HORROR AND MYTH
"So you'd like me to write something realistic? Like the Odyssey? Or Hamlet? Or A Christmas Carol? For genre to be ghettoized in the minds of the big thinkers means that they're not thinking big enough." - Joss Whedon
Science tells us How the world works but it’s the stories we tell to each other that allow us to make sense of that world - to comprehend and articulate our place within it. And, at an essential level, a myth is a story that insists on being retold - a story pattern that reappears as if intrinsically connected to the humanity and culture itself. Much like a great pop-song, a myth can be remixed, rearranged, retuned, re-sung in countless ways yet still resonate with relevance and meaning.
A Myth is a story that wont go away.
If a particular kind of story continues to be told and retold over generations in different ways at different times, then logically there must be something special about that story. A story that keeps recurring and effecting audiences must hold some essence that speaks to the truth of the human condition.
When we look at genres of storytelling we are engaging a process of pattern recognition. When certain themes, characters, events can be seen as consistent across a range of work over a range of time we have a Genre… Science-Fiction, Western, Gangster, Crime, Noir, Romantic-Comedy, Period Drama, Thriller, Horror, War - all identified, and identifiable, story patterns that come bundled with iconography, motifs, conventions and audience expectations.
But when we dig deeper on such Genres we uncover more than visual or stylistic trappings, we encounter Myths - greater and more intrinsic stories that seem to underpin the genre and motivate it. When we can recognise these particular Myths, and go back to the primary sources from which those myths come from, we begin to see the vital bones that make the genre matter.
For writers this means the opportunity to avoid superficial homage to the tropes of a genre and, instead, a direct access to the mythological centre on which the genre stands.
Too many horror stories pillage and cobble together the external trappings of the genre without recognising where those trappings come from or what it is that makes those trappings powerful? The result is often stories that are derivative photocopies of photocopies rather than connected with, or inspired from, the primary sources.
Whilst my own book series The Transgressions Cycle wears it’s references to Victorian supernatural gothic horror openly and honestly, the primary source for the stories is a myth far older. The ancient Greek story of Actaeon and Artemis is a tale that tells us much about the structure, form, characters and thematics of Horror narratives well beyond the tropes we expect.
So, the story goes like something this…
Actaeon was a young prince and a very skillful hunter.
One day, while Actaeon was on his way to hunt, he stumbled upon the divine virgin Artemis, bathing naked in the sacred pool in the woods surrounded by her nymphs.
Amazed by her beautiful body and divine grace, he snuck closer and gazed her beautiful form.
When Artemis became aware Actaeon and this intrusion on her sacred pool, she became angry and flung water into his face commanding him never to speak again.
But when Actaeon heard the calls of his hunting dogs searching for him he arrogantly disobeyed the command of Artemis and called out to his dogs to come to him.
Artemis was furious and transformed Actaeon into a stag and filled his heart with fear.
Actaeon ran away into the woods but his own hunting dogs jumped on him, tore him to pieces and devoured him, believing him to be a real stag.
So what’s this got to do with Horror stories? What patterns can we recognise? Three things stand out from this ancient myth that give us a strong basis to understand contemporary Horror - Transgression, Choice and Monster.
Everything was ok until Actaeon did something he shouldn’t have… The trigger for this story, that breaks the status quo, is the act of Transgression. Actaeon does what he knows he is Not supposed to do; he is Not supposed to go near the sacred pool, he is Not supposed to look upon the Goddess. And yet he does. This however is not yet his undoing. A line has been crossed and a small sin committed but Actaeon is not yet damned. That real damnation, in all its horror, is brought upon by a choice Actaeon makes consciously and deliberately...
Commanded never to speak again, Actaeon is given a choice to comply or defy…? The choice is his, as are the consequences - he has been warned. Actaeon - motivated by arrogance, desperation, fear and defiance - chooses to call out to his hunting dogs... And it's a bad choice.
These moments of Transgression and Choice are narratively and emotionally important for the audience - without it the punishment of Actaeon is random, arbitrary, simply unlucky. And in being so, the audience is granted emotional distance, allowed to remove themselves from the character and simply watch the horror saying “Poor Actaeon, Sucks to be You.” The audience is let off the hook. But with Transgression - with a clear choice a character was free to make, a sin they willingly commit (with good or understandable reasons) - your audience is dragged kicking and screaming into the horror of the story. “There but for the Grace of God go I…” The audience are caused to feel that, in the same circumstance, they too may have chosen as Actaeon did...
Seminal Ghost Story writer, M. R. James expressed the onus of the writer prompt the reader to say, "If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!"
And the nature of the punishment is also crucially important. The ‘monster’ of the ancient Greek story - the demon unleashed - is the Goddess herself and her terrible fury. But the best and most harrowing of horrors is that which is personal; a monster tailor-made to exploit what is most fearful to the victim. For Actaeon the Hunter, the worst possible death is to become a stag and become the Hunted, to be torn apart by his own dogs in just the way he has inflicted such horror on countless stags he himself has hunted as prey.
By this we learn that what makes the horror mythology really sing is when the Monster is neither Arbitrary nor Abstract; that the horror is unleashed for a reason and its modus operandi is specific to the character - acute and motivated...
Mythologies are powerful. If a particular pattern or mode of story persists over many years then there must be an essence inside it that speaks to something profoundly human. If there’s a clear pattern of horror mythology - of transgression, redemption, choice, repercussions and damnation, of personal monsters and inner fears persistent across those stories - then these should be the giant bones on which the modern horror genre is built.
If Science tells us How the world works and Stories allow us to make sense of that world, then Horror stories are not just for thrills - horror stories Need to be told as a way to make sense of our darker selves. When we reach only for surface trappings of the genre and fail to recognise the essence of the mythologies that made the genre so compelling, we do the cannon of horror no justice. We make stories that are disposable, derivative and eminently forgettable.