Atrocities in Everyday Life

What is horror? Go past the monsters, the serial killers, the scary clowns. Go past the books, the TV shows, the movies. Go past the make believe. What is horror in the here and now? In history? What is horror in real life?

I get asked this a lot as a horror writer, and my answer has to do with popular fiction. But first, bear with a short segue.

We are constantly bombarded by the scandalous, the violent, the harrowing–all of it true, or at least some version of it. On TV, online, in the papers. The stories our friends tell. The stories we tell ourselves. It seems that the capacity for human error and cruelty has gotten bigger over the decades, surpassed only by the human appetite to stomach such atrocities.

We are constantly bombarded by the scandalous, the violent, the harrowing–all of it true, or at least some version of it. On TV, online, in the papers. The stories our friends tell. The stories we tell ourselves. It seems that the capacity for human error and cruelty has gotten bigger over the decades, surpassed only by the human appetite to stomach such atrocities.
When people talk about ‘the horror in real life,’ they usually mean wars, corruption, massacres, freak tragedies–a disregard for humanity so blatant or human error so huge that it goes beyond stupidity and neglect, oftentimes crossing the border into greed and indifference to consequences. These are the kinds of news that get headlines, that make the six o’clock. These are the kinds of news that get talked about at dinner, in the salon, in line at the grocery–small talk cloaked with a mantle of gravitas, however false.

Because talking about ‘big’ things make us feel important. It makes us believe that we have a say in how the country should be run, how public personalities should behave, how natural disasters should be managed. It is as if speaking out means we automatically do good, that arguing our point of view equals good karma when in fact, it means nothing. What we often forget or more likely, do not want to remember, is that words are cheap. It’s what you do that counts. And most of us rarely do anything beyond talk.

Because talking about ‘big’ things make us feel important. It makes us believe that we have a say in how the country should be run, how public personalities should behave, how natural disasters should be managed. It is as if speaking out means we automatically do good, that arguing our point of view equals good karma when in fact, it means nothing. What we often forget or more likely, do not want to remember, is that words are cheap. It’s what you do that counts. And most of us rarely do anything beyond talk.

What counts as horror then, when you take away the wars, the tragedies, the corruption, the big things most of us have no control over and have no power to change? What counts as horror, when it comes down to affecting our daily lives?

For me, true horror is in the little things– the tiny acts of cruelty or indifference or neglect that all of us knowingly engage in in our everyday lives. It’s something great horror writers use to amazing effect. Stephen King’s stories, for example, all happen in small towns to regular people. It’s the idea that “it could happen to you” that makes a story all the more harrowing. And everyone, you and me included, has the capacity to both experience and be an agent of cruelty.

I knew someone who fell in love. The cliched, love song lyric kind that leaves you excited, breathless, and bright-eyed; the kind that makes you throw all common sense out the window because love conquers all, dammit. He said all the right words, made all the right gestures. He was smart and sure of himself. He invited her to vacation at his place in the province, where he promptly turned into another person. Surrounded by friends and family, pressured to be someone he was not, he crumbled. Slowly but steadily, unable to sustain the persona he first presented himself as. And he took it out on her.

There was nothing dramatic about it. No hands or voices were raised. It started, and ended, with the little things. A harsh word, the occasional allusion to a particular shortcoming, a lack of concern for her physical well-being. Actions that even her male friends–the macho ones who liked to joke that a woman belonged in the kitchen, making sandwiches–found appalling.

And yet she took everything he dished, because when times were good, they were wonderful. But then the bad times began to outnumber the good times, and all the little cruelties began to add up. By this time, backed into a corner, she had begun to lash out as well, the whole thing turning into an ugly cycle of passive-aggressiveness.

The last straw happened at a party, where the host was being incredibly rude, and instead of sticking up for her, her significant other sided with the host. That was when she realized that there were so little good times that all of them put together would not begin to make up for that one bad.

I asked her later what it was that made her realize that it wasn’t going to work out. She said, “He didn’t have my back. And what is love, if not that?”

The horror we read in books and see in the movies are exaggerated manifestation of our fears, either personal or as a society. In the 50s, fear of the atom bomb sparked movies about radioactive monsters. In the 80s, the breaking down of social norms spawned the slasher film, where everyone who misbehaved ended up dead. And then there are ones that endure, such as the stories of transformation–the Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hydes, the werewolf tales, the stories of people who change shape and terrorize towns and cities and sometimes even the ones they love. This, I think, is the most common kind of horror that happens in real life, albeit in very slow motion. The kind of change that creeps up on us; the little, sometimes imperceptible acts of cruelty that we allow ourselves to inflict on others, be they a significant other, an employee, or a neighborhood barista; that we allow others like bosses and loved ones to inflict on us. It is from these little cracks on how we treat people that bigger infractions grow. But that isn’t the most horrible part. It is, I believe, the fact that we can so easily convince ourselves that what we are doing–these little actions and attitudes that are within our power to change–are marks of an upright and decent human being, that is the true horror of it all.

This essay first appeared in Esquire Philippines. 

yvetteuytan

Yvette Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and a lifestyle writer for major local and international titles.

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