Horror by another name

It’s May 2017, and the “it” movie of the year is Get Out. It’s critically acclaimed, with a 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jordan Peele is now the top grossing debut writer/director of all time.

I’m ecstatic. It has classic Psycho strings and obvious parallels to classics like Rosemary’s Baby. Peele is a horror nerd doing daring things within an established horror tradition, and it’s good. As a horror writer, I’m thrilled.

See, with the exception of Stephen King, written horror isn’t doing so hot. While Game of Thrones and its Lovecraft-inflected fantasy is a cultural phenomenon, while Stranger Things is picking up awards, publishing turns up its nose at anything calling itself horror. We’re told written horror isn’t good, doesn’t sell. But over in the parallel universe of film and TV, horror is crushing it. Every success proves there are is a well of talent and a market for what we do.

Except Jordan Peele wishes he hadn’t had to market it as horror. He’d like it if we’d call Get Out a “social thriller” instead. As the maker of a success as huge as Get Out, he can call his movies whatever he wants. He’s going with the “social thriller” branding for his 2019 project.

It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed, even if I do get it. Horror has baggage.

The first half of Stephen King’s revered On Writing is autobiographical and framed around the question “where do your stories come from (and since they are horror, what the fuck is wrong with you)?” King recounts early traumas and arrives at the answer “I don’t know.” He leaves space for the reader to conclude there’s nothing wrong with him. But even King, Stephen motherfucking King, to an audience of friendly readers, knows the genre of the story people want to hear about him and must abide by those conventions.

There might be nothing wrong with horror writers. I suspect that story doesn’t sell.

Horror fans don’t entirely escape this, either. OkCupid, a data-driven online data service, suggests “do you like horror movies?” as an incisive but inoffensive question for a first date. Based on a study of 33,000 couples, they were highly likely to share the same answer.

Makes sense to me. When we first married, my husband and I both agreed on our answers: no. Neither of us liked horror. I probably would have judged him if he had.

I have taste, you see. My favorite literary author is Flannery O’Connor, although Atwood’s also great. And Harlan Ellison, Jesus, he’s good. My favorite movie is Silence of the Lambs, which deserved all the Oscars it got. Satoshi Kon and Lynch are tied for favorite directors. I love film. Back when I was dirt poor, Terror Tuesdays were a dollar, so I went with all my little hipster friends ironically. Back when I was uncool enough to read comics I read all of Akira and all of Berserk and caught the references to Hellraiser in Berserk because I am a film nerd and of course I’ve seen Hellraiser.

But me, a horror fan? I wasn’t that kind of girl.

It took writing a damn book and letting the revision process break me before I realized: I love horror. I write horror. Anytime horror is good, I call it something else.

That’s bullshit. Horror is often good. It’s enjoying a TV and film renaissance. Its time will come back around in publishing.

Whatever Jordan Peele chooses to call Get Out, it’s brilliant. And it is horror. I hope, someday, he embraces that.

Follow M. K. Anderson on Twitter at @emkayanders and look for her short story in Nightscript Volume III, out on October.

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