Oped: Pick your poison, horror stories or the news
Which would you find more frightening before going to bed: reading the news or reading a horror story? For those of you who watch television, the question still applies: which would keep you up awake longer, seeing the face of Hannibal Lecter or seeing the face of Steve Bannon?
I just read Shirley Jackson's classic short story, "The Lottery." It scared me to my bones. The plot is simple: At random, a member from every small town in America is sacrificed each spring to keep the community prosperous. The person is stoned to death in the town square by friends and family members. That's it. There are no severed heads, no gooey eyeballs and no monsters — except for the monsters on Main Street, just as the famously titled episode of the "Twilight Zone" suggests.
What's terrifying about any good horror story is that it can happen here, just as Sinclair Lewis proposed. We worry about it happening to us. As Ira Levin's 1967 novel, "Rosemary's Baby" puts it, the most unsettling question any of us can ask is, are we "going mad or going sane"?
What can't be categorized is frightening; what is almost familiar but not-quite-right is unnerving; what is distorted, disintegrating or profoundly damaged incites a sense of dread. We are uneasy about liminal spaces or liminal characters: scary scenes often occur in hallways, basements, attics, sewers and closets and are perpetrated by outsider figures who, having been rejected by society, exist only on its peripheries.
My recurring nightmares are about stepping into an elevator that starts speeding sideways, or I wake up in a sweat trying to find a way out of a room that has no door. I've dreamed, since I was a child, about a three-eyed dog leaping for my throat. And yet I choose the whispers of horror over the yelling of the news before sleep.
My friends had swift responses to my question about what choice they'd make. Debby Morris asks for horror before closing her eyes because "the news will give me nightmares." "Give me 'The Walking Dead' any time," says Jennifer Cail. "At least it has survivor tips." Rick Jones echoes, "At least with horror films, you know that some of the people on the screen will be young and attractive." Adds Amy Beth Geerling Payne, "With horror, you might still have health insurance once the credits roll."
Annie Kelleher finds horror relaxing because "at the end of the movie the monster is usually dead. When the news is over, President Donald Trump is usually starting to tweet."
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp "picks horror every time. Horror indulges the notion that the bottom can drop out at any moment while simultaneously giving hope with a triumphant hero by the book's end."
Dave Hanley agrees: "What scares me more before going to bed? The news. No contest. Manufactured horror is a nice base, like a glass of warm milk."
And yet Nancy Lager, my roommate from college, still won't watch a scary movie. "The uncanny doesn't let us go once we let it in," Nancy argues. "Fear is like an infection that you can't shake once you've picked it up. I try to avoid it." She will instead read the news, believing that the world, unlike a work of fiction, can be changed.
Another friend who has worked in journalism, Matt Eagan, makes a similar point: "While the hard news is horrifying these days, it's better to face it than allow it to roll about in your imagination like so many loose marbles."
We fear losing our marbles don't we? We're wondering whether everyday life is driving us mad or forcing us into sanity. Horror stories affect us psychologically because they stay with us, forcing us to question what's real and what's outside reality's boundaries. They accrue power because they capture our imagination and then mess around with it. We rehearse scenes, retracing them long after the pages are turned or the screen is dark.
When we're being asked to question whether news is "fake news" and determine whether the facts on which we base our reality are actual facts or "alternative facts," we come close to wondering whether the elevators will start speeding sideways and whether the man with the three-eyed dog is waiting just inside the White House door.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of "If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?" and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.