9/11, Horror Fiction, and the Rehearsal of Hope

Ten years ago, when everything came crashing down, I was paralyzed.  Frozen in analysis and self-doubt.  Along with the same concerns that everyone else had, the same grief, the same fears for the country and how our government would react — on top of all that, I kept asking myself —

What the hell am I doing with my life?

Suddenly, wanting to write stories to entertain people seemed like . . . an incredibly trivial thing to do.  An almost obscenely trivial thing.  Out of the narrative that was emerging from the events of that day, I kept hearing about genuine, real-life heroes, people who risked and sometimes even lost their lives for the sake of helping others.  How was what I was doing important or useful at all?  Wasn’t it just the idle pastime of a privileged first-worlder?

And worse yet — I wrote horror fiction.  God, why?  How could I justify writing horror as entertainment when there was so much real, genuine horror going on in the world?

It took a few months, but I finally managed to shake myself out of it and move on.  Whether I liked it or not, I was a writer.  That was something I couldn’t change.  I couldn’t reshape myself into something I thought was more useful or important to society.

I realized, as well, that I was being tremendously short-sighted in dismissing what I do as useless.

We tell each other stories.   It’s what we do.   That, more than anything else, is what I think makes us human.  Stories are the dreams of the world.  The same way your mind sorts out everything it can’t process in the waking hours by weaving dreams, we sort out all of our issues and fears and hopes and desires in the stories we spin.

Why?  People ask me.  Why do you watch horror movies, just to watch people get attacked? To watch somebody get murdered with an axe?

I don’t.  I watch horror movies to watch people get away from the danger, to face absolute fear and triumph over it.

As I’ve quoted before, Brian Eno calls art the rehearsal of empathy.  “You’re rehearsing a repertoire of feelings that you might have about things, of ways of reacting to things, of how it would feel to be in this situation,” he writes.   “How it would feel to be in that person’s place? What would I have done? Such questions are the most essential human questions.”

Maybe horror fiction is more than just the rehearsal of empathy.  Maybe it’s the rehearsal of hope.

Monsters are real.  They wear human skin and they walk around among us unseen until it’s too late, until they murder a loved one or kidnap a child or, as we found out ten years ago, until they fly a plane into a building.

Maybe the most important thing I can do with my life, after all, is to tell people that monsters can be beaten.

I am a storyteller, and my kind has been with the tribe since the very beginning.  It’s my job, when everyone is gathered around the fire at night, to stand at the edge of the darkness and stare into it, and come back and tell tales about what I saw.  And I think maybe the stories are what give us the strength to keep going, to stoke the flames and build them higher, and keep pushing the darkness back.