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Dathan Auerbach on the Capacity for Hope in Horror Stories

Stories are the most human thing. They’re part of who we are because they come from who we are: creatures of undying hope. This is true for all stories, of course, but horror is a special case. Hope and horror have the same birthday, you see. And the same mother. Stories themselves tell us so.

ON HOPE

When Pandora spilled the contents of her jar, a gyre of agony and fear and hunger and madness churned through our world. Prometheus had stolen Olympian flame to bring brightness to a lost humanity. So, Zeus punished the Titan for his weak affections and us for our budding minds. Prometheus lays somewhere bound to a rock; sometime today an eagle will eat his liver, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. And the Titan got off easy.

With the godly spark behind our eyes, we could now not only see, but understand the horrors enveloping our world. And we could see too that the true cruelty was not in the wind, not in that swirling torrent of pain. It was still in the jar. For Pandora had closed the lid and trapped hope itself inside.

In a world of terror and death and fury, we feel, of all things, hope. Desperately and inexhaustibly, it scratches against the walls of our hearts. It’s not a force. It’s not in the world at all. It’s a wish. That was the real punishment: Hope in a place of prophecy and fate, in a place where it has no business being.

The great Heroes of that age were hopeful. Hopeful to return home. To be victorious. To find their lost loves. They hoped despite knowing that they had no real dominion over things that would come to pass. That their lives were tethered to invisible ends. Hope is motivating – it has utility – but that’s not its function. They felt hope because they had no other choice. Prometheus had given us reason, yes. But Pandora made it a fulcrum. Hope moves against our minds as we try, endlessly and painfully, to balance the terrors of existence.

I’m not a fatalist. Safe bet that you’re not either. Though if you are, hello, what’s that like? I don’t think that we need to believe in cosmic threads to see what this tale says about our nature. There’s an argument to be made, I suspect, that hope itself is bad, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. We don’t need to judge its presence to know that it’s there, inextricable and tenacious, existing for us like it existed for Pandora’s contemporaries – in a place where it has no business being.

IN HORROR

In fiction, we want our characters to find love and purpose, to triumph, to improve, to survive. We hope for them despite the impotence of such a thing, despite the absence of all use. It is here, even more than in the lives of those who might have still known where to find the chained Prometheus, that our nature is laid most bare. Where we feel hope for those who have never been, whose lives are made of ink. Like finding faces in smears and stains, it’s built into our lenses, projecting hope onto the world from within our own hearts. It is this futile wishing that tells us that stories are the most human thing – horror most of all.

Horror is about fear. It’s what people look for and what it’s judged by. The measure is old because fear is old. It’s primordial. We felt it before we knew ourselves, before we were ourselves. It drove us scrambling through the trees, grasping for safety. Fear helped us survive long enough to name it.

Dread is a more complex kind of horror. It requires you to see a little farther down the line, to imagine the anguish that you know is lurking. It relies on that Promethean spark, an awareness of our place in things and what terrors may come. If fear is something chasing you, then dread is something watching you.

When we consume horror we want to be scared, but the genre is about more than that. The appreciation of fear and experience of dread are forever tied to our capacity for hope. Horror stories that cut the deepest reflect that fact. In Cujo we’re scared of the dog, scared for Donna and Tad, but that fear is effective because we hope for them, hope that when the St. Bernard disappears that it’s gone for good, even though we know he’s not, even though it doesn’t matter because the pages are already in our hands.

As the world strangles itself, we hope for the man and his boy in The Road. And the boy hopes too, despite knowing only desolation. He hopes for his father and for others who warrant it simply because they are his fellows. Like us, he looks for fire in a lightless life.

And all the while we act as voyeurs, hoping these futures are not our own, even though they’re not theirs either – not because these are only characters in a story, but because their lines have already been drawn. We know that. We see that. And we don’t care.

We like the way it feels: reading the stories of the fated. Stripped of all function and utility, it’s the purest exercise in who we are. Hope for its own sake in the face of the agonies of life and the irresistibility of destiny. Our curse buttresses our world, transfigured and transvalued, it reminds us of the dawn of ourselves, a reminder we always seem to need. A reminder that seems to never be enough.

We find hope in horror because hope is horror.

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