What makes me want to be afraid? Why do I yearn for fictional horrors when the daily news provides more than enough real terror to contend with? My personal and professional interest in horror fiction and film often seems unfathomable to those who find the dark side of popular culture profoundly unsettling. If the misleading—if neat—assumption is that the horror writer or director must have some sort of ghoulish or tragic ‘origin story’ that explains away their fixation upon the genre, then what excuse do I, and my fellow horror fans, have? Why are we determined to engage with a genre explicitly supposed to inspire dread, fear and even disgust?
Most people occasionally revel in the macabre, but few are fanatical devotees like me. There’s usually a good audience for the latest high-profile horror release at the cinema, and many people will happily watch the oldies on TV at Halloween to savour the scares and the unconscious camp that saturates many a bygone classic. Stephen King has been one of the most commercially successful writers in the world for more than forty years. Thanks to shows such as The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Stranger Things, horror has a foothold in mainstream TV that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. And whilst HBO’s mega-hit Game of Thrones is undeniably a work of fantasy, its many scenes of torture, black magic and ‘White Walkers’ (ice zombies!) remind us that George R.R. Martin was a respected horror writer long before Westeros hit the big time.
Like chickenpox, horror gets you when you’re young. My obsession was fostered by the conspiratorial playground exchange of dog-eared paperbacks by Richard Laymon, John Saul and Shaun Hutson. And let’s not forget the completely batshit-in-retrospect oeuvre of Virginia Andrews, author of the ‘incest is fine if you’re in love!’ gothic doorstopper Flowers in the Attic. The ‘best bits’—pages featuring sex or violence, or more daringly, both—were always signposted by faintly greasy fingerprint marks. Even the silliest mass-market horror paperback or grainy VHS recording was granted a sinister cachet by the fact it was not yet meant to be experienced by us. ‘Unsuitability’ gave these experiences a charge that many subsequent, age-appropriate encounters with horror would lack.
My interest in horror verges on the obsessive, and has done so for twenty years. It costs me money, time, wall space (too many books, too many DVD’s) and occasionally, sleep. I take pride in seeing the original, foreign-language version long before most people watch the crappy American remake. I follow the review sections of horror magazines and blogs and film festival reports with the greedy eye of a gambling addict perusing the Racing Post. I listen to gruesome true-crime podcasts when I run, despite the fact that their focus on female vulnerability to random acts of horrible violence transforms every gloomy woodland path and grimy city alleyway into a site fraught with the spectre of potential ambush. Horror is one of my most diverting preoccupations. Not quite a religion, perhaps, but certainly more than a hobby.
The most disturbing horror novel I have ever read is one I found shoved down the back of a sofa cushion in the late 1980s, hidden there by my poor mother precisely so that I wouldn’t read it. That, of course, rendered it irresistible. It was a 1973 oddity titled Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, written by Mendal Johnson, a debut novelist who supposedly died of alcoholism soon after it was published. It’s about a group of All-American youngsters who kidnap their painfully nice babysitter—Barbara—tie her to a bed, and gradually torture her to death.
As an Irish child of the 1980s, I failed to appreciate the novel’s specifically American portrait of early 1970s moral malaise, even if the quote on the front cover did frame it as a Nixon-era variation on The Lord of the Flies. The same blurb also mentioned The Exorcist, which I wouldn’t read for another few years, and which had been a massive hit just before Johnson’s novel was released. However, for all of its still-shocking elements, William Peter Blatty’s intensely religious bestseller is a great deal more conventional than Johnson’s desolate, entirely secular debut—I would pick a bout of demonic possession over a week with Johnson’s sadistic kids-next-door any time. I raced through the novel, but even as I turned the pages, I wished I had left it down the back of the sofa, in the dark with the lint and the old sweet wrappers, where it belonged. For years, I was haunted by memories of the horrific treatment meted out to poor, naïve Barbara, the casual yet calculated cruelty of her cereal-munching, bickering young captors, and, most of all, the matter-of-fact nihilism of the devastating climax.
My own babysitter was a relentlessly good-natured older cousin who let me stay up late because she was too scared to watch late-night Hammer Horror films on her own. The thought of anyone—least of all a gang of youngsters that included children younger than me—subjecting her to acts of sadism was incomprehensible and shocking. Sure, I’d already seen little Damian Thorn deliberately knock his mother over a balcony in The Omen, but there was a big difference between the showy, heavily soundtracked violence perpetrated by the pallid-faced, plump-cheeked Antichrist, and the mysteriously empty yet decidedly ordinary youngsters who populated Johnson’s novel. Damian was an obviously supernatural figure contained by the framework of a starstudded Hollywood blockbuster. There is no such comforting distance here. Barbara’s captors—mockingly self-named ‘The Freedom Five’—start the novel by telling themselves that her imprisonment is nothing but a silly prank carried out on a boring summer day. But they soon find that once they have broken, as Johnson puts it, ‘the law between children and adults… nothing was happening. They ignored the taboo, and no lightning fell’. They’re not mentally ill, or spawns of the Devil, or alien invaders. There is no excuse or explanation at all for their actions, save for the absolute moral vacuum that makes their torture of Barbara possible.
Years later, I found out that Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ was loosely based upon a notorious real-life case: that of Indiana teenager Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death by her foster mother and a group of neighbourhood kids in 1965. With that realisation, a novel that had long been a distressing mental touchstone was rendered more upsetting, yet, at the same time, more morbidly fascinating. I re-read an old copy: it was as disturbing as I remembered. It was also more obvious that Johnson’s treatment of sexual assault was dubious, even by 1970s standards. The ending was still stomach-turning. But this time I went out of my way to recommend it to other horror fans.
It was clear to me now that Johnson was trying to create an effect that horror, at its most uncompromising and challenging, conjures up more successfully than any other genre. His unsparing work is an attempt to look beyond the everyday façade of bourgeois 1970s upper-middle class suburbia, behind the smiling, socialised masks that we all present to the world. Crucially, it’s not just the villains who have their inner lives laid bare on the page; Johnson devotes almost as much time to Barbara’s self-critical, rapidly evolving interior monologue as he does to the thought processes of her killers. His novel forced me to contemplate the most unpalatable facets of human nature at an age when I was just beginning to appreciate the idea of free will and the existence of ‘evil’ as a real-world concept that could be perpetrated by otherwise ‘normal’ people.
Let’s Go Play At the Adams’ is a blunt tool calibrated to make an obvious point: the kids here are most definitely not all right. As such, it has a lot in common with later, better known treatments of the same theme. In a bone-deep way that eludes many of its successors, however, it tries to evoke true horror— that unmistakable mix of unease and anxiety that hits you on both a visceral level and, more lastingly, on a philosophical and moral plane. ‘Escapist’ in the conventional sense of the word it is not, but it is a novel that evokes, through its entirely uncompromising depiction of victimhood and villainy, the ways in which we justify our cruellest impulses to both each other and ourselves.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ was the moment my tipping point was reached, when my relationship with horror went from passing interest to genuine fascination. For me, reading it is like reading the nihilistic short stories of Thomas Ligotti, or watching the nightmarish French masterpiece Martyrs; the psychological equivalent of deliberately grabbing an electric fence. The sensation that results is acutely unpleasant, but it is also terribly, unforgettably real. Though I have boundless affection for the horror genre in all of its guises, it is, above all else, the prospect of encountering another work that haunts me in the way that Johnson’s novel has that keeps me coming back for more. That makes me yearn for that short, sharp shock—and the revelatory dread that follows in its wake.