The notion of fear is something which writers have always tapped into, be it fear of the beasts, ghosts and boggles which inhabit the Witching hour, or monsters in human skin. We watch our loved ones, our children, all the time, praying we possess the divine power to keep them ultimately safe. Fear is the thing that shoots adrenaline into our limbs and aids our flight. It can also be the thing that roots us helplessly to the spot.
In itself, fear is a fascinating notion. But what has always absorbed me is the recipe for fear: alarm, devastation, regret, hopelessness, etc. Key to my personal understanding of fear is the concept of abjection. I first studied abjection as a PhD student, and while the PhD was soon left by the wayside in favour of fiction writing, my obsession with abjection, and just how truly sinister a concept it is, has never left me.
The academic text which affected me most strongly was The Power of Horror by Julia Kristeva, Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, and novelist. According to Kristeva, the ‘abject’ refers to our instinctual human reaction of horror/vomiting to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, or self and other. The clearest example of an object causing such a reaction is the corpse, which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality. Other subjects elicit the same reaction. Kristeva’s examples include the open wound, shit, sewage, and – an image which has always stayed with me – even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk.
Abjection is a powerful concept when trying to write traditional horror. It is also invaluable when writing any story designed to leave the reader feeling off kilter.
Source material is everywhere. My latest novel, Vaudeville, is influenced by the video for the Sixx A.M. song ‘Lies of the Beautiful People.’ Nikki cites his band’s latest album ‘This is Gonna Hurt’ as an attempt to resurrect a sibling he hadn’t known about until adulthood. His sister Lisa was born blind, 90% deaf, and suffering Down’s syndrome. She spent most of her life in institutions. The video for Lies is an ode to the fear of the unknown – to the abject made human. As Nikki explains, “I looked at the wheelchair, the little children’s polio leg frames, the 1800s medical stuff, the child mannequins. And I said, ‘Oh my God, this is all about her.’”
Images which instinctually repulse and makes us want to back away from the edge are rife in the rock music industry. Nikki’s ex-girlfriend Kat Von D is a collector of taxidermy while Marilyn Manson is infamous for his love of Nazi memorabilia.
Another excellent exponent of the abject is the Canadian photographer and director, Floria Sigismondi. Described as ‘the creepiest of creepy videos’, Sigismondi’s vision for Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ is a classroom decorated with medical prostheses and laboratory equipment. Manson appears in a surgical gown and hooked dental device, lurching between short and grotesquely tall, with fast cut scenes interspersed of crawling earthworms, mannequin heads and hands, and fascist imagery. The idea of forcing the viewer to push against their natural abjection is key to so many of Sigismondi’s videos and is something Manson even made direct allusion to in his 2003 album title, ‘The Golden Age of Grotesque.’
Our subtle infatuation with things seen as abnormal/against nature/other is as old as time itself, of course. The circus sideshows and freaks’ carnivals with their bearded ladies, conjoined twins, snake boys and contortionists are an eternal source of left-of-centre inspiration. The Victorians’ peculiar habit of preserving animal corpses and presenting them in twee settings is a fusion of the innocent with the macabre, one famous example being the collection housed at Jamaica Inn. Fleshy things in bottles, medical apparatus, asylum straps, abandoned wheelchairs, insects, the malformed and the miscreant – these are the things which creep us out, and which, to return to Kristeva’s understanding of horror, remind us of our own corporality, and inescapable death.
Sixx A.M.’s latest album also includes a song called Skin, which includes the lyrics,
“Let them find the real you
Buried deep within
Let them know with all you got
That you are not
You are not, your skin.”
A beautiful sentiment, and oh, that it was true. Sadly we are all encased in our own coffin made flesh. But one thing we can strive towards is a better understanding of the skin we walk around in, and that includes the abjection which is always hovering at the periphery of our consciousness – a gentle but all too significant reminder that fear is a part of us, and better embraced than kicked against.
Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities http://www.acaseofcuriosities.com/pages/01_2_00potter.html