It’s the blood they remember. It’s shocking, the sight of something running wild that should be tucked inside a body. It’s wrong in a way that makes your heart race. No one faints at the sight of vomit; just that warm, crimson, life-giving sea.
My first exposure to horror was through blood: the blood-soaked paperbacks in the back aisle of the bookstore, the bloody mouths of the jiangshi who headlined Saturday morning vampire movies. This was the nineties in a semi-fascist country – everyone kept their uniforms starched, even though danger defined life. Hot rivers of blood churned beneath the city like magma.
Blood pumps as a neck is slit. Blood gushes from a chewed off limb. We’re promised Murder! Mayhem! Mutilation! and we lap it up like vampires. The stuff on the film set is fake, of course, but not the blood that pounds in those bodies sitting in the movie theater, eyes wide and dark and witnessing, mouths covered in disbelief or open in a scream. Their blood is real.
Blood spatters. It sprays. On your nice clean clothes, on your innocent face. Blood tends to get on bystanders, marking them as one of the most gut-wrenching things a person can be: a witness. Present at the destruction. Or worse, complicit.
You can try hydrogen peroxide, sure. But blood stains something awful, which is why the powers that be try to dam it up with legislation, parental advisories, ratings, rules. Rated R for intense or persistent violence, much like society I suppose. They don’t seem to realize that all this ascetic resistance only makes the blood more beautiful, more bewitching.
And anyway, blood flows. Blood seeps easily into the brick of every town hall, every city square, because every civilization is built on bloodshed and brutality, on that same rush of adrenaline that arms a serial killer in a plastic mask, a survivor with a black eye.
Blood belongs to no one, and everyone.
But there’s also the skin. Flexible, markable, marketable.
Skin is aesthetic. Skin is a vibe check: ghost emoji, pumpkin emoji, knife emoji? Skin is a mood, so it’s a good thing it can be slipped on and off so easily.
I didn’t have access to much skin when I was younger, because I was too meek to associate myself with the handful of rebellious goth kids in my school. Too scared to go into Hot Topic, not because of the merchandise but because I thought someone inside would say: hey you, nerd – you don’t belong. It wasn’t until I was in college, more alone than I’d even thought possible, that I realized you’re allowed to make your skin look like whatever you want, as long as you can pay for it. And then I started wearing black.
Skin is easy now. Now that I’m older, now that everyone buys and sells online. Skin is me pulling the bat-covered dress off the rack. Skin is me looking for a spooky pin to cover up the corporate logo on my duffel bag. Skin is my go-to Halloween costume, a Wednesday Addams dress. Skin leans into one of my numerous identities: the horror fan. An enthusiast of the blood.
Skin is a shield. Not just against the tide of Christmas sweeping backward through the calendar, but against the world. It may not look like much, but skin stretches, it toughens, and after it tears it quickly repairs. Which is how something so soft and so thin is strong enough to hold in the twitch in your face when some ill-meaning relative asks why you like things that are so scary.
So don’t let your skin dry out. Don’t let it become desiccated bark, carved up with the well-worn patterns of your favorite childhood monsters. It needs moisture. It needs fresh blood.
And then there’s the bone.
Bone doesn’t bend, not after you survive infancy. Bone is settled in its ways, and those ways are bleak. Barren. The particular length of a particular bone varies from person to person, but human bones are identifiable by a couple shared characteristics: the knowledge that after all the blood is spilled, we die; and that beneath the skin, we’re all the same.
Bone gets plenty of time, buried as it tends to be under layers of flesh and soil, to dwell on what it believes to be cold, hard reality. This psychic confidence holds up the rest of your body as you shuffle through the world, keeps you alive (or tries to): Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. That’s not your mother you’re talking to through the Ouija board.
Horror isn’t always bone-in. I often sink my teeth into a horror title and cut right through the meat, because marketers know that no matter how many Cthulhu plushies they might sell, a lot of people don’t want to think about what bone has to say. It’s not juicy, it’s not tasty. If anything it sticks in your throat, a sharp reminder of the bitter rules you must follow.
But bone isn’t infallible. You see, bone may not bend, but like any bad defense, it does break. It cracks under pressure. It snaps when traumatized. And then, with a dusty crack, everything you believe to be true is shattered. Bone heals too; most things do. But this skeleton of your soul, the knife of your philosophy, might heal crooked. It might heal useless. You may be left hauling nothing but a calcified weight, a psychic drag that not even the most the most ecstatic geysers of blood, not even the most velvety skin, can soothe.
I’ve always lived closest to the bone of horror, but those bones have broken and shifted and re-formed over time. I have my depression to thank for that, and my father’s death, and my mother’s illness, and too much time studying political science. There is no passion in the kinds of killing I read about on the floor of a college library; just a certainty that everything ends, and people are cruel, and cruelty goes unpunished, most of the time. Those are the bones I grew.
Don’t get me wrong – I like passing around horror nuggets as much as anyone else, I can appreciate a beautifully cut horror fillet. But usually I like to chew on cartilage. It tastes the most like truth.