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.

 

**~KINDLE RELEASE: THE SONS OF THESTIAN! ~**

Front Cover, High Res

The Prince Jionathan is plagued by visions of death. With the King on his death-bed, and the tyrannical Queen in power, the Kingdom of Harmatia lies in peril. Fleeing the city in fear of his life, Jionathan is shadowed by Rufus Merle, a young, secretive magi tasked with bringing him home. Now, with the help of a fearsome sidhe warrior named Fae, they must traverse a dangerous faerie-wood together. Against bandits, faeries and cursed priestesses, these unlikely friends travel a path fraught with danger, not least from the blood-thirsty Night Patrol and the dark conspiracy that shrouds them.

***WORLD PREMIERE*** Sons of Thestian by M.E. Vaughan – BOOK COVER

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Art by the amazing Peter Brockhammer.

BACK COPY – Prince Jionathan is plagued by visions of death. With the king on his deathbed, and the tyrannical queen in power, the Kingdom of Harmatia lies in peril. Fleeing the city in fear of his life, Jionathan is shadowed by Rufus Merle, a young, secretive magi tasked with bringing him home.

Now, with the help of a fearsome sidhe warrior named Fae, they traverse a dangerous faerie-wood together. Against bandits, faeries and cursed priestesses, these unlikely friends travel a path fraught with danger and a dark conspiracy that shrouds them.

For more on The Harmatia Cycle Books, check out the website at: www.harmatiacycle.com
Like the facebook page at – https://www.facebook.com/Madeleine.E.Vaughan 

Character Introduction – The Night Patrol

The Mighty Night Patrol -  Marcel, Zachary and Emeric

In my upcoming book ‘The Sons of Thestian’  the Night Patrol present as one of three offensive enemies the main characters must face. The Night Patrol is a sector of the Magi with the unique ability to transform into creatures of nightmare, and is lead by Arlen Zachary, Rufus’ brothering apprentice.

At Zachary’s side, his closest friend Marcel Hathely, acts as his second in command. Marcel brings with him too an apprentice, Emeric Fold. Together, these three are the most skilled and ferocious in the Night Patrol. Despite this reputation however, they do not always present as the powerful warriors they are. Emeric and Marcel tend to shadow Zachary in his day-to-day business.

Above: (Left) Marcel Hathely, (Bottom, lounged) Arlen Zachary, (Back, Right) Emeric Fold.

To find out more about the world at its characters, check out my book website at www.harmatiacycle.com

Celebration of the Damned

Winner of the 2012 ‘Stories Space’ Short story competition, Celebration of the Damned is based in the same world as the Harmatia Cycle, in the land of ‘Isnydea’ in ‘Kathra’. To find out more about the world check out the Harmatia Cycle website at www.harmatiacycle.com.

It was the dancing which eventually drove him to the lonely corner of the square, black eyes glinting in the fire-light, teeth set hard into his lip. The late spring snow had smothered the whole mountain but in the village it had been cleared, the icy touch held at bay by all the movement, the life and excitement.

A wedding. The idea of love in such a society, where criminals ruled and the people lived in fear, was a strange one at best. And yet they were only human – the bride and groom’s young merriment rekindling a hopeful flame in withered, disparaging villagers, like a light on the horizon of a great depression. Of course, Valbour had seen it before. It was the very reason he had shackled himself in the confines of shadows, his muscles twitching under the strain of his spiking heartbeat. He felt both hot and cold in an instant, his blood thick and boiling like a pounding river. It did not help that Cyryl had left him.

The celebration was reaching its peak – voices were colliding through the air, brash, drunk and merry so that Valbour had to cover his ears, his head thundering. He pressed his palms so hard against his skull he could almost hear it cracking. His muscles, as they always did, ached and strained against the movement – it often happened on cold days like this. The mutation throughout his body made him inhumanly strong, made his eyes sharper, and above all made him capable of hearing everything.

The beat of the drum, each screeching strum of the strings and worse; the heartbeats, pulsing like millions of droplets of rain, thundering over him until his shoulders shook and, despite the pain, he pressed harder. Every instinct in his body screamed that he knew what to do, what he had been trained to do. But he could see Cyryl’s face in his mind, that patient, disappointed expression – Valbour had agreed to control himself, had agreed to learn. He had agreed because, finally, there had been no drink, no drug, no action he could take to soothe the maddening burning in his veins anymore.

The bride was beautiful; young, fresh-faced, and long haired, with lashes that stroked her cheeks when she blinked, and full lips, cherry red; the only sign on her innocent face that beneath it she was sensuous, desirable to the touch, ready for it.

In contrast he was tall with gangly legs, but he had strong shoulders, a full head of straw coloured hair and eyes like a summer sky, pure as heaven. As they danced, Valbour saw the careful touches they shared between them, the prelude to their wedding night. They played one another, tested with each stroke, each lingering hand, each stray glance and smile. The music grew to a feverish frenzy, hazy and riotous as they danced, she in her mother’s wedding dress, and he in the villagers’ finest. Theirs was the world for the taking. They were happy. Valbour dropped his hands from his ears.

The ferocious spray of blood spattered across his face as he threw the body around with one final, easy blow, listening to the satisfactory splintering of the bone. Cries of fright echoed through the village and they set his every step, drove him to his reaper-like dance. He could hear his companions laughing behind him, could hear their encouragement; never too loud though, because no man wished to distract Marek from his work. From his art.

Screams. Oh, it was beautiful. Not because he liked it, it reverberated through his ears and set his head reeling, but because he understood it. He understood the sticky, warm blanket that coated his hands. He could feel his victims lungs expanding as he crushed the ribs with his bare fingers – so fragile. The bride was crying, shrieking even as her father held her back.

– That’s right old man, keep her away, because I’ll show her what a real man can do if you don’t, I’ll give her her wedding night.

The groom spluttered; his was a slow death. That’s what the Masters wanted, and Marek did as he was told. Yes, kill him slowly; after all there was an example to be set

 – You see what happens when you don’t pay your dues? What? Did you think we wouldn’t notice? Did you think we would let such a thing go? No, we waited, we waited until you had grown complacent. Now you will remember. You will remember to whom you owe your life. You will remember who your Masters are.

And Marek was laughing now, laughing so hard he could feel it cracking through his skull as the groom’s bones surrendered to the gentle pressure and caved in. Oh. It was glorious.

When Marek threw the body into the sea for the sharks to enjoy, he looked at the boy for the first time, purged now of the violent frenzy. The groom was his age and weedy, he had probably been banished to this icy hell for stealing bread, or less. Marek threw the body as was ordered, and watched, bemused and fascinated as the bride followed willingly, leaping after her damned lover. And Marek wondered, for the first time, that dangerous, terrible thought… – why did they have to die?

His eyes focused as he spotted his prey in an instant, skulking unnoticed through the crowd, it’s long, gangly arms clawed and thin like the withered branches of a dying tree. It reared its ugly head, teeth bared, and sprang all at once into the watching crowd. But it did not reach the bride’s throat. Valbour’s hands might crush a man’s ribs, but his legs could carry him great a distances, silent and swift. He dragged the struggling Striga out from the square and deep into the forest until they were far from prying eyes. And then, with his blood burning white hot and stomach reeling with that trained sick excitement, he ripped its shrieking corpse to pieces.

That’s right. Once he had been Marek – the trained hound of the Masters, bred to do their bidding, his imposed strength and senses a constant agony that could only be relieved by death. Yes. Once he had been Marek.

Now he was Valbour, a monster hunter, and Cyryl had promised that eventually the pain would ease, and he would grow used to his strength. Eventually he would come to understand his new freedom, after a lifetime of slavery.

But for now Valbour stayed with the Striga carcass and waited for Cyryl to find him. Because as long as he still hungered for blood, there was no place for him amongst the celebrations of the damned.