Grace R. Reynolds
GUEST POST: What I’ve Learned about Grief from the Horror Genre
On April 16, 2021, sometime around six in the morning, my husband received the worst news of his life: his father had suddenly passed away. I'd seen him tear up a few times before this moment, but I had never witnessed him grieve. It was tragic. Unsettling. How was I supposed to console my partner, whose composure I had never seen waver? I can describe it as nothing short of helplessness.
My creativity plummeted, and I struggled to utilize the outlet I liked best, poetry, to channel my anguish. I had known the man since I was eighteen years old. He was my second father. I didn't know what more I could do than to let time mend the broken parts of myself.
My father-in-law's death coincided with my re-acquaintance with horror fiction. When I could find no words in my heart to adequately express the depth of my sadness, I found solace in reading books about characters overcoming the monstrous and impossible. I found companionship in authors who did not shy away from exploring the devastation of the human spirit. I found the social support I needed that asked me to lean into horror with open arms and find solace in the shadows. Fans of the genre consume horror fiction for many reasons, the strongest argument being that projecting our fears on screen or in text provides us opportunities to reenact personal feats of survival. We chase the thrill of escaping the slasher, banishing the demon, and finding closure for our ghosts to put them to rest.
In September 2020, a team of researchers across the globe published a paper that argued fans of the horror genre are more likely to be psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their findings were based on a hypothesis that "exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations." I do not believe the horror community was surprised by the results of this study. If anything, fans' feelings and love for the genre were validated.
The spectrum of grief is vast. It encompasses unfathomable loss exhibited through life stressors like divorce, chronic and terminal illness, loss of autonomy, and financial instability. Grief is most commonly associated with death, however, as it is the universal human experience we will invariably face.
I remember standing in the middle of a Kroger grocery store, buying food for out-of-town guests the day after my father-in-law's death. I tried to hold back the tears as I saw shoppers pass by. How could the world just go on? I wanted someone, anyone, to understand how I was feeling. Though loss is universal, it is a horribly solitary experience.
Grief is one of the most primal and intense emotions we possess. It washes over us, a tidal wave wreaking havoc in its path. It leaves us with the sense that we are not in control. When we read horror, however, we put ourselves in the driver's seat again. We can consume frightening fiction at a comfortable pace and project our traumas onto the page. We no longer bear the weight of mental anguish alone; our protagonists are there to see us through.
Horror shows us the cost we incur when we do not accept and process grief in its natural stages. It raises the stakes and asks us to witness what humanity is capable of in the face of suffering. Take Laurel Hightower's novella Crossroads, where her character Chris is determined to do everything she can to see her son again after a ghostly vision one night. What wouldn't she give to hear his voice? To run her fingers through his hair like he was a little boy? Her distress and desperation turns violent, ultimately resulting in her demise. Chris embodies a parent's loss and desire to crawl into the grave with their children. How could someone go on after the death of their child? It's a question we ask ourselves after such a tragedy, yet somehow, the living keeps living.
In Johnny Compton's novel The Spite House, Eric Ross is faced with the unimaginable and insurmountable task of proving the existence of somewhere or something beyond death. This Southern Gothic horror shows us grief personified as the Masson House. As Eric unravels its mysteries, he quickly learns that the house takes a part of its inhabitants–and doesn't give it back.
The death of a loved one takes something from us, too. It forces us to reevaluate our circumstances and question what will happen if we do not confront our new and uncomfortable reality. Will we dissociate from our humanity to survive, as Marcos does in Agustina Bazterrica's dystopian cannibal horror novel, Tender Is the Flesh? Do we procure false memories and fall into fantasy, as Mara does in Eric LaRocca's novella We Can Never Leave this Place, to process our trauma?
"What are you afraid of?... Letting go or being left with nothing to hold?"
-We Can Never Leave This Place, Eric LaRocca
Horror teaches us that grief is generational. It seeps down to our roots, and for all of us, there is a patch of earth that knows us by our blood. It sings the opening chords of sorrow, the song that makes us yearn for a person or place that understands our soul. Call it sanguine instinct, the desire to know and be known by our ancestors and the land they inhabited. In the chapbook, We Came From an Island, Cynthia Pelayo teaches us that our family histories are full of secrets, magic, and legend. Her tapestry weaves stories of ghosts, monsters, and heartache against the backdrops of Chicago and Puerto Rico. It is a love letter to family and fortitude in the face of adversity. Moreover, this book shows us the most important lesson to learn about grief from the horror genre is that our capacity to love one another is more powerful than we could ever imagine.
When our loved ones don't return, we are left with an empty chair at the table. A closet full of unworn sweaters. Unanswered calls on a locked cell phone with pictures you wish you could see. A treasure trove of stories that can only be found in the depths of our memories. Horror makes certain we understand that loss is inevitable. It teaches us that grief is not something to be avoided, but rather, we should treat it like a silent friend and learn to how to walk with it.
This year marks the second anniversary of my father-in-law's death. I've read many books in the genre since then. I can't say that exposure to frightening fiction makes me more or less psychologically resilient; or that I cope with the concept of mortality better than someone who doesn't like horror. However, I know that I am not alone in my grief. Neither are you, and that makes it hurt a little less.
Grace R. Reynolds is a native of the great state of New Jersey, where she was first introduced to the eerie and strange thanks to local urban legends of a devil creeping through the Pine Barrens. Since then, her curiosity with things that go bump in the night bloomed into creative expression as a dark poet, horror, and thriller fiction writer.
When Grace is not writing she can be found dreaming up macabre scenarios inspired by the mundane realities of life. Her short fiction and poetry has been published by various presses, including Brigid’s Gate Publishing, Creature Publishing, Dark Matter Magazine, Death Knell Press, and more. She is the author of two poetry collections, Lady of The House (2021) and The Lies We Weave (2023), both released by Curious Corvid Publishing.
[Image Credit: photograph by Kobe - via Pexels]