My otherwise-quite-suitable life-partner and I seem to address this topic quite often, still, even after more than twenty-three years together: Why the hell do I like such horrible things? (In case you’re wondering, this oft-visited discussion is rarely instigated by me.) I’m not just talking about music, though of course music is one of the many areas where this ‘Mat likes horrible things’ rule is undeniably true. I’m talking art in general, whether it’s sound or visual art; I’m talking movies, whether it’s disturbing cinema or silly monster movies or films causing severe psychological discomfort; but I’m also talking about actively researching/hunting down and reading about the various assorted true depravities committed by the ever-creative-in-this-department mass of humankind. Horribleness. Miscellaneous vileness. Ugliness of the form and spirit. I seem drawn to it, and always have been, ever since I can remember. And, given the extremity of topic/sound/aesthetic surrounding this article, the odds are strong that you too, Heathen Harvester, are just as drawn to the deplorable as I am. The question I want to investigate here is: why?
Because it’s not all of us that dig this shit. There are a great many people (as frequently brought up as some kind of evidence by my aforementioned otherwise-quite-suitable life-partner) who don’t like ugliness/horror/depravity at all, and in fact spend a good deal of time deliberately avoiding such matters, choosing to spend their finite hours on this planet enjoying things that are, well, enjoyable. Instead of, say, looking up uncensored footage of prison stabbings, they’ll read an article on, I don’t know, propagating kale, or look at pictures of animals with amusing expressions, or, I don’t know, something else. I honestly have no idea. Because I’m too busy watching grainy footage of people shivving each other in the weights yard.
And I’ve always been this way. The earliest memory I have of being drawn to the monstrous was as a very young child, watching Doctor Who (I’ve since rummaged through my old stuff and have found a tiny notepad my mum used to keep, which is full of her painstaking re-drawings of my drawings when I was little, and have found a picture of Doctor Who and his companion Sarah Jane which mum dated sixth of August 1978, meaning I was about three and a half). I seem to recall some green slimy eyeball-type creature shambling up the side of a lighthouse, and I remember loving it soooo much. (I clearly also remember mum telling dad that my love of the bizarre and frightening was ‘just a phase’, which is pretty damn funny in hindsight.) But why did I love it so much? Was it just a love of the impossible, the fantastical? Or was it just some very normal thing that I never grew out of (I mean, all kids love monsters, don’t they?)—in which case, why didn’t I grow out of it?
Some of us seem drawn to ugly art, strange music, and real-life depravity, and some of us don’t. I have an inkling that the two are related (being drawn to ugly strangeness in sound/vision, and being interested in ugly strangeness in real life), but of course nothing is ever actually that simple, and I definitely know people who refuse to watch scary/freaky movies but insist on weird/noisy music at all times, so I’m pretty sure whatever conclusions I come up with will be highly variable in their personal mileage, and the whole lumping-this-all-together thing I’m attempting here may very well be a terrible mistake. But, well, I’m going to attempt it anyway.
So, first stop… monstrousness in fantasy/art/sound/imagination.
LEVEL ONE: THE MONSTROUS AS AESTHETIC
My otherwise-quite-suitable life-partner has a simple rule: no screaming in the lounge room (at least, not with her around). This doesn’t refer to my own screaming (I am a very quiet chap in general, softly-spoken with a tendency to mumble incoherently), but rather the screaming of the vocalists in the musical projects that I choose to listen to: Nocturno Culto, Utarm, Katherine Katz, Mories, Nekrasov, Jay Randall, Passenger of Shit, J R Hayes, etc. (not to mention the even more ‘non-vocalist’-type screams of bands like Abruptum and Stalaggh/Gulaggh). She can tolerate the more tuneful-type screams of Devin Townsend, but that’s about her limit: otherwise, any part of our house that isn’t my dimly lit (and expertly soundproofed) underhouse studio is simply a no-scream zone. Which is fair enough. After all, human screams are one of the sounds we’re almost biologically attuned to dislike, either through empathy or revulsion. So why does so much of the music I like contain so damn much of the stuff? The same goes for immense amounts of atonality, or for overwhelming cut-up chaos (without repetition or pattern or structure): These things are, as a rule, disorienting and/or anxiety-inducing, so why the fuck do I chase it so much? Why does something in me light up when it gets sonically flummoxed, when the same thing drives other (normal) people away? And why are you like that too? What happened to us? Are we damaged?
I suspect this is roughly how my otherwise-quite-suitable life-partner sees it: that I turned out “wrong” somehow, that I’m a bit “broken”. But I also suspect that this view is completely inaccurate. Because I just don’t feel very broken. I feel fine, generally speaking. It’s not like I’m drawn to this chaos or darkness or phantasmagorical pain because it’s only then that I feel at home, or because it’s only horror that makes me feel like someone understands my hellish existence, or that it’s the only way I can experience healing catharsis, or anything like that. It’s not like I need horrible screaming people in my lounge room. It honestly feels like it’s purely a taste thing, an aesthetic that I’m drawn to. I just like horrible screaming people, ugly visions, inappropriate textures, and sordidness of spirit. I just do. But, of course, this is exactly the issue I’m attempting to investigate here: the reasons behind this taste, and the reasons why I’m drawn to this particular aesthetic, given that the whole human experience is typically about avoiding the same (shunning the ugly, moving away from the screaming person, not submerging oneself in grossness, etc.).
To help with writing this essay, I’ve just gone and read up on what draws people to horror movies (as an example of the ‘monstrous in art’), and it turns out there’s a million different theories:
1) There’s the theory that watching a scary/freaky movie makes one’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing intensify, which kind of experientially heightens the feelings associated with watching it, so, if you’re having a great time watching, it’ll feel like an ever greater time, relatively speaking, because your system is on such high alert. This theory also lends itself to musical experiences: If all that atonality and screaming and super-speedy beatmongering (or super-loud doom-vibes) cause your biological system to become heightened, and you’re having a great time listening, then it’ll become an even greater time, relatively speaking. This theory also ties into the idea of some people totally digging it, and some people totally not digging it, because this theory also says that if you’re having a bad time watching/listening, the bad experience will be made even more unpleasant by the same heightened biological states. But what this theory doesn’t really help with is why the monstrous thing is enjoyable in the first place. It only really deals with how the heightened experience makes the reaction stronger than other forms of media.
2) There’s a theory that it is the heightened excitation itself that we enjoy, in the same way as a base-jumper enjoys leaping off things or a rollercoaster-fan enjoys screaming in abject terror and barfing their guts up (assuming that’s what people enjoy about rollercoasters). We get off on the feeling of it. And, even better than a rollercoaster, watching a scary movie, or listening to a disorienting album is an intrinsically safe way to go about getting this hit of heightened excitation. There may be some merit to this theory; there is definitely some kind of a buzz that I get from these forms of media, and yet I am just as definitely not the kind of person who goes jumping off cliffs (and last time I was on a fairground ride with my daughter I vowed never to fucking do that shit ever again). But at the same time, I don’t feel like it’s the whole story, because there’s many a time I’ll want to listen to some extreme metal or crazy cut-up nonsense and not feel like I’m ‘chasing a buzz’ at all, but rather, just ‘having a nice time’.
3) There’s a theory that it’s the enjoyment of triumphing over fear/repulsion itself that we enjoy—that, in essence, we enjoy these terrible things because they are unenjoyable, and being able to show them who’s boss is what gives us the positive feelings. It’s like we’re giving the Grim Reaper the finger, in some sense, like we’re reducing the hideous/terrifying/ghastly/repulsive to mere entertainment, and that is what feels good. It feels like there might be some merit in this theory too, perhaps: It is kinda cool to be able to say, ‘You can’t handle Whourkr or Utarm? I love those bands.’ But this theory does reduce the entirety of enjoying the Art of the Horrendous to some kind of show-offy bullshit pretence, which it really doesn’t feel like, and makes the experience all about proving yourself to others, which it also doesn’t really feel like. When I listen to full-on strangeness or watch Visitor Q, I tend to do it on my own, without anyone else in mind, and enjoy the experience wholly on my own terms, without anyone else’s validation or respect or values on my mind (and, as mentioned earlier, the enjoyment of such media actually makes my otherwise-quite-suitable life-partner respect me less). So, although there may be an element of this involved, it doesn’t feel like it’s the whole picture. (There is, of course, that thing of proving to yourself that you can handle something scary, but, for most of us who are actually into The Strange, that’s a no-brainer: We already know we can handle it because it’s the kind of thing we regularly seek out and experience, so it’s not so much of an issue. I think there probably is an element of it involved [especially in the escalating scale of the ugliness we may seek out], but it’s definitely not the whole story.)
4) There’s the theory that male-identifying people are drawn to scary movies because they get gender reinforcement by ‘proving themselves’ in the face of fear/repulsion (‘lack of fear in the face of terror’ being a cultural marker for assessing masculinity). One study (a ridiculously small one, with only thirty-six people of very limited diversity) showed that male-identifying people enjoyed a horror movie more when they watched it with a female-identifying person who was scared, and female-identifying people enjoyed the horror movie more when they watched it with a male-identifying person who wasn’t scared. I suspect this is actually rank codswallop, given the male—and female—identifying people I personally know, but could very well be a factor for a more mainstream population. What would I know? Either way, it doesn’t really answer my particular question though, and is much harder to shift across to other art forms—if these effects are remotely true in the first place, does listening to strange/ugly music produce similar effects (i.e., do chicks like listening to hideous noise if there’s a manly man around)? Certainly my otherwise-quite-suitable life-partner has never once found my ever-so-masculine tolerance of unpleasant music/cinema even remotely erogenous. As suggested earlier: rank codswallop.
5) There’s a theory that says we are drawn to horror/strangeness/ugliness because it is outside of our normal realm of experience, and, as such, becomes imbued with the Imaginary Value of the Rare. In the same way as people care more about cheetahs than they do about pigs, or diamonds more than they care about bread, the very novelty of the horrendous makes it worth something. Biologically, we are hardwired to look for anomalies in our environment, and curiosity about The Strange is a sensible survival technique. It may very well be that we are drawn to horror movies/weird music/ghastly stories for the very same reasons we rubberneck at a car crash. A normal person’s morbid fascination and my unending hunt for intriguing new sounds are basically rooted in the same biological thing.
Now, when I saw this theory, it made a small ‘ching’ noise in my mental theatre, like a little gold bell struck once with a tiny hammer, because this is actually something I am consciously aware of in my search for interesting music/art/cinema. I love nothing more than hearing some piece of music and thinking, ‘Fuck, I have never heard that before’. When I make music, it’s always with the intention of adding something to the world that doesn’t already exist. When I review an album, I’m always asking myself, ‘Is this just a pile of self-conscious cookie-cutter swill, or is this actually something worthwhile?’ So, seeing this concept of novelty applied to horror movies was actually a bit of an eye-opener. I’d never thought of it that way before. My interest in the dark/ugly/strange side of media is all linked by a conceptual interest in the far borders of human experience—in experiencing the very fringes of the normal/socially permissible. I don’t want to jump off a cliff, but I’m deeply drawn to music/visuals/emotions that do (metaphorically speaking). It’s not actually an attraction to the repulsive, it’s an attraction to the strange, and, by its very nature, the strange includes all those things that don’t fit into the normal. And, since the normal spends so much time appreciating/collecting beauty and pleasantry and comfort, the strange ends up including the ugly and unpleasant and discomforting! I’m not broken after all! I just like weirdness, which happens to include ugliness and horror! It may be that the part of me that lit up when I first heard Alvin and the Chipmunks is the exact same part of me that got a buzz out of Martyrs.
It does all make sense, that all this interest in The Repulsive stems from a blanket interest in The Strange. Most of the other people I know who share this obsession with the macabre/ugly have similar interests in Surrealism, the Occult, dreams, etc. Being raised in a slick corporate world of ego-driven fitness, photoshopped beauty, and community as PR, it’s no surprise that some of us were drawn to the things we weren’t meant to see, and sided with ugliness instead. Like the underarm hair on a fashion model, there are many things that are true and real and natural that our society attempts to erase in the name of capitalist fear-mongering and mind control, and it is no surprise that some of us opted for the forbidden (sometimes for no other reason than it was forbidden in the first place).
Still with me? Great! This paragraph or so of ‘rubbernecking at car crashes’ seems the perfect segue to take us to the next, quite a bit more disturbing, level of this journey of the horrendous: our interest in true horror (because it’s not just fantasy stuff we’re into). The kind of person I’m talking about here (okay, so basically me at this stage, but I’m hoping there are enough of you out there to justify the effort involved in writing and publishing this essay), this kind of person doesn’t just watch Taxidermia and listen to Gnaw Their Tongues and enjoy the painted works of Chris Mars (and bonus points to any of you who ticked off all three boxes there). It’s not just in the phantasmagorical realm that we’re drawn to ghastliness, but in the real. The kind of person I’m talking about also reads true crime stories (the more aberrant the better) and searches out photos of things made of human skin. This kind of person finds themselves late at night perusing the sickening online transcripts of the instructional cassette tape David Parker Ray (AKA the Toybox Killer) recorded for his bound and gagged kidnapping victims to listen to as they awoke on his torture table. Because (I think) part of this interest in the great horror is not merely titillation or car-crash rubbernecking, but in unlocking something about what it means to be human—where the lines of experience are drawn, and what’s at the very edges of that terrain. So, level two: Hold on tight.
LEVEL TWO: THE MONSTROUS AS REALITY
Now, before we get to this level, let’s make it clear: Horror is still horror to me. It’s not fun. The ugly is still ugly. It’s not like I’m here going, ‘It’s so cool when people get hurt or have bad times’. It’s not like that at all. It’s something like eating a really hot chili: It still hurts, lots, but there is some kind of intensity to the pain itself that can be enjoyed, while the burning is still really not enjoyable at all. You can enjoy the intensity itself while still registering the pain as painful. There’s an excitement to the extremity of the badness while still fully recognising the badness is bad. Like the car crash we drive past, craning for corpses: We know those corpses are real people, like everyone we love, and that those corpses represent a whole world of sadness and pain for other very real people, but at the same time, it’d be kinda cool to cop an eyeful.
So, drawing on all the theories above, do they still apply when the horror is not some kind of aesthetic choice, but a real-life tragedy? Is it okay to get a buzz out of genuine misfortune? Is it okay to be interested in the very darkest parts of the human organism? Hasn’t it crossed some line now into sickness and depravity? I argue it hasn’t, as long as we keep that previous point in mind: that bad shit is actually really fucking bad. My interest in the true horrors of the world is actually miles away from ‘fun’. It has elements of ‘attraction to novelty’ about it, it has elements of ‘triumphing over fear’, but it is never, ever ‘having a cool time’. It’s definitely an interest in the aberrant while being fucking endlessly gratitudinously thankful that it is an aberration and not the norm. It’s a much more serious business than listening to some wacky music or watching a bunch of actors pretend to be scared: This is intrinsically linked to that stuff about experiencing the very borders of human experience and knowing what’s really going on. It’s pretty fucked, but I feel better knowing just how fucked it actually is.
And sometimes it really does leave me scarred—sometimes permanently so. That late night when I discovered myself reading what David Parker Ray had to say to his victims, I felt physically ill. I was shaking with the horror of it all—that this shit was fucking real, this actually happened to people as flesh-and-blood as I am, as my daughter is. I actually felt like I was having a panic attack. It was not fun. And yet I read it to the end and went hunting for more information, pictures, and testimonies in some kind of horrified fact-hunting fugue.
I had a similar reaction when reading about one researcher’s infiltration of the child pornography community on the Deep Web. What I read there fucking completely freaked me out for a long time (families raising kids specifically for ‘sharing’; the schism between the anti-violence and pro-violence factions; the mind-boggling scale of it all). But that didn’t stop me poking around the dark corners of reality, because, well, just because something is mind-boggling horrible doesn’t mean I should put my fingers in my ears and go ‘la la la’ in the hopes that it will go away. It won’t.
When it comes to fictional depravity, I think the simple notions of ‘novelty’ and ‘triumph over horror’ might come into play, but when it comes to this far-scarier, far-more-awful real life horror, I think another element comes to the fore, namely knowing what’s really going on. I like to think it’s the attraction of knowledge, pure unrefined warty-balls-and-all knowledge itself, that draws me in. (But of course, I’m not scouring astrophysicist sites for knowledge; I’m not trawling marine biology sites for knowledge; it’s simply not the case that it’s ‘just knowledge’ that interests me. It’s very definitely ‘knowledge about things that are horrible’ that attracts me. So, what is it about that knowledge regarding specifically horrendous, fucking ghastly shit that interests me? Is it the ‘triumphing over fear’ stuff investigated above? Is it the ‘fringes of experience’ stuff?)
I think, in the end, it’s some kind of a desperate attempt to understand what we’re capable of—what I, as a human being, must be capable of. When I talk about an interest in exploring ‘the fringes of human experience’, I wonder if, deep down, it’s actually about exploring what I could be capable of—what you could be capable of. It’s about what any of us could be capable of. Because we’re all the same species, exactly the same species, as David Parker Ray or Jeffrey Dahmer or Elizabeth Bathory. Anything they could do (I’m not talking about feats of strength or remarkable agility here), I could do, or you could do. And yet, somehow, through some amazing conjunction of circumstances, we don’t do these terrible, fucked up things. And that feels great.
When we know just how horrible things can be, it gives us two things:
1) We are armed with the shining scimitar of actual truth, and
2) We are filled with the glowing light of gratitude that whatever foul fucking piece of disaster we’ve just finished consuming is not, in fact, happening to us right now.
And truth and gratitude, I think, may be worth more than a little horror.
SOME KIND OF GLIB POINT-PROVING SUMMARY
In closing, what have I learned? I think the most important thing here is that an interest in the strange is not necessarily a problem or some kind of symptom of a broken person, or something that we should be concerned about in our young ones, or anything like that. An interest in the strange can definitely bring people into contact with horrible, horrible things and can definitely make the soundtrack of your lounge room less comfortable for your significant others, but it can also bring a lot of truth into your lives. Unpleasant, awful, trauma-inspiring truth, but truth nonetheless. As a vegan-type person, I’ve definitely seen a lot more trauma-inspiring footage than most mainstreamer corpse-eating-type people, but I can’t help but feel that if I have to choose between comfortable illusion and uncomfortable truth, I’ll always end up choosing to know the ugly facts. It’s a bit like that.
In the end, I’m not actually saying, ‘I listen to weird music, which is somehow loosely tied into valuing truth more than people who listen to mainstream music, so I’m a better person than you’. I’m not actually saying, ‘People who only listen to carefully sanitised, executively driven, corporately produced music are somehow trapped in an inauthentic world of capitalist product-driven illusion, and I’m not, so nyer’. I’m not really saying, ‘Weirdness is better, straight people suck massive dogballs’. Or am I?
Maybe, deep down, I am saying that. And maybe this is really just me petulantly getting back at everyone who ever called me a weirdo. How can I possibly tell? Funny how the subconscious works.