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Inside Our National Zombie Nightmare Lurks The Politics Of Horror Fiction

Stephen King wrote that terror “arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking.” These appear in his 1983 assessment of modern horror fiction and film, Danse Macabre.

Life has moments of joy and of sadness, victory and loss, boredom and excitement; but lurking in the background of those everyday and ordinary experiences is the threat of horror and the sneaking suspicion that society exists in a delicate balancing act—a tightrope walk over the pit of Hell. We know from history, both ancient and modern, that while America largely enjoys relative peace and safety there has been and continue to be stomach-churning horrors. They are not perpetrated by ghosts or monsters per se, but by the evil and the potential for evil that rests in each one of us.

Of course, none of us really believe ourselves to be evil or go have the potential for evil. But that is like walking along the tightrope without looking down or even being aware that you are on the tightrope. Recognizing the potential for horror, terror, and evil is essential for us to avoid slipping into them, as has been too often the case. Those who specialize in looking to the fears of society and humanity’s ugly nature are therefore in a unique position to offer insights into our ugly potential.

Horror rarely gets the credit it deserves from the literary establishment, but there’s a strong case to be made it has always offered more trenchant social critiques than any other genre. Insofar as horror fiction reflects society it is also unavoidably political—not in a partisan way but in a more meaningful way; it reminds us that we always balance precariously over that pit, and there is not much wiggle room. Bram Stoker Award-winner Sarah Langan says, “Horror and Sci-Fi are the most political of all genres, including literary. It’s all they ever cover—violence, war, social policy and hierarchy, and most importantly, right and wrong.”

Generational Tumult

Of course, creating or interpreting any work of art as overtly political is usually a mistake. Mav Skye, independent author of Wanted: Single Rose, writes, “Yes, horror is political in the sense that people fear changes in their world, fear their world falling apart. Upheaval in government and society threaten the things people hold dear, so actualizing those fears can make for an excellent horror story. But trying to shoehorn a political viewpoint into a horror story, or worse yet, camouflaging a political rant by adding a werewolf is just dumb and a blatant abuse of the genre and its audience.”

‘Horror is political in the sense that people fear changes… Upheaval in government and society threaten the things people hold dear.’

King’s name is synonymous with horror fiction, but it’s also synonymous with generational commentary. “He’s the the voice of the Baby Boomer generation; whatever they are concerned about, he writes about,” says Nick Mamatas,…

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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

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