The supernatural staples of the horror genre are paradoxical. Monsters and ghosts and cosmic tentacled trans-dimensional abominations, while used to great effect in drawing fear from an audience, also affirm a comforting human desire for a reasonable narrative. Yes, the unhuman elements of a scary novel or film do emerge from an initial revelation that we, as a species, were wrong about the world, but by the end of the journey we are often left with some kind of explanation. Horror fiction produces in its audience a paradigm shift in terms of reality, but through its reliance on conventional storytelling structures, inevitably affirms that we were always right about one thing: everything happens for a reason.
There are exceptions to this for sure. The labyrinth in Mark Z. Danielewski's beautifully haunting House of Leaves is probably the best example I’ve encountered, incomprehensible by nature and never explained through any device. But the shifting nightmare halls of the house on Ash Tree Lane remain haunting because the book defies narrative expectation: neither the characters in the novel nor the real life readers are given even a hint as to what has caused the tear in reality. Danielewski’s house is the void given only the barest of forms—what Darkness Mystics refer to as the Godhead—the only aspect of the truly unhuman we can comprehend.
More often, horror leaves us with enough of an explanation to build a mythology that allows us to retroactively justify the terrible journey we’ve previously experienced. This convention of explanation defangs horror. When I read Stephen King, for instance or when I watch a Japanese horror film, the best parts are in the middle. The ghosts, the massive invisible domes, the deathly visions, the spooky children—when presented as truly alien, are thrilling and truly scary. But when we see that it was just aliens, or are given obscure rules to follow that will lift a Japanese video tape curse, we might not feel safe, but at least we benefit from an emboldened sense of importance. The conventional horror ending is one that says, “We exist and we can understand!”
Reality, however, is actually the stuff of middle acts. We don’t know what will happen, or why, because life doesn’t follow a narrative structure. Rather, we impose coherence on the events that we experience, and we build our lives into stories. The symbols of supernatural horror and mythology, therefore, offer us a convenient plaster with which to cover the unexplainable cracks in our autobiographies. We can use the language of the genre to give reason to the unreasonable.
On Monday, a horror legend died. Shigeru Mizuki, creator of Ge Ge No Kitaro and master yōkai (supernatural monsters and spirits) historian, passed away at the age of 93. It is a miracle that he lived so long. Having served in the Japanese army during World War II and lived through his country’s worst poverty, Mizuki came face to face with death multiple times. He battled malaria, he lost his arm, he was shot at and hunted, and ate food contaminated with traces of human feces. Most unbelievably, though, he dodged the deadly scythe of random chance.
In his historical memoir, Showa, Mizuki depicts an encounter that brought him incredibly close to the most senseless of all deaths. While in Papua New Guinea, alone in the pitch dark of night, the young soldier encountered an invisible wall that he could feel with his hands. It compelled him to stop and he slept the night, only to awake next to a cliff’s edge. Mizuki credits the spectral wall, a yōkai called Nurikabe, for his survival.
“If the Nurikabe hadn’t been there,” he writes, “I would have run straight off into the darkness and died.”
Surrounded by the deaths of millions of other soldiers his age, Mizuki turned to a horror mythology to make sense of his brush with random death. Using the language of ghosts, he cuts off the the possibility of a nonsensical demise, allowing himself and his readers to explain away the pure chaos of Mizuki’s cliffside encounter.
It’s an example of horror lore being employed to usurp the real, incomprehensible reality of the border between life and death. Any one of us can die at any moment, but we like to think that if we do, it will be for some sort of reason, or fit into a larger narrative in our life. We want our stories to end with a complete thought. Those hopes are not often satisfied, but narratives are imposed by survivors, and sense is made out of the senseless. The truth is: death is as chaotic as the fragile life that came before it. To comprehend that frailty and the lack of reason behind our inevitable demises is the stuff of the void, and the supernatural symbols of horror are the gatekeepers who guard us from that madness.