An Evening of New Perspectives on Horror
With Halloween recently behind us, it’s easy to want to quickly move forward. Stores will be (if they haven’t already) putting up new Christmas displays, red and green lights will appear on the trimmings of every house in the neighborhood, and Christmas carols will soon infect the radio waves. As I write this, my family is already taking down all of the tombstones in the front yard, the hanging lights, the ghouls and pumpkins that were hanging around the house. For many, it’s easy to say goodbye to Halloween and move on to the more intense “holiday season” we’ve come to love, hate, or a little bit of both. But before we say adieu to the candy, pumpkins, ghosts and goblins, let’s just think about what Halloween really means to us in terms of life and art.
On Wednesday, October 28th, I went to the annual Haunted Graveyard Reading at Canisius College, hosted by Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honors Society at Canisius. The event was well attended by students, professors, and alumni alike. “The Halloween readings are always a crowd favorite,” Aryanna Falkner, co-hostess/co-president of Sigma Tau Delta and junior at Canisius, said. “I think it’s great that the tradition of telling ‘ghost tales’ is appealing to freshmen just as it is to our professors.”
As a student, I’d never actually made it to the event, usually caught up in the stress of mid-terms at this point in the semester. However, as an alumna, I found the event to be a very interesting glance into young people’s impressions of horror and literature, and listening to the readings helped me understand how we are affected by it.
The lights were dimly lit, the podium decorated with orange lights and eerie tombstones. The tables were centered with folded book art and pumpkins covered in book pages. The room both echoed of Halloween and fall in general, a celebration of a season that leads us into months of darkness, and this is how we let ourselves enjoy it.
Each reader was allowed to read a poem or prose piece they’d written themselves or read somewhere else. There were a few classic readings, such as the classic Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, read by Darby Ratliff, a senior at Canisius. These sorts of tales, of ghosts and mysterious, horrific creatures, serve a very important purpose, and cannot be dismissed as mere fantasy. These stories are first a means of escape from our own reality, thrilling us and challenging us to believe in monsters that don’t exist in our world, but exist in a separate space in each of our minds where anything is possible. This thrill that we feel, when we think Sherlock Holmes is going to get attacked by a giant hound, or when Ichabod Crane is being chased by the Headless Horseman, serves to make ourselves feel truly alive without the risk of real danger. These monsters we fear might get us in the end become symbols for our own mortality. Nobody thinks more about their own death than when they’re threatened by a ghost, monster, or other fear-inducing creature. In appreciating horror as art, we are reminded that one day we will die, and for some reason, we still like it.
But why do we like this? Why do we want to think about dying? I think it’s about both the thrill—knowing that our lives are fragile and could end at any moment—and the curiosity, wanting to know what will happen next. When we see these unnatural creatures in movies or read about them in horror novels, we are both repulsed and entranced by the way these characters challenge our black and white notions of death. A person isn’t supposed to crawl back out of their grave, craving the taste of human brains, they aren’t supposed to float around their childhood home, wanting to abduct the soul of a child. We make up scary stories because somehow that’s almost better than just not knowing.
The other brand of horror which was actually more common than the traditional “scary story” at the Haunted Graveyard Reading was the concept of inner demons, where the protagonists’ greatest fears were themselves. Senior Nicole Kuhn read a short story called “Screenwriter” by Charles d’Ambrosio, in which a screenwriter confesses suicidal thoughts and gets put in a mental ward under maximum observation, where he is constantly trailed by another screenwriter. Co-hostess/co-president of Sigma Tau Delta and senior at Canisius Elizabeth Sawka read “Stay Awake” by Dan Chaon, a short story within a collection of the same name, a piece in which a man is living in his parents’ house shortly after their death and is suffering from insomnia. “The stories in this collection are all about narrators losing touch with reality,” Sawka said, “Which makes them all pretty appropriately creepy for a Halloween reading.” I found it fascinating that more students chose to read about the horrors of reality (and losing reality) than those of fantasy. Aryanna Faulkner said, “This was my first time attending — let alone co-hosting — the graveyard reading, so I was really surprised to hear so many people read psychological thrillers rather than typical ghost/suspense stories!”
So what does this mean, that so many young people are more interested in our own personal, real horrors, than the fantastical stories of ghosts and monsters? Unfortunately, it means we’re realizing sooner that we have bigger things to be afraid of in our own reality than in fantasy. These stories might make us laugh, as d’Ambrosio’s voice in particular is dry and sarcastic. But more often than not, they can make us quite depressed. Losing our own sanity has become one of our biggest fears, now more than ever, as anxiety and depression rates continue to climb, particularly in America but certainly all over the world as well. We can understand why people write about these topics, perhaps to express something within themselves, but why do we read it?
Sometimes I feel like this answer is difficult, because I find myself staying away (for months or even years at a time) from more “depressing” or psychologically taxing films or books, but I think for most the answer might actually be quite simple, and it is the same reason we appreciate any work of art. We crave human connection, and these psychological thrillers help us connect with other people who may feel similarly in their own lives to the way we feel, even if the authors of these works of fiction aren’t necessarily depressed themselves. We want to read something that reminds us that the nagging anxiety we haven’t been able to explain happens to somebody else. We want to know that somebody else understands how it feels when we cannot sleep; they might have it worse, but perhaps some of their reasons and feelings are the same as ours. And as terrible as it might seem to want to relate to a schizophrenic or insomniac, it can be comforting to even the most stable people.
The lightest contribution of the night came from Aryanna Falkner’s reading of her brother’s short story, about the terrors of math and his “book of monsters.” To a room full of English majors, remembering learning math was quite scary all on its own.
“Writing is a solitary activity unless you’re a part of a workshop group, so I love hosting these readings because it’s an opportunity for writers to close their laptops and talk to each other.” Sawka said. “I love readings with a variety of material, and this reading had everything from Aryanna Falkner’s story written by her nine year old brother to a story about Sherlock Holmes.”
I highly enjoyed the Haunted Graveyard Reading. It allowed me to connect with old friends and professors, and listen to the ways Halloween and horror influence art and how we feel about it. I understood that horror in art is about both thrilling ourselves into confronting our mortality and also about connecting with the darker sides of the human experience. We love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the parties, we love Halloween because it challenges our reality, for a little while. Events like the Haunted Graveyard Reading continue the tradition of building community through ghost stories: it is a time to let ourselves indulge in the curiosity of a good scare, a glimpse into the darker side of life.