Negativity/positivity

It’s a Sunday morning, cold and breezy but sunny with an almost flawless blue sky. A perfect day for ruminating philosophically on the endless possibilities of life and the universe. And yet, what is it that I find myself thinking about? Negativity. Yes, negativity. Or, rather, that seemingly natural propensity for humanity to dwell more on the bad things in opposition to the good.

There’s a story my wife told me some years ago, when I first met her, about a newspaper venture that promised it would print nothing but good news. A welcome respite from all the darkness that appears to surround us every day, one would think. Not according to the newspaper-buying public, however: it folded very soon afterwards. Which inevitably leads one to the question: do we, as a species/society, naturally gravitate towards the less salubrious aspects of life just as a matter of course?Is there an element of schadenfreude, a streak of “I’m okay and you’re not”, even if it isn’t a consciously-acknowledged train of thought?

It appears that that attitude is hard-wired into us, to the extent that we do it without even being consciously aware of it. It’s an unspoken wish to confirm to ourselves that our lives aren’t as bad as all that, that there are people who have things a lot worse than we do. There are some out there who do seem to physically thrive on the misery of others, but I would like to think that they’re in the minority. I am talking here, though, about the majority, those who are just the kind of people like you and I are.

I’m a particularly good example of this – I’ve been fascinated by the darker side of life ever since I was a child. At six, I was constructing headstones and gravemarkers out of Lego, and then lining them up on a little patch of ground in the back garden. I was also fascinated, round about the same time, with Ancient Egypt and its pantheon of gods and goddesses, and also of its conception of an afterlife. In paticular, I was entralled by their philosophy of making preparations in this life for the next one, and how everything they believed and did was geared to ensuring that one’s passage into the afterlife was as smooth amd as glorious as possible. However, as morbid as we find the idea these days, it was a natural part of everyday life for them and was considered eminently normal. It was a natural progression, then, that when I became a teen I became involved in the occult and, later on, got into the goth scene.

Even at that very early age, I don’t think I was actually afraid of death. Certainly I’d figured out that it was an inevitable part of life and, in my own childish way, realised that a life was clearly defined as much by death as by what you did with that life. My parents were worried, of course, to the extent that my mother sought the advice of a child psychologist – and his view was that it was perfectly natural for a child to start exploring all aspects of life, in other words, it was my way of getting to grips with the idea of death, that one day everything that I consciously felt and experienced would cease.

Not that long ago, I would gleefully scour the newspaper obituary columns every day. Plus my preferred reading in any newspaper were the items on death, doom and destruction. I appeared to derive a grim satisfaction from reading the accounts from the safety of my warm, heated house, surrounded by all the creature comforts that life affords these days. It’s almost like a species of perverse reassurance that I was alive and that I was okay. That I wasn’t the one suffering the hardship, or that I was the one lucky enough to have escaped the Grim Reaper’s scythe for yet another day.

I guess this why I love horror film and literature – it’s another kind of reassurance, albeit in a much diluted form. It’s also why I occasionally take up the word-processor and write a horror/supernatural tale or two myself. It’s a kind of exorcism, a way of dealing with the world outside the walls and windows. There’s a lot out there that angers me or worries me, and if I didn’t have that verbal therapy there to hand when I needed it, then who knows how else I would express it. This goes for a great many people out there, too, all those artists and film-makers and writers and musicians who see their world slowly disintegrating and yet they feel powerless to stop it. Their only recourse is to express themselves through their creativity.

And that’s why people respond to horror in particular, I think – yes, in part it’s because people like to be scared, but also because they’re not the serial killer’s victims, or they’re not the ones to be turned into zombies, or they’re not the one who has become another faceless statistic in the wake of some otherworldly creature’s unstoppable rampage. These media are safety valves. And it’s exactly the same as when others scan the newspaper reports for all those items that deal with natural disasters, or a gunman’s rampage, or the latest atrocity in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the latest terrorist outrage in a Western city. They feel safe in the knowledge that it’s others who will have to deal with any aftermath. Once they’ve  shut down the online newspaper then they’re safe to forget about it and get on with their lives. After we have closed the book or left the cinema, we can do the same.

In some ways, then, horror serves as a both a safety valve so we can relieve the pressures thar daily life brings and it also performs the job of grounding us, and letting us come to terms with our fears. I consider myself a well-rounded and very stable person, subject to all the frailties of human existence yes, but, on the whole, not an unpleasant person to be around. I owe a lot of that balance to literature and film, and I would venture to say that I would be a very different person today were they not there for me to use. So, when someone says to you that horror, as a media genre, is sick and only sick people would want to get involved, then tell them this: without those outlets and the exorcism they offer, this world would be a considerably worse place.

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