The Horrifying Lack of Horror in the LDS Community

Guest post by Michaelbrent Collings.

I am a guy who writes scary stuff. It’s basically all I do. I’m one of the bestselling horror writers on Amazon, a supernatural horror movie I wrote came out last year, and in 2013 I have another horror flick (this one of the “axe-wielding maniac” variety) slated to hit theaters.

I do write other things, but I specialize in ghosts and goblins. In things that go bump in the night, in demons that steal souls, in madmen whose greatest desire is to maim and to kill.

In my most recent bestselling horror novel, Apparition, I write extensively about filicide – about parents who kill their children. And in my book, the parents who commit such atrocities do so with gusto, with relish, with lust. It is, as many reviewers have said, not only scary, but a deeply disturbing book. My upcoming novel, Darkbound, which bows on January 28, 2013, is a story about six strangers who get on a subway train where all their worst fears come true. It will probably make Apparition look like a nighty-night story for toddlers.

To reiterate: I am a guy who writes scary stuff.

I am also a father who adores his children, a husband who loves his wife to a point that verges at times on worshipfulness. And I am a fairly (I hope) faithful member of the LDS church, who served a full-time mission and returned with honor, and who continues to serve in ecclesiastical positions whenever asked in whatever capacity I can.

I am someone who believes in good and bad, and in a God who loves us.

This last is particularly interesting. There have been a lot of conversations at church that have gone like this:

Other Church Person: Hi! You must be new here!
Me: Yup! Just moved in.
OCP: Well, glad to have you. What do you do.
Me: I’m a writer.
OCP: How cool! Like, Harry Potter?
Me: Yeah. If Harry bursts into flames and then murders Ron and Hermione.
OCP: Um… huh….

I’m exaggerating a bit. Most people at church are actually very welcoming and interested in my work (I’m going to see a scary movie with the bishop this Friday). But there are a lot of surprised looks when they realize I wrote that book, or that movie. Because how could someone so normal-seeming, so loving, who says such nice things when he raises his hand in (or even teaches) Gospel Doctrine class write stuff like… that?

The answer is in the question: it’s precisely because I am those things that horror comes so easily to me. Because horror is by far the most hopeful and Godly (note the capital “g”) of all the genres.

To be sure, there are plenty of horror stories out there that are nothing more than an excuse to go diving in the sewers of the mind. The kind of movies and books that basically make their audiences feel like taking a shower afterward… if not just taking a Brillo to the surface of their brains to get those images out.

But the thing about horror is that because it is, by definition, horrible, it also allows for goodness to bloom. In taking us to the depths of misery it allows us to climb to the heights of heroism.

An example: during history classes in U.S. schools, wars are taught more than anything else. Partly this is because wars determine history more than almost any other factor. Partly it is because wars are intrinsically dramatic and therefor interesting.

And of all the wars taught, there are two that are taught more than any other: WWII and the Civil War. There are a lot of erudite, scholarly reasons that could be given for this. But they are wrong. The simple fact is that in these two wars we saw something rare: a clear “good” guy and an even clearer “bad” guy. There was no way of painting the South as anything but evil, since their primary political platform rested on the backs of African slaves. Similarly, Hitler’s entire philosophy was one of megalomaniacal hatred and genocide. He even had the black moustache preferred by evildoers since caveman times (Snidely Whiplash and Yosemite Sam are actually based on cave paintings found in Mesopotamia).

So the lines were drawn. The evil stood on one side, the good on the other. And these were not genteel, rule-abiding evils. If you ever want a real definition of “horror,” read about what happened at places like Dachau and Buchenwald, imagine what occurred during the Bataan Death March, try to put yourself in the place of the slaves transported from Africa to the Southern Confederacy in the bellies of ships we wouldn’t consider humane for cockroaches today.

The horror was real, and it was beyond the imagining of most of us.

But just as important… the horror, the evil, the wickedness failed to conquer. There were perils, there were terrors. Real people were challenged, many lost their lives. Perhaps even worse, those that did not die lived lives marred by mental and physical maimings, by emotional and psychic traumas the true depths of which no other mortal soul could understand.

But we went on. Heroes were made, not born. Humanity rose above itself and, in the best of moments, became enough – if only just enough – to combat the evil.

Another example: I remember seeing a movie during a trip to Temple Square in Salt Lake City. In it, Moroni is depicted walking through desert sands, across mountains. I was moved to tears. Not by the beauty of the moment, but by the horror of what he had to have experienced.

Think of it: for the last decades of his life he was hunted at every turn, knowing that if he saw a human being, it was likely an enemy. Someone who would try to kill him or force him to recant his faith – which amounted to the same thing. I wept, because I could imagine no greater exercise in terror, in despair.

And what does all this have to do with writing horror?

Everything.

Horror has power possessed by no other genre. It can take us to the depths. It can then leave us there to rot, which is not my style, or it can then bring us back up… and in so doing show us that salvation is possible even from the profoundest darkness. It can possess a child and put her through terrible privations and suffering… but then rescue her, and in so doing remind us that if there is a Devil, perhaps there is also a God.

There are many kinds of horror. There are those that celebrate evil, and I don’t like those so much. I’m not advocating for a book-burning (one of the lessons we’ve learned). I’m just saying I personally don’t like those stories.

But I do like the horror that examines evil. And then shows us its weaknesses. Shows us that it can be beaten. And shows us, most importantly, that we are not it. That we are better than it. That we are more than what we fear.

When looking around at the community of Mormon horror writers, it’s (pardon the pun) sinfully small. There are Mormon fantasists, Mormon sci-fi writers. There are Mormon poets and Mormons who write highly “literary” works (whatever that means). But not many who write horror: the one remaining genre where we are not only allowed but at times demanded to assert our faith, to bear testimony to the divine reality that hides just out of sight behind our world.

Horror is the failure of hope, and perhaps that scares many members of the church away. Or perhaps it is the fact that some horror certainly revels in blood and gore and sex and obscenity for its own sake, and I certainly am not writing this to say that such must be sought after. But….

The Nazis fought to subjugate humanity. But humanity would not be chained, would not be cowed.

The South wished an entire race enslaved. But that race would only be free, and good men and women took up arms in their defense.

Moroni walked in complete isolation, doomed to solitude and fear. But he never gave up hope, and angels came and ministered to him.

It is only in that final moment when hope fails that we can find faith, and in so doing can rise above our fallen states and find a bit of divinity within ourselves. It is only in horror that hope can rise again. The Atonement, certainly the most horrific event in all of human history, was also the thing that enabled us to return to God. And so it may be when horror is used carefully in literature, that we may remember that our traumas and trials are not the end… they are just the beginning, and the way He makes bare His arms in our lives.

Michaelbrent Collings has written numerous bestselling novels and is a produced screenwriter and member of the Writers Guild of America, Horror Writers of America, and his newest novel, Darkbound, will be available on Amazon on January 28, 2013. Follow him and his writings at www.facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings or michaelbrentcollings.com.

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30 Responses to The Horrifying Lack of Horror in the LDS Community

  1. Andrew H. says:

    Thanks for the guest post, this is interesting stuff! So, does Dan Wells write horror? Jeff Savage has what he calls a horror novel coming out this month. And DJ Butler and WH Pugmire. Are their works horror, or would you call it something else?

    • Glad you thought it interesting! Dan and DJ Butler (both extremely cool guys, great writers, and friends) definitely incorporate aspects of the horrific, but I don’t know that I’d put them in the horror section of my library.

      Dan Wells (I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER; PARTIALS) works in sci-fi and what I would classify as suspense/thrillers. Which is NOT a knock, since he’s really good at them! But they don’t necessarily “plumb the depths,” as it were. His HOLLOW CITY comes closer, probably, but look at the difference in tone of that versus, say, Harris’ SILENCE OF THE LAMBS series.

      Ditto DJ Butler (ROCK BAND FIGHTS EVIL series and CITY OF THE SAINTS series), who writes about awful things occasionally – even demons! – but does so in the milieu of steampunk and adventure. Again, not a bad thing (they’re a heckuva lot of fun!), but not horror, either.

      Jeff Savage: another fun writer. And his work is definitely billed as horror. But it’s also released by Covenant, and given the mandate they currently operate within I would be very surprised (pleasantly!) if that turned out to be accurate in anything but a marketing sense. That being said, I’ve got it on my TBR pile and will be checking it out with fingers crossed in the near future!

      As for WH Pugmire, I know he specializes in Lovecraftian short fiction, so that probably is much closer to the kind of thing I’m talking about, though I haven’t read any of his work so I can’t say for sure.

      So even here, with some good talent named, there is a lot of use of horror tropes, a lot of pulling of the ghouls and goblins… but they’ve been used in ways that are adventurous, fun, thrilling. Not necessarily true horror.

      Again, this isn’t bad in and of itself. Obviously I’ve read a lot of these fellows’ stuff and count several of them as friends. The world needs all KINDS of writing. I just think (here’s me having a second bite at the apple of my essay) that we as an LDS culture can take better advantage of the unique possibilities that horror offers as well.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Michaelbrent (or others)—

      Extending Andrew’s question a bit—how would you characterize the differences between ghost stories, scary stories, and horror? Is is just a matter of degree or seriousness to the threat, or is horror fundamentally different than its cousins?

      • Yes, I would say (and please bear in mind for ALL my responses that they are but my opinion) that there is a fundamental difference between horror and – as you so aptly put it – its cousins. THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is a ghost story, as is CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST. But neither is horror. One is a romance, one a children’s story.

        But I wouldn’t say horror is just about the degree or seriousness of the threat, either. As an example: Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME is about nothing less than the threat of extermination to the human race. Pretty serious threat. But it’s not horror by any stretch of the imagination.

        Horror is about tone and ambience, as well as about subject matter: the way you would describe a person dying in a horror novel might differ greatly from the way you would do so in a sci-fi novel. In the hands of writers who just seek to elicit visceral thrills or nausea, the descriptions can be gory and gratuitous. But in horror of the type I prefer, you feel the death of a character on a personal, terrifying level: a sort of “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

        That, perhaps, is the greatest defining characteristic of true horror: the identification we, the readers, feel with the intimate details of the terror, the fear, the pain, the agony of the characters as they are put through the grinder of the story. So LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL tells a story of horrific events in which many thousands or even millions of people are killed, but seen through the eyes of a child who is being intentionally distanced from those horrors by his father. Thus the terrible events are filtered, kept apart from the narrator – and by extension, from us – and the movie cannot be called a “horror” movie.

        On the other hand, you have a movie like THE RING, where there are only a handful of people at risk. But the audience is brought into the terror of their lives, into the fear they feel as they realize they are doomed. Low body count, but we are in their minds, in their hearts.

        Or, if I may, in my novel APPARITION you have a father who is truly a good man… who suddenly finds himself daydreaming about killing his children. The ACTUAL body count of the book, the ACTUAL blood flow, is extremely low. But the entire book is seen through the eyes of a father who realizes that he may be losing control of himself, and if he does not stop he may well kill the children he loves more than life; and children who adore a father and who realize that he is changing before their eyes. There are ghosts and supernatural aspects as well, but it is the terror of the interpersonal relationships and the changes in the family that create a “true” horror novel of the story.

  2. Wm says:

    Does horror run in to the same Manicheistic tendencies that Eugen England was worried about in some of the work of Orson Scott Card?

    The Mormon horror writer who work I’m most familiar with — Dan Wells — avoids that duality in his I Am Not a Serial Killer series. But I admit that I’m not versed enough in other work (either written by Mormons or not) to make any broad claims on the subject.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Could you sum up Gene’s argument for discussion’s sake?

      • Wm says:

        It can be best summed up in this line:

        “But lately I’ve been a little worried about Scott. I’ve wondered if his theology hadn’t begun to show itself not so much radical Mormon as conservative Christian, even Manicheistic, that is, inclined to see all existence as divided between the competing and nearly equal forces of good and evil. ”

        England then goes on to discuss which of OSC’s recent works suggest that kind of worldview and which do not (Pastwatch, in particular gives him hope, thus the title of the essay). What’s interesting to me is that the events of 9/11 seem to have thrown OSC strongly in to the Manichean worldview, a view which some people would argue is very Mormon and others (most eloquently Eugene England) would argue is not.

        • Th. says:

          .

          Got it. Thanks.

          My opinion? We who justify horror often act in a “manicheistic” manner. One could argue Michaelbrent did it here.

          So it’s a good point to make. I think the argument that horror is the most moral fiction is popular because it’s so contrary to the expectations of those who think it lacks morality. But I don’t think it’s ironclad, nor do I think it’s necessarily the best argument.

    • I’d like to respond, but I’m a bit worried about the term Manecheistic. I will respond with what *I* think it means. If I’m reading a different meaning into it than you, please let me know. As a writer and ex-lawyer I’m rather aware of the danger/likelihood of misinterpretations.

      So. Maneceistic. For purposes of my response, let’s call it a belief, basically, in a cosmic conflict between forces of light and darkness. And because it’s a synthesis of a bunch of other religions it was considered heretical by the early Christian churches and, presumably, by Brother England.

      There are a couple problems I have with the assumptions there. The most basic is this: you’ll notice that nowhere in my article did I argue that horror stories had to be theologically sound. Indeed, vampires, ghouls, goblins, etc., are for the most part explicitly rejected as possibilities by the standard works. But I don’t think that every story has to follow the theology of Mormonism to be “good.” LES MISERABLE by Victor Hugo has portions in it that are certainly against the understandings of the Restoration, but that didn’t stop Spencer W. Kimball from enjoying it and quoting from it extensively in THE MIRACLE OF FORGIVENESS.

      Likewise, horror – like any story – does not have to follow the plan of salvation to the “t” to be of value and worth. There is a difference between a story that is true (e.g., the story of Joseph Smith in the sacred grove), and a story that is false but contains truth (e.g., LES MISERABLES).

      I think that many people look at stories and see the theological errors, rather than the life lessons that can be learned. That is certainly appropriate if the purpose of the book is to tell true theology, and if it is written to believers. Joseph Smith said (and I’m paraphrasing horribly – sorry, it’s late) that the key to understanding the scriptures was to understand who was being spoken to. In the case of a book like Card’s PASTWATCH or TREASURE BOX, or my own HOOKED: A TRUE FAERIE TALE or THE HAUNTED, the books are not being written to a world composed solely of believers. They are being written to the world at large. So in HOOKED, my heroine is a girl who has some severe mental instabilities, who considers premarital sex, who has an alcoholic mother… and who is most certainly the person I would root for. Because she is going to get better. And indeed, that was a great point (for me, at least) of writing the book: to show that a person could rise up from the depths and become better. Which falls rather nicely into the point of the gospel as expressed by President Hinckley: “to make bad men good and good men better.”

      Everyone has lines and boundaries which they impose on themselves and on their reading material. What bothers me may not bother you, and vice versa. I personally am appalled by SURVIVOR, but here I also write a book about filicide. So we must be very careful judging the virtue of someone else’s work. We are, I believe, ALWAYS entitled to look at something and say, “That does not help ME rise above, it does not make ME a better person,” but to look at it and say, “No, that’s heretical stuff and he shouldn’t do it,” well that’s a trickier situation. Because when doing that we wander into judgment of our fellows. And I’ve found that very often when I hear someone say, “No that’s heretical/evil/wrong,” what that person really means is “That doesn’t accord with MY worldview.” God never enters into the picture.

      Each writer has his/her own responsibility to do the best he (I’ll say “he” because I’m a dude) can to make the world a better place, in accordance with the light and knowledge given him. That is done differently by those with different light and knowledge.

      But certainly – the point of my article – members of the LDS church should be able to tell the stories of horror AND subsequent atonement better than anyone else. I just wish we did so more often.

      • Wm says:

        I’m not worried about fiction that has to follow Mormon theology; otherwise, I never would have came up with the idea for and co-edited Monsters & Mormons. To me what matters more than theological purity in the content is theological resonance in the themes and characters.

        I think tEngland’s primary objection to a strain of what he though he saw in some of OSC’s work is that by reducing things to good vs. evil, we sideline the primary battle in this life: us vs. ourselves and also side-skirt the problem that most of the evil we encounter isn’t of the pure supernatural kind, but rather in the shades of gray human-ness that we all come in.

        England writes in the essay I linked to above:

        ” Christ’s command to “Resist not evil” seems to me to suggest a great danger in personalizing evil and attempting to destroy it. Though it is certainly true that one of the devil’s greatest wiles is to convince us he doesn’t exist, I think an even more effective tactic he uses to lead us astray might be to convince us he does exist–and in a particular form, a person or group that we can attack. I think it’s very dangerous to give evil personal and assailable form. This may simply be a difference in temperament between Card and myself. He freely admits that he draws lines–and he recognizes that he draws them differently than I do and that he may be wrong. But actually it’s very hard for me to draw lines at all. I know that the apostles and prophets sometimes draw lines and that Christ appears to occasionally, but the Savior I know most deeply and personally doesn’t draw lines–he’s intent on saving everyone, including even the devil, if he can, and puts no limits on his efforts to do so.”

        I don’t have the same temperament as England either. I don’t mind the occasional drawing of lines. And I don’t know horror well enough (especially in its more pure forms) to make a real assessment of the field. But your description of it put me in mind of that essay.

        • I think that particular concern rather misses the forest for the trees. In any work of fiction, the primary “good” that is achieved is not found in the characters, but in the reader. The defining characteristic of a love story is not that two or more characters fall in love, but rather that the READER feels love when reading about them. Horror is not found in characters placed in situations that scare them, but in books that place characters in situations that scare US.

          By the same token, the redemptive journey that any character goes on in a horror story is to some extent sublimated by the redemption that the reader receives – a redemption which necessarily is of a particularly internal type. In other words, I don’t think anyone EVER reads a “good” horror story of the type of which I have written and then says, “And now, off I go to slay the Evils of the world.” Rather, they come out of the story changed, empowered, closer to God. They have seen the evil, and with the characters in the book they have risen past it.

          In so doing they have undergone a sublimely personal transformation, one which completely bypasses the concerns of which Professor England writes. The question of the Devil vs. the devil is of no import, for in closing the final pages of redemptive horror, there is no room for such.

          Faith, hope, light, these are the byproducts of redemptive horror. They cast out fear, and evil in all its forms. They transform the readers into more than they were, and in so doing bring them closer to good and to God. The entire experience is personal, and can be nothing but.

          Of course, as a result the readers may choose to go out and focus their Goodness on certain concrete goals or desires – fighting the elements of evil in the world at large. But that will not alter the inherent transformation – the very personal one – that has already been wrought in their own souls.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    On a semi-related note, Michaelbrent and his father Michael are regular attendees at the annual symposium on science fiction and fantasy (horror is often called dark fantasy) held in Utah every February, and regularly host a set of panels on the deep morality and intimate power of horror. The conversation is always illuminating and powerful.

    They are both scheduled to attend again this year. For those in Utah, consider coming to the event at the Provo Marriott running from February 14-16.

    See http://www.ltue.net for more information.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Which somewhat underscores my question above—M&M seems populated by either weird tales or nominal monsters, but with a few arguable exceptions (Bichos, Recompense of Sorrow, possibly Out of the Deep I Have Howled At Thee) little exploration of existential horror.

      Not to be argumentative (okay…precisely to be argumentative), but it seems to me that a scary moment at the plot level when confronting the alien/unknown menace is not quite the same thing as horror at a thematic level. Many stories feature horrible moments without being horror.

      • Wm says:

        I would agree with that. I would add The Eye Opener and The Mountain of the Lord as stories that are overtly horror (although the latter is a hybrid western-horror-superhero story [and consciously intended as such]).

      • Lee Allred says:

        My story was populated by the very real horror of fry sauce.

        It’s real, people, and it’s spreading! It’s even in the grocery aisle here in Coastal Oregon now. Is no place safe? Oh, the humanity!

      • Very much agreed! There is a huge difference between the horrific – which is an element that can be utilized in ANY genre – and horror, which is a particular and peculiar synthesis of tones and tropes and elements and atmospheres that lend to a much darker and deeper set of outcomes and a much more serious level of “stakes” than can be found almost anywhere else. A thriller may concern itself with life and death, a romance with broken hearts. But only horror can walk through the dark catacombs of the heart and hold out not merely death but insanity and DAMNATION as the ultimate consequence for those who fail to obey the rules of the story… or even, in some cases, for those who DO obey those rules.

  4. diannread says:

    Beautifully written, Michaelbrent, and *very* thought-provoking. I don’t read horror because it keeps me awake all night ;-) but I’ve been accused of writing it in certain parts of my current military sf/f YA series. Like your fiction, the most horrific sequence in RUNNING FROM THE GODS has a life-changing purpose for the young protagonist, and hopefully will for the reader as well. Thank you very much for this!

  5. Wm says:

    “When looking around at the community of Mormon horror writers, it’s (pardon the pun) sinfully small.”

    Isn’t the community of horror writers Mormon or not rather small? What constitutes sinfully small and where does the community of Mormon horror writers hang out?

    • The community of horror writers – are you asking if there are a lot of horror writers? Or if they actually hang out somewhere?

      If the first… then yes. Horror is a HUGE genre. It consistently sells extremely well, both on the screen and on paper. Think of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice. And the indie writers who are coming up as a result of ebooks are rife with horror writers.

      As for hanging out… there are multitudinous associations and groups devoted to horror writing. The biggest/most well known is probably the Horror Writers Association, which gives out the annual Bram Stoker Awards.

      And as for where the community of Mormon horror writers hangs out… geez, that’s the point! There are so few of us it’s basically periodic meetings at LTUE, messages on Facebook, a Yahoo! group or two, and dinner at my house.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    I’ve written more horror in my career than I anticipated. And although a couple stories I don’t promote in Mormon venues, I’m not ashamed of any of them. Not even my version of the Monkey’s Paw with gay sex.

    Don’t miss Nathan Shumate in our list-building.

  7. Th. says:

    .

    [ps: the link to his website up top is broken]

  8. Andrew H. says:

    Fixed it.

  9. Jonathan Langford says:

    Hi all,

    Coming to the conversation very late. (I was in the middle of work deadlines when this was originally posted.) But I wanted to add my own personal bit.

    I’ve always thought that a functional definition of horror is fiction that has as a primary goal the rousing of fear on the part of its readers. That fear can be relieved at the end of the story, but if the story itself revolves around fear, that makes it horror.

    Which is probably why I have such a problem with the genre, because (a) there are so many things I fear in real life, and (b) I do such a poor job of handling fear. Growing up, it was unimaginable to me that people might want to increase their fear level for recreational reasons. (I wasn’t too fond of the more scary amusement park rides, either.) Horror, to the extent that it had its intended effect on me (of making me afraid, rather than, say, wanting to laugh at its silliness) was a genre that made me feel dark inside. Even now, I find it hard to understand how people can like a genre like this — though I’ve had it affirmed by enough readers whose insight and spiritual sensitivity I respect that I have to believe it.

    Which is kind of the point I want to make. Obviously, some people react to horror in a different way than I do. My personal response to the genre will likely never change in this life, but I have to recognize that the uplifting response Michaelbrent talks about is very real for some people. No matter if it makes me feel like either he or I must be an alien…

    • Mark Penny says:

      It’s okay, dude. We understand.

      I’m not a big horror fan myself, but I have a general love of stories well told and some horror stories are well told.

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