Putting the Heart in Horror

Spanish Moss on a Cypress tree

Spanish Moss on a Cypress tree, taken during a bayou tour the wife and I took. Classic horror stuff!

I don’t understand why there isn’t more heart in our horror books and movies.  You can’t spit at anything in the genre without hitting tension, fear, dread, adrenaline, and gore.  But finding more than a dash of real heart is pretty difficult.

That’s surprising to me when I think about how many of my favorite horror works have a gut-wrenching ribcage-smashing load of agonizing heart  in them.  By “heart” what I mean is fully developed relationships, feelings, caring, and love.  You know, the stuff that’s such a nice counter-balance to tension, fear, dread, adrenaline, and gore?  I wouldn’t give you a nickel for Saw, Hostel, or any of those heartless splatter flicks (see there, I didn’t even link their titles to IMDb).

As a kid I watched the original Frankenstein.  The scene I can’t get out of my head is the one in which Karloff’s monster is playing with a little girl beside a pond.  Here we have an innocent child, the one person in the entire village who is able to see beyond the monster’s appearance and give him a chance to prove himself harmless, sitting with the monster and taking turns tossing flower petals into the water.  Thinking she’ll float too, when the petals run out the monster tosses her in.   His reaction when she drowns is one of the most painful in my movie watching history.

I hope I don’t have to explain the dump truck load of heart that’s in The Exorcist.  Love shines out of every character, which is why the movie pains the viewer at every turn.  Then there’s Night of the Living Dead.  When the little girl gets zombiefied, what really gets me is the mother’s unwillingness to admit that her child can’t be saved.  And when the hero gets picked off at the end, it hurts because for the previous 90 minutes he’s been caring about everyone else.

The movie Pet Sematary pulls all the right heart strings.  What father wouldn’t do everything possible to save his son?  And how about Let the Right One In?  A lonely, bullied boy’s childish crush grows into so much more, all against the backdrop of ever-growing  tension and horror.   Or 28 Days Later?  This movie spends an hour making you love Frank (the brave and caring father masterfully played by Brendan Gleeson) only to have a raven’s single carnivorous peck take him away from us forever.

I guess my preference for heart with my horror explains why I’ve been very hard to please when it comes to horror books.  I have enjoyed  some Stephen King and Richard Matheson (Stir of Echoes, both book and movie, are out of this world), but most modern authors leave me cold.  Give me Orwell and Kafka.  McTeague by Frank Norris isn’t a tragedy, it’s horror.  And one of my favorites.

Horror without heart is a whole lotta nothin’.  That’s why, when I set out to write my slipstream horror books, I put in as much heart as the stories could bear.  After all, you don’t want to go overboard when adding heart to your horror.   You might end up with a love story or drama with a pale and sickly horror backdrop (and we all know a few examples of that).

8 responses to “Putting the Heart in Horror

  1. I’d watch and read more horror if people did this.

  2. Great point! Great input to consider as an aspiring horror writer. Thank you for the inspiration!

  3. Anything without heart is “a whole lotta nothin.’

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