Horror and the Quest for Identity or the Devil Always Gets the Best Music

by Stephen T. Vessels

At the heart of every horror story is the quest for identity. Whatever beliefs we hold, the unknown crowds around us from all sides. The biggest, scariest unknown is death. Who, or what, will I be when the line goes flat, the story ends, the lights fizzle out forever?

All stories have an element of horror in them. It’s in sacred texts, myth, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce and Hemingway. It’s in Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Sue Grafton. It’s in H. G. Wells and Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s even in romance – what will become of me if I am rejected, what, if I am accepted? Will I know myself or be consumed? What hell did Jane Eyre suffer to possess herself, what further hell to bond with Rochester? What is love anyway if not a bulwark against the darkness, a backwards finger at the dial of entropy?

It’s even in humor. Hermann Hesse wrote in Steppenwolf, “All humor is gallows humor.” Our worldly concerns become absurd in the face of death. The Dalai Llama pointed out that we don’t have to look any farther than the graveyard for commonality, and suggested we might do well to reflect more on that commonality, one and all.

Horror, as a genre, merits respect, because it addresses the unknown head-on, bluntly, without apologizing for its methods. Reality is harsh and brutal, and it takes more than a feather duster to examine it. Horror stories employ extreme and fantastic measures to render the crisis of identity in bold relief, not unlike the way Van Gogh exaggerated colors so that they could be felt. Nowhere is the inseparable bond between character and story clearer than in horror.

If the bond is compromised, it can be instructive. I finished watching Season One of American Horror Story a few nights ago and felt vaguely ill. I realized it was not because the ending was particularly “horrifying,” but because I felt jerked around, like I’d been taken for a lurching ride through a ramshackle Halloween house of horrors. The gratuitous shocks and flimsy plot twists left me empty to the point of nausea.

The Murder House season of American Horror Story is more akin to performance art than storytelling. The plot is really a vehicle for loading on historical, literary and film allusions, and the characters are props. The actors did their best to lift the material, and ornamented a disjointed narrative with sparkling moments. But a buffet of spooky shots and Hitchcock references does not a story make. I can’t care about characters if I don’t know who they are, and I only know who they are by being told a coherent story about them.

Who am I? What am I, moment to moment, particularly after I die? What if I am eaten by a monster and remain conscious while being digested? One might say that we are being eaten alive by time, every second of every day. What becomes of my identity if every comfortable association and circumstance is taken from me, peeled away like flesh, one agonizing strip at a time?

I used to own a mask carved by the Tsimshian Canadian sculptor Joe David. The mask is entitled “Lost in the Woods.” The visage it presents is entirely human, without any suggestion of an animal aspect such as most northwest coast native masks have. The wood, though masterfully hewn, is unpainted. Small, ragged bits of hide have been tacked to the wood, like peeling flesh, with the nail heads showing. The teeth, made of bone, are bared in a skeletal grimace. Horse hair, affixed to the upper perimeter of the mask, hangs down in a bedraggled state to frame the face. The eyes are circular voids. The depiction is of a person who has wandered so long in wilderness that everything has been stripped from them but the organic will to continue. There is no memory in those eyes, no identity, no belief, no thought or regret. Stimulus and response, that’s all that’s left. And yet, I am called to remember that I am looking at a mask.

"Lost in the Woods", Joe David. Photo: Wayne McCall

“Lost in the Woods”, Joe David. Photo: Wayne McCall

Behind that mask lies a story.

Fiction is the conscience of belief. Cosmological enquiry lurks behind every dark tale, from Godzilla to The Devil’s Rejects. And at the heart of cosmological enquiry lies the question of identity. No author addressed this more directly than H.P. Lovecraft when, in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Randolph Carter discovers that his identity is but a particle in the mind of the idiot god Yog Sothoth.

Horror, as a literary form, can seem subversive, particularly if you’re worried what your children are thinking. It can seem disrespectful of everything that defines decency and respect and the foundations of polite society. In fact, it’s usually written by very nice, polite people, and I doubt well-written horror is any more likely to have an ill effect on a reader than the evening news.  It’s important to make a distinction between veneer concerns and what really bothers us, the deep inchoate fears that make us reach for pillows and partners in our beds at night. Who am I, in the grand scheme of things? Where do I come from and where am I going? This persona I hold together, from day to day, as my cells replace themselves and my body degenerates, what is its real shelf life? Does my consciousness linger beyond the grave, and if not do I exist at all? Am I – the I I perceive myself to be – simply the product of complex chemical interactions?

It is a terribly intimate question.

I feel the crisis of identity in a story only if the character is real. And the character cannot be real without a story. By the diverse subtle gestures that are the writer’s art, the character is animated in my mind, brought to life within me, resonant of the very existential conundrums that echo through my own beleaguered bones. I accompany them on their journey, and make it part of my own.

And when a character encounters a horror that brings them intimately into confrontation with the potential loss of self, I am visited, in the safe remove of my armchair, by an endearing chill. When the agent of death approaches through the mist, whether undead wearing a flowing cloak, lizard-like with acid blood, mythic with horns and cloven hooves, or wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora and holding a revolver, cue the music, because in that moment I am possessed by the thrill and wonder of the unknown.

I find my reaction telling. I want to know what is on the other side of that mask. One day I’ll find out.  And I’m going to put that day off just as long as I can.


Stephen Vessels lives and writes and prays for rain in southern California. In 2012 he received the Best Fiction Award from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. His short story “The Butcher of Gad Street,” will appear in the upcoming anthology, “Equilibrium Overturned,” from Grey Matter Press. His short story, Doloroso, published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and included in their anthology, “The Crooked Road, Volume 3,” has been nominated for the 2014 International Thriller Writers Award.