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.

 

Me, God and the Atheists

A Catholic and an Atheist walk into a bar. Ok, no, scratch that. A Catholic and an Atheist walk into a party. The Catholic is dressed as a clown, the Atheist as a French Onion Seller. By the end of the night, the Atheist has the Catholic’s phone number, and few years later they’re married.

There’s no joke here, though all the elements are pretty much there. The Catholic and the Atheist come to know each other Biblically, or, Biologically if you prefer. Over the course of two years, two children pop out. Cute little half-breeds – Atheist/Catholic, Atholics-Catheists, a veritable yin-yang of contradictions and belief, existing harmoniously. The Atheist agrees the children will be raised Catholic. The Catholic agrees that the children will be given the choice of whether to stick to the faith.

The Atholic-Catheists grow up. They experiment with their beliefs. They question. They exist in a pleasant between that constantly shifts.

And then, the Catholic gets sick and dies.

And that’s where we are now.

Incase any of you aren’t very good at guessing, I was one such Atholic-Catheist, my father the devout Athiest, and my mother the sceptical Catholic. And this post is about my very personal relationship with God and the Atheists. (There’s a band-name in there)

When people ask me now a-days how I would define my belief, I am usually quite unwilling to respond. My reasoning for this is that I have a deep-seated fear of fundamentalists on either side of the spectrum. Perhaps the advantage of being raised by a lukewarm Catholic and an Atheist who enjoys Church music, is that I never had to pick a side, because there was always a middle ground.

I am suspicious of anyone who is 100% certain of anything because, as Obi-Wan put it, only Siths deal in absolutes. And because I’m a John Mill girl, personally, and I believe that we should be willing to question everything. Blind faith, in whatever form, is utterly abhorrent to me, and it makes my flesh crawl.

Until recently however, it wasn’t something I paid much mind too. Depending on the company, I defined myself differently, willing to play Devil’s Advocate and challenge conceptions. Since the loss of my mother however, I have learnt to keep a tight lid on my spiritual beliefs. And this is because of the ugly habit fundamentals have of attempting to use my grief and bereavement as a recruitment tool. I don’t know, maybe they get a ‘Faith-Miles’ for every person they convert.

I remember the moment it became clear to me why I was so uneasy with people telling me my mother’s death was part of God’s plan. You see, nothing could endear me less to a God than the idea that the entity of whom I should rely and pay homage to was actually directly responsible for the loss of my mother. Why on earth should that make me feel better? I’ve just been told I have to worship an invisible asshole, who sits on his ass, picking off people by the millions and leaving us to suffer and guess as to why.

I was always more comforted by the idea that God did exist, but that he had no control over us in our earthly lives. He was just there to listen, to understand, and to welcome us when we died. Like a benevolent pen-friend we’ve spoken to for years, coming to pick us up at the airport. Except there’s no return ticket. The pen-friend kidnaps you, gives you a harp and puts you on a cloud to chill for eternity. Awkward.

Atheists, as it turns out, aren’t much better at the comforting thing. I can’t talk to them about my uncertainty of the whole “God’s Plan Malarkey” without incurring a torrent of cynical, self-satisfied mockery about the baseness of the belief and its ludicrousness. (Because sure, comfort me about my dead mother by insulting her, and what she believed: that’s smart). For all their criticism of religion, I’ve never met a fundamental atheist who hasn’t acted like he’s an elite member of a ‘Chosen people’, going out into the world and leaving debasing comments on religious posts like an inverse-missionary, spreading the word of science.

“You’re right, of course Madeleine,” they say, “There is no plan. There is no God. When we die, that’s it. We are extinguished from this earth. Worms eat us. Or crazy grandchildren keep us in a pot on their mantelpiece. End of.”

Thanks guys. Great. Fucking. Comfort.

I know what you’re thinking at this point – Madeleine, you can’t live as a contradiction for the rest of your life, becoming more Atheist in the company of Christians, and more Christian in the company of Atheists, but currently I don’t see a way around it. I want the comfort of Catholicism without having to associate with a misogynistic, militant pedo-ring and their Machiavellian God, and I want the empirical nature of atheism without having to join the smug-club and their ‘hope you enjoyed the last few months with your mother, cus you’re never going to see her again’ attitude.

I don’t want to call myself an Atheist, but the day my mother died, I was no longer a Catholic. And it wasn’t because I was angry at God. It was because she was my link, my connection to the crazy bastard, and when she went, there was nothing in me any more to believe in him. Maybe I stopped believing in him a long time ago.

So where do I stand? Agnostic? Pagan? Spiritual? Where do you go after living 22 years as an Atholic-Catheist, only to lose the Catheist?

I think the worse problem is that there’s no answer to these questions which isn’t religious, and apparently I’m thoroughly allergic to those. It’s no good telling me that she’s with God, because I won’t believe you and it’ll just be uncomfortable, and it’s no good telling me that she lives on inside of me and my recollections of her, because that’s not good enough.

At the end of the day, I keep my religious belief to myself because I am un-swayed. I live in perpetual flux. I am a rambler of religions, a tourist of spirituality, and if anyone tries to – however kindly – impose any one ‘right’ answer onto me, I will run a mile, screaming the other way.

“But then Madeleine, what do we say when you’re upset? What do we do to comfort you when you come to us, desperate for answers?” they ask.

I don’t know. How about shut up, and give me a hug?

Before I’m Twenty-Five

Time, when you’re young, tends to give you the impression of being endless. At five years old, an hour feels close to a day, and a year is practically a century. Being asked ‘what did you do over your holiday’ is the adult equivalent of ‘where were you at 5:45 pm on the 12th of February 1996?’

My point is that even when you’re ten years old, life doesn’t seem to go that quick, and it feels like you’ve got all the time in the world to figure everything out.
In my case, ten year old me had some very exact ideas about what I was going to have achieved by the time I was twenty-five. Twenty-five, to me, was the pinnacle of adulthood. By twenty-five, I was going to be famous, be married, have children, a house of my own, and adoring fans, and then I’d have plenty of time afterwards to enjoy it all in luxury.

Well, I’m twenty-three now, and my ten year old self is still tapping her foot, waiting on a lot of things. Apparently, in order to fulfil myself, I have one hell of a busy schedule to catch up on in the next two years.

It may seem silly to some readers, especially anyone older than me, but you have to understand that from my perspective twenty-three is the oldest I’ve ever been, and that the ten year old inside of me is incredibly demanding. Call me idealistic or foolish, but the self-expectancy I placed on myself from a young age has never really gone away, and even though a lot of my goals have changed, I still have that internal list of ‘Things to do before I’m twenty-five.’

A part of me wishes that I could go back in time, and talk to my little self, and explain how things are going to work out. Talk to her about fighting with depression, and bereavement, and the hours spent struggling not to let my dyslexia rule what I could or couldn’t do. I wish I could go back and say, ‘You’re going to make some really stupid mistakes’ and then assure little me that these weren’t a ‘waste of time’ but rather a lesson in how to use it better.

Mostly, if I could go back in time and talk to anybody about my ‘list’ it would be my mother. Because, let’s be honest, little me would nod at everything I told her and take none of it in, because little me is a ten-year old with no perspective of time, and high expectations of herself.

For a majority of my life I was under the impression that my mother wasn’t a great achiever. I don’t mean this in a rude way: she built and cared for our family, and I thought she was invincible, and amazing, and strong. But she wasn’t a movie star, or a big business woman, or any of the other qualities that we place so much importance on in our society. She was just my Mum.

It was only in the last few years of her life, that I really got to talking to her about what she did do with her life. And it was only after her death a year ago that I started bubbling with even more questions about the adventures she went though, and what she achieved.
This was a woman who could speak several languages, was highly educated, with a degree and masters-equivilant from a very prestigious French University. Even the fact she could speak English so fluently should have flabbergasted me, seeing as there wasn’t a drop of English blood in her body. These things never occurred me growing up.

My mother was a woman who had a long line of qualifications under her belt. She went through a number of different jobs, had skills in writing, admin, language, geography and teaching. She could sing, and dance, and my God, but could she throw a great party!
By the time she was my age, she had only just met my Dad. She was studying in the Lake District, taking a year out from France. She ended up marrying the strange Englishman she met at the fancy dress party, and then spent several years on an adventure, travelling and seeing the world.

If we regard achievements as the amount of stories you have to tell at the end of the day, than my mother had one hell of a life.

I wish I could talk to her about it, I wish she could talk me through this transitional period as I try to be both the person I wanted when I was ten, and try to be more realistic with myself. If she was around, my mother would probably scoff at me for my feelings of disappointment and self-doubt. I think the first thing she’d do was remind me of all the things I have achieved.

You see, the list of things to do before you’re twenty-five is always growing. As my life takes me down new and unexpected routes, there are going to be some things on the list that no longer stand for who I am, and others that need to be added.

Ten year old me would have never dreamed that I’d earn a black belt in Karate by the time I was eighteen. Or that I’d get a music scholarship to my University, and start directing my own choir, and writing original music. She wouldn’t have guessed that I would be accepted for a PhD, or that I would start lecturing the year after.

I guess the point I’m trying to make, is that alot of us have a screaming ten-year old in our head that tells us what we should have done by the time we hit a certain marker, but when that voices gets too loud its good to remind yourself of the things you have done. Because at the end of the day, that ten year old has no perspective of the trails and tribulations you’re going to go through, and whilst they can be a good motivator, they have no right to bully you.

Life is not a checklist of things you need to tick in order. Life is a bunch of stories and experiences, some of which come at the worst possible time, and from the least likely places.

So with that in mind, here’s my list of things to do before I’m twenty-five:
1)      Do the best I damn well can
2)      Write a new list for ‘30’