The Cathartic Benefits of Horror Writing: ‘Loss’ – On the Beautiful Horror of Dying

“There’s nothing we fear more than our own Reflection. We scream at the monsters within us, hidden deep within our hearts. We run and hide from the terrors all around us- the different mirrors that we see.”

― Solange nicole

I’ve touched on some of my writing history already – how I enter the darkness, explore the darkness, write the darkness. I’ve said a little about why I do that, how I’ve always been fascinated by the imaginary horrors, the myths and legends and folklore that tell us about so much about how peoples view(ed) their lives and tried to make sense of the (un)natural phenomena around them. As we have advanced our knowledge of the world, we have created new horrors, have new concerns. Rather than vampires, werewolves and ghosts, these are now what many horror writers wish to explore – or at least vampires, werewolves and ghosts as they might appear in a modern world, as modern metaphors.

For me it’s more than that. As Solange nicole (writer of dark romance and noir chic) says above, we fear our own Reflection. We run from the monsters inside us, because we do not wish to face the side of us that roars, that rants, that would rend and tear if we did not keep those base urges quiet. If we did not have a common ‘morality’ to check them. We are afraid of what we might see in the mirror when we stare back at ourselves – metaphorically and literally at times, literally, for me being unwanted wrinkles, unwanted fat. So if I don’t like looking in the mirror, why do I do it? Why do I write about the horrors that live in my mind? And perhaps more importantly, why do I disguise them in the form of fictional horrors, when the real stuff is bad enough?

Well, part of it is, of course, that fascination with the fictional dark. I’ve been reading horror stories for as long as I can remember, alongside the myths and legends I so love. Then I started reading Stephen King and I found a new direction. I think part of it was how King captures the ordinary person so well in his writing. His characters are real. When he exposes us to the horrors they’re going through, we really believe it. King, I believe, is an underrated writer, and I didn’t just want to read him, I wanted to write like him – a typical enough reaction, initially, when you’re a beginning writer and admire a writer’s style. In the end of course, we start to write like ourselves – anything else is derivative. But something that King says is that ‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones’ – and I believe this to be the case. The fictional dark is more easily expressed than the real darkness. This bleeds into the poetics of my horror writing.Bruno Bettelheim says that:

“[A reader] may wonder why he is so deeply moved; and in responding to what he    observes as his emotional reaction, ruminating about the mythical events and what   these mean to him, a person may come to clarify his thoughts and feelings. With this, certain inner tensions which are the consequence of events long past may be relieved; previously unconscious material can then enter one’s awareness and become accessible for conscious working through.” (Bettelheim. 1977)

So why am I so ‘deeply moved’ by horror, and how does what I write ‘clarify’ my ‘thoughts and feelings’? How are ‘certain inner tensions’ relieved by reading – and in my case – writing out the horrors buried inside me? It definitely comes down to catharsis. Reading horror writing and watching horror films has been shown to be a cathartic act. It releases tension within you – you are terrified for a while – the terror comes out in raised heartbeat, restlessness as you read the words or watch the screen, wondering if the protagonists are going to fall prey to the monsters, and then, at the end, when they survive, you release a huge sigh of relief, maybe laugh at your own fear—because it’s not real, is it? – and then you can discuss the merits or otherwise of what you’ve read or watched. Catharsis. The releasing of tension. Or, as the American Psychological Association puts it:

“the discharge of effects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them.”

Is it a different experience, then, for writers? For me, I’d have to say yes. A resounding yes. While watching or reading a good (‘good’ being a value judgement) horror text may be a cathartic experience, in that there is that release of tension, it’s not the same as exploring those tensions through writing. As King says above, the horrors we make up help us to cope with – and I would add ‘explore’ – the real ones. A common saying – and I can’t remember where it comes from now – is that all fiction is autobiography, and all autobiography is fiction. I’m not sure I’ve even remembered it exactly, but I’d have to say that I believe in the inner ‘truth’ of the statement, and when I look back at my own work, I recognise it. Obviously my characters are not ‘me’ but I recognise the themes, the concerns, within the stories. Things that bother me. Things that keep me up at night worrying. It’s not as though I do it deliberately either – obviously my short stories and prose poems are not directly about ‘me’ or my experiences – but these things keep on creeping in. I think it’s inevitable.

Take loss, for example. And abandonment. Anyone reading my posts will know that these two things are terrors for me, and they almost always creep up in my writing somehow or another. When my mother died of Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – she also had Alzheimer’s, which is a particularly cruel form of illness because it strips the person of their personality – I didn’t really process it. I didn’t know how. I had my father to care for, because he was lost without her, and I was an only child. There was no-one else. My own grief – which I still haven’t processed and which has left unhealed wounds – wasn’t important. And yet I found myself writing about it unconsciously. A funeral scene in a novel, almost exactly the same as my mother’s funeral. People gasping for breath. People losing their minds. The last, given my mental health issues, is particularly close to home. But perhaps the closest I’ve come to catharsis on this subject is the prose poem ‘Loss’ below. It originated in a class taught by my partner, a class on experiment and innovation that encourages its students to look at language differently. To take the language we take for granted and twist it and reshape it into something new and unexpected. The poem below takes the language of death and dying and, I hope, turns it into something new, and for me at least, something strangely beautiful.

LOSS

I. The Artist

An inventive underworld, a sardonic farewell toast by a woman dressed in shades of purple. The artist wipes at one of her nipples. Long dark-meat fingers lift her taffeta skirt, leave her cracked open and naked. A self-dramatizing invocation leaves you spellbound, the words reverberating in a throb of dizziness, visceral performers in a full moon winter. Morning vision hallucinates wonder, grasping at a desired object. Fingers of a hand, a paw cut into flesh, some moonlight off the snow turning the white red. Incidents hushed up by highly artistic persons, and the purple woman, all innuendos and imaginations, mockingly dubious of extravagant detail. Nihilistic prose portrayals, flamboyant extravagances and delightful uncertainty.

A madness that intoxicates, real or unreal word-worlds? Studiedly bloodless stares that utterly destroy you. Gathering small blank cards, standing in a mirage, brief rumbling abysmal resonance. Dancing classes: your reflection in a mirror door sees many naked limbs, revels in a stripped cleft, delights in grunts of satisfaction. Cracked body, aching with cold, many shudders and jerks. A fixed unnerving gaze to a seedy downtown. Sitting at a filthy desk scribbling a surge of panic, writing lies under soft black stars. Fear complicates. Your consciousness becomes crystallised and explicit in super-text knowledge, a fragmentary nebulous manifestation, deeply subtle and dreamlike.

A meditation of certain realities, obsession like an intestinal virus hollowing you out in the company of nightmares and recently suffered illuminations with no antibodies or antidotes and you can never live in the same way again. The permanent termination of a work, a detailed and disturbing awareness and overwhelming inspiration. Crippling expiration.

In a clear voice, a precise work of art, but barely a whisper in the babel of exaggerated disgust. Artistic impulse of grotesque experience – non-existent writing and your words fall away in a collapse of language. Extraordinary pain etched on a wall. Please. Help. Me. Self-estrangement, a terrible compromise. Bare-footed, a sing-song taunt, a giggling mischief. Innumerable damaged bodies. Dies away, a final echo of wheezing laughter and word-displays on a metal plaque: you are devoid of meaning. Tiny star-shaped flowers return to their places in a devastating reality. A waterstained sheet of paper. Blurred words, loss of clarity. Loss of meaning. Loss.

 

II. Degeneration

 

You segue into

a grey emptiness of surroundings. Penetration of outer cell walls degenerate. Amazement. Decay fascination, spectral outline of twisting passages. Delirious and dying words, hostile erasures. Advanced physical deterioration. Dispassion & displacement. The low/lying functions of an ordinary body perpetuate a network of bone, sinew, muscle, arterial-venous ventricles, tubes, tubules

opening out into

randomness and formless things, a chaotic semblance of life. The clawing of fingers, vicious creations. Mutable & un-enduring. A roaring physiological abyss echoes with advanced disease, unpleasantly warm to the touch in a vegetable stillness. A changeless quietude. Bloodshot eyes follow you unseeing, a gurgling death rattle penetrates, a sucking of breath in a reptilian-tongued mouth. Borderline gibberish in malformed brains creates language loss in the flesh-factories of the dying. Dates of nativity & death inscribed on birthing grave-bodies

morph into

fever-ridden heat hallucination, the surreal delirium of a permanently damaged brain. Derangement of imagination, hyperpyrexial phantasms in the back of an unused junk closet,  the scene a secluded graveyard seen through a cloudy haze. A gradual shutdown of operations. An echoing wreck. Skin and bone & emptiness.

 

III. Dying

 

she floats on relentless brain-music. dying. fearful. she whispers inside herself ears deaf & death to thought & consciousness. thought repeats thought repeats thought repeats: my work is not yet done. not yet done. not yet. not…

afraid of bad things. of mystery. of grace shimmer, glister voracious. the map of moments spreads out: seconds minutes hours days months years decades centuries millennia aeons. inevitable, decay thicker than water. desolate angel (wings torn away) fallen to the unhallowed ground of a hospital bed. fallen & broken on the ever-too-fast-spinning wheel of years. this is what she has come to. tumour invasion. the hardening of lung tissue. necrotic tissue. the ever/never-breathing emaciation. feels her body withdrawing. her mind drifting

on oramorph dreams in a place with no windows. hears the howling legion, dark water lashing. winter ghosts haunt their feeding ground, tread softly across far fields toward the bone factory. she follows, frostbitten beyond exile, a weeping apocalyptic beauty. joins the painted man on the dark road rising & he trades in skin, hungry hearts. carries contagions, disease & infections up a twisted ladder

to the hidden cities, a screaming silver body surfing on the riptide of souls. a kiss on a raven’s wing & seven deadly pleasures tempt her. pain. denial. sorrow. grief. fury. acceptance. surrender. reaches the outer gate & hears the groaning shadows & casts a cold eye as the tear collector scratches out the language of dying. elsewhere, thought forms in shades of blood & shadow. & she dreams of

resurrection. clothed in a robe of feathers, objects of worship casting away stones from the shadows of the closet in a house on the interstitial edge of the ghosting tide. an undertow beneath the surface boats the drowned life, a world of light-breaking cold. a time of absence in the shard-splinters of the tesseract & lucid dreaming. what happens when you wake to the sound of dead hands clapping? here she lies. cries her debut swan-song. her last & final lament.

 

Lesley McKenna. 27/03/2013

 

References:

 

Bettelheim, B (1977). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and importance of Fairy Tales. London. Vintage.

Cherry, K. (2019) ‘The Role of Catharsis in Psychotherapy’ at Very well Mind:   https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-catharsis-2794968 (accessed July 11th 2019)

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 4. Writing Myself: A Tentative Exploratory Foray into Therapeutic Writing

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

― Graham Greene, Ways of Escape

 

Graham Greene sums it up, really, and maybe I don’t need to say any more than this. And yet, we all come to writing in different ways for different reasons. I’ve already explored this a little in other posts, how I’ve always been led by my imagination. Our imaginations take us to places known and unknown, allow us to meet people we already know of, and people who are strangers, and we invent people that we might want to know, who we may aspire to be. Alternatively we might meet (and invent) those who terrify us, who challenge us, who make us question our own motives, and sometimes, our otherwise unspoken fascinations.

But it’s more than that for me, and I can only speak for myself. And for myself, I think writing fiction was a way of not facing my reality head-on, but through the lens of fiction – usually through horror and dark fantasy fiction, which probably says quite a lot about my preoccupations. As Emily Dickinson says: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – ’ Slant, so I need not look whatever ‘truth’ might mean in the face. Plus, I never thought I had anything interesting to say about me and my life. That, in fact, I was not interesting enough to explore myself in memoir-type writing. And maybe I’m not. I’ve accepted it’s not my place to judge.

When I became ill recently, my imagination grew ill with me. In fact, it seemed to die. There was nothing but grey mist in my mind, darkness in my ‘soul’, although I hesitate to use the word, but write it here as a kind of placeholder. Maybe psyche is a better word. Whatever. There was nothing. There has been nothing before, at other times when I’ve been unwell, but it was nothing like this blankness. This inability to be able to ‘see’ as I had once seen in what appeared to be living, breathing, vibrant images. This was a yawning void that sucked me into its empty heart. For someone who lives in their mind, probably too much, this was like another disability. And no, I don’t use the word lightly. If I couldn’t write, then what was I? What was my worth? To an extent, it’s still like that now. I seem to have little imagination, in the way it used to be. I can no longer imagine the fictions I used to imagine; the images, sounds and characters are no longer vibrant in my mind, and this is really, really hard. I worry that maybe I’ll never get that back, that my ability to create in that way has been lost forever. I worry that my depressed self, which tells its own fictions, will take over forever. It’s a kind of grieving, I guess, for a self that once was. But as the light re-emerged, my need to invent other places and people seems to have been replaced by another kind of need. The need to express myself through myself. To use words as a means to explore me, to help me to understand what ‘me’ really means. To use words as a kind of healing. To explore the ‘madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear’ that Greene describes.

To stop telling the truth ‘slant’.

As a slight digression, I recently read that five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians believed in the magical power of words, which were, according to their beliefs, at their most powerful when written on papyrus, a way of concentrating and focusing the magic that would drive out disease and demons. Sometimes words were dissolved in liquid, and given as medicine. The power of the word, in spells, in charms, in fictions and fact, is long understood. Words are power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. The healing aspect is something I’ve become hugely interested in, and it’s known as Writing Therapy:

‘For nearly 30 years I’ve had the same therapist. I’ve called on my therapist at 3am, on my wedding day, on a cold and lonely Christmas, on a Bora Bora beach, and in the dentist’s reception room. I can tell this therapist absolutely anything.’ (Adams. 1990)

The therapist Adams speaks of is her journal, and as she implies, the journal ‘therapist’ listens like no one else can. It will not judge you. It will not interrupt. It will not try to make you feel better with well-meant advice or platitudes. It will not be embarrassed. It is there to help you express in writing what you may not be able to express verbally, when words are too difficult to speak. It is there, in the words of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, who ‘describes writing as the process of explaining yourself to yourself, of pushing into the places of your experience where you have no articulated knowledge of the world’ (Bell, J and Magrs, P. 2001). I’ve ‘pushed into those places’ but usually they have been places of the imagination, of dreams and visions, in works of horror and the darkly fantastic. But I’ve never really explored my own life in a direct way. I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything interesting to say. That I am interesting to anyone else. But now…. Now I feel driven to explore my own emotions through the way of expression that is the most ‘natural’ to me. Through writing. Could this be a ‘poetics’ of my writing and how it’s linked to my mental health? Is there such a thing? Exploring and discussing the facets of my writing that link to my mental health and vice versa? I’m not sure where I would go with this, but I think it could be interesting. I think I’m starting to understand now what my present type of writing is for, what this blog is trying to do.

So begins the exploration.

Adams, K. Journal to the Self. (1990). New York. Warner Books.

Bell, J and Magrs, P. (2001). The Creative Writing Coursebook. London. Macmillan.

Dickinson, E. ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263 (accessed 21/09/2019)

Pinch, G. ‘Ancient Egyptian Magic’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/magic_01.shtml (accessed 21/06/2019)