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George A. Romero’s horror movie Dawn of the Dead – and its remake, seen above – depicts a group of survivors besieged by zombies in a state-of-the-art shopping mall to play on fears of mindless consumerism, presaging the era of Reaganomics and Patrick Bateman. (Michael Gibson)
George A. Romero’s horror movie Dawn of the Dead – and its remake, seen above – depicts a group of survivors besieged by zombies in a state-of-the-art shopping mall to play on fears of mindless consumerism, presaging the era of Reaganomics and Patrick Bateman. (Michael Gibson)

Craig Davidson: What happens when real life is scarier than anything a writer’s mind can conjure? Add to ...

What we Canadians witnessed as awestruck bystanders last Tuesday night, as the tangerine-skinned lizard king ascended to his throne, was not horrific following the traditional trappings of the horror genre. Sure, you may have felt a dry wash of terror in your throat or broke into cold sweats as the tallies came in. But the overall feeling was more an Orwellian “boot stamping on a human face, forever” soul sickness.

When confronted with an outcome of such shocking revulsion – no different than scratching an old hound’s ear only to discover an infestation of blood-engorged ticks under that furry flap – a horror writer such as myself confronts a quandary: What happens when the fears of real life surpass those his puny mind can conjure?

Yet, this is nothing new. Dismaying as the reality of a Donald Trump presidency may be, our species has tolerated worse. And horror writers have always supped at the bitter broth of calamity, dining out on every horrific human misfortune.

Consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which a shady Carpathian foreigner slips into England under the cover of darkness to feast on the blood of virginal British lasses. It’s no stretch to see that Stoker’s monster is a product of its time, when anxieties about colonialism and race-mixing ran high. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead depicts a group of survivors besieged by zombies in a state-of-the-art shopping mall; in addition to holding a top-five berth in my “All Time Splatter” flicks pantheon (between John Carpenter’s The Thing and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive) the film also plays on fears of mindless consumerism – it came out in the United States in 1979, presaging the era that would mint both Reaganomics and Patrick Bateman. More recently, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has masterfully highlighted humanity’s fear of technology.

The question is: When seismic cultural events transpire, how does the horror genre react? Do its writers shy away, realizing that they cannot compete with these real-life terrors? Or do they plumb the bleakest caverns of their ids for something so frightening it outstrips real life?

My sense is, we do neither. Rather – like some hungry, acquisitive, malleable blob – we consume these societal fears. Internalize them, churn them over and spit them out at an uncanny, uncomfortable, funhouse-mirror skew. They exit a horror writer’s mind as dark fables, parables … or as pure “What ifs?”

Like most writers, I have a “What if?” switch – the one buried deep in my head that helps me generate ideas. Just flip the “What if?” switch and see what starts twitching and purring in the dark stew of my mind.

What ifs are great fun, because they’re absurdities. But sometimes the real world spits out a “What if?” so bizarre no sane writer would even attempt it.

What if a megalomaniac millionaire ran for the presidency?

What if some people – okay, a lot of people – wanted him to win?

And what if … he did?

As I sat watching the U.S. election results, my soul shredding into disbelieving tatters as states shaded in red … red … red … I thought about “What ifs?” and a few genre tropes aptly encapsulated the horror of this election.

Consider the trope of “the Kindly Neighbours Secretly in League Against You.” Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is the most well-known example. The novel’s “What if?” is simple: What if the residents in the Bramford, a New York apartment building, are secretly a demon-worshipping coven with designs on impregnating the titular Rosemary Woodhouse with the spawn of Satan?

Masterfully, Levin keeps readers guessing. Is Rosemary imagining it all? Is she slipping into insanity? Or are her neighbours – a passel of cheek-pinching oldsters – actually closet Satanists?

I thought about Levin’s book last Tuesday night. About people who hide their true faces. My foolish assumption was that I knew Trump voters. They were the ones who staggered out of the turnip patch, stuck a sprig of timothy grass between their gapped front teeth and said, “Let’s have us a hoot ’n’ a holler!” before stumbling off to the voting booths. I assumed I could pick one out of a crowd, and the fact that I rarely encountered them filled me with the surety that Clinton would win.

The result made me think about how slimly we know our neighbours. While they may not wear goofy red hats or tote pro-life placards, when a lot of those people – middle-class, affluent, none of them fitting the assumed mould of a Trump voter – step into the booth, they are free to express the sincerest hope of their secret hearts.

And boy, did they ever. Nearly 60 million strong.

I see now that we never acknowledged the threat. Always easier to dismiss Trump and his followers as fringe loons. To assume that somewhere along the line his multitudinous sins would bite him in the ass.

At first, Trump was a glorious joke. Then he made mincemeat of Jeb Bush (remember woebegone ole Jeb?) and intimated that Ted Cruz’s father plotted to assassinate JFK – and the Trump Train only picked up steam. His rallies swelled. His most racist, sexist or polemicist ramblings – and the predictable media pooh-poohing – dented him not a whit.

And we liberals said, “Relax. Never gonna happen.”

He secured the nomination. A two-horse race. And we still failed to recognize the wolf in our kitchen.

Well, folks, the wolf ate us. Ripped us limb from disbelieving limb. And even as it devoured us, even as we stared into its soulless black eyes, we said, “This isn’t happening. It can’t be.”

And hey, that’s a horror trope, too! Let’s call it the Ignored Threat.

George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings is a great example. What if a rancid old millionaire were to purchase an alien race – the aforementioned kings – which he tortures and makes fight each other? As the story progresses, the kings get stronger, yet the millionaire persists in his superiority. He can control them, you see, because he’s smarter. He fails to see the threat kindling in front of him. And the moment he discovers that the balance of power has flipped is the moment it ceases to matter.

Look at it another way. Imagine a tick on the back of your neck. It’s latched on, you can feel it, but you say: “Eh, just a little tick. What can it do?” So you ignore it while it slowly sucks out your blood and vigours, confident you can deal with it at your leisure – or it will overindulge, lose its grip and fall off on account of its own greedy, foolhardy nature.

Next, it’s the size of your head and you’re feeling dizzy. Before long, it’s nearly as big as you, piggybacking you, running you to ground.

And you could’ve prevented it. If only you hadn’t scoffed. If you had admitted its looming danger instead of asserting that this disgusting, boorish little tick, with its farcical head of hair, isn’t anything to worry about.

But good god, What if?

The horror! The horror!

Craig Davidson’s books include the novel Cataract City, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the memoir Precious Cargo. As Nick Cutter, his horror includes The Troop and Little Heaven, which will be published in January.

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