Is regular exposure to scary fictional entertainment and terrible real-life events such as the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi reducing our ability to feel true horror?
How fiction fares against truth
What does Stephen King find terrifying? Not Stanley Kubrick’s feted 1980 film version of his own book The Shining. “Cold,” is the critical verdict of the best-selling US horror writer, whose books have sold 350 million copies since his first, Carrie, appeared on bookshelves in 1973. In a rare interview with the BBC to promote his latest (and possibly last novel) Dr Sleep, a sequel to The Shining, the likeable King explains why he finds the chill factor so problematic.
“I am not a cold guy. I think one of the things that people relate to in my books is a warmth. There is a reaching out and saying to the reader, ‘I want you to be a part of this’. And with Kubrick’s The Shining, I felt that it was very cold.”
Audiences today are much “more savvy about the tricks that novel writers and filmmakers use to scare them”, King says. “I cannot remember the last time that I saw a horror movie where people actually scream.
“But with the novel,” he continues, “I think that it is still possible to scare people in a really honourable way if they care about the characters. You can’t be afraid really for the characters if they are just cardboard cutouts. Love creates horror.”
A few days later, honour was notable by its absence as I listened to the sound of gunfire in a running commentary on the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. During these horrifying events Kenyans were updated on every twist and turn via Al Shabab’s Twitter feed. The first tweet, scripted with an almost literary mix of dark humour, threat and irony, read: #Westgate: a 14-hour standoff relayed in 1,400 rounds of bullets and 140 characters of vengeance and still ongoing. Good morning Kenya!”
A follow-up news item broadcast after the four-day siege had finally ended promised a “vivid account” of what it was like inside the shopping mall for those who were “lucky and not so lucky”. Crass and unnecessary as the imagination almost compulsively leaps to fill the emotional blanks that the basic facts cannot provide.
Since the epoch-defining drama of 9/11, terrorist outrages have been the subject of news reports and novels, television shows and documentaries. From Windows on the World by Frédéric Beigbeder to Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, published this month and the subject of this week’s cover essay, or Giorgio Vasta’s Time on My Hands (turn to r14), terrorism has firmly taken root in the landscape of the contemporary imagination but, in truth, the most dramatic events have always played out in real life.
Fiction pales in comparison to the latest attack by Islamist militants in Nairobi or the attempted beheading of a soldier in London only four months ago this week and so, is it any wonder that all of us are becoming harder to scare? Perhaps the surprise is that any of us can still feel anything at all. But this last statement is, of course, a lie. As Stephen King knows only too well, it’s because we care that the horror continues to have any impact. And in this fact we all are left to find some solace.