Where Has the Fantastic Gone in Horror? by Rob Shepherd

Tradition dictates that horror reflects a society’s current views, how the people of the time navigate their lives through their collective fears. Hence, right now we have a boom in zombie horror and space films. We fear the death and destruction right around the corner and yearn to keep moving, to know more, to find what lies in wait for us out there in the universe.

The dawn of horror reflected ancient man’s outside influences and fears of an unknowable world. Folklore and religion both originated to give even a limited understanding of the world and nature around humankind. So, what we get are the first dark fables and fairy tales—warnings of monsters, evil witches and specters waiting to whisk people away to their dooms. Collective fears evolved and centered on people being persecuted. Peasants being mistreated and enslaved, the hardship created by the division between the wealthy and the poor. Then the true horrors of religious persecution and people being hunted and sacrificed. From there we see actual people, creatures and animals represented as demons and monsters, in the dark tales of gothic horror: vampires, werewolves, banshees, succubi and so on during the pre- and post-Victorian eras.

In nuclear times we saw a surge of zombie stories, horror representing the threat of nuclear war and nuclear disaster of the times. Christian Europe may have given us vampires, black witches, werewolves, and all the sexualised gothic horror, but the largely secular and nuclear America gave us zombies as fear of nuclear threat and disaster. 

So it is well recognised that society self-directs itself toward the shifts in horror subjects. Today we lap up zombies in all their guises, from stumbling corpse to determined, creeping death to a fleet-footed undead hunter. We are soaking them all up once more. The reason? Largely the same as stated above, but with a new source-fear that cripples our society. Fantasy has become a seated part of our lives and our consciousness. It has, in mainstream culture, become entrenched in our everyday conflict. Think Game Of Thrones. Conflict all the time, running through all variations of theme. In popular culture both zombies and the fantasy genre reflect our current chaos and constant conflicts and how  there is often more disagreement than agreement between countries, religions, and any number of divided factions. Think of how many wars we are waging right now. Virtually every country is in some sort of conflict with another country/nation, be they neighbours or not. Just look at the Middle East; every one of the countries in that region is currently either in war with its neighbour or in conflict with ISIS. Or currently doing its best to destroy its own peoples by civil wars, repression, or genocide. 

As the Middle East  tears itself apart from every direction, Europe has plunged into a chaos of not knowing what to do, for whom, when, where or how. It has no money or solution to fix anything without either breaking something else or making elsewhere worse in their attempts to fix themselves. While terrorist groups target Europe with apparent ease, an entire subset of Americans follow Donald Trump’s tribble hair into racism, homophobia, paranoia, chauvinism and pure hatred as he stumbles toward the highest office in the world—which would then place his fingers on the biggest red self-destruct button on the planet. So, is it surprising that zombies have taken over horror films, TV shows, musical artists, comics, books and events such as comic con and a host of other horror events? Of course it isn't a surprise! We are in the mood for it. We are in the prime influential state of mind to soak up anything that takes us away from the real terrors in the world today. And with the extreme nature of our world problems, horror films, books, comics and TV shows are obviously getting more extreme and more powerful, more guttural and more visceral. 

Don't get me wrong. In a way, this is terrific for the horror business, keeping filmmakers, directors, writers, and artists all in work, selling their products and filling a need. Why? Because the more horror in the world equals the more source material we have to draw upon for inspiration. And also the more wild we can  be in our films, TV, stories and novels. There really is no limit to it right now. But it will change. Eventually conflicts slow, people become numb and disinterested in what they see and feel every day. You don't see millions of people queuing to see a Bela Lugosi film anymore, but you do see Daniel Craig pulling in millions as James Bond, and our superheroes Batman, Superman et al. making billions. And still you see a few making millions on more traditional horror and sci-fi subjects. The world and its paying audience move on eventually; you can't keep serving up Christopher Lee no matter how much of a horror GOD he was. Thus zombies and apocalyptic films, books, etc will soon find their popularity wane as the majority audience moves to something else. Ghosts are having a little drink up at the horror saloon, but they’re also on the decline after the glut of paranormal activity movies and copycat found footage films. Just as their limelight has dimmed, so it will for zombies. As a genre horror needs to understand  that all these sources of inspiration will only lead to ever crazier and wilder redundant visions. This influx should be tempered. Some horror needs reigning in or even to be left to fail if the idea isn't good. 

Why? Because with too much of anything, laziness quickly sets in. Why hunt and create your own dinner, when a pack of supernoodles is in front of the microwave? This is always the risk in horror. We get lazy and churn out the same things rather than create our own horrific dinners to feast upon. Rather than go to the cupboard and pull out a load of ingredients that society tells us can't be used together—that should NEVER be used together, that in fact is said to be strictly taboo—like Clive Barker, George Romero, John Carpenter, and The Soska Sisters have done, we need to take our own unique ingredients and create something completely different and  create new legends in the process. 

Without adapting and creating new visions of the fantastical, our laziness will turn into the inability to conjure up the horror, the madness, the victims, the essence of life itself. We will lose our talent to invent whole dimensions, universes to play out scenarios in which these horrors and fantasies live and breathe. 

So with our world in utter chaos, with every country in some state of conflict with another or with itself, with gun crime stubbornly high across the globe, and with religious, sacrificial, racial, sexual, hate and gender crimes all tearing away at our everyday lives, never have we been more in need of the fantastical in our stories, in our books, in our TV and films. We need horror in general more than ever right now. And never will we (and I include myself here, often a culprit of maintaining the horror status quo), will we have a better chance to move beyond stories of zombies, living dead and the race to find alien worlds. Because we are killing our own, wanting another go at it, whilst fearing what will come from other planets, other worlds. More destruction? More horror?

On the last point, we can only hope so, in literary perspective any way. Because it is precisely from strange, fantastical worlds that the greatest fiction pushes onwards and propels our literary and celluloid lives to even better, greater things. 

My own visions of fiction—of horror, whether it be domestic, domesticated, apocalyptic, sci-fi-infused, or straight visceral, guttural, graphic body horror—has a root in the fantastical. That's why I rarely if ever give a place, a true country of origin, as the setting. It's why I haven’t given an explicit description of a character’s race or religion. That is never down to me, nor will it be, that is down to the reader to decide. When the reader experiences my stories, they decide whether a character is white, black, Asian or whatever the case may be; it also may be dependent upon their own identity, and it is not my job to force my readers to accept what a person is. You as the reader can infer what you see as characters’ identities, their attitudes and their ways of being. That way, any given story can take place in any country, on any planet, in any dimension. There is no limit to where someone can come from, nor why and how. No limit to what horrors can be contained and released upon that world, that dimension, those people can be born to house to contain and release these horrors upon. 

So, I guess, in short (ha short, you should be lucky), my point in this ramble is this: how about we start to write and create more of the amazingly fantastical, the weird and the incredible sick stories of terror and thus frightening, amusing, exciting and titillating each other and the world. Let's demand it, promote it, share it, encourage it and love it. Let us love our own creations and our own fantasies a little bit more and worry a lot less about someone else sexual orientation, religion, race, gender, lifestyle or personal background. They never mattered. They don't matter, and they never will. So let's truly love horror a bit more by adding more fantasy and more creativity to our lives. 

Horror is in a great place right now. It has a lot of strength and so many directions to go in, as long as we love it and let it go in all directions and not close off all but one of its paths.

About the Author:

Rob Shepherd  was born in Essex in 1978 and still lives there with his wife, son, daft dog and grumpy old cat. 

Books to date include, Life With Boris Karloff!, Sofiah, Stripped Unconsciousness and The Grays Anatomy. Rob has featured in many anthologies including Dark Light 2 (by S.J. Davis), Liphar - Short Stories Vol.1 and Unleash The Undead (Collated & Edited by Samie Sands) and Thirteen 2: The Horror Continues (collated and edited by Kevin Hall)

Rob has also written scripts for several short films, such as Silentwood Films' "Sofiah" & other forthcoming short films, as well as feature length films due for completion soon. 

Rob is working on many more new books and projects. He is scheduled to appear in several new horror anthologies due for release soon as well as appearing at author and book signing events across the UK during 2016 and 2017 and is scheduled to release further books of various genres over the next 12-18 months.