independent

Thursday 21 November 2019

Doctor Horror

Campile woman Sarah Cleary is one of Ireland's leading authorities on all things horror. This Hallowe'en she tells David Looby how she fell in love with the dark side and champions the genre which, she says, throws light into the darkest corners and helps people conquer their demons

Dr Sarah Cleary
Dr Sarah Cleary

Once upon a time, (in the Eighties) in a place far far away (outside New Ross in parts unknown), there was a little plump blonde girl of six, whose mammy and daddy decided that for Christmas she would receive one of the best presents she would ever get - an un-abridged, unedited collection of The Brothers Grimm Tales.

Each night blood thirsty tales of murder, dismemberment and cannibalisation filled her room and though it was well past her bedtime - she begged her parents for 'one more story'. Thumbing the well-worn pages, this little girl stared wide-eyed at words she didn't yet know how to pronounce. Nevertheless, she urged her unfortunate story-time facilitator to read each tale with even more conviction.

Her favourite 'The Juniper Tree', told of child abuse, neglect and filicide, and most importantly an all talking, all murdering singing bird. And while the little children suffered greatly in this tale, by the end evil was defeated (millstone dropped on evil stepmother's head), the innocent vindicated (murdered children miraculously come back to life) and they all lived happily ever after.

While not every fairy-tale ended so harmoniously, they operated within a moral, albeit fantastical universe which revealed the suffering of the innocent, the inhumanity of the wicked and the devastating effects of the indifferent. While the little pump blond girl grew up to find out that birds ordinarily do not talk, or murder for that matter, she sadly did find out that the world outside the pages of her fairy-tales could be just as scary and was populated with just as many monsters.

Yet within her fairy-tales a safe space was created which granted her insight into some of the most complex adult concepts including death and life, loss and love. And as a result, when faced with such complexities later in her childhood and adult life, they were not as alien to her as the fairy-tales afforded her certain tools to overcome these events.

Thus, the monsters which she had grown up with became her friends and later when she moved on to the terror of Stephen King, the gore of James Herbert, the zombies of George Romero and the sheer thrill of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, these monsters remained with her as manifestations and metaphors for incomprehensible horrors and atrocities committed every day. Almost three decades on from receiving this magical gift, I am still at heart the little girl who asks for one more story.

I adore horror. The good, the bad, the controversial; especially the controversial. I've dedicated most of my adult life to working within the genre as an academic earning a PhD in horror and censorship, as a creative director of Horror Expo Ireland, as a consultant working in film, TV and radio and most importantly, as a fan. These career choices leave many an eyebrow raised when I confess that, no I'm not a medical doctor rather a doctor of horror. Furthermore, I live in a perpetual state of anxiety that somebody will request my (non-existent) medical services some day on a plane or restaurant. But while my studies into horror is certainly not about saving lives, it is about life.

While horror films continue to be one of the most entertaining nights out, especially coming into the Hallowe'en season, providing that delicious rush of adrenalin and quickening of pulses confirming that yes we are alive, for many people, myself included, horror is a way of life; a mode of understanding through which the most complex issues in society are explored and communicated.

Consequently, horror operates on many levels but most notably on a physiological and cognitive level. Sitting in front of the latest blockbuster such as IT or Hereditary with eyes peeping through fingers and heart pounding poised for the next jump-scare provides that well needed thrill to the senses. A wake-up call which runs throughout our body, tapping into primal instincts and sharpening our minds to potential threats unseen. It acts as a reminder that our bodies are fallible from attack and our fear of the dark valid keeping us safe from things that go bump in the night. Fear stops us from putting our hand in the fire.

It makes us look right and left crossing the road. Fear is a genetic biological prompt that keeps us alive.

On the other hand, horror is arguably one of the most powerful forms of public commentary about some of the most complex and difficult aspects of life. Just like the fairy-tales, and often within an equally fantastical setting, horror deals with all the problematic features of modern living. Take one of the biggest box office hits of the past few years Get Out. Everyday we hear reports of the vilest forms of racist abuse, yet that one horror did more for highlighting the issue of ingrained casual racism than any news report or documentary.

More recently the massively successful folk horror Midsommar provides us with all those visceral thrills. Yet one of the most disturbing aspects of the film is the relationship between the two main characters. A perfect example of the insidious nature of coercive control Midsommar does a suburb job of tackling trauma and depression and the manner in which these can render an individual vulnerable and exposed to abuse within an apparently outwardly supportive relationship.

Closer to home the fantastic comedy horror Extra Ordinary by Irish directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman explores grief and the loneliness of rural isolation. Even closer to home, New Ross' own Tina Callaghan's suburb gothic horror novel explores similar themes from a uniquely Irish perspective as traditional and contemporary cultures clash in Daughter of the Storm.

Going through something of a Golden Age right now, horror be it in cinematic, literary or even in video game form has provided us with the perfect platform to explore, debate and confront difficult issues in our lives. Considered by some to be negative influence on society, I would wholeheartedly argue to the contrary.

Horror is one of the most important cultural products at our disposal, casting light onto the darkest corners of life and allowing us to confront and defeat the monster 'head on' just like my bird in 'The Juniper Tree'.

Gorey Guardian

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