Horror In The Modern Age

Stephen King made the point in The Danse Macabre that horror seems to flourish during horrible times. Universal’s monsters exploded onto the screen during the Great Depression and big bug movies made a splash during the offing of the Cold War. Cronenberg’s body horror flooded theaters during the post-Nixon cum Reagan nightmare. And now, with the country shaking itself to pieces in the worst division since hardhats beat hippies with brick bats in support of the “silent majority” Stephen King is making a strong comeback.

It’s interesting that the series Castle Rock is not a King property, but a story based on the way King’s work makes us feel. And, as far as I’m concerned, it makes me feel like it’s 1979 and I’m reading The Shining for the first time. All that’s missing is stagflation and an ineffective president who seems out of touch with reality… oh, wait.

But the truth is, American Horror Story was popular during Obama’s administration. And while it could be argued that might have been in response to the global financial meltdown that rounded out W’s term, it actually debuted in 2011, three years into the Democratic recovery.

My feeling is that it’s not actual horror that turns us to scary movies, but a general sense of existential dread. The depth of the hole the Republicans dug for us with their war on regulation and actual shooting wars everywhere else meant the “recovery” was only a recovery for maybe 40% of Americans. And even the people with paying jobs could feel the tension of an economy that wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I know I’ve spent most of my time from 2008 to present worried that the economy would falter and waves of layoffs would come for me.

We tend to think that everyone was unemployed during the Great Depression, but the unemployment rate for most of that time was around 14%. The real shock of that financial collapse was a loss of trust in financial institutions. Ordinary people who didn’t know a stock from a bond were driven from their homes by forces they couldn’t comprehend. What better environment to spend a nickel to see a horrendous monster loosed from a mad scientist’s lab run amok on innocent villagers?

It didn’t matter that Mary Shelley’s novel was far more nuanced than the movie. Frankenstein gave modern, urban villagers something to empathize with. A name for their dread. A face for their fear.

But I also don’t think that horror or science fiction or fantasy or detective genres are going to move in the same sine wave as before because we, the readers, no longer swim together in massive schools like mackerel as we once did. Abundance of choice has allowed us to pursue our own interests and the internet allows us to choose with whom we swim. We now have so many small shoals that horror will always be clicking with one and science fiction with another. We’ll only notice it when a movie maker sees it and leverages it into something people outside our waters can also see.

So, basically, horror (and all the other genres) aren’t going to go in and out of fashion anymore like they used to. And writers aren’t going to be as famous as Stephen King and Peter Straub anymore because we’ve splintered the market into too fine pieces for that. But the good news is, the market, though splintered, is also massively larger than it used to be. There are so many more authors out there working to fill the slim niches of demand that you should be able to easily find five that speak to your specific niche with a few google searches.




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