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On Inevitability in Horror

My favorite kind of horror tends to be understated. They're the kind of stories that, when you sit back and think about them, becomes more disturbing the longer you ruminate.

Probably the most famous example of this lies in cosmic horror, impregnated with existential dread based on not only the difference in scale between the individual (small and frequently ineffective) and eternity (vast and unknowable) but on the Lovecraftian pantheon of monsters whose terribleness is beyond comprehension and whose ascendance is inevitable.

A lot of cosmic horror boils down to this: There are things coming--unspeakable things--and there is nothing you can do about it.

But this idea, that evil is inevitable, is not unique or original to Lovecraft.

I am unabashedly a fan of Hammer Horror's movies, particularly their version of Dracula. And this isn't just because tall, imposing, dark and brooding Christopher Lee is all you'd want the Count to be, it's also because of the way he's written.

Unlike many newer versions of Dracula, which have opted to portray the Count in a sympathetic light, he's utterly ruthless. There is no romantic desire behind his pursuit of buxom young women. He's about power and control, as evil as Bram Stoker wrote him.

To my chagrin, Lee's Dracula is dispatched at the end of every Hammer movie (I don't think horror movies should necessarily have happy endings), but he pops right back up in the next one: resurrected either by a loyal servant or some supernatural phenomena.

Dracula is inevitable. You can kill him, maybe ride off into the sunset for your happily ever after, but you can be sure he'll be back in a decade or two, out for the blood of your descendants in order to avenge himself.

And that's scary. Because the basic premise of those kinds of monster movies is you have two choices: sit around and cower, hoping you don't do anything that offends the monster and causes him to come after you, or you can try to kill him and put a stop to his reign of terror. But know he'll be back and motivated to come after you.

The choice is really live with the terror or delay the terror and foist it upon future generations. I like this setup because it's a kind of play on the idea of delayed gratification, something that makes the pleasures of life even sweeter. Does the same work for terror? If you delay the terror is it greater, knowing that the monster will inevitably be back to get you? Always jumping at shadows and unexplained noises?

I'm not sure, but that's the choice: terror now or terror later. There are no real happy endings. And that, I think, is appropriate for a horror story.

Now, Hammer's Dracula is inevitable, but, unlike Lovecraft's monsters, he's also a bit impotent. Frequently dispatched by a love-sick youth, he just can't seem to avoid freak accidents, like getting tangled unwittingly in a hawthorn bush or standing on a sheet of ice just as it gets struck by lightning and cracks beneath him. He always seems to get stopped just short of his ultimate goal.

That is, of course, a construction for the 90-minute movie format, but that impotence is still interesting. Bram Stoker's Dracula is, after all, meant to be a creature purely of the devil. He is evil, without hope of repentance. And evil has to be omnipotent because it's pitted against a good rooted in Christianity, which (from the perspective of a believer) inevitably prevails.

Still, even though the ultimate outcome of an encounter with the Count is predetermined, the power of goodness can't do anything to stop Dracula's resurrection. Nor prevent him from claiming more victims.

He remains inevitable. And the knowledge that good will ultimately prevail might ease the terror of living nearby where he preys, but it's probably cold comfort when your daughter is transformed into a vampire bride and starts feeding on your family. Personally, I think losing the ability to control your own person and legacy is the ultimate horror.

So, as much as cosmic horror's existential dread can get a little overwrought at times, there are examples of similar devices, used more subtly, in other kinds of horror stories.


Katherine Emily is an author and managing editor at Input/Output Enterprises. Her Gothic horror novel, The Cuan, is available on Amazon. This post originally appeared on her Goodreads blog.

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