Today we’re back in the UK for Women in Horror Month, where Sara Jayne Townsend talks about how she discovered horror and what draws her in.
I was 13 years old when I discovered horror. Before then, I was scared of anything remotely creepy. But something changes in you when you hit puberty, and it’s not just about all the previously undiscovered angst coming out. That year, I picked up Stephen King’s Different Seasons while browsing in the school library. I liked it so much I went looking for more books by the same author and came across Carrie. After that, I was hooked.
The same year, my English teacher gave the class an assignment to write a horror story. Mine was about ten teenagers who went on a camping trip in a remote field and unearthed an ancient evil that possessed some of them, who then went around murdering the others. I really enjoyed writing it, and the teacher seemed to like it as well (she gave me an A+). It was something of a flawed story, but I was only 13 and had a lot to learn about the craft of writing.
That was 36 years ago, and I’ve been writing horror ever since. Over the years I’ve had many people ask some variation of the same question: “What’s a nice girl like you doing writing such nasty stories?”
So what is it about horror that’s so fascinating? I’ve asked myself the same question several times. Part of it is about exploring the dark nature of humanity. I am not interested in stories about people discovering love and living happy every after. I am much more interested in writing, and reading, about the darkness in people’s souls. What makes someone take the life of a fellow human being? The majority of people can’t imagine doing this, and yet it happens in our world, every day. Serial killers are fascinating to me because I want to understand what makes them do what they do. Is it some misfiring synapses in their brain that makes them want to kill people? Or is it that such people are truly born evil?
Part of the appeal of horror on a personal level is being able to exorcise one’s own demons. I have certain recurring themes that seem to pop up in a lot of my stories−isolation; loneliness; despair. These seem to represent my own inner demons, and writing about them helps me to find a way to externalise them, and come to terms with them.
Another aspect of horror writing is escapism. A lot of readers like fantasy because it allows them to escape to a fantastical land of magic and strange and marvellous creatures, and a world that seems far more appealing than the one they live in. In horror, the reader escapes to a much darker world, of monsters and evil entities. Sometimes it puts your own problems into perspective. If you are reading a story about a world where a plague has wiped out all of humanity, and the few survivors face a daily battle of survival against brain-eating zombies, your own everyday worries seem somewhat insignificant in comparison.
And then of course there is the element of fear. We all like to be scared, but we much prefer to do it in a controlled environment, where we know the threat isn’t really real. That’s why people like roller coasters. The ride might be scary, but when it’s over you get off and the fear goes away. The same thing happens when you finish a scary book, although a really scary book might stay with you for a few days after you finish reading it. If I can do that to a reader, then I’ve done my job as a horror writer.
For all of these reasons, I love horror. I deal with my own fears by re-imagining them onto the page. And if I can write something that gives you nightmares–well, I’d take that as a compliment.
Sara Jayne Townsend is a UK-based writer, and someone tends to die a horrible death in all of her stories. She lives in Surrey with two cats and her guitarist husband Chris. She is author of several horror novels, the latest one being Outpost H311, the story of an oil exploration team who crashland on a remote island in the arctic to discover a hidden base that is hiding some sinister secrets.