The Catharsis of Horror and Other Things

The following is a brief exploration of why some find horror and violence in fiction cathartic. While I don’t go into explicit detail, certain topics and tropes found in Horror fiction and other genres will be mentioned.

I have a vivid memory from when I was a young teen, about reading a story that involved several truly horrific and highly detailed torture scenes. Though it was well over ten years ago now, it scared me so much that I can still remember it with terrible clarity. Without going into detail, these scenes would have put Ramsey Bolton’s treatment of Theon Greyjoy to shame – body mutilation, psychological torture, forced cannibalism…I was unable to finish reading the work.

At the time, I couldn’t understand how anyone could stomach writing about something in such explicit detail, let alone reading it. Of course, I am far from innocent when it comes to the treatment of my own characters, and anyone who has read The Harmatia Cycle will know that I do not shy away from putting Rufus, Zachary and the others into truly horrific situations. This, I do, for the purpose of the plot, in order to create conflict.

But never, in all my goriest scenes, have I ever gone into the same explicit detail as that one writer from my childhood.

And it got me thinking – why? Why would someone write something like that?

A few years later, I began studying Greek Tragedy as part of my A Levels, and I was introduced to the concept of Catharsis. Catharsis comes from engaging with an activity or media that releases strong emotions, resulting in an overall sense of calm, refreshment or relief. For example, having a good old cry when you’re stressed or screaming into a pillow when you’re angry can be cathartic. Similarly, watching Tragedy, or Horror, or anything that incites strong emotion can be cathartic too.

Now, this was something that, internally, I was vaguely aware of, but this was the first time that I really got to engage with it on a deeper, more meaningful level. Catharsis is one of those fundamentals that exists within our lives—it ticks along in the background, and is something we all engage with. Media and stories, in particular, provide very safe ways for people to relieve stress and deal with trauma. Think, have you ever listened to a sad song because you actually need to feel sad for a while?

Learning about this, got me thinking about that story I read. Now, I have never been a fan of Horror, nor am I particularly fond of Tragedy—I don’t like being jump-scared or body-horror, and I crave happy endings. Hearing about movies like ‘Saw’ honestly make me come out in a cold sweat, and I have never had the desire to watch ‘Atonement’. I don’t mind characters suffering and going through hardship, but I don’t really get a sense of the catharsis unless there is some kind of recovery at the end, in one shape or another. These things are very particular to me, and go hand in hand with my personal life experiences. Once I became aware of why, and what things gave me a sense of catharsis, I began to see them everywhere in all the media I consumed and created. In-fact, I realised that the sense of catharsis was actually the main component behind all of my artistic preferences and tastes.

I remember now, how my friends would constantly complain that I never knew how to play or sing anything happy—most of the music I performed and composed was sad. (This is still the case.) I also remember my mother complaining about how much I wrote about death, and sadness, and magic. (Also, still the case.) I can map the reasoning behind all of these things, and it leads right back to catharsis. Making myself cry with sadness over a tortured character, and then feeling my heart swell as that character finds inner peace, acceptance and joy makes me feel great. Using emo music to momentarily over-dramatize the grievance of my day, and let my angst soar for the duration of the song, makes me feel better. Simple.

But while it is beguiling to me that anyone would voluntarily watch “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” I also understand that for some people, horror is cathartic in the same way. Indeed, for many, it’s funny. And that humour is based around one very particular thing. It’s fictional.

The safest possible way to deal with your emotions is through the medium of fantasy. You watch “House of Wax” and can laugh or enjoy the thrill, because you know it’s just “actors”, playing parts, and not actual people being horrifically murdered. You can laugh as the obnoxious lawyer gets eaten on the toilet by a T-Rex in Jurassic Park, because it’s not real.

So we go back to the horrific story I read when I was a child—a story which, on reflection, was appropriately detailed for a piece of horror. And now, I can understand it for what it is. The writer wasn’t some kind of monster that was scribbling down their dark, sadistic fantasy about capturing and torturing a person. No, consciously or not—this was a piece of cathartic writing.

And just as I examined why I found certain things cathartic, I began to wonder why someone else would find relief in this kind of materiel. At first, I considered it might be a release of darker emotions—violent, but un-actionable feelings that bubble away in the psyche. The kind of thing that makes you fantasize about punching someone when they’ve really made you angry.

And then I realised if that was the case, then why was it told from the victim’s POV? In-fact, almost all of the Horror fiction I’ve ever had the courage to look at follows the victim’s story. Surely, if the point was to explore the release of violent desires for cathartic or comedic purposes, it would look at the pain from an external perspective—like the lawyer getting eaten in Jurassic Park. (Note the difference between that scene, framed externally, and the one with the children, from their POV as they hide in the kitchen from the raptors.)

That means the catharsis comes from the victim’s experience. The hero who must saw off their own foot to escape from the crocodile enclosure is going through all the pain, the horror and the fear for the reader. And the reader gets to experience these fears, these horrors in a safe environment. They are both brought in and distanced from the events. And at the end, once the book is done, it is closed and the reader is safe.

But why would they want to experience fear and horror, I asked myself, rather hypocritically as I sat next to a pile of ghost stories and closed a Youtube video about cryptid sightings. Well, for the same reason I want to occasionally wail out a sad song. Because those emotions are already boiling away inside of us, and sometimes they need out. On a personal level, watching or reading horror or dystopia would only exacerbate my fear and my anxiety without any reprieve, just as for others listening to endlessly sad songs would lead to a depressive episode, rather than any kind of relief.  It can all depend on the person, on the content, or even just on the day. The woman who fears walking down the street at night, gets to safely explore that fear by reading about a crazy man with knives for hands, luring people into the sewers and liquidising their eyes. Meanwhile, the man who fears emasculation and being overpowered, gets to safely deal with those feelings by watching a man-eating Alien torment a crew of space-engineers in what I can only describe as an extended rape metaphor.

I remember an old friend of mine, who had serious phobia about anything eye-related, writing about her character getting blinded.

“Why?” I asked, as she curled over her laptop, staring at her own words in vague horror.

“Because it’s the worst thing I can think of,” she replied.

Later, my mother would pose a similar sentiment to me, about why the parents of my characters were either awfully abusive or dead?

Because the idea of not having parents—real, loving parents—was one of the worst things I could think of.

Now a-days, anyone who reads my work can’t fail to notice the theme of absent or dead mothers. Unfortunately, the worst thing I could think of happened. I lost my mother, and so have the majority of my characters. Where once, they were a vessel to explore my fear, now they explore my trauma. And here’s where another, darker and sadder aspect of cathartic writing rears its head—something which has made me hyper aware of what I read these days, and how I judge it.

Sometimes, people aren’t writing in order to explore their fears or feelings—sometimes, they’re writing to explore their experiences. Violence, grief, trauma—for some, the idea of putting these things to paper is terrifying. It would empower the trauma and trigger negatives memories or feelings. For others, however, re-enacting the trauma through fiction provides a therapeutic opportunity to process what happened, and all of the complexities that come with it.

You might ask – why would someone want to relive their trauma in this way, or take it further? Why wouldn’t they try to rewrite it instead? And many do—they write the narrative they wished for, rather than the one they got. But for me, the catharsis comes in letting my characters experience the pain and grief I often forced myself to downsize and hide, and gives me the chance to have a conversation about the uncomfortable parts of my particular trauma. Writing about it allows me to separate the complexity of my own experiences, and look at it from an outside perspective, which instantly made me more forgiving. I look at the protagonist of my children’s book, and instead of berating her struggles, I want to take her hands and say, “Hey, it’s OK that you’re not 100% together. You just lost one of the most significant figures in your life.”

I could never say that to myself.

It feels like being forgiven.

Ultimately, what this all boils down to is an invitation for self-consideration and reflection. Being aware of my own response to materiel, and why I seek certain things has given me greater understanding of my own needs, and more consideration to the needs of others. I used to be quite snobbish and suspicious when it came to Horror, and side-eyed anyone who enjoyed it “too much”. I thought: “Anyone who actively puts on a movie about teenagers getting killed by a guy who looks like he kissed the inside of a blender, is either a sadist, or just putting themselves through it to look cool.” Because I didn’t get anything out of it, I never bothered to consider the deeper cathartic implications for others. I was throwing stones and judgements without thought or consideration, and at times I was also shaming and blaming myself for the content I reached for.

“Why do you have to be such a baby, Madeleine? It doesn’t always have to have a happy ending. It would be more realistic if you killed this character.”

“You’re being depressing—stop listening to this emo rubbish and put on some real music. Who cares if it doesn’t ‘speak to you’, everyone says it’s better.”

In conclusion, I still don’t like horror. Dystopia makes me anxious. Tragedies usually leave me feeling empty and lonely and unfulfilled. So I know not to reach for that content.

But was the author of that body-horror filled, dystopian tragedy that I read a sadistic monster? Probably not. They were just dealing with their own thing, and I really hope, wherever they are now, that the content they safely create and consume is giving them the catharsis they need.

And if you’re one of those people who relaxes by watching straight to DVD movies about scantily clad teenagers screaming for two hours, as they try to out-maneuver a machete wielding hillbilly riding a giant python, then go for it.

 

Being Creative during Quarantine

The paradox of quarantine is that there has never been a greater opportunity for people to be creative in an atmosphere which couldn’t be less conducive to being productive.

Even for the seasoned introvert who is very comfortable getting along in solitude, the forced isolation can be difficult. It comes from the restriction, I think, of not being able to go out when you choose, rather than from any particular desire to be doing more than you currently are. It is a limitation of freedom which hangs around your neck like a weight, holding your loved ones, your neighbours, the whole world to ransom. How are you supposed to work in an environment where Covid-19 prowls, invisible, outside the door, like an eldritch monster that that you cannot predict or see.

The added disadvantage is that for many people things feel busier. This even applies to people who aren’t essential workers, but have set themselves up at home.  For those who have little experience working from home it can feel like a nightmare—everything takes longer, it’s harder to get into the groove of things, and you have all the frustration of technology and delegation and other nonsense. The very mind-set of working from home can take time to cultivate. After all, we’re used to a certain routine: specific hours, specific clothes, specific locations which are all part of the working experience. When you deviate so suddenly from it, it can be hard to engage your brain into work-mode. On top of that, lots of people have the added pressure of doing another full-day’s work in terms of care-giving, child-care and household chores. (Because yes, if a bunch of people are all in the house constantly together, the washing, tidying and cleaning are going to double!)

This is the sort of environment where stress, fear and tension can cultivate, like mould in a petri dish, multiplying and growing more and more deadly. You pace around your habitat, like a tiger in a cage, simultaneously under and over-stimulated. (The whole question of life for animals in captivity is another conversation entirely.) The results can be a sense of restlessness, anxiety, depression, lethargy and hypertension. Your problem-solving brain is trying to engage and misfiring, staring down the barrel of a pandemic where the only viable solution for many is to stay in-doors and do as little as possible.

One of solutions to this claustrophobic nightmare is to engage your mind with something creative. And yet, at a time where our sanity calls for it, it seems to be more difficult than ever.

So why can’t people just allow themselves the release of being creative? Well I believe that actually comes as an unfortunate by-product of our society’s insistence on marketability. Time and materials are resources that you should only dip into if the resulting product has ‘worth’, and the worth of the product is usually assessed on its monetary value. (Eg. “You could sell that!”). In other-words you can only create things if you are doing it at a professional level. We’re no longer allowed to enjoy something, unless we’re good at it, and thus we don’t do it.

For those who are capable of creating to a professional level they have the added pressure of usually having a vocation related to their art. Perhaps it’s a full-time job, perhaps they’re a freelancer, perhaps they’re a student – the point is that their art is intrinsically connected with work. They can’t draw or write for pleasure, because if they’re drawing or writing, they should be working! Only, as we’ve established, working and productivity are currently harder than ever. And can you blames us? With the weighty traumatic terror of Covid-19 looming, how is any reasonable person supposed to balance the added pressure of deadlines, which are hard enough on their own!

Forget fight or flight, we’re all in full fright mode—we’re playing possum, too overwhelmed and petrified to move.

And yet it remains that being creative might just be the only thing we can do right now, to help relieve this pressure, to combat symptoms of anxiety and depression, and to bring a little brightness into the disaster. But in order to take advantage of it though, we have to let go of that expectation that the product is the important thing. At this time the product doesn’t matter so much as the process—the pleasure of writing, of painting, of playing, of baking, of building. It truly is a situation where ‘The treasure is the friends you made along the way’. By giving yourself a task, but relieving the pressure of expectation, you can engage your problem-solving brain, without the paralysis of inadequacy and requirement getting in the way. Whilst some people have been able to dive into long projects—and kudos to you, my friends—for many, now is not the time to try and create your magnus opus. Now is the time to have fun.

Draw, paint, sculpt, even if you’re bad at it. Take out that candle making set you got for Christmas, make your own cookies with spare Easter treats, learn some origami from a Youtube tutorial. Pick up the guitar that’s gathering dust, make models out of playdough or lego, start scrapbooking. And if you’re like me—write. Write whatever you want; prompts, short-stories, poems, ideas, fanfiction…Anything you want.

And for those who can’t convince themselves to try something they know they’re bad at, or for the artists who cannot suppress the guilt of doing something just for fun, I remind you that practising a craft is never a waste of time. It is the best way to improve. Furthermore, without the pressure, many people will produce good things. Think how many of the great innovations came about by accident, or by someone indulging in a hobby. You might come out of this with your magnus opus yet! The point is to remove the emphasis on the result, and place it on the process.

It’s a rough time for so many people. For those stuck at home, for those who can’t see their families, for those who are out there protecting and serving the public as essential workers, and for those who may have already lost someone…We can’t make that aspect easier, but we can try to help ourselves even as we help each other by staying home, and doing our part in flattening the curve.

A personal note:

I have been running a series of Live ‘Writing Retreats’ on my Author Facebook for the last few weeks, which have been really good. It’s been attended by a whole number of people—dabblers of fiction, and dab-hands, professional writers, students and hobbyists. Each session consists of a number of fun prompts, set to engage your creative mind, without the expectation of results. From my standpoint, I have found them beneficial—coming up with prompts and seeing so many cool ideas has been brilliant. Those who attend have also seemed to really enjoy it, and particularly like the social aspect of sharing ideas and work. Naturally all of my readers are welcome to come and join us. The next Live episode will be on Monday the 20th of April, 14:00. Come and join us, if you like! Until then, stay safe and well, my friends.