October engulfs the lingering remains of summer, and in the northern hemisphere, the nights are drawing in. The shadows lengthen and the scent of autumn hangs heavy in the chilly air. The old pagan festival of Samhain, from which we derive Halloween, is almost upon us, a time when the harvest would end, and communities would celebrate those who had passed on. Many view it as a “dark” festival, the polar opposite to the light, fun festivities of May Day. Still, you can’t have the light without the dark and I’m very much a person who is happy to embrace the Dark Side. As the T-shirt slogan says, “Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies.”
I have to admit, as weird as it might sound, I spend a lot of my time surrounded by the darker side of life. I sometimes write horror, or dark Gothic, fiction, I read a lot of ghost stories, I’m about to begin a PhD about haunted house films, and I spend much of my spare time ghost-hunting. Yes, you read that correctly. I go on paranormal investigations, both out of general curiosity, and to blog about them. But why do I feel this compelling need to explore these things when I could be frolicking around enthusing about rainbows or cooing over babies?
Humans are a social species, and we’ve been telling stories ever since we developed language. A key factor in those stories has been monsters, boogeymen or vengeful spirits. In a world where most things could probably kill you, devising a way to keep the rest of your community safe was extremely important, and what better way to stop people from exploring dangerous areas or approaching particular animals than inventing monsters or legends to keep the curious at bay? Of course, there is always the possibility that the draugr, selkie and brag may be entirely real, and the folklore is a collection of factual accounts, or it may just be that in unenlightened times, magical explanations were all people had.
We like to think of ourselves as being enlightened, and we now look upon such stories as fanciful or silly. So why do we continue to seek out the darkness, be it in human form or otherwise? Vampires and werewolves have perhaps never been more popular, while the boom in crime fiction sees readers seeking out serial killers or other deranged humans. Crime is still on the rise but humans no longer fear large predators, and our greatest threats come from extreme weather conditions, and sickness – both of which find expression through science fiction, as opposed to horror. Instead, we use urban legends to warn us of the dangers posed by other humans, and we actively seek out vicarious thrills by finding the darkness in our entertainment. There is still a primal part of the brain that enjoys being scared.
It’s much the same reason why people go bungee jumping, or ride rollercoasters. There’s the feeling of fear, but with few of the dangerous repercussions. Yet we can’t appreciate the “light” without acknowledging the “dark”, so we might have a lovely day at the beach, enjoying the sun and splashing the sea, while curling up on the sand with the latest literary stabfest. Monsters become stand-ins for our deep-seated fears, and we can experience horror, safe in the knowledge that we can just close the book, or stop the DVD, if it all gets too much. Fiction reflects what we truly hold as frightening, and as a writer, it’s both a duty and pleasure to explore and expose that darkness for the enjoyment of others!