Artifice and Architecture: A New Gothic Revival, Part II

Quick reminder: if you like my thoughts about the nature of stories, you might also like my fiction. You can buy my short story collection Homesick or preorder my novella Finna on my website.


If there’s one Gothic trope that most of us recognize, it’s the big house. 

The past is omnipresent in Gothic fiction. It erupts into characters’ lives to cause chaos. And it often forms the very landscape of the story: a sprawling mansion, a decrepit castle, a crumbling ancestral home. 

Knives Out David Crank

In the Gothic, a home is a locus where forces from the past meet pressures from the present. It’s a site for power struggles: between generations, insiders/outsiders, the living and the dead. Both sides engage in a struggle to control the narrative of the past and present, and to understand the truth. 

That truth often reveals the constructed, artificial nature of what we think of as “the past.”

Artifice and fakery are embedded in the earliest roots of the genre; Horace Walpole claimed that he had discovered and translated a 1529 manuscript titled The Castle of Otranto rather than written it, and even used a pseudo-archaic prose for added persuasiveness. Walpole also built a pseudo-medievalist castle that ushered in the Gothic Revival style to Britain; a building created to suit Walpole’s desire to live in a facsimile of history.

The houses at the centers of these Neo-Gothic revival movies all share a similar sense of constructed history and grandeur. They all contain hidden rooms, stairs, and passageways. And all of them conceal the unaired secrets of the people that live in them; the buried pasts, the hidden selves, the darkness, the lies, the violence. The beautiful facades of these houses, their grandeur and status, hide the rot at their cores the same way the present creates a rose-tinted picture of the past. 

Parasite

It blew my mind when I (embarrassingly recently) learned the house in Parasite was a set designed for the film, as was the Kim’s basement-level apartment. (I’m not the only one! Apparently, a bunch of judges on the Cannes jury were fooled too.)

It was a genius decision; unlike Ready or Not and Knives Out, all the scenes set in the Park’s family home were filmed there, and there’s a permeability between the interior and exterior scenes that feels organic and natural. Despite that, the house is very much set up to have numerous levels, a hierarchy based on altitude — which has been brilliantly illustrated in various poster designs for the film.

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Stairs figure prominently throughout the set, with characters having to navigate the different worlds that they allow entrance into. The entire set design reflects different kinds of class status: the amount of light, of green space that a family is privy to, whether the space is closed-off or open, the expectations of privacy.

In one long, wonderfully shot sequence, we follow the Kim family after they narrowly avoid being uncovered by their employers. They retreat back to their basement home in a working-class neighborhood in a driving rain, only to discover that water is pouring into their home and the whole neighborhood is flooded.

It’s important that the characters are moving down, but what’s more important is that water is moving with them: Water is flowing from top to bottom, to the rich neighborhoods to the poor ones, and these characters they have no control over it. (Bong Joon-ho)

The title of the film has its own layers: the Kims, and the workers whose jobs they stole, are parasites living on the corpus of the Park family home. The beautiful, minimalist, spacious home hides the desperate families, who are torn between maintaining their secrecy and demanding to be seen and heard, even in the most coded ways.

Ready of Not and Knives Out

One of my favorite lines in all three of these movies is from near the end of Knives Out, where one of the Trombley’s tries to kick a now-meddlesome detective Benoit Blanc out of their “ancestral home.” Blanc laughs and points out that their father bought the home from a Pakistani businessman in 1988.

American history, almost from its outset, denied its own constructed nature. Rather than a cultural palimpsest, it was an untamed wilderness, an edenic land that was ready to be conquered. This mythology is rooted in the idea of a break away from history. You still see this trope in rhetoric about the American experience; America as a land of new beginnings, a blank slate. 

Of course, believing this requires erasure of the actual facts of the past. The untamed wilderness and the frontier are carefully constructed fictions; America was already populated by millions of people, with a diverse breadth of cultures, well-established societies, trade routes, technologies, etc. The ideals that America was founded on — liberty, self-determination, rationalism, plurality, all that good shit from the Enlightenment — are completely at odds with the actual history of its construction, and the reality of the millions who were murdered and/or enslaved as a colonizing project. 

We recreate this mythology all the time, the same way Walpole created a pseudo-historical artifacts in both his home and his writing. America is a pretty Gothic Revival mansion that’s built over a very haunted graveyard, and all its ghosts are bursting out of the expensive flooring and imported wallpaper.

Ready or Not and Knives Out address this, though they take different approaches, each appropriate to their genre. Ready or Not blends survival horror and the occult with class critique. Grace, played by the amazing Samara Weaving, is willing to play nice with her new husband’s rich, fucked-up family, despite the fact that most of them are actively repellent, dripping with the privilege and derision befitting their class. The turn comes when she realizes that one of their quaint family customs—playing a game on the wedding night with the new couple—is actually the prelude to murder, mayhem, and demonic sacrifice.

Knives Out similarly unmasks the polite fictions that its characters hide behind, the myths they tell about themselves. Throughout the story, the pleasant, self-righteous facades that the characters present to the world are shredded over and over again. 

Eldest daughter Lynda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) image as a self-made woman is rudely exposed as someone who used her father’s wealth to start her own company, while her cheerful husband is confirmed as a philanderer. Middle child Walt’s timid personality disguises his racism (even more present in his wife and neo-nazi son). For all her woke politics, all of Meg’s talk of allyship is ultimately hollow. And then there’s Ransom, whose blunt assholery (always celebrated in rich, white men) disguises his actual sociopathy: he murders two people and attempts to kill a third just to keep his wealth and status.

Both films end triumphantly for their outsider heroines, for the most part. In Grace’s case, surviving her deadly wedding night has the added bonus of causing all of her would-be murderers to explode, since they didn’t fulfill their end of a deal with the devil. (That’s one way to redistribute wealth.) Ana uses everyone’s expectations of her as a good, honest-to-a-fault girl to trick Ransom into confessing to murder, then pukes in his face. (BLESS.)

These films don’t follow the normal trajectory for Gothic protagonists caught up the machinations of the rich, unhinged assholes, who squat like spiders in a web of ill-gotten wealth. Most Gothic heroines either lose their minds, or marry into the family — ostensibly losing their freedom in exchange for status and stability. Grace and Ana turn the artifice of the rich against them, adapting quickly to the ever-changing rules of the games, and winning them.

You could say that the house (oh god i’m so sorry) doesn’t always win.

Image result for my house my rules my coffee gif knives out"

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A New Gothic Revival: Part 1

OR: I really loved Ready or Not, Parasite, and Knives Out, and am ready to talk about my feelings

(Hi! It’s been a while! November was consumed by doing a book tour for Homesick, and December was a necessary recovery month. But I’m back now, and will try to be writing regularly here again.)

The first half of 2019 was a year of lukewarm genre films for me. Some of these films I only saw out of a sense of completionist duty (Avengers: Endgame, It 2), friends’ excitement (Detective Pikachu, Spiderman: Far From Home, Captain Marvel), nostalgia for source material (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Pet Semetary) or because I assumed it would deliver two hours of cathartic destruction (Godzilla: King of Monsters -- which, in my opinion, was ruined by the annoying human family drama; ether give me a less trite subplot or give me more death-via-kaiju). 

Image result for gif godzilla king of monsters human drama

(There are literally bigger things to worry about than a shitty dad redemption!! GOD.)

My partner Nibs and I had pretty much written 2019 off as a year of disappointing tentpoles and horror. Then came Ready or Not, Parasite, and Knives Out. This trio of films saved 2019 for me. 

Plenty of other people have written about what made these three films so delicious to watch. They’re excellently plotted, completely unpredictable and with genuine twists. The characters are memorable, complex, and pushed to their limits in organic, un-forced ways. And the writing, GOD, the writing. So many films feel stale and forced to me, because they’re written by a committee to specific formulae. Dialogue is there to deliver plot, or to set up the action sequences that punctuate films’ narrative. These films--Parasite and Knives Out especially--have their creator’s fingerprints all over them. They show signs of life instead of artifice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with artifice--you can create something beautiful according to a formula. It’s just that most films don’t seem to bother.) 

They also speak very clearly to the present moment; of growing wealth disparity and resentment towards the rich, of how poverty limits our options, of generational wealth and its privileges. They also deal heavily with history: the weight of the years and generations that preceded us, the longstanding consequences of choices our predecessors made, and how that influence trickled down.

After watching the final one of these films, I thought to myself: Sweet, I guess it’s time for another gothic revival. 

The Gothic, as a named genre, has been around for a few centuries. The general consensus holds 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole as its earliest defining work, with writers like Ann Radcliffe later refining and popularizing the genre. The first Gothic revival in art, architecture, and literature was a counterpoint to the Renaissance’s neoclassicism, its emphasis on rationality and logic, and the idea of a coherent, mechanical universe. It celebrated mystery instead, sublime terror as a reaction to the unknown or divine. The Gothic is also saturated with history; its stories proliferate with relics, Medievalist aesthetics, ghosts, moldering castles, ancestral curses, and buried secrets. The Gothic is a progenitor of a lot of contemporary genres, particularly speculative ones: it helped birth (at least in Europe and North America) mysteries and detective novels, science fiction, and horror. 

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Though I haven’t done enough research to really confirm this, the Gothic’s popularity seems to correlate—or be responsive—to periods of unrest and upheaval, and it’s fun to track how that manifests in different centuries and decades. Its early novels in the mid-to-late 18th century coincided with the French and American revolutions, the early fracturing of European empire, and the genre is littered with relics of dissipated power: castles and estates, centuries-old curses. In the 19th century, you see the rhetoric and aesthetics of the Gothic employed by abolitionists, particularly by formerly enslaved authors in writing autobiographical “slave narratives”: brooding plantations built on the blood and bones of the enslaved, tyrannical white masters and mistresses, forgotten graveyards, restless spirits. There was a boom of Gothic Romances in the post-war period, which centered (mostly white) women’s journeys from naivete to understanding and sometimes power, sometimes madness or death; I think of Eleanor’s end in The Haunting of Hill House, which seems to promise all three. 

All three of these films also employ the symbols and motifs that are familiar to the genre: particularly large houses with architectural oddities and secret passages, whose history play surprising roles in the plots. There’s an insider/outsider dynamic, with wealth, status, and family acting to shore up dynamics of power. Confrontations with power, the past, and oppression are threaded through the bones of the Gothic--this makes it an especially relevant genre right now, and I think the reason why we’ll probably be seeing more of it, especially situated in the present day. 

That’s why I’m calling this a neo-Gothic revival; there’s been a number of paint-by-numbers Gothic Romance stories and films in the last few years, but this approach feels distinct. These stories don’t just borrow the aesthetics of previous generations; they reckon with the consequences of those generations’ choices.

Rather than attempt to cram all of my thoughts about these films into a single newsletter, I’m going to break this up into a few different parts. Next week, I’m going to write about architecture and artifice. After that, wealth, privilege, and the “unreliable” narrator. I honestly could probably squeeze another newsletter out of this topic -- maybe on parody and humor? Maybe on gender? If there’s a topic you’re really burning to know more about, feel free to yell at me on Twitter or the contact form on my website

Short and spooky: horror film mini-fest

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me, and it’s about to get busier. This week I’ll be reading at Rhizome in Washington DC and paneling at the Baltimore Book Fest, followed by shenanigans in Seattle, New York, and the Midwest. Sadly, this means my Halloween activities are curtailed by travel and deadlines. 

If you, like me, lack the time for seances, graveyard tours, or trick or treating, this curated list is for you: some of my favorite short horror (and horror-adjacent) films, all of them under thirty minutes.

Actually Creepy and/or Disturbing

Reverse is five minutes of terror that will make you never want to step foot (or wheel) into a parking garage again.

iMom: one of my favorites from Alter Films, a deep-dive into intersecting cultural anxieties around uncanny technology and leaving our children with strangers.

Do you have nostalgia for nineties-era commercials? Well, you won’t for long. (Trigger warnings for body horror!)

Did you know it’s almost the five year anniversary of Too Many Cooks? If you haven’t seen this before now, just… watch it. It’s better if you don’t know what to expect.

Timelike combines some of my favorites things: found footage, time paradoxes, and a sense of impending doom.

Will Mayo’s This Is How You Haunt Your House deserves its own newsletter, and maybe I’ll even get around to writing it. A chilling, atmospheric meditation on what it means to haunt and be haunted.

Horror Comedy

It’s difficult to make your audience scream, cringe, and laugh. When filmmakers get it right, it feels like an amazing trick. Here are few favorites that get it right.

Killer Kart is about killer grocery carts. You really don’t need to know anything more than that.

Spooky Club’s laughs are all in its absurd jokes and deadpan delivery. It shouldn’t work, but it does. For the record, this is the probably far closer to comedy than horror. I love it though, and always want to push it at people.

Nineties nostalgia, gen-X slackers, shockingly effective practical effects, and some unexpected bromance.

Happy Halloween!

How I planned my cheap-ass book tour

I’m taking a quick break from writing about narratives this week to instead talk about the business side of writing. I saw the following thread literally minutes after tweeting out about upcoming events I’d be doing next month to support my debut story collection, Homesick.

The thread is good and has a lot of wisdom in it, particularly that there are far better strategies for marketing your book, and with better returns on investments than goes into touring. My publisher, Dzanc Books, is a small press with a small press budget, so their financial support for a tour was minimal. (They helped in other ways, which I detail below.) When I mentioned I could write some thoughts about planning my tour, people seemed interested, so here we are.

Honestly, book touring was not my Plan A for this autumn. All the things in that thread are true, and made touring a low priority; I'd prioritized finding full-time work instead. That, alas, has fallen through, though I’ve found enough freelancing gigs to keep afloat (but you can always hire me!).

Having a book tour as a Plan B worked for me for a few different reasons. 1) I love traveling solo, 2) I love doing readings and panels, and 3) I have a lot of far-flung friend groups that are conveniently located in metropolitan areas or large college towns. Said friends are also happy to let me crash for free. I also got a small advance on my collection, so doing these kinds of events might make more of financial difference than it would otherwise. If any of these weren’t true, I don’t think I would have planned a tour.

Events

There are different live events you can do as an author.

  • Bookstore/literary readings

  • Conventions and conferences

  • Book festivals

  • Speaking engagements/paid workshops

I prioritized trying to find speaking engagements and workshops, because they’re (usually) paying and often come with a built-in audience. The rest of my tour happened around that. Book festivals and conventions both can attract larger audiences; festivals are supposed to be a little better for selling books/marketing directly to readers, whereas cons are geared towards professional networking. The big exception here, especially for SF/F/H writers, are comic cons: DragonCon, ECCC, NYCC, C2E2, etc., are all very much geared towards fans. The publishing tracks on them vary in quality, though, and just because you’re presenting doesn’t always mean you’ll get all the fees waived. With both festivals and cons, you might be unwittingly competing with more famous authors for attention.

Bookstore and literary readings are even more of an unknown; if you’re not famous, well-known in a local scene, or if there’s not a reliable core audience at the event or reading series, you might read to a couple of booksellers and the store cat. Even if that happens, booksellers that like your work will put in an effort to hand-sell copies, and bookstore owners that like you might give your book more prominent placement in the store.

My tour is a mix of all of the above. I’m doing two lit readings, panels at the Baltimore Book Fest, readings at three different book stores, and a speaking engagement and one-day workshop. Even if the rest of the tour is a total bust, the last two will pay the expenses for the rest. All the events are in places where I have friends and family to buy me cookies and pat me on the back if nobody comes — always an important consideration

Pitching your network

Like I said above, I prioritized events in places where I felt relatively confident that I could pull in some kind of audience. Not a massive audience, and I side-eyed the tweet about not doing any event where you’d sell less than a hundred books. (Though I do understand that with a big initial print run, selling 40 books in a day is extremely small beans. If you received a large advance, it truly might not be worth it financially.)

About two months prior to Homesick’s release, I started emailing bookstores to see if they wanted to host a reading. I found out quickly that three months would have been better — fall calendars fill quickly, since the lead-up to Christmas is the busiest season for book buying. I don’t know if this is true for spring and summer events.

I leaned a lot on my network throughout this process. Almost all of the events are with stores, organizations, or coordinators that I know. I’ve said this before, but if you’re a writer who’s just starting out, one of the most important things you can do is start making friends. It’s much easier to pitch someone you know than someone you don’t. I left the cold pitching to my publisher, who has a much larger network than I do, and already has a lot of contacts with indie bookstores. They and my agent also helped me navigate what conferences, festivals, and cons might be worthwhile to attend.

Some bookstores have events coordinators and/or specific forms to fill out. Follow their directions to the letter, the same way you would any other submission guidelines. (Having worked in bookstores, I promise you that their general inboxes get deluged in mass emails from authors. Don’t be that person.)

Before this, you should have: high-res images of your cover and a headshot, the synopsis of your book, its publishing details (release date, ISBN, distribution info), and why you’re a good fit for their events calendar. The bookstores I contacted were queer and/or feminist, so my pitch included details about how my stories center queer and trans characters and community, that they interrogated oppressive systems through a speculative lens, etc. Do your research and show that you and your work are a good fit with this venue.

The person coordinating the event can hopefully give you some media contacts, so you and (hopefully) your publisher can send out some press releases and do some outreach to publicize your book and the event. If you, your book, or your event is interesting enough, you might be able to earn some extra media for your book. That’s always a plus. At the minimum, make sure the event is publicized on your and the store’s social media, and on any free event calendars in the area. Reach out to friends in the area and let them know about it.

Travel

Travel planning is maybe the worst part of this, and made it feel like I was playing a game of four-dimensional chess.

The cheapest and easiest way for me to get to most of my events is to drive, since I’ve got an old Prius that gets about 45 miles to the gallon. I’m also an old hand at solo roadtrips. Nearly all of my events are within what is, for me, a day’s drive (6-8 hours on the road, plus an hour for lunch and stretching). The Seattle events are the exception, but the workshop I’m doing there comes with a travel stipend.

A couple recommendations:

  • If you can, get a credit card with good travel rewards. At the very least, for flights, join a frequent-flyer program on your airline of choice. (Southwest is my fave.)

  • Save ALL your receipts if you declare your writing income on your taxes. You can fully write off all travel costs, and half of your meal costs. I use an app that tracks expenses, which has saved me countless gray hairs. Other folks use a credit card or business checking account to track everything.

  • If you worry about climate change, there are programs you can donate to that offset your carbon footprint for travel. (Caveat: Is this going to stop climate change? No. Is individual consumption responsible for the majority of emissions? Also no. Eat the rich.)

  • Plan some downtime. During long travel periods, I always schedule time for what my family calls blorping: naps, trashy fanfic, trashy TV, crochet, drinking tea and eating pancakes with friends, going to a cat cafe or art museum, whatever can reset my brain.

  • Things I personally never bring enough of: moisturizer, thank you cards, face wipes, business cards, replacement headphones for when I inevitably lose mine. I also bring my own tea with me, since I drink ungodly amounts of it. Many authors also recommend bringing extra acid-free pens for doing signings — signing books with a leaky ballpoint isn’t fun.


If you want to hear updates from the road, you can follow or support my Patreon. And if you’ve read this far and found some useful advice, consider leaving a tip so I can put gas in my aging Prius and renew my AAA membership. If you can’t tip, consider sharing and/or subscribing!

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Scary Stories to Keep In the Dark

Horror, censorship, and current purity culture

I don’t know if I can tell you how profoundly Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark affected me as a kid.

I don’t just mean that it scared the pants off me or gave me nightmares (though it did both). The stories in the series—folklore collected over decades and adapted for young audiences—are some of the most effective short-form horror I’ve ever read. They’re weird, incisive, and surreal, with twists that are far creepier than M. Night Shyamalan could aspire to. It inspired my friends and I to start creating our own scary stories, sharing them after lights-out or testing them on playgrounds.

And then there’s the art.

Image result for stephen gammell

Stephen Gammell’s art was passed around nineties-era libraries and sleepovers with the kind of reverence held for the gnarliest scabs and pages torn from our parents’ porn mags and romance novels. I remember sensing that the books were somehow an illicit form of pleasure, on the same level as sneaking out of bed to watch Tales from the Crypt on TV. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be seeing it, which made it all the more alluring.

For many kids in the US, the books were, in fact, literally illicit; the three-book series was the number-one most challenged in schools and libraries during the nineties. According to the ALA, it beat out children’s books reviled for positive queer rep (Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate) and unflinching memoirs of sexual violence and racism (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), or even modernized answers to Lord of the Flies (The Chocolate War). Among the accusations leveled at Scary Stories was that it “revel[ed] in gore and violence, glorifying the occult, satanism, necrophilia, even cannibalism.” A parent and former PTA president in Washington led a campaign to ban the books at her children’s school, saying that "There's no moral to them. The bad guys always win. And they make light of death. There's a story called `Just Delicious' about a woman who goes to a mortuary, steals another woman's liver, and feeds it to her husband. That's sick."

Moreover, she told the Seattle Times, "This is adding fuel to the fire, giving kids ideas of what to do to frighten other kids… They cannot be doing our children any good."


Where does the idea that children’s literature has to “do good” come from? And why is it so pervasive? It’s almost unquestioned, this belief that stories for children must provide moral instruction; or at the very least, justify their entertainment value in terms of the good they do.

Just as pervasive is the opposite idea: that children who are given access to stories that aren’t moralizing will be ruined, tainted, and tempted to a path of vice, if not straight-up criminality or evil. “Think of the children” has been applied to everything: Beavis and Butthead (which I also devoured at a so-called “impressionable age”) and Captain Underpants, video games and romance novels. Exposure to crude humor, immorality, sexuality, cussing, violence, or even historically accurate depictions of racism, colonialism, and misogyny—all are considered psychically damaging to children’s developing minds.

The horror genre has often gotten swept up in these kinds of moral panics. It’s so often viewed as irredeemable, and even its creators can struggle to justify why horror makes compelling entertainment.

In the 1950’s, comic books came under fire for this exact reason. During World War 2, some critics and conservatives targeted comics, claiming that they promoted violence and Fascism. Superheroes dominated comics at the time, though, and many WW2 storylines featured superheroes on the frontlines, punching America’s enemies in the face; claims of superheroes’ suspect patriotism subsequently didn’t get a lot of traction. But after the war, according to comics historian Carol Tilley, “Publishers introduced new genres such as romance, jungle, horror, and true crime, which flourished…That publishers intended these newer genres for a nonchild audience failed to keep young readers from devouring titles with deliciously provocative titles such as Untamed Love, Forbidden Worlds, and Shocking Mystery.”

Comics were, at the time, one of the most popular and accessible media for young people. They were cheap for one thing; ten cents for a single issue, compared to two dollars for a hardcover. Carol Tilley again:

Unlike the “shallow and inane” content that characterized much of mainstream juvenile literature, comics gave young readers an opportunity to participate, at least vicariously, in “the rumbling realities” of the everyday adult world. Comics also served as an important social currency for young people, who frequently developed elaborate trading procedures and shared purchasing arrangements…Children’s tastes in reading have never been monolithic; still the pervasiveness of comics as reading materials points to this medium as the most dominant cultural force in children’s lives during the 1940s and 1950s. 

Enter Frederic Wertham, anti-comic crusader. Wertham was a psychiatrist working with youth in impoverished neighborhoods in New York City, mostly treating what were at the time called “juvenile delinquents.” Some of the young people he worked with had mental illnesses, but many of his patients had the catch-all diagnosis of “behavior disorders,” whose symptoms were things like petty criminal acts, skipping school, and daydreaming. Wertham noticed that many of his patients had a love of comic books in common—unsurprising, given their status as a dominant cultural force—and decided that this passion was both the root cause and an easily identifiable symptom of youthful delinquency.

Wertham became a central figure in the national campaign against comics. His 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent outlines his sweeping argument: reading comics that depicted crime—regardless of whether crime was in realistic contexts, or in science fictional, Western, or supernatural ones—damaged children’s ethical, social, and mental development. He backed this up with evidence gathered from his clinic in Harlem, which predominantly treated Black and Latino children, as well at public hospitals in Manhattan and Queens.

Interestingly, Wertham’s personal papers were under embargo until 2010, nearly thirty years after his death. Nobody was allowed to access them except for a single biographer. Dr. Carol Tilley delved into his archives in 2012 for her own research, and found that much of the evidence in his book was starkly different in his research notes; he rewrote anecdotes from colleagues as firsthand accounts, altered patient statements and cherrypicked quotes, inflated numbers, and disregarded his patients’ experiences of violence, abuse, poverty, and racism, all of which had far larger effects on their daily lives and development than their reading habits.

But this didn’t come out until nearly sixty years after Seduction of the Innocents. In the intervening half-century, his claims had profound effects. The comics industry hobbled itself with the creation of the Comics Code Authority, hoping to preempt government regulation. Horror comics in particular were targeted; comics couldn’t even have the words “terror” or “horror” in their titles. No more gore, violence, or any depictions of monsters; vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were all banned, as were any stories where evil triumphed over good. Stories involving any kind of authority—police, clergy, judges—had to show such institutions in a positive light, and any romance had to emphasize the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.

And yet, in a shocking twist NOBODY could have predicted, forcing comics to become family-friendly, respectable, and morally sound did not actually effect delinquency rates. Arrest rates rose in the latter half of the 20th century (but which, given other factors, does not necessarily conclude that youth were more violent). What happened instead is that Wertham’s research, and others’ like it, leaked into the public conscience: the truism that children must be protected from “adult” ideas, stories, and media, lest it make them into monsters. It draws a direct line between the media you consume and your actions as a person. Consuming such media is harmful to minors; creating such media is criminal and done with the purpose of tempting innocents into dangerous and immoral beliefs.

What I find interesting is this direct line from Wertham’s screeds against comic books—he literally said, “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry,” proving that Godwin’s law does, in fact, predate the internet—to Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark’s frequent banning to newer fandom discourse claiming explicit art of fictional teens boning each other is the same as child pornography. At the heart of all of this rhetoric is the same set of interconnected beliefs:

  • Explicit media damages young people

  • Consuming explicit media is co-morbid with predatory, violent, and criminal behavior

  • Media that young people might encounter must demonstrate good morals to counteract this

  • Those morals coincidentally happen to be authoritarian, puritanical, and heteronormative

And of course, the other commonality of these arguments: all have no actual evidence to support them. The arguments instead trade on cognitive biases that conflate correlation with causation, and, I think, a peculiar existential anxiety that makes older generations simultaneously fear and infantilize young adults. Young adults become Schroedinger’s teenagers: simultaneously super-predators and naive innocents, sadists-in-waiting and little lost lambs, and all points in between. This essay is already too long to go into how innocence and criminality are racialized, gendered, and classed; let’s just say that it has been exhaustively studied, with methodologies that are way more sound than Wertham’s.

So what’s my point here? Why am I equating smutty fanart, Stephen Gammell’s creepy masterpieces, and campy gore-fests like Tales From the Crypt? The thing is, I don’t think all media needs to serve a higher purpose. We don’t need to justify the pleasures of reading or consuming media by claiming that it edifies us. There are plenty of stories that profoundly changed my life and way of thinking, or that I appreciate as aesthetic or subversive masterpieces. I also love Maximum Overdrive for being loud, ridiculous garbage where a baseball coach gets killed by vending machine. The argument that horror can be artistically accomplished and subversive does not erase the fact that some of it is misogynistic, racist, bloody trash. But there is room in the world for trash; room for appreciation and critical engagement with it, as well.

Let the people have trash! Let us find ways to engage with it! I promise, it won’t be the end of civilization.

Further reading:

  • “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics” by Carol L. Tilley, originally published in Information and Culture in 2012. You can also read summaries of her research in the New York Times and io9.

  • The Horror” by Louis Menand, discussing the 1954 Senate hearings about the comics industry, in which Wertham testified.

  • “Let Them Read Trash” by Jeffrey Wilhelm. A scholarly defense of letting children read garbage that makes their parents uncomfortable.

  • The Shitty Fandom Takes twitter, in case you want to experience amazingly illogical purity culture in its current form

  • I should also say that I watched the movie adaptation of Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark this summer, and it’s frankly not trashy enough. Many of the visuals are directly inspired by Gammell’s art though, which makes it worth watching.

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