, you feel as if you’re going mad yourself, though how could a story make you go mad? If ghosts don’t exist, why do we fear them? In his famous 1913 ghost ballad ‘The Highwayman’, Alfred Noyes described Bess ‘the landlord’s black-eyed daughter’, sacrificing her life by bloody gunshot to save her lover the highwayman, which results in his ghost repeatedly keeping his promise, after death.


And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,

When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

A highwayman comes riding

Riding - riding -

A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

(Noyes 1913/1981)


The picture book, illustrated by Charles Keeping and winner of a Kate Greenaway Award, is both seductive and visually terrifying, in scratched, intense sepia and black pen-and-ink drawings.

The apparition of the inapparent is gothic horror’s key device. Lesley Howarth’s Paulina (2000) offers a child a twin, like herself in every respect, except dead (and mad) as hell. Peter Dickinson, in Touch and Go (1997) describes the psychological horrors of being held ransom and saved by a ghost, or pulling your own dead brother out of your reflection. Freud points out, in his essay ‘Das UnheimUch [The Uncanny] that the word in German means the opposite of ‘homely’. ‘I’ll show you what horror means,’ says Frederic March in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, since he knows it double. The ‘doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self’ in uncanny terms is more than a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde scenario; it calls up fear of the multiple self in the face of what seems most familiar. ‘Man goes constantly in fear of himself,’ said Bataille (Morris 1994: 7). There is no solution to this human predicament, only endless questions.

Gothic-horror fiction may end without closure, maintaining suspense, and not necessarily happily. Sabine Bussing, in her study of the child in horror fiction, goes so far as to say the genre is ‘determined by a pessimistic attitude ... which is not meant to provide the reader with a “way out” of the horrible events’. This is a vital part of what Bussing (quoting Charlotte Bronte) calls the ‘heretic narrative’, the oppositional tradition of gothic writing: where old is pitched against young, tiny against huge, and so on. ‘Social criticism plays an important role in connection with the child . in horror literature’ (Bussing 1987: 137-8). There has even been a suggestion that the child, once absent from the gothic genre, is now indispensable to it, as a kind of replacement figure for God. The struggle between man and God is central to fiction like Frankenstein, but where God was alive in the nineteenth century, for the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer generation God is dead, and aliens, demons or government conspiracies are out there instead. The fact that the demons are oddly like aspects of oneself and one’s suburban life is part of what Franco Moretti calls ‘the dialectic dated from all nineteenth century literature of terror’ (Moretti 1982: 67-85), that which links terror and civilisation together, expressive of each social climate of its time, where horror actually edifies readers. ‘All work and pleasure are protected by the hangman’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 1973: 217). If gothic-horror fiction reflects inner tension or conflict in society, and celebrates the punishment and/or transgression of the individual, often mirroring the struggle of the parent to ‘unmake’ the child, where will it go next? Into the Real ...


‘The Horror’, or fear of the Real

‘The Horror! The Horror!’ is all Kurz can gasp in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. What has he seen or - worse - done? The ‘unspeakable rites’ in Conrad’s story of 1902 hint at horrors that the narrator is unable to describe, leaving the reader to imagine actions that lie outside civilised human behaviour. This is the ‘Real’ as Lacan named it, neither symbolic nor imaginary, but some trauma beyond the language to express it, ‘represented by the accident, the noise, the small element of reality, which is evidence we are not dreaming’ (Lacan 1994: 60).

The ‘worst’ horrors, or the best horror fiction, confront us with the Real. This fiction is not obviously or theatrically frightening. It is often factual. For example, the human race has produced the H-bomb and has used it. In comic-strip form, Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows offers the understated routine of a totally ordinary couple preparing for nuclear attack by getting under the kitchen table. The Hiroshima Story states: ‘People are still dying from the after-effects of the bomb. There is no cure for them’ (Maruki 1980: 42). Children react very seriously - as they should - to books like these, and recognise the complexity of horrors manufactured by world politics, just as they understand power politics in the home. Via analogy and metaphor, these are real-life dilemmas real children have to face.

Equally, adult fears (such as losing their children, in particular) haunt texts for children. Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies die in accidents adults fear. ‘A is for AMY who fell down the stairs. B is for BASIL assaulted by bears.’ In the picture book Frog is Frightened (1994), Max Velthuijs continues a long-held illustrators’ tradition (from Arthur Rackham to Anthony Browne) for hideously animated trees in the dark woods, full of eyes and grasping outstretched branches. ‘Frog and duck ran as fast as they could. They felt there were ghosts and scary monsters everywhere.’ Yet the most fearful of all was Hare (the parent figure among the animals): ‘“I was very frightened this morning when I thought you were lost.” There was a silence. Then everyone laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Hare,” said Frog. “You have nothing to fear. We are always here.” ’

What greater fear is there than loss? The answer is: nobody caring. In Robert Swindell’s Stone Cold, a homeless boy is trapped in the house of a serial killer, who dispassionately shows him what’s under the floorboards: ‘There were seven laid out in a row, like sardines.’ Seven children’s bodies. The most terrifying lines in this novel are implications, not descriptions. ‘He’d done something to their heads’ (Swindells 1995/1997: 127).

In a recent examination of ‘frightening fiction’, some consensus is reached about children ‘flirting with the idea of death’ (Reynolds et al. 2001: 7) which, however masked, merely serves (via displaced anxieties) to reinforce the status quo and train up young readers in death’s inevitability. ‘The game called death’, as described in David Almond’s novel Kit’s Wilderness (analysed by Geraldine Brennan), is, like any game of dare, a way of ‘accessing and challenging fears ... a mixture of dread, adrenalin and conformity’ (Reynolds et al. 2001: 92). ‘Driven to the dark’ as he is, what happens to Kit? Nothing ...


‘Just a game, I tried to tell myself. It’s nothing, just a game’ ...

... ‘This is no game,’ he whispered, soft, soft.

‘You will truly die,’ he whispered. ‘All you see and all you know will disappear. It is the end. You will be no more.’

‘This is Death,’ he said.

And I knew no more.

I came to on the damp clay floor.

(Almond 1999: 49-50)


Kit says, ‘It was like being nothing.’ He has opened himself up to the memories of the past, which connects him to living lost souls, such as his dying grandfather, a runaway boy and his impoverished family, and the ghosts of children who died in the coal pit. ‘Small elements of reality’ are the holding device for the horror of Kit’s Wilderness: horror at its absolute best, grounded in reality and the Real.