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Opinion: Why do we love horror during times of economic uncertainty?

Twilight, The Walking Dead and Dead Set are just some of our recent horrific cultural highlights

Opinion: why do we run to horror in times of trouble?

The Walking Dead

In times of economic calamity, do we turn to horror stories to get us through the day? And is that why some literary authors are tapping into our worst fears?

After the Wall Street crash of 1929, was it pure coincidence that Universal set about creating a canon of classic horror movies with iconic creations? Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s monster of Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man continued to spook viewers many generations later. And who can forget the late 70s and 80s with Thatcherism and Reaganomics turning us all into Lost Boys while a fresh set of George A Romero’s zombies ran amok in empty shopping malls (you could almost smell the satire).

It also seems all too weird that the severe economic downturn we have been experiencing since the mid-2000s have resulted in The Hunger Games books and movies, and the Twilight films, while TV has been packed to the gunnels with the undead (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries), zombies (The Walking Dead, Dead Set) and Being Human, the ultimate supergroup of every kind of ghoul.

In the literary field, star novelists such as Stephen King, Anne Rice and Clive Barker have happily reaped the rewards of tapping into people’s inner demons for decades no matter the economic circumstances. But now, all of a sudden, some serious literary types are taking time out from high-minded ideals and challenging for Bookers and National Book Awards by dipping their claws into horror.

Acclaimed kids author Melvin Burgess teamed up with Hammer at the start of the year for Hunger, a tale resplendent with flesh eaters and blood guzzlers, while eyebrows were raised when news dripped out that Joyce Carol Oates was penning an eerie psychological horror entitled The Accursed. And perhaps yet more startling is the imminent publication of Julie Myerson’s The Quickening, featuring a couple’s holiday in paradise that takes a sinister turn.

So, what is behind this uncanny metamorphosis? For Julie Myerson, the timing seemed right and the pull was inexorable. ‘Hammer were making these novels that people like me were being invited to write. I loved Helen Dunmore’s ghost story The Greatcoat and it felt like a challenge to attempt one of my own. I’ve always been drawn to the supernatural. There are ghosts in almost all my novels, though my interest in them usually tends to stem from the light they shed on the living human spirit and human behaviour. It was great to be able to let rip and attempt something really scary.’

But before we close the lid on all this terror, does Myerson think that horror stories have more of a receptive audience when we are all faced with gloom and uncertainty? ‘I do think it addresses our need to experience fear and even disgust and loathing in a “safe” way. So, the more uncertain we feel and the more vulnerable and fragile, the more we need a little carefully concocted horror.’ And what frightening surprises lie ahead: Martin Amis pens the next great teen werewolf saga and Dave Eggers rips the head off a dove at a book signing? Stranger things may well have happened.

Julie Myerson’s The Quickening is published by Hammer on Thu 28 Mar; Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed is published by Fourth Estate on Tue 5 Mar.

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