In the midst of a fit of narcissistic self-loathing this week, I opened up a story I wrote in 2009. It was an early (and final) foray into fiction and a humorous dabble into the depths of my own macabre psyche. The language was, as one of my former professors described, highfalutin, and filled with the aggrandizement of my own cleverness so many novice (and New York Times bestsellers) fall into. Yet it did live up to the sticker on its opening page—it was a gory, psychological horror story told in the first person of the serial killer.
He was no anti-hero nor vigilante; he wanted the girl and killed everyone who ever upset her to show his twisted affection. Each murder correlated to the offense given to her and was so coldly calculated it was expressed in the most medical of terms. The more he killed, the more her mind cracked, and as the town turned on her she began to believe that only he could save her. At the climax he turns on her for seeming to put her faith in someone besides himself, and leaves her for dead. The untouchable killer is left knowing he destroyed that which he created and was left to wallow in his own misery. Of course, like any good horror movie, there’s always a catch, and it ends with her leaving a decapitated head on his doorstep and whispering in his ear that she brought him a present of his own.
The story kept me awake at night squinting at shadows even as I wrote it, and reminded me why I so distinctly loathed the horror genre. It pulls on the strings attached to hidden facets of our personalities we prefer to keep hidden. Our fear for our mortality and our morbid fascination with death of others gets brought to the surface and exposed. We see our depravities in the full light of day, the dark and dead pieces that we both loathe and revel in and are forced to confront.
And here on the screen, glaring at me as I lay in bed, was the work of the my own tattered psyche’s horrorshow for all the world to see. Each chapter traced back years of my own dark humor and secret fascination with violence and the perversions of human nature. At the time it was all an experiment, a lark at the scaredy-cat writing a horror story, and an enjoyment of turning the victim into the ultimate match for her predator. The gore and sadistic deaths were an ode to my own cleverness, innately harmless crimes perpetrated against characters on a page.
There was no thought to promulgating an already saturated market of entertainment devoted to violence against women. I didn’t contemplate putting one more story in the world that disregarded human life with no redeeming takeaway. It was just a piece of barely read fiction written by a bored new college graduate. I was hardly writing Mein Kampf or making any case for murder or psychological torture. Yet I look at the culture I’m surrounded by today and am ashamed of myself for contributing to it.
We live in a world of disposable lives. Headlines abound of hundreds killed in the latest terrorism plot, military coup, and mass shooting. Political parties run on platforms of disenfranchising huge components of society based solely on their skin color, genitals, sexual preferences, or political persuasions. I spend my days as an editor reading through stories of countless women’s rapes, assaults, suicide attempts, denigration, and tragic losses. I am surrounded by darkness as far as I can see, being dug out and thrust into the harsh glare of the media, and permeating every facet of our lives.
We see its affects in our casual reference over dinner at the latest death tolls abroad, the debate over which tragedy is worth changing our social media photos for, and the confounding indifference we have to hate-mongering media and politicians. What was once the frivolous brainchild of stories has now become the daily headlines of our lives. The compassion we once felt for our fellow man is now encrusted with the same jaded apathy directed toward the horrors enacted on fictional characters.
There is no more divide between just a story and real life anymore. Not when death tolls and names on memorials are just another fleeting piece of copy written on the screen, no more real to us than—and often even less so—a beloved character’s death on a show. We’re all just fictional characters to one another. We feel only the passing empathy toward a victim until the next shocking death comes along, leaving them as forgotten names on a page.
And I helped contribute to that darkness. I reached inside myself and painted the page with the deviance soaked up from years of blood-stained shows, movies, and books coating over the humane parts of me. I’m horrified that I had it in me to create that story, but what truly scares me is that for all my liberal shame, there’s still a part of me smiles as I read it.
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